Monday, 8 December 2008

Evolution - intellient and designed? (Creation or evolution, chapter 15)

This is the penultimate chapter, the final one addressing the question of the origin of life on which so far nothing has been said. It follows on from the previous chapter which critiqued the "Intellient Design" movement, making some further criticisms on a philosophical level before going on to ask what we can say positively about design in nature.

After school I studied mathematics at university, and whether that was a sympton or a cause, I think I've ended up with something of a nose for a system. I like to see the big picture. On that level, I've appreciated DA's book - he's a consistent man. Yes, there are arguments here and arguments there which contradict each other. And I've made it abundantly clear that I don't think that his overall system is close to being consistent with a Bible-based understanding of the world's creation or history. But, on the "big picture" level, his system is consistent with itself. It all hangs together. His overall view of God's method of creation, the principles for interpreting Scripture and relating it to science, the identity of Adam, the Fall, the relationship between sin and the physical world, the natural and supernatural, all follow the same lines throughout the book. That's a good thing, because if someone changes their line every chapter then there's no real possibility of rational consideration or debate.

It's that consistency throughout the book up until now that defines the disappointment of this particular chapter - because here it rather goes to pot. There's nothing much to dislike about the Biblical exegesis in this chapter, because apart from a few fragments thrown in like raisins in the cake, there isn't really any. What there is is a collection of (in my assessment) ad hoc arguments thrown together with little regard to whether they agree with each other or the rest of DA's thesis. In this aspect it continues and magnifies the trend I remarked from the previous chapter - he seems just to have joined together a number of second-hand talking points, and it's disappointing because the rest of the book is much more considered. I will make a few comments about a couple of those ad hoc arguments - readers can analyse the rest for themselves - then I want to go on to looking more broadly at the "big picture" of this chapter.


So it is that DA, having for the book so far criticised creationists because they seek to mix the Bible with science when he believes there is a much greater separation between those domains than they do, now criticises ID theorists for not being explicitly Christian enough in their writings. After telling us on page after page that Scripture does not give us scientific information and we must trust the scientific process for anything in that realm, on page 317 we now read, "So I find it worrying from a Christian perspective that ID proponents are so insistent that they do not look to Scripture for their core beliefs, but isntead to a form of natural theology". (Of course, this statement is in itself nonsense, because DA's chosen to treat ID theorists' statements about their scientific methods and conclusions as if they  were the whole of their belief system).

Again, for the book so far, DA has insisted in the soundness of the scientific method and that it is to the peer-reviewed consensus that we should look for truth about earth history, not Scripture (which has a theological, not a historical/scientific account). Now, though, when DA wants to argue that in fact evolution can perhaps be seen as an objectively directed, purposeful process, he starts talking about "recent" scientific writings which suggest this or that, though they are a minority, and which might point the way to understanding Darwinism as non-random after all, despite the consensus. He speaks of it being "interesting" to see "challenges" to that consensus, and so on. This is having your cake and eating it. Either you get to patronise dissenters from the mainstream, or you can be one, but not both.


DA makes a real hash of discussing the question of naturalism. His criticism is that when seeking to identify particular instances of design in nature, ID theorists concede that other things do not exhibit specific design and can be described in terms of "naturalistic" processes - and thus, he says, ID theorists give the idea of a universe in which God is only immanent in a limited number of places, rather than being present in everything everywhere. This misses the point entirely. The point is that of mind and intentionality. Suppose I deliberately place stones around my garden in certain locations, though those locations were not chosen based on any rational principle. Suppose also that there are other stones which were "just there" already from whatever had happened in the garden over the years. The resulting scattering would look much the same. A mind was involved in one case, but not in the other - but there's no way of detecting the presence of the mind. Suppose, on the other hand, that I placed some more stones to spell out the words "Darwin sucks". I think if you entered my garden and saw that, you'd conclude that a mind (whether one whose workings you sympathised with or not!) had been at work. A mind had been at work in two of those three cases - but in one, it was specifically detectable because of certain patterns in its activity. That's what's going on in ID. ID theorists are not addressing the question, "are these other things also from a mind?" or conceding that they're not. They're conducting a limited enterprise - seeking to recognise certain and limited signatures of minds, in nature. That's a simple enough distinction to understand. DA, though, spends the relevant parts of this chapter involved in what is in my opinion cheap-shot polemics, misunderstanding things at every turn and then building criticisms on those misunderstandings.

Arguments against ID

DA argues again that ID is an argument from ignorance, saying that Dembski's explanatory filter (does it describe law-like behaviour? If not, could its assembly be explained by a chance evolutionary process? If not, then the remaining alternative is design) is a "design of the gaps" argument, and that future knowledge may filll those gaps in in terms of one of the first two explanation, and that if the first two explanations don't work we should say that we are simply ignorant and need more work. But this is simply "stacking the decks". It's perfectly reasonable to consider a design thesis rather than ruling it out of court in advance - there's no reason from science itself why Darwinian explanations should get the priority against competing paradigms; only from anti-Christian philosophy and theology. A consistently Christian world-view and theory of investigation can never privilege non-design explanations in this way. The same point applies again when DA goes on to argue that to introduce the language of design into science is a category error. This argument is also far too broad, and contradicts the concession given in the previous chapter that crypography, forensics and SETI are legitimate scientific endeavours to identify design. Why the dogmatic reflex that refuses to apply the same logic to biology?

DA's arguments to consider evolution itself as "consistent with" (not demonstrating or implying - DA concedes this can't be done) intelligent agency are astonishingly weak and far too subtle for any "man in the street". He argues that there seems to be some kind of fine-tuning of the system that made the rise of intelligent life in all of its diversity not a mere chance accident contingent upon several unrepeatable events, but inevitable - comparing it to the anthropic principle in physics. Biology has a directionality - simple to complex - and biological convergence is consistent with viewing life as practically certain, not contingent. But we can't be totally decisive about this, DA concedes, because this is still an uncertain area with work needing to be done, and we only have one universe to examine so can't make overly sweeping conclusions. I'm left asking - is that it? In terms of the "man on the street", though, DA does refer us to Psalm 19 and Romans 1:18ff to insist that God's activity is everywhere obvious to everyone. Granted that this does indeed mean that it's not just evident to those with biology PhDs who can digest all of Behe's writings - DNA is not the final arbiter of design in the universe. But DA never answers in what this obviousness does consists, and what the relationship is between it and his specialist field of biology is. When DA writes that in four decades of research he's never found any antagonism to his Christian faith, he puts it down to contemporary Darwinian thinking not being remotely hostile to authentic Christianity. Having read this book, I'd put it down to his apologetic he uses being so lacking in substance that it's simply not going to present much of a challenge to anyone.

Is evolution designed?

DA's positive apologetic for a "designed evolution" never gets near the focal point of the Darwin/Christianity conflict. Gratned, DA doesn't believe that conflict exists, but in writing a polemical book against creationism he ought to at least show he knows what those on the other side of the theological divide are actually saying. The point about Darwinism is that it excludes intelligent agency - a law-like process carrying on according to its own internal principles is sufficient to account for the end results, with no external guidance or mind-input being necessary. It is an unintelligent process. DA's apologetic implicitly concedes this whole point - the design and evidence of intelligence comes in the system itself, not anything you can see as part of it or from within it - only by getting outside it and overviewing the whole and comparing it with other (non-existent, entirely theoretial) systems.

Where's this going?

I don't believe that Christian apologists are intended to "prove" the existence of God by analysing DNA, etcetera. I do believe these things can have some supporting value. I don't think it's fatal for evangelism that DA gives away the farm here, because I'm not of the school that thinks that the heart of evangelism is about intellectual analysis of scientific data. The root problem is moral. It is, though, a problem that through this book DA is teaching Christians to effectively divorce the mind of God from the phenomena of creation. DA argues that this is not so - he holds that God is immanent everywhere. That immanence, though, has no cash value; you can't distinguish it from the giant impersonal machine of deism. Christianity that's a bolt-on extra to the real world is a disaster, and that's where I ultimately think DA's apologetic, when looked at in "big picture" terms, is taking us. Christians need to learn to see God everywhere, not just by faith in a theoretical immanence, but in the real world of flesh and blood. By that I don't mean that we say "it must be God!" every time we don't understand something. Far from it - when we do understand it, then we will understand God, but not just in terms of an undetectable immanence, but in terms of a wonderful, deliberate and wise design.

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