Re: [asa] on science and meta-science

From: Cameron Wybrow <>
Date: Tue Nov 10 2009 - 02:28:36 EST

All right, Ted; just so that we don't get tangled up, let me reproduce the
entire paragraph that you originally quoted from my post:

>CW: (2) Also, even if such a new label could avoid the above charge, it
>would get nowhere with most TEs, who reject the idea that design can be
>inferred from nature. So, while it might be less odious here than ID
>currently is, it would not affect TE thinking in the slightest. TEs would
>just dismiss it as an interesting philosophical idea which has nothing to
>do with science -- science as they very narrowly conceive it. The
>discussions here would take exactly the same shape that they do now.

The problem with the first sentence, as I see it now, is that I did not
spell out what I had in mind by inferring design from nature. I did not say
directly whether I had in mind that TEs rejected the design inference as a
*scientific* inference, or as an inference of any kind. I should have
specified. So I'll take the blame for the confusion.

On the other hand, in the second part of the paragraph, where I separate "an
interesting philosophical idea" from "science" as "narrowly conceived" by
TE, one might divine that I thought that TEs rejected the design inference
as a scientific inference, but not necessarily as a philosophical one. I
admit this might not be 100% clear, however, because "an interesting
philosophical idea" is not precisely "a philosophical inference". So again,
I'll take the blame for lack of clarity.

Enough of what I meant before. Here's what I think now, in light of your
questions and criticisms. Of the people you named, some of whom I've read
and some of whom I haven't, I suspect that most or all of them would reject
ID as a scientific inference. Now there might be two reasons for rejecting
ID as a scientific inference. The first would be that ID is a possible
scientific inference, but that the arguments so far aren't convincing. The
second would be that the very nature of design inferences puts them outside
of the scope of science. Now I would guess that just about everyone you
named would assert or lean strongly toward the latter. Do you think I am
right in saying this?

Now, of those who don't think ID is a valid scientific inference, but might
be a valid inference of a non-scientific kind, I would guess that none of
the people you have named think that the design inference is inevitable, and
that each of them assigns a different degree of strength to the design
inference. Some deem it very strong, others only of middling strength.
Would that be right?

Now, this is the tricky part. Some TEs (at least, several here) seem to
like to divide things up into "what we know through faith" and "what we know
through science", and they want to put "design" entirely in the "faith"
category. This is where I strongly object, and where all ID people strongly
object. However, at the same time, I understand that some TEs reasonably
want to hold back from saying that the evidence for design "proves" the
existence of God. All right, so let me reformulate.

I think I agree with you and Polkinghorne that, while it is *possible* to
remain an atheist in the face of indications of design in nature, nature
makes better sense to a theist. In other words, I think nature "tilts" in
the direction of theism. It isn't a 90-degree tilt, but it's a tilt.
Enough of a tilt, in my view, to make theism the "best explanation" of all
the available evidence, even though I grant that "the best explanation" may
not be the true one (it might be that the theistic appearances can be
explained away). Now I think that Denis Lamoureux agrees with you and
Polkinghorne about the "tilt". I'm not sure what all the other TEs would
say about it. But at least sometimes, from comments made here and
elsewhere, I get the impression that some TEs think that there is no "tilt",
and that nature presents a 180-degree level playing field, and that God
wants it that way, because he wants us to make up our mind about him based
entirely on faith, not reason or argument. This is where I differ, if not
with you and Polkinghorne, then with some other TEs, and the difference may
have something to do with culture, or upbringing, or cast of mind, or
whatever, but I think it's a profound one. I have a deep instinct that,
while God may want the choice regarding Christ to be entirely one of faith,
based on a neutral playing field, he doesn't leave the question of his
existence quite so opaque to reason. He leaves it possible to doubt his
existence, but he also drops some pretty strong hints of it. That's how I
see the evidence from nature. And that fits in with the way I read Psalm 19
and with my instinctive approval of the Pope's Regensburg speech. It also
fits in with my instinctive distrust of purely fideistic religion.

Now, regarding Polkinghorne's paragraph. I find it very balanced and
reasonable. I understand why he wants to avoid using the language of
"proof" for God's existence. And perhaps the examples I used of "knowledge"
(Columbus and a scientific formula) were too strong. Yet, note that they
are not quite *proofs* of the sort that Aquinas uses, for the one is a
historical date (potentially revisable -- it happens from time to time that
historians decide that traditional dates are wrong) and the other is a
scientific formula (again, potentially revisable in light of new theoretical
thinking and new empirical evidence). I was trying to choose examples which
fall short of formally demonstrable truths (as in geometry), but which are
certain enough for practical purposes that they count as "knowledge" rather
than something we believe on "faith". I'm willing to retract the examples,
but not the point I was trying to make with them, which is that when we talk
about knowing something about God from nature, we are talking about a
"knowledge" that is derived from publically available evidence, existing in
the realm of the evidential, the arguable, etc. and not the kind of
"knowledge" that is associated with "faith" (i.e., some sort of private
conviction we have about something, even in the absence of any tangible
evidence). I won't make a blanket judgment about all TEs on this list, but
it seems to me that more than once, in the list discussions here, I have
heard (admittedly not from you) arguments to the effect that all our
knowledge of God is ultimately faith-knowledge rather than knowledge derived
from our experience of the world.

Now as for Polkinghorne's point about Paley and so on. Yes, I understand
that relying on particular items (the eye, the origin of life) as proofs for
God has potential dangers that a more general appeal to "the character of
the physical fabric of the world" does not. On the other hand, I think that
what ID critics consistently miss is that ID is not merely an appeal to
particular items, even if it uses such items, e.g., the flagellum, to make
its point. If one looks carefully at Behe's arguments, for example, we see
that he is talking about very broad characteristics of cells and of living
systems which bespeak a designing intelligence. Behe does not need the
flagellum, except as an example, to point out the incredible level of
integrated complexity that goes on in living things. The flagellum is a
spectacular case, and easy to use for teaching purposes, because of the
obvious mechanical analogy with a macroscopic item (an outboard motor). But
every living cell, every bodily system, and just about every bodily process
(think of embryonic development!), is every bit as marvellously integrated
as the flagellum. So whereas Polkinghorne wants to rest his case on "the
character of the physical fabric of the world" (an argument which ID people
don't shun, but rather embrace, which is why they like Michael Denton,
Guillermo Gonzalez, etc.), ID adds the consideration of "the character of
organic life itself". It is not as if the choice is between "God of the
gaps" arguments regarding the origin of the camera eye on one hand, and
Polkinghorne's "character of the physical fabric of the world" on the other.
Rather, the physical fabric of the world and the character of organic life
are closely integrated realities, as Denton's second book shows (which is
why everyone here needs to read it). The kind of thinker who believes that
anthropic coincidences are good arguments for the existence of God will,
after reading Denton, see that these "anthropic coincidences" aren't found
only in the constants of nature and the amount of matter in the Primordial
Atom, but run all the way through nature, from the Big Bang through to the
human brain. Thus, I agree with Polkinghorne that it isn't wise to rest
much on one-shot items, but ID is much more than an argument from one-shot
items. It links up those "one-shot items" (the eye, the avian lung, the
flagellum, etc.) with much broader general organic realities, and those in
turn with the cosmic realities Polkinghorne is talking about.

Though I in many ways admire Aquinas, I'm really not terribly interested in
defending his "proofs" of God. Rather, I'm interested in the framework in
which those proofs are offered. Aquinas sees our knowledge of God as a
two-track knowledge, as proceeding from nature and from revelation. It is
this conception of knowledge of God that I defend, rather than any
particular argument of Aquinas. It may be that the modern heir of Aquinas's
"natural knowledge of God" is the thought of Denton and Polkinghorne. And
I'm willing to drop the notion of "proofs" (which I never really asserted
anyway), and speak instead of "knowledge of God obtained through nature",
where "knowledge" is understood not to be "demonstrated" in Aquinas's sense,
but intuited in Polkinghorne's and Denton's sense from the general character
of nature. In any case, the possibility of such knowledge of God is a far
cry from the near-fideism I often sense on this list. For Polkinghorne, it
appears, God still speaks through "the book of nature" and not just through
"the book of revelation".

I think that the excesses of ID you detect -- the overemphasis on
knock-down, drag-out proofs -- come by way of reaction, either against
Dawkins and his gang who emphasize "proofs" for atheism, or against TEs --
some TEs I should say -- who seem to reduce our natural knowledge of God to
zero. If the TEs on the ASA list here -- and remember that several ID
people in the past have spent time here and have partly picked up their
picture of TE from arguing with people here -- were not so fideistic and so
hard-nosed against even philosophical formulations of design inferences,
some ID proponents, I believe, would soften their language of "proof" and
speak more in language like Polkinghorne's.

Have I addressed all the concerns in your posts? Or is there still
something else that you would like me to speak to?


----- Original Message -----
From: "Ted Davis" <>
To: <>; "Cameron Wybrow" <>
Sent: Monday, November 09, 2009 5:54 PM
Subject: Re: [asa] on science and meta-science


I dissented specifically from this sentence of yours: " Also, even if such a
new label could avoid the above charge, it would get nowhere with most TEs,
who reject the idea that design can be inferred from nature."

And, as written, it is manifestly not true. I backed this up with specific
names of TE advocates who believe that design *can* be inferred from nature.

Your reply modified or qualified your claim, as follows (to quote you
again): "I haven't read all of the above, but surely most of these people
do not think that design inferences are scientific inferences. Many of them
have explicitly denied that they are. And some of them, and several people
this list, have denied that design inferences ever *could* be scientific
inferences, on the grounds that design inferences are inherently
"metaphysical" rather than scientific."


Cameron, this is not the specific claim I responded to. It is one thing to
affirm that design inferences from nature are possible, and even to endorse
a few of them oneself. It is another thing to affirm that they are
"scientific" inferences, as vs metaphysical or philosophical or theological
inferences. As you know, I have myself maintained that design arguments are
mainly (if not entirely) of a non-scientific nature, for various reasons,
including my belief that without some knowledge of (or some assumptions
about) a specific designer it is not possible to draw the inference of
design or purpose. We probably disagree about that, which is fine; but,
this IMO does count as affirming the possibility of making design inferences
from nature. Many of the others I cited would probably say something


Cameron continues:

"Further, my impression of most of these writers is that they would deny
that design can be proved even
employing philosophical rather than scientific reasoning. The sense I get
is that they believe that design inferences are only suggested (albeit for
some of the above people strongly suggested) even by philosophical
reasoning. So a "design inference" is, strictly speaking, not possible. It
is at best a "soft inference", i.e., not a logically firm conclusion.
<SNIP> I get the impression that every one of these people believes that
the design inference is never compelled, and therefore that an atheist's
impression of nature is every bit
as rational and consistent with the facts as a theist's."


Cameron, this fits the people I mentioned, to the best of my knowledge. I
do not believe that design can be "proved" in the sense you seem to require
here; it cannot be "compelled," as you say. Asa Gray realized this early
on: that Darwinism *does* make it possible, as Dawkins puts it, to be an
intellectually fulfilled atheist. Where Dawkins errs, IMO, is by entirely
and constantly failing to acknowledge that one can also be an intellectually
fulfilled theist--despite the basic truth of evolution. Indeed, I would say
that the inference to design is still more strongly supported than the
inference to its absence. Like Polkinghorne (among others), I believe that
the whole universe and the its very intelligibility make more sense on
theism than on non-theism. Like Polkinghorne, I also believe that the
atheists are not idiots: nothing compels them to theism, just as nothing
compels me to atheism.

Lamoureux holds that nature shouts design, as the Psalmist says, but that
spiritual darkness causes the atheist to deny this. Given this, would you
say that Lamoureux believes in design inferences, or not? His view is not
identical to mine, but I have some sympathy for it.

Finally, Cameron, you wrote:

" But I think
that all ID proponents would say that the philosophical inference is so
strong that the person who rejects it is on rationally much weaker ground
that the person who accepts it. Or, to put in another way, even if science
in the narrow sense cannot establish design, philosophy, building upon the
results of science, can, for all practical purposes, establish design as a
genuine piece of *knowledge* (not "feeling", not "faith", not "purely
private interpretation", etc.) about nature. Would the above TEs agree with
that? If not, then I see no need to retract my generalization."


As I've already said, I think you have already modified (not retracted) your
generalization, by giving specific meanings to "inference" that I do not
share. I do think that we can find evidence for purpose/design in nature,
but the inference is not on the same level as it is for you. You said that
we needed to ground a knowledge, "in the strong sense of the word "know",
i.e., in the sense that we "know" that Columbus sailed in 1492 or "know"
that PV = nRT."

I do not agree with this. I don't think that Dawkins has this kind of
"knowledge" that there is no design in the universe; nor do I think that I
have this kind of "knowledge" that there *is* design in the universe.
Polkinghorne puts it like this, in "Belief in God in an Age of Science," pp.
1 and 10. Please read (and re-read) carefully, for nuance is part of the
essence of Polkinghorne's position and of mine.

"The world is not full of items stamped 'made by God' -- the Creator is more
subtle than that -- but there are two locations where general hints of the
divine presence might be expected to be seen most clearly." [These are the
cosmos and our own consciousness.]

[Speaking of anthropic phenomena, ...] "Once again the theistic conclusion
is not logically coercive, but it can claim serious consideration as an
intellectually satisfying understanding of what would otherwise be
unintelligible good fortune. It has certainly struck a number of authors in
this way, including some who are innocent of any influence from a
contemporary religious agenda [P Davies is cited]. Such a reading of the
physical world as containing rumours of divine purpose, constitutes a new
form of natural theology, to which the insight about intelligibility can
also be added. This new natural theology differs from the old-style natural
theology of Anselm and Aquinas be refraining from talking about 'proofs' of
God's existence and by being content with the more modest role of offering
theistic belief as an insightful account of what is going on. It differs
from the old-style natural theology of William Paley and others by basing
its arguments not upon particular occurrences (the coming-to-be of the eye
or life itself), but on the character of the physical fabric of the world,
which is the necessary ground for the possibility of any occurrence (it
appeals to cosmic rationality and the anthropic form of the laws of
nature)." [etc. The etc. can be really helpful and important, but I don't
have time to copy it all out. This makes my point well enough.]

OK, Cameron, having seen all this, do you still want to say that someone
like me or Polkinghorne (who speaks for me above) "denies that design can be
inferred from nature"? If so, then we strongly disagree on what it means to
infer design from nature. I've said many times, including a few times in
exchanges with you, that ID advocates seem to want something like knock-down
proofs of God -- er, excuse me, knowdown proofs of design, which carry the
direct implication that there is a designer who can only be "God" if it's
the universe and life that we are talking about. I've expressed my strong
hunch that ID advocates want this kind of knockdown proof, in order to be
able to use it in culture wars: another place where I think we just can't
separate ID from its religious/political/social context. I am not making
this point to be critical in the negative sense, but to be critical in the
analytical sense. On the other hand, most TEs are content with something
more like what I have stated above. We don't see this as a "proof" of a
Paleyan, old-style type. Whereas, I think that Behe and Dembski and Meyer
and you *do* see your arguments as Paleyan-style "proofs."

Is this a fair statement of our differences, Cameron?

If so, do you see why I contest your claim?


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Received on Tue Nov 10 02:29:39 2009

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