I’ve been interested to see discussions from time to time about what it is that causes the Intelligent Design pioneer Michael Behe to be excluded from the “broad church” of theistic evolution by those within the “Guild”. It’s not just that he happens to be in a different denomination, but that he attracts regular opprobium, even scorn, for his ideas, and particularly for irreducible complexity.
Now, if this is because (as is his main argument) IC casts doubt on the efficacy of the dominant, or at least hitherto dominant, theory of random mutation and natural selection as an adequate explanation for living things, then it ought to be no big deal. To raise doubts about theories is what science is about: the doubts will either be assuaged or confirmed, and in either case will lead to more exhaustive explanations. Or more Just-So stories posing as exhaustive explanations. I’ve not noticed, by way of comparison, that Evolutionary Creation is open to adaptationists but closed to neutralists, or vice versa.
If, on the other hand, it is because Behe holds that design is a necessary component of irreducibly complex structures, then he’s only saying what all theists (as opposed to the most Epicurean of deists) believe. Eddie in his last thread here mentioned one EC’s belief in “common descent as the means of design”. Leaving aside the exact meaning of that, the bottom line is a mere disagreement about the adequacy of a scientific theory, ie whatever one believes to cause the changes in common descent, which takes us back to the mere disagreement of the last paragraph, and not into radical heresy, whether scientific or religious.
And yet Behe openly espouses evolution, in terms of both common descent and change over deep time, which we are assured is what is the “irreducible” core of evolutionary theory, rather than the exact processes involved, which are still very much open to debate.
My attention was piqued by a recent discussion in which Behe was held to have said that, amongst other possibilities, he’d be very happy to run with the idea, albeit unproveable, that all the necessary information for evolution was present from its start, and even as far back as the Big Bang. He would, in other words, not object fundamentally to a strictly deistic account in which God creates a universe that unfolds in a determined way by basic, or perhaps emergent laws (as proposed by Stuart Conway Morris, who is accepted as a TE), without God’s further “interference” at any point.
That puts his denial that irreducible complexity can occur by natural causes in perspective, though offhand I’m not sure whether or not he has overtly denied the sufficiency of “natural causes” as such. Whether or not he has, his meaning is clearly only to exclude the causes invoked in the particular theory that he denies to be adequate. For his acquiescence in the possibility of an informationally-rich Big Bang is entirely naturalistic, since as I have pointed out before from the writings of Bishop Butler, quoted by Asa Gray, “natural” is nothing but what happens according to a thing’s nature, that is by lawlike processes.
Now the question that raises is where any fundamental disgreement, by which Behe is not accepted as an Evolutionary Creationist or Theistic Evolutionist, still lies. And as I thought about this, the only conclusion I could come to is his denial of the role of chance as a creative force. The USP of Darwinian evolutionary theory – both in its original form, in the Modern Synthesis and in its descendants like neutral theory – is the way in which it is not lawlike in its outcomes, but dependent on variation “random with respect to fitness” at least. But as one can see from the kind of discussion in which IDist Cornelius Hunter has lately been involved with at BioLogos, it is also seen as variation that is held to be largely random in itself.
This is quite different from, say, Lamarckian or Spencerian evolution, in which change is a literal evolution (or unfolding), rather than a metaphorical “evolution” in the form of blind search, or from teleological processes like the Natural Genetic Engineering of Jim Shapiro.
The frequent use of the hypermutation of the immune system as a valid model for evolution proves this emphasis on randomness – the whole point is that every conceivable variation occurs, and this scattergun process is somehow is reduced to order by selection. Likewise the population genetics metrics that suggest evolution can work on the basis of purely stochastic changes as modelled mathematically are about order arising from chaos.
In other words, the single practical dividing line between kosher theistic evolutionists and ID goyim like Behe appears to be that the former, unlike the latter, see randomness as a true creative force… even as an essential creative force, since it excludes evolutionists like Michael Behe from the fold.
This raises a huge problem for me, as you will see from a whole series of posts I did not long ago on chance, starting here. From these you will see that chance, properly understood, is not only not an essential force in creation, but it is not a force at all. It is not even a “thing” at all, but a measure of ones ignorance of “things”.
A brief illustration (in addition to those given in the other posts). When I walk my dog each morning, I either turn left or right out of my gate, and there are real reasons for the choice according to weather, keeping an eye out for delivery vans, whether I want to post a letter, and just variety. “Chance” is not one of those reasons. If they did a count, someone ignorant of my motives could gain a knowledge of the proportion of left v right walks probably exceeding my own, and make statistical predictions based on it. But to the extent they were invoking chance, they would be doing no more than expressing their ignorance of the true causes.
If I’m right on that, the difference between Behe and BioLogos TEs is principally that the latter insist on reifying chance as a material efficient cause, when it is no such thing. To say that God “uses chance as a creative means” is to say God uses our ignorance of his true causes to create, which is plainly incoherent.
Incidentally, this is not the only incoherence-through-reification error I have noticed amongst TEs. The reification of “Nature”, for example, leads to the absurd but prevalent notion of Nature’s dignity and liberty to create itself (see here and here to understand that Nature is not only a false
god volitional agent, but even a culturally conditioned Western intellectual concept, rather than a real entity, in itself).
But another recent observation from the BioLogos thread on theoretical “noise” (cf Eddie’s post), is the reification of “noise”, by no means unique to TEs I suppose, as a chaotic force muddying our efforts to develop true theories. This is akin to seeing weeds as hindrances to plant growth, rather than as plants in themselves. For once we factor out experimental error, “noise” in scientific research is actually nothing but the clear evidence that our theory is too simple a model of reality. Noise is the rich feeding ground for new theories.
Be that as it may, it is randomness that causes the most intellectual damage when it is considered to be what it can never be – an actual, physical cause. Part of that damage is to claim the scientific high ground over an IDist like Michael Behe by rejecting his suggested cause (design) in favour of a non-cause (chance). It would be amusing if it weren’t rather sad.