Craig vs. Ayala: When Theologians Urge Science and Biologists Urge Theology

This one won’t be a long column. I simply wanted to share something with the readers here. It’s an old taped debate (from 2013 or earlier) featuring William Lane Craig and Francisco Ayala (with Bradley Monton on hand as moderator):

Several points about this debate are of interest. First and foremost, there is the amount of weight Ayala puts on theological arguments against Intelligent Design. (Late in the debate, Craig remarks on the irony of the fact that he, a theologian, has been downplaying theological issues and pressing Ayala regarding unanswered challenges to Darwin on the science front, whereas Ayala, the biologist, has left almost all of Craig’s scientific challenges unanswered and focused on alleged defects of ID as Christian theology.) Of course, that Darwinians make theological arguments against design is nothing new; as Cornelius Hunter, Paul Nelson and others have pointed out many times, theological commitments (about what God would or wouldn’t do) run throughout Darwinian literature, from Darwin to the present. But it’s good to hear a trained philosopher and theologian who is not part of the official ID movement make the same point.

Second, Ayala’s theological arguments (against a God who would design biological systems that are inefficient and cruel) are, as Craig points out, (a) irrelevant to the validity of ID in biological explanation (Ayala’s objections presume that in ID design detection methods are supposed to detect the Christian God, when that is no part of the ID claim), and (b) arguments about theodicy, and the question why a loving God allows sentient beings to endure suffering is a question that must be faced by any Christian theologian, not by the ID proponent alone. I would add — I don’t think Craig made this point explicit, so I take responsibility for the addition — that Ayala is guilty of faulty logic. He is offended that ID (supposedly) makes the Christian God responsible for evil, but if God ordained the evolutionary process (as Ayala seems to imply), then God remains responsible for all evils that the process produces. “I didn’t pull the trigger myself” is no defense in a court of law for someone who has sold the guns and ammunition to those who actually pulled the trigger (and were known by the vendor to be going to pull the trigger), and “I ordained the evolutionary process which I knew in advance would produce great inefficiency and cruelty” is hardly a superior theological position to the view that God has directly created things such as malaria which produce suffering.

Third, though Craig is under the impression (perhaps based on Ayala’s priestly training) that Ayala holds to mainstream Christian faith, and voices that impression clearly in the debate, Ayala had by that time made many public statements (some of them in courtrooms on cases related to evolution in the schools) indicating that he had left the Catholicism of his priestly training behind and did not believe in God as a personal being of the kind conceived of in Christian theology. It takes a certain amount of audacity to place so much weight on ID’s alleged failure to depict a truly Christian God, when one has long ago set aside that God oneself. (But in this context I note that Ayala did not correct Craig’s impression during the debate, and that he argued as if he were a representative of TE/EC and hence still a believing Christian. Had Ayala returned to Christian faith in between his statements before courts and this debate? Perhaps, but I am aware of no public statement to this effect.)

Finally, Ayala’s performance in the debate is, to my mind anyway, noticeably weak. Here is this alleged titan of evolutionary theory whose defense of Darwinian theory, in the face of some sophisticated theoretical objections from Craig, is largely a restatement of what one can find in any popular science treatment aimed at brighter high school seniors: finch beaks, peppered moth, the horse series, etc. There is nothing like the sophistication of technical argument that one can find in many places on the internet. (Lou Jost, who used to post here, gave more advanced biological arguments.) Further, in a debate one is supposed to respond to challenges from the other side, and Ayala’s responses are mainly restatements of his original claims, and fail to address Craig’s arguments. It’s as if he hasn’t paid any attention to what Craig argued — as if he is just running on the basis of a rehearsed script. The net result is that the audience hears a pretty good assault on Ayala’s presentation, whereas Craig comes out hardly scratched.

I wonder if many of the BioLogos folks have seen this debate. Ayala used to be one of their big guns, the guy they used to trot out as the expert on evolutionary biology, back during the regime of Falk and Giberson. They liked his big-name clout so much that they used him to attack Meyer’s book on the origin of life, even though origin of life was nowhere near Ayala’s own biological specialty of genetics. But lately they seem to have distanced themselves from Ayala; they no longer have that section of their website where Ayala is identified as a Christian and his priestly training is mentioned, and he doesn’t seem to write guest columns there any more, and none of the BioLogos folks mention him much. But he uses many of the same theological arguments against ID that other TE/EC writers do, so if they disown his arguments in this debate, they would have disown many other anti-ID arguments as well.

For me, this debate just confirms a common TE/EC pattern: bash ID on Christian theological grounds, while making bad Christian theological arguments oneself. And it’s perhaps telling that TE/EC folks so often attack ID on theological grounds, even when (as in this case) the person trying to at least give ID a fair hearing wants to talk about the paucity of evidence for the Darwinian extrapolation from microevolution to macroevolution. Craig really wanted to debate the science with Ayala, but Ayala wasn’t interested in doing so.

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About Edward Robinson

Edward Robinson (Eddie) started his university career on a science scholarship, but ended up as a philosopher/theologian researching the relationship between religion and natural science. He has published several books and articles on religion/science topics in both mainstream academic outlets and denominational and popular periodicals. He has also taught courses in various departments in several universities.
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9 Responses to Craig vs. Ayala: When Theologians Urge Science and Biologists Urge Theology

  1. Avatar photo Sy Garte says:

    Hi Eddie

    I didnt listen to the entire debate, but I heard enough to know that Ayala is a bit out of date, wrt modern evolutionary theory. Craig’s points were, as you said, not answered in any convincing way, probably because Ayala has not read Denton’s latest book, or anything recent from Behe. He is of course, not alone in this, many evolutionists are still not terribly interested in any part of the Third Way or the EES, as we know.

    I also wanted to discuss something about Biologos with you, since you brought them up in your post. Last week, I was able to live stream the plenary sessions from the Biologos Meeting held in Houston. Speakers included many of the Biologos staff, advisors, and allied ECs, including Deb Haarsma, Jim Stump, Dennis Venema, Andy Crouch, Praveen Sethupathy, Scot McKnight, and Tom Wright and Francis Collins.

    Some of these talks were not surprising, and were focused on the well known mission of Biologos to demonstrate the reality of the two books model for reconciling science with Christian faith. On the other hand, several of these speakers, I believe, forged some new paths in the discussion, particularly by stressing the importance of a Christ centered approach to understanding Creation through natural law.

    Tom Wright in the opening address led the way, but then Wright is a brilliant theologian who accepts modern science, but doesnt often incorporate it into his ideas. But Jim Stump, the Senior Editor, and a person of major importance in the Biologos organization, presented a view of evolutionary science from a Christian perspective, that I believe should totally satisfy your oft stated concerns that Biologos might be heading toward Deism, and that it is difficult to discern the role of God in the evolutionary (or other scientific) process from their statements of belief. Jim’s talk left no room for doubt in my mind about the Christ centered message of Biologos.

    I am sure that all of these talks will eventually be available, and I am also sure that you cannot fail to be moved by Jim’s talk. I did take some notes (the videos are no longer available, and here are some of the highlights (cant guarantee their absolute accuracy) that I jotted down while listening.

    “…But that doesn’t mean that we are modified apes, or are just our genes, God entered into a special relationship with us. We are unique, we bear his image to the world.”

    “…The best explanation of this is to see that scientific explanations are limited, that they don’t tell the whole story.”

    “…The Christian hope is not in some fabled perfect past, but in the transformed future, the new heaven the new earth, the kingdom of God.”

    “In our dialogue of faith with science, the center of Christian theology holds…because the center of our faith is a person. We see that it is Christ who holds all things together.”

    Talks by Deb Haarsma, Andy Crouch and others also reflected what is to me the clear fact that Biologos is not on any path away from orthodox Christian belief. It was clear that not all the answers are there, but that is how it should be.

    In sum, I remain hopeful, as I was when I first posted my review of Denton’s book, that the future looks bright for a rapprochment between the EC leaders at Biologos, and the evolutionary wing of ID, despite the continued resistance by some, like Ayala. Peace.

    • Avatar photo Edward Robinson says:

      Hi, Sy.

      Thanks for your comments on my piece, and for the news about BioLogos.

      I certainly agree with Jim Stump that we are not modified apes or reducible to our genes, and that scientific explanations don’t tell the whole story. Our philosophical and theological reasons for coming to those conclusions, however, might be quite different.

      Still, in a proper academic setting, outside of the culture-war jungle, I think I might agree with Jim Stump on more things. If we were in a graduate seminar together, where the flow of discussion was controlled by the wise rather than by the mob, I think we could hold a nuanced discussion and maybe reach some real agreement. But the BioLogos comments section isn’t a graduate seminar; it’s more often like a street fight. I was misrepresented regularly (and sometimes maliciously) as being anti-evolution, creationist, etc. by beaglelady, Burke, and benkirk, and I don’t think Jim ever understood that my criticism of liberal Protestant theology, of neo-Darwinian theory, and of NOMA did not imply criticism of evolutionary creationism as such. And I don’t think he ever understood that the theological position I was defending had nothing in common with American fundamentalist literalism and anti-science. I also suspect that his own personal situation (being dismissed from an academic job at a Christian college for defending evolution) made it very hard for him to see any criticism of evolutionary theory as motivated by anything but fundamentalist Biblicism and anti-science. So we parted ways without ever achieving mutual understanding. But understanding, like truth, is one of the first casualties in the culture war over evolution.

      I’m glad you’re involved in all this, because you are willing to talk to people from both groups (ID and EC) without snarling or imputing bad motives. Maybe your presence will make a difference. I hope it does.

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

      Just a brief reply to this, Sy:

      … but I heard enough to know that Ayala is a bit out of date, wrt modern evolutionary theory.

      Part of that, of course, is that it’s an old video. But reading the history of ET theory it could have been said at any point in the last 150 years. What often seems to be forgotten when the old “You don’t understand evolution” canard comes out is that, inevitably, given another five years or so in a rapidly changing field, whatever is being said by the authoritative source will no longer be “modern evolutionary theory.”

      A case in point. Here’s a quote:

      It is now clear that most of the DNA in an organism is not contained in genes in the usual sense. That is, 98–99 percent of the DNA is not a code for a sequence of amino acids that will be assembled into long chains that will fold up to become the proteins that are essential to the formation of organisms; yet that nongenic DNA is transmitted faithfully from generation to generation just like the genic DNA.

      It appears that the sequence of this nongenic DNA, which used to be called “junk-DNA,” is concerned with regulating how often, when, and in which cells the DNA of genes is read in order to produce the long strings of amino acids that will be folded into proteins and which of the many alternative possible foldings will occur.

      Now, that could come from an ID comment on BioLogos about ENCODE, which would be torn to shreds on the basis that most repetitive DNA is still junk, and creationists have willfully misunderstood the ENCODE findings, which were anyway overstated, to push their case.

      But in fact it comes from Richard Lewontin in 2011, before the ENCODE results. Since then, more instances of function have been found to confirm it, and as far as I know no suspected functions have been disproven. So is Lewontin behind the times re “modern evolutionary theory”, or ahead of the curve? And who gets to say?

  2. Robert Byers says:

    Its a general human incompetence in how we argue things I notice. It just happens in origin contentions too.
    it does seem anti id’ists seek to undercut ID by saying its bad theology.
    Oh brother.
    Its so obvious they are desperate to say nature does not show Gods fingerprints.
    Its such a classic argument that nature does show Gods ideas.
    it demonstrates there really was a conspiracy, always, to hyjack science to make the case there is no evidence or need to see a creator in nature. Allow the option but no need.
    Then when iD made a respected ,in their eyes, case for a creator they went nuts.
    it was a conspiracy.

  3. Avatar photo Sy Garte says:

    Thanks Eddie, but I am afraid your optimism about any role for me is misplaced. I am also somewhat persona non grata at Biologos, for reasons I can only guess, and do not make many appearances on their forum, which I agree can be less than gracious at times.
    It might be that I am still blamed for some of that, based on the fiasco of my post on Denton’s book over a year ago. Anyway, I try not to let whatever this issue is about influence my positive reaction to the good that BL does, including their successful meeting in Houston.

    I agree that you and Jim Stump would likely agree on much more than you disagree on, and that might be true for a number of other folks on the forum as well. BTW, I will be presenting my “heretical” view on teleology and evolution (from the recent PSCF paper) at the summer ASA meeting, so it will be interesting to see who (and from which camp) reacts in what way.

    I think you might agree with me that our current model of YEC, OEC, ID and EC is a bit like the situation with species. Sometimes a strict definition of what (or who) belongs in which category, is not so easy.

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

      Sy – re your last para, check out the surprising posts from Joshua S beginning here.

    • says:

      I have been banned from Biologos until the year 2044. I mentioned and put forward both the scientific and philosophical concerns with evolution and pointed out that TE/EC leads to either deism or Christian Atheism as TE/EC is largely inconsistent with traditional Christianity as it stands. I also said that Biologos seem to be engaged in an apologetic for scientists/scientific societies and by definition seem to dismiss any thinker who does not kneel to the TE/EC consensus on how science and religion relate. I linked to how Darrell Falk reacted to Steve Meyer when he wanted to reply to Ayala’s review of his book in which Falk said “I felt his [Meyer’s] tone was insufficiently respectful of one of Biology’s living legends” – .

      As well as how quickly backed down on his review of Meyer’s “Darwin’s Doubt” after criticism from Nick Matzke – a man barely half his age (he seems to have removed his review for ‘Evolution: Still a Theory in Crisis’ mentioned on this site; I cannot find it).

      In addition to the ban most of my substantive posts have been removed (especially the ones with links and my replies to my critics ) and the wonderful Christy Hemphill wrote this “Matt’s in time out, so you don’t need to waste time responding to his posts. Have a nice evening everyone”. Class acts all around.

      Boy Christy hates WLC.

      • Avatar photo Edward Robinson says:

        Dear Matt:

        I don’t think that Jon or any of us wants to use this site for detailed discussions of the hows and whys of BioLogos bannings. But to answer one of your concerns, don’t worry about that automated message about being suspended until Year 2044. Everyone who is suspended gets that message, even for a 30-day suspension. I expect that you will be reinstated in 30 days. Christy said “Time out” and that means a limited suspension. (My case is different, as I was banned from Head Office, by Jim Stump, and he made it plain that the ban was permanent. But I’m not going to write a column about how unfair that was.)

        I agree with your comments about the puzzling nature of Darrel Falk’s behavior toward ID. I suspect that pressure was brought to bear on him from behind the scenes, especially by the biologists in the TE movement, when he published that favorable review of Denton’s new book, and I suspect that is why the review was pulled down from Amazon, but I have no proof at all of that. In any case, it’s too bad, because the Discovery folks and other ID people were pleased with Falk’s fairness, and that might have been a stepping-stone toward more civil relations between the two camps. This is another case illustrating where truth is the first casualty in culture wars.

        I don’t know the history of Christy’s comments about Craig. Theologically, I’m neither pro- nor anti-Craig; I haven’t studied his positions enough to say. I just thought he did a darned good job of taking Ayala apart in that debate. Ayala’s performance was actually embarrassing, from a debating point of view, because it was entirely non-responsive. No one could say that Ayala won the debate; he lost it by default. Of course, one could still agree with Ayala’s conclusions about evolution; but no one who understands the structure of debates and the rules for scoring points, etc., could honestly say he won the debate.

        Supposedly Ayala studied philosophy and theology at a high level in his younger years. Certainly there was no evidence of that in the debate. He didn’t appear in Craig’s league in those subjects. Too many years writing about random mutations and too many years away from reading Aquinas, I guess.

        Regarding your claim that offended Christy and probably other moderators at BioLogos, I think you went too far to say that anyone who endorsed EC was some kind of atheist. I agree that the particular form of EC endorsed by BioLogos is riddled with all kinds of problems, tendencies toward various heresies, etc. But even at BioLogos I think they are all sincere (if intellectually misguided) Christians. (I mean the columnists and staff, not the commenters, many of whom are not Christians or are from heretical branches of the faith.)

        Further, if we use “evolutionary creation” or “theistic evolution” in a generic sense, to mean something less narrow than the bizarre version of EC given on BioLogos, most of the columnists here could call themselves EC/TEs. We think that God did use, or easily could have used, evolution as his mode of creation; but we don’t sacrifice orthodox Christian theology, as many American ECs do, in order to synthesize Christianity with evolution. We insist that God remains in control of any evolutionary process that occurred.

        In contrast, the ECs of BioLogos are very evasive about whether God is in control of evolutionary outcomes or there are some outcomes he either couldn’t control or voluntarily refrained from controlling etc. They often seem willing to sacrifice God’s providence, sovereignty, omnipotence, etc. to uphold particular accounts of evolution which they favor.

        Giberson wrote a book called “Saving Darwin” and Miller wrote a book called “Finding Darwin’s God”. Neither wrote a book called: “Saving the Orthodox View of God and Creation from the Amateur and Heretical Theologizing of Evolutionary Biologists” or “Ways of Adopting Evolution without Sacrificing Classical Christian Theology.” That tells you which cultural community, the scientists or the theologians, holds the whip hand, in EC-land.

        • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

          Just to endorse Eddie’s general line to Matt, our main aim here (sometimes diluted by reaction to circumstances, ’tis true!) is to provide a better alternative to the eclectic theology and philosophy of current “Evolutionary Creation”.

          That there are faithful believers involved with BioLogos is undoubted – all of our writers who are not banned (I’m looking at you, Eddie) post there, after all.

          Matt may know that this blog, and its relative estrangement from BioLogos, began to get readers when I reviewed Signature in the Cell in the light of the BioLogos treatment of it. As far as possible, since then, we’ve tried to be constructive, to focus on issues rather than culture-war and – in my ambition at least – to provide a place where people can feel confident that we take science seriously, but the established truths of the Christian faith even more seriously.

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