Elliott Sober on divine direction of evolution

It’s lazy, I know, but this is a cut-and-paste of a post I wrote to Ted Davis on BioLogos. The Sober article makes points relevant to previous blogs here, so it seems relevant to record them and my comments on the Hump rather than to lose them in the Biologos archives.

 Have you seen this recent article by Elliott Sober? In an earlier thread you pointed us to an older Sober article, in Debating Design, in which he proposed that the scientific detection of design in evolution is impossible without knowing about the designer himself.

I only had access at the time to an enthusiastic review of his article, and devoted three posts to it on my blog, concluding that design could nevertheless be deduced on other grounds of human intuition, which are actually grounds assumed elsewhere in science – in other words, that design detection might still be possible, if not strictly in scientific terms.

The new article, on the general question of God’s “intervention” in evolution, seems to take a similar line by saying that belief or non-belief in, or even agnosticism about, such intervention cannot be deduced from evolutionary theory, but only from philosophical additions to it – which many have been arguing all along. That seems to me to be a pretty sound argument – how say you?

Two additional things strike me, wrt R J Russell’s work in Cosmology – Alpha to Omega (which he actually cites in the references).

(a) I note that, despite Russell’s care to contruct a theory of divine control that is not intervention (because of quantum indeterminacy) Sober consciously sticks to the word “intervention”. That confirms my suspicion that scientists are not impressed by such a fine distinction.

(b) If his article is correct, then the whole requirement to remove “intervention” in Russell’s sense from the picture is unnecessary anyway. Science, qua science, is not legitimately qualified to exclude even “law-breaking” intervention. So Russell is not making an accommodation to science at all, but to a philosophical addition to science – which is self-defeating, as his very proposal is a denial of the truth of that particular philosophy.

I hope that’s not off-topic. It seems a relevant new bit of data.

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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2 Responses to Elliott Sober on divine direction of evolution

  1. Gregory says:

    From two years ago – Sober on “Naturalism, Creationism and ID”:
    http://mpegmedia.abc.net.au/rn/podcast/2010/04/pze_20100403.mp3

    Not ready to trust a non-theist speaking about ‘divine direction of evolution.’ You might want to consider instead listening to penman, who is both theist and has claimed here to be a theistic evolutionist. ‘Divine direction’ is of course ID-preferred language (though they’re ready to drop ‘design’ at a scientific heartbeat); while ‘guidance’ or ‘governance’ seems to be your own preference.

    “What keeps theists from being naturalists is that they think that God is a supernatural being.” – Sober

    This is the same language that MN vs. MN is stuck in, as with those who seek to perpetuate it communicatively.

    I guess we still await your critical assessment or embrace of ‘intelligent design’ on the Hump, Jon. There are many criticisms of ID by non-theists and theists. What I have not seen is what your personal thoughts are on this topic.

    Is ‘intelligent design’ *not* a ‘theory of intervention’ in your opinion? If not, then what name of ‘action’ would you call the hypothetical ‘designing’ if not ‘intervention’?

  2. Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

    Is ‘intelligent design’ *not* a ‘theory of intervention’ in your opinion? If not, then what name of ‘action’ would you call the hypothetical ‘designing’ if not ‘intervention’?

    “Intervention” is a word I’d either use differently from either Russell or Sober, or better avoid altogether. Russell takes it as implying the breaking of natural law (with an implied sense of violation), and so looks to mechanisms which are scientifically indeterminate. To me (and Sober, it seems) that’s a legal fiction – God is still changing stuff.

    My view is that, in whatever way he acts, God is directing his own universe, and “intervention” is as inappropriate a word as it would be for either of us to “intervene” in the writing of our prose. But if I used it myself at all, it would be simply to say that God actively manages the events of his creation.

    I disagree that I’ve been coy in discussing design and its detection on the Hump – and I’ve even commented on where I agree or disagree with ID concepts. If that doesn’t commit me to wearing a convenient badge , so be it.

    To me the key question is theological: does an original concept of Triceratops in the will of God end up instantiated on the ground, to which my answer is yes. He is not surprised, disappointed or undifferent because he created it. Between those two facts lie precise mechanisms of theistic evolution, ID, old earth creationism – even young earth creationism, the Christian materialism of Nancey Murphy, the AT of Ed Feser etc etc.

    As for penman, I think he’d be flattered to think he was an authority on the philosophy of divine action (or one likely to be cited by Ted Davis, anyway, whose references to Sober are my subject here).

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