Re: [asa] Because of us - Steve Fuller's anthropic principle - Darwin's original sin

From: Cameron Wybrow <>
Date: Mon May 11 2009 - 22:15:45 EDT

Dear Murray:

Generally speaking, I don't mean to insult anyone, and I'm sorry if you
think I was underestimating your ability in any way. In fact, as I said at
the beginning of my last post, I am quite appreciative of your intelligent
and clear writing, so if I sounded as if I was slighting you, please believe
that it was unintentional. Also, I would ask you to take into account that
I have not been around here for years, and therefore have not picked up
sufficient biographical information about each participant here to tell in
all cases what they have studied and so on. I know you only from your
sign-off as a divinity student, which tells me nothing about your prior
training in science and/or philosophy. In some other cases on this list, it
is clearer to me where people are coming from, but not in your case. So if
I over-explained anything, please excuse me.

On your first remark:

(1) I don't accept that the usage "one becomes accustomed to when working in
the sciences" (are you implying that you have worked in the sciences? --
please fill me in!) is necessarily good usage. I spent a good deal of time
at university around scientific types, and while they are often quite
brilliant in narrow specialized tasks, they are often very sloppy as
thinkers regarding philosophical and methodological matters. Thus, when
they speak about "chance", and "observing chance", well, I'll just say that
they can use any "in-house jargon" that they wish when talking to each
other, but when addressing the general world of people who are just as
intelligent as they are, but trained in different fields (philosophy,
theology, etc.), they ought to use language as it's generally used, not as
it's used in their sub-disciplines, and I was speaking about how such words
are generally used among careful, intelligent people, not in science-lab

(2) When I used "chance" in a way that was unsatisfactory to George Murphy a
while back, he said something to the effect that I had no right to infer
that Darwinian processes were necessarily "chance", and that in fact behind
most "chance" processes there is usually a deeper element of "necessity".
Well, I agree with that, but that means that "chance" is not simply
observed, but is inferred, and the soundness of that inference depends on
various things, including what one thinks of the proposition that all or
most things that happen are ultimately driven by necessity. So if I'm
cautious to please George Murphy, I displease you; and if I go along with
you, I'll displease George Murphy. I can't win, it seems.

On your second remark:

(1) I never said that "scientific questions" (though we might question
whether "scientific questions" form such a well-demarcated set of questions
that they can easily be separated in all cases from other sorts of
questions) should be settled by an appeal to philosophical rather than
scientific criteria. I don't see how you could get that idea from anything
I said.

(2) I do not agree that, generally speaking, philosophical critiques of the
assumptions of science are gratefully accepted by the scientists themselves.
In my experience, that is true of a few very thoughtful scientists, but it
is not true of the rank-and-file Ph.D. It is certainly not true of most
biologists, as can be seen by their hostile, unphilosophical,
history-of-science-uninformed reactions to criticisms of the assumptions of
Darwinian theory. The sort of person who will decide that Michael Behe is
wrong without even having read his book, and that Darwin is right without
even having read his book (both being quite common decisions on the part of
biologists) is not the sort of person who is likely to spend a lot of time
reflecting on the insights of Kuhn, Feyerabend, Popper, etc.

(3) I did not embroil myself in any philosophical confusion. I was trying
to point out the philosophical confusion of some Darwinists and some
theistic evolutionists. I am academically well-equipped to do this. I
certainly did not say that philosophy should dictate "what is possible in
nature". In fact, it is neo-Darwinian evolution which dictates to nature,
by saying that the origin of species *must* be explicable by "naturalistic"
(read: non-intelligent) means. There is no reason to assume this. There is
no *a priori* reason to assume that nature (understood in neo-Darwinian
fashion, i.e., as unguided by intelligence) has the power to generate
radically new body plans, for example. It is the job of neo-Darwinian
science to *prove* that nature has this power. It is not my fault if the
neo-Darwinians haven't been able to prove this for anything beyond finch
beaks and antibiotic resistance. You should take your complaint about
dictating to nature to the dogmatic evolutionary biologists, not to the
philosophers. The evolutionary biologists are offering a naturalistic
metaphysics as if it were the established result of science, and I, and
other philosophically literate people (e.g., David Berlinski, Antony Flew),
are calling them on it. Naturally, "the experts" don't like to be called,
especially when they know they cannot prove their claims. Hence, they
respond to the challenge by thundering about "consensus biology", and by
making appeals to authority (see the purely political official statements on
evolution by the AAAS and NABT, for example), when they should be providing
the missing mechanisms.

On your third remark:

(1) I agree with what you are driving at about the need to get the science
straight before adjusting it to the theology, but we are talking at
cross-purposes here. I am not suggesting that Christians should go through
evolutionary biology and subtract from it everything that doesn't fit in
with their preconceived theology. Quite the opposite. I think that
Christians should think their theology through to its logical conclusions,
without regard for any biological implications, and I think that scientists
should think their biology through to its logical conclusions, without
regard for whether or not it will harmonize with Christian theology. When
both tasks are done well, and with integrity, then the task of harmonization
can begin.

(2) However, you take for granted far too much about what has been
established on the biology side. For example, you write: "to claim that
the mechanisms of evolution are probabilistic is inferentially
well-grounded". I deny this. The mechanisms of evolution -- by which I
mean macroevolution, since microevolution is non-contested -- are largely
speculative. That is why I can find a big book in the library on how to
send a space ship to Mars, that will tell me how to land the craft within a
few hundred feet of its target, and why I cannot find a book in the library
telling me in detail how the avian lung was formed, how the camera eye was
formed, etc. Conway Morris, for example, has written no books containing
such detailed information. That ought to give you pause before making large
claims about what is known by "science".

(3) I actually agree with your point that the outcomes of evolution do not
seem to be contingent. But this very fact should cause you wonder whether
the inference that the *mechanisms* are contingent is sound. Dawkins claims
that the camera eye has evolved twenty or thirty times. Really? On
neo-Darwinian grounds (and Dawkins is the most hard-line neo-Darwinian
imaginable), that's like being struck twenty or thirty times by lightning.
But suppose that something other than chance is operating. Suppose that
some sort of intelligence is involved, either an immanent one, which works
entirely within nature, or a front-loaded one, inserted at the beginning of
time (and expressed over time by wholly naturalistic means), or an
intervening one, inserted periodically or even continuously -- the pattern
of convergent evolution would then make perfect sense.

(4) I think that Christian theology, of any sort, requires the belief that
God *made sure* that man (and all the ecological accoutrements necessary for
his existence, including domestic animals for example) would come into
being. I don't think that the belief that God simply let nature take its
course, making it a sort of crap shoot whether or not man would appear, is a
Christian teaching. But if you take neo-Darwinism seriously, man's
appearance is in fact the result of a crap shoot. On the other hand, if you
account for macroevolutionary change by non-Darwinian means -- such as the
ones referred to above -- the theological problem is solved. So the
question is: *Given* that the neo-Darwinian explanation of macroevolution
is highly speculative and nowhere near proved, and *given* that if it is
true, it will pose almost insurmountable obstacles for the maintenance of
the traditional understanding of Creation, why on earth would any sane
Christian *insist* on the absolute truth and irrefutability of
neo-Darwinism? Why wouldn't any logical Christian at least *investigate*
possibilities of evolutionary explanation which don't rely so heavily on
chance? And why would logical Christians be visibly hostile at ID people
for suggesting that perhaps the evolutionary process is driven much less by
chance than neo-Darwinians suppose? Why does a certain sort of Christian
scientist seem to have such a heavy emotional investment in the truth of
neo-Darwinism? I don't see Christian scientists so heavily invested in
string theory, or dark energy, the existence of the monopole, or other
scientific speculations. Why is neo-Darwinism so favoured?

Finally, using "inference to the best explanation", I will give my own
position: we don't have a clue, when it comes down to the real
nitty-gritty, what drives macroevolution. Both "intelligent design" and
"neo-Darwinism" are insufficiently justified by the evidence. The "best
explanation", at this point in time, is no explanation. We should all be
agnostic, until we know much more about genetics, developmental biology,
mechanisms of natural selection, etc. And that agnosticism should include
the possibility that chance-and-necessity explanations (sans intelligence)
may simply not be adequate to explain the observed patterns of
macroevolution. The value of ID is not so much as an independent
"scientific theory"; its value is that it keeps the option of "intelligence"
open, as a possible element in the final explanatory mix (which may include
elements of intelligence, chance and necessity). To rule out intelligence
in advance is simply dogmatic, metaphysics masquerading as science. And it
is a bizarre dogmatism, indeed, when it comes not from Coyne or Dawkins but
from Christians who affirm: "I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of
Heaven and Earth."


----- Original Message -----
From: "Murray Hogg" <>
To: "ASA" <>
Sent: Monday, May 11, 2009 6:55 PM
Subject: Re: [asa] Because of us - Steve Fuller's anthropic principle -
Darwin's original sin

> Hi Cameron,
> Apologies for the delay on getting back to you on the below but it merited
> some consideration in order to precisely put my finger on the point of
> objection.
> I think I'd like to make three remarks;
> First, you can take the distinction between inference and observation as a
> given in this context. My usage of "observed" is, you see, typical of the
> usage that one becomes accustomed to when working in the sciences. So when
> I write something like "we observe the operation of chance" OF COURSE I
> mean "we INFER the operation of chance FROM the OBSERVED data" - it could
> mean nothing else IN THIS CONTEXT. So whilst I thank you for the
> elementary lesson in semantics I am, frankly, almost insulted that you
> think it necessary.
> Second, reading your clarification on "a priori assumptions" I again take
> it as almost an insult that you think me obtuse enough to be of the view
> that scientists don't have assumptions. I am, however, not claiming that
> scientists don't have assumptions, I am objecting to the idea that
> scientific questions might be settled appeal to philosophical rather than
> scientific criteria. This is what I mean when I contrast your own approach
> ("I will stick to my guns until someone gives me an argument, couched in
> the terms of the philosophical and theological tradition...") with that of
> the sciences. I have no problem when philosophers speak qua philosopher
> and point out the hidden assumptions and internal contradictions of an
> argument grounded in empirical observation. Indeed, the philosophical
> critique of scientific claims is often enormously helpful AND thankfully
> appropriated by scientists themselves. BUT to insist that a certain
> philosophical or theological tradition ought to dic
> tate what may or may not be found in nature is, despite you protestations,
> precisely the sort of a priori method that constrains scientific discovery
> and is, for that reason, to be quite vigorously opposed (and, yes, I'm
> aware that all in vestigation proceeds within the context of a paradigm).
> This, actually, returns us to the maxim "ontology determined epistemology"
> of another thread. And it's here that the problem for philosophers becomes
> acute. Whereas philosophy deals (essentially) with the realm of ideas, the
> natural sciences deal with the realm of nature. So to argue
> philosophically about what is scientifically possible is to embroil
> oneself in an ontological confusion. Science requires us ultimately to
> take account of what is given in nature. And we have had enough experience
> of that to know that the world continually confounds philosophical
> expectations - even such a well grounded philosophical rule as that of the
> excluded middle can, under certain circumstances, lead us astray if we
> insist on a rigorous application in a scientific context.
> Which returns us to the question of "chance" and "probability" on which my
> third remark;
> You quite rightly say that we don't "observe" chance but rather "infer
> it" - but as I said above, you can take it as given that "infer from
> observation" is precisely what I meant when I said we "observe" chance in
> action in evolution. Similar remarks apply for "emergence" of the sort
> propounded by Simon Conway Morris. And my ultimate objection to your
> position is this...
> As I understand it, you wish to argue that IF the mechanisms of evolution
> are probabilistic (as per the neo-Darwinian claim) THEN the outcomes of
> evolution must be contingent.
> My response is that such issues aren't resolved by pointing out the
> obvious philosophical difficulty which this raises for Christian theology
> and then simply abandoning the philosophically least desirable element(s).
> They are resolved by asking FIRSTLY whether the claim in question is a
> well-grounded inference from the data and, if so, THEN asking "what are we
> missing that gives rise to our inability to correctly reconcile these
> claims?"
> All of which leads to my bottom line: Regardless of what Plato, Aristotle,
> Lucretius, Aquinas, Hobbes, Bacon, Spinoza, Kant, Hegel, Bergson, Russell,
> etc said about chance and randomness, what matters is how they came to
> those views and whether WE have good reason to privilege them over our own
> [inferences from] observations. My argument would be that;
> 1) to claim that the mechanisms of evolution are probabilistic is
> inferentially well-grounded
> 2) the claim that the outcomes of evolution are NOT contingent is
> inferentially strongly plausible
> And, given that I hold 1) and 2) then it follows that I consider that it
> is the case that we observe [or "infer from observation"] that the
> mechanisms of evolution are probabilistic whilst the outcomes are
> non-contingent.
> If this stands in conflict with the philosophical tradition, then - in my
> view - this demonstrates a flaw in the philosophical tradition NOT in
> contemporary science.
> And the way to meet my objection is NOT to simply assert the authority of
> the tradition over the inferential musings of contemporary science (and I
> allow that they ARE "inferential musings" rather than deductive
> certainties). Rather the way to meet it AS A SCIENTIFIC ARGUMENT is to
> give some reason WHY I should accept that the classical view is a better
> inference from data than is the contemporary neo-Darwinian view.
> It is, in the end analysis, all about "inference to the best explanation"
> and, frankly, I believe that the neo-Darwinian synthesis has greater claim
> to THAT title than any proposed alternative.
> Blessings,
> Murray
> Cameron Wybrow wrote:
>> Dear Murray:
>> Over the last few months I've enjoyed many of your posts, which are
>> generally clear and informative. You've misunderstood my post here,
>> though. In fact, in accusing me of accepting a priori assumptions, and
>> not being empirical enough, you've made statements that show that you (or
>> perhaps Conway Morris) are accepting a priori assumptions yourself, which
>> are not empirically grounded but represent metaphysical choices regarding
>> the interpretation of nature.
>> I'll show this momentarily, but first, let me give a preamble regarding
>> my language:
>> I was not trying to make any a priori statements about chance and
>> necessity, but was seeking to establish the vocabulary I was using. And
>> I was trying to show people where I was getting it from. I get my usage
>> of "chance" and "necessity" from two places: (1) 30-odd years of
>> undergraduate, graduate and post-graduate study of the Western
>> philosophical tradition: Plato, Aristotle, Lucretius, Aquinas, Hobbes,
>> Bacon, Spinoza, Kant, Hegel, Bergson, Russell, etc.; (2) the usage of the
>> classic neo-Darwinists themselves, which more or less follows, albeit in
>> popular form, the main stream of the usage of the terms in the classical
>> tradition. So, unlike some people here, who tend to be science-trained
>> rather than philosophy-trained, and seem to want to use more modern
>> definitions of "chance" (chance as "randomness" in some special sense
>> from modern statistics, or chance in relation to quantum theory or chaos
>> theory or the like), I am accepting the language of my opponents (the
>> neo-Darwinists, Coyne, Dawkins, Sagan, Gould, etc.) and arguing that
>> *given their use of these terms*, neo-Darwinian evolution cannot be made
>> compatible with orthodox Christian thought about Creation. Now if one
>> wants to alter the meaning of "chance" and "necessity", on the grounds
>> that modern science has shown that "nature" is different from what these
>> men conceived, that's fine with me; but I didn't undertake to argue with
>> such an altered conception, because that wouldn't be neo-Darwinian
>> evolution any more (unless we are going to equivocate). I was arguing
>> against Christians who think you can take the classical neo-Darwinian
>> view of nature, and layer Christian theology on top of it, without any
>> conflict. End of preamble. Now, in your answer, you state:
>> ****
>> "My response to the below is to simply point out that your allowing a
>> priori assumptions about chance and determinacy to determine your entire
>> position.
>> "THAT, in a nutshell, was Simon Conway Morris' beef with Stephen Jay
>> Gould and, as SCM has strongly argued in 'Life's Solution' when we
>> actually LOOK at the history of life on earth what we observe is the
>> operation of chance AND the repeated emergence of uncannily similar
>> forms.
>> "The a posteriori conclusion - based on observed data rather than
>> abstract theoretical speculation - is that evolution, although governed
>> as far as we know by chance, nevertheless is not contingent as Stephen
>> Jay Gould argued.
>> "This might be a startling, even paradoxical claim, but it is what we
>> actually observe. As John Polkinghorne is fond of pointing out, the
>> universe has a funny way of surprising us by refusing to conform to what
>> we thing should be the case. We might like to think that a process guided
>> by chance MUST be contingent in its outcome, but the fact is that what we
>> actually observe suggests otherwise."
>> ****
>> Here there are plenty of a priori notions which don't come from me.
>> Let's start with "what we observe is the operation of chance and the
>> repeated emergence of uncannily similar forms." The first a priori
>> assumption, hidden in the word "emergence" (rather than "creation") is
>> that macroevolution has occurred. I don't actually contest that, but it
>> is an assumption of both Conway Morris and Gould's thought. But let's
>> come to one that I would contest. The second a priori assumption is that
>> "chance" has some sort of certified role in evolution. We see this in
>> CM's assertion that we "observe" the operation of chance. I beg your
>> pardon? We *observe* only empirical events and things (fossils, etc.),
>> and some people *infer* that these things are due to the operation of
>> "chance" (when they might be due to a variety of things: miracles,
>> immanent design, front-loaded necessity, etc.). Third, when you say, at
>> the end, "we might like to think that a process guided by chance MUST be
>> contingent in its outcome, but the fact is that what we actually observe
>> suggests otherwise", the syntax and logic of your sentence imply that
>> evolution is "a process guided by chance", and silently rules out the
>> possibility that "chance" is an erroneous interpretation of what has
>> happened, and that convergence is better explained by necessity and/or
>> design. Whether this assumption of yours reflects a bias of Conway
>> Morris toward "chance" (a bias not shared by Michael Denton, by the way),
>> I cannot say, because I haven't read Conway Morris. But your argument as
>> stated contains a priori assumptions aplenty.
>> My assumptions are minimal. I make a working assumption (not a dogmatic
>> claim) that macroevolution has occurred. Then I ask myself, what might be
>> the cause of this process? I do *not* assume, as most people here seem
>> to, that random mutations, drift, natural selection, etc., are adequate
>> to explain the process. I do *not* assume that these mechanisms -- all
>> of them (as conceived by the classical neo-Darwinists) either chance
>> mechanisms or chance mechanisms combined with necessity (natural laws,
>> etc.) -- are adequate to produce the living forms that we see. I assume
>> that it is at least *possible* that some non-chance factor may be
>> involved (call it design, immanent intelligence, inbuilt telos,
>> front-loading, whatever you like). I do not hold to the metaphysically
>> biased exclusion of final causation from nature that appears to be
>> sacrosanct among at least the older scientists on this list. So I am
>> actually *less* a priori in my approach than Conway Morris, Gould, or
>> many people here in this group.
>> Now, if I've cleared this up, take a look again at my post to Mike Gene,
>> and consider it on its own terms. And tell me (not in the language of
>> statistical thermodynamics or chaos theory, but in the language of
>> Augustine, Aquinas, Calvin, which you should know since you're studying
>> theology) how the God of the orthodox Christian tradition could have
>> *guaranteed* our creation, and the creation of the rest of the living
>> things on our world (which he *must* be able to guarantee, or Providence
>> is out the window), through a process of pure neo-Darwinian evolution,
>> when that process is of such a nature (ex hypothesi) that it is not
>> capable of guaranteeing *anything*. How can God guarantee the
>> unguaranteeable? How can God make a square circle? Do you see the
>> difficulty of combining neo-Darwinism (in its original formulation, not
>> in the TE rewrite of it) with the orthodox Christian understandings of
>> creation, omnipotence, and providence? I maintain that it can't be done,
>> and I will stick to my guns until someone gives me an argument, couched
>> in the terms of the philosophical and theological tradition, to show
>> otherwise. Cameron.
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Received on Mon May 11 22:17:15 2009

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