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The Physical World and the Argument from Design

11/10/2013 Comments (210)

As we saw last time, the First Cause Argument, taken in isolation, gives a solid—but still pretty chilly and abstract—picture of a God who, at least, exists.  But a God who merely exists is not necessarily a personal God nor even a good one.  Indeed, based on the data we have looked at so far, many people can and do conclude that the power behind the universe is something impersonal, like the Force in Star Wars. Such a view of God (technically known as Pantheism) is an ancient opinion which is particularly popular in the West these days because, as an atheist acquaintance said, it is a bit like spiritual methadone treatment. It gives you the pleasures and consolations of religious faith without any of the troubling demands. In the words of C. S. Lewis:

An "impersonal God"—well and good. A subjective God of beauty, truth and goodness inside our own heads—better still. A formless life force surging through us, a vast power which we can tap—best of all. ... The Pantheist's God does nothing, demands nothing. He is there if you wish for Him, like a book on a shelf. He will not pursue you.

Pantheism essentially tells us that God is identical with creation. And, of course, if God is Everything then we are relieved of the burden of having to choose between right and wrong, good and evil.

The trouble with pantheism is that it tries to make God something "beyond personal" but instead winds up calling God something less than personal. Many people harbor in the back of their minds the notion they are being "truly spiritual" when they say "We must get rid of the crude fancies of the puny human mind with its primitive agricultural images of shepherds, sheep, vineyards and all the rest of it. We must instead thrust our spirits into contact with a realm beyond the imagination!" Nine times out of ten, what this means in practice is abandoning older and more nourishing religious symbols for new and impoverished ones. It usually means picturing God as an invisible energy field, to cite enormously popular sci-fi imagery. And the explanation for this is simple. It is not that the Energy Field devotee has a higher religious consciousness. It is simply that he or she has, like most people in a technological society, known things like magnetism or electricity as their closest experiences of invisible power. For ancients, this was typically imaged by the wind, which is why Jesus describes the Holy Spirit in those terms (cf. John 3:8).

The question then is whether the universe really shows us nothing but evidence of an abstract and impersonal God or if there is something more going on.  And the answer, says St. Thomas, is “Yes, there is more.”  He looks at creation and says that we can infer that God designs. So, for instance, when we see a microcomputer, we say "The hand of a designer was here." When we see the fathomlessly greater complexity of the human brain that made the microcomputer, we similarly respond, "The Hand of a Designer was here." (I have a friend who works for Boeing as an engineer.  Some years back he took a famous image of the molecular “motor” that drives the cilia in a paramecium, stripped off the accompanying text explaining what it was, and emailed it to the other engineers in his department for comment.  Assuming it to be a piece of nanobot technology, they instantly wrote him back with the same question: “Who designed this?)” Indeed, the intuition is so powerful that dedicated atheists like Francis Crick have to issue creedal statements (“Biologists must constantly keep in mind that what they see was not designed, but rather evolved.”)  to keep the atheist flock in line lest they have Impure Thoughts and begin to suspect that there might be something to the existence of You Know Who.

That said, the Argument from Design can be a somewhat trickier point and there has been much kerfuffle about this ever since atheistic materialists began to claim that evolutionary theory accounted for Design without a Designer.  The resulting quarrel in our culture has roughly resolved into such camps as:

  • the Atheist (who imagines that evolution somehow proves there is no God designing anything).
     
  • the Fundamentalist (who imagines exactly the same thing and therefore tries desperately to make the convincing and converging lines of evidence for evolution go away by appeals to simplistic readings of the biblical text, as though it demands the universe was made some six thousand years ago in a single week).
     
  • the Intelligent Design advocate, who seems pretty Catholic, but who in fact seldom enjoys a warm welcome from Catholic theologians, including (particularly) the people who study the work of St. Thomas Aquinas.
     
  • Thomists and other Catholics, who affirm that there is an Argument from Design, but who deny that what are commonly called “Intelligent Design” arguments really capture it.

It’s not too hard to figure out why the first two camps are not compatible with the traditional Christian take on Scripture: the Atheist denies the input of supernatural revelation and the Fundamentalist denies the input of natural revelation.  The former says “There is no God” (like he knows) and the latter comes up with things like “God put fossils in the ground and made it look like the universe is 13.5 billion years old, just to test our faith.”

But what about the third camp: Intelligent Design?  What’s wrong with noticing that a cell is incredibly complex and fine-tuned (compared to, say, a rock) and that if you can’t account for this specialized complexity of a cell by natural means, you should suppose it’s due to supernatural intervention in the normal course of nature? On that, more next time.

Filed under natural revelation

About Mark Shea

Mark Shea
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Mark P. Shea is a popular Catholic writer and speaker. The author of numerous books, his most recent work is The Work of Mercy (Servant) and The Heart of Catholic Prayer (Our Sunday Visitor). Mark contributes numerous articles to many magazines, including his popular column “Connecting the Dots” for the National Catholic Register. Mark is known nationally for his one minute “Words of Encouragement” on Catholic radio. He also maintains the Catholic and Enjoying It blog. He lives in Washington state with his wife, Janet, and their four sons.