Response to Deborah Haarsma’s Constructive New Column Regarding ID

Over at BioLogos, President Deborah Haarsma has posted a column on ID/TE relations that is in some respects admirable, and certainly an improvement on many past things written about ID on BioLogos.

Here I present in full my response to her column. I am publishing it here because it is rather long, and I suspect BioLogos may not want to publish such a lengthy piece in the comments section.

Dear Dr. Haarsma:

Thank you for your irenic and constructive remarks in your recent column. It is probably the fairest column in the history of BioLogos on the specific subject of how ID and TE/EC agree and disagree. You seem to have gone out of your way to find and stress points of agreement between ID and TE/EC. This is laudable, and not (in my experience) typical of the TE/EC community and certainly not typical of the past management of BioLogos. Again, I thank you.

A number of your remarks warrant queries or correction or qualification or expansion. I provide such additions in my extended response below. I take up your points mostly in the order in which they appear in your article.

1. “At BioLogos,we believe that God is the living and active Creator of the whole universe, from initiating the Big Bang to providentially sustaining his creation today.”

I understand this. What I do not understand is why BioLogos and its authors have generally been so reluctant to use the word “design.” For example, I have rarely or never seen the statement, “We at BioLogos believe that God is the designer of the whole universe.” Does BioLogos not believe that God designed the universe? Similarly, I have rarely or never seen anyone at BioLogos affirm “God planned and guaranteed the specific outcomes of the evolutionary process.” Does BioLogos not affirm that? If not, why not? Is it not a logical inference from “God is the living and active Creator?” If not, what does it mean to be a “Creator” who does not design what he creates, who does not plan the exact outcomes of creation, etc.?

I find BioLogos (and TE/EC in general) to be very murky in this area, almost as if it wants to use “Creator” in a very broad sense, to leave lots of “wiggle room” for God not to design anything in particular and not to be responsible for all evolutionary outcomes.

2. To be fair to you and BioLogos, I acknowledge that the following statement in your column partly addresses my above complaint:

“DI and BL agree wholeheartedly that an intelligent being fine-tuned the laws of nature, designing the universe to be a place of life. The fundamental parameters and laws were crafted so that stars and galaxies could form, carbon could be produced in abundance, and life could flourish on Earth.”

I applaud BioLogos if this is now its position. However, I have never seen such a direct statement on BioLogos before. I have on occasion seen oblique statements which might seem to agree with it, but of course all the columns in which those statements appear have the caveat “the views in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of BioLogos.” But now we have the President of BioLogos, who surely does represent the views of BioLogos, speaking of “designing” the universe to be a place of life. That is an an important admission — one that should have been made as an official statement of BioLogos years ago.

3. “Unlike militant atheists, we see this as evidence that the universe was created with purpose and intention.”

Again, I applaud this statement. And again, it has more force because it comes from the President. So fine-tuning is “evidence” that the universe was designed, created with purpose and intention? Agreed! But many TE/EC proponents over the past 20 years have avoided saying that in so many words. Instead, they have frequently said:

(a) that science, as such, is by nature incapable of detecting design (and that broad general statement would have to include even cosmic design, and thus would exclude counting “fine-tuning” as “evidence” of any kind);

(b) that it is only through “the eye of faith” that fine-tuning or anything else could provide an argument for design (that is, if you are already Christian, you look at the universe in such a way that fine-tuning etc. provide a further confirmation of what you already believe, and therefore fine-tuning arguments are legitimate, but if you don’t as yet believe in the existence of any God, exactly the same fine-tuning arguments are illegitimate and of no evidential value).

I am pleased to see the President of BioLogos distance herself from the rigid methodological narrowness of (a) regarding the nature of science, and from the rigid Protestant fideism of (b) regarding natural theology. I can only hope that her attitude will rub off on many of her TE/EC colleagues.

4. “Intelligent Design claims that the current scientific evidence for evolution is weak, and argues that a better explanation would make explicit reference to an intelligent designer.”

This is not correct as it stands. It would be more correct to say “many Intelligent Design proponents claim …” As you surely know, Dr. Haarsma, the DI has many times made clear that “evolution” and “intelligent designer” are not opposed explanations; I would refer you to the excellent introductory essay in Jay Richards’s book, God and Evolution, for the general DI (and ID) position on this. I would also remind you that Michael Behe and Michael Denton speak of evolution and intelligent design, not evolution versus intelligent design. (They do sometimes oppose intelligent design to neo-Darwinian *explanations* of evolution, but not to “evolution” itself.) And certainly Behe and Denton do not find the evidence for evolution to be “weak.” At times Richard Sternberg has also given the impression of accepting evolution itself, and of contesting only the neo-Darwinian account of it.  And there are many followers and defenders of ID, including Vincent Torley, Denyse O’Leary, and others, who have said that they have no in-principle objection to “evolution” but only to the comprehensive claims made about the mechanisms of evolution by neo-Darwinists and other mechano-materialist writers. All of this makes clear that ID per se, even the DI per se, takes no rigid stand on the question of common descent or macroevolution. At most one could say that there is a preponderance of anti-evolutionary opinion within ID. So that is what should be said, rather than what was said here.

5. “Perhaps because we accept the science of evolution, the misconception has developed that BioLogos believes God must always use natural causes. This is not the case. At BioLogos, “we believe that God typically sustains the world using faithful, consistent processes that humans describe as ‘natural laws.’ Yet we also affirm that God works outside of natural law in supernatural events, including the miracles described in Scripture.”

What a person really believes is reliably determined only by his or her practice, not by his or her formal statements. It is true that BioLogos has made many statements like the above; no one contests that. What is not clear is that such statements have any effect at all on the way BioLogos writers discuss origins. In practice, it seems, the working assumption, the de facto belief of most TE/EC proponents, especially the biologists, is that, when it comes to origins, God worked through natural causes (as opposed to the Biblical miracles where he employed supernatural causation). When it comes to origins, TE/EC people regularly put the onus on others to show that non-natural causes were involved. But there should be no such onus, if BioLogos genuinely believes that God may have used either natural or supernatural causes in any given case. Rather, the principle of “best explanation” should be employed; and if the “best explanation” for, say, the emergence of modern horses, is a naturalistic one, but the “best explanation” for the origin of life is a non-naturalistic one, then a Christian should have no problem accepting either. But it is clear from the BioLogos-sponsored attack on Meyer’s Signature in the Cell that the naturalistic explanation for the origin of life was to be preferred — even though not a single one of the BioLogos critics of Meyer’s book (Falk, Venema, Ayala) was a specialist in origin of life research or could come even close to providing a naturalistic account for the origin of life. So I do not believe it is entirely sincere for BioLogos to claim to be open to supernatural causes for origins. Formally, that is the case, but in practice we see no evidence of such openness, and it is in what people do, not in what they say, that we discover their operative beliefs and commitments.

6. “The debate is over how much God chose to use miracles over the eons of natural history, and here BL and DI assess the evidence differently.”

Again, this is not accurate. The DI is not committed to the position that miracles were employed. It is committed to the position that design is detectable. There are non-miraculous ways (at least in principle) of delivering design, and Denton’s Nature’s Destiny (a book which has been out for 16 years now but which has never been discussed on BioLogos) provides one hypothetical scheme for such delivery. Again, a better statement would have been: “Many ID proponents appear to believe that many miracles would have been needed to produce our current world, and BioLogos disagrees with that.” The constant equation of the ID position with miracles is a sore point in ID/TE discourse, because ID people have corrected TE people time and again on this point — scores of times on BioLogos alone — and TE people, including Giberson, Collins, and now yourself, keep slipping in the “miracle” language. Conversation in good faith requires allowing the people with the other position to speak for themselves, and refraining from imputing to them claims they have not made.

7. “At BioLogos, we embrace the historical Christian faith and uphold the authority and inspiration of the Bible.”

Again, what is crucial is not what people say but what they do. I concede that BioLogos has repeated endlessly its loyalty to Christian faith and the Bible. I also believe that BioLogos people are sincere in making this affirmation. I do not question their motives. But unless the contents of what BioLogos teaches are in fact what the Christian faith and the Bible teach, the affirmation is of little value. And indeed, much of the criticism of BioLogos (coming not just from ID people, but from creationists and even from atheists) has concerned just how compatible BioLogos positions are with the Bible and the Christian tradition.

This is often hard to determine, because the overwhelming emphasis on BioLogos (outside of Ted Davis’s columns) has been on fossils and genetics, and systematic and orderly discussion of Christian theology (as opposed to scattered theological observations thrown in here and there in the columns) is extremely rare there. Nor, when commenters ask the columnists for clarification on their theological positions, is much help given. Usually theological questions are evaded or met with silence. In five years, no BioLogos columnist or President has as yet committed to the doctrine that man, and not possibly some intelligent octopus or dolphin (as in Ken Miller), was intended by God and that God made sure (whether by intervention, front-loading, or some other means) that man and not some other creature was the end result of evolution.

Certainly past columnists on BioLogos, including Peter Enns, Kenton Sparks, and Karl Giberson, made statements which directly or indirectly challenged “the authority and inspiration of the Bible” as that phrase has always been understood in American evangelical Christianity. And it does no good to say that BioLogos columnists speak only for themselves and not for BioLogos; when the general tendency of the columnists is in a certain direction, and no columnists are invited to write for BioLogos whose views are in the opposite direction, a tacit policy preference is evident. The fact that BioLogos was regularly inviting Enns, Sparks, and Giberson, and not inviting, e.g., Alvin Plantinga makes the disclaimer invalid.

Finally, “the historical Christian faith” has never been precisely defined by BioLogos, which gives it much wiggle-room. When pressed, some BioLogos biologists have said that they are “Wesleyan” rather than “Calvinist,” and their views on randomness and on the “freedom” of nature and on the lack of fixed outcomes of evolution, they have defended in “Wesleyan” terms. Yet close analysis of Wesley’s actual writings on creation — which have never been discussed on BioLogos — shows that Wesley’s views on creation (free will is a different matter) were no different from those of Calvin. And even if the two differed, why would Wesley count as a stalwart of “the historical Christian faith” and Calvin be discounted? Who at BioLogos is deciding what is part of “the historical Christian faith” and what is not? Does any columnist or executive officer at BioLogos possess a doctorate in historical theology?

8. “DI seeks to make the case for the designer in a purely scientific context, without specifying who the designer is. At BioLogos, we take the approach that science is not equipped to provide a full Christian apologetic.”

These two statements are not in conflict with each other. No one, literally no one, in the ID movement thinks that science can provide a Christian apologetic. Arguments for a designer are not arguments for the truth of Christianity. They are not Christian apologetics. They may facilitate Christian apologetics, in the sense that they remove atheistic objections that “science has proved there is no designer.” But no one at the DI thinks that the bacterial flagellum is warrant for accepting Christ as one’s Savior. This point, therefore, is a dead letter.

9. “This kind of attention to evidence counteracts another misconception about BioLogos, namely that we uncritically accept the consensus of mainstream science simply because it is the consensus.”

Dr. Haarsma, there is good reason for this “misconception.” The former Vice President of BioLogos, Karl Giberson, in fact took this position (not de jure, but de facto) in BioLogos columns a few years ago. A number of very intelligent objections, from a wide variety of commenters, including TE commenters, protested Giberson’s slavish following of consensus. It was pointed out that his conception of how science operates was largely mythological and not in line with either the actual practice of scientists or with the most sophisticated thinking on the nature of science (Kuhn, Feyerabend, Polanyi, etc.) He did not deign to respond to any of his BioLogos critics (though he did respond to one critic from outside the site, very inadequately).

10. “We welcome the iron to be sharpened on us in turn, and have invited Stephen Meyer to post a response to the reviews in this series.”

Excellent! And I think this should be a general policy: when ID people are attacked on BioLogos, they get a chance to respond in columns of adequate size to defend themselves. Will you commit to that, Dr. Haarsma?

This was rarely the case under the old management. Behe was attacked regularly, often in multi-column series, and many views were falsely imputed to him by BioLogos writers; but as far as I know, he was never offered even a single column to defend himself.

It is true that Stephen Meyer was given a chance to respond to Ayala’s criticism of his first book; but the then-President of BioLogos, Darrel Falk, undermined the presentation, first by making objections to posting Meyer’s response unless Meyer changed it, and second, even after agreeing to post it, by prefacing Meyer’s published response with a grumpy complaint that Meyer’s response was insufficiently respectful to a biologist of the stature of Ayala. The effect was, “We’re going to keep our word to allow Meyer his response, even though we don’t think this response deserves to be published.” This was a double standard, as Ayala has consistently been disrespectful of ID proponents, condescending to them theologically as well as scientifically, and he was tacitly disrespectful of Meyer by his negative review of a book he clearly had not read with care (since he dealt with almost none of Meyer’s arguments). Dr. Falk let his personal allegiance to Dr. Ayala cloud his judgment. I hope that BioLogos will not again attempt to poison the well for Dr. Meyer when he tries to make his defense, but will simply present what Meyer writes without negative editorial comment.

Dr. Haarsma, I hope I have been polite and constructive. You are welcome to sign up at The Hump of the Camel and respond to this column; or, if you wish, you may write a new column of your own on BioLogos as your answer. I will read it with interest.

Edward Robinson

About Edward Robinson

Edward Robinson (Eddie) started his university career on a science scholarship, but ended up as a philosopher/theologian researching the relationship between religion and natural science. He has published several books and articles on religion/science topics in both mainstream academic outlets and denominational and popular periodicals. He has also taught courses in various departments in several universities.
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13 Responses to Response to Deborah Haarsma’s Constructive New Column Regarding ID

  1. argon says:

    “If not, what does it mean to be a “Creator” who does not design what he creates, who does not plan the exact outcomes of creation, etc.?”

    Hi Eddie,
    Are there traditions in which free-will and contingency have a role? If we started the universe again, can we be certain I would still have the same 15-year old dog in 2014 AD?

  2. Bilbo says:

    Nice essay, Edward. I still have difficulty with understanding God’s will and human freedom. Did God want David to murder Uriah and marry Bathsheba, so that Solomon would be born? I would say no, God didn’t want that to happen, but God let it happen, foreknew that it would happen, and it was part of His overall purpose when He created the universe.

    Now when a number of molecules sustain mutations that result in human beings instead of intelligent octopuses or dolphins, you confidently believe that this is different from human free will, and that those mutations had no choice in the matter. And maybe you are correct. Or maybe there is actual randomness in the universe and God allows it to happen, foreknowing what the randomness will produce, and it was part of His overall purpose when He created the universe.

    To be honest, I haven’t read much of what Jon or others have had to say about randomness. Frankly, I think what I just wrote in the above paragraph is an inescapable conclusion from the paragraph above it. If we believe that there is actual free will, then I don’t see how we can know for sure that there isn’t an analogous thing going on that we call randomness. What we can say for sure is that if there is such a thing, God created it, foreknowing what would happen, and it is part of his overall purpose for creation.

    Now I say all this even though I am an ID proponent. I believe that the empirical evidence favors a view that God or somebody had a hand in directing the origin of life and evolution. But that’s empirical evidence. Not theological or philosophical evidence. What I get extremely weary of is people like you and Jon continuing to attack BL for not insisting that God controls the outcome of nature to make sure it produces human beings. Somehow God can allow human free will, but He cannot (will not?) allow something analogous to that for the rest of nature? Why?

    • argon says:

      Hi Bilbo
      Case in point: Denton is a deist at best. He thinks the universe is inclined to produce DNA-based life but it’s not deterministic in the sense that I *have* to have a 15-year old dog in 2014 AD, only that wolf-like and human-like organisms will likely arise at the some point. Maybe they’d exist at the same time and maybe not. Denton’s is a probabilistic position: The odds aren’t skewed such that there has to be ‘Earth’, only something Earth-like somewhere in the universe. He otherwise seems to distance himself from the rest of the DI folks particularly along the lines that he believes the mechanisms that were imbued into this universe are sufficient for life to arise and evolve to human-like intelligence; that it is an inevitable consequence of the laws embedded in the universe. It’s not a super, 10-bank snooker shot where the deity set up all the particles in just the right trajectories to ensure I’d exist and pick out just the right puppy 15-years ago. If one started the tape again, human-like creatures wouldn’t necessarily be the same or live on an identical home world as humans living today. They’d live on ‘Urt’ or ‘Mongwawawawawaw – har- har’ that perhaps would have no land masses under the poles.

      Eddie writes:

      In five years, no BioLogos columnist or President has as yet committed to the doctrine that man, and not possibly some intelligent octopus or dolphin (as in Ken Miller), was intended by God and that God made sure (whether by intervention, front-loading, or some other means) that man and not some other creature was the end result of evolution.

      Is man truly alone in the universe or are there other sentient, biological beings out there? What does the Bible say about life on other planets? What contingency or ‘free will’ if any is there in creation? Denton would certainly never press the case that Homo sapiens sapiens on Earth is the only possible game in town.

      • Edward Robinson Edward Robinson says:

        Argon and Bilbo:

        Glad to see you here.

        I agree with Argon’s analysis of Denton’s position. I agree that “deist” is the nearest theological characterization of his thought. I agree that his position, while quasi-deterministic, has an element of probability in it; that is, while the entire universe is deliberately “tilted” to produce intelligent life somewhere, the precise details of when and where and exactly the eye color of the intelligent life are left to probability.

        Regarding the puppy, I am hesitant to make a theological pronouncement. There are of course statements in the Bible that seem to imply that even the smallest of events are not merely foreknown but predetermined; but the Biblical teaching does not seem to me to be 100% clear. Further, the Christian theological tradition is divided to some extent, with the “Arminians” disagreeing with the rest over the freedom of the human will. I do not try to settle these disputes authoritatively. Rather, I focus on what is relevant to biological evolution up to the emergence of man, leaving the question about human choices for a separate discussion.

        I would say that, whatever the Biblical and Christian tradition is regarding human free will (or the adoption of specific puppies by specific humans), it is pretty clear that there is unanimity among pre-Enlightenment Christian theologians and the Biblical text that God intended man (not intelligent octopuses) and the broad range of plants and animals that we see on earth. (I won’t insist in blue jays rather than green jays or mammoths rather than mastodons, but only the general layout that we have.) And it is pretty clear that God made sure that he got what he intended, and did not roll the dice to see what sort of interesting life forms happened to emerge.

        I’ve been asking TEs to confirm these basic affirmations, which are hardly very restrictive, and allow for everything from Syrian Orthodoxy through Presbyterianism and Wesleyanism to Southern Baptist faith. But they won’t confirm even these very basic commitments. They keep weaseling about “the freedom of nature” and “God respecting the adulthood of his creation” and “randomness as a part of God’s beautiful plan,” and they won’t allow themselves to be pinned down on anything.

        It certainly looks as if they start from the premise that neo-Darwinism is true and can never be doubted, and then, since neo-Darwinism logically cannot guarantee any outcome from any given initial position, concoct a theology of a “free” creation which fits with neo-Darwinism. But this has not been the traditional Christian way of proceeding, i.e., to give a particular theory in natural science veto power over both Biblical exegesis and systematic theology.

        Maybe the TE/EC people aren’t doing what I’m saying, but if they aren’t, they have had years to explain what they are doing, and their habit of ducking clear and direct questions, along with their habit of avoiding any systematic discussion (as opposed to isolated proof-texting) of the writings of the great Christian theologians, does not give me much confidence. It looks very much to me as modern scientific theory plus Enlightenment metaphysics is driving the TE/EC project, and that Christian theology is being modified in the process.

        And, as I’ve said many times, that would be intellectually acceptable to me as a possible position (though I might not agree with it), if the TE/EC folks were up front about it. They could say: “Look, modern Christians, let’s be honest here. Modern science and the Enlightenment philosophy are largely true, and we can’t go back to the old world. Christianity will simply have to be modified, changed, altered to harmonize with what we know from other sources. Parts of the Bible we simply have to drop as non-revealed human errors. Parts of the tradition, including parts of our beloved American Protestant evangelical tradition, we must abandon.” If they were to say that, I might strongly protest, but I could respect them for honesty and a coherent position. But they keep saying, over and over, that the Bible (including both Testaments) is completely authoritative and inspired and true, when clearly many of their number do not believe that (notably Enns, Sparks, and Giberson but also I believe a number of others who are less frank and still write for BioLogos), and they keep saying that they are in tune with “historical Christian faith” while at the same time making statements that Jon and I and others who have actually studied the historical Christian faith (to a degree that working biologists and physicists such as Venema and Collins and Falk and Haarsma have not) know to be incompatible with that faith.

        And when we raise honest questions such as: “You say your position on the freedom of nature is Wesleyan rather than Calvinist, but Wesley’s commentary on Genesis shows that his view of nature and creation wasn’t particularly Wesleyan but agreed with Calvin etc.” — they all back off in silence, neither retracting their point, nor refuting our arguments. They just cease talking, drop the matter, and then, a few months later, when the heat is off — repeat the same claims, or similar claims, as if the objections had never been raised. This is highly suspicious.

        It certainly looks as if the BioLogos TEs — or many of them, I always have to exempt Ted Davis — want to hang on to a certain “theology of freedom” but can’t defend it historically, and want to avoid confrontation with people who know the tradition better than they do. What other conclusion can I draw, after years of evasion?

        Bilbo, all the TE/EC people have to do to shut me up is trot out detailed, narratologically sound interpretations of Biblical texts, and detailed, clearly informed, expositions of the texts of Calvin, Luther, Aquinas, Augustine, Wesley, etc. If they can show me that there is a basis in Scripture and pre-liberal tradition for the idea that God doesn’t determine (not merely foreknow, but determine) the broad outcomes of evolution and certain specifics such as man, I’d concede that I had misunderstood both Scripture and tradition. But they won’t do this. They won’t do anything but proof-text.

        TE/EC, at least in its typical BioLogos form, gives the strong impression of being an evolutionary biology in search of a suitable Christian theology, not a deeply informed historical Christian theology trying to make sense of evolutionary biology. It seems very clear to me that biology is the driver and theology the passenger, whereas for everyone from Origen through Wesley it would have been the other way around.

        You may not agree with my analysis of what BioLogos is doing, and if so, please give your alternative account. But do you at least now see how I perceive what BioLogos is doing? And do you see how, given that perception, it is reasonable for me (both as a Christian who sees post-Enlightenment Christianity as largely a sell-out, and as a Biblical scholar and historian of Christian thought with a considerable number of bona fide academic publications specifically on creation doctrine) to object to what I see as the position of BioLogos?

        The reason I wrote the above piece was that I sensed some movement in Haarsma’s column. Perhaps because she is a physicist rather than biologist, perhaps because she is from the Calvinist rather than the Wesleyan tradition, or perhaps simply because she is less doctrinaire as an individual than the previous BioLogos leaders were, she seems to see more that is positive in ID than her predecessors did. And she seems to be embarking on a path (alerting Meyer to a series about him rather than springing it on him as a surprise, and promising Meyer a chance for rebuttal after the series is over) that I find honorable. I’m trying here to grasp at anything I find in the TE/EC camp which poses the possibility of genuine dialogue rather than culture-war sniping back and forth between ID and TE/EC. Haarsma’s overture seems to me like a good start, and I hope I’ve indicated to her clearly enough that I respect her attempt at bridge-building.

        It has long been my view that there is no “in principle” barrier between ID (understood generally as “design is a genuine causal factor in what we see”) and TE (understood generally as “God created through a process of evolution”). God could have designed an evolutionary process in such a way that it would have had to produce something like man somewhere in the universe (as per Denton) or he could have designed an evolutionary process that could be subtly steered at the “quantum level” (as per Russell), or he could have tinkered with natural evolutionary processes at various points (e.g., in the Cambrian Explosion, or at the creation of man). In all of these cases we would have both “design” and “evolution.”

        But certain people don’t want the wedding of “design” and “evolution.” The atheists don’t want the design, and the creationists don’t want the evolution. And some TEs don’t want the design, but want the evolution, but still want to be able to think of evolution as having something to do with God’s plans, but only through the eye of the religious believer, not because the process actually has any built-in tendency toward anything. Such TEs resort to NOMA or a similar approach: “science gives no indication of any design, but as a Christian I believe through faith that design is there.”

        I can’t live with that kind of epistemological compartmentalization. I’m a synthesizer, an integrator. I seek to understand a unitary reality to which science and faith in different ways point. This doubtless has to do with my Platonic (as opposed to Kantian) philosophical orientation. I think that most BioLogos folks and most American TE/EC leaders are philosophically Kantians whether they know it or not. But every now and then I see a spark of Platonism in TE/EC writing. I’m trying to fan that spark into a flame, because in that flame TE/EC and ID could dwell together in warmth and light.

    • GD GD says:

      “If we believe that there is actual free will, then I don’t see how we can know for sure that there isn’t an analogous thing going on that we call randomness.”

      This approach is both interesting and challenging – it is a prime example of a scientific outlook brought in to deal with a question that originates from a human being, who asks about free will, but may not include in his question, how is it that I am free to question this or that. I think the notion of randomness in science may be conflated with an apparent inexhaustible range of substances and entities that can be derived from combinations involving a relatively small number of elements (for biology C, H, O, with smaller amounts of S, N, P, and other elements) – this capacity for such diversity is not, strictly speaking, understood as random, and is made comprehensible by the study of chemical kinetics and thermodynamics. We may need to include random and statistical considerations for systems of great complexity, but I do not think that this requires science to consider freedom in the way we as human beings may discuss this notion.

      When we expand the discussion to include God, I feel that we may indulge in error that seems to equate the attributes of God with those of human beings. I do not want to trivialise the discussion, but in such short exchanges, short sentences are required – thus, briefly, what you and I may regard as freedom, is not necessarily the same thing to God. It follows from this that your statement, “What we can say for sure is that if there is such a thing, God created it, foreknowing what would happen, and it is part of his overall purpose for creation” is consistent with a belief, based on a personal comprehension of freedom.

      I am not drawn to ID (or any variants) mainly because I am not committed to a specific worldview regarding biology. I do however, find the notion of design in the world appealing, but I find the use of the term intelligence/intelligent to be nebulous within a scientific theory. It is unclear how adding these terms would progress the discussion on freedom and free will – and we may consider some extreme views by atheists suggesting that free will is a delusion imposed on us by natural selection. I find such an extreme outlook to be almost necessary if we take randomness as the bedrock of Darwinian evolution. I also wonder how we may discuss freedom if an intelligence of some sort had designed it all before-hand.

      The question regarding God setting in motion events that inevitably lead to human beings is also an interesting one – I struggle with the mix of theology and empirical observations – scientifically I do not see how can we possibly provide a firm answer? I find the question itself theologically meaningless since faith and belief in God answers yes (without fully understanding the how), while non-belief in God renders the question null and void. Which brings us back to the generalisation that revolves about Darwin’s outlook now encompassing so much of human reality – perhaps for another discussion.

  3. Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

    Hi argon, and welcome to The Hump

    You ask:

    Are there traditions in which free-will and contingency have a role? If we started the universe again, can we be certain I would still have the same 15-year old dog in 2014 AD?

    My first response is that if we are arguing as Christians, the key point is that we will not start the universe again, and neither will God. The theological point being that the vast majority of Christian traditions either believe that God ordains outcomes, or that he foresees then infallibly. Even Molinists believe God knows “what would have happened if…”

    That’s almost another way of saying that the contingency of the Universe, that is, the fact that its contents and events cannot be deduced from first principles, is primarily to do with God’s free will. There are few traditions (I can’t think of any orthodox ones) that do not subject the contingency of “chance” to the providential will of God as well.

    Now the point is not that there may be rare exceptions to those doctrinal conclusions, but why BioLogos might be tempted to adopt such exceptions and distance themselves from the main theological stream. Recent articles suggest that they do not want to abandon orthodoxy – Deborah Haarsma recently specifically affirmed that God intended humanity to result.

    Unless she was equivocating on the meaning of “humanity”, which would hardly be helpful to anyone, then the questions of “free will” (which I still maintain to be an incoherent concept outside the rational realm, unless one believes in panpsychism too sorry Bilbo), and of chance “contingency” don’t alter the case, because it is affirmed that God’s “design” for the universe (taken in Deborah’s sense) includes humanity.

    The question then is one of process: what process – with or without natural causes, free will, contingency and Uncle Tom Cobley – will connect God’s intention “Let us make man in our image” with the existence in fact of people?

    Your particular existence, and mine, are in most traditions considered to be part of God’s will in salvation terms, from the biblical evidence. The question would be, them, why creation should opearate under a different degree of God’s providential care.

    Your 15-year old dog is more difficult to accommodate to such biblical considerations, but as Aslan repeatedly said: “Child, did I not explain to you once before that no one is ever told what would have happened?”

    • argon says:

      Hi Jon,

      Thanks for the reply. I appreciate your comments.

      As for whether or why Biologos is or isn’t departing from the mainstream… I don’t share that worry. From a scientific perspective, I can see some reasons. One can say that one believes humans are the crown/target of creation but as a demonstrable concept, that’s a hard case to make, at least to other scientists. Similarly, one could claim that my dog is an intended aspect of creation, but as you’ve noted, it’s a hard case to make. Easy for a Christian to claim but not as a scientific principle.

      I think one could reasonably say, ‘Yes, I cannot demonstrate that humans are specifically intended by God but it’s something I believe.’ This is different from the ‘intelligent design movement’ IDM as discussed in the Beckwith article I reference at Biologos.

      • Edward Robinson Edward Robinson says:


        Your last paragraph misses something important. What if the Christian tradition demands the belief that humans are specifically intended by God? Then both orthodox ID and orthodox TE proponents will have to believe that, no matter what biology teaches. The difference is that the TE proponent (I’m speaking narrowly here of the TE proponents who are wedded to neo-Darwinism for the evolutionary mechanism, which includes almost all TEs whose scientific field is biology) then has to explain how God can use a non-directed process (Darwinian evolution) to produce a directed result. ID does not have that problem, because, not accepting neo-Darwinism, it is not committed to the view that evolution (even if it occurs) is a non-directed process.

        I have no theological problem with a generic “theistic evolution,” but if I were a TE who accepted neo-Darwinism (which I’m not), I would be in mental knots trying to reconcile my theology with my biology. And I have a Ph.D. with a special concentration in religion and science, and have spent years reading major philosophers and theologians from Plato to Kant and from Origen to Pannenberg, which means that I have far more intellectual resources at my disposal for achieving such a reconciliation than do the likes of Venema, Falk, or Applegate, who can barely tell you who Augustine was, let alone expound his theology of creation from the primary texts. Yet even I would shudder at the prospect of having to do it. But the evangelical cell biologists and geneticists at BioLogos just blithely assert that neo-Darwinism and God-determined outcomes go together, with no problem at all. They don’t even seem to understand why Jon and I and others keep asking them about the subject. Ignorance, it seems, is bliss.

        Beckwith (who dwells in a Catholic religious culture quite different from that of BioLogos) sidesteps the problem, because of his weird (and I believe erroneous) reading of Thomas Aquinas’s understanding of creation. He thinks that you can keep all of modern science and also keep all of Thomistic metaphysics. I think that’s just plain wrong. Beckwith compartmentalizes between metaphysics and science, as the BioLogos compartmentalizes between faith and science. I reject compartmentalization; I seek synthesis. Compartmentalizations are the typical modern form of intellectual dishonesty, because they enable one to conceal the dishonesty even from oneself. Any form of TE/EC that relies upon compartmentalization, I reject. I do believe that better forms of TE/EC are possible, and I think that some of them are compatible with ID — which has a non-compartmentalizing approach to reality.

        By the way, Argon, see my question to you on BioLogos. I really would like an answer to it, if it is not asking too much.

      • Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

        Argon – Some disparate points in reply.

        (1) Actually, theologically mankind is a goal of creation, the glory of Christ being the goal. The latter is equally undemonstrable to science, but it ought to underlie the approach of any faith-science synthesis like Evolutionary Creation: the doctrine of creation is FAR wider than the mere mechanism of evolution, which is what The Hump is about. I did a whole series on christological creation here.

        (2) Briefly on ID in your last para: I don’t believe it’s any part of their aim to demonstrates particular final causes like “God intended man” scientifically, but to show merely that there arefinal causes (aka design) from the empirical evidence. My own interest is more theological – one reason I don’t identify with ID.

        (3) The contrast of that with BioLogos’s mission is instructive – they do not believe that final purpose can be demonstrated scientifically, but do want to start from a Christian theological stance. The dispute has been about the lack of clarity and of consistency in that stance.

        As I said above, historically all Christians have believed that humans were specifically intended (and made) by God (which Deborah seems to endorse officially by the phrase “God intended mankind”), and most that each human was intended by God through special providence.

        Now, to say “I believe God provided my dog, as he provided Jonah’s fish, but can’t prove it scientifically” is non-problematic. But if one were to say, “I believe God deliberately provided my dog exclusively by a train of purely natural efficient causes, and those processes consisted of undirected collisions of Epicurean-type atoms”, you have invoked a process that could not possibly connect God’s will and your dog by a scientific process alone, because design, in the broadest sense, has been outlawed in that process.

        To avoid incoherence you would have to invoke some hidden providential governance (not merely sustenance), and your general possibilities would be limited to:
        (a) The atoms were designed so that their collisions were not random as science believes, but were so fine tuned as to be deterministic over the lifetime of the universe (a problematic concept in several ways), or
        (b) Some form of divine guidance of those collisions happens in real time, EITHER in the occasional “saltational” events that BioLogos tends to attribute to ID beliefs (eg God created your dog ex nihilo for your need – a clunky, probably unworkable and actually rather heterodox idea) OR, according to the mainstream of theology and the biblical witness, in a constant immanent involvement with his world, overseeing both the lawlike behaviour of secondary causes and the various kinds of contingency.

        Now, such Providence was never amenable to scientific analysis, though one must ask if such a hand on the tiller of history could ever be entirely invisible. But special providence came to be excluded a priori by Enlightenment/Deistic science). As soon as one says “X was caused exclusively by natural causes, and God does not direct the outcomes”, one has sided with that old Enlightenment view of God against classical Christianity.

        One can modify the justification for that exclusion of special providence, as has been done in a majority of the academic “divine-action” discussions underlying most modern TE (cf R J Russell’s term “statistical deism”), by talking polemically about creation’s “freedom” not to be “interfered with” by God – despite his “interference” being, on all sides, admitted to be the only reason it is sustained in being at all.

        Nobody has ever given me any plausible argument why that isn’t simply incoherent, and in any case it requires a complete reworking of Christian doctrine that, in essence, radically separates God’s work in creation from his work in salvation – two things that Scripture repeatedly joins together.

  4. Lou Jost says:

    Eddie, on the one hand you are always pushing BL to be more precise about what they believe. But about ID and DI you say this, approvingly:

    “All of this makes clear that ID per se, even the DI per se, takes no rigid stand on the question of common descent or macroevolution.”

    Do you also push the DI to be more precise about what they believe? If so, I haven’t seen it.

    I think both groups are playing the same game. They are both trying to have their cake and eat it too.

    • Lou Jost says:

      I’ll add that it is almost impossible to have a serious discussion with a group of people who are not even willing to admit to common descent. A group that does this is clearly putting ideology above intellectual honesty, or is willing to “play dumb” in order to attract a larger audience. I think DI’s slipperiness is far more disturbing than BL’s.

      • Edward Robinson Edward Robinson says:

        Lou: I’ll answer both your comments in this one place.

        Taking your second point first: it is not as if the ID people are “not even willing to admit common descent.” This way of expressing thing seems to presuppose that ID people, deep down, know that common descent is real, but can’t bring themselves to admit it, due to religious commitments, and so practice all kinds of intellectual dishonesty to talk themselves and others into thinking common descent is not well-founded. That may be true of some ID supporters, but it’s not true of all. As far as I can tell from reading ID works and from (in some cases) personal contact with ID folks, people such as Jonathan Wells and Paul Nelson and Casey Luskin honestly believe that the scientific case for common descent is very weak and that the evidence points to special creation of at least basic types (with perhaps some microevolution happening after that). So “not even willing to admit” suggests a willfulness that isn’t there; these people have made an intellectual judgment, not a last-ditch religious defense. Or so they perceive it. You can accuse them of being bad scientists, if you think their arguments are poor, but I think it would be wrong to accuse them of being unwilling to admit something they deep down know to be true.

        Now, your first question. Do I push the DI to be more precise about what it believes? No, because what it believes is quite clear to me. It believes that neo-Darwinian evolution (along with other explanations for origins which rely on chance plus natural laws alone) is an insufficient explanation for what we seek, that intelligent design would be necessary. That is what I would call a minimalist position. Within that minimalist position, there are a wide range of possible positions, some pro-evolutionary (Behe), some anti-evolutionary (Nelson). But the DI is not a vehicle for Behe, or for Nelson; it is a vehicle for ID. I can agree with Behe, and disagree with Nelson, or Luskin, or Wells, and still support the broad position of the DI. There is no inconsistency there. I’m saying that, given the choice between the DI and Dawkins, I’ll take the DI. I’m certainly not agreeing with everything individual DI writers say, nor am I required to.

        If (for the sake of argument) I voted Republican, out of a hatred of socialism, it wouldn’t mean that I had to endorse every view held by different strands of the Republican Party. There are “business” Republicans and “moral majority” Republicans and “libertarian” Republicans, and “crunchy cons” (ecological Republicans) and “hawk” Republicans and who knows how many other types. But I can endorse the overall trajectory of the Republican Party as against the Democratic Party, without agreeing with any particular Republican politician’s ideas; so I can endorse the overall trajectory of the DI as against Dawkins and Coyne, without necessarily agreeing with everything written by Jonathan Wells or Casey Luskin.

        BioLogos is in an entirely different position. Its claims are much narrower and more precise. It does not endorse merely “design” but specifically the Christian God and the teaching of the Bible — of all of the Bible. And it claims, as you can see from Dr. Haarsma’s latest column, that its view of the Christian God is in line with the Bible and with centuries of tradition. It therefore makes claims that are principle testable by consulting the Bible, Calvin, Luther, Augustine, etc. One can see whether or not statements made by BioLogos columnists (often clearly with the blessing of the management, despite the disclaimers) are in fact in line with the Bible and tradition. One can ask the BioLogos columnists and management to explain their theology more precisely, to document it with reference to Biblical texts etc. But whenever Jon and I ask such questions, the BioLogos folks seem to run and hide, as if they do not wish their theological views to be too closely inspected.

        I intend to continue to press TE/EC folks for their theological commitments and their theological arguments. I intend to continue to demand exegesis of Biblical texts, exegesis of Calvin, Augustine, Aquinas, etc. from TE/EC supporters. It is they who have invited this kind of interrogation, because they proudly declare their position to be the orthodox and traditional Christian one. They repeatedly declare that there is no conflict at all between neo-Darwinism and accidental chemical origins of life, on the one hand, and Christian understandings of creation, omnipotence, providence, and sovereignty on the other. They sound very sure of themselves that this is the case, and they tend to belittle those (whether creationist or ID) who have some doubts on this score. I’m holding their feet to the fire.

        I have the right to do that. They claim to be speaking for my religion — Christianity. I didn’t authorize a small group of American evangelical scientists, mostly teaching at minor Christian liberal arts colleges and seminaries, to speak for my religion. As long as they use the same name for their religion as I do, then they have to answer to the same historical standards that I do. They are responsible to do the same theological and historical study that I have done. And if they are unwilling to do that kind of theological and historical study, maybe they should cease writing about theology/science matters, and stick to their various natural sciences.

        I would ask you to note, Lou, that it is not merely TE/EC folks that I subject to theological interrogation. I have pressed the anti-evolutionist “Catholic fundamentalist” known currently on BioLogos as “g kc” to be explicit about his theological views as well, and to defend them with quotations from Aquinas, etc. So it’s not as if my theological critique is biased against those who believe in evolution, and gives anti-evolutionists a free ride. What offends me is people who speak for Christian theology who have very little idea what they are talking about, and whether their name is Ken Miller or Dennis Venema or Darrel Falk or g kc or Ken Ham or anything else is immaterial for me. I’m trying to combat the particular modern combination (so prevalent in the USA) of theological ignorance with theological arrogance.

        The DI, of course, does not claim to speak for Christianity when it claims that design in nature is evident; it does not claim to be offering a more correct exegesis of Genesis when it discusses fine-tuning; etc. Its individual members may offer theological opinions and Biblical exegesis, but the DI offers none. BioLogos, on the other hand, offers theological opinions both in its own name, and indirectly, by asking the same liberal columnists to write for it over and over again. BioLogos is a theologically-motivated organization. I therefore judge it by theological standards. The DI, on the other hand, should be judged only by the quality of its arguments against chance and for design.

        For your information, I have carried on numerous private conversations with ID proponents over theology, and have often strongly disagreed with them. If they posted the same arguments on public sites, I would disagree with them there as well. I try to be consistent in my approach. My general principle is that people should not make theological claims in public unless they are prepared to defend them, and my general policy is to be merciless (polite, but merciless) to those who make the claims but won’t offer the defenses. Since so many TE/EC leaders fall into this category, they naturally receive the lion’s share of my attention. But I don’t let others off the hook.

        • Lou Jost says:

          OK, I can see that. I am concentrating on the other side of the coin, the claims of BL and DI to be doing honest science. I find BL is at least trying to take positions that agree with empirical evidence, when that evidence is incontrovertible (common descent being the clearest example). On the other hand, I find that DI will trample incontrovertible empirical evidence in order to preserve ideological positions. I realize that some of the DI members sincerely believe what they say, but that does not make them intellectually honest.

          I think neither of the two groups is behaving well, though. I am pretty sure that most flavors of Christian belief really do contradict strongly-confirmed aspects of science, and I think BL tries to hide this, while DI revels in it and freely tosses away the parts of science that it does not like. Neither are particularly respectable approaches, but BL’s approach is the one that is more careful and honest on the subjects most important to me. So I judge them less harshly than DI. But I can see that someone whose priorities lie on the theological side of the coin would judge them differently.

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