Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Adam, Charles, God, and Me

The December 2005 issue of Mother Jones Magazine is about religion. Though not all the articles are equally dismissive, I have a mixed response to ’s essay, “Smith vs. Darwin.” Galbraith, who writes a column called “The Econoclast,” criticizes religion from the perspective of an “,” if there is such an intellectual category. He makes two interesting points.

First, he argues that ’s brilliant contribution was not to “introduce the concept of evolution; it was to debunk the concept of supernatural — the idea that the universe is the result of an idea.” Second, he maintains that ’s concept of the “invisible hand” was an economic theory resembling today’s theory of “intelligent design.” Indeed, Galbraith suggests that economists have continued to cling unreasonably to the theory of an eighteenth century deist, whereas they ought to embrace a more evolutionary and materialist kind of scientific explanation. He sees the notions of both the and of intelligent design as persisting today in the face of overwhelming evidence, yet he does not specify the nature of that evidence. I paused, therefore, to imagine what relevant facts could possibly disprove either of the theories.

Can Adam Smith’s theory be falsified? Perhaps so. At least, can be shown to operate only under certain conditions. (For example, if a is dominated by monopolies, the invisible hand will not work optimally. And some government regulation seems to be advantageous, if not indeed necessary, to make it operate effectively.) But such conditionality does not disconfirm the theory.

What about the evidence for or against ? That’s a more interesting question, for indeed the proponents of that theory seem to assume that it is scientific – hence one that can be disconfirmed, at least in principle. It seems to me that in that respect they and Galbraith are equally mistaken. I think the existence of intelligence in the orderly workings of the universe is not a scientific but a religious assumption, though it is no less important for that reason. Any notion of that could be disconfirmed would seem to be a remarkably limited one.

As intelligent design theory is explained in popular accounts (I have not read the canonical books on the subject) apparently it asserts that certain complex evolutionary advances were too complex to have come about by random genetic mutations. On these occasions, at least, we must assume that God had a hand in the developments. Unless I have misconstrued the theory, it indicates that there are two kinds of evolutionary changes: routine ones involving natural selection, and extraordinary ones representing some manifestly divine intervention.

This dual explanation puts me off. I will not dismiss it out of hand, but it is a less attractive answer than an alternative one that portrays God as working with and through, not against, the regular processes of nature. It seems that the intelligent design theorists imagine God as “out there” somewhere, from nothing and occasionally poking into its processes, adjusting or revoking particular plans as they unfold. As for myself, I can only imagine God as inhabiting every atomic particle, every galaxy, every flower petal, every flock of birds, every mathematical truth, every musical composition, and every human act — benign or evil. If there is no place where intelligence is absent, then God is equally the source of good and evil, equally the author of love and war. So it’s a mistake to be overly certain about how things ought to present themselves. Here’s a story that illustrates what I mean.

There’s a flood. A devoutly religious man, watching the waters rising, climbs onto the roof of his house and begins praying for help. A neighbor tosses him an inflated inner tube and a pole, but he refuses them. “No, thanks. I have faith. God will take care of me,” he says.

A little later, a policeman comes by in a rowboat and urges him to climb in and row to higher ground. “No, thanks,” he says. “I have faith. God will take care of me.”

But the waters still rise. Finally, a helicopter flies over and drops a rope and basket down, ready to pull him up. “No, thanks,” he says. “I have faith. God will take care of me.”

Yet the water covers his house and he drowns. He’s quite annoyed about this when he meets God at the entrance to heaven. “Lord, why didn’t you save me? I had faith. Why didn’t you answer my prayer?”

God replied, “Listen, I sent you an inner tube, I sent you a rowboat, and I sent you a helicopter. Why are you complaining?”

What could be more brilliant than the everyday workings of physics, psychology, evolution, and all the other normal processes that support life? Does God suspend these regular systems occasionally to introduce special changes as she goes along? I don’t know. Mr. Galbraith claims that we have evolved from , chance events. I wonder how he knows. Anyway, what an impressive stunt! Whether God works with rowboats or helicopters, whether with miracles or evolution, I am still grateful. That’s faith, not science.


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