SEEING DESIGN IN NATURE
There is an old Irish joke in which some weary travellers stop to ask a white-haired local the way to get to their intended destination. The old man thought for a while, puffed on his pipe and mused: "If I wanted to get to where you want to go, I wouldn't start from here!" This little story provides a good analogy here with the much-debated issue of design in nature: our starting place is of crucial importance as to where we can go and where we end up.
We could start where Hume and Kant started: with Enlightenment values. They demolished Natural Theology - but in doing so they demolished just about everything else as well. Hume realised this when he confessed (1739):
"The intense view of these manifold contradictions and imperfections in
human reason has so wrought upon me, and heated my brain, that I am ready
to reject all belief and reasoning, and can look upon no opinion even as
more probable or likely than another. Where am I, or what? From what causes
do I derive my existence, and to what condition shall I return? Whose favour
shall I court, and whose anger must I dread? What beings surround me? and
on whom have I any influence, or who have any influence on me? I am confounded
with all these questions and begin to fancy myself in the most deplorable
condition imaginable, environed with the deepest darkness, and utterly deprived
of the use of every member and faculty."
A treatise on human nature, Book 1, part IV, Section VIII).
We could start earlier with Francis Bacon, and stress the distinctness of the Book of Nature and the Book of Scripture. These books were considered separate and distinct, and the initial aim seemed commendable: to free science from tradition, philosophical domination, religious dogma and superstition. But it led to the development of autonomous science, and this undermined everything that Bacon had been seeking to do. Science has become the slave of rationalism and naturalism. According to the main opinion formers in science, there is no evidence of God in nature - and all alleged evidences of design are fallacious! As Russell (1985) has said: "If you begin without God in your assumptions, you will not find Him in your conclusions - unless you cheat".
So where do we start if we want to develop a Christian mind on these matters? How do we begin to think about this particular issue of design in nature? Whilst the Scriptures do refer to God's revelation in nature and God's revelation in Scripture (as, for example, in Psalm 19), there is no Baconian divide between the two. God's truth is a unity: whatever is revealed in nature or in the Scriptures forms a harmonious whole. Whilst the Scriptures reveal truths not found in nature, it also reveals truths which are. Knowing God, the author of all truth, is our starting point. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge (Proverbs 1:7); Jesus said, "I am the Way and the Truth and the Life" (John 14:6).
Scripture informs us that God has designed all aspects of his creation. The sun is designed to provide light during the day, and the moon and stars illuminate the night sky. The Earth is a prepared planet - suited for the living things which God has created. In Job 38-41, God presents Job with a series of mental images relating to the animate and inanimate creation, pointing out that he is responsible for it all. For example, in 39:13-18, God directs Job's attention to the ostrich. What delightful images are here, as we think of her wings flapping joyfully - she flaps because she is happy, and is not frustrated because she is without flight. She cannot soar like the stork, for she has not been designed for this purpose. Instead, she has quite a different life style. See her laying her eggs in a hollow in the sand and leaving them to hatch using the heat of the sun: not for her is the business of brooding over them. She does not seem to care that they might become damaged as they are trampled underfoot by some wild animal. This is a strange feature of God's creation, for "He did not endow her with wisdom or give her a share of good sense". Nevertheless, she is not without compensating features - for when she sets out to run, "she laughs at horse and rider". Here are explicit references to God's design - and we need to do justice to this in a holistic way. It is deficient to look at the ostrich as scientists without recognising that the ostrich has been designed by God so that her behaviour, although apparently curious, is actually coherent and normal. We could go on with biblical citations. One more will suffice: Proverbs 20:12 says: "Ears that hear and eyes that see - the LORD has made them both". These complex sense organs are first designed and then constructed by God.
The classic arguments of Natural Theology are collectively known as the "teleological argument" for God, but they are inadequate because the presuppositions are wrong. We should not be arguing "to God", but we should start with the knowledge of God and develop our thinking "from God". This approach to design can be described as the "inverse teleological approach". We are not starting out with Enlightenment empiricist philosophy, nor are we adopting Bacon's autonomous "Books" - because these offer no methodologies for recognising design. If science is in any way "realist", then such starting points are deficient. They do not lead us to true knowledge about design in creation. We need, instead, a Christian approach to knowledge; a Christian philosophy of science; a Christian foundation for our scholarly activities.
The "design argument" for the existence of God has had a chequered history. It was never rigorously developed even when it was popular, and its demise is entirely predictable, given the autonomy of human reason adopted by the academic establishment. Consequently, the issue is not the simple one of how we handle design in the living world, but the more complex one of addressing fundamentally different perspectives on the nature of science - complex because science is supposed to be a "public" matter, independent of those who contribute to the scientific enterprise.
Christians have taken a number of different approaches to the "design" issue. Although there is diversity, some patterns are recognisable - resulting from different perceptions of the methodologies of science. These differences are being explored in this decade with much more rigour than previously. In particular, Phillip Johnson (1993, 1995) has focused attention on underlying presuppositions in the academic world, particularly the biological sciences. Johnson has identified naturalism as the prevailing orthodoxy among intellectuals, and has been exploring ways of challenging this orthodoxy and developing a Christian alternative. This strategy is a crucial point for Christians to address: do we need a Christian foundation for all scholarly activity, or is there a common platform we can share with non-Christians?
There is a growing consensus that we do need a Christian foundation for science. This may appear to some to be undermining the "public" nature of science. It may be thought that this might alienate Christians from the scientific community. However, others (including the writer) think that such a re-direction is desperately needed. We need to get to the position where we can incorporate God's design and creativity in our science, and where biological information is more than the sending of signals. We are looking for a holistic science, not one which is anorexic because of defective presuppositions about the nature of reality.
Hume, D. 1739. A treatise on human nature. 1961 edition by Doubleday & Co., New York.
Johnson, P.E. 1993. Darwin on Trial (2nd Ed). Inter- Varsity Press, Illinois.
Johnson, P.E. 1995. Reason in the Balance. Inter-Varsity Press, Illinois.
Russell, R. 1985. Natural Theology: is it scriptural? Faith and Thought, 111(2), 171-174.
David J. Tyler (October 1997)