[asa] observational vs. theoretical differences in scenarios; a direct question

From: Cameron Wybrow <wybrowc@sympatico.ca>
Date: Sun Jun 28 2009 - 16:02:12 EDT

In trying to elicit the opinion of various people here regarding the capability of Darwinian processes, I have frequently run into the objection that it is impossible to tell the difference observationally between Darwinian processes, front-loaded processes, and guided processes, and that therefore this is a "metaphysical" rather than a scientific question. I would like to address this in a couple of ways.

First, "metaphysical" doesn't follow from "can't tell the difference observationally". For example, in examining a body, a coroner may be trying to determine whether or not a person died from natural causes (chance, natural laws) or was murdered (design). He may be unable to tell the difference in some cases, e.g., a certain kind of poison may become undetectable in the body more than X hours after death, and its symptoms may look like those of a heart attack. It does not follow that the question whether or not the person was murdered is a "metaphysical" rather than a "scientific" question. Rather, it remains a perfectly scientific question, but one without (given current forensic technology) an available scientific answer. A year down the road, someone may find a new, perhaps indirect, way of detecting the existence or non-existence of the poison in the body, and a scientific answer (regarding the role of design or chance in the person's death) would then be forthcoming.

By analogy, something similar may apply to intelligent design, chance, and front-loaded scenarios in evolutionary speculation. It may well be that information or techniques will become available, for example, which could establish design, or rule out purely Darwinian explanations.

Second, and more important, macroevolution is not an observed phenomenon but an inferred one. We do not see it happening. And given the time scale of macroevolution, we never will. So the scientist is never in the position to be able to say: "I see this horse turning into a zebra, but I can't tell whether the molecular changes involved are Darwinian, front-loaded, or guided." For an evolutionary biologist to pretend to be in the position of the cool observational scientist, resolved not to resort to design or chance explanations because he doesn't have scientific data to settle the question, is comical. In evolutionary biology, not only is speculation unavoidable; it is the essential scientific activity of the whole enterprise. Evolutionary biologists speculate about what happened in the past, and they assign causes to past hypothetical events. So, for example, they speculate that a single wolf-like mammal eventually became the whole order of whales (past hypothetical event), and they invoke random mutations, drift, natural selection, etc. to explain this past hypothetical event.

Let us take a look at three broad speculative explanations (note that I deliberately avoid the word "scientific") for the reptile-mammal transition:

1. Reptiles became mammals by purely stochastic processes; there was no design in the appearance of any mutation, and God did not lift a pinky (other than to sustain the laws of nature) during the whole process.
2. Reptiles became mammals by a deterministic, front-loaded process; there was inbuilt design regarding at least the main thrust of the process, but beyond inserting that inbuilt design (at the beginning of life, or perhaps even at the beginning of the universe), God did not lift a pinky (other than to sustain the laws of nature) during the whole process.
3. God (or space aliens, if you prefer) steered the alterations of the genomes of reptiles until they became mammals, actually causing nature to produce *what it otherwise would never have produced*. (Note that this answer does not entirely exclude elements of stochastic and deterministic processes, but subordinates them to, or coordinates them with, a guiding hand, and is not in the slightest degree embarrassed to use the word "guidance".)

Darwin affirmed #1.

Dawkins, Coyne, Gould and most of the other famous evolutionary biologists have affirmed #1.

Denton affirms #2.

ID people are split, some affirming #2 and some affirming #3.

Now I am going to ask people here (as many as are willing to participate, anyway) to answer: which of the three scenarios above is the one that -- in your own personal view -- *actually happened*?

In order to avoid a repetition of earlier debates, let me emphasize what I am looking for. I am *not* asking for an epistemological or methodological discussion about how science could or could not tell the difference between these scenarios if they were to occur in front of our eyes. And I am *not* asking people to speak specifically *as scientists* (as opposed to philosophers, theologians, simple believers, or just sensible individuals). I am asking what each person here, thinking as a non-schizophrenic "whole person", with a single intellectual conclusion (however arrived at, whether by science, philosophy, faith, or some combination thereof), *What, in your view, actually happened?* - #1, #2, or #3. Not *what could have happened*, but what you think *did in fact happen*.

Here is my *perception* of what various people who call themselves TEs (or are classed as TEs by others) have said or would say:

David Campbell has (I think) affirmed #1, but with some shufflings and hesitations.

George Murphy has affirmed #3 as his personal view, though he doesn't rule out #1 as a possibility.

Ted Davis has an overall attitude similar to George Murphy's. I don't know if he has said (as directly as George said to me) that he thinks the process was in fact guided, but I will put him down for a #3 as well.

That's the sum total of my knowledge of the positions of TE people here regarding *what actually happened*.

Now, for other TEs:

Robert Russell goes for #3. (Of course he makes clear that the guidance is quantum-concealed and observationally indetectable, but he unambiguously affirms #3.)

I am told privately, but have not confirmed by personal inquiry, that Owen Gingerich and Loren Haarsma and possibly John Polkinghorne would endorse #3.

Ken Miller, Francis Collins, Francisco Ayala and Denis Lamoureux (as far as I can tell based on their public comments, which are not always clear to me) all have directly stated or strongly implied #1, though in the case of at least Miller and Collins, obfuscatory qualifications are sometimes added which make it hard to tell whether they are trying to build in an "escape clause" from #1, for theological reasons.

Now it wouldn't be fair for me to ask people this question without stating my own view, so here it is:

My own position is clear. I don't believe that #1 is scientifically credible, and even if it were scientifically credible, I don't think it could be squared with any orthodox Jewish, Christian or Muslim theology. So (a) I don't think it happened that way, and (b) if I did think that it happened that way, I would cease to believe in any traditional theistic religion. (Reasons given in my discussion with Mike Gene.) I opt for #2 or #3. Number 2 is of course the tidiest and the most "naturalistic", but the evidence for it is as yet quite sketchy; also its compatibility with traditional religion still needs to be explored. Number 3 does not require the acceptance of the staggeringly complex front-loading that is required by Number 2, and is clearly compatible with any major theistic religion.

Why do I want to know what people think about what actually happened? Because my goal is to find out how much common ground there is between ID people and TE people. If TE insists on #1, no rapprochement will be possible, because ID's whole raison d'etre is to oppose #1, just as Darwinism's whole raison d'etre is to affirm #1. But TEs who endorse #2 or #3 could be closer to an ID position than they think.

It is interesting, however, that no TE known to me has endorsed position #2, despite the fact that it is both wholly evolutionary and wholly naturalistic, two things which very much seem to matter to TEs. Does anyone here have any idea why #2, which would seem to have so much going for it from a TE point of view, just draws blank stares from TEs, and no response of any kind?

In any case, I expect that the greatest hope for rapprochement will be built around #3. But I am prepared to be surprised.

Any answers will be gratefully accepted. But methodological disquisitions that avoid answering the question: "What do you personally think actually happened?" are not pertinent, and should be held back for another occasion. I'd rather receive 7 clear answers than 25 learned evasions.


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Received on Sun Jun 28 16:04:16 2009

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