Re: [asa] Cameron- question of Adam

From: Cameron Wybrow <>
Date: Thu Jun 18 2009 - 09:46:53 EDT

Hi, Ted!

First of all, let me say that if the notion of "methodological naturalism"
meant nothing more than that scientists should try to find natural
explanations for events that happen in nature, i.e., if it were merely a
pragmatic rule of thumb, I would have no objection to it. This idea is, as
you say, very old, and makes perfect sense to me. My objection is to the
way that "methodological naturalism but not metaphysical naturalism" is used
in the debates over evolution, e.g., to try to separate Darwin's essential
philosophy of nature from his purported scientific accomplishments (which in
my view is not possible), or to try to ban design detection from science no
matter how overwhelming the rational evidence. I would be very interested
in knowing what you as a historian have discovered about the origin of the
"methodological naturalism but not metaphysical naturalism" discussion. I
suspect that this particular discussion arose quite late in modern science,
and arose specifically out of discussions about evolution, either
specifically within the TE camp, to deal with atheist Darwinism on one hand
and ID on the other, or earlier, using a different vocabulary, within a
proto-TE camp, some time after 1859, among Christian theologians and
scientists who favoured Darwin but were concerned about the religious
implications of his theory, and wanted to keep Darwin's results without the
implications. Do you have any knowledge of this? When was the distinction
first made, in those exact words? And when was it first made, in equivalent

I agree with you about the Hawaiian islands. But keep in mind that we can
observe the process of volcanic formation. It is not a mere inference. We
have observed it on land (Paricutin) and we can now observe it under water.
The historical explanation for the Hawaiian islands is thus an extrapolation
of known processes back into the past -- something perfectly appropriate for
science. In the case of evolutionary biology, it is not so simple. In
evolutionary biology we are extrapolating *inferred* processes back into the
past. If the processes are non-existent, the extrapolation is invalid. Of
course, one can argue that "microevolution" has been confirmed
observationally, but even regarding microevolution what has been confirmed
is restricted to very trivial changes, mostly on the level of varieties, in
some cases perhaps rising to the level of species or genus. But the
macroevolutionary process has not been observationally confirmed; and even
on the level of theory, we simply do not know enough about genetics,
development, etc. to know whether accumulated minor changes can create
radically new organs or body plans. Darwinism asserts that they can; but
assertion is not demonstration.

But I think you want me to stick to the genetic changes discussed by
Collins. Fair enough. I have no problem with, and Behe has no problem
with, the argument that similar genetic "errors" in two similar species
count as evidence for common descent, even more than similar genetic
features do. Similar genetic features could easily be explained by common
design needs, whereas similar genetic "errors" (of course YEC people will
reject the inference that they are errors) seem much harder to explain on
the hypothesis of design. For this reason, I am inclined to think that
common descent involving a degree of contingency is *part* of the story of
our origin -- the other part being an overarching design which keeps the
contingencies within rough boundaries.

But note that a stubborn YEC could argue: (1) That though we *currently*
can explain the genetic data only in terms of some sort of error, in the
future we may discover some functionality lying behind these supposed
errors, so we should not use "common descent of the gaps" reasoning; (2)
There may have been many ways to produce humans and chimps, and God just
happened, for reasons of divine taste, to choose one which left marks
suggesting common descent, even though there was no common descent (maybe he
got bored with even numbers like 24, and decided to switch to an odd one,
23; or maybe he thought it fitting that the number of chromosomes in a human
[23] should be prime); (3) God may have known that we would come up with a
wicked, atheistic theory of evolution, and may have "planted" some fake
evidence for evolution to test our faith. Of course, Ted, you know or could
easily guess that I would find objection (3) theologically repugnant, that I
would find objection (2) far too casual and undisciplined [an appeal to our
ignorance of God's motivations can prove anything, and therefore proves
nothing], and that objection (1) is the only YEC reason I would take
seriously. But even granting the reasonableness of objection (1), I would
still suggest that YECs should admit that common descent is the best
*tentative* conclusion.

My general position is that there is far too much evidence for design in
living systems for chance explanations to be anywhere near sufficient, and
that there is too much evidence for contingency in living systems for design
alone to be the explanation. I see in living systems an interplay, a
"dialectic" if you like pretentious words, between design and chance.
That's why I'm not offended by common descent or by Collins's argument on
the points in question (which doesn't mean that I agree with everything that
Collins says about Darwin or about religion and science).

My point to Bernie, however, remains true: "science" as understood by most
TEs cannot disprove the literal account of human creation given in Genesis.
God could have created Adam with all the primate-like genetic features that
Collins notes, without the use of common descent. Even if we argue that
this creation must have taken place much longer than 6,000 years ago, it
still could have happened in the way described in Genesis. The YEC view
cannot be falsified by science. It can be declared to be non-scientific or
theological and therefore unsuited to discussion in a science class. In
contrast, Behe's common-descent view gives due weight to the contingencies
and modes of explanation accepted by science, and merely adds to the
scientific discussion some empirical observations and rational argumentation
in favour of an addition causal factor of intelligent design. His argument
is therefore not *obviously* non-scientific in the way that YEC is. At the
very least it is strongly anchored in science. His left foot is within the
scientific circle even if his right foot steps outside of it. YECs, on the
other hand, have both feet firmly planted outside of the circle.


----- Original Message -----
From: "Ted Davis" <>
To: <>; <>
Sent: Thursday, June 18, 2009 12:46 AM
Subject: Re: [asa] Cameron- question of Adam

> Cameron,
> A few weeks ago, I recall you advancing the point that ID isn't
> necessarily
> opposed to naturalism (apparently including MN), that this was one of the
> differences between ID as it presently exists and ID as it has sometimes
> been presented in the past. Rather, you said, ID is simply opposed to the
> claim that the universe lacks all evidence of design (those are my words,
> but I think they fairly express your point).
> I objected -- that is, I expressed great scepticism that ID is now OK with
> naturalism. Your posts on this topic seem to support my scepticism. You
> seem once again to be pointing to deep problems (from your perspective)
> with
> the way in which advocates of TE use the distinction between MN and
> metaphysical naturalism, and I keep wondering why if you are correct about
> recent trends in ID.
> Let me respond more substantively to your point about how a reliance on
> this
> distinction "enables" a YEC position. I don't see this at all. It isn't
> a
> matter of preferring one explanation over another, *simply* b/c one
> conforms
> to naturalism and the other does not -- although I do think that
> scientific
> explanations ought to be naturalistic (we've talked about this often
> before,
> and this particular view of science predates the idea of MN by millenia as
> you know). There is much more to this. The naturalistic explanation
> provided by Collins, whether or not it is actually true, seems to me very
> much like the kinds of wide-ranging, highly satisfactory explanations that
> we obtain from geology concerning the history of (say) the Lewis
> Overthrust
> in the US and Canada. We see now what we see now, and we get a coherent
> explanation of what we see from the naturalistic hypothesis that has been
> put forth. To use a related example, humans and chimps both have
> identical,
> broken genes for making vitamin-C. By far the most obvious explanation,
> IMO, is that we share a common ancestor that also had the same broken
> gene.
> To claim that there is a common design element here, involving as yet
> unknown functions of a gene that to all appearances is just a broken gene,
> seems both silly and pointless. Certainly it's not scientific -- not
> unless
> those functions can be found and shown to be relevant to humans and chimps
> -- and with what we presently know the two explanations are hardly on the
> same planet, let alone in the same ballpark of plausibility.
> A further, relevant point. The kinds of explanations that we have in
> historical sciences such as geology -- the explanation, e.g., of why the
> Hawaiian archipelago has active volcanoes on the southeastern end and a
> long
> string of coral atolls on the northwestern end -- which are based on the
> assumption that naturalism is also applicable in the past, can be tested
> against a very wide range of phenomena and found to work very well in many
> cases. The YEC approach, on the other hand, is simply a string of ad hoc
> explanations drawing on miracles at various points to avoid conclusions
> that
> imply an "old" earth or universe. I see the same thing operating in the
> suggestion you are making about God designing the human genome (as an
> alternative to common descent). It is offered by some ID advocates, IMO,
> precisely and only to uphold the view that humans have been separately
> created, even though the observed facts do not favor that view. As ID
> proponents are fond of saying, we need to "follow the evidence wherever it
> leads," and it surely seems to lead to the conclusions that (a) the early
> and universe are enormously older than humanity; and (b) humans and modern
> primates have common ancestors. It might also lead one to conclude that
> life was created miraculously (at least presently no one has a clue how it
> might have happened naturalistically, and abstract mathematical
> calculations
> suggest that it didn't happen by itself), but it doesn't lead one to
> conclude that the YEC view of the human genome has any real merits.
> Ted

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Received on Thu Jun 18 09:47:54 2009

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