So I’ll post some recent articles on Intelligent Design, ‘kay?
The cunning souls who propound intelligent design are playing with fire, because they have introduced intelligence into the discussion. It is a standard to which they, too, must be held. The theory of intelligent design must itself be intelligently designed. I cannot judge the soundness of their science, but that is not the only standpoint from which they must be judged. Their science, after all, is pledged to a philosophy. Philosophically speaking, I do not see that they have demonstrated what they congratulate themselves for demonstrating. The "argument from design," the view that the evidence for the existence of God may be found in the organization of the natural world, is an ancient argument, but philosophers have grasped, at least since the sixth section of the third chapter of the second book of the Critique of Pure Reason, that it may establish only the wisdom of a creator, and not the existence of one. It is impossible, of course, not to marvel at the complexity and the beauty of the natural order; but marveling is not thinking. The mind may recoil from the possibility that all this sublimity came into being by accident, but it cannot, on those grounds alone, rule the possibility out, unless it is concerned only to cure its own pain. (Cosmic accident is also an occasion for awe.) Intelligent design is an expression of sentiment, not an exercise of reason. It is a psalm, not a proof.
Intelligent design was conceived as the solution to a religious problem, not a scientific one. The problem is that the cosmogony in Genesis does not resemble what we know about the origins of the world. Which is to say, intelligent design was prompted by the consequences of literalism in the interpretation of Scripture. Now, there is no more primitive form of monotheistic religion than this. If you believe that the world was created by God in six days because the Bible says so, then you must also believe that the Israelites saw God’s hand, because the Bible says so, and that Moses spoke to God face to face, because the Bible says so, and that God’s feet will stand on the Mount of Olives, because the Bible says so, and so on. The intellectual integrity of monotheism depends upon the repudiation of such readings. Sanctity is not an excuse for stupidity. But once the legitimacy of figurative reading is admitted, the fabled dissonance between science and faith, the fundamentalist melodrama, evaporates. Was the world made in six days? Then "days" must not mean days, and may mean many millions of years. Was man "formed … of the dust of the ground"? Then "formed" must not mean whole and at once, and "the dust of the ground" must refer to some unspecified variety of physical origination. Otherwise Scripture is wrong–but according to the believer Scripture cannot be wrong. And so the believer may turn comfortably to science, without the dread of heresy. Truth is never heresy, except for those who make their religion vulnerable to truth.
I do not mean to gloat. If you were raised on Scripture as a child, if the Bible was your first enchantment, then it is not an easy matter to pull slightly away, to confer upon your improvising intellect so much power over its significations. I remember my torments, in the holy and walled city of Brooklyn, on the subject of dat u’madda, religion and science; but I recall them also as the philosophical characteristics of adolescence. There really is something childish about the notion that everything is exactly as the Bible says it is: this is the spell of fairy tales. I was eventually released from my anxiety about the freedom of my mind by a startling passage in Maimonides, who is not for children. Almost perversely, he wished his students to know that his belief in the creation of the world was not owed to the Bible’s account of the creation of the world. This is how he denied them a fundamentalist satisfaction: "Know that our shunning the affirmation of the eternity of the world is not due to a text figuring in the Torah according to which the world has been produced in time. For the texts indicating that the world has been produced in time are not more numerous than those indicating that the deity is a body. Nor are the gates of figurative interpretation shut in our faces … regarding the subject of the creation of the world in time. For we could interpret them as figurative, as we have done when denying His corporeality." If science could prove that the world was eternal, then the eternity of the world would by some hermeneutical means accord with Scripture. If science can prove that man evolved over millions of years from other species, ditto. The gates of figurative interpretation were opened in my face, and I grew up.
And even theology has to be careful about basing too much on a sense of design in nature. Cardinal John Henry Newman would have been distressed at Schönborn’s attempt to extort divine design directly from the data of science. Even before encountering Darwin, Newman had already objected to any theological inquiry that seeks divine design in nature apart from religious experience. Such an approach, he wrote, “cannot be Christian, in any true sense, at all.”
Today most Catholic theologians and philosophers agree that it is not the job of science to make any reference to God, purpose, or intelligent design. Hence a scientific understanding of the lifeprocess may legitimately use explanatory categories such as “natural selection” rather than “divine guidance.” And it will speak of “chance” and “accident” rather than divine providence as it explains the diversity of life.
If some scientists go on to maintain that evolution is therefore conclusive evidence of a godless, purposeless universe, this is a leap into ideology, not a scientifically verifiable truth. Schönborn has every reason to defend Catholicism against materialist philosophy, since these are indeed incompatible. But he merely capitulates to the current confusion on evolution, and does no service to the nuances of Catholic thought, when he fails to distinguish neoDarwinian biology from the materialist spin that many scientists and philosophers place on evolutionary discoveries. Even if a great number of evolutionary biologists fail to make the proper distinction between science and materialism, this is no excuse for responsible religious thought espousing the same conceptual mix-up.
The problem with the God rejected by Darwinian atheists and the God of those who believe in intelligent design is that neither is particularly biblical. (By the way, I think it is fair of those who believe in intelligent design to complain that they are not, as some allege, a wedge into the schools that will lead eventually to teaching biblical literalism. This is not, in fact, part of their argument, and the intelligent designer they posit has little to do with the God of the Bible.) The intelligent designer seen by both camps–rejected by one, accepted by the other–is essentially the God of the deists, a generally benign designer compelled to create the best of all possible worlds, a world in which profound flaws and seemingly mad design would be unthinkable. If intelligent design were science, if it could be supported by fact and not what amounts to aesthetic speculation, it might be a good argument for a Gnostic demiurge, a deranged creator-god. Yes, the intricacy of the eye and the elegance of flagella are amazing and the details beautiful. But a designer with his, her, or its hand in at this clockwork level could surely do something to prevent anencephalic babies or Alzheimer’s disease. What about all the apparently useless parts of the DNA strand? Couldn’t praying mantises have been designed with a way to mate that didn’t require the female to devour the head of the male during intercourse? I’ve seen a mother hamster devouring her young with blank eyes, preferable to grief, I guess, under the circumstances. The designer’s eye is upon the sparrow, the mantis, the mother hamster eating her young, the brainless baby.
Arguments at this level are more philosophical than scientific. The philosophical argument seems to be based on a kind of aesthetics–an aesthetic sense based in scientific observation, to be sure, but a little like this argument: Could blind chance produce something as beautiful as so many celestial phenomena are, or the Irish coast, or a sunset? I think not, but that’s not a scientific argument. A believing scientist will certainly delight in whatever beautiful thing is found under a microscope or deep in the cosmos, just as a believer thanks God for the music of Bach, and will see something of God’s glory there. But to say “this is so irreducibly complex and intricate that it must have been designed” does nothing to advance science, which still must connect the dots and describe in detail, and will not be helped by a designer-hypothesis that can be neither proved nor falsified. To say “this must have been designed” will always, at most, be a kind of chorus. You’ve heard of voodoo economics? This is karaoke science.
The God of the Bible is responsible for the world, but it is a world that has been wounded beyond comprehension by sin and evil. The whole of creation, Paul insists in the eighth chapter of Romans, groans as it waits for its true completion in God. When we study this creation we study something infinitely more mysterious–and torn and unfinished–than a well-designed machine; it is something at once wonderful and perishing and cannot be reduced to what science can see and tell us, either about randomness or design. The God of the Bible is not the prime mover of Greek philosophy or the benign provider of the deists. He appears in the burning bush and will not give his name. He wrestles with Jacob (who is Israel, the one who “contends with God”). This God has no handle–not designer, planner, nor architect, except as a fleeting metaphor. This God is unknowable, silent, suddenly appearing, interfering when unwanted and absent when wanted, always elusive–and this tricky one is responsible for the universe. In Jesus Christ we are invited to call this God our Father, a father whose son was crucified to begin the release of the universe from the bondage Paul tells us about, inviting us to await a goodness that is only dawning, and certainly can’t be seen clearly under a microscope.