A BioLogos Response to William Dembski, Part 3
Note: This essay continues our Southern Baptist Voices series, a dialogue between Southern Baptist seminarians and representatives of BioLogos. For a more complete description of the project’s history and aims, please see our introduction here.
In his recent two-part paper, Is Darwinism Theologically Neutral? (Part 1 and Part 2), Dr. William Dembski laid out a list of “non-negotiables” of both Christianity and Darwinism, discussed the tensions between the two lists, and explained his belief that Darwinism undercuts Christianity.
In his own two-part response (Part 1 and Part 2), Biologos president Darrel Falk addressed the topic of divine action in creation, in which both natural and supernatural processes are a result of God’s continuous activity in our world, as well as presenting his personal perspective on how BioLogos is different from “Darwinism.”
On May 9th, Dembski continued the dialogue on the website, "Evolution News and Views," and today Darrel Falk offers his reflections on that paper, as well as the state of the conversation as a whole.
This essay has its genesis in a dialogue currently underway between Southern Baptist seminarians and members of the BioLogos community. As a part of that series, Dembski began by laid out a partial set of “non-negotiables” for the historic Christian faith, upon which we agree. Similarly, he put forward a set of non-negotiables for Darwinism and analyzed which of them would be inconsistent with the historic Christian faith. In the end, he found one major inconsistency according to his definition of Darwinism: that it includes the philosophical presupposition that evolution is devoid of any telos. As I indicated in my response, we agree here, too.
Like Dembski, I am deeply concerned when science is portrayed as a methodology that gives a complete picture of reality (as advocated by Richard Dawkins’ children's book, The Magic of Reality, for example). The scientific process does not address certain questions. It doesn’t tell us why, for instance, there is something rather than nothing. It can’t tell us whether there is a purpose behind the universe or even our own lives. To the extent that the scientific culture portrays itself as being able to answer these questions through scientific investigation, I, like Dembksi, think it is sorely mistaken.
I have been impressed throughout this interchange with how much we do have in common and I am reminded again of our joint hope—stretching back over more than a decade—that what we have in common will always supersede our differences. I am convinced that that is the case now, even as we each are fully aware of the disparities which still exist. May they only get smaller.
In addition to being a Southern Baptist seminary professor (the focal point for this series), Dembski is also one of founding leaders of the Intelligent Design movement. This movement is undergirded by the premise that the biases associated with a materialistic worldview influence the directions that science (especially biology) takes. Indeed, the Movement believes that the influence is so great that biology’s conclusions are unsound at a fundamental level.
Although I am aware that the scientific process is not completely objective, and that conclusions are influenced by scientists’ worldviews (materialistic or otherwise), I do not see evolutionary biology as deeply flawed. Of course, we are all influenced by our religious and cultural views, and scientists are not immune to these influences. Still, the applecart of science need not be overturned.
In Part 2 of my response to Dembski, I identified four areas in which my views differ significantly from his:
- I am skeptical that it is possible to develop testable scientific hypotheses for the activity of God. Carrying out a scientific test of a hypothesis depends upon having a “control” where the variable is removed. In this case, the variable would have to be God’s activity. But if God is always active—if all things hold together in Christ (Colossians 1:17) and if not one thing came into being without him (John 1:3)—then how does one test for the presence of Him who is never absent?
- I do not agree that accepting the evolutionary creation view with its inherent emphasis on God’s natural activity in creation somehow makes belief in miracles less tenable. Miracles as outlined in Scripture have a special purpose: they are primarily a way that God uses to communicate and enter into relationship with humankind. It is not clear that they would be necessary to carry out God’s purposes before humans were here to observe them.
- Although I remain skeptical that God’s activity can be put into a scientific formulation, I do not see that this in any way implies that God hides his activity. Put simply, I am every bit as inspired by Romans 1:20 and Psalm 19 as is Bill Dembski; I just don’t think these Scriptures imply that the activity of God can be formulated into scientifically testable hypotheses.
- Dembski thinks that if God created humankind through the process of common descent, it diminishes the uniqueness of human qualities associated with being created in God’s image. I respectfully disagree: of the several ways of understanding what it means to bear the image of God, I find the most important aspects to be relational—they are derived from our being in relationship with God.
Continuing the conversation
With all of that as background, I am pleased to reply to Dr. Dembski’s response to my essay:
1. Can God’s activity in creation be formulated as a testable scientific hypothesis?
I indicated that in order to scientifically test for the activity of God, one would need to be able to have a control—the absence of God’s activity. Here is his response.
I disagree with Falk's view that intelligent design (or ID), in looking for evidence of intelligence in nature, requires that God be present only in those instances where it identifies design and absent from the rest. For Falk to endorse such a claim flies in the face of a point that my colleagues and I in the intelligent design movement have underscored repeatedly, which is that our methods of design detection tells us where design is, not where it isn't.
BioLogos has published an essay by Calvin College mathematician James Bradley showing why Dembski’s design detection method doesn’t work. I’m curious what Dembski thinks of this. Similarly, Dr Joe Felsenstein, one of the most respected mathematical biologists in the world, has written this article on why he considers the Movement’s design detection methodology to be flawed. Is it possible to develop and test a hypothesis when the key variable is the omnipresent and ever-active God? There is good scientific reason to doubt this, especially given current uncertainty about the model that has served as the heart of the Intelligent Design movement.
2. Does Accepting Evolutionary Creation Make Belief in Miracles Less Tenable?
Dembski has conceded that the occurrence of miracles in salvation history does not necessarily imply that God would work through miracles in natural history. The two do not necessarily go hand in hand. Still he hedges:
Falk makes the thought-provoking point that in working miracles in salvation history, God has special purposes for humanity and thus is under no compulsion to act the same way in natural history, where he might work exclusively through ordinary natural processes. Thus God might work naturally in the one and supernaturally in the other with no contradiction or tension. Let me grant this point, though, as a sociological matter, thinkers who have embraced methodological naturalism have often found themselves on a slippery slope and ended up rejecting miracles in salvation history as well. Take, for instance, Howard Van Till.
I think both Dembski and I understand that we ought not be afraid to embark on the journey just because some have lost the trail.
Dembski also suggests that it would be best for me to withhold judgment on whether God’s natural activity was sufficient to account for all of creation: “What is the evidence that purely natural forces are capable of doing all the creative work required for nature to produce a profligate living world that includes hawks, hippos, and humans?” he asks. I agree completely. That is why I do withhold judgment. Here is my statement from Part I:
We should reserve judgment about whether only God’s natural activity was responsible. It is not clear though, that supernatural activity would often be God’s chosen mode of action millions of years before humans had arrived.
3. Is the God of evolutionary creation hidden in a manner inconsistent with Christian theology?
Citing Psalm 19 (NRSV) and Romans 1:20 (NRSV), I wrote that the evidence for God’s activity in creation comes in the form of “signposts” which point to God. Indeed, after listing some examples, I suggested that together they “shout out with the message of God’s glory.” Yet Dembski seems to suggest that if evidence can’t be placed into a scientific formulation and tested using scientific methodology, it is elusive, “occluded,” and even non-rational:
Still, the more interesting question here is whether there is a rational basis for Falk's faith that is grounded in the order of nature. ID, in finding scientific evidence of intelligence in nature, says there is. Falk, along with BioLogos generally, denies this. But in that case, how can he avoid the charge that the faith by which he sees God's handiwork is merely an overlay on top of a nature that, taken by itself, is neutral or even hostile to Christian faith? Note that I'm not alone in thinking it odd that God would create by natural selection. Many atheistic evolution (sic) see evolution as a brutal and wasteful process that no self-respecting deity would have employed in bringing about life. Jerry Coyne, Richard Dawkins, and the late Stephen Jay Gould were united on this point.
But the Christian faith begins with Christ, not nature “taken by itself.” The first disciples were told to put down their nets and to follow Jesus, and Paul was confronted with the risen Christ on the Damascus road. They were not taken out to a hillside on a starry night and told that they should develop a faith in a supreme being that was grounded in nature. Likewise, we have the Scriptures and a cloud of witnesses beckoning us to look to Jesus, the pioneer and finisher of our faith (Hebrews 12). Faith in Christ informs reason, and faith and reason work together, finding their end in God. It is only through Christ that our view of nature—like nature itself—will be redeemed. One cannot have a fully-grounded understanding of nature until one first finds one’s origin, sustenance, and end in its Author.
Reason is important because it keeps faith from falling into superstition and falsehood. Faith is important because it gives assurance and certainty of a greater reality than is accessible by reason alone. We cannot derive purpose from reason alone, based on nature alone. Without faith, reason is dead.
John’s prologue describes it this way: “The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it….He was in the world and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him.” (John 1:5, 10, NIV). Put another way, it is only by beginning with Christ (indeed, “the fear of the Lord,” Prov. 9:10) that true wisdom emerges. Consider Paul’s words in this regard:
For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe…Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man’s strength (I Corinthians 1:21, 24, 25, NIV).
In essence then, I think Dembski gives too much credence to science as a means of understanding divine activity in creation. We don’t start with nature and find our way to God; we start with Jesus Christ and through him we see what he has made.
Again, that Dembski would cite one agnostic and two atheistic scientists to substantiate his own view of divine activity in the natural (see right) world suggests to me that he may have too much confidence in the power of science and reason to contribute in definitive ways to conversation about God’s activity. For the Christian, should not such conversation begin with faith in the person of Jesus Christ? When atheistic evolutionists see “evolution as a brutal and wasteful process that no self-respecting deity would have employed…” I am inclined to point to the long and tortuous journey of the nation of Israel, which led not to a “self-respecting” throne, but to a humble servant dying on a cross.
4. If humans were created by a process that included common descent, does this take away from our uniqueness?
Here is what Dembski says about human uniqueness:
I would argue that human exceptionalism depends, in the first instance, on our God-given capacities, which are different in kind from the rest of the animal world (notably our moral, aesthetic, cognitive, and linguistic capacities). From these capacities it then follows that we can have a special relationship with God and properly be regarded as made in the divine image. And note, if these capacities truly render us exceptional, then they pose a stumbling block for any purely naturalistic account of evolution because, as Falk rightly notes, our "material ordinariness" makes us one with the rest of the animal world.
The fact that we are made of the same stuff and by the same processes as the animal world says nothing that denies human exceptionalism. Humans and animals alike have DNA as our genetic material. We all have transfer RNA, messenger RNA, various proteins, mitochondria, and lysosomes. On the other hand, the material is clearly arranged in a different way in humans than it is in the great apes; one glance in the mirror will tell you that. Furthermore, we are endowed with capacities—notably, our moral, aesthetic, cognitive and linguistic ones—that are different from those found in the rest of the animal world. How did they come to be different? As I argued before, it can only have happened through God’s activity because even “ordinary” processes are God’s own, too. But how did God bring that to pass? Did it happen in an instant, or did it happen over a long period of time? If Dembksi thinks it more god-like for it to happen in an instant, why?
In June we’ll be posting essays giving several different perspectives on what it means for humans to bear the Image of God, and what makes us exceptional, even given all we share with the rest of creation. But the bottom line is that God became incarnate as a human being, Jesus Christ, not a great ape and not even a Neanderthal. What continues to set us apart supremely is not our material make-up, but that God comes into our lives and redeems our existence—forever.
Considering that I’m the advocate for the validity of mainstream biology, I find it ironic that Dembski has placed so much emphasis on the power of science, even as he tries to purify it from materialist ideologies that I, too, find incompatible with a full understanding and appreciation of God’s creation. Science is an amazingly successful set of tools that—when coupled with the assurance of things hoped for and the conviction of things not seen (Hebrews 11:1)—leads us to a truer understanding of ourselves and a greater view of God. With this end in mind, perhaps Dr. Dembski and I can find still more common ground than we already have, agreeing that biology and geology and cosmology can be trustworthy, even though only at their best when the hearts and lives of those who study them are redeemed. If we are to see the natural world as it really is, we must be united in Christ, using our reason and our faith to understand what God is telling us in his world and his Word. Though we don’t agree on everything, I thank Dr. Dembski for being a partner in that pursuit.
Although I alone bear responsibility for any inadequacies in this essay, I want to express appreciation to Mark Sprinkle, Kathryn Applegate, Tom Burnett, and John Wright for very helpful comments.
Darrel Falk is former president of The BioLogos Foundation. He transitioned into Christian higher education 25 years ago and has given numerous talks about the relationship between science and faith at many universities and seminaries. He is the author of Coming to Peace with Science.