A fantastical tale

This piece would possibly be classed as a thought experiment, except that, as I mentioned in a recent post, the kind of theistic evolution that was around in the nineteenth century came to be re-defined as “non-scientific” by the new naturalistic criteria. So since you can’t do thought experiments in non-science, this will have to be a fantasy. It just might happen to account for some features of the real world too, though.

It’s a thought experiment fantasy that I’ll tell by using an analogy. Analogies are always limited, I know, but this one will be considerably more apposite than talk of snowflakes or chess games in relation to theistic evolution, I promise. It’s also based on a real situation, with only the facts changed, as they say, to protect the innocent.

We’ve lived in our house for nearly a decade and (for purely literary reasons) are totally ignorant of its history. There is, however, within the purchase documentation a site plan showing the house as it was around 50 years ago. We can easily see that it has doubled in size since then, but have no idea how or when.

An 1840 tithe map shows a different cottage on another part of the site, but it’s a long extinct fossil which might, or might not, yield a few foundations to digging. As it is, all we can invoke to explain its absence is the universal principle of entropy – houses always tend to fall down over time rather than self-assemble from stones.

Still, again for the purposes of the tale, I’ve kept a meticulous record of all the changes in our house since we bought it, in the hope of explaining how it got to double in size, change shape and become what it is today, which is not in 1968 style at all.

Virtually all the changes I have recorded in the house, I find, match the general theme of entropy that did for its predecessor. There is an annoying tendency for things to break or wear out. The vast majority of these changes are mildly deleterious, but not enough to need any remedial work (since, again for literary reasons, there’s no money to spend on unnecessary matters). So there are bits of plaster knocked off corners by grandchildren on tricycles, some cracking in ceilings probably from heavy mice in the loft (for all I know), and about a 1 cm slump in part of the conservatory owing to poor foundations (but how did that conservatory get there in the first place?). Some changes have been easily reversed (for example, by replacing dead light-bulbs), and in some cases these changes are detectable because the brand of bulb is different, or the paint in a room is a different shade, and so on – but the changes are of more or less neutral significance.

Occasionally more detrimental changes have occurred, like the day the roof began to leak, and some pricey work had to be done to replace tiles – but obviously they were not too detrimental, or there’d be no house left.

Oddly enough, some of the wear and tear, although strictly speaking deleterious, has actually served to benefit us. For example, the broken smoke alarm no longer screams at us when we fry bacon and eggs – a great boon to guests. And although the old kitchen range smokes a bit, the extractor fan that won’t switch off any more keeps us from carbon monoxide poisoning.

The only thing we don’t ever seem to see is any truly novel beneficial change that would explain the doubling in footprint, the double glazing, the cavity-wall insulation, the upgrade kitchen units and so on. But we’ve not lived here that long, after all, so they must all have gradually happened in the past, before we moved.

What we can do, from my careful record-keeping, is to calculate an approximate rate at which stuff happens – for it’s an odd fact that things break at a more or less regular rate, rather than all at once – which helps budgeting no end. The constructive changes are much rarer (in the sense of “never recorded”), but given that they clearly have occurred, it’s only a question of seeing whether they could plausibly have done so in the known time between the drawing of our old site plan and the year we moved in, based on my calculated “change rate”. I’ve done a rough tally of what improvements must have been occurred since 1968, and lo and behold! With a following wind, the number of changes is not too far adrift from my measured “mutation rate”.

The same kind of changes I see happening now, therefore, can simply be projected back to show that, indeed, my house has been gradually morphing from its 1960s “farm labourer’s cottage” status to the present “decent modern family home”, by the same apparently random processes that explain the broken floor tiles or the blown double-glazing panels. The biggest change to account for is that great increase in the overall size of the place, but that would be explained by a “floor-plan doubling event” which, in itself, constitutes just a single change, though there must have been subsequent changes that adapted the doubled kitchen into a utility room, the family bathroom into an en suite and – best of all – the duplicate of the original lounge into the study and music room you see around me. I suppose the double glazing is also easily explained along this “duplication” line.


There’s just one fly in the ointment, which is that our neighbour keeps insisting that a run-down old farm cottage was rebuilt by a keen previous occupant called Jonty, in one major project over just a couple of years or so. The story goes that it was a labour of love (and also a labour of all his builder and plumber mates) to design a forever-home for his new family. It would be quite a credible story, too, if it didn’t fly in the face of the scientific principle of uniformity – which tells us reliably that the kind of accidental causes I see gradually operating now are the causes that have always been operating in the place.

Granted there is nothing in the records that shows a gradual transition: just the old site plan (much like that on old Ordinance Survey maps), and the modern house we bought, with its various small changes since. Granted that none of the changes I’ve actually recorded would seem capable of adding a central heating system or a modern electrical system – and they would even seem, if projected, likely to lead in the end to real problems, like the collapse of the wooden terracing outside our back door last month, which will have to be fixed.

If such an alternative account as my neighbour gives were true, then actually two separate processes would be going on: one which was creative, and seen only by its results, and one – including all the items in my list of changes over the time of our ownership – essentially representing the inevitable breakdown of order seen in a material world subject to entropy, or as the Bible calls it, “corruption.” It would be like saying that, in biological evolution, species arise by some creative process, and then begin to deteriorate inexorably by the kinds of copying error defeating the correction mechnisms, errors that we call “mutations”.

Yet there are a good number of sound reasons – not least among them my scientific insistence on repeatable, natural efficient causation – to treat my neighbour’s recollection of events with the same skepticism with which one would treat, say, the idea that periods of God’s creation of new taxa by rapid beneficial changes would look similar, from the viewpoint of the present, to a steady gradual rate of random mutations that, unlike the observed norm today, led to new functions and structures.

For such reasons, I cannot allow this “Jonty” a foot in the door.

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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7 Responses to A fantastical tale

  1. swamidass says:

    Cute story.

    As I have pointed out, the case for common descent is not an argument against God’s action. It never has been; at least it never should have been. Science does not consider God, and cannot speak of when He does and does not act. To know if He intervened in our origins, he would need to tell us so and we would have to trust him. Much as is the case in your story, we would come to confident knowledge by trust in revelation.

    • Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

      Joshua

      One of the things I pointed out early on at BioLogos is that, formally, a chance event with beneficial effects is indistinguishable from a direct divine act. However, there is an equivalence between both explanations of contingency because they each demand a metaphysical belief in their causal agent: there is either a “thing” called God who deliberately acts beneficially, or there is Epicurean chance that happens to act beneficially with astonishing regularity.

      Those are , in point of fact, two opposed worldviews, for belief in Epicurean chance alongside an omnicient and omnipotent God is actually incoherent, as I have frequently pointed out. Furthermore, there seems to be no actual room within science, as opposed to murky theology, for a category of event above the quantum level that is ontologically, as opposed to epistemologically, random.

      It is surely a legitimate question to ask where the “revelation” of the existence of ontological chance comes from , for it is neither empirically justified nor rationally watertight.

      However, the not-so-subtle point of this post is that there may be a better fit to observed reality from an “intermittent creation + pervasive entropy” model than a “random mutation + invisible beneficial mutation” model. Observed contingency does not fit the second theory particularly well, whereas it appears to match the first closely. Both demand belief in unknowable entities, but the second, whilst purporting to be natural, has no natural explanation and is, in any case, logically fallacious.

  2. Mark Mark says:

    “As I have pointed out, the case for common descent is not an argument against God’s action. It never has been; at least it never should have been.”

    Until such is generally acknowledged I see the need for people like Jon to point that out with witty allegories like this one. And even beyond that, because there will still be the debate about whether God’s action was involved, to what extent and whether detectable by science or not.

    Or it could be that this Jonty character was someone they made up out of a primal fear of urban decay.

  3. Edward Robinson Edward Robinson says:

    Hi, Jon.

    Your story is a clever way of bringing out your point.

    Related to your point are two essays in the massive new book, Theistic Evolution: A Scientific, Philosophical, and Theological Critique, put out by Crossway:

    “Should Theistic Evolution Depend on Methodological Naturalism?”, by Stephen Meyer and Paul Nelson

    “How to Lose a Battleship: Why Methodological Naturalism Sinks Theistic Evolution”, by Stephen Dilley

    I’ve read the first essay, and am now reading the second. They are certainly a worthwhile read for anyone with a natural tendency to accept the “party line” on methodological naturalism usually upheld by atheistic and theistic evolutionists alike.

    I’ve only read a small fraction of the essays in the book so far, but what I have read seems pretty good, with the essay by Tour on the origin of life making his usual argument and showing his usual lucidity, and the essay by Zaspel on Warfield — which provides a caution about classifying Warfield as an “evolutionary creationist” in the BioLogos sense of the term — being helpful as well. Steve Fuller’s Foreword makes some interesting points, particularly about the willingness of modern TEs to cede all “cognitive ground” formerly granted to Biblical statements.

    I don’t expect that I will agree with all the essays in the book, or all statements made in the book about biology or about Biblical interpretation, but what I have read so far suggests that the book has merit and should be read, at least in part, by everyone at BioLogos.

    I see that Dennis Venema, in a BioLogos comment, indicated that he was going to get hold of a copy and read the book. Based on past experience, I think he is unlikely to concede even a single point to any author in the book (sometimes it seems as if he feels he has a mission to negate every statement ever made by any ID proponent), but at least he feels some sort of intellectual obligation to read a critique of his own position. We can be sure, on the other hand, that many at BioLogos, certainly some of the commenters (e.g., beaglelady and Brooks) will comment negatively on the book without having read it, or will pass it over in silence without reading it. Of course, that is nothing new: almost no one associated with BioLogos appears to have read the Jay Richards collection of essays called God and Evolution, so there is no reason why this book should fare any better.

    • Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

      Eddie

      I’ve read the book, and Dilley’s essay is particularly good. Theistic evolution so often concentrates its intellectual effort on defending Kuhn’s “normal science” that the wider issues of philosophy, metaphysics, history, sociology … and serious, biblical, theology – are seldom addressed as they are routinely by ID people.

      Overall, however, I felt the book was marred by its theological section, which appeared to be uniformly and militantly Young Earth – an oddity given the predominance of old earth views in ID, as far as I can tell.

      That gives people the opportunity – which they will characteristically jump on – of the “creationism in a cheap tuxedo” line of answering arguments.

      That said, a serious Young Earth critique puts all of us Old Earthers on notice to justify our interpretations in the light of the text and the tradition. Of course it’s easier to shoot the messenger and make up theology on the fly – and there’s too much of that in the EC camp, for sure.

      • Edward Robinson Edward Robinson says:

        Thanks for your comments, Jon. My priority at the moment is the section on philosophical questions, and so far the material in that section seems pretty good. After that I will go back and read the section on scientific questions, saving the section on Bible/theology questions until last.

        You’re right about the number of ID leaders who favor an old earth, so the strong Young Earth flavor in the book is a bit of a surprise. But perhaps that appearance is partly an “artifact” arising from the layout of the book, in which one section (the Bible/theology section) appears to be dominated by Young Earth folks; in the science and philosophy sections, many who accept an old earth are represented; e.g., Steve Meyer, Ann Gauger, and (if I’m not mistaken) Jack Collins, Casey Luskin, and James Tour. If one considers the book as a whole, and not just one section, the book is probably a little closer to representative of ID thought, though still the “evolutionary” wing of ID thought (those who accept common descent or have declared neutrality regarding it) is underrepresented or not represented, there being no contributions from Behe, Sternberg, Richards, or Denton.

        I say this not to belittle Young Earth folks, who had made great contributions to the ID movement and also have offered some important criticisms of neo-Darwinism (and also, thankfully, tend to be less inclined to flirt with various Christian heresies than many of their EC opponents) but merely to note that my initial impression of the “tilt” of the Bible/theology section matches your own, and to add the caveat for readers here that while ID overall probably comprises 40% YECs, 40% OECs, and 20% evolutionists or non-committeds, the book itself has a disproportionate OEC/YEC leaning overall with a disproportion in favor of YEC in the theology section, and thus cannot be taken as an accurate portrayal of the ID landscape (scientific or theological) at the present time. But with that caveat, the book appears to be well worth reading for those interested in thinking critically about origins questions.

        What I fear is that the BioLogos folks — those who actually read any of the book, that is — will, given their natural interests, turn first to the theological section, and as a result write off all of the book based on their disagreement with YEC, and will never get to the philosophical section at all — and philosophy (including philosophy of science, and the philosophical side of Christian theology) is exactly the area where BioLogos is weakest and needs a strong corrective. But then, I would guess that many of those who contributed essays to the book have little hope of persuading BioLogos folks of anything, but are appealing to the evangelical audience — which is also BioLogos’s target audience — in hopes of persuading some of them that the case for BioLogos-style TE is not really all that strong.

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