Ritual purity and ideological pollution

I went to check for any new stuff on the Third Way website of alternatives to Neodarwinism over the weekend, and noticed a further addition to the “Ts and C’s”. It seems they now consider themselves in danger of becoming ritually unclean:

It has come to our attention that THE THIRD WAY web site is wrongly being referenced by proponents of Intelligent Design and creationist ideas as support for their arguments. We intend to make it clear that the website and scientists listed on the web site do not support or subscribe to any proposals that resort to inscrutable divine forces or supernatural intervention, whether they are called Creationism, Intelligent Design, or anything else.

I notice that this seems less a clarification of their own secular beliefs than a plenary anathema: “Whatever any of those people say, whoever they may be, we disagree with it. Always. Completely. Yes.”

Now I suppose some such stance might be justified if Creationists and IDists (and the nameless others – TEs perhaps?) are making claims that James Shapiro and his colleagues actually believe in Creationism themselves, but I have to say that for myself I’ve only seen claims like that from skeptics like Larry Moran.

Equally if such Creationist sites misquote or misrepresent the cases being made by Newman, or Noble, or Jablonka, they are acting irresponsibly – though not particularly unusually in the parallel universe of the Internet. But all I’ve seen on ID sites, for example, argues along the lines of citing the evidence of one of these guys for the inadequacy of Neodarwinism (a shared concern), or for a teleological process (a shared concern). But the critique is usually added that he has failed to suggest adequate natural mechanisms for the arrival of his own preferred option, if Neodarwinism does fall short. Ergo design, etc. Which seems fair comment, in principle.

The objection seems to be that these “Creationists or whoever they are” are in the wrong in the very citation of Third Way evidence to support their arguments. But that would be a pretty strange intellectual position, wouldn’t it? The whole business of arriving at a position on something necessarily includes dealing with the evidence of ones opponents. It’s both normal, and legitimate, to say either “X‘s evidence doesn’t add up,” or “X‘s evidence actually supports my case better than his own.” Politicians routinely turn their opponents’ statistics back on them, and nobody (except a fool) cries that Republicans shouldn’t use Democrat survey results. Muslim apologists regularly cite radical liberal Christian academics to show that even the Christians don’t believe Jesus is God’s Son, and the problem lies with what the academics are saying, not with the Muslims who quote it. Why, even atheists sometimes use the writings of orthodox Christians in their own favour. The traditional response is to make corrections in reply (or ignore it altogether).

But it’s not even controversial – any academic book will cite hundred of sources with whom the writer only partially agrees, if particular arguments support his case. Nobody supposes that quoting Nietsche, even favourably, puts you on his side generally. That’s the way knowledge proceeds, so what’s the problem?

Well, in this case the answer seems to be a desire for the blanket exclusion of all who “resort to inscrutable divine forces or supernatural intervention.” Is that reasonable? The complaint of the Neo-scholastics against natural theology, mentioned in comments a couple of posts ago is that, far from resorting to an inscrutable God, Intelligent Design resorts to a God who is too scrutable for the general good. The same is thought to be true of those espousing Creation Science – they are claiming that the evidence on the ground supports a literalistic view of Genesis, ie that in this respect God’s work is transparent, and far from inscrutable. ID claims (rightly or wrongly, that is not my concern here) that some evidence in biology is best explained by intelligent design, which may or may not be from God but, in any case, will be operating through investigable secondary causes. To exactly the extent that the designer’s work can be so investigated, it is not inscrutable. So “inscrutability” isn’t actually the issue at all. The shibboleth really is that, at whatever remove from the biology itself, a divinity may be involved in some way, which cannot be countenanced.

So, we infer, all the Third Way researchers wish not only to distance themselves from, but to deny, any role for “divine forces” and, indeed, to consider that any of their work has been used wrongly should it be referenced by any who do allow for such forces. The first is their privilege as proprietors of the site; the second somewhat precious, as I have argued above. But both quite clearly reveal a metaphysical faith commitment on their part, which is prior to their practice of science and governs its course.

It’s worth just backing that up from the website itself. As I’ve suggested above, Intelligent Design proponents and Creation Scientists both work from a belief that God is, to some extent, actually “scrutable” in biological processes. To what extent that is the case depends on the individual, but at the most basic level every Theist believes that God’s work is seen in some way in Creation. Even the most Philosophical Classical Theist, denying the knowability of God’s being in itself, does not believe him entirely unknowable by analogy and through his work.

But Third Way believes “divine forces” to be inscrutable, and therefore won’t have any of them. If that were from scientific conviction, then it would follow that biology itself is perfectly scrutable, and that its scrutators have seen how it works clearly enough to exclude divinity as mistaken or, at least, superfluous. But is that what Third Way claims? Not as far as the mainstream theory goes, for starters. From their Mission Statement:

Neo-Darwinism… is clearly naturalistic science but ignores much contemporary molecular evidence and invokes a set of unsupported assumptions about the accidental nature of hereditary variation.

The Modern Synthesis, then, claims variation is accidental, but can’t (according to Third Way) support that assumption. So variation might not be accidental at all. If not, then it has teleological (for what else is “non-accidental”?) causes that, unlike those suggested by Creationists, can be successfully scrutinized. Presumably, then, those causes have been successfully investigated by Third Way, or else their exclusion of the divine must follow from faith, not from the evidence.

But alas! They do not claim to have seen through biology at all – in fact, they are all still making the attempt, it seems, from different, and not necessarily compatible, angles:

The web site therefore intends to present a wide variety of novel views about evolution but does not necessarily endorse any of them. Our goal is simply to make new thinking about evolution available in one place on the web.

The summary of their position, then, seems to be this: “So far, the processes of evolution are inscrutable enough that we are not able to agree about them, either with each other or the biological mainstream. But by faith we believe that we are on the right track and they will yield all their secrets in due time, and that God will not be one of them.”

Which doesn’t seem a very strongly evidenced position to me, but a prior commitment. Better, I think, if they just got on with their valuable empirical work and left the ideological jockeying to others.

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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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8 Responses to Ritual purity and ideological pollution

  1. Avatar photo GD says:


    I have held to the view (since the days, many years ago, when a student would grow a beard and longer hair to be so way out) that what has given impetus to Darwinian outlooks (I emphasise the plural) has been the ability to manufacture arguments for and against – I remain convinced that this is the major force of this outlook to this day – all else is a supporting cast therein.

  2. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


    Like me you kept the beard, I see…

    I think you’re right at both the professional and the popular level. If evolutionary theory weren’t so beguilingly intuitive at entry level, the discussions would be less intuitive too.

  3. Avatar photo Sy Garte says:

    Hi Jon.

    Yes, I am back. And what a great post I came back to see. As it happens I am writing a long paper on Third Way stuff, and have submitted an abstract on it for the Biologos meeting. Of course, (as in the past) I totally agree with your irritation at the thundering sound of the gates being slammed shut on any hint of divine action in biology by Third Way folks. But on reflection, I think your last sentence is really the right approach. Shapiro and Laland et al have been attacked (wrongly, as they keep hastening to prove) of being, if not actual believers, then of providing the evil theists with grist. So what should they do? For people like us, who really ARE the bad guys, meaning Christians who believe that God DOES play a role in evolution in some way, I think the best thing is that the experimental scientists behind the EES and other attempts at revising evolutionary theory, do exactly what you said, keep the data coming. But I think their continual denials (they will have to be continual, and in increasing stridency, because they wont be let alone by the Coynes, and so forth) at least serve the purpose of setting them apart from any theism related agenda. I think thats a good thing. It allows folks like us to use their data as we like, perhaps adding a few things here and there. We will have our own Fourth Way, which adds God, teleology, and divine intervention as we see fit. They might shun us, but so what? Our audience is not them, we are not trying convince atheists that God exists (at least I hope not) but to convince Christians that evolution is God’s work. And if the Third Way helps with that, God bless them, even if they dont like it.

    • Avatar photo GD says:

      Hi Sy,

      You make a number of excellent points – however, I think it is necessary to discuss the way you articulate – “to convince Christians that evolution is God’s work” —- I cannot agree with any phrase that states science is God’s work, whatever field and discipline we are discussing. I think this point is very important if we wish to move out of the endless conflicts that bedevils various areas of the sciences, and instead understand Orthodox Christianity in a world that is greatly influenced by science and technology. I suggest that phrases such as, “obtaining a deeper understanding and appreciation of God’s Creation” would be preferable theologically. Hope you find my comments helpful.

      • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

        Welcome back, Sy! Long overdue.

        In response to GD’s comment in conjunction with yours, I actually agree with both. It’s a question of balance.

        On the one hand, the healthy situation for science (and for truth in general) is to throw the diverse evidence into the mix and see where it leads. And as I’ve been trying to show in the posts about epistemology and suchlike, the conclusions are bound to be, and ought to be, profoundly affected by our overall human experience, to be acknowledged on all sides rather than buried in claims of ultimate objectivity.

        Conclusions from theistic science and atheistic naturalism could happily coexist in the same (scientific) world, addressing the same data, but they cannot be the same thing.

        And also as, far as my own interest goes, seeking to bring science and Christian belief into the same conception of truth for believers is the project, rather than seeking to persuade atheists… though I acknowledge the value of apologetics and may occasionally stray into it.

        On the other hand, I agree with GD on the dangers of forging a permanent link between Christian teaching and any one aspect of science like evolution (and still less, particular theories of evolution). The history of knowledge is too full of twists and turns to make that wise.

        Perhaps the thing, with evolution, is to order the project along the lines of “if we admit theory A into our working knowledge, let’s do the work of establishing its relationship to God’s Creation, and critiquing it in that light”

        An analogy would be the mediaeval times when Aristotelian science reigned, and the Church sought to integrate it with theology as far as possible. That’s generally seen, in retrospect, as a mistake – and maybe it was to the extent that the “facts” of the science were allowed to be on the same level as revealed truth, and so defended as articles of faith.

        Yet it was, to my mind, right that theologians should say, “Granted what the natural philsosophers are saying, let’s work towards the best integration rather than have non-overlapping magisteria.”

        So an enculturated Christianity for our times has to take account of evolution as it does post-modernism, capitalism, feminism etc, but always with an eye to the truth that human wisdom will pass away, and often quite quickly.

    • Avatar photo Edward Robinson says:

      Hi, Sy. Glad to see you back. I agree with you about our relationship with the Third Way people. It doesn’t matter to me whether or not any of them believe in God; the point is that they are competent scientists who question neo-Darwinian dogmas and have research to back up their doubts. They “open up” evolutionary theory and therefore increase the number of speculative possibilities, both regarding evolution as a biological theory, and the relationship of evolution to divine action and planning. That they choose not to investigate the religious possibilities should not bother us. As long as their scientific work has integrity, we can appreciate it and make use of it.

      It’s amusing that people like Coyne are so desperate for a response to people like Shapiro that they have to resort to imputing hidden theistic motives to them. It’s the old tactic: when you can’t defeat the argument, attack the man. Speaking as an ID supporter, I’ve become accustomed to such tactics from the atheist leaders. But the public grows wise, given enough time. Eventually it notices that imputations of creationist motives are being substituted for argument and evidence. People like Coyne, Myers, Eugenie Scott, Nick Matzke, etc. are already starting to sound like old-fashioned stump orators, not like serious intellectuals. They are largely figures of the blogosophere, having little importance beyond it. Their influence on the thought of the future will be negligible. I’m optimistic.

  4. Lou Jost 2 says:

    This addition on their website is a logical extension of the addition Jon discussed a week or so ago, in which they treated naturalism as a prerequisite for science. Coyne, Moran, Myers, and many other scientists (including me) agree with you that this is wrong; nothing should be ruled out a priori. But their qualifier,”inscrutable”, gives some validity to their position. If the Designer hypothesis were really completely inscrutable and made no predictions or postdictions at all about reality, and was simply a wild card ready to be used every time we couldn’t figure out any other explanation, then I think it could be argued that this is not a scientific hypothesis. However, I know of no proponent of ID or creationism who does not have fairly specific ideas about what the designer was aiming for (it was aiming for us or something like us, or complexity in general, or some other identifiable goal, according to these people). So the new addition is creating a straw man. There are no creationists or IDers who think their preferred designer is completely inscrutable. Most of them believe in revealed religions, so they have hundreds or thousands of pages of clues about the goals of their designer. Of course, we’ve seen repeatedly that these same people do tend to hide behind the “insctrutability” of their god when straightforward ID or creationist claims or predictions are falsified.

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


      I’m glad we agree on the unsuitability of inscrutability, which, as presented on the Third Way site is a broad generalisation that is not only (as you suggest) mistaken but also somewhat meaningless when applied to any and all versions of creation.

      Naturally, if one takes the broadest concept of supernaturalism, or even theism, there is an almost inevitable element of “inscrutability” because (divine) choice is a necessarily different modus operandi from law – the reason that the human sciences are less capable of exact treatment than, say, physics. Only a Deist God operates entirely by Law, and such a Being has no separate role in science except at the philosophical level of being held ultimately indispensible, though of course pretty well all theists would regard natural law as, in some sense, the outworking of God’s regular activity. But that has never conflicted with science and, indeed, formed its original basis – it is the most transparent aspect of God’s activity in nature.

      Asking why a Theistic Creator does something (as final cause) can only usefully be included in science in the general sense of identifying function as a teleological reality (which admission doesn’t exclude naturalism, though it weighs against it). So I disagree to some extent with your attribution of theological final causes to IDers and such-like, because their research concern is with divine participation in efficient and/or formal causation, not with the purpose of the world.

      That does not preclude the conclusion that the totality of efficient causes might indicate some overall teleological goals and trajectories, but I don’t think that’s a principal aim of design proponents, let alone those like theistic evolutionists who are finicky about the use of ideas like “design.” But still you’re dead right in attributing specific goals of investigation, whether that be empirical claims about irreducible complexity, mathematical/philosophical claims about the impossibility of generating information de novo etc.

      I can’t offhand think of anyone who’s retreated into inscrutability as a result of any debunking design claims – the nearest I can think of are TEs who play the “mystery” card to cover theological inconsistencies. Otherwise I’ve just seen a quite legitimate refusal (in my view) to claim to know why God would have done some particular thing or used some means rather than another. Naturalistic scientists are equally rightly agnostic on why evolution has taken one course rather than others… though often surprisingly dogmatic about what they believe God would have done if he did exist.

      To round this off, my own “health warning” is that I’m only peripherally interested in “demonstrations of design”, since I approach things theologically (even when engaging with science, philosophy or metaphysics). I’m more interested in how and why God does things, based on a Christian faith commitment, rather than proving he has.

      I can afford to have that attitude upfront because I’m not engaged in scientific research, just as philosphers get to operate under different ground rules from scientists. Whether it would influence any research I did do would depend entirely on the nature of the work. If it was the ecology of late Triassic Dorset, not at all. If it was the randomness of variation, possibly quite a lot. But since it’s neither, I can treat science as just one part of the picture.

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