A common complaint in the comments of this blog runs like this: “Bob, how can you possibly believe in a central planner in the sky, when you understand spontaneous order from economics? Man, even Adam Smith wrote that the market works ‘as if’ led by an invisible hand, but that was just a metaphor!”
Perhaps because I spent so much of my formative years as an atheist, I too thought Smith’s famous quote had “as if” in it, but actually it doesn’t, neither in Wealth of Nations nor Theory of Moral Sentiments. Here’s the WoN passage:
As every individual, therefore, endeavours as much as he can both to employ his capital in the support of domestic industry, and so to direct that industry that its produce may be of the greatest value; every individual necessarily labours to render the annual revenue of the society as great as he can. He generally, indeed, neither intends to promote the public interest, nor knows how much he is promoting it. By preferring the support of domestic to that of foreign industry, he intends only his own security; and by directing that industry in such a manner as its produce may be of the greatest value, he intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention. Nor is it always the worse for the society that it was no part of it. By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it.
An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations par. IV.2.9
In case you think I’m harping on a triviality, note that Don Luskin (apparently) made exactly this mistake when arguing on Kudlow’s show about the legacy of Ayn Rand.
One obvious way to demonstrate that there is no problem in reconciling belief in God with free-market economics, would be to cite Smith’s own belief in God. However, this is easier said than done; apparently it is an open question among Smith scholars, although I should mention that the deniers are forced to argue that Smith’s explicit references to the “Great Architect of the Universe” etc. were only done to cover himself from persecution.
So, regardless of Smith’s personal views, I must admit that it’s hard for me to even take this particular atheist criticism seriously. In general, I hope we can all agree that simply using analogies between economics and other fields is a dangerous game. For example, suppose the zookeeper is about to open the lion cage as my son and I are walking by it; would I be a hypocrite for insisting on the maintenance of “coercion” against the giant cat? I mean, I think drugs should be legalized–how the heck can I simultaneously advocate locking up the King of the Forest?!
If you can understand why the above, hypothetical criticism is silly, then you understand my feelings when someone argues:
“Government officials overriding private decisions will lead to inefficiency. ==> There most likely isn’t a God.”
But what if we make things more specific? Isn’t a popular Christian tactic to invoke the “irreducible complexity” of organisms, as apparent proof that there must have been a Designer? Surely that flies in the face of the spontaneous order we see in social life.
Nope, I don’t think so. The sophisticated arguments from people in the Intelligent Design camp take the standard atheist evolutionary explanations and claim that they simply don’t add up, or involve large amounts of hand-waving. It’s really not a good argument when atheist evolutionary biologists respond, “Your lack of imagination is no refutation of my theory.” In any other context, that would be a laugh-out-loud admission of failure, yet it’s taken as a snappy comeback for Darwinians.
And it’s not just biology. There is also the fine-tuning argument, which claims that the physical constants of Nature seem to be exquisitely calibrated to support human life on Earth. The standard atheist response to this one, is to argue that there are an infinity of possible universes, and sentient beings will only observe and ask, “Why?” in the ones with the right combination of physical constants. (If you think about it, that rhetorical move is the worst violation of Occam’s Razor and a few other supposedly cherished atheist scientific principles one could construct. But when you’re fighting a war against religion, all is fair.)
Let me close with an argument I often bring up regarding Intelligent Design: The atheist biologist will usually say something like, “You are throwing out science itself. We can’t answer everything, it’s true; there will always be some boundary of ignorance, that scientific inquiry must take as a starting point. But when you abandon naturalistic explanations in favor of intervention by a conscious being, you are reverting back to explaining thunder by invoking the gods. It’s not just that the ID movement is wrong, its very nature is anti-scientific.”
This is nonsense. It means that doctors can never look at a corpse and tell the government, “You know, this guy was killed by genetically engineered bacteria. Only the Russians could have done this.” Nope, such an explanation is unscientific; you have to explain the bacteria’s DNA by reference to billions of years of random mutation operated upon by natural selection. I don’t care how impossible such a story seems to be; it must be true, because “design talk” is throwing in the towel.
Or on a grander scale: Suppose, just for the sake of argument, that intelligent aliens arose in a different solar system in a very straightforward, step-by-step evolutionary chain. Biologists looking at the cells in an alien’s body wouldn’t hit the “irreducible complexity” that so intrigues the Intelligent Design theorists. Then those aliens came to earth a billion years ago, and designed some “super cells” which they used to seed life here. Those cells had most of the information that is currently found in the DNA of today’s life forms, which could not possibly have arisen in a mere few billion years through undesigned evolution.
The above scenario is theoretically possible. Now, if it were true, how would we ever learn the truth? One obvious way is that our scientists would have to conclude, “There is no way we can explain the structure of cells today, by reference to mere natural selection. The universe isn’t old enough to generate this outcome. Some intelligent thing designed the life we observe on Earth. But who, or what?”
That is a perfectly valid scientific question. To deny this, and insist that life on Earth can only be permissibly explained by reference to non-conscious causes, is itself incredibly unscientific.
One last thing: It should go without saying that I see plenty of Christians and others, spouting all sorts of foolishness in these debates. That doesn’t mean their conclusion is wrong.