The Eye and I: Do the questions science poses diminish the God of faith?

For 40 years, I have taunted high school seniors with the problem of God. Given their only recently evolved capacity to reason and its concomitant resistance to authority, it would be easier to market acne. The ethos confirmed them, long before the church did, as relativists (Up to the individual), materialists (Show me!) and pragmatists (This on the test?).

But I always held the trump card (I thought): the elegant human eye, a near-perfect mechanism whose exquisite parts are pointless without the others. A transparent lens corrects for color and spherical distortion; an iris diaphragm fine-tunes focus continuously, even for those whose vision is otherwise impaired. The retinas 125 million color-coding cells automatically switch among wavelengths. They take three-dimensional color pictures as long as one can stay awake, and they never need developing or new film. Then images converge into a brain that turns them into abstract ideas. And often if they are damaged they repair themselves. No way could that just happen in correct sequence, even with a gazillion lucky chances! It is as close to certainty as one can get that God, not evolution, created the universe. Darwin himself found the eye a puzzlement: To suppose the eye with all its inimitable contrivances...could have been formed by natural selection, seems, I freely confess, absurd in the highest degree.

For 40 years, I was smug as a bug in a rug.

Then, to my chagrin, I found not only that the eye could evolve, bit by infinitesimal bit, but has done so more than once. And the defenders of that capacity were not only apostolic atheists like Richard Dawkins and fair-minded agnostics like Steven Jay Gould, but also an evangelical like Francis Collins, head of the Human Genome Project, and Catholics like the Brown University biologist Kenneth Miller and George Coyne, S.J., former head of the Vatican Observatory. Evolution had more latitude than I had guessed even from John Paul II’s address “Truth Cannot Contradict Truth” (1996) and Joseph Ratzinger’s In the Beginning (1986).

It was like the shock I had studying theology, accepting that snakes never talked, or learning that scientists find the Bohr model of the atom, with its companionably orbiting electrons, as far from actuality as 15th-century maps: not useless, but quite inadequate. I was Alec Guinness standing amid the ruins of his beautiful bridge on the River Kwai.

The unpleasant facts: Limpets have just a few pigmented cells in an eye-spot, but these are effective enough to sense predators. One step up, split-shell mollusks’ eyes recede into pits; the marine snail, the Nautilus, has its focus narrowed by a pinhole lens. Octopuses and most vertebrates have sharp-focus camera eyes just like ours. Using computer mock-ups (and presuming a pre-existent photo-sensitive cell), the Swedish biologists Dan-Erik Nilsson and Susanne Pelger estimated that an animal could go from flat-skin eye to camera-lens eye in less than 500,000 years. Cells have “motive, means and opportunity.”

Time and Chance

But does Darwin necessarily displace God? For a philosopher, “random” means “haphazard, purposeless”; but for a scientist it merely means “imperfectly predictable,” lacking certainty but still constrained by the laws of physics and chemistry and the particular environment. By definition, unexpected changes are a break from what had been pretty much predictable behavior. And while mutations in a species over vast savannahs of time do arise from purely chance “blips” in cell replication, the selection and continuance of those changes is anything but haphazard. Only changes making the host a better predator (or more elusive prey), a more seductive attraction to mates and provider for young win the chance to continue in the opportunistic game.

So at horse races, experts who study the contenders, controllers and environment make quite confident guesses about outcomes. Similarly, atomic probers track errant electrons, and theologians grapple with the elusive Creator. The astounding rationality of the physical world, coupled with the analytic and imaginative powers of the human mind, give rise to both science and theology—making educated guesses about unseen causes of visible effects. Annie Dillard writes: “What is the difference between a cathedral and a physics lab? Are they not both saying: Hello?” Newton, Einstein and Heisenberg are like Isaiah, Paul and Rahner in exploring the same terra incognita with approximating tools, assessing all the pertinent factors and taking calculated risks. Despite our inadequate grasp of the divine nature, God would seem the best odds-maker in the universe.

Diminishing God?

Many believers in creationism and intelligent design balk at yielding much to evolution (or relativity or quantum theory), lest it jettison God after such long service. Atheist evolutionists worsen matters by reminding us that God gave us an appendix with no function but to rupture on occasion, viruses whose sole aim is to destroy, and a world “red in tooth and claw.” In River Out of Eden, Dawkins writes remorselessly: “This is one of the hardest lessons for humans to learn. We cannot admit things might be neither good nor evil. Neither cruel nor kind, but simply callous— indifferent to all suffering, lacking all purpose.”

In 2004 the International Theological Commission of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith wrote in Communion and Stewardship (No. 69): “According to the Catholic understanding of divine causality...even the outcome of a truly contingent natural process can nonetheless fall within God’s providential plan for creation.” God did not have to rig natural history so a particular branch of primates would begin to stand up and look around, any more than God had to steer us toward Babylon or Rome or Buchenwald. As Kenneth R. Miller writes: “If we can see God’s will in the flow of history and the circumstances of our daily lives, we can certainly see it in the currents of natural history.... Given evolution’s ability to adapt, to innovate, to test, and to experiment, sooner or later it would have given the Creator exactly what He was looking for.”

A constantly meddlesome God leads to the Deist “watchmaker” of the 19th century, consolingly purposeful but inflexibly determinist. Our lives would be nothing more than unrolling prewritten scrolls, constantly edited by Someone Else. On the contrary, could it not be that God is more dedicated to freedom than we are comfortable with? God could well get a kick out of watching even genes learning. Divine wizardry is in the power and fecundity of the universe itself.

God as Cause

Science still yields plenty of clues to a Designer, who might not be as intrusive as we have been led to believe. Every 10 America December 10, 2007 planet circles the sun at precisely the one speed that will keep it from drifting into deep space or crashing into the sun. The four fundamental forces in the universe are gravity (the attractive pull of every body), electromagnetism (bonding atoms), the strong nuclear force (binding elements within the nucleus) and the weak force (radioactive decay). If any of these forces were even minutely different, the advent of humans would have been unthinkable. In fact, according to Stephen Hawking, “If the rate of expansion one second after the Big Bang had been smaller by even one part in a hundred thousand million million, it would have recollapsed before it reached its present size.” Conversely, if gravity were weaker, Big Bang dust would have just continued to expand, never coalescing. If the strong nuclear force were a little weaker, no elements heavier than hydrogen would have formed. If electromagnetism were stronger, electrons would be so tightly bound to atoms, chemical compounds would have been impossible. Any weaker, and atoms would disintegrate at room temperature.

Miller writes: “As His great creation burst forth from the singularity of its origin, His laws would have set within it the seeds of galaxies, stars, and planets, the potential for life, the inevitability of change, and the confidence of emerging intelligence.” God works not in the intimate, palpable anthropomorphism of Genesis, kneeling in the mud to fashion Adam and turn his rib into Eve, but God is—and always will be—vibrant and at work in every physical law that evolution presumes.

The Missing Link in Atheism

Dawkins flirts with being hoist with his own petard. In River Out of Eden, he writes, almost huffily:

We humans have purpose on the brain. We find it hard to look at anything without wondering what it is “for,” what the motive for it is, or the purpose behind it. When the obsession with purpose becomes pathological it is called paranoia—reading malevolent purpose into what is actually random bad luck. But this is just an exaggerated form of a nearly universal delusion.

Thus is the core of humanity dismissed as merely bothersome, like an appendix.

But the very term “natural selection” seems a misuse of words, since only an intelligence can assess options and choose. How do we get laws out of luck, predictable “processes” out of brute chance? If what differentiates our species from other animals is learning and altruism, why do Neanderthals still wildly outnumber the wise? The atheist popularizers, of course, never use the word “soul,” since the only difference they acknowledge between ourselves and December 10, 2007 America 11 other apes is a smattering of renegade DNA. Even the best Christian philosophers, however, have also contented themselves with the woefully inadequate “rational animals,” as if that could account for a MASH unit treating North Korean prisoners or Teihard’s obedient silence.

Atheists like Dawkins and Carl Sagan go way beyond their scientific passports. They are disconcertingly learned, sorcerers of analogy, writers of sinewy prose. But when they depart from “how” into “why,” they are way beyond their credentials, like athletes plugging Wheaties. To anyone outside a lab, the difference between humans and our chimp cousins is not simply a measurable difference in DNA.

We are the only creatures we know who are aware we are selves, able to use the future tense and to regret. Other animals know facts, that danger is near, but do not seem to ask why. They give their lives for their own but not, like us, for a principle or for people we do not even like. Only we have hungers not rooted in a needful body or coldly rational mind: to be honorable, to find meaning, to survive death. Ignoring those indisputable facts is the rankest reductionism.

Charles Darwin, brilliant herald of this astonishingly fruitful theory, was less simplistic than some of his ardent disciples. In the final sentence of The Origin of Species, he concludes:

There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being evolved.

Perhaps we might find more motivated belief if we were more at peace with intriguing questions than prefabricated conclusions, if we could stop needing to prove anything and delight in pursuing the clues.

Further Reading

Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences (London 2003, Nov. 22)

Richard Dawkins, “Is Science a Religion,” Humanist (1997); River Out of Eden (Perseus, 1996)

Kenneth R. Miller, Finding Darwin’s God (HarperCollins, 2007)

Carl Sagan, The Dragons of Eden (Random House, 1986)

Steven Hawking, ABrief History of Time (Bantam, 1998) 

lLetha Chamberlain
9 years 7 months ago
Fr. O'Malley's book, Your God is too Small, was a seminal book for me in my early spiritual life. My brothers, both scientists, one of whom is a "humanist" and questions everything having to do with "God" has so expanded my images of God--which has so helped my prayer life giving it depth and new goals and an understanding of hwere I needed to go to get this "gift of contemplation". Likewise, I see the atheists and other questioners as important people in my faith journey--as "purifiers" of my faith. My "little" doubts this way never became spiritual crises because I could see where this led--and knew God was asking me to expand my views so I could see more clearly and more expansively what was REALLY there and true--that it is ALL LOVE! Even when LOVE leaves me (and it does at times) there is left a secret knowledge that somewhere there is a caring that will not fail in the end when all is completely finished. Having traversed the "dark night of unknowing" I am left with this Presence always with me--and been promised that it will be with me at the end of my life even in agony. How can this be explained or duplicated? I do not believe it can. You'll have to take my word for it.
9 years 7 months ago
"Atheists like Dawkins and Carl Sagan go way beyond their scientific passports." Really? At least they have something to base their conclusions on. Theologians on the other hand, have what exactly? Faith, hope but no clarity.
lLetha Chamberlain
9 years 7 months ago
Dear One, it seems to me that my faith and hope are very clear, indeed! It is the scientific formulas I see on the paper that are all mumbo-jumbo to me! Isn't it all a matter of perspective? Sincerely in trust...
9 years 7 months ago
Several missing links in science and in theology remain. I hope I can find the the final common denominator soon. It wasn't in MASH units nor in the stars. Maybe in Stem Cells. I'll keep asking the questions as Rilke suggested and try to keep the pathways to my visual cortex open. You keep challenging us.
Bruce Snowden
9 years 7 months ago
Evolution is, by its nature, experimental. Analytically commenting on that aspect of "The Eye And I" by William J. O'Malley S.J., I suggest that God did not directly give us an appendix with no function than to rupture. Having endowed evolutionary outcome with freedom to function apart from the Deity, yet by general creative intent as a part of the Godhead, the Creator simply let me regarding the appendix, what was left over from one of evolution's previous attempts to create a body. P.T. Chardin, S.J., says, "God makes things make themselves!" Therein God acknowledges "evolution's ability to adopt, (adapt?) to innovate, to test and to experiment" trusting that sooner, or later, it would have given the Creator what he was looking for." Look at the strange, egg-laying mammal the Platypus, that doesn't seem to know what it should be.Some evolutionary "misprints" get frozen in time, making God laugh I'm sure! Thus the appendix is a left over piece, a part of a scrapped, discordant model of a body, one that was yet to come and yet to show definitively that Cells have, "motive, means and opportunity" in the final acript. Yes, I do believe by design evolution is, "imperfectly predictable' also "lacking certainty" but where "only change making the host... better ... wins the chance to continue the opportunistic game" called "creation." (God alone is certain and Faith is how he is certainly found!) As Fr. O'Malley says, "God is more dedicated to freedom than we are comfortable with it." And how true that God may "get a kick out of watching evolution's sometimes whimsical behavior. Fr.O'Malley adds, "Divine wizardry is in the power and fecundity of the universe itself." This sounds like the "Fertile Universe" concept of George V. Coyne, S.J and I agree entirely!

Don't miss the best from America

Sign up for our Newsletter to get the Jesuit perspective on news, faith and culture.

The latest from america

“To the Bone,” which recently premiered on Netflix, tells the story of 20-year-old Ellen (Lily Collins), who is living with anorexia nervosa.
Karen RossJuly 21, 2017
The distinction between the disciplines of theological work and how these function in our common life is necessary.
What is it about habits and cassocks that capture the imagination of even secular audiences?
Ashley McKinlessJuly 21, 2017
Why Ron Hansen will never read the Gospels the same.
Ron HansenJuly 20, 2017