November 09, 2009

Nature’s Flaws and Cruelties

In your debate with Francisco Ayala on "Is Intelligent Design Viable?" you responded to his objection that the design flaws and cruel animal behaviors in nature are incompatible with an all-good and all-powerful Designer by distinguishing between the scientific problem and the theological problem posed by this objection. You said that as a scientific objection to a design inference in biology, the objection is irrelevant and that as a theological objection to God's goodness and power it is soluble. You said you had more to say on this subject which time didn't permit. Can you expand on your answer here?


Glad to, Bill! In order to make my remarks intelligible to readers who weren't at the debate, I'll repeat some of what I said there to set the context.

The scientific evidence (e.g., breeding, development of drug resistance, etc.) for the power of the Darwinian mechanisms of random mutation and natural selection to account for the evolution of all living things is surprisingly weak, involving an extraordinary extrapolation from producing limited to universal evolutionary development. So it's not surprising that in order to invalidate a design inference in biology, Ayala quickly turns to philosophical and even theological arguments against the viability of Intelligent Design. In so doing, however, I think he makes a fundamental confusion of science and theology.

Let me explain. Ayala's most important argument against the viability of a design inference in biology is that organisms exhibit certain design flaws and cruel behaviors which exclude their being designed by an all-powerful, all-good God. Now this is a classic theological problem known as theodicy. Volumes have been written about it. The problem of so-called "natural evil" is a very important theological issue which the Christian theologian must address. But for that very reason it is simply irrelevant to the scientific question of whether a design inference is justified in biology.

To see why, consider first the issue of design flaws. During the debate I showed a slide of an East German Trabant. It was probably one of the worst cars ever manufactured. It was full of design flaws. (I actually rode in a Trabbi once while visiting East Germany, and when I tried to pull the door shut, the whole inner panel nearly ripped off!) I next showed a slide of a 2009 Mercedes e-class. I then asked the audience: because a Trabant is not a Mercedes, does that justify the conclusion that the Trabant was not designed but originated by chance? Obviously not! Designs exhibit various levels of optimality, and there's no reason to restrict design inferences to only maximally optimal designs. In fact, it would be positively foolish to do so. If a biological system meets William Dembski's criteria for being designed (high improbability plus conformity to an independently given pattern), that design inference is not nullified by the possibility of structures which could have been better designed.

Consider, then, animal behaviors that strike us as incompatible with a morally good designer. To see the problem with this argument, consider a mediaeval torture rack. Would anyone take seriously the contention that such a complex mechanism could not have been the product of intelligent design because anyone who would make such a thing can't be a very good person? Of course not! The design inference has absolutely nothing to say about the moral qualities of the designer.

In sum, the design inference permits no conclusion that nature's designer is all-good or all-powerful. Therefore, Ayala's argument based on nature's flaws and cruelties fails as a scientific objection to a design inference in the field of biology. The design inference says nothing about the designer's being all-good or all-powerful. Shortly before the debate, I was talking to philosopher of science John Bloom, who is a ID advocate, about Ayala's comment that nature's design is more compatible with the gods of ancient Greece and Rome than the God of the Bible. John thought about it a moment and then said, "Zeus will do. Zeus will do." In other words, even the inference to Zeus is a design inference. Case closed!

In short, Ayala's argument fails as a scientific objection. But what about as a theological objection? This is how he frames it in his book Darwin and Intelligent Design. He writes, "Intelligent Design implies attributes of God that are incompatible with Christianity" (p. x). Here Ayala is claiming that the designer posited by the scientific inference can't be the God of the Bible. Now this is, indeed, an important theological claim, at least for a Christian, though a theist who is not in the Judaeo-Christian tradition wouldn't be fazed by it. In response to this objection the Christian theologian may bring all the resources of his worldview in order to argue that no incompatibility has been shown to exist between the biblical God and the design in nature. The Christian theologian may suggest any number of ways of reconciling nature's flaws and cruelties with the existence of the God of the Bible, and the burden of proof will be on Ayala to show that none of these theodicies works.

So suppose, for example, that the Christian theologian responds to this objection by saying that God could have independent motives for designing a world with less than optimal structures in it. Dr. Ayala's reply is quite revealing. He admits that such a response "might have theological validity, but it destroys intelligent design as a scientific hypothesis" because it makes the design hypothesis unfalsifiable (op. cit., p. 86). He concludes, "Intelligent Design as an explanation for the adaptation of organisms could be (natural) theology, as Paley would have it, but whatever it is, it is not a scientific hypothesis" (Ibid.).

But wait a minute! It was no part of the design hypothesis that the designer is all-powerful or all-good. So denying those attributes to the designer would do nothing to falsify the design hypothesis. Rather the way to invalidate a design inference in biology is to show that the criteria Dembski proposes for inferring design have not been met. It is only when we begin talking Christian theology that God's attributes of being all-powerful and all-good come into play. There the challenge is merely to provide some consistent account, which, if true, would show that the biblical God is not incompatible with nature's flaws and cruelties. Falsification is irrelevant to the theological project. By raising theological objections to the design inference, Ayala is confusing science with religion. He's treating something which is a problem for theology as though it were a problem for science, which is just confused. This is so ironic because he declaims loudly against ID's blurring the boundaries between science and religion.

So where does that leave Ayala's objection? As a scientific problem it's irrelevant. As a theological problem, he admits it's soluble. So his objection is either irrelevant or soluble, which is just to say, it's not a problem.

Nonetheless, I want to say something more about the theological challenge posed by nature's flaws and cruelties.

First, consider the issue of design flaws in nature. There are a number of ways in which the Christian theologian might successfully respond to this problem. He might challenge the assumption that these supposed flaws are really flaws at all. Take, for example, the claim that the placement of the optic nerve in the human eye is flawed because it results in a small blind spot in our visual field. Might God have a good biological reason for so designing the eye? Yes, indeed! As Michael Denton explains, the difference in the placement of the optic nerve in the human eye in comparison with cephalopod eyes is because of the need for the greater supply of oxygen for high-acuity vision in warm-blooded animals. According to Denton, "Rather than being a case of maladaptation, the inverted retina is probably an essential element in the overall design of the vertebrate visual system" (personal communication). So this alleged flaw turns out not to be a flaw at all. Over and over again, we have found that what appeared at first to be design flaws have, with greater understanding, turned out not to be flaws at all.

But suppose, for the sake of argument, that the flaws do seem to be real and suggest that some particular feature is a result of natural selection. Fine! Such a conclusion would be troubling only for someone who espouses a highly restricted form of special creationism, which held that God created every individual species exactly as it is today. But even special creationists typically don't hold to such a restrictive view. They usually hold that the "kinds" created by God in Genesis 1 were on the biological level of the order or family, and that evolution took over from there. So, for example, God created the common ancestor of the family Ursidae or the bear family, which has since evolved into eight different species of bears. It's hardly surprising, then, that the so-called "Panda's thumb," often touted as a design flaw, should have evolved in one species of bear, the Pandas. And it hardly needs to be said that theologians who don't hold to special creationism but embrace the thesis of common ancestry are not at all surprised that organisms should bear the design imprint of their ancestors. Many of the so-called flaws are just tip-offs to common ancestry. So I don't think supposed design flaws are a very serious theological problem at all.

What, then, about animal behaviors that strike us as cruel and grotesque? Once more, this may be a problem only for a theologian who holds to a very restrictive form of special creationism. But most special creationists embrace evolution within broad kinds, which permits organisms to change. For example, the generally accepted view among biologists is that pathogenic, or disease-producing, bacteria were once free-living organisms which evolved to become pathogenic parasites. Genome sequencing has revealed this to be a sort of "devolution" characterized by a massive loss of genes.

Of course, this appeal to limited evolution within broad kinds won't ameliorate the general problem of animal suffering and predation. But this is a theological problem which confronts Ayala's view as well. Ayala doesn't seem to realize that adopting theistic evolution only pushes the problem back a notch, for the theistic evolutionist must now face the question, why would a good and all-powerful God choose to create life by means of a process so filled with pain and death as evolution? Ayala seems strangely oblivious to the fact that when he quotes David Hull to the effect that "the God implied by evolutionary theory. . . is careless, wasteful, indifferent, almost diabolical," Hull is talking about Ayala's God. What Ayala calls Darwin's "gift" to science and religion looks like it may be a Trojan Horse!

So Christian theologians of all stripes have to face the challenge posed by animal pain. Here recent studies in biology have provided surprising, new insights into this old problem. In his book Nature Red in Tooth and Claw: Theism and the Problem of Animal Suffering, Michael Murray distinguishes three levels in an ascending pain hierarchy (read from the bottom up):

Level 3: a second order awareness that one is oneself experiencing (2).

Level 2: a first order, subjective experience of pain.

Level 1: information-bearing neural states produced by noxious stimuli resulting in aversive behavior.

Spiders and insects—the sort of creatures most exhibiting the kinds of behavior mentioned by Ayala—experience (1).  But there's no reason at all to attribute (2) to such creatures. It's plausible that they aren't sentient beings at all with some sort of subjective, interior life. That sort of experience plausibly does not arise until one gets to the level of vertebrates in the animal kingdom. But even though animals like dogs, cats, and horses experience pain, nevertheless the evidence is that they do not experience level (3), the awareness that they are in pain. For the awareness that one is oneself in pain requires self-awareness, which is centered in the pre-frontal cortex of the brain—a section of the brain which is missing in all animals except for the humanoid primates. Thus, amazingly, even though animals may experience pain, they are not aware of being in pain. God in His mercy has apparently spared animals the awareness of pain. This is a tremendous comfort to us pet owners. For even though your dog or cat may be in pain, it really isn't aware of it and so doesn't suffer as you would if you were in pain.

This also means that arguments like Ayala's based on nature's so-called cruelties are guilty of the fallacy of anthropopathism, which is ascribing human feelings to non-human entities. This is hard not to do. We humans have an inveterate tendency to ascribe personal agency to non-human creatures and even objects. We talk to our house plants, our cars, our computers. In fact some cognitive psychologists think that this tendency is actually hard-wired into the human brain. They call it the Hyper-active Agency Detection Device (HADD). We treat other things, even inanimate objects, as though they were agents. Richard Dawkins, for example, illustrates this tendency by recounting how he once found himself cursing at his bicycle because it wasn't working properly. When we attribute agency and pain awareness to animals, we commit the fallacy of anthropopathism.

Ayala is, I think, aware of this because he subtly qualifies his claim about nature's being cruel by saying, for example, "the mating interactions . . . in some insects. . . would be judged cruel and even sadistic by human standards." But, of course, it is precisely the point that it is fallacious to judge insect behavior by human standards! Certain spiders and insects are just voracious hunters and will eat their own kind if they get close. A potential mate is thus also a potential meal. To call such behavior cruel or sadistic is anthropopathism at its worst. The interactions of these non-sentient organisms has no more moral significance than a robotic arm on an assembly line which drills a hole in a chassis and inserts a bolt. To think otherwise is to be had by HADD.

Of course, the question still remains, for both Ayala and me, why did God create a world featuring an evolutionary prelude to the appearance of man? I suspect that the answer to that question will have to do with God's ultimate purposes for human beings, for the creation of an ecosystem where autonomous human agents can flourish and choose without coercion to embrace or reject God's offer of saving grace and a personal relationship with Himself. But a discussion of these theological questions here would take us much too far afield (see Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview, pp. 543ff.).