the inconvenience of awe
Magna opera Domini exquisita in omnes voluntates ejus.
This is the Latin inscription that was placed in the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge in 1871. It is a quote from Psalm 111. “Great are the works of the Lord, sought out by all who take pleasure therein.” It was in this famous laboratory where in the early 1950’s American biologist James Watson and British physicist Francis Crick discovered the spiraling double-helix structure of the DNA molecule. Great are the works of the Lord indeed.
Unfortunately, these type of paradigm smashing discoveries are not always met by worship. In the disenchantment that is characteristic of the secular world, to respond to the discoveries of science with worship is the ultimate embarrassment. Worship is for the backwoods rubes who don’t know any better. No, in the face of scientific discovery, the committed secularist will find herself instead confronted with a dilemma that was never faced by those early scientific pioneers who saw science as an expression of their Christian faith. The discoveries of science are awe-inspiring. We can all agree on that. But awe is a tricky, restless thing. Awe, like gratitude and love, isn’t an free-floating human emotion. It always settles on its cause.
When a Believer sees the double-helix structure of DNA, she feels awe for its Designer. This awe to her is relational, personal, and almost loving. When a Secularist see the double-helix structure of DNA, she also feels awe, but the awe is limited to the discovery itself. I would argue that this kind of awe is an awe that leads to alienation. It’s like the difference between a person who feels awe standing on the shore of the ocean and a person who feels awe while adrift in the middle of the ocean. From the most macroscopic level to the most microscopic level science is discovering a universe that boggles the mind (if it is even rational to talk about the mind) in its complexity, its mystery, and its wonder. With every new discovery, the secularist who is committed to physicalism finds herself more adrift in a massive, uncaring, and awe-full universe. In fact to the secularist, Universe probably deserves a capital letter since it has usurped the deity. Only in this case, as Carl Sagan reminded us, the deity is completely indifferent to our existence. In the architecture of secular belief, science comes to the rescue as a religion of sorts offering “the only Way” to the deity. The scientist (or pseudo-scientist) is employed as the high priest explaining all of the deity’s mysteries to the faithful and offering sacraments of knowledge in the unending attempt to replace alienation with hope. “Be not afraid. The next breakthrough is just around the corner.” Some of these high priests even come to enjoy what looks like celebrity, televangelist status.
show me the evidence
As far as religions go, the new secularism is in an enviable position. Assuming that secularism is man “in his natural state” they feel no compulsion to make the case that secularism is in fact true. Instead, they insist that the burden of proof is on the other 85 percent of the population to prove that they aren’t completely irrational and perhaps insane. It’s a good trick. One favored mantra of this new secularism is “Just show me the evidence. I pinky promise that I will totally believe in your god if you can just demonstrate that he exists.”
It sounds open-minded and even “scientific,” but it’s hard to take this promise seriously. This offer is like Lucy with the football. There is simply no amount of evidence that will satisfy most of the committed. They wait for that moment when the best argument is offered only to pull the football back and say “Sorry. Not quite good enough.”
Which brings me back to Watson and Crick.
The discovery of DNA poses a serious problem to those who are committed to a Designer-less universe. In Intelligent Design, William Dembski says, “Whenever we infer design, we must establish three things: contingency, complexity and specification. Contingency ensures that the object in question is not the result of an automatic and therefore unintelligent process that had no choice in its production. Complexity ensures that the object is not so simple that it can readily be explained by chance. Finally, specification ensures that the object exhibits the type of pattern characteristic of intelligence.” The information contained in the DNA molecule fits perfectly with each one of these criteria. The burden of proof should shift to the person who would claim that DNA does not demonstrate design.
Assuming there wasn’t a Designer, how did life come about? In Signature in the Cell, Stephen Meyer demonstrates why it is irrational to believe that the apparent design of DNA just came about by chance. There is simply not enough time or space. Chance theories have what is called a “combinatorial problem.” Like a combination lock, the information has to be arranged in a precise order in order for functionality to exist. Research from MIT biochemist Robert Sauer concluded that “even taking the possibility of variance into account, the probability of achieving a functional sequence of amino acids in several known (roughly 100 amino acid) proteins at random is still ‘exceedingly small,’ about 1 chance in 1063 (to put this in perspective, there are 1065atoms in our galaxy)…The odds of getting even one functional protein of modest length (150 amino acids) by chance from a prebiotic soup is no better than 1 chance in 10164…Another way to say that is the probability of finding a functional protein by chance alone is a trillion, trillion, trillion, trillion, trillion, trillion, trillion times smaller than the odds of finding a single specified particle among all the particles in the universe.” (!!!) These numbers, frankly, are beyond comprehension. In the face of such steep odds, other theories have been advanced none of which is compelling or has anything close to a scientific consensus. (“But be not afraid. The next breakthrough is just around the corner.”)
Most people would look at numbers like the ones sited above (and many more such numbers could be given) and conclude that this would count at “evidence” for the existence of design which would make it at least reasonable to believe in a Designer. This isn’t some “God of the gaps” argument. This is an inference to the best explanation. Common sense says that the complexity of the structure and function of DNA implies that it was designed.
But we don’t need something as complex as DNA to make such a basic point. My Twitter friend (I hope I can call her that) Nikki is a person who I enjoy interacting with quite a bit. She is curious and gracious. She has a history of faith which means that she knows most of our warts and ugliness really well. She also loves science. A lot. A while ago she posted this on Twitter.
I couldn’t resist the opportunity. Prosthetic limbs are a really interesting case of man-made evolution in action. Over the span of decades we have seen outrageous advancements in prosthetic technology. We have evolved from simple wooden prostheses to very advanced robotic limbs. There’s no reason to think that this progress will stop until we have developed something almost indiscernible from a human limb. So I asked Nikki if we will ever reach the point in our development of prostheses where we will produce a limb so advanced and intricate and human-like that we will be forced to conclude that it in fact evolved by natural selection and random mutation over time. It defies common sense that we would conclude that a wooden leg is designed while also concluding that only a dolt would believe that a human leg was also designed. A skeptic may claim “sorry, not good enough” but honestly, the burden of proof is squarely on their shoulders at this point.
Francis Crick in his autobiography said, “Biologists must constantly keep in mind that what they see was not designed, but rather evolved.” Crick’s common sense was running up against his bias. It was only through force of belief (dare I say “faith”) that he could convince himself that there was no design in life. He should have given in to his intuition. The evidence is right in front of you and all around you. Let the one who has eyes, see. Let the one who has ears, hear.