Paul Nelson: Which Rules? Whose Game?

@Pnelson’s review comes out today. It is surprising he focuses on methodological naturalism, which is only referenced in a single footnote of the appendix where I discuss the Resurrection. On the other hand, it isn’t surprising, because Nelson really sees methodological naturalism as the fundamental reason why Christians cannot work with mainstream science.

I will withhold most my comments till Friday, when my rejoinder is published. Until then, I will note that he says this is the most “telling statement” of the book (though it is two sentences, a statement and a question ):

In 2017, the massive anthology Theistic Evolution: A Scientific, Philosophical, and Theological Critique , was published by Crossway (I have three chapters in the book). Swamidass reviewed Theistic Evolution for the conservative theological journal Themelios , published by the Gospel Coalition. He concluded his review with this question (in italics), quoted again in GAE (p. 172), which I see as the most telling statement in the book:

As a scientist in the Church and a Christian in science, I see firsthand the strength of evolutionary science. What version of theistic evolution could be theologically sound?

Swamidass is hailing us from within the circle defined by MN and CA. What can I say over here where I’m standing, he asks us, that you folks—outside the boundaries I have assumed as given—will find acceptable?

It is notable he leaves out the rest of the quote, as it is rendered in the GAE:

As a scientist in the church and a Christian in science, I see firsthand the strength of evolutionary science. What version of theistic evolution could be theologically sound? This question, I hope, can be received with empathy by a new generation of theologians. Help us find a better way.

The good news, I think is that most people want that better way. Most are looking to take it.


Not really surprising. That’s his main schtick. The unspoken problem is what theistic science looks like or how it differs in a practical way.


It seems to me that @Paul_Nelson’s real fight is with parsimony. When the evidence is consistent with a natural process we don’t invent supernatural processes that exactly mimic the natural ones. We simply stick with the natural processes. What we have is tons of evidence consistent with the natural process of common ancestry and large population size within the human lineage. If the evidence were consistent with a 2 person bottleneck 6,000 years ago then we could certainly discuss a very real Adam and Eve, but that’s not what the evidence shows us.

It seems that Nelson is only complaining about the rules because he doesn’t like the score.


5 posts were split to a new topic: YECs and the GAE

I think this is the most telling sentence in the review:

I wonder what new evidence he has in mind. I wonder what model of separate creation he would propose to test common ancestry against, given that he doesn’t like what he’s found in the literature. It appears that rejection of methodological naturalism is only for the purpose of allowing separate creation models to be considered. But of course they are considered already, just not the ones he would prefer, whatever those may be. Disappointing.


Both MN and CA are problematic, however, and thus any hypothesis which takes them as its givens, or starting points, will be problematic as well. The building can be no sounder than its foundation.

But Common Ancestry is not an assumption - it’s a prediction, one that has held up to repeated testing.

The GAE hypothesis, by contrast, nests within the non-negotiable boundary of CA:

I don’t think that is right can be right. A&E would not have common ancestors, and so are outside the boundary, but it is beyond the limits of genetics to know this.


I spotted this:

Material descent or CA, however, is not the only possible cause of similarity, as Darwin himself knew: “animals, belonging to two most distinct lines of descent, may readily become adapted to similar conditions, and thus assume a close external resemblance; but such resemblances will not reveal – will rather tend to conceal their blood-relationships to their proper lines of descent. Thus, any argument, such as that offered by GAE, that CA is the only scientific theory which explains DNA similarities, needs the most rigorous of testing.

But Darwin was talking about convergence of large-scale morphology, such as the streamlined shape of dolphins, sharks and ichthyosaurs, not about the small-scale details that show those animals are only distantly related. Darwin’s comment doesn’t apply to DNA, not just because he was unaware of it, but also because it is not a “resemblance”.

The rest of the paragraph doesn’t make much sense either.

1 Like

How similar are the sequences of these in vitro ribozymes? The in vivo ones?

It reminds me a lot of flat Earthers who tell people to open their mind to the possibility of a flat Earth as if the evidence for a round Earth doesn’t exist.

Even more, if we have to throw out the scientific method in order for YEC and the classic A&E to be considered then this is a big backslide for the scientific creationism and ID movement.


Darwin’s comment still doesn’t apply to DNA, for the same reasons. You deleting those reasons when replying doesn’t negate them.

1 Like

@pnelson, why does Michael Behe affirm common descent?

1 Like

The quote from Darwin merely illustrates a general point, well known to systematists, such as John Harshman: similarity – including similarity at the nucleotide level – underdetermines its possible causes. That Darwin did not know about DNA is neither here nor there.

The indispensable term “homoplasy” exists because of this reality.

1 Like

Ask him.

I have and so have you. His reasoning, coming from him in particular, would seem to totally undermine your argument against common descent and the the claim that the conclusion of CD is due to MN.

Rather than arguing about this with us, I think a public debate between you and Behe would be extremely informative for everyone. How can we set that up?


Do you really think science can’t investigate cases of similarities and determine to a high degree of confidence the actual cause in each case?


CD isn’t due to MN.

Below is a figure from my chapter on CD in the Crossway 2017 theistic evolution volume. Notice the position of Mike Behe (this is an uncorrected proof; the birth year for W. Ford Doolittle is off by 100 years):

I think it would be fun for Mike and I to discuss CD, pro and con, but I’m uncertain that he would accept. What would be really fun, in any case, would be a role-reversal: I argue FOR the truth of CD, and Mike argues against. :wink:

1 Like

That isn’t your claim?

It is also a fairly striking misreading of the book that you argue that I assume common descent to be true. That isn’t the case at all. Even if common descent is false, my argument holds up.

Whatever it takes for IDists to come to consensus on CD would do a great deal to further your scientific credibility. If you can’t come to consensus about this fundamental point, there is no reason you should expect to make any progress towards consensus on design.


Have IDers come to consensus on any point in their “Design” claims? There are as many different ID stories as there are IDers. Often the stories are directly contradictory. Some push a literal young Earth Genesis, some push an old Earth / young life, some push front loading, some push occasional direct intervention by the Designer. Meyer contradicts Behe contradicts Wells contradicts Nelson. There is no mechanism offered, no timeline, nothing at all which can be scientifically tested. Still the IDers wonder why no one in science takes them seriously.


This is a core issue @pnelson. If you can’t convince Behe your argument is correct, why should anyone take it seriously? If you are so certain Behe is wrong on such a fundamental point, why have us trust him on his other arguments?

Science moves by consensus.

What process do you have within ID to come to consensus on the validity (and invalidity) of particular arguments? If you are intending to do science, these sorts of processes seem critical to put into practice.