Discussion with Sy Garte on Teleology

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.

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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20 Responses to Discussion with Sy Garte on Teleology

  1. Sy Garte Sy Garte says:


    First of all, thanks for engaging so enthusiastically on this topic, as well as your kind words. We do go way back, and I am happy to continue this current discussion here, while you are sitting out the Biologos ban. You raised many points, and I can only begin to address some of them here and now, since its late, and its been a long day.

    A great deal of what you say I am trying to say or that I believe is correct. I do in fact believe that there is in nature evidence for a teleological component to evolutionary biology. And of course, as a Christian I also believe that God has played (which everyone agrees with) and continues to play (not everyone agree with) a role in evolution, although this latter belief is not, and cannot be supported by any scientific evidence.

    I have a slight problem in being more specific at this moment about the first claim of teleology (or design of a kind) in a scientific description of reality, as I hinted at in the Biologos post you referred to. I have submitted a paper for publication describing the idea in some detail, and it is now undergoing the dreaded peer review. I therefore prefer not to comment further on the details of this, until and if the paper is accepted (or even published). I dont know what the odds are that it will be accepted given the (to my mind at least) fairly revolutionary and iconoclastic nature of the claims being made in it. I can easily imagine some reviewers (even friends, or very well meaning folks) throwing it across the room in outrage or disgust. But we will see.

    You raise several issues about my use of the word “design”, and I think before we go further we need to clarify the definition. Dawkins says that biological creatures are designed, but that it is a blind design built by the forces of natural selection (The Blind Watchmaker), which as you say is quite different from the meaning of Intelligent design, wherein we find true external teleology. So the question is not really whether the beak of the humming bird is well designed for getting nectar, everyone agrees that it is. The question is how did such a design come about.

    Was it purely the result of non teleological evolutionary processes, which is what atheists and some ECs believe? Or was it the result of evolutionary processes set in motion and responding to other natural forces created by God at the time of the origin of the universe, as many other ECs believe? Was it designed by God during the creation of birds on Day 5 as YECs believe? Was it part of the grand design of life by God, occurring at some point during the creation or evolutionary process, as many IDers believe? Or as Jon has said, was it a contingent development, resulting from God’s continuing providential acts that we accept as a matter of faith?

    I have no idea, of course, but my guess is that it is closer to that of Jon’s version than the stricter EC view of someone like Dennis Venema or Jeff Hardin. But I also think that such providential divine interventions are rare, and impossible to detect scientifically. It is just as likely that the particular case of the humming bird beak is simply a result of natural selection of the most fit variants in standard evolutionary dogma.

    On the other hand, if human speech was indeed the result of some crucial mutations of the PAX6 gene, I would be very happy to say that God helped evolution a bit to achieve the good design that fit his purposes for us as creatures created in His image. But note that that is a theological/philosophical view which cannot be considered a scientific one, not could it be buttressed by any naturalistic evidence.

    But, you are right that I do believe that there are some aspects of cell biology that suggest an origin of teleology within a scientific evolutionary framework. Again, I must plead for patience (keeping you in suspense, much like one of our candidates) before I can further elaborate.

    For the moment I will leave the discussion of design of the first life for a later time. Perhaps in your reply, Eddie, we can start with my answers given in this comment. I assume that others are welcome to join in.

    • Edward Robinson Edward Robinson says:

      Thanks for writing back, Sy.

      I’m glad to hear you’ve submitted a paper involving the subject of teleology, and I look forward to hearing more about it. I understand why you might not want to say anything specific about the contents of the paper at this point, and so I will be patient until you are able to talk more freely about it.

      On the definition of design, I think it’s clear that people use the word in at least two ways, one of which I would call a looser way, and the other a stricter way. In the looser usage, we speak of the “design” of something as the smooth functioning of its inter-related parts, as in the case of the hummingbird. In this looser usage, we admire the “design” of the hummingbird for its power and efficiency and economy etc., but we aren’t implying anything about its origin. In the stricter usage, when we say that something is “designed” we mean that it arose not by chance or by blind natural laws, but through the embodiment of an intelligent plan. In this latter usage, “design” implies a “designer” — a mind capable of thinking, planning, reasoning out the relationship of parts to whole, of means to ends, etc.

      As you say, in loose usage, everyone agrees that a hummingbird is beautifully “designed”; but the question is whether the hummingbird is also “designed” in the stricter usage. If God conceived of the body plan and specific arrangements of the hummingbird eons before the first hummingbird ever appeared, and acted in such a way (miraculously, through natural evolutionary processes, or by a combination) as to make the hummingbird a reality, then we would say that God was the “designer” of the hummingbird.

      However, suppose God did not conceive of hummingbirds specifically, but had a thought more like this: “If I create an original genome that has the capacity of variation, then all kinds of interesting things could pop up out of it via an evolutionary process; I think I’ll kick off such a process and see what emerges” — then nobody would say that God designed the hummingbird, or the elephant, or the mushroom, or the flea, or any other biological form. Yet such often seems to be the view of creation indicated by EC proponents. For example, the commenter “beaglelady”, when asked directly if God specifically willed the existence of “elephant,” has refused to answer, and substituted, “I think that God willed a world teeming with a variety of life” — leaving the impression that God was not particular about *what* life emerged, as long as there were lots of different kinds of it. And indeed, to date, not one BioLogos leader has said, in answer to specific questions of that sort, “Yes, I believe that God intended specifically that the mouse should exist, the howler monkey should exist, the rowan tree should exist, etc.” Always the question about specifics is deflected to some more general (and vague) assertion of God’s creativity. The idea that God conceived of specific designs, whether general body plans or unique features, in advance of implementing them, etc., does not seem popular. I certainly can’t find any statements of Venema, Falk, etc. to this effect.

      Of course, it could be that the avoidance of the notion of “design” is tied in with a general rejection of “special creation” by the EC leaders. In their minds, it seems, the idea of “design” (of hummingbirds, elephants, etc.) is tied up with the idea of special creation. But I don’t think that’s much of an excuse, given that I and Jon and others have repeatedly differentiated between instantaneous miraculous creation and evolutionary creation, and allowed that a true design — a plan conceived in advance — could be implemented either way.

      Nonetheless, if I thought that it was merely a fear that “design” would be taken as “special creation” that was motivating the vague answers, I could make sense of that response. But often I feel there is something more going on, something decidedly theological rather than scientific. Beaglelady’s unwillingness to be pinned down on elephants (and note that the author of Job wasn’t unwilling to be pinned down regarding specific creatures), the columns of Oord arguing that God doesn’t and can’t know the future (and therefore can’t be a designer), Falk and Venema’s equivocations regarding how much of Darwinian evolution’s outcomes were intended (Falk grants only man for sure as intended, and Venema hasn’t been clear even about man), various comments in the past about “Calvinist” vs. “Wesleyan” theologies and how “Wesleyan” theologies allow nature more “freedom,” etc., all suggest to me a dislike, on the part of certain ECs, for a God who conceives of what he wants ahead of time, and executes his conception. Yet when Jon and I probe in this area, our comments and questions are clearly disliked and the answers we get are far from clear.

      Regarding direct divine intervention, I agree that science cannot detect the action of God at the moment of its occurrence. God might be causing a mutation, but our instruments could detect only the change, not its cause. Yet I don’t think that precludes the scientific detection of design. Design is not perceived, in most cases, in single events, but in overall patterns of events. If you get a royal flush in poker, I would not infer any design; but if you got five royal flushes in a row, and took home a million dollars’ worth of winnings, I would suspect design. I don’t think ID people have ever claimed that because a certain mutation occurred, God must be acting. Rather, I think they have argued that whole sets of observations, taken together, point to a designing mind.

      Convergence, for example, might indicate an overall design of the evolutionary process. The intricacies in the operation of the living cell might indicate an overall design of life itself. Fine-tuning in the cosmos might indicate a design of the world to make it suitable for life.

      My problem with many EC writers — you are an exception — is that they tend to repel such possibilities. When Meyer’s Signature in the Cell came out — a book which did not argue against “evolution” at all, but only against an accidental origin of life — BioLogos launched a massive effort to undermine the credibility of the book and its author. Falk and Venema both bashed the book (in the case of Venema, the bashing concentrating on the gratuitous Appendix to the book rather than the body of the argument), and they even brought in the non-Christian Francisco Ayala (who seemed not to have read the book) to say what a bad book it was. (And note that not one of those three men — Falk, Venema, Ayala — is a specialist in origin-of-life research or has any publications in that area.) So I found myself asking: “Why is a Christian organization bashing a book by another Christian which argues that the origin of life couldn’t have been accidental and must have required intelligence?” What possible sane motive can there be for this attack? Why are they determined to persuade their Christian readers that life might have come about by accident? Is it important for Christians to believe that life might be an accident?

      Of course, there are a few exceptions. Collins suggested that perhaps ID-type arguments were allowable in the area of fine-tuning of the cosmos. Haarsma’s vague generalities about creation suggest that perhaps she accepts fine-tuning arguments as well. But when it comes to the nitty-gritty of biology, most BioLogos folks don’t seem to see any design anywhere; they explain everything in terms of accidental mutations and other contingencies, and design explanations are in their minds at best superfluous, and at worst examples of very bad biology. So their religious affirmations of biological design end up looking like very weak and half-hearted tack-ons, required pro forma by evangelical faith but not pronounced with much enthusiasm. How different that is from the expressions of Paley, or of Behe, or of Denton!

  2. Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:


    I don’t want to intervene in a 2-way discussion here, but as an aside I note this is Sy’s reply:

    Dawkins says that biological creatures are designed, but that it is a blind design built by the forces of natural selection (The Blind Watchmaker), which as you say is quite different from the meaning of Intelligent design, wherein we find true external teleology.

    This seems an absolutely obvious distinction, and explains completely why Phillip Johnson and his crew used the phrase “Intelligent Design” in antithesis to the “blind watchmaker” concept. And yet on the EC side, I’ve lost count of the criticisms of the very term either because “design” suggests “mere engineering”, or that “intelligent” suggests that God has only human intelligence etc.

    The habit of finding fault with absolutely everything ones opponents do or say (which happens on all sides, it’s true) is one reason for lack of progress in the project of harmonising Faith and Science. In particular, desperately steering clear of the concepts of “design” or “intelligence” means that there’s hardly anywhere for TEs to go except materialist naturalism with a distant God tacked on.

    And so one finds that whereas an Austin L Hughes can cut critical swathes through literally hundreds of population genetics papers (and therefore their models) and be respected or, at most, politely responded to, a Doug Axe or a Michael Behe is not simply disagreed with, but becomes evidence for blanket statements about “ID science is wrong” (or not science at all), regardless of their training, credentials and the fact that science is supposed to be about disagreement.

    It’s the kind of thing that gets people annoyed enough to get banned from BioLogos…

    Sorry to interrupt, chaps – my rant is over for now and you may continue…

  3. Sy Garte Sy Garte says:

    Jon, not an interruption at all, but a contribution. I am sure Eddie posted this here to engage many people, not just me, since otherwise he could have simply sent me a private message. And I think its an important contribution, since you raise the issue of why ID is attacked as strongly as it is. Partly, I think you are right in that ID is considered anathema in many circles, even when their points are good ones. Our friend Joshua Swamidass is one of the few very open minded folks who takes the time to evaluate what is being said, rather than who is saying it (I guess I can claim that too to some extent).

    But the fact is that ID now suffers from the consequences of what some of its positions have been and from the claims of some of its proponents in the past. At its origins, Johnson et al seemed to be clearly attacking evolution (neo Darwinian, Darwinian, any kind of evolution) with “scientific” arguments that were not very rigorous. Things have moved a long way since then, at least with Denton and Behe, but the Meyer Nelson paper that Dennis was writing about was quite disappointing in its approach.

    Eddie has, to my mind been quite eloquent in defending ID as a big tent, and I am convinced. But the problem is that the big tent still includes folks who use arguments like the probability of getting any particular protein fold is less than 1 in 10^250 or some such number, an argument that betrays a lack of biological understanding.

    Science is tough. Scientists are not warm and forgiving, welcoming folks, who are tolerant of any sign of ignorance in their field. I once stopped a site visit, when the investigator I was evaluating said something really dumb about the field he was proposing to study, and in which I was an expert. When I explained the point to my colleagues, they all said, OK lets move on. This has also happened to me many times, every time I enter a new field, and am not as familiar with the topic as I thought I was.

    And that is the position of ID in biology. It is very difficult to come up with something new that will pass the scrutiny of experts, and you better be in a position of defending the argument very strongly. ID has not done that. Yet. I do believe that as some of the nonsense that was originally proposed is dropped, and the agenda changes (more towards the views of yourself and Eddie, and even me) and perhaps a new name (in order to start fresh) is used, some of the ideas of ID might become more acceptable to mainstream biology and at that point, most ECs will follow suit. I think that Denton might emerge as the leader here, based on his recent writing. We will see.

    Anyway, your point about the word design is correct, and what I was trying to say. I am one of those who has voiced objection to the modifier “Intelligent” and perhaps the new term for a more enlightened view, (both scientifically and theologically) could be Divine Design, which would be more accurate, and would easily include such things as the role of providence in evolution, and eliminate the flawed analogies to human efforts at designing stuff.

  4. Sy Garte Sy Garte says:


    Going back to your OP, you say “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…” I do in fact believe that, but I also wouldnt rule out actual conscious design and divine intervention at particular stages of evolution as a statement of faith.

    Here’s the thing. I dont know the actual theological term for this idea (maybe Jon can help) but I do agree with some aspects of Oord’s point about freedom. Not freedom to the whole creation, but freedom to us. We must be free to choose God or not. I am convinced that is part of God’s plan, and is very important. If we have that freedom, we cannot have the ability to find irrefutable evidence of God’s providence. I actually think there is some very odd scientific evidence to buttress this belief that there can be no scientific evidence to buttress belief. That evidence is the extraordinary fact that whenever we think we have finally figured out some way to get the data that will either strongly support or strongly refute the actions of God on our world, and we get that data, it always seems to fall right smack in the middle of the God or no God conclusion.

    How weird is that? In fact how could that even be the case if it werent (as Hoyle so famously said) a “put up job”? Whenever we think we have figured something out, and dont need any further explanations, we find out – no, not yet. And whenever we think “Aha!, this has no natural explanation, it must be the hand of the divine”, somebody proposes a natural explanation, which in turn, ends up being not completely credible. It never ends.

    God will not let us off the hook. He will not make it easy or even possible to choose what to believe based on evidence. We must turn to something else, and that is faith. And this is my main criticism of ID. Science is not supposed to lead to proof of God’s actions. God Himself will not allow that to happen. So that is why I fully agree with Meyer that life is designed, and totally disagree that we can prove it.

    My comments on Yarus illustrate this. I don’t think that the origin of the code can be entirely explained by direct templating (not sure that Yarus does either) but, some of it might be. This is an example of what I am talking about when I say that God will not let us off the hook with clear answers. All of the answers are gray, none are black or white. When Meyer and Nelson try to disprove and dismiss Yarus, in some attempt to show that any “natural” explanation for the genetic code is impossible, they are not making any sense theologically, as well scientifically.

    I used to think there was no evidence for God’s existence. Now I know there is, and for me its actually proof, but nothing I could publish in a journal, since the call of Christ to me to join him, is not something I can replicate or even produce a graph of. But I am still interested in all of the hints that God has spread around our cosmos, from the fine tuning of the physical constants, to the unending fractal complexity of every living creature. For me the most interesting of those hints is the incredible brilliance of how evolution works. And that includes the hidden but very real teleological process that is at the very heart of biological evolution.

    • Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:


      Here’s the thing. I dont know the actual theological term for this idea (maybe Jon can help)

      I’d distinguish what you’re suggesting from Oord’s concept, which is a radical autonomy for the whole of creation apart from God. So I suppose I’d call it simply “hiddenness of God” theology, but distinguished from the way people like Luther saw that topic (see below).

      As I’ve said to Joshua (and argued in his “tree” challenge), I’m not sure how far that should be taken, since it’s only really since the Enlightenment that an idea of nature that might, conceivably, manage without God has been on the table. Prior to that, if one didn’t believe in God, one believed in gods: and in either case they were the ultimate directing agencies behind everything in nature. A few Epicureans were the only real exceptions to that innate sense..

      As you’ll recall, I handled that idea here. My point is that the “freedom to believe or not” concept would only apply to us moderns, rather than being a universal truth for mankind, which seems a little parochial.

      You can conceieve a society (maybe the Royal Society!) a few centuries ago, where it would have been non-controversial for you to publish a paper entitled, “New discovery on how God creates diversity” or whatever.

      Where, I think, your principle does apply closely is not so much “belief that there is a God”, but “trusting in the God of Israel/the gospel of Christ”. Rivals to God have always been out there, working wonders, claiming power etc. And as that covenant God, the Lord may sometimes hide himself from us (he hid himself in thick darkness in the OT) – which is where Luther came in. We are, I think, naturally inclined to know there is a King – but not hedged in to obey him.

      Nevertheless, granted the materialist world view that has conceived of nature as a self-contained unit, I would say that it’s in practice not possible to prove God from science, because the naturalist paradigm provides an alternative “theory” of everything – and especially, that what the theist would see as clearly the result of God’s determining choices, the materialist will always be able to interpret as due to determining chance.

      A further question, though, is what “most men” will understand from reality – not the trained materialist trained in a naturalist methodology, nor the committed believer, but the guy in the street. The default seems (I would argue) to be a “properly basic” awareness that there must be someone in charge, but an awareness that needs sharpening by education in the wonder of what’s around and the claims of the gospel.

    • Edward Robinson Edward Robinson says:

      Sy, you wrote:

      “Science is not supposed to lead to proof of God’s actions. God Himself will not allow that to happen. So that is why I fully agree with Meyer that life is designed, and totally disagree that we can prove it.”

      But note, Sy, that you have subtly shifted, between the two sentences, from “proof of God’s actions” to “proof that life is designed.” Yet Meyer’s argument, strictly speaking, can’t say anything about God at all; it purports only to establish the existence of design.

      I think that behind your statement here you are thinking about the specifically Christian notion of God — the one you have indicated in your final paragraph. Indeed, throughout your comments in the post, you seem to have that specific notion of God in mind. For you, it is the *Christian* God who will not let us establish his existence through science. But, as I say to Preston elsewhere here (and have said to him and to other TEs several times before), the ID folks make no claim to establish the existence of the Christian God through ID arguments. They claim only to establish the fact of design.

      So my question of clarification for you is this: Do you “totally disagree that we can prove” that life is designed by the Christian God, or “totally disagree that we can prove” that life is designed” [full stop after “designed”]?

  5. pngarrison says:

    Sy: “God will not let us off the hook. He will not make it easy or even possible to choose what to believe based on evidence. We must turn to something else, and that is faith. And this is my main criticism of ID. Science is not supposed to lead to proof of God’s actions. God Himself will not allow that to happen. So that is why I fully agree with Meyer that life is designed, and totally disagree that we can prove it.”

    For what it’s worth, I completely agree with this. Couldn’t have said it better myself, and this is what has always bothered me about the ID movement. Despite their denials, I can never escape the feeling that the whole thing is about making the existence of God a scientific certainty (and yes, that is something of an oxymoron) and thus a turning point in the culture wars.

    • Edward Robinson Edward Robinson says:

      Preston, you wrote:

      “Despite their denials, I can never escape the feeling that the whole thing is about making the existence of God a scientific certainty”

      I believe this is true for some ID people, but not for all. Michael Behe, for example, in his taped debate with Stephen Barr, stated that Barr was under the mistaken impression that the purpose of Behe’s work on design was to prove the existence of God. In fact, said Behe, he championed design not in order to prove the existence of God but to make science better: design explanations were in some cases simply better than non-design explanations, even from a purely agnostic and secular point of view.

      And of course, even if ID arguments could prove the existence of great Designer, they would not prove that the Designer was the specifically Christian God. Even those ID proponents inclined to see their arguments as proving the existence of God would say that a truly Christian understanding of God could never come from science, but only from revelation.

  6. GD GD says:

    Eddie, Jon, Sy,

    “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.”

    I do not have a position to protect, so my question is pure curiosity, and that is, has anyone defined “design” and “teleology” in a way that scientists can discuss?

    • Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:


      There’s the rub, it seems to me: methodological naturalism, even in its earliest form since Bacon, specifically excudes final and formal causation. Only material efficient causes are permissible within science.

      So how does one, even in principle, discuss teleology or design under those constraints? On the one hand people are criticised for not defining “design” (how would one define design in terms of material efficient causes only? Have you ever tried it!).

      On the other, people quickly revert to, “If you think this was designed, then how did the Designer do it?” In other words, people are asked to demonstrate intention through efficient causation, which is incoherent.

      I guess that doesn’t, however, necessarily speak to your quote, for “normal human powers” extend far beyond the boundaries of science. That’s why I’ve been taking Joshua Swamidass’s affirmations of the limitations of science very literally and very seriously: unless we recognise its boundaries, we’ll be fooled by the pretence that science is “the study of the natural world”, whereas is is actually “the study of certain aspects of the natural world within strict methodological parameters”.

      • GD GD says:

        The limitations of science come into play if and when science seeks to research anything outside of nature; the real topic and one that is discussed to varying depths, deals with the thought underpinning scientific theories and formulae.

        Sy says (from Dawkins) that biological creatures are designed ….”You raise several issues about my use of the word “design”, and I think before we go further we need to clarify the definition. Dawkins says that biological creatures are designed, but that it is a blind design built by the forces of natural selection”…

        So I assume that there is some basis for the term design (made of many parts, irreducible complexity, information loaded DNA, just to mention some), but none of these would imo meet the criteria of a definition that can be scientifically argued/debated.

        This strikes me as odd, especially when one notes the vehemence involved in these debates. In any event, I think that some progress may be possible if the waring parties were to define the subject that evokes such argumentation. Scientists can argue in a clear manner if we knew what we were arguing about.

        I am not advocating a metaphysical approach, but simply one of clarity in this debate on scientific grounds. Perhaps one outcome of such a debate may be there is no scientifically definable concept termed design in nature? Or perhaps there is a concept that may be clarified – in either case, a good debate is waiting to occur somewhere.

        • Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:


          Dawkins uses the word in a weasel-way (methinks), meaning “the appearance of design”, which he then goes out of his way to discredit.

          If one were to attribute an honest aim to him, one would have to say he is so possessed by the scientifc spirit that he really does fail to understand that “design” MEANS teleology.

          That’s why I did those posts a while ago on the subject of pareidolia: a face in the clouds is not a design without a designer – it is not a design at all. Just as a paternoster fortuitously appearing in a snail track would not be a prayer, but a coincidence.

          The question would then become whether there is any realistic possibility that the Lord’s prayer might appear by undirected chance in that way: a miracle is more parsimonious.

          Now we apply that to the “appearance of design” in life, and (as Asa Gray insisted) design is infinitely more likely than chance.

          • GD GD says:

            I guess one answer to the question is that we may not find a basis for a rigorous scientific debate on design.

            On the overall view re nature and planet earth, I am confident that nature displays purpose and a remarkable integration that (perhaps transcendentally) I would say with wonder – the one-ness of all things.

            However my questions may not help people such as Eddie, unless he and ID advocates can provide a basis for a good scientific debate on the subject.

  7. Sy Garte Sy Garte says:

    Thanks Preston. I agree with Jon on his answer to GD’s very important question. And that also is the basis for my answer to Eddie’s question about what I mean by proving design. If we exclude the teleological aspect of design (in other words assume there is no such thing as a final cause in biology, or any part of science) then of course everyone can agree that life is designed, even Dawkins and Coyne. So that isnt very helpful. The real issue is the nature of the Designer. If the designer is simply nature (natural selection in this case) then we are done and can all go home. So the question must be tied in, as Jon says, with the presence or absence of any sign of a final cause in the evolutionary process. I agree that most ECs would balk at that idea, I do not. Whether I can actually convince anyone that I am right (by anyone, I mean other Christian biologists) only time will tell.

    • Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:


      So the question must be tied in, as Jon says, with the presence or absence of any sign of a final cause in the evolutionary process. I agree that most ECs would balk at that idea, I do not.

      I call Asa Gray, again. The real dichotomy is not between “natural causes” and “design”, but between “chance” and design”, in that the “natural causes” arose either by design or by chance.

      So your challenge, I guess, is whether the signs of design can be seen in, or as well as, the natural causes. Gray would argue simply that the total of advantageous variation, being creative, cannot be explained by (ontological) chance, natural selection notwithstanding: the main evidence, then, is the organism (or the biosphere), more than anything in the process leading to it.

      And so Denton’s frontloading is one evidence of design. My recent suggestion of benefical variations as direct providence are less evidence than the outworking of a theological conviction: and yet the very existence of so many variations leading to such a rich world of life points to either “frontloaded nature” or “ongoing providence”.

      Proof, I suppose, it would not be. What mystifies me more is why one would need to prove to Christian ECs that God made the world and everything in it, unless they had been corrupted by some atheist idea of nature as independent of God.

  8. pngarrison says:

    To respond to Eddie’s question, I’m dubious that it’s possible to prove the existence of design in nature, especially as I’ve never seen a (to me) convincing suggestion for how to measure design. Dembski thinks he can detect a 100% correlate of design by setting an adequate probability limit and connecting it to being “specified,” but it seems to just regenerate the original problem when you confront how to define “specified.” Anyway, I gather the real professional information theorists are thoroughly unconvinced.

    On the other hand, I think the intuitive detection of design in the world in general is a sound intuition. I suspect that it is even more fundamental to my lifelong belief in God than my Christian upbringing. I think it was as obvious for an ancient pre-scientific observer as it is today. Which is to say, I think Paul hit the nail on the head – wisdom (intelligence) and power (design is only the invisible step; it all still had to be brought into existence somehow, and that is power, and all that science can maybe get at partially.) Proving the Christian God from nature? No way. If you set out to do that, you’d be far more likely to come up with Manicheanism or some kind of polytheism like the Greeks. The more I look at nature, the more magnificent, and the weirder it looks. It takes revelation to make even a limited amount of sense of it.

    • Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:


      On the other hand, I think the intuitive detection of design in the world in general is a sound intuition.

      When the question involves what “science” can and cannot demonstrate, it’s worth remembering again that the idea of science as a closely defined, purely logical enterprise is an idealised tale that PoS has thoroughly debunked.

      In fact, intuition plays a major part at every level of science, from the formulation of theories, or the “gut” feeling of which are worth pursuing, to more basic things like the belief that physical laws are the same everywhere and at all times, that our senses can accurately perceive reality, and so on.

      What makes a convinced adaptationist argue bitterly with a convinced neutralist of equal qualifications and experience? And what makes each of them accuse the other of “not understanding evolution” (quote from critic of Will Provine on Sandwalk a while ago, about his grasp of population genetics!). In the end, it’s the intuition that your approach makes more sense: so science is already awash with intuitions.

      So I would suggest that it is only convention, and perhaps an unbelieving “consensus” mindset in western biology, that doesn’t simply work with the intuition of design as an unproveable axiom, rather than insisting that there is no scientific evidence for it. Once one accepts the axiom, it is supported by nearly all the data, just as when one accepts that Darwinism “makes sense” intuitively, the evidence gets divided into “supportive evidence” and the odd “anomaly”.

      The ID issue then becomes a bit like a scientist who questions the reliability of sense impressions or human reason, perhaps on good philosophical grounds. He would never sell that idea to his fellow-scientists working on other assumptions, not because it would make science impossible, but because it would redefine science as a human gaming activity, rather than an acquisition of absolute truth. In other words, it negates key intuitions. Neither side, however, can offer scientific proof for their position.

      But the design intuition is far less radical – not only can one practise ordinary science whilst fully holding it (as many Christians no doubt do), but one can envisage in some highly religious country the whole of biology operating quite happily under that paradigm.

      I suppose the ID point in this (but what I’ve said above is more important – I care a lot about Creation doctrine, but a lot less about ID’s specific program)… the ID point is that if Meyer comes along and says, “None of the suggested mechanisms for origin of life seem to make sense apart from design”, or if Dembski says “Can blind search really account for innovation?”, or Behe says, “Constructing this from scratch seems an implausibly long shot”, or Denton says, “the basic structure of the world looks a put up job”; then the fact that these are appeals to intuition rather than slam-dunk proofs is scarcely unique.

      Perhaps the aim for them should be to resonate with that common intuition, rather than persuade – if indeed, there’s a great difference between those two things.

      • GD GD says:

        Intuition is indeed part of the scientist’s approach, but this is within a context sculptured by years of education, at undergraduate, post-graduate, and followed by real education which, through practice, shows the limitations of our understanding.

        PoS and metaphysical considerations can be both deep, detailed and baffling, but most successful philosophies can be subjected to the “pub test” (how would any of us discuss them as part of a conversation). With design, the movement is the reverse – we start with intuition, note that the order and workings of nature make sense as any designed object would – but proceeding beyond this becomes very difficult. The difficulty is greatly increased when, in biology, people have positions to defend, and ideologies to promote. I do not think that poor ol’ science can cope with the latter.

  9. Edward Robinson Edward Robinson says:

    Preston, you wrote:

    “On the other hand, I think the intuitive detection of design in the world in general is a sound intuition.”

    I haven’t read Doug Axe’s new book yet, but I’m told that it puts great emphasis on the intuitive aspect. And I’ve heard Behe say similar things, in oral presentations. So you will have some support on the ID side for that.

    You also wrote:

    “Proving the Christian God from nature? No way.”

    Well, since no ID proponent has tried to do this — at least, no significant ID proponent (who knows what some fundamentalist might have said or written in the name of ID?) — you’re not in disagreement with ID on this point. Or with me personally.

    And you wrote:

    “Anyway, I gather the real professional information theorists are thoroughly unconvinced.”

    The fact that the vast majority of “real professional information theorists” are agnostic/atheist is perhaps not irrelevant to their conclusions against the possibility of ever detecting design. And of course, the hypocrisy comes from the fact that in practical matters of everyday life, those same information theorists infer design all the time based on event probabilities much higher than those associated with the accidental origin of life, the accidental generation of a functioning new protein, etc. So the insistence on scientific rigor is rather selective.

    If we used the ultra-demanding provisions they insist upon in their criticisms of design detection in nature, we would never be able to find a university student guilty of plagiarism, never be able to convict an accused criminal whose alibi is wildly improbable, etc. But the fact is that they have no *interest* in not finding the student guilty, or in not finding the criminal guilty, whereas they have an *interest* in cutting off any argument that might directly or indirectly lead to a confirmation of the existence of a Designer. So suddenly the requirement of proof is jumped to an astronomical level.

    Only a 1 in 10^3 probability that the student did not cheat? “Then the cheating is a virtual certainty; kick the dishonest bum out of the college!” But only a 1 in 10^30 probability that the new protein would be formed by random mutations? “An absolutely non-allowable argument, God of the gaps reasoning, bad science.”

    It grows tiresome to see high-powered mathematical modelling desperately proffered in the service of sheer metaphysical/religious prejudice.

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