I’ve reported back on what I consider the “big thing” at this weekend’s Tyndale Fellowship conference “Design in Nature?” Here’s just a miscellany of small points that gained my attention in the context of the bigger question of Christian responses to origins questions.
Bear in mind the conference’s milieu. The organisers were a small group of Evangelical philosophers of religion (rarer here than in the US). There was some support from the UK’s Centre for Intelligent Design (again much smaller and less political than its US counterpart), and it had two “big name” ID speakers, of whom Steve Fuller stands slightly apart from that movement. The other two speakers were Christians, but not ID proponents. The audience was a mixed bag of philosophers, theologians, other Christians interested in design in nature, and a few authors or enthusiasts who were there because they thought it was an ID conference. In other words it was an uneven cross-section of mainly British educated Christians.
I should add that scientists may have been under-represented because Christians in Science had a 4 day residential conference going simultaneously at which most other British names of interest to this issue were speaking – Alister McGrath, Denis Alexander, Simon Conway Morris and John Polkinghorne to name a few. A shame I didn’t know about it because one of the speakers, Pete Harris, who founded the A Rocha environmentalist project, was a good friend at Cambridge.
First, then, a few more bullet points from Steve Fuller’s presentation, which to me was the most thought-provoking.
(1) Commenting on Lyell and the contrast between rival catastrophism theories and uniformitarian theories in the nineteenth century, Fuller pointed out that both were propounded by Christians. The former, emphasising God’s direct action, are short of scientific explanations. Conversely, uniformitarian theories give explanations, but tend to displace God from the picture in time, as what was proposed as God’s means then becomes regarded as self-sufficient. Fuller put this forward as a danger inherent in any success Design Theory might have as science. And that’s true – for example, is the evidence of teleology in James Shapiro’s work going to be taken as a wonder of God’s creativity, or merely a natural feature of life with an explanation in undirected evolution? But it’s also absolutely clear in the prevailing “statistical deism” model of theistic evolution, with people like Dennis Venema turning somersaults to show how God is not involved in design, whilst retaining him as a detached prime mover.
(2) Fuller was interested most in design at the macro-level (God designs not just flagellae, but the world system in which they beat). Developing his assertion that it is the assumption of humanity as created in God’s image that underpins science, he made this statement, very suitable for prolonged meditation: “Unified theories of science presuppose belief in design.”
(3) Linked to that, Fuller’s discussion of theodicy began by saying how it became a significant area of theological pursuit around the beginning of the scientific era. Firstly, this confirms my claims here that talk of “Augustinian theodicy” or “Irenaean theodicy” is, to a great extent, anachronistic. Fuller seemed to hint that part of what is required of the ID movement may be to move away from the speculative modern theodicies which try to justify God’s actions in detail, and return to the older and simpler idea that, in this area, God’s good aims are simply higher than our limited conceptions of design. But I may have read this into what he said!
(4) He definitely did say, though, that it was modern theodicies that paved the way to systems approaches in sciences like economics, though these later became secularised. The macro-design picture, then, of “why the world is as it is”, is closely linked to theodicy, which is another reason it must concern IDists.
OK, that’s Fuller specifically. Here are a few more general impressions.
(a) None of the speakers (even the two non-IDists), nor commenters from the floor, had any reservations about using the word “design”. The claims by many TEs that “design” reduces God to some kind of celestial mechanic doesn’t seem to have much traction amongst philophers of religion over here. I conclude it’s more anti-ID rhetoric than anything.
(b) Theistic evolution in the BioLogos mould seemed to be viewed by speakers and audience alike as a compromise, and maybe compromised, position. In particular TE’s reticience about acknowledging God’s role as designer provoked several questions. A suggestion from the floor that TE’s might wish to keep face with secular scientists produced a confirmatory quotation from Fuller, if I remember aright. But he also suggested an inability to counter the theodical skepticism of secular scientists as a reason. This was another reason why ID should grapple with the theodicy issue more competently.
(c) Methodological naturalism was stated by a number of speakers to be philosophically untenable, and this view was not opposed by any of the philophers in the audience. Why, then, is it so staunchly defended at BioLogos?
(d) Many-worlds Multiverse as the alternative to divine design in cosmic fine tuning – a complete philosophical non starter. Stephen Clark was excellent on this. If the Multiverse is true, it may explain statistically impossible things like fine-tuning or DNA replication but would require a preponderence of other statistically impossible things, like lecture notes turning into doves. This, naturally, completely destroys science as a source of understanding: everything happens because, statistically, it’s bound to in one Universe or another. End of research. Clark also pointed out that there must be at least one Universe in which a Supreme Being has control of everything, and takes an overseeing interest in all the other Universes…
(e) David Glass’s subject was a philosophical calculus about whether naturalistic explanations in science had the power also to exclude design inferences. His conclusion was they did not, with reference both to cosmic fine-tuning and evolution. The case in the former was maybe somewhat stronger, but not dramatically so. Again, TE’s aversion to design in biology is therefore highly questionable.
Lastly, one insight from a personal conversation I had with a philosopher from Liverpoool University. We were talking about the change in the acceptability of theism in philosophy since my University days. He said that there were now many theistic philosophers in the US, but far fewer in Britain. Nevertheless, though a worldwide majority in the field are atheists and materialists, there is respect for non-materialist and even dualist approaches to reality. Indeed, my informant said, there’s hardly a philosopher in the world who doesn’t accept that materialism (not naturalism, mind) faces enormous if not insurmountable problems.
This is interesting because of the philosophically Christian Materialist slant so prevalent at BioLogos, often presented as if it were a given more or less beyond rational dispute. But if an actual philosopher is to be believed, that position is simply naive. I’ve always thought there are too many natural scientists at BioLogos and not enough polymaths. And that takes us back to Fuller’s radical ideas on the democratisation of science – but that’s for another post.