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     Oct 23, 2012

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Why 'Intelligent Design' subverts faith
By Spengler

I hate it when the bad guys are right. But it happens sometimes, and when it does, we should own up to it.

The bad guy who drove a wedge between faith and science was the 18th-century skeptic Voltaire, who did more than any other to undermine religion in the Enlightenment world. The eponymous hero of his 1759 novel Candide wanders through sundry disasters of mid-18th-century Europe, under the tutelage of "Dr Pangloss", a lampoon of the philosopher-mathematician Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, who reassures him after each mishap that this is "the best of all possible worlds".

Candide finds himself in Lisbon during the 1755 earthquake that leveled the city, killing up to 100,000 people. Untold thousands


more perished along the Mediterranean coast. No matter, Dr Pangloss explains after their narrow escape: If we hadn't gone through the earthquake, we wouldn't be sitting here now eating strawberries.

The novel was an elaboration of Voltaire's "Poem on the Lisbon Disaster", which lamented:
These women, these infants heaped one upon the other, these limbs scattered beneath shattered marbles. What crime and what sin have been committed by these infants crushed and bleeding on their mothers' breasts? [translation David Bentley Hart]
Voltaire taunted the theologians with this question: How could a benevolent and omnipotent God slaughter so many innocents at random? If this is the best of all possible worlds (as Leibniz maintained), because a good God would not create a worse one, why do such awful things happen? That is one trouble with the so-called clockmaker's argument, one of the five classic proofs for the existence of God cited by St Thomas Aquinas. The workings of nature are so complex and perfect, the argument states, that they bespeak a design, and a design must have a designer. The trouble is that the same clock seems to set off a bomb at random intervals.

There is a false premise in Voltaire's argument, namely that humankind is always and inevitably subject to the ravages of cruel and capricious nature. We now build cities able to withstand earthquakes; the earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan in 2011 killed 16,000 people in much more densely populated regions, a terrible toll, to be sure, but a fraction of the Lisbon dead. No human being need die from hunger, or cold, or bacterial disease; if some die, it is the fault of human action, not an Act of God. But we are getting ahead of the argument.

To argue that bad things are part of a beneficent divine plan that we cannot yet grasp, as do many Christian theologians, David Bentley Hart contended in a celebrated essay,
... requires us to believe in and love a God whose good ends will be realized not only in spite of - but entirely by way of - every cruelty, every fortuitous misery, every catastrophe, every betrayal, every sin the world has ever known; it requires us to believe in the eternal spiritual necessity of a child dying an agonizing death from diphtheria, of a young mother ravaged by cancer, of tens of thousands of Asians swallowed in an instant by the sea, of millions murdered in death camps and gulags and forced famines. It seems a strange thing to find peace in a universe rendered morally intelligible at the cost of a God rendered morally loathsome.
To avoid what he dismisses as "vacuous cant" about the workings of Providence, Hart instead cites the
... Christian belief in an ancient alienation from God that has wounded creation in its uttermost depths, and reduced cosmic time to a shadowy remnant of the world God intends, and enslaved creation to spiritual and terrestrial powers hostile to God.
God's alibi in Professor Hart's account is the fallen state of nature itself, its "ancient alienation from God", and the prevalence of "spiritual and terrestrial powers hostile to God". Perhaps the Devil was behind the Lisbon earthquake and the 2004 tsunami? That view is embedded in a popular genre of horror films; the fact that it is popular, though, does not make it any less problematic. One requires an intellect as recondite as Professor Hart's to reconcile the notion of a good and omniscient God with a nature abounding with "powers hostile to God" who randomly inflict unspeakable suffering on multitudes of innocent people. Hart's argument risks falling into the fire of apocalyptic paranoia, in order to quit the frying pan of vacuous cant.

Another source of cant, namely Immanuel Kant (1824-1807), began his philosophic career by pondering the Lisbon earthquake, and concluded it by destroying Leibniz' influence in philosophy. That demarcates the point at which science was separated from religion. As the co-inventor (with Isaac Newton) of the calculus, Leibniz began the modern scientific revolution with explicitly theological motives. His contribution to mathematics expressed a view of nature that could not be comprehended without God. I summarized Leibniz' theology recently in this space (Now for something about nothing ..., Jul 24, '12). Kant usurped Leibniz' influence to become the dominant figure in Enlightenment philosophy, by proposing a system that had no need of God. But we are getting ahead of ourselves again.

It is hard to believe in a benevolent God without seeking the good in the universe, and that, I think, explains why popular religion ignores Professor Hart's dour vision of a fallen world, and cleaves instead to a variant of the providential argument, namely Intelligent Design. Proponents of Intelligent Design include Christians like George Gilder as well as observant Jews like Michael Medved and David Klinghoffer - friends and political allies, I note as a matter of full disclosure. I sympathize with them, but I think they are on the wrong track.

The usual refutation of Intelligent Design states that it requires assumptions that cannot be experimentally verified by scientists. The opposing camp, the Darwinian evolutionists, cannot verify their arguments, either. Darwinian evolution is an after-the-fact explanation of phenomena rather than a predictive science. Neither the particular way in which evolution occurs, nor the pace at which it occurs, are matters on which Darwinian theory sheds much light.

Despite numerous attempts, including one by the anti-religious polemicist Richard Dawkins, Darwinians have failed to create a model that can predict evolution. University of Texas mathematician Granville Sewell, an Intelligent Design proponent, surveyed the damning evidence in a 2000 essay for The Mathematical Intelligencer. The quarrel between the Darwinians and the Creationists comes down to a confrontation between a quasi-religious belief that nature is a closed system that self-evolves in the absence of a creator, and the explicitly religious belief that a creator directs the process. The South Park caricature of Dawkins got it exactly right.

If the Intelligent Design argument cannot be proved, as the Darwinians claim, neither can it be refuted. Science as such has no stake in the argument: Something that neither can be proved nor falsified does not belong to the realm of science in the first place.

Quite apart from the scientific debate, I have two objections to Intelligent Design. Both are theological rather than scientific. 

Continued 1 2  

Is modern science Biblical or Greek?
(Oct 25, '11)



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