(And Then I Wrote…)
Since this site began more than six years ago, every Thursday I have been publishing a reprint from my column “Across the Universe” in the British Catholic journal, The Tablet. I have finally gone through all of them (except for 2019’s columns) and I’ve even re-published a few of the oldest ones that came out here before our readership had grown.
In order to let my backlog build up a bit, I am taking “Across the Universe” offline for 2020. Instead, I am republishing a selection of other articles that I have written an published in various places… often obscure.
Interview and Response: At an early Astrobiology conference (in 2005), the NASA online magazine Astrobiology did an interview of me; here’s what they ran: (Click Here for the version on their site)
After this ran, someone wrote to me challenging me on a few of my points and wanting to know just what it was I meant… looking through my files I found the following, which it appears that I actually did send something in reply to them. The letter itself is long lost, so I have no idea whom it was I was replying to!
Here’s what I prepared to send them:
[In order to read the rest of this post, you have to be a paid-up member of Sacred Space, and logged in as such!]
I’m delighted to read that you’ve enjoyed (if were somewhat puzzled by) the Astrobiology interview. Even the puzzlement is a good thing, I guess… as any fan of Chesterton should appreciate!
Let’s see if I can expand a bit on that brief interview…
The first, and most important point (indeed the only important point) is that any attempt to use science to “prove” God puts science in the driver’s seat; it makes science more powerful than religion as a route to truth. Now, I am a scientist and I love science; but I know its limits. That isn’t science.
About thumbprints: It’s always tricky trying to argue though analogies. Analogies do not prove anything; but they can illustrate a point one is trying to make. I am not trying to prove anything here, just illustrate. The thumbprint analogy (which is not originally mine) is kind of curious, since it implies that a God who left evidence of His activity in His handiwork would have to do so by leaving behind something that is “big and greasy and obvious” – in other words, a disfiguring flaw. I think that’s a telling point; it seems un-God-like. But I would hate to carry it further and say that my “it’s all thumbprints” line implies that all the universe is greasy!
Let me try another analogy, then. Can one part of the ocean feel “wetter” than another?
But, abandoning analogies for the moment, let’s get to the heart of one of the problems in some versions of Intelligent Design. The job of science is to explain how the universe works. I would say, my religion tells me that God made the universe; science is supposed to tell me how He did it.
Science starts with the assumption that this “how” can be expressed in rational, testable, repeatable steps. God in His creation defined the laws of physics, the natural constants, the rules of probability, including wild cards like the fact that unlikely events are possible (but not too likely!) and the biggest wild card of all, the possibility of creatures existing with free will, motivated by love.
Now, if you insist that the human eye (to take one favorite example) was too complicated to be made in the normal course of physics, so that at this point the Omnipotent had to pull some strings, then you are implying that His original design was flawed. If you say (as I would) that the potential for the human eye was present within the laws of the universe from the moment of the Big Bang, then the job of science is to trace out the route by which those laws led to the human eye. Tracing such paths, incidentally, is a delightful experience, and provides the kind of joy that is suspiciously reminiscent of prayer. (This indeed is one of the ways that God can be known through reason.) But some versions of ID would deny us the challenge of trying to trace out those paths, and thus deny us that joy. And it would imply that the Creator was an inept, or at least not-very-intelligent, designer.
There is a deeper issue. The argument about the existence of evil, which I admit I didn’t make clearly (for the simple reason that it’s not entirely clear in my mind!) was meant to remind us that one of the delights of Catholic theology is its rejection of determinism and predestination. We are not puppets, with every atom of our being and every atom of the universe tied to a string, controlled by a puppeteer God. We know we have free will, which makes possible not only evil but also the greater good that comes from our better choices. God has chosen to allow the possibility of evil (which He does not will) in order to allow the possibility of something even greater, namely love, which is possible only as the result of a free choice.
If God allows freedom in our choices, what other things in the universe are “allowed” rather than controlled? I don’t know… which is of course a delicious state for a scientist to be in! As far as well can tell with our limited understanding of how the universe works, it seems that much of it can be explained in terms of cause and effect (i.e. controlled by the starting conditions) but that at the same time at some level there is also built into the universe places where pure chance are allowed to operate. To what extent can we see this as God giving even inanimate atoms a kind of “free will”? I don’t know. I think it’s a fun question to ponder!
This is most certainly not Deism (though you’re right, that’s always a danger of going too far in overreacting to ID). I have experienced myself the love of that personal God who is intimately involved in my life and who does indeed respond to prayer. Nor is it in any sense a “two truths” concept (where did you get that out of what I said? Ouch!)
The whole issue of how God acts in the universe is an ongoing, fertile field of modern theology. There is not “an answer”; rather, there is a wide range of lovely paradoxes in the universe that we can observe and enjoy reflecting on.