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Is Darwinism Theologically Neutral? A Reply to Darrel Falk

William A. Dembski

About half a year ago, Kenneth Keathley of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary arranged with BioLogos to have several professors from Southern Baptist seminaries address Baptist concerns about the role of evolution in creation. I was one of those Keathley invited. He laid out several topics, including “Is Darwinism Theologically Neutral?” I chose to write on this one. My essay on this topic has now appeared at BioLogos (in two parts — go here and here), and Darrel Falk, the president of BioLogos, has responded (also in two parts — go here and here).
Readers who expect a sharp clash of swords will be disappointed. In fact, some might wonder what disagreement, if any, exists between us. Indeed, at one point in his response, Falk suggests that we differ on a matter about which it happens we stand in further agreement. Falk is at pains to underscore that divine action is as real whether it happens naturally or supernaturally whereas he implies that design proponents, in looking for evidence of intelligent activity in nature, regard God as absent unless he is acting supernaturally:

God is always active, but scientific testing of God’s activity would require a “control” where God is not active. How can we conduct an experiment which studies the “presence vs. absence of God” when God is always present as sustainer as well as creator? [Falk, part ii]

But in fact, all the design proponents that I know and who are Christians would agree that God is as much active whether acting through nature or over and above nature.
That said, I disagree with Falk’s view that intelligent design (or ID), in looking for evidence of intelligence in nature, requires that God be present only in those instances where it identifies design and absent from the rest. For Falk to endorse such a claim flies in the face of a point that my colleagues and I in the intelligent design movement have underscored repeatedly, which is that our methods of design detection tells us where design is, not where it isn’t. My explanatory filter, for instance, in identifying design, is subject to false negatives, i.e., it may fail to find design in places where it exists. Moreover, I never claimed that my method of design detection was the only way to identify design or purpose.
Now one might ask, If design is everywhere, then what’s the point of developing a design-detection method? The problem is that even if in some metaphysically lofty sense everything that occurs is a product of design or purpose, as a practical matter we still need to distinguish among distinct modes of explanation, some of which are intelligent and some of which are not. As a matter of basic human rationality, we must distinguish among events, objects, and structures that we can legitimately take to be the product of intelligence and those that we take to be the product of natural forces and thus to give no direct evidence of intelligence.
For instance, radio signals reaching Earth from outer space may exhibit no salient pattern and thus appear random. Those signals, within the divine scheme of things, may be fully intended by God. And yet we would distinguish those signals from one that conveys a long sequence of prime numbers, as in the film Contact, which we would ascribe to an alien intelligence. The signal conveying a sequence of primes would, within the divine scheme of things, likewise be fully intended by God. But it is qualitatively different from random radio noise.
In any case, the issue is not, and should never be, whether ID saddles the theologian with an untenable view of divine action in which God might have to be counted as absent from certain parts of creation. Theologically speaking, ID imposes few limits and is compatible with God acting at all levels of creation and through all modes of causation. When design is detected, God is active. And when design is not detected, God is still active. This doesn’t make ID contentless. Rather, it means that ID is largely neutral with respect to one’s doctrine of God, a fact that should not be surprising given that ID is compatible not only with Judeo-Christian theism but also with just about any religious view that regards purpose as basic to reality. ID’s content is scientific, not religious or theological. Insofar as it has metaphysical implications, it is in challenging naturalism.
In the paper to which Falk responds, I lay out four non-negotiables of Christianity as well as four non-negotiables of Darwinism. Falk and I are united on the four non-negotiables of Christianity, but differ a bit on those of Darwinism. The four non-negotiables of Darwinism that I list are common descent, natural selection, human continuity, and methodological naturalism. Because Falk and I both reject Darwinism, there’s quite a bit of overlap in how we view these four non-negotiables. Nonetheless, I think it will help readers of my essay and Falk’s response to clarify some of our differences here, subtle though they may be.
With regard to common descent, I agree with Falk that God could have brought about life by means of a large-scale form of evolution that links all organisms to a common ancestor. That said, I don’t accept common descent. I think the scientific evidence is against it (for my reasons, see my book The Design of Life, coedited with Jonathan Wells). Also, even though common descent may be acceptable in broad theological terms, I think it is problematic exegetically with regard to Scripture. Simply put, I think you’re going to have a hard time getting large-scale evolution out of Scripture or rendering the two compatible.
With regard to natural selection, Falk appears to accept that this is the principal mechanism by which organisms are brought into existence successively by an evolutionary process. At the same time, Falk does not want to see natural selection as devoid of purpose but rather as a mechanism through which God is able to accomplish his purposes. But in that case, in what sense is selection “natural”? Is Falk’s view of natural selection, when viewed as a scientific hypothesis, any different from Richard Dawkins’s? And if their views, taken scientifically, are the same, what is the evidence for the creative power of this mechanism?
Falk extols “God’s marvelously ordinary processes of creation: ordinary because they follow his natural laws so faithfully, marvelous because they have resulted in a world of complex and beautiful life.” In my view, the word “ordinary” is entirely out of place here. As I’ve argued with Robert Marks in a paper titled “Life’s Conservation Law,” even if life is the result of an evolutionary process driven by natural selection, it would have to be a form of selection finely tuned by an environment that is itself finely tuned (see our contribution to The Nature of Nature, edited by Bruce Gordon and me — the paper in question is available online here).
Falk takes exception to my thinking it “odd” that God would create by natural selection, and thus by a process that gives no evidence of intelligence. And he rejects my charge that such a method of creation “occludes” God’s activity. Falk, echoing Psalm 19, proclaims that all aspects of creation bespeak God’s handiwork and glory. Now let me concede that “oddness,” in the sense of what appears odd to us very limited human beings with our very limited vantages on the world, is not a good criterion for determining what God would and wouldn’t do. Still, it hardly seems that God is mandated to create via a process that provides no evidence of his creative activity — and nowhere does Falk admit that God provides actual evidence of himself in creation (at best he allows that nature provides “signposts” — but what exactly are these signs? who is reading them? why should we take them as pointing to God?). Moreover, for Falk to echo the psalmist is hardly an argument for the world proclaiming God’s handiwork and glory, because many atheistic evolutionists will deny Falk’s confident affirmations of divine perspicuity.
I’ve seen this directly. I recall posting on my blog a gorgeous picture of wildflowers, hinting at the wonders of God’s creation, and seeing comments by atheistic evolutionists who dismissed it as merely “sex” run amuck. Thus, when Falk echoes Psalm 19, what more is he doing than giving expression to his own faith? Indeed, what more is he saying to atheists than merely “I see God’s hand in all of this and you don’t — you’re blind and I see.” Perhaps faith has given him sight that atheists lack. But in that case, how can it be claimed that God is not occluding his activity in nature? God, as omnipotent, can certainly make his existence and presence known to even the most ardent atheist – we can all imagine flamboyant enough miracles that would convince anyone.
Still, the more interesting question here is whether there is a rational basis for Falk’s faith that is grounded in the order of nature. ID, in finding scientific evidence of intelligence in nature, says there is. Falk, along with BioLogos generally, denies this. But in that case, how can he avoid the charge that the faith by which he sees God’s handiwork is merely an overlay on top of a nature that, taken by itself, is neutral or even hostile to Christian faith? Note that I’m not alone in thinking it odd that God would create by natural selection. Many atheistic evolution see evolution as a brutal and wasteful process that no self-respecting deity would have employed in bringing about life. Jerry Coyne, Richard Dawkins, and the late Stephen Jay Gould were united on this point.
With regard to human continuity, I’m glad to see that Falk regards humans as exceptional and thus doesn’t follow Darwin in affirming the full continuity between humans and the rest of the animal world. Still, I don’t think Falk goes far enough. For Falk, what distinguishes humans from the rest of the animal world is that God has chosen to enter into a special relationship with us. But does that mean God could as well have chosen to enter into a special relationship with dolphins, say, and, given their present cognitive and moral capacities, have endowed them with the image of God? Falk isn’t clear on this matter, but I would argue that human exceptionalism depends, in the first instance, on our God-given capacities, which are different in kind from the rest of the animal world (notably our moral, aesthetic, cognitive, and linguistic capacities). From these capacities it then follows that we can have a special relationship with God and properly be regarded as made in the divine image. And note, if these capacities truly render us exceptional, then they pose a stumbling block for any purely naturalistic account of evolution because, as Falk rightly notes, our “material ordinariness” makes us one with the rest of the animal world.
Finally, with regard to methodological naturalism, Falk makes the thought-provoking point that in working miracles in salvation history, God has special purposes for humanity and thus is under no compulsion to act the same way in natural history, where he might work exclusively through ordinary natural processes. Thus God might work naturally in the one and supernaturally in the other with no contradiction or tension. Let me grant this point, though, as a sociological matter, thinkers who have embraced methodological naturalism have often found themselves on a slippery slope and ended up rejecting miracles in salvation history as well. Take, for instance, Howard Van Till.
In any case, it seems that whether God acts miraculously only in salvation history and only naturally in natural history needs more justification than simply “God might have good reasons for doing so.” Before taking this position, an evidential question needs first to be answered, namely, what is the evidence that purely natural forces are capable of doing all the creative work required for nature to produce a profligate living world that includes hawks, hippos, and humans. Many definitions of miracles exist, but the one central to this discussion treats them as events beyond the ordinary powers of nature. Men dead and buried for three days don’t rise again simply through the ordinary forces of nature (Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein notwithstanding). Likewise, it is an open question whether purely natural forces are able to produce the information-rich structures that we find in living things. To say that Darwin or his naturalistic successors have solved this problem is delusional.
In conclusion, I found much to agree with in Falk’s response to my essay and am heartened to see that we are on the same page theologically, upholding traditional Christian orthodoxy, affirming the classic creeds of the church, and doing so without reservation. Moreover, I found it refreshing that Falk would distance himself and BioLogos from strict Darwinism, which Falk rightly sees as spanning not only the Origin of Species but also the far more theologically contentious Descent of Man. Ultimately, our main source of disagreement is scientific: What properly counts as scientific inquiry? Can ID legitimately qualify as science? Is the evidence for a purely naturalistic form of evolution so compelling that thinking Christians must adopt it? I hope to see further exploration of such questions at BioLogos.

William A. Dembski

Board of Directors, Discovery Institute
A mathematician and philosopher, Bill Dembski is the author/editor of more than 20 books as well as the writer of peer-reviewed articles spanning mathematics, engineering, philosophy, and theology. A past philosophy professor, he retired in 2014 from active research and teaching in intelligent design (ID) to focus on the connections between freedom, technology, and education — specifically, how education helps to advance human freedom with the aid of technology. Bill Dembski is presently an entrepreneur who builds educational software and websites. He lives near Denton, Texas.