Monday, February 9, 2015

Irreducible Complexity and the Incompetent Demiurge

I'm reading "the one book all atheists should read", AKA The Experience of God by David Bentley Hart (Yale 2013). Not because I'm an atheist but because I need all the help I can get in being a theist. Hart has been raved about by a number of people I respect for his previous books and so with all the glowing reviews I was expecting perhaps too much. Make no mistake, Hart is extremely clever and erudite and well read, and did I mention clever? The problem is, for a book intended to convince people there is a God (with a capital G) his pomposity errs on the side of bombastic and frankly as someone who agrees with at least 95% of what he is advocating I find him verbose and borderline supercilious. I was hoping this would be a book I could lend to some thoughtful people I know but too be honest I would want a clearer gentler book to be able to lend it out like that. That said I have no doubt there will be much to take from it. Already he has got the old grey matter moving round. In the first chapter he makes a brief detour to present Intelligent Design Theory (ID) as being not only outside the bounds of Christian Theology but actually the very antithesis of all the major religions' understanding of the creator. Instead he explain how the demiurge, a god (with a small g), who is the creator of the material world but in many respects existing in the same way we do as a discrete being rather than the source of of being itself, is actually what is revealed by such theories. According to this website a demiurge looks like this:
Demiurge large
But that is by the by. More to the point, Hart writes:
The recent Intelligent Design movement represents the demiurge's boldest adventure in some considerable time . . . in the light of traditional theology the argument from irreducible complexity looks irredeemably defective, because it depends on the existence of causal discontinuities in the order of nature, "gaps" where natural causality proves inadequate. But all the classical theological arguments regarding the order of the world assume just the opposite: that God's creative power can be seen in the rational coherence of nature as a perfect whole; that the universe was not simply the factitious product of a supreme intelligence but the unfolding of an omnipresent divine wisdom or logos. . . If, however one could really show that there were interruptions in that order, places where the adventitious intrusions of an organising hand were needed to correct this or that part of the process, that might well suggest some deficiency in the fabric of creation. It might suggest that the universe was the work of a very powerful, but also somewhat limited, designer. (p37-39)

What a fascinating thought, worth wading through the verbiage for and I'm sure just a taster of what is to come. I'm just sad it couldn't have been written in a style more likely to engage the unbelieving rather than scare them off, frankly if an atheist got past page 13 without flinging the book away feeling patronised and belittled.

But anyway, his argument against ID is a fascinating one, he is surely right that the god of ID is a God of the gaps and is vulnerable to atrophy through further scientific discoveries, but I wonder if denying God the right to intervene in creation without it being an admission of imperfection is fair? Aren't the incarnation and resurrection of Jesus a fairly major intervention in creation and a significant "evolutionary" leap in human potential? And why shouldn't God leave some playful fingerprints on the fossil record for humanity to discover on our journey at the point when we find it easiest not to believe in him?

Let me know what you think :-)


  1. Aren't one off events like the resurrection of Jesus different in kind from the sort of "irreducible complexities" the ID people latch onto?

    Isn't ID a form of idolatry? Worshiping (or at least focusing on) an element or aspect of creation instead of the Creator...

  2. I'm not sure ID is idolatry, if focusing on an aspect of creation is idolatry then all science is, ID is surely just the argument that the discoveries of natural science suggest the presence of an intelligent designer. Yes the resurrection is a one off, but why shouldn't the creation of the eye be a one off as well, what i mean is that God isn't just expressing himself by creation organically bloom out of the ground of his being but does "adventitiously intrude" at opportune moments. I suspect Hart is right to say ID is a dead end because it creates a god of the gaps, i'm not sure he is right to say irreducible complexity is necessarily a sign of an incompetent creator, but then he does only couch it in probabilistic terms.

  3. I take your point about science and my doubly poor phrasing of my objection to ID. "Idolatry" was the wrong term. Though it still seems to me that ID is in the position of Job's comforters, trying to defend God. I am also uncomfortable with the claim that (some of) God's "intrusions" are measurable and detectable.

  4. looks like you and Hart are in the same camp then. me too probably, did anyone bring the marshmallows?