Re: [asa] Natural Agents - Cause and Effect, Non-Natural Agents

From: Cameron Wybrow <>
Date: Fri May 22 2009 - 18:40:32 EDT

I thank Keith Miller for his reply. I understand that he cannot undertake to continue the conversation; however, others might wish to. I will offer a few rejoinders.

1. First, I cannot think of a major ID proponent who has argued that "prayer studies" are good science (or good theology for that matter). I wish Keith Miller would name names here. If I may use myself as an example, I'm sympathetic to ID, but I find the idea of putting God to the test in that way to be sacrilegious. In any case, since Keith admits that this point is not central to his case against ID, I won't pursue it.

2. Second, most of the Christian ID proponents that I know of would agree that God lies behind all the phenomena of nature, not just special ones such as the bacterial flagellum. They would see God in the thunderstorm or the sunset, just as Keith Miller does. And, on the other hand, they would also see natural causes in the thunderstorm and the sunset, just as Keith Miller does. There is no debate between ID and TE proponents on this matter.

3. If the question is asked, "Well, if ID proponents see God *everywhere*, why then do ID proponents put so much emphasis on special cases such as the bacterial flagellum?" The answer is straightforward. Nothing tricky is going on in ID behaviour. It is simply that in such cases the "design" features become most striking, and the claim that non-intelligent causes alone can explain them appears the most implausible. This does not mean that ID proponents do not see "design" in less celebrated cases. Indeed, most ID proponents that I know of see "design" everywhere in nature. (See Michael Denton's writings, in which there is design from top to bottom in nature; yet Denton still mentions the flagellum and the avian lung and so on as particularly striking cases.) There is no inconsistency here. There is nothing intellectually dishonest about focusing on the most dramatic demonstrations of a principle.

4. Darwinism (defined as I've repeatedly defined it here, i.e., Darwinism "in its pure form") claims that the origin of all biological species, systems, structures, organelles, etc. can be explained in terms of the interplay of necessity and chance (natural selection, mutations, etc.), without any reference to intelligent causes. This is either a personal metaphysical requirement of Darwin -- in which case it is not a scientific statement of any kind, and scientists are under no obligation to take it as a working assumption -- or it is a scientific hypothesis. If it is a scientific hypothesis, then it cannot be treated as a necessary truth; it must be regarded as subject to falsification.

5. Regarding falsification -- (A). The example usually given in this regard, that of the Cambrian rabbit, is not to the point. The Cambrian rabbit would indeed falsify Darwinism, by falsifying Darwin's proposed pattern of common descent. But while common descent may be the issue between Darwinism and YEC, it is not the issue between Darwinism and ID. ID as such takes no position on common descent. The claim of ID proponents as such is not that macroevolution did not happen. The claim of ID proponents is that, even on the assumption that macroevolution happened in roughly the way that it is generally supposed to have happened, it cannot be explained by Darwinian mechanisms -- or, put more modestly, that it has not been so explained -- not by a long shot. (Footnote: I am talking here about ID in its pure theoretical form, not ID in its political form. I am interested in discussing theoretical options here, not culture wars. If there are, as there may well be, ID proponents who are in fact secretly plugging for YEC, they are of no concern to my argument here.)

6. Regarding falsification -- (B). Note that physicists, chemists, etc., are commonly expected to describe experiments which could, in principle, prove their hypotheses false. What experiment or observation (see #5 above for why Cambrian rabbits aren't relevant here) would prove the Darwinian mechanism false? The Darwinian "mechanism" is incredibly broad and vague. "Natural selection" and "mutation" cover a huge amount of ground. Especially in the case of "natural selection", our woefully incomplete knowledge of the habitats of hundreds of millions of years ago means that selectionist explanations have an overly-generous amount of free play, and involve a good deal of speculation. Add in other non-intelligent mechanisms, like "drift", and you have still more variables to play with. Ultimately "Darwinian" mechanisms can include the whole range of effects generatable by chance and necessity, and Darwinists can combine those effects in their imaginations to create all kinds of "hypothetical evolutionary pathways". Thus, Darwinian explanation is always filled with "might haves", "may haves", "perhapses", "possiblys", "could haves", etc. What this means, in practice, is that the moment that one "possible evolutionary pathway" is discredited, many others will always be available. If someone proves tomorrow that there is no possible ecologically sound pathway from, say, Mesonyx to the whales, will Darwinists say, "Well, I guess our belief that whales evolved from land mammals is false"? Not at all; they will try to find some other pathway, one running through, say, hippos. And if some clever geneticist comes along and proves that a hippo ancestry is genetically impossible, they will try to find another pathway, running through some rodent or insectivore or carnivore or pinniped. At no point will any Darwinist ever say: "It is not possible that whales evolved from land mammals", because to grant that would require a separate origin for land and sea mammals, which would destroy the Darwinian superstructure. And the defense for this stubbornness, this recalcitrance to evidence, will be the words of Keith Miller: "there is no way within science to distinguish between current ignorance and a true gap in scientific explanation". It is always just barely possible that ten years from now, or a thousand years from now, or a million years from now, another hypothetical evolutionary pathway will eventually emerge connecting land mammals to whales. Thus, Darwinism is so flexible as to be almost in principle unfalsifiable. How then is it "scientific" in the sense that physics and chemistry are? In those sciences, hypotheses put their necks on the line every day. So never mind whether or not "intelligent design" is scientific; how is Darwinian theory scientific? What could ever make it wrong, in the eyes of its proponents? (Footnote: When Ernst Mayr died a few years ago, a leading female American biologist declared that he was "the defender of the faith". That is a telling expression. I don't think that Newton or Clerk-Maxwell or Pasteur or Faraday were ever described in that way when they died. Propounders of scientific hypotheses don't "defend faiths". Is Darwinism a faith?)

7. The rest of Keith Miller's argument is more or less the same as Randy Isaac's. He argues that one cannot infer design without some prior knowledge of the designer or the means. I would like to make two points about this (A) Even if he is right, he still has not established that ID tries to "investigate divine action". Design-inference in ID is not God-inference (all IDers concede that God can be identified with the designer only by non-scientific arguments), and in any case, God's *effects* are not the same as God's invisible *actions*. ID as a theory, therefore, does not "investigate divine action", in any reasonable sense of that phrase. But it makes great theological rhetoric, which is why TE people keep using it. This greatly disappoints me. (B) The argument that prior knowledge of either the designer or the means is required for design detection strikes me as unsound, but to establish that will require a separate post. So I will leave it here for the moment.


 ----- Original Message -----
  From: Keith Miller
  To: AmericanScientificAffiliation Affiliation ; Cameron Wybrow
  Sent: Friday, May 22, 2009 10:50 AM
  Subject: Re: [asa] Natural Agents - Cause and Effect, Non-Natural Agents


  About a month ago you made the following inquiry of me. At the time, I was overwhelmed with other responsibilities and did not have time to compose a response. I make a brief response below.

    I would like to raise some questions concerning one of your statements about intelligent design. On April 14, you wrote:

    “ID advocates consistently appeal to the ability of science to study human action as a validation of their argument that science can investigate divine action.”

    It seems to me that the words “investigate divine action” require clarification. These words might mean:

    1. Attempt to catch God in the act of altering the normal course of nature.

    2. Study and theoretically expound the metaphysical and/or physical ways and means of God’s interaction with the world of nature.

    3. Draw an inference, based on the results seen in nature, that God has acted.

    In the works of intelligent design theory that I have read, I have never seen examples of 1 or 2. Nor have I ever seen any indication that design theorists even wish to engage in 1 or 2, as scientists at any rate. My impression is that most design theorists would regard 1 as absurd, and that all design theorists would regard 2 as an activity belonging to theology, not science. Further, even regarding 3, design theorists (a) regard the identification of the intelligent designer with God as an extra-scientific supplement to the design inference proper, and (b) even after such an identification is made, do not claim to detect the actual divine action, but only its effects. In light of point (b), the phrase “investigate divine action” is a bit of a stretch as a characterization of ID theorizing.

    So if “investigate divine action” means something like 1 or 2 above, it is simply a false description of the activity of design theorists, and the phrase should be withdrawn. On the other hand, if "investigate divine action” means something like 3 above, then it would be formally correct to say that intelligent design theorists believe that one can “investigate divine action”, but, since it would be materially misleading, the phrase should be avoided.

    Further, the phrase “investigate divine action”, out of context, sounds horribly presumptuous, or even blasphemous, as if ID theorists are determined to pry into the hidden affairs of God, or lay bare the secrets of His divine nature, and, like Dr. Frankenstein, inquire into matters “that man was not meant to know”. I therefore think that such expressions are demagogic in effect, even if not in intention, and whip up religious sentiment against ID, which then cuts off rational discussion.

    The very modest sort of design inference that I see in ID is nothing more than “This bloody well didn’t happen by accident.” I fail to see how such a minimal form of natural theology, which no Christian but the most hardened ultra-Barthian would object to, constitutes an impertinent trespass upon the Divine Majesty. Thomas Aquinas would certainly not have thought so; nor would Augustine, nor would most of Church Fathers. I am told that even the metaphysics-wary Calvin accepted a minimal natural theology.

    So I ask for clarification: What is the precise basis of the charge that ID theorists want to “investigate divine action”? And what exactly is the theological offense in concluding that the cell and the eye, like the heavens, declare the glory of God?


  I agree that explaining or examining the action of God in the first two senses you give above are impossible from either a scientific or theological perspective. Science cannot inquire into such questions and revelation is silent. Although I do not see ID proponents attempt to address the second sense, they do come close to the first on occasion. This surfaces in issues such as the attempted scientific study of the efficacy of prayer, which at least some ID advocates have used as evidence that science include divine agents in its scientific explanations. This would seem to me to fall into the first or your stated categories.

  As others have pointed out such studies cannot actually detect the intervention of a divine agent because God is being treated as a predictable causal agent. God is not some magical power that is required to respond to the appropriately made incantation. This is really putting God to the test in a very literal sense. I see no reason theologically for God to play such a game. To put it into a scientific context, a causal agent cannot be invoked without knowledge of its capabilities and limitations. God is unlimited and unconstrained and therefore has no explanatory value within science. An agent that can do anything has no explanatory value within science.

  It is in the third sense that you mention above that ID does focus its attention. It is this aspect that I had in mind. I would, ands do, argue quite strongly that scientific investigation can make no such inference. At most, science can conclude that a particular event or process is currently not explicable based on present scientific knowledge. That is as far as science can ever go -- it cannot conclude that God did it. Individuals are free to make such a conclusion based on theological or philosophical grounds, but such a conclusion is not itself a scientific one. It is not possible to exclude the possibility of future discoveries that would provide a cause-and-effect natural explanation for what is currently inexplicable. As I have stated repeatedly, there is no way within science to distinguish between current ignorance and a true gap in scientific explanation. The entire concept of the ID design filter is to leave "Design" as the default when other explanations fail. Stating that “This bloody well didn’t happen by accident” (besides begging any number of questions about the meaning of "accident" from both scientific and theological perspectives) has virtually no value as a scientific conclusion.

  I would take issue with your statement below:

      Further, even regarding 3, design theorists (a) regard the identification of the intelligent designer with God as an extra-scientific supplement to the design inference proper, and (b) even after such an identification is made, do not claim to detect the actual divine action, but only its effects.

  One cannot talk about effects without talking about a cause or agent for those effects. Describing effects without reference to cause is simply data collection. Similarly, you cannot infer agency (a "designer") if you claim ignorance of how that agent actually acts. I cannot make a scientific claim that a particular causal agent is responsible for an observed effect if I have no conception of how that agent actually acted. This is a very serious flaw in the reasoning of ID proponents. You simply cannot "get there from here." You cannot claim ignorance of the nature, capabilities and limitations of an agent and then at the same time infer that agent's action. No scientist would ever accept such reasoning.

  It is absolutely critical that it be understood that we can infer the hand of the Creator in the natural world - that God has acted, is acting and will continue to act in creation. However that conclusion is brought TO our understanding of the natural world FROM revelation -- the revelation of the incarnate WORD. I am very much with George Murphy here. We do not learn about God by scientifically studying the natural world. It is the other way around. We understand creation, and our place in it, through the revelation of Christ.

  The other critical point is that God is active at all times in and through creation and its history. When asked my view, I always describe myself as a Continuous Creationist. That is - God is actively upholding all of physical reality in every moment of its existence, and God's will and purposes are accomplished within it. I do not look for God in areas of scientific mystery, I see God in the everyday created reality. I will repeat a statement that I have made in other essays -- If a person cannot see God in a sunset or a thunderstorm, they will not see God in a mitotic spindle or bacterial flagellum. The testimony of God's creative power is in the very things that we do understand from a scientific perspective. I have also stated repeatedly, that any scientific explanation, however complete, does nothing to diminish God's action.

  Ending Note: I will not be able to engage much in discussion, if any is forthcoming. I will be leaving in a couple days for a two week vacation with by family in PA. When I return, I have a major report that must be written, and I must prepare for a June symposium at the North American Paleontological Convention. This has been an extraordinarily busy year for me -- and will continue to be so for awhile.


  Keith B. Miller

  Research Assistant Professor

  Dept of Geology, Kansas State University

  Manhattan, KS 66506-3201


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Received on Fri May 22 18:41:26 2009

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