Who Speaks for Science?

Dear Bill:
I hope you’re doing well.
A couple of people forwarded me (in distress) your response on “Evolutionary Theory and Theism” at Reasonable Faith.
As you no doubt know, your answer is similar to the one that Al Plantinga gives in his important book Where the Conflict Really Lies. Unfortunately, I think you’re making the same mistake that Al makes. (I still love his book and have made it required reading for our summer seminars.) You and Al are two of the most prominent and able defenders of the faith on the planet. So a mistake on this point is profoundly consequential.
Of course you’re right that scientists are not justified in claiming that the history of life is the result of a purposeless processthat is, the empirical evidence doesn’t establish anything like that (quite the contrary, in my opinion). The question, however, is what Darwinists typically claim for their theory and for the evidence. I think you’re confusing what evolutionary biologists are justified in saying with what they typically are saying.
It’s true that if the word “random” in evolutionary theory, Neo-Darwinism, etc., means merely something like “irrespective of their usefulness to the organism,” then it’s logically compatible with theism and teleology (though even this definition clearly excludes all sorts of possible divine activity and goes far beyond the empirical evidence). In your post, you quote Francisco Ayala to establish the official definition of “random” in biology. But why would you trust Francisco Ayala on something of this nature? He has devoted much of his career since he lost his faith by studying (Darwinian) evolutionary theory, trying to convince Christians that they have nothing to worry about (he had been a Dominican priest). He tells Christians that there’s no conflict between Darwinism and Christianity, but if that is so, one might wonder why Ayala lost his faith once he came to identify with Darwinism.
But that’s a tangential issue. The crucial question is this: Do evolutionary biologists, Neo-Darwinists, etc. consistently and representatively restrict their explanations in this way? Absolutely not. Biologists in general, and most presentations of (Neo-Darwinian) biological evolution, are not careful to circumscribe the meaning of “random” or “chance.” One can construct an ideal form of the theory that avoids the metaphysical pretentions, but that a private language game.
In fact, if one reads for long in the relevant literature, one discovers a common bait-and-switch strategy used by Darwinists, which is to present a metaphysically minimal definition of the word/theory in contexts such as “Debating William Lane Craig in public,” and quite another definition in, well, every other context. Their equivocation is often coordinated and intentional. Other times, it’s simply the Darwinian default. Surely one of the important services of “careful philosophical thinking about science” is to identify and expose this equivocation, rather than to obscure it or miss it.
The distinction between “popularizers” and scientists is common but artificial. The problem started with Darwin, who relied heavily on the argument form, God wouldn’t do X that way, so X must have evolved by selection and variation, and it persists across the discipline to this day. If you doubt that the theory is normally and pervasively defined in a-teleological ways, I’m happy to send you quotes from scores of biology textbooks and official statements making it quite clear that the theory is intended to explain biological adaptation as an alternative to design. Words such as “blind” and “purposeless” turn up everywhere. This practice has been ubiquitous since Darwin wrote the Origin of Species. In the quote from Steve Meyer that you discuss, Steve is paraphrasing the famous quote from G.G. Simpson: “Man is the result of a purposeless and natural process that did not have him in mind.” Simpson was hardly a “popularizer.” It’s inaccurate to treat the a-teleological part of the Darwinian theory as an accidental but easily detachable piggybacker.
I have a hard time understanding the wisdom of defining a theory in a way that fails to accommodate the language and explanations of the theory’s founder and defenders. Surely they have a privileged claim on the question of what they mean by the theory.
Ayala himself often slides into anti-teleological language when talking about evolution even when he’s trying to give a more nuanced definition of the theory. See, for instance, his “Darwin’s greatest discovery: Design without designer," published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA in 2007 (Vol. 104:8567-8573, May 15, 2007). PNAS isn’t exactly a populist publication. He provides some nuanced definitions of “random” and “chance” there as well, and yet notice the very title of the article. He even uses “natural processes” in a-teleological way, as if natural processes by definition exclude divine activity. He says that by finding that “the design of living organisms can be accounted for as the result of natural processes,” Darwin completed a “conceptual revolution” that “is nothing if not a fundamental vision that has forever changed how mankind perceives itself and its place in the universe.” Now why would that be?
He claims that the Darwinian revolution, like the Copernican Revolution, brought a part of nature under the explanation of “natural laws.” One of many problems with this common claim: the selection/mutation “mechanism,” unlike natural laws in physics and chemistry, has no predictive power or mathematical expression, and no significant evidence in its favor apart from some trivial examples within species that no one has ever doubted. He also endorses the old historical myth about Copernicus “displacing the Earth from its previously accepted locus as the center of the universe and moving it to a subordinate place as just one more planet revolving around the sun. In congruous manner, the Darwinian Revolution is viewed as consisting of the displacement of humans from their exalted position as the center of life on earth, with all other species created for the service of humankind.” Notice the metaphysical water that Darwin is carrying here. It is ever thus.
He then goes on to explain: “Biological evolution differs from a painting or an artifact in that it is not the outcome of preconceived design. The design of organisms is not intelligent but imperfect and, at times, outright dysfunctional.” (This doesn’t make sense, since a design could be both intelligent and imperfect. This mistake is ubiquitous with Darwinists but isn’t central to my point here.) He also explains: “The design of organisms as they exist in nature, however, is not ‘intelligent design,’ imposed by God as a Supreme Engineer or by humans; rather, it is the result of a natural process of selection, promoting the adaptation of organisms to their environments.” Notice the word “rather.” He concludes the article by saying that "[n]atural selection does not have foresight; it does not anticipate the environments of the future," and thus "n evolution, there is no entity or person who is selecting adaptive combinations." This is how Darwinian Theory is usually explained by its proponents. The entire point of Ayala’s article is to argue that the Darwinian process provides “some appearance of purposefulness” without actual purposefulness. Notice the explicitly theological language, in an article in the Proceedings of the Natural Academy of Sciences.

The Meyer quote, incidentally, looks like a garbled quote from a transcript of an extemporaneous speech. I know it’s not from anything he’s written, and it doesn’t come up on an Internet search. In any case, Steve obviously wouldn’t argue that “evolution” is by definition purposeless. His point, no doubt, was something like this: If evolution is a blind and purposeless process, then, by definition, not even God could guide itIf He guided it, then, by definition, it wouldn’t be purposeless. Do you think it’s plausible that Mike Behe and Steve Meyer, after all these years of studying, reading, writing, and debating on the subject, have failed to understand what Darwinian theorists are saying, and that no one had bothered simply to explain to them that the word “random” has a specialized, metaphysically neutral meaning when biologists use it? On the contrary, I can assure you that Steve, Mike, and every other prominent ID advocate is intimately familiar with this Darwinian language game.


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