Sunday, September 2, 2012

Signs and Design

So the stars aligned this week as I was reading today’s Sunday School lesson (Hel. 6-12) and finishing up the biography of Asa Gray (who is my newest hero). The major theme of the lesson is the pride cycle, but as I pointed out earlier there is a significant reference to signs. Signs are interesting as it isn’t always the non-believers that are asking for them. Sometimes believers need them and refuse to believe any challenge or information that may conflict with those previously perceived signs.

The main story that spurred this thought comes from chapter 8: Nephi is calling his community to repentance, as they harbor a secret society, which gains power through murder and subterfuge. The judges who were members of said secret society didn’t like what he was saying so they incited some of the people against him

Finally, he states:
24 And now, seeing ye know these things and cannot deny them except ye shall lie, therefore in this ye have sinned, for ye have rejected all these things, notwithstanding so many evidences which ye have received; yea, even ye have received all things, both things in heaven, and all things which are in the earth, as a witness that they are true. 25 But behold, ye have rejected the truth, and rebelled against your holy God ...
He then further condemns them for harboring murderers and states: “27 Yea, behold it is now even at your doors…” and makes a prophesy about the murder of the chief judge. The people then select five people to confirm his statements They say they don’t believe Nephi, but will if what he says about the Chief Judge proves true. What he had said is true, converting the five and causing them to keel over. The corrupt judges though are unconvinced, saying that Nephi must be in league with whoever committed the murder. Nephi proves his innocence by telling the people how to get the true murderer to reveal himself. This vindicates him both as a prophet and as a non-murderer.

I realized on reading this story that signs figure heavily in our understanding of faith. In this case, signs convert the five who were sent, others believed Nephi’s words alone, and the judges refused to accept even with the evidence of the sign in hand. I think there is a fourth kind of individual out there, those that believe first, but enjoy/need/desire some confirmation of this faith through tangible signs and miracles. These groups are then comparable to atheists (judges, as they refuse to believe), agnostics (five men converted only by concrete evidence), and two groups of people of faith (those believing the words only and those needing signs after the fact).

In the biography of Asa Gray there is a chapter summarizing his attempts to argue for the reconciliation of evolution (at that time Darwinism) and religion. He first made an argument that God could use “beneficial lines of variation” which did not go over well among the agnostics including the main inner circle of Darwin and his supporters*. Gray abandons this line in later years calling it an incomplete metaphor for what he was really trying to say. I didn’t get his full argument clearly from the biography, but apparently Gray published a book called Darwiniana, which I am now interested in reading. In essence, Gray was attempting to save the design argument: nature can only be so beautiful, complex, and inexplicable because of a Designer. This was a consistent conversion tool as well as a buttress against non-believers. It could be used to tell the “five who ran” that if you want a test for the existence of God, look at nature and all that is around you.

For agnostics and atheists, evolutionary theory negated this argument, as biodiversity was not as mysterious. Gray’s philosophy was that “science is neutral” with respect to God (and faith), and a design argument could still be made with evolution. Ie God using natural selection to design species where we would see how advantageous the traits they possess are for their survival. This was still rejected by agnostics, as it is a weak argument**

As I said at the beginning, what I think is more telling is the response of the faith community. Some liked Gray’s attempts, but many did not like evolution primarily because it caused a challenge to the design argument. They felt frustrated with evolution because now non-believers could respond to the design argument with “yes, look all around you we can explain that with science.” The believers were not challenged in their faith, but wanted the sign as evidence and were/are reluctant to give up the argument as lost. Now the sign they saw before is more important than understanding more about the natural world, which we can get through methods like science.

So how do we reconcile evolution or science in general with scriptures (among my favorite) such as Moses 6:63:
63 And behold, all things have their likeness, and all things are created and made to bear record of me, both things which are temporal, and things which are spiritual; things which are in the heavens above, and things which are on the earth, and things which are in the earth, and things which are under the earth, both above and beneath: all things bear record of me.
I think the key is to understand that nature testifies or gives witness of God and it is not given for logical argumentation. It requires a desire to believe. If one has the perspective of belief, you can see the hand of God in all that is around us. We can even learn more about the nature of God, His way of interacting with us, and how we can be more like Him. If one decides not to believe then it is hard to distinguish what exactly is the hand of God. Here is the main problem: there is no control as God created everything or viewed from an atheist perspective nothing***. I mean by this that no one aspect of nature can be contrasted with another to test if it was designed or not. It is all the same in this respect.

Just because something now falls into the preview of a scientific theory, meaning we have a reasonable idea of how it happened, does not take away the miracle of it. It still testifies of God when viewed through the lenses of faith. Some don’t like to accept this, requiring a miracle to be inexplicable. This philosophy makes me feel sad for all the miracles they miss everyday.

*As an aside, Darwin’s agnosticism was rooted in his difficulty with theodicy: how could an all-powerful, all-knowing being be benevolent AND let bad things happen. Something many today still struggle with.

**While I agree it is a weak argument I don’t think parsimony (elimination of extraneous complexity) is always reality and it is my belief that to see God in nature first requires faith, something that does not go well with argument, as it is by definition illogical. “ is not to have a perfect knowledge of things; therefore if ye have faith ye hope for things which are not seen, which are true.”.

*** I’m not a huge fan of strict dichotomies as they usually prove false, but in this case I am relying on scriptures: Colossians 1:16-17, among many others.