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Science and the Bible: Intelligent Design, Part 2

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November 7, 2012 Tags: Design
Science and the Bible: Intelligent Design, Part 2
William Blake, “The Ancient of Days” (1794), British Museum

Today's entry was written by Ted Davis. You can read more about what we believe here.

Last time, I introduced the term Intelligent Design for this setting and began with the first Core Tenet of that perspective as it is commonly found today. In this post, we’ll identify the other Core Tenets.

(2) The whole universe itself, and some of the objects that compose it (both living and nonliving), exhibit abundant evidence of having been “designed” by an “intelligent designer”; they are NOT products of “blind chance.”

Keep in mind the basic idea of ID, “that certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause, not an undirected process such as natural selection.” Design theorists believe that, by analyzing the components of a system, they can determine “whether various natural structures are the product of chance, natural law, intelligent design, or some combination thereof.” Dembski has developed an “explanatory filter” for detecting “design” when we find “specified complexity,” enormously improbable events that fit a specific pattern. Such things cannot be accounted for by chance and law alone, or chance and law working together.

Source: http://www.ideacenter.org/stuff/contentmgr/files/53d86ee019d30faffea0b57653921eab/misc/explanatoryfilter.gif

I lack sufficient expertise in both mathematics and philosophy to evaluate the finer points of Dembski’s scheme. Some critics dismiss him as a crank, but I dismiss that as ideological bias. Others have complained that Cambridge University Press should never have published his book, The Design Inference, despite the fact that it went successfully through peer review with one of the top academic presses. At the same time, I’m a bit skeptical toward those who think he has decisively demonstrated the validity of his “filter.” A leading Christian philosopher of science who is fully qualified to evaluate it, Robin Collins, stated his reservations in a review article he wrote for Christian Scholar's Review in 2001. Dembski replied in the same issue.

Dembski’s filter exemplifies the general case for inferring design by identifying aspects of nature that exhibit what he calls “specified complexity,” patterns that contain specific information and are too complex to have been formed simply by accident. Specific instances of design have been proposed by others, starting with a book written several years before Dembski’s. I refer to what I regard as the first ID book, even though the ID movement per se did not yet exist: The Mystery of Life’s Origin: Reassessing Current Theories, by Charles B. Thaxton, Walter L. Bradley, and Roger L. Olson (1984). (You can download the whole book here.)

Parts of The Mystery of Life’s Origin are highly technical, but the overall argument is clear from the concluding chapter and the very important “Epilogue” that follows, and which I invite readers to summarize in the comments if they wish. Basically, the authors argue that we just don’t know very much about the origin of life, that we need to reassess current ideas, and that a design principle might be needed if we want a better answer. The tone and content of this book elevate it over most other pro-ID works (or most anti-ID works, for that matter), in my opinion, but some critics still dismiss it as nothing more than religious propaganda—even though it was published by a respected secular press and the authors are respectful (while still critical) of philosophical approaches that differ from theirs. As I said, politics dogs this conversation at every turn.

Interestingly, the authors speak explicitly and often about “God” and “special creation” throughout the “Epilogue.” As I say, they were writing before Johnson’s strategy of avoiding all explicitly religious language was implemented. No less significant, they also appeal to the distinction between “operation science,” in which (they say) “the appeal to God is quite illegitimate,” and “origin science,” in which they clearly believe that “Special Creation [should not be] so summarily dismissed by nearly all writers.” (pp. 203 and 206) This is precisely the distinction invoked so often by advocates of the YEC view, who use it to keep Galileo out of the garden of Eden. Although I used different terminology in that earlier column, where I spoke about “the distinction between fields of science that are sometimes called ‘historical sciences,’ and other fields that are sometimes called ‘experimental sciences’,” I meant the very same thing. To the best of my knowledge, none of the three authors of this book is a YEC, but the fact that they draw this identical distinction only underscores my point (which I will develop further next time) that sometimes it can be awfully hard to separate ID from the YEC view—something that must happen, in my opinion, if ID really wants to distinguish itself from the kind of “creationism” that courts have kept out of public school science classes.

ID proponents also find evidence for design in the “fine tuning” of the whole universe— a concept whose main idea I explained in my column on John Polkinghorne and TE. For an accessible paper on this topic, see this by philosopher William Lane Craig. “Fine tuning” is a place where ID and TE come together, except that we must keep in mind the subtle differences in attitude that I’ve already pointed out: Polkinghorne and other advocates of TE tend to see design arguments as metaphysical, not scientific. I don’t think this is simply a distinction without a difference, and there are also discernible differences in tone. Nevertheless, the same evidence is used by TEs and IDs to draw a similar conclusion: our universe—the only one we can observe, the only one actually known to exist in reality rather than merely on paper—looks pretty special.

The bacterial flagellum as cellular machinery. Source: http://veritasdomain.files.wordpress.com/2007/03/flagellum.jpg

Perhaps the most famous specific instance of “design” offered by ID proponents is the complexity of the machinery found inside cells, especially the bacterial flagellum, the biological equivalent of an outboard motor. Biochemist Michael Behe made this wondrous little machine the poster child for ID in his first book, Darwin’s Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution. Behe claims that certain features of the flagellum exhibit what he calls “irreducible complexity,” meaning that they are just too complex to have been formed from simpler components by an unguided, unplanned process such as Darwinian evolution. Behe puts it this way:

“By irreducibly complex I mean a single system composed of several well-matched, interacting parts that contribute to the basic function, wherein the removal of any one of the parts causes the system to effectively cease functioning. An irreducibly complex system cannot be produced directly (that is, by continuously improving the initial function, which continues to work by the same mechanism) by slight, successive modifications of a precursor system, because any precursor to an irreducibly complex system that is missing a part is by definition nonfunctional. An irreducibly complex biological system, if there is such a thing, would be a powerful challenge to Darwinian evolution.” (p. 39)

This idea is no less controversial than Dembski’s. Anyone wanting to read a few opinions about it will find far more than they asked for by using a search engine. BioLogos Senior Fellow Dennis Venema has previously written a series on the concept for this site, and is now re-examining it in light of recent studies of bacterial evolution.

Underlying cellular complexity, of course, is information in the genome, and that is just where philosopher of science Stephen Meyer finds much evidence for “design.” His recent book, Signature in the Cell, argues the case at length and in detail. For an exchange between Meyer and Venema about this book, see here and here. Several years ago, Meyer advanced the idea that the “Cambrian explosion” was the “big bang of biology,” an event from which one could also draw a design inference. He did this in some articles and in a film called “Darwin’s Dilemma” that questions the ability of evolution to account for the geologically rather sudden appearance of many new animal phyla at the start of the Cambrian period.

(3) The age of the earth and the universe, the effects of the flood, whether the Bible rules out common ancestry of humans and other animals, whether there was animal death prior to the Fall—all of these are legitimate subjects to debate; but that conversation can happen later, after the existence of an “intelligent designer” has been more widely accepted in the academic establishment.

This isn’t really adding another tenet to the ID program, but I want to make sure we’re all on the same page. Because biblical and theological topics are officially outside of the scope of ID, all of the topics I just identified—which we discussed in earlier columns about the other views of science and the Bible—are not actually part of the ID view. In other words, several of the big questions that separate YECs from OECs and OECs from TEs are left open within ID. Like many other aspects of ID, this one is also “political,” but in the broader sense of balancing competing social and intellectual constituencies, rather than avoiding legal entanglements on account of the U.S. Constitution. ID is a “big tent” in which, at least in principle, proponents of YEC and OEC and TE can co-exist in a common front against doubters of design, while leaving divisive theological and biblical subjects for another time. Philosopher Paul Nelson, one of a few YECs with a highly visible role in the ID movement, offers an interesting insider’s view in “Life in the Big Tent: Traditional Creatonism and the Intelligent Design Community.”

I’ll have more to say about the “Big Tent” in a future column. For now, the first goal of ID is get the idea of transcendental design back on the table for serious discussion in academic circles. The rest can come later.

Looking Ahead

I’ll be back in about two weeks, to present one more Core Tenet of ID, dealing with the idea of “methodological naturalism,” the legitimacy of which is hotly contested by ID advocates, and to discuss some conclusions we might draw about ID.

Ted Davis is Fellow of the History of Science for the BioLogos Foundation and Professor of the History of Science at Messiah College. At Messiah, Davis teaches courses on historical and contemporary aspects of Christianity and science and directs the Central Pennsylvania Forum for Religion and Science.

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Jon Garvey - #74208

November 7th 2012


Thanks for this overview. May I just comment on 3 things from my reading of ID writers, since they impinge on the sterotypes that tend to be offered as criticisms.

(1) Dembski’s point is not just about things being “too complex to be formed by accident.” He points out that complex things (in the Kolmogorov sense) frequently are produced accidentally, but that complex things with functional information aren’t, in experience. The difference is that between a particular random string of binaries and Windows 8: the former is no less unlikely to arise by chance, but the number of such strings with semantic and functional meaning is such a small subset as to be virtually impossible to arise stochastically. DNA in living orgnaisms is such a semantically meaningful string, ergo… So he applies the “unlikelihood” to functional information, not to complexity.

(2) Similarly, the stress in Behe is not on the “complexity” per se but on the “irreducible.” His folksy mousetrap example is not inordinately complex, but will not work as a mousetrap if any one piece is missing. Ergo, Darwinian gradual development is unlikely to account for its origin. It’s to do with how many things can be predicted to come together functionally before the odds are stacked against it, and in Behe’s case it’s less than the number of fingers on your hands. So again, “too complex to happen by chance” is a bit of a parody of the position being argued.

(3) Though your political reasons for ID’s fighting shy of the God-word may well be valid, there is also a genuine motivation for those IDs with some grounding in philosophy of science. Simply because, rightly or wrongly, unlike Polkinghorne etc they argue their case in the scientific, rather than the metaphysical, arena, they must surely be right to say that no design argument can empirically posit God, still less the Christian God, as an explanation. Indeed, their political critics habitually describe their argument in terms like “This is complex, so Goddidit”. I’ve already suggested that complexity is not actually the issue being addressed, and equally, if they did say “Goddidit” they’d be justly criticised for going beyond the evidence.

Yet if arguments like Dembski’s, or Behe’s could be shown to have any validity, it would be within the scientific arena. Surely to say “This specific process is statistically vanishingly unlikely given chance and known physical laws” isn’t a metaphysical, or even a philosophical argument. It’s statistical, in the end. In my experience the closest philosophers get to giving odds are “more than 50%” or “less than 50%”. In fact it’s probably for this reason that philosophers like Flew, Plantinga and now Nagel have been sympathetic to ID: the philosophy’s defensible, but the scientists are the ones finding fault.

The question is, of course, whether the fault-finding is valid scientifically, or itself in some way depends on unstated metaphysical commitments. James Shapiro, for example, believes ID is making the right critique of Neodarwinism, but admits (like Nagel in philosophy) to disagreeing because of his commitment to naturalism.

Ted Davis - #74211

November 7th 2012


Thank you for the clarifications. As for (2) of yours, however, I let Behe explain your point himself, in his own words, although some readers might still have missed his emphasis on the irreducibly complex aspect.

As for your point (3), I do think it boils down to “God may have done it, since God can be the source of information that unguided nature alone cannot produce.” If you study the “Epilogue” to The Mystery of Life’s Origin, I think you’ll see why I can fairly say this. For my part, I’d rather cut to the metaphysical/theological chase—but you already know that.

Jw Farquhar - #74230

November 8th 2012


I too believe that “God may have done it”. In that mode please consider this simplified BioLogos model for ID;

Intelligent Design is an oxymoron.

Intelligent Design, regardless of the rules of ID to omit mention of God, directly implies intelligent designer, since the word intelligence requires intelligence from some living being, be it an alien, a human, or some god-like entity, or even an intelligent clam that left its mark in some fossilized stone.

Consider then, that an intelligent designer designed an earth with a natural order structured by mathematical laws of physics, and a spiritual-scientific order for atmospheric heaven, also structured by mathematics.

Consider, then for biology, all life on earth is carbon based, where carbon-12 for life is measured scientifically with 6 electrons, 6 neutrons, and 6 protons, ie 666.

Consider also for logos that atmospheric heaven is comprised of 77.7% nitrogen, where nitrogen is measured scientifically with 7 electrons, 7 neutrons, and 7 protons, ie 777.

Consider the possibility that this intelligent designer, if even an intelligent clam, produced a foundational document that instructed the reader to actually count itself, so that the 6th day was 666, and the 7th day was 777.

Are these numbers coincidence? Is it coincidence that this intelligent designer went so far as to design 66 books for a reason creature imaged with 6 tenets of reason to interpret, where the text in these books is perfectly structured from, and subservient to, the numbers of its foundational document?

Perfect coincidence is an oxymoron.

beaglelady - #74238

November 8th 2012

It does not matter if the mousetrap will not not work as a mousetrap if a part is removed—its component parts can be pressed into service.  And it doesn’t matter if the flagellum doesn’t perform the same function if parts are removed.  Exapation is an important component of evolution.   Evolution is good at cobbling things together and finding new uses for them, which is fortunate, since it can’t go back to the drawing board.    More info can be provided upon request. 

Jon Garvey - #74244

November 9th 2012


I wasn’t putting Behe’s case - just clarifying that his argument is not that complexity per se implies design. Nevertheless, since you raise exap(t)ation:

Exaptation as science: “All the components of this mousetrap are found in other common household objects, and indeed can be seen to produce things with useful, if surprising, functions when added incrementally until they culminate in the classic mousetrap.”

Exaptation as just-so story: “Mousetraps employ coil springs, and so do bicycle saddles, so it’s easy to imagine how those in the latter, suitably modified, might come to be employed in the former. No doubt the same is true of all the other components of moustraps, though we haven’t actually found examples, and one could speculate that there are as yet undiscovered functions for various combinations of those components used together, as they undoubtedly must have been because the alternative, design, is unthinkable.”

Behe, I see, deals with exaptation directly (though not by name) on p112 of his first book:

Analogous parts playing other roles in other systems cannot relieve the irreducible complexity of the new system; the focus simply shifts from “making” the components to “modifying” them.

beaglelady - #74256

November 9th 2012

Sorry for the typo.  The point is that the precursor doesn’t have to have the same function as the new object.  And if some functionality is retained by the bacterial flagellum if certain componets are not there, then how is it irreducibly complex? 

Jon Garvey - #74259

November 9th 2012

No problem with typos - I’m doing more and more as my age shows. But the big question is in that phrase “if some functionality is retained…”

The devil is in the detail - on what principle, other than faith, can one assume that there is a developmental functional pathway of any sort if all one has (as in the flagellum case) is (a) one complex structure (flagellum) and (b) one separate, much smaller, non-identical and functionally different structure (type 3 secretory mechanism) which are assumed to share a common ancestor.

Behe’s point (years before the type 3 mechanism was brought into the discussion) is that not only the assembly of molecular modules needs to have an immediate selective advantage, but each individual mutation in each module that enables its incorporation in the new functional structure.

If there’s some advantage to sticking helicopter blades on a bicycle, then maybe one’s on the way to building an aeroplane. But without direct evidence that there is, it’s as reasonable to assume the bicycle will just crash.

Jon Garvey - #74260

November 9th 2012

For example… this recent paper lends weight to the T3SS being an exaptation of the flagellum, which of course is easier to explain than the reverse.

Eddie - #74265

November 9th 2012


You are making the same mistake made by Ken Miller (and by many others) in confusing the question “Whether structure A is irreducibly complex” with “Whether irreducibly complex structures can evolve via Darwinian means”  “Exaptation” is an answer to the second question, not the first.

Exaptation isn’t even a particularly good answer to the second question, for the reasons pointed out by Jon, but even if it were a good answer, it wouldn’t change the status of the flagellum as irreducibly complex.

“Irreducibly complex” is not defined as “non-evolvable by Darwinian means.”  The definition of “irreducibly complex” has nothing to do with evolution, or even with biology, and that definition is given fairly early in Behe’s book.  To be sure, Behe argues that irreducibly complex biological structures would be very hard to evolve via Darwinian means, but that is not the same as defining irreducible complexity in terms of non-evolvability.

That there might exist “some functionality,” i.e., some other use of parts of the flagellum, is irrelevant to the definition of irreducible complexity.  If the flagellum cannot function as a flagellum with the part in question missing, then the flagellum is irreducibly complex.  “Some functionality” of the parts is relevant to the question of evolvability, but not to the application of the term “irreducibly complex.”      

Ken Miller fans continue to amaze me; they write as if Behe had not explained all this carefully, and put Miller’s confusion on the flagellum to rest once and for all, in his rejoinder to Miller in the Debating Design book.

Jon Garvey - #74210

November 7th 2012


When sociologist of science Steve Fuller tried to argue on Uncommon Descent (from the edges of ID) that it would be sociologically better to square up to saying that design can be recognised as God’s because we are his image-bearers, he was rebuffed by largely “lay ID” commentators on the grounds that it wouldn’t be scientific, not because it would blunt the Wedge or force them to argue metaphysically.

So it seems that at least the ID infantry see the issues in natural science terms, whatever the US culture wars dictate.

Ted Davis - #74212

November 7th 2012


I agree with your analysis of how IDs see this as scientific, not metaphysical or theological. It’s harder for me to separate those categories in origins issues. Indeed, I think that science in general (leaving origins to one side) is built on metaphysical and even (in some cases) theological premises that are not themselves scientific; perhaps you agree. Often they are not controversial, but sometimes they are, and sometimes scientists argue amongst themselves about which ones to accept and which to reject.

If you read (again) the “Epilogue” to Bradley’s book, I think you’ll see how hard it is to separate the “scientific” from the “metascientific” in this instance. IDs themselves raise hard questions about the legitimacy of “methodological naturalism” (we’ll discuss that in part 3). They are certainly criticising certain details of the standard scientific picture, but it’s just very hard (IMO) to keep the conversation at the level of the science itself, without having the larger philosophical and theological questions partly shape that conversation. To the extent that ID is “a [philosophical] critique of the explanatory efficacy of Darwinian evolution” (here I quote from my own work and bracket out one of my own words), it can be seen as scientific; but, I really don’t see how to leave that word “philosophical” out of the description, since what IDs are really questioning is the scope and nature of “scientific” explanations, relative to purposes and designs. Basically, they are saying that one cannot get the correct answer to how some “irreducibly complex” feature first appeared, without adding “design” to the scientific toolbox. That is a philosophical argument about what science is and how it should be done; and, I can’t separate their approach to that question from theology, any more than Bradley could or even Thomas Nagel can (http://philosophy.fas.nyu.edu/docs/IO/1172/papa_132.pdf).

Culture wars are related this, insofar as it involves public education and the theological assumptions that relate to the philosophical issues being raised (Nagel is very good at seeing this), but I don’t see them as driving this aspect of ID (whether it’s scientific or philosophical). However, I do think that culture wars is a big part of the ID movement, and ID leaders themselves have made this a point of emphasis. We’ll come back to this in part 3.

Jon Garvey - #74213

November 7th 2012

Indeed, I think that science in general (leaving origins to one side) is built on metaphysical and even (in some cases) theological premises that are not themselves scientific; perhaps you agree.

Indeed I do, and have written about it here and here (and probably elsewhere, like a cracked record).

So there’s some legitimacy to any game ID might play along the line of “You hide your prior commitments, so I’ll hide mine.” But that’s really not the game, because individual IDers are not at all circumspect about revealing their controlling theological commitments (you mentioned Nelson, but anybody aware of the field could quickly remember those of Behe, Dembski, Meyer, Wells, Berlinski and even the outliers like Lonnig, whose co-religionists wanted to discuss Daniel on my doorstep today).

I agree though, that the admission of design, or even the suggestion of teleology, run counter to the current metaphysical/methodological commitments of natural science. The facts that both design and teleology are essential in the human sciences, and that internal teleology, at least, is making its way into the evolution discussions via “real” scientists like Shapiro, make those commitments somewhat unstable, to say the least. While they’re there, though, it wouldn’t matter if ID was an official organ of the Anglican Church or SETI - its arguments would be excluded from scientific consideration simply because of the “D” word.

Given that, though, the arguments are still empirical, mathematical and so on. An analogy might be the historical question of Jesus’s resurrection. A Christian apologist would necessarily have a metaphysical commitment to its possibility (even, by faith, its truth), but the arguments in Who Moved the Stone are still questions of evidence, not philosophy.

Culture wars ... yes indeed. As I’ve said before, a few thousand miles of separation from the US gives a very different perspective on things - where else in the world would universal health care be an issue about political liberty?

I didn’t plan to read Bradley’s book, but nevertheless at thy word…

Ted Davis - #74216

November 7th 2012

I respond to this, Jon, then I’ll disappear for a bit: ” An analogy might be the historical question of Jesus’s resurrection. A Christian apologist would necessarily have a metaphysical commitment to its possibility (even, by faith, its truth), but the arguments in Who Moved the Stone are still questions of evidence, not philosophy.”

I’ll quote one of my favorite books, N. T. Wright’s The Resurrection of the Son of God, p. 717:

“Many will challenge this conclusion [that Christ actually rose bodily from the grave], for many different reasons. I do not claim that it constitutes a ‘proof’ of the resurrection in terms of some neutral standpoint. It is, rather, a historical challenge to other explanations, other worldviews. Precisely because at this point we are faced with worldview-level issues, there is no neutral ground, no island in the middle of the epistemological ocean, as yet uncolonized by any of the warring contintents. We cannot simply arrive at a topic and make grand delcarations, as in Francis Drake’s celebrated annexation of California, and suppose that all the local inhabitants will take them as binding. Saying that ‘Jesus of Nazareth was bodily raised from the dead’ is not only a self-involving statement; it is a self-committing statement, going beyond a reordering of one’s private world into various levels of commitment to work out the implications. We cannot simply leave a flag stuck on a hill somewhere and sail back to safety.”

Jon Garvey - #74217

November 7th 2012

Good quote, Ted. What it recognises, of course, is that human responses to reality can’t be validly compartmentalised. I’ve known people who, faced with such a “historical challenge to other explanations” found themselves becoming involved and committed - either through, or at least coincidentally with, being persuaded by the history.

Ironically, perhaps, those coming with a historico-critical view of history would say to Wright, “Your claim of a physical resurrection doesn’t belong to ‘history’ at all, for true history must follow methodological naturalism or be lost in a sea of superstition. Unless we can examine the past through the common experience of today, we’re not doing history - and we all know there are no resurrections today, or ever.”

There certainly is no neutral ground - but modern science has fallen into the trap of believing itself neutral. Yet I think it was Leonardo da Vinci who was among the first to see that science was primarily a creative act of the imagination and of reason, organising raw nature into a discernible order ... and therefore a highly subjective activity.

But not subjective in a post-modern way that denies there is an underlying reality at all. Only that the reality we perceive will reflect the extent that our minds are in touch with reality. If, as a moral choice, we refuse the possibility of design, we won’t see it. That may be a minority position amongst humanity at large, though.

Eddie - #74220

November 7th 2012

Good discussion, Jon and Ted.  To reinforce the statement by N. T. Wright, I will point out that Ernest Renan, in his attempt to reconstruct an “objective” life of Jesus (a preoccupation of 19th-century scholarship), simply assumed that miracles and prophecy don’t happen, and his entire reconstruction is based upon that assumption.  So there was nothing “religiously neutral” about Renan’s scholarship.

Thanks, Ted, for the link to the Nelson essay, which I hadn’t read before.  It makes Nelson’s position clearer to me.  

As for the distinction between operational science and origins science, while it can be overplayed (since it’s not illegitimate, in principle, at least not in all cases, to back-reason from current states of the universe to earlier ones), it is not an unreasonable distinction in itself.  The explanation of how a working clock functions is necessarily a different kind of explanation to that of how the clock came into existence in the first place.  To describe how the clock currently functions, we can give an exhaustive explanation in terms of efficient causes (this gear does this, this spring does that, causing this part to move here, which motion is transferred here, causing the second-hand to move around the face and point to particular numbered marks), but we cannot explain how the clock came into existence by appealing only to efficient causes. We have to posit a designer.  If at least some natural things are like clocks—in the crucial respect—then efficient-cause explanations will be inadequate to explain their origin.  That’s why origins science (using the word “science” broadly) may require other kinds of explanation than those used in operations science.

So I reject both the mechanical invocation of “origins science versus operations science” (in order to exempt creationist arguments from reasonable extrapolations back into the past) and the working assumption that all “origins science” must ultimately boil down to special cases of “operations science” (i.e., operations science projected back into the past).  Both of these claims are metaphysical rather than scientific.  What is needed is a healthy empiricism, i.e., is this particular non-teleological explanation of an origin (e.g., of stars, or the Grand Canyon, or the first cell), probable or plausible in light of our current understanding of the capacities of matter and energy?  But that sort of healthy, cautious empiricism serves the interest of neither YECs (at one end) or many TEs (at the other), because it may end up revealing that both of them are wrong, i.e., it may reveal that some origins are entirely explicable without design, whereas other origins require design.  Nature may turn out, in fact, to be neither the result of a series of discrete impositions of design, nor a “fully gifted” self-creating entity which acts out of its own “freedom”; it may turn out to be the product of a partly non-directed natural order interacting with an intrinsic or externally imposed design program.  Any natural science that rules out such a conclusion a priori is in my view ideology or metaphysics, not science at all.

It’s precisely the fact that ID, per se, doesn’t rule out such a conclusion, that I find it the most inclusive of all the positions, allowing everything from a Ham-esque discrete creationism to a Denton-esque evolutionary naturalism.  It thus does not restrict the freedom of scientists from following the empirical evidence wherever it leads.  In that sense, it is really more like a broad research program than a particular historical hypothesis about origins, and in that sense it differs from OEC, YEC, TE, and atheist evolutionism.  This also explains, I think, why many people find ID elusive; they are trying to understand it as something—a detailed historical account of origins—which by its nature it cannot be.    

Roger A. Sawtelle - #74219

November 7th 2012

In terms of evolution questions of science, philosophy, and theology come together in Natural Selection which is based on ecological symbiosis, not Darwinian conflict. 

Sadly the debate seems to be centered around Variation, which is not central.

GJDS - #74226

November 8th 2012

The subject matter may, IMO, be considered as Design and Intelligence. Design in the Universe has been widely discussed for some time, and it is generally considered as “fine tuned”, “anthropic” and “design”. The inference in these discussions has been that God went about purposely to create the Universe; thus we have teleology as the obvious conclusion. Counter arguments to this have been put forward; the most compelling (but I think inadequate) has been that we are the ones making these observations, so it is to be expected that we would identify the constants and other information consistent with ourselves. In other words, we only discover the anthropic portion of the Universe because that is the only thing we can observe. The facts of science, such as charge of an electron, and similar constants however, are considered to be independent of human involvement, and negate such a view.

Intelligence is perhaps more intriguing; it continues with the question of why Nature can be rendered intelligible for and by us. This has been discussed in many ways – induction, intuition and even deduction, all deal with the capacity for a scientist to ‘extract’ information, it appears, directly from Nature, and this information is believed to be ‘unaltered’ by the human being. Philosophically, the view is most often expressed as ‘the logos’ in that the Universe has been ‘imbued’ with (perhaps) divine intellect.

The intelligibility of Nature is indisputable (as far as I understand it); any disagreements arise from belief positions. Theists conclude that the creation points to its creator, and even if some of us feel compelled to look for mechanistic workings by God, while others (myself included) simply state that we cannot make direct statements about how God created (as a scientific statement), we are equally convinced of the theistic conclusion. God made the Universe to sustain intelligent life; the remaining statements are derived from revelation and are faith based. Atheists would obviously disagree, because they do not believe there is a God, and instead attempt to arrive at other explanations – however I do not know of anyone who would dispute the scientific facts. Ironically theists introduce phrase such as intelligence design; I do not see the need choose such a slogan (Ted includes culture wars and politics).

When these discussions include life and bio-systems and the earth, difficulties grow exponentially. These difficulties are, IMO, exacerbated by a ‘dogmatic’ insistence on Darwin’s idea of gradual changes in life forms, including ‘tree of life’ and similar speculation. The previous views (anthropic) were based on data that could be widely discussed for meaning and relevance to the argument. The evolutionary doctrines, on the other had, are rarely so well understood that an agreed body of accurate information may be taken with confidence by all parties, and used to support a particular ascertain.


GJDS - #74227

November 8th 2012

.... Continued

Even if we put to one side the problems with Darwin’s ideas, we are still confronted (and perhaps these confound us) with the extreme complexity of life, its bewildering diversity, and the ecological nature of the planet – such interdependence involving such a vast and complex system we refer to as the bio-sphere, cannot be treated in a similar manner (i.e. scientific constants).

To illustrate a point; Dembski’s treatment would be rendered ‘more scientific’ if it were applied to a specific system – one needs to identify one such system with sufficient detail (and shown to be reproducible) to make the first question scientific – i.e. is the formation of protein X comprehensible applying know laws of chemistry and bio-chemistry, or can it be treated ONLY using stochastic methods. If the latter, we would consider ‘chance’ as a meaningful term; if not, we must continue the research program until we have exhausted the insights provided by chemistry and bio-chemistry, and reach out (so to speak) for a new generalisation. This type of research is displayed by the recent work awarded the Nobel prize in Chemistry. It is extremely difficult, but the results are truly scientific.  

The complexity encountered in bio-systems is more often treated as a random (and chance) phenomena, and this would prompt the arguments presented by ID. The shear complexity of the bio-sphere, and our inability to define sub-systems in such a way that we may construct causal-chains, leaves us with only stochastic treatments. We should realise a difference (when using stochastic methods)  between treating a large body of data that does not ‘intuitively’ lend itself to simplifications termed generalities (or laws), and that of treating a large amount of information obtained using ‘chance’ events, such as tossing a coin to predict the probability of heads or tails. The arguments between Collins and Dempski (given by Ted) are about the stochastic methodology each would prefer to use. I cannot find any reference in both papers on the nature of the data; nor do I see a suggestion that conclusions should be tentative at best, until (or unless) someone can provide insights that ultimately result in a generalisation. Meta-analyses is an attempt to find correlations – these too are statistical in nature, but often are precursors to naïve generalisations that may provide ‘stepping stones’ that ultimately lead to a major breakthrough in our understanding. 

I think a great deal of additional work needs to be done before we may legitimately say we have a rudimentary understanding of the bio-sphere; after such work and understanding, we may have a basis for a debate regarding divine intelligence and life.

HornSpiel - #74300

November 10th 2012

while others (myself included) simply state that we cannot make direct statements about how God created (as a scientific statement),

This appears to be mixing a god-of the-gaps approach to science, “we cannot make..a scientific statement,”  with a  theological conclusion, “we cannot make direct statements about how God created.”

As Ted rightly points out, one cannot separate ID’s philosophical and scientific positions. But I think  tha same is true for traditional science. Most scientists believe it worthwhile to pursue naturalistic explanations to natural phenomenon—even the most intransigent, like the origin of life. So of course they believe it worthwhile to pursue naturalistic explanations for “apparent” design in nature, for which a pretty good track record exists. ID proponents correctly point out that that belief is amatter of faith.

So how good is the case that there are natural phenomemna that will never yield to natruralistic scientific explanations?  I say that is a hard if not impossible thing to prove because you need 100% certainty. Other people feel an extremely high probablity constitutes proof.

Also, a consequence of accepting the ID hypothesis is to actually change the nature of science. Although this might be desirable from some perspectives, the ramifications need to be thought through by ID advocates.

GJDS - #74302

November 11th 2012

This is not ‘a God-of-the-gaps’; the entire quote reads:

Theists conclude that the creation points to its creator, and even if some of us feel compelled to look for mechanistic workings by God, while others (myself included) simply state that we cannot make direct statements about how God created (as a scientific statement), we are equally convinced of the theistic conclusion.

Another way of saying the same thing is as follows: I begin with the teachings of the faith, which include the attribute of God as Creator. The level of certainty is based on faith. If this is in some way inadequate, or anyone felt a need for more information, or greater knowledge, or need to counter other views that are troublesome, then that is an additional matter. If such a person felt that scientific study may supply the ‘additional’ component to his/her faith position, this would form a basis for seeking to combine faith and science (as theistic evolution appears to attempt).

I cannot, from this simple statement, seek a metaphysics or even an epistemic commitment. The alternative approach is to begin with a faith position, and to examine this in depth; I term this faith and reason - in this case, historical accounts that show how Orthodoxy was formed, and subsequent discussions and various arguments, and so on, would be instructive.

My view of science is not that with science, one may or may not deal with all natural phenomena - I think a total understanding of creation is a big ask. Scientific research requires discipline that is clarrified within each of the branches and specialist fields. These matters impact on both theists and atheists and are more generally discussed as ethics. A Christian must, by definition, be ethical.

I do not see the ID hypothesis as a scientific one, as I see that (neither do I see TE as scientific) so it is unnecessary to science. A deeper understanding (in a more general sense) of the creation, pointing us to its creator, includes compreheding how it is all intelligible and why we obtain the understanding we do. This includes understanding matters that are discussed as design, geometry, symmetry, etc. In my experience this general outlook adds understanding to faith and is consistent with the attribute of God as the Creator.

I think you may see why I do not see a need to seperate any philosophical and scientific position. On making value judgements however, I agree that we need to be cognisant of both philosophy and science. These (should) inform faith. 

Jon Garvey - #74301

November 11th 2012


I guess the way you’ve framed the issue suggests that a Christian working as a natural scientist is actually assuming “philosophical non-realism” about science. That is, the Christian will know by faith that, in some sense, God’s mind and will are involved in the self-evident design of nature, and may well have acted in some direct way at the origin of certain things or even thereafter. Indeed, in some cases that might be the most likely overall explanation (for example, at OOL given the lack of truly plausible natural scenarios).

But because one is more likely to find the limits to physical knowledge by ignoring God’s involvement, he still mustn’t get a foot in the door. Science is done better by assuming that all things proceed apart from the God who, in fact, is behind them all. It’s a bit like those Jesuits who (in this case wrongly, as it turned out) continued to believe in geocentrism but used heliocentrism for navigation just because it worked better.

At that point one must then ask ethical questions rather than anything: is such “non-realism” the “right” thing for believers to engage in? Will it weaken Christian witness in the world? Will it, perhaps, tend towards metaphysical naturalism - excluding God from one’s working life is, after all, done at some risk to faith. More broadly, in the specific field of science-faith, or theistic evolution, or evolutionary creation, is the most helpful approach to proceed as if the “faith”, “theism” and creation” have no bearing on the “science” and “evolution”? Or should one attempt genuine rapprochement (ie scientific and theological realism) even if that means changing the nature of science?

GJDS - #74304

November 11th 2012


I would be interested to read more from you on, “Or should one attempt genuine rapprochement (ie scientific and theological realism) even if that means changing the nature of science?”

Polkinghorne, in his “Science and Creation”, seeks a basis of the comradeship of theology and natural science. In a broader sense, I take a similar view of Aquinas treatment of Aristotle (Faith and Reason) -  is this the sort of thing you suggest for science, a harmony so to speak. If that is so, what changes to you envisage for natural science?

Jon Garvey - #74306

November 11th 2012


I’d like to hold off opining at this point, as I was trying to sound out Hornspiel on the implications of what (rightly or wrongly) I took his position to imply.

To restate my point slightly differently, is it better to hold ones theology apart from ones science because of a commitment to methodological naturalism, or is that compromising on a unified view of truth?

Eddie - #74320

November 11th 2012

Good points, Jon—especially in the last three sentences.  

HornSpiel - #74325

November 12th 2012


Thank you for your response.

I must agree that one cannot separate ones philosophical positions from science. Indeed, the foundation of science is a philosophical commitment, whether or not one acknowledges it.

The question, in my opinion, is whether the current philosophical commitment accepted by the majority of the scientists of the “academy” and by TEs is adequate, or should be changed. Jon expresses it pretty well above:

I it better to hold ones theology apart from ones science because of a commitment to methodological naturalism, or is that compromising on a unified view of truth?

The crux of the issue is methodological naturalism, which I believe is mischaracterized by many Christians. It is by definition not a unified view of truth. It is a limited way of looking at the world—unless ones foundational philosophical commitment is that the natural world is all there is. For a Christian though, science ought to be clearly understood as only one part of an overall worldview or “understanding of truth.”

So if one simply defines methodological naturalism as the search for naturalistic explanations for natural phenomenon, then it should not be controversial. Yet it is.

You say of some Christians, I assume TEs, that

some of us feel compelled to look for mechanistic workings by God

The use of the word mechanistic  mischaracterizes the TE position. First it implies a disinterested divine clockmaker, not the God of the Bible who “holds all things together.” It also reflects a 19th century deterministic view of physics rather than the modern view in which contingency and quantum uncertainty allow more than enough latitude for God’s intervention below the radar of naturalistic explanation.

In contrast you say of yourself, and I assume you are expressing the ID position

others (myself included) simply state that we cannot make direct statements about how God created (as a scientific statement)

Your explanation above, #74302, is confusing to me. For example, what does this mean?

My view of science is not that with science, one may or may not deal with all natural phenomena

Therefore all I can say is that the original statement in context still seems to imply a god-of-the-gaps approach to science.

May I ask what you mean by “statements about how God created?” Do you mean original creation of the universe, creation of the species, creation of putative irreducibly complex biological components, all of the above, or something else? And are you implying by that, as I have inferred, that science, or at least Christian scientists, should set limits on the types of natural phenomena they seek naturalistic explanations for?

I hope you now understand why I said you appeared to be mixing science and theology.

I do believe in a unified approach to truth. Both require a faith commitment to a philosophical foundation, as well as a philosophical commitment to how they should relate to each other. I am not so naive to think that science and theology do not affect each other. I admit that my approach to science has made me more inclined to consider naturalistic explanations of the miracles reported in the Bible. Yet statements like that of 2 Peter 1:16 do carry a lot of weight. The historical Jesus cannot be explained away scientifically.

For we did not follow cleverly devised stories when we told you about the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ in power, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty.

Science, I believe, helps be to be discerning, not cynical. Ultimately I feel science complements my faith and strengthens my Christian commitment.

HornSpiel - #74326

November 12th 2012


I take issue with the way you describe my position. You say I suggest that

a Christian working as a natural scientist is actually assuming “philosophical non-realism” about science.

A Christian scientist may believe that scientific explanations of the origin of the universe,  life, consciousness, or the human spirit are likely never to be completely adequate. Richard Bube once told me personally in conversation that he believed that these all point to the reality of God. This is not “philosophical non-realism” about science but philosophical realism about the limitations of science. That I feel is the right thing for “Christians to engage in.” (See also my response to GJDS above.)

Science does not ignore God’s involvement, it describes God’s involvement in terms of natural laws and processes that He created. What it does not do is allow exceptions to those laws and processes to pass as scientific explanations.

In the same conversation Bube explained it to me this way. Researchers may find some phenomena that seems to contradict or invalidate some aspect of scientific theory. But that does not mean a naturalistic explanation exists. It is premature to conclude a Designer did it as soon as the issue is described. Give scientists two or three hundred years to work on the problem. If it is still unsolved, then maybe you can conclude that the only explanation is divine intervention.

In other words (mine), the tenets of ID will never be proved or accepted in any of our lifetimes. And if they are, then the nature of science will be altered.

HornSpiel - #74327

November 12th 2012

Errata I should have written:

But that does not mean a naturalistic explanation does not exist.

Jon Garvey - #74328

November 12th 2012


I wasn’t aiming to criticise, but to clarify, your position, following what I took to be some reasonable general theistic presuppositions, viz, the rest of my first paragraph. Assuming a Christian believes that God is behind natural processes, and that there is no theological reason to deny he might act beyond them, then to work entirely on the assumption that he has not is to prioritise practical methodology over core beliefs. That might be fully acceptable, but needs to be recognised, and it’s what I mean by “non-realism”: all things are made and sustained by God, but science proceeds best on the basis that they are not, or at least will never be visibly so.

If one is prepared to wait 300 years without an explanation (which is somewhat arbitrary - I really can’t imagine a General Thanksgiving for the Miracle of Life on the tricentenary of the Miller-Urey experiments), then it’s reasonable to ask a theological or philosophical, rather than mer5ely a methodological, justification for putting such a premium on a naturalistic explanation, it seems to me.

HornSpiel - #74329

November 12th 2012

it’s reasonable to ask a theological or philosophical, rather than merely a methodological, justification for putting such a premium on a naturalistic explanation, it seems to me.

TEs only put a “premium” on naturalistic explanations as a practical matter not philosophically. Naturalistic explanations are inadequate and must be complemented by theological understandings.

Thus you you provide adequate justification for methodological naturalism—it works best. One reason it works best is that the alternative, accepting non-natural explanations, is a “science stopper.”

I agree 300 years is arbitrary, though to be fair, it was said in an informal context. The point is, I think, that if methodological naturalism is not the best way to do science then time will tell. Remember that when Bacon et al. first elucidated  modern scientific method, it was not for philosophical, but practical reasons. There was a millennium of history to support the notion that the Aristotelian model of science needed to be revised.

I think you would agree that if science is a problem for some because it challenges their faith, that in itself is not a good reason to change it.

Jon Garvey - #74359

November 13th 2012


A couple of thoughts in reply to yours to me above. I think the example of Johanes Kepler alone shows that allowing God into the laboratory isn’t, in principle, a science stopper - as I’ve mentioned before, his working notes are peppered with devotional comments, and yet he still delivered the science.

The problem is, I still believe, that Christian methodological naturalism is philosophically non-realist. The Bible teaches, and classic philosophical theism concurs, that God (we should say the Logos of God, really) is actively working his will within creation each moment, and not just at time to, and that through regularities (law), chance (contingency) and human action, leaving aside miracle. It also teaches that he achieves most of this through secondary causes, which is what science studies.

It seems to me, then, that a truly Christian “methodological naturalism” should be recognising this and setting its sights on consciously exploring secondary causes, to God’s glory, unless and until they run out (300 years or whatever), affirming positively that those causes are enacting God’s purposes. Now that would prevent the false dichotomy between natural (2ry) and divine (1ry) causation creeping in and leading to theologically suspect conclusions like God’s “leaving” things to natural causes, as if he weren’t causing the natural causes purely to achieve his ends, as orthodox teaching has always said and as science has no business denying. That whole “freedom of nature” kick arises from methodological naturalism imperceptibly invading the philosophical and metaphysical arenas.

Is this creepage a real danger (at least as real as the risks from “science stopping” admission of divine action)? Consider what you said above:

I admit that my approach to science has made me more inclined to consider naturalistic explanations of the miracles reported in the Bible. Yet statements like that of 2 Peter 1:16 do carry a lot of weight. The historical Jesus cannot be explained away scientifically.

Now, you’re a self-examining and faithful individual, and yet you find yourself unconsciously applying naturalistic explanations to what God overtly and categorically says were miraculous events. If instead you were working on a methodology that started from divine primary causation (the Father, through the Son, by the Spirit) of “all that has been made”, surely the question of whether or not miracles were miraculous would hardly arise, but only the question of whether there was room for secondary causation - and science couldn’t answer that for the Lord’s miracles anyway, as one-off events in the past. To look at an avowedly miraculous event through a naturalistic prism is, for a Christian, non-realism: “in reality it’s a miracle, but I will choose to view it naturalistically anyway.”

Another consideration arises from that “wait until science exhausts every idea before bringing God into it” thing. That too is alien to the approach I’ve suggested above - God is in it up to his neck , and can’t “intervene” in what he’s doing already. But it’s also necessarily true that a methodology that excludes all but natural explanations will never exhaust the possibilities. Every blind alley just means looking further and further afield until heat death or the parousia. Apart from anything else, that makes the investigation of “divine action” by Russell or Polkinghorne appear completely futile. Propose what they like, it will have no place whatsoever in science until all explanations which exclude divine action are exhausted, ie when every stone in the Universe has been turned. And on what basis is the methodology that important?

HornSpiel - #74363

November 13th 2012

Please see my response below #74362.

GJDS - #74340

November 12th 2012


The crux of my view is that science is unlikely to obtain the truth of everything – even if we confine our discussions to nature (or natural phenomena). Most scientist by and large accept this as a generally accept. Atheists and Gnostics however, will focus on the method of theory and experiment as being powerful enough to provide them with the entire story. I suppose if their belief is the entire story is nature and they centred such belief on the methodology of science, they have a philosophical/belief commitment to the power of science.

My overall view has been that mixing theology with evolution is a faulty project, so you have completely mis-interpreted my position. I have given my reasons for this – my remarks are directed to both TE and ID, so you are mistaken to say I am may be putting forward an ID or TE position. In terms of this discussion, mine is a faith position.

I use the term mechanistic as a scientist – not a clockmaker. You will notice the term ‘mechanism’ is used when discussing chemical reactions leading to various substances. E.g. the reaction mechanisms in chemical kinetics of combustion chemistry have been described and are part of simulation packages used in research on flames and to varying degrees rocket and jet propulsion. Overall the term is used to indicate sufficient detail when describing any system involving molecules of any kind (i.e. nature).

On contingency and allowing God room to move, I recommend Polkinghorne’s excellent little book, “Science and Creation”. You will find his language is circumspect, and his emphasis is on how little we as scientists may understand about quantum physics – and he points out that our knowledge of the bio-world is even less. We are not here to give God ‘wiggle room’, or permission to ‘tinker’. We need to develop a deeper appreciation of the workings of the creation and the ecological system that sustains life – and acknowledge our significant limitations in terms of knowledge and understanding.

I agree with the view that theology and science should be comrades; they should not be elements in a synthesis that purports to know everything and to give permission to God. Nor should theology be ‘mixed up’ in endeavours such as ‘theistic evolution’ or ‘searching for a designer’. I have stated a number of times that knowledge of God is through revelation, and we have the Bible to provide this for us. I have also said that science must be done honestly and ethically – and a sceptical approach is needed as we scientists have been wrong too many times, especially when science has been applied within the wider community. Faith and reason would enable us to do science well and also consider the wider implications of scientific output to the well-being of us all.

GJDS - #74341

November 12th 2012


The sentence, ‘Most scientist by and large accept this as a generally accept” should read:

Most scientists be and large accept this as generally true.

HornSpiel - #74349

November 12th 2012


Science is unlikely to obtain the truth of everything – even if we confine our discussions to nature (or natural phenomena).

I agree, except that I am certain it never will. I also agree with your final statement that “theology and science should be comrades; they should not be elements in a synthesis that purports to know everything.”

I am not sure what you are taking exception to when you mention “giving permission to God” or giving “God ‘wiggle room’, or permission to ‘tinker’.” I assume you are criticizing  my statement that modern physics allows “more than enough latitude for God’s intervention below the radar of naturalistic explanation.” I can accept that, since such an appeal to current theory smacks of god-of-the-gaps. Yet I stand by it not as proof, but as evidence that no human knowledge, not even science, can ever “obtain the truth of everything.” Bottom line: Science can neither prove nor disprove the existence of God.

Btw, I have listened to some Polkinghorn lectures and have heard him say similar things, which I agree with.  So if you recommend him, I doubt we have a disagreement on this point.

You say you used mechanistic in the sense of mechanism. Fine. However discovering and describing mechanisms is what scientists do. To say they are “compelled” to do that is like saying some of us are compelled to bake bread. I for one am appreciative for what they (bakers and scientists) do.

You imply that both ID and TE mix science with theology. I disagree. In my opinion TE is a theological  understanding of science. It is basically away of helping Christians come to terms with science. TE does not do science, but it does interpret scientific conclusions. If that is mixing science and theology, it is not IMO a faulty kind of mixing.

On the other hand, ID is overtly scientific in that it tries to influence scientific theory, and overtly philosophical in that it is trying to change the foundation of science to include final or teleological causation. Its theological agenda is covert (though not very) in that it is a byproduct of the secular philosophical agenda. That is a kind of mixing I think we both agree is faulty.

GJDS - #74352

November 12th 2012


We may be saying similar things using different words. I have not baked bread so I will skip that metaphor.

In my opinion TE is a theological  understanding of science. It is basically away of helping Christians come to terms with science.

Faith and Reason is the catch phrase I (and I think others) employ on this matter. I cannot get my head around ‘a theological understanding of science’ but this may be ‘words we use’ again.

Helping Christians with science again is an odd way to state the matter - helping all of us with our faith is good, and this means a deeper understanding of the attribute of God as Creator. I dispute that evolution or any form of Darwin’s idea would help us with this, but in the bio- area, a deeprer appreciation of life, and how this may benefit humanity and this planet, would go a long way to achieving the objectives of the project of ‘Faith and Reason’.

On the intelligibility of the Creation (nature) and its patterns and ways we are able to understand regularities, order, and what we now think are chance events, I think these matters are well within science and our ability to appreciate and speculate on the nature of nature. I again cannot get my head around ‘teleological causation’; teleology of sorts is implied by the uniqueness of the Universe. Causation is philosophically based, while science sees a consistency between observations and theory - correspondence is another term. Besides these opinions, I do not have much to add to either TE or ID.

HornSpiel - #74362

November 13th 2012


Thanks for your considered response. I will respond to several of your points.

With regard to Kepler. I am certainly not opposed to “allowing God into the laboratory.” Quite the opposite, I would hope that He would be invited in every day, and that the practice of science would would be an act of devotion.  I have not read the lab notes of Kepler, but I would think devotional thoughts in laboratory notes are completely compatible with science. I am not saying Faith is a science-stopper. I am saying that explanations that conclude with “God must have intervened some supernatural way” are science stoppers.  One well known example is Newton, who concluded that that God must be intervening periodically to keep the planets in their orbits. It is ironic that you cite Kepler since I would also cite him as a great example of a Christian scientist who is quoted to have said after a discovery, “I am thinking God’s thoughts after him!”

Also I am not saying that God did not intervene supernaturally, that is, act in ways that are not consistent with the natural laws we observe today. Sometimes a non-scientific explanation may be the best one. For example, the resurrection of Jesus. If there is a scientific explanation, then I’m afraid our faith is futile and we are still in our sins. What I am saying, as you correctly observe, is that any explanation that uses divine intervention, (or design intervention by an unknown designer) is not a scientific explanation.

Christian “methodological naturalism” should be recognising [that God achieves His purposes mostly through secondary causes] and setting its sights on consciously exploring secondary causes, to God’s glory

If by Christian “methodological naturalism” you mean science as practiced by Christians I agree completely. However you continue:

affirming positively that those causes are enacting God’s purposes.

I also agree with you if you mean a theological or devotional practice of interpreting the results of science. It is something that Christian scientists may do, depending on their theological and spiritual maturity, but it is not science per se. Isn’t that what Francis Collins did in The Language of God?

You say that God achieves His purposes mostly “through secondary causes, which is what science studies.” but than you also say there is a “false dichotomy between natural (2ry) and divine (1ry) causation.” So are you saying scientific explanations need to be complemented by non-scientific theological explanations? Then we are in agreement. Or are you saying scientific explanations need to incorporate non-scientific explanations? In which case we disagree.

You express concern about the slippery slope of methodological naturalism. Let me clarify. If I consider that there may likely be naturalistic explanations of the miracles reported in the Bible, that does not mean I do not think of them as miracles. Naturalistic explanations may make some miracle seem less miraculous, but that is the problem with miracles. Miracles, the significant ones, are not miracles if some natural law has been broken, but because God has demonstrated his reality, love, and power is some tangible way to some person. If you have concerns about my rationalism, then I have concerns for those who uncritically accept and are fleeced by the tricks of charlatans. I think we can agree that we need clear thinking to unflinchingly see reality as it is.

Jon Garvey - #74389

November 14th 2012

Merv, we’re largely agreed, given variations in experience and life-setting.

Regarding the question of “miracles”, there is a grey area between miracle and “special providence”. If, say, the Israelites crossed the Jordan because a rare landslip occurred further up, one assumes it would have looked for all the world like those other, rare, but allegedly recorded instances of such things. The miracle is in the timing, just as God’s providence would be personally discernible if I were one of only 14 recorded instances of spontaneous resolution of Blogg’s disease the day after my elders prayed for me.

Yet it would also, actually, be God’s providence if I were one of the 98% who don’t die of Wilkins’ Disease, or in a less welcome sense one of the 2% who do. The category of “miracle” in the Bible isn’t to do with God’s doing or not doing it - for he does everything, ultimately, in the Biblical worldview - but the empirical one of “extraordinary” and “significant.”

That leads to the question of recognising the limits of science. Let’s take the resurrection as an agreed example. Miraculously in itself, let’s say a time-travelling scientist gets to witness it and examine the Lord’s body before burial, and watches the tomb more closely than the guards did, before seeing the risen Christ emerge. In other words, let’s assume the facts of the case were accessible and incontrovertible.

Now, I guess a scientist has a choice of looking for ever for the hidden (actually non-existent) natural explanation, but I suggest at some time it would be honest to say, “Dead men don’t rise, but this one did. The only natural explanation appears to be extraordinarily unlikely chance, which appears to drive it beyond the remit of science. I can posit God, or an infinite Multiverse, but neither of those is science. Nevertheless the evidence points to a non-scientific explanation.”

Now let me apply this hypothetically to natural science. If either the origin of life, or aspects of evolution, turned out in the fullness of time to require individual events of staggeringly low probability (the probability of a spontaneously formed self replicating laevo-peptide of 100 bases comes to mind), would it then be unreasonable to call that evidence for the only viable non-scientific explanations, ie infinite multiverse or God?

And if the Hadron Collider sounds the death-knell for string theory and makes multiverses non-viable, would the God-of-the-Gaps still be unreasonable as a hypothesis to explain a purely physical finding?

Jon Garvey - #74448

November 16th 2012

Why did I call you “Merv”, Hornspiel? I must be getting old.

Ted Davis - #74364

November 13th 2012


Let me interrupt these lively and very respectful exchanges to call attention to two recent articles about “randomness” and God that are well worth studying. That topic comes up a lot here, mainly b/c some commentators keep saying that the views of certain TEs on this matter are just unacceptable, and that “Darwinian” evolution is unacceptable for identical reasons. We can’t go into that fully on this thread; it really calls for a separate thread of its own, perhaps even a series of posts would be in order. Nevertheless, I want to point interested parties toward the two articles I refer to. Both are written by people with genuine expertise on “randomness” in mathematics and the physical sciences. This is highly relevant to evolution, insofar as views of “randomness” don’t originate in biology and then leak out into theology or the physical sciences. Rather, it’s the other way around: the physical sciences have used such ideas for a long time, and theologians have thought about “contingency” and God for a long time (I’m not saying that contingency and randomness are identical, but the conversations can overlap), and it’s the evolutionary biologists who are the relative latecomers in terms of using “randomness” in their explanations. In some cases, they might be saying things that are actually out of step with what other scientists would say about “randomness,” but I’ll leave that for others to explore as a possibility. For now, the main thing is just to call attention to these statements by highly qualified people from fields (mathematics and physics) in which “randomness” has been used for quite a long time, and in many different contexts, to help us understand the way the world is.


The first essay is by mathematician James Bradley, “Randomness and God’s Nature.” The ASA published it this past summer—I keep mentioning the ASA b/c they keep giving me reasons to do so. This essay is now available on the internet at the ASA site: http://www.asa3.org/ASA/PSCF/2012/PSCF6-12Bradley.pdf. I’d love to have someone take up the “assignment” to put a summary and commentary here; I won’t be able to do it myself.

Ted Davis - #74365

November 13th 2012

The second essay is by physicist Stephen Barr, “Chance, By Design,” in the December 2012 issue of First Things. If there is an electronic version somewhere, I cannot find it. I get that magazine in print, but I don’t have time to do it justice here so I’ll make this an “assignment,” too. (Hurrah for print. I’m glad that not every magazine and newspaper gives it all away for free.) Although Barr knows far more about this topic than Barry Arrington, an attorney who  owns a leading ID web site, Arrington has sharply criticized Barr (http://www.uncommondescent.com/intelligent-design/sorry-dr-barr-chance-by-design-is-an-oxymoron/) once again. Arrington repeats the baseless and frankly insulting charge he has leveled at Barr before: that Barr is really just bending over backwards not to rock the Darwinian boat, in order to curry favor from his scientific colleagues—as if one got brownie points from scientists for writing articles in Christian magazines (if Arrington somehow thinks one does, then he simply doesn’t know what he’s talking about).

Arrington quotes an earlier diatribe of his as follows: “In this way Barr maintains membership in the academic cool kids club by espousing a Darwinian account of origins that is indistinguishable from the account of origins atheists Dawkins and Dennnett espouse. Yet he keeps the “T” in his “TE” by saying that at a wholly different level of existence God fixed the game so that “random” is not really random but directed.”

This business about TEs keeping the “TE” in “TE” by allegedly making distinctions that aren’t distinctions is starting to get bothersome. IDs clearly expect Christian scientists to do science differently from non-Christian scientists, at least when it comes to evolutionary biology and “randomness.” When major scientists like Barr explain that “random” ain’t necessarily what Arrington thinks it is, Arrington basically questions their character, when instead he should be questioning his own understanding of “randomness” in science—a topic, frankly, that he is just not qualified to address, and thus he resorts to repeating an ad hominem.

Eddie - #74367

November 13th 2012

I’ve just read the Bradley article.  I don’t think it’s an article that can easily be summarized, since it is itself a summary of sorts—a broad discussion of the different uses of randomness in mathematics and science, of the nature of God, of free will and divine foresight, etc.  It does offer a general thesis—that a traditional idea of God is compatible with “ontological” randomness in nature—but its main purpose is to provide background for thinking about the problem, and it does that well.  I think people should read it for themselves.
I distinguish between “randomness” as a technical term used by mathematicians and scientists for their working needs, and “randomness” as an everyday term.  As an everyday term, it refers to events that occur without any causal relationship to certain other events.  For example, if I am drinking tea in my parlor, and a baseball crashes through the window, the result of a home run hit in the park across the street, I would say that the appearance of the baseball in my parlor at that moment is “random”—it might have occurred the night before; it might have occurred when I was drinking coffee rather than tea; it might have gone into the neighbor’s garage instead.  Of course, “random” in this case doesn’t mean “uncaused”—but the chain of causes leading the baseball into my parlor and the chain of causes which led me to drink tea at that moment are unrelated—hence we speak of coincidence or chance.
The problem for neo-Darwinism is that the mutations are supposed to be uncoordinated with any end:  the mutations, when they occur, aren’t aiming to produces roses or human beings, any more than the baseball was aiming to spoil my tea-time.  So if God limits himself to working with strictly Darwinian causes, he has the problem of guaranteeing his ends in creation while making use of a process which by its nature cannot guarantee anything.  Bradley’s article doesn’t really help much with this problem.  The examples he uses (from physics and everyday life) are adequate to show that large numbers of individually unpredictable events can, when aggregated, produce predictable gross outcomes, but biological systems, which are not mere aggregations of independently-acting particles, have very little in common with those examples.  
Actually, Bradley doesn’t even try to show how randomness could construct anything useful in the biological case.  He simply assumes that it can, and then switches to the theological question of whether such randomness is compatible with traditional Christian notions of God.  The closest he comes to enunciating principles which might be able to reconcile a traditional God with “ontologically” random mutations is in his discussion of Molinism.  But his discussion of Molinism (which doesn’t cite any primary or even any secondary sources) is a very introductory summary; a proper argument based on Molinism would require an entire article by itself, and a graduate-level one, not a popular one, as that sort of scholastic metaphysics is extremely intricate and not for the theological tourist. 
The main thing I like about Bradley’s article is that he tries to ground his discussion of God in serious pre-Enlightenment Christian thinkers such as Molina and Calvin.  That is a refreshing change from the creation theology, in vogue among a number of TEs, which runs something like:  “I think God loves the world so much that he would give freedom even to protein molecules and slime molds, so that they could have the joy of co-creating with Him.”  I attribute this difference to the fact that Bradley is at Calvin College, where traditional metaphysical thinking still has a place in Christian theology.  I would not say they are wholly true to Calvin anymore at Calvin College, but at least his ghost still lingers there enough to prevent the place from succumbing to the pietism which has intellectually disabled much of evangelical theology.
Ted Davis - #74452

November 16th 2012

Thank you, Eddie, for commenting on Bradley for us. I thought you would find his theological approach attractive. I agree that Molinism is a deep topic that wouldn’t translate well into any “popular” treatment, and I also agree that Bradley would probably not be the best person to attempt a fuller discussio of it. It would take an expert in medieval theology, or at least a philosopher with substantial historical grounding. Just as modern physicists can’t simply pick up Newton’s Principia and read it as they would a novel or a modern paper in their own specialty (it’s far too Archimedian for modern readers), so most philosophers and theologians can’t simply dive into Moninism and breeze along.

Jon Garvey - #74388

November 14th 2012


I’ve been following the discussion at Uncommon Descent, and it’s only fair to say that Barr has received considerable support from some regular posters there, both ID and TE. And that’s on the basis that, in their opinion, he has unequivocally said that what is random in scientific terms (ie stochastic, or chaotic, or even one supposes statistically indeterminate like quantum events) still falls under God’s providence. That is, it isn’t chancey to God.

The whole argument re Barr is whether his words do, or do not, carry that import. But the underlying distinction is clear, and leaving Stephen Barr aside, it’s one on which many TE’s have got themselves in a mess by placing contingency outside God’s providence (in the sense that he too is playing dice), or else pronouncing it an insoluble mystery. Hence they defend randomness all the time against the assaults of non-TEs (and TEs like me!) when, in my view, they could have sorted it out in a paragraph, and possibly persuaded everyone including Creationists to a clear view, both scientifically and theologically.

Here’s my take, building on my dialogue with Hornspiel. Scientists can only comment on randomness wrt physical events: “this is statistically uncommon,” “this is chaotic,” “this is unpredicatable,” etc. So any statements about evolution being “undirected”, in the divine sense, are unscientific and of no weight whatsoever. Any scientist making such statements should be declared loudly by all, especially TEs, to be wrong.

Theologically (now we’re bringing in the “theistic” people), classical theism, and clear biblical teaching, has always subsumed “chance” under God’s providence. God judges Ahab by an arrow fired at random; the decision of every cast of the lot is from God; sparrows, or the hairs of believers’ heads, fall to the ground according to God’s will - literally thousands of other examples and instructions. The whole character of God in Scripture is the Lord of Creation in all its aspects.

So bringing those two together is no harder than a mediaeval person saying, “That was a lucky/unlucky accident, but my faith teaches me to perceive God’s will in it.”

We then move to commonly stated TE concepts like, “God loves spontaneity and randomness rather than control,” or the inexplicably irrational extension that Eddie mentions, “God loves freedom, so he builds in randomness so the creation has freedom to create itself” (that means something??). Such things have no basis in science, which doesn’t do God. And they have no basis in the Bible or classical theology, which radically disagree with them.

By my reckoning, that makes them a case of “teaching as doctrine the precepts of men.” And that’s why they attract opprobium, no more and no less.

It’s a somewhat separate matter whether evolutionary theory as commonly understood now is sufficiently precise to execute God’s will effectively. That, in the end, has to do with the theological consideration of divine action. But again, in principle it’s still a question of whether you believe that chance is subsumed by God’s providential control - the actual mechanisms are irrelevant if you hold that science in principle can’t detect them anyway, and that theology is about trust, not natural mechanisms.

GJDS - #74407

November 14th 2012

Ted and Jon,

I would suggest there are two ways to consider the subject of chance, randomness and a pre-determined world (providential).  These are within the human perspective, and what we are taught by the Faith as the Divine perspective (God’s attributes).

The human perspective may be seen as: (a) science dealing with the peculiar (and idiosyncratic) aspects of nature – i.e. those that do not appear to conform to our understanding of regular patterns and predictability per se, and also (b) our way of dealing with future events, which inevitably may be seen as uncertain until they actualise (contingent).

The treatment by Barr is more or less understood by the sciences and would suffice for (a). The latter (b) can be understood as a range of possibilities; some are obvious and would be easily determined to occur by our individual decisions (I know the possibilities exist that I can drink a cup of coffee, and the events that need to occur for that to happen. I also know, however, the remote possibility of breaking my cup, which would prevent that from happening, and so on). In this sense, we continually exist in a world of possibilities, and our choice/action will determine the world that actualises. This view would be expanded to include the world and its activities, but the discussion would be too long.

On the Divine perspective, we understand God is not limited by time, so He can know all possibilities (foreknowledge) and He is able to determine, or selection, any of these future possibilities (pre-determined) while still allowing the human world to consist (or contain) all of its other possibilities. This view is also consistent with (I think) Calvin’s take on predestination, and also with human freedom – it restricts humanity however, to this world of possibilities, and also shows that God is the ultimate cause of all possibilities.

Evolution needs to be sufficiently scientific, and its details understood with the rigour and confidence required by science, before we would be able to understand the bio-world within this outlook. The unique aspect of humanity on this planet is obvious within this view.   

GJDS - #74439

November 15th 2012

correction. I was referring to the James Bradley paper and not Barr. I would be happy to spend time to provide a review, but it would help me if you can give an idea on the technical content you may ant.

Ted Davis - #74451

November 16th 2012

Thank you very much for offering to do this, GJDS. I don’t want to offer guidelines for your commentary; I’d much rather have you say what you think is important, both in terms of summarizing Bradley and in any commentary you want to offer.

GJDS - #74440

November 15th 2012

This is part review, part comment, on Bradley’s paper. I apologise for repeating some previous remarks, but it is difficult to discuss the subject matter with greater brevity.

We should understand the difference between treating random events using stochastic methods (a statistical pattern subject to analysis) and the object or system that gives rise to these events. Bradley provides examples of systems that we would treat using stochastic methods; he also goes on to consider models (which are approximations in themselves) as a way of comprehending such systems. His next step is to enter the world of metaphysics and theology, and by using the general ‘models’ of instrumentalism and realism, he believes an understanding of God’s attributes may be compatible with the general or popular (and ill defined) notion of randomness (which he says is “not having a governing design, method, or purpose; unsystematic; without cause.”)

His exemplars are sufficient for a general view of stochastic methods. I think his explanation of systems (or objects of Nature) is not rigorous as he is committed to indeterminate processes, even if he admits that this term is ambiguous and may be confused with a physicists view of caused or uncaused (which in itself requires a great deal of discussion). He suggests that it is predictability, or lack of it, that is dealt using statistic methods. He introduces AIT as a way to deal with real systems, but again admits “a real world process is never perfectly repeatable, nor can it produce an infinite sequence of outputs”. Nonetheless he goes on to consider cases which are epistemically random and ones which are ontologically random sequences; for his previously mentioned models, he thinks instrumentalism is a useful tool when we have limited knowledge, but realism corresponds to a deeper nondeterministic reality.

From these matters, he steps into the theological argument. I commence such a discussion as dealing with a pre-determined world, and a determining world (others may use the term becoming for determining). Bradley appears to give a similar supposition to that of physicists such as Polkinghorne, who include the language of the uncertainty principle and other concepts of physics, when discussion God’s attribute as Creator.

This subject would need much more space to discuss, but briefly, I think there is a mistake. When we  discuss ways we understand seemingly random events, we are basing these on a human’s attributes, or those ‘of a being existing in the world’. A human being is in the world, but not of the world, nor out of this world. This means that we may conceptualise and treat the phenomena of the world as observers, and provide our model(s) – however, we are subject to the various constraints that we observe in the world – this puts us in this world. The epistemic aspect is how we apply reason (in the case of randomness, how we use mathematics), to further our understanding of the world in toto.… continued

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