On May 6, Stephen Meyer appeared on our podcast, Language of God, to talk about his new book, Return of the God Hypothesis. We had a civil conversation, and I appreciated his tone throughout. While Meyer has never hidden his commitment to Christianity, this new book is the first time he has used his intelligent design arguments for theism. Because of this and his critique of the New Atheists, we have considerable common ground. But much of his argument for God continues to rely on current scientific theories being incorrect, and in that respect, we at BioLogos do not find the intelligent design perspective helpful.
The podcast episode was not a debate, and I did not stop Meyer whenever he said something I disagreed with or made a claim that is contrary to current scientific understanding. But in an attempt to set the record straight, we’ve pulled out a few excerpts from the episode and pointed to links where we’ve discussed these topics before.
Different Meanings of Evolution
It is true that words are not always used the same way by different people in different contexts, and it is helpful to distinguish the scientific aspects of these meanings. And it is true that groups sometimes attempt to influence people to mean something more specific by a term or phrase than those words have in more common usage. BioLogos has done this with “evolutionary creation” preferring it to the more widely used “theistic evolution.” But within the context of origins discussions and what biologists mean by “evolution,” it isn’t quite fair to give the impression that intelligent design is OK with evolution because they accept change over time (as they have recently claimed). In the interview, Meyer is open about his rejection of the standard biological definitions of evolution as universal common descent and evolutionary mechanisms (see our Common Question, What is evolution?).
Science and Methodological Naturalism
This is an issue that comes up several times throughout the conversation. Methodological naturalism is what philosophers call the heuristic principle that science should appeal only to natural entities and causes. Christians can coherently hold to this methodological principle while at the same time accepting that there are entities and causes outside of the purely natural (for example, God performing miracles), by saying that those supernatural events are not part of science. This can get pretty complicated pretty quickly as subtle philosophical distinctions are made. And BioLogos does not have an organizational stance on methodological naturalism (President Deb Haarsma discusses this in an exchange we had with Steve Meyer about his previous book).
I myself think some people have too strongly advocated for methodological naturalism as the only way science has ever been done. That shows some ignorance about the history of science, which changes over time in terms of what are legitimate objects of scientific inquiry (for example, astrology used to be accepted as a properly scientific area of study while the mind was not; that situation is reversed today). I tried to compare science and its governing bodies to soccer a few years ago when a controversy had broken out about an article being retracted from a scientific journal because it used the word “design.” I think it applies to what Meyer said here too.
When this book came out in 2014, we did a series reviewing the book and responding to the major arguments, acknowledging the scientific questions, but not at all accepting that science was at a dead end here. Research has suggested there are more scientific explanations for the proliferation of body forms during this time period. The main points can be found in our Common Question, Does the Cambrian Explosion pose a challenge to evolution?
This is pretty technical stuff, and we have not published articles on our main website discussing it. But on our discussion board, The BioLogos Forum, there was a substantial thread by professional biologists discussing the ID claims that orphan genes are a problem for evolution.
Developmental Gene Regulatory Networks
Meyer is correct that in 2014 our colleague Darrel Falk agreed that the development of new body plans was a puzzle. But he said it was a puzzle under active investigation, and “unlike Stephen, not only do I think this research is not at a dead-end, I think it will turn out to be among the most exciting frontiers in biological research over the next couple of decades.” Now just seven years later, Falk has written about Meyer’s new book, Return of the God Hypothesis: A Biologist’s Reflections, and cited very recent examples from the literature of how scientists are beginning to solve this puzzle.
Photosynthesis and Secondary Causes
I had proposed photosynthesis as a scientific process we understand very well now, but didn’t previously, and suggested that it may be parallel to ID arguments now about processes we don’t fully understand. Our article, Where is God in Nature? does not specifically address the origin of photosynthesis, but its claim “God is within every part of photosynthesis” applies to its origin as well. And the question I’d want to continue to put to Meyer is whether it is legitimate to ascribe actions to God for something for which there are scientific explanations. I gave the example of the volcano adding landmass to Iceland. I asked whether the scientific explanation competes with (that is, only one can be correct) the theological commitment that God is the creator of Iceland.
Here it is not clear whether the secondary causes he appeals to are competing with the intelligent cause. And not everyone at BioLogos would describe this situation the same way. I myself think it is best to understand the natural causes and the intelligent/supernatural causes as operating at the same time, but at different levels of explanation. I gave a short defense of this in an article responding to a previous book Meyer edited, Does God Guide Evolution?