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A scientist and Christian talks about Intelligent Design

Professor David Goldney is a committed Christian and a practising scientist. He is a Visiting Professor at the University of Sydney, Orange Campus, an Adjunct Professor at Charles Sturt University and an environmental consultant. During 2006 he spoke at All Saints' Cathedral's monthly Lunch and Learn program on the subject of Intelligent Design (ID). The following is an edited transcript of his address, and is reproduced here with his permission:

The basic premise of Intelligent Design is that in creation, there are some things that are so complex that we can only invoke an external agent to account for them. Such things might be the human eye - such a complex organ that it's almost impossible for us to conceive of how it could evolve or come about other than by some special act of creation.

The proponents of Intelligent Design would argue that there is a level of complexity that science simply cannot account for.

My own personal view is that it's a load of bunkum, and it's a retreat into old ways of thinking - but nevertheless there are many intelligent Christians who adopt this notion, and are very vociferously arguing that it should be introduced into schools.

ID is really about saying that science cannot explain some things, particularly some things that some scientists say can be eventually explained.

ID has a sister organisation called Creation Science, which is an extraordinarily strong sub-culture in Christendom which is very much dominated by evangelical fundamentalists - more from the fundamentalist end than the evangelical end.

If you begin to look at the ID movement, then you quickly begin to realise that the ID movement is taking over where Creation Science was an abject failure. Creation Science has spent decades in trying to have equal time in schools in America, and because of the American constitution has been extraordinarily unsuccessful. It's crept into Australia, mainly in the more fundamentalist churches, and it's certainly creeping into the UK, but predominantly it's an American phenomenon - as ID is.

If you begin to read around ID you begin to suspect that ID is simply a Trojan horse for the Creation Science movement, and I think there is good reason to suggest that is the case. Released on their web site by mistake is a paper on what they call their 'wedge philosophy', and that is that they are trying to produce a wedge into the community to make the community debate this issue about how God fits into a secular society.

ID originated as a short aberration into Christian theology in the late 17th Century and early 18th Century. An English archdeacon - William Paley - was the first one to bring this notion of ID to the fore.

In about 1800 he produced a book (Natural Theology: or, Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity, Collected from the Appearances of Nature) which was basically about ID - an argument which was very alluring and very simple. It was really the concept of God as watchmaker. The idea came from a revolution in Physics in the 17th Century when Newton had described a world that could be seen as 'running like clockwork'. That led to the idea that perhaps there's someone who winds the world up and just lets it go.

Archdeacon Paley picked up this idea from Physics and converted it into the Biological realm.

Basically, he said that if he walked along a beach and found a stone, he could see that the stone was just part of the natural world. But if he walked a bit further along the beach and picked up a watch, he could see that it just hadn't 'happened'. It was a complex design of intricate bits and pieces that had been put together to make the watch, and if he could find other watches then perhaps he could invoke the concept of a watchmaker.

So we have the concept of God as Designer. Not so much God as Creator, which is theologically different, but God as Designer. That idea spread through the English Church like wildfire, but it was an aberration in the English Church only. Very shortly many theologians, not the least being Cardinal Newman, poured contempt on this particular view. By the time Charles Darwin had published his Origin of Species, which revolutionised our understandings of how living things came to be in the world, the idea of ID and God as simply a Watchmaker had more or less disappeared from the English Church. But it was taken up by the non-conformists, particularly the evangelical ones, and is still with us today.

Let's look at some of the limitations of the ID movement.

St Augustine pointed out that if as Christians we look at Scripture and tie it too closely to what we could call the scientific understandings of our day, we might find ourselves short-changed very rapidly.

St Thomas Aquinas spoke of two levels of God's activity, and one level is that when God works, He works through normal processes. This understanding made possible the whole of the contemporary scientific movement.

But perhaps the greatest constraint on ID is that if we cannot understand something - if an issue in the world is of such great complexity - then is it escapism to say, "Well, God did it"? And is it helpful theologically? Well, my answer to that is simply, "No". It's a re-invention of the old theory of 'the God of the gaps'. If we can't understand something, we invoke God - and if we invoke God and then science eventually does explain it, we shrink God to a lesser Being. The God of the gaps is not a very helpful way to go, either theologically or scientifically.

Just think about the absurdity of this whole notion of ID. It's all aimed at explaining how living things come into the world, and to a lesser extent the origin of the universe itself.

But let me put to you - why not introduce into schools the idea of Intelligent Meteorology? That is, there are some things about the weather that we can't explain. Therefore we should opt for another agent to help us explain it.

How, we don't understand everything about the weather, but neither Creation Scientists nor Intelligent Designers nor secular scientists nor everyday people talk about the weather in any other terms than a process that can be understood.

This doesn't mean to say that at one level I cannot say as a Christian, as the Bible says, "God sends the rain". At one level I believe that. At another level I can explain it in terms of normal physical and chemical processes. There are some levels of weather that scientists cannot explain - then they invoke what is called "Chaos Theory". Chaos Theory is the notion that, in the way that some scientists have explained it, a butterfly flapping its wings in the Amazon might in some way impact on the weather in Australia. It suggests that one minor variable can have quite a large impact across the world. We don't invoke God to explain what is currently unexplainable - we come up with another way of looking at it.

Now this is not to debase God in this whole argument. When Darwin published his Origin of Species, on the fly-leaf were the words of another Christian (these Christians keep popping up everywhere in the history of science and the history of evolutionary theory) and the scientist on this occasion was Sir Francis Bacon: 'To conclude, therefore, let no man ... think or maintain that a man can search too far or be too well studied in the book of God's word, or in the book of God's works; divinity or philosophy; but rather let men endeavour an endless progress or proficience in both.'

Basically the idea was that God has two books: He has the book of nature, and He has His word - the Bible, and He gives them both to us. It reminds us that at one level we can be like the Book of Esther: we don't need to mention the name of God, and yet God can be throughout the book very plainly to see, through the eyes of faith. And at another level we can invoke God, not as a watchmaker, but as a continuing Creator - One who lives in and through everything, and sustains the world with His power and through His word, and who suffered with His Creation.

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