Arguments from Design Don’t Prove; They Show

One can hardly get through an issue of a popular science magazine these days without having one or another of two gospels preached at you. The first is global climate change: it’s real, it’s our fault, and not enough is being done about it. The second is Darwinism: it’s real, it’s your fault if you don’t believe it, and not enough is being done about annihilating creationism.

On the principle of “one blog entry should dispose of only one massive social and intellectual challenge at a time,” let’s deal with the latter of these gospels today.

National Geographic, to pick a recent example, tells us that the architecture (whoops: sorry about that metaphor, if it is a metaphor) of the hand is so impressive that “the great Scottish surgeon Sir Charles Bell wrote an entire book in 1833 praising it, The Hand: Its Mechanism and Vital Endowments, as Evincing Design.” Silly old Sir Charles, however, should have waited for a much greater Charles, Mr. Darwin, to set him straight. After all,

There’s just one problem with Bell’s argument: It didn’t explain why other species have hands too. No one would doubt that the five fingers at the end of an orangutan’s arm are anything else. In other cases we have to look closer. A bat’s wings may look like sheets of skin. But underneath, a bat has the same five fingers as an orangutan or a human, as well as a wrist connected to the same cluster of wrist bones connected to the same long bones of the arm.

When Charles Darwin wrote Origin of Species, he singled out this odd coincidence. “What can be more curious,” he asked, “than that the hand of a man, formed for grasping, that of a mole for digging, the leg of the horse, the paddle of the porpoise, and the wing of the bat, should all be constructed on the same pattern?”

The late neo-Darwinist Stephen Jay Gould offered a similar argument in his best-selling book, The Panda’s Thumb. Silly old creationists might argue that the panda’s hand was designed by God, but how could such a “makeshift” design be worthy of an Omnipotent, Omniscient Deity? It couldn’t be; there isn’t such a creator; the panda’s thumb is a tribute to the inventiveness (metaphorically speaking) of evolution.

What strikes me as strange about these arguments is how terrible they are as arguments. From Sir Charles’s paean to divine creativity through Darwin’s hesitation over patterns in nature that seemed too “odd” to be divine to Professor Gould’s confident pronouncements upon pandas’ thumbs, each argument is an appeal to the intuition of the reader, not to any serious marshaling of facts and hypotheses to be tested with objectivity and rigour.

Nonscientist as I am, it seems to me that the putative success of arguments from design require the reader to be quite confident that she knows how to create things, whether ex nihilo or via processes of evolution, and knows how a Supreme Being would think about the act of creation. Such arguments also require the reader to understand the emergence of life on earth so well as to be able confidently to judge whether the mechanisms of evolution (take your pick among those suggested in the varieties of contemporary evolutionary theory) can suffice to explain all there is to explain–which is pretty much all there is, biologically speaking.

But who is in a position to make such a call? “Hmm. It seems to me that the presence of all of these various hands in nature would point to a single Intelligence who enjoyed rhapsodizing on the same structural theme.”

“Come, come, dear fellow. It’s just obvious that these hands point to a common ancestor, and that the dolphin’s fin and the orangutan’s forepaw are simply the results of long passages of selective adaptation.”

The Bible tells us that “the heavens declare the glory of God.” But it’s the Bible that tells us that–a book presupposing the existence of God, and not just God-in-general, but the God richly delineated and depicted in its pages. Once one agrees with the psalmist that there is such a God–say, on the basis of a common ethnic heritage deeply shaped by the call of Abraham, the Exodus, the Conquest, and the Kingdom of David; or on the basis of all that plus the career of Jesus of Nazareth, the apostolic preaching, and the inspiration of the Holy Spirit–then one can gaze upon the stars and hear what they say about the marvelous work of God.

Merely contemplating the vastness of the cosmos, however, and then considering its intricacies from the galactic level to the subatomic, might well lead one to conclude that no Intelligence and Personal Power could conceivably have brought all this into existence and arranged it all so finely. Only an unimaginably long series of trials-and-errors could have produced what we now happen to experience and enjoy.

What one sees, then, when one looks at nature depends very much–I am inclined to say, “completely”–on what one brings to the seeing in the way of presuppositions formed on quite different grounds. And the Christian faith in particular bases its assertions not on arguments from natural design, but from historical experience: “I am Yhwh your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt” + “God has raised this Jesus to life, and … has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ.”

It would be well, then, if popular science magazines would knock off the crappy philosophizing. But it would be well, also, if Christians would knock off the inadequate apologetics. The cosmos is so vast, so weird, so detailed, that it defies human imagination to conceive of a Single Imagination conceiving of it all. So let’s not bother pressing our neighbours in such a fruitless direction.

Once, however, you have become convinced on other grounds that there is a God, that this God is the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, and that God did, indeed, create all that is–then it’s time to stare at the stars, or at any issue of National Geographic, and breathe yet another prayer, “lost in wonder, love, and praise.”

13 Responses to “Arguments from Design Don’t Prove; They Show”

  1. tim ellison

    some things have to be believed to be seen…Mark Hansen

  2. Spencer

    I think I understand your rhetorical stance, you’re critiquing scientism. You and Eagleton are doing good work there. Are you worried that the Climate Change Deniers and ID’ers will misinterpret your reasonable position and claim you as their own?

  3. Daniel Ginn

    Is there any particular reason why the Climate Change Deniers and the ID proponents shouldn’t claim John as their own, wherever he is in agreement with them?

    • Spencer Capier

      Hi Daniel, I’m in danger of putting words in JS’s mouth here. I’m guessing (he’ll put me arights I’m sure) he was trying to phrase his objections to scientism in an intellectual/evangelical friendly way. I think he did a fine job.

      Within that audience however, there are some folks who deny climate change, and evolution. They are in the same category as Birthers and Truthers and are a danger to the Gospel. This group conflates conspiratorial thinking and Christianity. It’s a serious problem.

      • Daniel Ginn

        I’m unfamiliar with these terms. Who are Birthers and Truthers? And how are people who deny climate change and/or evolution a danger to the Gospel? That seems like a stretch to me.

        • Spencer Capier

          Hi Daniel, Birthers and Truthers are short names for those who claim that Obama is not a natural born American citizen, and Truthers claim 911 was an inside job. They are from the right and left respectively but have conspiratorial magical thinking in common. Climate Change Deniers and Creationists are similar thinkers, and do damage to the Gospel by associating Christ with poor thinking and anti intellectualism. With the rise of fundamentalism in North America the Church began to leave its rich tradition of intellectual engagement in the world and we are paying for this now as many in the church are incapable of synthesizing modern science and orthodoxy. The Catholics have largely figured it out, but Evangelicals are in danger of painting them selves into a corner.

          • Daniel Ginn

            I think I know what you mean, but I disagree with your conclusion. Please correct me if I’m misinterpreting your main idea.

            Basically, it seems like you’re saying that because some percentage (whether large or small) of evangelical Protestants view neo-Darwinism as an anti-Christian conspiracy and because they dislike the policies and ideology of President Obama that people who aren’t Christians who could potentially be reached by the Gospel will consider the Gospel to be irrelevant. Does that sum it up accurately?

            And my question is “So what?” Sure, it’s easy to paint people with broad brushstrokes, but the Gospel isn’t about whether you’re an intellectual or not. In fact, I thank God for that because it means I don’t have to have complete doctrinal accuracy in my beliefs in order for him to save me. I want to know as much of the truth as I possibly can, but sometimes I get it wrong. I have the freedom to fail and make mistakes in the midst of my struggle for faith and for intimacy with God.

            On the one hand, Christians are to be ambassadors of God to the world. Sure, it’d be great if we and the message we bring could be perceived as being culturally relevant and worth hearing out at least the first time, rather than being quickly and easily dismissed. But does God really need us to manage His image and re-package him in such a way so that He’ll gain popular appeal? Isn’t He strong enough to defend himself? Sometimes (but not always) the greater difficulty is in recognizing the truth rather than in defending it.

            On the other hand, we do want to bring honor to the Father by what we say and do, and we’d like to have a family name that is held in good repute by the world. Are people tripping over us, or are they tripping over Christ? Certainly, that’s always a good question of which to be reminded, but it’s an in-house question, external charges of hypocrisy notwithstanding. And yet, the anxiety that the question engenders should not silence us. Our sanctification is ongoing, even amidst our botched attempts to preach reconciliation between God and the world.

            I’m having difficulty bringing you a balanced message here. An atheist or skeptic friend with whom I’ve debated said he felt frustrated by people of faith he knew who didn’t feel any need to investigate further into other disciplines. On the one hand, I think God wants us to do whatever good we can with all our might. On the other hand, there is some truth to the minimalist approach. Since your time and energy are limited, how much do you really need to know in order to attain the greatest good? We don’t have to earn PhD’s before we become Christians, and I rejoice in that, but the parable of the talents (or minas) is still one that convicts me. I’m glad that the Gospel is so simple, but there are times when the proper expression and practical application of faith seems very complicated or occluded to me.

            I take confidence that God has no need of me and that he is sovereign over all things, but I delight that he chooses to include me in his plans, and I fear the consequences of my disobedience in the things I believe he desires me to attempt, whether they turn out successfully or not. Sure, I prefer success to failure, but there’s a sense it which it doesn’t matter at all as much as my faithfulness does.

            As a side note which is more light-hearted, a friend asked me once if I was going to become a Catholic since I have so much respect for Thomas Aquinas and the Summa Theologiae. We Protestants can learn a lot of good things from Catholics.

            • Spencer Capier

              I promise a fuller response later, but I think your comments are really well put. I don’t quite agree with your characterization of my view, but close enough. I do think a significant portion of Evangelicals, particularly in the US are anti science, and have conflated a political position with orthodoxy, and that this does have significant effect on clear communication of the Gospel. That being said, your perspective is a good one and I will take it to heart.

  4. rob haskell

    Which ever account people take, it seems we can’t help but to praise the wonders of our source.

  5. Sue

    There’s an excellent site/organization started by Dr. Francis Collins (he lead the Human Genome Project) who happens to be an evangelical called Biologos, They have a Theistic Evolution approach and seek to lessen the divide between Christianity and the sciences.

    • Spencer Capier

      So I’ve ordered the DVD from Biologos and I’m trying to order the DVD from the Faraday Institute. Both look promising, and I hope I will be able to be of better use to the debate after absorbing them. Thanks for the links!


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