Re: [asa] BioLogos - Bad Theology?

From: Schwarzwald <>
Date: Thu May 28 2009 - 19:00:22 EDT

One question I have about this entire debate...

Is ascribing something to "chance" really a scientific statement, no matter
how thoroughly we know the conditions? I would understand if "chance" were
just a statement about the limitations of our knowledge. But are "biological
item X was created by chance" or "chance events resulted in biological item
X" scientific statements at all, at least in the opinion of most here?

From my layman vantage point, this seems like a foggy area to say the least.
I could say more, but I'd like to keep this simple, if anyone is willing to

On Thu, May 28, 2009 at 6:23 PM, Cameron Wybrow <>wrote:

> Terry:
> Testing me, are you?
> Well, assuming that you want the coin tosses treated as independent events,
> and assuming a fair coin with a probability of 1/2 for each of heads and
> tails, the probability is exactly the same on any single flip. So, if we
> are talking about the fifth coin flip in isolation, the fact that four heads
> have come up previously is irrelevant. The probability of a head at flip 5
> is still 1/2. And that would be the case even if we knew that there had
> been a million consecutive heads previously.
> But that isn't the whole story. Probability theorists still can ask the
> question: in advance of flipping any coins, what is the probability of
> flipping five heads in a row? This is not the same as asking what is the
> probability of the fifth coin being a head, given that you already have four
> heads. You are in a different position as knower in each case.
> The probability of flipping five heads in a row, given no knowledge of any
> of the coin flips in advance, is (1/2)^5, or 1 in 32.
> The probability of flipping 64 heads in a row, given no knowledge of any of
> the coin flips in advance, is (1/2)^64, or 1 in a number larger than the
> number of all the grains of rice in China, according to the old legend about
> the sage and the chessboard.
> It is the latter sort of probability, the probability of achieving a given
> sequence, that is relevant in the ID-Darwinism debate. Evolution, if it is
> to occur by wholly Darwinian means, is limited by natural selection
> constraints (not to mention genetic and physiological constraints) to a
> certain set of sequences. The mutations can't occur in just any old order.
> To make a crude application from coin-flipping to mutations (which is of
> course inadequate), of all the 32 possible sequences of heads and tails, it
> might be that only the sequences HTTTH and HTTHT could produce a bacterial
> flagellum -- all the other sequences either producing no effect or the wrong
> effect or producing dead bacteria -- so that there would be only a 1/16
> probability that the flagellum could be produced by chance. But of course
> the numbers we are talking about are many orders of magnitude larger than
> that.
> Of course the application of probability theory to biological design can be
> and has been questioned. I have no problem with genuine, non-mean-spirited
> criticisms of the use of probability theory in ID (and by the way, Terry, I
> thought your essay in *PEC* maintained an admirable polite tone). But
> according to some calculations, the numbers one comes up with when one tries
> to explain the origin of the first cell by chance (or, mutatis mutandis, the
> origin of a flagellum or some other complex system from chance) are so
> astoundingly large that the hypothesis amounts to an expression of religious
> faith in the power of chance. And why should scientists have a religious
> faith in the power of chance? Why is faith in the power of chance
> "scientific", whereas discussion of a designer (which on the face of things
> is the more rational answer to the question how life originated)
> "unscientific"? The insistence that *any explanation, no matter how
> improbable or how lacking in empirical evidence, is better than a design
> explanation*, puts "origins scientists" in the odd position of having to be
> irrational in order to prove that they are scientific. Odd, don't you
> think?
> Anyhow, to come back to the question I asked after points 7 and 8 of the
> post to which you refer, I am interested in hearing your view on whether Ted
> Davis has correctly defined TE, and on whether ID and TE are compatible, if
> Ted Davis's definition is employed. And I am interested in hearing whether
> you agree with me that there is zone of overlap between some versions of ID
> and some versions of TE. I am interested in establishing a common front
> against Dawkins etc. which allows ID and TE people to work together based on
> their agreements, but some TEs seem determined to draw attention as much as
> possible to disagreements between ID and TE, and seem to find ID almost as
> objectionable as the position of Dawkins. What I like about Ted Davis's
> definition is that it allows individual ID and TE people to disagree with
> each other over various questions, but does not require them to do so. Ted's
> definition of TE is a non-polarizing definition. I wish more TEs would
> clearly embrace it.
> Cameron.
> ----- Original Message ----- From: "Terry M. Gray" <
> To: "ASA" <>
> Sent: Thursday, May 28, 2009 12:11 PM
> Subject: Re: [asa] BioLogos - Bad Theology?
> Cameron,
>> A simple statistics question for you...
>> In a coin flipping experiment, if you flip a coin four times and it turns
>> up heads each time, what is the chance of getting heads on the next flip?
>> Much more to respond to in your post--but I'd like to start to address
>> points 4-6 with this question. I'm quite intrigued by your Calvin
>> questions--I'll see what I can come up with.
>> TG
>> On May 27, 2009, at 11:44 PM, Cameron Wybrow wrote:
>>> Terry:
>>> Thank your for your thoughtful reply. I cannot do justice to all the
>>> ideas expressed in it, and so will pick out a few.
>>> 1. It's my understanding that at least a couple of people here, namely
>>> Ted Davis and George Murphy, would agree with you
>>> "that an event can be seemingly by chance, yet still be under God's
>>> control and determination". I think they would explain this in terms of
>>> quantum indeterminacy, i.e., that since there is indeterminacy within the
>>> laws of nature, there would be no apparent violation of those laws in the
>>> minute changes by which God might guide evolution. God's interventions
>>> would be indistinguishable from chance events.
>>> 2. This might well be the way things work; I have no objection to the
>>> notion that God guides evolution, and if he has to be "snuck in" somewhere
>>> so as to guide evolution without flagrantly upsetting the normal paths of
>>> nature, I suppose "quantum indeterminacy" is as good a way as any.
>>> 3. However, I think that in practice, we never are in the position of
>>> witnessing evolutionary "events" as single items. Rather, we look at a
>>> string of fossil finds from which we infer a string of evolutionary events
>>> stretching over thousands or millions or tens of millions of years. In
>>> this situation, the question whether a given mutation was caused by God or
>>> chance is not really a useful question. It is the overall direction of a
>>> series of mutations that is important.
>>> 4. So for example, let's say science could determine what it is
>>> currently nowhere near able to determine, e.g., that it would take 1,000
>>> mutations to turn a lizard into a bird, with those mutations having to
>>> occur in a certain sequence in order for each of the intermediate forms to
>>> be viable in terms of natural selection. And let's say that George and Ted
>>> are right in their claim that, even if we had a time machine and could
>>> bring the live specimens to our era, so that we had them in front of us at
>>> exactly the point at which the mutations occurred, science could say
>>> nothing about the ultimate cause of any of those 1,000 individual
>>> mutations. We could not therefore tell whether God or chance was
>>> responsible for any of them. Yet the question still arises: can the
>>> *sequence* tell us something that any individual mutation cannot?
>>> 5. Here is where intelligent design comes in. From an ID point of view,
>>> while any single mutation has a relatively large probability, the sequence
>>> as a whole has an extremely small probability. So, while the probability
>>> of a mutation affecting the iris or the lung etc. cannot help us to decide
>>> between God and chance, the probability that a certain mutation affecting
>>> the iris would be followed by a certain mutation affecting the lung, and
>>> that these two mutations would be followed by a certain mutation affecting
>>> the brain centres that control the iris and the lung, and that all of
>>> these would be followed by a certain mutation affecting the development of
>>> feathers and then followed by another mutation which enabled the brain to
>>> co-ordinate the proto-feathers with other parts of the organism, etc. --
>>> that combined probability might help us to decide between God or chance.
>>> (If you substitute alien biologists for God, the reasoning is the same, so
>>> one could generalize that to "intelligence or chance". But since we are
>>> usually discussing Christian theology here, I'll use "God".)
>>> 6. If you treat each of the mutations as independent events, as neo-
>>> Darwinism generally does, then a thousand-step string of mutations would of
>>> course have a very low probability. Let's say you come up with a figure of
>>> 1 in 10^200 for the probability of the string. Then let's say that there
>>> might be 100 possible alternate sequences, of roughly equal probability
>>> with the first, that could have turned a lizard into a bird in a way
>>> compatible with natural selection requirements. The 100 possible
>>> sequences, 10^2, are a drop in the bucket, reducing the colossal number by
>>> only a tiny amount. So you still have an incredibly improbable event. And
>>> from this the design inference proceeds.
>>> 7. The main point I am trying to make here is not about how ID
>>> argumentation works, which I'm sure you know already. Nor is my point to
>>> prove that design inferences are "scientific", or that design inferences
>>> are sound. The point I am making is a theological one, i.e., that the
>>> validity or invalidity of design inferences is a separate question from the
>>> question of how God acts to guide evolution. One could believe that God
>>> guides evolution exactly as Ted Davis and George Murphy have postulated,
>>> i.e., one could be a theistic evolutionist; yet one could still argue for
>>> the validity of the design inference. That is, one could be a TE and an ID
>>> proponent at the same time. TE and ID are not mutually exclusive
>>> positions.
>>> 8. Of course, individual versions of TE and individual versions of ID
>>> might clash; that we all know from experience. But there is nothing
>>> inherent in the definitions of TE (as defined the other day by Ted Davis)
>>> and ID (understood as a theory of design detection) that prevents them from
>>> being combined. Indeed, I am not sure how to describe Michael Behe's
>>> position other than as a combination of ID and TE.
>>> Terry, would you agree with my line of thought thus far?
>>> As for your historical point about American thinkers, I am hesitant to
>>> talk about authors I haven't read, such as Asa Gray, Hodge, etc. Ted would
>>> be the better person to comment on your remarks there.
>>> I agree with you that Calvinist theology in some respects does better
>>> justice to parts of the Bible than do some other theologies, but I want to
>>> reserve a lengthy discussion of Calvinism for later. For now, I have some
>>> questions for you about Calvin's theology. Do you know where the passage
>>> is in which Calvin called Lucretius a "dog" or "filthy dog"? I would be
>>> interested in reading the context, if there is any, for Calvin's remark.
>>> Darwinism is in many ways a modern form of Lucretian thinking, translated
>>> into the biological idiom, and Calvin's comments on Lucretius (or other
>>> Epicureans) might give us an idea how he would have reacted to Darwin.
>>> Also I would be interested in references to other passages where Calvin
>>> speaks directly about nature, natural laws, etc. Also if he makes any
>>> references to Islamic occasionalist doctrines, and distinguishes his account
>>> of God's action and of nature from that of those Islamic theologians.
>>> Cameron.
>>> ----- Original Message ----- From: "Terry M. Gray" <
>>> >
>>> To: "ASA" <>
>>> Sent: Tuesday, May 26, 2009 11:49 PM
>>> Subject: Re: [asa] BioLogos - Bad Theology?
>>> Cameron,
>>>> I'm delighted to see the conversation take this direction. I was
>>>> mentally composing a message to address several of these points.
>>>> As you note, the Calvinist perspective on how God is involved with the
>>>> created order allows for some considerations that have seemed off the table
>>>> here; namely, that an event can be seemingly by chance, yet still be under
>>>> God's control and determination. I discuss some of this in my on-line paper
>>>> at GrayASA2003OnHodge.html You also see the
>>>> idea in the Westminster Confession of Faith III, 1
>>>> 1. God from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of his
>>>> own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass: yet so,
>>>> as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the
>>>> will of the creatures; nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes
>>>> taken away, but rather established.
>>>> and V, 2
>>>> 2. Although, in relation to the foreknowledge and decree of God, the
>>>> first Cause, all things come to pass immutably, and infallibly; yet, by the
>>>> same providence, he ordereth them to fall out, according to the nature of
>>>> second causes, either necessarily, freely, or contingently.
>>>> Proverbs 16:33 captures the idea "The lot is cast into the lap, but its
>>>> every decision is from the LORD."
>>>> The point is that from a creaturely perspective there can be random
>>>> events. A scientific analysis would result the conclusion that such events
>>>> were undirected and unplanned, i.e. consistent with the Darwinian claim.
>>>> However, from God's perspective they are planned, directed, purposed, etc.
>>>> It's only when you push the notion of random and undirected and unplanned
>>>> into God's perspective do we run into trouble. Of course, this is Darwin's
>>>> original error and the error (from a Calvinist's perspective) committed by
>>>> atheist and theist critic of Darwinism.
>>>> Another way of saying this is that God is the designer of things that
>>>> are the consequence of what to us are random processes.
>>>> So, how does this work? What does this mean for God's involvement in
>>>> creation? I personally hold to a radical interventionist model. I think
>>>> this is what scripture and the Reformed confessions teach. God is involved
>>>> via sustenance and concursus with every creaturely act. I don't know the
>>>> details. I'm not sure we can know, it may well be part of what it means to
>>>> be God (which we're not). I don't think scripture tells us. As Hodge says
>>>> (cited in my on-line paper), that's all we need to know. Notice from the
>>>> WCF citations above that holding this radical interventionist model does
>>>> not deny the authenticity of creaturely actions or the reality of other
>>>> causes than God. How can this be you may ask? I don't know. We affirm all
>>>> the scripture affirms, which is all these things even if we can reason how
>>>> they all fit together. We can confidently say that God knows how they all
>>>> fit together.
>>>> This, I think, is the fundamental theological problem in Darwin. He
>>>> rejected a God who was in all the details, largely, I think, for reasons
>>>> relating to theodicy. He, like many theologians in his day (and many in our
>>>> day) rejected the Calvinist perspective because he couldn't reconcile his
>>>> notion of the goodness of God with "nature red in tooth and claw".
>>>> Interestingly, this seems to be the main point of Ayala's "Darwin's Gift".
>>>> Since God is not directly involved any more he his relieved of any
>>>> responsibility for the perceived gruesomeness of the biological world.
>>>> So, Darwin rejects the Calvinist vision of the world that God directs
>>>> everything that happens, even in random events, i.e. he pushes his
>>>> scientific/creaturely notions of randomness into God's perspective. This is
>>>> where I think that Hodge's critique of Darwin is misunderstood. Hodge
>>>> cannot conceive of a world where there are random events outside of God's
>>>> determination in both His will and His governance. If such events exist
>>>> then God doesn't--if this is Darwin's view then it's atheism. Notice that
>>>> even Hodge is willing to go to the "Darwinism" of Asa Gray (although he is
>>>> clear about not wanting to call Gray a Darwinian) and Hodge's successor at
>>>> Princeton, B.B. Warfield, once called himself a "Darwinian of the purest
>>>> water".
>>>> Gray and Warfield understood that Darwin had committed the error of
>>>> confusing categories when comparing the divine purpose with what's observed
>>>> from the creaturely realm. So, for them, they could affirm Darwinism the way
>>>> Darwin understood it in the creaturely realm as long as you understood that
>>>> you were making no claims for God's involvement (or not). I think that this
>>>> is why the 19th and early 20th century Calvinists had less problem with
>>>> science in general and evolution in particular than with many of the other
>>>> fundamentalists. A full blown scientific description in terms of natural
>>>> causes is not the least bit incompatible with a divine causation, even at
>>>> the detail of quarks, protons, and molecules.
>>>> Frankly, I think this same error is committed by Falk, Collins, and
>>>> Lamoureux. So it's somewhat providential that my response to Cameron comes
>>>> under this subject line. Of course, I commend all three for tackling this
>>>> difficult subject and being bold enough to affirm the compatibility of
>>>> their Christian faith and their understanding of the science. But they do
>>>> not follow my Calvinist line here. In fact, at least Collins and Falk make
>>>> much of how God's working through the evolutionary process helps solve
>>>> theodicy to some degree. (A commitment to libertarian free will also is
>>>> part of the picture, which explains, in part, a certain friendliness toward
>>>> open theism.) But, in my opinion, they give away the store. If the outcome
>>>> of a series of events is dependent of the prior events then the prior
>>>> events must be as much under God's control as the end event. As you noted,
>>>> Cameron, scripture seems to go this direction much more than many
>>>> contemporary folk want to go.
>>>> This leads to another thread of Cameron's on the definition of theist
>>>> evolution. I consider the view described above to be a version of theistic
>>>> evolution. On my view, chemistry is theistic chemistry, physics is theistic
>>>> physics, etc. This does not necessarily mean that there are no miraculous
>>>> interventions. As I've said many times, I believe that scripture teaches a
>>>> special creation of human beings, particularly of the human soul. So while
>>>> I affirm the possibility of evolutionary processes that lead to the
>>>> biological form of human beings, human beings, body AND soul, do not derive
>>>> from an evolutionary process. While this aspect of human creation is not
>>>> evolutionistic, it does not, in my opinion, disqualify me from being a
>>>> theistic evolutionist.
>>>> In this view, then, everything is intelligently designed if we regard
>>>> God as an intelligent agent. Whether something has design that is detected
>>>> using the various tools that detect design (SETI, forensics, archaeology,
>>>> etc.) is another question. I remain open to the possibility but have yet to
>>>> be convinced that any of the examples pointed to are real (and this from
>>>> the perspective of a professional biologist/biochemist for whatever that's
>>>> worth). See my discussion of the general matter written now over 15 years
>>>> ago at While I can't
>>>> give the details that Cameron (following Behe) demands, the broad
>>>> outlines of the evolution many irreducibly complex systems are present to
>>>> the point that I find them highly credible.
>>>> I wanted to refer to one other Cameron's posts in appreciate. While I
>>>> have always appreciated George Murphy's approach in general and firmly
>>>> advocate a Christ and cross-centered approach to theology myself, I have
>>>> always felt that his perspective was used to undermine other perspectives.
>>>> The thread on "Archimedes point" produced an "aha" moment for me. Without
>>>> denying the importance of George's approach, I would probably advocate a
>>>> more multi- perspective approach. I find this in some of John Frame's
>>>> writings and in traditional Reformed theology.
>>>> Finally, I think that it's worth saying, especially in light of a recent
>>>> post where seem to be getting our theology from Bruce Almighty, that much
>>>> of the resistance to the Calvinistic perspective comes from a commitment to
>>>> libertarian rather than compatibilist free will. While Calvinist
>>>> acknowledge creaturely free will (see the citations above from the
>>>> Westminster Confession), they deny that it is inconsistent with God's
>>>> decree and sovereignty over all things. The Confession says that "nor is
>>>> violence offered to the will of the creatures" while affirming God's
>>>> foreordination (not just foreknowledge) of whatever comes to pass.
>>>> Non-Calvinists deny that such a thing is possible and that compatibilist
>>>> free will is not free will at all (despite a long intellectual history that
>>>> includes Calvinists and various deterministic philosophies).
>>>> As an interesting aside, the Calvinistic perspective also lets us have
>>>> a fully human and a fully divine Scripture. Warfield and A. A. Hodge
>>>> advocate this in their view of inspiration. Their's is no dictation theory,
>>>> but their view has God providentially forming the writer's of scripture,
>>>> their backgrounds, context, circumstances, thoughts, etc. so that what they
>>>> write is exactly what He want written and declared to be His Word. This
>>>> rejection of the Calvinistic perspective is part of what leads Clark
>>>> Pinnock in "The Scripture Principle" to abandon inerrancy. His more recent
>>>> moves toward open theism is just part of a consistent rejection of
>>>> Calvinism.
>>>> TG
>>>> ________________
>>>> Terry M. Gray, Ph.D.
>>>> Computer Support Scientist
>>>> Chemistry Department
>>>> Colorado State University
>>>> Fort Collins, CO 80523
>>>> (o) 970-491-7003 (f) 970-491-1801
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>>> To unsubscribe, send a message to with
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>> ________________
>> Terry M. Gray, Ph.D.
>> Computer Support Scientist
>> Chemistry Department
>> Colorado State University
>> Fort Collins, CO 80523
>> (o) 970-491-7003 (f) 970-491-1801
>> To unsubscribe, send a message to with
>> "unsubscribe asa" (no quotes) as the body of the message.
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Received on Thu, 28 May 2009 19:00:22 -0400

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