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Trust the science, not the scientists

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Apr 16, 2024

In boxing, when one fighter becomes unable to protect himself, the referee stops the fight and declares a technical knockout (TKO). The same system might profitably be applied to public debates: When one side has been so thoroughly pummeled that the issue is no longer in doubt, someone should step in, declare a TKO, and preserve what remains of the loser’s dignity.

That thought crossed my mind as I read God’s Grandeur: The Catholic Case for Intelligent Design, a collection of essays by scientists and philosophers dismantling the claims that the universe came into being, and mankind evolved, through a process of random chance. Those claims, the authors demonstrate, are both scientifically and philosophically untenable—not to mention incompatible with Christian faith.

In her introductory chapter, editor Ann Gauger quotes the noted atheist Richard Dawkins to summarize the view that the book opposes:

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.

Contrast that bleak appraisal of our situation with the warmth and confidence expressed in Psalm 8:

When I look at thy heavens, the work of Thy fingers,
The moon and the stars which Thou has established;
What is man that Thou are mindful of him,
And the son of man that Thou dost care for him?
Yet Thou hast made him little less than God,
And dost crown him with glory and honor.

Needless to say the latter vision is more inviting. But as God’s Grandeur shows, the Psalmist’s approach is also more logical. It is King David, not Richard Dawkins, whose view of the universe matches neatly with the established facts.

The staunch materialist insists that our world is the result of random chance—of gases that burn and cool and form new elements that cluster together to form stars and planets and mountains and fields; of chemicals that inexplicably produce life forms that evolve through mutation and natural selection. These explanations of our situation are theoretically possible, but are they realistic?

Consider, first, that the materialistic explanation does not account for the existence of matter itself. Yes, there is the origin of the universe in the Big Bang. But what banged? Before that primal explosion there had to be something to explode. Why?

Next consider the likelihood that a series of random changes would produce our world and the creatures that inhabit it. The odds against that outcome are astronomical. And I use the term “astronomical” advisedly, because only astronomers typically deal with numbers large enough to express the odds against the materialist explanation. These are not one-in-a-million possibilities, or even one-in-a-trillion. At several points in God’s Grandeur, authors struggle to express a number large enough to convey the odds against the random appearance of just one of the thousands of different conditions that are necessary to sustain life on earth.

The same implausibility—and more—damages the credibility of strictly materialist Darwinian evolution. The evolution of a functioning eye, for instance, would require several steps, theoretically involving random genetic mutations. But no one of these mutations would provide a reproductive advantage in the absence of the others, so “survival of the fittest” will not explain the progression.

Or take a simpler form, the bacterial flagellum. In his essay Jay Richards notes that the flagellum “requires 153 independent mutations to happen simultaneously. None of them individually and no subset provides the bacterium a survival advantage, so an unguided Darwinian process… would almost certainly never accomplish this goal.”

However, as Richards and other contributors show us, a guided process could achieve the result that we see before us. Thus their shared belief that the universe in general, and human life in particular, are the products of intelligent design. This belief is not the rejection of a scientific approach; on the contrary it is an embrace of science, in the sense that it uses the evidence presented by nature to reach a reasoned conclusion. As another contributor, Ben Wiker, puts it, “the more we know about nature, the more we realize how deeply intelligible it is, hence the more powerfully we demonstrate the existence of God.”

By the way, Wiker also answers the question that will loom in many readers’ minds: If science so clearly shows God’s handiwork, why do so many scientists fail to believe? Wiker points to the example of Joseph Priestley, a scientist of the very first rank, who is generally credited with the discovery of oxygen. In actual fact, Priestley discovered the evidence that oxygen exists, but adamantly refused to believe it, because his religious faith prompted him to defend the phlogiston theory of combustion. Old beliefs die hard, and scientists clinging to old theories often dismiss the evidence that is before their eyes.

In his essay, Jay Richards explores another reason why scientists resist the appeal of intelligent design: because they are committed to an understanding of scientific inquiry that systematically excludes anything that might hint at religious faith. That understanding was crucial to the development of the theory of evolution, Richards notes:

Darwin’s argument in the Origin of Species, unlike most scientific theories, employed theological “God wouldn’t do things this way” assertions throughout. At the same time, he treated the alternative to his theory (i.e. special Creation) as not a properly scientific theory. His argument was thus an incongruous mixture of an appeal to theological premises and a plea to keep theology out of science.

Fast-forward to today’s debates, in which a cadre of Christian scientists argue that the theory of evolution might be reconciled with reality—all those preposterously long odds might be shortened—by the recognition that God guided the evolutionary process. While it is perfectly logical, that argument fails on a practical level, contributor Bruce Chapman explained: “The Darwinists are happy to accept this practical surrender, since the ‘God did it’ part is never to be mentioned in any serious science class.”

Earlier I suggested that the debate between materialistic evolution and intelligent design is a mismatch, and the referee should stop the fight. Unfortunately the referees have stepped in, but not by awarding a victory to intelligent design by a TKO. Instead the referees—the editors of scientific journals, the executives who control foundation funding, the government bureaucrats who set research standards, the educators who approve scientific curricula—have ensured that the arguments for intelligent design are shut out of the mainstream debate. For now.

But as John Adams memorably observed, “Facts are stubborn things.” The facts cannot be reconciled with a purely materialistic understanding of our universe and our lives. Today the theory of intelligent design is not deemed acceptable, but then Galileo’s theory was not readily accepted in his day. It is not an easy thing to move the scientific consensus. Nevertheless it moves.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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  • Posted by: feedback - Apr. 17, 2024 5:42 AM ET USA

    "But what banged?" - this is a TKO! Dismissing God from human history would also require dismissal of the fulfillment of prophecies. But they exist as historical facts, spectacularly confirmed with the 1947 Qumran discoveries of the scrolls of Isaiah. In the readings of last Sunday, from the Acts and the Gospel, St. Peter and the Risen Lord explained the suffering, death, and Resurrection of Christ not as random events but as a long-planned and prophesied divine intervention in human history.

  • Posted by: garedawg - Apr. 17, 2024 2:04 AM ET USA

    Years ago when I was starting a position in the Bioengineering Department at the university, the old guy at the counter who was handling some of my paperwork said, "Bioengineering? When you get to be my age, you'll realize that whoever engineered the human body didn't do a very good job!"