Robert J Russell sitting on the TE/ID interface

In my reading of R J Russell’s book, discussed in my last post, I’ve reached the point where he uses his concept of God’s activity within quantum uncertainty to defend theistic evolution.

I have two points to make here, which do seem to relate productively to the whole question of a Christian view of evolution. As before Russell presents his case as a via media between liberal and conservative attitudes to God’s providence in general, and evolution in particular. Liberals, he said, confronted by the deterministic science of the past, came to view providence in purely subjective terms. The believer sees the scientifically deterministic (and therefore inevitable) outworking of an event through the eyes of faith as God’s work, though God’s actual role is restricted to setting up the laws and initial conditions and sustaining the Universe’s existence and operation. The conservative, realising that this negates special providence as an objective fact (thus obviating the “mighty acts” of God), is forced to admit miracles everywhere God might wish to act, which means everywhere, if God’s teleological agency in evolution is maintained.

Russell wants to affirm both, which he puts in the form of this question:

In other words, can we think in terms of general providence as focused on both human and natural history as a whole and special providence as concerned with the individual lives of all creatures?

This to me is a key question to the Evangelical (and to other mainstream Christians), which I have summed up before now in Jesus’s assertion that no sparrow falls to the ground apart from his father’s will. Russell’s “liberal” position would exclude that out of hand, except as a believing observer’s wishful thinking, whilst few would want to extend his “conservative” miracles to such mundane matters.

The first point I want to make is that Russell suggests his idea is breaking new ground in theistic evolution, which relates back to the recent debate over BioLogos:

[A new period of creative discussions of evolution and Christian faith] is particularly important if we are to “make good” the promissory note regarding the cogency of theistic evolution made by scholars since the early 1960s and 1970s, since most approaches in the past have tended towards a kind of “statistical deism,” lacking a convincing interpretation of God really acting in time in biology (my italics).

In other words the concerns of myself and others like Crude and Thomas Cudworth over the inadequacy, theologically, of much theistic evolution are, in Russell’s estimation, far from groundless but are valid critiques of “most approaches in the past”. This indeed, as he says, gives welcome grounds for new discussions, which it is much to be hoped will impact BioLogos, as the most visible public face of theistic evolution, more than it has hitherto.

My second point regards Russell’s antagonism to Creationism and, particularly, to Intelligent Design. In his discussion, he talks of the intrinsic weaknesses of the “conservative” interventionist position above. He says:

At worst it can move Christians in the direction of creation science or, more beguilingly, “intelligent design.”

The point with regard to creation science is valid, though I would want to flag up that NIODA through quantum mechanisms, as God’s input to biological systems, would square quite nicely with some versions of Old Earth Creationism. But on what does he base his objections to ID? He makes three points here.

The first is ID’s commitment to divine intervention. But my reading of ID does not actually suggest such a commitment. Typically, an ID writer like Stephen Meyer would say, “Here is evidence of design, which presupposes the existence of a designer.” Indeed one common criticism of ID is its lack of suggested mechanisms for the implementation of design. Surely most ID supporters would welcome NIODA, and particularly Russell’s quantum mechanisms in genetic evolution, as entirely consistent with their position.

The second is that Russell describes his thesis as theological rather than scientific, unlike ID. This connects with his third point, which is that he does not, as ID does, call for “a ‘new science’ that includes an appeal to ‘agency’ within biology.” Here, surely, there are some grounds for skepticism. I guess in principle, Russell is allowing that for theists, NIODA allows the assertion of God’s government and direction of evolution, whilst granting unbelieving scientists the room to attribute the same phenomena to natural causes – and particularly to chance. Here, to me, is the nub of the matter. Chance is actually indistinguishable from design (under which we should include “guidance” here) in the sense of its complex character. But whilst generally accepted tools for distinguishing the two  are not yet available, “chance” differs markedly from “design” in its results. Chance could produce this blog post statistically, but can be relied on not to do so in actuality. Choice, however, is always specified in its aims.

At best, NIODA as Russell portrays it would seem to be an irrelevance to science: “You believe in your God, Sonny, and let us get on with looking at stochastic mutations”. Does the TE thereby gain any traction in the scientific academy over even the Creation Scientist? It’s not simply that scientists are happy to ignore actions of God if they don’t interfere with science – Neodarwinian evolution works, according to its greatest supporters, on the very basis that changes are truly random. S N Salthe clarifies what is actually meant by “randomness”:

Richard Lewontin has suggested that they use ‘capriciousness’ instead. Each and every change must be capricious, reflecting pure contingency. This means also that choice is being made here between two major interpretations of  randomness – as being a result of ignorance on the part of the observer, or as reflecting a basic indeterminacy in a system. For NeoDarwinians the choice must go to the latter. Otherwise, again, some external force, unknown to us, might be influencing relevant statistical moments.
Stated exactly (Mary Williams), the Darwinian randomness of mutations means random with respect to the needs of the organisms experiencing them. So, not only is there to be no external force influencing evolution, organisms themselves cannot be allowed to be agents in their own evolution either. This puts away most Lamarckian models, in which organismic agency is the
main point. And it allows the theory to be, as it is, mechanistic.

Despite Russell’s careful arguments, the fact is that in itself NIODA is intelligent design, willy nilly. Evolutionary theory says that whatever mutations might turn up, natural selection will turn them to good effect. NIODA says that God guides (albeit invisibly) the mutations. The assumption must be that, without this guidance, natural selection would not do good, at least to anything like the same extent. If this were not so, NIODA would be superfluous. And without doubt, biologists will see that mutations “directed by God” are simply not “random with respect to fitness”, even if the divine direction takes place at an indeterminate point in nature. They will reject Russell’s proposal as destructive of the whole ND synthesis.

But one could also argue that the insistence that NIODA doesn’t intervene in the practice of science might prove also to be to the detriment of knowledge. For if it is an actual process which, indirectly or not, introduces information from God into nature, that information will produce an outcome different from its absence. That is its whole point. As Russell himself describes it:

God’s special action results in specific, objective consequences in nature, conequences that would not have resulted without God’s special action.

So why would such differences not be detectable scientifically? The reason most likely to appeal to Russell, I think, would be epistemic ignorance. Purpose initiated through a scientifically indeterminate system cannot, with certainty, be distinguished from non-directed chance. But that is the crux of the argument of people like William Dembski. Even if his model provides inadequate characterisation of intelligent design, there seems no intrinsic reason why such characterisation should not be achievable in the foreseeable future.

Intuitively a 4 billion year sequence of low-probability events leading to ever-increasing order and functional complexity requires explanation. Russell inevitably claims, by proposing NIODA, that such explanation cannot be forthcoming on naturalistic presuppositions except by shrugging it off as nature’s “capriciousness”. Surely formal criteria for some variant of “specified information” must at length be forthcoming – or we must accept that it will never be possible to distinguish a message from a random string of Shannon information, a suggestion for which there seems no intrinsic justification.

In conclusion I believe Russell’s overall thesis is correct, but that it has more negative implications for current evolutionary theory than he is preparaed to admit, and that it brings him much closer to Intelligent Design Theory than he is willing to accept. I believe that makes it a very significant contribution, though not quite in the way that he hopes.

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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3 Responses to Robert J Russell sitting on the TE/ID interface

  1. James says:

    Thanks for your summary of this book, Jon.

    Russell seems to be saying in the book what he has said elsewhere, and it’s a refreshing change from what we read in most other TEs, for whom divine action is a mere theological gloss upon an evolutionary process that is adequately explained by unguided natural processes. For Russell, God’s special action makes evolution go in a particular direction that it would not go in the absence of that action. Nature is being directed. And you don’t direct something unless you have a design in mind. His view is thus entirely compatible with ID.

    Russell thinks that his view is incompatible with ID because the divine origin of the crucial mutations cannot be detected by science. But in fact ID has never claimed to be able to identify any particular mutation or event as the direct action of God. ID argumentation rests on the pattern discovered in whole series of events. Certain patterns of biological change over time, ID claims, indicate intelligent design rather than chance. That claim, in any particular case (say, the evolution of man from the primates, or of the whale from some artiodactyl), may be right or it may be wrong, but it is not the same as claiming that, say, the honeybee was created by a miraculous alteration of Gene XYA123 in some earlier bee, 50 million years ago, on a leaf of a particular tree in North Africa. To say that A couldn’t have become B in merely Y million years if truly unguided mutations were the only source of novelty is not the same as saying that any particular mutation was a direct act of God.

    But it wouldn’t be surprising if Russell had not read very much ID literature. In my experience, most TEs have read maybe one of Behe’s books, and a smattering of other things, and that’s it. So they tend to mischaracterize ID and then attack a straw man. Further, Russell had worked out the essentials of his position as far back as 1998, when the only ID books available were the first books of Johnson and Behe, and when Johnson in particular wrote in such a way as to strongly suggest that “design” and “miraculous intervention” were synonymous for all practical purposes. ID has come a long way since then, and none of the more sophisticated ID theorists demand that design must entail intervention, even if many of them personally believe that intervention has in fact occurred.

    But I may be wrong on this: in what you have read so far, does Russell seriously engage with the arguments in later ID books such as No Free Lunch, Nature’s Destiny, The Edge of Evolution, and so on? Or even give evidence that he has read them?

    I think that Russell’s general suggestion — that the universe is causally “open” in a way that it isn’t in Laplacean physics — is useful, and one which many ID proponents could easily adopt. I think the weakness of his view is his adherence to “random mutation plus natural selection.” Russell is by training a physicist, and his conception of evolution, he takes from his biological colleagues, who, at the time he started thinking about these things, were all neo-Darwinians. There is no hint in his writing that he is aware of the critique of Margulis, and since 1998 many other things have happened in evolutionary biology. In the past five years we have seen major critiques of neo-Darwinism from the Altenberg group and from Shapiro. What Russell is doing is to supplement neo-Darwinism by means of quantum physics. But if neo-Darwinism eventually is abandoned by the evolutionary biologists — as it may well be over the next 25 years — Russell’s effort will then be tied to a scientifically dead notion of how evolution works. That is why the enduring part of Russell’s work will probably not be what he thinks it is — God sneaking in under the quantum radar to insert selected mutations, and then leaving the rest to Darwinian natural selection. The enduring part will the “openness of nature” and the rejection of Laplacean-type models. And an “open nature” is closer to Biblical thought anyway.

    The understanding of nature pushed up to this point by BioLogos is not Biblical, but Deistic, however much the Deistic character is blurred by the occasional use of the sentimental and unscientific language of the freedom of nature. All one has to do is read the columns on genetics, primate evolution, whale evolution, etc. It’s all the random flipping and splicing of chromosomes, through wholly natural processes, and any suggestion that God might be steering the mutations is rebuffed or evaded. Russell is challenging that very nicely — “statistical deism” — a great phrase!

    I may be wrong, but I think Russell is the only TE to date to offer a concrete account of the relation of divine action to the evolutionary process. All the others, as far as I can see, simply lay the naturalistic evolutionary process alongside some vague general claim of divine lordship over nature, and arbitrarily declare that they fit without any contradiction or tension. Russell seems to be the only one who thinks that Christian theology has an obligation to make the relationship between divine and natural action intelligible. For that commitment alone, I would rank him as the most theoretically alert and coherent of all the leading TEs.

  2. Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

    Hi James

    Russell’s book is 2008, but its chapters are revised from older articles, those I cited from 1998 and 2001, so Johnson may well be his main impression of ID. To be fair, it’s a minimal interaction, probably largely because his conversation partners are the likes of Peacocke, Barbour, Polkinghorne, Nancey Murphey. He even cites the popular TE writers sparingly.

    Given the timespan it’s less surprising that he doesn’t deal with ID much than that TE leaders have taken so little notice of him in the last decade +. That suggests either lack of academic reading on their part or ideological commitment to “statistical deism” (a phrase he likes, too!). The timescale might also explain the lack of interaction with the new generation of Darwin doubters, but that may also have another explanation in the TE practice of taking science as a given and theologising it as it stands.

    I think there is probably more on mechanisms of divine action in his circle than among the BioLogos crew, but I’d see him as one of the only ones to plough a furrow with a serious view to theological orthodoxy. If NDE is displaced, I think his ideas would still have traction in whatever version of biological contingency replaced it. He himself would not worry about the science being updated – he specifically ties his ideas on quantum indeterminancy to one Copenhagen interpretation on a “what-if” basis – the alternative being only to do theology on science that is so thoroughly established as to be out of date (eg Newtonian physics).

    But I share your overall assessment that he’s the TE to watch for serious ideas that might actually build bridges within the Christian world. There’s a hair’s breadth between him and ID of the Old Earth evolutionary type.

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