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This starts with a joke. Not a particularly good one, but perhaps the novelty will save the humor. It’s been a long time since I’ve heard it told.
An atheist is arguing with a priest as they walk through a grove of trees. “How can you believe in a God who created such a disordered universe? Look at these mighty oak trees. See the tiny acorns they produce. And yet the massive pumpkin grows on a feeble vine. If I had designed the world that situation would be corrected, let me tell you.”
Just then an acorn falls from the oak and taps the atheist on his noggin. “Imagine” drawls his companion “if that had been a pumpkin.”
The humor here (and I hope you’ll pardon my analyzing the joke. Perhaps with a better one I’d worry about squandering it) the humor lies in the atheist who is so confident that he knows how the universe ought to be ordered. He has a clear aesthetic view that fails to take into account some practical implications.
The Argument For and Against the Existence of God by Design
I doubt that particular conversation ever actually took place but I have seen similar arguments made. The blood vessels in the eye go in front of the retina where they inevitably block some percentage of the light. Wouldn’t it be more efficient to run the blood vessels along the back of the retina so you don’t get the “down in front!” effect? Maybe; maybe not. The system really is a wonder for oxygenating the eye, and it blocks only a small percentage of the incident photons. (I speak only from second-hand knowledge, mind you; I’ve never given the matter much study myself.)
The general form of the argument seems to be: “Nature works in this way. It would work better if instead, it worked this other way. Therefore a rational God did not design this.” And a general counter-argument. “Nature actually works better the way it does because of this reason you have failed to consider.” Either way, I don’t find it very convincing; you can swap the argument and counter-argument to the opposite positions as well. Both the atheist and the theist, in making their arguments, are assuming that they know all functions a given thing has and can deduce all reasons that the Lord might have constructed that thing that way.
I bring it up to illustrate two closely-related principles that one must keep in mind when reasoning about the Almighty:
- God is smarter than I am.
- God is also wiser than I am.
The Good Lord who stretched out the giraffe’s neck presumably had a good reason for doing so. Possibly it was for some overriding engineering concern. I think it more likely that He did so because he takes joy in the delight children get from seeing such an absurd animal. Not a value that many of us science types generally worry about, but that’s that second principle for you. The Good Lord has his own purposes that are better than the ones that you and I hold. In the end, that sort of design objective is hardly a thing that could be proven, at least on this side of the grave.
Arguing With the Almighty Himself
If one were to argue design with God, however, the general argument would take on a different form. “Nature works this way. It would work better if instead, it worked this other way.” (Therefore…? What exactly would one hope to gain by gainsaying the Almighty?) God would respond “No, this is the best configuration because…” and there would follow a series of reasons and counterarguments that would settle the matter. A God who knows the end from the beginning will have weighed every competing concern and derived the optimal solution. That is, He’d respond if He felt the need to justify His reasons to you in the first place. Job got several chapters of “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the Earth?”.
That lack of an answer is deeply unsatisfying to us as readers. You let the man’s kids die; the least you can do is explain why to him. Job though, Job takes it as a complete answer. He doesn’t argue; he apologizes for demanding an answer in the first place.
I have heard of You by the hearing of the ear,
But now my eye sees You.
Therefore I abhor myself,
And repent in dust and ashes.
Why? The answer to that question comes from the first chapter of the book, but not from the story, from something that Job said after he had lost everything.
Then Job arose, tore his robe, and shaved his head; and he fell to the ground and worshiped. And he said:
“Naked I came from my mother’s womb,
And naked shall I return there.
The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away;
Blessed be the name of the Lord.”
In all this Job did not sin nor charge God with wrong.
Everything — the money, Job’s health, his children — everything was given to him by the Lord. None of it was immutably his; he enjoyed all the gifts at the pleasure of the Lord. There’s no higher court, no standard of justice, no celestial insurance company to make him whole after the Lord removes those gifts. It’s easy to assume that His justice reflects our own ideas of justice when we’re talking among ourselves, but the holiness of God allows no quibbling. Job here reverts to the usual reaction of man when confronted with the reality of the Living God; stark, raving terror. All our sophistries fade away like snowflakes in a rainstorm when we’re forced to acknowledge the actual, living presence of God.
The Implications of Infinity
If one is going to consider the nature of God, then it’s probably best to consider God on God’s own terms. If God is infinite, then reasoning about a god that is not infinite won’t actually tell you about the Lord. If you start with the assumption that God is confined by the Laws of Physics then you’ll never understand anything about a God who isn’t. I touched on the point briefly when discoursing on my opium dreams.
If God is in fact infinite, then you’ve got to reason about Him as if He’s infinite in order to get anywhere. If he’s infinitely intelligent then it’s not enough to just say that you’re likely to lose any sort of game of cosmic riddles. You’re measuring your finite IQ against his infinite IQ, and any finite quantity is less than an infinite quantity. But once you start talking about God as if he’s infinite there are whole debates that just sort of melt away.
For instance, evolution. If the Lord spoke the Earth into existence literally as it’s described in Genesis chapter 1 then He could have done it precisely that way. Any amount of clever biologists discoursing on fossils and DNA doesn’t change that. An infinite God can speak whatever he likes into the fossil record just as easily as He could have spoken its absence in. Alternately, perhaps he ran evolution like a computer simulation to see if you could get whales back out of land mammals, or maybe he just let the Earth run for an epoch and said ‘Let there be ponies now.” If God is infinitely powerful and infinitely intelligent then we have to acknowledge the possibility that He did things any old way He pleases and never mind what we’d have chosen.
We’ve established a means, do we have a motive? Why not? God, judging from the Bible, values the salvation of people rather highly. Suppose he set up the whole pageant of evolution in order to reach a single biology grad student in North Carolina. Seems like an awful lot of work, doesn’t it? Again, we’re thinking about infinity here. It’s just as easy for Him to do it that way as any other. If I have infinite money on hand, I can pay the national debt just as easily as if I can pay for an ice-cream cone. Infinity dollars minus 20 trillion works out to the same thing as infinity minus two bits; it’s still infinity.
As such I’m never much bothered by questions of atheists and acorns. From either side of the question, it’s nothing but a plausibility argument. We can play our games with wisdom and logic but we ought to do so with a certain amount of humility. One may argue with the Almighty, one would be foolish to expect to prevail. There’s no possible example, experiment, theoretical, hypothesis, what have you that can prove God exists unless God allows it. The question always — always — always resolves to the one Christ offered to Peter:
He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?”
Peter answered and said, “The Christ of God.”
In the end, that’s the question that matters.Published in