Monday, April 28, 2008

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Four theses against Intelligent Design

The new film, Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, by Ben Stein was released into theaters last week. The movie, according to the film’s official synopsis, “uncovers a long line of scientists and philosophers who have had their reputations destroyed and their careers ruined by a scientific establishment that allows absolutely no dissent from Charles Darwin’s theory of random mutation and natural selection.” The movie tries to make the claim that we live in “a nation today in which scientists are being silenced and ousted, in which teachers and professors teach a theory as indisputable fact.”

The film tries to portray Intelligent Design (ID) as a valid scientific alternative to the theory of evolution. I have not (yet) seen the movie, so I cannot make any declarations about its quality. (There is already a website called Expelled Exposed that does a very fine job of “debunking” the claims that Stein makes in the movie.) What I will do here is instead present a brief case against ID. I view ID as a dangerous piece of anti-Christian idolatry, one that can only do harm to the church. In what follows, I present four theses. I do not claim to be an expert on this subject. I approach this matter as a theologian, and it is as a theologian that I reject ID.

Thesis #1: Comparing Evolution and Intelligent Design is a category mistake.


The official summary of the movie, along with just about everyone in the debate (particularly on the ID side), implies that ID and evolution are two opposed positions. Each stands over against the other. Ben Stein wants to make the point that evolution is just a theory, but that scientists treat it like fact. He wants ID to be another viable option in the scientific community. There are two problems with this view.

Thesis 1.1: Evolution concerns the development of complex life, while ID concerns the origin of complexity.

Evolution as a Darwinian theory says nothing about why there is life on this earth. It makes no claims about why there is something rather than nothing. There are various other theories about how life came to exist on this planet (e.g., Primordial Soup Theory, Deep Sea Vent Theory, Eigen's hypothesis, Wächtershäuser's hypothesis, radioactive beach theory, etc.). Such theories are independent of the theory of evolution. One can discard all of those theories and still believe that evolution is the only sufficient answer to the scientific evidence about the development of complex life forms.

Technically, ID supports the theory of evolution, in that it says nothing about it. Michael Behe, for example, makes it very clear in his latest book that evolution is essentially correct. Against creationists and most religious ID supporters, he argues that the earth is billions of years old and that the concept of common descent is correct. His support of ID is, in fact, grounded in and develops out of his support of evolution. ID’s real beef is with origin of life theories. ID wants to say that current theories cannot fully account for how complex life began—and thus God or some abstract being or an alien creature has to be brought into the picture at some point. I’ll return to this later. My point is that a comparison of evolution with ID is a category error. It is a comparison between apples and oranges. ID supporters are thus foolish for trying to make their position appear to be an alternative to evolution, as if the two stand over against each other. That is simply not the case.

Parenthetically, one should notice that this line of argumentation could actually help ID! Part of the problem is that by arguing for ID over against evolution, supporters end up unnecessarily picking a fight. Moreover, it is a fight which ID should not be fighting (because of the category error). That said, there is a very good reason why ID supporters want to pick this fight, but it has nothing to do with the substance of their proposal and everything to do with their attempt to gain scientific legitimacy for their position. They realize that if they do not portray themselves as an opponent to evolution, then they lose the central aspect of the whole debate; ID becomes a superfluous side conversation, rather than the main event. It’s all about gaining recognition.


Thesis 1.2: Evolution is a scientific theory while ID is not.

If in thesis 1.1 I made the claim that comparing evolution and ID is like comparing apples and oranges, then here I claim that ID is not a fruit at all. This is also well-supported, though far more controversial. The problem is quite simple: evolution is a testable theory, while ID has given us no testable scientific hypothesis that can be evaluated in the lab. Whereas evolution can and has made testable predictions about what we should find in the world, ID makes no such predictions. ID offers no hypothesis, no theory, no experiment. It is, in other words, non-scientific. ID cannot even claim to explain the origin of the complexity; it only claims that the complexity is too complex to be explained internally, i.e., within the bounds of the natural world. ID does not say what external agent is the cause of such complexity, nor what the nature of this agent is, nor what consequences such an agent may have for future scientific research. It only states that there must be some such agent. This is a non-scientific claim, since the classical definition of science requires some falsifiable hypothesis which can be tested by more than one person.

Thesis #2: Intelligent Design falls within the bounds of philosophical theology, not science.

Thesis 2.1: Science is limited to the natural world, while philosophy/theology can speak about realities outside of the natural world.

The line of demarcation between the physical sciences and philosophy/theology is clear: the former cannot speak about anything outside of the natural world, whereas the latter can. In other words, science, by the very nature of the discipline, is naturalistic and materialistic. That does not mean it is necessarily atheistic, only that any beliefs about beings or realities external to the natural world have no place within the disciplines of the physical sciences. A lot of Christians see this as a reason why modern science is antithetical to theology, but I strongly disagree, and I'll explain later. My claim is that it does no good at all to allow for external, non-empirical realities in the scientific analysis of the world. Doing so simply redefines physical science as philosophy. While it would be far more honest and responsible for ID supporters to acknowledge that they are doing philosophical theology, again this would mean jettisoning their pursuit of scientific legitimacy.

By the way, the pursuit of scientific legitimacy demonstrates how much our modern world has come to worship science. Our culture thinks that science equals truth. Psychological studies have shown that people respect and trust scientists more than clergy. The attempt on the part of religious people to make ID—or creationism—scientifically “legitimate” demonstrates how far this disease of Enlightenment-based scientism has spread. Even religious people think they need endorsement from the scientific community in order to be a legitimate intellectual position. This is a great error, and the entire ID movement is only contributing to the problem.

To summarize this sub-point, ID’s entire argument concerns some reality that is outside of the natural world. The whole thrust of ID—i.e., what it brings to the table, so to speak—is philosophy, not science. Just because it looks at the scientific evidence does not make it scientific. Once a person claims to speak about something outside of the tangible, physical earth which can be examined in the lab, they are no longer engaging in the same scientific process.

Thesis 2.2: Intelligent Design is a contemporary version of natural theology.

While I probably do not need to rehearse such basic points here, I will say a few things for the sake of discussion. Natural theology is part of the ancient Christian tradition which claims that we can know about the existence of God based on reflection upon the natural world. People like Thomas Aquinas never said that we could come to a saving knowledge of the triune God, but they did agree that we could argue from the world to some external Creator. This is often called “general revelation,” as opposed to “special revelation.” Natural theology allows philosophy to posit the existence of God based on our reason alone (apart from faith), after which dogmatic theology (rooted in faith) takes over to tell us who this God is.

The problem is that natural theology is simply un-Christian. It is antithetical to the Christian faith for a number of reasons: (1) we do not know who God is apart from Jesus Christ; (2) we either begin with the triune God revealed in Christ or we do not begin at all; (3) we are incapable of knowing anything about God apart from faith, because the Fall has noetic implications, i.e., our reason is fallen; (4) therefore, knowledge of God is saving knowledge, because we only know the God who saved us in Jesus. There is no other god, no prior abstract deity, no foundational divine reality upon which Christ builds. The point of these (and other similar statements) is that we either know the one true God who reconciled the world in Jesus Christ or we simply have some concept devised by fallen human reason that has no connection to this revealed God. Philosophy does not provide a stepping-stone to theology. We either do theology from the start, or we don’t do theology at all.

To put this in other words, general revelation has no place in Christian theology. It is part of the ancient philosophical heritage which the Reformation began to attack in the sixteenth century. Karl Barth finally put the nail in the coffin. There are still some Catholics who wish to hold on to the concept, but by and large, natural theology is dead—except among supporters of ID! The irony of all this is that in seeking to revive natural theology, ID demonstrates precisely why Christians decided to reject it: natural theology only posits some abstract being that has no continuity with the triune God of Christian faith. Christians want to make the case that they can bridge the abstract Supreme Being with the God of Jesus Christ, but that is a pipe dream. There is no way from “there” to “here.” Jesus alone is the self-revelation of God. In him alone we know who God is, just as in him alone we are saved from sin and death. Epistemology (knowledge of God) is thus dependent upon soteriology (salvation). As Barth put it, revelation is reconciliation, and vice versa.

Interestingly enough, C. S. Lewis makes an excellent point in this regard:

If you take nature as a teacher she will teach you exactly the lessons you had already decided to learn; this is only another way of saying that nature does not teach. . . . Nature never taught me that there exists a God of glory and of infinite majesty. I had to learn that in other ways. But nature gave the word glory a meaning for me. . . . Of course the fact that a Christian can so use nature is not even the beginning of a proof that Christianity is true. Those suffering from Dark Gods can equally use her (I suppose) for their creed. That is precisely the point. Nature does not teach. A true philosophy may sometimes validate an experience of nature; an experience of nature cannot validate a philosophy. Nature will not verify any theological or metaphysical proposition . . .; she will help to show what it means. (Four Loves, 19-20)

Lewis’s point and mine is the same: nature cannot teach us about God. We either know who God is and then come to nature armed with that knowledge, or we will never reach true knowledge of God the Creator. Another way to put this is to say that God the Creator and God the Reconciler are one in the same God, and you cannot have one without the other. ID and natural theology say that you can have one without the other, but that is like having the Father without the Son—it is simply impossible on Christian grounds.

Thesis #3: Intelligent Design posits a “god of the gaps.”

In contrast to the Christian God, ID posits a “god of the gaps,” a god who fills in the gaps of human knowledge. Why is this a problem? Quite simply, because the triune God is never simply a stopgap for where human reason falters. In contrast to the “wholly other” God of grace who meets us in Jesus Christ, the god of ID is merely the Feuerbachian projection of human ignorance upon some divine sphere. We arrive at the Supreme Being of ID by means of a method which begins with our human ignorance and then fabricates some supernatural being to fill the space in our knowledge. The method used is that of classical metaphysics. Metaphysics, of which ID is a species, begins with some finite reality from which the divine is derived. ID begins with something that evolution cannot explain (or so they claim); they then posit in Intelligent Designer who they endow with the attributes necessary to account for the complexity found on earth. But this is only to make god in our own image. ID, in other words, is the creation of an idol.

On a practical level, one has to recognize that ID has cornered itself in a dead end, because one only needs to find a suitable explanation for biological complexity in order to make ID utterly superfluous. Is that what God is reduced to? A stopgap which may one day be explained away? Is it not at least feasible that Darwinians will be able to explain every complexity such that ID indeed becomes superfluous? If so, what then? Does God somehow become superfluous? Will Christians then, finally, jettison natural theology? And if so, why not jettison it now? It seems very foolish indeed to rest one’s entire intellectual position on the assumption that science will never be able to explain these complexities in nature without recourse to some divine or alien being.

The “god of the gaps” is idolatry. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—the God revealed in Jesus Christ—does not fill a gap. This God, our God, encompasses all reality and is never reducible to some gap in human knowledge. The triune God is rather the mystery of the whole world. The point is most eloquently made by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He argues against the “deux ex machina” (lit. “god from machine”), which is a term from Greek drama in which a god was brought into the story to “fix” a problem. A “god from machine” is the literary equivalent of the scientific “god of the gaps.” I will let Bonhoeffer speak for himself. He says:

I had been saying that God is being increasingly pushed out of a world that has come of age, out of the spheres of our knowledge and life, and that since Kant he has been relegated to a realm beyond the world of experience. Theology has on the one hand resisted this development with apologetics, and has taken up arms—in vain—against Darwinism, etc. On the other hand, it has accommodated itself to the development by restricting God to the so-called ultimate questions as a deus ex machina; that means that he becomes the answer to life's problems, and the solution of its needs and conflicts. (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers From Prison, 341)

Religious people speak of God when human knowledge (perhaps simply because they are too lazy to think) has come to an end, or when human resources fail—in fact it is always the deus ex machina that they bring on to the scene, either for the apparent solution of insoluble problems, or as strength in human failure—always, that is to say, exploiting human weakness or human boundaries. Of necessity, that can go on only till people can by their own strength push these boundaries somewhat further out, so that God becomes superfluous as a deus ex machina. I've come to be doubtful of talking about any human boundaries (is even death, which people now hardly fear, and is sin, which they now hardly understand, still a genuine boundary today?). It always seems to me that we are trying anxiously in this way to reserve some space for God; I should like to speak of God not on the boundaries but at the centre, not in weaknesses but in strength; and therefore not in death and guilt but in man's life and goodness. As to the boundaries, it seems to me better to be silent and leave the insoluble unsolved. Belief in the resurrection is not the 'solution' of the problem of death. . . . God is beyond in the midst of our life. The church stands, not at the boundaries where human powers give out, but in the middle of the village. (Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers, 281-82)

Thesis #4: The Christian faith allows for scientific naturalism.

I wish I had time to go into this point here. This is more of a constructive theological claim than a criticism or commentary on ID. But it is an important claim nevertheless. If theology can show that naturalism is not opposed to Christianity, then we need not maintain a posture of opposition to people who advocate for a materialistic atheism. In other words, instead of denouncing people like Dawkins, Christians can begin to love them as our neighbors. Since that is Christ’s command anyway, I take this project to be an important one.

There are two ways of getting at this issue—biblical exegesis and dogmatic theology. The exegetical claim is made by Neil MacDonald in his remarkable book entitled, Metaphysics and the God of Israel: Systematic Theology of the Old and New Testaments. The theological claim is made by Eberhard Jüngel in his magnum opus, God as the Mystery of the World: On the Foundation of the Theology of the Crucified One in the Dispute between Theism and Atheism.

Perhaps I will turn these thoughts into a full-fledged article at some point. For now, I will simply sketch a couple of their insights. MacDonald’s exegetical point is to offer a new exegesis of Gen. 1. His central thesis is that God creates the world by determining Godself to be the Creator. In other words, creation is an act of God which is internal to God’s own being. The act of self-determination is a basic and sufficient action, such that in determining to be the creator of the material world, God is in fact the creator of the world. MacDonald accomplishes this through a simple yet profound bit of theological-exegetical argumentation which I cannot get into here. The point is that he is able to uphold the basic theological tenets of the faith without positing some connection between God and the world. His exegesis of Gen. 1 thus precludes natural theology; it prevents any attempt to reason from science to theology, from world to God. As MacDonald states, the fact of God’s self-determination “cannot be established by looking at the natural properties” of the world.

Likewise, Jüngel makes a theological point rooted in his doctrine of justification and the analogy of advent, viz. that God is not necessary to our understanding of the world. Rather, God is what he calls “more than necessary,” in that God brings something “new” to the world in Jesus. According to Jüngel, “God makes man, who is interesting for his own sake, interesting in a new way.” Humanity and the world are in themselves already interesting, but in the coming of God to the world, God makes humanity and the world interesting in a new way by making them new. In Jesus Christ, the world becomes the new creation and humanity becomes new humanity. The consequence of this theological insight is that God is not just a part of the cosmos, not some facet of reality. We can and should be able to understand the world without recourse to God. God enters the picture not as a part of creation but as a part of the new creation. In other words, God is first and foremost the savior, the reconciler, and the redeemer.

The point which MacDonald makes exegetically and Jüngel theologically is that the world can be understood without positing a divine being. God grants the world a certain indepedence. We do not need God in order to comprehend the natural order. MacDonald supports this from Scripture; Jüngel supports this christologically and soteriologically. ID counters this by saying that God is indeed necessary to the world. We cannot understand the natural order without positing some kind of external (supernatural) being. Consequently, the god of ID is simply a part of the created order. This being is never really outside creation. A “god of the gaps” is part of the cosmological reality, because it is only on the basis of the cosmological reality that we can posit this god. There is a necessary connection between creation and creator in ID, a connection which undermines the Christian insight that the triune God’s coming to the world is a divine mystery, one that cannot be read off of the natural world and can only be revealed to faith. To put this another way, the god of ID may create but cannot save.

My point is that Christianity has the resources to support a scientific naturalism. Christianity need not view naturalism as a threat to faith, as so many Christians do. This is, of course, a much more sophisticated and constructive point. For now, the first three theses should be sufficient to undermine any positive relationship between Christianity and ID. The fact that so many evangelicals are supportive of ID only goes to show that American evangelicals are often more defined by their Americanism and anti-Darwinism than by Scripture and the doctrines of the faith.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

My future

This past month I was accepted into the Ph.D. program at Princeton Theological Seminary. I will begin the program in systematic theology in the fall. This will mean my wife and I are staying in Princeton for at least the next four years. While we miss the Northwest, we are excited about remaining close to our current community, which has been a blessing to us.

My current intention is to study the historical and theological relationship between Barth and Bultmann, with attention given to Eberhard Jüngel’s attempt to mediate between these two giants of twentieth century theology. I will attempt to answer why this debate has significance for us today, and what we can learn from Jüngel.

In the meantime, I am trying to finish up my M.Div. program here at Princeton Seminary. There are only a few weeks left, and life has never been busier or more stressful. My apologies to those who expected the Balthasar Blog Conference to bring me out of my blog silence! I cannot promise regular posting for awhile. Perhaps this summer will bring renewed energy.