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Theologically Speaking, What Intelligent Design Is and What It Isn’t

Aidan Nichols.jpegI was not familiar with the work of Stratford Caldecott. But a recent festschrift in his honor, The Beauty of God’s House, caught my eye. First, I am very pleased to be introduced to a scholar whose work I will likely appreciate even more as I investigate further. A posthumous introduction is better than none at all. Secondly, and more germane to our purposes here, is an article in the collection by prolific author Aidan Nichols, former John Paul II Memorial Lecturer in Roman Catholic Theology at Oxford and currently prior of the Dominican house in Cambridge. I’ve been familiar with Nichols for some years. His essay, "The New Atheism and Christian Cosmology," is of special interest, especially given recent discussions at ENV about cosmic fine-tuning (see here, here, and here).

In considering the New Atheists, Nichols sets his sights chiefly on Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and the late Christopher Hitchens. While atheism is nothing new, this more recent vintage owes less to Existential Humanism � la John Paul Sarte than to 19th-century natural science � la the Darwinian theory of evolution. Interestingly, the first generation of Darwin’s proponents found the theological implications of the theory disconcerting for the future of society. Darwin himself was vexed about the matter as was his "bulldog defender" Thomas Henry Huxley. The New Atheists, on the other hand, eagerly embrace the theory along with its implications. For them, scientists themselves form the new priestly caste who will lead society into a new era of wisdom and enlightenment.

The New Atheists owe some of their success, Nichols observes, to the personality of our age, captivated as it is by empiricism. The ability to test and measure assumes measurable results, implying measurable progress. But the hypnotic allure of the laboratory and peer-reviewed study has blinded many to the way empiricism transforms into more nefarious "isms," such as positivism and scientism.

The hubris of the New Atheists notwithstanding, Nichols points out that history is not on their side. The often-cited story of the Church’s opposition to Galileo really doesn’t make the case that the New Atheists intend, namely, that the trial of Galileo is a prime example of religious opposition to science. Quite the contrary, Nichols explains that the Church opposed Galileo not because it rejected science but, quoting Peter Harrison, because "it was using its considerable authority to endorse what was then the consensus of the scientific community." Geocentric theory had, after all, been the reigning cosmological paradigm since Aristotle.

Just as the New Atheists present their own version of the Galileo story, in biology they are "fundamentalist Darwinists who adhere (so to speak) less to the Darwin of history than to the Charles of faith" (p. 212). Nevertheless, a host of difficulties with the theory remain:

These would include the relative absence of intermediate forms in the fossil record; the long-term stability of most species; the exuberance, surpassing utility for survival, in such matters as the coloration of butterfly wings; the damaging nature of most mutations in animal life; and (perhaps especially) the interdependence of organs or characteristics that would have to appear simultaneously if they are to grant an evolutionary advantage (p. 213).

On the cosmological scale, the efforts of "fundamentalist Darwinists" to exclude all design in any form seem presumptuous and countered by the anthropic principle. Why so vast a universe? Nichols responds that in order to have "our sort of life," such complexities may require these sorts of dimensions for their emergence and support — "nothing smaller will do" (p. 214). Nichols points out that this, in effect, "constitutes a new sort of design argument" (p. 215). He adds:

[It] is not (as has been alleged) dependent on the positing of gaps in scientific knowledge that one day may be filled naturalistically. On the contrary, accepting evolution as a hypothesis — datum non (entirely) concessum — this argument for fine-tuning concerns the dovetailing of factors in evolution that scientific knowledge already entertains (p. 215).

What about "creationism" — that dreaded word often coupled thoughtlessly with "intelligent design," primarily to discredit the latter? Well, insofar as the human soul’s distinctiveness (and sanctity, as most in Judeo-Christian culture would add) owes itself to a Creator, every Catholic — indeed every Christian — can be called a "creationist," in a loose sense.

By contrast, on any fair reading, Darwin’s Descent of Maneschews the notion of a divine soul. After all, it’s clear from the book that God was created in man’s image. As Darwin claimed, "The idea of a universal and beneficent Creator" was something that arose "in the mind of man" only after "long-continued culture." Darwin’s obvious meaning makes the rhetorical gymnastics and intellectual contortions of so-called theistic Darwinists, such as Karl Giberson and Ken Miller, all the more puzzling, even grotesque.

Intelligent design, a program of scientific investigation not of theology, is a broad term, one that includes a range of ideas. Nichols and I have both pointed to natural selection’s co-discoverer Alfred Russel Wallace, who called upon an "Overruling Intelligence" to explain the special attributes of human beings. Wallace was a spiritualist, not a Christian. Was he a "creationist"? As Nichols points out, Wallace’s World of Life "is consonant with Saint Thomas Aquinas’s teaching that God governs interior things through superior ones — not because he is lacking in his own power but, on the contrary, from the abundance of his goodness, by which he allows creatures to share the causality that constitutes his nature as the First Cause Uncaused. The First Cause gives being; secondary causes determine it" (note 31, p. 218). Wallace would not have disagreed.

All of this places in context what ID is and what it is not. ID argues for design. A Designer, in the sense that traditional Western theism would recognize, is not required by the theory, but it is certainly consonant with it. The expectation of finding evidence of design in created nature is common to a variety of traditions, including Catholicism as explained by Aidan Nichols, arguably the positions of many mainline Protestant denominations, and indeed Wallace’s view (see his "New Thoughts on Evolution"). Is ID to be identified with any one of these? No! Can it accommodate any of them? Yes!

Intelligent design is not a Christian apologetic. Its very willingness to accommodate, to be inclusive, indeed to be ecumenical in approach means that ID is too broad to suggest any particular defense of a more specific position. As Aidan Nichols correctly concludes:

A Christian cosmology will not of course confine itself to the Overruling Intelligence and the possible mediating role of the angels in cosmic becoming. Writing to the Colossians, Paul already warned against allowing speculation about cosmic powers to displace interest in the mystery of Christ. A Christian cosmology will affirm the more primary mediation of the world’s creation by the pre-existent Logos, who, as the expression of the Father’s mind, is the ultimate source of the intelligibility that science explores (p. 218).

There is more to say, of course. As a Methodist I must concur with Nichols. Ask ID about the nature of the designer and you will be politely directed to seek elsewhere for enlightenment — the Bible, the Torah, the Quran, the Vedas, numerous Buddhist texts, many answers have been given. For those who approach ID from outside any longstanding faith tradition, answers as to the nature of the designer may remain for your discovery. If nature gives evidence of design, where does that design come from? It is ID that prompts the question and it is ID that makes it such a nagging one. For those who approach ID from within a faith tradition, Nichols has revealed the theory’s hugely ecumenical nature.

ID is not theism, but I would argue that it can be theism’s anteroom. That ID nevertheless remains controversial among Christians is unfortunate, and has worked to the benefit of the New Atheists. To my thinking, it is the price we pay for forgetting Christ’s admonition in Luke 9:49-50 and Christ’s promise in John 14:2. I thank Aidan Nichols for explaining what ID is and is not theologically. There is much to be learned from him.