Saturday, March 18, 2017

Christian World Views. Part 2: The Christian Academic Establishment

The Christian Faraday Institute is very much part of the academic establishment.

In part 1 of this series I looked at the anti-science reaction of fundamentalists to the Christian cultural marginalization which quickened pace during the 1960s (Slow marginalization had in fact been going on for a long while before that). This reaction has also had the effect of linking Christian fundamentalism (and also the de facto IDists) to the anti-establishmentarian right-wing via the right's conservative and anti-liberal appeal.  In this second part I want to look in detail at the views of a scientist and Christian evangelical who is part of the academic establishment, Denis Alexander. Let me admit that I'm completely biased and very much in favour of Alexander's views and those of the Faraday Institute. However, in spite of my moral support I'm not part of the institute; I'm too much the amateur who likes to stay and work in his shed.

I have recently finished reading Denis Alexander's book "Creation or Evolution; Do we have to chose?". Naturally, in view of my criticism of de-facto Intelligent Design's default dichotomy of intelligence vs natural processes and its all but inevitable outcome of God-of-the-gaps thinking I was very interested to read chapters 14, 15 and 16 which deal with intelligent design in relation to evolution.  In this post I showcase some of Alexander's thoughts, thoughts which reflect my own conclusions about de facto ID being a heavily god designer intelligence-of-the-gaps oriented paradigm, On page 403 Alexander sets the scene with a quote from William Dembski, one of the founders of contemporary ID: 

If for every instance of biological complexity some mechanism could readily be produced that accounts for it, intelligent design would drop out of the discussion

I don't think you can get more designer-of-the-gaps than that! Dembski's statement is quite emphatic about the exclusiveness of "intelligence" and "some mechanism"; Viz: "Some mechanism" implies no intelligence is needed and therefore presumably, no God is needed either! How very dangerous for theology! Dembski embodied this kind of thinking in his explanatory filter. Some ID people have tried to get round this by reapplying the explanatory filter at the "fine tuning level" which goes to show how very clunky this explanatory filter is. Presumably by "some mechanism" which "accounts for it" Dembski is thinking in terms of law and disorder mechanisms (That is, explanations which use some combination of physical law and statistics) Dembski's statement contains the implicit assumption that 'intelligence' and  'some mechanism' are very distinct categories; in fact, as I've said, mutually excluding categories. 

Below I quote Denis Alexander on the subject of Intelligent Design. I've tried to minimize my own comments and let him have the stage as I've already said so much (probably too much) about ID's dualism.....

Page 403: Many of ID's proponents .... believe that only through the gaps in our present knowledge do we have incontrovertible evidence that God is at work  in design.

Given that ID probably envisages God's designing involvement as a kind miraculous event, Alexander quotes Augustine's views on the subject of miracles, a view which subverts the God vs natural forces dichotomy:  

Page 404: When such a thing (a miracle) happens. it appears to us as an event contrary to nature. But with God it is not so; for him 'nature' is what he does.

Alexander comments on IDist Stephen Meyer's book Signature in the Cell:

Page 407: The problem with "Signature in the Cell" is that the author makes his 'design inference' based on the failure of other current scientific explanations to provide adequate explanations for the origins of such complex  systems........; in other words, the inference is based on our present scientific ignorance - back to the designer of the gaps again.

Alexander realizes that ID provides fertile ground for conspiracy theorism:

Page 410: ID proponents are quick to suggest that there is a conspiracy among the editors of journals to prevent the publication of their articles.

...that actually points to the deep political matters which I have touched on in this blog and explains at least in part why North American IDists readily find themselves aligned with anti-establishmentarianism, the right wing, libertarianism, fundamentalism, Donald Trump and the anti-eco-lobby.

Alexander criticizes ID's half baked concept of "irreducibly complexity", but he does say this:

Page 412: In fact, I could very easily argue that all biological systems without exception are, in one sense, 'irreducibly complex'.

Too true! What appears to be 'irreducibly complex' is, according Alexander, exactly the opposite. Because there is such a widespread appearance of 'irreducible complexity' in the dependence of biological function on multiple components it renders the concept questionable. What Alexander is implicitly saying here is that because conventional evolution, by definition, moves in survivable incremental steps, every organic form must be placed on a path of continuous incremental change, Such paths trace a history of stable self-perpetuating structures through configuration space. This statement by Alexander is actually an implicit and back handed acknowledgement of the spongeam. Although I have reservations as to its existence, the spongeam is a necessary requirement of conventional evolution.

Page 417: To now assign the word 'design' to some biological entity is an attempt to introduce the language of Aristotelian  teleology back into science, and many centuries of endeavour suggest that the attempt will be sterile. 

This is really a comment for me; although my rather speculative ideas entail information creation by so-called "natural" means, this information creation must be supplemented by teleological selection; As I have said many times: "Nature", to me, looks suspiciously like a declarative computation. However, Alexander is probably right; such teleological explanations are more likely to remain as post-facto sense making narratives, not readily testable in the scientific prediction-test sense. So my ideas may not fly well. But then unlike the IDists and fundamentalists, I'm not touting myself as God's gift to science - I'm just an eccentric amateur who enjoys knocking up a bi-plane or two in his shed.

Alexander remarks that although the Bible does have the near equivalent of the word "design", nevertheless...

Page 419: ...the idea [of design] was around at the time, which makes it even more interesting that the idea  was never applied  as a metaphor for God's creative work. intriguing theological point. When I picked up Alexander's book I thought it would be just a biology refresher for Christians, but Alexander turns out to be a very good theologian as well!

Alexander spots the inner contradiction of the intelligence-of-the-gap paradigm which majors on the natural forces vs intelligent creation dichotomy: Philip Johnson, one of the founding fathers of ID, thinks that "apparently naturalistic processes" are a sign of the probable absence of God. But in response to this Alexander suggests that for Christians the very category of "natural forces" is a non-starter.

Page 421: So God cannot possible create by 'apparently naturalistic processes'  for the simple reason that if there is a God who creates, then there are no 'naturalistic processes' because naturalism is false. (My emphasis)

When Authors like Johnson talk of the "naturalistic blind watchmaker" it seems that he is utterly clueless as to the true nature randomness.

Alexander talks disparagingly of ID's 'two tier universe':

Page 423: ID literature gives the impression that there is something inherently naturalistic about certain aspects of the created order and not about other aspects, and such thinking appears to stem from a very inadequate doctrine of creation ... in biblical theology, the natural order is seen as a seamless web of God's creative activity.....Philosophical naturalism, like any philosophy resides inside the heads of some people but not others. (My emphasis)

I would claim that what IDist identify as naturalistic and materialistic are in fact law and disorder processes - that is, processes which can be unpacked in terms of algorithmics and statistics. But then the operation of the brain from a third person perspective looks to be composed of law and disorder components and yet we know that somehow intelligence and consciousness is immanent to the brain. Ergo, law and disorder are inextricably bound up with the operation of intelligence, but de facto ID, with its dualism, has violated this unity; it has disembodied intelligence from its deep connection with the material world.

Alexander appears to hold the view that the requisite information for evolution is already present in the universe. Such a view is, in fact, an outcome if one regards the processes of nature as imperative rather than declarative and therefore with no explicit declarative teleology - the teleology in imperative processes is implicit rather than explicit as it is in declarative processes. The quotes below are evidence that for Alexander the intelligence has already been built into evolution via its information burden. These quotes are taken from two sections in chapter 15 entitled Is Evolution Designed? and Intelligent Evolution. The latter title has echoes of my own appellation "Intelligent Creation", meaning that we are observing in the material world the very process of intelligence in action, much as a neuro-scientist sees the workings of intelligence in brain processes; but because the neuro-scientist is getting such a key-hole view it is often difficult to see how it all adds up to an integrated intelligence.

Page 425: I would like to suggest that recent biological discoveries clearly point to the theistic account of the overall story of evolution on planet earth, and I will give just a few examples of what I mean...

Page 425: It [evolution] is tightly organised and highly constrained.....

Page 426: But once we stand back and look at evolutionary history as a whole, then the idea of progress is inescapable... 

Page 426: ...So it is perverse to deny some form of directionality to the arrow of biological time..

Page 427: ...the mechanisms of life look highly constrained, far more than we ever realised even a decade or so ago....

Page 427: A research group from Harvard published a paper on this topic entitled 'Darwinian evolution can follow only very few mutational paths to fitter proteins' It is intriguing to read the sentence in the abstract: 'We conclude that the protein tape of life may be largely reproducible and even predictable'.

Page 428: ...there are only a few ways to arrive at a particular protein function because only some mutations will get you there and not others. It is as if an evolutionary path is already laid out in front of the gene encoding the enzyme, and the genetic dice keeps being thrown until the enzyme structure is generated  that optimizes fitness for its particular function...

Page 428: As the authors conclude in their paper published in Nature: 'That only a few paths are favoured also implies that evolution might be more reproducible than is commonly perceived, even predictable. 

Erratum page: The phenomenon of 'convergence' in evolution also highlights the way in which the process as a whole displays evidence of order and constraint......Simon Conway Morris..... (See here and here)

Page 430: ...convergence is ubiquitous... 

Page 432: So we are living in an ordered universe, not at all a random universe, but an anthropically fruitful one in which there is a biological narrative culminating in us as its observers. 

Page 432: Evolutionary history on this planet displays overall increased complexity, genomic constraint and convergence. This seems to be more consistent with a providentialist account...... and render less plausible the claims made by Gould, Dennett and others that evolutionary history is a totally random walk...

Page 434: To my mind the most recent findings from evolutionary biology are more consistent with the plan like theistic account that the Bible reveals to us.

I have written several blogs on the necessity of an imperative version of evolution to be "guided" in the sense of it being highly constrained; that is, the process must start with a large burden of information.  See here  and here and also here.

I can testify to the fact that de facto IDists make much of what they call the "blind, materialistic and random natural forces of nature" which they tell us are unable to generate complex organised structures. I've seen that kind of expression from de facto IDists umpteen times. I have also remarked how ironic it is that they should use such an expression of God's creation when this is just how atheism tends to view evolutionary processes i.e. "blind and natural".  Alexander has also picked this up and this is what he says in chapter 16:

Page 436: ...yet one still reads, in the ID literature, of the impossibility that life could emerge out of the chemicals by sinister-sounding 'blind materialistic, natural forces' But wait a minute; these are God's chemicals, God's materials. that are being talked about here. A mystery bigger than the origin of life is why Christians should ascribe pagan sounding characteristics to God's world.

Finally let our professional scientist sum up:

Page 460: In none of this account have we been talking about 'blind, natural forces' doing things because for the Christian such language is inappropriate.  We are living in God's world. These are God's chemicals and God's molecules that we are talking about...... As I've already highlighted, why Christians would want to ascribe pagan notions like 'blind natural forces' to God's holy materials. beats me.... (My emphasis)

Page 461: Christians should let the scientists get on with their work, without thinking they are engaged in some sinister conspiracy to promote materialism and naturalism. (My emphasis)

Page 462: The public promotion  of creationism and ID continues to create intellectual barriers for scientists, significantly diminishing  the likelihood of their taking the gospel seriously.

Page 462: My own experience within the scientific community is that the word 'Christian' is now often equated with the ideas of creationism or ID, making it that much harder to share the good news about Christ.

So, if Alexander is right then we can all give a big thank you to the IDiots, John Byle, David LoweJason Lisle,  John McKayKen Ham, Ray Comfort, Kent Hovind, Gerardus Bouwthe flat earthers, Danny Faulkner and Alex Jones etc, all of whom actually don't have much to agree about between themselves anyway. What better tribute could be given to these intrepid thinkers than the dulcet tones of the one and only William Tapley, the third eagle of the apocalypse and said by some to give batshit crazy a bad name.

For further  relevant links: See Part 1.

For more on Denis Alexander see:

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