Asking the Right Questions
Professor Charles Birch
Emeritus Professor of Biology, Sydney University, Australia
A paper presented to the Sea of Faith Conference, New Zealand, 1996
Machiavelli, on his death bed, was visited by the Pope who said,
"Machiavelli, will you now renounce the devil and all his works?"
Machiavelli scarcely opened his eyes. So the Pope repeated, "Will you now
renounce the devil and all his works?" Opening one eye, Machiavelli
responded, "This is no time to make enemies." Wrong question, wrong time.
When Henry Thoreau's aunt asked him on his deathbed whether he had made
peace with his god, he replied that he did not know that they had
quarreled. Gertrude Stein said: "It is better to ask the right questions
than to give answers, even good answers."
In his book River Out Of Eden Richard Dawkins tells of getting a
letter from an American minister of religion who had been an atheist but
was converted by reading an article in the National Geographic on
wasps. It was a very special wasp which fertilises a special orchid. The
flower of the orchid resembled very closely the female of the species of
wasp. The male wasp, thinking the flower to be a female, tries to copulate
with it by reaching down an appropriate opening and in so doing gets
covered with pollen. Flying to the next flower the wasp repeats the
process and cross-pollinates the orchid.
What makes the flower attractive to the wasp in the first place? The
flower emits a pheromone attractant identical to that produced by the
Dawkin's correspondent then said that with a terrific sense of shock he
realized that in order for the reproductive strategy to work it had to be
perfect to work at all. The flower had to look like a wasp. It had to
produce the right chemical pheromone. It had to have a hole in the right
place for the wasp to enter. Here was a wonderful design. It must have a
designer. "I came", he said, "to believe that the designer must be God."
Orchids were amongst Charles Darwin's favourite examples of wonderful
adaptations. He started asking the question: did God design them all as a
man might design a watch? This he found to be the wrong question. He came
to explain such adaptations by putting other questions to the facts and
developing his theory of evolution by natural selection of chance
variations. In so doing he devoted a whole book to the subject of the
adaptation of orchids.
Dawkins wanted to ask the minister, "How can you be sure that the
wasp-mimicking orchid would not work unless every part of it was perfectly
in place? And how can you assert that the wasps are so hard to fool that
the orchid's resemblance would have to be perfect in order to work?" These
were the precise questions Darwin asked not only about orchids but about
complex organs such as the human eye. The minister hadn't asked, you see,
enough questions before arriving at his conclusion. Or to put it another
way, he asked the wrong question about orchids and wasps.
In typical fashion Dawkins begins his next chapter this way. "My
clerical correspondent of the previous chapter found faith through a wasp.
Charles Darwin lost his with the help of another."
"I cannot persuade myself", wrote Darwin, "that a beneficent and
omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae
with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of
caterpillars". Their macabre habits are shared by their cousin the Digger
Wasp. The female not only lays her eggs in a caterpillar so that her
larvae can feed on it but she carefully guides her sting into each
ganglion of the prey's central nervous system so as to paralyse but not
kill it. In this way she keeps the meat fresh. Maybe the prey is aware of
being eaten alive from inside yet unable to move a muscle to do anything
Darwin asked the right question about the Ichneumonidae. Could a
kind God deliberately create this? He said no. His challenge led many
after him to question their pre-scientific understanding of God.
Darwin was aware of the importance of asking the right questions.
"Looking back", he said, "I think it was more difficult to see what the
problems were than to solve them." He was saying that he found it more
difficult to ask the right questions than to find the answers once the
right questions had been asked. Interestingly enough Darwin asked many
questions about God but he never got any answers that seemed reasonable.
Even so Darwin was very important for theology as he pointed out quite
clearly concepts of God that were no longer credible. This enabled others
to think in different directions. I have right now a manuscript on my
table from a Jesuit theologian entitled Darwin's Gift To Theology.
Darwin, he argues, was a winnowing wind for theology.
Dawkins, in his rather perverse way, asks the following question about
God. What is God's "utility function"?
Utility function is a term in economics meaning "That which is
maximised". His question becomes, "What is God maximising in evolution?"
So he looks at the cheetah. It appears to be well designed for killing
antelopes. The cheetah is precisely what we would expect if God's purpose
in designing the cheetah was to maximise the death rate of antelopes.
Conversely if we ask the same question of antelopes we would conclude that
they are designed for the opposite end: the survival of antelopes. It is,
says Dawkins, as though cheetahs were designed by one deity and antelopes
by a rival deity.
Alternatively, if there is only one creator who made both the cheetah
and the antelope, what is he playing at? Is he a sadist who enjoys
spectator sports? No, these are wrong questions. We should ask what is the
utility function of life in general? Dawkins then proceeds to tell us that
it is the of survival of DNA. He proceeds to tell us that if this be so it
is not a recipe for happiness. Indeed, it leads us to expect the suffering
of the caterpillar and the antelope and much more because the minimising
of suffering is not the utility function of life.
I happen to think that Dawkin's question was OK but he got off the
rails in attempting to answer it. Life is more than DNA molecules
A common retort that Dawkins finds from his audiences goes like this:
"You scientists are very good at answering how questions but you're
powerless when it comes to why questions."
Now I agree with Dawkins that this is a stupid division of labour to
say that science deals with "how" and religion with "why". I say it is
stupid because it implies that religion should have nothing to say about
what is the nature of nature. You leave that to the scientist. This was
the harmful divide made of knowledge at the time of the scientific
revolution in a sort of gentleman's agreement as to how to carve up the
territory. Furthermore science is always asking "why" questions. The
biologist asks why cicadas have reproductive cycles that are
prime-numbered years long, 13 or 17 but never 15 or l6.
Scientists are involved in a lot of what the engineer calls reverse
engineering. A new sort of bomb was dropped in England by the Nazis. What
was it designed to do? Why this bit of insulation here? Why a thick wire
there? and so on. By persisting in asking "why" questions the engineer can
discover how it works and what it is designed to do.
Dawkins correctly makes the point that the mere fact that it is
possible to frame a question does not make it legitimate to do so. It is
legitimate to ask what is the temperature of the sea. But you may not ask
what is the temperature of prayer. You can ask in a scientific spirit
"why" questions such as the purpose of mudguards on a bicycle but it is
not reasonable to ask the "why" question of, say, a boulder on Mount
Unlike Dawkins I do think it is legitimate to ask. "What is it that God
seeks to maximise?" But I have a different view of God than the one he
demolishes. More anon on that.
It is not necessary for a theology that accepts the fact of evolution
by natural selection of chance variations to begin by attempting to
safeguard the emaciated idea of God that Dawkins and more recently Daniel
Dennett consider to have been debunked by Darwin.
I accept that debunking. Darwin debunked the argument for God from the
design of nature as though nature were like a watch and God was the
watchmaker. There was some excuse for arguing like this prior to Darwin
but not after. The tiger was not made with its stripes to camouflage it as
we might make a camouflaged tank. There must have been all sorts of
patterns but only the one which helped it to survive persisted. This is
the principle of chance variation and natural selection.
It would be a round-about way of doing things for a designer who was
all-powerful. Moreover we know that such adaptations were forged in a
struggle for existence-nature red in tooth and claw. It was one of
Darwin's contemporaries, the Anglican vicar Charles Kingsley, who wrote to
him and said, "Now they have got rid of an interfering God (a
master-magician as I call it) they have to choose between the absolute
empire of accident and a living, immanent, ever-working God."
So much of the discussion about God then, and even now, has assumed a
notion of divine power arbitrarily capable of intervening in and
interrupting natural processes, but which for some obscure reason decides
not to do so.
Charles Hartshorne wrote a book called Omnipotence and Other
Theological Mistakes in which he wrote, "Let us give up the
destructive notion of divine omnipotence that plagues so much of Christian
theology ... no worse falsehood was ever perpetuated than the traditional
concept of omnipotence." If God is all powerful then why does he allow
volcanoes to destroy villages and their inhabitants, why all the evil and
suffering in the world, why Hitler, why the holocaust? Where was the God
of omnipotence then? I heard philosopher John Passmore of the Australian
National University recently say on radio that if there is a supreme being
in charge of the world then his name is Satan.
God's power is not the power to do anything at all. God does not
manipulate things and people. Why do I say this? Because there is no
evidence for such a God. Yet this notion of God has been and still is a
cause of much suffering and agony as poignantly portrayed in Kushner's
When Bad Things Happen To Good People. There are things a God of love
cannot do. The God of love could not change the decision of the rich young
ruler to whom Jesus spoke. When persuasion failed, coercion did not take
People who pray for God to intervene in the world need to bring their
prayers under scrutiny. Indeed I would say that of most prayers said in
For nearly 2000 years European theology staked its fortunes upon a
certain conception of divinity. In spite of a seeming variety of doctrines
and creeds, one basic concept was accepted by most theologians. Only in
the last several decades has a genuinely alternative theology been at all
widely considered - so unobtrusively, however, that many opponents of
theism, even most distinguished ones such as Dawkins and Dennett, are
still fighting the old conception exclusively, convinced that if they
dispose of it they have disposed of the theological question.
And these days many of those who find the idea of a godless universe
incredible suppose that it is to traditional theology that they must turn,
for example those who turn to fundamentalism.
Before I turn to that alternative perspective I want to indicate to you
how I got to the alternative myself. I originated as a low church
evangelical Anglican in the city of Melbourne when I was a schoolboy. Sin,
saving souls, a literal interpretation of the Bible and miracles were the
order of the day. I accepted the lot. But the rough terrain came during
adolescence. I quite suddenly came to an awareness that I was not good
enough. Even my righteousness, such as I might have had, I was told was
"but as filthy rags." I believed I was very sinful. I read the confessions
of Saint Augustine and said, "There am I". In reality I was probably
lily-white compared with him.
My self diagnosis was supported by a fundamentalist group called the
"Crusader Movement" which I got involved in at my school. I must say I
never felt at home with that group but I thought that was because I was so
bad. They pleaded with me to "break the ice", meaning, I think, take the
first hurdle on the road to being born again and the rest will follow
In the long hours of the night I pondered on all this. But I felt that
life was a burden and I was unworthy. There was a picture in my copy of
Pilgrim's Progress of Christian walking on his long journey with a
huge bundle on his back. Later in the book was another picture of
Christian having reached the foot of the cross and behold, the bundle
falls off his back to the ground. That is what I wanted to happen to me.
Why didn't it?
Then quite suddenly (I remember the time and the place) I asked myself,
"Why am I so burdened with a sense of sin when Jesus says your sins are
forgiven? Does that really mean the past is the past, that I can begin
again right now with a clean slate, that I don't have to carry that burden
on my back any more?" So I prayed a fervent prayer that the burden be
lifted. It was. I considered myself saved.
I was then an undergraduate at the University of Melbourne, convinced I
had the answer to life's meaning. I became a Sunday school teacher. Poor
kids, I now think. I went to evangelical meetings. For four undergraduate
years that was where I was. My biology classes emphasised the fact of
evolution but that was of little concern. The Bible taught otherwise and
creationism was what I had to believe. I had a religious faith, a sort of
package that encompassed the whole truth about the world. Looking back I
realize that I didn't learn to think when I was an undergraduate.