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Intelligent design - damaging good science and good theology

By Peter Sellick - posted Friday, 9 September 2005


The idea of intelligent design is that the universe, particularly the life contained therein, is too complex to have happened by chance as the theory of evolution would have it.

Therefore its sole basis lies in a negative: the failure to imagine how natural selection could arrive at the complexity of life we see all around us. We can perhaps sympathise with this notion since the fossil record has not preserved enough to demonstrate the continuity of the process and we must rely on our imagination to fill in the gaps. Nonetheless, modern biology continues to grow from strength to strength in fields as disparate as palaeobiology, neurophysiology, evolutionary psychology, molecular biology and genetics to name but a few.

It seems that biology is doing very well with only one underlying theory, Darwin’s theory of evolution. There is therefore no pressure from science to incorporate another theory, especially one for which there is no positive evidence.

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But there is pressure from some sections of the church who look at the theory of evolution with dismay because it lacks any kind of teleology, any goal towards which it seeks to progress. This means that not only are human beings on this earth entirely by chance but also there is no meaning to their existence. The push to teach intelligent design theory, the idea that there was a guiding hand involved in evolution, is an effort to insert God into the teaching of science and to correct nihilistic conclusions that flow from it.

Intelligent design has displaced, at least in the public sphere, the push to teach creationism. Creationism is derived from a literal reading of the first two creation narratives and would have it that the universe was created in seven days a few thousands years ago - and that God placed dinosaur bones is the fossil record to amuse palaeobiologists. In the face of the discoveries of modern science this is just too silly for words.

Intelligent design is a more sophisticated version that attempts to escape from the absurdities of creationism. To do that it has had to jettison the biblical texts that creationism relies on and relies instead on an unadorned concept, the idea that God created the heavens and the earth. It is as if the biblical texts are an embarrassment and have been disregarded in order to make the theory more palatable to the modern mind.

You would think that the church would welcome the teaching of intelligent design in school because it places God in the syllabus. After all, the stocks of the church are so low in our society we need all the help we can get. But I will argue that the church should not support such a notion and that science should be left to the scientists.

The central objection to intelligent design is that it seeks to posit the activity of God from nature. The logic runs: if God created the universe then we should be able to see his fingerprints on it. We should be able to see his intelligence worked out in the fine tuning of the physical constants so that exactly this universe was created that would be able to harbour life. We should be able to see His intelligence in the complexity of molecular biology and in the organisation of the nervous system.

There are two objections to this idea. First, it is entirely wrongheaded to identify the creation stories that we find at the beginning of the Bible as being about the creation of the material world. What God creates is not a thing, a cosmos, but the setting for the covenant between Him and his people. “God does not create a world that subsequently has a history but a history that is a world.” When the prophet stands in the community and says, “Thus says the Lord,” the creative speech of God is present and active to create a new future for the people. When God raised Jesus from the dead he did not perform a medical miracle but vindicated the one in whom His Word dwelt in its fullness and thus created a new heaven and a new earth. The creative act of God is not confined to the beginning but is present throughout history creating the holy people Israel and the church and at the end fulfilling all things at the end of history. A theology that narrows the creative act of God to the first two chapters of the Bible mistakes what is actually created.

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Big bang cosmology has given an enormous boost to the idea that God is involved in the process simply because it talks of a definite beginning which may be identified with the definite act of a creating god. But as I have pointed out above, this is a very thin understanding of what the Bible says about God’s creative acts. It is entirely fortuitous that big bang cosmology fits in nicely with a particular creative act of God. We may ask what would be the result if the scientists settled on a steady state theory of the universe. Given the changing nature of scientific theory this cannot be ruled out.

The second objection to the attempt to seek God in nature has been strongly formulated by Karl Barth. He makes the point that any attempt by humanity to find God will inevitably result in us looking in a mirror. Any god that is proven cannot be God because we make the terms for his discovery and we stipulate his properties. God becomes an object at our disposal and therefore cannot be God. When we read God from nature we are in a position to say what is important and what is being said. Does the marvellous complexity of life speak of the work of the creator? Does the malaria parasite or the HIV virus speak of God? It is not clear what nature has to say to us and we must conclude that if has anything to say, its message to us is ambivalent.

The generality and ambivalence of nature may be contrasted to the particularity of the witness of scripture. In this we do not choose what to hear as the word of God but are commanded to look in a specific place that has specific content. We are therefore not in a position of selecting what we may hear, we are under discipline and thus protected from hubris.

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About the Author

Peter Sellick an Anglican deacon working in Perth with a background in the biological sciences. He has a website called Coondle Art Presentations.

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