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The Biologos Foundation and “Darwin’s Pious Idea”, Part 3

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January 28, 2011 Tags: Christianity & Science - Then and Now

Today's entry was written by John Wesley Wright. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of The BioLogos Foundation. You can read more about what we believe here.

The Biologos Foundation and “Darwin’s Pious Idea”, Part 3

This is the third part in a series reviewing Conor Cunningham's new book Darwin's Pious Idea. The first part can be found here and the second part here.

The mesa characterizes the landscape of the southwestern United States. A level plain rapidly ascends to meet a broad table top where various activities can take place. If chapters 1-3 rapidly ascend from the neo-Darwinian synthesis with a review of evidence for form, constraints, and convergence within evolution, Darwin’s Pious Idea reaches the top of the mesa in chapter 4. Cunningham enters the chapter with the difficult question, “Does Darwinism involve a notion of progress?” The underlying question of the chapter, however, is, “What is humanity that You are mindful of them?”

Cunningham argues that we need the “biology of being” within which to place the “biology of becoming” of the neo-Darwinian synthesis. Cunningham importantly does not reject the neo-Darwinian synthesis. He does, however, demand a larger theoretical framework that can account for deeper levels of the stability and cooperation and remote causes that we observe when we look at biological phenomena synchronically: “Such a gestalt switch in perspective – from the atomistic to the systemic, the discrete to the emergent –involves new levels of life and new modes of causality as we move from a wholly linear approach to a nonlinear one. Emergent systems (from cells to organisms) exhibit modes of behavior that demand new ways of thinking” (p. 157). Unless neo-Darwinism can account for such data (and in its ultra-Darwinian form, it cannot, Cunningham argues), in the words of Imre Lakatos, it will become a degenerating research program in light of the need for a wider synthesis, just as Newton’s research program became degenerating to Einstein’s.1

Cunningham does not have to invent this “biology of being”; it is already present in developmental evolution and systems biology (p. 152). Cunningham writes, “Evolution, or at least biology, is not all about the flux of phylogeny, for nature manifests structure and form. There is a form of progress and inevitability in evolution, one that is lawful and thus demonstrably antireductionist. . . . Consequently, not only will the great chain of being be reinstated (as if it was ever removed, except in the vanity of man’s mind) but also mankind, more importantly, will be shown to be both ‘cross and crown’ of creation. This claim precludes, rather than accommodates, anthropocentrism, for it is a matter of participation (methexis) rather than exclusivity. Indeed, accompanying man’s ascendancy or uniqueness is a growing sense of vulnerability, even danger” (pp. 149-50).

Cunningham helpfully uses the analogy of the production of a play within a theatre to describe the interaction between synchronic and diachronic events within evolution: “The play of evolution (that which becomes, namely, phylogeny) takes place within a theater; in terms of that theater’s structure, the play is constrained and therefore informed” (p. 159). Within this theater humans play a significant role in the drama because of what we are – the “cross and crown of creation”; the mode of transportation through which we have arrived at the “theatre” is irrelevant.

Cunningham reminds Christians that the “what” of humanity is special (their form on the stage of the theatre); pressing theologically the “how” question actually takes us towards a paganism where we conceive of god as a big, more powerful being like us. As Cunningham writes, “If we conceive God in terms of power, we have actually managed to reduce God to our own level, because divinity becomes a matter of something we cannot do – namely, suspend the natural order – rather than it being about someone we are not” (p. 172). As Cunningham notes, Thomas Aquinas would heartily agree (p. 151).

Cunningham’s retrieval of “form” becomes the basis for his theological reflections. Properly construed, evolution signs that life’s origin and end lies beyond itself in the Invisible “seen” in the visible. The “forms” of evolution, its “being” within which random “becoming” occurs, signs Transcendence beyond itself. Humanity results from the material process of evolutionary becoming; nonetheless we have a distinct form which allows us to participate in the symbolic science that biology is: “biology is a semiotic science, a science where significance and representation are essential elements. Thus evolutionary biology stands at the border between physical and semiotic science, just as man does” (pp. 165-66).

Combining concepts from Augustine and Kierkegaard, Cunningham describes how humanity results both from “recollection” and “non-identical repetition”: “Yes, humans are different. Yes, they forge whole new levels of existence. In so doing they are only recollecting evolution’s history, yet at the same time they are nonidentically repeating it” (p. 159). He finds a parallel between this evolutionary understanding of humanity and that proposed by the early church fathers: “cooperation is the truth of nature and . . . competition is secondary; . . . more basic forms of nature are themselves not devoid of intelligence, or rationality; and . . . there is definite progress in evolution, with man at the pinnacle, because man is a microcosm of the universe, both recollecting and nonidentically repeating the lives of his ancestors, right back to basic chemical, as the Church Fathers correctly saw. But such ascendancy is not simple, for with increasing complexity comes increasing danger, to the point that what theologians term sin becomes possible” (p. 163). Evolution does provide progress, but progress itself has an inherent ambiguity. Again, welcome to humanity--the “crown and cross of creation.”

This is no “creation science” or “intelligent design” argument. While matter has an inherent rationality, Cunningham, with the historic Christian tradition, refuses to reduce God to an agent of design. Cunningham concludes the chapter with a wonderfully provocative shift in our language in order to not make God a “creative force” that guides an evolutionary process: “if we are going to employ such terms as ‘natural’ and ‘supernatural,’ then it is better (at least for theology) if we think of God as the only truly natural phenomenon, while the world around can be thought of as ‘supernatural.’ For what else is creation meant to signify? Indeed, is creation’s status as signifier not reflected in the very fact that when we try to return what exists, here in our universe, to itself, we fail to save the phenomena. Rather, the phenomena are shown to exhibit the one thing that is intrinsically their own, namely, the nothing from which they came” (p. 177).

If the book stopped with Cunningham’s provocation at this point, it would represent a tremendous accomplishment. Cunningham teaches us how to order the language of post neo-Darwinian evolutionary theory in light of the classical Christian understanding of the world in which essences are “seen” in, but never abstracted from, the materiality of God’s good creation. Creation itself becomes a sign of a radically transcendent God from whom and through whom and to whom are all things because God created all things from nothing. Cunningham, however, extends his argument farther.

Chapter 5 critically examines attempts to generalize the neo-Darwinian synthesis beyond biology. As Cunningham has already found “ultra-Darwinism” limited in explaining evolution itself, it is no wonder that he finds its extension in evolutionary psychology (and its earlier vehicles, social Darwinism and Sociobiology) severely lacking. Cunningham uses this opportunity, however, to show the underlying logic of ultra-Darwinism. Ironically, by stressing adaptivity, such generalized ultra-Darwinism evaporates truth, the good, even science itself into what Nietzsche called “the true lie”. Beliefs themselves become “intrinsically fictitious” (p. 214), repeated only because of their adaptive function – including the belief in evolution. Our lives are really about sex and sex is really about the survival of genes and thus evolution.

Attempts to generalize ultra-Darwinism require a concept of evolution that itself stands outside of time. To save evolution, therefore, we must de-mythologize it and return it to a biological theory. We must save it from the antievolutionary reductionism of the ultra-Darwinism whereby evolutionary thought functions as “a security blanket, one loved by willful secularists who demonstrate no reluctance at destroying the natural world” (p. 262). Such a cultural bias is thoroughly “unnatural.”

Through the evolutionary emergence of humanity, the human mind, and human language, the symbolic activity of thinking about “God” became profoundly natural. Cunningham cites the research of Justin Barrett: “With the arrival of our minds in the story of evolution, religion became inevitable. It was, quite simply, not an option” (p. 252). At the same time, the symbolic, the “cultural,” directly shapes the “natural”: “Symbols have true causal powers over the physical, though the language here is potentially misleading, for we must resist the temptation of setting symbols over and against the purely physical, at least in any naïve sense” (p. 256). As culture is thoroughly natural, nature becomes thoroughly cultural. Therefore, “there is no mere animality, and thus we can have neither a pure culture nor a pure animality” (p. 239). In the emergence of the uniqueness of the human being, Cunningham argues, “the elements gifted to us at the beginning of time are, quite literally, transubstantiated, and new, real relations are forthcoming, relations that then recapitulate the entire process” (p. 242). Evolutionary psychology, as set of ultra-Darwinism, cannot account for such an evolutionary process. They seek the security for their secularity in the ahistoricism of the endless repetition of the same neo-Darwinian natural selection.

Cunningham will continue his attempt to save evolutionary theory from its ultra-Darwinian supporters in chapter 6. But he will also increasingly have to save Christian orthodoxy from its ultra anti-Darwinian supporters as well. If Darwin’s theory signed the death of Protestant fundamentalist readings of the Scriptures (even as it created them), Darwin’s Pious Idea itself signs the death of the “true lie” that God is dead within a secularist, scientific culture. Such secularists will have to go perhaps to Huxley for their security blanket; the blanket that was theory of evolution of the ultra-Darwinists has dissolved. Perhaps they can meet their fundamentalist Christian allies there.

Notes

1. Commentators in the previous discussion of the blog have noted Cunningham’s dependence on the work of Simon Conway Morris, a dependence that Cunningham notes in the acknowledgements. In a recent article, Conway Morris reviews research that “point to a biology that will move far beyond the Darwinian formulation. . . . Today our understanding of evolution is immensely widened, but naturally it remains thoroughly Darwinian. The aim of this review is not to dispute this synthesis, but simply to enquire if it is complete” (p. 1337). See Simon Conway Morris, “The Predictability of Evolution: Glimpses into a post-Darwinian World,” Naturwissenschaften (2009) 96: 1313-1337 (http://www.springerlink.com/content/b46l378pju61h6k2/).


John Wesley Wright, Ph.D. is Professor of Theology and Christian Scriptures at Point Loma Nazarene University. Dr. Wright has published numerous articles and edited a number of books, including Priests, Prophets, and Scribes: Essays on the Formation and Heritage of Second Temple Judaism in Honor of Joseph Blenkinsopp, which he co-edited with Eugene Ulrich, Robert Carroll, and Philip R. Davies. (JSOT Press, 1992) and Conflicting Allegiances: The Church-based University In A Liberal Democratic Society, co-edited with Michael Budde (Brazos Press, 2004).

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Roger A. Sawtelle - #49189

January 26th 2011

The problem of evolution is the problem of change.  The word “Evolution” means change.  As CC pointed out before there have been two traditions in traditional philosophy, the mainstream which as based on stability, lack of change, Being, and the other tradition which was based on change, flux.  CC says rightly that traditional theology has been aligned with the Being mainstream.  He says that Darwinism (and postmodernity and science) is aligned with tradition of flux or change. 

This is a very broad generalization, but it does illustrate the serious problem that Westerners face which is dualism, either/or thinking.  Dawkins and other secularists try to avoid dualism by adopting a monist point of view where Reality is physical, but that begs the question, From where comes thought or the rational?  Many are forced to conclude by this ideology that Reality is not rational and is without meaning.  This is the very serious danger of postmodern relativism.


Roger A. Sawtelle - #49190

January 26th 2011

Part 2

The problem that CC and we all face is that the problem of “Change” cannot be solved within the framework of traditional philosophy.  We need a new philospohical frame work to do this, which is what I have been working on. 

CC is correct that Evolution requires a new scientific framework.  Fortunately that exists in ecology.  The unfortunate aspect of this is Dawkins is fighting tooth and nail to resist this new framework and few people seem to have the guption to challenge him.


Eric Lee - #49214

January 26th 2011

Ehem. ‘Evolution’ does not mean ‘change’. That’s a crude misunderstanding. Roger, you continue to work within your own either/or, with your own ideal of ecology, whatever that may be, as some sort of catch-all solution. Evolve, from evolvere in Latin means to ‘unfold’, or ‘unroll’. Already to recognize the real etymology of the word might start one on the right path to escaping one’s own dualisms. What might unfold imply? Perhaps not mere change/flux, nor mere stasis, either. This is the careful argument of CC’s book, which, IOHRTB…

Also, CC does not say that traditional philosophy aligns itself with being (Heraclitus anyone?). What John Wright points out in the above post is that CC shows that a biology of change should be supplemented with a biology of being (called ‘systems biology’). It is a misreading CC (actually you admit to not reading him at all) to think that he points to philosophy immediately, but in fact is already pointing to a whole set of systems biologists who tend to get ignored. The scientists are already doing this, offering up their own synchronic analyses to correct the merely diachronic ones. Even Darwin himself admitted to needing (synchronic) structures.


Rich - #49248

January 26th 2011

I have a comment on a passage from the above column:

“This is no “creation science” or “intelligent design” argument. While matter has an inherent rationality, Cunningham, with the historic Christian tradition, refuses to reduce God to an agent of design.”

While not disagreeing regarding “the historic Christian tradition,” I would like to point out that no proponent of intelligent design known to me (including Paley) “reduces” God to “an agent of design.”  To say that God is a designer is not to say that He is *only* a designer.  God is much more than that.  If ID proponents believed that God was *only* a designer, they would spend their Sundays in faculty lounges discussing Paley and Hume, instead of in Presbyterian, Reformed, Baptist, Episcopalian and Catholic Churches worshipping a living God.  Last I checked, “Redeemer” was a much more common word than “Designer” in the titles and words of hymns.

I would also point out in passing that “creation science” and “intelligent design” are two very different things, as “creation science” accepts the authority of Scriptural statements as a guideline for doing science, whereas intelligent design does not.


Alan Fox - #49287

January 27th 2011

“creation science” accepts the authority of Scriptural statements as a guideline for doing science, whereas intelligent design does not.

You’d agree that Willian Dembski is a (perhaps, the) leading proponent of “Intelligent Design”, I presume. Though not necessarily a “young Earther” he has recently confirmed his fundamentalist principles.


Rich - #49297

January 27th 2011

Alan Fox (49287):

You’re confusing the private religious beliefs of individual intelligent design proponents with intelligent design itself.  There was always a range of views about the Bible within the ID camp. from Nelson through to Behe.  The thing that unites all members of the camp is the agreement not to let those differences over the Bible affect their discussions of design detection, information theory, inference to the best explanation, etc.  Essentially you are alleging that Dembski’s private religious views have moved toward Nelson’s.  Supposing that’s true, it won’t make a bit of difference regarding how Dembski argues against chance and for design.  The arguments against chance and for design are the same whether one is an agnostic, a Deist, a Jew, a Muslim, an OEC, a YEC, etc.  So your “discovery” about Dembski is irrelevant.


Roger A. Sawtelle - #49301

January 27th 2011

Eric,

Thank you for your comments.  Please do not prejudge my ideas.

The issue is change & maybe CC has come up with an idea that we can agree upon. 

Darwin indicated that evolution has two aspects, variation and selection.  Variation is now seen as genetic, while selection he thought was based on Malthusian conflict.  Some, in particularly myself, have suggested that ecological selection based on symbiosis is a much better description of the way natural selection actually works than Malthus. 

Now even though most people acknowledge that the earth is facing a serious ecological crisis caused by human generated climate change, very few people on these pages are willing to make ecology a part of this conversation. 

How can we discuss biology in this day and age without discussing ecology?  The fact that we are doing so IMHO indicates that Darwinian evolution which BioLogos endorses does not care about the environment.

CC wants to supplement diachronic evolution with systems biology, fine.  I want to make ecological thinking an integral part of evolutionary thought.  I expect we are thinking along the same lines.  I do not think that we need to go in such a round about way to make that point.


Alan Fox - #49322

January 27th 2011

Essentially you are alleging that Dembski’s private religious views have moved toward Nelson’s.

No. Dembski’s private religious views are nobody’s business but his own; though it would appear his current employers don’t take the same view. I regard Paul Nelson as the least disingenuous of ID proponents, by the way. At least he admits that there is as yet no real “theory of ID”.


Rich - #49325

January 27th 2011

Alan Fox:

“Private” needn’t mean “known only in the secrecy of one’s breast.”  We speak of “in one’s private capacity” as opposed to “in one’s public capacity,” for example.  It was a meaning something like the latter that I had in mind.  As an ID proponent, Dembski is committed—when he claims to be representing ID, that is—not to make any proposition derived from the Bible binding upon his scientific arguments.  But as a Christian, as long as he doesn’t claim to be speaking for ID, but only for Bill Dembski, he can of course indicate that he personally does give the Bible a commanding position in his thinking about nature and creation.  That’s no problem, as long as he indicates what hat he’s wearing.  But we’ve spent too long on my side-point; I’m hoping to get a response from one of the Christians here regarding my main point in 49248.


Struggling philosophy graduate - #49328

January 27th 2011

I’m still trying to wade through chapter four, after really struggling with the last sections of chapter three.  Most of chapter two was incomprehensible to me.  I’m not stupid (I’m a university graduate) but one really needs to have at least undergraduate level biology to understand large chunks of this book.  Sometimes if I grasp 20% of what he’s saying, I’m doing well.

I’m left wondering: is there ever going to be any theological and philosophical content?  Perhaps that comes in later chapters?


Gregory - #49513

January 29th 2011

“no proponent of intelligent design known to me (including Paley) “reduces” God to “an agent of design.”...“To say that God is a designer is not to say that He is *only* a designer.  God is much more than that.” - Rich

That might be true for you, but there are many ‘design agent-centric’ IDists. I don’t know how many IDists you’ve *actually met*, Rich. I’ve met enough to offer a fair measure, including views you don’t seem willing to admit @ the IDM.

ID *does* ‘reduce’ God to a ‘designing agent’. yet there is *NO* study of the designing process. Why not, Rich? This makes ID a *very* weak theory with rather huge implications.

If ‘i+d’ is not reductionist, then why not help IDists elevate to speak more of Creation/Theology?

The combo ‘semiotic science’ is cute. I wonder how many people actually use this combination today when they speak of ‘types/kinds of science’?

One might wonder, with the signifiers ‘ultra-Darwinism,’ ‘social-Darwinism’ & ‘post-neo-Darwinian evolutionary theory’ used in this thread, if BioLogos will consider changing its ‘Darwinism’ page, which states: “Darwinism is the scientific theory of evolution by natural selection.” Obviously that is an over-simplistic definition.


Alan Fox - #49515

January 29th 2011

The combo ‘semiotic science’ is cute. I wonder how many people actually use this combination today when they speak of ‘types/kinds of science’?

Perhaps as many who happen to speak of reflexive science and positive science? Sorry, Gregory, couldn’t resist though if you do get time to comment explaining these terms I’ll be interested to read it.


Rich - #49528

January 29th 2011

Gregory:

I said that ID does not REDUCE God to being a designer.  That means:  ID proponents do not think that God is ONLY some impersonal intellect that designed the the world, and that nothing more can said about him.  Nothing more can be said about God from the point of view of *design detection*; but MUCH more can be said about God based on the Bible and the Christian tradition.  And ID proponents are mostly very active Christians.  Their God is not an intellectual abstraction, but the living God told of in the Bible.  Indeed, I see much more of the God of the Bible in the religious statements of ID proponents than I do in the statements of many TE/EC people, some of whom seem to go out of their way to gut Christianity of some of its core Biblical contents—as you yourself have noted on several occasions here.  So for TE/EC people to complain that the God of ID believers falls short of the Biblical God is often a case of people who live in glass houses throwing stones.

If you want ID proponent to do less design theory and more theology, well, Dembski has just published a major work on Christian theology, in which God appears as much more than just a designer.  Have a look at it.


Just sayin' - #49531

January 29th 2011

Dembski publishes what his employers allow him to publish.


Gregory - #49573

January 30th 2011

Hi Rich,

Sorry, in the process of being ‘design-centric,’ yes, many, even most IDists ‘reduce’ the meaning of God to being ‘one who designs’. They may *all* believe in ‘more than just a Designer.’ But their constant harping on ‘design’ instead of sometimes using other adjectives shows their narrowness.

They seek to make ‘design’ into a grand explanatory power, getting stuck in the old rut of a dichotomy - ‘design vs. chance’. In this, Rich mirrors the intellectual power of D. O’Leary. Design vs. chance is like old gravy these days!

*Every* Christian here agrees God designed/created/composed/etc. the world, even fuzzy TEs&ECs; whom you oppose. ID says ‘Scientific proof of design.’ Most intelligent people say ‘No.’

“Nothing more can be said about God from the point of view of *design detection*; but MUCH more can be said about God based on the Bible and the Christian tradition.” - Rich

Then you’d better join Mike Gene’s chorus: “ID is *not* science.” Bring on theology/RS in public higher ed.! ID seems to *require* (a) theology of *some* kind (i.e. there are few atheist IDists).

Dembski is amongst the most vocal insisting: ID *is* scientific. Do you consider Dembski your ally?!


JWF - #49574

January 30th 2011

@ Struggling philosophy graduate,

I’m glad you chimed in. I just finished Chapter 2, and it’s certainly fair to say this book is not for the faint hearted. I also struggled (and failed) to comprehend a great deal of what this chapter is saying. Dr. Wright’s guidance and commentary is very helpful.


Gregory - #49575

January 30th 2011

Alan,

Semiotics is fascinating. Talk about neologisms alone with a clever semiotician (e.g. Tartu School) is worth waiting for. Please don’t think I meant to devalue semiotics. I find value in what the authors write above.

“Perhaps as many who happen to speak of reflexive science and positive science?” - Alan

If we asked 100 human-social scientists - what does ‘reflexive science’ mean?, even if they hadn’t heard that exact combo-duo, I’d guess 93+ would be able to tell you basically what it means. Otoh, I doubt if 1 in 50 USA citizens knows what ‘semiotic’ means. Fair?

Re: positivism & positive science - the legacy of Comte still haunts.

I wrote @9000 characters-worth re: ‘reflexive science’ to post here. Frankly, I’m not sure BioLogos management wishes it discussed. E.g. run their def’n of ‘Darwinism’ through the cleaner of ‘reflexive science’ & it simply cannot be maintained. Gotta be dumped as positivistic.

“To save evolution, therefore, we must de-mythologize it and return it to a biological theory.” - J.W. Wright

Amen! Get it out of economics, sociology, psychology, politics & the human-side of anthropology & send it back to biological theory. Does anyone else support this approach?


Mike Gene - #49577

January 30th 2011

Cunningham importantly does not reject the neo-Darwinian synthesis. He does, however, demand a larger theoretical framework that can account for deeper levels of the stability and cooperation and remote causes that we observe when we look at biological phenomena synchronically: “Such a gestalt switch in perspective – from the atomistic to the systemic, the discrete to the emergent –involves new levels of life and new modes of causality as we move from a wholly linear approach to a nonlinear one. Emergent systems (from cells to organisms) exhibit modes of behavior that demand new ways of thinking” (p. 157).

Yes, but the “emergent” is still dependent on the “discrete.”  For example, when we consider the emergence of animal-type complexity, it seems clear that this emergence was dependent on the eukaryotic cell type.  In other words, if the endosymbiotic union that generated or completed the eukaryotic cell type had not occurred, there is no good reason to think any known or new modes of causality would have spawned organisms with animal-type complexity.


Mike Gene - #49579

January 30th 2011

Emergent systems (from cells to organisms) exhibit modes of behavior that demand new ways of thinking”.

I don’t think “cells to organisms” is a good example.  It’s hard to think of any significant difference between a cell and an organism given that both are homeostatic entities.  An organism is a team of cells.  But all cells exist as part of some team.  In an organism, the cells are more tightly connected and interfaced, but that’s an issue of degree.  When we consider that organisms can be understood as a team of cells, and all cells exist as part of a team, then we have yet another reason to think the front-loading of evolution was feasible.


Rich - #49580

January 30th 2011

Gregory:

The problem that you and some others have with ID is that you expect it to be what it doesn’t pretend to be, and thus are disappointed.

ID has never pretended to be Christian theology.  Its focus is on whether there is design and nature, how it might be detected, and how the perception of design in nature might alter the way one does science.  Intelligent design “harps” on design only in the sense that an economist “harps” upon budgets; what else would you expect a design theorist to talk about but design?  Would you expect a biochemist like Behe to explain the nature of angels?

So yes, ID is impoverished as theology, in the same sense that Shakespeare’s plays are impoverished as Broadway musicals.  But to bash Shakespeare’s plays because they lack spectacular song and dance numbers would be ridiculous.

Some ID people *do* write explicitly theological books.  If you want to know what Dembski thinks about creation and the problem of evil, don’t read *No Free Lunch*, read *The End of Christianity* (2009)—which does *not* claim to be a scientific work.

Finally, whether design inferences are “science” is less important than whether they are *reasonable*—there I agree with Mike Gene.


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