Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Polkinghorne: A Creationist and ID Theorist.

Last night I was at Norwich Cathedral where John Polkinghorne was giving a talk. I have published some pics to convey the atmosphere. Their quality is not good as my “point and snap” photographic technique struggles under poor conditions.

One of Polkinghorne’s theme (as usual) was of a universe “endowed with the potentiality” to generate life via evolution. During the Q&A session he described himself as a creationist who believes in Intelligent Design. This claim is entirely intelligible given that Polkinghorne believes the universe to have been deliberately “fine tuned” in order to be fruitful in its production of life.

However, what worries Polkinghorne about the term “intelligent design” also worries me: It has become (especially in North America) synonymous with anti-evolutionism. Thus, the insinuation is that theorists like Polkinghorne who are standard evolutionists must be advocating a life creating processes that is unconditional upon Divine Design. As Polkinghorne himself said, somehow the anti-evolutionists have posited “natural” processes in which God has no hand; that is, their objection to physics as the source of life is based on a subliminal feeling that physics is a “mechanical” or “natural” process that minds itself without the hand of God.

The contention here is not whether evolution is supported by common physics or not, but just who can consider themselves to be flying the flag of “intelligent design”. The anti-evolutionists think that they alone are flying that flag and that everyone else should come on side for God. The insinuation is that those who don’t are somehow in bed with “naturalism” and atheism.

The anti-evolution/evolution debate is an emotionally charged war zone where combatants need to know who to shoot at and who not to shoot at. As far as the anti-evolutionists are concerned Polkinghorne is on the wrong side and cannot be regarded as an ID supporter. It is therefore no surprise that in this polarized environment people like Polkinghorne tell us that they have little sympathy with the anti-evolutionist ID community.

But the category division between "goodies and baddies" is based on quite subtle criteria. In this post on Uncommon Descent a correspondent moots the idea that common descent with genetic front loading can be identified as an ID candidate even though the correspondent doesn’t hold this view himself. Why then can’t Polkinghorne’s evolutionary views, which if they are valid would inevitably entail a biased front loading, also be identified as an ID candidate? I suspect this has something to do with the side of the battle field he identifies with.

Christian flock: some think ID sorts out the sheep from the goats
and that Polkinghorne is a nave knave

These are the notes I made on the evening of 27/4/2010
Qualia vs Formalism. Meta questions beyond science
  1. Why is science possible? Why can we render it using equations? Why do we have a rationally transparent world? The Creator: A concept that makes intelligible the intelligibility of the world.
  2. Why is the universe so special? For example the Carbon resonance. Dark energy has been fine tuned to a very small value.
Polkinghorne believes in one universe – the multi universe is speculative and unintelligible.
The universe is endowed with potentiality. The universe is designed to be fruitful. It is not a puppet theatre. Life can make itself.  Mutation needed for evolution tradesoff against cancer. Can not easily separate the benevolent from the malign – inextricably bound up. Hence a universe with ragged edges and blind alleys.

Question & Answer Session
Polkinghorne says he believe in creation and ID.
The IC concept – postulates isolated structures.
American “ID” drives a wedge between the “natural” and God: posits processes where God didn’t have  hand.
The Fall: Down to the self limitng act of God – he gives gifts of free will. Creature make themselves vs puppets. The good has to be balanced against the evil.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Creationism, Interventionism and Deism.

A rather anthropomorphic view of God's activity

In this post on Sandwalk Larry Moran adopts a new term for that category of evolutionist normally referred to as “theistic evolutionists”. The term, borrowed from a blog post by Jerry Coyne , is “New Creationist”. Although I wouldn’t quibble with the use of the word “creationist” here, I would question the appropriateness of the qualifier “new”. In this post on my church blog I submit some historical evidence indicating that the established prewar church was not inclined to question the findings of science, but rather to integrate those findings into its world view. In contrast contemporary Young Earth Creationism is a recent recrudescent phenomenon that started at around the time of the publication of “The Genesis Flood” by Whitcomb and Morris in 1961. So, in actual fact Young Earth Creationism may better qualify for the name “New Creationism”. A more appropriate name for the theistic evolutionists may actually be “establishment creationists” thus describing their identification with mainstream and established science.

In his “new creationist” post Coyne is responding to his antagonist Ervin Lazlo, a philosopher and system theorist. Laszlo must surely understand this subject and yet he is quoted by Coyne as appearing to promote “Hoyles fallacy”, a fallacy which estimates minuscule OOL probabilities by concatenating a set of assumed independent probabilities into a long product series. Naturally Coyne (and myself) would find fault with this kind of procedure. But in a further quote Laszlo appears to show an understanding that evolution requires peculiar preconditions in order to raise its probability to realistic levels – a point of view with which I would concur; if evolution and abiogenesis are facts then the improbability is not to be found in the way suggested by Hoyle’s fallacy, but instead can be traced back to the “one-off” prerequisite mathematical conditions grounded in the physics required by evolution. This “one-off-ness” is, as I have propounded elsewhere, a special case of a more general and abstract thesis that tells us that in the final analysis a great irreducible Logical Hiatus lies at the heart of all finite human theoretical schemes. However, it is the import and interpretation of this inevitable logical hiatus that causes the vexation between atheists and theists. For example, Lazlo effectively waves a red rag to the bull when after noting that evolution is conditional upon particular (and surprising) preconditions he goes on to say:

In the final count the evolution of life presupposes intelligent design. But the design it presupposes is not the design of the products of evolution; it’s the design of its preconditions. Given the right preconditions, nature comes up with the products on her own.


Design is a necessary assumption, because chance doesn’t explain the facts.

Using his own words Coyne renders this sort of argument as follows:

…the evidence for all this is that life is complex, humans evolved, and the “fine tuning” of physical constants of the universe testify to the great improbability of our being here—ergo God.

Evolution started off simple and now many organisms are quite complex. Therefore God.

Here, Coyne is objecting to the God of the gaps argument, an argument whose general form is: “Logical Hiatus, ergo God”. I would concede that given a logical hiatus then an intelligent designer does not necessarily and obviously follow. The atheist has at least some room to play with other ideas in an attempt to “fill the gap” with a non-sentient and elemental cause before he gets to the divine “designer”: For example he might attempt to remove the ultimate improbability of the preconditions needed by evolution with the huge probabilistic resources found in some kind of multiverse model, although this model still inevitably has to make recourse to peculiar preconditions. In fact no matter how one tries to cut it, all human theories have an embedded logical hiatus in the form of given and particular preconditions. This truism leads me to commit myself to the view that logical necessity can only be found in the a priori complex rather than in the simple and elemental algorithmic laws of physics. The elemental is too simple and lacking in degrees of freedom to hide logical self-sufficiency. Therefore I conclude that infinite a priori complexity is the only place left in which Aseity is going to be found, if it can be found at all. Once one takes this conceptual step the possibility of Deity appears at once on one’s conceptual radar.

Although I agree with Laszlo’s theism I would not claim that theism is an obvious inductive leap that automatically follows from the Logical Hiatus that necessarily resides in all finite human theories. The step to theism is less inductive than it is deductive, although it would probably be better to describe theism as a totalizing world view, an all inclusive sense making framework that embraces a wide interdisciplinary experience of life from science, history, philosophy, metaphysics, and personal anecdote - even temperament may have a bearing. In the face of evidence that is sourced so comprehensively, arguments for and against theism will necessarily be narrative intense, absent of killer one-liners and inescapably idiosyncratic; least of all will these arguments meet the strict formal standards of proof that can be demanded of the simple objects dealt with by “test tube precipitating” science. For this reason belief in an intelligent designer is never going to be an obliging, authoritative and publicly shared conclusion. The latter is the preserve of the physical sciences where simplicity of ontology entails greater epistemological tractability.

Although I have some sympathy with Coyne’s objection to the “Logical Haitus, ergo God” type argument, I very much disagree with Coyne’s theology: He portrays the “new creationist” God as a part time deity who occasionally “intervenes”, perhaps only once at the beginning of things:

New Creationism differs from intelligent design because it rejects God’s constant intervention in the process of evolution in favor of a Big, One-Time Intervention,

In fact Laszlo himself encourages this view:

Given the right preconditions, nature comes up with the products of her own. (My emphasis)

The picture is anthropomorphic: The subliminal idea is that God creates in much the same way that a human creator constructs something by configuring elements capable of independent existence. He can then, to a lesser or greater degree, leave His creations to their own devices, perhaps occasionally returning from time to time to “intervene” in the operation of this quasi-autonomous creation. It is ironic that those Christian believers like Robert Sheldon who make a big deal of believing in divine “interventions” are not so far removed from Coyne’s portrayal of the deist’s God: The difference is that Sheldon believes not in a “Big, One-Time Intervention” but “Many-Time Interventions”. Deism lurks threateningly in the background of the Christian interventionist’s philosophy of God.

My concept of God is that of a God who “interrupts” the flow of normalcy rather than “intervenes”; that is, he interrupts or changes His mode of working, a working that in actual fact never ceases: “for in Him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). When we develop physical theories such as Gravitation or Quantum Mechanics, we do not picture such schemes as doing their work by “intervening” but rather see their action as relentless across all time and space. Likewise, if the ultimate underlying ontology of this universe is the Aseity of deity then I don’t expect that Deity to have the occasional role of the interventionist God, but instead to be a present tense continuous agent. As the sustainer of the cosmic order His role is relentless in time and space, interrupting the normal flow as and when He pleases.

Addendum: 29/4/10
Unfinished Business.
When I wrote about the concept of "divine intervention" here the following comment appeared:

Well it could be worse, we could be dealing with Pandeism, which proposes a God that is a quite logical and scientific entity which engineered a Universe that is truly random, and lacking in any of that unacceptable tinkering....

Clearly the person concerned never got to grips with the difference between "tinkering" and "interruptions". That person never turned up when challenged in a subsequent post and remains on my "unfinished business" list. It is ironic that those who are so vocal about believing in "interventions" support a philosophy that has a close relation with deism: "N interventions" very easily turns into "Zero interventions" when faith falls away and N slides toward zero.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Right Wing Celebrity Death Match

Michelle Malkin: The 5-foot-2-inch, 100-pound mom


Alex Jones: The bug-eyed hulk

As a bit of light relief I have recently been dipping my finger into the hot bath of passionate politics that immerses the evolution vs. anti-evolutionist fracas debate. This has partly been encouraged by watching my Xmas DVD collection of Adam Curtis documentaries and partly because in order to comment on Robert Sheldon’s blog I had to sign up to, an American right wing webmagazine. After signing up I subsequently started receiving’s headline email-shots. One these emails advertised the May edition of their paper magazine that was running a feature article on a lady called Michelle Malkin described by Townhall as:

Most people know her as a conservative firebrand who has written best-selling books, including "Culture of Corruption," which dealt with the shady characters that have populated the Obama administration, and "Unhinged," which exposed the lunacy of the Left. She has been a regular analyst and contributor on Fox News for years. Week in and week out, her columns are always among the most read on And her eponymous blog reaches millions of readers.

  • And adds:

    Her impassioned opposition to Barack Obama has certainly stoked more outrage on the Left…..

    But what caught my attention in this email was not so much the outrage from the left, but rather the outrage from a very different quarter altogether:

    Not all of the threats come from the Left. Michelle covered the 2008 Democratic Convention in Denver and expected to get challenged, but the most disturbing experience involved an altercation with conspiracy-theory extremist radio host Alex Jones. While attending a demonstration of "anarchist loons trying to levitate the Denver Mint," Jones charged out of the crowd toward Michelle.

    "This bug-eyed hulk came stalking up and screaming at me about how I was a threat to his First Amendment rights," Michelle recalls. "He was spoiling for a fight with a 5-foot-2-inch, 100-pound mom; his clenched fists, bulging neck veins and spittle-flecked face were, I must say, rather disturbing."

    Yes, that’s right good old right winger Alex Jones! Jones calls himself a Christian, but he does not believe in Young Earth Creationism and instead is an Intelligent Design anti-evolutionist. (See here)

    I must admit I am bemused by this altercation and I don’t think I have made full sense of the sharpness of this right vs. right embroilment. The best sense I can make of it at the moment is that Jones identifies himself with the old school “patrician”* right wing, whereas the new republican right represented by (and perhaps Uncommon Descent, also) think of themselves as the radical right advocates of free market democracy.

    When I was contributing to this thread on Uncommon Descent a correspondent called “Jerry” helpfully gave me the following insights into the relevant politics:

    Most atheist reside in the Democrat party which is highly secularist. However, many atheist are free market advocates and anti big government so they reside mostly on the conservative side except for social issues when they are often in favor of such things as choice in abortion, euthanasia and same sex marriage. TE’s tend to be liberal Christians and reside mostly in the Democrat Party. Those that adhere to traditional religion will mostly be Republicans because of the secular nature of the Democrats. I have no firm information about YEC’s but suspect they are mostly Republican due to the highly secular and anti Christian nature of the Democrat Party. I’ll throw that into the melting pot as well and see if anything clear emerges.

    * I have picked up this term “patrician” from Adam Curtis.

  • Tuesday, April 13, 2010

    Sounds like something PZ Myers would say…. Really?

    In this post on his blog “Pharyngula” PZ Myers publishes the following cartoon with the comment “Sounds like something I would say except that you wouldn’t find me in a foxhole”.

    (Click to enlarge)

    The most natural interpretation here is that PZ is referring to the large speech bubble in the cartoon. But this is extraordinary! Would PZ really say: “I’m not denying the possibility of the existence of any forms of higher intelligence beyond the scope of our comprehension”? Is this the PZ Myers we have come to know? I suppose “higher intelligence” could refer to evolved aliens, but if so then it might be claimed that beings who share origins similar to our own are not entirely beyond the scope of our comprehension! If such possible and yet unspecified "higher intelligence" is beyond our comprehension then perhaps that may include the origins of that intelligence; perhaps that intelligence always existed, or perhaps it has a necessary existence (Asiety)…. perhaps that unknown intelligence is the most natural candidate for that vexing appellation…..shhh!….God!

    For a long time now I have kept banging on about formal “test tube precipitating science” facing increasing epistemological problems as the ontology it deals with gets more complex. Accordingly we must develop what Nassim Nicholas Talib calls “epistemological humility”. For that reason the cartoon’s expression of science’s diffidence toward mysterious epistemologically intractable objects such as “forms of higher intelligence beyond our comprehension” is not at all untoward – in fact as a pensive theist I could almost say along with PZ “Sounds like something I would say”! This is encouraging – it may mean that PZ is not as sold out to “scientism” as I thought, but I don't think PZ will be setting up an altar "TO AN UNKNOWN GOD" just yet! (Acts 17:23)

    Roman altar to an unknown deity