Among Theistic Evolutionists, Still No Consensus on What’s Wrong with Stephen Meyer’s Argument

Thanks to Casey Luskin at Evolution and News for this post:

robert_bishop_bio_new.jpg

In reviewing Darwin’s Doubt, even now almost a year and a half since it came out, theistic evolutionists can’t seem to agree on what Stephen Meyer got wrong. As David Klinghoffer has written, when Darrel Falk reviewed Darwin’s Doubt for BioLogos back in September, he agreed that Stephen Meyer is right to point out that leading evolutionary theorists are rethinking important neo-Darwinian claims. Most fundamentally, they are reconsidering whether the standard model can account for large-scale macro-evolutionary change. In noting this, Falk (a biologist) explicitly disagreed with a critical review of Meyer’s book posted at BioLogos by Wheaton College philosopher Robert Bishop (pictured at right), who claimed that the neo-Darwinian paradigm was doing just fine.

BioLogos subsequently posted the text of a speech by Alister McGrath, framed in the headline so as to suggest that Meyer was guilty of making a “God of the gaps” argument. I responded here. Now Bishop has co-authored another critical review of Darwin’s Doubt and Signature in the Cell in Christianity Today‘s review journal Books & Culture.

Bishop’s latest review is noteworthy for its concession that Meyer does not in fact make a “God of the gaps” argument. He also acknowledges that Meyer’s is not an “argument from ignorance.” Along with Wheaton College philosopher Robert O’Connor, Bishop writes that “Meyer deftly dispatches…the misconception that [intelligent design] engages in crude god-of-the-gaps reasoning or presents a simplistic argument from ignorance.”

That basically defeats the previous attempt over at BioLogos to portray Darwin’s Doubt as a gaps-based argument. Bishop and O’Connor also deserve credit for avoiding some common traps among critics of Meyer’s work. Beyond that, unfortunately, their review is marred by serious errors.

They accuse Meyer of “begging the very question at hand,” that is, whether there might be other unknown material causes that could produce complex and specified information (CSI) in life. They write:

[T]his phrase, “only one known cause,” is crucially ambiguous. It might mean that, among all the possible causes, there is only one that we have good reason to believe is capable of producing specified complexity. This point, however, poses (could there be others?) rather than answers the question.

By appealing to unknown causes to block the design inference, they effectively commit a materialism-of-the-gaps fallacy. That is, they assume that material causes will be discovered to explain all things and thus we can never infer design.

But why are Bishop and O’Connor so concerned about unknown causes in the first place? It seems to be because they misread Meyer as saying that “we have positive knowledge that no other causes are adequate.” In other words, they think Meyer is affirming that no other possible causes, known or unknown, can explain life’s high CSI. But that’s not at all what Meyer says. In fact, in arguing his case, Meyer nearly always inserts the word “known” before “cause.” For one of many examples:

But philosophers of science have insisted that assessments of explanatory power lead to conclusive inferences only when there is just one known cause for the effect or evidence in question.(Darwin’s Doubt, p. 349, emphasis in original)

Here’s another:

Only if the Cambrian event and animals exhibit features for which intelligent design is the only known cause may a historical scientist make a decisive inference to a past intelligent cause.(Darwin’s Doubt, p. 352, emphasis in original)

Indeed, Bishop and O’Connor’s review includes multiple citations from Meyer where he inserts “known” before “cause,” yet they misrepresent Meyer’s argument as saying the opposite. Meyer doesn’t claim to have exhaustive knowledge of all possible causes, even those presently unknown. He only claims to refute known material causes.

To read on, click here:

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5 thoughts on “Among Theistic Evolutionists, Still No Consensus on What’s Wrong with Stephen Meyer’s Argument

  1. Ed Atkinson November 8, 2014 / 9:11 pm

    Hi Chab. I guess that you agree with the tone of the article you’ve copied here.

    For you, would overwhelming evidence for evolution mean that your Christian beliefs must be wrong? Or do you just think that Intelligent Design is good evidence to challenge naturalism, and that if evolution turns out to be the correct account of how we got here, then Christianity still stands?

    I assume you’ll know my views on Intelligent Design

    Cheers

    Ed

  2. chab123 November 9, 2014 / 2:40 am

    Ed,

    I have been reading the literature for a long time. You first have to define evolution. There are many different definitions. I don’t know any possible way it would undermine my Christian faith. I already posted enough reading on my post on an outline on Biblical theism. And Michael Behe’s book called The Edge of Evolution shows the limitations of it. There are still plenty of aspects of evolution that are being debated today and only someone who is really naïve would say it is some sort of fact that evolution has undermined Christianity. Like I said before:

    In his book An Atheist Defends Religion: Why Humanity Is Better Off With Religion Than Without It, author Bruce Sheiman gives a general outline of how atheists account for how we got here. Human Life = Laws of physics X chance + randomness+ accidents+luck X 3.5 billion yrs. In other words, the laws of physics for our present universe arose by chance (from a multitude of possible universes); the first forms of life developed by chance (arising by primordial soup combinations that resulted from the laws of physics plus accidents); the first concept of life developed purely by chance (genetic mutations and environmental randomness); and humans evolved by more improbable occurrences.

    To believe this scenario above here, it would take a lot of faith. There are all kinds of gaps and defeaters that undermine such a scenario.You can say I have faith that science will fill every gap. But once again, you put all your confidence in chance and the mechanism. I see an agent using the mechanisms for his purposes.

    My suggestion is to read WLC’S article called “Why Is Evolution so Widely Believed?” http://www.reasonablefaith.org/why-is-evolution-so-widely-believed

    Also, see John Walton’s The Lost World of Genesis One.

    • Ed Atkinson November 9, 2014 / 12:29 pm

      As ever, thanks Chab. Your replies are always helpful for me.

      I read WLC’s piece with interest. You’ll be relieved that I don’t want to debate Evolution with you here.

      I am still not clear on your answer to the question. Let us take evolution to mean all 3 concepts WLC lists, which to me is roughly the same as Bruce Sheiman’s general outline minus the origin of life. Under that definition I get it that you think evolution is not the correct account of how we got here. Now my question is: if overwhelming evidence for evolution (of that definition) were found, would that mean that your Christian beliefs must be wrong?

      Cheers, Ed

      (P.S. you mis-used that word ‘faith’ again. Only a mere 10% of Christians think that ‘faith’ means “believing something even though it is not supported by evidence.”
      https://chab123.wordpress.com/2014/06/08/poll-shows-atheists-and-christians-are-using-a-different-defintion-of-faith/?utm_content=buffer4bf60&utm_medium=social&utm_source=twitter.com&utm_campaign=buffer )

  3. chab123 November 9, 2014 / 11:09 pm

    Ed,

    Let me make it easier for you:

    My friend Bill Pratt has an article here. http://www.toughquestionsanswered.org/2012/05/02/how-is-evolution-defined-part-1/ He says:

    One of the first things I was taught in my seminary classes was to carefully define terms and concepts before launching into a debate over them. So many times, when I see two people arguing about a topic, they are using different definitions for the same words. It’s impossible to have a productive discussion with someone when you don’t agree on how to define terms.

    Recently I read a great article in the Christian Research Journal (Vol. 35 / No. 1 / 2012), written by Jay Richards, on the topic of evolution and its varying definitions. The article is entitled “Thinking Clearly about God and Evolution.” I thought I would excerpt some portions of the article because I think it will be helpful to all of us when we discuss this controversial subject.

    Richards writes:

    It’s a lot easier to define theism than to define evolution. It’s been called the ultimate weasel word. In an illuminating article called “The Meanings of Evolution,” Stephen Meyer and Michael Keas attempt to catch the weasel by distinguishing six different ways in which “evolution” is commonly used:

    1. Change over time; history of nature; any sequence of events in nature.

    2. Changes in the frequencies of alleles in the gene pool of a population.

    3. Limited common descent: the idea that particular groups of organisms have descended from a common ancestor.

    4. The mechanisms responsible for the change required to produce limited descent with modification, chiefly natural selection acting on random variations or mutations.

    5. Universal common descent: the idea that all organisms have descended from a single common ancestor.

    6. “Blind watchmaker” thesis: the idea that all organisms have descended from common ancestors solely through unguided, unintelligent, purposeless, material processes such as natural selection acting on random variations or mutations; that the mechanisms of natural selection, random variation and mutation, and perhaps other similarly naturalistic mechanisms, are completely sufficient to account for the appearance of design in living organisms.

    As Christians, what are we to make of these 6 different definitions of evolution? Definitions 1-4 are almost universally accepted by young earth, old earth, and theistic evolutionists. They all agree that plant and animal populations have changed over time, that there is limited common descent, and that natural selection acting on random mutation does affect plant and animal populations.

    Definition number 5 is where young earth and old earth creationists get off the boat. These folks believe that God specially created different kinds of plants and animals at specific moments in earth’s history. Old earth creationists stretch out those creative acts over some 3.5-4 billion years, whereas young earth creationists compact those creative acts into a 6-day period. In either case, it would be impossible for universal common descent to be true. Finally, theistic evolutionists would have no problem with definition 5.

    Definition 6 is where even theistic evolutionists disembark. Why? Because they do not accept that evolution is “unguided, unintelligent, [and] purposeless.” God is behind evolution and He planned it out and executed on the plan through the initial conditions and physical laws that he put in place.

    In part 2, I will excerpt some further insightful comments from Richards on definition 6, which is by far the most controversial definition of evolution
    – See more at: http://www.toughquestionsanswered.org/2012/05/02/how-is-evolution-defined-part-1/#sthash.6Cpkus9e.dpuf

    For me,

    #6 – I agree that natural selection and random mutations happen. But they don’t account for specified, irreducible complexity and the origin of biological information. And there are problems with the Cambrian explosion as this article discusses.

    As far as the Sheiman outline, I don’t think any of that is an established fact. As far as the way Christians define faith, that’s their fault for being biblically illiterate. .

    • Ed Atkinson November 10, 2014 / 8:39 am

      Thanks Chab, I am learning a lot here. I thought evolution was just definition 6. My understanding has been that the unguided aspect is just inherent in evolution, but I’m happy to go with you on your definitions.

      So you are saying definition 6 evolution is not fully correct, the unguided aspect is wrong. You base that on scientific considerations, not theology, so there is the possibility that science can move on and change the picture. I still request an answer to my original question: if overwhelming evidence for evolution (unguided definition 6) were found, would that mean that your Christian beliefs must be wrong?

      I am now thoroughly confused over your definition of ‘faith’. You used it to mean believing against evidence, you said “To believe this scenario above here, it would take a lot of faith.”, and when I picked you up over it, I linked to your post that argues the opposite definition. That post shows that 90% of Christians did not agree that ‘faith’ means “believing something even though it is not supported by evidence.” And now you are saying “As far as the way Christians define faith, that’s their fault for being biblically illiterate.” It sounds like you have completely changed your views on faith since you wrote the post I linked to. Please help me here and clarify.

      Cheers Ed

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