Does divine action have to hide in random cracks?

In the article  by Elliot Sober I mentioned in my previous post, he describes a hypothetical experiment to show what evolutionists mean by “random mutation”, before going on to establish that, because the Neodarwinian explanation is causally incomplete, science can neither deny, affirm, nor even express agnosticism on whether those random mutations were directed by an agent such as God.

The metaphysical point is clear, but it’s good to step back and ask why the experiment is mentioned. It seems to me that in the end it’s to remind us why Sober himself is not a theist. We’re to understand that evolution is producing observably random results, but metaphysically that that doesn’t exclude the involvement of God in them. One might notice a similarity to the position of Darrel Falk, of BioLogos, in that if God acts it’s undetectable, rendering the metaphysical permission to admit God a rather Pyrrhic victory. Wow, maybe it’s God who tosses the coin.

The simplified  experiment described consists of putting red organisms is blue or green environments, and seeing if advantageous mutations matching the colour of the new environment occur more often than disadvantageous ones. It’s fictional, of course, but Sober points to similar, more sophisticated experiments that always show mutations to be random with respect to fitness. QED.

But is that how things really work? For a start, James Shapiro has given numerous examples suggesting that organisms initiate and even direct their own mutations for advantage. Those counter-examples alone show that the kind of experiments Sober describes are not conclusive.

Then again consider what real experiments could be managed as he describes.

(1) They are purely mutation based, which means restricting the organisms unnaturally to a cloned line – Lenski’s E. coli studies come to mind – and not much else. Otherwise you could never spot what is a new mutation. But mutation is only one aspect of variation.

A pseudonymous poster on BioLogos known successively as John, S.  cerevisiae and Melanogaster is such a champion of population genetics that he frequently says (with little indication of hyperbole) that evolution has no need of mutations at all. Melanogaster’s posts, incidentally, are so sociopathic that it’s hard to resist the conviction that BioLogos  keeps him as a kind of rotweiler on a chain to intimidate critics, as the usually irenic Bilbo suggested recently to Dennis Venema, whose bizarre defence of Melanogaster’s accusations was along the lines of “Yes, I know he’s got his jaws round your genitals, but you should listen to what he says.” It’s an interesting exercise to check the archives to see how many of his interlocuters have lost their patience with his insults and been banned, whilst Melanogaster himself pushes even the most sympathetic enquirers towards Creationism. That’s a digression, but it’s one that the leadership of BioLogos would heed if they had any sense, or honour.

Be that as it may, Melanogaster’s observation that real evolution is a population effect is valid. To watch out for individual mutations and their direct effects is not to watch evolution as she is spoke. Most evolution happens by the selection of alleles of genes within a heterogenous population. And that’s too complex to see in such lab  experiments.

(2) Similarly, the need to observe every mutation, and its  effect on the organism, bears little relationship to reality. Even Sober’s fictional experiment does not actually observe random mutations as he suggests, but random phenotypic effects assumed to be due to single random mutations. Of course, you need an unnatural cloned population to be able to know that any variation is due to a mutation.

In real life phenotypic changes are usually polygenic, and mainly occur through the combination of existing genes, not mutation. Are those combinations random? How do you control the variable enough to tell? Millions of varying genes and introns, simultaneous epigenetic effects, mutations popping up here and there in the population, varying phenotypes varying because of mutations or maybe the other factors – and someone can tell that the mutations were random? I don’t think so.

(3) Sober’s experiment deals with easily seen adaptive mutations. Gene mutates, colour changes, organism survives according to the match with environment. In real life, an environment is not just a colour, as the now infamous peppered moth research shows. In the real world neither “selection” nor “fitness” are possible to define. More variables to hinder the assessment of randomness.

(4) Another fallacy in Sober’s approach of “all other things being equal, each mutation is seen immediately to be adaptive or not” is that most mutations are near-neutral. They do not lead to selection. The theory goes that mutations accumulate under the radar of natural selection until, suddenly, you have a new functional protein, or a flagellum, or a DNA replication system. So crude fitness measures like colour match, or indeed any measures of fitness, can’t be used to gauge the randomness of whole sequences of near-neutral mutations leading, eventually, to selectable traits. It’s a different ball game deciding if a few hundred mutations that built up free of selection’s supervision into a functional system occurred randomly.

(5) Real evolution is a big picture, and lab experiments like Sober’s are inevitably studying the very small picture. Lenski’s work, despite the vast number of E. coli generations involved, has tracked a handful of minor mutations in one line of one species isolated in lab conditions, for just a few years. Evolution, thought, ought to be about the origin of the species. But the random pattern of coloured dots in a square mm of digital image says nothing about the ordered picture the photographer has created. The question is not whether a mutation is random, but whether the whole pattern of mutations is. No number of red organisms can show that.

(6) Lastly, such experiments in the context of the question of divine governance suffer the same shortcomings as lab studies of prayer. You divide cancer patients into a study and a control group, get a priest to pray for the former, and measure survival. Your results don’t show whether God exists, or whether he answers prayer, but merely whether he’s willing to co-operate with your silly games. Similarly, lab experiments like Sober’s hypothetical one or Lenski’s real one can’t deal with God’s potential objection: “I didn’t actually want to evolve your red organisms in any particular direction, whereas  I had every reason to evolve mankind from a hominid template, and that’s too complex a situation for you to detect the non-randomness of my mutations.

So whilst I applaud Sober’s clear differentiation of the scientific from the metaphysical, I still have grave doubts that evolution, or the mutations contributing to it, can really be scientifically shown as random with respect to fitness. I believe that, too, to be a metaphysical assumption arising from Darwin’s theory rather than from the data as a whole, even though it can be demonstrated in laboratory experiments at scales to small to be generalisable. In other words, there may be more room for the detection of the effects of God’s action than Sober’s article allows.

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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 Does divine action have to hide in random cracks?

  1. Gregory says:

    “there may be more room for the detection of the effects of God’s action than Sober’s article allows” – Jon

    There may also be more room for intervention making sense than Russell allows (because his focus is predominantly naturalistic, that is, on natural-physical sciences as sovereign knowledge realms).

    What is noteworthy to me, Jon, is that you’d adopted the ‘detectivistic’ language of the IDM. This is what I mean by representing an unclear, mixed position; you claim not to be an IDer, yet time and again choose to use their preferred choice of language. That’s what makes me wonder and inquire. I guess my sensitivity to the terms they’ve commandeered as their own, whether or not for political reasons, makes me reluctant to speak of ‘detection of effects’ or ‘guided’ and ‘unguided’ as the IDM does.

    ‘Governed’ seems to privilege theology, leaving science and philosophy as under-labourers. That seems to be how you judo-flip Falk’s meanings.

    And in a recent post on BioLogos you referred to yourself as a TE whereas I had thought you were solidly against TE (or at least, against some peoples’ version of TE, which means, your mission is to ‘purify the dialect of the tribe’ regarding TE). Probably I am the one totally confused from reading the views of different people on the same thing or the same people on different things (and in various venues), so my apology for wondering what’s happening on the fences.

    I have a question for you about ‘theology & BioLogos.’ You claim that Darrel Falk believes that “if God acts it’s undetectable.” I wonder if you doubt that Darrel Falk believes that God (sometimes) answers prayers? Are you suggesting that the answers to those prayers in Falk’s view are therefore ‘undetectable’? Or is it just ‘not scientifically detectable but otherwise still detectable’ that you in fact mean?

    Sober’s texts are worth visiting as he takes a philosophy of science approach, with which many people are unfamiliar. I had to study PoS as part of my doctoral exam preparations, so some of this is easier to negotiate than for the untrained or uninitiated. Most people believe they’re a philosopher in one way or another, except in lands where philosophy is marginalised and devalued (such as the USA and perhaps the UK). How many who will read this had already heard of George Grant (surely ‘Timaeus’ has!).

    I disagree with Sober when he contends “philosophy, this is not what the theory of evolution, a biological theory, has anything to say about.” To me, this is to avoid ‘evolutionary philosophy,’ which intertwines deeply with process thought, and of course process theology. This may be an area of over-lap between us, where my work on ideology comes heavily to the fore and where I’d like to hear more about your views of open theology and process theology.

    Again, I guess it is convenient to return to one of the main fault lines between TE/EC and ID: the former is more concerned with God’s immanence, while the latter is more concerned with God’s (a.k.a. the unnamed Designer’s) transcendence. Thus, when you highlight Russell’s wrestling with the term ‘intervention’ and seeking for legitimate alternatives, it can be seen as assuming he is leaning more to the immanence (TE/EC) than to the transcendence (ID) feature of the conversation.

    Indeed ‘evolutionary creation’ is almost completely an ‘immanence’ approach in science and theology discourse, wouldn’t you say, Jon?

  2. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    “What is noteworthy to me, Jon, is that you’d adopted the ‘detectivistic’ language of the IDM.” That’s partly because I read ID stuff, and partly because dividing up the language between competing positions kills communication between them and prevents one just talking English – I prefer plain language to jargon where possibloe, and in any case precision is a chimera in this filed – witness the mutiple meanings of a clearly biological term like “evolution.”

    “Governed” is a case in point. An English word describing God’s sovereign activity neatly, and so privileging him rather than theology. If philosophy has a terminus technici for divine directive action I haven’t heard of it. “Intervention” has suddenly acquired a specific nuance. But in my far-off scientific days factors wer said to “govern” reactions, so it’s not being sidelined by the word. The meaning is the thing, not the associations.

    I self-describe now as a Warfieldian TE – evolution (loosely meaning descent with modification, and subject to disconfirmation) seems a likely way for God’s creative activity in the biosphere, but not at the expense of his detailed care and provision.

    I believe Darrel does believe in answered prayer because he said so, putting it is his “supernatural” category. Does he believe it detectable? I would have thought so – he prayes for someone with severe pneumonia, and they’re instantly well, with a clear X-ray. Why wouldn’t he accept it as an answer. But the X-ray confirms cure, not directly miracle or even answered prayer, so maybe it’s not scientific . This is my problem with his position – such a cure is happening in the scientific “natural” world, so if that can be God’s detectable act, why should not any divine activity in creation? And I have read him to the effect that he does not believe such activity would be detectable. How is that inconsistency to be resolved?

    I’ll reply separately about “evolutionary philosophy”

  3. Gregory says:

    “This is my problem with his position – such a cure is happening in the scientific ‘natural’ world, so if that can be God’s detectable act, why should not any divine activity in creation?”

    Because then he would have fallen into the ideology of occasionalism.

  4. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    “…then he would have fallen into the ideology of occasionalism.” Only if he attributed all events to God’s direct personal action. Remember that, before evolution, various models of God’s activity in creatuion and providence were both held and distinguished from occasionalism. There is a middle ground.

    But back to evolutionary philosophy. It sounds as if you’re making a similar criticism of Sober that people on UD did of Plantinga for carefully distinguishing evolution as empirical scientific theory from evolution as philosophical/metaphysical worldview. Culturally that may be not be possible, but conceptually surely it must be. Science is (ostensibly) derived from data and testable by observation. Philosophy is only derived, and testable, by reason. Otherwise theistic evolution could not respect the same science as naturalistic evolution.

    I’m aware of the influence of process philosophy on the science and religion field, but less so in evolutionary philosophy. But what do I know. I’ve written about as much as I want to on open theism, and a little on process theology as related to that. Clearly the latter depends on process philosophy,which has always struck me as one of those internally consistent but counter-intuitive (and untestable) systems like Marxism and Psychoanalysis. Maybe, like Russell, a reasonable reaction is to shrug and say, “I can’t go that way.”

    Open theism is easier for me to assess from my native theological, rather than an unfamiliar philosophical, angle. I think it is a product of the spirit of the age, and theologically (as I’ve said before) a kind of hyper-Arminianism – maybe, perhaps, the logically necessary sequel to that approach. In my view the appeals it makes to greater faithfulness to the Bible are spurious. In that I seem to be in a majority not only in Evangelicalism but in the whole catholic (small “c”) tradition.

    Immanence and transcendence are, I think, not entirely helpful terms in this field. As you’ve found recently at BL, the distinction between EC and TE has not been clearly defined. EC might mean God hard at work at the heart of evolution to perform his wise and wonderful creative acts. Almost approaching pantheism (quoting Paul Tillich describing Calvin’s view of creation). That’s pretty immanent, and it’s right where I am.

    At the other extreme it may well mean that God’s involvement is to define the laws of nature, delegate creative rights to a process with randomness at it’s heart, and applaud whatever results. Some of both Darrel’s and Dennis Venema’s pronouncements seem more like that. And that would make EC to do with transcendence.

    But you could reformulate it: God brings about what he wills = transcendence, or acts democratically by co-operating with free creation = immanance.

    So I’d rather avoid those words, and comment on how a particular proposal correlates with the catholic view of God. Confusingly, that has historically combined both transcendence and immananence, especially in Trinitarian thinking.

  5. Gregory says:

    “Only if he attributed all events to God’s direct personal action.”

    Not sure if that’s accurate or not. Falk often speaks of God’s ever-present indirect action through natural processes. This can be seen as a form of occasionalism as well.

    The Catholic Encyclopaedia that I linked to does not use the terms ‘direct’ or ‘personal’ as you do. It says, “whatever happens in the world is caused by God,” which is precisely Darrel’s position. It would seem to be yours also, though you fall on the more ‘determined’ end of the spectrum, while Falk falls more on the ‘freedom’ end.

    You say, “before evolution, various models of God’s activity in creation and providence were both held and distinguished from occasionalism.”

    I’m assuming then that we’re interested mainly in the 16th through 19th centuries here and that by ‘before evolution’ you mean either Lamarck’s evolutionary theorising or Darwin & Wallace’s version of natural selection. The English term ‘evolution,’ as you know, is from the 16th century, from Latin ‘evolvere,’ which was used by Cambridge Platonists (non-biologists), among others.

    Descartes was born 87 years after Calvin, and was the more ‘scientifically’ oriented of the two. I can’t stress enough how little IDers know about Descartes and how absolutely intent they are to attack the man from Down, England. Many of the problems they seek to ‘solve’ with ID are actually best confronted in the works of Descartes instead of Darwin!

    What interests me is names for these models you suggest which “were both held and distinguished from occasionalism.” What names would you provide for these (16th-19th c.) models? I’m well curious!

    p.s. putting ‘origins philosophy’ in contrast with ‘process philosophy’ might help somewhat to disentangle the ID vs. TE/EC positions as seen in the USA

  6. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    Souinds like another long reply needed, so I’ll put it in a new post, Gregory.

  7. James says:


    A few points of disagreement, if I may — which it is my intention to air politely rather than polemically:

    ” “whatever happens in the world is caused by God,” which is precisely Darrel’s position. ”

    Yet, as reported in a recent discussion on Uncommon Descent, Darrel appeared to deny that God was responsible for all or many of the specific outcomes of evolution. Not only did he seem to deny that God acted in a special way to ensure all the outcomes, he even appeared to deny that God planned all the outcomes. That is not compatible with the plain sense of the Catholic Encyclopedia entry that you are quoting. You appear to be reading into the BioLogos position more orthodoxy than is actually there. Why are you disposed to do this?

    “Because then he would have fallen into the ideology of occasionalism.”

    The Catholic Encyclopedia does not use the word “ideology” in this context; it calls occasionalism a “metaphysical theory.” So if you are going to raise an eyebrow at Jon for using words — “direct” and “personal” — that are not used by the CE, then you have to watch your own exporting of social science vocabulary into a CE article which is not about social science but theology.

    In any case, Jon has identified with Calvinism, not with Catholicism, so why should his vocabulary be determined by the Catholic Encyclopedia? What makes its articles the authoritative guide to Christian word usage?


    “you [Jon] claim not to be an IDer, yet time and again choose to use their preferred choice of language.”

    The language of design, guidance, governance, etc. is not incompatible with the language of evolution. There is nothing wrong with synthesizing elements of ID with elements of TE. Jon isn’t automatically abandoning TE merely because he finds some ID concepts theologically sensible. He’s trying to come up with his own theologically responsible account of divine action in Creation, not to champion any particular camp.

    I find the main difference between Garvey-TE and BioLogos-TE is in what each considers non-negotiable. For Jon, what is non-negotiable is the reliability of the Bible and the main outlines of the classical Christian tradition. For the BioLogos folks, what is non-negotiable is Darwinian randomness in evolution. So Jon is willing to reexamine the scientists’ claims of “randomness”, whereas the BioLogos folk are willing to turn a skeptical eye to traditional understandings of things like governance, providence, omnipotence, omniscience, etc.

    Both Jon and BioLogos affirm both evolution and Christianity. The difference is which element is in the epistemological driver’s seat, and which is in the passenger’s seat. The element that is expected to adjust to the other element is in the passenger’s seat. And at BioLogos, that is clearly “traditional Christian readings of the Bible.”

    I think that Jon has some sympathy for ID — even if he wouldn’t go so far as to say it is “science” in the normal sense — not only because of any intrinsic merits he sees in its ideas about design, but because he notes that ID-Christians seem much less likely than BioLogos Christians to radically alter traditional Christian theology. Jon’s religious position, as he describes it, sounds a lot more like Bill Dembski’s or Steve Meyer’s or Mike Behe’s than it sounds like Darrel Falk’s or Karl Giberson’s or Dennis Venema’s. That being the case, it’s only natural that he should be suspicious of BioLogos claims that ID is “bad theology.” (If the current Greek government told you that, say, the Canadian government practiced “bad economics” would you find that charge, coming from that source, credible?)

    Personally, I don’t think it is any accident that a group of (mainly) Christian scientists and thinkers who are disposed to see design in nature are more orthodox Catholics, Reformed, Anglican, Baptist, etc. than those who aren’t sure how much design (as opposed to randomness) there is in nature. Design theory doesn’t automatically make one a Christian — one could be Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, agnostic or other things — but it is certainly more obviously compatible with traditional Christian understandings of creation than a doctrine which says that maybe God planned it and maybe he didn’t, and maybe he did something special in evolution and maybe he didn’t.

    I hope I have kept my disagreements completely on the level of ideas and have avoided any personal attacks.

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