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#84 Scepticism about Neo-Darwinism Re-Visited

November 24, 2008

Hello Dr. Craig,

Like many people in the so-called creationism/evolution debate you seem to confound science and philosophy. Surely you appreciate, that, even if you're a theist, you can't bring God into science, because you stop doing science. Once you invoke God as an explanation for a natural phenomenon, you are effectively saying: we can't explain this and we never will, so we've reached the limits of science. 'God is a science-stopper', to quote Stephen J. Gould. You apparently agree with evolution, but it requires God's intervention, or not? You say 'follow the evidence and see where it leads you.' It leads you to gaps in our current knowledge, and that axiomatically provides evidence for God apparently. You won't conjecture at what point God interferes, so one concludes that he compensates for the gaps manifested by our ignorance the well known 'God of the gaps'. As for Genesis supporting evolution well, it must be a very stripped-down version of Genesis. There is no science in Genesis or anywhere else in the Scriptures. No scientific discovery has been made from studying the Scriptures, from the time of Pythagoras to the modern day. But Genesis, in particular, is one of the most mythical books in a compilation of mythical books. If you want a question: how is evolution supported by a story that hinges on a man being made from dirt, a woman from a man's rib, a snake who talks, and a piece of fruit, that, when ingested, makes humans genetically inherently evil?



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    Dr. craig’s response

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    You raise quite a number of points in your response to my answer to Question 82 on “Scepticism about the Neo-Darwinian Paradigm,” Paul, so let me attempt to tease them apart and answer one at a time.

    It is naïve to think that science and philosophy are two distinct disciplines that can be neatly separated from one another. I don’t confound them, but I do see them as inextricably united. Your own letter illustrates my point. For your main objection to “invok[ing] God as an explanation for a natural phenomenon” is a philosophical claim about the limits of science. This is not itself a claim made by any scientific theory but is an assertion from the philosophy of science. Thus, your own position is rooted ultimately in philosophy, not in science.

    As for your philosophical claim, it is an assertion of methodological naturalism, the claim that in order to qualify as a scientific explanation, a hypothesis must be naturalistic. Non-naturalistic hypotheses cannot even be assessed because they are excluded from the pool of live explanatory options.

    But if science is thus restricted, then the claim that neo-Darwinism is the best scientific explanation becomes a hollow victory. Remember Philip Johnson’s point: he’s quite willing to agree that the best naturalistic explanation of biological complexity is the neo-Darwinian synthesis. But he wants to know if that explanation is true. How do we know that we have not excluded the true explanation by means of a mere methodological constraint? Oughtn’t we to feel very uneasy, especially if we are theists, about presupposing that the true explanation must be found among the naturalistic explanations? Why think that God conforms to our methodological constraints?

    In any case, why adopt methodological naturalism? You might say that we have no choice in this matter, if we wish to do science, for invoking God as a cause of a natural phenomenon is a science-stopper and so would impede science. This fear strikes me as quite unjustified. The proponent of a theistic hypothesis, like the proponent of any scientific hypothesis, will seek to state conditions which would serve to falsify his hypothesis, and then he will propose experiments to test his hypothesis by trying to replicate such conditions. Thus, far from being a science stopper, a theistic hypothesis can serve to generate an ongoing research programme. There’s no reason at all to think that the attitude of the proponent of a theistic hypothesis must be, “We can't explain this and we never will.” Quite the contrary, he may hold his hypothesis very tentatively and be prepared to give it up if the experimental evidence should falsify his hypothesis.

    But suppose you’re right, and science requires methodological naturalism. What follows? Merely that the design hypothesis is not a scientific hypothesis, given your definition of science. As a philosopher, that conclusion bothers me not a whit. In fact, I remain quite open-minded about the claim that Intelligent Design is a scientific hypothesis. Richard Dawkins thinks it is (one of the many claims on which he agrees with Intelligent Design theorists), but I’m not so sure. I’m quite content to regard it as a metaphysical claim, a claim that may well be true, even if it does not fit within the methodological limits of science.

    You ask, does the best explanation of biological complexity involve God’s intervention or not? I honestly don’t know. I’m ready to follow the evidence where it leads. Michael Behe doesn’t think so, even though he is a proponent of Intelligent Design. Progressive Creationists think it does. Who’s right, if either? The only way to know is to look at the evidence.

    You charge that this attitude leads to the “God-of-the-gaps,” so despised today. I think this charge is misplaced. The “God-of the-gaps” has to do with arguments for the existence of God based on gaps in scientific knowledge. But here we need not be arguing for God’s existence at all. The theist may come to the evidence with a theistic worldview already in hand and then ask (as I do), “What does the evidence indicate about the way in which God brought about biological complexity? Did He use evolution? Did He intervene miraculously?” In order to answer those questions, he will look at the evidence. If there are enormous gaps in the fossil record and if the explanatory mechanisms of neo-Darwinian theory involve huge extrapolations beyond very limited evidence, then the theist may be justifiably sceptical about the truth of the prevailing theory (which, remember, depends crucially upon a methodological restriction of a philosophical nature). The gaps, then, function as empirical evidence that the current theory is in some way defective. Of course, I won’t conjecture in advance about where God intervenes (how could I expect to know something like that a priori?). Rather I’ll look at the evidence to see if and where there may be places where divine intervention may have occurred. If the gaps are closed, and the evidence for the adequacy of the evolutionary explanatory mechanisms strengthened, then I may become more confident that the prevailing view is correct.

    You might say that proponents of Intelligent Design do argue for the existence of God, or at least of an Intelligent Designer of the cosmos. Quite right; but the best of them don’t do so on the basis of gaps in the evidence. Rather a theorist like William Dembski proposes a theory of design inference which applies to design inferences of any sort and has nothing to do with gaps in the evidence or with divine interventionism. (Dembski’s theory of divine action is very subtle and is wholly consistent with non-interventionism.) His theory of design inference is thus a principled inference, not simply an appeal based on ignorance.

    As for Genesis, I’m again uncertain whether there’s any science there or not. Certainly its theological purpose is not primarily scientific. But Wolfhart Pannenberg claims, appealing to Old Testament scholar Gerhard von Rad, that the narrative is intended to be a scientific account of the world’s origin. You’re quite mistaken to think it purely mythological. Indeed, the account is positively de-mythologizing in its tone. It strips away any of the dragons and primordial gods of the creation myths of Israel’s pagan neighbors. The sun and the moon are not astral deities; they’re just lights in the sky which God has made. The animals and vegetation that populate the Earth are just creatures made by God. The whole chapter has a de-mythologizing intent with regard to the created world.

    Once you divest yourself of the idea that the account means to narrate six consecutive, 24 hour days—and there are good reasons in the text for thinking that its author did not so intend it—, then it’s striking that the narrative says absolutely nothing about how God made the plants and animals. Don’t misunderstand me: I’m not claiming that Genesis 1 teaches evolution—that would be anachronistic—but merely that there is no inconsistency between Genesis 1 and an evolutionary theory. Augustine understood this point already 1500 years before Darwin.

    You confuse the story of the creation and fall of man in Genesis 2-3 with the creation account in Genesis 1. Certainly that account is rich in its symbolism—the author didn’t intend for us to imagine God performing CPR on Adam through his nose—, but don’t depreciate a narrative because it is not literal. Need I add that the narrative says nothing about original sin’s being genetically transmitted?

    The Bible doesn’t intend to be a science textbook, so it would be silly to look to it for scientific discoveries. But modern science was birthed by a biblical worldview which saw the world neither as divine nor as inhabited by spirits but as a rational place created by God and therefore amenable to scientific exploration. And a theistic view of the world can most certainly contribute to our understanding of scientific truth. Have a look at my article on the relation of science and theology under the “Science and Theology” section of “Popular Articles.” In the present case concerning what is the best explanation of biological complexity, a theistic perspective can help us to be more critical and less gullible with regard to theories based on philosophical assumptions and tenuous evidential grounds.

    - William Lane Craig