During my romantic stroll through Uncommon Descent many weeks ago, I was struck by one of the recurring claims of some of the residents of that asylum. The claim is that “design” in nature is what a Christian should expect to see, based on some basic biblical pronouncements concerning God and his creation. Here’s an example, from a comment in a thread bashing “theistic evolutionists:”
As Psalm 19 instructs us, “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.” And, of course we read in Romans 1:20, that the invisible things are clearly seen “being understood by the things that are visible.”
Now I would expect even a mainstream Christian to take these passages seriously, but a “devout” Christian ought to be downright passionate about them. According to St. Paul, design is a self-evident truth, so much so, that a Christian, agnostic, cynic, or anyone else who questions it is “without excuse.” What can we say, then, of those who, in fact, don’t believe it at all and yet publicize their Christianity for strategic advantage.
Pretty inflammatory stuff, actually, and we can look some other time at the way in which this fellow is badly twisting the intention of those scriptural passages. Here I’d like to explore the basic idea that we ought to expect certain things in a universe that is or isn’t designed or otherwise directed by God.
People of all sorts of persuasions seem to think this way. Creationists like Hugh Ross at Reasons To Believe claim to believe that the properties of creation are just like the Bible says they should be, cooking up painfully contrived comparisons between the expansion of the universe and the Ancient Near Eastern (and biblical) cosmology of a firmament “spread out like a tent.” Design proponents like David Snoke have published arguments that are indistinguishable from the UD comment above. Consider what Snoke wrote in a 2001 article in Perspectives on Science & Christian Faith (the official journal of the ASA):
Both theism and atheism are theories that make falsifiable predictions about things we should see in the realm of science. Specifically, the atheist theory predicts that we should find a mechanism by which all life could have arisen as the result of many simple, uncorrelated causes; Christianity says that the world is explained by a unifying Purpose, and expects that the hand of God should be evident in the world around us (Rom. 1:20).
And what is the evidence we expect to see?
The present “gap” in the atheistic theory comes from a successful prediction of the theistic theory, that we should expect evidence for exquisite fine-tuning and apparent design.
Richard Dawkins has clear expectations as well. This famous quote is occasionally misattributed to Darwin:
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.
That’s from River Out of Eden.
Now, I’m not convinced that any of these people knows what they really ought to expect. It’s obviously way too easy to report, post hoc, that everything you’ve just seen is just precisely the way you thought it should be. We humans are famously prone to such elaborate rationalization, and I think we should be suspicious of such confident assertions regarding the expected properties of the whole bloody cosmos. Snoke, at least, admits that the jury is out, but he makes it clear that he expects a certain kind of universe.
So am I the only one who is agnostic on all of this? My position is radically different from Ross’s and Snoke’s, and surely accounts for much of the incompatibility between my approach and that of the ID movement. I maintain that Christians ought not assume much of anything about the structure or governance of the cosmos, because God created it and governs it without restraint. He is free to proceed as He sees fit, and for me to assume that it must unfold in a certain way is to decree that He cannot or should not proceed in other ways. This, to me, is ludicrous and blasphemous.
(Of course, if God has specified certain modes or preferences regarding biological creation or anything else, then it’s reasonable to ascribe those preferences to Him. He hasn’t done that, and this is clear when considering the general nature of the biblical passages – Psalm 19, Romans 1 – that are always quoted by creationists and ID proponents in this context.)
Similarly, I just can’t take seriously Richard Dawkins’ claim that the universe has “precisely” the characteristics that he would expect. Whether a universe ruled by “blind pitiless indifference” would look like this one, I don’t know, and neither does he. As popular discourse on the Problem of Evil, I guess it works as well as anything else, but his blatant assertion about the “properties we should expect” is pure bluster. (Imagine.)
What kind of universe did you expect when you got here?