The Concealed God of Science
The English theologian William Paley (1743-1805) wrote an influential book in 1802 entitled Natural Theology: Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity, Collected from the Appearances of Nature. Paley employed the metaphor of a watch discovered on a beach. One would not know who made the watch, but one could infer that there was certainly a watchmaker. One might even come to understand the design and function of the watch. In such a way, humans studying nature could also come to understand God as its creator and designer. This metaphor of nature qua watch is perhaps one of the most famous metaphors in the philosophy of science and haunts us to this day. Paley writes:
Today, some read the evidence of nature and come to a radically different conclusion. Richard Dawkins, the contemporary biologist, notorious atheist, and prolific writer, penned a book with the title The Blind Watchmaker. He argues that “The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.” In the context of the warfare between evolution and creationism in the United States, the problem is perhaps less with believers who read the Bible as a literal account of Creation and more with believers who read Richard Dawkins, as a literal account of evolution.
In the last few years, the Intelligent Design movement has gotten a lot of press in the United States. Intelligent Design advocates argue that random genetic drift and natural selection alone cannot account for the irreducible complexity in certain natural phenomena. The classic example of this is the human eye, to which Charles Darwin himself called attention. How could such a complex mechanism with so many independent parts have arisen by incremental changes, when the mechanism would not function without all of the parts working together? Intelligent Design advocates argue that some outside agency would be needed to specify such complexity. This can be seen as a new version of the God-of-the-Gaps argument and suffers from all of the earlier attempts to insert God as an explanatory fix in science’s progressive history of accounting for the unknown. In my mind, God is either everywhere present in all processes of Creation or God is nowhere.
So if God is everywhere, then why is God so hard to perceive? One could imagine a God who would be more like a Chairman Mao or a Comrade Stalin. This God would have designed a universe with photographs of himself hung everywhere in nature. We would be compelled to believe in the existence of this God, because everywhere we turned there would be both the evidence for his existence and the secret police to enforce our acquiescence. Everything in the universe would occur by divine order, micromanaged in five-year plans and designed in a command economy. Some people today actually choose to believe in such a vision of God and appoint themselves to be the secret police, though we might wonder whether such a dictator God would be worthy of our admiration and love.
The God whom we encounter through contemporary science and the God whom we encounter through our revealed scriptures is not such a dictator. The philosopher-theologian Holmes Rolston notes in his book, Genes, Genesis, and God: Values and Their Origins in Natural and Human History, that:
“The word ‘design’ nowhere occurs in Genesis, though the concept of creativity pervades the opening chapters. There is divine fiat, divine doing, but the mode is an empowering permission that places productive autonomy in the creation. It is not that there is no ‘watchmaker’; there is no ‘watch.’ Looking for one frames the problem the wrong way. There are species well adapted for problem solving, ever more informed in their self-actualizing. The watchmaker metaphor seems blind to the problem that here needs to be solved: that informationless matter-energy is a splendid information maker. Biologists cannot deny this creativity; indeed, better than anyone else biologists know that Earth has brought forth the natural kinds, prolifically, exuberantly over the millennia, and that enormous amounts of information are required to do this.”
So while the God of Creation chooses to be, or at least seems to be, concealed from our direct perception, yet we can discern in the universe a kind of directionality as understood by today’s science. There is still an observable teleonomy, if not the telos of traditional Aristotelian cosmology, in which the universe gives rise to greater complexity of form. With the increasing differentiation of form, there is also a greater integration of entities in a marvelous communion of beings. Take for instance our very bodies, a condominium for microorganisms. We have now come to recognize that our bodies are continually circulating material with the outside world. Every two weeks we each become practically a brand new person as we exchange air, water, food, and excretions with the outside environment. Only the calcium in our bones stays with us for any duration. We are a complex manifestation of ocean water contained in a sack of epidermis talking about ourselves. Every atom in our bodies is literally recycled stardust and has been on a 15 billion year journey towards our particular consciousness. Through us the universe can appreciate its pathos and beauty, because we are not merely at home in the universe, we are part and parcel of its essential character. The very energy with which we conduct these deliberations is brought to us courtesy of our sun through photosynthesis and the food chain. And the languages that we use to express these insights are themselves the accumulated wisdom of generations of human civilizations, which languages humans originally acquired in the semiotically and semantically rich schools of nature. Rather than seeing our minds and personalities as incidental to the universe, we may begin to see them as signs of a greater mind and greater personality that animate the universe.
Our religious traditions can now be seen as profound intuitions about the deep structure of the universe. This new scientific view of the cosmos and of ourselves allows us to recover some of the insights of our traditions that were lost in the early Enlightenment synthesis of science and religion, when we turned God into a mechanical engineer of nature reduced to a wind-up watch. The Creator-Sustainer-Redeemer God of this Universe could not be an authoritarian, control freak, but a God of mercy and compassion, as the Koran so oft repeats. This is a God who manifests divine providence in humble, self-giving love and promise, as emphasized in the Christian tradition. The universe, as we now understand it through science, requires a God who values adventure, beauty, and the interplay of order and open possibilities. God must surely value freedom, the self-creative, and autopoeisis of other creatures and of ourselves. God understood in light of this evolutionary epic can lure the universe towards the future, the good, and the beautiful, through divine inspiration. Our trials, tribulations, failures, and deaths are resolved not through the dogmatic certainties of our beliefs, but through a warranted faith in an eschatological promise of redemption. Such a faith is fully consistent with both the best of science, which can only intimate at this transcendence, and the best of our religions, which reveal to us this future promise.