God, Creation, Design, and Science

This is the sixth post in a series that details my evolving thoughts on religion. The first ones are:

  1. Why I am no longer a “New Atheist”
  2. How Nassim Taleb changed my mind about religion
  3. How Richard Feynman changed my mind about Christianity
  4. Why I abandoned Enlightenment mythology. The Enlightenment as a Creation myth
  5. How Edward Feser and David Bentley Hart changed my mind about God

In the previous post in this series, I laid out a path a non-religious person can follow in order to understand where God fits in the world and why God is absolutely essential for the world to make sense and ultimately to even exist in the first place.

I also explored a bit how science fits in this picture and why I think there can’t be any contradiction between believing God and accepting the discoveries made by scientists.

Here I want to explore in more detail the topic of Creation and Design, in a way that transcends the comfortable orthodoxies of militant atheists and creationists.

The atheist confusion

It’s a popular urban myth in the modern, secular West, that God was invented in order to serve as a natural explanation for physical phenomena that couldn’t be understood in an “unscientific age”. In this view, to discover scientific explanations for events is to simply remove any need for God at all.

Militant atheists take this idea and pump it up with steroids. They parade the various scientific breakthroughs (the more counter-intuitive, the better) in order to “rush God out the door”.

Carl Sagan’s whole shtick was a revisionist view of history where the forces of reason were locked in an age-old battle with the forces of mysticism, who had kept the world in darkness until reason finally prevailed. (He also managed to classify Plato and Aristotle as mystics who stood in the way of scientific progress!)

The creationism racket

Creationists are perfectly fine with this dichotomy, but bet on the opposite conclusion: that God is, in fact, a perfectly fine natural explanation. Proponents of creationism like to “sell it” as being equivalent with belief in God: “I’m a creationist because I believe God created the world”.

While creationists are playing the same game, they’re also cheating by using a loaded dice. The alternative to creationism is, in their view, atheism, which, also in their view, will sentence you to spend an eternity in the Lake of fire. With such a choice, it’s no wonder the YouTube comment sections on evolution-related videos are flooded with gems of ignorance. People have given much more than their dignity and intellectual honesty in exchange for less.

The case of “Intelligent Design” is no different. Many believers seem to honestly think that Intelligent Design is simply a statement about God having designed the world in an intelligent way. And since God designed the world and science is against Intelligent Design, then science must be both atheistic and wrong.

Taking creation and design seriously

While masquerading as synonymous with a belief in the fact of creation, all variants of “creationism” and “Intelligent Design theory” are really concerned with the mechanism of creation.

They don’t just say that God created the world, they also want to have a say in how God created the world, and how God’s world works here and now.

Listen to any critique of modern science coming from these circles and you’ll notice their target is invariably the specific mechanics of how things work now or how they came to be in the past. Never does it cross their mind that it’s entirely in God’s power to make the world in exactly the way they find inconceivable, and which has been explored by scientists.

Let’s consider a mammal like a cat. Looking at it, a creationist will say that it was obviously designed.

If by this they mean that since (premise) God created the world ex nihilo and is the ground of all Being, then (conclusion) the cat is a reflection of His design, this would be an uncontroversial remark.

But the creationist claim is a specific one about the inability of the physical world to give rise to the cat through the kinds of processes that science has identified, and the need for God to intervene in order to change the normal course of events. Does it even make sense, though, in the theistic picture of the world, to talk of matter doing anything “by itself” and outside of God’s will? The position is vitiated theologically, but also scientifically.

What exactly does it mean to say that that the cat is “designed, but not the way science says”?

“The cat was designed”

Paley’s watch is a favorite analogy used by Creationists. The story goes something like this: if you stumbled upon a mechanical watch in the grass, you’d say that it was created by someone; therefore, you should do the same when it comes to living organisms.

The analogy muddles together different levels of causality by reducing everything to the question of “how did this particular entity form?”. Modernity’s ignorance when it comes to Aristotle’s “Four causes” is the main source of such confusions.

If we stumbled upon Paley’s cat in the wild we’d naturally assume it was given birth by its mother, as opposed to being put together in Dr. Frankenstein’s lab by the sewing together of pieces of meat and fur. But a cat is fundamentally different from an object like a mechanical watch in precisely the detail where they ought to be similar in order for Paley’s analogy to represent a good argument.

So if “the cat was designed” is a statement about this particular cat, then their case is against the cat’s development from zygote to the adult stage. What science says about this is that the development of the cat is entirely consistent with the fundamental interactions of the particles the cat is made of. Do they mean that individual atoms behave differently when they are part of this more complex and interesting structure than they do when they’re outside of it? If so, this would imply that a specific conservation principle no longer holds, and this would instantly earn them a Nobel Prize. It hasn’t been collected.

“Cats were designed”

If they are making a statement against cats as a species having evolved, then their case is against the mechanism of the retention of heritable traits in the context of differential reproductive success. What science says about this is that some individuals are more successful than others at reproducing, so their traits tend to be passed on. It’s not controversial once you grasp it (although it never ceases to amaze), and people have been “hacking” this phenomenon for thousands of years through selective breeding techniques of plants and animals.

Let’s consider how Evolution looks through a theistic lens.

Evolution can be properly understood as a search engine, using local stochasticity in order to explore a preexisting landscape of phenotypic potentialities, by testing out different variants.

  • Far from disproving God, evolution seen through a theistic lens implies that the entire space that evolution tests is also designed. There’s no need for God to intervene at specific moments in time to impose design, because every potentiality at every moment is accounted for by God.
  • This isn’t “guided evolution” because God is in complete control over where evolution can go. Just like by moving one letter up or down in the string “BBB” you can only obtain “ABB”, “CBB”, “BAB”, “BCB”, “BBA”, “BBC”, and which of these symbols turns out to be “more successful” in a given environment is just as predefined, so with evolution, but at a much grander scale. Neither is this any kind of strict determinism.
  • The dichotomy between evolutionary forces and design is a false one. The evolutionary landscape of biological forms being designed doesn’t come in conflict with the physical mechanisms that explore it.
  • It literally makes no sense to say “it’s designed, therefore it didn’t evolve”. The design of the forms and the physical or material pathway towards their manifestation or instantiation aren’t mutually exclusive processes, but complementary ones.

To say “I believe in God, but I can’t believe that an ensemble of interacting atoms can manifest as molecules and life” is to literally deny God the ability to make things work in precisely that way.

Some metaphysical speculation on my part

There is something critical to be said here about a specific aesthetic and metaphysical perspective which views the lower and simpler levels as causally prior to the higher and more complex ones, and so “really real”, while everything they “give rise to” is “emergent” and somehow “less real”. This is an unquestioned metaphysical premise and prejudice, a common view of things that many people hold, especially atheists. The following statement best describes it: “in the end there are just atoms in flux”. It’s as if picturing a kind of Domino game with ever-growing pieces where an event at the lower levels propagates in a unidirectional causal flow towards the higher ones. I know it because I held on to it for a long while. I believe it’s the main obstacle preventing people immersed in reductionist thought from understanding where God fits. The bias is that the small and the simple gives rise to the intricate, and since God is infinite, you can’t picture Him as the root of everything there is. But just as consistent with the science is to view all levels as causally simultaneous or with the causality flipped: with the higher level patterns “recruiting” lower level components. Just think of what a wave is doing when moving across on a surface of a lake. The reductionist view would have us think that there “really” isn’t any wave, it’s just atoms in motion. But while the molecules recruited once the wave has passed are now free, the wave moves on. And encompassing everything while not being changed or constrained by it all is God.

The SF scenarios

Let’s assume we discover that at some point in time, an extraterrestrial species intentionally intervened in our evolution. This isn’t as inconceivable as it seems, apart from the surprise that the revelation would entail. We intentionally intervened in the evolution of many species ourselves. Would instances of external intervention disprove the evolutionary dynamics that still account for the bulk of life’s development? Would it challenge anything about evolution or God? I think it should be clear that the answer is a resounding no.

What if the Universe we know is a simulation maintained through technical means by an advanced civilization, living perhaps in a Universe with different physics? This would certainly be right down the alley of the Intelligent Design theory, but it wouldn’t have revealed, nor negated, the God of classical theism, whose existence and nature is of a completely different order. With regard to God, they would be in the exact situation we are in. When considering a hierarchy or a series of nested systems (like a virtual machine running on our computer, which is nested inside the physical system, etc.), God isn’t to be understood as “the final layer” which underlies a series of independent ones, but rather as a layer orthogonal to the entire series, maintaining everything in existence from moment to moment.

Consider the following compilation with remarks from Brian Cox and David Bentley Hart.

  • Brian Cox is arguing on the Joe Rogan podcast that if the Universe is eternal, then it didn’t need a Creator, so theology should be updated to reflect this idea by giving God a downgrade. I felt he was quite smug in his pronouncement so it’s very satisfying to watch the following segment.
  • David Bentley Hart, interviewed by Robert Lawrence Kuhn on the “Closer to Truth”, series remarks that such a scenario says nothing about God, because God isn’t in the business of “turning the Universe on”, but rather of maintaining it in existence. An eternal Universe still needs to exist.

The literature

I will end by presenting some paragraphs from two books written by classical theists where they explicitly map out the difference between theism and “Intelligent Design” creationism. Highlights mine.

Edward Feser, “The Last Superstition”

Paley, as a “modern” thinker who rejects Aristotle’s idea of final causes — purposiveness or goal-directedness existing objectively in the natural world — accepts the notion that in some sense the world is a vast machine. On this “mechanical” picture of the universe as a kind of clockwork, everything that exists in the physical world is made up of (or “is reducible to”) purely material parts which by themselves have no goal, purpose, or meaning, and these parts interact with other bits of material stuff according to a stripped-down version of Aristotle’s “efficient cause.” (…)
[T]he basic idea, to simplify a bit, is this: What exists objectively in the physical world are just mindless, purposeless, meaningless particles of matter bouncing around, knocking into each other in certain regular ways. Sometimes the particles combine to form larger and more complicated arrangements, thus giving rise to rocks, trees, dogs, human bodies, mountains, planets, etc. And there might be certain identifiable regularities in the way this happens. But even these more complex things have no inherent purpose, goal, meaning, or function, and they are not instances of fixed essences or substantial forms either; for there are (so it is claimed) no final causes or formal causes in the world, but just “matter in motion.” Now if it can be shown — and this is what Paley and his successors try to show — that certain of these complex arrangements of bits of matter are statistically highly unlikely to occur apart from intelligent design, then that would make it probable that there is a designer of some sort who is causing these arrangements. On the other hand, if it can be shown instead — by means of Darwinian evolutionary theory, say — that any or all of these arrangements could in fact come about through unintelligent impersonal processes, then that drastically lowers the probability that any intelligent designer is involved. And since intelligence itself must somehow be just one more phenomenon among others explicable in terms of the “mechanical” processes constituted by meaningless chains of cause and effect between material elements, the probability that any designer would be an immaterial being beyond the physical world (à la the God of traditional theism) is arguably very low indeed.
Now Aquinas, I think, would be completely disgusted by this whole way of framing the debate over God’s existence — and that includes the Paley/”Intelligent Design” side of it, which more or less gives away the store to the skeptics by adopting the modern “mechanistic” conception of nature, and is thus reduced to a pathetic “God of the gaps” strategy. But its deficiencies from the point of view of apologetics are not the main problem with this conception of nature. Its main problem is that it is just false, and demonstrably so. From a Thomistic point of view, Paley and Co. have sold their birthright for a mess of pottage (…)
[T]o the extent that ID proponents have followed Paley in trading in Aristotle for a basically mechanistic picture of the physical universe, they have been “asking for it.”
This is especially lamentable given that, as I have said, an evolutionary account of the origin of species doesn’t undermine the Fifth Way in the least, and might even slightly help it.

II. David Bentley Hart, “The Experience of God”

[T]he god with whom most modern popular atheism usually concerns itself is one we might call a “demiurge” (dēmiourgos): a Greek term that originally meant a kind of public technician or artisan but that came to mean a particular kind of divine “world-maker” or cosmic craftsman. In Plato’s Timaeus, the demiurge is a benevolent intermediary between the realm of eternal forms and the realm of mutability; he looks to the ideal universe — the eternal paradigm of the cosmos — and then fashions lower reality in as close a conformity to the higher as the intractable resources of material nature allow. He is, therefore, not the source of the existence of all things but rather only the Intelligent Designer and causal agent of the world of space and time, working upon materials that lie outside and below him, under the guidance of divine principles that lie outside and above him. He is an immensely wise and powerful being, but he is also finite and dependent upon a larger reality of which he is only a part. (…)
The recent Intelligent Design movement represents the demiurge’s boldest adventure in some considerable time. (…)
As either a scientific or a philosophical project, Intelligent Design theory is a deeply problematic undertaking; and, from a theological or metaphysical perspective, it is a massive distraction. To begin with, much of the early literature of this movement concerned instances of supposedly “irreducible complexity” in the biological world, and from these developed an argument for some sort of intelligent agency at work in the process of evolution. (…)
[I]t would be quite embarrassing to propose this or that organism or part of an organism as a specimen of an irreducibly complex biological mechanism, only for it to emerge later that many of its components had been found in a more primitive form in some other biological mechanism, serving another purpose. Even if all this were not so, however, seen in the light of traditional theology the argument from irreducible complexity looks irredeemably defective, because it depends on the existence of causal discontinuities in the order of nature, “gaps” where natural causality proves inadequate. But all the classical theological arguments regarding the order of the world assume just the opposite: that God’s creative power can be seen in the rational coherence of nature as a perfect whole; that the universe was not simply the factitious product of a supreme intellect but the unfolding of an omnipresent divine wisdom or logos. (…)
If, however, one could really show that there were interruptions in that order, places where the adventitious intrusions of an organizing hand were needed to correct this or that part of the process, that might well suggest some deficiency in the fabric of creation. It might suggest that the universe was the work of a very powerful, but also somewhat limited, designer. It certainly would not show that the universe is the creature of an omnipotent wisdom, or an immediate manifestation of the God who is the being of all things. Frankly, the total absence of a single instance of irreducible complexity would be a far more forceful argument in favor of God’s rational action in creation. (…)
Hawking’s dismissal of God as an otiose explanatory hypothesis, for instance, is a splendid example of a false conclusion drawn from a confused question. He clearly thinks that talk of God’s creation of the universe concerns some event that occurred at some particular point in the past, prosecuted by some being who appears to occupy the shadowy juncture between a larger quantum landscape and the specific conditions of our current cosmic order; by “God,” that is to say, he means only a demiurge, coming after the law of gravity but before the present universe, whose job was to nail together all the boards and firmly mortar all the bricks of our current cosmic edifice.