Re: [asa] on science and meta-science

From: Cameron Wybrow <>
Date: Sat Nov 07 2009 - 01:22:10 EST


(A) Obviously, if we decide that the science of nature will proceed by postulating only natural causes, then whenever that science is incomplete, we will look for an unknown natural cause, rather than postulating miraculous intervention. I don't think that ID proponents have any problem with this, when the subject-matter is the operations of nature as they are available to us today. If the orbit of a planet seems out of whack, ID proponents, like TE proponents, will look for some unknown planet whose gravitational effects could explain the anomalous orbit; they won't suggest that God is creating the deviation by some special intervention. And if we don't understand a particular stage in the embryonic development of a sheep, ID proponents, like TE proponents, will look for an explanation in terms of biological principles; they won't invoke a miraculous divine action.

The difficulty comes when one moves from studying the present-day operations of nature to the origin of the present-day arrangements. There is no reason to assume that the origins are entirely explicable in terms of natural laws. They may be; but they may not be. It is certainly not the case that the physical processes which run an automobile were the processes by which the automobile came into existence; nor are the physical processes which run a wristwatch the processes by which the wristwatch came into being. Analogy would suggest that the same is the case for at least some natural objects, i.e., those which are not (like stars) mere conglomerations of particles, but which are (like living things) units which integrate several complex and mutually interacting systems. Of course, analogy might be misleading. It might be that entities consisting of complex integrated systems could arise entirely out of natural processes; but this cannot be assumed. And if it cannot be assumed, then the whole idea of using the methods of science to probe origins, in the case of living things, is problematic. Science, on your own account, can operate only if naturalistic causation is assumed.

Of course, one might decide to study the origin of new phyla, or the origin of life itself, on the working assumption that the origin in question was entirely natural. Thus, a scientist might decide to investigate the origin of life, on the working assumption that life could have come to be through unguided chemical activity, as atoms and molecules sloshed around in a primordial soup, bombarded by energy from various terrestrial and cosmic sources. I think this is a legitimate investigation, as long as the scientist is fully aware that the working assumption is an assumption, not a fact, and that it may be a completely mistaken assumption, because life may not have arisen by such means. It also must be made clear to the readers of such scientific research that the entire project is the follow-up to an "if" clause, and may be the equivalent of looking for a chimera, or for the Fountain of Youth. But too often, origin-of-life discussion are written up as, e.g.: "We haven't YET determined how the protein-DNA complex was formed from simpler predecessors..." This implies that it is only a matter of time until the question is answered; such an implication is unwarranted, because life might not have originated by such processes at all.

(B) I agree that gaps should not be made the basis of apologetics. I think that many Christians in the pews interpret ID as an argument from gaps. But careful readers of Behe, Denton, etc. know that ID is not an argument from gaps. It is an argument based on broad patterns of organized complexity found throughout living nature (and in Denton's case, based also on the remarkable presence of cosmic fine-tuning). Thus, ID is not at all the same thing as Creation Science was. It may well be that the same sort of churches and people that used to embrace Creation Science are now embracing ID, but any worthwhile theory, opinion, organization, or movement has supporters with all kinds of motives, and it hardly disproves ID that it has some support from questionable quarters.

(C) I also agree that miraculous disruptions in the order of nature are not necessary in order for God to be behind what happens. Many ID proponents have granted this already. I further agree that miraculous interventions in the evolutionary process aren't "demanded by Scripture". But neither are they ruled out by Scripture. All that Scripture indicates is that the creation of the world and all other living things was the work of God. How God produced living things is not described. We are thus free to speculate on either natural causes or supernatural interventions. Obviously, if natural science can come up with a satisfying naturalistic explanation for the march of life, then that is the option we should settle on. But natural science is nowhere near to possessing such an explanation at the present time. It cannot describe a coherent evolutionary pathway for even one major organ, system or body plan. Until it can, the believer is free to think in terms of supernatural interventions, or combinations of natural causes and supernatural interventions.

(D) In any case, the focus of ID is not on the means (natural or supernatural) by which the design in nature was achieved. The focus of ID is on the design. I find that TEs (along with the YECs) want to frame the argument as miracle vs. non-miracle, whereas ID people (along with atheist Darwinists) want to frame it as design vs. chance. All of your arguments above seem premised on the notion that ID insists on miracles. And this is where I think that your political experience with certain ID proponents misleads you. You are arguing against "political ID", which is sometimes intertwined with YEC, whereas I am arguing in favour of "intelligent design" as an inference based on nature, which has nothing to do with YEC, or even with the Bible or Christianity. Political ID is a passing phenomenon, which will not be here 50 years from now, whereas intelligent design as a concept will endure, and will penetrate the university, emanating outward from the engineering and computer science departments, and will become so much a commonplace of thought that even the evolutionary biologists will have to take it seriously.


  ----- Original Message -----
  From: Keith Miller
  Sent: Friday, November 06, 2009 6:35 PM
  Subject: Re: [asa] on science and meta-science

  Cameron wrote:

    All of the Christian ID proponents that I have conversed with would give a resounding affirmation of the first part of this sentence. God is greater than we can imagine -- which means not only that he could have risen from the dead, but also that he could have (if he chose) created new species ex nihilo, and that he could have (if he chose) miraculously modified a few simple types into over thirty phyla during the Cambrian explosion. It does not follow that God *did* such things, but Christian ID people are at least open to the possibility that he did them. Many TEs apparently aren't. And this is why many Christian ID supporters see many TEs as (to use Dave Siemens's verb) "waffling". ID does not require miracles -- it is compatible with some sort of front-loading, a la Mike Gene or a la Denton -- but it has no theological *problem* with miracles. When miracles are discussed among ID people I chat with, there is none of the squirminess and awkwardness and ambiguity and apparent embarrassment about the subject that I have seen in TE circles. TEs may well assert that God is greater than we can imagine, but in fact they generally conceive of him as acting in the way that we imagine -- a way that is indistinguishable in practice (albeit not in theory) from the way that a Deistic God would act.

   My complaint against ID has to do with the limitations on what science is able to conclude about the history of life, not about the reality of what that history is. God is obviously entirely free to act in history in whatever manner God sees fit. However, the discipline of science cannot conclude that God did actually intervene to break the continuity of secondary cause-and-effect. Not only is science a limited way of knowing, but our current scientific knowledge is incomplete --- we don't know what we don't know. Therefore, any observation that suggests a break in the continuity of cause-and-effect is equivalent to current ignorance.

  I have consistently stated that what I reject is the claim that there must be some break in continuity somewhere if God is really to be God. This rejection is a consequence of what I see as the clear scriptural claims about God as creator and sustainer. Therefore, Christians in science can, and should, continue to seek out cause-and-effect explanations where none are currently known. I have no theological stake in there being real causal gaps, nor do I have any theological stake in there being no breaks. It is just that science, as long as it remains incomplete, will never be able to demonstrate such gaps. People are free to see current apparent gaps as evidence of divine action. However, I do not see such claims as good apologetics, and certainly do not see them as demanded by scripture.

  I discuss these issues in my essay on methodological naturalism published in the edited volume "For the Rock Record: Geologists on Intelligent Design." If anyone wants the most complete explanation of my views this is the place to go.


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Received on Sat Nov 7 01:22:59 2009

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