Summer 2012

Science and Environment


“In the Image and Likeness of God”

Dan Cloer

All life on earth is related. Beginning first with ancient taxonomy and then more recently with DNA analysis, the scientific observations and discoveries that support the depth of this relationship are manifold. Between the Linnaean hierarchy of kingdoms and species, the development of the cell theory, and the sequencing of genomes from mosquito to man, there are unquestionable links that reveal a common ancestry, a family tree to which we are all attached. And when we look further out into the universe, we find a fine-tuning of law and structure that frames all of physical existence.

To the modern evolutionist, the idea that there is an intelligent design (ID) at work in these relationships and patterns is ridiculous. To them the creator is called Natural Selection, the so-called blind watchmaker that produces pattern out of genetic chaos.

Although ever since Darwin most of the intelligentsia would deny that ID underlies the universe and all things in it, sociologist Steve Fuller argues the opposite. Critics of the design paradigm (in contrast to the random, non-teleological philosophy of Darwinism), take too brief a view of the history of the scientific endeavor, he says. “Contrary to the way in which its detractors depict it, ID is hardly a ‘science-stopping’ form of creationism. On the contrary,” he writes, “ID was behind the great Scientific Revolution that has been under way in the West since the 17th century, and it continues to provide the most powerful reason for doing science: nature is constructed so that we may understand and exercise dominion over it” (Dissent Over Descent, 2008).

The fact of science—our ability to dissect and understand our world—is based, Fuller argues, on the faith that a Creator exists. Because we are made in the image and likeness of God (Genesis 1:26), we are able to participate in the universe, to grow into a God’s-eye-view of the world He created.

It is always tempting to read intellectual history from front to back, rather than vice versa. We tend to think of the target of time’s arrow as wherever we happen to be in history, with much of the intervening period marked by diversion and delay. On this view, something like the Neo-Darwinian account of evolution has always been our collective intellectual destination—after all, is it not the truth?”

Fuller continues, “This results in a false but popular image of evolution as the natural culmination of the history of science, and ID as the most recent and perhaps cleverest incarnation of the counter-tradition that has always threatened science. As a matter of fact, the dominant trajectory promoting science in the West has been strongly grounded in its monotheistic traditions, of which ID is a natural successor.”

Fuller is the Auguste Comte Chair in Social Epistemology in the Department of Sociology, University of Warwick (Coventry, U.K.), and has authored dozens of papers, chapters and books, the most recent being Humanity 2.0: What It Means to Be Human, Past, Present and Future (2011).

He recently spoke with Vision contributor Dan Cloer.

DC We tend to think of science as a body of knowledge or a method to test credibility. As a sociologist who has studied the history of science, what does “science” mean to you?

SF I don’t really see it as a body of knowledge. It is a mode of approaching the world. It is not unreasonable to call it a method as long as you understand method in a rather full-bodied way. As a first pass, science is about putting every knowledge claim forward to be testable, and that’s fine, but there are several assumptions built in to that which lead to deeper insights.

One is that reality is rational. So in a sense whatever results one gets from testing will make sense, and they will enable you to go forward to find out more about the world. Science is not interested in just understanding the world in a piecemeal fashion but in a unified, systematic fashion. There is a kind of Newtonian gold standard of science which is to explain the most by the least—to have the fewest number of natural laws on the basis of which one could explain, in principle, everything.

DC In Humanity 2.0 you invoke Occam’s Razor. I found that unusual because evolution, not design, is most often proclaimed as the simplest explanation for the unity of the universe and the existence of its laws.

SF The interesting thing about Occam’s Razor is that it was originally an argument for the existence of God as the simplest explanation for unity—that the universe is the product of one intelligence. Understanding the world was not just a matter of our being able to see bits and pieces but of there being an underlying reason that we could get to by doing something like science. By talking about science in this way one moves toward the question of intelligent design.

DC Today evolutionists argue that we can understand the world because we are a product of its laws—essentially natural selection. This entails no directive intelligence behind our capabilities or the universe. They say that intelligence is an illusion we create.

SF Evolutionary approaches, especially Darwinian approaches, can only account for forms of knowledge that stay pretty close to the environment in which human beings normally operate. That kind of knowledge will be accessible to our senses, be adaptive to our species, and be useful to pursue. The problem is that when you look at something like science, especially as a long-term historical project, its goal is to understand everything in the universe. Most of this is very remote from the everyday life concerns of Homo sapiens. And we devote quite a lot of energy and cultural value to this. So the question becomes: From a Darwinian standpoint, why?

We are spending a lot of time studying things that have no immediate survival value and that in fact could undermine us. There is a real puzzle here for the Darwinists, and they are quite lazy in dealing with it.”

Moreover, the forms of scientific knowledge that have allowed us to understand the outer reaches of the universe (in terms of space and time, for example) presuppose forms of understanding that reach beyond experience—peculiar forms of mathematics, transcendental numbers, non-Euclidean geometry. These are products of the imagination. It seems to me that if you understand the pursuit of knowledge in the full sense of what science is, this is all very strange from a Darwinian standpoint. We are spending a lot of time studying things that have no immediate survival value and that in fact could undermine us. There is a real puzzle here for the Darwinists, and they are quite lazy in dealing with it.

DC When you use the scriptural description of humans as being “made in the image and likeness of God,” are you using it as a figurative anchor for your arguments, or do you believe it literally means that we have certain responsibilities and obligations?

SF I mean it quite literally. I think that the guys who started the scientific revolution in the 17th century—Galileo, Boyle, Newton and even Descartes, people who were interested in creating the foundation of the new science—took that description of the human condition quite literally. In other words, they thought that they had Godlike powers, but powers that were obscured by Original Sin. So there was an acceptance of general fallibility, but there was also a belief in corrigibility. Science becomes a kind of holy mission to recover what Nicolas Malebranche called “the vision in God.”

He believed, and I think this is quite common to these guys overall, that in a sense our minds and God’s mind overlap. We seem to be predisposed to what is called a priori knowledge. For example, as Noam Chomsky would say, there is nothing about our exposure to words that accounts for the full character of language. And in the areas of mathematics I just mentioned, we do not have experience that would justify such knowledge. The idea was that a priori knowledge is something that God invests in us and that is part of God’s knowledge, too. If you are an empiricist or a Darwinian, this capacity for language and math is a great mystery.

DC This is where you describe the relationship between man and God as a difference in degree, not in kind.

SF Yes, exactly. This is a very important theological point, because Christianity has always been very ambivalent about how to cash out on this idea of being created in the image and likeness of God. You might say that the Catholic Church, which was the orthodoxy of Christianity until the Protestant Reformation, tended to emphasize the distance between us and God—certainly the distance between the individual human being and God. So when it came to “the image and likeness of God,” the stress was put on “the image” rather than the “God” part.

Once people began to read the Bible for themselves, they tried to be like God. That’s what the scientists did, and the Catholic Church was very concerned about the social and political consequences. You have to keep in mind that until the Reformation the Church did not encourage the reading of the Bible. So believers had a very mediated and unclear sense of the body of Christian doctrine. That shift (in focusing more on our similarity to God) began to generate the more radical and ambitious proposal that we could understand everything in a systematic way. That’s the start of modern science.

DC Some argue that the general availability of the Scriptures gave those first scientists something to disprove. But you argue that access to the Bible gave them a reason to explore.

SF Yes. Just consider the sheer volume of Isaac Newton’s writing; most is a biblical commentary. He was hardly alone in believing that reading the Bible was a kind of script for his life, that it tells me how to live in my own time. A big part of translating that into action is doing science.

So what develops over the course of the 17th and 18th centuries is the attitude one must have toward the world in order to do science. On the one hand you had to be quite bold in terms of putting forth hypotheses that often went against taken-for-granted notions, not only of authority but of your own senses. At the same time you had to be humble, because your experiments could be falsified. But overall you avoided discouragement, because you believed there was a God who created an intelligible order waiting to be discovered.

For these guys the Bible provided clues to orienting their minds into the psychological profile of the scientist. Science is a very peculiar intellectual process; if you look at all the various things we do with our minds, most of it is very here-and-now. But as Newton noted, science is an intergenerational quest for knowledge, a kind of understanding of the world that maps on very neatly to salvation stories: a long path to follow, against the odds to a certain extent, but nevertheless at the end there is something waiting for you if you strive hard enough.

DC That’s what came to my mind when I looked at what you call “convergent technologies”: the development of our new age of modern man, Humanity 2.0—enhanced, empowered, ageless, with overarching earthly dominance—seems to be supplanting the kingdom of God.

SF That is exactly right. For the political purposes of the contemporary era it is quite convenient to make very strong distinctions between the scientific and the religious side. But I think what these Enlightenment guys were doing was reappropriating a lot of the Christian thinking for secular purposes.

You start to get a lot of anticlerical rhetoric among some of the Enlightenment guys in the 17th and 18th centuries—something I have always tried to stress—but this is not outright atheism. They get accused of atheism, but people who call themselves atheists are pretty few on the ground. These men spoke of a kingdom of God on earth, which was also a phrase from the English revolution.

In the 1930s, historian Carl Becker wrote The Heavenly City of the 18th-Century Philosophers. It was meant as a take-down of these guys—that Voltaire, Diderot and the rest were just modernizing the medieval view of St. Augustine’s City of God and reconfiguring it as a secular utopia. It is possible to see this as simply a secular demystification, as Becker did, but it could also be an updating, in a sense recognizing science as a means toward a greater preordained goal.

DC In Natural Theology William Paley used the analogy of a watch: observing the intricacies of nature and seeing evidence of a creating intelligence is like finding a watch and recognizing that it required a maker. But our world is more like a broken watch. Do you see our capacity for science and the converging of technologies as a way to mend the watch?

SF This is a dirty-hands issue: we have to live with the fact that this new knowledge does have the potential to do a great amount of harm. There is no doubt about that. But it also has the potential to do great good. We do need to be fully aware of what we are doing and take full responsibility for it. At the moment people are not facing up to the questions squarely.

DC The last item on your list of convergent technologies is called “Humanity Tested.” Here you bring in the idea of moral entrepreneurship.

SF We need to take seriously the idea that our knowledge can allow us to do very good things and very bad things. What marks the difference is how things are employed and their context, but the forms of knowledge are not so different in their character. So rocket science, for example, brings a new level of destruction in World War II, but the science is redeployed to positive exploration later.

On the surface the world looks massively imperfect, but if you believe in an ultimately good God, there is a reason for it. It is our job to figure it out and treat the world in a way that is always good.”

One must take the long-term perspective. On the surface the world looks massively imperfect, but if you believe in an ultimately good God, there is a reason for it. It is our job to figure it out and treat the world in a way that is always good. To me that means we should always seek to get the most benefit out of everything—even the bad things.

That is what moral entrepreneurship is all about. In a way intelligent design, if you go back to the 17th century, overlaps with the theodicy discussion. Questions of why God would make the body in this way or that, or allow so much seemingly senseless death in the world, are not new to us. Intelligent design was the way to address scientifically the problem of theodicy. It is a way to seek purpose in this horrible thing that has happened.

DC You ask in the book what it would look like to live in the image and likeness of God in the 21st century. There are 7 billion of us now and, as you point out, we are already caring more for our pets than for many human beings. How is Humanity 2.0 going to manage this future?

SF There are many ways we might go at the moment. My inclination is that we are going to have to revive a very clear definition of the human as inherently valuable. I think what capitalism will give us is some people with benefits and others who languish in poverty. And there is no guilt or sense of responsibility of one for the other. This can be especially pernicious in the future simply because, as you note with our animals, when people have market leeway to select their bonds of affiliation, we cannot ensure that those bonds will be made spontaneously with other human beings. The welfare of animals has, in some circumstances, jumped ahead of human welfare, and this has become a respected position. I imagine a significant number of people, if given the choice, would opt to have their pet covered at the expense of cutting some services available to humans. My opinion is that this is not the kind of decision we want to leave to individual choice.

DC That discussion again cuts to the heart of what we are: just another evolved species or something else?

SF This is why the intelligent-design discussion matters. If there is nothing special about humans, except for some marginal genetic differences as the Darwinists maintain, then putting pets on national health plans makes perfect sense.

This is not just physics or metaphysics; there are very practical implications here for how we treat each other.

DC If you are starting out with the foundational idea that there is an intelligence behind creation, shouldn’t the conversation begin by asking what the source of that intelligence would have you do?

SF Yes, we talk about “playing God,” and in a sense we really are. So we should understand something about the nature of God!