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Meyer vs. Croft: Vying for the Lyellian Mantle

Elizabeth Whately
Image: Charles Lyell in 1840, by Alexander Craig, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Editor’s note: This is Part 3 in a series. Catch up with Part 1 and Part 2.

Last time, I covered James Croft’s objection from lack of background knowledge to the God hypothesis, making relevant connections in the philosophical literature and showing how, while popular, the objection is flawed. In this entry, we’ll focus on Croft’s more targeted accusation that Stephen Meyer, in Return of the God Hypothesis and his other books, consistently misapplies the epistemic principle of uniformitarianism.

Crying Foul

Meyer has aligned himself in spirit with the geologist Charles Lyell (1797-1875), who attempted to explain mysterious geological features “by reference to causes now in operation,” as opposed to his opponents, the “catastrophists,” who attributed them to periodic earthquakes or floods. Lyell maintained one should instead back-extrapolate known causes, built up over long periods of time. Meyer focuses on the phrase “causes now in operation” and places himself in Lyell’s “uniformitarian” tradition by proposing the known cause of intelligent agency to explain biological phenomena. But Croft cries foul:

Meyer claims to be working within this uniformitarian tradition, and explicitly invokes Lyell’s words to support his inference to God. But is he really referencing “causes now in operation” to explain the origin of the life [sic] and the universe, or is he proposing an exotic, unknown cause as did the catastrophists? The question answers itself, surely: Intelligent Design is a distinctly catastrophist endeavor. Rather than believing that the causes now in operation are sufficient to explain the origin of life, Meyer and his colleagues hypothesize the existence of a cause for which there is no independent evidence; which has unlimited causal powers; and which has curious properties (such as a disembodied mind and non-physical causal agency) unlike anything else we observe.

Now, it might fairly be said that there are more interesting questions to be asked and answered in the ID debate than the meta-question of “who’s more Lyellian.” If a thinker such as Lyell can provide a “peg” on which to hang an idea in the history of ideas, well and good, but nothing has to stand or fall on this. In the end, what really matters is the actual quality of the arguments on the table. 

Having said that, there is some interest in analyzing Croft’s annoyance at Meyer’s clever attempt to “steal uniformitarianism back” for ID theorists. 

Where No Hypothesis Has Gone Before

One point here is that by a certain definition, we could say any number of events are “catastrophist.” Windows 10 is a “catastrophist” event in the sense that it wasn’t going to come into existence by way of the same programming that produced Windows 8, Windows 7, Windows XP, etc. New programming had to be written to bring it about. However, it’s also a product of causes now operating, in the sense that intelligent agency is behind all of the above. This is what Meyer is picking up on as applied to biology.

Croft asserts that the God hypothesis is “exotic,” a term with a question-begging flavor about it. We dealt with the “no independent evidence” objection in Part 2 of this series. As for the objection that God is proposed as omnipotent, well, yes, by definition omnipotence is of the essence of God. Now, one could ascribe the biological phenomena in our own immediate purview to the work of sub-divine beings, but as has been pointed out many times, this merely kicks the can of the design question down the road. It’s not a bizarre leap to propose that the road is not endless — that, as great thinkers have proposed for millennia, there is a Prime Mover, a First Cause.

As for “curious properties” like a disembodied mind and non-physical causation, this led to an interesting sub-thread in Croft and Meyer’s debate which can be saved for later. The nub of the disagreement was that Croft’s naturalism completely precludes mind-body dualism, meaning there is no category in his worldview for non-physical causation. But if mind is in fact the sort of thing that’s distinct from body, then the God hypothesis simply extends our conception of small “m” minds to the scale of a master big “M” Mind. 

More Lyellian than Thou

If we’re going to talk about who’s more Lyellian, Croft believes that mantle rightly belongs to the evolutionist, since, like Lyell, he believes specifically in the gradual accumulation of currently known causes over long periods of time. It is true that in this particular respect, the evolutionist who proposes that microevolutionary change can produce “macro” results given enough time is making a proposal with a Lyellian flavor. But that doesn’t render Meyer’s move illegitimate. He’s just chosen a “cause now in operation” which (he argues) has better explanatory power.

Further, as Croft himself mentions in passing, modern geology as it’s developed post-Lyell is in fact a blend of gradual and catastrophic hypotheses. Some of the earth’s features are attributed to very slow processes, while others are now attributed to violent, instantaneous shifts. By insisting that to be a uniformitarian is to be an evolutionist, Croft is trying to embrace an analogy which, by his own admission, is less than perfect. And to analogize the catastrophist proposal of flood or earthquake to Meyer’s proposal of divine design is to smuggle in certain assumptions about just how “exotic” the God hypothesis really is from a human perspective.

In fact, Croft’s next section is going to press the point that it doesn’t make sense for Meyer to say he actually is proposing a “cause now in operation.” All this and more upcoming. Stay tuned!