Why Some TE/EC Scientists Silent About Divine Action?

I want here to resume the conversation with Chris Falter (and others) regarding whether, and why, some TE/EC leaders might have chosen to withhold certain beliefs they have about direct divine action in creation.

Since the conversation began as an off-topic wandering on the Cornelius Hunter-protein thread, I think it is best to start fresh. Those who want the previous posts can find them at:

https://discourse.peacefulscience.org/t/eddies-take-on-the-cornelius-hunter-thread/5198/109

Starting this discussion afresh will not only enable us to remove the clutter and achieve more focus on a single topic; it will also (hopefully) enable Chris and myself to find more common ground, even if we end up disagreeing on a few points.

Chris’s last comments, because the discussion was closed, had to be posted as an edit to his earlier comments. Readers may have a hard time finding the post with the edits, buried way up in the comments, so I will reproduce them below, before responding to them.

But before I do that, let me restate my thesis (conjecture, inference, etc.), and the drift of the discussion so far:

1-- I had stated as a fact that at least some ASA and BioLogos TEs privately believe that God directly and supernaturally created the first life, and/or that God “intervened in” or “tinkered with” or “guided” the evolutionary process at some points after that. My source for this was (a) one leading EC/TE person who actually told me this was his view; (b) his information – based on decades of familiarity with all the leading players – that quite a few others had the same view, but for the most part kept it private.

2-- I offered an inference regarding why some (I did not say a majority) TE/EC leaders were hesistant to say out loud (i.e., in public venues where everyone from every camp could see their statements) that they believed that the creation of life and/or evolution were not wholly due to natural processes, but involved direct divine action.

3-- My inference was that some of the silent TE/EC leaders were very concerned that such a belief would appear “unscientific” to their secular scientific peers. That is, I suggested that they were worried that their secular scientific peers would censure them, mock them, or show other signs of professional and intellectual dis-esteem toward them as scientists. [Note: It was not part of my inference that they feared job loss or actual persecution of any kind.] So, for example, their secular peers might say they were “backsliding” toward non-scientific views such as creationism, by settling for a compromise view of some natural and some supernatural causes for origins. The EC/TE leaders in question would have observed that when they defended an old earth, universal common descent, Darwinian mechanisms, etc., they met with praise from their non-religious colleagues, for upholding “good science” or “consensus science,” and for differing from Creationists and ID people. They would also be aware, however, that by inserting any direct divine activity, any special divine action, into their account of origins, they would displease a large number of secular biologists whom they had previously pleased. It follows that they would have a strong motive – the motive of maintaining the respect of their scientific colleagues – for withholding their private belief in special divine action.

4-- Chris Falter objected to my inference (and also to some of the words I used to express it, but more on that later), and provided an alternate inference. His hypothesis (which as far as I can see, he did not say he got from direct conversation with any TE/EC proponent, but was like mine wholly his own inference) was that such TE/EC folks as I described (whose existence he at first appeared to me to deny, but upon discussion appeared to me to acknowledge) were not motivated by lack of courage, of fear of disapproval from secular scientists, etc., but by concern for their own Christian communities – how their statement of their own beliefs might be understood, and how that understanding might end up being detrimental to Christian faith, or to Christians in science, or both. [Chris can correct me if I am misinterpreting him; I am trying here to be entirely fair to his intentions.] He called this concern “prudence”, and he said that in his view it was “prudence” rather than fear that motivated such silent TE/EC leaders.

5-- In my response so far, I disputed the logic of the “prudence” argument; i.e., I said that if that was the motivation of the Christian leaders we are speaking of, they were/are misguided, because in fact open statements of their belief in direct divine action would help rather than harm matters, and in fact would be likely to make some evangelicals who are “on the fence” regarding evolution more open to evolution. Knowing that they could accept an old earth, and common descent, plus believe that God created the first life by a miracle, or that God “tinkered” with evolution somewhat along the way, such evangelicals would be less suspicious that accepting evolution was buying into a wholly materialistic account of origins in which God seemed to have little or nothing to do.

6-- My response so far has failed to deal with a point Chris raised in his most recent rebuttal, i.e., that even if I think that the “prudence” argument is a bad reason for silence, it does not follow that TE/EC scientists who use it are insincere; it could still be their real motivation, rather than fear, as I imputed to them. And I am going to concede to Chris that this is right: whether or not someone is sincere is a separate question from whether or not someone is reasoning well from his premises. So yes, my rebuttal to the prudence argument does not establish that Chris is wrong about the motivation of the scientists in question.

That is where the general discussion sits at the minute. I want now to re-post Chris’s latest round of objections, and answer them in some detail, but before doing so, I want to give Chris a chance to read this and see if he agrees that I have correctly reported the main ideas here.

I will respond to Chris’s concern about some of my expressions, as well, but again, I first want to make sure that we are on the same page regarding the general state of the discussion.

I have tried to write this in an even tone, and without polemics. I hope that this comes across. I will now await Chris’s response. Others too, may respond, but I may not respond to them for a while, until I have heard from Chris.

@Chris_Falter

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@eddie I’m still waiting for you to understand my insider view of this. And my solution.

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@Eddie,

I commend you for your irenic tone and obvious effort at being fair and objective. It is a real pleasure to read what you just wrote. I may not end up agreeing with everything you aver, but I think we can have a discussion that will be instructive for both for us and for everyone who stops by to read or maybe even join in.

In our earlier discussion I did mention a few additional points that are worth putting in the record, in my opinion.

  1. A scientist could regard every kind of origin in nature, including the origin of life, as something to which science might someday speak with confidence. Consider the discipline of astronomy, which basically had no working theory of cosmic origins in 1903. The next 60 years saw Einstein’s theories, then Lemaitre’s, then Hubble’s observations, then the CMBR. And now the well-accepted Big Bang theory explains cosmic origins extremely well. Biology could well experience a similar 60-year revolution.
  2. A scientist’s desire for prudence can spring from more than a consideration of how his or her words might be perceived. Prudence may also spring from a well-formed habit of not venturing too far afield from the evidence in hand.
  3. While my inferences about scientists’ motives on this particular issue are not the result of conversations with said scientists, @swamidass endorsed my inference. I think Joshua can speak authoritatively to the motivations of many tenured or retired Christian biologists, though it is unlikely he would wish to speak for 100% of them.

I am eager to include Joshua in the conversation. What are your thoughts on giving Joshua a hearing? I know for a fact that he has devoted a lot of thought and energy to the topic of how to speak to evangelicals about biology.

I also welcome whatever thoughts you may wish to express, Eddie. How Christian scientists speak to the broader faith community is an important topic, and your input is valuable.

Yours,
Chris

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I’d like to emphasize some points of agreement here. @swamidass does not deny special divine action in creation and ought not be lumped in with those who do. Joshua affirms creation, and agrees with small i small d intelligent design. God designed Mt. Everest.

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Thank your for your friendly response, Chris. I tried really hard to alter the flavor of the conversation, and I’m glad you think I accomplished something.

Of course Joshua is welcome to give his own explanation for the phenomenon at any time he wishes. I told him privately that I would be willing to discuss his view either privately or publicly, in accord with his preference. He said he was busy for a day, so I don’t expect any lengthy reply from him immediately, but whatever he says I will listen to without rejecting it out of hand.

Most of the other points you mention I will be touching on directly or indirectly in my reply to your recent note (the long edit you made to one of your previous posts). Probably I will give that detailed reply tomorrow.

However, I can get one thing out of the way right away. As you note in an earlier reply, I definitely goofed on my estimation of your age. The only excuse I have is a complimentary one. You have this little picture of yourself with your wife (I presume) that comes to me along with your private mails and I think also used to appear on BioLogos. From that picture, it appeared to me that you were quite young. In fact, your picture reminds me of a family member who is in his early 40s, but with a face that looks 30-ish. So I drew the wrong inference, but for a pleasant reason. Anyhow, my apologies for the error.

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Thank you for the invitation.

The question is this. Some Christians scientists affirm evolution but think God intervened, with varying levels of certainty, to guide evolution or created the first cells. These Christians are largely silent about their affirmation of God’s action. Why?

@eddie hypothesizes fear and cowardice of looking unscientific to their scientific peers. This might be true sometimes, perhaps most commonly among non-scientists though.

@Chris_Falter suggests that this better explained as “prudence,” in investing their authority carefully as representatives of science in the church, and because they think abiogenesis is not a central issue. This might sometimes be true too, though I wonder if scientists thoughtfully engaging their church with science are the exception, not the rule.

Briefly, I think that the reason is not precisely prudence or cowardice. I’m convinced their silence arises for many diverse personal reasons, and psychologizing this doesn’t lead to much understanding or much in the way of solutions. I think the overarching structural reason why scientists are (largely) silent about God’s action is different; there currently is no sensible framework to talk about God’s action in science. There are several frameworks out there, but they are not sensible. Scientists know this, and most will (either out of fear, cowardice, wisdom or prudence) keep their mouths shut till someone figures out and establishes a better framework, and models what it could look like to put it into practice.

So, if you are interested, I can explain what the current frameworks are and why they are not sensible. I can explain the framework I have been using, and how secular scientists and other Christian scientists have responded to it.

If we go down this path, I’m hoping that we can keep focused on understanding this first, before we go elsewhere. That means keeping responses short, and questions on task, until I get out the bulk of this. Perhaps it would be better if I started another thread? What do you think? Should I go on, or save it for later?

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Yes, yes, yes!

I am very interested in this. I think this is a big deal, especially for the Church and emerging adults. I know a lot of scientists aren’t crazy about philosophy but I think there are some real areas of conflict that arise from this lack of sensible framework.

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Please go on. This may help me put a few more of the puzzle pieces together I have floating around.

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Chris:

I will here reproduce your last post from the other thread, which as I indicated was an “edit” of an earlier post further up the chain. Then I will comment on it, but only on selected parts of it, so that we can avoid dwelling on things that spring more from temporary dialogical frictions than from the heart of the issues. My comments will follow in a separate post. First, your original:


EDIT: I did not realize @swamidass was closing the thread so soon, so I am posting my final comments as an edit to my final pre-closing post. @Eddie I am tagging you so that you can be notified.

Eddie:

As I said, I never claimed it applied to the majority of TEs.

Sure, you said it didn’t apply to those who did not have tenure or retirement, or to those who do not actually privately favor the miraculous first cell stance. But as far as I can tell, you did say it applied to pretty much every single one of the tenured or retired Christian biologists who privately favor the miraculous first cell stance.

Eddie:

What would hold them back from saying so? Surely not pressure from their evangelical churches, who ought to support such a belief. The only other major source of social pressure on them is that coming from their secular scientific colleagues. So I chalk it up to that; I think they fear the professional ridicule that would come from their secular scientific colleagues if, after supporting naturalistic evolution like good scientists, they “chickened out” and opted for a supernatural origin of life.

Obviously it is hard for me to prove that this is the motive, but if it’s a fact that some Christian biologists believe life’s origin was supernatural, then the fact that they don’t say so openly indicates some fear of consequences, and my explanation of that fear is by far the most likely one.

Eddie:

the only motive I can think of is fear that such a belief would bring frowns of disapproval from secular scientific colleagues.

Eddie:

I made transparently clear, in my original statement, that what they were afraid of was … ridicule or chastisement.

In your posts 3, 6 and 29 (above) there is no notion that any tenured/retired TE or EC scientist who happens to favor a miraculous explanation of the first cell would have a motive other than fear of social pressure from secular scientific colleagues for not speaking out publicly.

Eddie:

My understanding of their motives

Do you mean, your conjecture about their motives?

Chris_Falter:

My inference about motives was affirmed by someone who ought to know the motives of TE/EC biologists pretty well: Joshua Swamidass. Here:

swamidass:

Chris_Falter: A scientist who is deeply embedded in the social network of Christian scientists liked my comment . Thus I infer my statement about Christian scientists is accurate.

Not usually a good inference (I like a lot of posts I disagree with), but in this case you are right.

Please note this post by a scientist in the thread, as well:

swamidass:

Chris_Falter: This is not the route you yourself followed when you accused Christian scientists of being motivated by “fear,” “lack of courage,” and generally “chickening out.”

@Chris_Falter, you are so correct.

Eddie:

I’ve lived 25 to 30 years longer than you

Wow, you’re approximately 85 years old! Congratulations, Eddie, you act like a spring chicken here on the forum. Way to go. Seriously. :smile:

Eddie:

I did not say or imply that Christian scientists who believe in the miraculous origin of life should " invest their authority in a struggle against …"

You misread me. I did not say that Eddie Robinson said that. Here’s what I did say: A Christian biologist could legitimately be concerned that their pronouncements would seem ex cathedra to the folks in the pews who do not necessarily have a firm grasp of methodological naturalism. I didn’t say that you originated that notion. I’m saying that the airing of personal opinions very well might not be perceived as such by the flock.

Would you agree with me that the average American evangelical does not have a deep understanding of scientific methodology? If so, you would perhaps agree with me a scientist’s pronouncements could be easily misunderstood.

By the way, you have also noted that my use of the word “prudent” has had more than one shade of meaning. I agree. However, the two meanings are very tightly linked, as I see it. Being generally cautious about publicizing inferences that could very well be demolished by advances in scientific theory some day is highly relevant to the question of the careful exercise of influence. If the scientist were not cognizant of the real possibility of remarkable advances in OOL theory, he or she would not feel the need to exercise caution with respect to the airing of opinions to the flock.

While I’m at it, much of what I have been aiming at in this thread is to offer plausible reasons why no one should leap to the conclusion that the only viable explanation of silence on OOL is fear of professional disapproval. I have not personally surveyed dozens of Christian scientists on the question. But neither have you personally spoken with them about their motivations, if what you have written in the thread is to be believed.

Eddie:

I have identified no individual.

You have cast aspersions on the motivations of a specific class: tenured or retired Christian biologists who speak publicly about science and who identify with mainstream theory. That is not a particularly large group of individuals.

Eddie:

I am just as concerned about the other extreme: people seeing some of the statements of TE/EC leaders as veering dangerously into heterodox territory

Thanks for sharing that opinion. I actually agree with it. I didn’t think this particular concern was the subject of the thread, however.

Eddie:

Collins shouldn’t have to zip his lips for “prudential” reasons, while Venema throws prudence to the winds by indicating a strong preference the other way.

You are framing Collins’ choices as being imposed on him from the outside. Have you personally asked him if this is what has motivated his behavior?

Eddie:

He shows no parallel concern about TEs who believe there were no miracles in the origin of life; they apparently can freely advocate that view without “imprudence” (without any negative repercussions for their congregations or the evangelical community). An interesting double standard, to say the least.

The standard I uphold is advocacy for methodological naturalism. Venema’s opinions obviously do not contradict that. Neither does belief in the resurrection. Opining that the origin of the first cell is a miracle, however, might very well be in conflict with methodological naturalism. If the Big Bang, the origin of the Milky Way galaxy, and the origin of the solar system are within the bounds of methodological naturalism, then in theory the origin of the first cell is also within the bounds of methodological naturalism.

Also, I agree with T_aqua’s reading of Venema: he does not show a strong preference and has not thrown prudence to the winds.

Eddie:

I then proceeded to dismantle that explanation piece by piece, showing how it made no sense.

You are the most humble person on the forum, Eddie.

Eddie:

And, as I showed, even if that [prudence] were their reason, it would be an illogical one.

My contention is that a plausible case exists in the other direction. You do not agree, and I will grant in arguendo that you might even be correct. However, even if your view of what’s prudent is correct, the labeling of the motivation of those who disagree with you as “fear,” “chickening out,” etc. is a non sequitur .

I think you can come around to seeing that someone’s disagreement with you about what’s prudent could very well spring from sincerely held views. Surely you do not think that the opinions of Edward Robinson are so obviously clear to every human being that any disagreement with Edward Robinson could not possibly be sincere, right?

If it’s possible that someone’s disagreement with you is truly sincere, then your inferring a motivation of anything other than sincere disagreement is a non sequitur . The conclusion of fear does not follow from the premises because the plausibility of sincere disagreement about what’s prudent provides a viable alternative explanation.

And yes, given two plausible interpretations of someone’s motives–where one is fear and the other is wrong-headed but sincere disagreement–I do think our Lord commands us to eschew the harsh interpretation and choose the gracious. Strong disagreement about philosophy, science, and such is fine by me. I agree with you there. Leaping to unwarranted, harsh conclusions about someone’s motives is not.

Fancying one’s harsh assumptions about other’s behavior to be prophetic is a dicey business. When our Lord overturned the money changers’ tables, He knew with 100% certainty the motivations of their hearts. Are you claiming, Eddie, that you know the motivations of tenured or retired TE/EC biologists with the same certainty that our Lord had at the temple?

If not, then citing his actions does not justify yours.

Eddie:

Chris_Falter: But that is contradicted by Eddie’s actions in this thread. He made a very demeaning, public assumption about the motives of some Christian scientists without any private discussions with them.

On the contrary, I have had scores of private discussions and group discussions with many TE leaders over the past 10 years. Now you are the one drawing an unwarranted inference about me .

Actually, I merely took you at your word when you made two statements in this thread:

  1. Your belief that some TE/EC scientists believe in the miraculous origin of the first cell came not from your own conversations with them, but with your conversation with a trusted friend who knows them.
  2. Your statement that some of them are motivated by fear, etc., is an inference drawn from what you believe to be the most economical explanation.

You also gave a multi-point explanation to nwrickert to the same effect.

Do you need me to quote you, or do you agree that you have stated those things?

Nowhere in this thread have you ever made any statements about having had a private discussion with TE/EC scientists about the motivation for their silence on OOL. You did say many, many times, on the other hand, that your conclusions about their motivation were an inference, not personal knowledge.

Seriously, I simply believed what you told me, Eddie. And now you accuse me of drawing unwarranted inferences about whether you spoke with them about their motivations? Do you really want me not to believe what you said multiple times to multiple people, including directly to me?

Eddie:

Chris_Falter: whose motives you have calumniated

Please document this claim, based on things I have published here (not rumors you may have heard from elsewhere), or withdraw it.

I will substitute the word “belittled” for “calumniated.” I had thought the latter to be a synonym of the former, but I was mistaken. My bad.

So my new statement is:

“whose motives you have belittled.”

You will see the original statement edited shortly.

Thanks,
Chris

OK, Chris. Your post now sits above. Here are my selected comments. I will start with comments of clarification – places where I think you have misread what I wrote and objected to it due to that misreading. I will end with comments on our differences in substance.

Clarifications.

Here you have misread me. You are writing as if I said that Collins actually argued that life was created miraculously. But in more than one place earlier in the discussion I had put in phrases like “supposing for the sake of argument that Collins argued”; I assumed you would remember that, so I didn’t keep typing “assuming for the sake of argument” every time. But apparently you did forget, because you took this instance as a report of Collins’s view. And obviously, if I am putting that idea in Collins’s mouth purely as a hypothetical example of what a TE leader might say, I am not claiming to have heard the idea from Collins himself, and I’m under no obligation to ask Collins what motivated his non-existent behavior! It’s a fictitious example to make a point. [Footnote: Collins did “float” the idea in his book – but he did not endorse it as his personal view.]

Another misreading:

I know you didn’t say that I said that. I wasn’t accusing you of saying that I said that. However, in your reply to my earlier statement of my objection, you criticized my objection as if it amounted to that – as if, if TE/EC leaders took my advice and spoke frankly about their view, they would be “investing their authority” in a “struggle” against something. My point was that I never suggested that any TE leader should speak or write in a way that any reasonable person would take as speaking from personal or scientific authority on the question, or that conveyed any “struggling” against consensus science.

In response to your choice of words, I tried to show how they didn’t capture my meaning. I gave a fictional example of how someone, e.g., Deb Haarsma, might put the point. Here is what I wrote:

"I did not say or imply that Christian scientists who believe in the miraculous origin of life should "invest their authority in a struggle against …” Your words call up the image of, say, someone like Deb Haarsma coming out swinging for the miraculous creation of life, and demanding that Christians accept that as a necessary part of Christian doctrine, and threatening to chop down all arguments to the contrary by Christian scientists. But for Pete’s sake, I didn’t suggest anything of the sort! …

"[Deb Haarsma could say to some ID poster, for example:] “I disagree with you about God intervening in organic evolution, but I do agree with you about the origin of life; I do strongly suspect there was some intervention there. I don’t claim this as a certainty, or as required by Christian doctrine, nor do I speak for anyone at BioLogos but myself (some of my colleagues here disagree), but that is my tentative conclusion.” No fuss, no fighting, no aggression, no claim that all Christian scientists should agree, no claim that science has proved such a thing – just a statement of their own personal conclusion (tentative and revisable) at that point in time. That’s all I ever asked for. That is nothing like “investing their scientific authority” in the conclusion…

“Now, suppose Deb Haarsma or anyone else at BioLogos or in the ASA ever wrote anything like that in the context of a friendly question-and-answer on a blog site. Are you asking me to believe that the whole Christian evangelical community, either in their home congregations or elsewhere, would draw the conclusion that Deb Haarsma insists on the miraculous creation of life, that she claims science has proved the miraculous creation of life, that she thinks denial of this is heresy? No one could possibly get that out of her proposed words as set forth above…”

I offer this as a point of clarification, but of course, it could easily move into a dispute over substance, since you might argue that even such as statement as my hypothetical one could be interpreted by churchgoers as the authoritative voice of a Christian scientist. Would you argue that? If so, then we need to take that up as we move into disputing substance. But I just wanted to be clear that I had in mind cautious, modest, qualified statements which stressed that they were the personal conclusions of one particular Christian scientist, not of BioLogos, not of “science”, not of “Christian faith,” etc. I was not suggesting that any TE/EC leader should “come out swinging” to defend a miraculous origin of life, or push for that as the Christian position.

I will stop now, so that you can digest these clarifications, and respond to them if you wish. In a later post, I will take up what seem to me to be our remaining differences over matters of substance.

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6 posts were split to a new topic: Describing Swamidass

Hi Eddie, Your modest proposal about what someone like Haarsma might say is intriguing.

Last night Phil Robertson of Duck Dynasty spoke at my church. I didn’t attend; I mention the event simply to help everyone understand the cultural flavor of my kingdom outpost. How would the hypothesized Haarsma statement play at my church? Good question. 1

I would still be concerned that biology today could be where astronomy was in 1903. Someone has to help the Phil Robertson fans understand, at least a little bit, where biology might go. I could be misreading your hypothesized statement, but it seems not to address that contingency.

That said, I am certainly open to careful exploration through action. A common technique in data science is to introduce a user interface change to a small part of your audience at first, and compare the response to that change to the control group’s response to the previous UI. This is referred to as A/B testing, for those who want to Google the topic.

So maybe Christian biologists could conduct such an A/B test with your idea. I am not the person you need to convince, of course. In all likelihood you would need to hear out @swamidass’ concerns and address them to get to the point where a Christian biologist might take up your idea.

Yours,
Chris

EDIT:
1I once divulged my belief in mainstream biology to a Bible study leader, who very quickly went to the senior pastor with his deep concern for my supposed heresy. When the pastor urged him to have a discussion with me, he instead voted with his vote and moved himself and his family to a new church. I don’t know that everyone in my congregation would react that way to my stance. A congregation that enthusiastically receives Phil Robertson is probably a long way from warming to mainstream biology, though.

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I don’t think cowardice has anything whatsoever to do with this. For one possible answer with more credibility, let me quote from the great Bridgewater treatise by William Whewell (who was no evolutionist), written many years before Darwin (indeed, Darwin quoted it opposite the title page of the Origin).

“We are not to expect that physical investigation can enable us to conceive of the manner in which God acts upon the members of the universe. The question, ‘Canst thou by searching find out God?’ must silence the boastings of science as well as the repinings of adversity. Indeed, science shows us, far more clearly than the conceptions of every day reason, at what an immeasurable distance we are from any faculty of conceiving how the universe, material and moral, is the work of the Deity. But with regard to the material world, we can at least go so far as this;–we can perceive that events are brought about, not by insulated interpositions of divine power exerted in each particular case, but by the establishment of general laws.” (p. 356)

We must not overlook the influence of Whewell’s insight on many proponents of Evolutionary Creation, including me. Not to mention its influence on Darwin.

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OK, let’s set the record straight about what the real (not hypothetical) Francis Collins actually did say. The context was a plenary address he gave at the 2002 annual meeting of the American Scientific Affiliation at Pepperdine University. I was there–in fact, I was the program chair that year. His address was published the following year: https://www.asa3.org/ASA/PSCF/2003/p142_53FCollins.pdf

Collins directly states his position on the origin of life in the first paragraph on 152, which I quote in full:

“Another issue, however—one where I am very puzzled about what the answer will be—is the origin of life. Four billion years ago, the conditions on this planet were completely inhospitable to life as we know it; 3.85 billion years ago, life was teeming. That is a very short period—150 million years—for the assembly of macromolecules into a self-replicating form. I think even the most bold and optimistic proposals for the origin of life fall well short of achieving any real probability for that kind of event having occurred. Is this where God entered? Is this how life got started? I am happy to accept that model, but it will not shake my faith if somebody comes up with a model that explains how that the first cells formed without divine intervention. Again, watch out for the God-of-the-gaps. However, I think it is noteworthy that this particular area of evolution, the earliest step, is still very much in disarray.”

(Incidentally, I entirely agree with Collins on this matter, though I also say to my own students and others that I wouldn’t be at all surprised if God did create the first living things ex nihilo. I lean more toward that end that Collins, but I still entirely agree with his assessment and his expression of caution about future scientific advances. So, Collins and I make two examples of EC people who speak publicly about this, though only one of us is a scientist. Hint: It’s not me.)

OK, now that we can all see this full public statement from the person who founded BioLogos and is the most widely known spokesperson for EC, can we please stop asking the question in the title of this thread? Perhaps a better question is, why does this seem to matter so much to @Eddie and maybe some other ID folks? (I remember many years ago being called a “materialist” by an ID person, b/c I didn’t unambiguously say that God must have created life directly. That person obviously didn’t know very much about my other beliefs. If I’m a materialist, then maybe the Pope is a Protestant.)

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@TedDavis I agree with much of this.

However, I do think there is a sharp distinction between Francis Collins and BioLogos. Collins goes about things in a different way than BioLogos, both in the past and in the present.

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Hi, Chris. Thanks for more response in the spirit I was hoping for.

You wrote:

I wish that “intriguing” had been your response the first time I offered it! :slight_smile:

I think it does. The qualifiers I provided make it clear that the speaker is not pronouncing her own tentative conclusion as the final word of science that could never be altered. But it would be easy enough to modify it with a more explicit statement to that effect. It would be easy to add: “I hasten to add that though this is my current tentative conclusion, future science might provide us with information that could cause me to rethink my conclusion. I’m merely stating where my thoughts are currently.”

I find it very strange that you are now suggesting complex testing regimes (like those used by political parties or corporations selling products) for trying to evaluate how such statements might go over in churches before they are uttered in broad general forums. That goes entirely against my conception of a free society and free exchange of ideas. Did Plato, Aristotle, Hobbes, Descartes, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Abraham Lincoln, etc. cautiously test their ideas before limited control groups before offering them to the world? This tippy-toeing, this delicacy, this super-caution, rankles me as a teacher of Great Books and of Western Civ. Aren’t modern evangelical Christians tough enough to just hear ideas and make up their own minds about them, without having them filtered first by the techniques of advertising and political machines?

I am glad to hear your personal example. I agree that the reaction to evolution among many “conservative” Christians is too violent, and I think the person you are talking about overreacted. But I’m not sure that your story addresses my concerns. I think maybe we are talking about two different types of conservative/evangelical Christian. Let me lay out the sociology as I see it.

Currently in Protestant evangelical/conservative churches, I see three broad attitudes toward evolution (and I say “evolution” rather than “mainstream biology” because the latter sounds too emphemistic and indirect; no conservative Christian suspicious of evolution says: “I’m worried that mainstream biology might be dangerous to faith”; he uses the word “evolution”; let’s have blunt talk without the over-delicacy). Here are the broad positions:

  1. Evolution is an anti-Christian, ungodly, un-Biblical, etc. view; I reject it;

  2. Evolution might be compatible with Christianity; I haven’t made up my mind; I’m concerned about its possible implications for the Fall, and for God’s sovereignty and omnipotence and providence; however, I’m open to more discussion;

  3. Evolution is compatible with Christianity, with a more flexible reading of Genesis, etc.

Now, this started as a discussion about BioLogos (and other Christian groups who are trying to get conservative/evangelical people to accept evolution. Now, here is the obvious advice to such groups:

People of Type 1 above are not – in the short run, anyway – going to accept evolution no matter what compromises or adjustments TE/EC seems to be making to accommodate faith with evolutionary theory. They aren’t a good place to put the majority of effort.

People of Type 3 are already onside; they accept that evolution is true or at least very possible, so all you have to talk to them about is various detailed proposals for evolution/faith harmony. Spending a lot of energy on them is like preaching to the choir.

It is people of Type 2 who are the logical main target of “evangelical outreach” for Darwin. Those are the people who might be persuaded, within a reasonably short time-frame, of dropping opposition to evolution and acknowledging evolution as a real option for Christian believers.

So, logically speaking, BioLogos etc. should be focusing primarily (not exclusively) on people of Type 2. Now, certain “prudential” concerns (to use your term) follow from this. I will illustrate this with an example.

Suppose (hypothetical case again) that from the Christian scientists who come to their churches, write blogs, write books, go on lecture tours, etc. these people “on the fence” are offered not one overwhelmingly favored position, but three:

  1. It is of course to be admitted that God could have intervened either to create the first life or to “tinker” with evolution along the way, but in my view there is no evidence that he has done so, regarding organic evolution, and while the case is not as clear regarding the origin of life, I incline to the view that ultimately the origin of life will prove amenable to a similar analysis.

  2. God could have intervened either to steer evolution, or to create life in the first place, or both. Science cannot disprove either possibility. I personally incline to the view that God had no need to steer the evolutionary process, that he “fully gifted” the first life to be able to produce all future life without need of tinkering or adjustments later; however, I incline to the belief that the first life probably needed a divine jump-start. I don’t expect all Christian scientists to agree with me on that, and future knowledge could change my view, but that is currently where I sit.

  3. God could of course have arranged things so that neither the origin of life or its evolution required any divine intervention or assistance after the Big Bang. That is consistent with God’s omnipotence and sovereignty. However, based on my current understanding of chemical reactions, origin of life experiments, the course of evolution, and the character of life itself, I incline to the view that God was directly involved in the first life, and continued to be involved, not just in sustaining natural laws, but in special divine actions, at at least some points in the evolutionary process.

Now, Chris: you have before you three hypothetical statements by Christian scientists, all admitting that they don’t know for sure what happened in the past, all admitting that there is a range of legitimate Christian views, all indicating personal belief in evolution as a process that has actually happened (the only question being how much direct divine action was involved). In none of these statements is the weight of the scientist “thrown around” to try to influence people by undue pressure. The scientists are simply stating their current (revisable) beliefs.

OK, them, from the point of view of “prudence” – where by prudence, as explained above, I mean “What course of action is most likely to get evangelicals “on the fence” to accept evolution”, is it better for evangelicals to have all three of those positions before them, spoken by Christian scientists they respect as fellow believers? Or is it better that they only have one of those positions before them, i.e., the first? If I understand your previous argument correctly, you are saying that it is better if they don’t hear the other two statements from Christian, evolution-accepting scientists; that it would be more prudent for the scientists who personally affirm 2 or 3 not to make those affirmations in the presence of evangelical Christians, lest good science be somehow harmed.

I can’t understand this. From a purely marketing perspective (to pick up on your earlier discussion of testing, etc.), an ice cream shop which has chocolate, vanilla and strawberry is likely to get more customers than one which only has chocolate. I would bet a small amount of money that of the evangelicals who have not rigidly rejected evolution, but are open to it, many of those would feel more comfortable in accepting it if they thought that Options 2 and 3 above were available to them. The announcement that good, faithful, competent Christian evangelical scientists hold to Options 2 or 3 would thus make them more likely to drop opposition to evolution and embrace it, whereas the presentation of Option 1 as the only option that a scientifically educated person can accept would cause many of them to resist.

So why would you not want evangelical Christians to be aware that there are good, faithful scientists among their number who go with Option 2 or 3? Why would you want scientists who hold those options to remain silent, and yield the debate entirely to scientists who go with Option 1? Why would you not want all views on the table, for thoughtful evangelical Christians wrestling with evolution to consider? Especially since, from the prudential point of view, it is likely that more evangelicals will accept evolution if multiple options are available than if only Option 1 is presented to them? Something does not compute here. Can you address this?

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Ted, I have always interpreted Collins’s remarks in the way that you do. I have no disagreement with your account. I never said that Collins said anything different. I merely argued that if Collins had made a stronger statement, if he had said more clearly and directly: “To cut to the chase, I personally believe that God created the first life miraculously,” that should not be a problem for anyone. It would still be completely compatible with belief in macroevolution, and even with wholly naturalistic evolution from bacterium to man, so it would not get in the way of “evolutionary science.” Chris apparently thinks that it could cause great difficulties in evangelical churches. I’ve merely been trying to get him to articulate the danger that he sees, because I don’t see it. I’ve explained why I don’t think it would be a problem above.

I agree entirely that the attitude of Whewell has had great historical influence, and these discussions are suffused with it. Of course, Whewell’s word “perceive” is ambiguous, since “perception” is a broad term not limited to sense-observation. Certainly we don’t have direct empirical confirmation that there have been no “insulated interpositions of divine power” – any such statement is an inference, not a report of what the universe tells us directly. I would also add – and you can correct me on this if I have misunderstood Whewell – that as the author of one of the Bridgewater Treatises, Whewell was presumably “onside” with natural theology of some sort, whereas at least some modern TE folks have been known to indicate a distaste for it. In that sense, some of them may be only partial followers of Whewell.

With this modification the statement seems viable and prudent.

I guess that’s why you are a philosopher and I am a data scientist. What can I say? I am always leaping at opportunities to run A/B tests.

As far as I could see at the time, your original formulation of the statement you longed to hear did not acknowledge methodological naturalism. Since all three of the statements you advance now do acknowledge methodological naturalism, I would support any of them.

Yours, Chris

Ah, yes, but - and forgive me if I have got your history wrong, but I thought I saw your c.v. online somewhere – did you not do an Arts degree (History or Politics or something of the sort) before you got into computers? If so, don’t let your Arts side be buried under later developments. :slight_smile:

I didn’t discuss the phrase “methodological naturalism” at all, because it wasn’t necessary to do so, to make my point. I generally try to avoid all “jargon terms” if I possibly can.

Notice that none of my three hypothetical speakers professed any doctrine of “methodological naturalism” either.

But on the main point, I have to say that your answer is not entirely satisfying, for two reasons:

  1. You have now told me that you personally wouldn’t object to any of those three statements by a TE/EC leader; but you haven’t retracted your argument that it would be imprudent for them to make a statement of that kind. So are you saying that you personally wouldn’t object to statements 2 or 3, but you still think that TE/EC leaders should not make such statements, for prudential reasons? Or are you saying that such statements would not be dangerous even prudentially?

  2. You have not responded to my point that the offering of such options would actually help some evangelicals adopt belief in evolution, or at least soften their opposition to it. Do you agree that a multiplicity of options offered by TE/EC leaders would help in this regard?

I’m asking for more clarity on these two points, because supposing for the sake of argument that I were willing to abandon the hypothesis of “fear”, I still need an alternate explanation. If you are now admitting (1) that prudence does not require silence regarding preferences 2 and 3, and (2) that the expression of preferences 2 and 3 by some TE/EC leaders would actually help win some folks over to evolution, then we are still left without an explanation for the reticence (of some of the TE/EC leaders) which spurred my original remarks. Why maintain silence about one’s private view, if that silence not only serves no prudential purpose, but actually may increase the number of evangelicals who embrace evolution?

Hi Eddie,

Your hypothetical speakers did not use the terminology of “methodological naturalism.” However, they all conceded that science might someday be able to speak with confidence about the origin of the first cell(s). That concession seems like a hat tip to MN, in my opinion.

That’s why any or all of the statements are fine with me. All three: why not? But that would be a matter for Christian scientists who care to speak to the issue to figure out.

Yours,
Chris