Mike Gene on creation

I liked Mike’s recent post on Shadow to Light. Michael Ruse has restated the rather tired assertion that any guidance God put into evolution would overturn its known unguidedness (every instance since it began having been studied, I suppose, in detail and shown to be unguided?). Any cheating by, say, God’s guiding quantum events would be “messing with science”.

Mike points to Elliot Sober’s recent argument (cited here) to show that he is wrong because science simply has no ability to comment on divine action, but in the instance of “quantum governance”, as Robert J Russell makes clear, it would not be “messing with science” because the science itself is indeterminate.

Ruse goes on to speculate that God creates through random processes by forming a many-worlds multiverse and waiting till one turns up that does what he wants. Uneconomical, but unexceptionable to science (which is free to speculate on fabulous multiverses but not to accept evidence of an actual God). Mike’s response is to remind Ruse that God, dwelling outside time, does not have to “wait” for anything to turn up, since he sees the end from the beginning. He does form such a multiverse, but only mentally, presumably running an infinite series of simulations in eternity. When he finds the one that will produce the precise ends that conform to his purpose, he creates just that one. Without any nasty unscientific interference it will turn out, in detail, just as he wishes.

In his discussion, Mike spells out the teleological aspect of this in a way I find very attractive. If God, for example, desired to created you, specifically, as a teleological endpoint, then he also necessarily created your entire history, your ancestors both human and pre-human, with their histories, and so on. This describes well what I tried to express here. Science decribes only causes leading to effects in time, which can only incompletely map to a creation in which God thinks first of his purposes, and considers the means necessary to produce them only secondarily.

But I’m not sure how useful Mike’s general notion of a virtual multiverse is, except as a polemic response to Ruse. After all, we’re picturing God imagining every possible Universe operating on law and chance, and finally selecting the one to instantiate. But the truth is that none of these virtual Universes was “going to happen”: they are all possible versions of what God himself might choose to do. Without him, nothing will do anything. Predicting what you mean to do is simply to do it.

Here’s an analogy. I want to shoot an arrow at a target I have in view. I imagine every possible scenario. I exclude very quickly those in which I face backwards, or use ivy for the bow-string or run away. I warm more to those in which I carefully line up the arrow with the target, make allowance for gravity and wind, draw back the string just so, release my fingers in that specific manner and so on. In my imperfect human experience I will be trying to imitate and refine the physical and mental conditions of my best previous shots. God in his perfection does it all in his mind. In other words, there is very little conceptual difference between God’s selecting from an infinite number of imagined universes and my selecting from an infinite number of possible bow-shots. It’s called “design”. Indeed, that’s what “design” is – reducing possibilities to the few, or one, that will produce a desired result. It’s eliminating uncertainty by choice.

Even so, at face value Mike’s preferred scenario  seems a little deistic, which maybe is congenial to his favoured front-loading model of evolution, in which all the potentialities for the life we see today are built into the first genome and uncurl over time by the natural processes of mutation, natural selection and so on. God conceives the one Universe that will unfold to his final goal, creates it in time and, lo, it performs as desired.

But if, as Mike has already understood, God exists outside time, why should the creation process, any more than the conception process, privilege the temporal beginning of things over the rest of their existence? If God conceives in eternity, will he not also create in eternity? If you read this, you will probably work through from beginning to end. But it will have appeared on your computer more or
less instantaneously. You have no way of knowing whether I wrote my concluding paragraph first, or how I marshalled my thoughts in the editor. Nor will you know how many adjustments and alterations I made along the way.

We have no way of knowing, especially given the truth of Sober’s (and others’) claim that science cannot exclude divine action, that the Universe God willed is not one in which his direct, creative, activity occurs frequently. My analogy of a trajectory-sport like archery, for example, might be less correct than that of a sport like pinball, in which (if Tommy represents it fairly) the skill lies not only in the initial launch of the ball, but in timely adjustments along the way. Or God’s creation might even be analogous to this post, whose concept might (optimistically) have been fully formed in my mind from the start, but whose actualisation depends on my typing each individual key-stroke personally.

Mike does point out in another post (linked from the first) that given a teleological understanding of God’s creation the actual mechanisms are of minor importance:

So how did we come into existence? Was it the miracle of Creationism? Was it the natural law and evolutionary convergence of Conway Morris or Denton? Was it by front-loading evolution? Or was it the mixture of natural selection and contingency as outlined by Dawkins and Gould?

Answer – it doesn’t matter. However we came into existence had to be because that was the way we came into existence. It’s a package deal.

I’d agree with that. But I’d also point out that positing the idea of God’s selecting from an infinite multitude of possible Universes doesn’t move us any further on in our understanding of those mechanisms that the more time-honoured statement: In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.

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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62 Responses to Mike Gene on creation

  1. Alan Fox says:

    Well, after ten years or so of denying religion was an element in his/her commenting on the interwebs, I am pleased to see him/her coming out as an unashamed evangelical Christian.

  2. Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

    Alan

    Nothing in the posts I cited actually demonstrates Mike is an Evangelical, though I suspect that he is. I’ve seen plenty to show his underlying theism in his posts on BioLogos, though.

    That, however, doesn’t mean that religion affects what he’s usually been posting about, ie evolutionary frontloading et al. That touches on some of what we’ve discussed here recently wrt Steve Fuller – you either have to say, as Fuller does and Gregory does, that faith positions colour each and every discussion of the science (there is no position of “no religious position”). Or you have to accept that religion, whilst it might influence someone’s area of interest and approach, is irrelevant to the scientific discussion.

    What you can’t justify is the searching for hidden faith agendas and dismissal of arguments on their basis. Mike would be quite right in saying, under those circumstances, “My religion is no more relevant to my science than Richard Lenski’s – just reply to my arguments.”

  3. Gregory says:

    Yesterday I wrote a message on this thread, only to see it erased. This 2nd one will try to mirror the 1st.

    Thanks for passing on this link. It enabled me to reconnect with Mike Gene, the pseudonymous, biologist blogger, who had fallen off my radar.

    Mike Gene is, from last I heard, classifiable as an Theistic-Intelligent Design-Evolutionist, who accepts ‘front-loading’ and distcontinuity in natural history.

    He is also much more reflexivity-oriented than most natural scientists on the topic of ID, evolution and creation. Indeed, his ‘package deal’ approach is almost like an ‘anthropic principle’ in biology, something that Steve Fuller suggested several years ago.

    This is demonstrated in the following post, which in some ways echoes with Jon’s suggestion, “getting evolution back to front.” This is similar to what I’ve been promoting in regard to a ‘reverse perspective’ elsewhere. It shows the importance of taking people seriously when it comes to their views of origins of life and processes of change-over-time, whether naturalistically, humanistically, or in relation to the divine.

    http://shadowtolight.wordpress.com/2009/06/13/because-of-us/

    p.s. sorry, not convinced on your ‘Sogoliob,’ Jon. There’s something significant about acknowledge ‘Logos’ in the biosphere, sociosphere, in culture and even politics, don’t you agree? This is where the TE in you surely must agree with the Big-L in BioLogos – it indicates something that didn’t and doesn’t occur ‘purely naturalistically.’
    p.p.s. yes, religion colours regarding ‘discussion of the science’ – but that doesn’t mean there needs to be Christian biology, Muslim physics, Buddhist chemistry, Baha’i ecology, etc. In the human-social sciences, there is a significant difference with the ‘positivist-seeking’ natural-physical sciences. Again, this is not a topic that often comes up for people educated in ‘western’ philosophy of science, while I find it to be extremely important to address the landscape that Jon describes about relevance and irrelevance of personality in ‘doing science.’

  4. Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

    Don’t know why previous post was erased, Gregory – as far as I know it never appeared. Maybe it’s slipped into some other Universe.

  5. Alan Fox says:

    Or you have to accept that religion, whilst it might influence someone’s area of interest and approach, is irrelevant to the scientific discussion.

    I absolutely insist that religion is irrelevant to scientific discussion, except when religious dogma runs contrary to obvious facts (the age of the Earth being a prime example).

  6. Alan Fox says:

    Trying again

    What you can’t justify is the searching for hidden faith agendas and dismissal of arguments on their basis. Mike would be quite right in saying, under those circumstances, “My religion is no more relevant to my science than Richard Lenski’s – just reply to my arguments.”

    Having bought and read Gene’s book “The Design Matrix” I did indeed directly address his arguments in a review I posted at Amazon. I did not find his book at all convincing, though Mike did say there was a second volume in preparation which would contain the evidence for his ‘front loading’ idea.

    I became aware of his evangelism later via the link Gregory gives in his comment. As I remarked before, it is better to be open about motivation, as evasion only creates speculation. ID is much better for dropping the pretence that the identity of the”intelligent designer” is not for consideration.

  7. Gregory says:

    No worries, Jon, it was my fault the post got erased – closed the wrong window. 🙁

    Whether or not Mike Gene is specifically an ‘evangelical’ is not known to me. In the “Because of Us” thread her refers to “orthodox Christian views [of] human life.”

    “What you can’t justify is the searching for hidden faith agendas and dismissal of arguments on their basis.” – Jon

    Yes and no. It’s a sauce, goose, gander question, isn’t it, Jon? The chapter called “What has atheism ever done for science?” in Fuller’s “Science: the art of living”, turns this topic on its head. There, Fuller writes: “as Darwin lost touch with his Christian roots, his science lost touch with its humanity.” (2010: 100) Likewise, he says, “Atheism as a positive doctrine has done precious little for science.” (Ibid: 110)

    So, if Alan Fox is going to connect Mike Gene’s views on OoL with his Christian faith, we must needs be able to connect Alan Fox’s views on OoL with his lack of Christian faith, or to be more positive, with whatever worldview Alan Fox holds.

    You are much more open and up-front about who you believe to be the Intelligent Designer of the universe, of human life, and, presumably, of biological information also, than most people in the IDM. Are you suggesting that the ‘theological roots’ that Fuller identifies with ID are not worth the IDM forthrightly acknowledging?

  8. Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

    Alan

    You missed my insistence on distinguishing “worldview” from “motivation”. Maybe because that’s you confuse (like many others) “evangelism” (the activity of promoting the gospel of Jesus Christ) with “evangelicalism” (the belief in the gospel of Jesus Christ as understood by that tradition, ie by grace, through faith, according to Scripture).

    If Mike’s motivation in suggesting front-loaded evolution were evangelism, he’d be doing apologetics, not science, which is the pursuit of knowledge. If, on the other hand, he seeks to find a natural science that accords with his worldview, that’s what everyone in science actually does, though natural scientists are the worst at seeing it in themselves (some of them because of lack of sociological understanding, some from a crude delusion that they have the only possible valid worldview).

    As it happens Mike is more rigorous than most scientists in refusing to let his worldview slip surreptitiously into his science – by saying that the inference to a designer is outside science proper. Contrast that with so many of a naturalistic worldview who will say that Darwin’s theory excludes design, which it doesn’t except when wedded to naturalistic metaphysics (read Elliot Sober’s latest essay for the fallacy of that).

    Worldviews habitually block out evidence that seems contrary to them – they are characterised by what facts they ignore. Your example of young-earth science is valid – but stated more strictly the case is that YECs give undue weight to strands of evidence suggestive of a young earth, and fail to deal adequately with the overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Personally I’d say the reason they feel the need to do that is because of an inadequate understanding of what the evidence from Scripture actually says, but that’s no matter.

    It’s equally true that naturalistic “religious” presuppositions also run contrary to facts, for example by invoking more complexity than necessary so that God won’t get a foot in the door (is it really parsimonious to invoke “convergence” as a panacea for phylogenetic anomalies when you can’t explain convergence?), by treating as scientific what are in fact only speculations about what might be discovered in the distant future (eg there must be a natural explanation for the origin of life even when none of those we have delivers any significant results).

    In one important sense, the infiltration of worldviews is vital to science: the 18th century Creationist happily (and justificably) assuming Genesis 1 to be a scientific account was brought up short by the naturalist who saw some plausible mechanism. And the naturalist is brought up short (or should be) by the non-naturalist who points out that the former has no tools for engaging with design, though there are signs of its presence.

    Being forced in this way to “see” invisible evidence is what, slowly but surely, changes the prevalent worldview, whether or not the evidence itself passes muster.

  9. Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

    Gregory

    Only saw your last post after writing a reply to Alan. Maybe the latter speaks to your first point. Atheism as a religion has, I agree, a hard case to make about its contribution to science (and I include natural and human sciences in that). However, atheism leading to a naturalistic worldview has pursued the efficient-cause agenda to its limits, which has been of significant value. Whether it’s of any more value than Boyle’s methodology would have been, working from a theistic worldview informed by Christianity, is another matter.

    As to your second point, what I get out of the Steve Fuller conversation (whether or not it was in his mind) is also a “sauce for goose and gander” conclusion – that the scientific community in general needs to be forcefully reminded of its “theological roots” so that it no longer has any justification for bashing the IDM because it works more consistently from those roots. That may necessitate a general acknowledgement of a theistic worldview by ID proponents, though I can see why they are chary of giving an ideologically motivated and sociologically ignorant science establishment ammunition to bash them with. I guess we’ll have to wait and see how it unfolds if it’s on the table.

    Incidentally the distinction of “religion” and “worldview” may answer some of the problems the Fuller discussion has had: there can be no truly theological “outing” of ID because it is genuinely diverse in religious terms. A Penetecostal is not a Catholic is not a Moonie is not a Jew is not an Agnostic. But it is possible for all those to hold a similar theistic worldview, because worldviews operate at a more fundamental level than beliefs, and can sometimes even contradict them.

    That explains secular humanism’s origin as atheism operating from a theistic worldview (see Os Guinness’s old but still relevant “Dust of Death”, in which he describes humanisms gradual shedding of its Christian worldview as the “striptease of humanism.”)

  10. Alan Fox says:

    Apologies for tardy response. My wife’s father just died (peacefully at 90) involving us in last-minute trips to UK.

    I don’t consider myself a culture warrior, just an interested observer, and other people’s motivations fascinate me.

    You missed my insistence on distinguishing “worldview” from “motivation”. Maybe because that’s you confuse (like many others) “evangelism” (the activity of promoting the gospel of Jesus Christ) with “evangelicalism” (the belief in the gospel of Jesus Christ as understood by that tradition, ie by grace, through faith, according to Scripture).

    It’s not what the motivation is> that is the issue, rather that it is hidden in the case of some creationist ID proponents. You are quite clear about your Christian beliefs and I am very comfortable with that. You appear not to be too concerned about my inability to grasp the concept of religiosity but I hope we can agree on our common right to hold our own views and can discuss them without rancour. My motivation is mainly to promote the free exchange of ideas and I abhor censorship in principle, whilst accepting a minimal control is unfortunately necessary. The ID movement, on the whole, does not seem to share my view on free expression.

  11. James says:

    Alan Fox:

    You wrote:

    “The ID movement, on the whole, does not seem to share my view on free expression.”

    I’d like to know the basis of this remark, which is, in light of every ID book and article I’ve read — and I’ve read a very large number of them — the very opposite of the truth. ID proponents have over and over again called for freedom of expression, not just for themselves, but for all scientific and scholarly dissenters from “consensus” positions, whether on neo-Darwinism, anthropogenic global warming or any other matter.

    It is the enemies of the ID movement — people like Eugenie Scott and the NCSE — who wish to close down on freedom of expression. The NCSE, for example, has as its goal the *legal prevention*, not merely of teaching ID in science classes, but of even *mentioning* ID in science classes (which is all that the Dover School Board did), and further, the legal prevention of letting students know about criticisms of neo-Darwinian theory that are found, not in ID literature, but in peer-reviewed mainstream scientific literature. Every piece of educational legislation, without exception, proposed by various US States, which demands or even merely *permits* science teachers to present scientific criticisms of neo-Darwinism, has been opposed vigorously by the NCSE — even in cases where those pieces of legislation have specified that *neither* ID *nor* Biblical creationism will be taught.

    The NCSE wants to prop up neo-Darwinism, and wants to use the force of law (the courts) to prevent freely-elected legislators in a democratic society from passing education laws which would allow neo-Darwinism to be criticized in front of students. This is exactly what the ancient Athenians wanted to do to Socrates — shut him up, so that he would stop criticizing them in front of the young. The defenders of the received wisdom never want to be criticized in front of the young.

    So who is against free expression? Mike Behe, who writes books criticizing neo-Darwinism, and then responds, graciously and at length, to all serious scientific critics of his work, even those whose criticisms have been highly personal, nasty, and unprofessional? Or Scott, Miller, Pennock, Forrest, etc., who spend their lives giving public lectures and lobbying governments and appearing in court to prevent the spread of ID arguments? Are courtrooms the place to settle intellectual disagreements between scientists? Should the force of law, in the form of court decisions, determine what can be taught in science class? I can think of certain countries today where the state regularly prevents the free expression of religious, philosophical, scientific, and political opinions, and denies jobs to those who hold unauthorized opinions. I assume that you would not want to live in any of those countries.

    I became sympathetic with the ID people precisely because I saw that the enemies of ID were using the force of law, combined with bullying, insults, arguments from authority and from mere consensus, and near-libellous charges of dishonesty and theocratic conspiracy, in order to strangle ID notions in their crib, before they could become widespread. In other words, it was my “libertarian” streak that made me sympathetic with the political situation of the ID people. Precisely the belief that you claim to hold is the belief that I hold, i.e., that when someone has a new idea that challenges the received wisdom, the new idea should be refuted by arguments and evidence, not by insults, accusations of sinister motivations, the levelling of wild, demagogic charges (“if ID is allowed to be even mentioned in passing for five minutes in ninth-grade science, the USA will fall behind Afghanistan in high school science education, and will sink into poverty”), or, worst of all, attempts to silence diligent and responsible teachers through the courts.

    So I’m on the side that you say that you are on — the side that says that free speech should be almost unrestrained. And I think that freedom of speech is *particularly* crucial in scientific and scholarly matters, where only the truth, not what is popular among the masses and not the current consensus among the learned, should matter. And I’ve found no violation of this principle among any of the ID leaders. So if you have any evidence that Behe, Meyer, Dembski, Wells, Nelson, Johnson, Sewell, Sternberg, Axe, Minnich, etc. have ever advocated limitations on freedom of speech that would silence critics of ID, you should produce it. And if you don’t have such evidence, I don’t understand why you would have made the statement that you did.

  12. Alan Fox says:

    So if you have any evidence that Behe, Meyer, Dembski, Wells, Nelson, Johnson, Sewell, Sternberg, Axe, Minnich, etc. have ever advocated limitations on freedom of speech that would silence critics of ID, you should produce it. And if you don’t have such evidence, I don’t understand why you would have made the statement that you did.

    When Bill Dembski moderated his own blog, Uncommon Descent, he airbrushed me out after a couple of innocuous comments (One was merely a request for a clear definition of “Intelligent Design”). There is a forum thread dedicated to many, many similar experiences. I would separate Doug Axe and Paul Nelson out as the almost acceptable face of ID. Johson wlll forever be linked to the wedge document. I have to acknowledge Behe’s courage in appearing at Harrisburg but he has never engaged in dialogue with critics, using the “tone” excuse which, I note, you have provided for. “to all serious critics”?

  13. Alan Fox says:

    PS

    Genie Scott is not the enemy of the ID movement. She is a paragon of tolerance that I could aspire to!

  14. James says:

    Alan Fox:

    1. We are talking about free expression in two entirely different contexts. You are talking about how certain blogs are run. I am talking about what teachers are allowed to discuss in schools and universities.

    ID people think that in schools and universities there should be no suppression of criticisms of mainstream positions, regarding evolution or anything else.

    Eugenie Scott’s organization is dedicated to the suppression of public criticism of neo-Darwinism in the school setting. If you do not know this, you have not followed the history of the NCSE’s opposition to all attempts to introduce “critical analysis of Darwinian theory” into the curriculum, or even to leaving science teachers free to bring some critical analysis into the classroom on a voluntary basis.

    I agree that the suppression of contrary opinions on blog sites is not desirable. I’ve been banned myself, by BioLogos, without having violated any of their stated ground rules, and without even being given a reason. Without knowing the facts of your particular case, I can’t comment on Dembski’s action. But let’s say for the sake of argument that Dembski was being grossly unfair. It’s a sad fact that blog sites are privately owned and that owners have the legal right to be as capricious at they like. A different standard applies to publically funded institutions such as high schools and universities. Since *all* citizens fund these institutions, it is wrong for *one* opinion to have the power to censor and ban *other* opinions. The public good is best served when all opinions are on the table and students are permitted to see rational debate between educated people who take different sides. If this is not allowed, then schools are not institutions of education but of indoctrination. And frankly, I think this question — of indoctrination in the schools and universities — is of far more social importance than the banning of yourself and myself from blog sites. When people are not free to state their rational objections in public institutions, society is not free.

    At most American universities, extreme feminists have power far beyond what is warranted by their numbers, and use that power to control policies, what words people can say and write, etc. Such power is illiberal and should be curtailed. If there is any place in the world where one should have “the right to offend” it is at the university. Similarly, a competent astrophysicist with 68 peer-reviewed publications and a higher citation index than anyone in his department should be able to argue that the structure of the cosmos indicates intelligent design without being deprived of tenure for arguing so.
    But of course, feminism is de rigueur and ID is under an anathema, so the censorship goes on, even though it is against the very spirit of the university.

    2. Your statement about Behe is simply false. He has replied to every major critic, and a good number of minor ones, regarding both of his books. You will find a colossal cache of his responses re The Edge of Evolution to Miller, Carroll, Ruse, Matzke, etc. at his blogspot on Uncommon Descent. I hope you will look at it, and then give an unequivocal retraction of your statement. And of course even a cursory search of the internet reveals that he has engaged in many staged debates with Ken Miller, Stephen Barr, etc. I do not think you did much research before making your statement.

    And the *only* time he used the “tone” excuse was in the case of Abbie Smith, a smart-aleck, cocky American grad student who sarcastically talked down to him (her without her Ph.D., and him with tenure and 35 peer-reviewed articles); he wasn’t going to encourage her *enfant terrible* behavior by replying to her; and he was right; her insolence would have been immediately called out by any chair at any scholarly or scientific conference, and her ad hominem remarks would have led to the rejection of her criticism by any journal. But she had a position of immunity because she was writing on her personal blog site. But in the end, Behe relented, because his friends thought he should not let her “win” by default, and he answered her adequately, again on his blogspot.

    And refusing to reply to someone whose tone is inappropriate is not an “excuse.” Civilized people debate in a civilized way. That America has become such a cultural cesspool that such insulting debating manners are allowed says a lot about the cultural decline of America. And American and Australian professors of biology actually cheered Abbie Smith on! Not just for her scientific objections to Behe; they condoned her sarcasm as well, by refusing to chide her for it, or even discuss it when Behe raised it. They should have been ashamed of themselves; but many modern academics don’t know the meaning of shame.

    3. If Genie Scott is the model of tolerance that you aspire to, your aspirations are far too low. And if you don’t recognize her as an explicit enemy of the ID movement, your ability to perceive the very obvious is called into question.

  15. Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

    Alan

    Sorry to hear about your father-in-law. Peaceful death and a good age doesn’t make it painless for the bereaved – commiserations to your wife.

  16. Alan Fox says:

    Thanks Jon. My wife visited a few days before he died and was able to spend time with him. Though he was very frail, his sense of humour was apparently undiminished. She accepts he had decided he was tired of life and did not want to linger. In fact, he stopped eating during his final week. There was no pressure from the GP or district nurse to persuade him into hospital or, indeed, to intervene medically except with pain relief.

    I hesitate to derail but, as you are a retired GP, you must have come up against the dilemma of easing pain in the terminally ill patient. Would you be interested in discussing issues such as whether choice in dying could be on a more formal footing?

  17. Alan Fox says:

    James says:

    I am talking about what teachers are allowed to discuss in schools and universities.

    This is only really relevant to separation of church and state in US public education. There is no separation of church and state in the UK, so the need for “intelligent design” does not exist. In France, by contrast, secularism in education is rigorously enforce. For example, some ex pat. friends thought it might be fun to have an English style carol service as a kind of educational/ecumenical exercise and approached the local school headmistress. She was utterly horrified! Such things could not happen in state schools – she would be breaking the law!

    Do you not think children have a right to expect a formal education based on some curriculum agreed in advance? I would have been very disappointed if my science teacher decided to teach “off piste” when I needed proper qualifications.
    This has very little to do with freedom of expression.

    Regarding Mike Behe, as I said, I don’t doubt his sincerity or conviction to his views. It is just that all they amount to in essence is that current evolutionary theory cannot explain, say, the appearance of the various bacterial flagella. Therefore “intelligent design” or “poof”. Does Professor Behe have any kind of alternative theory that explains the observed facts? Can you summarize it? There is no theory of “intelligent design”. All boil down to claiming to find inadequacies in current scientific theories and then jump to the “default” of intelligent design.

    If you think you can summarize a curriculum for school kids that would cover the most important basic points of “intelligent design” theory, I would be interested to read it. I seem to recall Mike Gene basically agreeing with Paul Nelson that there is (as yet, never say never!) no theory of ID and therefore nothing that could form the basis of a science lesson.

  18. Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

    Hi Alan

    My father died 12 years ago, and the one-liners during his final illness were some of the funniest, and among the best memories of him, I have. He even got an Andy Warhol-type 15 seconds of fame on BBC news, which became library footage – I think that would have amused him.

    I was hoping to escape from controversial medical ethics areas when I retired! Certainly this thread isn’t the place. But maybe I’ll marshall some thoughts into another post before long so you can see where I got to after a few decades of medical practice.

  19. James says:

    Hello, Alan.

    You’re moving the goalposts regarding Mike Behe. You said he never responded to his critics. I indicated that he did, and copiously. Without indicating that you heard my answer, you now take up a new point — whether he has an alternative to Darwinian theory.

    In any case, he does have an alternative — at least some features in living beings did not originate purely from randomness, but were designed.

    On another point, I never said anything about a curriculum that included intelligent design. I spoke of a curriculum which included criticisms of neo-Darwinism. The NCSE has opposed such a curriculum. You did not address my point on that.

    There is nothing unreasonable about inferring design when non-design explanations seem implausible. That is done all the time by coroners suspecting murder, archaeologists suspecting arrowheads rather than unusual rocks, teachers suspecting plagiarism, casino owners suspecting loaded dice, etc. The only reason the inference is not allowed in biology is the predominant naturalistic prejudice of those in the life sciences.

    Paul Nelson made that comment about ID at least 5 years ago. Much has changed since then. Read the publications of the BioLogic Institute. In any case, I doubt very much you agree with the conclusions of Mike Gene in The Design Matrix, so your appeal to Gene’s judgment rings hollow. (In fact, one could get several biology lessons out of Gene’s discussion of things.)

    Appeals to the need to “separate church and state” don’t justify suppression of freedom of speech. They justify preventing Biblical creationism from being taught in American science classes. They don’t justify preventing science teachers from saying: “Neo-Darwinism says X, but a number of leading secular biologists now think neo-Darwinism is twaddle.” And that’s what the courts are being used for in the USA — to maintain the monopoly of neo-Darwinism.

    Your French example suffers from the same problem: it confuses the teaching of religion in the schools from the discussion of intelligent design — which is not about religion. You are mixing up ID and creationism.

    Of course, this is the strategy of Eugenie Scott in the USA, to constantly make sure the public, the lawyers, the judges, the legislators, etc. conflate and equate intelligent design with creationism. Her phrase “intelligent design creationism” — used in full knowledge of the fact that Behe is not a creationist but a practicing Roman Catholic who believes in macroevolution — is dishonest demagoguery of the lowest kind.

    Eventually Scott’s demagoguery will fail to work, because neo-Darwinism is already on the way out in biology. The more advanced young evolutionary theorists think that the old-time neo-Darwinism is doomed. An education policy based on preserving neo-Darwinism at all costs will seem quaint 25 years from now when university biology departments are no longer teaching neo-Darwinism. But the NCSE isn’t concerned about science education anyway; it’s deeper motive is to preserve the secularist/materialist world-view of writers like Isaac Asimov, Carl Sagan, Richard Dawkins, etc. — thought in which the older generation of biologists were entirely steeped.

    All of this nonsense will end when the generation of biologists trained in the 1950s through 1980s shuffles off to eternity, which will happen over the next 20 years. Darwin will be openly ridiculed by bright young biology students 20 years from now. And the criticisms that will be aired will often be those that have been aired by ID folks.

    As for your concern about curriculum, nothing major about the science curriculum has to be altered to teach criticisms of neo-Darwinism in science class. Darwinian evolution would be taught as normally, but a small amount of time would be made for criticism and objections to the notion that random mutation plus natural selection can create new body plans. So there’s no danger to the standard curriculum. If one 40-minute class per semester of biology is devoted to “current scientific criticisms of neo-Darwinian theory” the students’ training is not threatened. In fact, their training would be better than if they had just been indoctrinated: “Neo-Darwinism is true. Memorize the theory and the standard examples in defense of it. It will constitute 10% of your next exam.” Scientific training isn’t training in memorization and shouldn’t inculcate deference to consensus. It should be training in reasoning from evidence and should always include a dose of skepticism about received theories.

  20. Alan Fox says:

    I’ll look out for it.

  21. Alan Fox says:

    James, sorry for the garbled previous comment – life interrupted and I posted it rather than lose it!

    I am happy to concede that Behe has posted material on the net intended to refute criticisms. What I suggest is that he has never engaged in open dialogue that I have seen. If you can link me to something I would be happy to look.

    The fact that “Intelligent Design” is not a scientific theory or an explanation of anything is not a new point. I have never had a remotely satisfactory response to the question, “what is ID?” What, scientifically, does it add to human knowledge? I guess you could classify it as philosophy at a stretch.

    I spoke of a curriculum which included criticisms of neo-Darwinism.

    No objection from me if anyone wants to discuss the short-comings of evolutionary theory. It is provisional, like all scientific theories and certainly incomplete. Seems a good way to learn. Could we discuss also the inadequacies of “intelligent design”?

    The more advanced young evolutionary theorists think that the old-time neo-Darwinism is doomed.

    We’re all doomed, ultimately. I’m having a job taking you seriously here, James. Could you name any of these theorists? If a better explanation of observed phenomena emerges ToE will evolve ( ;-)) or become extinct. It is not dogma.

    Scientific training isn’t training in memorization and shouldn’t inculcate deference to consensus. It should be training in reasoning from evidence and should always include a dose of skepticism about received theories.

    Totally agree with this, James.

  22. Alan Fox says:

    Oops

    Messed up blockquotes!

    The middle quoted paragraph is me replying to James’ quote.

  23. Alan Fox says:

    Paul Nelson made that comment about ID at least 5 years ago. Much has changed since then.

    Oh really? What has changed? Is there now a coherent scientific theory of “intelligent design”?

  24. Alan Fox says:

    Going back to Mike Gene’s front loading ideas and giving a nod to the late John Davison and his “saltationist” extension of Schindewolf’s hopeful monsters, the real trouble with “front loading” is the lack of parsimony. With ToE the environment is the designer, each species falls passively (beautifully demonstrated by plants) into the niche that the environment creates. The front loader has to incorporate some kind of switch or synchronisation that accounts for both the organism and its timely arrival in the right niche. ToE kils two birds with one stone.

    It seems perfectly reasonable, assuming the existence of an all-powerful, all-knowing creator, that this creator could work via the natural properties of the universe. Why tinker when you can do it right first time?

  25. Alan Fox says:

    Oops kills

  26. James says:

    Alan Fox asked:

    “Oh really? What has changed? Is there now a coherent scientific theory of “intelligent design”?”

    What has changed, among other things, is that ID people are starting to put out articles in which biology is done from a design perspective, instead of a Darwinian perspective. Again, check out the journal BioComplexity.

    The proof of the pudding is in the eating; whether or not “design” is a useful concept will appear from what it generates. If it causes people to notice things they hadn’t noticed before, ask questions they hadn’t asked before, and hence discover new things about how living systems work, then it has heuristic value. And if it proves to have more heuristic value than neo-Darwinism, then by rights it should displace it, i.e., biologists should switch to assuming design rather than non-design. If, under such circumstances, biologists won’t switch, that would prove that the reason for the preference for Darwinian explanation is ideological rather than scientific, i.e., a non-design vision of life is given by religious (i.e., atheistic) a priori commitments.

    Alan, you also wrote:

    “I am happy to concede that Behe has posted material on the net intended to refute criticisms. What I suggest is that he has never engaged in open dialogue that I have seen.”

    What do mean by “open dialogue”? Back and forth in blogsite debates, as on Panda’s Thumb, etc.? That’s an unreasonable expectation. You perhaps are a retired scientist, but Behe isn’t. He has several classes to teach, labs to prepare, departmental administrative duties, and his own research. He also has a family with many children. He doesn’t have the time that a retired person, whose kids are all grown up, has, and he doesn’t have the time that a young, single, grad student, or undergraduate student, freed of family responsibilities, has. He can’t, like Nick Matzke etc., spend 10 to 20 hours per week online arguing with anonymous critics, 90% of whom don’t know enough science to debate with him, and the other 10% of whom mostly hide their identities while sneering at him and making ad hominem remarks.

    He has in fact given an extraordinary amount of time to responding to critics; he has replied, as I say, to every critic of EOE whose reviews were published in scientific journals or major newspapers or magazines, and even to some whose reviews were published only on private blogs. He has also, from time to time, answered questions and criticisms on the Discovery web site as well, most recently, just a couple of weeks ago, taking the time to read 6 BioLogos articles by Dennis Venema and all the comments on the BioLogos site, and then responding to Venema — who has offered no rejoinder. He has answered Ken Miller about the flagellum umpteen times (to no avail, since Miller keeps repeating the same discredited argument), in print and in live debate. He has debated scientists such as Miller, Barr, Applegate, and many others, at public events and conferences on ID and so on. He has answered questions and criticisms from the public on online radio shows. He has gone above and beyond the call of duty for a busy professor with a heavy teaching load.

    You asked me to name some anti-Darwinian theorists. For starters, the late Lynn Margulis thought that neo-Darwinism was hopeless at explaining the rise of major new biological structures. Second, several members of the Altenberg groups have been openly critical of neo-Darwinism and have suggested that it needs not minor but major adjustments and possibly needs to be relegated to a minor mechanism of evolution. You can start with the writings of Stuart Newman if you are interested. Third, James Shapiro, a molecular biologist at Chicago and peer of Coyne (though Coyne doesn’t treat him as such), has been extremely critical of Darwinian mechanisms and his new book, *Evolution*, explains why. He offers in the place of neo-Darwinism what might be regarded as an updated sort of Lamarckianism — without the crudities. And he offers empirical evidence for the ability of organisms to modify their own genomes, in response to environmental challenges, something that is out of the question for traditional NDE.

    To this I add one thing: please don’t put words in my mouth and say that I cited these people as proponents of ID. I haven’t done that. I’ve said they are sharp critics of the NDE that you seem to endorse. And some of the their criticisms of NDE overlap with those of the ID people.

    My argument is that high school textbooks now need to be changed to include mention of the increasing criticism of neo-Darwinian mechanisms within the evolutionary biology community. And this would not be for religious purposes, but to keep the science up to date. The position of Discovery, even before the Dover trial, was that ID should not be mandated in the schools, but rather, that neo-Darwinism should be taught more thoroughly and accurately, and that criticisms of neo-Darwinism (from scientific, not religious literature) should be mentioned to high school students. Eugenie Scott and her organization have lobbied to prevent any “critical analysis” alterations in the biology curriculum that would facilitate this. One of her tactics is to blur the distinction between “evolution” as a process and “neo-Darwinism” as a mechanism, so that any criticism of neo-Darwinism is made to look like a rejection of “evolution.” But of course she knows that Behe, Sternberg, Denton and other ID people accept evolution, and don’t want evolution removed from the school curriculum, so the tactic is dishonest.

    As for ID, if it *were* included in the high school curriculum — which I’m not recommending at the moment, as there aren’t enough teachers familiar enough with it to present it properly — then of course I would agree with you that scientific criticisms of it should be included in the curriculum, as should scientific criticisms of Darwinism. And questions about the truth of the Bible should be kept out of any presentation of ID. The focus should be: can these phenomena be plausibly explained by unguided processes, or are they best understood as the result, at least in part, of intelligent design? I think that’s a legitimate question to ask in science class. (And even Dawkins agrees that ID is in principle a scientific explanation — he just thinks it’s a wrong one. It’s the NCSE people, and the TE/EC people, that think the question of design shouldn’t even be allowed to be asked in science class.)

    But as I say, I’m against state education authorities forcing ID onto the science curriculum at this point. It should not, however, be illegal or unconstitutional in the USA (or any country) for a science teacher to mention to students the existence of the arguments of Behe, Dembski, etc. against Darwinian mechanisms, as long as such mentions are not accompanied by overt or subtle religious proselytism. However, at least within the geographical area covered by the Dover trial, it actually is illegal for a science teacher to do so, because such arguments, even when completely detached from any Christian framing, have been deemed “religious.” And that’s simply wrong.

  27. Alan Fox says:

    James

    Most of your argument in this comment would be more persuasive if there were some indication that there was some kind of emerging theory of “Intelligent Design”.

    Not wishing to retry Dover (mainly because I see no enthusiasm for ID proponents to revive the legal angle) but I think the judgement prevented the teaching of ID as science. Leaving aside what on Earth you could find to put in a curriculum, I guess it could be included in philosophy or religious studies.

    The focus should be: can these phenomena be plausibly explained by unguided processes, or are they best understood as the result, at least in part, of intelligent design? I think that’s a legitimate question to ask in science class.

    I disagree. Without any explanation of what “intelligent design” means in this context, it is an empty question. Science is just a practical way of trying to understand what we observe. The very vagueness of the “designer” renders “intelligent design” undetectable scientifically.

    PS regarding Michaei Behe’s workload, according to the Discovery Institute website, he has only published one paper (in 2009) in the last five years. I am not sure how much teaching he does, currently, but considering the disclaimer on the Lehigh University website, his services may not be in great demand.

  28. Alan Fox says:

    PPS Behe’s paper appears to have been cited three times.

  29. James says:

    Alan:

    Thanks for your reply.

    I can’t tell you Behe’s teaching workload offhand, but he *is* a full-time professor at a small to mid-size, and (I think) primarily teaching university. It is likely, given the normal American loads, that he teaches at least 3 courses per semester, and 4 per semester is not impossible. It’s also quite possible that he has no teaching assistants (since those are usually grad students, and a small place doesn’t generally have grad students), and therefore has to mark all the labs, mid-terms, and exams himself. If he teaches a big intro biochem course with 100 students, and has to grade 100 mid-terms and 100 finals, that’s a big load, and then he’d have other courses also.

    Those who teach in small colleges and universities, because of their teaching load, rarely get as much research done as those who teach in larger places with grad programs, where they are given fewer courses to teach and have teaching assistants to teach one out of three class hours per week and to do most of the marking. So it’s not surprising Behe isn’t cranking out papers like a Harvard or Stanford prof who teaches maybe two courses per semester, with one of those often being a grad seminar where the prof just sits and listens while the grad students read papers.

    But all this is beside the original point. The point is that any professor who takes his teaching and/or research and/or administrative/university citizenship responsibilities seriously will not be engaging in blog debates, accepting challenges from all anonymous comers, 10 or 20 hours per week, repeating the same explanations over and over again (for an internet generation with a 20-minute attention span that is too lazy to read entire books and hasn’t read what the professor has already set forth clearly in those books). The professor doesn’t owe anything to pesky bloggers and commenters. He owes something to his students at his school, to the readers of his academic articles, and to the readers of his books. He owes something to critics who respond in proper academic venues, whether in print or on the stage in a debate. He doesn’t owe anything to every angry atheist who wants to take a potshot at him. And that’s what most of the internet critique of Behe has been.

    In short, I continue to maintain that your original remark about Behe is unfounded. He has not been remiss in replying to any critic who has addressed him with civilized manners through the proper channels. You’ve provided not a single example where this was done and Behe would not engage.

    It’s certainly not an “empty question” to ask whether the first cell was designed or arose by accident. The answer either way has definite cognitive content, and must be either right or wrong. There’s no vagueness in either the question or the possible answers to the question. You wouldn’t say, of the exactly parallel question whether this particular triangular stone is an arrowhead sculpted by a primitive hunter or a rock accidentally shaped by erosion to look like an arrowhead, that it was an empty question. You’d say it was an entirely reasonable thing for anthropologists and geologists to get together and discuss which hypothesis, chance or design, best accounted for the shape of the stone.

    The person who has no religious axe to grind either way — i.e., is neither committed to the view that there is a God, or committed to the view that there is no God — has no valid reason for ruling out, a priori, the possibility that the first cell was designed. Since there might be a God, there might be a designer of the first cell. Therefore, such an open-minded person would say: “Let’s see which argument is more persuasive, that only intelligence could have put this thing together, or that it could have been done without any intelligence at all, by a series of chemical accidents which somehow incrementally increased the survival potential of their product until life could begin. Let’s study how simple molecules like ammonia and methane behave in putative primitive earth conditions, and let’s see how much complexity they produce when not coaxed and engineered by intelligent human designers. Let’s use empirical methods, and calculations, and reasoning, to come up with the best explanation presently available.”

    The fact is that the life sciences community, taken overall, is only interested in finding *one* of the two possible answers to the question of the origin of life. It has ruled the other possible answer out of court.

  30. Alan Fox says:

    The fact is that the life sciences community, taken overall, is only interested in finding *one* of the two possible answers to the question of the origin of life. It has ruled the other possible answer out of court.

    This really is the crux of the issue, James. The simple fact is that science can only look at detectable phenomena. Beyond that is the realm of philosophers and apologists. And why is there a default option to “intelligent design”? Fine, if you don’t want to argue ID is scientific. Otherwise science considers competing hypotheses. “ToE sucks, therefore design” is not a valid scientific argument. When there is an output of alternative scientific hypotheses, these can be considered on their merits of following from evidence and making reliable predictions.

    Until then, it remains for those that are convinced that there is some way forward into scientific study from an ID perspective to do the work or make some suggestion as to ways to proceed.

  31. Alan Fox says:

    You’ve provided not a single example where this was done and Behe would not engage.

    Whilst it is hard to prove a negative, I can’t find any substantive response by Professor Behe to this article by Ian Musgrave. I know it is the same issue raised by that snotty potty-mouthed Jewish kid, Abbie Smith, but there is still the substance that Musgrave highlights.

  32. James says:

    Alan:

    You wrote:

    “I can’t find any substantive response by Professor Behe to this article by Ian Musgrave.”

    Are you unaware of Behe’s former amazon.com blog (now stored at UD)? I thought I mentioned it to you earlier. Anyway, have a look at:

    http://behe.uncommondescent.com/page/5/

    And the other parts of Behe’s multi-part response to Musgrave.

    You’ll also find, in this location, a large number of responses by Behe to his EOE critics, and a number of other review pieces that Behe has posted over the past few years, indicating that Behe is keeping up with the relelvant literature.

    Happy reading!

  33. James says:

    Alan, you wrote:

    “The simple fact is that science can only look at detectable phenomena.”

    Design is detectable. It’s inferred all the time, in anthropology, criminology, etc. The only reason that one would rule out the possibility of inferring design in living nature is an a priori metaphysical (i.e., theological, religious) conviction that there is no designer. If one is truly neutral on that metaphysical/religious question (as scientists claim they are, and in particular as the NCSE claims that it is), arguments for design in nature should not be banned from science, but should be considered on their merits, like all other arguments in science. But we know that the NCSE wants arguments for design banned from science. The logical inference is that the NCSE is not neutral on the metaphysical/religious question (i.e., whether or not there is a designer), and that its claim to neutrality is deceptive propaganda necessary to position itself on the right legal side of First Amendment legislation.

    “When there is an output of alternative scientific hypotheses, these can be considered on their merits of following from evidence and making reliable predictions.”

    Meyer offers one such alternative hypothesis in *Signature in the Cell*. I take it that you have not yet read the book. I recommend it. It’s long-winded for the argument it’s trying to make, and could have used some ruthless editing regarding length, but is still of value. It has a lengthy section on methodology in the historical sciences, which is different from methodology in the experimental sciences. I believe, based on how you have described your background elsewhere (biochemistry?) your training is in the latter, so Meyer’s discussion on that particular point may be of benefit to you.

  34. Alan Fox says:

    Happy reading!

    Thanks, James. I wondered what had happened to Behe’s Amazon blog. All the links to it are dead. Also Abbie Smith moved from Blogger to Science Blogs around that time and many links are broken.

    On the central issue; Behe made a specific claim in “Edge of Evolution” that ‘HIV has evolved no new binding sites since it entered humans (Edge of Evolution, page 143 and figure 7.4, page 144 )’*. This is refuted by Smith and others.

    *From Rosenhouse

  35. Alan Fox says:

    Smith continues to point out evolution in HIV for example

  36. Alan Fox says:

    Default spam filter picks out comments with more than one link, so I am splitting up comments.

    This, for me, is somewhat beside the point. Behe accepts (or, at least does not dispute) the commonly accepted age of the Earth, common descent, evolutionary mechanisms within limits. He is sceptical about evolutionary processes having the sole ability to produce the diversity of life on Earth that we find currently and in the fossil record. This is fine with me. But arguing that there is no detailed evolutionary pathway from A to B is not an argument for design.

    Design is detectable. It’s inferred all the time, in anthropology, criminology, etc. The only reason that one would rule out the possibility of inferring design in living nature is an a priori metaphysical (i.e., theological, religious) conviction that there is no designer.

    What do you mean by design? In anthropology and criminology, we are concerned with human artifacts. As with the phrase “human intelligence”, I have no problem with “human design”. You are extrapolating as if “design” and ‘intelligence” were real entities, rather than (I would say, vague) descriptive attributes. Do you think it is possible to measure design or intelligence? A test intended to test human intelligence merely produces a spread of results which might indicate the variable ability of humans to perform at that particular intelligence test.

  37. James says:

    Alan:

    I am not committed to the view that no ID proponent has ever made any error. If Behe made an erroneous statement about HIV, and it has been corrected, that’s fine with me. But I’ve read EOE, and I know that the main burden of Behe’s argument isn’t carried by the HIV example. He could have cut HIV out and the main argument of the book would still be intact. The largest part of the discussion is about malaria, not HIV. There are also other parts of the book, e.g., on the formation of body plans, which have nothing to do with HIV. In any case, viruses are not typical organisms, so if I were Behe I’d never have used them as an example of anything.

    Your more general point was not that Behe had been wrong on one item of fact. You more general point was that Behe did not engage with those who publically criticized him. I’ve answered that charge by linking you with the extensive body of replies in the former Amazon blog, and I consider the charge refuted. So I’ll let go of the Behe discussion at this point.

  38. James says:

    Alan:

    You are beating around the bush in order to avoid facing the question of design head-on.

    There are only two possibilities for the origin of the first cell:

    1. It arose out of a combination of chance and necessity alone, with no intelligent planning or supervision.

    2. It involved intelligent planning or supervision.

    Now, do you have any religious commitments (and for purposes of discussion, I include atheism as a religious commitment) which would make it impossible for you to consider #2 as a genuine option? If so, what are those commitments?

  39. Alan Fox says:

    You are beating around the bush in order to avoid facing the question of design head-on.

    You noticed my question? I’ll repeat it.

    What do you mean by design?

    More specifically:

    What do you mean by “intelligent design”?

  40. Alan Fox says:

    There are only two possibilities for the origin of the first cell…

    Nonsense! The only thing we can say is that cellular life did not exist on Earth until the Earth had become cool enough to support carbon-based life-forms and that subsequently cellular life started to exist. Beyond that we don’t know anything like enough to limit the origin of life to one hypothesis and one religious explanation.

  41. Alan Fox says:

    Back in 2005, I had some contact with Robert Shapiro (you might remember he was one of Mike Behe’s reviewers). Aside from that, the discussion involved the charge made by some that he had sympathy for creationism because of his OOL scepticism. Professor Shapiro (a generous and unfailingly patient correspondent) recommended his book “Planetary Dreams” where he advocates space exploration as possibly the only avenue for producing additional OOL evidence. The Curiosity lander could come up with some interesting results..

  42. Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

    Alan

    Hubert Yockey is of the opinion that any life found on Mars would only really tell us much if it consisted of l-sugars and d-amino acids, because otherwise it could well have been seeded from earth. Of course, if it was silicon based that might change things… assuming we recognised it as life under those circumstances.

  43. James says:

    Alan:

    I can sense that we aren’t going to get any further on the origin of life discussion. You have rejected my scheme of two alternatives, which is in fact not a choice between “one hypothesis and one religious explanation” but, logically speaking, a choice between A and not-A. The two alternatives I proposed do not correspond to “scientific” and “religious” explanations but are general alternatives which cover all possible explanations. The first cell was either designed (A) or it wasn’t (not-A). I am saying that a full, intellectually open, metaphysically neutral natural science would consider both options as explanatory possibilities. You are saying that science can justifiably reject the design possibility while remaining metaphysically neutral. But it can’t. To reject the second possibility is to take a metaphysical stand. And I have nothing against your taking a metaphysical stand. If you want to say: “I don’t believe that there exists any intelligent entity that could have been responsible for guiding or planning the first cell” — that’s fine with me. But that’s a metaphysical or religious commitment, not a scientific one.

    As for space exploration, the information it provides won’t solve the problem at all. Even if space exploration shows that life on earth was “seeded” by life from elsewhere, that just pushes the problem back in time. If the universe were infinitely old, that would be all right; there might be an infinite regress of life generating life. But modern cosmology (which I take it that you accept) tells us that the universe is not infinitely old, so life must have had a first beginning, if not on the earth, then elsewhere. And that very first life must have arisen under one of the two general scenarios that I sketched: either its coming into being was guided/planned or it wasn’t. Ultimately, then, you must either allow guidance/planning as a legitimate explanatory scenario (not necessarily the correct one, but epistemologically as legitimate as “chance plus natural laws”), or you must rule out guidance/planning on the grounds of religious/metaphysical beliefs (e.g., “no designer exists”) that you personally hold. What you can’t do is pretend that the guidance/planning explanation is scientifically illegitimate, when it’s illegitimate only if one slips a metaphysical prejudice into one’s science.

    As for your question, what do I mean by design, I mean nothing more than what the word means in everyday contexts. Stadiums are designed. Houses are designed. The subway system in Paris is designed. The sets of Hollywood movies are designed. The claim Meyer is making is that cells are designed, i.e., could no more have come into existence without intelligent planning than stadiums, houses, subway systems, or movie sets. There is no special or tricky concept being used here. There is simply the question: do you think this could have happened by chance, or not?

    I gather that you think that the first cell could have arisen, and in fact did arise, by chance. I think that is wildly unlikely, and that there is very little empirical evidence (as Meyer’s book shows) for it. And I don’t hold to hypotheses that are wildly unlikely and for which there is very little empirical evidence. To me, the organized complexity of the cell has “design” stamped all over it, and only a metaphysical prejudice against design would block the inference. But as I said, I think we aren’t going to get further on this subject, so, unless you come up with a new angle that I haven’t heard before, I’ll make my exit. Thanks for the conversation.

  44. Alan Fox says:

    Here is the web site set up by his daughter, Cynthia, who was upset that her father’s work was being touted in support of creationism.

    Regarding the possible results from Curiosity. Interpretations of the data could lead to several conclusions.

    1. Mars is, and has always been, sterile.

    2. Mars is now sterile but shows some evidence that simple life existed in the past. Evidence suggests remarkable similarity to extant microbial terrestrial organisms.

    3. Mars is now sterile but shows some evidence that simple life existed in the past. Evidence suggests it was utterly unlike anything on Earth.

    From existing data, I would be pleased to be astonished to learn that life exists currently on Mars – Earth-like or otherwise.

    If one, a scientific conclusion would be that life may indeed be a unique event that has only happened once in the vastness of time and space of our universe. From three, the fact that life appeared independently on two adjacent planets orbiting an obscure sun in an obscure galaxy in an obscure corner of the universe would strongly indicate that life would arise inevitably wherever conditions allow. Two would be interesting, suggesting the possibility that microbial spores could survive being jettisoned into space by meteor impact or other processes and colonize other (nearby, at least) worlds. Which the chicken and which the egg?

    My prediction? Head says one.

  45. Alan Fox says:

    I gather that you think that the first cell could have arisen, and in fact did arise, by chance.

    No. I have no idea how life got started on Earth. I would advise caution in listening to anyone who thinks they have any sort of explanation as to what happened. I firmly believe that it will remain an unanswered question for us. There is always hope. I look forward to hearing further reports from the Curiosity lander.

  46. Alan Fox says:

    James

    I have to say the Paris métro is a poor example of design!

  47. Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

    Alan

    Don’t want to divert your conversation with James, but I’m interested in why you would consider AOL to be probably unanswerable. Hubert Yockey says as much purely on the basis of information theory, but one would think that if life is all around us and is observable, and if it arose naturally, then it ought to be possible to reverse engineer it.

    You have a gut (or head) feeling that it’s a unique event, which seems to suggest you envisage the necessity for a highly implausible combination of events.

    Is the only scientific explanation really likely to be, “How lucky was that!”?

  48. Alan Fox says:

    Well the probability that life arose on Earth is one. We have no scientific evidence now available as to what the earliest life might have been like, whether there really was a RNA world, whether clay was involved, just glance at Wikipedia OOL entry for a long list. It’s a field full of hypotheses and almost devoid of hard evidence. Maybe we’ll never know. Maybe humans are not capable of solving the mystery. But, given human curiosity (!) I am sure people will keep looking for answers.

    Any result from Mars will have a huge impact.

  49. Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

    Alan

    Purely on that uniqueness issue, I recommend “Rare Earth” by Ward and Brownlee if you’ve not read it (they expect bacteria to be common, though – I don’t think they’re up to speed on bacterial biology!)

  50. James says:

    Alan, you wrote:

    “We have no scientific evidence now available as to what the earliest life might have been like, whether there really was a RNA world, whether clay was involved …. It’s a field full of hypotheses and almost devoid of hard evidence.”

    Right! And Meyer drives this point home in his book, providing a lengthy discussion of current views and the paucity of evidence for them. So you agree with him on at least that much.

    Given that we have only speculations, the question is why *some* speculations — those involving only natural laws and chance — are deemed legitimate, while *other* speculations — that design was involved — are ruled out of court. That’s where the metaphysical prejudices come in. Logically speaking, the two lines of speculation have parity, either one being in principle possible, and what little empirical evidence we can muster is at least as compatible with the design hypothesis as with the “natural laws plus chance” hypothesis. (And Meyer would put it more strongly than I have.) So if one of the only two general possibilities (design or non-design) is being ruled out before the case even opens, there is some sort of *a priori* commitment operating in the mind of the person who rules it out.

    I repeat my view that nothing that we discover on Mars will make any difference to the origin of life question. Whether we find life (present or past) on Mars or not, the results can be “spun” either way, to support either a Carl Sagan sort of view or an ID point of view.

    Of course, in saying that, I’m not denying that it would be *interesting* if we found life on Mars. It certainly would be. However, I’m not expecting it. Even Bill Dana, “The Astronaut,” when asked if he thought he would find life on Mars, would offer no greater probability than “Maybe — if I land on a Saturday night.”

  51. Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

    I’ve lost the quote, but someone once said that improbability is indistinguishable from caprice. He could have said it’s indistinguishable from design, when the subject is something like life.

  52. Alan Fox says:

    Thanks for the reference, Jon, and I see Ward and Brownlee have produced their own version of the Drake equation.

    James, the problem is there is virtually no data in the field. The Drake equation is in practical terms no better than guessing as most of the terms are not computable. Any new evidence from Mars would be a huge leap forward in data terms. The most disappointing (not just for me, I’ll bet) result, indicating that Mars has always been sterile, would still advance knowledge.

    At least we can look forward to seeing what Curiosity can find over the next few years.

  53. Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

    Alan

    I remember being singularly unimpressed with Drake’s equation in my youth. Assumptions like “even if only 5% of planets have life, that’s still billions of inhabited planets” were never balanced by “and if 0% are, it’s zilch”.

    If we discovered life on Mars and a string of prime numbers via SETI, you still couldn’t make any predictions from Drake’s equation – just intuit that the answer was no longer “1” but “a lot”.

  54. James says:

    Alan:

    I’m not denying that the Mars probe will advance our knowledge, and I’m not denying the advance of knowledge is a good thing. My point is that, *whatever* new knowledge is gained, it can be “spun” by analysts either way, in line with their preconceptions about “design” vs. “chance”. The big question I’m asking won’t be answered.

    Suppose we found organisms *now* living on Mars; that wouldn’t prove anything about the capacity of chance chemical events to form life. Life might have originated by divine creation on earth, and then some microbes might have spread to Mars by violent meteor impact.

    On the other hand, if it could be shown, in repeatable lab experiments, that getting a living cell out of a mix of ammonia, water, oxygen, and methane is not hard at all, and that a new cell could be expected to form, on average, once every 100 years on any earthlike planet — that *would* address the big question I’m asking. It would be clear that “chance plus natural laws” can produce life without any external guidance. The only avenue left for ID proponents then would be some form of “front-loading.” They’d have to show that the natural laws themselves are biased so as to produce life, in combination with chance events. If they couldn’t convincingly show that, their case would become very weak.

    I think the big difference between us, Alan, is that I believe that the question of “chance vs design” is an entirely open question, and that you don’t. You can talk about lack of data, etc., but in the final analysis I don’t think any amount of data would ever convince you that “design” is a more reasonable explanation than “chance.” And if I’m correct about that, further discussion cannot possibly do us any good. And if I’m wrong about that, then you need to specify under what hypothetical circumstances you could be brought to concede that design is the best explanation.

  55. Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

    James

    As I hinted above, if the origin of life turns out to be a one-off with no demonstrable mechanism as per your para 3, then science itself can’t explain it on natural grounds. One must conclude that vanishly unlikely events will happen somewhere, at some time, and then must invoke the anthropic principle to justify it’s being on our patch.

    But the only reason for doing science is to make sense of the universe. An ateleological coincidence of highly contingent events makes no sense of life’s existence, in terms of bare explanation (I’m not talking of any deep “meaning”). It’s like finding a poem by Shelley on a rock excavated from the moon, and having to conclude it was just a fluke of nature. That’s an honest conclusion from the data, but the least satisfactory human outcome, and a defeat for science.

    If, on the other hand, life in all its complex wonder, including the whole human experience, were designed for a purpose, then the appearance of design (and a whole lot more) makes sense. So assuming that there is no strong likelihood of explaining OOL scientifically causally (as we three seem agreed), the choice is a simple one, between sense and non-sense.

  56. Alan Fox says:

    So assuming that there is no strong likelihood of explaining OOL scientifically causally (as we three seem agreed), the choice is a simple one, between sense and non-sense.

    It is possible to continue to look for evidence and in the meantime to concede we don’t know.

    I confess I have never understood why the default argument is used so often and seemingly by all ID proponents. I have never seen an ID argument that didn’t follow the form: “Science can’t explain X, therefore design”. All the usual suspects indulge in it, from Behe and his mousetrap, Demsbki and probability bounds to the latest “semiotic” musings of the UD commenter “upright biped”.

    That said, I don’t necessarily put you in the ID camp, Jon. From your comments at BioLogos, I conclude that you are a pro-science theist. I do wonder why you comment at UD, though.

  57. Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

    Alan

    I happily endorse the continued search for evidence – my post was predicated on your “perhaps we will never know” line. If life cannot be found elsewhere or imitated, then one would be left with an unexplained event of vanishingly low probability, which would, as I said, be no explanation at all (it would make “no sense” of the existence of life.) Chance is not an explanation for anything, but an indication that you’ve missed the explanation.

    My position on design is different from the “if all else fails” approach – O consider it’s blindingly obvious by direct apprehension, not requiring reduction to empirical evidence. Naturalist scientists find it obvious too, but count it illusory because of undirected evolution.

    At minimum, such evolution would only be the efficient cause still begging the question of a primary cause (and in any case evolution’s “blindness” is an unwarranted metaphysical claim). But I’m inclined to doubt that the evolutionary process is free of detectable teleology at some level, and that we have a paradigm shift in store. Whether that demonstrates only efficient causes behind the efficient causes, or some ultimately inexplicable origin (like my postulated OOL life event) remains to be seen.

    I’m pro-science and anti-naturalist (see my post on “Statistics and divine action”). I post on UD because on occasion I feel I can contribute to progress. Likewise for BioLogos. Here, I can just be verbose.

  58. Alan Fox says:

    If you ever feel inclined, I am sure you would be made welcome at Lizzie Liddle’s blog

    Re “Statistics and divine action”, Ill read the OP again and will comment there if I can say anything useful.

    Was it E O Wilson that said something along the lines of “Our perception of the universe may be no better an ant’s perception of the Empire State building from its position a metre away on the sidewalk.” Or maybe I’m thinking that because he studied ants!

  59. Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

    “Our perception of the universe may be no better an ant’s perception of the Empire State building from its position a metre away on the sidewalk.”

    My mother used to say something similar from her childhood observation (and squashing) of ants! There is a tacit assumption in science (and of course often in the Christian imago dei idea from which it arose) that the “unreasonable comprehensibility of the Universe” is an absolute: we can continue to discover until we run out of Universe or natural laws to explore it, but that’s really an unwarranted conceit, or even an insufferable arrogance.

    On naturalistic assumptions, there’s no reason why reason should not bump against its evolutionary limits. On theistic grounds, there’s no reason why God shouldn’t firewall some knowledge from us – the Bible says as much, of course.

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