One of the chapters of Evidence Considered responds to Dr Spencer’s essay: Intelligent, Optimal, and Divine Design. When I published this, I let Dr Spencer know, and he was kind enough both to respond and to allow me to share his response. I have lightly edited the email he sent and include his attached response without any editing.
Dear Dr. Jelbert,
Thank you for letting me know about your response to my essay. [minor redaction]
My response is attached, but I hope that I may also make two personal comments without offending you too deeply; I offer them with the sincere hope that they may strike a chord. First, I wonder why you, having thought that you were a Christian for 30 years, would now devote so much time and effort to trying to disprove Christianity? If I thought I had been deceived about something for 30 years, and therefore had wasted a great deal of time and energy, I would simply want to forget about it and move on with my life. I wonder if, perhaps, you are working hard to convince yourself that your atheism is true? Perhaps, deep down, you know it is not?
Second, we live in a time when the true church is extremely weak. Most people who call themselves Christians are not, and most churches that call themselves Christian are not. There are a great number of false gospels and false Christs being preached. I say this simply because people sometimes think they have experienced true Christianity and reject it, when, in fact, all they have experienced is a counterfeit. If you were truly born again, you would not leave the faith permanently (1 Jn 2:19). So, I conclude that you are either apostate and will return, or you were never born again to begin with. The idea that Christianity is simply a decision that you can make, and then later change your mind, is a very common but completely unbiblical idea that is common to many of the false gospels (Jn 3:5, 6:44).
I do not believe that I can “prove” the existence of God to you in any formal sense of that word, nor do I believe anyone can disprove the existence of God (both because he does exist and because such a proof would require knowledge of everything). But, God’s word clearly says that we all know he exists (Romans 1) and suppress that truth, so I don’t worry about it. My faith is not based on rational argumentation, but my faith is completely rational. It is my hope and prayer that my response may simply cause you to ask God to show you the truth. No one is capable of independently and objectively analyzing the evidence; we all come at it with presuppositions, which determine the outcome of our “investigation”.
His attached response is as follows:
Dr. Jelbert says that “Spencer saw a challenge in the incompatibility of divine design and the apparent lack of optimization in nature.” I saw no such “challenge” because I see no “incompatibility” between divine design and the “lack of optimization in nature.” As I explained in Footnote 2, my essay was written in response to the incorrect assumption that intelligent design is equivalent to optimal design. This assumption is used to argue against intelligent design whenever a supposedly non-optimal structure is detected. It was not my intention, in spite of the essay’s appearance in a book entitled “evidence for GOD”, to provide proof for the existence of God. My purpose was to show a serious weakness in one of the arguments often used to support the theory of evolution. I was not, therefore, trying to “plug” any hole.
The comment that “Without evidence for God, his discussion has no foundation or even any meaning.” is simply untrue. My argument stands as a polemic against the use of evidence for macroevolution, when such “evidence” is also what one would expect to see if God created this world and everything in it.
Dr. Jelbert also writes, “It is unclear to me how anyone can know so much about divine design. What possible vantage point could we have that would allow us to assess divine design in this way?” The answer is simple, the “vantage point” is the Word of God. God has revealed a great deal about himself, his purposes and his methods in the Bible. Anyone interested in learning more about that is invited to listen to a podcast series that I have been doing, entitled “What Does the Word Say?”, which is available on iTunes or at whatdoesthewordsay.org.
My essay first gave some examples based on human designers. For example, we accept non-optimal designs in order to allow us to use computer-aided and systematic design procedures, and to re-use component parts so that we are able to design systems more rapidly and systems of greater complexity than would be possible if we tried to optimize each individual part.
I then noted that even though God is obviously not subject to human limitations, there are three good reasons why we might find what we think are non-optimal designs in creation. First, I mentioned God’s use of secondary agents, including the physical laws that he has established. These laws, for example, determine the shapes of some structures and the types of chemicals that must be used to establish a functioning metabolism. I did not give any specific examples here because my point was simply that even God is constrained by the physical laws he has set in place, unless he wants to implement structures that violate those physical laws, which is possible, but I know of no such examples .
Second, I noted that adaptive systems are inherently wasteful and non-optimum, this is a necessary part of their nature, not a design flaw. Since God clearly made biological organisms to be able to adapt to environmental changes (microevolution), I would expect to see non-optimal and unused components in nature. The existence of such structures, therefore, does not constitute a valid argument for macroevolution since it fails to distinguish between intelligent design and macroevolution.
Third, in order to assess whether or not a given structure is optimal, one must know the design objective(s) completely . But, most people assume God’s objective should be maximizing their pleasure in this life, which is simply not true. I quoted Dr. Francis Collins solely in support of this point. I also noted that we presently observe a universe that is corrupted by sin, and, therefore, we are not observing creation in its original state. For example, had sin never entered the world, we would not die. Nor would we get injured or sick. Such problems all come as part of God’s judgment against human sin.
As an additional comment, not part of my original essay, I would argue that God is perfect (Matt 5:48) and all that he does is perfect (e.g., Dt 32:4, 2 Sam 22:31, Ps 18:30), so this is the perfect universe to accomplish the purposes for which God created it. The main purpose, put briefly, is the manifestation of his own glory (e.g., Is 43:7, 48:11, 60:21, 1Cor 10:31). This includes demonstrating his holiness and justice in punishing sin, and his love and mercy in providing redemption for sinners through the sacrificial life and death of Jesus Christ.
In his analysis, Dr. Jelbert writes “Spencer then gives an example of designing a microprocessor with a computer-aided design (CAD) tool, which he then notes might be a better design in many senses, undermining his point a little.” This is a complete mischaracterization and/or misunderstanding of my point. I did not say that such a design might be “better”, I said that it could be considered more intelligent, and I went on to say that it could be considered more intelligent precisely “because it enables us to design much more complex functions.”
This point clearly supports my contention that intelligent design is not in any way equivalent to optimal design. It turns out, for example, that you most definitely can optimize the performance (or power) of a microprocessor design if you go in and carefully adjust things at a lower level of abstraction. But, if you do that, you will not be able to produce as many designs in a given period of time. You will also increase the chances of making an error, which then makes the part far more expensive to produce (since you have to iterate to fix the error). So, in the end, you are more likely to go out of business. In that sense, the more optimal design is certainly less intelligent!
With regard to “secondary agents”, Dr. Jelbert writes “Is he saying that the world looks as though it were created through natural causes because God chose to do it that way? In this case, he is left positing an explanation for why God made it look like He does not exist.” Space and time limitations prevented me from going into more detail, but I could have been clearer. Besides physical laws, the other “secondary agents” I had in mind were whatever mechanisms are responsible for the adaptation of biological organisms, in other words, what is commonly called microevolution. I thought this point was clear given my essay in its entirety, but it obviously was not. In any event, to say that God makes systems that operate in a way that is consistent with his physical laws, and that he uses secondary agents at times as well, does not in any way say that God “made it look like He does not exist.” That makes no more sense than to say that my designing an electronic circuit that is able to adapt itself to different circumstances somehow makes it look as though it designed itself.
What God did create, is a universe that has “fixed laws” (Jer 33:25), which man is able to investigate, understand and use (the basis for science). God is able to suspend those laws when he sees fit, but that is a rare event, which is precisely why such miracles are signs to us. So, to create a universe in which there are fixed laws in operation in no way makes it look like God does not exist. In fact, those laws have very strict limits. I would argue, for example, that the physical laws of this universe cannot explain the origin of the universe itself, of life, or of creatures able to make real decisions for which they can be justly held accountable . As we are told in Romans 1:20, “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.”
Dr. Jelbert’s analysis of the “divine re-use hypothesis” is seriously flawed. He states, for example, that “there would be no expectation that different, independent genes have the same family tree”, but this is an unwarranted assumption, which then leads to a conclusion that has no sound basis; namely, that “The divine reuse hypothesis says that we would get different results for each different gene”. There is, however, good evidence to support a divine-reuse hypothesis, as opposed to evolution. For example, both whales and bats use similar systems (i.e., similar genes and proteins) for echolocation, but these mammals are not at all closely related. Therefore, biologists have posited that these features evolved independently. Given the immense number of possible combinations, this possibility is simply too outrageously unlikely for any reasonable person to accept if they understand simple probability. There are also significant flaws in the arguments supporting the purported ability of genetic mutation to generate the vast amounts of information necessary for macroevolution to occur (e.g., see Chapter 11 of Darwin’s Doubt by Stephen C. Meyer), which is an implicit part of Dr. Jelbert’s argument.
Dr. Jelbert writes, “the built-in choke hazard is a design flaw that is unrelated to our adaptability, so either God designed it poorly, or macroevolution occurred. Either way, the adaptive systems argument falls flat as an excuse for suboptimal design.” But, this statement presents us with a false dichotomy because it includes two implicit assumptions that are invalid.
The first invalid assumption is that God is not sovereign over his creation. The mere fact that it is possible for someone to choke to death does not, in any way, mean that such an event can occur if God does not permit it. It is also possible for a person to drown in a large body of water, does it follow that allowing large bodies of water is a design flaw? Or, does the fact that people can be burned with fire imply that providing fire is a design flaw in the universe? There may be other reasons, unknown to us, for why God made our “air intake” and “food intake” both use the same channel. I’m not going to spend time thinking about that detail, but it is arrogant to say that because we think it is a design flaw, it somehow disproves the existence of God.
The second fallacious assumption is that this short life is all there is. The Bible makes it clear that when we die, our lives are not over, we either go to heaven or to hell, and we stay there forever (Matt 25:46, Heb 9:27). Therefore, when you take an eternal perspective, whatever pain or suffering we endure in this life is, quite literally, of zero importance compared to eternal felicity in heaven or eternal judgment in hell. As the Bible tells us, there is only one thing truly needful (Lk 10:42), and that is to be sure that we have peace with God (Rom 5:1-2). Jesus made the same point about the relative unimportance of this life when he asked the rhetorical question “For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?” (Mrk 8:36).
Dr. Jelbert castigates me for saying that “we are rarely in a position to fully understand all of the design objectives and constraints.” He says that “Spencer ascribes attributes to God to pull together an argument but eventually has to admit that he does not know what God would do and why. This is theistic agnosticism—the belief that God exists, but cannot be known—and is often the end point of any theistic attempt to describe God.” This is complete nonsense. To say that I do not fully understand God and all of his purposes and plans is not at all the same as saying that God cannot be known, or that I cannot know something about his plans and purposes. Let me put this in terms of physics since Dr. Jelbert has a PhD in physics. We do not know what matter and energy really are. Does it logically follow that we know nothing about matter and energy and how to manipulate them? Of course not. In the same way, I can know a great deal about God, but I am restricted to knowing what he has revealed. He absolutely is knowable, but we cannot have exhaustive knowledge of him.
Finally, let me address what is, without any doubt, the most difficult problem Dr. Jelbert raises with this choking example. He writes, “In practice, I cannot imagine what ‘closeness to God’ is brought about by watching your baby choke to death on a grape, for example, for either baby, parent or anyone else.” This is, indeed, a very difficult question because we can all identify to some degree with the kind of pain involved. But, as I noted above, God is sovereign and the brevity of this life (literally infinitely shorter than eternity) means that what is most important is our eternal estate. So, if such a terrible event caused the parents, or others, to consider their mortality, search for answers, and turn to God, it could most definitely produce a benefit of inestimable value. And, if the child ends up in heaven, that is most definitely gain for the child.
- I am at fault for not doing a better job of clearly stating my point here. When I wrote “As a logical possibility, God is, of course, free to suspend the physical laws he has instituted. Yet I don’t know a single unequivocal example in which he has done so. This is not to deny miracles. I am simply saying that I don’t know of any examples of miraculous structures in nature, and that includes biological structures.” I meant for all four sentences to be read as a unit. It is obvious, in hindsight, that the first two sentences can be read to imply far more than I intended. I simply meant that, in principle, God could have created biological structures that somehow violate physical laws, but I don’t know of any examples. I certainly know of examples of miracles, just not “miraculous structures in nature”.
- If there are more than one objective, as is often the case, then they need to be prioritized and design trade-offs need to be adjudicated, which can be very difficult.
- If anyone is interested, this argument is also made very well by the physicist Stephen Barr in his book Modern Physics and Ancient Faith.