SPidge Tales

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Evolution and Intelligent Design

“Darwin made it intellectually acceptable to be an atheist.” Richard Dawkins

Imagine walking through the desert. Your journey involves an endless array of cacti, adobe clay, and other features common to this terrain. After hours in the afternoon sun, you begin to tire. As you sit and reach into your backpack for a bottle of water, or perhaps your fanny-pack, if you are that guy, you notice a pocket-watch on the ground. You pick it up and observe. The watch is wound and running. The second hand ticks away, one second at a time, of course. The hour and minute hands match the time that your digital wristwatch is showing.

How did this watch get here? Could the many pieces of the watch have developed over time, randomly adapting and evolving to intricately fit together in just the right way to form the pocket-watch you are holding, in the same way the cacti and the desert hills and valleys have developed over time into their current forms? Of course not. The thought would never enter your mind. You came across an intricately formed pocket-watch. It could not have formed randomly. There must have been someone who came up with the idea of that watch and either put it together himself or arranged for others to put it together.

The story above represents, in simplest terms, the argument for intelligent design. Trying to go beyond the so-called “evolution vs. creationism” debate, ID (Intelligent Design) Theory argues that the world we inhabit gives off evidence for a designer. Whether each species came into existence separately (as creationists would argue, along with the belief in a less than 10,000 year old earth and Fred Flintstone-style rides to work on dinosaurs), or each species develops and evolves from earlier species, modern organisms are so complex, it implies a designer. Take, for example, the human eye. If each part did not develop and evolve just so, “Helen Keller” and “Stevie Wonder” jokes would be “humankind” jokes. To be more precise, look back at the example of the watch. A pocket-watch is so intricate; it would seem to be ridiculous to argue that it could have formed by random mutation of its varied parts. Or, if you will, a television, or DVD player, or car, or airplane. None of these could have formed randomly. Are not, argue ID proponents, the natural world and the many species, particularly homo sapiens, too complex to have developed randomly, without a designer?

The argument from design for the existence of God has been around long before Charles Darwin visited the Galapagos and wrote On The Origin of Species. The watchmaker example was popular in the 19th century, and is used currently by those who accept the scientific arguments for Darwinian evolution, but also believe that a designer—God—is behind creation. Yet, there recently has been a spat of books released by figures such as Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Sam Harris, seeking to establish the implausibility of a designer or creator of the world. Along with this comes the implausibility of religious belief in a creator.

What seems so is not always so. Our eyes tell us that the sun goes around the earth, rising in the east each morning and setting in the west each evening. We know now that this is not true. It is the earth that revolves around the sun, spinning itself, causing our night and day. We still speak of the sunrise and sunset, knowing that it is a metaphor, as we know the phrase “right hand man” is a metaphor for a corporation’s number two worker. Yet, we realize that our eyes deceive us. Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, and company tell us that the appearance of design, like the appearance of a sun that circles the earth, is an illusion, too. The complexity of a given species is not a true sign of design. It is a product of evolutionary trial and error. Those traits that benefit a species’s survival get passed onto the next generation. Over time, the more beneficial traits work together to form the modern species we see today.

What room is there today for God in a world come alive through random chance? What room is there for meaning and purpose? Dawkins and friends are not new in calling for a reexamination of our beliefs and suppositions about meaning and purpose in the world. Ecclesiastes arose in a biblical Israel that claimed God’s blessing and protection behind it. No, God is not blessing us, Ecclesiastes said. Life is vanity. What is happening now has happened in the past and will happen again. We all have the same fate: death. Nothing ultimately matters.

Nietzsche called out the Enlightenment thinkers. He saw through their bluff—the view that we can substitute man in the place of God as the arbiter of values and continue living as if this were just a change in semantics—and not only kept his hand in, but raised the stakes. Man is just as much a product of his environment as the constructs of God he creates. There is no standard to measure values and meaning. If we can no longer point to God as the designer of meaning, what right do we have to give to man to decide? And, if we assign this task to man, which man gets to decide? Each person has his own prejudices that would disqualify him.

Religious believers are at a crossroads. Like the Jews of the Babylonian Exile, we face a crisis of faith. During the period of the Judges and the unified Kingdom of Saul, David, and Solomon, the Israelites believed that periods of good fortune were the result of faithfulness to God, and periods of suffering arose when they neglected their duty to God. When Babylon conquered Judah and deported the Jews, a crisis of faith arose. Either God had abandoned them, or they needed a new conception of God. Maybe God is not so simplistic as to be understood as punishing the bad guys and rewarding the good guys. Maybe, as the book of Job suggests, bad things do sometimes happen to good people.

Why is this so? God answers Job’s pleadings, the pleadings of a just man unjustly hit with misfortune, not with an outlined response, but with a declaration. “Did you create the world?” God asks Job. “I am the master of the universe, not you. I have a greater purpose that you could not possibly comprehend. You just have to trust me, Job. Things will work out.”

Is God, then, some sadistic author who has created evil and suffering to give himself a better story, a dramatic tale? No, say Christians. As hinted at by Paul, who speaks of Christ as the new Adam, and elaborated by Augustine, Christians believe in the idea of Original Sin. God created the world good. In the beginning, mankind had community and happiness. Mankind was not a puppet of God. God made man free, and with this freedom came the ability to choose to obey God or disobey God. For whatever reason, man chose disobedience, and as a result, brought suffering on himself. We suffer because we sin. Sin does not have a direct relationship, like previously believed. The good sometimes suffer more than the wicked. But, we all suffer, and inflict suffering on others, because of our sins.

The discovery of Evolution by Darwin sent a shock down the religious world. If Adam and Eve had not literally been placed in the Garden of Eden by God already formed, but had evolved from lower life forms, what happens to the Christian story of sin followed by redemption? Sin, it is pointed out, is consent of the will to disobey God. One must have the capacity to reason in order to commit sin. The beasts of old acted on instincts, and were thus incapable of sin. A lion that tears a giraffe to shreds is not sinning, but following its primal instinct. Once evolution produced intelligent beings, the capacity to choose evil became present. When those first humans capable of reasoning chose disobedience, this brought sin, suffering, and death into the world.

This theory accounts for the presence of sin. But, not all suffering comes from sinful actions. For every man murdered by another, there are many more who die from sickness and disease caused not by sin, but by nature. Suffering and death were not brought into the world by the Fall. They are integral to the way the world works. Species’s survive by preying on other living creatures. Even herbivores survive by taking the life of living plants. The world was not a perfect one that fell with the Fall. It is one that by its very nature is imperfect. What, then, do we make of God?

The earliest forms of religion accounted for this reality by holding belief in a multitude of gods and goddesses, each more powerful than man but none all powerful or filled with complete goodness. Some modern day theologians, like Harold Kushner, argue that God is good, and cares for us, but does not have the power to stop evil, death, and suffering. Others, like Episcopal Bishop Spong have abandoned theism, and speak of God as a vague force of spiritual grounding to help us through the day. And, these gods offer intellectual solutions, but these gods do not help us with the biggest problem: what happens we die?

Thinkers such as Dawkins, Dennett, and Harris take the God issue seriously. They understand the implications, and choose to sign off on the God proposal entirely. Like Dostoevsky’s famous rationalist skeptic Ivan Karamazov, they cannot believe in an all-good, all-powerful God in the face of the evidence. What, then, are believers to do? We are back in the situation of Job. We know that sin was brought into the world by us, not God. But suffering and death? They are not the direct product of the sin of man. Are they from God? I don’t know. Sin is incompatible with God, but suffering and death may have a greater purpose that we are unaware of. Or, maybe suffering and death, though not brought about by us, were brought about by the sins of the fallen angels. We don’t know. We have to trust God, He who created the heavens and the earth, and accept that we cannot comprehend His complete vision. We must trust that God has a plan for us. We can take solace, unlike Job, who was born to soon, in the Incarnation, in God’s gift of self to us in the person of Jesus Christ. God may not take away our suffering, and—for some what is even worse—may not even give us an explanation for our suffering, but He is with us in our suffering. He took our sins and suffering with Him on the cross, and has redeemed us. The design we see in the formation of the world may be an illusion, but the design that God has for each of us is no mirage. Even without full evidence, we are called to go beyond the rationalistic stoicism of Ivan Karamazov and offer the selfless love of his brother Alyosha Karamazov.


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