Physicist Stephen Barr on Natural Theology vs. William Dembski’s “Intelligent Design”

At First Things this week, University of Delaware physicist Stephen Barr has written an exceptionally clear-headed critique of Intelligent Design (ID)—contextualizing it beautifully. The essay really needs to be read in full, but here’s a taste:

The emphasis in early Christian writings was not on complexity, irreducible or otherwise, but on the beauty, order, lawfulness, and harmony found in the world that God had made. As science advances, it brings this beautiful order ever more clearly into view. Every photograph from the Hubble Space Telescope, every picture from the ocean’s depths, every discovery in subatomic physics, shows it forth. As Calvin wrote in his Institutes of the Christian Religion, “God [has] manifested himself in the formation of every part of the world, and daily presents himself to public view, in such manner, that they cannot open their eyes without being constrained to behold him.” And, “[W]ithersoever you turn your eyes, there is not an atom of the world in which you cannot behold some brilliant sparks at least of his glory. . . . You cannot at one view take a survey of this most ample and beautiful machine [the universe] in all its vast extent, without being completely overwhelmed with its infinite splendor” [emphasis mine]. Note that “atoms of the world” are not irreducibly complex, nor is “every part of the world.” Irreducible complexity has never been the central principle of traditional natural theology.

But whereas the advance of science continually strengthens the broader and more traditional version of the design argument, the ID movement’s version is hostage to every advance in biological science. Science must fail for ID to succeed. In the famous “explanatory filter” of William A. Dembski, one finds “design” by eliminating “law” and “chance” as explanations. This, in effect, makes it a zero-sum game between God and nature. What nature does and science can explain is crossed off the list, and what remains is the evidence for God. This conception of design plays right into the hands of atheists, whose caricature of religion has always been that it is a substitute for the scientific understanding of nature.

For myself, I still don’t think that the traditional natural theology argument for God’s existence (which Barr favors) is all that much better than Dembski’s ID apologetics. But I do like its poetics: the universe is often mind-boggling in its beauty and suffused with an apparent harmony that bespeaks of some sort of telos behind it.  But traditional natural theology still runs up against the seemingly intractable perplexities of theodicy, which Monty Python so concisely and disconcertingly demonstrates here:

But this also seems to be true:

I’m confused. Here’s a poem (Jack Gilbert’s “A Brief for the Defense”):

Sorrow everywhere. Slaughter everywhere. If babies
are not starving someplace, they are starving
somewhere else. With flies in their nostrils.
But we enjoy our lives because that’s what God wants.
Otherwise the mornings before summer dawn would not
be made so fine. The Bengal tiger would not
be fashioned so miraculously well. The poor women
at the fountain are laughing together between
the suffering they have known and the awfulness
in their future, smiling and laughing while somebody
in the village is very sick. There is laughter
every day in the terrible streets of Calcutta,
and the women laugh in the cages of Bombay.
If we deny our happiness, resist our satisfaction,
we lessen the importance of their deprivation.
We must risk delight. We can do without pleasure,
but not delight. Not enjoyment. We must have
the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless
furnace of this world. To make injustice the only
measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.
If the locomotive of the Lord runs us down,
we should give thanks that the end had magnitude.
We must admit there will be music despite everything.
We stand at the prow again of a small ship
anchored late at night in the tiny port
looking over to the sleeping island: the waterfront
is three shuttered cafés and one naked light burning.
To hear the faint sound of oars in the silence as a rowboat
comes slowly out and then goes back is truly worth
all the years of sorrow that are to come.

From REFUSING HEAVEN (Knopf, 2005)

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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1 Response to Physicist Stephen Barr on Natural Theology vs. William Dembski’s “Intelligent Design”

  1. Pingback: Stephen Barr on God and Science | Prometheus Unbound

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