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In Defense of Theistic Evolution, Denis Lamoureux Rewrites History

Denis Lamoureux

Writing in the Journal of the American Scientific AffiliationDenis O. Lamoureux has published a dismissive review of Theistic Evolution: A Scientific, Philosophical, and Theological Critique.

The review article’s title, “Intelligent Design Theory: The God of the Gaps Rooted in Concordism,” deftly signals Lamoureux’s two-pronged strategy: First, paint intelligent design as a fallacious God-of-the-gaps argument (when in fact it’s an argument to the best explanation based on what we know).

And second: Motive monger — in this case, by attributing the anthology’s conclusions to a religious motivation while giving short shrift to the book’s hundreds of pages of scientific evidence and argument.

Those criticisms of ID are low-hanging fruit for the writers at Evolution News, but here I want to focus on another problem with the review.

Scientism’s Grand Progress Narrative

At one point early on, Lamoureux confidently asserts the following:

First, according to a God-of-the-gaps approach to divine action, there are “gaps” in the continuum of natural processes, and these “discontinuities” in nature indicate places where God has miraculously intervened  in the world. …

If there are gaps in the continuum of natural processes, then science will identify them, and over time these gaps will “widen” with further research. That is, as scientists explore a true gap in nature where God has intervened, evidence will increase and demonstrate that there are no natural mechanisms to account for the origin or operation of a physical feature.

There is an indisputable pattern in the history of science. The God-of-the-gaps understanding of divine action has repeatedly failed. Instead of the gaps in nature getting wider with the advance of science, they have always been closed or filled by the ever-growing body of scientific information. In other words, history reveals that these purported gaps have always been gaps in knowledge  and not actual gaps in nature  indicative of the intervening hand of the Lord.

The lesser problem here is his tendentious use of the word “gaps.” The language suggests that it’s somehow a failure of God for the universe to be something less than a deist’s fantasy — a grand pool shot from the Big Bang without any need for subsequent creative involvement. That’s an aesthetic presupposition, and a manifestly suspect aesthetic presupposition.

That’s the lesser problem with the quote above, a problem  to delve into more fully at another time. Here I want to highlight the more glaring problem: Lamoureux’s assertion of “an indisputable pattern in the history of science.” The alleged historical pattern is manifestly untrue.

It was given formal structure by the 19th-century French philosopher August Comte, but in common parlance the claim runs something like this:

Humans used to attribute practically every mysterious force in nature to the doings of the gods. They stuffed a god into any and every gap in their knowledge of the natural world, shrugged, and moved on. Since then, the number of gaps has been shrinking without pause, filled with purely material explanations for everything from lightning bolts to romantic attraction. The moral of this grand story: always hold out for the purely material explanation, even when the evidence seems to point in the other direction. Materialism, in other words, is our manifest destiny; get used to it colonizing every cause in the cosmos.

This grand progress narrative is regularly employed with great confidence, but it’s contradicted by key developments in the physical and life sciences.

For example, through much of the 19th century, the scientific consensus was that microscopic life was relatively simple, little more than microscopic sacks of Jell-O. The scientific community also accepted the idea of spontaneous generation — that creatures sprang to life spontaneously out of things like dew and rotting meat. Taken together, these pieces of conventional scientific wisdom suggested that the origin of the first living cell deep in the past was hardly worthy of the term “mystery” — a material explanation seemed obvious.

But in 1861 Louis Pasteur conducted a series of experiments that discredited the notion of spontaneous generation. And in the next century, scientists began amassing evidence of just how complex even the simplest cell is. Today we know that cells are micro-miniaturized factories of astonishing sophistication and that, even more to the point, such sophistication is essential for them to be able to survive and reproduce. Origin-of-life researchers concede that no adequate material explanation has been found for the origin of the cell.

So, we have come to learn that spontaneous generation was a fantasy. We have discovered that even the simplest cells are highly sophisticated and information-rich organisms. And the only cause we have ever witnessed actually producing novel information is intelligent design. Thus, modern scientific observations have collapsed a long-standing material explanation for the origin of life and simultaneously strengthened the competing design explanation. This development runs directly counter to scientism’s grand narrative.

A common rebuttal is that inferring design in such cases amounts to “giving up on science,” and that science should always hold out for a purely material explanation. But this is mere question begging. What if the first living cell really was the work of intelligent design? Being open to that possibility and following the evidence isn’t giving up on science but on scientism, a dogma resting on a progress narrative flatly contradicted by the historical record.

Evidence from Cosmology

Cosmology and physics provide another counter-example to the grand narrative Lamoureux asserts. In Darwin’s time, conventional scientific wisdom held that the universe was eternal. Given this, it was broadly assumed that there could hardly be any mystery about its origin: it simply had always existed. But developments in physics and astronomy have overturned the easy embrace of an eternal cosmos, and scientists are now in broad agreement that our universe had a beginning. What many thought had never happened and so required no explanation — the origin of the universe — suddenly cried out for an explanation.

Near the same time that scientists were realizing this, there was a growing awareness of what is now widely known in cosmology as the fine-tuning problem. This is the curious fact that the various laws and constants of nature appear finely calibrated to allow for life in the universe — calibrated to such a precise degree that even committed materialists have abandoned blunt appeals to chance.

To explain away this problem, the disciples of scientism have now resorted to saying there must be countless other universes, with our universe simply being one of the lucky ones with the right configuration to allow intelligent life to evolve.

Not every physicist has played along. Several, including some Nobel laureates, have assessed the growing body of evidence for fine-tuning and pointed to intelligent design as the most reasonable explanation. Physicist and Nobel laureate Charles Townes put it this way:

Intelligent design, as one sees it from a scientific point of view, seems to be quite real. This is a very special universe: it’s remarkable that it came out just this way. If the laws of physics weren’t just the way they are, we couldn’t be here at all. The sun couldn’t be there, the laws of gravity and nuclear laws and magnetic theory, quantum mechanics, and so on have to be just the way they are for us to be here.

Scientism’s grand progress narrative holds that as we learn more and more about the world, purely natural or material explanations inevitably will arise and grow stronger, while design arguments will inevitably collapse under the weight of new discoveries. But the opposite has happened in cosmology and origin-of-life studies.

Despite this, Lamoureux and other critics of intelligent design go right on recycling their grand narrative as if it were the whole truth and nothing but the truth. It is not. It ignores truths both historical and scientific.

Photo: “Full Moon Over Newfoundland,” by NASA.

Editor’s note: Part of this article is adapted from an earlier essay by Dr. Witt for Touchstone Magazine.