design and the nature of science (was: Re: [asa] Re: Gingerich on TE and ID)

From: Cameron Wybrow <>
Date: Sun Jun 07 2009 - 22:00:01 EDT

Hello again, Moorad:

I would never claim that there are physical devices to measure design in
nature, and I agree that design is an inference from the data, not an
observation. But isn't most science like that? Newton had no device which
could directly reveal "gravity"; he inferred the existence of gravity as the
best explanation of a certain set of facts. In contrast, Galileo refused to
accept gravity because to him there were no data pointing to the possibility
of "action at a distance"; he thought such notions implied "occult forces",
i.e., supernatural explanations, which had no place in science. In other
words, Galileo was a "methodological naturalist" in his own manner, before
the invention of the term. He therefore would not make the inference that
Newton later did, and hence his explanation of the tides, based on the
assumption that action could be communicated only by direct contact, was
wrong. Galileo could be seen as more data-driven than Newton on this
point -- normally action appears to be communicated only by contact -- yet
everyone agrees that Newton's science was better. This shows two things:
(1) Science is data plus inference, not mere data; (2) The things inferred
by science sometimes expand our view of what "nature" is, or what "nature"

So the question arises why, if we can infer an intangible, invisible,
massless thing like "gravity", without violating "methodological
naturalism", why can't we infer something intangible, invisible and massless
like "final cause" in nature? I am not arguing that we *should* make the
inference that final causes operate in nature; I am only asking why such an
inference is shut out of science *in principle*. If we had accepted
Galileo's notion of what was to be excluded from science *in principle*, the
progress of modern physics would have been arrested indefinitely. That
should caution us against deciding, on the basis of some abstract notion of
"science", that certain realities may not be inferred from the data.

Of course, nothing I have said above implies that people should just accept
the design arguments of Behe and Dembski uncritically. Nothing I have said
even implies that they are well-formulated arguments, or well-founded in the
data. But the point is that many people here want to rule out design
inferences *in principle*, no matter how tight the argument, no matter how
good the data, and no matter how astronomical the odds are against a
non-design explanation. People are unwilling to have their vision of nature
expanded to include an aspect of final causation, just as Galileo was
unwilling to have his vision of nature expanded to include a universal force
of gravity. Why do we assume that nature cannot surprise us? It appears to
me that just as 19th-century mechanistic physics had to be willing to let
its view of nature be expanded by relativity and quantum theory, so
20th-century mechanistic biology ought to be willing to let its view of
nature be expanded, in the 21st century, by teleological concepts -- *if*
the evidence points that way.

I'm not contending that design in nature has been proved; I'm just noting
that the scientific establishment is inherently hostile to inferences in
that direction, and that while the hostility can be justified by
high-sounding principles such as "methodological naturalism", high-sounding
principles have led science astray before. My preferred notion of natural
science is based not on abstract principles of method, but on letting nature
speak; and that means adapting not only our theories, but even our
sacrosanct principles of interpretation, to the form of nature, rather than
dictating to nature the form it must take to suit our intellects. Of
course, in saying this I am aware that I am flying in the face of Descartes
and Kant. Well, so be it.


----- Original Message -----
From: "Alexanian, Moorad" <>
To: "Cameron Wybrow" <>; <>
Sent: Sunday, June 07, 2009 8:01 PM
Subject: RE: [asa] Re: Gingerich on TE and ID

Hi again Cameron,

Science is based on data gathering and I am inclined to the "gatherer" being
purely physical devices. Therein lies the objectivity of science. It may be
argued that this limits the subject matter of science but as a first
attempt, it is better and makes clear what we mean by the word “science.”

Surely, there are no purely physical devices that can detect design in
Nature. It would be foolish to think that such a device would exist. It is
the inferences that human minds make of the data that gives rise to
theories. Of course, the data is of real things whereas the data itself is
merely the physical aspect of the real thing. Now it is not inconceivable
that one can use the data and conclude that the real thing may have been
designed. I always thought that the issue of design is inexorably connected
to the issue of existence, which goes beyond the physical data and dwells
into the metaphysics of reality.

From: [] On Behalf Of
Cameron Wybrow []
Sent: Sunday, June 07, 2009 4:12 PM
Subject: [asa] Re: Gingerich on TE and ID

Hi, Ted!

I don't doubt that Gingerich's intentions are faithful or that he's a very
fine person. And I grant that there's a legitimate difference of opinion
over whether or not design can be recognized scientifically. So let me make
it clear that I am not accusing Gingerich of being a bad Christian or a
non-Christian for concluding that design detection is not in the province of
science. Nor do I wish to dispute any of Gingerich's other explicit views
on evolution, science, theology, etc.

My comment was really aimed at a broader concern, one which I think that all
reconcilers of Christian theology and science -- and not just on the
question of evolution, but on other questions, such as free will -- need to
think about. I was concerned that the language Gingerich used -- quite
unconsciously, I suspect -- gives away too much to a radically subjectivist
approach to theology and to knowledge in general.

I doubt very much that Gingerich admires the philosophy of existentialism,
but his language has an existentialist ring to it -- "choosing to believe",
for example. It is not surprising Gingerich or any other non-existentialist
would pick up this language; it's all around us. And that's not the only
case where language which reflects a fundamentally subjectivist account of
the world is used by conservative people who would see themselves as
anti-subjectivist. For example, the word "values" is used by conservative
people all the time. But the language of "values" is not the language of
classical moral philosophy; it came to us from Nietzsche. It implies that
good, evil, just, unjust, proper, improper, etc. are not in the nature of
things, but come from human decision. It's one of the ironies of the modern
age that conservatives use the language of Nietzsche in order to argue for a
return to older moral standards.

This turn toward the subjective is connected with the modern tendency to
divide reality between "subjective" and "objective" realms. We tend to
regard "nature" as part of the "objective" realm, and have assigned the
understanding of this "objective" realm to a non-teleological science. As
that non-teleological science has grown in explanatory power by leaps and
bounds, to the point where it now purports to explain even how the passions
and the mind work, religion is crowded ever more and more into the
"subjective" realm, where, it is believed by many, religion will be
invulnerable to anything science can discover about nature or even human
nature. So we can choose our religion, and continue to believe in it out of
sheer will, or desire, or preference, and never be in contradiction with
what the world is really like. In this view, science purportedly describes
nature "objectively", and atheists and Christians are then free to apply
their "subjective" religious glosses to the objective reality disclosed by
science, and make statements which are utterly beyond public verification or

It sounds great, in principle, since it guarantees the protection of
Christian faith from any imaginable advance in natural science (including
natural scientific discoveries which might seem to many to destroy the
possibility of human free will). But this immunity of Christian faith from
the facts of nature comes at a high cost in terms of public prestige, since
many people in the modern world, including leading members of its
intelligentsia, take the "objective" realm to be "real" and the "subjective"
realm to be of dubious status; possibly the subjective realm, including the
realm of religious feeling and experience, is a mere epiphenomenon of the
movements of matter which has no real existence. Thus, from the point of
view of many, Christianity is no more than a particular illusion or neurosis
which helps Christians get through the day. And by adopting a subjectivist
account of faith, Christians in effect make this charge irrefutable. They
can personally believe that their free will and their faith and their
religious experiences and so on are not mere epiphenomena of neural activity
in the brain, but they cannot expect the world to believe the same, because
the very subjectivism which protects their faith from disproof also rules
out the possibility of proving that their beliefs have any grounding in

Pre-modern Christian metaphysics and ethics did not use the language of
"subjectivity" and "objectivity", and the word "real" did not have the sense
that has acquired in modern times. Nor, for that matter, did the word
"science". The categories that bedevil us are of modern provenance.
Pre-modern Christian metaphysics did not divide, but sought to harmonize,
the truth of the world that was known with the reliability of the human
apparatus that knew it. It therefore seems to me that at least part of the
blame for the sundering of our knowledge and our world was the break-up of
the pre-modern metaphysics. One of the main forces responsible for that
break-up was Protestantism itself. This, I think, is why many Protestants
have not resisted, and have even promoted, the subjective/objective
division. For certain Protestants -- those of a fideistic temperament --
nature, conscience, etc. have no reliable touchpoints with God or Christ,
and so the "choice" for God or Christ is not in any sense natural or
rational. The adoption of a religion is thus like a roll of the dice.

Once again I refer to the Pope's Regensburg speech. The question is whether
Christianity should be interpreted in an Islam-like way, i.e., as at bottom
radically fideistic, or in a Patristic-Medieval way, i.e., as a theology in
which elements of faith and reason are interwoven in an inseparable way.
Clearly I prefer the latter interpretation. The question is where
Protestantism sits between these two ways. Its language is inconsistent and
wavering, in part because Protestantism is not a tidy unity, but comprises a
broad range of Christian views, some closer to the classical-Christian
synthesis that I endorse, and others further away. In some Protestant
statements that are made here, I hear the clear accents of a fideism which
would make Christianity impervious to any possible result of science, but at
a cost I am unwilling to pay. I would rather have a Christianity that could
be put at risk by at least some imaginable discoveries about the way the
world is, and therefore boldly asserts something of an essentially public
nature, than a Christianity which is bullet-proof because it is a pure
fideism, but threatens no one and changes nothing because it asserts nothing
of public relevance.


----- Original Message -----
From: "Ted Davis" <>
To: <>; <>
Sent: Sunday, May 31, 2009 7:52 PM
Subject: Re: Gingerich on TE and ID

> Cameron,
> I have nothing more to add concerning the approach that Owen Gingerich
> takes
> in "God's Universe." I find it both eloquent and faithful, whereas you
> are
> not impressed and want to have a stronger role for natural theology here.
> (I think this is what you are saying and invite correction if not.)
> That's a basic disagreement, and IMO a fair one. Most TE advocates would
> say that, if there is a role for natural theology (and Owen thinks there
> is,
> devoting an earlier chapter to that topic), it's a modest one with limited
> scope, and primarily in the realm of metaphysics rather than science
> (though
> science of course can be used in the arguments). I realize that "Design"
> as
> used by ID advocates is not understood by those advocates to be a type of
> natural theology -- the natural theological step is separate from the
> design
> inference (which is scientific, in the opinion of ID advocates). Whereas,
> TEs typically think that "design" inevitably entails theological
> inferences
> and goes well beyond science.
> Have I put this fairly?
> Ted

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Received on Sun Jun 7 22:00:51 2009

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