Dembski asked the right questions

Now that Darrel Falk’s second post is up on BioLogos, I want to see what kind of discussion it generates. But one thought emerges to me immediately, and that is on the question of human exceptionalism. Dembski raised the issue of how a Darwinian evolutionary process could possibly give rise to mankind “in the image of God.” Darrel has rather pulled the rug out from under him by distancing himself, and Biologos as a whole, from “Darwinism”, obviously accepting, for the purposes of self-identification, that the metaphysical baggage that comes with the name is heavy enough to load down BioLogos‘ theological credentials. His actual reply to the point is interesting, though:

Even if all that Darwin says here were more or less true, it would still say nothing about that which makes humans truly exceptional, because—our linguistic and cognitive abilities aside—what makes us truly exceptional has less to do with biology than with the fact that God chose to enter into a unique relationship with humankind.

This is interesting to me firstly because it’s very much in line with what I’ve been understanding from the “image” language of Genesis myself lately. Personally, though, I’ve been unwilling to shift the uniqueness of mankind entirely outside the biological realm, and that partly from the kind of argument that Dembski raises about the power of natural selection to produce all that we are. Related to that is the strong indication from many directions that mind (and all its attributes like personality, reason, moral sense, will and so on) is a non-material thing. Evolution’s ability to create the non-material is extremely problematic.

Nevertheless, I find it very likely that “image” as described in Genesis has indeed to do with divine appointment and relationship, more than with attributes. This insight from Falk neatly sidesteps Dembski’s critique – evolution has no role in human exceptionality, and so poses no threat to it.

That’s just as well, because as described in the previous two posts, Falk leaves very little room for exceptionalism in his description of evolution, which belongs entirely to the natural, law-driven, activity of God. Such a process could not produce other than the reliable and predictable. 98% identity with the chimp genome sits happily with that, but I’m not so sure that language, space travel and Rembrandt do. Darrel’s phrase, “our linguistic and cognitive abilities aside…“, leaves quite a lot unexplained by a strictlty lawlike process. But not, I agree, the spiritual nature of man, which is the truly unique thing. I’m assuming that Darrel would class such a thing within his “supernatural” category, rather than his “natural”.

And that begs the question: when and how did that relationship begin? If Falk and I agree that it cannot be an “emergent property” of evolution, then it had an origin. And not only that, but it had an origin independent of anything natural or directly detectable by science, such as language and cognition are. A relationship can develop, grow or be damaged, but it has an origin in space and time, and it involves individual interaction.

If it is the relationship with God, and not biological attributes, that defines man’s exceptionality, then there was a first man, or first people. And those first people were the first true humans, regardless of whether they were descended from genetically identical parents who spoke, thought – and in fact did everything except experience that exceptional relationship with the true God.

For example, it could well be that a man, or even a couple, living in, let’s say, ancient Mesopotamia could have been the first to be called into such a relationship. And once evolution has been displaced from its decisive role, that could have been at any time – not necessarily millions of years ago in Africa at the dawn of the species, but even as recently as – oh I don’t know – five thousand years ago.

That’s interesting because, just a few months ago, Darrel was bemoaning the fact that he couldn’t find any theologians to come to BioLogos and defend the existence of a historic Adam and Eve in the light of evolution. Neither, when the subject is raised, does it have many supporters amongst TE posters, but rather scorn at the fundamentalism and literalism of the idea. People like Dennis Venema and others have trotted out Y-chromosome Adam and Mitochondrial Eve, and the continuity of other genetic markers with the great apes, to show that human descent from a single couple is quite impossible. Well yes, if one takes “human” in the biological sense that Darrel Falk, apparently, has just disowned. If that new understanding is genuine, there is absolutely no reason to take the narrative of Genesis 2-3 as anything other than essentially historical, and the subsequent chapters too. Peter Enns notwithstanding.

We live in interesting times…

Footnote: Gregory asked me in a comment on the first post of this series to think about ID’s approach to human exceptionalism. I think it must vary greatly in view of ID’s wide theological constituency. Most are orthodox (small “o”) Christians, who would, I suspect, want to place our exceptionality mainly in the non-material soul. Though it’s compatible with God-the-Designer, it’s somewhat tangential to the ID agenda of design-in-biology. Except, perhaps, for arguments along the lines, “Look – science is powerless to find an explanation for our non-material being. Doesn’t fit with Darwin – does with design, if the designer is a supernatural God like that in the Bible.”

For IDers who are Creationists of the various stripes, the biology’s easy too: “each design is special: our attributes make us exceptionally so – and we have a soul too! I’ve strayed into the theological in trying to think as an IDer.

But if one were to stick with what an ID writer would want to publish in defence of human exceptionalism, I suppose it would be to stress the dysjunction between (particularly) our mental powers and those of any other species, together with the uniqueness of their effects on our societies; to point to the indefineable metaphysical status of our minds; and to continue to cast doubt on natural mechanisms to explain these things fully. If design is necessary for DNA it’s got to be necessary for brain circuitry.

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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10 Responses to Dembski asked the right questions

  1. James Penman penman says:

    Don’t know if this will work, Jon, but I’m about to try to paste a comment from BioLogos, since it could equally be threaded in here. Here goes:

    Surely human uniqueness or “exceptionalism” has to be defined Christologically. The incarnation is the key, isn’t it? Humanity’s uniqueness lies in our being destined to union with God – deification, as the early church fathers put it. To secure that end, the 2nd Person of the Trinity, the Logos, assumed our nature: not the nature of a rock, tree, or frog, but human nature.

    It doesn’t seem important to me whether or not our human qualities have antecedents or analogues in non-human nature. Clearly many non-human terrestrial life-forms have a rational & emotional life: they can think & feel. Anyone with a pet dog knows that. But human uniqueness, if not defined by mere comparatives (we are cleverer, we feel more complexly), has to be defined – at least in Christian terms – by the unique destiny God purposes for us in Christ. “God became human that we might become divine”. “Partakers of the divine nature”. Etc.

  2. Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

    Hi penman

    Definitely more comfortable for me to reply here than BioLogos. Good thought here. Christ was designated Saviour (and those in him) before the creation of the world; all things were made by and for him; everything finds its culmination in him.

    To pursue this further in my own thought, how do you think that integrates with the origins of spiritual man, before the incarnation? Surely Darrel is right that a revelatory relationship with God began (scripturally) with Adam. Np doubt that was ultimately in relation to Christ, but how did that event differentiate us spiritually from the beasts?

  3. James Penman penman says:

    Hi Jon

    Clarification… When you ask “How did that event different us spiritually from the beasts?”, do you mean “differentiate humanity in its internal constitution”? In other words, what innate capacities do we now have that beasts do not have?

    If so, I suppose I’m trying to get away somewhat from that, by pointing to human destiny in Christ – giving a Christological answer to the question of human uniqueness.

    But if pressed, I’d say that the internal human constitution is different from “beastkind” in possessing a mind/soul/spirit that survives death (animal consciousness perishes at death). Allied to this, I think scripture attributes moral accountability uniquely to humans. Beasts cannot be morally good or evil, although they do have certain analogues of morality which perhaps were raised to a higher level in Adam.

    Any thoughts?

  4. Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

    Penman

    My question was based mainly on the fact that revelation, covenant, law, grace and all those relationship-with-Yahweh categories all must have had a commencement, and all apply only to humans – defined loosely enough to enquire what “human” means.

    After Christ, it’s axiomatic that “all men” will be judged, and may be saved in Christ. I believe that those Jews who believed Moses and the prophets, before Christ, are saved for eternal life by Christ as it were in anticipation of him (as per Hebrews). The Bible also seems to suggest that, at the time it was written, Gentiles were also regarded as fallen humanity, and some at least were also saved. But when did “man” start to be “human”?

    I accept that the humble answer to who might be in that “exceptional” category may well be who is gathered before the judgement throne of God at the end. But shouldn’t we be able to have more present light than that? “Humanity is that which Christ assumed at the Incarnation” sounds a little circular to me.

    The whole species H sapiens (problematic if the evolution of man is as messy as appears)?
    Some other biological classification (all genus Homo?)
    Some evolutionary range of features (such as conscience, personal consciousness, rationality etc)?
    Those with some specific revelation of God (Adam and his descendants, or his contemporaries and their descendants)? That could be either some internal endowment such as moral sense or soul, or something relational, like a covenant.

    I prefer the last, I think, because Christ came to the children of Adam, by which in some way the Bible seems to define humanity. And also because all the rest are emergent, rather than qualitative, differences.

  5. Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

    “Beasts cannot be morally good or evil, although they do have certain analogues of morality which perhaps were raised to a higher level in Adam.”

    I’d say morality is fundamentally dependant on “theory of mind” (I’ve a post on that – search!), for which there is no evidence in even the higher apes. Acts in themselves have no moral content: that lies in the will and conscience.

    However, if that emerged from animal attributes, it developed by degrees so could not be subject to God’s law. Was Neanderthal animal like wrt morality, or humanlike, or intermediate?

  6. James Penman penman says:

    Hi Jon

    I don’t think animals (non-humans) have a properly moral consciousness. They are capable neither of justification nor condemnation before God the Judge. But I’m arguing backwards FROM the eschatological fact to the absence of moral consciousness. I do this merely because it’s a biblical mode of arguing; I swiftly get lost in philosophical argumentation. Not that the latter shouldn’t be done. Just saying why I’m arguing as I am.

    What I meant by postulating “analogues” to morality in animals is their possession (some of them) of social codes enforced by sanctions. That isn’t morality, but it’s an analogue of morality. To get to genuine morality you have to rise above instinct. As C.S.Lewis says, you get into the truly moral sphere when two instincts clash (the herd instinct vs. self-preservation is his example), & you ask, “Which of my instincts OUGHT I to follow in this situation?”

    Your other question seems to asking, not so much for a definition of human uniqueness, but simply for a definition of humanity. Even here, I’m not sure we can leave Christ out of it. Christologically, humanity is that entity that Christ came to redeem. So we know there IS such an entity. It is Christologically guaranteed. Humanity exists!! What are its attributes? More specifically, what attributes does it have that animals don’t have? Is that the question? Well, an everlasting destiny in heaven or hell, for one thing….

    More perhaps later!

  7. Gregory says:

    A few comments, criticisms, agreements and provocations:

    “Personally, though, I’ve been unwilling to shift the uniqueness of mankind entirely outside the biological realm, and that partly from the kind of argument that Dembski raises about the power of natural selection to produce all that we are.” – Jon

    Here we have a striking irony in that Dembski has for years been railing against ‘the power of natural selection,’ while Jon seems to have been challenging it; now the shoe is on the other foot. Is it not possible for human beings to be both biological and extra-biologically unique? The biologistic position is that the biology matters more than extra-biological features of humanity. Here we need to confront biologism, by first identifying it as a significant problem when it rears its ideological head.

    “…quite a lot unexplained by a strictly lawlike process. But not, I agree, the spiritual nature of man, which is the truly unique thing. I’m assuming that Darrel would class such a thing within his “supernatural” category, rather than his “natural”.”

    As usual, Jon, you’re probably prepared for me to ask what ‘the spiritual nature of’ means. You seem to be either conflating or attempting to collaborate two things that most others don’t. Here Darrel’s language actually seems clearer to me that yours. However, wrt to understanding that there is a ‘single scientific method’ that we should call ‘the scientific method,’ Darrel is simply outdated in his PoS. Speaking of ‘the spirit of humanity’ or man, however, would seem to be a useful and practical substitute to the language: ‘spiritual nature,’ ‘spiritual character,’ ‘spiritual essence,’ ‘spiritual being,’ etc. Is this an NIV thing again? ‘Humanity’ here takes the plural form of ‘Adam.’

    “A relationship can develop, grow or be damaged, but it has an origin in space and time, and it involves individual interaction.”

    That reminded me of Dickens in Great Expectations:
    “That was a memorable day for me, for it made great changes in me. But it is the same with any life. Imagine one selected day struck out of it, and think how different its course would have been. Pause you who read this, and think for a moment of the long chain of iron or gold, of thorns or flowers, that would never have bound you, but for the formation of the first link on one memorable day.”

    “If it is the relationship with God, and not biological attributes, that defines man’s exceptionality, then there was a first man, or first people. And those first people were the first true humans, regardless of whether they were descended from genetically identical parents who spoke, thought – and in fact did everything except experience that exceptional relationship with the true God.” – Jon

    On this we are entirely agreed. One problem I have with the position of ‘the person who I think James is,’ is that he seems to have de-legitimized in his mind/heart the possibility of exactly that; a real, historical first human, or first people, whom we call Adam and Eve. Thus, his criticisms of TEs/ECs have seemed disingenuous; they seemed hypocritical, as is BioLogos were simply too liberal on some things, too heterodox, while he basked in his own troubles. Now I could be getting this wrong, but I wouldn’t want to discourage James from participation here, instead perhaps he could defend or present his realist or anti-realist Adamic positions, as long as they remain within the ‘traditional’ or ‘historical’ teachings that he claims to represent against BioLogos. If he wants a free pass on Adam and Eve, while trying to take the high ground on other topics against BioLogos, that’s not going to cut it.

    “That’s interesting because, just a few months ago, Darrel was bemoaning the fact that he couldn’t find any theologians to come to BioLogos and defend the existence of a historic Adam and Eve in the light of evolution.”

    Yes, I agree that it is an interesting turn of events in one way and I welcome it (not sure if you do also Jon?). However, it is (or at least can be) a different topic to argue for ‘human exceptionalism’ than to argue for Adam and Eve. Darrel has found an easier route, one that does not require him to declare himself on the historical and traditional teachings of the Church (meaning, more than just evangelicals) regarding Adam and Eve. The problem is that many ‘naturalists’ and even ‘materialists’ are also ‘human exceptionalists.’ One doesn’t need to be an Abrahamic monotheist, let alone a Christian, to believe in/accept ‘human exceptionalism.’ I would ask penman what kind of reaction he thinks he might receive if he walked into a mosque or a synagogue, asking to speak with an Imam or a Rabbi about their views of human exceptionalism outside the Christian tradition.

    “Well yes, if one takes “human” in the biological sense that Darrel Falk, apparently, has just disowned.”

    For the above reason, I don’t think Falk has disowned ‘the biological sense’. But he seems finally to have opened up to an idea that has been discussed by you and penman, myself and others, perhaps most directly in my view by a guy named Ben Yachov (who cited Roman Catholic teachings) at BioLogos, for quite some time. I wouldn’t say Falk is disowning the biological sense of humanity, rather he has simply learned that biology will only take you so far in this conversation (cf. limits of the meaning of ‘BioLogos’) and that anthropology, sociology, psychology, ethics and philosophy, etc. can and do play a significant role, along with, of course, theology and the history of religion. (Think: AnthroLogos, SocioLogos, PsychoLogos, EthicoLogos, etc.)

    Thanks for addressing my question about IDT and human exceptionality. As you note, most Christian-IDs would “want to place our exceptionality mainly in the non-material soul. Though it’s compatible with God-the-Designer, it’s somewhat tangential to the ID agenda of design-in-biology.” Yes, this is precisely the point that shows how narrow or ‘non-revolutionary’ ID actually can be when one looks at it from a holistic perspective. Likewise, any ‘ID-position’ on ‘human exceptionalism’ that does not hark back to the religious roots of the IDM is bound to displease the financial supporters of the DI.

    “I’ve strayed into the theological in trying to think as an IDer. / But if one were to stick with what an ID writer would want to publish in defence of human exceptionalism…”

    Yes, this seems to me an insightful way to frame the challenge to ID as a purported theory in ‘biology-only’ or ‘biology-first’ and that theology and philosophy have nothing to do with the ‘ID-science.’ Why should there be ‘something wrong’ with ‘straying into the theological’ when working as a (natural or social) scientist? It can reflect seeking a ‘healthy’ balance between science, philosophy and religion, rather than a privileging of science, which is easily demonstrable in the IDM as it is currently configured.

    On the second sentence, ‘sticking with what an ID writer would want…” and connecting it to the thread highlighted above, where I agree with Falk and disagree with Dembski, it is Falk that can involve theology in his (cough) ECism, while Dembski just puts on his theologian’s hat and says, oh – right now this has nothing to do with IDT (two sides of the wedge!). This shows the disconnect between ID and human exceptionalism that I’ve been discussing for several years; the DI might not buck up (for ‘good science’) to discuss the age of the Earth, but are they actually willing to stick their necks out and say that human exceptionalism has nothing to do with IDTs? Deciding on this, as I see it, is a make or break deal for the IDM, James’ defences of ‘proper treatment’ and ‘anti-misunderstanding’ of ID notwithstanding.

  8. Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

    Gregory

    “Is it not possible for human beings to be both biological and extra-biologically unique?”

    Not sure of the issue here, in that my point was that human uniqueness does apply both biologically and spiritually. Darrel, however, in order to counter Dembski’s concern that an unguided evolution could not produce “imageness”, placed that image in the relational sphere, and bypassed the biological with a throwaway reference to speech and cognition. If he believes they are part of God’s image in man then he’s ducked Dembski’s point, for his description of evolution is, it would seem, “natural though sustained by God.”

    “As usual, Jon, you’re probably prepared for me to ask what ‘the spiritual nature of’ means.”

    “Nature” = “φυσις” as ever – what we are born with. Even the KJV translates it that way – including God’s nature, which presumably is supernatural. “Spirit of humanity” would be even more confusing, “spirit” being what God is and what we partly are, the rest being “flesh” (πνευμα and σαρξ respectively, while I have my Greek keyboard handy). The concept, remember, was man’s uniqueness being his relationship with God – maybe “spiritual identity” would cover it. Incidentally, Darrel’s viewpoint seems to do away with the need/opportunity for a non-material soul: man is an evolved creature taken into relationship with God. Are most traditional Christians comfortable with that, do you think? As a Catholic, would Ben Yachov be? (I didn’t know his views on this – only seen him post on Ed Feser’s blog lately).

    “Yes, I agree that it is an interesting turn of events in one way and I welcome it (not sure if you do also Jon?).”

    I do, but I see it fraught with difficulty because many (a majority?) at BioLogos are violently antagonistic to a historical Adam, and have already voiced grumblings that BioLogos seems headed that way, in their view. I suspect that Darrel may not really identify what he has said with an actual Adam figure, but perhaps with some vaguer idea of an emerging relationship with God in deep time via awakening moral awareness or some such. He doesn’t say. Certainly one senses that’s a fairly popular idea on BL. My point is that once the burden is put on the establishment of a relationship, rather than biological progeniture or image-as-attributes, there is no reason for an Evangelical not to accept the Biblical account of Adam – and even perhaps its historical setting. What good reason can be given for rejecting the possibility of its happening in 4004 BC +/- (speaking tongue in cheek), other than a reflex rejection of the Bible’s historicity?

    “The problem is that many ‘naturalists’ and even ‘materialists’ are also ‘human exceptionalists.’”

    I take your point, and it reflects my uneasiness with an entirely Christocentric description of human exceptionalism. At the same time, the issue in the BL debate is Christian exceptionalism: how can evolution square with man as God’s image? Muslims and Jews might share similar concerns, but Christians aren’t bound to restrict their discussions to reason, consciousness etc in order to mesh with naturalists’ view of exceptionality. Those endowments are still valid in scientific or philosophical discourse, but might have little bearing on thelogy.

    It’s not for me to say how ID should position themselves: it’s really a single-issue coalition, isn’t it? The individual members being TEs, YECs, OECs and Darwin doubters of various colours, who believe divine (usually) design is detectable in biology. But it doesn’t completely overlap with any of them: ID gets it in the neck from BioLogos, Creationists and heterodox evolutionists alike. If they succeeded in persuading enough scientists that teleology is worth talking about, then the debate would open up and all four constituencies would stand to gain – if only to compete in an open market of ideas. For all the invective, currently the ID claims have been well-aired and have generated some support and, at least, worthwhile refutation. But if the DI, or some equivalent, were to say “By the way, we’ve decided to come out and say the Designer is the Trinitarian God”, the academy (in the west, at least) would shout “Foul cheap tuxedo!” and make no more attempt to refute it than they do Flood Geology. And those involved would have to scuttle back to being fringe members of “Answers in Genesis” or whatever, and I’m not sure that would be the best result for anybody. But that may be a faulty analysis – I’d be interested to hear Steve Fuller’s views (and I’m going to a conference where he’s speaking soon).

  9. Gregory says:

    “my point was that human uniqueness does apply both biologically and spiritually.”

    Yes, that’s a point we surely agree on. I was supporting both you and Falk (and Dembski, though he might appear more ‘biology-only’ re: ID after this exchange).

    “If they succeeded in persuading enough scientists that teleology is worth talking about, then the debate would open up and all four constituencies would stand to gain – if only to compete in an open market of ideas.”

    “Like Dembski, I believe God did call our existence into being; there is a teleological basis for our presence on earth. We are by no means an accident and to the extent that Darwin thought we are, he was wrong.” – Falk

    Sorry, Jon, but I don’t hear your ‘scientific’ arguments for teleology and the supposed ‘scientific’ arguments of ID are draped in humanistic and/or naturalistic analogies. What else do you propose? I have ‘teleology-galore’ in the ‘science’ that I do, but the IDM ignores it to its detriment; just like it ignores the ‘teleology’ and ‘design’ work that doesn’t fit with its ‘cultural renewal’ ideology.

    Re: Falk bypassing Dembski’s appeal to biology with a ‘throwaway reference,’ this is easily read as an attempt to balance (the dichotomy of) ‘science and faith’. But I think we agree that Falk has backed away from his earlier ‘biologism’ (would be pleased if you’d address this legitimate term) in realising the importance of ‘human exceptionalism’ (a term officially used by the DI).

    Imo, this is the start of something much bigger if Dembski can get Falk to agree that ‘human exceptionalism’ is a “non-negotiable principle belief of Christianity” – e.g. on this topic was the *only* place Falk used ‘free’ (your apparent nemesis term wrt BioLogos) in the 2nd response: “our special identity rests in the free choice of the Creator to give us his [sic] himself and his name.”

    “Darrel’s viewpoint seems to do away with the need/opportunity for a non-material soul: man is an evolved creature taken into relationship with God. Are most traditional Christians comfortable with that, do you think? As a Catholic, would Ben Yachov be?”

    Well, I’m not really sure of Falk’s views of dualism vs. monism. Re: the comfort of “most traditional Christians,” likewise I cannot say. I’ve heard of ‘Christian materialists,’ non-reductive physicalists, monists, dualists, you name it, apparently all within ‘Christendom.’ I’d assume Ben Yachov believes in a non-material or extra-material soul, since this is standard Catholic teaching. I don’t really see how “man is an evolved creature taken into relationship with God” is anathema (in the Reformed/Reforming Church), if this is how you view it.

    “I agree with Dembksi that Darwin’s views were not theologically neutral. Darwin’s views on teleology, human exceptionalism, and miracles were not compatible with Christianity. Quite simply, this is why I do not consider my views to be Darwinian and why I am not a Darwinist.” – Falk

    Notice, however, that UD since that response has posted another ‘News’ item (which means Denyse O’Leary, TE/ASA-hater, cum journalist), repeating the slag of ‘Christian Darwinist’ (a term of the IDM’s making), calling BioLogos “Christian Darwinism Central”. Well, of course she is obliged to defend Dembski, because UD is Dembski’s blog, to which she was later invited and now dominates. But should we really let a trained propagandist dictate the conversation to low-level IDers who are just lemmings in a ‘culture war’ ceremonial?

    As I understand it, Jon, your interest is in promoting some kind of reconciliation between ID and TE/EC, such that common ground rather than exclusion and animosity can be the main focus of dialogue. My interest is also in promoting reconciliation, though that is not my primary goal; it is rather to impact the broader landscape on which discussions of ‘origins’ and ‘processes’ of change are conducted, especially bringing together both ‘natural’ and ‘social’ sciences as two varieties of science, among others.

    Re: cheap tuxedos and the (western) academy, I think you over-rate them. Fuller will probably surprise you in one way or another. But he surely believes the IDM should be more upfront with its unescapable (cf. Dover trial or ‘cdesignproponentists’) theology as it intertwines with i+d as they call it.

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