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Searching for Motivated Belief: Understanding John Polkinghorne, Part 1

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February 28, 2013 Tags: Lives of Faith
Searching for Motivated Belief: Understanding John Polkinghorne, Part 1

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

My previous column offered a brief overview of the life and work of John Polkinghorne. This column introduces a few of the ideas and attitudes at the core of his thought.

Understanding John Polkinghorne: Natural Theology

John Polkinghorne likes to describe himself as a “bottom-up thinker,” whereas many theologians (in his view) are “top-down” thinkers. What does he mean by this?

“I like to start with the phenomena, with things that have happened, and then try to build up an explanation and an understanding from there,” Polkinghorne explains. The “top-down” thinker, on the other hand, will, “go the other way: start with some grand general ideas and use them to explain particular events.” He sees the former as the “natural” route for the scientist, who looks for “ideas which have reasons backing them up; these reasons will lie in the experience we consider, the events that motivate our belief.” (Searching for Truth, p. 14)

Thus, for Polkinghorne, theology and science are “cousinly” disciplines, in that both are open-minded searches for “motivated belief.” This contrasts starkly with the attitude of the “New Atheists,” for whom religion is a wholly unjustified leap of faith, in the complete absence of any evidence. Let’s be honest: many Christians do match that stereotype. Polkinghorne addresses this implicitly, when he says, “Revelation is not the presentation of unchallengeable dogmas for reception by the unquestioning faithful. Rather, it is the record of those transparent events or persons in which the divine will and presence have been most clearly seen.” (The Faith of a Physicist, pp. 5-6) For some Christians, this may be a step too far, but for many Christians who work in scientific fields it’s an accurate description of what makes sense. They want to know why something is worthy of belief, in religion no less than in science. Blind faith is not enough for them, and it’s not enough for Polkinghorne.

Perhaps his most fundamental challenge to the New Atheists, however, is his view that both nature and our ability to have a science of nature (i.e., our ability to understand nature at all) make more sense within a theistic worldview than without it. Where Dawkins and others seem to think that science comes with an atheist worldview attached at the hip, Polkinghorne realizes that, “Physics constrains metaphysics, but it no more determines it than the foundations of a house determine the precise form of the building erected on them.” In short, it’s a two-way street. While, “Science offers an illuminating context within which much theological reflection can take place,” science in turn, “needs to be considered in the wider and deeper context of intelligibility that a belief in God affords.” In the next few months, we’ll see more precisely what Polkinghorne has in mind. (Theology in the Context of Science, pp. 60 and 95)

As I’ve just implied, Polkinghorne devotes considerable attention to natural theology, more indeed than many other contemporary theologians, who largely ignore it for a combination of reasons that I cannot explore adequately here. However, his approach to natural theology is more modest than that of many previous authors, especially those who stand strongly in the line of William Paley, by emphasizing the inexplicable, stunning intricacy of living things as irrefutable evidence for God’s existence. I’ll develop this point more fully in a future column. Instead of seeking knock-down “proofs” of design in nature—thereby “proving” God’s existence to skeptics—Polkinghorne claims instead that theism makes more sense of our whole experience of the world than atheism does, all things considered. For more on this, see my earlier column.

His approach to natural theology can be understood specifically in terms of three larger, metaphysical questions about nature and our ability to understand it. I’ll present these in the words of three non-Christian scientists who also voiced them.

Why does the world make sense at all?

Albert Einstein is quoted as saying, “The most incomprehensible thing about the world is that it is comprehensible.” (Antonina Vallentin, Einstein: A Biography, p. 24) Polkinghorne wants to know why a science of nature is possible at all—a fundamental question that science itself cannot answer.

Why is mathematics so powerful for understanding nature, down deep?

No one got at this issue better than Eugene Wigner. In his wonderful paper, “The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences” (1960), Wigner spoke eloquently of, “the two miracles of the existence of laws of nature and of the human mind’s capacity to divine them.” Polkinghorne sees this as, “a hint of the presence of the Creator, given to us creatures who are made in the divine image.” He also underscores a related question, “Are mathematical truths invented or discovered?” (Belief in God in an Age of Science, pp. 4 and 126)

Paul Dirac (Source)

Why, specifically, is “beautiful” mathematics exactly what we need to understand nature?

Wigner’s brother-in-law, Paul Dirac, once said, “God used beautiful mathematics in creating the world.” (Behram N. Kursunoglu and Eugene Paul Wigner, eds., Paul Adrien Maurice Dirac: Reminiscences about a Great Physicist, p. xv) I don’t mean to imply that Dirac believed in God—quite the opposite. But, like Einstein, he was not averse to invoking “God” to express his deepest convictions about nature.

Polkinghorne wants to go more deeply than Dirac into this astonishing fact about nature: “There is no a priori reason why beautiful equations should prove to be the clue to understanding nature; why fundamental physics should be possible; why our minds should have such ready access to the deep structure of the universe. It is a contingent fact that this is true of us and of our world, but it does not seem sufficient simply to regard it as a happy accident.” (Belief in God in an Age of Science, p. 4)

Overall, Polkinghorne seeks to go “beyond science,” to borrow the title of one of his books, in search of deeper explanations for such things as these. The New Atheists reject that sort of enterprise out of hand. Since science cannot provide the answers, they proclaim, the questions themselves are meaningless; therefore, our efforts to answer them cannot produce evidence for God’s existence.

I beg to differ. Surely it’s fully in keeping with the scientific enterprise to search for deeper answers than science alone can give about the intelligibility of nature, questions that many great scientists have raised about the ultimate mysteries that confront them when they do their work as well as they can.

Looking Ahead

Our discussion of Polkinghorne’s views will continue in about two weeks, when we will explore aspects of his theology of nature and his overall attitude toward science and Christianity, as seen in his approach to the bodily Resurrection of Jesus. In the meantime, please read the essay by Eugene Wigner that I linked above, as background for understanding Polkinghorne’s natural theology.


John Polkinghorne, Belief in God in an Age of Science (1998).

John Polkinghorne, From Physicist to Priest: An Autobiography (2008).

John Polkinghorne, The Faith of a Physicist: Reflections of a Bottom-Up Thinker (1994). This book contains the Gifford Lectures for 1993-94. Lutheran theologian Ted Peters, another major figure in the science-religion “dialogue,” wrote an appreciative review. A review by Jewish physicist Baruch Sterman summarizes the book’s overall religious attitude.

John Polkinghorne, Searching for Truth: Lenten Meditations on Science & Faith (1996).

John Polkinghorne, Theology in the Context of Science (2009). My review for First Things online is here


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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GJDS - #77186

March 6th 2013

Perhaps I will make another ‘radical’ post by departing from atheist’s obsession with Darwin and instead returning to Polkinghorne’s views. An interesting treatment is provided by M. Luck, “On Polkinghorne’s Unification of General Providence, Special Providence and Miracle”, SOPHIA (2010) 49:577–589. Luck discusses Polkinghorne’s view: ‘In the end there is no sharp separation to be made between general providence and special providence and miracle’. The discussion is centered about the laws of nature and Polkinghorne’s view that ‘Those very laws of nature, whose regularities are discerned by science, are understood by the theologian to be willed by God and to reflect God’s continuing faithfulness’. He then discusses general providence as consisting of three properties, as divine willing, active willing and non-active willing, which may be considered to “constitute some of the necessary, but not sufficient, features that accompany ..... general providence.” I am not sure if this moves from the Thomist’s view of necessary causation or not, but as Luck states, it entails the sequence of events that, at least in part, constitute the outcome of the divine action. We may illustrate this point using physical events that lend themselves to a simple cause and effect, whereas active willing appears to be consistent with sustaining, or ensuring the world continues as it does. This in itself is unclear, but serves to take the discussion to ‘operating within the open grain’. This may be understood as adding flexibility to nature’s laws to achieve specific ends. We are then confronted with the notion of special providence – why would person X pray to God and be healed, while person Y does so and is not healed – an introduction to Theodicy and the question of God allowing evil, or at least not taking action to prevent it.

I do not want to make another over-lengthy post, and present this contribution to indicate that Polkinhorne has views that are related to the laws of nature – I think that discussions on these matters is still (as I have stated before) underpinned by a position of faith in God, as distinct from an absence of belief in God. I cannot see how such a discussion would benefit from a general inquisition that requires a comparison of all religions, and a belief that theists should demonstrate belief and miracles to atheists. However it is not difficult to see that Polkinghorne’s thinking moves to that of agency – I have stated before that human agency leading to radical changes to the earth’s state is well established, and would be consistent with Polkinghorne’s views. On the matter of Divine agency, I would have thought that if human beings can bring such changes, it is absurd to question God’s ability – however those without faith ‘need to catch God in the act’.

Ted Davis - #77195

March 7th 2013

Thank you for the reference to this article, GJDS. I didn’t know about it, nor did I know the journal Sophia, so I’m doubly grateful. 

Roger A. Sawtelle - #77193

March 7th 2013

Lou wrote:

 I am curious how you used it in a book about Darwin and evolution….

Thank you for your question.

The problem is today we have two fields of science which are competing to explain how the bioworld that we live in and of which we are a part is changing and developing.  One discipline is old and well established, but has a poor track record in terms of predictability.  The other is relatively new and not as well established, but has a good record in terms of predicatability.  

Thus we have the makings of a power struggle between an entrenched concept and established view and faculty, and a new and not yet established view and faculty. 

Also we have the situation where the first view has been a scientific cause celebre and the scientific community has circled the wagons to protect it from legitimate and not legitimate attacks. 

Add to this the disciplines have very different approaches to understanding how the bioworld works and the spokesperson for the old view is a powerful and eloquent writer, which the new discipline lacks, and we have a real problem.

The old point of view is Darwinian (or neoDarwinian) evolution, led by Richard Dawkins.  Most scientifically minded people feel safe with it.  The new point of view is ecology, which even though it has been hailed as the basis of our ability to deal with climate change, its Gaia hypothesis is very controversial and has been consistently berated by Dawkins.  

Mario Livio’s book Is God a Mathematician? demonstrates that science is not absolutely opposed to idealism.  Facts and ideas walk hand in hand.  He points out that philosophy grew out of geometry.  He lifts up Penrose’s illustration of the Three Worlds of Plato as an interesting way to understand the world through math.

Livio  that mathsays that philosophy, and science hold that the universe has a logos, a rational meaning and purpose, while Dawkins and Scientism do not.  This puts Livio in my opinion against neoDarwinism and the direction in which Dawkins would pull science, and in favor of the ecolgical approach.

The weakness of the Dawkins/Darwinian position is that it is atomistic and based on random chance.  Math, in particularly E = mc2, is relational, as is ecology.  That puts Darwinian evolution on a collision course with ecological evolution, while math is on the side of ecology.

Livio has no axe to grind which makes him an excellent resource in this debate.  Whether you agree with his or my analysis of science is another question.  

Lou Jost - #77214

March 7th 2013

Thanks Roger,

Your reading  of Livio differs from mine. You think Livio thinks “science hold that the universe has a logos, a rational meaning and purpose”. I didn’t get that impression at all.

I’m sorry but I don’t think this paragraph makes any sense:

“The weakness of the Dawkins/Darwinian position is that it is atomistic and based on random chance.  Math, in particularly E = mc2, is relational, as is ecology.  That puts Darwinian evolution on a collision course with ecological evolution, while math is on the side of ecology”

Math does not take sides. Einstein’s equation is not “ecological”, it has a well-defined atomistic meaning. Evolution is only partly based on random chance; variation arises by chance, but selection is non-random. Evolution is in fact “ecological” and wholistic; a variation that is favored at one instant could be disfavored the next, depending on all the interactions that the animal has with its environment and with its own genome. If you like ecology, you should love evolution.

Chip - #77198

March 7th 2013

I’m late to the party, but in my opinion, one of the best evidences for theism is us. Regardless of one’s world view, I have yet to meet the person who claims that values like empathy are nonexistent, unimportant or mere preference (I say potato, you say potahto…). So, the question becomes which world view best explains such phenomena? Lou attempts an answer when he says:

evolution teaches us that our empathy should extend to other higher animals, not just us. Evolution teaches us that dolphins and great apes and wolves are not that different from us…

Such a statement has at least a couple problems when coming from a purely naturalistic perspective.

First, neither evolution nor any flavor of science is capable of dictating how anyone should behave. Any scientific endeavor you care to name, while still quite valuable, is limited to description.

But even if it could prescribe, why do we assume that our moral proclivities should extend to the ape and the wolf? Why shouldn’t theirs extend to me, since they “are not that different from us?” Indeed, given my similarity to the wolf, why shouldn’t I be free to kill, drive off, or force into submission any other member of my (or someone else’s) clan I perceive to be a threat to my dominance? If evolution is the only game in town—and evolutionary mechanisms have clearly created both human and wolf “moralities”—what’s the basis for choosing one as “better” than the other? Indeed, if I’m in direct competition with any other creature (mine, or another species—it doesn’t matter), what evolution “teaches” me is that I should kill or subdue it before it does so to me.

Given these facts, I believe in a personal God (at least in part) because I can recognize that I am utterly different than the ape or the wolf—in the ways that matter most, and that this difference cannot be consistently explained from within the framework of naturalism’s own presuppositions.  On the other hand, this difference is consistent with the view that I have been created in the image of a personal God.

Does this “prove” theism.  By no means.  But it’s quite a bit better than the answers that naturalism is capable of providing. 

Ted Davis - #77202

March 7th 2013

As Holmes Rolston says somewhere, when the astronomer looks through her telescope, she needs to remember that the most complex object she has ever encountered is six inches on this side of the eyepiece—namely, her brain.

Lou Jost - #77212

March 7th 2013

The god concept really doesn’t help settle moral questions any more than science does. Religious support can be found for a very wide range of ethical choices.

I think our ethical feelings come from our long evolutionary history as a social species. We see hints of similar ethics in other species.

Conversations lasting many thousands of years (inluding but not linited to religious conversations) have helped us refine these ethics. The refinement continues today, and this refinement is best done not by appealing to old books but by rational discussion about what is the best way for society’s members to act. Ethics is a consensus about how to make a functional society and how to reach our human potential.

Some religious folks think evolutionists must believe that survival of the fittest should be our matra. That’s as silly as thinking that a person who understands the theory of gravity should always crawl flat on the ground. But evolution does give us insights into ethics, and especially about how our ethical sensibilities might have arisen. The appearance of ethics in some other social animals supports this view. Chip, you are not “utterly different” from a gorilla or a chimp, neither genetically, anatomically, or ethically. As you surely know, those animals are literally your cousins, and not that far removed.

Darwin Guy Dan - #77408

March 12th 2013

Chip, Ted, and Lou at Chip #77198

“First, neither evolution nor any flavor of science is capable of dictating how anyone should behave.” ——Chip

“Ethics is a consensus about how to make a functional society and how to reach our human potential.” ——Lou

One of the complaints I’ve seen on the Internet lodged against BioLogos and TE—- complaints lodged by theological non-Evolutionists, has been in regards to the lack of an explication of sin (the Fall of Adam, etc.) and how such explication might fit into religious and societal contexts.  I don’t recall seeing the subject of sin specifically addressed, beyond mention of the Fall, in any of the BioLogos blogs.  What is sin?  What ought be the consequences of sin?  Who decides?

A major sociopolitical problem, as I see it, is that there has been no consensus regards to what constitutes sin.  As I’ve observed various religions over the years, mostly “Christian” (Who am I to judge?) denominations but also others, it would seem that for some the notion of sin doesn’t go much beyond behavior related to sex and alcohol.  Those of us growing up in some of the non-Catholic mainline, non-Evangelical denominations (as the Presbyterian and other churches of my youth) are familiar with two categories of sin, sins of commission and sins of omission, but not much more than that.  Catholics, on the other hand, have long had a much richer repertoire in this regards and have formal procedures to deal with sin and its associated guilt.

Regards evangelical environmental atheists, on the other hand, what ought to be done?  Well, for one, perhaps we could attach measuring sensors to the exhausts of all airplanes, wire this to monitors at each seat, and make these “sinners” feel guilty that way.  More practical would be to do a sampling of the exhaust gases, attach a negative economic externality value thereto, and assess the appropriate penalty.  But this introduces a political problem in that any tax penalty would necessarily apply to all fliers, even those who don’t agree with its legitimacy. And, in the end, no matter what the tax is, these environmentalists will likely continue to fly anyway and have no guilt about doing so. They’d just pay any tax and then give themselves a raise.

Lots of interesting environmental and social questions are raised in terms of not only negative economic externalities (pollution, etc.), but also in terms of positive externalities (more sustainable communities and enjoyable lifestyles, fairness, etc.). 

a.k.a. LocalTransportationGuy


Chip - #77199

March 7th 2013

Ted, I honestly think it would have changed my mind if I had found any unequivocal instance of this sort of thing.


Just curious—did you have unequivocal proof of atheism when you changed your mind before? 

Lou Jost - #77207

March 7th 2013

I do need good evidence before I will believe in a particular god. 

You probably do not believe in the reality of Leprechauns, or the Hindu gods, etc, even though you can’t disprove them. Atheism is a sensible null hypothesis, and far more likely than the extraordinarily byzantine confabulations of Christianity or Islam or Hinduism. As yet we have no good evidence that there are gods, much less the Christian god, even though (at least on the Christian view) such evidence should exist. If the Christian god really existed, one might expect prayer to work more often than chance. We might reasonably expect to see strong evidence of design beyond what natural selection could do. We might expect the “revealed word of god” to be more ethical, more factually correct (Noah’s Flood??? Earth <10k yrs old???), and to not contain failed prophecies (Jesus didn’t come back during the lifetime of some of his listeners, as he promised). The bible is a cultural document that shows many signs of being written by man, not gods. Same with other mythologies.

So, shorter answer: atheism is a sensible null hypothesis and it is supported by the lack of evidence of a theistic god. I don’t think any honest person could argue on the basis of reason that Christianity is the best null hypothesis. (I know you didn’t say that; I am speaking hypothetically.)

Roger A. Sawtelle - #77224

March 7th 2013

Lou wrote:

If you like ecology, you should love evolution.

I thought I made it clear that I love ecology so I like evolution. The problem is those Darwinists who claim to speak for evolution like Dawkins and Dennett do not love ecology. James Lovelock complained in his autobiography that Dawkins accused him of comitting the scientific sin of teleology. Many still attack Lynn Margulis, although now she is safely dead.

I am glad that you have seen the light and I suspect lay folk are ahead of professionals in this area.

Could you please refer me to any written materials that affirms the close link between ecology and evolution?

Einstein’s theory is the theory that everything is related, nothing at least in the universe is absolute as Newton believed.  Dawkins’ “gene’s eye view” of evolution is atomistic according to critics like Steven Jay Gould, and I agree, while Dawkins makes fun of ecology as a holistic view. 

In effect Dawkins, Dennett, and physicalism portray the universe as a jumble, rather than a cosmos.  The only thing that would make it a cosmos is an effective mechanism of natural selection and they do not have one, while ecology does.  

Lou Jost - #77227

March 7th 2013

What I said about evolution is well-known and accepted by Dawkins and Darwin and Dennett. I think you may be setting up a straw man in your criticism of our current understanding of evolution.

It is not true that Einstein said nothing is absolute. Also, both Newtonian and Einsteinian physics shows that everything affects everything else.

I don’t understand why you say that the standard view of evolution lacks an effective mechanism of natural selection. I don’t really even see what you mean by that statement. Natural selection itself is the mechanism that drives adaptation. Why do you think it is ineffective?

You said “I am glad that you have seen the light and I suspect lay folk are ahead of professionals in this area.” Well, I am not so sure I see the same light as you. I think your conclusions about the standard view of evolution are not correct, and I think there is no evidence of teleology so far in biology. Also, I am afraid I don’t qualify as a lay person, as I am an ecologist and evolutionary biologist.

Chip - #77226

March 7th 2013


I do need good evidence before I will believe in a particular god.

As do I.  We can start with this as a point of commonality.  You asked and I provided one line of evidence, which has been meaningful for me personally.  But you frankly seem stuck on arguments I haven’t so much as hinted at (“old books,” your understanding of certain prophecies, a 10k yr old earth, whether the Hindu pantheon exists…).  Whoever you’re talking to here, it certainly isn’t me—or at least not only me. 

Some religious folks think evolutionists must believe that survival of the fittest should be our mantra. That’s as silly as thinking that a person who understands the theory of gravity should always crawl flat on the ground.

The irony here is that you’ve just restated my point for me.  Namely, that attempts to reason from a mechanical, non-moral, descriptive, physical process (like gravity) to how one should behave (crawling on one’s belly) are silly.  I totally agree.  Having established that, I’ll just point out that it wasn’t me who tried to reason from evolution to “should.”   

Ethics is a consensus…

Sorry, but such a claim is easily falsified.  If I were better educated, I could provide a longer list, but Wilberforce, (ML) King, Mandela, Bonheoffer, Ten Boom (the Hiding Place is a great read), and countless others are recognized as moral and ethical heroes quite simply because they went against the reigning consensus.

Lou Jost - #77228

March 7th 2013

From your one-line initial question, I could know nothing about your beliefs, so I was speaking in general, not necessarily about you. I’m glad you need good reasons to believe in some specific set of religious beliefs.

I never said evolution tells us how to behave. But knowing how we got here, and how we are related to other organisms, does indeed help us understand the origin of our ethical sentiments and our relationship to other animals. These things are grist for the mill of society’s dialogue about ethics.

I agree that ethics evolves, and the reason the people you named are heroes (I don’t know Wilberforce, hopefully you are not referring to Darwin and Huxley’s old nemesis) is because they helped society arrive at a new and better consensus (at least, better in the minds of most).

Ted Davis - #77383

March 11th 2013

The Wilberforce Chip is referring to, Lou, has to be this one (Chip will surely correct me if I am mistaken): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Wilberforce. The Wilberforce you are thinking of, Lou, has to be this one (you will surely correct me if I am mistaken): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Samuel_Wilberforce. The former was father of the latter. I don’t know, however, why you were hoping that it wasn’t the latter, since both men were fundamentally decent and upright. Ironically (given that you seem to recognize on the latter), it was the former who was and is far better known.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #77235

March 7th 2013


I wish you had given me some simple reference that would have proven your point, instrad of a blanket statement which cannot be substantiated.  However we deem to be talking past each other so I will end that discussion.

You wrote: atheism is a sensible null hypothesis and it is supported by the lack of evidence of a theistic god.

If you mean that atheism is a sensible asumption about the nature of the world I would disagree.  I am accepting the arguments of Jaques Monod that the world is irrational and without meaning, because the universe is created out of matter/energy which cannot think. 

I agree that the universe is created out of matter/engergy which cannot think, but I do not think that the universe and the life it sustains are irrational and meaningless.  The only rational explanation for this that I can think of is that there is a rational Creator God Who created a rational universe as a home for rational human beings. 

If you think that Christianity is too complicated, that might be because life is complicated.  Certainly science is complicated.  Christianity is also very simple, love God, and love others as you love yourself, because life is also simple, but not easy, or simplistic.    

Thus it seems to me that Christianity means that there is a Source of Rationality and Meaning for the universe, Who is the Logos, while Atheism means that there is no Source, so the world must be without rationality and meaning if Atheism is true.   

Do you agree with Monod?

Lou Jost - #77237

March 7th 2013

It is hard to know exactly what you mean when you say that you do not think life and the universe are meaningless and irrational. If by irrational you mean that the universe has no regularities, I do not see that positing a creator/lawgiver solves anything real. I think the universe has to be logically consistent, and this alone (plus some perhaps random initial ingredients) may be enough to determine its laws.

It is not Christianity’s complexity that turns me off; science is also complex, as you say. But we have reasons for believing each of the complexities of science. What turns me off from any organized religion, whether Christianity or others, is the absolutely crazy number of evidence-less bizarre details that we are asked to swallow with them.

I could understand you being a deist if you thought the world needed a creator to make it orderly. You (and P) have a long way to go to get from there to some particular brand of middle eastern religion…On the face of it, it is just wildly improbable, and as I said, there is none of the evidence we might expect if such a belief were really true.

Lou Jost - #77240

March 7th 2013

I forgot to answer your question about Monod. I don’t understand the question well enough to answer it. I definitely agree that there is no externally-imposed purpose or goal for the universe, there is no evidence that evolution is guided or has some goal either.

Unlike some other scientists, though, I think the hypothesis that evolution is guided is a scientific hypothesis (though an incorrect one). If the guidance or goal-seeking were strong enough, it could conceivably be detected. For example, someone could have shown that there was not enough time for random variation plus natural selection to produce the genetic differences observed between chimps and humans. Sadly for the IDers, no one has shown that. Behe makes an attempt regarding the evolution of malaria, but makes incorrect assumptions in his calculations.

GJDS - #77243

March 7th 2013

I guess the discussion will continue on evolution, so I offer the following to those who obstinately insist that Darwin’s ideas are the pinnacle of scientific thinking (and for those who doubt their adequacy and suggest a great deal of it is uncertain and will be revised), I provide the abstract of an interesting paper from and avowed evolutionist (please note the term ‘contradiction’). And yes, should this appear controversial and invoke a tirade of abuse, just read this paper (and many others) instead of repeating your non-sense ad nausea. D. M. Walsh, “The Pomp of Superfluous Causes: The Interpretation of Evolutionary Theory”, Philosophy of Science, 74 (July 2007): 281–303. 

There are two competing interpretations of the modern synthesis theory of evolution: the dynamical (also know as ‘traditional’) and the statistical. The dynamical interpretation maintains that explanations offered under the auspices of the modern synthesis theory articulate the causes of evolution. It interprets selection and drift as causes of population change. The statistical interpretation holds that modern synthesis explanations merely cite the statistical structure of populations. This paper offers a defence of statisticalism. It argues that a change in trait frequencies in a population can be attributed only to selection or drift against the background of a particular statistical description of the population. The traditionalist supposition that selection and drift are description-independent causes of population change leads the dynamical interpretation into a dilemma: it must face a contradiction or accept the loss of explanatory power.

I add this for clarity, “Both approaches accept that the modern synthesis theory explains evolutionary change by allowing us to differentiate certain phenomena of populations—selection, drift, mutation, and migration. Dynamical and statistical interpretations part significantly, however, on the metaphysical implications of these explanations.”

Lou Jost - #77257

March 8th 2013

I for one will have to wait a few weeks to read the paper and answer this, as I must travel now.

Eddie - #77247

March 7th 2013

“Sadly for the IDers, no one has shown that.”

Actually, Lou, someone has.  Richard Sternberg has shown it in the case of whale evolution.  There is a video on Metacafe which you can watch which gives a popular summary of it.  He’s working on a highly technical book on evolutionary biology which will do the math and genetics more formally.

Of course, certain pseudonymous commenters here will deny it, but as they have no qualifications in evolutionary theory, and as Sternberg has two Ph.D.s, one in evolutionary biology and one in engineering/systems science, the probability is that Sternberg’s arguments are sounder than their criticisms.

In any case, these arguments generally have little to do with evidence.  No matter how quantitatively well-executed an argument is, the atheists who are determined to believe that Darwinian mechanisms can create complex new life forms will find fault with the math.  They have to.  Because if they can’t show the error of every single proposed design inference, their world view crumbles.

In fact, 90% of the motivation for accepting or rejecting Darwinism—on all sides—is to prop up a world view (Christian fundamentalist, Muslim fundamentalist, atheist, humanist, etc.)  Few and far between are the participants in the dialogue who will say:  “I will investigate the claim of design in nature, and if I find there is design, I will start believing in God” or “I will investigate the claim of design in nature, and if I find there isn’t design, I will stop being a Christian.”  The a priori beliefs are far too strong in most people.

Only pure lovers of truth will actually change their minds on an issue this big over the evidence.  And there aren’t many of those around.  There aren’t many people like that even holding university chairs any more (I’d say about 2% of all faculty worldwide, and 0% of the biology faculty worldwide), and in the popular arena, which is governed entirely by passions and ideology, there are even fewer.  Our culture has lost the intellectual integrity bequeathed to it by Socrates, and truth has become politicized.

We see this in what has happened to “skepticism.”  Skepticism (in ancient Greece) originally did not indicate unwillingness to believe, but only high standards for belief.  And it did not target belief in God any more than it targeted belief in anything else.  But modern “skeptics” focus on certain very distinct targets, and give a whole range of other beliefs a free ride.  Modern skeptics are almost uniformly anti-religious, and they are from Missouri when it comes to design inferences, but if you tell them life originated from molecules sloshing around in the ancient ocean, they don’t raise so much as a question about how that could have happened, and what is the chemical evidence on what such a claim is based.  (They may vaguely allude to the Miller experiment of the early 1950s, which proved next to nothing; beyond that, they have nothing to say.)  If you tell them that whales came from land animals in 9 million years, not a single one of them asks for a count of the morphological changes that would be needed, a count of the genomic changes needed for those morphological changes, rates of reproduction of the animals in question, what the intermediate selectable forms would be, etc.  They don’t investigate the claim at all.  (And the very word “skeptical” means “investigative.”) They just assume that someone has proved it in some biology journal somewhere.  Or worse, that it doesn’t need proof, because the capacities of Darwinian mechanisms are just obviously sufficient.

Michael Shermer and people of that ilk are not true skeptics, but dogmatists for a particular scientistic, humanistic world view.  Far from being a way of liberating the mind, or a call to intellectual freedom, modern skepticism is simply a form of dogmatism that enshrines certain modern epistemological prejudices.

Lou Jost - #77253

March 8th 2013

Hi Eddie. I’ll have to look at those calculations, but like the ones you mentioned before by Behe, they may have fatal flaws that you have not noticed. My published work is in the mathematics of genetics and ecology, and my backgroound is in math (with emphasis on probability theory) and physics, so I do feel relatively well qualified to judge these things. The evidence for whale evolution is overwhelming, but it would indeed be a good place to look to test claims about natural selection being fast enough to produce the observed changes.

I may not have time to answer for a week or two since I am about to travel to the US to speak. I hope you come back to this thread later….

Lou Jost - #77254

March 8th 2013

I just looked at the video you suggested. One quick comment is that the evolution of dog breeds or crop plants like corn or broccoli/brusselsprouts under artificial selection show enormous morphological changes in less than a few thousand years, even though their populations are very small compared to whale or hippo populations. So there is empirical evidence that his estimates of evolutionary speed limits are off. Will have more time in a few weeks to answer in detail.

Lou Jost - #77255

March 8th 2013

As I cooked breakfast his error became obvious. He thinks these big changes are the result of discrete large-effect mutations, but really the morphological changes he is talking about are the results of continuous variation controlled by many genes. It is enough to have novel recombinations of existing genes, plus perhaps an occasional mutation, to produce such changes. Think about a greyhound’s leg and how different it is (in many coordinated ways) from a labrador’s leg. Long thin bones, not only in the tibia but the femur, all seemingly coordinated. Yet we got that in a few generations. Imagine what we could do in a few million years.

Another very serious error is that he completely neglects natural selection, so his math is really irrelevant. Think about the testes retraction he mentions. First, this is the ancestral condition in mammals, so the genes for it are already there, at least in part. Second, continuous variation of testes position (as seen even in humans) would make it possible for testes to retract somewhat in just a few generations if the selective advantage were high.

I’ll read more of his stuff later, but his work looks at first glance like it is full of serious fundamental errors.

Eddie - #77273

March 8th 2013


You indicated in your earlier post that your grad background was in physics, not evolutionary biology.  Now you seem to be indicating otherwise.  Can you tell us exactly what degrees you have, and what subjects they are in?  And if you are using your real name, can you give us the citations for your journal articles that actually discuss evolution?

Sternberg’s specialty is evolutionary biology.  You are accusing him of undergraduate errors which someone with a Ph.D. in the subject, and many published articles, is not likely to make.  I agree that his mathematical presentation in the talk is sketchy.  I already said that his lecture on Metacafe was a popular summary, and that a technical monograph is forthcoming. Even so, you have not correctly represented everything he said.  

Sternberg has not contested evolution, not even whale evolution.  If you go to his website, you will see that he is an evolutionary theorist.  He has contested the capability of neo-Darwinian mechanisms to explain evolution.  (Behe is an evolutionist as well, by the way.  As is Michael Denton.  What all three of these ID theorists have in common is a critique, not of evolution, but of neo-Darwinism.  And their critique is not some ID quirk, but is shared by evolutionary biologists of unquestioned repute, e.g., Lynn Margulis was a great bashes of neo-Darwinism, and many of the Altenberg group, and Shapiro, and others, have noted the shortcomings of neo-Darwinian theory.)

It appears to me, from your discussion, that your understanding of evolution is based heavily on traditional population genetics.  You do not seem to have taken into account the revolution of molecular biology which is changing evolutionary theory radically.  Read Shapiro’s new book on evolution, which Karl Woese calls “a game changer.”  There was also a review, about a year ago, by a biologist, who noted that there seemed to be a growing divide within evolutionary theory between the “old guard” who interpreted everything in terms of population genetics, and the new young bucks, who were more focused on molecular biology, with the younger group seeing problems with the neo-Darwinian account.  The reviewer was more inclined to the older approach, but granted the legitimacy of the new criticism.  That legitimacy has not only never been granted here on this site; the new approach has never even been mentioned by any columnist.  It is as if evolutionary theory has not changed since Mayr and Dobzhansky.  

That’s all for now.  Best wishes.  And thanks for your civilized mode of exchange.  But don’t forget to think about the broader philosophical comments I made above. There are more than technical concerns operating in these debates.  Think about not just the science, but about your own broad operating assumptions when you do science, when you talk about God, etc.  

Lou Jost - #77284

March 8th 2013

Hi Eddie,  To answer your first question, I am using my real name and my publications are easy to look up. I have a BA in physics. My graduate studies were in physics and math (including especially probability theory), but after three years I left to learn about biology. I have worked as a biologist (mostly conservation biology) rather than a physicist all my life. Over the last seven or eight years my math background let me see some problems in the way that ecologists were quantifying diversity and differentiation, and this led me to figure out the correct way to do this. Since 2006 I have published lots of highly cited articles in major journals on this and related mathematical subjects. I am currently contracted to write a textbook on diversity analysis (which is one of the things I should be doing instead of writing this!). My most recent article was coauthored by Anne Chao and appears in the Dec 2013 issue of Ecology (it is the cover story).

More recently I found that geneticists had similar mathematical misconceptions about their main measure of genetic divergence (Fst or Gst), and this actually affected our understanding of the factors controlling the speciation process. I published a controversial article about that in Molecular Ecology in 2008. It is still the subject of hot debates.

To see all my publications, open Google Scholar and enter Lou Jost diversity.

I also helped found and manage a conservation foundation in Ecuador, EcoMinga, which you can look up. I also discover and describe new plant species, which you can also look up. My taxonomical expertise is primarily in the orchid genera Lepanthes and Teagueia. I have been very lucky. I discovered one of the most surprising evolutionary radiations of plants ever—30 new species of Teagueia orchids, all more closely related to each other than to the six previously known Teagueias (confirmed by DNA studies), in a tiny area near where I live. One mountain had 16 of these new species!! It was amazing.

Back to Sternberg. You said I misrepresent him, but I don’t think I did misrepresent what he said in the video. (I told you that I would read his papers later and I based my opinion only on his video.) What he said in his video was wrong, as I explained. He ignored natural selection!  And he ignored rearrangement and recombination and multi-gene effects. My example of greyhounds (or broccoli or corn) shows that natural variation is sufficient to allow selection of coordinated body traits dramatically different from those of an ancestor, in just a few generations. Sternberg’s arguments would apply to this case as well as to whales, but you can see that in this case Sternberg’s argument is wrong. No need to consider any ideological, pop gen or probabilistic arguments.

I know some of the works you mentioned, and I have Shapiro’s book. It is over-rated. (My favorite thing about it is its pretty cover.) There is not much evidence in there for a radically different kind of evolutionary theory, in spite of Shapiro’s hype.

I don’t see the conflict between pop gen and molecular biology (it is even an odd thing to say). I don’t think there is much resistance to people discovering new sources of variation; these new sources of variation are completely welcome. If you want, you can define Neo-Darwinism so strictly that perhaps some of the new things fall outside it. However, evolution is still blind variation + natural selection and drift. This is the essence of the theory. We have known for a long time that variation itself is under evolutionary control, and now we are starting to find the mechanisms for this. That’s quite exciting but not such a big deal, and has no theological implications.

You suggest I should question my assumptions. I always question my assumptions. That is why I rejected the god concept, which I once accepted.


Eddie - #77292

March 8th 2013


Thanks for all this stuff on your background.  It is quite interesting.  You strike me as scientifically broader than many critics of ID.  I like that.

The fact that Sternberg didn’t mention natural selection in the video doesn’t mean that he isn’t aware of it.  Do you think he could get a Ph.D. in evolutionary biology without being aware of it?  But perhaps your point wasn’t that he was ignorant of selection, but merely that he didn’t deal with it in his presentation.

I would, however, agree with you that natural selection has to be taken into account.  But what this means (and I’m leaving aside Sternberg now) is that the changes from land mammal to whale have to be shown to be selectable.  Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that there are 200 morphological changes needed.  Each of those changes requires certain molecular/genetic changes and/or certain changes due to developmental processes.  These 200 morphological changes, and the far more than 200  molecular/developmental changes associated with them, don’t happen all at once, according to ND theory—it’s committed to gradualism.  (Hence the criticisms of Gould, Margulis, etc.)  That means that in actual practice, the steps (whatever they might have been) have to pass the test of selection long before we are anywhere near a functioning whale, and have to pass it repeatedly.

Now, where in the biological literature can I find an account of whale evolution that itemizes these steps (or even a reasonable subset of them, say, 5% of them) and explains how the individual steps would pass the test of selection?  (I’m not asking for the actual historical steps, by the way, just logically and biochemically/developmentally possible steps.)  I’ve seen this request made on this site over and over again; and not a single Ph.D. in biology, not a single BioLogos columnist, not a single commenter, can point out any book or article that contains such an account.  It is just asserted (or assumed) that a pathway where all the steps are selectable is available.

In fact, I saw one exchange here where someone who asked for such steps was dismissed by a BioLogos columnist (a geneticist) who said that you didn’t need to prove or even conceive of a hypothetical sequence of individual steps; you just had to be able to compare the chimp and human genomes and note that all the differences were such as could easily be explained by substitutions, flips, rotations, etc.—single genomic changes that could easily happen one at a time—and note that these mutations occurred frequently enough that one could, in the time given by the fossil record, turn a chimp (or a chimplike hypothetical primate ancestor of man) into a man.  Natural selection figured zero in this explanation.  The real, living forms that would have embodied the intermediate changes, and their viability, didn’t need to be considered at all.  It was just a question of re-scrambling the pieces of the genomic jigsaw puzzle enough times, and the right picture would finally emerge.  So your criticism of Sternberg would apply equally to this geneticist.

In other words, if you want to criticize ID people for oversimplified evolutionary theory, fine, but then do that with the TEs who write about evolution on this site, and with atheist oversimplifiers as well.

We’ll take up the question of God some other time.  It’s my view that you are approaching the question of God in entirely the wrong way, as if it’s a question of “evidence” as scientists understand evidence; it’s also my view that you are reading religious texts and traditions in very inadequate way, and that your rejection of those texts and traditions—which would be warranted if they were meant to be understood as you understand them—is therefore based on a misunderstanding of them.  And I say this as someone who once made exactly the criticisms of religion that you are now making here.  But that’s too big a topic for now.

Lou Jost - #77297

March 8th 2013

Eddie, there is one big difference between your geneticist and Sternberg. Sternberg was trying to prove that normal mechanisms couldn’t work fast enough to make whales. In order to show that, he has to include all known mechanisms. Your geneticist was trying to prove that normal mechanisms were sufficient. To prove this, he can just concentrate on the easiest ones to prove. Any others just make it go faster, and prove his point better. Still, I agree that he should also show that there are no major selective road- bumps—intermediate states that are strongly selected against (drift can get populationsover little raod bumps). As far as I can tell, no one has found any of these “bumps” for the whale transition, or for humans. The intermediate fossils look eminently functional.

Eddie - #77312

March 8th 2013

Thanks for conceding that the BioLogos geneticist shouldn’t have left natural selection out of his argument.

Where we will continue to disagree is about “known mechanisms.”  If by “known mechanisms” you merely mean mechanisms of inheritance and basic variation—meiosis etc.—then obviously I grant that such mechanisms exist.  But if by “known mechanisms” you mean “mechanisms that have been proved to be capable of turning invertebrates into vertebrates, reptiles into mammals, and deer into whales,” we won’t agree.  And if you argue (as some do) that, once I grant the mechanisms of normal inheritance, I have to grant the existence of the other mechanisms (the standard line:  “if you accept the validity of paternity tests, you have to accept Darwinism”), we won’t agree on that, either. 

Are the intermediate whale fossils functional?  Of course they are.  But it isn’t those “intermediates” that I’m asking for an account of.  I’m asking how evolution moved between these intermediates, from one island of fitness to another, if only normal variation, random mutations, and natural selection were operating.  All the variations and mutations in between would have had to produce morphologies/physiologies that were either selectively beneficial or selectively neutral.  But evolutionary biologists aren’t the slightest bit interested in providing a list of those in-between moprhologies/physiologies (even if only hypothetical ones), and so no one has any way of testing their selectability.  You can’t test the selectability of a hypothetical intermediate organism you refuse to even describe either genotypically or phenotypically.

And that’s what I’m looking for—a series of snapshots, as it were, of 200 or 300 or 1000 (or however many would have been needed) hypothetical genotypical/phenotypical states between deer and whale, with a demonstration (a) that normal variation plus random mutations would have been capable of producing each of these states from the one previous to it; and (b) that each of these states would be beneficial, or at least neutral, to the creature.

If someone would produce a 1000-page book called “A Hypothetical 500-Step Evolutionary Pathway from the Artiodactyl to the Whale”, with 500 two-page spreads, with colorful genomic diagrams on the left spelling out the proposed genomic changes, and labelled anatomical diagrams of the organism on the right, showing the corresponding phenotypical changes, and accompanying exposition on both pages—I would buy it, and read it with an open mind.  But I don’t know of any evolutionary biologist who is even planning to write such a book.

beaglelady - #77325

March 9th 2013

Has somebody claimed that deer evolved into whales? If so, who?

Eddie - #77328

March 9th 2013

beagelady, grow up.  You know perfectly well that I meant “deerlike animal” and are merely trying to “catch me out.”  Don’t be petty.

beaglelady - #77347

March 10th 2013

I mean, woudn’t it be a hippo-like creature? Deer are ruminants.

Eddie - #77371

March 11th 2013

Both hippopotami and deer are artiodactyls.  Some evolutionary biologists lean toward a more hippo-like creature, others toward a more deer-like creature.   They are now absolutely sure it is one or the other of those.  (Just as they were absolutely sure, in the 1960s, that it was a wolf-life creature.  And 20 years from now, will be absolutely sure that it was something else.  That’s why harmonizing Christian theology with the latest results of modern science is such a wonderful thing; it helps us to preserve those stable, eternal truths.)

beaglelady - #77382

March 11th 2013

In other words, scientists are doing research and making progress!  I thought that’s how science is supposed to work.   What stable, eternal truths are you talking about? Has the ancestor of whales every been presented as a “stable, eternal truth” ? 

And which evolutionary biologists think that whales evolved from deer-like creatures?  Deer are ruminants.

Eddie - #77385

March 11th 2013


Why don’t you do some homework?  I’ve seen the deerlike creature mentioned many times.  I can’t remember all the places, offhand, though I think that one of them might have been on this site.  Surely you are skilled enough to use a search engine and type in “whale +artiodactyl” “whale +deer” “whale +hippo” “whale ancestor” etc. and see what you come up with.

I was talking about the eternal truths of Christianity, which you elsewhere recently affirmed that you believed in.  And I was making a wry comment about the transience of scientific truth.  I gather that irony is not your strong point.

beaglelady - #77410

March 12th 2013

You said that “Some evolutionary biologists lean toward a more hippo-like creature, others toward a more deer-like creature.”

Surely you should be willing to tell me which evolutionary biologists said this. 

Eddie - #77413

March 12th 2013

beaglelady, I couldn’t tell you offhand who said that Columbus sailed in 1492, and I couldn’t tell you offhand who said that Mt. Everest was 29,028 feet high.  When something is common knowledge—when you’ve seen scores of references to something in various books, on various websites, etc.—you don’t tend to make a mental note of the people who have said it.  I’ve seen the hypothesis of deerlike ancestry many times, and I can’t tell you offhand where I saw it.

But I’m absolutely certain that some have said it, and I feel no need to prove it to you.    And you can look it up just as fast as I can.  So if you doubt me, check it out.  You are capable of employing a search engine, aren’t you?  

Lou Jost - #77327

March 9th 2013

You can see in the fossil record that the steps between each whale stage were small, not much bigger than the wolf-greyhound gap. As the record improves, those steps get even smaller.

One important correction to what you said: as I explained when you were arguing about Behe, evolution does not have to proceed only by neutral or selectively advantageous changes. Deleterious changes can also occur and spread through the population. The mathematical conditions for this are small population size and not-too-deleterious a change.

Eddie - #77330

March 9th 2013

I know roughly how many putative fossil ancestors of whales have been found, and I’ve seen the diagrams.  In fact, the ones that are supposed to provide the best evidence have been posted on this site many times.  There are only a handful, and many of the alleged relationships have been contested in bone-by-bone comparison.  

In any case, you are missing the point.  A good sequence of fossils might prove that evolution has occurred.  Remember, I am not contesting evolution.  I’m contesting the ability of a particular model of evolution to explain the process.  The question is whether neo-Darwinian mechanisms were responsible for the results shown in the fossil sequence.  

Sure, in principle some deleterious mutations could spread in the population, if they are “not too deleterious.”  But not-too-deleterious a change” is big, vague generality.  Whether or not something is “not too deleterious” will depend, in many if not most cases (i.e., where the damage is not obvious, i.e., where the animal is born without a heart or something), on the environment into which the animal is born, especially the competitive environment, and that varies.  So you can’t determine deleterious or not-deleterious without specifying what mutation(s) you have in mind, what morphological/physiological effects you think the mutation(s) will have, and what environment the new animal will be born into.   (And note also that the cause of most morphological/physiological features at the genomic level is not known at all, or not adequately known, especially since we are now learning—only scratching the surface of learning, actually—the important roles played by “noncoding” DNA.  Further, the important role played by non-genomic factors cannot be overlooked.   That’s another problem with the population-genetics approach to evolutionary theory, it’s too gene-focused.  But when the only tool that you have is a hammer—and all that Mayr and Dobzhansky had was a hammer (the “gene”)—the whole world looks like nails.  Indeed, this is a fault not only with all criticisms of Behe, but even with Behe’s (and other ID writers’) criticisms of neo-Darwinism.  The whole discussion, both pro- and anti-Darwinian, is too gene-focused.  If Shapiro—and others—are right, that not only must change, but is already changing, in the professional evolutionary biology literature.)

I suspect that we are never going to agree.  I suspect that you are going to stand on your mathematical modelling, and that I am going to be the stubborn empiricist demanding a detailed pathway for analysis, and that our fundamental notion of what counts as convincing evidence for a mechanism’s abilities is utterly different.







Lou Jost - #77334

March 9th 2013

We don’t have to agree on all the mechanisms of evolution, nor can we, since we both know many remain to be elucidated. The relevant issue for us is that I gather you think one or more of the unknown mechanisms has theological implications. Is that right? Maybe you could explain that.

Eddie - #77335

March 9th 2013

No, my position is more nuanced than that.

My position is that evolution may be explicable in wholly naturalistic terms (which even Sternberg grants could be the case, and which Denton believes is the case, and which even Behe grants could be the case), but that the full set of natural mechanisms, once discovered, will prove to be something quite beyond “random mutations filtered by natural selection.”  In other words, the neo-Darwinian narrative which was the backbone of evolutionary theory for about 60-70 years (ca. 1930-2000), is going to be replaced, even under purely naturalistic terms, by a much more complex account, in which “random mutations” will play a relatively small part, and “natural selection” a perhaps bigger but still not overwhelming part, in comparison with other things.  And I think that more complex account will at some level  involve design.

Now if “design” has theological implications, then so does my position.  But it is not as if I am assuming that God sticks his finger in every now and then to direct evolution.  Design inferences don’t require that.  They look at the bigger picture, and say:  “Ain’t no dang way this whole thing happened by chance.”  They can be quite agnostic and open-minded about how chance was transcended.  It might be by supernatural actions, but it need not be.  It might be that the only supernatural action needed was “pre-evolutionary”—the creation of life in the first place.  Or if you go all the way, with Denton, the only supernatural action needed was lighting the match to set off the Big Bang.

So you can have ID and still avoid “God of the gaps” reasoning, if that is deemed intellectually offensive.  You just move the “design” up front, to “head office,” and take away the initiative of the “local management” (interfering personal deities) to design individual species on the spot.  But the design is still there.  I don’t believe evolution—at least, evolution with the results that we observe—could possibly have happened, outside of the context of at least an overall design of life.  

I add that for me, proving the existence of a design, and hence a designer, proves nothing about which religion is true; it does not even prove that the designer would be interested giving any written or other miraculous revelation to human beings.  ID is not a substitute for revealed religion.  If someone believes in a revealed religion, he or she must believe in it on grounds other than that the universe appears to be designed.   The only role I see for ID in religious apologetic is to turn away the (New) Atheist argument that “science has proved that everything was created by blind accidents and natural laws”; ID facilitates potential religious exploration by counteracting atheistic/materialistic dogma with evidence for a good deal of design in nature.  It makes religious teachings possibly true.  But it doesn’t get you to the God of religion.  Nor should it try to do so.  If it can show:  “You can believe that the world and life are ordered in some respects by a designing intelligence, and yet not be a scientific idiot”—it doesn’t owe religion anything other service.

Lou Jost - #77345

March 10th 2013

Interesting and in some ways refreshing. I am on the road, won’t have much internet access for several days, but I hope we can get back to this. I think there will be plenty of new mechanisms discovered, but I also think the ones we already know seem to be sufficient to explain most, perhaps all of the changes we see in the fossil record.

Lou Jost - #77526

March 16th 2013

Now that I am back, I hope we can return to this, but probably the best place for the discussion will be Dennis’ evolution course, when he discusses the fossil evidence and the mechanisms that drive evolution.

The relation between selection strength and drift that I gave above is exact and not at all ambiguous. The changes seen in the fossil record do not seem to require additional mechanisms besides the ones we know. The steps in the whale fossil record are not very large. But more about all of this when Dennis posts on it.

Eddie - #77528

March 16th 2013

Actually, Lou, I’m more interested at the moment in hearing your reaction to my religious comments above, than in discussing whale evolution.  I’d like to know what you found “refreshing” about them.

Lou Jost - #77627

March 19th 2013

Sorry, didn’t see this until today. What I liked was your willingness to be uncertain, and your willingness to follow the evidence to some (as yet unknown to you) destination. Many people are afraid to do that.

Eddie - #77644

March 20th 2013

Yes, I’m uncertain.  Intellectual certainty is for Euclidean geometry, nothing else.  But doesn’t it trouble you that so many people on your side of the fence are so utterly certain of themselves?  Do you see even an ounce of intellectual hesitation in the writings of Dennett, Dawkins, Hitchens, Ayala, Eugenie Scott, Larry Moran, Jeffrey Shallit, Jerry Coyne, Richard Dawkins, P. Z. Myers, Nick Matzke, etc.?

If not, it seems that you should be engaging in discussion with them, pointing out the dangers of being over-certain—and of deciding in advance where the evidence can’t possibly lead (to the inference that some things are  designed).  I think you must know, if you have read any of those people in any depth, and watched the way they debate—which is quite frequently with rage, sneering, and ad hominem attacks— that their rejection of ID is not simply due to this or that argument in Behe or Meyer or Dembski that they find weak or lacking in evidence; you must have perceived by now that these people have an a priori distaste for design inferences that is not founded in science per se but in something more personal.  Do you intend to challenge these people on their personal biases, as you are challenging the Christian people here on theirs?  Or are you silently going to let those biases persist without drawing attention to them?

Lou Jost - #77751

March 23rd 2013

Eddie, if you want scientists to start taking design arguments seriously, all it would take is some decent evidence. In biology, there simply isn’t any yet. The people you hold in high regard, like Behe and Gauger and the other IDers you mentioned in an earlier post, have bad arguments that these scientists rightly reject. The moment someone has a good argument, people will sit up and take notice. Not before. Scientists are right to think of “design” as a hypothesis of last resort (though not to discard it a priori), since it closes off the search for other explanations, and so far we have always been able to find other explanations  for things that look designed.

The fine-tuning argument is probably the only serious argument for design right now, but it is a very tricky one to think properly about.

I disagree that Dawkins and Coyne (the two I have read the most) are so sure of themselves. Dawkins admits to a small uncertainty about the existence of god, and I have seen Coyne change his mind on several subjects of importance. What I hardly ever see is a religious person changing his or her mind about his or her brand of god, when presented with contrary evidence.


Eddie - #77756

March 24th 2013


Your first two paragraphs are off-topic.  My comment above was not arguing for design.  My comment above was about the arrogant rhetorical posture and the self-blinding personal biases of many critics of ID and many New Atheists.  Only your third paragraph addresses my point.

Regarding your third paragraph, either you have not followed the culture-war battles over ID, creationism, and evolution, or your own biases are destroying your judgment.  Coyne is incredibly partisan and cocky and sure of himself; so is P. Z. Myers; so is Larry Moran; so is Eugenie Scott; so is Nick Matzke; so is Jeffrey Shallit.  I have yet to see any of these people concede a significant point to the critics of Darwinian mechanisms, and in some cases, I have never seen them concede even a very minor point.  Ditto for the scores of bloggers on Panda’s Thumb, Talk Origins, etc.  Virtually none of these people argue with true openness, whether the subject is evidence for design, or criticism of neo-Darwinian mechanisms, or arguments for the existence of God, or arguments for Christianity.

You have every right not to believe in any particular religion, and not to believe in God.  There are rational arguments against religion and against God.  I’m deeply familiar with all these arguments in their most rigorous forms, since I’ve studied a great deal of the history of philosophy in the primary sources, and sometimes in the original languages.   But what we have in Coyne, Myers, Panda’s Thumb, etc., is not serious philosophical argument.  It’s vulgar, populist village atheism of the lowest level, combined with a crude positivist view of the nature of science, circa 1930s, that is considered laughable among professional philosophers and historians of science.  Even Michael Ruse—who is a religious unbeliever, and on your side regarding evolution and ID—heaps scorn upon the arguments of Dawkins on the subject of religion.  

I wish you would go after the prejudices and argumentative misbehavior of your own side as aggressively as you go after the prejudices and argumentative misbehavior of the other side.  You seem to believe that the atheists are pure of heart and want only truth, whereas the religious people are all obscurantists.  This is sheer nonsense.  There is hard-nosed partisanship all around.  Coyne and Dawkins and Myers want there not to be a god every bit as badly as Ken Ham and Bill Dembski and Francis Collins want there to be a God.  

Lou Jost - #77256

March 8th 2013

I should mention that I breed orchids, to give me a sense of how genetic variation works in practice. I am sure that Sternberg has never bred anything; he has an extremely simplistic notion of variation and selection, and of how genes are expressed. Coordinated changes are the rule, not the exception.

Eddie - #77277

March 8th 2013


I don’t conjecture about people’s hobbies.  Sternberg may or may not have bred anything.  He has done empirical biology:  his c.v., shows many articles on marine arthropods, for example.  So it’s not as if he has no concrete experience.  

What you are not seeing is that Sternberg is not denying co-ordinated changes.  In fact, his whole point (did we listen to the same talk?) is about the need for co-ordinated changes!  And his point is that neo-Darwinian theory is not very good at explaining why co-ordinated changes should happen.  And he is not the only person to be saying this.  Margulis, Shapiro and others have been saying it, in different ways, for quite some time.  

Again and again, I have to tell people who have not read much ID literature:  ID is not against “evolution” per se.  (Some ID proponents are, but ID as such is not.)  ID has no problem with evolution where it can incorporate design at some level, whether through some initial front-loading or some later means of adjustment.  Common ancestry is not a problem for ID (again, not for ID per se, though some ID proponents as individuals oppose it), which is why all these diagrams of whale fossils, etc. are beside the point.  Granting for the sake of argument that fossil similarities indicate historical relationship, the question is, what mechanism could explain this?  And ID people are not the only ones who have argued that neo-Darwinian mechanisms are far from adequate to explain it.  In fact, evolutionary biologists who are impeccably atheist/agnostic have made arguments against neo-Darwinism that are essentially the same as those of ID proponents.

Lou Jost - #77294

March 8th 2013

Eddie, you are beating a dead horse. I know Sternberg is not denying evolution. He is saying it could not have happened fast enough through neo-Darwinian means. And yes, I know he thinks there are coordinated changes. I simply pointed out that his mathematical analysis ignores the non-mutational component of evolution (new combinations of existing genes can also cause change), and it ignores natural selection. You were right to call those “undergraduate errors” but there they are, right in his talk.

Neo-Darwinian evolution includes all those things that he should  have included in his calculations. Neo-Darwinian evolution is not just about neutral point mutations getting fixed, as his calculations imply. His argument sucked. In some ways, Behe’s was better.

I gave my greyhound example because (unless god likes to place bets at the racetrack) I assumed ID is not involved in the artificial selection of dogs for special (and actually somewhat inhumane) purposes. If there is enough normal “neo-Darwinian” variation to allow artificial selection of greyhounds so quickly, then hippos-to-whales are also possible in tens of millions of years. 

But maybe my assumption about your version of ID is wrong.

Eddie - #77302

March 8th 2013


You’re getting a bit testy in your tone.  How about dialing it back a bit, to your formal genial approach?  You’re now starting to sound like the typical angry Darwinist:  “How dare you ID twits question my math?”

Regarding your greyhound example:  I reject the analogy.  First of all, artificial selection is not natural selection.  And second, yes, there is morphological plasticity within the dog species, but I would argue that the difference between a deer and a whale is more than a mere quantitative expansion of the differences between dog varieties, but represents a qualitative transition which requires something extra.  I can’t prove that, but I’ve read enough literature by full-time evolutionary biologists to know that there is not universal agreement about the kind of argument you are making.  Some think that macroevolution is just microevolution writ large, and would agree with you; others think that there must be additional mechanisms involved to generate major morphological changes.  There is a good article by evolutionist Donald Prothero, available on the internet, on that debate.  (I’m not saying that Prothero disagrees with you; I’m saying he indicates there is a debate.)  If I can find the link, I’ll send it along.  You’ve obviously taken a side in that debate, as you have a right to; but you aren’t in the authoritative position in the world of evolutionary biology to say that those who differ don’t know their biology and you do.

Lou Jost - #77306

March 8th 2013

I reread my last comment and it looks civil to me…

Anyway, of course artificial selection is not natural selection, but it shows what selection (of any kind) can do in a very short time. Yes, we now know genetic mechanisms which can produce quite large morphological changes. This makes the transition to whales even less surprising.

My main point, though, is that Sternberg’s mathematical argument as presented in that video is just plain wrong. And I think you agree, right?


Eddie - #77313

March 8th 2013

I agree that the mathematical argument is not actually presented; rather, the conclusions are affirmed on the grounds of a loose general argument.  In my original assertion I was assuming that Sternberg could provide the detailed assumptions and calculations if asked.  (Apparently in the original presentation, he had calculations and data with him which were available to anyone in the audience to look at after the lecture.)  But I agree that the video, per se, does not really prove his case, but only gives a sketchy outline of it.

His forthcoming theoretical book will apparently deal with evolutionary mechanisms in a broader way, but I believe he will make use of whale evolution as one of his examples, so presumably the full argument will be there.  I look forward to it, and when it comes out, I would welcome your analysis of the proper, formal argument.

Eddie - #77314

March 8th 2013

P.S.  I didn’t say that were “uncivil,” only that you seemed suddenly testy.  :-)

No worries; you haven’t offended me.  But I’m running out of time for this stuff (as, I suspect, are you).  So if I don’t reply again here, don’t think I’m mad.  We can always pick up these issues another time.


Lou Jost - #77316

March 9th 2013

Yes,I’m running out of time too. I do think Sternberg did present a mathematical argument, though leaving out the calculational details. He sketched it quite well. And it was clear that he left out natural selection and he ignored changes that were not due to point mutations. Maybe his book will make a new argument. If it just fleshes out the one he sketched in his video, it will not be very interesting.

Bye for now,


Roger A. Sawtelle - #77261

March 8th 2013

Lou wrote:

I think the universe has to be logically consistent, and this alone (plus some perhaps random initial ingredients) may be enough to determine its laws.

Of course you have not answered the question of why or how the universe is logically consistent, but I am glad that you believe that it is.

While it is true that for other beings the question as to whether the universe has a purpose is moot, it is important to humans because only we have the ability to ask that question. For Darwin survival the only motivation for life, but for rational beings living in order to live is not rational. Living a meaningless life is meaningless and irrational, and therefore evil.

Therefore for the rational person there needs to be more to life than day to day survival to give a reason for living. There must be a better reason for humanity to exist besides the adolescent response, “We’re here because we’re here.”

There is another problem too. Nature is consistent, but it is also inconsistent. If life were perfectly consistent, there would be no change.

Darwin came up with evolution in part to answer the question, “Can a perfect God create an imperfect world?” Many like you say that God could not, but Christians disagree. Personally I think that it is more rational to try to understand how a rational and caring God created an imperfect, but meaningful world, rather than how an nonrational and imperfect universe created itself.

I do not believe that God imposes meaning upon the universe. I believe that God built meaning and purpose into the fabric of the universe, just as humans do when we create a meaningful sentence or an automobile. Monod agrees with this too.

Do humans impose meaning on an apple when we decide that it is good for eating, as well a providing seeds for the apple tree, or is this part of a rational structure that makes life possible and even pleasant within the wholeness of the web of life? Monod would say yes to the first possibility, and I say yes to the second.

Lou Jost - #77262

March 8th 2013

I don’t have time to rebut everything but this thing needs it: ” For Darwin survival the only motivation for life” This is the mistake we just discussed a few comments above, like saying that because we believe in gravity we should crawl on the ground. We feel love and curiosity and empathy, and so we find many motivations for life, even though we evolved. It is clear that some animals also feel those things.

This is another part that needs rebuttal: “Darwin came up with evolution in part to answer the question, “Can a perfect God create an imperfect world?” Many like you say that God could not, but Christians disagree.” Scientists don’t say god couldn’t have, they just say there is no evidence that god did so. 

Chip - #77263

March 8th 2013

Hi Lou,

I never said evolution tells us how to behave.

I think you did:

evolution teaches us that our empathy should extend to other higher animals.

My point is not to argue about whether such notions are good or bad, but whether any such “shoulds” are supported by naturalist assumptions.  

Yes, some higher animals live in groups and exhibit what you have called “hints of similar ethics in other species” (my emphasis). But that’s all they are—just hints. No other species comes close to what you yourself have argued for in advocating that qualities like empathy should be extended to others—those not in my kinship group;  those with no stake in the propagation of my selfish genes.  I live up to the human (as opposed to mere animal) potential I have when I demonstrate concern for something larger than me and mine. And yes, man is truly unique in this regard—not in that he always behaves morally, but that he is uniquely capable of such behavior. 

The question is why.

You yourself argued that mere physical processes like gravity (to which evolution is often compared) simply aren’t capable of prescribing how we should behave.  And I agree entirely.  I would additionally argue that the “ethics as consensus” position you’ve staked out is inadequate for the reasons already discussed, and because it reduces ethics to the fickle level of what is fashionable—and making, for example, 19th-century slavery “right” for those who practiced it because it was in synch with the reigning consensus of the day (your definition, not mine).

In the end and returning to where we started, my response to such things is that we are such because we have been created in the image of One who is such.  And I personally find this line of argument both personally meaningful and intellectually compelling.  It constitutes one column, if you will, of the foundation which supports my theism.  Thanks for listening.

Oh, and BTW, I was referring to William Wilberforce, a—perhaps the—key leader responsible for the overthrow of the English slave trade.

Lou Jost - #77264

March 8th 2013

Chip, I mostly agree with you (except for your second-last paragraph). You are right, I need to be more careful about my statements that evolution enlightens our ethical sense. I meant that the theory per se does not tell us how to act but rather informs us of how we came to be. But knowing how we came to be can help us think about our ethics. It helps us understanding where our ethical sense comes from (our evolution as a social animal) and its revelation of our kinship with other apes raises important questions about what other animals might feel.

Humans are exceptional (not unique) in extending our empathy to others who are not related to us. Reciprocal altruism is possible in close-knit groups even if the participants are not related. But yes, much of the evolution of ethics can be described as the steady extension of empathy to a wider and wider set of people. This makes sense as our cultures become more and more entangled and communication improves. The world will be less bloody and everyone will live happier lives if this continues. In this sense, the abolition of slavery was a global, objective advance.

I don’t know if you are a Christian, but for those who are, the Old Testament is a testament to narrow “us vs them” thinking. Genocide and horrible brutalities were ordered by that god. Slavery was condoned, including brutal treatment of non-Israelite slaves. The OT falsifies any notion that good ethics comes from that god. Even in the NT Paul returns a slave to his owner.

Lou Jost - #77265

March 8th 2013

You also said “I live up to the human (as opposed to mere animal) potential I have when I demonstrate concern for something larger than me and mine. And yes, man is truly unique in this regard—not in that he always behaves morally, but that he is uniquely capable of such behavior.” But some dogs regularly exhibit concern for unrelated others, even others of different species. So do some wild animals like dolphins.

Lou Jost - #77266

March 8th 2013

The existrence of our ethical sense is clearly best explained by our evolutionary history as social animals. We can see this in how much we care for our kids, vs our uncles, vs our neighbors, vs people from enemy countries. No one I have ever met feels equally towards all those people. The heirarchy of real feelings is just what we would expect if evolution is the source of our ethical feelings.

This does not mean we should treat these groups unequally. As I said above, the advances in ethics over the last few thousand years are mostly because we extend these feelings to a wider and wider group, and this makes the world a more stable and pleasant place (a sufficient reason for ethics to advance).

Jon Garvey - #77267

March 8th 2013

There seem to be two separate issues here. The first is the lessons that knowing about evolution can teach rational amd moral beings. So indeed, that could include a rationale for human solidarity, increased empathy for other creatures linked “by blood” etc. But it could also include the lessons learned earlier, which included the inevitability and rightness that the better should replace the worse, or that we should embrace purposelessness heroically.

Which lessons you take depend, I guess, on which version of evolution you know about, and your moral and rational character… which leaves ones morality rather in the air. Interestingly all those options were equally available before evolution was discovered.

The second is whether or not one “ought” to follow the moral instincts that have evolved as per the sociobiologists’ speculations. At one level that question’s absurd, because (a) if it evolved it should happen anyway and (b) if we deliberate about it, we still haven’t explained morality, but only (possibly) the power to deliberate.

Dawkins, at least, seems to say that we must rise above our evolutionary selfishness (but lacks an explanation of why or how we would other than moral sense, which was to be explained): others that our altruism, or our other instincts, should naturally form our behaviour since we must be true to what we are. Some of the latter, I think, would make an exception for the inborn capacity for religion that some research has suggested, attributing it, I guess, to a spandrel or some other undesirable effect. But in that case, once again, nothing is being ultimately attributed to evolution, but to free moral choice - which is the thing needing explanation.

Both justifications for morality seem significantly underdetermined by the evidence, if one insists that belief must rest only on evidence.

Lou Jost - #77269

March 8th 2013

Belief in what? Enlightened self-interest and interest in our kids having a better world seems a reasonable and non-problematic reason to want an ethical society. I don’t need to believe in anything (evolution or god) to be able to follow that path. Most of the religious ethical precepts were also found by non-religious people.

You didn’t address the fact that religious morality changes, and that Abrahamic religions in particular have holy books which are supposedly inspired by god yet contain odious moral lessons. You also didn’t address the heirarchichal evidence I mentioned which suggests that our ethical sense arose naturally by evolutionary means.

Chip - #77271

March 8th 2013

But knowing how we came to be can help us think about our ethics.

Again, I agree.  Here’s Dawkins on how we came to be: 

In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind pitiless indifference.

Deriving morality from that is an absolute show-stopper.  Again, thanks for listening. 

Lou Jost - #77275

March 8th 2013

Dawkins’ description is exactly right. So what? Our love for our children, our sense of ethics, etc  arises naturally from that chaos (as it did in other species). What amazing hubris to think that a creator made us in his image, against all the evidence!

Chip - #77282

March 8th 2013

Ah, it “arises naturally.”  The logic has broken through in a way I’ve never seen before: 

Premise 1:  The universe is defined as having the following characteristics:  without rhyme or reason, undesigned, purposeless, lacking any evil or good, blind, pitiless and indifferent. 

Premise 2:  I am a contingent subset of that same universe (albeit a very small one)

Therefore,  “Our love for our children, our sense of ethics, etc arises naturally from that chaos.” 

I see it now—alas that hybris was able to hold me in its grip for so long!  Thanks for clearing this up for me. 

Lou Jost - #77285

March 8th 2013

Wow. Even in a completely purposeless universe, evolution would produce creatures which show affection for  their kids and members of their group. All animals that give parental care show some sort of affection or empathy with their kids. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t have passed their genes onto the next generation. There are entire disciplines that study the evolution of parental care and the conditions under which altruism and care of extended kin arises. Gods have nothing to do with it. Look at some real science, it will help you fight that hubris of yours.

Merv - #77283

March 8th 2013

You can explain all these natural soucres for morality until you are blue in the face, and even be correct about some or most or all of it!  But all they explain is the “is”.  They never deliver the “ought”.   Hubris is trying to pretend you have some basis for this or any “ought”, for instance claiming here that we ought to base our beliefs on scientific evidence or that we ought to discard any holy books which you say ought not to have tolerated slavery, etc.    Such a lot of claims for something that you have zero evidence (not even proof—just evidence, any at all!) to back it up, Lou!   

Your surface treatment of the Bible betrays a fairly extensive lack of familiarity or engagement with the text or any of the cultures from which it came.  But such caricatures of it as you construct so that you can knock them over are on par with only the most fundamentalist traditions that do try to think of it as a dictated prose that fell from the sky.  Very few (I can’t think of any) Christians around here try to defend such assertions.  None of us can know everything about all the things we reject; so certainly it would be unreasonable to expect you to engage in extensive Bible study before reaching your present conclusions.  But if you want to be taken seriously you at least have to do better than trotting out the old canards of how bad all the old cultures were compared to our “morally enlightened” (according to some nebulous concept you have yet to name) culture today, and how all the old holy books failed to deliver those cultures straight into our 21st century sensibilities which (according to this same mysterious scientific concept?) must be the pinnacle from which all else can be judged.  

Dawkins is a brilliant man—I’ve enjoyed and been enlightened by some of his works, but his knowledge about and portrayal of religious belief is, to put it kindly: simplistic.  But we are all guilty of erecting flimsy straw horses of the sort that are within our grasp to push over.  Most of us though are called on it before we reach a stage of publishing in print to embarass ourselves the world over.  You seem like a nice guy, Lou, and probably a very intelligent man though I’m no positiion to judge that.  You can do better than Dawkins.  Most of us can.


Lou Jost - #77286

March 8th 2013

Of course I know that the bible is a cultural document!!! That’s my whole point. Yet many people here are holding it up as if it was some kind of revelation from god. You seem to want it both ways—don’t take it seriously when it says something horrible, but still claim that it is authoritative and the source of our morals. That is bizarre to me.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #77287

March 8th 2013


When I was young, along time ago, when I discussed evolution with my peers, it seemed that someone would end the discusion with the statement, “You know, if a billion, billion monkeys sat at a billion, billion typewriters for a billion, billion years, one of them would write War and Peace.

You know statistics much better than I.  You know that chances are against even writing even one sentence found in War and Peace, much less the whole novel by said monkeys (or more accurately apes.)  Garbage in, garbage out. 

Randomness has its uses, but they are limited. 

Also one cannot say that means and ends are not related.  Darwin said that humans are the product of “nature’s war” (against itself.)  I do not know your politics, but I do know that libertarians, Ayn Rand, and her followers do believe that nature is dog eat dog and base their lives and ethics this atomistic Darwinian view.      

Lou Jost - #77295

March 8th 2013

I explained (several times) why that view of ethics does not follow from evolution. 

Your view of evolution-as-randomness ignores the selection component. It is the old creationist canard again. You should look at a basic popular book on evolution, or Dennis’ course on this site.

Merv - #77296

March 8th 2013

I explained (several times) why that view of ethics does not follow from evolution. 

... correct; and even more generally yet:  no endorsement of any ethics at all follows from evolution or indeed from any science.

Lou Jost - #77299

March 8th 2013

Or from any religion either. There are religions out there for every ethical taste, and we have seen how ethics have evolved over the centuries even for religious people. How do you evaluate a given religion X to decide whether to accept its ethics? Let me guess—- you just check to see if it agrees with your preconceptions or inner ethical sense. Circular reasoning.

Merv - #77304

March 8th 2013

Now we’re getting somewhere.  I’ll take this as your concession that *you* have no even remotely scientific basis for any ethical imperative to exhort anbody else to do anything or to judge some cultural practices as good or bad or even less good or less bad.  (I know—you insist that neither do Christians or anybody else—we disagree about that but I’ll leave that aside here.)  My point is, obviously you do have strong feelings that some things are more right or wrong than other things—for instance you seem to feel strongly that basing one’s knowledge on empirical scientific evidence should be a good thing and that institutions like slavery which prey on others are bad things.  Since you have precisely zero scientific basis for your ethics where do you get these standards?  Make no mistake—I’m glad that you have them, but my point is you have to smuggle them in from the very religions that you so disdain.  Perhaps I shouldn’t use the ‘r’ word since that makes it such a hard pill for you to swallow.  Call them world views or philosophies if you feel better about different words.  But whatever euphemism you land on for *it*, be sure that *it* is above and beyond any science you can offer.  And that isn’t such a bad thing, really!


Merv - #77305

March 8th 2013

Sorry to be rattling around on all these arguments with you just as you’re trying to get ready to leave on a trip.  I’m recalling that I said somewhere back there that argument over this sort of thing is of limited or even no value; and now here I am arguing.   My old habits are dying hard—or not dying at all as the case may be.

Anyway, I wish you safe and productive travels.


Lou Jost - #77309

March 8th 2013

Thanks for the good wishes, and though it is tempting, here it is 10pm and I haven’t finished either of the presentations I have to give when I get to the US…I actually do agree with you on a lot of what you just wrote…short answer is that I do have strong feelings about what is good, but these are mostly common sense considerations about the world I would like to live in, or that I would like my children and friends to live in. Similar basic precepts have arisen in secular philosophy, and in many cultures that have had little or no contact with Christianity. Their origin (instincts left over from our evolution as a social animal, plus thinking about the kind of world we would like to live in) just doesn’t seem mysterious to me. Even the exceptions are predictable. Here in the Amazon, hunter/gatherer tribes need lots of space and need to maintain low densities, and several of those cultures are exceptionally violent.

Is there an absolute good? I don’t know. I don’t think religion adds anything to the debate though.

GJDS - #77298

March 8th 2013


“The god concept really doesn’t help settle moral questions any more than science does. Religious support can be found for a very wide range of ethical choices.”


Again, breathtaking ascertains and simplistic generalisation – I may be repeating previous comments, but here goes…:


The god concept is behind all the Bible teaches as idolatry. Most scientists are familiar with the prevailing views on nature and the impact of scientific knowledge on modern man. However, for a person to state ‘God’ it is necessary to attach meaning, so that it is comprehended is part of the context of a human’s awareness. The usual meaning of ‘God’ is a being with attributes such as, for example, all-powerful, all-knowing, all-wise, eternal, unlimited by space and time, and so on. Yet it is not possible to point to anything that a human being may know or identify that would fit these attributes; the result is speculation and scepticism. Meaning however, may be attributed to an idea that would be intelligently constructed as an idea of god. This would be a synthesis of an idea and the meaning is part of that idea, is a human construct, as is a concept of not-god – it is human conceptualisation.  It may be argued that the term ‘god’ has emerged over thousands of years as a synthesis of human imagination and then sustained through the circular usage of words (conceiving gods with human attributes, e.g. Egypt, Greece, Rome). However, Christianity considers God in total meaning contradicts human synthesis. It is part of Christianity proper to view such a synthesis as insufficient.

I can understand atheists would find this unsatisfying. It may be fashionable for atheists to ignore thousands of years of human history, and pick out portions that cater to their conceptualisation of gods. Christianity proposes the meaning of God has been received and people have testified to this. This testimony is not derived from atheists or other religions – and is not presented as a scientific treatise, or an empirically testable concept. Atheists find this unsatisfying – Christians do not - atheists need to deal with this.

Ethics over recorded history have been extremely variable; why such a simplistic statements? We are discussing the teachings of the Christian faith. Point to apostolic and Gospel teachings of a wide range of ethics. If Christianity teaches us to murder, than say so! Instead we have this slippery approach that generalises religion does this and that, but science gives all sorts of evidence. Give concrete examples that show historically a civilisation or significant community has been founded on scientific ethics so that we can see your much vaunted evidence! And yes, morality is founded on an understanding of good and evil.

Lou Jost - #77300

March 8th 2013

Christians don’t have a monopoly on receiving the “meaning of god”. You cling to the idea that Christianity is special and you resist all comparisons with other religions, because such comparisons would show the arbitrary nature of your decision to accept Christianity.

GJDS - #77303

March 8th 2013

Lou #77300

Darn it Lou, you begin with a ‘concept’ of god, and then ignore my comments and instead go for the silly notion of comparing all religions, otherwise this would be circular reasoning. You believe that atheists should debate something for the good of the polity (and I suppose you have other nebulous reasons) yet your position is to make vacuous remarks about all religions – are you anti-religious, or are you an atheist who has decided not to believe in god. I count a number of atheists in my circle of associates and I have as yet to hear such nonsense from any of them. I say I believe in God and am of the Christian faith, they say they do not believe in god. That seems to me to be about the extent of the debate. If politics is your concern, join a political party, stand as a candidate, and do your thing. That is democracy; you are questioning other people’s faith and the only basis for this that I can see is your rejection of Catholicism. Not much of a debate.

Lou Jost - #77307

March 8th 2013

“I say I believe in God and am of the Christian faith, they say they do not believe in god. That seems to me to be about the extent of the debate.”  If you don’t want to think about it further than that, fine, that is your privilege. But you have made several theological arguments here. If you are unwilling to rationally defend your faith, those arguments don’t carry much weight, and boil down to “I say I believe in X; they say they do not believe in X. That seems to me to be about the extent of the debate.”

GJDS - #77308

March 8th 2013

Lou #77307

“But you have made several theological arguments here. If you are unwilling to rationally defend your faith..”

Defend my arguments against what? You have not made any comment that I can identify, let alone requring any defence.

Lou Jost - #77310

March 8th 2013

I’ve repeatedly asked you to show why you think your religion is true and others are not.

GJDS - #77311

March 8th 2013

 I cannot help but repeat ‘hubris’ ....I made a considered response #77298 to your ‘scientific (?)’ statement about the concept of god - since then I have received what amounts to infantile remarks that atheists are prone to make. I have as yet to make a remark about anyone else’s faith - you on the other had seems obsessed with all religions. Does that not strike you as odd for an atheist who, of all things, does not believe in any religion or god?

Lou Jost - #77315

March 9th 2013

I’ve explained to you several times why I care about this. My remarks about god are based on the bible. God-directed genocide of non-Israelites in the “Holy Land” is certainly one of the major themes of the OT.

You have made long theological arguments on this thread. These arguments are only as valid as the religious view on which you base them. Since you make these arguments, is it unreasonable to ask you to defend their presuppositions?

Roger A. Sawtelle - #77317

March 9th 2013

Lou wrote:

Your view of evolution-as-randomness ignores the selection component. It is the old creationist canard again. You should look at a basic popular book on evolution, or Dennis’ course on this site.

Please, Lou.  When I try to discuss selection, you refuse.  Now when I challenge random variation as the way, you bring up selection.

Selection is by definition a rational process.  You should know that some very perceptive atheist thinkers in the book What Darwin Got Wrong have challenged Darwinism for using the concept of “selection” in the process because it indicates Agency and Nature is not an Agent, even though we often personify Nature.   

So either Nature itself is a rational Agent making a rational selection or God is the Agent Who created Nature with the ability to act in such a manner.  Which is it?   

Lou Jost - #77322

March 9th 2013

I didn’t think I was avoiding selection; on the contrary. There is nothing requiring rationality in natural selection. Random variations arise through entirely physical processes. These variations make it more or less likely that the animal will reproduce, or influence the number of its offspring. But that effect is just caused by ordinary unthinking processes. A butterfly variation that is lighter than its peers might not absorb enough heat during the day to develop its eggs, and so its genes disappear from the gene pool. There is no thinking, no attribution of rationality to nature in this process.

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