Friday, January 26, 2007

Playing God

I very rarely read anything in the Faith and Values section of my daily newspaper because it is really a Faith and Faith section. Yesterday, I was greeted by a story recounting an address by a "noted theologian" who claimed that evolution and intelligent design are not mutually exclusive. The headline for the story was quite silly -- "God and evolution can coexist" was how it was put. This is paired with comments by a paster and teacher at a Cleveland University. According to her, germline genetic engineering, that is, the altering of genes early in pregnancy, constitutes "playing God"? She also evokes the slippery slope argument asking, "How far do we go?" These religious persons seem to have wildly different conceptions of God.

The headline is silly because it links concepts from two different cognitive categories, that of beings (God) and a human cognitive construct (the theory of evolution). The theologian, unlike the headline, claims that evolution and intelligent design are not in conflict. This does not constitute a category error for both are human cognitive constructs. Where they differ is that those studying evolution make falsifiable claims and therefore are engaged in an empirical enterprise while those "studying" intelligent design do not make falsifiable predictions and are therefore not engaged in an empirical enterprise. For that reason, we must dismiss intelligent design as being nothing more than bad metaphysics.

I am reminded of picking up the great German theologian Paul Tillich at the airport in Houston, Texas in the late 50's or early 60's to take him to Rice University where he was to give a talk. I told him that the Texas legislature in its infinite wisdom had decided or was considering deciding to require all state employees and/or all teachers to affirm their belief in a "Supreme Being." Tillich's responses was: "Bah, bad metaphysics." He would be even more aghast at the notion of "intelligent design."

The theologian, John F. Haught, does say some useful things, namely that believers in intelligent design see God as having an engineering capacity. "They want a magician," he says. He prefers the view that God is a being who can create a universe that can create itself rather than a God who "is pulling all the strings directly." I have no idea what this means but it is fun to think about. What he seems to be saying is that God may have posited whatever amount of energy and matter that exists in the universe as an unstable ball which explodes and morphs into gobs of different things and that somehow the "laws" of physics evolve to regulate how matter and energy will behave. This would turn the "laws" of physics into necessary truths. As I said, I have no idea what this really means.

I am more interested in the pastor's claim that altering genes in fetuses constitutes "playing God." This presuppose precisely the view of God that Haught dismisses, namely that of God as an engineer, pulling all the strings. In fact, anyone who has carried a child or been with a woman who is carrying a child knows two things: it is a difficult 9 months for the woman and it is a crying shame if this 9 months were to end with a child with birth defects that were correctable. It would criminal to prohibit people from allowing such gene alterations for it burdens the parents and the child with problems that are extremely difficult to cope with. To reply that this would be "God's Will" is a load of crap unless you really like J.B.'s notion that "If God is God, God is not good; If God is good, God is not God."

Would it be good if every set of parents were to decide that they want a blond blue-eyed boy who has an IQ of 200 and the athletic talent of Michael Jordan and will live forever? No, it wouldn't. And the pastor is right to be concerned that genetic engineering will be used for purposes that are problematic. After all, after China passed its "one child" rule for parents, sonograms were used to determine the sex of fetuses and many parents chose to abort females, a practice that also seems to occur in India. And it is not unknown for parents to simply kill female babies. China has tried to take measures to strictly limit the use of sonograms. I do not know what India has done. It has been speculated that both countries will experience significant social problems as very large numbers of males will not be able to have wifes. So long as genetic engineering is restricted to correcting correctable problems not enhance an already sound fetus, I can't see how any reasonable person could object but I suspect someone will tell me how that is possible in fact.

Here are set of options for conceiving God as a creator: God creates a universe that creates itself, Haught's position; God creates a universe and stipulates its laws of physics as well as other constraints and leaves things alone; God does the latter but continues to meddle with the universe; God does the latter but also takes a personal interest in each of us, punishing us after we die if we are bad and rewarding us if we are good; God does the latter except that the punishments and rewards occur here; and finally God creates everything, stipulates the laws for whatever needs them, meddles in our lives, punishes us and rewards us in this world and after we die. I think I was trained to believe in this last conception by the church my parents made me go to (a view of god my mother, at least, didn't actually believe -- their motivation was social) and I am an atheist only with respect to those theories that have a meddling God who engages in punishment and reward. I don't care about the other conceptions but I am intrigued by my construction of Haught's position.

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Blogger concerned citizen said...

I also like Haught's position, because it works well with my humanist point of veiw...
that the responsibility is ultimately our own but NOT from the position of being flawed or a "sinner". But, from the position of being capable as human beings.(the freedom to evolve) IMO, the very worst thing that conventional Christianity does is tear down the human spirit by:
1.Making us uncapable of controlling our own destiny
2.then presenting us with a primitive God to take care of all of it.

Paul Tillich, He was one of the very best reads I had as a Christian, one thing he said that I've never forgot.(not an exact quote, it's been a long time)
"A country is only as high as it's God."

12:26 PM

Blogger concerned citizen said...

come to think of it...that might of been A.W Tozer that said that, I should google that.

I'll get back to me.

Hmmm, can't find it...well, I always thought it was a good quote anyway, however said it.

12:43 PM


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