Re: "Design up to Scratch?"

From: Keith Miller (
Date: Tue May 13 2003 - 23:13:19 EDT

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    > Josh: Yet at the same time, Van Till has written explicitly that we
    > should wait patiently for science to uncover the unknown physical laws
    > that will enable us to understand more completely how evolutionary
    > processes created biological systems without God's constant
    > "tinkering" (i.e. non-embodied form-conferring interventive action.)
    > Here we have a double-speak, on one hand our efforts to view (excuse
    > the sloppy label) Theistic Evolution as a true and reliable theory
    > partly involve future discovery of relevant physical laws/ processes
    > that science will uncover. On the other hand, we can dismiss
    > arguments about the ability of natural systems operating alone as
    > inept for creating biological complexity because we cannot perform
    > calculations and we don't know all the relevant factors involved, nor
    > might we be able to. Thus we are perfectly fit snuggly into our
    > ignorance. Our ignorance thus equally protects our inability to
    > rigourously explain the ability of laws to produce biological systems
    > while simultaneously preventing anyone from trying to argue that they
    > are insufficient. Beautifully convenient, the ignorance trump card
    > has become. In the end, no matter how much we understand of the
    > universe, there will be an unknown and perhaps infinite degree of
    > ignorance that we can appeal to for support of our particular theory,
    > even more wonderfully convenient!!

    Firstly, your statement "... Theistic Evolution as a true and reliable
    theory..." makes the error of turning a theological position into a
    scientific theory. I personally do not like the label "theistic
    evolution" because of the great deal of conceptual baggage that is
    usually attached to it. I identify myself with was has been referred
    to as "continuous creation" by J¸rgen Moltman (God in Creation). This
    is a theological position that I feel is strongly supported by the
    whole of scripture.

    My theological position cannot be falsified by scientific evidence
    becasue it is not a scientific theory. It is a theological perspective
    that must be critiqued theologically. Since I am not a theologian, I
    certainly make no claims as to the ultimate truth of my current views.
    All I can do is give attention to those with the appropriate training
    and try to be faithful to scripture and open to the Spirit's guidance.

      From a scientific perspective, I am not interested in trying to get
    science to say more than it can. As I have stated, I simply do not see
    any way that any meaningful probability calculations can be made for
    the origin of particular complex biological systems. Current and
    future genetic and biochemical research may provide insights into which
    evolutionary pathways may or may not have figured in the origin of such
    systems. A negative scientific result is simply that -- an indication
    that pursuing a particular hypothesized process may not be fruitful.
    You cannot support a theory with negative evidence.

    I am a geologist and paleontologist, and the growing fossil evidence
    for macroevolutionary change has been astounding. The last couple
    decades have been exciting as one major discovery after another has
    opened whole new windows into the pathways of major evolutionary

    > All of us would love to have a clear and perfect understanding of the
    > processes involved during the origin of the universe and biological
    > systems. One may simply sit back and wait until science advances and
    > discovers all the relevant laws which God only sustains. Or one may
    > decide to apply probablistic cutoffs for the ability of different
    > factors to accomplish different goals, and ARTICULATE needed
    > laws/factors to achieve the goal of biological complexity. Consider
    > the following: when applying a filter to biological complexity
    > correctly (yes currently there is no rigourous way to do this, but I
    > wouldn't bet on it not being done ever) we discover that RM&NS are
    > quite unable to create biological complexity. However, when we add
    > co-option of function to the equation, our problems become solved, or
    > much improved. Here we outline inadequacies of originally known
    > processes and proceed to focus our attention on discovery of novel
    > processes that will supply the needed creative capacity for our
    > suspected "Gap". If we simply accept that RM&NS are quite adequate to
    > perform all creative functions in biology (as Dawkins would in The
    > Blind Watchmaker), we aren't going to be looking very hard for novel
    > principles in nature.

    Who is sitting back? It is the very unresolved questions that drive
    current research. It is the search for new processes and natural
    capacities that is driven by the expectation that natural
    cause-and-effect explanations do in fact exist. It seems to me rather
    that calling upon a supernatural intervention in the absence of a
    current plausible cause-and-effect description will have the effect of
    stifling just the type of research that might uncover "novel principles
    in nature."

    I have never stated that random mutation and natural selection are
    completely adequate to perform "all creative functions in biology."
    Furthermore, I know of very few biologists and paleontologists who do.
    These are certainly important evolutionary processes, and maybe even
    the dominant ones, but we already know that there are many other
    components to evolutionary change.

    > Josh: In this scenario, there are infinitely concievable pathways to
    > obtain the universe, and we should never try to unravel them. In the
    > end, we should simply settle for the hand-waving arguments about
    > organism X trying to fly and getting a little better generation by
    > generation until fully developed feather-covered wings are derived by
    > natural processes. I should like to try and obtain more detail than
    > hand-waiving explanations. Despite your obfuscation of the situation,
    > I do not believe that understanding it is that untenable, nor that
    > sorting through or finding methods to sort through possibilities and
    > scenarios for originating biological complexity is a useless exercise.

    Of course we should try to unravel the historical pathways of our
    evolving cosmos, Earth and biosphere. That is the central drive of
    scientific endeavor. As I have stated before, it is my perception that
    many ID advocates are in effect stating that current research to
    discover these pathways is a waste of resources and time.

    Please state where I have given "hand-waving explanations." My post
    was making only two major points. One was a plea to begin with a
    well-considered creation theology as we look to the discoveries of
    science. My second point was that attempting to support an argument
    from design based on probability calculations is both theologically
    unwise and scientifically unsupportable.

    Why do you mention the origin of feathers and flight above? Since you
    have, I will simply refer you to the extraordinary new fossil
    discoveries that have shed great light on this evolutionary transition.
       We now have fossils of several different maniraptoran dinosaurs that
    have integumentary covering of various types. These range from simple
    hair-like structures, to tuffts of such structures, to central shafts
    with barbs, to true symmetrical non-flight feathers, to asymmetrical
    flight feathers. And all these on non-avian dinosaurs. Just this year
    has seen the description of a spectacular tiny dromaeosuarid dinosaur
    with flight feather on both its fore and hind wings. This fossil
    provides insight into the long-standing debate over whether flight
    developed from the "ground up" or the "trees down." Such discoveries
    are most exciting and provide solid data for constructing, revising and
    overturning hypotheses about the historical pathway of evolutionary

    > Keith: "Finally, from a creation theology perspective, I believe that
    > all events are sustained and upheld by God's providence. Many
    > individuals have suggested that God may act in nature in such a way as
    > to actualize specific courses of events in nature without intervening
    > in the continuity of cause-and-effect. This theological perspective
    > makes it impossible to distinguish divine "intervention" from God's
    > providential action by the use of probability."
    > Josh: Yes but do you have a direct cause and effect scenario from the
    > formation of the earths' planet, through abiogenesis, to current
    > biological complexity (for example lightning bolt at 0.5billion
    > hundred hours after earth planet formation produced x temperature rise
    > in soup pond y yielding 5 fold increase in alanine which caused the
    > assembly of the first replicator)? Since there is none, we must
    > either supplement our current laws and creaturely capacities to derive
    > deeper reliability of our models or begin to hypothesize that God had
    > something more direct to do with it other than the "autonomous
    > operation" of "divinely sustained" natural law. Additionally, even if
    > God did act through cause-effect scenarios, the likeliehood of event X
    > causing effect Y may be infinitely improbable without God having some
    > part of the outcome selection process. Within reason, we may be able
    > to make educated guesses about what natural processes may be
    > insufficient to produce certain aspects of biological systems, and
    > those that are sufficient. Insufficiency should interest us all as an
    > outline of where science should proceed.

    You respond to a purely theological argument with a scientific
    challenge. My statement above is independent of any scientific theory
    or scenario.

    You speak above as though origin of life research has reached a point
    of stagnation and unfruitfulness. This could not be further from the
    truth. All manner of very interesting and fruitful research is being
    conducted on the terrestrial and space synthesis of organic compounds,
    on the environmental and geochemical conditions of the early Earth, on
    the functionality of RNA and proteins, etc. You here seem to do the
    very thing that concerns me about ID. You seem to be dismissing a
    whole active area of scientific research because you already know that
    no cause-and effect expanation will already be found. Your above
    argument sounds to me like an argument from ignorance.

    Your comment "Insufficiency should interest us all as an outline of
    where science should proceed." But this is precisely what happens in
    the course of scientific research. Do you really think that
    scientists are not actively searching for new evolutionary processes
    and pathways?

    > Keith: "But natural processes never "operate alone." That is one of
    > the misconceptions generated by the ID argumentation because it
    > implictly assumes that something like independent natural law or
    > process exists. From a Christian perspective, everything exists and
    > is held in being by God. I don't want ID concluding that this event
    > or process was a result of "natural processes alone" because their
    > probability calculations have showed that it falls below their
    > probability cut off. By doing this they immediate place 99% of all
    > creaturely action into the category of autonomous processes
    > independent of God. But the Bible is clear that it is the everyday
    > stuff of our experience that is under God's continuous and
    > providential care. God brings the rain and storm, causes the sun to
    > rise and the wind to blow. It is God that feeds the lion cubs in
    > their den and knit me together in my mother's womb. The argument of
    > ID proponents have the effect of rendering all this mere impersonal
    > nature devoid of God's presence and action."
    > Josh: But the idea I get from the theistic evolutionists is not that
    > God plays the natural laws like some finely tuned instrument, but that
    > he upholds the action of those laws such that they may accomplish the
    > function that they serve in creating biological complexity. There is
    > a difference there.

    But a theological one, not a scientific one -- and a very nuanced
    theological distinction that would require a lot of unpacking.

    > Also, you argue a strawman, since Dembski himself sees Christ at the
    > center of the universe, upholding it etc. If ID shows the utility of
    > the action natural laws to produce biological complexity, it will not
    > mean that they have also proven that God does not sustain nor act
    > through around above over under those same natural laws. It will only
    > mean that we cannot use the formulated approach they have generated to
    > formulate such arguments about God acting providentially in nature,
    > and must rest on our faith in revelation and biblical truth to discern
    > such matters. If opponents of ID use the defeat of ID arguments for
    > such a purpose, they will clearly be in err. This will not be the
    > fault of ID for attempting to articulate aspects of biological
    > complexity that bear the marks of design.

    But, the depth of aversion with which many ID advocates hold Christians
    like myself belies a deeper issue. If a complete cause-and-effect
    description of the origin and history of life were not a threat to many
    ID advocates then why should I be considered as "worse than an atheist"
    by Johnson? Clearly a God who always acts in and through the
    capabilities of His creatures is not acceptable to many in the ID

    Furthermore, the insistence that God must at least at some point in
    life history intervene in such a way as to break the continuity of
    cause-and-effect simply reinforces the arguments of individuals like
    Dawkins. Yes, ID will be at fault in reinforcing a God of the gaps
    theology that then falls when the gaps are filled. As many on this
    list have pointed out, people like Dawkins and Provine in many ways
    agree with the theological arguments of ID advocates like Phil Johnson.
       If God is not empirically detectable in nature in some way amenable
    to scientific study then He is not a god worth believing in.

    > You are almost saying that design is a non-issue, and thus we should
    > not even attempt to detect it, because all events, things and
    > properties are the product of providential action. But this first
    > requires the recognition of God's action in nature to appreciate it.
    > And as above, I think that a theological system does not need to
    > completely ignore the complexity/beauty/reality of the natural world
    > to be useful or effective as an evangelical strategy. In the end, you
    > would thus be arguing that for ALL events, once the proper
    > calculations were understood and applied, they would all fail the UPB
    > (be it that it would only fail for the sustaining action on natural
    > laws, or the correct harmonious "playing" of these laws by the "masks
    > of God".)

    Yes, I believe that supernatural design is NOT a scientific question
    but a theological one. And yes, I believe that "this first requires
    the recognition of God's action in nature to appreciate it." Several
    on this list have long argued that this is precisely what scripture
    indicates. We can only know the Creator by God's gracious revelation.


    Keith B. Miller
    Research Assistant Professor
    Dept of Geology, Kansas State University
    Manhattan, KS 66506-3201

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