BioLogos and design – disagreement, incommunication or evasiveness?

The two BioLogos threads I mentioned here attracted some attention at Uncommon Descent. There seemed some consensus amongst even those who disagree on detail that Darrel Falk and other BioLogos people are somewhat less than forthcoming on just how they relate God’s creative input to outcomes in the “natural” order.


Another opportunity to tease this out comes from Ted Davis’ new series on BioLogos. I’m beginning to like him already – be speaks his mind, and it contains a great deal of sense. I made a small contribution to this thread  yesterday. Darrel Falk, replying to “Y Y”, who suggested BioLogos should be more sympathetic to ID, is clearly speaking ex cathedra when he says:

All of us at BioLogos believe in intelligent design.

He then goes on to differentiate this presumably official position from the possibility of design as a scientific hypothesis, prefering to see only:

“signposts” for the work of God all over the place.

I then posted a request for a clear BioLogos definition of design for comparison with ID’s concept, referencing Francisco Ayala’s angry denunciation of the attribution of “egregious design errors” to God as “blasphemy” in his noview of Stephen Meyer’s book, and various authors’ dismissal of the idea of God as a “mere” designer. I offered my old OED’s definitions of design as “mental plan, purpose, end in view, adaptation of means to end” for a starter for discussion.

Darrel’s reply unequivocally accepted that definition – which would appear to offer a complete rapprochement with ID, or at least id. But he is then quick to exclude an “engineering” concept of design, denying God’s (a) planning of individual varieties of bacterial flagellum (the good stuff) and (b) his orchestration of the “amazingly intricate” details of viral activity (the bad stuff). You may ask what God’s role is, then, in the biological “mental plan, purpose, end in view, adaptation of means to end”.

Darrel’s reply is that “the process is God’s process”, but that God is not manipulating the detail. That’s delightfully vague, when you think about it. “Britain is Queen Elizabeth’s nation” could parallel it, in which case the mental plan and purpose would be simply to be a figurehead. But the most natural understand would be something like the “design” of the man who invented Association Football, who need never have played, or even watched a game in his life. His purpose or end was to make a good game for others to play, but he would have absolutely no input into the result of the next World Cup.

Or, given that classical evolutionary theory depends on variations random with regard to fitness, we could be talking about the man who designed the roulette wheel, or dice: his aim then was to design a process whose outcomes cannot be foreseen or planned at all. That idea of “intelligent design”, as the design of a random number generator, seems a long way from what classical theism has always understood.

Fortunately Falk gives a clarifying example: his own family environment. The upbringing of children requires planning, purpose and so on, but the outcomes cannot be engineered. He applies this analogy to a creation given constrained freedom to “make itself.” In my reply to Darrel I pointed out that the uncertainty of family outcomes is only because children, like us, are autonomous, conscious and morally accountable. I asked him whether the non-human creation could correctly be said to have any of those qualities, the prerequisites of any kind of freedom.

I also mentioned that in the true parallel with his example, the family of the Trinity, the outcomes were very far from uncertain – the Son mirrors his Father to the extent that, “I and the Father are one”, “He who has seen me has seen the Father,” “I always do my Father’s will” and so on. It is that very identity to his Father that makes Christ God in visible form, allowing us to know God. In other words, we cannot predict how our children will turn out because both they, and we as parents, are sinful and limited. So far I have received no reply to this, and do not expect to as Darrel has answered points made by others after my last response.

I will add here that I also responded to a later post of Ted’s, in which he expresses sympathy for Owen Gingerich’s proposal that God might act in nature by influencing quantum events “along certain beneficial lines”. I asked how one might distinguish (scientifically or theologically)  lines so influenced from lines left to themselves – in other words, how it meshes with Darrel’s stated concept of “design”. Unfortunately I don’t expect a reply as Ted had already given notice of leaving the discussion.

So can we conclude anything from this brief exchange? In the first place we can put a very big question mark over Darrel Falk’s use of Scripture. In support of his contention that God allows creation freedom to “make itself”, and then rejoices in whatever results, he cites Psalms 104, 8, 19 and 139. I would urge you to read these now. Given that the hypothesis he opposes is that God gets involved in planning the details of creation, to which of the two viewpoints do these Scriptures actually lend weight?

We cannot actually conclude what Darrel, speaking representatively of BioLogos here, actually means by the created order having “freedom” – is the inanimate world conscious, or what? We cannot actually conclude whether God is the man who only designs the dice, or something more. We cannot even venture an opinion on how God implemented the design of the dice – maybe that is part of the very detail he leaves to creation itself? We are, in fact, left with a good, straightforward, dictionary definition of design with a very problematic and muddled application – does anyone in your world really think of “design” at all in the conduct of child rearing?

We know none of these things because, as in two prevous threads, the explanations were no longer forthcoming from BioLogos when such questions were raised. The line suddenly went dead. Disagreement, incommunication, or evasiveness? It begins to look uncomfortably like the last to me.

Jon Garvey

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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11 Responses to BioLogos and design – disagreement, incommunication or evasiveness?

  1. Gregory says:

    I didn’t think I’d find reasons for coming to the defense of BioLogos, given my disapproval of the way they elevate evolution into an ideological theology, i.e. theistic evolutionISM, still, some clarification seems needed here.

    “the hypothesis he opposes is that God gets involved in planning the details of creation” – Jon

    No, I don’t think he opposes this at all. In fact, I think he affirms it time and time again. What Falk opposes is ID claims that Natural Science can ‘detect’ or ‘identify’ the ‘guiding’ or ‘designing’ activity of G-d/Designer in creation, in nature.

    “we do not view the activity of God as something that can be set up as a scientific hypothesis and then tested like any other hypothesis.” – Falk

    I do think your question to him is a good one, Jon: “I would therefore ask if it is a valid to say that the material/biological creation, apart from humankind, is analogously autonomous, conscious and morally accountable?”

    Evasive? Perhaps. Willing to admit mystery and lack of ‘scientific’ knowledge on the ‘guiding/designing/steering/tinkering/etc.’ topic? Yes. Theologically orthodox? Questionable, but then again what does ‘orthodox’ mean anyway to the un-Orthodox and non-Catholic?

    As it is, Jon, you’ve made no indication that you think we can ‘detect design’ or ‘guidance’ of evolution using natural scientific methods, which is a point both Darrel and Dennis are making contra the IDM. Interesting that the word ‘science’ is nowhere present in your OP in this thread. Is it now all about theology, away with philosophy and natural science? Where’s the balance among these major realms as we seek a holistic view?

    Iow, how do you speak less evasively than Falk about ‘guided evolution’, while involving credible natural science, i.e. the realm in which ‘evolutionary theory’ practically belongs, not in theology? There are credible non-ID scholars who speak of teleology and design in nature without the ‘Implications’ and political posturing the IDM is insisting upon and which Francis Collins, John Polkinghorne, Denis Alexander, Alistair McGrath, Alvin Plantinga, Ted Davis, George Murphy, David Opderbeck and others seemingly wisely resist.

  2. Gregory says:

    Let me briefly clarify the above:

    “What Falk opposes is ID claims that Natural Science can ‘detect’ or ‘identify’ the ‘guiding’ or ‘designing’ activity of G-d/Designer in creation, in nature.”

    ID doesn’t actually claim to speak about the ‘guiding’ or ‘designing’ process at all (which greatly lessens the explanatory power of its ‘revolutionary’ rhetoric). It simply says ‘science’ can detect that nature *is* (ontology) ‘designed’ and ‘guided’ (e.g. new information ‘appearance/emergence’ by ‘design’ in Cambrian Explosion).

    If it were only another added voice to ‘origins of life’ claims (that highly speculative ‘science’!), then ID would not need to speak about processes of change or ‘in-forming’ at all.

  3. Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

    Gregory: ‘“the hypothesis he opposes is that God gets involved in planning the details of creation” – Jon
    No, I don’t think he opposes this at all.’

    Darrel Falk: ‘We consider such an “engineer’s-eye view” of God to be wrong. The process is God’s process, but God is not manipulating the details.’

    Seems pretty clearcut to me, especiually given the example he next cites, of child-rearing.

    Gregory: ‘Evasive? Perhaps. Willing to admit mystery and lack of ’scientific’ knowledge on the ‘guiding/designing/steering/tinkering/etc.’ topic? Yes.’

    The question he wasn’t answering there wasn’t a scientific one, but a directly theological or metaphysical one. He says God has given creation “limited freedom” – so what does that mean? Science hgas no concept of freedom? It must mean something. “Mystery” can’t be used to cover up the flaws in an incoherent position you’ve invented. It would be different if he had cited some Scriptural paradox, but those he quoted, simply taken, suggest no mystery at all – “Goddidit.” That leaves plenty of room for secondary causes, including evolution, as even the original authors knew, but precious little for a mysterious concept of insentient freedom.

    And it’s evasive because he could have given any answer, including, “I’m out of my depth here but I think it’s some kind of mystery”, but didn’t give one.

    In my post on the BL thtread, and the article here, I’m not addressing the question of whether one can detect God’s work scientifically. That bothers the ID community more than me. I see no reason, like penman, to make either pole a principle – though I doubt that God’s handiwork could remain completely opaque unless he intended to hide himself – and there’s no evidence that is the case.

    I’m more concerned, though, with what God’s work is, detectable or not – the theology more than the science. I’m happy with the idea of quantum tinkering, even if it’s unproveable – though anyone proposing it ought to delineate its limits. I’m happy with a less sciency-sounding formulation like “God oversees random events.” I’m theologically unhappy with someone who says, “God left blind processes to produce outcomes, but is happy with the results,” because it’s incoherent theology.

    But I’m most unhappy with someone who won’t engage enough to enable me to see whether I disagree with them or not.

  4. Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

    Gregory – re your second “clarification”. I absolutely agree, and whilst that wasn’t on my radar in my interchange with Darrel, I think it’s a miscommunication, or misunderstanding between TEs and IDs. At least conceptually, the presence of design could be detectable, as meaningful words on a page, and does not require one to explain the process by which the design was applied, ie the printing process.

    One could even hold a position where one agreed with Falk’s constrained-freedom-to-evolve scenario, whilst pointing out instances of specific design aside from that.

    But those kind of discussions can only happen once people’s positions, and their methods of reasoning, are explicit. And I still don’t know what “giving freedom to creation” means that differs from “God playing dice with the Universe.”

  5. Gregory says:

    “We consider such an “engineer’s-eye view” of God to be wrong … God is not manipulating the details” – Falk

    Yes, this is the opposite to the ‘organisms are actually machines,’ which reflect mind because humans ‘design’ (non-biological) machines. The “artist’s/composer’s/musician’s/poet’s/speaker’s/singer’s/dancer’s-eye view” are not featured in the IDM’s focus on ‘molecular machines’ made ‘by design’ (i.e. a Designer). There might be fruitful middle ground between these views, but any ‘only an engineer’ position would be clearly unsatisfactory.

    Surely you are not merely the ‘engineer’ of your musical output, right, especially when improvising?

    I guess I’m less concerned about this ‘freedom’ language, perhaps not being well-acquainted with Open Theology. What do you see as opposite of ‘limited freedom’? E.g. ‘limited slavery’ or ‘unlimited rule of laws’? I’m having a hard time seeing, specifically wrt human beings, how what you are proposing would not violate the principle of free will, granting that you are likely not suggesting a deterministic situation. ‘Nature is free’ to me sounds different from ‘people are free.’

    As point of fact, Darrel is not a theologian, yet he (and BioLogos) engages theological topics. It seems to me he is trying his best to integrate his religious views with his biological training and failing to cover the ground convincingly that most people are asking of him. Personally, I don’t mind answers like ‘I don’t know’ wrt the supposed ‘guidance’ of natural-biological processes – the IDM isn’t offering direct answers either to their own question.

    Venema’s answer to whether God knew in advance what evolution would produce – i.e. that it is a subset of a larger question of free-will / predestination – seems responsible, for a non-theologian. Though of course it likewise mixes ‘natural’ with ‘human’ topics.

    The move from a ‘natural process’ like biological change-over-time (i.e. evolution) to a ‘human process’ such as child-rearing over-time (i.e. character development) is admittedly confusing. This is not to say that human beings are not ‘natural’ (i.e. human nature), but that one must go a level up to involve free will and guidance in a not-simply-biologically-reductive way.

    Which evolution? Whose evolution? Now we see what a difference ‘the nature of’ vs. ‘the character of’ means – God may ‘guide’ nature, but our ‘detection’ of God’s guidance in human affairs is seen/heard through the eyes/ears of faith, not science.

    “I’m happy with a less sciency-sounding formulation like “God oversees random events.” I’m theologically unhappy with someone who says, “God left blind processes to produce outcomes, but is happy with the results,” because it’s incoherent theology.”

    Yes, we are agreed for the most part on both fronts, though surely non-theists won’t accept either. It’s an in-house conversation then. The second point seems to be your main charge against BioLogos – they have produced or are producing an ‘incoherent theology.’ Would that be accurate? Let us see what Ted Davis can do in his series, as someone more experienced and imo more competent than most or all of what BioLogos has shown so far.

    “But I’m most unhappy with someone who won’t engage enough to enable me to see whether I disagree with them or not.” – Jon

    Surely we are agreed about this. I found the same tendency at BioLogos when I was posting there. This lack of engagement has been expressed by others also.

  6. Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

    “I’m having a hard time seeing, specifically wrt human beings, how what you are proposing would not violate the principle of free will.”

    Well, you start by making my main point – evolution was not the work of human beings, as far as we know the only conscious, morally accountable beings in the realm of life. Arguments about free-will need significant unpacking before can be taken out of the human sphere.

    Within that sphere there is indeed a scriptural paradox, such as the one that Darrel didn’t invoke in his reply. The whole Bible is packed with examples, eg Joseph: “You intended it for harm, but the Lord intended it for good, for the saving of many lives.” Here isn’t the thread to go into that, and though I have my own angle on it, in the end it’s an area in which the invocation of “mystery” would be utterly legitimate, because God’s word sets up the mystery without giving a final answer to it, as in the case of Trinitarian theology, for example.

    As for music, subjectively “happy accident” plays a small part, as does the wonderful impression of snatching what’s already there from the air. Spiritually, I would tend to attribute both to the Logos of God pervading the world – letting the music compose itself is the very last concept I have. More prosaically, creativity is a mixture of craft and the analogue mass of experience I used to call “nous” in my medical days.

    So in medicine, I would “know” that this case was not what it seemed to be. But it wasn’t chance, or supernatural endowment, but the unconscious experience of having seen thousands of such cases and intuiting that this was a bit different.

    Musically, improvisation is having chord structures and melodic patterns burned into your nervous system and fingers so that you play the right stock phrases, compose on the hoof and catch hold of felicitous patterns as they happen. It can be quite cynical, in a way – “that’s a hook – those four notes and four words will make people remember the song.”

    Somebody once said (not to me): You’re so good I guess you don’t need to practise.” The genius replied, “No, it’s because I practise so much I’m this good.”

    Any randomness used in art is under the particularly tight control of the artist, lest it remain randomly awful. Photography’s a prime example – photojournalist takes 100 pictures of a chaotic battle: and uses just the one that makes sense of it all.

  7. James says:

    Congratulations on several excellent discussions lately, including this one.

    I agree that it is hard to avoid the conclusion that a degree of evasiveness is involved with the Biologos people, for the reasons given by yourself and by several people in other venues.

    Your account of the creation of music in terms of the Logos reminds me of Mozart’s own account of how he composed, in a famous passage which has been discussed by many. He would see the whole in its unity, not monkey around by trial and error. His procedure was most un-Darwinian.

    On the point about organisms vs. machines, I would suggest that the ID position is not that organisms are *nothing but* machines, but that they have much in common with machines. Thus, machine analogies can shed some light on the workings of living things. E.g., we see the lever principle at work in the muscles and bones of the human arm, and the various operations inside a living cell look, as Behe has shown, strikingly like the activity of a factory or even a city.

    Thus, the extreme hostility Biologos writers (and others, e.g., TE Ken Miller) present toward the engineering metaphor seems unwarranted. It is not as if ID says that God is a “mere engineer”; rather, it is that God is *at least* an engineer — has at his disposal all of the engineer’s intelligence and modes of thinking. Of course, most ID proponents are Christians and would never think of God’s nature as exhausted in the engineering metaphor. But the engineering model sheds *some* light on God’s creative activity (pace to the current crop of neo-Thomists who have waded into the controversy).

    It is true that ID people don’t talk as much about other types of human creation — poetry, music, literature, dance, etc. But this makes perfect sense in terms of the kinds of systems that they are trying to explain. The inside of a cell, with its interacting organelles, feedback systems, etc., is much more like a complex of machines than it is like a Russian novel, a painting by Rembrandt, a piece by Stravinsky, etc. But of course, God has used the basic mechanical structures of the cell in an infinitely creative way, to produce elephants and mosquitoes and pandas and platypuses and roses and Venus flytraps and mushrooms and sponges, and, most significantly, to produce human beings, who can themselves *both* do engineering *and* write poetry and philosophy and form societies and build civilizations — so if God is an engineer, he is also an architect, an artist, a poet, a founder of civilization and culture, and, generally speaking, a creative genius beyond human capacity. I thus find the “God is no mere engineer” criticism of ID to be without grounds.

    But, truth be told, the “God is no mere engineer” argument seems to be a rhetorical cover-up for the deeper view, held by many TE/EC people, that God is not an engineer *at all*, because he does not impose ends upon nature, but lets it run freely in its evolutionary course, spitting out this or that evolutionary product without constraint. Hence, all the talk in Falk and Venema and Miller about “freedom.” “Freedom” is the metaphor they need to give their neo-Darwinism full and unrestricted play. The quasi-open theology of creation adopted by Biologos is thus ideally suited to the form of evolutionary biology they have adopted.

  8. Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

    James – I was almost going to cite Mozart as an example of my “cynicism” point – I remember a letter of his quoted to the effect that a turn of melody he was using in his new piece would wow the punters. As indeed it did, to the extent it’s now a complete classical cliché.

    The limitations of an engineering viewpoint hit me most when I read the emergent and holistic guys – especially Steve Talbott at the Nature Institute – good series of his there if you can find it. As he points out, though the animations and models look like machines, they actually (a) exist partly in solution and pop in and out of existence as needed and (b) grow into being rather than juust being manufactured.

    That being said, your points are valid: the orthodox evolutionary approach is no less machine-biased, but poists machines without an engineer at all, when as you say we need an engineer ++.

  9. Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

    Update: Ted Davis didn’t leave the thread on BioLogos after all, and has replied to my post – constructively. I’ve responded on the issue of the scientific detectability of God’s creative work there.

  10. Gregory says:

    Thanks, Jon for the suggestion of Steve Talbott.

    From issue #133:
    “Those who say ‘the organism is a machine’ have said it precisely in order to deny that the organism is anything more than a machine. Therefore they have had to use twisted, inadequate concepts so as to reduce the organism to their preconceptions. How do you borrow these twisted concepts without also borrowing their untruth?” – Steve Talbott

    “I would suggest that the ID position is not that organisms are *nothing but* machines, but that they have much in common with machines.” – James

    Behe speaks plainly of ‘molecular machines.’ Iow, organisms *are* machines.

    The rhetorical ‘much in common’ would seem to be James’ personal add-on. From James’ posts here and at BioLogos, it appears that he is not ready to entertain that Behe might have accepted *any* ‘untruth.’ So, there may be not much room for progress in this discussion.

    ‘Poof,’ said Behe. A ‘machine’ was ‘created’ (by ‘design + intelligence’)! Without a proposed ‘designing’ or ‘creating’ pathway, however, ID amounts to wishful thinking. Probabilism personified! Couldn’t have been negative, must have been positive.

    Yet the apologetic religious defense of ‘design’ still obviously stands on its own. The Reformed, Catholic and Orthodox, Muslim, Christian and Jewish traditions accept it as such. Just not as ‘science.’

    James might thus defend ID as philosophy or theology, but he will likely not defend ID inferences as natural science. And that may indeed sound fine, but it would place him outside the (US political) IDM. And what would be wrong with that, other than that he postures for and defends that Movement?

    I imagine the thought of Mozart’s (1756-1791) composition strategy as ‘un-Darwinian’ (of course it is ‘pre-Darwinian’) was meant as a joke. Such a fetish IDists have with Charles R. Darwin and anything he wrote or thought is historically quite amazing! Hmm, lets see: Picking apples in the garden and drawing pictures in my studio today, I was struck with how ‘un-Darwinian’ a process they actually are! ; )

    It is hard to escape the ID – engineering language topic, since Charles Thaxton admitted reading the term ‘intelligent design’ in engineering journals before promoting the concept duo in the IDM. And most engineers easily admit to themselves being ‘designers.’ James’ overtures to defend the IDM of which he is no part from being misrepresented on this topic fails because those he seeks to defend actually do speak ‘engineeringly’. ID is thus indeed connected with ‘engineering’ and has been deemed as ‘validated’ by appeal to that field’s terminology. James’ distinction of ‘mere’ vs. ‘at all’ is really just flimsy philosophical propaganda in defense of a US-led political-religious agenda.

    And though I am no supporter of BioLogos’ theistic evolutionism (or evolutionary creationism), I don’t really perceive *any* writers at BioLogos as having displayed ‘extreme hostility.’ This would seem to be James’ imaginative exaggeration rather than reality. In my view, there are few if any ‘extremists’ at BioLogos.

    My question for James: what are “the kinds of systems that they [IDists] are trying to explain”? Give us a name of ‘the kinds of systems’ ID predominantly studies please. Meaning, what academic fields of systems?

    ‘Freedom’ is a metaphor we all need (possess) as free human beings. Any responses to this message are not ‘evolutionarily determined,’ they will have had freedom to create and imagine.

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