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Am I an Occasionalist? Christian Philosophy Critiques Intelligent Design March 12, 2014

First Things is a magazine I like and find interesting.  Just recently they have come out with a criticism of Intelligent Design by philosopher-scientist Stephen Meredith of the University of Chicago.  He charges that Intelligent Design assumes the philosophy of ‘occasionalism’, which has been expressed by al-Ghazali and al-Razi in the Islamic world, and Nicolas Malebranche in the Christian world.  This belief holds that “create substances cannot themselves be efficient causes.”  I’m wondering whether I am an Occasionalist, since I didn’t know what that was till a few hours ago.

I am not a Young Earth Creationist of the Ken Ham type, and the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky, does not represent my views.  The earth is billions of years old, it goes around the sun, and God can breed as easily as He can create from the dust, and has done so.

Nevertheless I find certain aspects of Meredith’s argument rather puzzling.  I am absolutely an amateur when it comes to theology, philosophy, or science, so maybe I’m just displaying my ignorance.  But if they can’t explain it to me, they can’t explain it to anybody.

As an aside, Meredith declares that “[m]ost, though not all, members of the movement are Christians and, more particularly, Evangelical Protestants.”  I confess to actually knowing some of those people personally, and what is striking about them is that they are mostly either converts to historic Protestantism from Catholicism or in the reverse direction; they have “crossed the Tiber” in one direction or the other.  Few who have been evangelical their entire lives and remain so are involved in the movement.

First, Meredith charges, “they allow that this ‘intelligence’ could be something other than God [an angel or extraterrestrial being, for example].  But its being anything other than God would immediately raise the question of how such a being had arisen. . . . Though reluctant to use the word, they are talking about the God of monotheism, and mainly the God of Christianity.” Since most of them are Christians, this is probably so. But the Jewish God could do the same thing, as could the Muslim [though the Muslim god has much less of a sense of purpose].  And if the ‘angel’ that actually created the world was itself created, maybe it’s “angels all the way up,” just like that culture that held that the world rode on a back of a turtle.  When asked what the turtle rode on the back of, a local philosopher is supposed to have said, “Young man, it’s turtles all the way down.”  There was a philosophy, called Gnosticism or Catharism, that explained the fallenness of the world not by human rebellion, but by the theory that God delegated the creation of the world to a rebellious being, called the Demiurge, and then, not being the Creator of matter, intervened in Jesus to save us from the Demiurge and the world He did not create.  This God was the God revealed in the New Testament; Gnostics generally held, in the face of many statements by Jesus Himself, that the God of the Old Testament was in fact the Demiurge.

The irony is that ‘Christian Darwinists’ tend to approach Catharism in all but name; the evolutionary process takes the place, not of God, but of the Gnostic Demiurge, and God is not, for practical purposes, Creator, but only Redeemer, and what He redeems us from is not just sin but the limits of the created order.  This of course is not what Scripture says at all.  All Christians believe in intelligent design with a small ‘I’ and a small ‘d’, though they have every right to critique the particular philosophy called Intelligent Design.

Meredith also charges that Intelligent Design “suppose that natural law, which is the basis for science, operates most of the time but is periodically suspended, as in the Cambrian ‘explosion’ and the origin of life itself.”  Well, yes.  The very concept of a miracle, and I admit to following C. S. Lewis on this, is just exactly that.  As he argues, even Judaism and Islam could survive without the miraculous, but Christianity cannot, for the Gospel is precisely the story of a ‘Grand Miracle’.  But for miracles to be miraculous, they must be, by nature, not normative; and it was because Christians believe in a normative process that took place [though the normative process is just as much in God as the miraculous] all the rest of the time, that modern science was able to develop in a Christian culture.  A hyper-Pentecostal culture, such as seems to prevail in some portions of the African church, makes the miraculous normative [or it would be normative if we had enough faith] and I believe that if that had been the prevailing form of Christianity, that science would not have arisen.  I extend this to believing that God’s revealing specific information to people [“there is someone in the third row with a kidney problem”] or specific marching orders [“you are to give eleven thousand dollars to this particular cause or ministry”] is miraculous, and while it can occur today, it is not normative or the normal way for Christians to deal with these situations.  So maybe that makes me an Occasionalist.  At the same time, I don’t consider ‘answered prayer’ to be miraculous; and I distinguish between two levels of God’s non-miraculous activity in the world, the ‘interventionist’ where He steers events to an obvious end without doing miracles: and the ‘karmic’ or ‘natural consequences’ where He lets nature take its course in a less active way.

Meredith declares that Intelligent Design “does not credit natural or physical law with enough causal power to enact evolution on its own and educes supernatural causes to do most of the heavy lifting in worldly events.”  No, Intelligent Design says that evolution does take place, and can give us varying finch beaks in the Galapagos, for example, not to mention dark skins in Africa and almond-shaped eyes in East Asia [at this point even the most fundamental of fundamentalists accept evolution]; but the living cell is a piece of information technology, as we are discovering, and unguided evolution would have a very difficult time producing such a thing, and the assumption that it ‘must have’ done so is a theological assumption, not a scientific one.  Similarly life doesn’t ‘evolve’ from lifelessness by natural selection.  I would reaffirm here that any ‘designer’ can breed as well as create from scratch.  Humans have been biological designers.  The French Poodle would not have appeared by natural selection in the wilderness.  And yet the French Poodle was not created in a test tube.

Note that I use the word ‘evolution’ here to mean ‘common descent’, by the way, not ‘fully natural unguided selection’, because I am convinced that ‘common descent’ is what the word ‘evolution’ means to the general public.  And when talking to the public, we should find out what words mean to the public.  I know that ‘evolution’ means something different to most scientists.

Meredith asks, “A first critique starts with the question, posed by Leibniz, of whether a design that continually needs readjustment and intervention is a design at all.”  Well, who said anything about ‘needing’ readjustment and intervention, outside the context of human rebellion?  I doubt that the single cell organisms before the Cambrian explosion thought the planet ‘needed readjustment’ in the form of the explosion, nor that the dinosaurs thought that the planet ‘needed readjustment’ by an asteroid crashing into Yucatan, nor that the great game animals and gorillas of Africa thought that the earth ‘needed readjustment’ by endowing one primate species with the Image of God.  As for Leibniz’s clocks, it sounds more like the deed of an imperfect Demiurge to build two clocks that get out of sync with each other apart from deliberate rebellion in the mechanism.  As Meredith says later, “If an omnipotent God has created nature, one must ask why one should not then posit nature as capable of causing natural events on its own steam rather than requiring intervention.”  Well, nobody said that natural events don’t happen on their own steam, and who says the interventions were ‘required’?  Required by whom or what?

Meredith informs us, “As to religion, Judaism and Christianity affirm the occurrence of miracles, but divine interventions occur within a particular religious context.”  I am mystified, I confess, as to what a “religious context” is, as opposed to a ‘non-religious context’.  Are there two kinds of contexts in the world, religious and non-religious?  And who are we, who were not there to take notes, to say that the Cambrian explosion was not a “religious context”?  I must say I cannot imagine any way of knowing what kind of context the Cambrian explosion was in.  It is possible that “religious contexts” could mean “contexts relating to redemption rather than creation” but if that’s the case, see Catharism, above.

Meredith concludes by an extended philosophical discussion of the “The Problem of Pain,” as C. S. Lewis called it in a book saying, probably rightly, that “such answers cannot come from science.”  I am not sure why that is a problem for Intelligent Design.  In a way the ‘problem of pain’ is the opposite side of the issue of miracles, about which Lewis also wrote a book.  The issue of the ‘problem of pain’ is in many ways the issue of “why are there not miracles all the time, on demand?”  [I was skeptical of miracles in my youth, because I am prone to lose keys and things like that and God wouldn’t levitate them to me; if miracles happen, how come I ain’t getting any?]  But any system other than Young Earth six day creation would have to deal with the fact that nature was “red in tooth and claw” before humankind’s rebellion.  [Of course, we don’t know when Satan rebelled in natural history.]  So that’s just as much an issue in any form of “theistic evolution” as well.

It’s also clear that the Fall itself is a theological issue that Intelligent Design really can’t say much about and yet is vitally important.  The competing philosophies are:

1. Humankind was endowed with the divine nature, and then rebelled. [Christianity]
2. Humankind did fall, but not in such a way as to need outside redemption [Judaism and Islam]
3. Humankind didn’t fall, because humankind never “rose” to begin with.  [most evolutionary theory]
4. Humankind is naturally good [some forms of humanism]

I’m not sure that Intelligent Design or any other form of science can really tackle this issue. A good friend of mine is one of the major writers for the Intelligent Design movement, and he has in his house a treadmill and other exercise equipment.  I like to tease him, saying, “If ID is true, why do you have to do this?  Couldn’t an intelligent God have designed us so that our daily activity in a technological society – and obviously He knew we would develop one – would be enough to keep us healthy without all these workouts and treadmill runs?” He just smiles and says something about the Fall.

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