Over at Uncommon Descent there has been a thread running for over a fortnight majoring on sociologist Steve Fuller’s suggestion that ID ought to be upfront regarding its Abrahamic theistic assumptions, rather than sticking to a purely “naturalistic” scientific position that it cannot comment on the nature of the designer, though the attribution of design may have metaphysical implications. Gregory (also a regular supporter here), whose acquaintance with Fuller prompted the thread, has been getting a hard time (though, as always, giving one too) over Fuller’s presumption in trying to change ID’s terms of reference from those of its leading proponents.
Gregory mentioned that Fuller was sharing a platform with Stephen Meyer this weekend at a conference in Cambridge. As it happens, I’ve just returned from that conference and met both of them briefly, which was good. Regular readers may remember that this blog really took off from a review I did just over a year ago of the BioLogos noview of Signature in the Cell , and Meyer was kind enough to thank me for writing it.
The conference was actually not an ID conference, but was run under the auspices of the Philosophy group of the Tyndale Fellowship based on Tyndale House in Cambridge, where I did much of my reading for the Biblical Studies part of my theology training. So apart from Mayer and Fuller the speakers also included veteran “Christian Platonist” philosopher of religion and animal rights Prof Stephen Clark (whose argument for the essential irrationality of materialist science predates the similar one of Alvin Plantinga by many years) and Dr David Glass, of the University of Ulster, a trained philosopher but working now in computer science, whose position he described to me as much like my own – sympathetic to a limited form of evolution including design. Neither are directly linked to the ID movement.
The single most remarkable thing about the conference was… its fortuitous connection to a small and insubordinate Baptist house group I led in Great Baddow, Chelmsford nearly 30 years ago! The first person I met at the conference was a physics teacher from that group, whose conversations with an ID friendly mathematician in his northern retirement town led him to register. After I myself booked I discovered that one of the organisers of the event had also been in my group (which as far as I remember never discussed origins). I am pleased to have this confirmation of my high view of God’s providence! Who would have put the village of Great Baddow on the origins map?
But my main concern here is with Fuller’s presentation, which was spellbinding and provocative of much thought and prolonged discussion. His argument is well worth rehearsing in brief here.
First let me remind you of some of my thoughts here and in the two subsequent blogs, in which I countered Elliot Sober’s suggestion that design is undetectable without knowledge of the designer by pointing out (a) that the human sciences invoke design not by rational argument, but from our innate human sensitivity to design, which is as axiomatic as our recognition of order and rationality in nature, and (b) that to the extent that humans are in some sense like God, we might well be able to detect his design on the same scientifically unexceptionable grounds. I had discussed this with my old physicist friend over coffee, before Fuller spoke.
Fuller’s argument ran like this. In the first talk, Steve Meyer had rehearsed his methodology, in Signature in the Cell, of “inference to best explanation” with reference to its use by the geologist Charles Lyell in his uniformitarianism proposal. Fuller pointed out that the strength of Lyell’s argument was that it is not an analogy, but a projection of the very same processes seen at work today to a longer time-scale. Therefore, he said, the design inference is weakened if it can only claim that design in nature is like, rather than identical with, human design.
But, he said, the scientific enterprise began on the Christian (or Abrahamic-faith) assumption that, because mankind is created in God’s image, we are equipped to “think his thoughts after him” – not only by apprehending the rationality of nature, but by recognising the self-same approach to design that humans exercise, in their limited fashion. We detect design, then, because there is a genuine continuity between the Creator’s design and our own. You’ll see that’s a similar conclusion to that I arrived at independently, though put more strongly and coherently. And that’s why the assertion that we are created in God’s image is central to ID, re-affirming as it does a foundational principle that once motivated science but has been forgotten.
But Fuller went further than this. He reminded us that one of the strongest counter-arguments to design in nature is that “a loving, omnipotent God, would not create the world of suffering we see around us.” This is not only a major plank of atheists like Richard Dawkins, but of Christian theistic evolutionists like Francisco Ayala and Darrel Falk (and many others ) in BioLogos. Fuller gave a historical review of how theodicy became an important area of endeavour around the early modern period, and particularly amongst those involved in the scientific project. It was a key part of William Paley’s natural theology (taking a very utilitarian, Malthusian line) and was a principle reason for Darwin’s rejection of God’s role in evolution: “If that (Paley’s theodicy) is what God is like, then let’s do without God.”
So, Fuller concluded, ID theorists need to grapple with theodicy in order to defuse the rejection of God’s goodness in nature – and they can only do that by asserting what God, the designer, is actually like and, to some degree, why he would put such care into designing pathogens and parasites. Not an easy task but, Fuller says, a necessary one. Incidentally, Fuller from his position as “a rational theist” (for which he thanks the Dover trial forcing him into grappling with ID issues), showed a very mature and nuanced approach to theodicy, recognising the need for what he called “pastoral sensitivity” whilst allowing, like Augustine, that what appears to us “evil” may well serve God’s good purposes at the macro-scale. He needs to start thinking in Trinitarian terms, I think, to begin to square that circle.
OK, will ID people agree, or disagree with Steve Fuller’s line of argument? In reply, I’d like to cite just one particular ID advocate, in the form of Dr Stephen Meyer, who was the first to raise his hand to comment at question time. He said that he’d heard Steve make similar points the week before at another joint event, and regretted that lack of time then had prevented his being able to reply. What he would have said, and wanted even more to say after this presentation, was how heartily he agreed with Fuller. He was, he said, tremedously excited at the prospect of bringing theology, in these terms, into ID’s research agenda. In particular, he wanted to run with the idea of ID people working to “discuss and adjudicate the models of theodicy with empirical evidence”.
I spoke briefly to Stephen Meyer over dinner later, and since he mentioned he does not follow Uncommon Descent he will have been unaware of the debate there during this last fortnight. Nevertheless his answer to Fuller casts light on the questions raised there about the attitude of the ID “hierarchy” to Fuller’s call for “coming out” with respect to the image of God and other specific theological issues. You’ll maybe remember (and Meyer reminded the Cambridge conference) that William Dembski has presented a fairly controversial version of theodicy in his book The End of Christianity. Whilst that was written in his “theologian” capacity rather than his “ID mathematician” role, its agenda maybe shows where the future needs to go.
When I spoke to Steve Fuller yesterday afternoon I raised my own biggest problem with such a change in direction – that it gives opponents ammunition for their claim that ID is really only creationism dressed up as science. He pointed out that since that claim is made anyway, there’s not much to be lost – and that it would be a price worth paying in the big game. It would appear that Stephen Meyer, at least, agrees with that assessement.