Spot the difference

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.

Jon Garvey

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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8 Responses to Spot the difference

  1. Noah White says:

    Hi Jon,

    I have a few quick observations, though I’m utterly unqualified to have an opinion on such things:

    Firstly, I think the issue with Behe could possibly boil down to him being a part of the ID movement, however nominally. I get the feeling that some people (myself included, sometimes) automatically react negatively to anything mildly associated with ID–the debacle in the comments of Sy’s review on BioLogos comes to mind (if you see this Sy, I don’t think you were part of the debacle itself, just to be clear!). Difficult for progress to be made when people flip their lids at the slightest attempt to bridge the gap.

    Secondly, as for the “God uses chance to create”, I agree with you, and think it simply comes down to the fact that a majority of the people in the sciences are philosophically under-educated (forgive the broad generalization). However, to play devil’s advocate (if for no other reason than to help dismantle the idea of creative chance further), could it not be said that “randomness/chance” are like a set of a dice that God rolls and just works with the outcome. I can hear Einstein rolling in his grave!

    Also, I believe it is Simon Conway Morris, and you have him as Stuart Conway Morris. Either way, according to his Wiki page, he is “militantly theistic” which is a new one for me.

    • Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

      Quite right about Conway Morris, Noah – I’d correct the error except you’ve already blown the gaff!

      …could it not be said that “randomness/chance” are like a set of a dice that God rolls and just works with the outcome.

      That’s what TEs often tend to say, but that’s the very notion that is incoherent when dealing with… well, with the universe we have, for which there is no evidence of fundamental probabilism except at the quantum level.

      That, of course is before you get to the rather weightier matter of the omnipotent and omniscient God we worship, about whom Einstein was right, even if being tongue in cheek.

      That’s why I devoted half a dozen or so posts to it!

      • Noah White says:

        That’s why I devoted half a dozen or so posts to it!

        And a great series of posts it was! One of my favorites on here.

        To follow up a bit on our previous exchange about Kitchen, skepticism, etc., I was wondering how familiar you were with one Colin Humphreys? My Bible prof just mentioned him today, and his work on natural explanations for the events of the Exodus (the burning bush was a result of volcanic vents, the storms and fire of Mt. Sinai were related to volcanic activity, etc.). It’s an interesting proposal (and makes a lot of sense), but, if you’ll allow me yet again don my skeptic hat, it raises some questions (your answer may be the same as in the Kitchen discussion, which I’m prepared to accept!).

        It feels like if there are natural explanations (and even Exodus and the Gospels mention God’s voice being the thunder–so there’s a sense in which the text itself testifies to this), then there is room for someone to say “well, Moses just took advantage of a scary situation and claimed only he could understand what God was saying in order to get the Israelites to consent to his leadership”.

        I also feel like, while giving natural explanations may lend historical significance to the text, the burning bush feels a lot drier than if it were an actually “miraculous” event.

        To criticize myself, skepticism arises in me either way–if there are natural explanations, I begin to feel skeptical of attributing a Divine voice behind them; and if there are not natural explanations, I’m dubious of their actuality at all–so this is probably a heart issue.

        I will say, however, that if one is to take naturalistic explanations for OT things, it really lends to NT Wright’s (and others of course) argument that Christ’s mighty works were the breaking-in of New Creation; i.e., if we were to expect totally other-worldly things to happen, it would be around Christ not before.

        Anyway, I wrote too much and most of it was rambling on subjects we’ve discussed before, so apologies for long-windedness and repetition! Thanks as always, Jon; your continued responses mean a lot to me!

        • Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:


          A couple of observations – I remember Cecil B de Mille’s Sinai was a volcano – the only problem is whether there is any evidence for any of the candidates for Sinai being active volcanoes in historic times, which a quick check seems to exclude.

          There’s a difference between a “possible” event being divinely timed and suggesting that Moses was so primitive that he couldn’t tell the difference between a bush burning without being consumed and a volcanic vent on a non-active mountain!

          Of course, the suggestion about Moses capitalising on divinising natural thunder goes the other way and makes him incredibly streetwise – rather ignoring the fact that he would have been unique for his time in his 21st century concept of “nature”. I’ve finally taken delivery of the book mentioned a few posts ago, Before Nature and even from the first chapter the realisation that nobody then would have regarded thunder as anything but a display of divine power is strong.

          On the matter of Christ’s signs, one should not forget that the whole of salvation history is the preparation of the coming Kingdom. So just as saving faith was presaged in the Patriarchs, and Easter prefigured by the Passover, it’s no surprise to find other times when the future Kingdom breaks in, if not so decisively as in Christ. Same Covenant as that given to Abraham, after all!

          • Noah White says:

            Thanks, Jon

            I admittedly hadn’t double-checked whether Sinai candidates had evidence of volcanic activity. When I asked, my prof said they had, but the question was tangential to the lecture so we moved on without exploring it further.

            Interesting bit about Before Nature. I guess my question from there is, if nobody would have regarded it as anything but a divine display, how do we deal with the scenario that other religions may have claimed the same thing? And if the world is the same now as it was before, should we be hearing God’s voice in the thunder? I know Hebrews 1 has a bit to say about this, so perhaps its a moot point. Skeptic hat off for the day, now.

            True about signs and wonders–it was an observation that was hastily thrown together!

            Finishing up Kitchen’s OT book today (got sidetracked with other stuff the last week or so), and he pretty decisively asserts that most Assyriologists have rejected any direct connection between Enuma Elish (and other Mesopotamian stories) and the biblical creation story. I have no way of really following that claim up, but I was struck by it.

            All the best!

            • Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:


              I guess my question from there is, if nobody would have regarded it as anything but a divine display, how do we deal with the scenario that other religions may have claimed the same thing?

              Noah, I think your problem here is following the modern habit of thinking that things must be evidence for God, or not. I think the problem in the ANE, at least with Israel claiming that Yahweh is the only God, rather than just their titular deity, is that everybody agrees thunder to be divine, and the question is simply which divinity. Hence a story like the competition on Mount Carmel.

              The Sinai event was, of course, more than just a thunderstorm, but any theophany might well ne expected to include that kind of heavenly phenomenon. That God speaks through thunder (as in the voice to Jesus) doesn’t imply that God is mumbling away in every summer storm, but may well indicate as much now as then the manifestation of his power.

              As for Enuma Elish it is quite easy to differentiate from the Bible just by reading it, though the more complete explanation is that it’s a late composite work more concerned to big up Marduk over the traditional gods than to explain creation.

              I think the boffins would agree that other stories from the ANE, like Atrahasis for example, are indeed related to Genesis, but by shared tradition rather than literary borrowing.

              • Noah White says:

                I think your problem here is following the modern habit of thinking that things must be evidence for God, or not

                Habits are difficult to break, which I guess means I should follow Paul’s advice in Romans 12:2. It’s good to be reminded that modern =/= right.

                As a kid, I was under the impression that thunder was God simply rearranging his furniture, but I think the scriptural evidence of that is at best underdetermined.

                Now it’s off to monitor a budding debate about Christianity’s dark past on BioLogos between Jim Stump and Stephen Matheson (is he new over there? I can’t figure him out).

  2. Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:


    Background (personal, old) here.

    background (public, new) here.

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