Sunday 23 October 2005

Darwin on Intelligent Design

In a much-quoted letter to Asa Gray on 22 May 1860, Charles Darwin said:

“I had no intention to write atheistically. But I own that I cannot see as plainly as others do, and as I should wish to do, evidence of design.... There seems to me too much misery in the world. I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae [parasitic wasps] with the express intention of their [larva] feeding within the living bodies of Caterpillars.” (The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, 8:224)

Darwin highlights an important theological point here. There is much in the world that is beautiful and majestic and good—but there are also ugly, horrifying and demonic sides of nature. There are hurricanes and floods and famines and cannibalistic insects and parasitic wasps that insert their larvae into the living bodies of caterpillars.

If there is an Intelligent Designer, then It has to be the Designer of all aspects of the natural world. Might not the Intelligent Designer therefore be a cruel tyrant or an omnipotent demon? Certainly It would not be the God and Father of Jesus Christ. And this means that, strictly speaking, the Intelligent Designer cannot be identified with what Christians mean by “the creator”—for Christians confess that the “Maker of heaven and earth” is “God the Father Almighty,” i.e., the Father of Jesus Christ.

The creator is not an Intelligent Designer; he is the God of the gospel, the God of grace.


Anonymous said...

With all due respect, huh? This post makes no sense to me. The Intelligent Designer can't be the Creator? I don't get what you are driving at.

Ben Myers said...

Hi Ken. My point is that the "omnipotent God who designedly created the Ichneumonidae with the express intention of their larva feeding within the living bodies of Caterpillars" would be an omnipotent demon, not the God of the gospel.

Belief in God the creator is not a conclusion based on an observation of the world. It is a confession of faith, i.e., faith that the gracious God and Father of Jesus Christ is also the Lord and therefore the maker of the world. We will never arrive at a knowledge of this "creator" through an observation of nature. Rather we believe in the "creator" only because we have already been grasped by the gospel.

Anonymous said...

I like this post alot Ben: a nice succinct distinction. I hope this kind of reason is not limited to the 'down under'.

Anonymous said...

But, even if it is a declaration of faith... and I would beg to differ that he is not perceptible in nature... it is still a Christian declaration that God created this world (regardless of mode or method) and therefore created that which you say could only be the work of a demon. I still don't see the distinction you are making.

Incidentally, i think a great many Christians might suggest that such natural horrors as you list are a sign of the corruption of the world under the presence and weight of pervasive, systemic evil. Again, regardless of their commitments concerning the mode or method of creation.

I just don't think that the declaration that God created this world is optional. The Bible affirms that from beginning to end.

Ben Myers said...

Hi Steph: no, I hear there are many good and sensible people in New Zealand as well....

Ken, sorry if I'm not clear enough. You suggest that "it is still a Christian declaration that God created this world (regardless of mode or method) and therefore created that which you say could only be the work of a demon."

Obviously you're thinking of "creation" as something that has a basic connection to science; it has a certain scientific "mode" and "method". But I'm not thinking of creation in that way at all. I'm thinking of "creation" as a description of God's relationship to us and to everything that exists. It has no scientific "mode" or "method", and it's not a single event that took place somewhere back in the past. Rather, the statement "God is creator" describes my here-and-now relationship to the God of the gospel.

I dare say you'll disagree with this theological view of creation, Ken. But does this at least clarify why I think an "Intelligent Designer" has nothing to do with the "creator", and why I think the creator can be known through faith alone?

Anonymous said...

Okay Ben. I still don't think I'm following you. So then you don't believe God actually created the universe?

Also, I don't understand when you say, "the statement 'God is creator' describes my here-and-now relationship to the God of the gospel". To be frank, and honestly not meant as an insult, this sounds like pretentious goobleygook to me. What in the world does that mean, really and practically? What is this act of creation? And, how does it relate to the testimony of the Bible that God actually and physically created the world?

Ben Myers said...

I'm very sorry if it sounds like "goobleygook", Ken! I suppose I can see why it would sound unintelligible to someone who has a fundamentally "scientific" conception of creation (i.e. that "God physically created the world").

When you ask what a theological conception of creation means, "really and practically", the best I can do is to quote Luther’s Small Catechism: the doctrine of creation means "that God created me ... because of his pure, fatherly and divine goodness and mercy, not because I’ve earned it or deserved it." God is my gracious creator who gives me all things freely. For me this is very meaningful, and it answers some profound human questions.

Questions about the "physical" mode in which the cosmos came into being are also interesting and important: but, in my view, these are questions for scientists, not for theologians.

Anonymous said...

Okay. Got ya. I think. But it seems then you are being disingenous. You can't just abdicate on the question of whether God created the universe as a moment in the past. The question raised by ID is not about the theological significance or interpretation you ascribe to the declaration "God is creator." By appealing to this, you are responding to the ID apple with your theological orange, which is all the more disingenous given your very suggestive comments about the natural world.

I don't think you can't get away from the "fundamentally 'scientific' conception of creation", chiefly because I don't think that Scripture lets you. The testimony of Scripture is that God created the universe. As biblicists or theologians, we may rightly point out that the ancient writers did not know nor intended to communicate the mode or method of the acts of creation but I see no way out of the claim for divine creation as a concrete, physical reality.

So, I'm not going to let you off the hook so easily by shifting the point.
Did God create the universe? Yes or no.

PS. Incidentally, I'm pretty confident that what lies behind the quote you provide from Luther's Small Catechism is a deeply held conviction that God created the world in the past.

Anonymous said...

Let me provide an analogy to what I think you are doing. Let's say we are discussing who made my car. I say Honda made my car. In response, you say that 'the consumer' made my car because it is through the transactional processes of supply and demand that ultimately made my car. While your answer might be epistemologically more profound or significant, it is really beside the point of the present discussion. If someone did this to you in a discussion, how could you not but think the person is being pretentious?

In the same way, when you engage a topic such as ID and even appeal to the natural world, it is besides the point to then start talking about creation in a wholly different way, i.e. as a theological confession what it means to be created. The question raised by ID is whether or not God is creator in a scientific sense. To respond to that claim by making an argument about the natural world and then theologizing creation only to avoid the implications of your own argument is disingenous. First you must actually address the question where it stands. Only after that is it fair to move on to the deeper epistemological assumptions that inform your position. Otherwise, your argument is irrelevant; it does not actually address the issue at hand.

Anonymous said...

...except perhaps to express your lack of commitment to the foundational question, "Did God create the universe?"

Jacob said...

Simply, God claims that He created the universe. That's why we have faith he did.

"All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made." John 1:3

Not only that, but we see this creation by observation, as well:

"For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse..." Romans 1:20

Ben Myers said...

Ken, you want me to answer: "Did God create the universe? Yes or no."

Did God create the universe? Yes. Is "God created the universe" a scientific statement? No.

Clearly the biblical writers did not think of "creation" as a scientific concept either -- by talking about "creation" they were expressing their own relationship to God, and the relationship between the God of Israel and the whole world. They were saying: "The God who delivered us from Egypt is the faithful God on whom we fully depend; and, more than that, he is the one true Lord of the whole world on whom everything depends."

In my view, Ken, it is unjustified to try to press this further for some kind of scientific concept of creation. It's a natural mistake, since our own presuppositions and therefore our own questions have been formed by a scientific worldview. But the biblical writers were simply not interested in our scientific questions, and if we try to force their concept of "creation" into our own framework of physical science, we run the risk of missing what they are really trying to tell us.

I can see where you're coming from, Ken, and I can see why you won't be satisfied with this response. But can you see that a scientific concept of creation is by no means obvious -- that it is itself only one particular interpretation of the biblical witness to creation? The important question is whether this scientific interpretation is genuinely faithful to the biblical witness to creation, or whether other ways of interpreting "creation" might perhaps be more appropriate ways of responding to what the biblical writers were trying to say.

Ben Myers said...

Oh and I forgot to add: I'm sure you'll be glad to know, Ken, that I also think that the doctrine of creation has important ontological implications which in turn have implications for constructive dialogue with the natural sciences. I just don't think this kind of dialogue has any value until we have first clarified exactly what "creation" itself does and does not mean. Theology is a useful dialogue-partner for science only when theology has first learned to be truly theological!

Anonymous said...

Sorry Ben. I have to call bullshit. There is no question that the claim of Scripture is that God created the world and that this is understood as an activity in the past. It is plainly obvious that the biblical writers claimed that God created this world practically and materially whatever theological significance Bultmann or Rahner or yourself may additionally perceive in that claim (which I don't think are incompatible). This is definitely an issue where I won't cede that this is open to interpretation; the only interpretation required here are basic reading skills. On many occasions, I'm more than willing to accept variability, plurality of meanings, and uncertainty in interpretation but this isn't one of those cases. Indeed, there are very few things so clearly stated as this in Scripture.

Also, Ben, I think you are completely wrong to see this as a modernist assumption as if pre-modern people could not make an affirmation with scientific implications. We are not talking here about a complex scientific theory; it is a simple declaration about the origins of the world. The Bible states quite clearly that God created the world and that creation is not simply a relational process, or a theological metaphor, but a physical and material action that demonstrates the sovereignty and power of God and his active, creative will.

Anonymous said...

Whatever else it is, creation is God's active, purposeful calling forth of this universe into existence. It is a concrete, historical, physical, material, real claim of the Bible, echoed again and again from Genesis to Prophets to Psalms to Job to Revelations.

Ben Myers said...

Thanks, Ken. I appreciate your point of view.

Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

I enjoy the discussion. I really appreciate your posts. They are thought provoking and I enjoy some of the appropriate selections from theologians. I think you have some very compelling ideas and I've learned a lot from reading your posts, even if I have disagreed on some issues.

Anonymous said...

Another question from a late-comer who's neither well versed in nor very convinced by religion - I hope I won't be a nuisance, if so, please bear with me.

This whole discussion seems to be about wether God creating the world and all the rest is a factual or scientific or just a theological assertation. Such a classification seems not relevant, however, to Darwins basic point: That the creation of parasitic wasps is evidently evil. If talk about "Ichneumonidae" sounds too un-theological, then let me put it that way: Is it correct to say that "that God created the parasitic wasp because of his pure, fatherly and divine goodness and mercy, not because the caterpillar has earned it or deserved it."

And if so, what? It that a long-winded and scholarly way to shrug off every manifestation of suffering and evildoing from caterpillars eaten alive to little children raped to death by saying "the ways of the Lord are "unerforschlich", what's that in English, "mysterious", I believe?

"All I can really talk about is how gracious He was in being so kind as to create myself, theologically speaking"

That is somehow not a very satisfatory explanation. And it misses the real point of that Darwin quote: That every one believing in ID has to explain just what an intelligent Designer was driving at by creating things like the parasitic wasp or the average Kansas School Board member, and what those creations reveal about him. It's not important wether this creation is an act best described theologically or scientifically, is it?

Sorry I'm so long-winded...

Ben Myers said...

Hi Simon. I really enjoyed your comment, and I've been chewing over it for a few days.

On the one hand, I'd definitely agree with you that promoters of ID should face the question of whether their Designer is in fact evil or capricious. And it seems to me that any "Designer" whom we could know solely on the basis of empirical observation would at best be capricious.

And this is why, for me, faith is so important. To say that "God is the creator" is a confession of faith. It's not an observation of the world or a conclusion based on experience. Instead it's a believing against experience, against the way things appear. To say that God is the creator is not a "Therefore" but a "Nevertheless".

So, from the perspective of faith, I might still say that "God created the parasitic wasp because of his fatherly goodness" -- but this will be a confession; it will not be an easy, cheap statement, but a confession for which I must struggle.

I doubt that this is a very satisfying answer to your penetrating question. But for me the question has to be answered along these general lines, since the question of "creation" is always a question of faith. Believing in creation is like believing in justification: I try to look honestly at myself, but then in the end, solely on the basis of Jesus Christ, I say "Nevertheless..."

Anonymous said...

hi Ben,

thank you for taking so much time and thought for a reply.

If I do get you right, it seems to come down to ye ole "credo quia absurdum" - which is perfectly okay. It's not something one can argue about really, is it - just a choice, or maybe fate, but that's another can of worms really innit - that separates one person's thinking and feeling from the next guy's. And that's that. Right?

As a note - I found this link at Chris Tilling's weblog, and it made me think of the starting point of this discussion. Capricious Creator, indeed. In fact, the old guy must be quite a character:

Anonymous said...

Faithseeker, I think you have hit the nail on the head.
The questions about the way the world is set up are fair, and anyone who seeks honestly will ask them sooner or later.
Job did, and the answer he got might be paraphrased as "you don't really know how the world works, I do, so just let me do it".
A hasty and bad paraphrase perhaps, but you get the message.
If we assume we are the brightest stars in the universe, we will try and judge God, but their are limits to our understanding. The world actually works better with God in charge.

Anonymous said...

Faithseeker, I think you're absolutely dead-on.

I personally find it a bit narrowminded to see the natural world (or God, for that matter) in terms of good and evil, especially in terms of absolute good and evil. Things are not in themselves good--they are good for me or good for us; things require context to be good or evil. If God is the backdrop against all the universe, if God stands in relation to everything, does it make sense to speak of God as good or evil?

If we leave aside these kinds of moral determinations about God, then this question about intelligent design becomes far less mystifying. God doesn't create "good" or "bad"; God creates. Everything else is a matter of perception.

I thought you made brilliant points. Thanks.

דודשמש יםךא ךםהד עםג said...

Hmm...Darwin on intelligent design?
How about intelligent design on Darwin, which is the descent of Darwin from way lower than the angels to sinner extradordinaire.

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