A Promising Suggestion on BioLogos, But Will There Be Any Support for It?

Regarding tone, and often regarding contents, one of the more reasonable commenters on BioLogos is Chris Falter. He tries to at least listen to those who disagree with the TE/EC party line, and (with one exception which I will refrain from mentioning here, as it concerns a science other than evolutionary biology), he tends to engage constructively with critics of his views.

In a recent reply to “Marty”, a relatively new BioLogos commenter, Chris made a distinction between ID proponents who legitimately draw philosophical inferences from the facts revealed by science, and ID proponents who (allegedly) reject good science and substitute a God of the gaps. Chris wrote:

“When someone like Hugh Ross uses the fine-tuning argument based on the findings of physics, he does not cast aspersions on the big theories of physics (Big Bang, relativity, quantum mechanics). He doesn’t say, “this whole universe is so improbable that we have to conclude that astronomers are demonstrating an anti-theistic bias when they interpret the data in favor of the Big Bang Theory. They simply assume the truth of their pet theory and then torture the data until it confesses to the BBT. But the data actually reveal many gaps that can only be explained by the intervention of an intelligent designer outside the bounds of known physics.

“Though Ross does not try to turn the theories of physics into a punching bag, most (not all) ID proponents do not show similar restraint with the theories of biology. They claim not that the theories of biology point to a remarkable reality that begs for further explanation, but that the theories are just wrong.

“If the ID movement were to take an approach similar to Ross’ actual approach to physics, they could instead say, “The closer you examine the biological evidence, the more remarkable the existence of biological life appears. This strongly suggests that the existence of life is not an accident of history; it is the working of a wise Creator.” Or intelligent designer, if you will.

“I would have no bone to pick with such an argument.”

The distinction Chris makes here has some plausibility, and his conclusion is encouraging, so I wish to discuss his remarks.

First, I thank him for writing “not all” in front of ID proponents. Of course, included in that “not all” are Michael Behe, Michael Denton, Richard Sternberg, Jay Richards and many others — probably more than Chris is aware of; but I don’t wish to cavil when Chris concedes something that is correct. I give him credit for being more careful in his statement than many BioLogos commenters and TE/EC leaders.

Second, Chris seems to be arguing that scientific biology is one thing, and philosophical inferences based on that biology are another, and that he has nothing against ID folks for doing the latter, as long as they don’t criticize the purely scientific conclusions of current evolutionary biology. Now, I have reservations about this — Chris adopts a strict separation between science of nature and philosophy of nature which, in the light of the history of science, is hard to maintain (cf. Aristotle, the Medievals, and even Boyle and Newton when they are read carefully) — but for the purposes of this column, I will leave that larger question of epistemology aside, and grant the legitimacy of the distinction.

So if I understand Chris rightly, it’s appropriate for someone to consider the facts of revealed by science, and draw the inference that some mind or intelligence lies behind the arrangements of living nature. He thinks that’s fine, as long as the inference is labelled “philosophy” rather than “science.” Let’s run with that.

Who else on BioLogos shares Chris’s view, that design inferences are OK as long as they aren’t called scientific inferences? Probably Ted Davis would accept such a distinction, but who else? I’m thinking hard, and can’t come up with any more clear examples.

To be sure, I have read, in numerous passing comments scattered around BioLogos, “motherhood” statements about the marvelous complexity of God’s universe, and those statements seem to imply that God had to do some thinking to design such a universe. But actual direct statements that one can legitimately infer a designer or designing mind from the structure of living things, or the laws of nature, etc.? I have not found any clear statements of that. Not in Haarsma, Applegate, Venema, Swamidass, or anyone else. To be sure, all of these people have indicated that they believe that God has designed the universe, but the context makes clear that this belief arises from faith in Christian revelation, not as the result of any inference from the facts of nature. In other words, there is no evidence that any important BioLogos figure accepts Chris’s suggestion that reasoning from the facts of nature to the existence of a design or designer or God is legitimate.

The reason for this hesitation from the others seems twofold. First, on the scientific front, the BioLogians seem committed to the view that purely stochastic processes of chemical combinations, variation, etc., aided by natural selection (and by pre-organic chemical analogues of natural selection) constitute a fully competent designer-substitute. You can get exquisite “designs” for wings, lungs, and even human brains without any designer, because natural selection will, without any intentionality, find those designs by eliminating all the inferior arrangements spit out by chance variation. And if one is convinced of that, then the reasoning to some intelligence or mind beyond the variations and the selection seems dubious, to say the least. If random processes could just as easily have led to no human life on earth, or no complex life, or no life at all, then how can we infer any designing intelligence? I think it’s no accident that we have never seen the biologists on BioLogos (Venema, Swamidass, Falk, etc.) say what Chris says here — that the arrangements of life point beyond life to an intelligent designer of life. Their professional instincts as modern biologists would appear to fiercely resist such inferences. They do say, speaking as Christians, that they have faith in some overarching design of God behind life, but they have never put that insight into the form of an inference of the type that Chris here seems to be endorsing.

Second, among the BioLogians, as among TE/EC leaders generally, there is a pronounced distaste for natural theology — for the belief that we can learn things about God from reason, and for such things do not require Christian revelation. Reasoning such as Chris seems to endorse is essentially reasoning of the natural theology type, and it does not find favor among many EC/TE leaders, either at BioLogos or in the ASA. Far more common among EC/TE leaders is the view that we can know of God for certain only what is revealed in Scripture (some would add what is found in religious experience, but since that experience is always filtered through Scriptural statements, that isn’t a substantive modification). So we know from revelation that God created the universe, and therefore we can look at the universe as designed by God, and assert (based on faith) that the marvelous arrangements of biology are part of the divine design. But that is not the same thing as independent reasoning that there must be design, given the arrangements of living nature. Chris appears to allow the latter sort of reasoning (as long as it is called philosophical and not scientific reasoning), but I have not seen any endorsement of it in the writings of most TE/EC leaders that I have read, and certainly such statements are rare on BioLogos.

Will any BioLogos columnist, President, Senior Scholar, etc., speak out directly in agreement with Chris, and say, “Yes, design inferences from the arrangements of biological nature are legitimate, as long as they are understood as a philosophical extrapolation from the findings of science, and not themselves scientific conclusions”? If statements of this kind could be found among American TE/EC leaders, I suspect that the relations between TE/EC and ID would be different. If the only difference between TE/EC and ID is how design inferences are to be classified, if there is no dispute from TE/EC quarters regarding their validity, then the way is clear for reconciliation between the camps. But I am not convinced that many TE/EC leaders — at least on BioLogos — believe that such inferences are valid, even understood as purely philosophical inferences. The overwhelming sense I have got, after reading virtually everything on the question on BioLogos since its inception and a good number of writings by TE/EC leaders in the ASA, is that design inferences are from the scientific point of view highly suspect (since chance etc. can already explain everything that the design inference is supposed to explain), and from the religious point of view bad theology (or at best dubious theology) that Christians would be well-advised to steer away from.

Chris is welcome to post comments here, and correct me if I have misunderstood his position. Marty, whose articulate comments on BioLogos led to the writing of this column, is also welcome to add his comments. Other BioLogos folks, including columnists and management, are also invited to post here, if they have anything to say about the issue I’ve raised. The goal is to have a genuine intellectual discussion (free of the flak that unfortunately so often spoils BioLogos discussions) about design inferences — what their epistemological status is, how far they are valid, etc. Chris Falter’s concession to Marty suggests that there exists in the TE/EC community, even if not among many of the most vocal leaders, a genuine openness to design inferences based on the known facts of nature. Will TE/EC folks join us here on the Hump, to help establish just how widespread this openness is in the TE/EC community?

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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4 Responses to A Promising Suggestion on BioLogos, But Will There Be Any Support for It?

  1. Robert Byers says:

    Well freedom of speech and thought is a British heritage and why shouldn’t the side thats right want this freedom!!?
    The universe is big and strange and we mere people, tailless primates for some, could be wrong about anything. So who bans opinions is being very aggressive about their certainty of who is right.

    You could say origin contentions are no different then religious ones that happened after the protestant reformation.
    We all should do better then them.
    Biologos should, hopefully will, be a moral and intellectual leader on mankind impacts on origins.

  2. chrisfalter says:

    Hi Edward / Eddie –

    I am pleased to have the chance to converse again, and I am honored to be mentioned so favorably in your post. I would like to offer a little more precision about what I meant in my BioLogos forum post. I suspect that you will agree with my argument after I offer more detail, but I would welcome any feedback you would wish to share.

    It’s essentially a fine-tuning argument from biology to design that I would agree with. For example, the mutation rate has to be narrowly constrained to be useful in evolution. Too high, and succeeding generations are quickly crippled by a flood of unfavorable mutations; too low, and populations do not have enough variety in their genome to respond to changing selection pressures. This in turn goes back to the chemical structure of DNA and repair mechanisms, which again have to be tuned “just so” to yield H. Sapiens after billions of years. In this view, factors such as so-called irreducible complexity do not show that the mechanisms of biology are inadequate to explain life on earth; rather, they underline how finely tuned the mechanisms have to be in order to explain what we see.

    The problem I have with many ID proponents is that they reject the *scientific* explanatory power of evolutionary mechanisms based on arguments such as irreducible complexity. In other words, many ID proponents conclude that evolution is simply wrong as a *scientific* explanation for certain data. That’s where I must politely but firmly disagree with them, even if they (like Behe) agree with common descent.

    Based on what I have read by Biologos scholars, I think many of them would be sympathetic with the argument of biological fine-tuning that I have outlined in this comment. It would make for an interesting discussion, in any case.

    Cheers,
    Chris Falter

    • Edward Robinson Edward Robinson says:

      Thanks for joining in the discussion here, Chris.

      I agree with your fine-tuning argument as far as it goes. I think there is still more to be added to it. If you read Michael Denton’s second book, Nature’s Destiny, you will find a sweeping vision of fine-tuning running from the Big Bang to the arrival of man. I think you might be in agreement with much that is in that book. From your point of view, it does not abandon scientific explanation, yet it insists that nature is shot through with design — and that one does not have to be a Christian to see the design.

      Regarding fine-tuning and BioLogos, I cannot say what BioLogos people have said to each other privately at conferences of Christian scientists or in e-mails etc. I can go only by what they have published on BioLogos, in ASA articles, and in other venues. I know that Francis Collins has admitted a certain legitimacy to fine-tuning arguments when the subject is cosmology/physics, but as far as I can see he does not extend fine-tuning concepts into the biological realm. This strikes me as an artificial division of nature, and Denton’s book avoids any such arbitrary line, arguing for fine-tuning all the way down. As for the others, Venema, Applegate, Ussery, Swamidass, Isaac, Denis Alexander, etc. I haven’t seen any championing of such fine-tuning arguments.

      I think there might be an extension of fine-tuning to biology in the case of Denis Lamoureux (who operates outside of BioLogos) — but that is not surprising as Lamoureux admires Denton. Conway Morris may be hinting at a kind of fine tuning as well, though it seems to me from the quotations I’ve read of him that he hedges his bets, being neo-Darwinian and quasi-teleological alternately. And in any case, Conway Morris has no strong connection with BioLogos or the ASA, but operates largely on his own. Deb Haarsma has occasionally made very broad comments which might imply a Denton-like position, but they are too sketchy to interpret, and when she has been asked about them here, she has not responded, either because she does not read Hump columns or does not wish to interact with non-BioLogos columnists. (Maybe as President she wants to preserve a sort of diplomatic neutrality in the debates, by leaving detailed argument to columnists and sticking to safe generalities.)

      Regarding Behe, I think we have discussed him before, and we may end up with the same disagreement about what he means, so if you don’t pursue this point I will understand, but generally speaking, Behe tries to qualify “evolution” with “Darwinian” or the like when he puts limits on its capacities. Even when he doesn’t explicitly say Darwinian or neo-Darwinian, that is what he primarily has in mind when he talks about evolution. Nor, in any of his published writings, have I ever seen him say that “evolution” cannot be explained by “science”. Rather, he calls for a broader (and in my view more historically informed) understanding of “science” (a term whose present extremely narrow meaning traces back through Kant to Descartes and Bacon, rather than to figures like Newton, Kepler, and Boyle who were more philosophically cautious), in which design inferences can (where properly used) be part of “science”. As for the charge that Behe insists on non-natural causes, that has already been adequately refuted by Behe himself. In a BioLogos discussion with Dennis Venema a year or two ago, where Dennis argued that Behe must be asserting supernatural causes based on certain things he thought were implied by Behe, I provided Dennis with an explicit and lengthy quotation from Behe (published on Discovery) where Behe states that supernatural “intervention” is only one possibility within ID, and does not endorse it as required for ID or for his arguments. Dennis had not known of the quotation, and admitted that Behe had said what he had said. The remarks by Behe can be found here:

      https://evolutionnews.org/2009/11/god_design_and_contingency_in/

      So Behe is not the best ID person to choose as an example of someone who insists on supernatural intervention. A better example would be Meyer, who thinks that only a direct and massive input of new information at several points in the history of life can explain what we see, i.e., that “front-loading” of the Dentonian kind just is not adequate and that evolution, if it occurred, would have to be at the very least a combination of natural and supernatural events, if not subtly directed supernaturally all the way along. So Behe falls between Denton who eschews supernatural interventions and Meyer who requires them, saying that both are possible. He sticks consistently his argument that X would not have happened without design, whether that design be understood as injected miraculously at points, or somehow build into the universe by a kind of fine tuning. ID in this view is very limited in what it claims, and is compatible with “descent with modification” — which has always been what most people mean by “evolution”.

      Cornelius Hunter, an ID proponent whose views I do not entirely endorse, has argued not that we should supplement evolutionary science by a few miracles, but that evolutionary science is actually bad science — does not comport with the empirical data, and makes use of all kinds of special pleading to maintain itself against obvious counterexamples. But that is not Behe’s position. Behe’s position is not that inferences of evolution, by themselves, are bad science, but that neo-Darwinism by itself simply cannot account for the design that we see, and so, at the very least, evolutionary theory requires some non-Darwinian corrective. That could include non-Darwinian mechanisms proposed by a number of people — including some from the Third Way and Altenberg groups; but the problem remains that even in those groups there is generally a rejection of design explanations, in principle, which artificially limits the explanatory possibilities. So again it comes down to a question of what “scientific” explanation is supposed to do; the ID folks, some of whom are quite methodologically sophisticated (Meyer with his Ph.D. from Cambridge in Philosophy of Science, Nelson with his Ph.D. from Chicago in Philosophy of Biology, Sternberg with Ph.D.s both in evolutionary biology and systems science, etc.), believe that it is science’s job to use rational explanations to account for the data provided by nature, with no artificial restrictions which in principle ban design explanations; most of the EC leaders, on the other hand, seem to accept the account of scientific explanation championed by atheist and materialist scientists, i.e., that scientific explanation in principle excludes design explanation, and that design explanations belong only in the sphere of theology or perhaps philosophy.

      It is one thing to argue that particular ID arguments about double mutations, probability theory, etc., do not withstand scientific scrutiny; it is another to argue that no design argument is possible within science at all, and that all inferences of design are intrinsically illegitimate within science. I have asked Joshua Swamidass whether he rejects ID simply because he finds particular ID arguments weak, or whether he rejects design argumentation entirely, as outside of science in principle. He has not given me a clear answer. I suspect his position is the latter, given his recent embrace of a certain “Lutheran” view of things in which God is hidden behind nature, rather than (as Jon has insisted) revealed in nature. But Joshua is always welcome to chime in here, and indicate which, if any, design arguments would be legitimate in science.

      I hope you will look at some of the other columns here, Chris — I think you will find them a very rich set of offerings regarding science/theology questions. I don’t mean just mine, but everyone’s. You will see good stuff here from Sy, Merv, Jon and good comments from Jay313 and many others. And you will find that the tone here is more relaxed than on BioLogos, because here people like Jon and myself don’t have to deal with constant rudeness and/or aggression by benkirk, Burke, beaglelady, Brooks, etc. Here we talk about the issues.

      (Oh, and be sure to look at the pdf of Jon’s unpublished book on the Biblical/Christian view of nature, which is accessible here. It is a real masterpiece which should be published by a major publisher.)

      • chrisfalter says:

        Eddie –

        Thanks for the informative and gracious reply! I don’t feel I have anything else to offer…other than to say that I have prayed for you from time to time these past few months as the Spirit has brought you to mind.

        Grace and peace,
        Chris

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