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On the Discovery Institute website , John G. West gives a three-part response to some things I said on this blog . In the first part he says:

“Barr claims that ‘[w]hen scientists say that certain things in nature are random, this does mean that Nature is in a certain sense blind; it does not imply anything about God’s knowledge or purposes.’ I don’t know which ‘scientists’ Barr thinks he is speaking for, but they surely aren’t most evolutionary biologists. When Darwinian biologists say that natural selection is a blind process fueled by random biological changes, they most assuredly think that this claim contradicts the belief that evolution is guided—by God or any other intelligent cause.”

In the sentence that West quotes, I am speaking very generally about what scientists mean by the word random in the context of their research. As I have noted on many occasions, there are over 50,000 papers in the technical scientific journals that use the word random in the title. It is used to discuss not just genetic mutations, but a vast range of natural phenomena, including the motions of molecules in a gas, quantum fluctuations, noise in electronic circuits, distributions of galaxies, weather patterns, and a thousand other things. Random is a ubiquitous term in science. Not being a scientist, West is perhaps unaware of how widely and frequently the word is used in research. When I spoke about what scientists mean “when they say that certain things in nature are random”, I was “speaking for” (in the sense of explaining the usage of) essentially all scientists when they are speaking as scientists , as they do in their published research.

As far as the philosophical implications of the scientific concept of randomness go, I was not speaking for anyone but myself. I was not making a point about what many or most scientists may think those philosophical implications are, but about what those implications actually are. Whether A implies B cannot be determined by opinion surveys, but only by logical analysis. A thousand scientists swearing up and down that natural selection has atheist implications means absolutely nothing if they cannot support their claim with a cogent argument.

If I am right in saying that evolutionary biology itself is not atheistic in its implications, then how do I explain the fact so many evolutionary biologists are atheists? In my view, there is not a single, simple explanation for this, but a complicated set of historical and sociological factors. Since its inception, evolutionary biology has been the center of a constant battle between fanatical enemies of religion on one hand and biblical literalists on the other, who have fed off each other and in many ways reinforced each other.

That has become part of the narrative surrounding the field of biology, so that many people who go into that area are socialized into anti-religious attitudes. Moreover, certain kinds of people tend to be drawn to certain professions. At least one study concludes that the over-representation of atheists in science is due to atheists being drawn to science as a profession rather than scientific training or information making people lose their faith. This is a complicated subject, and I don’t propose to attempt a complete theory of the origins and causes of scientific atheism. It is, however, very simple-minded (and also not very helpful to the cause of religion) to suppose that scientific atheism is just a consequence of the fact that scientific theories logically entail atheism.

I must also rise in defense of the reputation of Francis Collins, whose ideas are being garbled (again) by West. Collins does believe that every physical event that happens in the world is known and willed by God from all eternity. West quotes some statements by Collins on “junk DNA” as if they somehow proved otherwise; but they do no such thing. Here is what West writes:

“Collins goes on at length about ‘Ancient Repetitive Elements,’ which he disparages as ‘genetic flotsam and jetsam’ that make up ‘roughly 45 percent of the human genome.’ Collins concedes that ‘some might argue that these are actually functional elements placed there by the Creator for a good reason, and our discounting of them as “junk DNA” just betrays our current level of ignorance. And indeed, some small fraction of them may play important regulatory roles. But certain examples severely strain the credulity of that explanation .’ [ Language of God , p. 156, emphasis added by West] In other words, Collins rejects as credulous the idea that such DNA were planned by God for a reason. So much for the idea that God knew and specified the outcomes of evolution from eternity.”

This is a spectacular example of misreading and non sequitur on West’s part. There is absolutely nothing in the statements he quotes from Collins about junk DNA that implies that Collins doubts or denies that “that God knew and specified the outcomes of evolution from eternity.”

What Collins is asserting is simply that large parts of the genomes of human beings and other living things serve no biological purpose and are not “functional elements.” And it seems to me that it is quite silly to see this as theologically problematic. Does any sane person think that every feature of his body has a biological function? What is the biological function of knock-knees or freckles? Maybe freckles are biologically important; but is it really a dangerous heresy to think otherwise?

Finally, I must say something in my own defense. West says,

“The issue is whether human beings can discern evidence of God’s activity in nature through the things He created. Darwinists deny this, and Collins and Barr seem to as well (at least in the area of biology).”

Once again, West gets my views completely wrong. Now he is, in effect, accusing me (and Collins) of rejecting the teaching of St. Paul. The phrase “evidence of God’s activity in nature through the things He created” is almost a direct quote from Romans 1:20. On the basis of this text, the First Vatican Council taught that the existence of God “can, from created things, be known with certainty by the natural light of human reason.” I accept with complete conviction what the Apostle Paul and the First Vatican Council taught; but some distinctions are in order. First, there are many kinds of arguments for God’s existence and activity in the world; design arguments are just one kind. Second, there are several kinds of design arguments, only some of which are based on biology. Third, not all design arguments based on biology are of the kind made by the Intelligent Design movement, and not all of them presuppose that Darwinian evolution is false. It is a huge leap of logic to jump over all these crucial distinctions and say that because someone defends the basic validity of Darwinian evolution and thinks the arguments of the ID movement are shaky and inadequate he must therefore be denying that God’s activity in the world is knowable through the things he has created.

It is worth pointing out that St. Paul’s statement in Romans is a clear allusion to a passage from the Book of Wisdom (which was part of the Greek Old Testament used by the early Church and is in the Catholic and Orthodox canon of Scripture).

“For all men were by nature foolish who were in ignorance of God, and who from the good things seen did not succeed in knowing him who is, and from studying the works did not discern the artisan; but either fire, or wind, or the swift air, or the circuit of the stars, or the mighty water, or the luminaries of heaven—the governors of the world—they considered gods. Now if out of joy in their beauty they thought these things to be gods, let them know how far more excellent is the Lord than these; for the original source of beauty fashioned them. Or if they were struck by the might and energy of these things, let them from these things realize how much more powerful is he who made them. For from the greatness and the beauty of created things their original author, by analogy, is seen. But yet, for these men the blame is less; for though they have indeed gone astray, they perhaps seek God and wish to find him. For they search busily among his works, but are distracted by what they see, because the things seen are fair. But again, not even these men have an excuse. For if they so far succeeded in knowledge that they could speculate about the world, how did they not more quickly find its Lord?” (Wisdom 13:1–9)

This wonderful passage from Wisdom is in effect a design argument for the existence of God. It is noteworthy that this passage does not point at all to biological phenomena, let alone biological complexity.

To say that there is evidence of design in the world does not mean that every single thing one sees in the world, taken by itself, standing alone, constitutes persuasive evidence of that design. Everything is part of the divine plan, but the divine plan is not always and everywhere evident on the surface of things. There are valid design arguments, but that does not mean that all design arguments are valid. Darwinism has indeed made certain kinds of design argument more difficult to make; but, happily, science has made other kinds of design argument easier to make. The fact that I would criticize certain biological design arguments as shaky or simplistic doesn’t mean that I think all biological design arguments are. I think good biological design arguments can be made, but it is a challenging task to formulate them in a way that will be persuasive to knowledgeable people today. In my view, it is more effective at present to use design arguments of another sort.

What is needed in thinking about such delicate matters as evolution and theology is careful attention to the meanings of words, to the structure of arguments, to the logical implications of ideas, to the distinction between scientific statements and philosophical extrapolations from them, and to the difference between facts, on the one hand, and the tendentious presentation of or propagandistic use of them, on the other. In other words, what is needed is clear thought.

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