In my last post, I asked why the author of Search Judaism had devoted so much effort to debunking evolution. This isn’t his personal crusade: delegitimizing and ridiculing evolution is common in the frum world, and attempting to disprove it is a Creationist obsession. Last night I came across a short lecture by Daniel Dennet that helped me understand why.
He made the point that absent an alternative, it seems foolish to assert that something that shows every sign of being carefully planned and designed in fact arose by itself. We live in a world with a coherent explanation of how that can happen, so to us it seems obvious that even if evolution were to turn out to be the wrong explanation, we would find a different, naturalistic explanation for the appearance of design in nature. In a world that had never had such an explanation presented, accepting the Watchmaker Argument seems the more rational position.
The universe appears designed. We must account for that. It makes more sense to say it was designed then to say that design arose accidentally, by itself. Sure, there are problems with the Watchmaker Argument, but most people aren’t interested in philosophy and don’t know about them. Even for those that do, it still may seem more reasonable to assume some guiding force designed the universe. In the absence of any alternatives, that force was assumed to be some sort of deity.
What the theory of evolution does is posit a guiding force that is wholly materialistic, mechanistic, and devoid of intelligence or intent.
The debunking of evolution, then, is never intended to “prove” God’s existence. It is instead meant to remove evolution as a viable alternative. If evolution is not the cause of the appearance of design in the universe, then that design must be accounted for. There must be some force that caused that design. In the absence of any alternatives, that force is assumed to be some sort of deity.
That there is still no evidence for God’s existence is beside the point. The point is that there must be some guiding force, and we intuitively assume that such a force must be intelligent. Intelligent force designing the universe = God. To the theist making the argument, the alternative seems to be that it all just happened randomly, which is clearly ridiculous. The argument that there might be some other, wholly physical force at work which accounts for the design we see seems to be just a placeholder. In his mind, the atheist is saying, “I have no idea why the universe seems designed, but I refuse to believe in God, so I’m just going to say that somehow it happened.”
[An interesting thing about framing the argument as a debate over what the force that produced design in the universe is is that it sets up evolution as a direct rival to God, which may be one reason why the religious see it as so threatening.]
I came across the following paragraph in The Evolution of God by Robert Wright, and I think sums up nicely what I was getting at in this post:
Darwinians who are atheists have been known to celebrate the failure of Paley’s explanation. They love to note how futile this attempt to empirically argue for the existence of God turned out to be. What they tend not to emphasize is that Paley was half right. The complex functionality of an organism does demand a special kind of explanation. It seems clear that hearts are here in some sense in order to pump blood, that digestive systems are here in order to digest food, that brains are here in order to (among other things) help organisms find food to digest. Rocks, in contrast, don’t seem to be here in order to do anything. The kinds of forces that created a rock just don’t seem likely to be the kinds of forced that would create an organism. It takes a special kind of force to do that – a force like natural selection.