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So Where Does the Conflict (with Alvin Plantinga) Really Lie?

Jay W. Richards

I’m very grateful to Professor Alvin Plantinga for taking the time to respond to my long-winded complaint about one small part of his much larger book, most of which I heartily endorse. He’s right to point out (contrary to what I suggested in my response) that he doesn’t try to show in Where the Conflict Really Lies that all of current science is compatible with Christian theism, but only that some parts are, and that even those parts incompatible with theism don’t constitute defeaters for the Christian beliefs they contradict.

Let me try to summarize where I think our conflict really lies. So far as I can tell, we agree on the conceptual content with respect to theism and biological evolution. We agree that theism, and in particular, divine guidance, are logically compatible with some definitions of Darwinian evolution, and in particular, with some formulations of those “random” mutations that natural selection sifts. (I say logically, since I don’t think that even guided genetic mutations and natural selection actually do much creative work.) He is right to suggest that IDers should more frequently point out that some scholarly definitions of these words are compatible with ID and even theism, just as we have noted that many meanings of “evolution” are compatible with ID. (If we do a revised edition of God and Evolution at some point, I plan to add this detail to the Introduction.)

Several times, Professor Plantinga notes that I’m not using “Darwinism” as he uses the term. That’s correct, and I think that’s the core of our disagreement. In my view, since there is no official definition that practitioners consistently follow, determining the content of Darwinian theory, and of words such as “Darwinism,” is very much a sociological and historical enterprise. Our use of these words should accommodate what Darwin said, how his work is understood, and how it is described and taught in textbooks and elsewhere. When we do that, I think it becomes clear that an essential property of Darwinism is either to deny real teleology in biology or at least to make it superfluous. To be precise, Darwinists typically see the combination of natural selection and random variations, rather than the random variations alone, as a design substitute.

That’s why Ernst Mayr could say, “Darwinism rejects all supernatural phenomena and causations. The theory of evolution by natural selection explains the adaptedness and diversity of the world solely materialistically.” If Plantinga is right in his use of “Darwinism,” then Mayr must be mistaken here. So far as I know, however, no one objects to Mayr’s explanation. I suspect that the vast majority of professional biologists who accept Darwin’s theory, and Young Earth Creationists, who reject it, would agree with Mayr’s definition of Darwinism.

But what of the more metaphysically modest definitions of “random” in the literature? I focused on Elliott Sober’s definition (which is of course not the only one) to illustrate the problem of identifying Darwinism with such modest expressions. If we use Sober’s definition of random in our larger definition of Darwinism, then Darwinism turns out to be compatible with special creation. This reduction to the absurd suggests, I think, that Sober’s definition doesn’t capture the full “Darwinian” meaning of words such as “random” and “evolution.” The whole point of Darwin’s so-called mechanism — natural selection and random variation — was to displace special creation (as well as the teleological evolutionary ideas of people such as Alfred Russel Wallace). This is historically indisputable. Mayr’s quote above about the meaning of Darwinism is well-established conventional wisdom.

The stated intentions of Darwin, the history of Darwinism, how Darwinian theorists argue, and the intentions we can infer based on how they argue, at least partly constitute this thing called Darwinism, or so I maintain. This is far more than a mere private but widespread conviction of scientists, as in the hypothetical situation Plantinga proposes. He observes that “if most physicists assumed that God promulgates the natural laws for the universe, it wouldn’t follow that the statement of physical laws (Newton’s Laws, e.g.) involve that assumption.” Perhaps, though the content of their physical theory might include that assumption, depending on how it was formed historically and how the laws are understood by the theorists. In any case, this hypothetical scenario is different from the one under discussion, since the theological assumption doesn’t make any obvious empirical difference. Not so with Darwinism.

As Plantinga notes later in his book, modern day Darwinists (including those who identify as theists) vociferously object to Mike Behe’s arguments, even though Behe accepts common ancestry and thinks natural selection and “random” mutations explain some things. Clearly what they find objectionable is Behe’s defense of real design, real teleology, which includes foresight, and his claim that it explains at least some biological features better than natural selection and random variation. They seem to think their theory excludes such teleological arguments and object to empirical arguments in favor of real design as opposed to what they see as the blind Darwinian substitute.

Strictly speaking, the debate between ID proponents and Darwinists is not a debate over whether God is superintending things behind the scenes. It is about the appearance of teleology in the biological world, the explanatory power of teleology, and the adequacy of the Darwinian mechanism to explain adaptation and the like. If natural selection and random genetic mutations are sufficient to explain biological adaptation, then, excluding the origin of life, there seem to be few if any biological grounds for inferring design.

I think that Darwinian theory prospers almost entirely because of a prior methodological rejection of design. The actual evidence of selection/mutations giving rise to new systems and structures is nil — far less than most outside observers would imagine. We hear about cavefish losing their eyes, finch beaks fluctuating in width depending on the climate, and the like. Such trivialities tell us little or nothing about where we get body plans, organs, and organisms in the first place. The Darwinian process is treated as adequate for explaining adaptation and function largely because real teleology has been ruled out. Selection/mutation are pretty much the only possible alternative, at least the only one we’ve been able to think of. And hence, the evidential requirements for Darwinian theory, a historical conjecture with no real predictive power, are far lower than they are in most other domains of natural science, such as experimental physics, chemistry, and biology.

We have little choice at the moment but to recognize that Darwinism is identified with a “scientific theory of evolution,” though I would hesitate to identify it as such. It hasn’t earned the good name of science by amassing empirical evidence, but by methodological fiat. That makes it more like Freudianism or Marxism than Newtonianism. It’s what passes for a scientific theory in historical biology at the moment.

At the same time, I think it misrepresents the current sociological realities of science to construct an ideal “scientific theory of evolution” that is safely quarantined from Darwinism. When the smoke eventually clears, I believe Darwinism will be seen to have been an impediment rather than a guide to real discovery. But we’re in the thick of the fog at the moment.

I belabor this semantic point concerning “Darwinism” because I believe that the Darwinian enterprise includes a methodological exclusion of design and notoriously equivocates on words such as “evolution,” “random,” and even “design.” Its cultural influence depends in large part on the exclusion and the equivocation. As a result, I think that while words such as “random” are sometimes given modest descriptions in the literature that are logically compatible with theism, we should not identify them with Darwinism itself.

Fortunately, these issues will not be directly relevant to future installments of my ongoing review of Plantinga’s book.

Jay W. Richards

Senior Fellow, Assistant Research Professor, Executive Editor
Jay Richards, Ph.D., O.P., is an Assistant Research Professor in the School of Business and Economics at The Catholic University of America, Executive Editor of The Stream and a Senior Fellow at the Discovery Institute where he works with the Center on Wealth, Poverty and Morality. In addition to writing many academic articles, books, and popular essays on a wide variety of subjects, he edited the award winning anthology God & Evolution and co-authored The Privileged Planet.  His most recent book is The Human Advantage. Richards has a Ph.D., with honors, in philosophy and theology from Princeton Theological Seminary, an M.Div., a Th.M., and a B.A. with majors in Political Science and Religion. He lives with his family in the Washington DC Metro area.  



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