The Third Way and God

I’ve not yet commented on the new project called The Third Way, but my recent mini-series of posts on natural selection seems a good reason to do so. It was launched this May by James Shapiro, Denis Noble and Raju Pookottil, and has already attracted some notable names from various fields, some of whose work I have read, including Eva Jablonka, Gerd Müller, Eugene Koonin, Stuart Newman and Robert Austin – 29 names in all at the time of writing.

The mission statement of Third Way says this:

The vast majority of people believe that there are only two alternative ways to explain the origins of biological diversity. One way is Creationism that depends upon supernatural intervention by a divine Creator. The other way is Neo-Darwinism, which has elevated Natural Selection into a unique creative force that solves all the difficult evolutionary problems. Both views are inconsistent with significant bodies of empirical evidence and have evolved into hard-line ideologies. There is a need for a more open “third way” of discussing evolutionary change based on empirical observations.

I’ll come to why I’m sympathetic to an approach that appears to rule out God later, but the first significant thing to ask is why such a range of researchers feels it necessary to position themselves, though of diverse views, as distinct both from Creationism and Neo-Darwinism, as opposed to simply denying the need for, or scientific credentials of, all forms of creationism.

As their statement makes clear, they have found from experience that the existence of Neo-Darwinism as a hardline ideology within science, and therefore holding back science, is no myth but a hard reality.

They overtly acknowledge that their work cannot be accommodated within the Modern-Synthesis. But that alone would not be sufficient to lead to more than a desire to extend the synthesis (as the Altenberg 16 did – though notably four of their number have added their weight to Third Way). It is the ideological totalitarianism of the established position (equated by these people with that of the organised Creationist lobby) that has forced this separation.

I have noticed how Shapiro has been criticized as a closet Creationist by supposed colleagues within the academy, and have seen similar invective directed at Noble – despite the impeccable credentials of both. But in truth this line of muscular, almost Social Darwinist, monopolism goes right back to the beginning.

The treatment of the Mendelian mutationists  was well-described in the series by Arlin Stoltzfus (now, rather ironically, only available as a re-post on Lawrence Moran’s website). But other examples are the suppression of Barbara McClintock’s work on mobile genetic elements (her biographer is a Third Way member), the curtailing of research on the cytoplasmic inheritance work of Tracy Sonneborn and others,  and the more recent treatment of structuralist Richard Sternberg  (who has published with Shapiro). That dismissive and hostile attitude even, sadly, comes across amongst Christians committed to the Modern Synthesis, which is where I first came across it (at BioLogos, ASA and CiS) – it seems to be an integral part of the Neodarwinian package, somehow.

Nevertheless, why should Third Way‘s work be of interest to theists, given that it tars Creationism with the same brush as Neo-Darwinism? It can hardly be seen as a co-belligerent against naturalism.

Well, in the first place, dialogue is just so much more amicable with these people – they do not shout down their theistic interlocutors simply for being believers, but argue against God as a scientific explanation, which is every bit as legitimate for a believing scientist as for an unbelieving one. For example, as far as I can see Shapiro is an atheist, but in his Huffington Post blog he was willing to discuss the teleological implications of his work with Christians, and even to admit Intelligent Design to the table without feeling compelled to dismiss its intellectual legitimacy.

This last point brings me to the second strength of Third Way: its supporters are frankly intellectually better informed than most Neo-Darwinists. Whereas the latter are apt to quote the first page of William Paley at IDists as puerile nonsense, having clearly never read the book, and then bang on about Creationism, people like Shapiro generally seem more aware that design discourse has a respectable intellectual history back to before Aristotle – and often seem to have read about it. There’s an interest in ideas which seems to contrast with the commoner experience of philistinism from defenders of natural selection.

This is hardly surprising, since some of the new ideas they bring forward are informed by reading in a wider intellectual tradition than modern materialism alone. You find frequent references to Aristotelian causation, to Pythagorian or to Neoplatonic themes which are disdained by many mainstream writers, though they were responsible for many of the greatest scientific advances. Mathematics, complexity theory, systems theory and so on are bread and butter tools, rather than suspicious woo. It’s as if when one becomes more broadly educated, there’s a need to break out of the intellectual constraints of the Modern Synthesis – even the late S J Gould exemplifies this broader thought, though he somehow managed to keep his innovative theorising publicly just about onside with the mainstream.

To me, this broader intellectual vision of people like Newman or Noble begins to make room for a more adequate naturalistic theory of evolution than RM&NS can hope to offer. And I have no problem with that as a Reformed Christian. I only have a problem with theories that force me to believe that immensely complex things are so simple that one vague and possibly tautological concept “natural selection” can explain the whole world.

Now, the approaches made by Third Way people are so diverse that it’s unlikely they can all be true – although, unlike Neodarwinism, because they are more modest in their claims they leave a lot more room for diversity. For example, James Shapiro’s research and citations on “Natural Genetic Engineering” are, to me, convincing about how evolution might proceed beyond the trivial. But he makes no secret of his ignorance of how NGE might have arisen in the first place – he seems to offer nothing beyond a reversion to random mutation and natural selection, but modestly accepts it’s outside his field of study: he provides empirical evidence for what is – others must account for how it got there.

One of the most general features of the alternatives and additions to NeoDarwinism being proposed is some form of teleology within living things. NeoDarwinists have objected to this more than almost anything else, because they still think in the ideological and metaphysical categories of Darwin in the nineteenth century: Natural selection is simple, mindless and doesn’t need God; teleology implies purpose and special creation by God.

Now, it’s certainly true that teleology of any sort undermines the explanatory monopoly of natural selection. In doing that it also threatens the plausibility of a purely materialistic naturalism. But science is supposed to be committed primarily to empirical knowledge, not to one mechanism or one philosophical prejudice. It’s just not true that teleology presupposes God, as this recent essay demonstrates (with some sharp digs at Paley, ID and so on).

As a matter of reason, I personally can’t see how evolution could possibly work without internal teleology (and I see plenty of evidence teleology exists), nor without some well developed theory of formal causation (which I also see as the best explanation for much of the evidence). And so I’m well-disposed towards Third Way, even if they are not well-disposed towards my God (though to be fair, their specific beef is against special intervention, not God himself).

Nevertheless, the NeoDarwinist ideologues who oppose Third Way may have got one thing right, though my impression is that it is by instinct rather than serious reasoning. And that is that, while teleology has no necessary connection to belief in God, it has proved over more than two millennia of intellectual discourse to be intrinsically unstable without having God behind it. The advantage of natural selection as a total explanation is that an idiot can grasp it in one. If true, it’s eminently plausible that randomly colliding particles will, eventually, pull themselves up by their own bootstraps to become scientists theorizing about the same.

If, however, it fails as a total explanation, as Third Way believes, then something more complex is going on, involving surprising emergent properties, unusual boundary conditions, unnaccountable teleonomy, unlikely probabilities and mysteriously appearing information. And the more special those conditions, the more one must ask why the universe should happen to be that way. At that point you’re back to the choice between brute fact (ie no explanation at all), an infinite multiverse (ie an infinite number of unobservable entities) or some concept of God (which like natural selection even a child can understand, but which unlike natural selection appears, equally mysteriously, to be built-in to their natural understanding).

Now, just remind me why it was that Christians ought to prefer an explanation of evolution that’s reductionist, simple and doesn’t require God?

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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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4 Responses to The Third Way and God

  1. pngarrison says:

    According to this, we’re stuck with the multiple universes.

    Quantum nonlocality does not exist

    Of course, this is by Tipler, who as I recall developed what Martin Gardner referred to as the Completely Ridiculous Anthropic Principle (work out the acronym for yourself.) As usual with this kind of thing, I am completely unable to assess it. Local quantum theorists can weigh in. (According to the paper, non-local quantum theorists don’t exist.)

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

      Well, that will please Lou, who says that more quantum physicists buy Many Worlds than any other leading brand. If true, it’s probably just as significant to truth as Coca-Cola being the leading soft drink, if I prefer Pepsi.

      Interestingly (to me) cosmic inflation gives us a whole nother kind of multiverse, where all the others have the same laws of physics as ours. But then you have yet a third kind of multiverse to explain cosmic fine tuning (including, I suppose, the fine-tuning necessary to inflation), in which physically separate universes have every possible range of fundamental values to account for why ours are so special.

      So I make it that there’s a top level of an infinite number of random universes with mostly useless physics, each containing a subset of a more-or-less infinite number of inflation-friendly universes (a few of which run on our laws of nature) and each containing (or giving rise to) a more infinite set of universes diverging with each quantum event since the whole show began, which it probably never did because that would suggest a Creator.

      Meanwhile you can’t get spare parts for your washing machine, and people argue about theories like natural selection being “true” – whatever that means when in the vast majority of future worlds none of them are. Science becomes a bit like doing your family history on firstborn sons alone.

    • Lou Jost says:

      Thanks for that very interesting link, png! There have been earlier claims that MWI resolves nonlocality problems, but they were a bit hard to think about. Maybe this one will be clearer.

  2. Lou Jost says:

    On the subject of teleology, there is actually a kind of naturalistic teleology, if the universe is one of an ensemble of universes (or if many-worlds is true). This kind of teleology follows rigorously from the existence of intelligent observers in this universe. The existence of intelligent observers means that when we assess the probabilities of any past event (such as the origin of life), we have to take the CONDITIONAL probability, conditioned on the fact that intelligent observers exist. This will give different probabilities for past events than the equations of physics would predict. The world would appear to be governed by mysterious teleological forces.

    We could distinguish this kind of naturalistic teleology from the kind advocated by some religious people, or scientists like Noble, by noting that the conditional probability only applies to past events. Future probabilities will be given by the unconditioned laws of physics (though the gambler’s fallacy might incline observers to believe otherwise).

    So there– I am a believer in teleology.

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