Sy Garte has replied to a post of mine on BioLogos. Because I am temporarily suspended from BioLogos, I’m replying to him here. I’ll write in the form of a column, but with some references to his own statements.
The subject is teleology in evolution, which I had been discussing with Joshua Swamidass. Sy wrote, in part:
“I am a strong proponent of teleology in evolution… Some ECs are less sure about teleology, or are less interested in it. But all of us (I think it is fair to say) agree that biology, much like the entire cosmos, is designed. I have heard Deb Haarsma, Dennis Venema and others state this.”
Like Sy, I have heard them state it, too, many times. But unless the degree of design in biology is more specified, it falls under the category of “motherhood” statements. Every Christian will agree with it, even as twenty different Christians might mean twenty different things by it. It appears that for Venema there needs to be no design at all during the entire course of the evolution of life, and that if any design is required it’s in setting up life in the first place. And in a recent conversation, Venema seemed inclined to a non-supernatural origin of life itself (against Sy’s own inclination, I think), and since Venema regularly conflates “supernatural” and “designed” he seems to mean that no design was necessary to get the first cell going. As for Haarsma, I too, have heard her make vague rumblings about cosmic design, and even praised her in a column here for doing so. But she has never clarified exactly where she sees the design; and she has not said whether she thinks the design is detectable by normal human powers, or is discernible only with “the eyes of faith.” Thus, she might hold to a Dentonesque fine-tuning view (cf. Nature’s Destiny), but it’s impossible to be sure from her public statements since taking over BioLogos. Certainly she has has a thousand opportunities to comment publicly on Denton’s arguments, but no comments are visible.
I gather that Sy believes that the fundamental structure of cellular life shows design. And from his statements so far — which he is invited to elaborate on in comments below — I get the sense that he believes there is evidence in nature for this conclusion, that it is not only “through the eyes of faith” that we can infer it. That is, if I understand Sy rightly, even someone with no prior belief in Christianity or any other revealed religion can be brought to see the strong evidentiary case for the design of life. I am not sure that any of the BioLogos leaders have ever granted that any part of the design in nature can be seen outside of “the eyes of faith.”
Joshua Swamidass writes ambiguously about this. He says he accepts design, but rejects the idea that it can be established through science, as opposed to through faith. But as I read Sy’s statements on the origin of the first life, I get the sense that science does provide some evidence toward a design inference — even if the inference itself is philosophical rather than scientific. I don’t think Joshua would go that far. Certainly I have been pressing Joshua, both publicly and privately, to state what he would accept as evidence of design in nature, but I feel Joshua dances around the question. At times he has said there is plenty of evidence for design in nature, but not scientific evidence. Well, what does that mean? If the evidence is “in nature”, why can’t science play a role in uncovering it? But here I’m mainly addressing Sy’s position rather than Joshua’s, so I don’t expect Sy to answer that one for Joshua. However, I think it would be good if Sy would expand (either in a comment below, or in a Hump post of his own) on his own view.
Thomas Aquinas believed that there were certain basic things about God that all men could know, whether they were Christians, Jews, Muslims, or anything else. He believed that those basic things were accessible to human reason, without the aid of revelation. Would Sy go so far as to say that the same could be said about intelligent design? Are there things about nature, accessible to human reason, which point to design even without the coaching of revelation? Can a case could be made for the design of the first life, even apart from any prior conviction one has in any divine revelation? If this is Sy’s position, he would be saying something much bolder and clearer than I have ever seen in the writings of Joshua Swamidass or of any of the mainstream BioLogos people — and would be saying something very attractive to those from the ID camp.
There is one thing in Sy’s post that I don’t entirely agree with. I reproduce the relevant words here:
“The existence of Design does NOT contradict Darwinian evolution. Yes, Darwin stated that his theory made teleology and the need for design moot, and Dawkins says that evolution proves that the apparent design in biology is simply that – apparent. But no evolutionist has ever claimed to have proven the absence of design, whether intelligent, divine, or accidental. The atheists hold the philosophical view that since there is no God, and no need for God or God’s intervention at any point in the history of life, then all appearances of design are simply artefacts of the power of natural selection in shaping biology. The EC argument says that one way or the other (and the details of what way precisely are not specified) God IS the designer as well as the Creator of everything, including life.”
This argument is difficult to accept. Sy states a clear thesis — there is no contradiction between Darwinian [emphasis added] evolution and the existence of design — but then immediately goes on to admit that there is indeed a prima facie opposition to design in Darwin’s thought. So he needs to show that the opposition is only on the surface, that underlying the apparent opposition there is a real harmony between Darwin’s conception of evolution and the idea of design in nature. But I don’t see how the rest of his paragraph shows this.
Sy admits that atheist scientists hold that design in nature is mere appearance, an illusion created by the power of natural selection to mimic design. Well, that doesn’t uphold Sy’s thesis. Sy’s thesis is not that there is no conflict between Darwinian evolution and apparent design, but that there is no conflict between Darwinian evolution and design period. And I don’t see how a pure Darwinian can hold that there is any real design in the evolutionary process.
Similarly, I don’t see how Sy’s final sentence in the paragraph upholds his thesis. He says that ECs believe that God is not merely the Creator but also the designer of everything, but I don’t see how that removes the conflict between Darwinian evolution and design. For an EC to say, as a religious believer, that God designed everything, but then to say, as a scientist, that he used a process — Darwinian evolution — that makes no use of real design but only of apparent design, still leaves the tension in place. God becomes the designer who works through non-design. This does not make sense to me. And in saying this, I’m not trying to pick particularly on Sy, who is one of my favorite guys over at BioLogos and a valued contributor here as well. I find this problem running throughout EC discussion: Darwinian evolution requires no design, yet somehow it is to be assigned to God who is a designer.
Perhaps Sy means something like this: there is no conscious design at any particular stage of evolution, because the genes, molecules, etc. aren’t intelligent and aren’t trying to build anything, but underlying the lack of conscious design at individual steps there is a deeper long-term design: the design of the first living organisms, which because of their excellent construction can undergo evolution and produce new functional variants (longer beaks, lungs instead of gills, feathers instead of scales, etc.) even though there is no conscious direction at any stage of the process. So the designing wisdom of God is seen in setting up life that would reproduce with slight variations in the first place, rather than in any particular adaptations that are produced. Is that what Sy means by saying that Darwinian evolution and design are not in conflict? I think I need more help from Sy on this point.
Sy makes some other points in his post. He writes concerning certain weaknesses in the ID attack on the work of Michael Yarus. I won’t contest Sy’s remarks on that here, because ID folks like Meyer and Nelson have the opportunity to respond to Sy on BioLogos if they choose, and I leave it to them to do so. He also writes about the need for constructive engagement and emphasizing what ID and EC people agree on more than what they disagree on. I’m in agreement with that point, though I’m not convinced that Joshua Swamidass is, despite his pleas for peace, since he has been waging an anti-ID campaign for months now, on UD during the Torley brouhaha, on his own blog, on BioLogos, and in private conversation with me and others.
I’m more concerned here with the philosophical and theological implications of teleology in living systems. I think that Sy believes that there is genuine evidence, not dependent on having Christian faith, for design in the first living systems. I don’t know whether he calls the inference to the design of the first living systems a scientific or a philosophical inference, but he appears to think that the inference is reasonable. But I don’t hear that from other ECs. I don’t hear any of them saying that such an inference would be reasonable, even if it were labelled “philosophical” rather than “scientific.” For to admit that it would be reasonable would be to admit that it doesn’t depend on having the eyes of faith. That is, a non-Christian, in principle, would be able to see the design of the first living cell as clearly as a Christian could, because the evidence for the inference is faith-neutral. I don’t think many BioLogos leaders are willing to go that far. But if I’m wrong, Sy can direct me to statements they have made that I have missed.