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Adrian Warnock – Evolutionary Spectrum

Adrian Warnock – Evolutionary Spectrum

I always find it interesting when Adrian Warnock produces a spectrum on some topic. I almost always disagree with some point on the spectrum, but the exercise is worthwhile. After all, if I produce a spectrum, there will doubtless be people who disagree at some point.

This time Adrian has produced a spectrum on beliefs regarding evolution. I think it generally covers the ground. At the same time, I think it skips over the majority of theistic evolutionists.

The reason may seem subtle, but I think it’s important. Adrian divides the theistic evolutionists between “passive” and “active” equating the latter with intelligent design. I have a couple of problems with that. First, I think natural laws are an expression of God’s will. That a law continues unchanged, or a process functions and finishes (if finishing is appropriate) does not mean that God is less active than when (or if) there is some sort of intervention. Thus God is not less active when he designs a process that works without active intervention than he is with something that requires him to step in from time to time.

Secondly, I think there is a problem with the concepts of intervention, active, and passive. God is. God is infinite (or something close enough we can’t tell the difference). In any case, in terms of interacting with the universe, God doesn’t have to prioritize. He isn’t less active one place than another. So the idea of God being active or passive is an effect of human perception. A process that continues consistently does not appear to require action by God, while one that varies or changes direction is more likely to seem to require such intervention.

Resurrection seems interventionist. Birth and death seems natural. To us.

The evolution of a new life-form seems “special” and perhaps to require intervention. The continued life of a single creature does not. To us.

I just don’t think there’s a real difference from God’s point of view, insofar as one can catch God’s point of view (not very far, I fear). My breath stops without God (Psalm 104:29-30). Gravity stops without God. When all of this works, it appears not to require God’s intervention.

I’m probably writing this too quickly (it’s Sunday morning), to be clear, but my point is simply that God is active whether the process he is using operates consistently and without identified points of intervention or whether (as in intelligent design) there are points at which God intervenes in some special way.

Otherwise, I love the spectrum. I’m glad Adrian included the ruin and restoration folks, who are often forgotten. I’m also glad he distinguished some nuances such as young earth/old universe, and “the earth is young but appears old” vs. “the earth is young and would appear that way if you got the science right.” (My descriptions, not Adrian’s.)


Why I Believe in a Designer but Don’t Accept Intelligence Design

Why I Believe in a Designer but Don’t Accept Intelligence Design

Pocket watch, savonette-type.
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This was triggered by Ed Brayton’s answers to the short ID quiz, and particularly by the first question.

1. On a scale of 0 (diehard disbeliever) to 10 (firm believer), how would you rate your level of belief in Intelligent Design? (Minimal Definition of Intelligent Design: The idea that certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause, and not by an undirected process.)

I agree with Ed that this definition isn’t terribly accurate for what is actually presented as intelligent design. I’m regularly told that I must not substitute “God” for “intelligent designer” and that it might, for example, be intelligent aliens who interfered with the process of evolution in order to produce the results we actually have. Design by an intelligent alien would only push the process off into the distance, not solve it.

But it is hard to regard something as a serious theory where a single part can be filled by either God or by a super intelligent alien. Yet for various reasons (PR and politics, in my opinion), ID advocates don’t want to just say God.

On the other hand, if you say God is the designer, then you can quite justifiably call ID a God-in-the-gaps argument. Where we have no known path of evolutionary development, or better, where we believe there can be no such path—always based, as it must be, on current knowledge—then we suppose the involvement of a designer.

Such an argument is subject to tomorrow’s knowledge, and indeed new gaps have been filled. Behe‘s “black boxes” don’t always remain black boxes.

But for me, the main issue is simply that I do see  the universe as designed, and I do so for religious reasons. I do not think the natural laws as we see them exist independently, even for a moment. May problem with Paley’s watch is not that I don’t think it’s designed, but that I think the grains of sand around it are also designed.

God, who created the universe, is quite capable of creating either finished creatures or the processes by which they would come into being, and I don’t see any portion as less (or more) the product of design than any other. At most, ID could produce evidence that God’s process was insufficient to its purpose and required interference.


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Another Note on Design

Another Note on Design

Pocket watch, savonette-type.
Image via Wikipedia

Since I hadn’t commented on the Intelligent Design controversy for some time, I want to add a couple of notes to what I said yesterday.

I absolutely believe in design. I believe everything is designed by God. I believe God is involved in everything. In teaching on this subject I have occasionally simply started dropping my pencil on the podium. Someone will surely ask me why I’m doing it. I then ask why the pencil always falls. The 20th or 21st century answer is, of course, gravity. Duh! “No,” I like to say, “The pencil falls because God wants it to.”

What do I mean by that? Do I not believe in gravity? Oh absolutely! Like everything else, I do so because I believe in God. God’s desire is expressed so consistently that we can write it as a law.

I followed the suggestion in one of the comments to the Science and the Sacred post I linked yesterday, and went and read the entire essay in PDF, thus avoiding the wait for the second half. I want to quote a couple of paragraphs.

The first is this:

The point is, different chance hypotheses give different results. Dembski writes, “…opposing chance to design requires that we be clear what chance processes could be operating to produce the event in question.”2 Dembski is very explicit about the necessity of the design inference eliminating all chance hypotheses. But this is a fatal flaw: except in very unusual cases, it is impossible to identify all possible chance hypotheses simply because finite human beings are unable to identify every chance scenario that might be operative. [link added]

This is what I meant in my fumbling, non-mathematician’s statement that I reject the design inference on the grounds of garbage-in garbage-out. We don’t know how the creation of life or certain biological structures occurs, and thus it is not possible to determine the probability of such events.


Also, suppose an intelligent agent designed a natural process that incorporated chance. Human beings do this frequently …

Even if we accept, as I do, that God is the creator, we don’t know the process, so how precisely to we identify God’s fingerprint? I would also suggest that the claim that God cannot design a process that includes chance is just as limiting to God as any of the many other limitations we try to put on him.

Dr. Bradley further argues that design is one of those points where theology can legitimately contribute to our knowledge of the world. It’s a great essay. I suggest reading it.

I would note another issue I have with intelligent design, which is simply that it is detecting instances of design in a universe that is, I believe, designed. Thus, in some sense it is detecting “more” design in some portions of the universe than in others. This is the problem I have with the design argument going back to Paley. The watch is designed, yes. But the sand is also designed in some sense. (Note that I’m aware the analogy is between the watch and living organisms, not sand. That is, in fact, my problem with it.)  One could almost infer that the design argument tests for the absence of God’s designing work in other places in the universe. Almost, but not quite. This is, of course, a theological argument on my part, but then I have always thought this argument should be theological and philosophical, rather than scientific.

Incidentally, it is my belief that God is involved at all points in the universe that makes theistic evolution a difficult thing for me. For many people it is simply a matter of saying that the Bible tells us God created but science tells us how God created–evolutionary processes. This said, we move on without examining our theological views based on the result. But the idea that the earth is old and that death occurred before before the fall seems to display a God who is quite willing to let sparrows, amongst many other things, fall. That is a challenging gulf to bridge. I cannot agree with many of my friends who say that evolution doesn’t really make much theological difference.

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Is Intelligent Design Religious?

Is Intelligent Design Religious?

David Opderbeck has an excellent post on the question of whether intelligent design (ID) is religious and how this relates to our view of natural theology. (HT: Through a Glass Darkly)

In the post, he gets into an issue that I have raised before, which is the question of whether we really want to advocate teaching of a sort of “creation lite” (my term) in public school classrooms. I personally say this not form the perspective of keeping religion out of the public school classroom, but rather to keep the state out of the business of teaching religion. I believe that two things generally result from the state trying to teach religion: 1) They do it badly, and 2) They tend eventually to want to enforce whatever it is they have decided to teach.

Opderbeck says:

But even if a plausible argument could be made for the constitutionality of teaching some version of ID in a public school, I personally find this “wedge” strategy pragmatically and theologically suspect….[I’ll leave you to go discover the analogy he uses where I have the ellipsis!]

The imagined Christian majority in this country often seems to believe that whatever is taught in the classroom will be acceptable to them. But a review of the differences in viewpoint among Christians on many issues should suggest that it is difficult to create a single course that is acceptable to all. I would not object to a course in the Bible as literature, for example, provided it was clear that this was not a class in the Bible as a source or object of faith.

I think Christians ought to seriously consider whether or not strategies used to get some form of religion taught in the public school classroom might do more damage to faith than their potential benefit (or damage) to the state. Perhaps we should recapture the notion that it is the task of parents to pass on their faith to their children.

Design Language and Evolution

Design Language and Evolution

Charles Jones has a post a Power of Suggestion in which he notes the following:

But evolution can’t “allow” things, because it’s unguided. And it can’t make any mistakes, because it makes no decisions. Take note: whenever people try to explain how something happens through evolution, they always resort to the language of design.

Now there are quite a lot of problems with the usage of language that is involved here, one of which is referring to evolution–a process–as an “it[-with-consciousness]” that does or does not do particular things. If we think of evolution as a process, however, without trying to make it into an entity, it’s quite proper to refer to a process “allowing” certain things and excluding others.

While evolution may not be guided, there are things that work and things that don’t. Body forms develop in certain ways, both because those ways work and thus the possessors of the form in question survive, but also because the possible alterations in a form are limited. Perhaps if some different body organizations had survived the Cambrian, we would have a different set of alternatives now.

So evolution can “allow” or “disallow” certain options, provided one is thinking not of the conscious decisions of an acting person, but rather the constraints of a process. Think of a simple filter. Let’s consider a box with a mesh covering the bottom. Gravel and sand is poured into the top, and the filter only allows rocks of a particular size to pass through. It doesn’t make mistakes; what happens simply happens because of the constraints–or lack thereof–in the process.

There are two major ways in which language about evolution gets confused. First, we have a failure to see language in its proper context. The word “allow” has a different sense when used to say, “The mother allowed her son to cross the street alone”, as opposed to saying “the filter allowed the smaller rocks to pass but stopped the larger ones.” The mother may have been mistaken in what she allowed; the filter either works or perhaps some of the wires are broken. But it can’t be mistaken!

The second, however, can be more dangerous. We have evolved language to deal with things in our more immediate environment. For most people, a year is a long time. Long term planners may think in decades. Few think in centuries. But evolution occurs over the course of billions of years. Thus we start with a problem. We have to move to observing the present and inferring things about the past. We see this confusion regularly in discussions of whether evolutionary theory is really science.

But even further, we have to look at natural processes that accomplish results. Now at first, as primitive human beings, we would think of events simply as individual happenings. So language to discuss processes would almost always involve an actor. In fact, when we filled our universe with spirits and gods, they very often fulfilled that need of an actor.

But for a process that simply happens because that’s the way it is, we’re a bit short on words, and we’re often uncomfortable with those that we have invented. Note the insecurity produced by the words “random” or “unguided.”

Yet as a theist who accepts evolutionary theory, I believe that even the unguided processes are not, ultimately, absolutely unguided. They’re just unguided in the sense in which we are used to using the terms. If there is a God who created the laws of the universe, then the processes that are constrained by those laws are ultimately fulfilling his will, even if his will was only that those processes work in that way.

Nonetheless, perhaps we need a language to describe action without conscious intervention. Or, on the other hand, we could just realize that the language of design used in describing unguided or remotely guided processes is metaphorical.

Ultimately, you can see, I don’t believe language makes reality. It just simultaneously makes it possible to discuss something, while also making it a bit confusing. It too evolved with constraints.

The Imagination Stopper

The Imagination Stopper

Carl Zimmer has a post on the Loom that discusses irreducible complexity along with some examples. I found it very interesting how we start with a bicycle as irreducibly complex, a claim of an intelligent design (ID) advocate, and then see how the irreducible is reduced through the magic of Google.

There are many ways in which ID is less irrational than young earth creationism. For example, ID requires one to deny things that are much nearer the cutting edge of science, whereas young earth creationism requires one to deny well established theories from a wide variety of disciplines.

But there’s one area in which I think ID has managed to be more destructive to sound science than young earth creationism, and that’s in causing atrophy of the imagination. Because ID provides an answer to many things that are not known, or purports to do so, it tends to make people quit looking or quit trying to imagine what might be. This atrophy of the imagination winds up with ID advocates not even checking to see if the problem they propose has already been solved.

This is simply one instance of a more general problem: Satisfaction with existing answers. There is nothing like being satisfied with the answers you have to prevent you from finding new and better ones. This satisfaction often manifests itself in the “insurmountable problems” attack on any form of new technology. “It doesn’t work now and it never will,” the critics announce with great solemnity. The answer to which, of course, is to overcome the problem.

Similarly, the attack can come in the form of damning with faint praise: “Sure, that will work, sort of, but it won’t solve the whole problem.” In the creation-evolution debate, this argument is repeated over and over in stages.

“There are no transitional fossils.”

So paleontologists find one.

“There are not enough transitional fossils.”

So paleontologists find dozens more.

“Well, you found a few, but there are still not enough.”

It doesn’t end.

Now ID advocates could turn this argument against me, or more purposefully against scientific opponents of ID. Are we too satisfied with current answers? Are we damning with faint praise? Well, I think we’re all safe from the “faint praise” accusation. Successful prediction #1 has yet to be made so that it might be praised faintly and thus damned.

But is there the possibility that satisfaction with current answers is preventing progress? This one is more difficult to tell. The absence of any new answers to actual questions is a bad indicator for ID, but I wish they would go ahead, spend some time in the laboratory, and attempt to produce such an answer so that it could be criticized. Since the beginning of discovery, the proper answer to the critic who says it will never work, or will never provide a satisfactory answer, is to go out and make it work or provide that answer.

As it is, it is the ID crowd who are trying to make us satisfied with an existing answer, and are trying to prevent us from finding a new one.

I’m not a scientist. I don’t work in the natural sciences. But I do read a wide variety of materials from various fields, and I have to say that the field of evolutionary biology looks nothing like the static sort of field stuck in a 19th century theory that hasn’t changed which is described by some (see the Dispatches comment on Steve Fuller.) It isn’t a field that is blocking discovery or trying to defend an entrenched orthodoxy. It is a field that is constantly producing new ideas. In fact, one of the great resources of its critics is the criticism of existing ideas produced within the field.

The ID critics perform an interesting sleight of mind when they both use quotes from various working evolutionary biologists (normally taken out of context, but still!) to show how the whole theory is falling apart, while at the same time say that the whole field is static and is blocking new ideas. That very active criticism and reexamination is the sign of a healthy field of science, involved in serious discovery and growth.

And just what have the ID advocates produced to match? What I see is defense after defense of a static position, one that is much, much more deserving of the epithet “18th century social theory” than is the theory of evolution.

When Neutrality isn’t Neutral

When Neutrality isn’t Neutral

The news of Chris Comer’s suit against the Texas Education Administration claiming she was forced out illegally should come as no surprise to anyone. The reasoning behind the dismissal clearly silly, and the explanations did not ring true as the real reasons she was asked to resign.

But as a moderate who likes to see not just both sides of an issue, but all the various gradients between, I want to comment on the idea of neutrality as it applies in this case. While I like moderation, there are some very definite cases where the “right” position will be at one end of the spectrum or another.

The essence of moderation as I use the term is to identify the full width of the spectrum of possibilities, and then intelligently select the appropriate point. I see at least two types of spectra one might find in such a case. One is a spectrum that balances several valid claims, with varying priority given to these various options. The other is a spectrum that may lead from valid to invalid, with the only necessary choice being to identify the valid end.

I see health care policy as an example of the first kind of spectrum. There are a wide variety of ideas and you can even divide them up into various spectra, considering costs, who are the providers, who are the payers, and so forth. You have valid goals (providing health care to those who need it, making sure that finances are adequate, not forcing one person to pay for the foolishness of another) that need to be balanced, and you might find many positions for which good arguments can be made, but you have to decide on one policy. I think this is a good place to exercise moderate thinking.

For a possibly non-controversial example of the other kind of spectrum, I would suggest an aircraft wing. Now I realize that more than one shape can produce lift, but if one assumes a particular general design there are going to be very few workable shapes, and there will be one that will provide the best lift in combination with other factors in that set of circumstances. You can create a spectrum from a large rock to a carefully shaped wing, but you wouldn’t want to be “moderate” or “neutral” about your choice.

And therein lies the problem for the “neutrality” of the Texas Education Administration in this case. The issue is not between multiple equally scientific (tested, validated, published, etc.) ideas that might be taught. The conflict is between teaching mainstream science, the consensus scientific view of those who work in the appropriate fields, as opposed to picking up a variety of offbeat ideas.

Now some will say this is not the case. It is a conflict between two equally scientific views, and they are only asking for this one view to be given equal time.

But on what basis should a view that claims to be scientific be given a place in the public school science classroom? Should it be true if one guy with a PhD claims it is true? In that case we’d have a rather wild assortment of things to teach. There’s a guy who teaches geocentrism who has a PhD. Should it be anyone who has written a book on the topic? That wouldn’t exclude anything.

How about a certain level of acceptance in the scientific community, specifically by those scientists working in the field in question? Without conducting scientific surveys, that is actually how we work, and if we apply to this topic (ID/intelligent desing vs. evolutionary theory) we will reject ID in the high school classroom and teach evolutionary theory.

The “neutrality” that Chris Comer was expected to maintain was between teaching science and not teaching science, and all things considered, I would have to commend her for making the choice to advocate teaching science. Anything else seems horribly irresponsible.

Which leaves one to wonder about the rest of the Texas Education Administration. One must assume that those in authority want those who coordinate science education in Texas to teach something else. That should make Texas residents–and Americans in general–very concerned.

How it Happened vs. Probabilities

How it Happened vs. Probabilities

I may be hopelessly naive in the matter of probability, though it is the one area of math that I have actually studied, but I am simply not terribly impressed with probability arguments. That’s probably (!) a major reason why I’m not impressed with intelligent design (ID). I’m particularly not impressed with probabilities calculated for processes that are not yet understood. If you don’t know all the factors, how can you calculate a probability?

On the other hand, it appears that many creationists are much more impressed with probabilities that are largely guessed, while they are not terribly impressed with extrapolation in historical studies. For them, it often doesn’t matter how much detail you get for the development of various structures in the past, it’s not enough, because it would only be testable if we could see every stage and explain everything.

Thus when an ID writer claims something is highly improbable, even though he hasn’t a clue how it actually happened, it impresses his fellow creationists, while when a scientist extrapolates development between existing specimens, the same creationists are totally unimpressed. Yet which of these is operating on the greater level of evidence?

If anyone is wondering why I see strong evidence for evolution, here’s the answer. I’m used to and respect historical methods. If you find a pottery type developing, and then you find several examples of stages, sequentially arranged by date, you can extrapolate a path from one style to the next. You don’t need an example of every pot. If you see writing develop from one style to the next, you don’t need every stage. You can extrapolate.

For me, the simple fact of large numbers of sequences in the development of complex structures suggests that such things have developed naturally. Extrapolating the intermediate steps is not terribly difficult for those who study these things, and it is a quite proper procedure. Challenging the observed sequence by indicating that it is improbable strikes me as absurd. The only proper challenge would be to say, “Here! This is where the intelligent designer intervened.” But of course, ID advocates do no such thing.

NCSE has produced a video, which I will embed below, that shows such a sequence on the development of the eye. It’s very clear, but it lacks some steps. I don’t know whether the video produced all the steps we know of, or just a sampling, but if these were the sum total of examples we have in a sequence of eye development, we would have good cause to believe that the eye evolved.

This video comes from the truly excellent site Expelled Exposed, sponsored by NCSE. Hat tip goes to The Panda’s Thumb.

Distinguishing Freedom and Ability

Distinguishing Freedom and Ability

I have always preferred our classic statements of rights, such as the bill of rights, to such statements as Roosevelt’s “Four Freedoms.” What interests me is that while our classic statements of rights indicate things that the government is not permitted to prevent you from doing, the latter two freedoms from Roosevelt’s list, and especially the third, indicate things that you get to have.

The four freedoms Roosevelt mentioned are:

  1. Freedom of speech
  2. Freedom of worship
  3. Freedom from want
  4. Freedom from fear

This ambiguity comes up in plenty of discussions of rights. What precisely does “freedom from want’ require, who gets to decide just how much want is permissible, and who gets to decide who has to produce all of that? I, for example, would like a much better computer. It would help me in my creative activities. Perhaps someone should give me one in order to improve my mental health.

Of course I’m not serious about that. Nobody has any duty to give me a computer. I will have to earn the money and buy one. People often assume that we will all have a reasonable definition of “want” in place, but the fact is that we don’t agree on such things.

That, however, is not my main point. I would like to focus on the distinction between these two types of rights. The first, freedom of speech, is provided by the government failing to take certain actions–not suppressing speech. There is, of course, the positive action of maintaining a lawful framework, but that is a requirement for the existence of any right. Freedom from want requires some positive action on someone else’s part, namely to produce the particular goods.

While I believe I have an obligation as a Christian, individually and in community, to care for those who are less advantaged, I have a distinct problem with many of the government programs that do what I believe I must do privately, because they tend to make one person have an inherent, legal right (I think those are oxymoronic, but they are commonly used together) to that which someone else must go out and produce. I advocate certain safety net welfare programs in any case, not as a right of those who receive them, but as part of maintaining a workable society.

But I want to apply this now to speech and to the controversy about intelligent design. There’s a regular chorus going on right now about suppression. I think that chorus is based on a confusion of their rights with someone else’s production.

I have a right to free speech. I do not have a right to any particular medium. If I can find no publisher for my writing, then my writing will not get printed. Since I am a publisher, I have the right to refuse to print someone else’s drivel, or even their masterpiece, and I am not suppressing free speech, even if they find no other way to publish.

Besides forcing someone else to produce what they believe is a right, people who make such claim try to take away the rights of others. Again, illustrating with myself. As a publisher, were I required to print the works of someone even though I chose not to, then my right of free speech is abridged. My right of free speech does not require a carpenter to build a stage, an electrician to wire the sound system, a newspaper to print an ad for my event, nor any person to come an listen to me.

My belief that I have important things to say does not require a college or university to gather students to hear it. There are things that are of value under those circumstances, and other things that are not. If I were the chair of a religion department, for example, I would consider it quite appropriate to refuse a place on the faculty to a KJV-Only advocate, even if he could produce the appropriate accredited degrees.

In High School curricula, we have the need to cover a great deal of material, and some things are in while others are out. We have groups whose job it is to decide which is which. Subject matter needs to meet a threshold of validity and usefulness in order to merit a place in such a curriculum, otherwise you are forcing students to spend time learning that which will not work to their benefit.

Now there is a little glitch in the educational plan. What about state sponsored institutions of higher learning? Shouldn’t they have to provide a platform for anyone in the name of free speech? They are the government, after all. I would say rather than if we allow a government to operate an academic institution, that is precisely what we should expect them to run, and that will mean making choices, discriminating against bad ideas (it isn’t prejudice if you studied it ahead of time!), and allowing some in and not allowing others.

I say to the intelligent design advocates: You don’t have a right to access to scientific journals and faculties. Your presence in such places must be earned. Your ideas should not appear in curricula by right, but rather because they have proven themselves in the appropriate arena.

ID is trying to create a welfare state for ideas. It’s a bad idea economically, and it’s no better of an idea in the realm of ideas.