Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Christopher Hitchens on "Arguments from Design"

I am reading God is not Great by Christopher Hitchens. The purpose of his book is not to eradicate religion, but to bolster the atheist position in public discourse. Religious conversation, writes Hitchens, is “the beginning—but not the end—of all arguments about philosophy, science, history, and human nature. It is also the beginning—but by no means the end—of all disputes about the good life and the just city.”

In chapter six, “Arguments from Design,” Hitchens tackles the Christian assertion that apparent design in nature proves that there is a Designer, namely God. Personally, I think David Hume and Karl Barth killed this horse, but Hitchens gives its corpse quite a beating.

Though argued throughout history, the argument from design was most famously articulated by William Paley in his fictional account of a primitive person finding a watch washed up on shore. Even though he has never seen a watch before, nor does he know its function, he concludes that there has to be a watchmaker—that the pieces did not randomly come together and form a watch. In the same way, we look at the delicate balance of life-sustaining forces in the world, and how each species seems perfectly designed to thrive in its environment, and conclude that someone must have designed this place we call earth.

Hitchens turns this argument on its head, pointing out all of the flaws in the world—vestigial organs, natural disasters, and adaptations that favor one species over another. God may have designed gazelles with the ability to outrun lions and thus survive, but why didn’t he just design lions vegetarian?

Hitchens writes in response to the inventions argument:

We know the answers in all cases: these were painstaking inventions (also by trial and error) of mankind, and were the work of many hands, and are still ‘evolving.’ That is what makes piffle out of the ignorant creationist sneer, which compares evolution to a whirlwind blowing through a junkyard of parts and coming up with a jumbo jet. For a start, there are no ‘parts’ lying around waiting to be assembled. For another thing, the process of acquisition and discarding of ‘parts’ (most especially wings) is far from a whirlwind as could conceivably be. The time involved is more like that of a glacier than a storm. For still another thing, jumbo jets are not riddled with nonworking or superfluous ‘parts’ lamely inherited from less successful aircraft. Why have we agreed so easily to call this exploded old nontheory by its cunningly chosen new disguise of ‘intelligent design’? There is nothing at all ‘intelligent’ about it. It is the same old mumbo-jumbo (or in this instance, jumbo-mumbo).
I see three major arguments in this chapter: (1) design does not demand a Designer, (2) our imperfect world would have to have been designed by an imperfect or inept Designer, and (3) the theory of evolution more accurately explains the world around us than does intelligent design.

I want to say up front that the evolution/creation debate is not one that I enjoy. I think Christians spend way too much time on it and my interests lie elsewhere.

Design does not demand a Designer. Hitchens’ first point is true. The argument from design is not the best Christian apologetic. In his Dialogues concerning Natural Religion, David Hume points out that analogies are only as strong as the things compared are similar. Analogies comparing dissimilar objects are not as strong. For instance, when older students lament “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks,” I always tell them, “But you’re not a dog and you’re not learning tricks.” Dissimilarities between objects compared make analogies weak.

The question David Hume asks is, How similar is a watch to the cosmos? Therefore, How strong is the analogy of the watch? Not very.

Another weakness of the argument from design is the holiness of God. God is unlike anything else in creation. What can we possibly learn about a holy God from what is created? Even Romans 1:19–20 limits “natural theology” to “eternal power” and “deity.” (And nowhere does Paul say that “design” is the basis of this knowledge.) Karl Barth argued that God is only known through Jesus Christ—God made flesh. I wouldn’t go that far—I think God reveals himself in other ways, too—but I do not think that the Christian God is intuitive from nature. We need special revelation.

The theory of evolution more accurately explains the world around us than does intelligent design. I think this is a bit of a non sequitur, since evolution and design are not mutually exclusive. Plenty of Christians accept the theory of evolution as the means by which God differentiated the species. The question of origins and the question of the differentiation of the species are two distinct questions. I am not a scientist, and like I said, I really don’t care much about evolution, but I don’t think its incompatible with my worldview and I’m not losing any sleep over it.

Our imperfect world would have to have been designed by an imperfect or inept Designer. This point is the most interesting—does an imperfect creation demand an imperfect god? On one level, I would have to say yes. I actually talked about this last Sunday. If this world is all that there is, than we have to conclude that an all-loving, all-powerful, all-knowing God does not exist.

On another level, I have to say no. Christians also believe that the world is not as it should be, and that God is in the process of reconciling it. We have a theological category for “things not operating according to divine intent.” Imperfections and even atrocities are to be expected in the current state of the world (see Matthew 13:24–30 and Jesus’ Parable of the Wheat and Weeds).

While I usually don’t use the argument from design in explaining to people why I am a Christian, I do think it has some value in apologetics. I have heard (but again, I am not a scientist, so I can’t properly evaluate these claims) that the probability of matter randomly coming together to create life is so remote that it is a scientific absurdity. This is why most scientists do not think that there is life on other planets—the probability of it happening randomly is too remote. Further, Hitchens laughs off arguments from irreducible complexity, but they are a damaging critique of the theory of evolution. The best counter I have heard from a scientist to the argument from irreducible complexity is “just because we don’t know how it happened doesn’t mean we won’t know some day.” Fair enough.

No comments: