Tuesday, March 30, 2010

A God of Some Sort

After my last post on the aspects of anti-evolution ID theory I feel unhappy about, it is very timely that William Dembski has published this post on Uncommon Descent illustrating just what I mean.

Dembski starts by quoting Frank Zindler who expresses the view that a literal Adman and Eve, the fall, original sin and the need of salvation are all incompatible with evolution: Basically the sort of stuff one gets from many a Bible Belt fundamentalist, but with one minor difference: Frank Zindler is an atheist and to him this is all just so much counterfactual theology. It goes to show that there is such a thing as a “Bible Belt” atheist; that is, an atheist who shares Bible Belt mental categories and therefore subliminally reasons and thinks about deity just like a Bible Belter. (Albeit counterfactually)

However, this is by the by. Dembski says of Zindler:

But Zindler is not arguing for the mere compatibility of evolution with atheism; he is also claiming that evolution implies, as in rationally compels, atheism. This implication is widely touted by atheists. Richard Dawkins pushes it. Cornell historian of biology and atheist Will Provine will even call evolution “the greatest engine for atheism” ever devised. To claim that evolution implies atheism is, however, logically unsound (even though sociological data supports the loss of faith as a result of teaching evolution). Theistic evolutionists such as Francis Collins, Denis Alexander, and Kenneth Miller provide a clear counterexample, showing that at least some well-established biologists think it’s possible for the two to be compatible. Moreover, there’s no evident contradiction between an evolutionary process bringing about the complexity and diversity of life and a god of some sort (deistic, Stoic, etc.?) providing the physical backdrop for evolution to operate.

With that I agree, but make note of this: The evolutionary beliefs of Collins, Alexander and Miller are, as Dembski generously concedes, apparently consistent with “a god of some sort”. It’s a good thing that these are New Testament days, because I think Dembski will find that in Old Testament times worshipping “a god of some sort” could attract the death penalty. Otherwise so far so good, but be warned things start to go downhill from now on. Dembski goes on to say:

The reverse implication, however, does seem to hold: atheism implies evolution (a gradualist, materialist form of evolution, the prime example being Darwinian). Indeed, the atheist has no other rational options in explaining the diversity and complexity of life. The atheist may, in the face of reason, invoke pure chance to explain the emergence of life.

Atheism implies evolution? In a synthetic and probabilistic sense this is certainly true in that if one is given a person who is an atheist there is a high chance he or she is an evolutionist. But Dembski suggests that atheists have no other “rational” options open to them. This is a bit too strong: There is a measure of subjectivity in gauging just what is rational: One man’s rationality is another man’s idiocy. Would atheists who invoked a multiverse in order explain abiogenesis as a “pure chance” leap classify as being rational or irrational? What about atheist Fred Hoyle’s panspermia and his foray into a kind “alien” intelligent design? And where do we position those who say we are part of a gigantic simulation? It is certainly not clear to me that Darwinian gradualism is the only option open to atheists; it just seems to be the only game in town that currently appeals to most atheists for reasons that I suggested in my last post.

But Dembski then goes on to propose a necessary disjoint between intelligent design and evolution as per the following:

The rationale here is a simple application of the logical rules modus ponens (If A, then B; A; therefore B) and modus tollens (If A, then B; not B; therefore not A). Thus,
Premise 1: If atheism is true, then so is Darwinian evolution.
Premise 2: But if ID is true, then Darwinian evolution is false.
Premise 3: ID is true (the controversial premise).
Conclus 1: Therefore Darwinian evolution is false (modus ponens applied to Premises 2 and 3)
Conclus 2: Therefore atheism is false (modus tollens applied to Premise 1 and Conclus 1)

Premise 1 is unclear. Does “If atheism is true” equate to “If there is no god”? Is Dembski saying “If there is no God then evolution follows”? Is he saying that in the absence of the Aseity of Deity evolution has the logical efficacy to create life and can make good the absence of a divine creator? If so atheist materialists would probably agree. If this is Dembski’s meaning then it goes to show that there is such a thing as a “materialist” Christian; that is, a Christian who shares “naturalist” categories and can thus subliminally reason and think about “naturalism” like a materialist. Or have I got Dembski’s meaning here completely wrong? Does he simply mean that if a person believes in atheism he will believe in evolution? After all “atheism” is a belief about an ontology and not the ontology itself; Dembski has not made clear the distinction between atheism as a belief and atheism as an ontology.

Premise 2 is clearly false. If the cosmos is sourced in some kind of self-necessary intelligence it is not clear to me that it follows that Darwinian evolution is false: As I have indicated in this blog, if evolution is to work in a realistic time, it requires the right mathematical preconditions (if they exist), and those preconditions can be construed as an ID choice made by some super intelligence. However, it is very likely that the idea that an act of intelligent design is required to set up a working version of evolution is not consistent with Southern Baptist Bible Belt creation theology - Dembski’s Southern Baptist outlook would very likely see a conflict between evolution and Christian theism (as per atheist Frank Zindler). So perhaps premise 2 should read as follows:

Premise2: “If Southern Baptist Bible Belt theology is true then Darwinian evolution is false”

Premise 3: As a theist I would accept this premise, but not in the sense that Dembski defines ID (See the following). Clearly then on the proceeding basis Dembski’s conclusion 1 does not follow. But it seems that Dembski’s aim is to define both ID and “Darwinian” evolution in such a way as to drive a wedge between them; they are in his view mutually exclusive as this passage shows:

When I got into this business 20 years ago, I thought that any Christian (and indeed any theist), given solid evidence against Darwinian evolution (as ID is now increasingly providing—see my book The Design of Life and Stephen Meyer’s Signature in the Cell) would be happy to trash it and move to some form of intelligent design (whether discrete creations or gradual guidance or information front-loading or whatever). But that has not happened. Theistic evolutionists have now baptized Darwinism. Thus, in the 2001 PBS evolution series, Brown University biologist Kenneth Miller referred to himself as an orthodox Catholic and an orthodox Darwinian.

According to Dembski then conventional evolution is not a front loaded process. This is at variance with my own view that evolution, no matter how one defines it, or for that matter any process one constructs which is able to arrive at complex order in “fast time”, must necessarily be front loaded; a front loading that is easily construed by a theist as a gift of providence.

In some respects Dembski well demonstrates what I suspect are subliminal commonalities of mindset between the Christian Right and the Militant atheists. As I said in my last post:

If evolution has occurred then it clearly keeps its load of active information well hidden, so much so that neither the anti-evolutionists nor militant atheists are aware of it; or perhaps they just don’t want to acknowledge it. In the opinion of both parties evolution purports to be a process that can boot strap living configurations from next to nothing. Thus anti-evolutionists and atheists have very large stakes in the respective presence or absence of explicit information discontinuities in nature; in contrast evolution’s information discontinuity is very implicit and is not to be found in material reifications, like front loaded genetic information.

Using Venn diagram notation the picture that Dembski is foisting on all theists is shown below:

(Click to enlarge)

Notice that in the above diagram ID and evolution do not overlap; they are mutually exclusive. In this diagram we see that according to Dembski all atheists are evolutionists and that a subset of theists find themselves (compromisingly) in the evolutionist camp. Needless to say this is where Dembski and I sharply part company. I would suggest that the true picture looks more like this:

(Click to enlarge)

This diagram indicates the logical impossibility of constructing processes that create complex order in “fast time” without a blatant “logical hiatus” or “information discontinuity” being present. I see no way out of this logical trap; evolution or any other process inevitably displays this logical discontinuity. Therefore I have presumptuously labeled this all inclusive set as “intelligent design” because being a theist I see this as the gift of providence. Moreover, the real picture is far more complicated than Dembski suggests: As my Venn diagram shows atheists are not necessarily evolutionists. In fact when constructing the above Venn diagram I contemplated drawing the atheist and evolution circles projecting partly beyond the “ID” circle in order to suggest an atheist attempt to escape the trap of a Logical Hiatus – although I personally can’t see how that can be achieved and so I have shown atheism to reside inside the ID circle; they (and evolution) are the unconscious benefactors of providence.

Is it any surprise that Christian Darwinians have fallen out with Dembski and friends and will have nothing to do with a concept of ID exclusively defined in anti-evolution terms? As Dembski says:

Ironically, theistic evolutionists now make common cause with atheistic evolutionists—specifically against ID. ID has become public enemy number one for both atheistic and theistic evolutionists (the recent spate of books by both sides confirms this point—atheist Jerry Coyne’s Why Evolution Is True as well as theist Kenneth Miller’s Only a Theory). Consequently, not just the mainstream academy but the mainstream Christian academy (Wheaton College, Calvin College, Seattle Pacific University, etc. — most schools in the CCCU) have now closed their doors to ID and to hiring faculty that explicitly support it.

Well surprise, surprise. Little wonder that mainstream Christian academies are closing their doors to the Christian right’s anti-evolutionist rendering of ID. Dembski and his right wing friends have cast the debate in the mold of a polarised ID vs. evolution battle thus effectively accusing those Christians who defect from the Christian right’s concept of ID as crypto-naturalists; a charge that is tantamount to an accusation of blasphemy. As I said over two years ago when I first started looking at this whole debate:

They frame the debate to look as though it is ‘naturalistic’ evolution vs. ‘supernatural’ creation by God with, of course, ID coming in on the side of God against those who, like myself, favour evolution. Ironically, many atheists would agree with this framing.

So it seems I have come full circle. How can Christian Darwinians do business with Dembski and friends when the innuendo is that those who do not support Dembski’s version of ID must be crypto-materialists who worship “a god of some sort”? I’m the first to admit that conventional evolution, as far as I am concerned, is only a working hypothesis, a hypothesis that may need considerable modification in the light of the Creator’s providence, but the unwarranted polarization superimposed by Dembski on the subject makes a relationship with the right wing Christian culture he represents impossible. As I said in my last post:

This ……. right wing reaction against evolution is now culturally locked into the contemporary ID movement to the extent that it is impossible for them to countenance “evilution” as one of the options by which divine intelligence may operate. The Christian right wants to undermine the atheist’s main support and therefore evolution must go at all costs.

Dembski echoes precisely this point when he says:

Christians in general need to consider this: The only thing theistic evolutionists have to say to a Richard Dawkins who uses evolution as a club to beat believers is that he’s making a category mistake, trying to get science to do the work of theology (to which Dawkins would respond “so much the worse for theology”). By contrast, ID takes the club out of Dawkins’ hands and breaks it, showing that the theory of evolution on which he relies is all washed up.

What neither Dembski nor Dawkins seems to have spotted is that that club may already have “ID” (or at least “Logical Hiatus”) written all over it.


Daniel Wesley said...

Great looking blog, I'm looking forward to going through your posts.

Timothy V Reeves said...

Hi Daniel. Thanks for the visit. I notice from your blog that like myself John Polkinghorne is one of your favourite authors. I was in Software too (a C++ programmer) but I am now "semi-retired".