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Confronting Joshua Swamidass on Confrontation

Douglas Axe
Photo source: YouTube (screen shot).

In a recent dialogue with paleontologist and ID proponent Günter Bechly, Washington University computational biologist Joshua Swamidass zeroed in on his main complaints about intelligent design. The venue was Justin Brierley’s podcast Unbelievable? I get top billing in this department. First and foremost, Swamidass dislikes the “confrontational approach” that he thinks I promote and exemplify, along with other ID proponents. In his words: “Doug Axe in Undeniable and also in the recent Crossway book on theistic evolution talks about how there’s a need to have a confrontational approach to evolutionary science.” 

“Even if ID is correct,” he continues, “I think a conversational approach is better than a confrontational approach.”

A Role for Confrontation?

The proper role and form of confrontation in dialogue is worth discussing, so I thank Joshua for bringing the subject up. In short, if by confrontation we mean calling someone to account on a false claim by presenting evidence of its falsehood, then surely everyone who values the truth ought to be in favor of it. Understood that way, confrontation has nothing to do with bullying or vilifying. It’s about setting the record straight, which certainly shouldn’t be at odds with productive conversation.

In fact, Joshua’s comments call for an example of constructive confrontation. Contrary to what he said, I don’t actually talk about the need to have a confrontational approach. Rather, he seems to be misconstruing a section from my contribution to Theistic Evolution. Referring to the account in the Book of Job, I said the following:

In drawing Job’s attention to the hawk and the eagle, God seems to be confronting him with his divine presence by confronting him with his divine magnificence. Indeed, shouldn’t life compel us to acknowledge God as the maker of all things in a way that clouds and craters do not? Doesn’t the wonder of life have objective force to it, well beyond mere suggestion?

In discussing this, then, I’ll call the view I aim to defend the confrontational view — the view that God’s creation of life clearly and obviously defies explanation in terms of accidental processes. The contrary view—that life can plausibly be attributed to accidental processes, even though divine intent may have actually been present — I will call the nonconfrontational view.

In Full View

Swamidass got it wrong, and it’s perfectly appropriate for me to confront him on that. I wasn’t talking about any approach to human argumentation at all. I was talking about a striking feature of life itself. The point is that God chose not to conceal his magnificence but instead to confront us with it through what he has made and placed in full view.

This isn’t the first time I’ve encountered a criticism of ID that turns out to be little more than a caricature. When people resort to arguments like that, it makes you think they’re more committed to disliking ID than they are to understanding it.