Bad Design-Of-The-Gaps?

In conversations between proponents and skeptics of Intelligent Design (ID,) there are two recurring themes. Skeptics will often accuse ID proponents of appealing to a “god-of-the-gaps” (GOTG) as an explanation for the phenomena in question. Likewise, examples of alleged bad design are offered as a rejoinder. While it may sometimes be the case that this is intellectually lazy hand-waving, it can also stem from unexamined presuppositions.

 

God-of-the-Gaps

The idea of GOTG is that “we don’t understand how this could be, so God must have done it.” If this was the case, it would be a fallacious argument from ignorance. It isn’t very helpful, and when a natural explanation is discovered, it is often touted as evidence that God does not exist. However, when an ID proponent points to a feature of nature that appears designed, he does so because the feature has properties that are unique to designed things. The icon of the ID movement is the bacterial flagellum. It is a molecular motor that is made of proteins, and probably could not have developed in step-wise fashion. Skeptics point to structures like the Type 3 Secretory System as a possible precursor and declare the design hypothesis “defeated.” However, the real disagreement does not start with these particulars. It begins with the presuppositions.

While some ID proponents are non-theists, many are theists. As such, they do not assume, contrary to most skeptics of ID, that the only minds that exist are associated with, if not identical to, physical brains. As such, for these skeptics, there is no such thing as an unevolved mind. Given that, it is not possible, even in principle, for design to be a valid inference for anything that preceded the emergence of a mind capable of designing. Therefore, living systems that preceded humanity could not have been designed. Moreover, skeptics of ID always look at the data with a “bottom up” approach. This stems from the same methodological naturalism that informs their work. However, for the ID proponent who happens to be a theist, he is working top-down, with a background knowledge of a host of arguments for the existence of God. ID is simply offered as an example of evidence of God’s existence, not as an explanatory hypothesis.

 

Bad Design

Skeptics will also point to what they see as bad designs. This is thought to be a defeater of ID because if an all-powerful, all-knowing God designed these things, he would have done a better job. Examples would include the inverted retina, the proximity of the esophagus to the trachea, and the panda’s thumb. Others have given this a detailed response, but again they are operating from an unexpressed, if not unexamined, presupposition. They are assuming the purpose of the thing in question is to give maximal survival benefit. However, how do they come to this? I think it goes back to the evolutionary paradigm where natural selection is the name of the game. However, they are critiquing a design without examining the purpose for which it was designed. It seems to me you can’t draw valid inferences about the efficacy of a design if you don’t know the purpose. If you look at a hammer, you will thing it is very poorly designed if you think its purpose is to remove dust from glass.

 

To critique a worldview, you must start by examining it on its own terms. Too often the question of God’s existence and involvement in the world is viewed as if the world were a brute reality and, according to theists, God shows up one day and takes over. Or, if God made the world, he made it to be a place where we should have everything we want and live forever. Since it is obvious this is not the case, theism is silly. However, if God made the world, then like any other maker, he had a purpose in mind. If you want to know if a design is a good one, you must know that purpose. Likewise, if you remain ignorant of the arguments for God’s existence, you will continue to think ID proponents appeal to ignorance. How’s that for irony?

 

Improbable Planet by Hugh Ross: a Review

Author

Hugh Ross is an astrophysicist with a PhD from the University of Toronto. He is also the founder and president of Reasons to Believe, a science/faith think tank. In the ongoing conversation between people of faith and those who are not over the philosophy of science, the phrase “god-of-the-gaps” is often tossed around as an accusation against those who hold to some view of divine design or creation. It is claimed that the view is “we don’t know how this came about, so God must have done it.” This dismissal ignores the fact that design proponents who are theists (and not all are) have many lines of argumentation that show the rationality of belief in God. When apparent design is cited as evidence of God’s existence, it is not for the purpose of filling a gap in knowledge, but inferring from what is known. Ross does this very well in his books Creator and the Cosmos, Origins of Life (with Fazale Rana) and Why the Universe Is the Way It Is. In each of these books, Ross addresses how the initial conditions of the universe, the fine tuning of the solar system, and the origin of life are quite consistent with intentional purpose. In Improbable Planet, Ross brings these arguments together to show the whole picture. This is his best work yet.

Using the analogy of a huge construction project, Ross catalogs the steps that must be followed, from producing the materials, to preparing the ground, to laying the foundation, etc, to argue that the universe bears the hallmarks of design for advanced, high-tech civilization.

 

Synopsis

The thesis of the book is that the universe as a whole, and earth in particular, was created for the purpose of redemption: a home for the human race which God would use to defeat evil once and for all. The book is laid out in eighteen chapters. Chapter one lays out point of raising this question. Chapter two describes the results of what the next thirteen chapters would describe. In chapter three, Ross describes how the Big Bang, and subsequent star formation and supernovae produced the necessary building materials. Chapter four shows how rare of a neighborhood a rare planet needs. (Location, location, location.) Chapter five describes the early development of the solar system and the earth-moon system, as well as how these particular conditions make earth a suitable home. Chapter six explains how the interaction of solar system bodies brought about bombardments of the earth that was vital for the life that would later occupy it.

Scientists are frequently announcing the discovery of extrasolar planets. Those who think life must exist elsewhere are looking for planets that could have liquid water on them. They recognize that this is a necessary, though not sufficient condition for life. In chapter seven, Ross notes eight “habitable zones” that must overlap for advanced life to be possible, as well as other conditions. Chapter eight discusses the early origin of life and how it lead to the development of land masses. Here begins the series of life forms that would appear in just the right kinds, and amounts that would prepare the planet for future life forms. Chapter nine through twelve examine how these life forms affected and were affected by the climate, and how they compensated for a changing luminosity of the sun. Chapter thirteen catalogs how the geological and biological history of earth bestowed abundant resources which would be needed for a high-tech civilization. Chapter fourteen walks us through the history of mass speciation and extinction events in earth’s history. Chapter fifteen explains how the ice age cycle has prepared the earth to be able to sustain a population of billions. Chapter sixteen brings us back to the big picture, the why question, and offers an explanation from the Christian worldview.

 

Analysis

As I stated above, I think this is Ross’ best work yet. It lays out his best arguments for design in the universe, the galaxy, the solar system, and the planet. His big picture-to-close up approach, using the construction analogy, is a comprehensive summary of why so many who study these things find confidence in their faith. This book also avoids a lot of unnecessary theological speculation. It can be a little technical for the average lay person, but I think it is worth the effort. I cannot recommend this book more enthusiastically. What readers who may be skeptical need to keep in mind, is that this is a “top down” approach to the question of design. If your starting point is that matter is all there is, you will come away unconvinced. I invite you to read this with an open mind.

 

Shadow of Oz: Theistic Evolution and the Absent God by Wayne Rossiter, a Review.

Author

Wayne Rossiter is Assistant Professor of Biology at Waynsburg University. He received his B.S. from Otterbein University, his M.S. from Ohio State University and his Ph.D. from Rutgers University. Dr. Rossiter teaches Principles of Biology, Ecology and Environmental Biology.

 

Synopsis

In Shadow of Oz, Rossiter argues that given the blatant incompatibility of Darwinian evolution and the Christian worldview, those who try to hold to both do so at the expense of the Christian worldview, and in the name of a paradigm that is in deep trouble.

The book is laid out in seven chapters. In Chapter one, Rossiter tells his own story, and that of the way Darwinian evolution undermines classical Christianity, and outlines the attempts of theistic evolutionists to hold to both. In chapter two, Rossiter argues that the two views are fundamentally incompatible. Chapter 3 is a brief(ish) explanation of the Darwinian model, as well as the problems with trying to reintroduce God into the picture. Chapter four focuses on the Christian view of man, which is the greatest area of incongruity between Christianity and Darwin. In chapter five, Rossiter argues that the theistic evolution would make God the creator of evil. In chapter six, Rossiter gives an overview of the newest findings of science, and the way they call Darwinism into serious question. Finally, chapter seven evaluates theistic evolution in light of the discussion of the previous six chapters.

 

Analysis

Rossiter’s approach is quite even-handed in that rather than evaluating theistic evolution from a particular sectarian point of view, he shows how incompatible it is with mere Christianity. Moreover, Rossiter’s critique of the neo-Darwinian synthesis is grounded in the latest research in the field of biology, not simply from the work of Intelligent Design proponents. His argument is that Christianity is not compatible with Darwinism, that holding to the best of science means one is justified in rejecting Darwinism, and therefore, theistic evolutionists are throwing the baby out with the bath water. There is, however, room for improvement.

 

In chapter 2, Rossiter notes the limited role granted by theistic evolutionists for God’s direct involvement in the world. I would add that they overlook God’s sustaining the universe in its regular adherence to the laws of physics, which itself demands an explanation.

 

While most of Rossiter’s arguments are cogent and well though-out, he seems to misunderstand the views of Alvin Plantinga and William Lane Craig. Plantinga and Craig acknowledge that “random” changes in an organism is compatible with theism just in case “random” is understood to mean “not occurring for the purpose of benefitting the organism.” Craig argues that for a scientist to go further, such as to say such changes are “undirected” is to step outside of their discipline. Both argue that such changes can look the same whether directed by God to degrade the organism, or truly undirected. Rossiter responds, “Apparently, suggesting that aliens are tinkering with mutations is fantasy, but supposing that a supernatural God is doing it behind the scenes is completely rational.”[1] Given that Craig and Plantinga can point to many points of evidence for God, while there is virtually no evidence best explained by aliens, it is in fact, rational. Rossiter goes on to claim “Craig concludes that it is logical to suppose that evolution is guided or directed by God.”[2] Actually, Craig concludes that it is logically possible that God could direct evolution, and that the scientist who denies this does so out of philosophical commitments, not scientific reasoning.

 

Recommendation

Rossiter’s book is an excellent primer on the latest in findings in the literature and why holding to Darwinism is not only unnecessary, it is ultimately a dead end. Shadow of Oz is accessible for readers with a high school education, and highly useful for understanding how a Christian ought to think about these issues.

 

 

 

[1] Rossiter, Wayne D. (2015-12-08). Shadow of Oz: Theistic Evolution and the Absent God (Kindle Locations 2149-2150). Pickwick Publications, an Imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers. Kindle Edition.

 

[2] Ibid., 2155-2156

Podcasts You Should Know Part 5

Next up in this series is one of our “friends across the pond,” Justin Brierley, with his weekly radio show/ podcast Unbelievable?Unbelievable? Airs every Saturday in the U.K. and is then released as a podcast. Each week, Brierly brings together a Christian and a skeptic to have a dialogue on matters of faith. Sometimes the dialogue is among Christians discussing an area of disagreement in theology. What really stands out in these discussion is the level of civility that is (usually) maintained throughout the conversation. While Brierley makes no secret about where he stands, he is consistently recognized by listeners and guests as a very even-handed moderator of the discussions.

In addition to the show, Brierley has a blog, and serves as the senior editor of Premier Christianity magazine. Be sure to check this podcast out.

Podcasts You Should Know About Part 2

This week I want to call your attention to not just a podcast, but another ministry that has more than one fine podcast. Reasonable Faith, the ministry of Dr. William Lane Craig, is a highly useful resource, including two podcasts: Reasonable Faith, and Defenders. Reasonable Faith is a weekly podcast hosted by Craig and Kevin Harris where they discuss recent events and debates related to Christianity and apologetics. Defenders is a weekly class taught by Craig that is accessible, yet thorough in its systematic treatment of Christian doctrine. Defenders is available as a podcast, but also can be accessed as a live stream on Sundays at 12:45 Eastern time. In addition to the podcasts, the Reasonable Faith website has a wealth of information related to apologetics, as well as philosophy. There is a whole library of videos of Craig’s teaching and debates.

Meaningful World By Benjamin Walker and Jonathan Witt: A Review

With a Ph.D. in Theological Ethics, Benjamin Wiker lends his expertise along with the literary insights of Jonathan Witt, Senior Fellow for Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture, to the question of just what kind of world we live in. Wiker and Witt do not simply disagree with the reigning paradigm of metaphysical naturalism found in science. They see it as harmful. They have written this book as an antidote to the “poison” that is “the assumption that science has proven that the universe is without purpose, without meaning—proven it so clearly that one need not even produce an argument.” (Wiker and Witt, Location 61.)

The question of meaning has implications for how all of reality is seen. For Christians concerned with preaching the gospel, juxtaposing a divine creator with a meaningless universe is incoherent. This is one of the reasons why the apologetic project is needed in order to make Christianity a live option in the marketplace of ideas. In this particular case, the meaningfulness of the universe needs to be recognized. The poison must be counteracted. Recognizing the fact that human beings are an integral part of the universe, and that we have lived, acted, and created as though the world has meaning, Wiker adds his analysis of the works of Shakespeare which are best understood if meaning were central to human understanding of the world, as well as a comparative analogy to the creativity found in nature.

“The book’s central claim is clearly stated: the universe is meaning-full.” (63) The authors make it plain that they reject the nihilistic paradigm that is claimed to be “proven” by science. They build their case beginning with a historical overview of how the idea of a random, meaningless world goes back to the ancient Greeks and found resurgence in Darwin, Nietzsche, Freud and Marx. The assumption of meaninglessness began to lose momentum as discoveries of order and specified complexity began to emerge such that even a hardened skeptic like Antony Flew was moved to theism. From this background, Wiker and Witt note that just as parts of the cosmos made sense in light of the whole, and perhaps only so, the same is clearly so in literature. Shakespeare’s works are examined to illustrate the point, showing that contrary to Dawkins’ illustration of “Methinks it like a Weasel,” the parts fit the whole, but also that the whole makes no sense if the works and their author are nothing more than matter in motion, or animals driven by the urge to procreate. The genius exhibited by Shakespeare is then used to illustrate the genius Euclid points to in mathematics. The authors show how on a materialist worldview, the existence of mathematics makes no sense, much less its applicability to the material universe. From mathematics, the order and intelligibility of the cosmos, chemistry (especially the periodic table) and biology is examined. Through each discipline, the antidote of structuralism is counteracting the poison of reductionism. Structuralism approaches these questions from the top-down, parts-to-whole view. Such a view is not even considered a live option if one starts from meaninglessness. In fact, it is the only way scientists can discern “the meaning of the data they gather.” Wiker and Witt present case after interrelated case for the meaningful whole of the created order into which each of its parts –matter, energy, chemistry, life in general, and humanity in particular– fits. While so many books of this type focus on particular arguments for God’s existence from specific areas such as cosmogony, fine-tuning, or information theory, Meaningful World looks at the big picture. If the other works study the trees, Wiker and Witt look at the whole forest. They show not only that these things fit, but also that they are made to be discovered as such. They do so with a clear, accessible style and a refreshing dose of humor. While their arguments are logically cogent, their discussion of Shakespeare’s literary acumen appeals to aesthetics. Moreover, while they mention some of the astronomically high levels of improbability of the world being the way it is by chance, they do not hang their whole case there. Another way the thesis of the book can be stated is, “Intelligent design? More like creative genius.”

The literary element they introduce by way of analogy and as a particular example is a rarity in books on this subject. Their use of Shakespeare to illustrate their point is not only a novel way to argue in this arena, but they inspire a new appreciation for the literature itself. Their presentation reaches the reader at the cognitive as well as the intuitive level. Moreover, they present a strong case in favor of their thesis, rather than simply relying on defeaters for its negation. They do more than show that reductionism is false. They present a powerful case for a meaningful world. More than merely meaningful, the authors offer a case for elements of genius in the created order that is analogous to the creative genius of Shakespeare. Wiker and Witt argue that the knowledge offered by the study of mathematics, cosmology, chemistry and biology have the depth, clarity, harmony and elegance one would expect to find in the works of geniuses. This is not design by a minimally intelligent mind, but a designing Genius.

This book is a must-read for anyone interested in the philosophy of science, or the history of the controversy over the Intelligent Design hypothesis. The book is accessible to the layperson without dumbing down the content. While the scholarship of the authors is evident in the content, the engaging style of the prose has none of the dryness that can come from the subject matter. The integrated approach will inform a more fully orbed apologetic than those books that focus on a narrower topic such as the origin of information or the complexity of the living cell. As important as these details are, this book will help you see the forest and the trees.