[asa] Conversation with Timaeus, part one

From: Ted Davis <TDavis@messiah.edu>
Date: Mon Sep 22 2008 - 15:35:54 EDT

In this very lengthy post, Timaeus identifies his or her own location on the conceptual landscape of ID and TE, expresses frustration about false stereotypes on both ends (with which I think many in the ASA will resonate), and then moves right into conversing with several people from the ASA list and others who have made specific points about ID vs TE.

I'm sure that many will want to respond to parts of Timaeus' thoughtful post. In doing so, please try to copy only the very specific part(s) you are responding to, rather than simply copying back to the list the entire missive. That can be wasteful of storage space, to say the least, and it can make it hard for others to figure out just which point(s) you are replying to! This will also help keep the conversation focused.

Timaeus' post follows, unedited, below.



Greetings to all ASA discussion list readers!

Call me Timaeus.

As Ted Davis has said, I have written posts on Uncommon Descent, and have written there as a supporter of ID, and as a critic (but I hope an open-minded one) of some versions of theistic evolutionism. Ted felt that some of my comments regarding the ID-TE debates had some constructive potential, and asked if I might be interested in entering a conversation with the people at the ASA. Since Ted had alerted members of your discussion list to his conversation with me on UD, and since many of you responded in August to some of my UD comments, it seemed to me that a good way of proceeding would be to continue with the UD conversation here. I do not think that the administrators at UD would object to this, because (1) I will still be defending the standard ID position with arguments to which they would not object; and (2) I was told that my comments at UD were too heavily focused on God and theistic evolution, and would be more appropriate to a discussion list such as this one. !
  In any case, I am acting on my own, not as an emissary of UD, and nothing I write should be taken as indicative of the opinions of any of the administrators at UD, and if I should embarrass myself here, UD is not to be blamed.

I want to make it clear from the outset that ID is not opposed to evolution as such. It is in fact, in pure form, neutral on the question whether species are created by the direct action of an intelligent maker, or through a process of evolution. The science of ID, insofar as it can be accepted as science, can establish only the fact of design, not the causal history by which design was instantiated in nature. Thus ID has no reason for being dogmatically opposed to evolution as the “historical” means by which design found its way into living things.

So what is ID opposed to? It is opposed only to the notion that the evolutionary process is unguided by any designing intelligence. In other words, it is opposed only to orthodox neo-Darwinism, as advocated by people like Dawkins and Coyne and Sagan and Gould. This means that ID’s battle is not against “theistic evolutionism”, where theistic evolutionism is properly defined (as belief in an evolutionary process planned and guided, or at least set up, by God), but only against “theistic Darwinism”, which appears to be the position of many EC/TEs. This means that, to the extent that ID could wean many TEs away from “theistic Darwinism”, while leaving them free to retain non-Darwinian forms of theistic evolution, a rapprochement between ID and TE is possible. It is in from within this hope for rapprochement that I am writing now.

I am among those ID supporters who, with Michael Behe and Michael Denton, suppose that evolution (meaning common descent of all species from one or a few simpler forms) is true, or probably true. Behe and Denton might well drop the qualifier “probably”. I am not quite as certain as they are, but I think that the fossil evidence and other things make it intrinsically probable, and I’m willing to treat common descent as an indisputable given, at least for the purposes of our discussions here. But even if we treat common descent as a given, there are still two huge and very troubling questions about Darwinian evolution, one scientific and one theological. The scientific question is: Is the neo-Darwinian mechanism any longer a plausible explanation for evolution, in the light of the discoveries, over the past 25 years, of staggering levels of complexity and integration in biological systems? And the theological question is: Is the neo-Darwinian mechanism compatible !
 with the ultimate presuppositions of various religious teachings, in particular Christian religious teachings? I think that the answer to both of these questions is “No”, and I will try to explain why. I will not be able to do this fully in this introductory post, but if this post proves constructive, perhaps I can do so in future posts.

OK, enough of this long-winded introduction. My purpose here is to try to bring TE proponents closer together to ID proponents, in particular those ID proponents who happen to be Christian. The huge gulf that has opened up between the two groups is unjustified when you consider that they both are supposed to share the same Bible, the same traditions of theological thought running from antiquity to the present, and the same personal faith. I’m not of course saying that it will be possible to get every TE proponent and every Christian ID supporter to agree on everything, but I think that if we renounce political sniping and rehashing the past history of offenses on both sides, we can eliminate at least the unnecessary causes of disagreement. And in my view, at least some of the disagreement comes from misunderstanding, on both sides, of what the other side holds. I discovered this more clearly when Ted directed me to the ASA discussion about my UD debate with Ted and Ja!
 ck Krebs; it was clear to me that each side is responding to positions that the other side doesn’t necessarily hold. So I’m going to try to clarify what, in my view, ID holds, meaning ID in general (which includes non-Christian points of view), but also ID as its Christian supporters understand it. Then I’m going to try to say what ID people think that TE holds, in such a way that you people can come back and correct me if I have TE wrong. And in the process, I hope some suggestions for possible middle ground will emerge.

I want to begin by picking up on comments that were made on this ASA list by several people, and use them to build up a more correct picture of ID.

It appears that some TEs think that ID makes the ASSUMPTION that design in nature is scientifically detectable. For example, Steve Martin wrote on Aug. 29th:

“No I don't think this is **THE** point of contention. I believe the point
of contention is that many ID proponents insist that design ***MUST*** be
scientifically detectable for theological reasons.”

This statement reveals two misconceptions. First, in its pure form, ID says not that design in nature MUST be detectable, but only that it MAY be detectable, and therefore that it is worthwhile to investigate nature with that possibility in mind. To be sure, Behe and Dembski and others have offered what they take to be pretty strong arguments that design has been formally confirmed in some places, but this is not an assumption for them, but only a conclusion. They of course recognize that their methods, arguments, and conclusions can be debated, and they have no objection to that. What they DO object to is any A PRIORI declaration -- based on either philosophical materialism or Christian theological preferences -- that design cannot possibly be detected in nature by empirical, mathematical and rational procedures.

Second, even those Christian ID theorists who believe that design in nature is scientifically detectable do not insist that design in nature “must” be detectable “for theological reasons”. The whole point of ID, even for ID supporters who are also Christian, is to separate the intellectual procedures of design detection from theological discussion, so that they establish only the fact of design, and leave all discussions of the nature of the designer to exobiology (if the designer is an alien) or to theology (if the designer is God). There is nothing in ID as such that is theological, and while ID proponents certainly have private theological views, the personal theological differences are so wide that these differences would neutralize any attempt to say that Christianity requires design to be detectable. For example, Michael Behe, being a Catholic, is heir to a tradition which has, on the whole, been open to natural theology, and whose leading proponents have of!
 ten argued that nature teaches us at least a limited amount about God, i.e., that he is a highly intelligent designer. It’s possible, therefore, that Behe might have a prior inclination, based on his Catholic understanding, to think that design should be detectable. But George Hunter, who is more Calvinistic in orientation, is (if I understand him correctly) not at all inclined to say that Christianity requires that design MUST be detectable by means of science. Given Calvinism’s uncompromising stand on the freedom of God, no Calvinist would say that God MUST have created nature in such a way that design could be detected by science. Rather, George argues (I think) for the detectability of design on purely empirical grounds. That is, he does not speculate about what kind of world God should have created, but investigates the world that God did in fact create. He believes that design is detectable on empirical grounds, not on the basis of any a priori theology that!
  favours design detection.

Randy Isaac, on Aug. 29, turning the tables on one of my UD questions, wrote:

“Is it a necessary corollary of the orthodox Christian doctrine of creation that God's action of design in nature must be detectable in some way through unique patterns in nature (beyond the very existence of nature, its fine-tuned characteristics, and the comprehensibility of nature)?”

I answer: no, it’s not. Even those ID thinkers who are Christian (and always remember, many are Jews, agnostics, Hindus, etc.) do not say that God’s design MUST be detectable by scientific means. And by the way, I add, they don’t think that TE/EC people are un-Christian or unorthodox merely for doubting that design is scientifically detectable. Rather, they think that certain TE/EC people, the ones who seem to deny in principle that design could be scientifically detectable, and seem to do so on theological grounds, are being theologically dogmatic or theologically narrow or theologically presumptuous, to rule out a possibility which many Christian thinkers throughout the ages have taken seriously. It’s one thing for a TE to say, humbly: “On my reading of the Bible and Christian theology, I see no reason to believe that God made his design detectable by scientific means”; it’s another thing for a TE to say, or imply, that the contrary view (that design is !
 detectable) is bad theology, or heretical theology, or “Deism” rather than true Christianity, etc. But I’ll come back to ID complaints about TE later.

Allan Harvey, on Aug. 29th, writes:

“I don't mind if ID people say "this is *possible* and we are looking for evidence" or even if they claim to have found such evidence (although I mind when the claimed evidence is flimsy as is the usual case).”

Allan, this is exactly what ID people do say, when they are being careful. If some overzealous ID proponents say more, they are going beyond what ID proper can say.

Allan goes on to say:

“What I DO mind very much is the attitude that seems to dominate the ID
movement (there are probably exceptions) which makes such scientific
detection of God a theological *necessity* on which the truth of theism depends.”

Allan, I know of no major ID theorist who has said that “scientific detection of God is a theological necessity”. ID theorists have said that design may be scientifically detectable. And they have said that if there is a design, there must be an intelligent designer. But they have said that science is utterly powerless to say whether the designer is a God or Demiurge or a Life Force or an alien from Antares. And if the designer is God, science is powerless to say whether God is the Christian God, or the Allah of Islam, or the Siva or Vishnu of Hinduism, or some other God. The answer to such questions can’t be settled by science. ID proponents have said this over and over again, in their books, on the DI web site, everywhere; yet both Dawkins-Darwinists and TE-Darwinists seem to be hard of hearing on this point. It as if they don’t actually read what ID proponents write, but base their opinion of ID on rumour and hearsay. Is it unreasonable of me to ask, on be!
 half of ID, that TE people READ intelligent design literature, and read it carefully, before they react to ID?

Further, ID proponents have never said that “the truth of theism” depends on being able to detect God through science. For those ID proponents who are theists, the study of nature through science is often thought of as ONE way of coming to know of God’s existence - through what many Christians traditionally called one of God’s two “books”, i.e., through “the book of nature”. But suppose that all arguments from nature failed, suppose that design detection proves impossible; does it follow that all ID proponents who are now theists would cease to believe in God? That does not follow. In addition to “the book of nature”, there is also “the book of God’s word”, the Bible, which provides knowledge of God through revelation. If design proved to be indemonstrable from nature, then ID as a scientific theory would indeed be dead, but nothing would prevent ID-Christians from remaining Christian (sans ID); they could fall back exclusively on revelation as!
  evidence for God’s existence. In addition, of course, there are other traditional arguments for God - the existence of conscience and moral law, for example, which don’t depend on revelation. It is not as if Christians are without reasons for believing in God, just because God can’t be “proved” by the teleological kinds of argument that ID proponents like to investigate.

Allan here misconceives the role of teleological argument for ID proponents. For ID proponents, the teleological argument for a designer is not the source of religious faith. Rather, it is facilitating; it doesn’t prove the existence of the Biblical God, or even of a Deistic God; rather, it shows (or tries to show) that the facts of nature (irreducible complexity etc.) are just as well explained, if not better explained, by the hypothesis of an intelligent designer/creator than by the hypothesis of chance and natural selection. What this means is that “science” as such does not (as the Darwinists claim) settle the debate between design and chance; rather, science (where science is understood as allowing for the inference of design, based not on religious belief but on empirical evidence) levels the playing field (which neo-Darwinism and modern materialism had previously tipped in favour of chance and necessity). Neo-Darwinism is thus reduced to a speculative attemp!
 t to provide a mechanism for evolution, and need no longer be regarded as THE only possible scientific explanation for evolution. It has to share the stage with theories involving design (where the design may be instantiated in nature via an evolutionary process). Just as Darwinism made atheism intellectually respectable, so ID makes theism intellectually respectable, by showing that theism (understood very broadly as the assertion of a designer/maker of the world) is a rationally and empirically sound inference from the facts of nature. No Christian need be embarrassed by holding to theism, as if theism is for the scientifically or logically benighted. If anything, theism appears to be more in tune with the realities of nature than Dawkinsian atheism does. But ID does not claim to have “proved” theism; nor does it regard “proving” theism as necessary for religious faith.

I’ve so far discussed how TE people misunderstand ID. Now I want to reverse the perspective, and look at why ID people think of the TE position the way that they do. Many ID people, when they think of TE, don’t think first of extremely well-balanced and broadly educated people like Ted Davis. They think of scientist-writers like Ken Miller, or Francis Collins, or Francisco Ayala. All of these writers have, at various times, attacked ID not just on scientific grounds, but on explicitly theological grounds. I summarized some of these arguments on UD, when I responded to Jack Krebs as follows:

“Your position here sounds reasonable, and in fact sounds very much like the ID position - i.e., let’s settle this on the basis of the science - but I’m sorry to say that many TE writers have said things that sound very different from this. At various points, Ken Miller, Francis Collins, Francisco Ayala and others have strongly suggested that ID should be rejected by Christians for theological reasons. They have argued that the ID God is too much like a mechanic or tinkerer, which is not a worthy conception of God, that the ID God makes God directly responsible for evil in the world, which is theologically unacceptable, that the ID God makes God’s action detectable, which makes Christianity depend on reason rather than faith, and that the ID God is vulnerable to “God of the gaps” falsification, which could put Christianity at risk if the gaps are ever filled.

“The theological concerns animating all of these arguments are quite plain. If you have been reading TE authors carefully, you cannot be unaware of the frequency of these sorts of arguments.”


(post #259)

So, from the ID point of view, it is the TE people who always want to drag theology into the discussion of design theory and design detectability. The ID people want to talk about irreducible and specified complexity, about intertwined systems which cannot be changed piecemeal but only in wholesale transformations (which seems to bar Darwinian gradualism as the mechanism of evolution), about the apparently much greater role of necessity than of chance in the biological realm, about the lack of demonstration of hypothetical evolutionary pathways, etc. The TE people do not seem (from the ID perspective, anyway) to want to talk about these things. They seem to prefer to talk about the kind of God that Christianity requires, and the kind of world that that kind of God would have created, and how that world can be made to match the world as described by Darwinism.

In the aforementioned reply to Jack Krebs (#259), I went on to say:

“Further, none of these arguments, even if theologically valid, addresses the scientific arguments involved in particular inferences put forth by ID theorists. Logically speaking, these arguments commit the same error as the argument that Darwinism must be false as biology because it has led to bad ethical and political consequences. If Darwinism is correct biology, ethical and political theory will just have to deal with the fallout, however unpleasant, and if design in nature is detectable, then Christian theology will just have to live with the consequences, however unpalatable those consequences may be for certain Christian theologians.”

By this I had in mind examples like this: Behe implies that noxious creatures like malaria were designed. That makes the designer responsible for all the evil that malaria brings into the world. Both Ayala and Miller have indicated that they don’t like ID because it makes God directly responsible for evil, whereas Darwinism makes nature, not God, directly responsible for evil. Now we could argue about whether this argument of Miller’s and Ayala’s is a very good theological argument. (I think it’s shallow and easily refuted by any good philosophy undergrad, but that’s beside the point.) But the point is not whether Miller and Ayala are good or bad theologians. (They are in fact untrained incompetents in theology, but that’s beside the point, too). The point is that they refer to theology at all. What SCIENTIFIC difference does it make to validity of the argument that “Malaria is designed” even if it DOES make God directly responsible for evil? IF des!
 ign CAN be detected in some cases (as Behe believes it can), and IF it follows from specific evidence that malaria is designed, should we hide our heads in the sand from that result of science, in order to “save” a certain form of Christian theology? Is that a model for how science ought to proceed - to make sure that no conclusion is ever allowed to be regarded as scientific, if it poses problems for Christian theology? Is science, then, to be reduced to the handmaid of Christian theology?

From the ID point of view, it often seems as if theistic evolutionists are far more concerned about theological questions than they are about scientific ones. ID people want to reverse that priority; they want to put the focus on science, and they want to do it by re-opening the argument about neo-Darwinism.

Some TEs might say that neo-Darwinism is so certain that the argument is not worth re-opening. But we ID people think otherwise. And it’s not just official ID people who agree. There are plenty of brilliant people who don’t belong to the Discovery Institute but have argued strongly for design in nature, or at least for re-opening the case for design in nature, based on the scientific evidence: philosopher Antony Flew; biologist, biochemist and medical scientist Michael Denton; self-organization theorist Stuart Kaufmann; holder of two Biology Ph.D.s Richard von Sternberg; philosopher Thomas Nagel; and philosopher-mathematician David Berlinski. But despite these people, and despite the (in our view) impressive arguments of Michael Behe, William Dembski, Stephen Meyer, Granville Sewell and many others, we sense very little interest on the TE side in re-opening the scientific discussion about neo-Darwinism.

TEs appear to regard the mechanism of chance mutations plus natural selection as such a slam-dunk that there’s no point in questioning it. They think that it can explain every feature of every species of living thing on the planet. And ID people wonder: haven’t TE people read Michael Denton’s two absolutely devastating books against neo-Darwinism? Haven’t they read David Berlinski, and seen him trounce about twenty of the world’s leading Darwinists, single-handedly, in the pages of Commentary? Haven’t they read Behe’s discussion of the ciliar construction system in The Edge of Evolution, and wondered how on earth such a co-ordinated system could ever have evolved, in a billion or a trillion years, by tiny random changes? And haven’t they wondered why no Darwinian has answered Behe’s discussion in that chapter? Haven’t they taken note of the very long list of absolutely crucial things that Darwinian mechanisms HAVEN’T accounted for, set forth at l!
 ength in Dembski and Wells’s Design of Life? And finally, even on the Darwinian side, haven’t they taken account of the fact, raised by Stephen Jay Gould himself, that the fossil record is problematic for orthodox Darwinian gradualism? We wonder how all of these arguments don’t seem to raise even a shadow of a doubt about the all-sufficiency of the Darwinian mechanism among TEs. And we wonder what we would have to do to raise such doubts. Is it a waste of our time to try?

If only we could hear, every now and then, from a TE, something like this -- “You’ve got a point there! Come to think of it, I never HAVE heard a very clear Darwinian explanation of the origin of the cardiovascular system, or how gills vanished and lungs took over just exactly as fins were turning into feet; I always just assumed that these details had been fully or largely explained in some journal article somewhere, and have taken them on faith. Maybe I should be doing some library research to see if such explanations in fact exist.” If we could just hear the odd statement like that coming from the TE camp, indicating a little bit of healthy scientific skepticism about extravagant claims for the explanatory record of neo-Darwinism, that would go a long way towards convincing us that TEs, like ID people, are critical as opposed to passive recipients of majority scientific views.

Finally, we ID people are not sure whether TE people are sufficiently alert to the dangers of simply adjusting Christian theology to accommodate the current majority scientific view. Current scientific views change. In cosmology, for example, over the past 40 years, views about “dark matter”, “dark energy”, the speed of expansion of the universe, etc., have changed almost annually, as new data and new interpretations emerge. Would one want to tie one’s Christian theology to the details of a body of theory as mercurial as that? In our view, recent discoveries and interpretations regarding biological evolution have put Darwinian theory in a similar volatile situation. So we say: there is simply no point in adjusting Christian theology to accommodate Darwinism if Darwinism, in the final analysis, is a much weaker and more questionable theory than everyone supposes. No one today would dream of trying to ensure that Christian theology doesn’t fall afoul of the !
 science” expressed in the medieval physiological theory of “the four humours”; yet it’s possible that 100 years from now, Christian theologians may take exactly the same attitude towards a quaint view that used to run something like “evolution is caused by random mutation plus natural selection”. ID theorists believe that the Darwinian mechanism is already, in the light of recent advances in biochemistry, information theory, complexity theory, etc., starting to look quaint - not medieval-quaint, like the theory of the humours, but 19th-century, Victorian mechanistic-materialist quaint. And we challenge TE thinkers to seriously examine this possibility, before they do any more theological harmonizing of Christianity with Darwinism.

I think this should be sufficient for an introductory posting. :-) I hope it advances the discussion between ID and TE people in a constructive way.


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Received on Mon, 22 Sep 2008 15:35:54 -0400

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