Mark Dickson talks Monsters

Mark Dickson has raised some interesting questions in the discussion of my previous post: “Has Creationism Created a Monster?” These are my responses to the gist of his questions. (You can see his remarks in full in the comments beneath that post). I thought I’d turn my response into a new post for those who are interested, because it’s a sticky topic, and because it saves me having to write something else.

Dear Mark

Q (i): Can design-by-a-designer be ‘seen’ and described in scientific terms?

There may be irreducible complexity or something of that order that proves the Designer, but science is always on the move, so I doubt anyone would accept it who didn’t want to. I do think that it is helpful to offer design-by-a-designer as an over-arching explanation of the natural world (however the mechanism by which it was brought about), and regardless of whether or not we can prove it. It is a valid explanation.

More generally, design is readily acknowledged, I think, but not a personal designer. The most ardent Darwinists tend to be full of awe and wonder at the majesty of the natural world; they call the guiding hand of evolution ‘selection / survival of the fittest’; they all seem to recognise that the existence of the original raw material is inexplicable; and they acknowledge that the beginning of life from inorganic chemistry is a surprising chance event. This shows, I think, that there is plenty of room even in modern science for the doxology that Romans describes. The capacity of creatures to adapt and change and grow is deeply wonderful in its own right*. Yet, as Paul says, they worship the creature, not the Creator. So I’d say that even the science of evolution is capable of shouting the glory of God, even if there is no single creature to which we can point as undeniable scientific evidence of God.

*I know that this suggests that species aren’t fixed, and Genesis says that God finished his work of creating and rested. Yet even Jesus ‘contradicted’ Genesis to say that the Father is always working. He says this for a purpose unrelated to ours, I suppose, but is it therefore not possible that achieving rest with creation need not suggest stasis?

Q: Is it Godly to claim that one can observe design-by-a-designer in creation?

My original point was that Creationists often display integrity failure in the way that they argue. Some evolutionists find the simple act of postulating a Designer (or even a dissenting model for origins) to represent lack of integrity.

I would not consider it to be a lack of integrity to go against the scientific consensus, certainly not until one has examined the reasons for the departure. One must do one’s best with the evidence, and if one considers the evidence to point elsewhere, then so be it. To do so need not be immoral. Scientists can hardly complain about this kind of thing, seeing as countless scientific breakthroughs (Copernican Revolutions, if you will) have come about because someone was willing to adopt a different paradigm to the consensus.

I have to confess that I get a bit worried when Creationist scientists say (as I have heard): ‘The Bible says that the Earth is such and such a way, and so I went looking for that’. It is not necessarily dishonest to do this, because all scientists proceed from a set of assumptions and (if I’m not mistaken) propose ‘models’ of explanation on that basis that they set about testing. So it’s much the same thing as those expecting to find evolution. However, it worries me because bias is the reality but not the ideal. One should surely try to avoid conforming facts to your expectations, and rather try to discover what the facts themselves are telling us (if that is possible). That seems to me to be better exegesis of the world. And of course, if one begins by believing that God has said x or y about the world, if the facts point elsewhere, what does the Christian then follow? Good science or good conscience?

But anyway, it is the integrity failure within Creation apologetics that is more glaring and worrying to me. As is the case with the ‘Student vs Professor’ dialogue that I quoted, it seems to matter more that Christian faith is ‘strengthened’ by the arguments than that the arguments deal truthfully with facts and with unbelievers. So, it’s personally disappointing to me that it is necessary to fact-check prominent Christian figures every bit as much as their evolutionist antagonists (not to mention apologising to non-Christian friends for manner that is arrogant etc.).

Q: Does adding God to evolution really provide any better basis for ethical judgments than the atheistic variety? [Is ethics based on anything empirical or is it solely the Word of God?]

I quite like CS Lewis’ suggestion that ethics is a function of reason, which is in turn an attribute of the divine image in man. This means that there is no real conflict between rationally derived ethics (along the lines of the principle of harms or ‘do unto others what you would have them do to you’), and those that come to us by divine command. It explains why there is general agreement across cultures as to what is good and evil even when there is no concept of divine command. It also leaves room for variance between cultures in line with the brokenness of human reason that scripture teaches.

I think what makes us more than merely intelligent mammals is not something additional to our intelligence that is inherent to us, but something that we are gifted by virtue of relatedness to God. We are ‘made in God’s image’ because we share God’s reason and relationship. We are special because God says, ‘I will be your God and you will be my people’. So I don’t know that we need to be anything more than ‘intelligent mammals’.

My ethics knowledge is insufficient to claim any kind of confidence for that opinion, but it makes sense to me.

Q (i): Can design-by-a-designer be ‘seen’ and described in scientific terms?

There may be irreducible complexity or something of that order that proves the Designer, but science is always on the move, so I doubt anyone would accept it who didn’t want to. I do think that it is helpful to offer design-by-a-designer as an over-arching explanation of the natural world (however the mechanism by which it was brought about) whether or not there is proof.

More generally, design is readily acknowledged, I think, but not a personal designer. The most ardent Darwinists tend to be full of awe and wonder at the majesty of the natural world; they call the guiding hand of evolution ‘selection / survival of the fittest’; they all seem to recognise that the existence of the original raw material is inexplicable; and they acknowledge that the beginning of life from inorganic chemistry is a surprising chance event. This is certainly true of folk like Dawkins. There is plenty of room in there for the doxology that Romans describes. The capacity of creatures to adapt and change and grow is deeply wonderful in its own right*. Yet, as Paul says, they worship the creature, not the Creator. So I’d say that even the science of evolution is capable of shouting the glory of God, even if there is no single creature to which we can point as undeniable scientific evidence of God.

*I know that this suggests that species aren’t fixed, and Genesis says that God finished his work of creating and rested. Yet even Jesus ‘contradicted’ Genesis to say that the Father is always working. He says this for a purpose unrelated to ours, I suppose, but is it therefore not possible that achieving rest with creation need not suggest stasis?

Q: Is it Godly to claim that one can observe design-by-a-designer in creation?

My original point was that Creationists often display integrity failure in the way that they argue. Some evolutionists find the simple act of postulating a Designer (or even a dissenting model for origins) to represent lack of integrity.

I would not consider it to be a lack of integrity to go against the scientific consensus, certainly not until one has examined the reasons for the departure. One must do one’s best with the evidence, and if one considers the evidence to point elsewhere, then so be it. To do so need not represent a moral failure. Scientists should hardly complain about this kind of thing, seeing as countless scientific breakthroughs (Copernican Revolutions, if you will) have come about because someone was willing to adopt a different paradigm to the consensus.

It is the integrity failure within Creation apologetics that is more glaring and worrying to me. As seems to be the case with the ‘Student vs Professor’ dialogue that I quoted, it seems to matter more that Christian faith is ‘strengthened’ by the arguments than that the arguments are honest. So, it’s personally disappointing to me that it is necessary to fact-check prominent Christian figures every bit as much as their evolutionist antagonists (not to mention apologising to non-Christian friends for manner that is arrogant etc.).

Q: Does adding God to evolution really provide any better basis for ethical judgments than the atheistic variety? [Is ethics based on anything empirical or is it solely the Word of God?]

I quite like CS Lewis’ suggestion that ethics is a function of reason, which is in turn an attribute of the divine image in man. This means that there is no real conflict between rationally derived ethics (along the lines of the principle of harms or ‘do unto others what you would have them do to you’), and those that come to us by divine command. It explains why there is general agreement across cultures as to what is good and evil even when there is no divine command, yet with evidence of variance and corruption in many of the details in line with the brokenness of human reason that scripture teaches. I think what makes us more than merely intelligent mammals is not something additional to our intelligence that is inherent to us, but something that we are gifted by virtue of relatedness to God. We are special because God says, ‘I will be your God and you will be my people’.

My ethics knowledge is insufficient to claim any kind of confidence for that opinion, but it makes sense to me.

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2 thoughts on “Mark Dickson talks Monsters

  1. Hephaestion says:

    I do think that it is helpful to offer design-by-a-designer as an over-arching explanation of the natural world (however the mechanism by which it was brought about), and regardless of whether or not we can prove it. It is a valid explanation.

    The problem of a “design by a Designer” explanation of (apparent) design is that it assumes something even more complex (and unexplained, indeed *unexplainable*) than the thing it is trying to explain, and is therefore no explanation at all.

  2. Hephaestion says:

    I would not consider it to be a lack of integrity to go against the scientific consensus, certainly not until one has examined the reasons for the departure. One must do one?s best with the evidence, and if one considers the evidence to point elsewhere, then so be it. To do so need not be immoral. Scientists can hardly complain about this kind of thing, seeing as countless scientific breakthroughs (Copernican Revolutions, if you will) have come about because someone was willing to adopt a different paradigm to the consensus.

    Interestingly, Copernicus, a deeply religious man, wondered why God would create the bizarrely complicated system of planetary motion that Ptolemy (a thousand years earlier) explained using deferents, equants, epicycles and eccentrics. In similar fashion, Darwin wondered why God would create oceanic islands with virtually none of the animals, amphibians or reptiles found on continental islands; why a giraffe’s recurrent laryngeal nerve would make a 15-foot detour down and then back up the neck when only 10 inches would suffice. A 100 years before Darwin’s insights were made known, James Hutton would try to make sense of the strata seen in the angular unconformity at Siccar Point. It is in trying to make sense of the odd things we observe that we get to discover new things about this world in which we find ourselves. The God-did-it explanation is no explanation at all, and stifles further inquiry.

    Your “Copernican Revolutions” are better known as [Kuhnian] paradigm shifts in science. It was Thomas Kuhn who coined the term “paradigm shift” in 1962 with the publication of “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions”. In the abstract it may appear as though a paradigm shift has occurred, yet in the detail it can be seen as the consequence of many incremental changes building upon what came before. This is the common criticism of Kuhn and can be glimpsed in the words of Isaac Newton, himself attributed with a paradigm shift: “If I have seen further it is only by standing on the shoulders of giants.”

    In the 400 years since Copernicus, our ways of doing science have vastly improved, and our knowledge of life, the universe and everything has expanded and deepened enormously. Half a century after Copernicus, Francis Bacon set science on a more modern path, away from superstition and accepted wisdom. Only once we have abandoned metaphysical baggage, he said, can we approach the scientific method in the correct manner. The science you know now is not the science that Copernicus enjoyed; it has evolved.

    Some things have been explained so comprehensively and are so well supported that it would be perverse to go against the scientific consensus. Examples include the fact that the earth is round (or, more precisely, an oblate spheroid); that matter is made up of atoms (and that atoms are made of protons, neutrons and electrons, and so on); that the earth is 4.5 billion years old; and that natural selection is the primary mechanism for evolution. It would be perverse to deny any of these facts.

    To not accept that the world is 4.5 billion years old, for example, because a paradigm shift *may* occur, is an act of self-deception, and this is why a lack of integrity might be leveled at the denier. More charitably, it could simply be through sheer ignorance. For Creationists, however, it is a determined ignorance, and this is something that should not be accorded any respect. The only reason Creationists deny the real (that is, calculated) age of the earth is that it conflicts with their religious beliefs. If only Nicolas Copernicus were their role model, and not the likes of Kent “Jailbird” Hovind, Ken “Creation Museum” Ham or Ray “Banana Man” Comfort.

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