The Language of God: Another Perspective

Guest ColumnistCommunity News

by Vijay Jayaraman
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I don’t always read my copy of MIT’s bi-monthly Technology Review, but the January 2006 issue, featuring an article entitled The Internet is Broken, was an exception. This article detailed how the internet has evolved into an increasingly chaotic, convoluted, and brittle system through the piecemeal introduction of security patches, plugs, upgrades, and workarounds, making it more and more vulnerable to malicious attack and threatening its very survival. It was time, argued MIT Artificial Intelligence guru David Clark, to step back and re-design a more intelligent architecture from scratch, producing a more survivable and functional network.
How interesting. On the one hand, Dr. Clark of MIT was extolling the superior survivability and functionality of a world wide web launched with intelligent design over one that is allowed to evolve without centralized guidance. On the other hand, three miles down the Charles River, Harvard chemist David Liu and colleagues were beginning work on the Origin of Life Initiative, devoted to demonstrating intelligent design was unnecessary in launching the complex web of interactions we call life. It is just this kind of mixed message coming from within the scientific community itself that continues to fuel the 150 year-old debate over Darwinism. More examples of this conflicted voice could be cited, including the burgeoning field of biologically inspired engineering, in which researchers speak of mimicking “nature’s design” to create superior machines, even as their evolutionary biologist colleagues insist that all such design is illusory.
In the midst of such scientific ambivalence, Darwinists continue to proclaim that the scientific debate over the merits of Darwin’s theory has long been settled, and what remains is a conflict between objective science and religious fundamentalism. Darwinists are fond of telling us the Darwinian framework ranks alongside relativity and quantum theory as one of the great intellectual achievements of the twentieth century. But is this really the case? Legions of fundamentalists are not protesting the teaching of quantum theory in the public schools, though some of its core ideas challenge both our intuition and our theological assumptions. That is because even non-specialists can distinguish the compelling evidence of quantum mechanics from the question-begging assertions of Darwinism. The Harvard Origin of Life Initiative alluded to earlier, for example, is a tacit admission that a naturalistic explanation
or life’s origin continues to elude the best minds. Ultimately, the questions about Darwinian mechanisms persist because they have not been adequately answered to the satisfaction of thinking people.
In the early 1990s, one group of thinking scientists and philosophers known as the Intelligent Design movement (ID) began asking an increasingly sophisticated set of questions, taking the debate about Darwinism to a new level. Until then, Darwinists had good reason to label the controversy a science/religion debate, having fended off Genesis-quoting young-earth creationists for well over a century. Unlike creationists, however, and in the tradition of Paul’s debate with the Athenian philosophers in Acts 17, ID was challenging Darwinism on scientific, philosophical, and logical grounds. Some of the questions they were asking went something like this. How can a DNA molecule, which is a massive reservoir of instructions and information, arise through a purely material Darwinian process? Or, why is the search for intelligent design a valid enterprise in sciences like cryptography (the search for coded meaning) or SETI (the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence), but off-limits in biology? Or, as Michael Behe has asked, how do biological machines like the bacterial flagellum, a microscopic motor mechanism which only works if numerous parts are simultaneously present in the right spatial relationship, self-assemble through a gradual Darwinian process?
Much of the scientific community has responded to these and other questions with hostility, angrily dubbing ID advocates the “new creationists,” who have dressed up old arguments in the contemporary language of biochemistry and information theory. Magazine articles and book length refutations of the ID claims appeared throughout the 1990s and continue to appear to the present day, along with an impressive list of sympathizers and supporters. In an interesting twist, Christians have been some of the most outspoken critics of ID. Kenneth Miller’s 1996 volume Finding Darwin’s God (1996), and more recently Francis Collins’ The Language of God(2007; reviewed by Melanie Pearlman in the May 2008 CN) are popular expositions of a position we might broadly label theistic evolution (TE). TE is probably best articulated by Calvin College scientist Howard Van Til, who speaks of God’s “gifted creation.” In simple terms, this means that God created the dust of the earth with the capacity to evolve life forms.
Leaving aside the question of whether Van Til’s position is Biblically defensible, is it defensible on logical and scientific grounds? Like atheistic evolution, TE begs for detail to give it credibility. Have Kenneth Miller and Francis Collins supplied those details in their respective books, or answered the hard questions raised by ID? The answer appears to be no. Francis Collins, even as he stands in wonder of the massive amount of information of the DNA molecule, remains convinced that the molecule itself got here through Darwinian mutation and natural selection. In support of his position, he compares DNA sequences of various species, citing similarities as evidence of descent from a common ancestor. But descent from a common ancestor is not an explanation for how information in DNA got there in the first place.
Kenneth Miller is similarly ineffective in his frontal attack on ID, in his article entitled The Bacterial Flagellum Un-Spun. Miller’s critique amounts to pointing out that certain sub-units of the bacterial flagellum can have alternate useful functions on their own. Does this really solve the mystery of the marvelous flagellum’s origin? The pronouncements of Miller and Collins are examples of a repeated pattern in the engagement between ID and TE. The questions of ID are broad and forceful, while the responses of TE are narrow, anemic, and sometimes irrelevant.
Both Collins and Miller have also joined with atheists in leveling the accusation that ID is mired in a classic God of the Gaps fallacy—using ignorance in our understanding of how things might have evolved to claim that God must have done it. Once scientists figure out the evolutionary details, write such critics, the God of ID will become obsolete. But is ID really a “God of the Gaps,” or is it the best explanation? TE advocates and atheists could just as easily be accused of an evolution of the gaps. Both Collins and Miller recycle a classically flawed argument against design by pointing to the apparent flaws in the human body, such as the “useless” appendix, purposeless “junk” DNA, or the blind spot in the human eye. Such imperfections could not have been the work of an intelligent designer, goes the argument. They must therefore be the vestiges of an ongoing evolutionary process. Kenneth Miller goes so far as to mock the God of ID as an incompetent designer. I submit that these arguments are a bit like saying that because I don’t understand the function of every one of the billions of transistors in my computer hard drive, that hard drive must have emerged through mutation and natural selection. If a function emerges for the appendix or junk DNA, this evolution of the gaps also crumbles.

In the end, as much as I am critical of TE, I do not believe that holding an ID-like view of origins ought to be a litmus test for genuine faith. TE advocates are in some very good company, counting among them the late Princeton theologian B.B. Warfield, eminent physicist/theologian John Polkinghorne, and many members of SBCC whose spiritual wisdom and depth I admire. But even as we admit diversity on this issue, we must remember that the created order is one of God’s signposts to the world of His existence. As Christians, we must be clear on how His presence is manifested in that created order, both in the cosmos and in our bodies. Christians have work to do here, and it is important work. We must also never forget that the created order is not God’s only signpost. The second great signpost is the moral order, and it is no accident that created order and moral order are both beautifully extolled in the Psalm 19, or juxtaposed by Paul in Romans 1 and 2. It is also highly significant that Francis Collins was unconvinced by the design argument, yet led to Christ by the moral argument of C.S. Lewis. Conversely, the atheist Anthony Flew, contemporary of C.S. Lewis, was unconvinced by Lewis’ moral argument, yet ultimately led to deism by design arguments. As Christ’s disciples, we seek to win souls and not arguments. In the process, we may find one door closed and another one open. God, in His graciousness, has spoken to the world in multiple languages, and it is the task of His church to become fluent in them all.