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The Biologos Foundation and “Darwin’s Pious Idea”, Part 4

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February 23, 2011 Tags: Christianity & Science - Then and Now
The Biologos Foundation and “Darwin’s Pious Idea”, Part 4

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

If chapter five of Darwin’s Pious Idea functions as a plateau after a steep ascent, chapter six slowly ascends in the wide circling pattern of a hawk caught in an upbreeze, rising higher and higher until the human observer loses sight of it in the blaze of the sun – or in the darkness of retinas reduced to nothing. Conor Cunningham has recollected and repeated the thoughts of biological scientists, particularly as these thoughts merge with the philosophy of biology. Now he ascends the heady heights of ontology (the philosophical discourse of what is), swirling through the philosophy of mind and into a phenomenology of consciousness and everyday life.

Chapter six is complex, even difficult; it is the longest of the book, well over 100 pages. Cunningham covers an immense range of contemporary, often contested, discourses (the chapter approaches 600 footnotes!!). Amid the complexity, however, is a simple argument with a paradoxical conclusion. Cunningham argues that to remain science, science must remain empirical, not metaphysical. Science will not bear the weight of explaining all existence without collapsing in on itself in irrationality. Science must remain open to other, more basic realms of rationality; it cannot offer an account of all existence. If science attempts to become a theory of everything, it ironically loses the very matter that it seeks to investigate – and the reason for doing science and even the scientist herself! Here is where the paradox enters: such a reductive naturalism ultimately shows that in itself, matter is literally nothing. Therefore reductive naturalism points past itself to the Christian understanding of creation ex nihilo. Ironically, the new atheists point to God, the Creator of all that is from nothing.

Cunningham’s argument unfolds in several steps. First, he refutes the false, worn out mantra that “religion” stands in opposition to science (pp. 269-300). Cunningham shows that Intelligent Design rightfully argues that neo-Darwinianism is “not sufficient to explain the natural world” (p. 277). Yet it is not a science. It must appeal to a non-empirical cause for creation – and thus, like the Neo-Darwinianist, seeks to extract a metaphysical position from science. The resultant god of Intelligent Design more pagan than Christian, or as Cunningham writes, “more Homeric than Abrahamic” (p. 279). Both ultra-Darwinians and Intelligent Design misunderstand what Christians confess when they confess that God creates from nothing. Cunningham allows Ernan McMullin to remind us what Christians historically have confessed when they confess creatio ex nihilo: ‘The appeal is not to a ‘gap’ in scientific explanation but to a different order of explanation that leaves scientific explanation intact, that explores the conditions of possibility of there being any kind of scientific explanation’ (p. 280). Rather than the “science versus religion” motif, Cunningham shows that such Abrahamic faiths have provided the very conditions for the emergence of science (pp. 291-300). Cunningham concludes that “science versus religion” motif is “a conveniently contrived invention, not at all based in historical fact” (p. 300).

Cunningham then turns to science. If Intelligent Design loses the orthodox Christianity they hope to defend in their move from science to metaphysics, Cunningham argues that scientism loses the science that it hopes to defend by making a similar move (pp. 300-319). Cunningham here introduces an argument that he will pursue through various means throughout the chapter in his argument to keep science a method, not a theory of everything: “Science must forever return to the source of its possibility and not deny its origins, or its future. For all science has arrived from an enabling past and will develop and evolve into an unknown future; only the tension between these two poles allows science to be true to itself. . . . The primal validity of the life world (Lebenswelt), of the subjective givenness of experience, both grounds and makes possible the objective world of science, without which science is quite simply impossible. When such impossibility is ignored, destructive ideology is all that is forthcoming” (p. 311).

Cunningham proceeds patiently to disembowel ontological naturalism: the argument that matter is all that there is. Verificationist arguments to support naturalism dissolve in the light of contemporary philosophy of science; Hempel’s Dilemma shows that one requires that one cannot confine reality to what is “natural” without first a definition of “nature.” Belief itself evaporates – survival, not truth, becomes determinative for all thought: “There is no universal reason by which our thoughts should be judged. Instead reason becomes a wholly local affair, at best, and is itself subordinate to the utilitarian principle of mere survival. This creates a disconnect between survival and truth, for they only ever coincide contingently” (p. 336). Cunningham argues that ontological naturalism is self-refuting.

Cunningham’s argument is not merely negative, however. He turns to the results of science to show that science provides positive, even pious signs of that which transcends matter. Quantum physics has dissolved the “matter” required by reductionism: “Gone are the inert particles or, more crudely, dead bits. Instead the world arises out of, or is ‘built’ from, what we might usefully term tendencies or potentialities. . . . As a result, the divorce between mind and matter (coming after Descartes and Newton) was itself annulled. . . Mind once again takes center stage and is no longer exiled to the land of impotence (where it existed but was epiphenomenal) or to that of illusion (where it existed but was epiphenomenal) or to that of illusion (that is, eliminated)” (p. 327). Such quantum theorizing takes Cunningham directly into the complex contemporary discussions of the philosophy of mind – a discourse anchored in contemporary Anglo-American analytic philosophy. And as usual, he brilliantly flips the terms of the presupposed relationship between “mind” and “matter”: “If the mental reduces to the physical, then maybe ‘reduce’ is the wrong word, for maybe, in being able to accommodate the mental, the physical is itself related to the mental” (p. 331).

Such theorizing allows Cunningham to move from analytic philosophy’s discourse in the philosophy of mind to phenomenology. Cunningham delves into the implications of the mystery of consciousness and its relationship to scientific explanations. Science itself requires the irreducibility of the person for Cunningham: ”All sciences are created and carried out by humans; it is humans that give rise to experience and then abstract away from this experience to gain a better understanding of it. . . . their sciences are theory-laden – not in a bad way but in a human way, for that is part of their glory. In this way the lab is an immature theater, just as the science textbook is very awkward literature” (p. 352). Science as a method provides discourses only of causality; human beings, however, require a sense of normativity and teleology, even human beings who provide the third-person discourses that we call “scientific results.” This first-person discourse is logically required lest science itself falls inward upon itself, a first-person discourse anchored in consciousness that is irreducible to brain activity (which itself requires a first-person perspective to describe its third person activity). As Cunningham memorably states, “the notion of a strictly third-person science is simply a fantasy. Like some corpse that just won’t lie down, the first-person keeps interrupting every process of reduction” (p. 353). Building on the natural selections evolution from earlier chapters with his philosophical analysis in chapter six, Cunningham concludes: “Evolutionary explanations are causal, while commonsense psychology, for instance, is irreducibly teleological. Indeed, how can consciousness ever be understood in terms of survival when all its functions can easily be accounted for in physiological terms, with no actual reference to consciousness? Instead of viewing consciousness through functions, and in terms of survival . . . we should and must understand that consciousness is not some secondary tack-on but is existentially, transcendentally, and methodologically primary. It is primary because it is a condition of the very possibility of any experience at all” (p. 370) – including the experience of evolutionary biologists in conducting their scientific research. Scientific reason needs a wider non-scientific reason in order to sustain its own activity as a method; when science attempts to eliminate all other discourses, it, as Cunningham states several times, “Cuts off its face to save its nose.”

Science moved to a metaphysical system, a theory of everything, cannibalizes itself, Cunningham argues. The argument of atheistic naturalism, therefore, provides a paradoxical, pious function for theology, the very discourse it seeks to eliminate: “It is here that our preceding analyses of both materialism and naturalism reveal their worth, for if we search the ‘purely’ natural world for an actual birth of a person, we will not find one. Alas, we cannot even find a person, no matter his or her birth. Thus these ostensibly atheistic philosophical positions are in the end servants of the truth, that is, of theology. They are servants of theology insofar as what they take to be negative findings can be read, instead, as iconic revelations of creation ex nihilo, which is to say, the nothingness they strive to find. This is the case only because what is presented in nature declares the dependence of all on their very source. Like Darwinism – which came in the guise of a foe but did the work of a friend – the bid to capture nature has returned us to the font of subjectivity, to the sacramentality of each and every day. Therefore, such philosophies, despite their apparent hatred of religion, are indeed handmaidens to theology: Scientia est ancilla vitae” (p. 376). It shows that nature itself rationally requires that we accept creation as a sign of the glory of God, the Triune God who created everything through the eternal Word, the very Word of God who literally became flesh in Jesus Christ. All six chapters thus find their end in chapter seven, the theological discourse which is required if the truth of evolution, indeed of science itself, is to be retained.

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 - #52379

February 23rd 2011

Very Interesting.

Science is based on the Logos.  Amen.

David A. - #52387

February 23rd 2011

I gave up and set the book aside after the first four dense chapters of advanced, degree-level biology.  I think he should have written two books: one for biologists and one for theologians/philosophers of religion.

philodilemma - #52399

February 24th 2011

Science does not explain God no more than the Bible explains science.

Jon Garvey - #52413

February 24th 2011

@David A. - #52387

Arguably it’s the theologians and philosophers who need the science book and the biologists who need the philosophy. Otherwise each world goes on merrily oblivious to its limitations.

darknesswhistler - #52428

February 24th 2011

Good Point Jon,

I think this is a helpful place to begin to connect Sarah Coakley and Martin Nowak’s (director of the Program for Evolutionary Dynamics at Harvard University) work in which they argue for a model of “cooperation” between science and theology. Coakley’s language describes building a bridge between science and theology without merging them, in the search for truth. This sounds like a healthy perspective to place in conversation with Cunningham, since they seem to be offering similar analyses. It is curious to me that Cunningham does not, as far as I have found, reference Coakley and Nowak’s work, as it would be helpful for his perspective. This could be, however, due to the fact that the bulk of their work is forthcoming later this year in book form.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #52447

February 24th 2011

darknesswhisler wrote:

“It is curious to me that Cunningham does not, as far as I have found, reference Coakley and Nowak’s work, as it would be helpful for his perspective. This could be, however, due to the fact that the bulk of their work is forthcoming later this year in book form.”

I am sure that you have hit upon the cause, besides I expect that CC’s book, while being published recently, has been in the process a long time.

I hate to be negative, but from what I could determine, there was little cooperation between scientists and theologians during the “Cooperation Project” at Harvard paid for by the Templeton Foundation. 

Science seems to assume, based on Darwinism, that life is basically self centered, while the Bible indicates that selfishness is the distortion of life.  As long as science is not open to even the possibility of the Biblical view, we have a serious conflict.

penman - #52502

February 25th 2011

I’m not a trained scientist, although I’ve read enough to find the case for an old earth & common descent-with-modification pretty compelling. However, I am a trained theologian. I usually find - trying not to sound ineffably superior - that when scientists talk theology, they blunder around, & when theologians talk science, they also bumble about. There aren’t many who seem to synthesize the two spheres in a well-informed way, which is a crying need. But there are noble exceptions like Alister McGrath; his new book Darwinism & the Divine which I’m reading is (so far) an impressive synthesis.

That may still have sounded ineffably superior, despite my best efforts, so I’ll go & do a few hours penance in my hairshirt.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #52549

February 25th 2011


To me it sounded honest, not superior, and certainly not ineffably superior.

Thanks for the information.

Rich - #52719

February 27th 2011

Re paragraph 3:

1.  “Cunningham shows that Intelligent Design ... must appeal to a non-empirical cause for creation – and thus, like the Neo-Darwinianist, seeks to extract a metaphysical position from science.”

Not true.  The inference of design is not the extraction of a metaphysical position.  If I infer that an arrowhead was made by an intelligent agent, I am not extracting a metaphysical position from archeological science.  Inferring an intelligence behind the living cell is in principle no different—regardless of who the agent might be.  Regarding the agent, ID says:  *hypotheses non fingo*.  And that’s no dodge for constitutional purposes.  The identity of the agent is *irrelevant to the design inference*.  If Cunningham doesn’t understand this, he has no business writing about ID at all.

2.  “The resultant god of Intelligent Design more pagan than Christian, or as Cunningham writes, “more Homeric than Abrahamic” (p. 279).”

Homer was certainly not a theorist of intelligent design.  I weary of evangelical Christian writers who write ignorantly about Greek thought.  Cunningham should do his homework.  (But if we are going to make invidious comparisons, the god of TE is more Deist than Abrahamic.)

ssquinn - #60891

May 9th 2011

Ummm…CC didn’t even REMOTELY imply that Homer was “a theorist of intelligent design.” He clearly said that the RESULTANT GOD of intelligent design was more like a Homeric than Abrahamic one…....

Gregory - #52733

February 27th 2011

“The identity of the agent is *irrelevant to the design inference*.” - Rich

Yes, exactly. It is entirely *UNREFLEXIVE*. & that makes it one of the most pathetically weak causal ‘inferences’ ever imagined by someone who trained to be & currently calls themself a ‘scientist’! It is neo-neo-positivism with a pseudo-Comtean feel.

Or, it is apologetics-oriented natural theology, promoted by USAmerican ‘philosophers’ that is concerned “at least with the origins of life.” Is this why you don’t insist that ‘intelligent design’ *is science,* like the majority of ID leaders do, Rich?

“The identity of the agent is *irrelevant to the design inference*.”

Worth repeating to flip the phrase: “the ‘design inference’ is irrelevant to the identity of the agent”. Iow, it doesn’t *really* matter *who* is positing a ‘design(er) theory’ or not. (Enter Mike Gene to rebut.)

The so-called ‘anthropic principle’ in cosmology is the “zero ground of reflexivity.” What ID seeks to do is to shift this ‘ground zero’ into biology. IDists seek ‘objective poof.’

“the god of TE is more Deist than Abrahamic” - Rich

Well, we could wrestle with that here. Most TEs I know are monotheists, even monistic monotheists.

Rich - #52759

February 27th 2011


Why is it “unreflexive” to say “the identity of the agent is irrelevant to the design inference”?  You might start by giving a definition of “unreflexive”.

Neo-neo-positivism?  Pseudo-Comtean?  Why all the quasi-academic jargon?  What’s wrong with simple English?

But yes, you are correct, it doesn’t matter who is positing a design inference, or what his/her motives are.  The motivation behind an argument is entirely irrelevant to its validity.  (Logic 101.)  If Ken Ham (a YEC, I believe) and Michael Behe (a conventional Catholic), Michael Denton (perhaps no more than a Deist), and Dave Scot (an agnostic) all employ a similar line of argument, their very different religious motivations can be bracketed out for the purposes of assessing that line of argument.

You write:

“The so-called ‘anthropic principle’ in cosmology is the “zero ground of reflexivity.” What ID seeks to do is to shift this ‘ground zero’ into biology. IDists seek ‘objective poof.’ “

Do you really expect anyone to be able to understand this kind of murky, incoherent intellectual shorthand?  How about some *exposition* for a change?  Or don’t they do that in social sciences?

Would you care to define “monistic monotheist”?

penman - #52785

February 28th 2011

Rich - #52719
“...the god of TE is more Deist than Abrahamic.”

Well, Rich, since I’m what gets called a TE, despite my principled preference for EC, I think this verdict calls for some explanation. Deists, as I recollect, rejected both “miracles” & petitionary prayer. They also saw Christianity, stripped of its alleged accretions, as merely “the religion of nature” in more authoritative form - which involved rejecting any idea of God becoming flesh (that would put our relationship with God on a plane other than natural religion).

Since I don’t hold any of these positions, I’m not clear why my perception of God is more Deist than Abrahamic. I accept “miracles” - parting of the Red Sea, provision of manna, Elijah’s ascent into heaven, the virgin conception of Christ, etc; I embrace & practice petitionary prayer, & even get answers sometimes; & I don’t see Christianity as “natural religion” dressed up - God really did become flesh & enact redemption on the plane of history.

All of the above is, for me, comfortably allied to an acceptance of common descent over geological time, with natural selection playing an important part therein.

I await the exposure of my infamous Deism.

Rich - #52803

February 28th 2011


I do not accuse you personally of Deism.  I also recognize that most TEs are not technically Deists, in the 18th-century sense, in that most of them acknowledge at least a few New Testament miracles.  However, two points:

1.  I’ve raised before in this forum (and you may have been in on the discussion) the point that many leading TEs, when asked about Biblical miracles, become very squeamish, and try to change the topic rather quickly.  Some, like Denis Lamoureux, will affirm all the New Testament miracles unhesitatingly.  Others are extremely evasive about walking on water, the Red Sea, feeding the 5,000, etc.  This sense of embarrassment about miracles indicates Deistic leanings.

2.  One does not have to be personally a Deist to philosophically embrace Deist-like assumptions.  Most leading TEs assume that God does not “intervene” in nature except in the case of Biblical miracles, and that the creation of stars, planets, life, animals, and man all took place through entirely natural processes, without any *special* action of God.  This naturalistic assumption is Deistic in spirit, even if the TE does not recognize it.  Abraham would never have made such an assumption.  Nor did the Psalmist.

penman - #52809

February 28th 2011

Rich #52803

I think Deism here is really shorthand for “squeamishness about miracles”. There doesn’t seem any deep link to historic Deism, which was a bigger package. But that’s fine; it means I have to address something much more specific. (I still dislike sweeping references to “the God of TE”. Tthe God of some TEs” would be fairer.)

Your points:

1. There’s a lot of variety in the EC camp. I must stand at the “conservative” end, since I accept a historical Adam & a supernatural bestowal of God-consciousness & soul-survival-of-death on humans. If other ECs are at various points on the spectrum further away from those beliefs, I can’t answer for them. Quite a lot of ECs, in fact, seem to be classical “liberals” in their religion, which I’m not.

2. I take it as a good working assumption that God works through natural processes unless there’s evidence He didn’t. So I assume the cosmos developed by God-given natural processes. Unless one takes Genesis 1 as a science text, I see no biblical reason for abandoning that view. But I do have reasons for seeing supernatural action in giving man the imago dei.

Scientific arguments for non-natural phenomena (as in ID, I assume?) have to be assessed on their own merits.

Rich - #52812

February 28th 2011


Thanks for your reply.  I appreciate your give-and-take approach to conversation, which is different from the “plant your feet and don’t yield an inch” approach taken by many TE and neo-Darwinian commenters here.

First, let’s not let this get too far out of hand.  If you look at my original comment, it was a side-comment, and a bit of a rhetorical jab.  Someone (the columnist or Cunningham or both) had taken a shot at ID, linking it to paganism, which is polemical and grossly unfair, since both the columnist and Cunningham know that most ID proponents are conservative, churchgoing Christians, with no sympathies for pagan world views.  So I playfully responded in kind, equating TEs with Deists, in part to show the injustice of the outrageous claim against ID people.  Of course TE as such isn’t Deism as such, and I was being provocative.  But the target wasn’t you.

However, there is more in common between the view of *many* TEs and Deism than there is between any ID proponent and paganism.  I base my opinion on the reading of a number of books, articles, blog posts and e-mail debates of a large number of TE/EC people, including a number of the TE/EC leaders.  I will elaborate below.  (continued)

Rich - #52816

February 28th 2011

penman (continuing from 52812):

Before I get into the main issue, however, let me agree with you about a few things:

1.  Yes, there is variety within the TE/EC camp—a variety which most TE/EC people unfortunately prefer to downplay; I say “unfortunately” because if the variety were acknowledged it would be seen that some TE positions are close to some ID positions.  (In fact, TE George Murphy once called Behe a TE.)

2.  True, generalizations about “the TE God” can be unfair.  (Which is why I noted the orthodoxy of Lamoureux regarding miracles.)  But surely you see my point—that here on this site, people frequently make comments about “the ID God” that are equally unfair.  I’ve mentioned the “paganism” charge here; elsewhere I hear that ID has “a cockroach of a God”; and some columnists have condescendingly written that ID misunderstands “the Christian conception of God”—meaning the *columnist’s* conception of God; etc.  So if you’re going to object to generalizations, make sure you stick up for ID when they work to its disfavor.

3.  You say, “Quite a lot of ECs, in fact, seem to be classical “liberals” in their religion.”  Exactly.  That’s not unconnected with the point about Deism.  (cont.)

Rich - #52820

February 28th 2011

penman (continuing from 52816):

I’ve already agreed with you that what I’m calling the “Deism” of TEs isn’t the historical Deism.  But I think it’s a modern descendant of the naturalism that underlay the historical Deism.  Historical Deism opposed Biblical miracles; many TE/EC proponents reject most or all Old Testament miracles, and quite a few show skepticism about a number of New Testament miracles.  Historical Deism was naturalistic about everything *but* origins (it supposed that God created the frame of the universe and the basic creatures in it, and after that, let everything run by natural laws); TE/EC has a strong tendency to extend that naturalism back to include origins—including the origin of life and of man.  There is thus a definite thematic continuity.

Of course, there are exceptions.  I know a few TE/EC leaders who have muttered, under their breaths, that maybe God performed a special action in the creation of the first life, or in the creation of man, but almost as if apologizing, lest they seem to be endorsing “God of the gaps.”  At such times, the tension between uninhibited traditional faith and the programmatic naturalism of the more militant TE/EC people is clear.  (continued)

Rich - #52821

February 28th 2011

penman (continuing from 52820):

You write:  “I take it as a good working assumption that God works through natural processes unless there’s evidence He didn’t.”  I don’t see why this is a good working assumption.  For me, the safest working assumption is to make no working assumption.  God may or may not have worked through natural processes, and if the Bible gives no definite indication, then we should not privilege one possibility over the other.  It’s the privileging of one over the other that gives TE/EC its naturalistic bias that is reminiscent of Deism.

Let’s come back to “Abrahamic religion.”  When I use the phrase I don’t mean it as a short-hand for “Judeo-Christian tradition.”  I mean, the kind of religion that Abraham believed in, or, more broadly, that the patriarchs and Moses believed in.  There is zero evidence in the Bible that Abraham etc. believed that God created exclusively through natural processes; in fact, there is not even a word for “nature” in Biblical Hebrew.  The Israelite conception of creation was as a series of mighty personal actions by God.  That conception is out of tune with naturalistic explanation.  It’s dishonest to invoke the name of Abraham to endorse modern naturalism.

Rich - #52825

February 28th 2011

penman (concluding from 52821 above):

Of course, I am not saying that you are dishonest; it wasn’t you that made the statement about Abrahamic religion.  And presumably the person who made it intended no dishonesty, either, but just hadn’t thought about what “Abrahamic religion” in its original Biblical context meant.  But I think there’s an unconscious intellectual dishonesty in the minds of many Christians who speak of “Biblical this” or “Abrahamic that.”  There is a tendency to appeal to “Biblical” or “Abrahamic” religion against Greek philosophy, or against ID, etc., while unconsciously “updating” the supposed Biblical or Abrahamic insights so that they are compatible with higher criticism of the Bible, Darwinian evolution, etc.  Thus, the *authority* of Biblical or Hebraic thinking is appealed to for polemical purposes, while the *contents* of Biblical or Hebraic thinking are gutted and replaced by modernist assumptions.  I deeply dislike this tendency in TE/EC and in modern liberal Protestantism generally.

Finally, re your comment on ID.  ID neither affirms nor rejects miracles in origins questions.  It affirms only design, and keeps an open mind on how the design was insinuated into the realm of matter.

Gregory - #52830

February 28th 2011

If you really don’t know anything @ ‘reflexivity’ & care not to learn, Rich, you are beyond help. You pretty much know nothing @ ‘intelligent design’ as the IDM views it b/c for them the whole thing is ‘reflex’.

“The motivation behind an argument is entirely irrelevant to its validity.  (Logic 101.)”

In the 1960s perhaps, when you went to college. But not now. You are 30+ years out of date, Rich.

How do we know it is designed? Because it looks designed? Because ‘information’ only comes from mind, which we have? Mousetrap, Easter Island, Rushmore; these are images leading IDists use. Based on analogy to mind that recognizes something called ‘intelligence’. Do you not recognize reflexivity now?

When, where, how, who - designing - no possible (willful) answer to these questions for IDists. Yet they claim ID *is* Science & Rich defends them from misrepresentation, even after such a weak claim.

I’ve been following ID circus for almost a decade & wrote a masters thesis partly on the IDM. Rich defends the IDM-ID from misrepresentation, while promoting Rich-ID. But when I call out ID on obvious theory weaknesses, he never answers.

ID is a “pathetically weak causal theory.” Yes or no, Rich?

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