Wisdom Counsels Intellectual Humility in the Scientific Enterprise
Recently one of my sons gave me a book about Oxford University professor and Christian apologist C. S. Lewis, and this set me to rereading Lewis’s classic fantasy series, The Chronicles of Narnia. After finishing The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, I was struck by an especially memorable passage. I had been struck by it before, but this time, for the first time, I noticed a connection to the scientific enterprise.
In the novel, four siblings—Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy—are sent from their home during the London bombings of World War II to be lodged in a curious old house in the English countryside. There the children discover a magical wardrobe that transports them into an alternate world, Narnia, where they face various trials and meet various strange and wondrous persons, including talking animals, dwarves, a faun, a giant, and the evil witch of the book’s title. But the strangest and most wondrous of them all is the great lion Aslan.
Aslan, it soon becomes clear, is a Christ figure. He’s the son of the great Emperor-beyond-the-Sea. He is good and wise and kind. He’s supernaturally powerful. And he loves and serves sacrificially.
At a couple of points in the story, he saves the day. He’s so helpful, in fact, that it would be tempting for Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy to take him for a kind of genie, always ready to do their bidding.
But at one point the four look around and find that Aslan has slipped away. This, they’re told, is normal. “He’ll be coming and going,” one of the talking animals explains. “One day you’ll see him and another you won’t. He doesn’t like being tied down—and of course he has other countries to attend to. It’s quite all right. He’ll often drop in. Only you mustn’t press him. He’s wild, you know. Not like a tame lion.”
The spiritual application for Christians is straightforward. Jesus, whom Revelation describes as “the Lion of the tribe of Judah,”1 cares deeply for us and is wise and powerful, but he is our Lord and master, not the other way around. We are to follow him, not expect him to be at our beck and call.
That isn’t to say God doesn’t want us to bring our longings and confusions to him. He does, even as Jesus did in the garden of Gethsemane and on the cross. God, a good father, knows how to give good gifts to his children. Where we can go astray is in questioning God pridefully—I know best, and if God is to measure up to my wisdom, he’d better explain himself. From there it’s a short hop to deciding that things God has done or left undone are unexplainable and inexcusable.
Such an attitude toward the good, loving, and all-wise Creator of the cosmos can rob you of communion with the most wondrous Being who ever existed.
God in the Scientific Revolution
What does all this have to do with the scientific enterprise? A key reason the scientific revolution occurred under Christendom, rather than under some other great civilization, is that Christianity teaches that our world is the work, not of chaotic gods or blind forces, but of a rational and orderly Creator. The founders of science believed in such a Creator, and they went looking for the rational order of his creation.
It was also crucial that they believed he was free. The idea that God was free to create the world in any number of ways means that scientists should humbly seek out exactly how God did it, rather than assume we can work it out deductively based on our own wisdom. This acknowledgment of God’s creative freedom—that he is not a tame God—fueled the experimental method that ignited the scientific revolution, and science moved from triumph to triumph in the centuries that followed.2
Even so, human arrogance and intellectual inertia often gummed up the works. It’s now commonly acknowledged among historians of the field that science has made many of its grandest leaps in the face of a mainstream of scientists stubbornly defending a dominant but misguided paradigm they’ve invested their careers and egos in.3
Now take this all-too-human tendency and reinforce it with another potentially powerful motive—the atheist’s desire to buttress his atheistic faith.
According to atheist Richard Dawkins, “Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist.”4 Philosopher of science Michael Ruse, also an atheist, called evolution “an ideology, a secular religion—a full-fledged alternative to Christianity, with meaning and morality.”5 As Ruse later added, “It gives you a world picture that some people, starting with me, find entirely satisfying.”6
Evolution functions for many as a religious dogma and is defended dogmatically. Lewis, who came to doubt evolutionary theory, told evolution skeptic Bernard Acworth, “What inclines me now to think that you may be right in regarding it as the central and radical lie in the whole web of falsehood that now governs our lives, is . . .the fanatical twisted attitudes of its defenders.”7
Lewis became convinced that evidence wasn’t what was driving the Darwinian bus. The Darwinian “revolution was certainly not brought about by the discovery of new facts,” he wrote, but instead by “the demand for a developing world—a demand obviously in harmony both with the revolutionary and the romantic temper” of the time.8
I think again of Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Early on, young Edmund enters Narnia and meets the white witch. She soon has him hooked on a magically addictive Turkish Delight, and tells him that if he will bring his brother and two sisters to her castle, he can have more of the stuff. Plus, she’ll make him a king and his own boss. What a deal!
It’s a trap, of course, and deep down Edmund knows she’s a nasty piece of work. But because he wants what she’s offering, he ignores the warning signs.
In the same way, the atheist who depends on evolutionary theory to support a “satisfying” “world picture,” one in which he answers to no divine lawmaker, will be wont to stick with evolutionary theory even when the evidence turns against it.
One defensive strategy in such cases is to appeal to arguments of the “God wouldn’t have done it that way” variety. Stated generally, that argument runs like this: If a good, all-powerful, all-wise God had created the world, he surely would have done such-and-such, and since he obviously didn’t, he must not exist. The world, instead, is the product of mindless material forces.
Next, the evolutionist, having embraced blind evolution as the best no-God explanation, sees every apparent instance of bad design in biology as evolution’s trial-and-error ineptitude.
Examples are plentiful and are supplied by both atheistic and theistic evolutionists. Scientists discover stretches of DNA in our cells that appear useless. Hmm, it must be “junk DNA” fobbed off on us by the evolutionary process, evolutionists conclude.9 Don’t know what the human appendix does? Must be a useless evolutionary leftover.
Or they notice that many people have bad knees. Well, we were knuckle-walkers before evolving into bipeds, and evolution had to work with what it had, the Darwinists reason. Evolution is a tinkerer, not a master engineer.10
Each of these bad-design arguments has run into trouble. “Junk DNA,” we now know, isn’t junk.11 Scientists are discovering vital roles for the stuff. Theistic evolutionist Francis Collins even conceded that deeming it junk just because he and others didn’t understand it was “hubris.”12 The human appendix isn’t vestigial. It serves as a valuable reservoir for good bacteria—handy if you get a nasty stomach bug and throw up your toenails to rid your body of the bad stuff.13
As for the knee joint, it’s proven to be an engineering marvel, even if not designed for the modern lifestyle in which people sit around a lot, eat a lot of rich food, pack extra weight onto their frames, and then get a sudden urge to throw themselves into some physically demanding activity they aren’t prepared for. But for a regularly active lifestyle (common through most of human history) and for covering many types of challenging terrain over the course of several decades, our knee joints are state-of-the-art. That’s the verdict of award-winning British engineer Stuart Burgess.
Among Burgess’s engineering triumphs is his work on the racing bicycles that helped the British cycling team win a big gold-medal haul in the 2021 Olympics. Burgess studied the human knee joint from an engineering perspective and declared it “a particularly sophisticated kind of four-bar linkage.”
It’s also irreducibly complex, a major problem for evolutionary theory. Burgess explains:
There are at least 16 critical characteristics in the knee joint. . . . If any one . . . is missing, then the knee cannot function at all. . . . The 16 critical characteristics must not only be present, but must also be precisely compatible with each other to produce the right physical motion. The two bones must have a compatible curvature at their interface and this curvature must also be precisely compatible with the position and movement of the cruciate ligaments. In particular, the bones must be shaped so as to make the lower leg rotate around the instantaneous center of rotation of the four-bar hinge. If the attachment points are not in the right place on the bones, then the instantaneous center of rotation of the knee joint will not be compatible with the shapes of the bones, and the knee will seize up or fall apart. The ligaments must also be assembled to the correct attachment points so that the ligaments form a cross. . . . If one of the ligaments was assembled to the wrong attachment point such that the cross was not formed, then the knee could not function as a hinge and would be useless.
. . . it requires many thousands of units of information in the genetic code to specify the essential design information of the four-bar hinge. The theory of evolution proposes that mutations cause random changes to units of information in the genetic code and that this leads to evolution. Yet with the knee, many thousands of precise units of information must be in place simultaneously for the knee to have any usefulness.14
This means evolution couldn’t build the knee joint one or two mutations at a time. If it “tried” to build it one small mutation at a time, natural selection would have nothing useful to select and pass on to future generations. Not until all the many necessary parts of the knee joint were in place and working would there be something fit and functional to select. That’s a dealbreaker for blind evolution but not for a master engineer, who can look ahead and assemble individually useless parts with the goal of producing a functional design.
Burgess further notes that the knee joint is so ingeniously designed that it is inspiring design improvements in human-engineered systems.15
Woe & Wonder
True, we can also point to things in nature that really are “out of joint,” to borrow a phrase from Shakespeare. The malaria parasite kills millions every decade, many of them small children. Countless infants have been born with birth defects. Humans themselves are a twisted race, often neglecting, abusing, and murdering those under their power. Surely a good God, it’s thought, wouldn’t have created such a world. Therefore, the atheist concludes, blind evolution, not God, is the creator of our biosphere.
But this argument collapses if blind evolution cannot show itself capable of creating the many bioengineering marvels of our biosphere.
Can it? Lehigh University biologist Michael Behe has challenged evolutionists to put on the table a detailed and plausible evolutionary pathway for any complex biological machine. No large gaps in the evolutionary route from simple precursor to finished machine. And no vague storytelling about a system magically co-opting this or that more primitive system without explaining how the co-option occurred.16
Years later Behe is still waiting. Evolutionists have not provided a single detailed evolutionary pathway for any biological molecular machine, much less for something like the knee’s sophisticated four-bar linkage. Behe doesn’t mince words: “Darwinists have so far spectacularly failed.”17
God in the Dock
Some theistic evolutionists also appear to fall prey to the hubris of knowing best how things should have been done in creation. God wouldn’t have created the living world in a way that required him to intervene and tinker at many steps along the way, they conclude. Instead, he would have turned something like Darwinian evolution loose on the world and stepped out of the way, allowing it to do the creative work. Much more elegant.18 Plus, evolution provides God at least the semblance of plausible deniability for what we find around us: nature “red in tooth and claw.”
But might the Creator have valid reasons for not giving us a world free of pain, disease, defects, and death? Was he wrongheaded in driving Adam and Eve from the idyllic Garden of Eden after they fell into sin? What sort of people would the first couple have become, having fallen into sin, if they had remained there in the Garden, pampered and protected from every hardship? We can make an educated guess by asking ourselves, are the noblest among us typically those who inherit great wealth and privilege, who from a young age are relieved of the need to strive against frustrating obstacles? We have a word for those who turn out as we expect them to when raised this way—spoiled.
Also, before the fall of man, there was the fall of Lucifer, an angel created good but who rebelled against heaven—that ancient serpent, Satan, the one who tempted Adam and Eve in the Garden and whom the Bible calls “the prince of this world.” What role has this fallen prince had in the state of the world?
God’s purposes are larger than ours, his ways above ours, and his allies and enemies more varied and numerous than just the human race. Might such a God have good reasons for blocking us from the Tree of Life, for laying upon Adam and Eve’s descendants painful toil, suffering in childbirth, and the whole agonizing, beautiful drama that is the human lot in this vale of tears? Humility counsels us to ask the question. Wisdom counsels us to give the benefit of the doubt to an almighty Creator who willingly died on an ignominious Roman cross to save us from sin.
As for the scientist at work, the founders of science provide a model for the way forward. Instead of constructing theories meant to erase the Creator from the story, as Charles Darwin confessed desiring to do with his theory of evolution,19 and instead of latching onto an origins story that distances the Creator from death and disease in an awkward attempt to give God plausible deniability (theistic Darwinism), we can instead approach nature the way the founders of science did. They humbly trusted that the world is the work of a good, reasonable, wise, and all-powerful Creator, a Being far higher and wiser than us. And they recognized that he isn’t obliged to create in precisely the way our fallible human reason determines he should have.
For all of us seeking truth about the natural world, we would do well to remember that Aslan is not a tame lion. Nor is his Father.
1. Revelation 5:5.
2. See Nancy R. Pearcey and Charles B. Thaxton, The Soul of Science (Crossway, 1994), and Rodney Stark, The Victory of Reason (Random House, 2005).
3. Probably the best-known academic work on the subject is Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Univ. of Chicago Press, 1962).
4. Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker, new ed. (W. W. Norton & Co., 1996), 10.
5. Michael Ruse, “How Evolution Became a Religion,” National Post (May 13, 2000), B1, B3, B7.
6. Michael Ruse, “Is Darwinism a Religion,” Huffpost (July 21, 2011, updated Sept. 20, 2011): huffpost.com/entry/is-darwinism-a-religion_b_904828.
7. C. S. Lewis to Bernard Acworth, Sept. 13, 1951, The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis: vol. 3, ed. Walter Hooper (HarperOne, 2007), 138 (emphasis in original). For more on Lewis’s views on evolution and intelligent design, see The Magician’s Twin: C. S. Lewis on Science, Scientism, and Society, ed. John G. West (Discovery Institute Press, 2012).
8. C. S. Lewis, The Discarded Image (Cambridge Univ. Press, 1964), 220–221.
9. See, for examples, Kenneth Miller, “Life’s Grand Design,” Technology Review 97, no. 2 (February/March 1994), 24–32, available at http://www.millerandlevine.com/km/evol/lgd/index.html; Richard Dawkins, “The Information Challenge,” The Skeptic 18 (December 1998); Francis Collins, The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief (Free Press, 2006), 136–137.
10. Nathan Lents, Human Errors (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2018), 21–25.
11. Casey Luskin, “Scientific Paper on Repetitive Elements Slams ‘Junk DNA,’” Evolution News & Science Today (Oct. 7, 2021): evolutionnews.org/2021/10/scientific-paper-on-repetitive-elements-slams-junk-dna.
12. Marvin Olasky, “Admission of Function,” World (June 24, 2016): wng.org/articles/admission-of-function-1620609700.
13. For how various evolutionists have persisted in deeming the appendix useless long after the “vestigial organ” view was discredited in mainstream scientific literature, see “The Human Appendix and Other So-called Junk” in Jonathan Wells, Zombie Science (Discovery Institute Press, 2017), 115–130.
14. Stuart Burgess, “Critical Characteristics and the Irreducible Knee Joint,” Journal of Creation 13, no. 2 (August 1999), 112–117.
15. Stuart Burgess, “A Review of Linkage Mechanisms in Animal Joints and Related Bioinspired Designs,” Bioinspiration & Biomimetics 16, no. 4 (June 10, 2021).
16. Michael Behe, “In Defense of the Irreducibility of the Blood Clotting Cascade,” Discovery Institute (July 31, 2000).
17. Michael Behe, A Mousetrap for Darwin (Discovery Institute Press, 2020), 194.
18. Howard van Till, “The Fully Gifted Creation,” in Three Views of Creation and Evolution, J. P. Moreland and John Mark Reynolds, eds. (Zondervan, 1999), 159–218.
19. Darwin wrote, “I would give absolutely nothing for the theory of Natural Selection, if it requires miraculous additions at any one stage of descent.” Darwin to Charles Lyell, October 11, 1859, in The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, vol. 2, Francis Darwin, ed. (D. Appleton and Co., 1891), 7.
is a senior fellow with Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture and the author or co-author of numerous articles and books, including Heretic: One Scientist’s Journey from Darwin to Design, with Matt Leisola (Discovery Institute, 2018), The Hobbit Party: The Vision of Freedom That Tolkien Got and the West Forgot, with Jay Richards (Ignatius, 2014), and A Meaningful World: How the Arts and Sciences Reveal the Genius of Nature, with Benjamin Wiker (IVP, 2006).Get Salvo in your inbox! This article originally appeared in Salvo, Issue #65, Summer 2023 Copyright © 2023 Salvo | www.salvomag.com https://salvomag.com/article/salvo65/science-the-wildness-of-aslan