Through a Veil Darkly

Some time back I ran across a headline in ZENIT announcing, “Scholars Aim to Disprove Darwin”.

My thought: “Good luck with that.”

I’m highly skeptical that guys like Hugh Owen, who believe in a young earth and the co-existence of dinosaurs and humans, are going to land any punches that overthrow the basic arguments for stuff like an old earth and the evolutionary growth of life . over the past three billion years or so. But they are welcome to give it their best shot. I don’t have any religious faith invested in the theory of biological evolution one way or t’other, so I don’t think skeptics about it are heretics who need to be silenced and shouted down as monsters, fools or wicked people. If somebody is wrong or dubious about, say, quantum mechanics or special relativity (which likewise present us with claims about the universe that are a bit hard to comprehend or swallow), the answer to their dubiousness or confusion is not “SHUT UP!”

But that has been the approach of the scientific establishment to people who have doubts about evolution—for decades. It’s lousy pedagogy and it tends to create conformists and skeptics, but not inquirers. I favor inquiry, even when the inquirers are making mistakes. The facts behind the basic evolutionary narrative of life on earth are pretty sturdy and can take care of themselves. Theyt do not require the likes of P.Z. Myers and his toadies to be Inquisitors.

I think the reason there are so many folk in the SHUT UP! crowd is mostly that, for many people, and especially for many of our manufacturers of culture, evolution is the central prop, not of science, but of a particular religious/philosophical outlook which relies on one of the only two objections St. Thomas could ever find to the existence of God:

Objection 2. Further, it is superfluous to suppose that what can be accounted for by a few principles has been produced by many. But it seems that everything we see in the world can be accounted for by other principles, supposing God did not exist. For all natural things can be reduced to one principle which is nature; and all voluntary things can be reduced to one principle which is human reason, or will. Therefore there is no need to suppose God’s existence.

Meaning, in translation, “Things seem to work fine without God, so there’s no God. Ancients thought lightning was divine wrath, but now we know it’s just electricity. Ancients thought disease caused by evil spirits, but now we know it’s just germs. Ancients thought creatures were made by God, now we know it’s just evolution.”

Thomas’ answer to this line of thinking, of course, is still sensible:

Reply to Objection 2. Since nature works for a determinate end under the direction of a higher agent, whatever is done by nature must needs be traced back to God, as to its first cause. So also whatever is done voluntarily must also be traced back to some higher cause other than human reason or will, since these can change or fail; for all things that are changeable and capable of defect must be traced back to an immovable and self-necessary first principle, as was shown in the body of the Article.

But people who are looking for an excuse to ignore God are not really interested in reason, however much they may bill themselves as “Brights”. They are looking for a very powerful aesthetic appeal to a pre-conceived and pre-rational choice to reject God. As I noted some time ago:

In God Is Not Great, Hitchens describes how, at the age of nine, he concluded that his teacher’s claim that the world must be designed was wrong:

I simply knew, almost as if I had privileged access to a higher authority, that my teacher had managed to get everything wrong.

Hitchens’s brother, Peter, drily replies:

At the time of this revelation, he knew nothing of the vast, unending argument between those who maintain that the shape of the world is evidence of design, and those who say the same world is evidence of random, undirected natural selection.

It’s my view that he still doesn’t know all that much about this interesting dispute. Yet at the age of nine, he “simply knew” who had won one of the oldest debates in the history of mankind.

What is marvelous is how nakedly Hitchens reveals his own atheist convictions to be entirely faith-based and—what is more—based on faith in a mystical epiphany to a nine-year-old boy. All the massive artillery of his adult wit and eloquence is, in the final analysis, ranked and ranged to protect that boy and his emotional epiphany. In contrast, all Christ asks of us is to have hearts like children, not minds like children. St. Thomas’s faith was childlike; his intellect was formidably adult. Hitchens, in contrast, demands we reject St. Thomas’s fifth demonstration of the existence of God — because a nine-year-old boy had a really strong feeling once half-a-century ago.

The odd paradox about Thomas’ second objection to the existence of God is how incurious the people who believe it are. It’s like the child who thinks that he has “figured out computers” because he now understands that all the empty theological speculation about “CPUs” and “chips” is just woo woo. “We now know”, he says with confidence, “that pressing ‘C’ is what makes the C appear on the screen.”

Likewise, the atheist materialist says, “Given the vast panoply of Being which somehow exists and organizes itself according to intelligible physical laws governing time, space, matter and energy, we can confidently state that our after-the-fact guesses about how this massive and elegant panoply of Being resulted in the giraffe mean that we never have to account for the fact of the vast panoply of Being, much less why it is self-organizing and intelligible.” It’s a massive act of hand-waving (and, of course, shouting and denunciations of heretics who go on being a bit curious about questions like “Why is there anything?” and “Why is it so elegant?” “Why does itt all tend toward an end?” and “Why can my three pound piece of meat behind my eyes understand it at all?” In the end, atheist materialism, particularly of the Darwin-adoring variety, often seems to me to be a huge case of intellect worship rather than intellect use.

In a somewhat related vein is the ongoing battle being waged over the whole “Intelligent Design” argument. For us laymen, things seemed fairly obvious for a while. The ID guys appeared to be restating Thomas’ fifth demonstration of the existence of God, using some cool new info from the biological sciences. Thomas says:

The fifth way is taken from the governance of the world. We see that things which lack intelligence, such as natural bodies, act for an end, and this is evident from their acting always, or nearly always, in the same way, so as to obtain the best result. Hence it is plain that not fortuitously, but designedly, do they achieve their end. Now whatever lacks intelligence cannot move towards an end, unless it be directed by some being endowed with knowledge and intelligence; as the arrow is shot to its mark by the archer. Therefore some intelligent being exists by whom all natural things are directed to their end; and this being we call God.

Seems like a rather straightforward point, clouded only by the kinds of ingenious avoidance of the obvious in which modernity specializes. Arrows find their mark, not because of their keen and innate cleverness, but because the archer makes the arrow to find its mark. There may be all sorts of secondary causes at work as the archer does his business: the sort of feathers he chooses for it, the kind of bow, the sort of target, the way he exploits the breeze. But at the end of the day, it comes back to the archer, not the arrow. Things are made to find their ends—rocks find the ground when you let go of them, electrons find protons, and geese find their way south each winter—because they were made to find their ends by a Creator who made them that way.

The ID guys make rather similar points. When you see “specified complexity”—Mount Rushmore vs. Mt. Rainier, Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony vs. the rain on the roof, or a complicated little gizmo that acts as a motor for a bacterium flagellum vs. a leaf twirling in the wind—you naturally intuit “design”. (A friend of mine who works at Boeing once took an illustration like the one I link here, stripped it of its descriptive caption and sent it round to a bunch of engineers to ask for their commentary. Instant response: “Who designed this?” They took it for a piece of nanotechnology.) Indeed, so strong is the inference of design that guys like Francis Crick have to formulate credal utterances like, “Biologists must constantly keep in mind that what they see was not designed, but rather evolved.” to keep the Faithful from straying from the True Path. Because, as True Believers in Thomas’ objection 2 believe and profess, it’s gotta be that either God the First Cause designed it or evolution the second cause produced it. No both/and allowed.

But the ID guys have run into some trouble. Not from atheist/materialists (that’s to be expected) but from Catholics and, in particular, Thomists. The problem with ID arguments, Thomists maintain, is that they buy into the same either/or thinking as the atheist/materialists. In this critique, the problem is that ID argumentation tends to set living systems in stark contrast to the rest of the created order, such that, say, the eye or the bacterium flagellum is designed but ordinary seawater, or soil, or a rock are just random “nature”. The problem with this, say the theological critics of ID, is that it doesn’t think deeply enough about what the Tradition means when it speaks of God as the Creator. Rocks and wind and weather and all the other events taking place in Creation are likewise part of the design of God. Calling out living systems alone as evidence of Intelligent Design tends to reinforce the notion that the rest of nature is not designed too.

Michael Flynn sums up the difference between the Thomistic and ID approaches this way:

The difference between the ID argument and Aquinas’ Fifth Way is that the former take the apparent exceptions as evidence of God while Aquinas takes the rules as the evidence. Channeling the old boy for a moment, he would more likely regard Darwin’s theory as mild support for God’s existence than he would [Michael] Behe’s apparent exceptions. Even if Behe were right that natural selection does not account for certain biochemical structures, that does not preclude some other natural process yet to be discovered from doing so.

So ID looks, for instance, at things like “irreducible complexity” and says, “Nature can’t account for this irreducibly complex paramecium motor, so it suggests some sort of divine creation at work.” Thomism says, “Don’t focus on God of the Gaps arguments (“We don’t know how this could have arisen naturally, therefore God did it.”) but instead look at the nature of being itself and how it so elegantly works and is intelligible. Otherwise, on the day somebody figure out how some inexplicable mystery can be explained (as has happened thousands of times in the sciences), somebody’s faith in God will die because they hitched it to the notion that mysteries are necessarily proof of some miraculous intervention by God apart from the normal course of nature.

Rather strenuous denunciations can sometimes ensue as people get het up about all this. And, of course, the atheists are still busy denouncing anybody who thinks God has anything to do with anything. So the ID guys tend to get it from both sides in the debate.

Me: While I can certainly see big problems with God of the Gaps arguments, I’ve never quite grokked the hostility that ID people often receive from the Catholic and Thomist sides of the argument (and I’m a big fan of Thomism). It’s always seemed to me that the arguments for ID can quite easily be read in pretty much the same way that the Catholic tradition has always read, for instance, the miracles of Jesus: as places where the veil between this world and the next is especially thin, not as places where, alone, design is happening. So yeah: I get that a rock is, in its own way, just as “designed” as an eye or a liver cell. I get that it is Being itself and the intelligibility thereof that are the real metaphysical realities that ultimately need to be addressed. I get that the rules, far more than the exceptions to the rules, are what need explaining.

But, well, I don’t see the big problem with saying, “When it walks and talks like a duck, odd’s are it’s a duck.” So when I look at what the ID guys call “specified complexity” I make exactly the same inference every single time: somebody designed this, just like the Boeing engineers did. I don’t think there’s any need to invoke the God of the Gaps, or to assume that the Somebody who designed it couldn’t have used natural means to achieve his affect. But I do have the same sensation as Chesterton when he observed that, “one elephant having a trunk was odd; but all elephants having trunks looked like a plot.” When something is massively and eloquently redolent of the astounding ingenuity of the Creator as, say, even the simplest living system is (however it may have evolved), then why not chalk it up to a Creator? I don’t think that takes a God of the gaps argument. I think it just takes common sense. If an arrow in a target says “archer” and a bullet in a body says “murderer”, then why doesn’t that paramecium motor scream “Design!”?

Part of the issue, it seems to me, is that the theological approaches . want very much to avoid “Then a miracle occurs!” thinking. ID seems to many Christian critics to invoke God the Tinkerer, who endlessly pops into the natural order to say, “Presto! Now let’s have a species of tyrannosaur!” There appears to be, understandably, an aesthetic resistance to the notion that nature is basically a sort of badly running engine from GM that requires constant interference from Outside to keep cranking out new species of critters. Everybody likes (and this is a favorite word in the scientific community) “elegance”: a self-contained system where you don’t have to constantly monkey with the rules to keep it going. It takes care of itself and runs smoothly. Scientists like this. So do theologians (and this is often a shock to atheist materialists).

And there is a real reason for that. We know instinctively that reasonable explanations for events in nature are nearly always natural ones. The car crashed, not because fire demons demanded a sacrifice and took over the teenager’s brain, but because he got wasted at the dance and tried to drive home. Evil spirits didn’t eat your homework. The Scooby Gang really did see Old Mr. Higgins in a bedsheet and not a ghost. Lame appeals to the supernatural to avoid doing your math are lame.

Moreover, Christianity and Judaism present us with a revelation of a God who has invested in creation a certain autonomy, if you will. Nature depends on him, to be sure. But God is not an arbitrary magician who is continually fiddling around with the laws of thermodynamics and Planck’s Constant just for the heck of it. He is, as Christ reveals, the Logos who cannot contradict himself and who invests creation with his order and harmony. And so the psalmist, like St. Thomas, sees that it is the mundane orderliness of nature doing what it does every day that is the big miracle. “O Lord,” he cries like Thomas, “how manifold are thy works! In wisdom hast thou made them all; the earth is full of thy creatures.” This deep and broad strain of worship and acclamation which sees the wonder of God precisely in the fact that stones fall every time you drop them, water runs downhill every time you pour it, and the sun rises every morning is real and profound and valid. Such a “theology of thanks” for the wisdom of God revealed in the ordinary undergirds, for instance, the entirety of Chesterton’s outlook. He doesn’t need to see a man grow new leg before his very eyes to be thankful to God. He is grateful for the miracle of two legs to put in his trousers. In just the same vein, I have no problem with the notion that life evolves by means of the ordinary powers God has invested in nature for the same reason I have no problem with the notion that Michaelangelo used a chisel. God seems to be rather fond of making creation a participant in his work. He’s free, if he likes, to create and develop life via the innate behavior of the time, space, matter, and energy that he himself invented.

And yet… Christianity does in fact insist that God acts on the created order in ways which both incorporate and transcend the “laws of nature” and that the “laws of nature” are, in the end, simply descriptions, not prescriptions. Such laws are “what God has designed nature to do—most of the time” and not, in the slightest, “what God is bound to do by the Higher Power that is Nature.” In short, Christianity insists on the reality of miracles.

Because of this, I remain deeply agnostic about what God is and is not allowed to do in the creation and development of life, especially human life, particularly when we know so very little about the history of life on earth. For in addition to praising God for making a world in which the marvelous order of being speaks to the fact of the Creator, there is another dynamic well established in revelation too. It is the fact that God is also praised for doing things like the miracle of the loaves and fishes where, quite some time after the Big Bang, he opted to call matter into being from nothing as he did at the Beginning. It is the fact that he also occasionally designs eyes or other organ systems from scratch as he did in the miracles of Jesus and in the miraculous healing of Peter Smith’s destroyed eyes. So I’m not going to sit here and tell God that it upsets my theories about elegance and my aesthetic notions of how Nature should go when, for all I know, he’s been tinkering with nature from the start.

Mind you, I don’t think he has been doing this and I have grave doubts that the suggestion he has is a very adequate account of the origins and development of life. I’m as skeptical as the next guy toward “Then a miracle occurs!” attempts to get around doing the hard work of science. But I’m also a Christian who thinks the record is really quite plain: sometimes a miracle does occur and aesthetic objections by atheist/materialists are faced with a great divine exclamation of “Tough beans!” from the God who, under carefully controlled laboratory conditions, does whatever he feels like doing.

Therefore, my own take on the ID thing is that the “irreducible complexity” argument is extremely weak and the “specified complexity” argument is strong. That is, when somebody tells me “I don’t understand how it happened, so God or pixies must have done it” I think this is lousy philosophy and lousier science. It’s just the God of the Gaps all over again. However, when somebody shows me highly specified complexity—say, an Encyclopedia Britannica or a Boeing 747—I don’t regard that as a product of dumb luck but as an artifact of Mind. So do engineers when they find a car, coroners when they find a bullet-riddled body, and my older brother when he found my name scrawled on his TV screen in my nine year old hand. And when I look at a cell—the simplest of which dwarfs the Encyclopedia Britannica and a Boeing 747 in specified complexity—I have exactly the same intuition. I have it so strongly that I can’t even repeat Crick’s creed with a straight face. I sense that, however that specified complexity arose through the meandering course of evolution over three billion years, it still puts me in a place where the veil between this world and the next looks exceptionally thin. It’s the same sensation I have when I encounter the miracles of Christ.

So in the end, it seems to me that both the normal rules of the universe (such as entropy breaking down dead bodies) and the exceptions to the rules (such as generation of living bodies and, still more, the raising of Lazarus) point, as they pointed for the apostles, to God. I empathize with the Thomist who sees God in the ordinary boring rules of physics and I empathize with the rather conflicted atheist Francis Crick, who said, “An honest man, armed with all the knowledge available to us now, could only state that in some sense, the origin of life appears at the moment to be almost a miracle, so many are the conditions which would have had to have been satisfied to get it going.” Crick’s atheism prevented him from facing what I regard as the bleedin’ obvious: “almost” a miracle nothing! It was (and remains) a huge and ongoing miracle and a place where the veil is particularly thin between heaven and earth—even if we reach the stage where we really can account for every last detail of the physics and chemistry by which life occurred. For the physics and chemistry themselves simply point to the fact that the Creator writes Being elegantly. As St. Thomas says:

Nature is nothing but the plan of some art, namely a divine one, put into things themselves, by which those things move towards a concrete end: as if the man who builds up a ship could give to the pieces of wood that they could move by themselves to produce the form of the ship. (Commentary on Physics II.8, lecture 14, no. 268)

The sciences, in analyzing the origins of life, are like a man analyzing the manuscript of Hamlet and discovering the sort of wood pulp the paper is made from and definitively showing that the ink was composed of this or that chemical. But it is for those who can read to point out that this is not what Hamlet is, but only what it is made of. Not for nothing then do we hail the Holy Spirit as “the Lord, the giver of life.” Living systems do not seem to me to be places where “design” happens exclusively and in stark contrast to the “undersigned” rest of Nature. Rather, like the miracles of Christ, living systems seem to me to be places where the veil between this world and the next is particularly thin. To be sure, there are some places where the veil is even thinner: such as the miracles of Jesus themselves. The Incarnation of Christ, his signs and wonders, the sacraments, and the Eucharist all constitute remarkable instances where God does things “not according to the normal course of nature.” And yet they are not “tinkering” or propping up a badly running system in need of kluges and fixes to make it work. Rather, grace perfects nature. If God did something similar in, for instance, the creation of the human species, I can’t see that he’s not allowed to. I merely see places where atheist/materialists with a particular aesthetic sense of “how nature is supposed to be” are worshipping that sense as an idol.

So, while I’m skeptical of the ID case for a tinkering God of the Gaps peppering nature with “Then a miracle occurs!”, I don’t entirely rule out the possibility of miracles now and then either. Nor do I see why the ID emphasis on specified complexity as strongly indicating a Creator is, by itself, such a bad thing. To me, it seems like window dressing on the same point Paul is making in Romans 1:20. But above all, I agree with Thomas that the big miracle is not the occasional miraculous exception to the rules, but the fact that there are any rules, and indeed, any things at all.

Mark Shea

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Mark P. Shea is a Catholic author, blogger, and speaker.

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