Blessed Cardinal Newman was uncomfortable with the argument that the wonderful and intricate design of natural beings was proof of God’s existence. “I believe in design because I believe in God; not in a God because I see design”, he wrote in a letter to a friend.
I dislike intelligent design theories in all shapes and forms. It is true that for the religious scientist, it is hard not to be inspired by the wonderful discoveries of the intricacy with which the natural world functions. My own area of expertise is biochemistry, and the complexity of the metabolic chemistry that harvests energy from the wide variety of foods that we eat and converts it into what our bodies need to function has never stopped to amaze me.
But is our metabolism designed, like a machine is designed? Certainly not. Living beings are not at all like machines. Living beings have an inner unity that machines don’t have. Machines are little more than collections of parts, each of which can be understood in isolation.
Living beings, however, can only be understood as interconnected wholes. It is a very slow and frustrating process trying to understand them by first studying parts and then relationships between them. This is the reason why metabolic diseases such as Type 2 Diabetes are so exceptionally hard to understand and cure. This simply cannot be explained by just one defective part that needs to be found and repaired.
The Intelligent Design movement attempts to convince me that certain structures are so intricate and complex that they cannot have evolved out of simpler structures. I do not at all believe this. There are so many complex structures whose evolutionary origins are now understood that I consider open questions nothing more than exiting challenges for future researchers. The fun and excitement in science is not in knowing the answer to every question, but in the process of discovery of an answer to a problem that seemed impossible to solve. The religious conviction of a scientist is nourished by the success of this process, not its failure, and the constant re-discovery that the universe is intelligible.
There is another argument from design that is attractive to those who consider Intelligent Design too scientifically naive. It is the anthropic principle, or the discovery that our universe seems fine-tuned for the formation of life. However, while this argument is considered more respectable, I do not embrace it. As our physical understanding of the origin of the universe continues, we may find a theory that explains why our universe is the way it is. The reason that our universe has the peculiar properties that it has is a reason for wonder and gratitude, but it is also a challenge to seek further understanding of how the universe came about.
Nevertheless, I believe that science and the Christian faith belong together. They both speak of human knowledge of reality. Science looks at causes that allow the simple to become the complex. Understanding the complex, the whole, the living persons in our world; this is where theology must be our guide.
But never send a theologian to do a scientist’s work. Or vice versa, I suppose. But then, at least I am trying to become a theologian in addition to being a scientist, and hopefully my readers will excuse me for conducting my theological learning in public.