Religious Darwinist - an Oxymoron?


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Oxymoron or Contradiction in Terms?

According to wikipedia, an oxymoron is a figure of speech that combines two normally contradictory terms. What distinguishes oxymorons from paradoxes and contradictions is that they are used intentionally, for rhetorical effect, and the contradiction is only apparent, as the combination of terms provides a novel expression of some concept, such as "cruel to be kind".[<cite_link_label_group->]

But, the term religious Darwinist is a real contradiction in terms rather than an oxymoron. David Klinghoffer (in Can Torah be reconciled with Darwin?), puts it like this:

  • Darwinian theory asserts that an unguided and purely material process alone (natural selection) was sufficient to produce the whole history of life on earth.
  • Biblical religion, if it means anything at all, has to stand for the belief that life's history was guided in some way by a transcendent intelligence.
  • You can't have an unguided guided process (that's the contradiction in terms).

Yet more than a few people on the traditional side of the religious divide are vocal critics of intelligent design (ID[Cite error: Ran out of custom link labels for group "". Define more in the [[MediaWiki:cite_link_label_group-]] message.]), the scientific framework in which doubts about Darwinism are currently being expressed and worked out.

Klinghoffer says he was intrigued by a package of three articles in Jewish Action (the Orthodox Union's magazine) on intelligent design. The first was by Bar-Ilan University physicist Nathan Aviezer. He claims to discover "a striking similarity between ID and the ideas that underlie idolatry." But another writer Arnold Slyper, a pediatric endocrinologist at Loyola University Medical Center in Illinois, grasped what Dr. Aviezer does not, that ID "is Jewish to the core and one of our fundamental beliefs." But he presumably would be classed as a heretic by Orthodox rabbi Natan Slifkin (The Slifkin Affair), who gave a lecture titled "The Heresy of Intelligent Design". "I find it theologically offensive," said Slifkin, who oddly is the same famous fellow who protested when his own his books were banned for supposed heresy by some leading rabbis.

As Klinghoffer says, the strategies of wayward religious Darwinists like Dr. Aviezer and Rabbi Slifkin for reconciling the two ideas are diverse and Protean, some clever, some not. But all insist that whatever role G-d played in life's development, it is undetectable, thus unfalsifiable. So the real difference between the reconcilers and the intelligent design advocates is that the latter at least take the risk that their arguments for a designer may be shot down by scientific counterevidence.

Here is an example from the Miami Torah and Science conference in December 2005 that illustrates Klinghoffer's point. Intelligent Design Theorist Bill Dembski was invited to address the participants.

Much of Dembski’s talk concentrated on the evidence of design in nature. He offered the classic example of the tiny flagella that bacteria use to propel themselves through their environment. “They can spin at 100,000 rpm,” Dembski marveled. “And then in a quarter-turn, they're spinning the other direction. Imagine if a blender could do that.... Is it such a stretch to think a real engineer was involved?”
After about 45 minutes, Dembski wrapped up his talk, and dozens of attendees swarmed the microphones again, many of them eager to air their objections.
“Our speaker has fuzzied the main issue,” complained Nathan Aviezer, who teaches physics at Bar Ilan University in Israel. “The whole enterprise of science is to explain life without invoking supernatural explanations. Intelligent design is not science, it's religion, and it shouldn't be taught in science class.”[Cite error: Ran out of custom link labels for group "".

Define more in the [[MediaWiki:cite_link_label_group-]] message.]

Naturalists would have use believe that the first rule of science is "Thou may never mention the transcendent Creator". Now while such a rule might work in the Operational sciences, it has been a spectacular failure when it comes to Origin science. But notice how Dr. Aviezer (like Rabbi Slifkin) has fallen for this rule in the Origins debate, i.e. we may never to refer to a meta-natural cause, no matter what! This is the reason that their approach compromises core Jewish beliefs. It is not just that the mandarins of evolution arbitrarily refuse to consider supra-natural causes, but they heap scorn on those who do.

Neither Dr. Aviezer nor Rabbi Slifkin (who are undoubtedly well-intentioned) appear to realize that Darwinism is both a scientific failure and metaphysical falsehood. Yet neither of them, nor anyone else, has the slightest idea how the bacterial flagellum could have originated in such a fashion. In fact, in the 150 years since Darwin, not a single detailed testable Darwinian pathway has ever been provided for the macro-evolution of novel features such as eyes, brains or even bat echo-location. How do you get from a creature without an eye to one that has the irreducibly complex visual machinery of sight?

Leading rabbis have commented that they do not understand why non-Jewish scientists often see through the facade of Darwinism and yet our Jewish scientists with a commitment to Torah do not.

The following is adapted from an article by Discovery fellow Jonathan Witt. Witt explains how Christian supporters of ID find the same problem with their co-religionists that David Klinghoffer finds with wayward Jewish scholars.[Cite error: Ran out of custom link labels for group "". Define more in the [[MediaWiki:cite_link_label_group-]] message.]

The excerpts refer to the Big Bang, so readers may be interested in a [Torah perspective on the Big Bang]

Random Acts of Design

"Francis Collins Sees Evidence That G-d Made the Cosmos—But Life Is Another Matter."

Francis Collins is the head of the Human Genome Project, the monumental and successful effort to map the 3.1 billion letters of the human genetic code and, surprisingly in a world where “leading scientist” is assumed to mean “hardboiled agnostic,” a serious Christian. In his new bestseller, The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief, he draws upon his training as a geneticist and physician to make a case to a popular audience for both Darwinian evolution and a transcendent Creator.

A debate between Collins and Dawkins is front page news in Time (November 13, 2006).

Collins on Front Cover of Time

The evolution he argues for involves no direct intelligent input after the origin of the universe until the origin of humans, and yet he also makes a case for a Creator and Christian doctrine. He insists that a scientist can believe these principles without checking his brain at the door.

The mainstream media have emphasized two aspects of the book: Its insistence that Darwinism is no threat to Christianity, and its argument that Darwinism better explains a range of physical evidence than either creationism or intelligent design. What has gone begging for ink, how-ever, is a feature of the book hidden in plain sight: Francis Collins makes a scientific case for intelligent design.

According to the theory of intelligent design, which extends from the origin of matter to the origin of mind, an intelligent cause is the best explanation for certain features of the natural world. In chapter nine Collins argues against intelligent design in biology, and this the media have picked up. But in chapter three, “The Origins of the Universe,” he argues that an intelligent cause is the best explanation for certain features of the natural world, in this case, features that existed before the origin of life.

Collins’s Case

He begins this part of the book by reviewing twentieth-century discoveries in physics and cosmology, many of which reinforce Collin's religious beliefs. For example, whereas scientists of the nineteenth century generally believed that the universe was eternal, a growing body of evidence in the twentieth century convinced them that the universe began about 14 billion years ago, a theory, Collins notes, nicely in harmony with the biblical doctrine of creation ex nihilo, that is, creation out of nothing.

Next, he summarizes the fine-tuning problem, the growing body of evidence suggesting that the physical constants of nature (gravity, electromagnetism, and the mass of the universe, among many others) are exquisitely calibrated to allow for complex and even advanced life. A very tiny difference in any of these and life as we know it would be impossible.

Collins then describes the three live explanations for fine tuning among the international community of physicists, chemists, astronomers, and cosmologists: (1) There are a multitude of universes in addition to our own, perhaps an infinite number, and at least one was bound to have the right physical constants for advanced life; (2) we’re just incredibly lucky; and (3) the physical constants look fine-tuned because they were fine-tuned. That is, they were designed.

He does not wrap up the chapter by saying, “I prefer option 3 because it confirms my prior religious commitments.” Instead, he makes an evidence-based argument, coupled to an appeal to standard methods of reasoning, to argue that the design hypothesis best explains the physical evidence in question.

His conclusion is clear, though his language is guarded. He says of the two non-design options: “On the basis of probability, option 2 is the least plausible. That then leaves us with option 1 and option 3. The first is logically defensible, but this near-infinite number of unobservable universes strains credulity. It certainly fails Occam’s Razor.”

Even this quotation undersells how much he guides the reader toward the third option in the course of the chapter, but his guarded language makes this difficult to demonstrate briefly. For example, after this quotation he deals effectively, if less than forcefully, with the objection that introducing a supernatural designer violates Occam’s razor, too, and notes that “it could be argued, however, that the Big Bang itself seems to point strongly toward a Creator.”

His appeal to the Big Bang and the fine-tuned cosmos form two of his key design arguments. (The third, discussed below, looks at the moral law found across cultures and the fact of human altruism, features that Darwinism fails to explain but which are explained well by the claim that humans were created in the image of G-d.)

In our present intellectual climate, where scientists have been harassed and even fired for advocating intelligent design, and the idea is routinely attacked in news stories and the popular books of writers like Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett, the fact that the head of the Human Genome Project makes a scientific case for intelligent design should stand out before all the others.

Collins’s Flaw

Why hasn’t it? Because Collins accepts as a standard talking point the misleading description of intelligent design employed by its critics. According to them, intelligent design, or ID, is a purely negative argument against Darwinism coupled with a G-d-of-the-gaps theology.

They claim that design theorists poke holes in Darwinism and then insist that the holes prove that G-d designed life. More broadly, they claim that ID proponents supposedly argue from our present ignorance of any adequate material cause for certain natural phenomena directly to intelligent design.

But this is not the case. Design theorists in biology do offer an extensive critique of Darwinian theory, but they also offer positive evidence for intelligent design. They argue from our growing knowledge of the natural world, including the cellular realm with which Collins deals, and from our knowledge of the only kind of cause ever shown to produce information or irreducibly complex machines (both found at the cellular level): intelligent agents.

Take two examples from chapter three. First, he refers to the “backward wiring” of the vertebrate eye—an apparently inefficient structure that forces light to pass through the nerves and blood vessels on its way to the eye’s light sensors—and argues that this is evidence for neo-Darwinism and against the idea that a wise designer played a direct role in the evolution of this organism. “The design of the eye does not appear on close inspection to be completely ideal,” he writes, and its imperfection seems “to many anatomists to defy the existence of truly intelligent planning of the human form.”

This is a favorite argument of Dawkins’s, and of Darwinists generally. However, geneticist and physician Michael Denton has demonstrated that the wiring improves oxygen flow, an important advantage not achievable by the tidier approach demanded by Darwinism. Design theorists have called attention to this point repeatedly, but Collins shows no evidence that he is aware of it. He neither addresses it nor mentions it. (Dawkins and other Darwinists generally avoid discussing it.)

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The Naturalist

In the same chapter, he invokes a rule called methodological materialism (also called methodological naturalism) to argue that biologists should not give up looking for a material (meaning Darwinian) cause for particular biological structures just because scientists have yet to discover it.

This forms part of his argument against intelligent design. “ID is a ‘G-d of the gaps’ theory, inserting a supposition of the need for supernatural intervention in places that its proponents claim science cannot explain,” he writes, and its “proponents have made the mistake of confusing the unknown with the unknowable, or the unsolved with the unsolvable.”

The suggestion here is that design theorists are hobbled by a failure of the imagination, an inability to imagine how the Darwinian mechanism could have achieved anything as sophisticated as the flagellar motor. But it is the Darwinists who have been unable to imagine, much less demonstrate in the laboratory, a credible Darwinian pathway to the flagellum.

The situation suggests two possibilities: Either (1) there is an unguided evolutionary pathway and scientists will eventually discover it; or (2) there is no evolutionary pathway apart from one guided by intelligence. By refusing to consider the second option, Collins commits the fallacy of begging the question.

Imagine a boy who tells a girl he could climb to Mars because a natural ladder stretches from one planet to the other. The girl points out that nobody on earth has ever found such a ladder and there is reason to believe it doesn’t exist—because of the constantly changing distance between the planets, the sun getting between them, etc. The boy shakes his head at her and patiently explains, “That’s an argument from ignorance. Scientists are finding all sorts of new things in our solar system all the time. Look at the moon. It’s one step along the way. You see, everything is falling into place.”

Collins’s suggestion that we are sure to find a Darwinian pathway for the bacterial flagellum isn’t this outlandish, of course, but it employs the same reasoning. He combines the assumption that the Darwinian pathway certainly exists with the charge that any scientist skeptical that we’ll ever find it is simply giving up—is, in other words, failing as a scientist.

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Collins’s Theology

Collins does offer a theological argument for his selective application of methodological materialism and his belief that Darwinism is no threat to Christianity. He suggests that G-d fine-tuned the initial conditions of the universe so perfectly that no further intervention was needed until he was ready to raise up one form, hominine, by investing it with an immortal soul that evolution could not instill. Collins contends that “humans are also unique in ways that defy evolutionary explanation and point to our spiritual nature.”

On this view, G-d acted directly in the origin of the universe and in the origin and history of humanity, but his perfect wisdom meant that nature required no additional guidance or direction (or design) during the intervening 14 billion years. Collins suggests that anything less than such a “fully gifted creation” (I am borrowing physicist Howard van Till’s term) is unworthy of a G-d who is both omnipotent and omniscient.

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High Tradition

In The Language of G-d, Collins has made a sincere but unsuccessful effort to synthesize Darwinism and orthodox Christianity. But he has also done something very important for a man of his stature in the scientific world. In some cases, happily, he violated the rules of methodological materialism by allowing himself to consider design as the best explanation for the origin of the universe, the fine-tuning of the physical constants, and the moral law within the human heart.

In granting himself this freedom, Collins is returning to the origins of the scientific revolution. Modern science was born of the twin convictions that the universe was the rational product of a rational mind, and that this maker was not bound at every turn by the deductive syllogisms of an earlier age, meaning that the best way for a scientist to determine how the Creator had done things was to turn to nature and carefully scrutinize it.

At his best, Francis Collins engages the natural world in this same high tradition, refusing to be bound by a question-begging methodological rule and, instead, following the evidence where it leads.

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  1. Oxymoron is a Greek term derived from oxy ("sharp") and moros ("dull"). The meaning is "that which is sharp and dull," thereby designating and also exhibiting an opposition between two adjectives which serve as predicates for one subject.
  2. See disclaimer
  3. Mariah Blake, Miami New Times, Darwin: Jews clash over the intelligence of intelligent design, 12 December 2005. Emphasis added.
  4. The adaptation is mostly excerpts from the original article by Jonathan Witt, "Random acts of design", Touchstone, October 2006.
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