Wednesday, November 22, 2006

A Reply to John West, Part 2

Continuing my reply to John West's new book Darwin's Conservatives, I will respond briefly to his last two chapters--Chapter 6 ("Is Darwinism Compatible with Religion?") and Chapter 7 ("Has Darwinism Refuted Intelligent Design?").

(6) Religion

That Darwinism denies religious belief is clear to West because "a dominant majority of leading defenders of Darwinism seem to be either avowed atheists or agnostics" (65). I don't know whether it's a "dominant majority" or not. But it is surely true that many of those who accept Darwinian science are either atheists or agnostics. But then, of course, the same could be said about every field of natural science. Many of those who accept modern physics and chemistry are either atheists or agnostics. But it does not follow that religious believers should therefore see modern physics and chemistry as a threat to their faith.

I argue that Darwinian science--like all natural science--leaves open the question of ultimate explanation. All explanation assumes ultimately an uncaused cause that cannot itself be explained. Why is there anything at all? And why are things ordered the way they are? Some people will appeal to nature as the ultimate ground. Others will appeal to nature's God as the ultimate ground. As far as I can see, natural science generally, including Darwinian science, cannot deny the possibility that nature depends on God as the First Cause.

To which West responds: "But this 'first cause' allowable by Darwinism seems incompatible with the God of the Bible. It cannot be a God who actively supervises or directs the development of life. The most it could do is to set up the interplay between chance and necessity, and then watch to see what the interplay produces. Such an absentee God is hard to reconcile with any traditional Judeo-Christian conception of a God who actively directs and cares for His creation. In the end, the effort to reconcile Darwinism with traditional Judeo-Christian theism remains unpersuasive" (71).

Darwin begins The Origin of Species by quoting Francis Bacon speaking about God revealing himself through "two books"--the Bible and nature. In the last sentence of The Origin of Species, Darwin leaves his reader with a vivid image of nature's God: "There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being evolved."

To me this indicates how Darwinian evolution could be compatible with a religious belief in God as the original source of nature's powers. Michael Behe agrees with me. In his book Darwin's Black Box, he indicates that evolutionary science is "quite compatible" with such religious belief (239).

But this is not enough for West, who insists that God as the First Cause of nature is still not "the God of the Bible." Does he mean to suggest, then, that intelligent design theory does lead us to "the God of the Bible"? Well, no. Because West says that intelligent design reasoning does not prove the existence of a supernatural creator (90-91).

In fact, Ken Ham (of "Answers in Genesis") and other Christian creationists complain that intelligent design theory is not compatible with "the God of the Bible," because the intelligent designer has none of the distinctive traits of God as presented in the Bible. For creationists like Ham, Darwinian evolution and intelligent design theory are both incompatible with Biblical religion.

Darwinian evolution and intelligent design theory are in the same boat here. They are both open to the possibility that nature depends on some supernatural First Cause. But whether this is the "God of the Bible" is a matter of faith beyond any rational study of nature. As West admits, the proponents of intelligent design cannot determine "whether the intelligent cause is the Judeo-Christian God" (87).

(7) Intelligent Design

In his last chapter, West tries to defend intelligent design theory against my criticisms. In response, I will make only a few points.

I have cited Kenneth Miller's explanation for how natural selection could have built the bacterial flagellum, which Behe and others have argued is "irreducibly complex." West counters this by citing a paper by Scott Minnich and Stephen Meyer, which can be found here.

West does not acknowledge, however, that there are some serious errors in the Minnich and Meyer paper. The errors are set out in a recent article: M.J. Pallen & N.J. Matzke, "From The Origin of Species to the Origin of Bacterial Flagella," Nature Reviews Microbiology, 4 (10), 784-790. Minnich and Meyer state that "the other thirty proteins in the flagellar motor (that are not present in the TTSS) are unique to the motor and are not found in any other living system." Pallen and Matzke have shown that the number of indispensable proteins that are "unique" is no more than 2. Mistakes like this are typically detected through the process of scientific peer review.

I claim that intelligent design is mostly a negative argument from ignorance with little positive content. That is to say, the proponents of ID attack Darwinian science for not satisying the highest standards of proof, and then they conclude that if the Darwinian arguments fall short of absolute proof, then ID wins by default. The sophistry here is that the proponents of ID set up standards of proof for Darwinian science that they themselves could never satisfy if they had to make a positive case for ID.

I say that for ID to have some positive content, its proponents would have to explain exactly where, when, and how a disembodied intelligence designed "irreducibly complex" structures like the bacterial flagellum. West responds by saying that the proponents of ID don't have to do this. They can infer that there is an intelligent designer without explaining exactly where, when, or how the designer works. But that confirms my point! The proponents of ID cannot do what they demand that the Darwinists must do--provide detailed, step-by-step explanations of exactly how these "irreducibly complex" mechanisms are constructed.

For example, in Darwin's Black Box, Behe acknowledges that evolutionary theorists can develop scenarios of how evolution could have constructed "irreducibly complex" mechanisms. But this is insufficient, he complains. "Although they might think of possible evolutionary routes other people overlook, they also tend to ignore details and roadblocks that would trip up their scenarios. Science, however, cannot ultimately ignore relevant details, and at the molecular level all the 'details' become critical" (65).

After offering an example of an evolutionary scenario, Behe comments: "Intriguing as this scenario may sound, though, critical details are overlooked. The question we must ask of this indirect scenario is one for which many evolutionary biologists have little patience: but how exactly?" (66)

Ok, Behe, I might say, let's apply to you the standards of proof that you apply to Darwinism. Intriguing as your scenario for intelligent design may sound, critical details are overlooked. The question we must ask of your intelligent design scenario is one for which many proponents of intelligent design have little patience: but how exactly?


Anonymous said...

Why is there anything at all? And why are things ordered the way they are?

6.5 When the answer cannot be put into words, neither can the question be put into words.
The riddle doesn't exist.
If a question can be framed at all, it is also possible to answer it.

6.51 Scepticism is not irrefutable, but obviously nonsensical, when it tries to raise doubts where no questions can be asked.
For doubt can exist only when a question exists, a question only where an answer exists, and an answer only where something can be said.

6.52 We feel that even when all possible scientific questions have been answered, the problems of life remain completely untouched. Of course there are then no questions left, and this itself is the answer.

6.521 ...
6.522 ...
6.53 ...
6.54 ...

7. What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.

Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus.

Larry Arnhart said...

What's your point?

Anonymous said...

It is not meaningful to ask why there is something rather than nothing.

Larry Arnhart said...

Paul r.,

So you would prohibit people from asking such questions?

Would this prohibit us from asking questions about "big bang" theories and multiple universes?

Are you saying that any question that is difficult--or even impossible--to answer clearly and finally is "not meaningful," and so should not be asked in the first place?

Anonymous said...

"Are you saying that any question that is difficult--or even impossible--to answer clearly and finally is "not meaningful," and so should not be asked in the first place?"

There is two type of impossibility.
A question might have a set of possible answers. But it might be impossible to tell which answer is the correct answer.
(I imagine the exact process that created life fall into that category)
Or I could have a box that you cannot open, and you cannot know what is inside. But you can imagine many possibilities. In this case, the question of what is in the box is meaningful, since there is a logical space of possible answers.

Also, a question might have no logical space of possible answers. In which case it is meaningless. For example:

What is better? A solid or a liquid?
Why is there something rather than nothing?
Why does an electron has an electric charge of -1.6 x 10^-19 C?

All these questions are meaningless. They have no possible meaningful answers. They do not have a single possible answer.
(Would you like me to explain why I think there is no logical space of possible answers for these questions?)

I don't think questions about multiple universes are meaningless, since they are about facts, even if they cannot be verified.

As for prohibiting people from asking these questions, I see no need.

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