On Enzymes and Providence

Pilgrim’s Pensieve #31

A few weeks ago I was listening to an episode of one of my favourite podcasts from the BBC where they discussed enzymes. As the panel of scientists talked the host was blown away by the ingenuity of these biochemical catalysts. So he asked a question to the effect that since enzymes are so remarkable and clever, doesn’t it seem as if they were designed?

The room became silent for a moment. The host’s question was worded in such a way that could suggest there was scientific evidence for the existence of a creator god. This made the scientists a bit nervous. They gently but firmly explained that was not their intention and the host himself recognised he could have worded his question better. Now one of the scientists went on to say something I found pretty fascinating. She said as amazing as enzymes are, they are pretty inefficient, some what implying in the context of that conversation that it was evidence against the existence of a creator deity or at least some kind of design.

I found it interesting because that subtle suggestion is actually unscientific. Science is limited to the study of physical reality. Therefore, if a phenomenon or entity is not physical then by definition science has nothing to say about it. So science cannot tell us if deities exist or whether the universe has an ultimate purpose. It cannot even tell us what Truth is because such things are not physical.

Probably in her mind if there was a creator, that being would be efficient but that is not a claim that you can strictly derive from the science. It is actually a philosophical or theological interpretation of scientific knowledge. There is obviously nothing wrong with making theological or philosophical claims about scientific facts but it must be recognized once you do, you have stepped beyond the domain of science.

I find there is similar error among Christians except they come to radically different conclusions. Many Christians look at the theory of biological evolution and reject it because to them it means their god did not originally create a perfect world, that is one free of pain and suffering, and in their theology such a god is completely unacceptable. So instead of rejecting a belief in a particular conception of deity they rather dismiss the science. In both instances, the presumably non-christian scientist and evolution denying Christian wrongly assume the science made theological claims instead of recognising they were bringing theological or philosophical presuppositions to the science and interpreting the significance of the science through that lens. It is the scientific equivalent of eisogesis being mistaken for exegesis. (By the way, there are good exegetical reasons in Genesis that suggest the original creation was not “perfect” which you can find here.)

What made the atheism from inefficiency suggestion even more misplaced is that they strongly criticized Intelligent Design, a form of creationism that denies biological evolution. It says design can be discerned in organisms but that is an unscientific assertion. If you cannot make scientific arguments for the existence of an intelligent designer of all life because science does not address such matters, then surely you cannot make scientific arguments for the nonexistence of a creator either.

I found it really interesting that they immediately picked up on the unintentional suggestion of creationism in the host’s question but they did not notice that the subtle suggestion that a creator does not exist is equally unscientific. I do not wish to give the impression that the majority of scientists are atheists but that is the impression I got from those scientists. Moreover the UK is a very secular country so their scepticism is probably more a cultural thing.

It seems both theists and nontheists fail to fully acknowledge that when it comes to anything beyond its purview science is neutral. It cannot be coopted in support of their respective positions. This bothers some Christians but personally I like the relative independence of science. It means the entire scientific enterprise and theology are distinct. They can therefore be pursued on their own merit without fear of interference from one another. This means I do not read the Bible for scientific insight neither can I look to science to determine the nature of the God of the Bible. The contribution of each discipline can be treated seriously on its own terms.

While the inefficiency argument against a creator is unscientific, a person is definitely allowed to make whatever claim they want. That particular argument is a theological and a philosophical one so it must be judged on such terms.

First of all, the quality of a design is certainly not an argument against the existence of a designer. An incompetent designer is still a designer. Secondly, if a creator does exist and that being made the world for a particular purpose, then the creation must be judged according to the creator’s standards. A sentient creature’s assessment of the creation is certainly not the final word.

I suspect the scientist who suggested a creator does not exist is influenced by the philosophical and theological idea of divine perfection. When something is perfect it means nothing can be added to it that will change it or improve it. A perfect creator would therefore make a perfect creation. If the creation is imperfect e.g. it lacks in biochemical efficiency, then the creator does not exist because by definition such a being must be perfect. The other draw back of this approach, apart from the one I have already indicated, is that people tend to project their ideas of perfection on to the creator god. This is true of the way some atheists and some Christian theists conceive of a creator god.

Both camps tend to have problems with waste, whether it is the relative inefficiency of biological processes and mechanisms for the atheist or for the believer the countless deaths of organisms that is a natural part of the evolutionary process. Depending on their persuasion, they will choose either the science or the theology. There is a tacit agreement between them on what a perfect world and a perfect god should be like, which actually reflects what humans want. This is borne out by the fact that when people make things they tend to make them as efficient as possible and minimise waste. Yet the biblical conception of the creator god is that he is anything but frugal.

When humans make things they have limited resources so they have to be conservative. The maker of all things has no such limitations so he is liberal and endlessly generous with his creation. So the question then becomes how we interpret the inefficiency we find in the natural world. Do we look at it from a human point of view and see it as a waste or consider that perhaps from the perspective of the divine creator his ultimate concern is probably not the cost of creation? A brilliant sermon on God and evolution by N.T. Wright (which you can find here) helped me see it is a matter of perspective, whether one sees waste or divine providence. Wright used the parable of the sower to help illustrate this.

The sower scattered his seed everywhere, even on the wayside. From our perspective it seems unnecessary and wasteful but that is how God gets the abundant harvest. The parable is part of a bigger motif of how God works in human history. His ways seem to be meandering and full of dead ends, untimely and inopportune, difficult and outright frustrating, but in all of that there is a plan and that is precisely how he accomplishes the most astonishing things that we could never have imagined. He argued that given how we see God act in the world according to the Bible, we should not have been surprised that something quite analogous happens in nature. From that perspective evolutionary processes do look a lot like the handiwork of the creator after all.

God in the Bible does new things. He brings light out of darkness, healing out of brokenness, joy out of suffering, and life out of death. The things that seem pointless and unnecessary to us, in his plan may be of unfathomable worth. The very story of Jesus is the culmination of the story of the God who characteristically acts in unexpected ways.

Now to the scientist who implied that if there was a creator, he would not make something so inefficient, it turns out there is an incomparably liberal God who makes sense of what we observe about nature and reveals that it has a greater purpose that what we could possibly conceive. This is not only something doubters need to be aware of but but believers as well.

Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!

“For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?” “Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?”

For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen. – Romans 11:33-36 ESV

2 thoughts on “On Enzymes and Providence

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