[asa] Rejoinder 11A from Timaeus – to Ted Davis on Divine Action, Plus an Afterword

From: Ted Davis <TDavis@messiah.edu>
Date: Mon Dec 01 2008 - 12:44:55 EST

Timaeus replies here to my comments on TE and divine action. I do not know whether or not I will respond further to these comments, having made my views on this quite clear already. Those who are not interested in this thread may still want to those read the Afterword, at the end, where T gives his reaction to the experience of exchanging with us here, and discusses the possibilities posed by the new regime at UcD.

Once again, I think T for the time, energy, and commitment necessary to do all this. I am also grateful to participants on this list for engaging T's ideas so faithfully. The differences of opinion might not be resolved, but it never hurts to air them respectfully.


What follows below is from Timaeus.


I thank Ted Davis for his careful and balanced reply to my post on divine action.

Regarding the term “intervention”: I understand why Russell wouldn’t want to speak of “intervention” if he thought his readers would understand the term to mean that God isn’t working most of the time. And maybe Russell’s “target audience” contains people like that, and if so, of course he has the right to make whatever vocabulary adjustments he needs to reach such an audience. But regarding our discussion here, I thought that Ted Davis, Rev. Murphy and I had all agreed that God can be understood as acting all the time through his “ordinary” action, which is expressed through what we call “the laws of nature”. That is, I agree (and I think that many ID people would agree) with TEs who say that God is present in the operation of gravity, magnetism, chemical bonding, embryonic development, etc., even when he is not doing anything “special”, because he is somehow sustaining all of these natural capacities and processes. So when I speak of “i!
 ntervention”, I don’t mean that nature gets by entirely without God 99% of the time, with God throwing a monkey wrench into the works every now and then by performing a miracle. By “intervention”, I’m speaking of what Russell is calling a special action of God, as opposed to an action of God’s “general providence”.

Russell’s “special divine action” seems to fill the explanatory space normally filled by “miracles” in more conventional accounts, e.g., it explains why certain things, which could not be predicted by laws, in fact happen. It says that they happen because God, in addition to willing the smooth operation of nature generally, wills certain particular things that are not necessarily entailed by the smooth operation of nature. Thus, God wills this rather than that, X rather than Y, at a fork in the causal road where things could just as easily (probabilistically speaking) have gone a different way. Now I would call this “intervention”, in the literal Latin sense: God “comes between” a prior state of nature and a later state of nature, at a particular moment, and directs the prior state so that it becomes a different later state than it otherwise would have been. To me, that’s intervention, even if it’s not conceived of as a rupture of natural laws, but!
  only as working within the freedom that they allow. I call it intervention because, as Russell himself admits, it makes a real difference to the outcome.

I believe that such special divine action is a possibility that Darwin wouldn’t have accepted. Even if we take his religious belief at a maximum, and suppose him to be a deist rather than an agnostic or atheist, he clearly conceived of the laws of nature as self-contained, capable of running the ship by themselves once established at the beginning. Granted, Darwin knew nothing of quantum theory, so we cannot say what he would have thought of Russell’s account. But based on his statements about nature, which is all that we have to go on, Darwin would have said that adding in a ‘special’ action of God, on top of his ‘ordinary’ action in sustaining the course of nature, is cheating. It violates naturalism, in spirit. And I think that what was true for Darwin would be true for Dawkins, Coyne, etc. True, Russell can argue that “methodological naturalism” is preserved, because the difference between nature without God’s special action, and nature with it, c!
 annot be detected by the methods of science. But nonetheless, the very notion of a directive special action (and Russell admits it is indeed directive) violates Darwin’s understanding of naturalism, which was not merely methodological but ontological. It asserts a different vision of nature. If special divine action is necessary to explain how evolution has occurred the way that it has (and it is necessary, on Russell’s account, since otherwise evolution would have gone in a different direction, or would have been stunted in its capacities, or would not have happened at all), then special divine action is necessary for a full account of how nature works. Darwin’s understanding of nature is therefore incomplete and, in an important sense, wrong. The question then is why Russell, unlike ID people, is not willing to say bluntly that Darwin was wrong.

Oh, I know, having been told many times here and elsewhere, that TEs will protest this last statement. They will say that they have publically declared that Darwin is wrong regarding his “metaphysics”. But this is not adequate. If nature cannot produce evolutionary change without Russell’s “special intervention”, Darwin is wrong not only about metaphysics, but about nature itself. Darwin says that nature can produce the effects of guidance without any guidance; Russell is saying that it cannot. And the fact that Russell sees the guidance as operating inside of natural quantum effects, so that its supernatural origin can’t be perceived by scientific methods, doesn’t alter this. Consider the following example.

If I move my arm by an act of will, to save a drowning child, the action of my arm can be explained wholly in natural terms (neurons firing, chemical changes, muscles moving, a load being lifted by a lever action, etc.), but no one would think of attributing my action to mere “nature”, even though my will is indetectable by scientific means and is expressed entirely through natural causal links; everyone would admit that, had I not chosen to save the child, the child would have drowned, and that my will altered the course of future events. No one suggests that my arm would have automatically saved the child by a series of blind mechanical actions, without the direction of my will. Similarly, even if God’s special action is understood to operate entirely invisibly, and within the bounds of nature, it is still doing something that nature alone (i.e., God’s ordinary action in nature) would not have accomplished. In evolutionary terms, various key leaps, however “na!
 turally” they were made from an external observer’s point of view, still would not have happened due to God’s ordinary action in nature alone. So whether we conceive of God’s special action as violating nature, or acting within it, Darwin was wrong, because he assigned to “ordinary nature”, nature operating solely through God’s general divine activity, a creative capacity that it does not have.

What I am saying is that I don’t much care whether the term “intervention” is used, as long as Russell will say clearly that atoms and molecules, left to their own devices, and even one-celled creatures, left to their own devices, would not have produced the macroevolutionary sweep that we see. Guidance was involved; events were being steered; Darwin’s conception of nature (not just his religion) was wrong; neo-Darwinism’s conception of nature (not just its religion) is wrong. Evolution may be produced by wholly natural chains of events, but they are guided chains of events, just as raising an arm is produced by a wholly natural chain of events, but is a guided event.

Far more important, however, is a point which I haven’t made clearly enough before, and this is that Russell’s argument doesn’t really touch the claims of ID. Russell’s argument, even if it makes complete sense and is without any ambiguity or internal contradiction, seems to be a refutation of a certain account of divine action which involves rigid, deterministic laws of nature, and miraculous ruptures or suspensions of those laws. As such, it would be a refutation of certain forms of “creationism” and of some kinds of miracle-mongering common among the fundamentalist Christian community. (Indeed, much of TE appears to me to address, explicitly or implicitly, fundamentalist attitudes, and to that extent TE represents an intra-Christian struggle over the interpretation of nature.) In this context, I have to stress again that ID never claims to be able to identify particular single events, quantum or macroscopic, as divinely caused. Thus, from the ID point of!
  view, all that Russell’s argument could prove is that no particular genetic change can be identified as due to God’s “special” as opposed to his “general” action. But design detection does not depend upon sorting out which mutations were caused by each kind of divine action. It depends only upon showing that a certain overall result, e.g., the creation of a complex new system, integrated in multiple ways with all the other complex systems, cannot be accounted for by Darwinian or other chance-based mechanisms, and requires the positive assertion of design. If a pile of boulders is arranged to spell out “Eat at Joe’s”, that is completely compatible with SOME of the boulders having arrived in their positions via accidental means. It may even be impossible to tell which boulders were originally there, and which were added by intelligent agents. That does not affect the reliability of the inference that the message, taken as a whole, was designed. So, in!
  the Cambrian Explosion, it may be that many of the mutations,!
 the majority, came about by the “general action” of God, but that several crucial ones, spread out over a period of a few million years, were caused by the “special action” of God. Thus, when some ID proponents assert that the Cambrian Explosion strongly suggests design, their inference (whether valid or not) is indifferent to Russell’s conclusion. Russell could be entirely right about the “naturalism” and indetectability of God’s mutating actions, or he could be entirely wrong, with the mutations being caused by divine “violations” of mechanistic natural laws. The design inference would proceed in exactly the same way in either case. The design inference would also proceed in exactly the same way in the case of a third explanation, i.e., front-loading combined with a naturalistic necessitarianism. The design inference works from the arrangements seen in nature, not from any account of how nature came to be in its current form, or from any account o!
 f how God inserted information into nature.

So the discussion has to come back to the questions we have discussed many times before, though never satisfactorily: What is the character of the design inferences that human beings make every day? Are such inferences scientific? If not, what are they? Philosophical? Mathematical? Something else? And are design inferences reliable? If so, what does it matter whether we call them scientific or not? Are scientific inferences the only reliable ones? And finally, as design inferences in our everyday life are drawn from the world of human making (and perhaps also from birds, beavers, bees, etc.), can they be legitimately extended into the realm of things which human beings have not made? If not, why not? The main argument against such an extension, i.e., that we have no experience of non-human intelligences, seems not to hold water, since we can easily imagine situations (e.g., the Martian sculpture) where we could be absolutely sure of the existence of an intelligen!
 t designer while knowing absolutely nothing about the designer’s physical form, natural powers, or ultimate motivations. And if we could know that in the case of non-integrated complexity, such as the case of a statue, it is hard to see why the same inference should be disallowed in the case of highly integrated complexity, e.g., the working of the cardio-vascular system. We know of no cases of highly integrated complexity which don’t proceed either from human intelligence, or from a genetic blueprint which conveys an information content far beyond that of anything devised by human intelligence, and therefore itself needs explanation, as much as the creatures which it generates.

I do not deny that this line of questioning can have theological implications, but I don’t see how it is itself theological, and therefore I don’t see why orthodox Darwinists on one hand (e.g., Eugenie Scott) and TEs on the other hand (e.g., Ken Miller), should automatically find it repulsive. The question whether or not life is designed is an entirely natural question, which occurred to ancient Greeks (who had never heard of the Bible and therefore can’t be accused of introducing design in order to subvert science and establish a Christian theocracy), and strikes even a Richard Dawkins as legitimate (even if, as he believes, Darwinism answers the question in the negative). And even Dawkins grants that design as a hypothesis can be handled scientifically (and, in his view, dismissed scientifically). Many other Darwinists, both scientists and philosophers, have granted the same. It is only a certain type of Darwinist, and a certain type of theistic evolutionist, who!
  doesn’t want to let discussions of design anywhere near the precincts of science, and goes on and on ad nauseam about the sanctity of “methodological naturalism”, as if design inferences in themselves automatically violate naturalism (which, as Steve Matheson has granted, they don’t).

In closing: ID has no theory of divine action, because it does not need one and has no competence to offer one. TE, on the other hand, is premised upon various accounts of divine action. These accounts of divine action may be right or wrong, orthodox or unorthodox, but in either case, they are theological, not scientific, and therefore cannot be introduced as objective contributions to the scientific understanding of nature. But ID, in the best-case scenario, can contribute objectively to the scientific understanding of nature, if it can show that design, however brought about, is a necessary part of the explanation of a given organism or process or system. Whether ID has done this, or will ever do this, is of course debatable. But it is at least possible in principle (as the examples of the architect, the meteorites carving out a message, and the Martian sculpture show) that ID could do this. And if it ever could do this, it would be petty to insist, as some theologi!
 ans do today, that design must be rejected because it would take away from a theology of grace, or would take away from the need for faith in God, or anything of that sort. If the design inference could indeed be shown to be valid, surely it would be an indication to Christians that God wanted at least his existence and intelligence, if nothing else about him, to be known. To reject such knowledge on the grounds that it does not suit one’s theology would be to oneself up as the judge as to how God is to act. I think that all TEs, along with all Christians everywhere, should agree that such judgments are not for fallible human beings to make.


With this post I think I will end the discussion for the foreseeable future. It has been very stimulating and helpful to me. It has given me a useful context within which to begin reading the essays contained in *PEC*, and it has introduced me to a wider range of TE views, and a more articulate and theologically informed discussion of TE, than I could have got from Ken Miller and Francisco Ayala and Francis Collins. It has also taught me that not everyone on the ASA list is a TE or even hostile to ID. And it has sharpened my understanding of a number of issues by forcing me to deal with new arguments and new perspectives.

I’d certainly like to thank everyone who replied to me, whether they agreed with me or not. First of all, everyone who replied to me, replied to me civilly, and treated my arguments with respect. This would not have happened on Panda’s Thumb or Pharyngula or ERV or any number of Darwinist web sites. Second, everyone tried to stay on topic, and not switch the subject from biology or philosophy of science to the funding sources of the Discovery Institute or the Wedge Document or the private theological views of Paul Nelson or William Dembski, etc. I appreciated that, too, since again, irrelevant and ad hominem arguments of this sort would have been made on the other sites I mentioned.

I have tried the make the best case that I can for the legitimacy of ID as an intellectual program, whether it be thought of as “science”, or as some sort of philosophical (but still rationally and empirically valid) adjunct to science. I’ve tried to argue that ID may well prove extremely important for the full interpretation of nature. I’ve tried to argue that ID is compatible not only with miracle-oriented forms of thinking such as YEC, but also with naturalistic accounts of evolution such as front-loading. I’ve tried to argue that there is an overlap zone between ID and TE, like the zone of intersection created by two overlapping circles in Venn diagrams. And I’ve tried to argue that those ID supporters who are Christian are just as sincere about their faith, just as much in awe of nature as the expression of the continuous power and wisdom of God, and just as concerned to do justice to God in their theological language, as TE people are. I’ve therefore!
  tried to argue that TE and ID should not regard themselves as polar opposites, but as brethren, or at least cousins, with common interests, and should be more visibly allied against the atheistic sort of Darwinist.

On the last point, part of what got me involved in the defense of ID (it was only part, but it was certainly catalytic) was the savagery with which certain CHRISTIANS publically attacked the proponents of ID, disregarding many of their honest arguments, misrepresenting others, and heaping abuse on them, calling them poor scientists and theologically heretical Christians. Indeed, a belligerent television appearance by an ASA member and TE who has in the past contributed to this list (though who has not appeared in the current discussion) was seminal for me in this regard. I do think that certain TEs need to make some changes in their attitude. (And of course, as Ted Davis has pointed out, certain ID proponents need to be a little less quick to pull the heresy trigger when conversing with TEs, and need to learn not to condemn any openness to evolutionary theory as cowardly accommodationism. Black-and-white thinking is just as bad on the ID side as on the TE side.) I am no!
 t saying that the worst features of TE argumentation have been very visible in our discussion here, which I think has been very civilized, thanks to Ted and to everyone who has participated. But some of you here will know of colleagues who do argue unfairly against ID, often without having carefully read even one substantial work by an ID author, and I would prevail upon you to challenge them when they do so, as I am now beginning to do with some of my ID allies when they broad-brush regarding TE. If we work on this together, perhaps over time we can raise the tone of the discussion everywhere.

There have been changes at Uncommon Descent. Recently, ownership of the site, including the right of final decision about moderation, has been transferred to Barry Arrington, who is, I believe, a devout Christian, and one interested in genuine discussion. Barry is explicitly trying to open up the site to those critics of ID who can be civilized in tone and are willing to stay on topic, i.e., who will refrain from harping about things like the Wedge Document and alleged plots to force creationism into the schools, and will stick to scientific matters (though not to the exclusion of such aspects of theology which naturally touch on scientific matters). There are indications that expulsions and suspensions are going to be rarer, and are going to be tied to genuinely offensive personal behaviour, or lengthy posts which are filibusters rather than educated arguments. Already some people who have been out of line have been put on moderation rather than suspended or expelled. !
 I think this is a change for the better. I think that Barry would welcome contributions from a number of people here, especially if they are written with the same courteous tone and level of clarity and intelligence that I have witnessed as a guest here. The cross-fertilization would be good for ID and TE alike.

I cannot of course promise that this new era at UD will last for long. I am not an administrator there, and do not have to face the army of trolls that constantly threatens civilized discussion there. If a whole host of people from Panda’s Thumb and Pharyngula and ERV and other sites should take advantage of UD’s new open-door policy, and start behaving abusively and arrogantly and dogmatically, Barry may have to tighten things up again. But until such a time, I think that people from the ASA list could sign up and contribute constructively to threads of interest to them, without constant fear of expulsion. I hope that some of you will.

Once again, I thank everyone here, and especially Ted Davis, for this exchange. A merry Christmas to all, and to all (for the time being) a good-night.

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Received on Mon Dec 1 12:45:55 2008

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