Where the conflict really lies (episode 20 1/2)

A good video of William Dembski with rubbish sound is posted on UD here. It confirmed to me the conclusion that the divisions in the science-faith spectrum are usually drawn in the wrong places. There are really only two important positions, corresponding to design and non-design. Period.

Take for example an exchange I had with Eric Kretschmer on BioLogos. His post was on his interactions as a science educator with Creationists. He seems a nice guy, but I think he misunderstands where the worldview-boundary truly lies. Pressed by people like Chip and Eddie Eric affirms:

And yes, I do believe God intended humanity to exist, not as an unitended byproduct, but rather as His “image bearers” to glorify Him.

That is, of course, a restricted answer that doesn’t deal with the rest of creation, but in its own right it is absolutely a design inference. As Dembski helpfully reminds us, the etymology of “information” is “the imposition of form” on matter (which in its turn is etymologically derived from the word for “building timber”, or more generally raw material). So in classical philosophy, as I should have realised, the admission of the existence of “form” is necessarily the admission of the instantiation of information. All those arguments about DNA not “really” containing information are utterly meaningless if one agrees there are “endless forms most beautiful.”

Theistically, if one concedes that God has any say whatsoever in the final form of something, then to the same extent it is he who provided the information cicumscribing that form. Ergo, to the exact extent God intended man, he instilled the information that distinguishes man from mere formless matter.

Dembski also reminds us that, absolutely intrinsic to the idea of information is the restriction of degrees of freedom – that is what information is actually all about. Dembski gives the example of a joke in which Bill Gates commissions a bust of Beethoven, and receives back a cube of marble, the sculptor saying that all the material for the bust is in the block, and that all Gates has to do is remove the excess. Gates pays him with a free copy of the forthcoming Windows OS to market as he wishes – and gives him a blank disk, saying that all the material for the programme is on it…

Another telling analogy I heard on a documentary about Syd Barrett, the former member of Pink Floyd whose mental health sadly degenerated. A friend said he used to lie on his bed staring at the ceiling for hours, and attributed it to “wisdom” in that all possibilities remained open whilst he did not actually commit himself to any one action. Such “freedom”, of course, is indistinguishable from captivity. Only the restriction of form gives the freedom to exist substantially.

Exactly how that information gets from God to the “form” he wills is, as far as the question of design goes, irrelevant. It could be by special creation, by directed evolution, by genetic front-loading or by extreme fine-tuning of the Universe. One might argue for or aginst one or the other on the grounds of evidence, but you’ll still have a theistic design inference, so the difference is trivial. Bill Dembski says as much regarding his own position: he may doubt common descent, but it’s not a significant issue to him, and neither is evolution – provided that information is seen to come from somewhere: forms do not just happen, though there is no particular reason why God should not have enfolded “form” within raw matter so that it emerges during an evolutionary process – and Dembski would be as happy with that as Conway Morris would.

Here’s an extreme “hands off” example of design. I once treated a professional photographer, who rather sheepishly admitted that he’d once found a patch of black ice in Chelmsford town centre, and stood around with his camera knowing that sooner or later a car would fall foul of it and crash. He got the accident shot he planned, and sold it to the local paper as he’d intended all along. In this case, his design was simply the freezing of an instant he did not engineer (though which he might have prevented!), which is no different conceptually from Maxwell’s demon shutting and opening the door on molecules to create an isolated patch of vacuum. So even were God somehow (and untheologically) to have no influence over nature except to confirm it if it happened to concur with his will, then it would be a bog standard case of Intelligent Design.

Now the only fundamentally antithetic position to this is to say that God does not instantiate information in matter – that he is not responsible for forms. Note that this would make a statement like that I quoted from Eric Kretschmer impossible to make, or incoherent if it were made. However, to the extent that someone talks about “nature creating itself”, or “exercising freedom”, or being involved in “co-creation” without making it clear that he means no more than secondary causation, then he is denying that God has formed it. It is doubtful, in such a case, what “theism” would mean, for what God has not formed he has not created. In Genesis 1 terms, if John Walton is to be believed, form truly does follow function. Even the creation of raw matter is no more than the limitation of its possibilities to whatever physical properties and laws God has given it.

To my mind, then, there are actually two forms of so-called theistic evolution, one of which belongs firmly within the same territory as Intelligent Design and Creationism, the arguments between them being, in the end, of minor importance. The other belongs firmly in the same camp as naturalistic materialism, and as has been pointed out by others, their disagreement over the existence of God is of small import because he does nothing … or more specifically, he forms nothing, meaning he is not the source of its information content.

As ever, there will be those whose inclination is to try and straddle the divide between those two fundamentally incompatible positions, and such people are likely to occupy the ground where the two meet, ie within present day theistic evolution. That makes it a potentially uncomfortable place to be, unless doing the splits is your particular skill.

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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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12 Responses to Where the conflict really lies (episode 20 1/2)

  1. Avatar photo penman says:

    Hi Jon

    What if one takes an Augustinian-Thomist view of divine sovereignty? In other words, let scientists describe all the natural mechanisms, the causal networks, the ontological structures, etc — and the Augustinian-Thomist wll say concerning all of that, “God did it”. He is the primary cause creating, sustaining, energizing, & directing all secondary causes at all times in all events, including (therefore) all aspects of all biological processes. He does everything.

    “God does nothing” is deism at best. But I want to go the other way with Augustine & Thomas. God does everything!

    I could quote scripture but time & pasting facilities fail me.

  2. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    Hi penman

    Absolutely – the Thomist position is quite clearly within, and even paradigmatic of, my first category. God is the one who gives forms (in the Aristotelian sense) to matter, quite apart from being the Creator of matter itself. The efficient causes he uses make no difference to that truth, whatever form they may take.

    Specifically, then, final causes comes from God. Material causes come from God, because he created the whole material Universe. Formal causes come from God, because they come ultimately from his mind (even more specifically, from the Logos). That’s so even if they are inherent in creation, analogously to an evolutionary algorithm in computing. Efficient causes alone may be “delegated” to creation, such as natural laws which God causes to operate throughout space and time (though still sustained by his hand moment by moment).

    Of course, it’s necessary that the secondary causes are sufficient to do what’s required of them, and that’s one aspect of the questioning of current evolutionary theory: God’s purpose alone does not mean a tree can normally do quadratic equations.

    But that discussion is of a different order to any argument suggesting that the secondary causes are somehow sufficient, on their own, to act beyond the will of God – ie that they are “free”. There’s the big divide.

  3. Avatar photo penman says:

    Agreed. The search for satisfactory second causes must I think continue, & as you know, I welcome the work of Shapiro as at least trying to carry that quest on, rather than shut it all down with mass-chanting of “random mutation plus natural selection, random mutation plus natural selection”.

    And as you also know, any ascription of autonomous freedom & creativity to the created order, positing a “hands off” God, seems to me radically contradictory of scripture. Open Theism is not a live option for those of us who want to remain within the catholic faith. The more TE /ECs embrace & defend these philosophy-driven theologies that ride roughshod over scripture & catholic tradition, the more they’ll alienate scripture-minded conservatives from ever considering any case for any kind of evolution. It’s a huge hostage to fortune – a deadly own goal (pardon the double metaphor).

  4. Avatar photo GD says:

    I could not get through for some time – this is another try

  5. Avatar photo GD says:

    It seems I can now post again – I am very interested in a discussion of freedom. I think this is the ‘area of discussion’ that may enable us to understand the Nature of nature and also the way we can understand ourselves as human beings.

    The notion of a primary cause and secondary causation is a neat way to provide a manifold within which we may consider scientific matters that have been settled by science (or sufficient). However freedom needs to be understood imo, not as something that may be cast in opposition to the Sovereignty of God, but as part of it, as is the Law of God. Within this framework, I think we can reconcile such matters as a stochastic treatment of various aspects of nature, and even the way quantum mechanics may be discussed within concepts such as determined or non-determined and pre-determined. Nonetheless, it is more fashionable to argue against free-will and similar topics, rather than expand and add to the previous Thomist views.

  6. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


    You’re right about the importance of understanding freedom to understanding God’s soveignty. I steer away from it most of the time because many seem incapable of distinguishing between the freedom of rational agents and various aspects of randomness and drag the discussion of “nature” back to beefs about God’s “coercion”.

    Of course, a proper understanding of God’s sovereignty in relation to human or angelic will answers many of the other issues, but folks aren’t willing to go there, insisting on a stark dichotomy between absolute freedom and any overarching divine sovereignty.

    Actually that seems to be a reflection of the naturalist denial of free will you mention, but the dichotomy makes rather more sense in an atheistic setting where materialistic simplicity, rather than subtle personal and spiritual interaction, is the name of the game.

  7. Avatar photo penman says:

    Whom do you have in mind when you say it’s more fashionable to argue against free-will? Is that within science, maybe?

    My anxiety is the opposite: the hyper-inflation of human free-will in the theology of Christian evolutionists. Too often it ends up denying God’s providential governance of His creation (amply testified in scripture) or even His foreknowledge – more Pelagian than Pelagius.

  8. Avatar photo GD says:

    Jon and Penman,

    To begin, I refer to freedom as ‘the grounds for humanity’, so my interest is more in keeping with God’s sovereignty and the capacity for human beings to exercise choice and to a given extent determine our world (as either good or bad). Thus I can envisage a world where human beings are completely obedient to God’s law, prosper, and are as free as human beings can be – thus no conflict.

    The arguments against free-will that I am aware of, are from atheists/ materialists, who seem to prefer an emmergence of ‘something’ that is a substitute for free-will. Christan evolutionists (I do not fully understand the term, except for ‘deep time’ and change over time) appear to be all over the page, including some sort of ‘making itself’. My description of such things is mixed up mainly because I cannot understand it – for example God may be the creator but somehow the world, esp bio-world, seems independent from God. So I feel I understand atheists as an opposing view, but find Christian evolutionists (or perhaps some portions of this large mixture of opinion) more difficult to comprehend.

  9. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    Sounds like you both agree, GD and penman.

    “All over the page” is, I think, a soberly accurate description for the TE camp on this matter. It’s now 18 months or so since I questioned what is actually meant by these “free nature” ideas on BioLogos. Although new columnists keep on expressing agreement with it, not one of them, nor more casual posters, has risen to the challenge of answering me. At some point one has to conclude they have no answer, and no good warrant for their belief. I think the argument is won by default.

    That leaves one to dig around in the published literature to find its source, and one digs up arguments from people like Howard van Till and others influential in TE thought, which (a) depend on fringe philosophies like process philosophy, rejected by all of those I’ve challenged, and/or (b) are incoherent arguments based entirely on polemical linguistic tricks, such as equating concepts like “design” with stasis and rigidity with absolutely no conceptual backing.

    Freedom in the correct sense you both use it is an important theological issue, but its significance to creation issues is pretty limited. For example, (a) is choice limited to humans or are higher animals “free”? Even if they were it wouldn’t affect origins questions.

    And (b) the more important issue: if humans are radically free, to the extent that we are technically capable of blowing up the world, then God can have no wise plans for it that cannot by finally frustrated by human sin. And that is absurd.

  10. Avatar photo GD says:


    (a) is choice limited to humans or are higher animals “free”? Even if they were it wouldn’t affect origins questions.

    A good question, but perhaps we may re-state it as: how can we examine the question of freedom amongst animals? Too often we assume some hypothesis, let us say for arguments sake we think Darwin’s idea has been developed to the point that some say, random events provide a freedom to species and they ‘become’ in some sense. This becoming cannot be a scientific statement, but the interpretation of some observations made by those committed to the original idea. If we think that events regarding animals are such that we are unable to provide any hypothesis that includes becoming, or plastic in form, than we may settle for another idea, such a variation is simply the result of a dynamic earth in which seasons and migration lead over lengthy periods to an increase in the number of species and subspecies, and so on. The only solid test for freedom imo is for an animal to come to a human being and state I am free to choose between this and that.

    (b) the more important issue: if humans are radically free, to the extent that we are technically capable of blowing up the world,….

    This question is profound; for human beings to be free in this way, it includes both the desire and means to ‘blow up the world’; it is more that a simple choice between one thing and another. It also means that some people would not desire to do this, while others may. We need to examine this question before say, “How does this or that fit in with the wise plan of God”. We would take it on faith that God is wise and so on. This reasoning fits better within the notion of humanity choosing (or being tempted) to eat the fruit of knowledge of good and evil. Just why would God allow us to make such choices? I start this topic with discussion of the Law of God in toto, and what that may mean to the creation and its creatures, including us. Good discussion Jon and Penman.

  11. Gregory says:

    “There are really only two important positions, corresponding to design and non-design. Period.” – Jon G.

    That’s rubbish. You should join the IDM, Jon. Can’t you see through their simplistic American pseudo-philosophy of science (PoS)? I’d expected higher of you.

    You’ve allowed what you call ‘the science-faith spectrum’ to be dictated to you by Anglo-Americans. One a Cambridge grad (meaning, of course, S.C. Meyer), just like you. The IDM has made most of the minor headway it has gained through preexisting Anglo-American evangelical Christian networks.

    Why would you adopt the specific terms ‘design inference,’ i.e. peculiarly modern IDM language? Why would you want to hitch your PoS wagon to theirs, by adopting their language as your own?

    “it is absolutely a design inference.” – Jon G.?!

    The IDM is dictating to Jon Garvey’s home language! Will he deny it? The source is obvious. Or maybe Jon is adopting a Dembskian-Warfieldian ID-TE position? There’s a commentor at BioLogos who floated a similar idea some months back, before exposing his true colours as an anti-TE/ECist, harping again and again about (neo-)Darwinism.

    What you don’t seem to realise, Jon, though it is obvious from your writings, is that you are promoting theological ‘Design,’ not natural scientific ‘design.’ Surely you can help to make this distinction clearer. As I understand your position, you do not accept the demand for natural scientificity of ‘design’ + ‘intelligence’ that the IDM says it can prove/infer. You have said so much already here at The Hump of the Camel.

    penman likewise has no valid reason or intuition to embrace a quantifible or probabilistic natural scientistic ‘design inference’ such as the IDM’s, when a sound theological ‘design argument’ is already long on the books.

    “Theistically, if one concedes that God has any say whatsoever…” – Jon G.

    Yes. Exactly. This is a specifically different language than the IDMs, which denies any talk of ‘God’. Are you willing to acknowledge this?

    ‘Hands off’ or ‘Hands on,’ penman, surely you still admit there is no ‘natural scientific’ proof of God’s action in the world. Or do I misunderstand your theology?

    “the same territory as Intelligent Design and Creationism” – Jon G.

    You’ve forgotten about the ideology of ‘Intelligent Designism,’ which yet again you seem on the precipice of falling into, Jon, all of the politics and propaganda attached with it that perhaps you don’t feel from across the A. ocean removed from the source in England.

    Or perhaps you would like to become a ‘cdesignproponentsist,’ a halfway position between creationist and intelligent design proponent?


    p.s. Jon, I can’t believe you fell for Dembski’s boring-dehumanising ‘information’ story about Gates-Beethoven! Dembski has become a broken record, most certainly not the ‘Newton of information’.

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