Over at BioLogos, a vigorous discussion is going on under the column entitled “Signal and Noise”.
Cornelius Hunter has returned to debate the soundness of evolutionary theory, and, predictably, he is being ganged up on by all the usual suspects.
Of course, some of the criticism of Hunter’s arguments is not worth discussing at length. For example, the acerbic benkirk exhibits his usual tactic of trying to score a point through pedantry. When Hunter writes, “Evolutionary theory is problematic from a scientific perspective, yet evolutionists maintain it is a fact,” benkirk’s retort is [emphasis added], “Evolutionary theory is not fact. Evolution is a factual, observable phenomenon. Do you not see the distinction between the two?” Sheesh! The normal principle of “charitable reading” would instruct benkirk to use context to discern that “it” refers to “evolution” rather than “evolutionary theory”; but benkirk has never been above trying to score a point off a technical flaw in syntax. He does this frequently and shamelessly — surely evidence that he is more interested in winning arguments than addressing the substance of his opponents’ points. But let’s leave aside such trivia.
The science of the debate concerns whether the discrepancy between evolutionary predictions and actual empirical data can be dismissed as mere “noise” or indicates a serious problem with common descent itself. All the BioLogos folks take the former position, against Hunter who takes the latter position. I am intrigued by Hunter’s claim that not merely the Darwinian mechanism, but common descent itself, clashes seriously with much of the empirical data. I don’t carry any brief against common descent, and generally I regard it as fairly well-established, but one should always keep an open mind; in science, the certainties of one era can become the falsehoods of the next. The readers of BioLogos will have to make up their own minds, and hopefully they will do so based not only on what Hunter presents on BioLogos but what he has argued on his own blog site and in his three books on Darwinism’s methodological and philosophical assumptions.
As usual, I’m more interested in the theology of BioLogos. Hunter makes the following charge against the arguments advanced by the champions of BioLogos: “The evidence is available in spades, and your agenda-driven science to get God out of the picture is obvious.” To this, Casper Hesp replied with indignation, “This is a ridiculous accusation to make towards other Christians. Evolutionary theory does nothing to “get God out of the picture”. It still requires a Creator to actually establish and uphold all of this.”
Well, does it actually require a Creator? I have no doubt that the Christians posting on BioLogos, including Casper himself, believe that God “established” and “upholds” all this — where “all this” presumably means the process of evolution. I don’t doubt their religious sincerity when they state this as their personal belief. But in terms of the principles they themselves have avowed as scientists (or scientists in training, or science fans), is a Creator in fact required?
Dennis Venema has on many occasions said that, while he grants the possibility that God might have personally directed evolution, he sees no evidence that God has ever exercised his divine prerogative. As far as he can tell as a geneticist, evolution works entirely through random mutations filtered by natural selection. We don’t need to suppose that any mind is planning or guiding things; nature is “fully gifted” for evolution. And even if we push things back to the origin of the DNA code itself, where the argument for design is very strong, Venema clearly prefers naturalistic explanations; against Meyer’s claim that the code is not determined by purely chemical rules but requires the arbitrary assignment by an intelligence, Venema is inclined to believe (based on sparse evidence, i.e., evidence that part of the arrangements of the code may have a purely chemical explanation), that eventually a wholly chemical explanation of the code (one which permits the code to emerge out of blind combinations of molecules, given enough time) will be found. So then science would have a complete explanation of the origin of life and species, without ever postulating intelligence as operative at any stage of the process. And if intelligence is not necessary, then why would God be necessary to “establish” anything?
Do Casper, Dennis, etc. see God as somehow behind evolution, even though (according to their view of what “science” has proved) it is not necessary to postulate his existence to explain any outcome of evolution? Probably they do. But getting them to say exactly what God contributes to the evolutionary process is difficult. It would be less difficult if they affirmed that the outcomes of evolution were designed by God. But they have steadfastly rejected arguments for design in evolution, not just arguments for design of individual body parts (wings, eyes, etc.) or of larger body plans, but even for the design of the evolutionary process as a whole. (Hence their complete lack of interest in the second book of Michael Denton, which makes a strong case for such overarching design.) Even when they occasionally concede that they believe that God “designed” the world, they normally tolerate no suggestion that God’s design is an explanation for anything that happens in nature.
Yet here we have Casper Hesp, an officer of BioLogos, saying that “it still requires a Creator to establish all of this.” Why is a Creator “required”? Why aren’t the properties of matter and energy, all by themselves, without any reference to any Creator, enough to “establish” the evolutionary process? Is Casper saying (gasp!) that we need to postulate a Creator to explain why there is an evolutionary process at all? How does that fit in with the credo of so many BioLogos writers, i.e., that we can see design only through “the eyes of faith” — that it doesn’t follow from the scientific evidence, or the facts of nature, at all?
The difficulty here is that BioLogos continues to want to have things both ways. To the science professionals of the secular world, it wants to say that it believes in good science and that good science can have nothing at all to say about whether or not the world (or any aspect of it) is designed. All questions of design belong in the realm of “purpose, value, and meaning” and therefore can be affirmed by scientists only in their personal capacity, not in their professional capacity. We have heard Collins and others preach that compartmentalist doctrine on many occasions. Yet occasionally, in a moment of weakness as it were, a different teaching slips out from between the lips of some of them. Evolution works naturally, yes, but the whole process cannot be explained without the rational mind of a Creator which is its linchpin. But that statement would not be acceptable to the secular scientific world to which BioLogos consistently defers. So when Casper says this, is he speaking merely as a person of Christian faith, or also as a scientifically trained person? Is he saying merely that he privately assigns the whole evolutionary process to the plan of God, or is he going further — is he suggesting that God is logically necessary as a terminus of rational explanation?
If he is suggesting the latter, then the major difference between BioLogos EC/TE and Christian versions of Intelligent Design has disappeared. If God (or some intelligent designer) is conceived of as a logically necessary part of the explanation for why life operates the way it does, then what have ID and EC/TE been fighting about? The reason the ID folks have dug in their heels against BioLogos is that most of the EC/TE writers there have said, or strongly suggested, that in fact neither God nor any intelligence is required to explain the origin of anything, and that if we suppose the existence of a God, we do so out of purely private religious commitments which are not in the slightest derived from any reflection upon the actual construction and operation of nature, but rest entirely on revelation. If BioLogos writers are now going to start conceding that there must be an intelligence behind evolution, they are creating an opening for possible agreement with ID.
It may be that I am making too much out of one expression of one BioLogos official. But this is not the first time. Two or three years back, Deb Haarsma came very close to arguing that the universe was “set up” to yield man by an evolutionary process — and the way she worded it, it sounded as if her conclusion was not based wholly on personal religious conviction but on indications present in nature itself. But neither she nor anyone else at BioLogos has since cared to elaborate on those passing remarks. They have been dropped as if they had never been uttered. But now they seem to surface again, in the remark of Casper.
I think that deep down inside, many BioLogos folks do believe that there is evidence for design in nature, including design of the evolutionary process itself. Unfortunately, they choose to let culture-war considerations (i.e., opposing ID at all costs) muzzle their expression; they don’t very often say what they would really like to say. And that’s too bad, because what they would really like to say would be good evangelical doctrine, and would win them a much greater hearing than what they usually say. Casper’s remark points the way, but if the history of BioLogos is any indicator, there will be no significant follow-up. Yet one can always hope.
[New Note from the Author: Alert readers will notice that in the 24 hours since this column was posted, the exchange quoted, the one between Cornelius Hunter and Casper Hesp, has been removed from the comments section. It is a safe inference that one of the more activist moderators was offended by Cornelius’s remark about God being kept out of the picture, and deleted both the remark and the reply from Casper (which would make no sense without the remark). I don’t think the censor can have been Casper himself; why would he, a moderator, reply to Cornelius instead of censoring Cornelius’s post right away, if he found the post so offensive? Why would he decide to delete the post 24 hours after replying to it? So the finger points elsewhere. But be that as it may, I quoted Casper and Cornelius verbatim as their words appeared on the site yesterday, and the issue remains the same, since Casper’s expression was only one of many from EC/TEs which muddies the theological waters by appearing to endorse a God who is truly a designer but failing to explicate what God’s design really amounts to. So I don’t see the need to alter anything in my argument above.]