I was vaguely aware that BioLogos was writing something about WEIT, but given the source I hadn’t paid much attention, and didn’t read it until today. (I was, however, curious to see how they’d deal with a book that contains straight science with very little mention of religion.) I now see that the review is in three parts (1, 2, and 3 at respective links); let it not be said that BioLogos does a cursory job. The review is by Robert Bishop, a professor of philosophy at Wheaton College (Illinois), a Christian school not far from Chicago. Bishop also has a master’s in physics and a Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Texas at Austin.
I don’t have a lot to say about the review, which is largely accommodationist drivel, but would like to highlight a few items.
Part 1 is generally positive, and emphasizes some of the “myths” that Christians have about how evolution works (e.g., “it all happens by chance”). That’s all good. Bishop notes:
The breadth and clarity of Coyne’s explanation and discussion of the evidence supporting evolution is impressive. Christians who have even a passing interest in science should give what he has to say careful, prayerful reflection.
Well, I’d much prefer scientific rather than prayerful reflection, but I’ll take what praise I can get.
In Part 2, Bishop becomes more critical, raising a point that is often made about WEIT by either theologians or creationists:
Two brief comments: First, although Coyne doesn’t own up to it, all of his comments about a designer are theological rather than scientific. After all comments about what a good or bad designing god would do are statements about the character, wisdom and plans of such a god. Such comments don’t tell us anything about the existence of such a designer. If anything, they only tell us about how Coyne appraises the work of such a designing god. . .
. . .The second problem is that Coyne–along with many Christians–treats evolutionary explanations as competing with or replacing God’s activity in creation. However, that is a theological interpretation of evolutionary theory, an interpretation that presumes God can’t or wouldn’t be involved in evolution.
No, I don’t own up, and won’t, to having made theological rather than scientific arguments. The arguments are purely scientific, in the sense that features of organisms violate the empirical expectations we’d have if they were designed by a beneficent and wise creator. True, the arguments don’t bear on the existence of a designer, but they weren’t meant to. They were meant to say something about the nature of a designer if you assume one exists.
Organisms are full of flaws. Considering only humans, we have descending testicles that can cause problems, very difficult childbirth in females, vestigial wisdom teeth (and appendixes) that can become impacted or infected, and our recurrent laryngeal nerve, which, instead of connecting the brain and larynx by the shortest route, loops way down around the heart and comes back up again. These are not features an intelligent designer would have given us. But those features are completely understandable in light of evolution. The nerve, for example, was constrained to form a long loop because a blood vessel moved backwards during our evolution from fishy ancestors, forcing the nerve (which once lay next to that vessel) to elongate around it to retain its connection with the larynx. (More about this tomorrow.)
I used this argument for several reasons. First, it is empirical, because it shows something about the nature of a designer if a designer was responsible for animals and plants. It shows first that the designer was not “intelligent,” in the sense of not setting up body plans in an efficient way. Second, and more telling, if animal body plans do reflect design, then we can conclude that the designer wanted to make things look as though they evolved. For these flaws are not just flaws—they are flaws that are completely understandable in light of evolution! There are comprehensible evolutionary reasons for all of these flaws, involving our ancestry or developmental/genetic constraints. We have vestigial tailbones because our ancestors had tails, our wisdom teeth are remnants of when we were more herbivorous primates with larger jaws, and so on.
It is perfectly proper procedure to infer something about a designer from the results of design. Archaeologists do this all the time. So if we must think, as many Christians do, that organisms were designed by a celestial being, we can use the characteristics of those organisms to infer something about that being. That’s an empirical procedure.
Finally, I used this argument for historical reasons: it was one that Darwin employed repeatedly throughout the Origin to cast doubt on creationist explanations. One reason why Darwin was so successful in convincing his contemporaries (and not just the scientists, either) of the truth of evolution was because his observations were inconsistent with the view of God that many people then held. Throughout the book Darwin keeps asking, rhetorically, “Why would the creator do stuff like this?” And none of that “stuff” made sense if you conceived of God as a wise and careful designer. Now theologians can, and have, re-envisioned God as someone who designed evolution and then let it take its course. What choice did they have in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence? But Darwin’s “theological” argument is still powerful, as witnessed by the many creationists who tie themselves into knots trying to explain evolutionary “design flaws” as the product of God’s wisdom.
In part 3 of his review, Bishop wishes fervently that scientists and Christians could engage in mutually respectful dialogue:
Imagine that Coyne and I engage in genuine conversation about science and Christianity. I try to understand more fully his view that there is no God at work in nature and that science has no need of countenancing a being who is neither necessary for scientific practices nor observable by scientific methods. He tries to understand my view that God is at work through natural processes so that everything that happens in nature is both fully natural and fully Divine (concurrence), and how that leaves everything in the theoretical and experimental practices of science unchanged from how we’ve conceived them since the beginning of the Scientific Revolution (in short, this is because the natural processes science studies are God’s typical mode of mediated action in creation). I get clearer on his worries about what he perceives as a threat to scientific explanations if there is a God who has the power to circumvent natural processes and their regularities. Coyne gets clearer on why the picture of concurrence doesn’t offer theological explanation as an alternative to science, but instead offers a theological interpretation of science.
Such a dialogue could never occur, at least on my part. For the first thing I’d ask Bishop would be this, “What is your evidence that there is a god who is at work through natural processes?” He would either cite the Bible or his own personal revelations, and that would be the end of that. Without evidence for a god, there’s no point in having such a discussion. And I don’t reject God because he’s a “threat to scientific explanations,” either. Like Laplace, I reject a god because it’s unnecessary in scientific explanations, and because there’s no evidence for a god. And if a god did intervene in a way I could study—if, for example, prayers worked—I would find that even more interesting.
Bishop goes on at length about why science and religion are compatible. Most of his evidence rests on the fact that some scientists in the past were religious:
The historical proof that science and Christianity aren’t fundamentally incompatible is the Scientific Revolution itself. Its architects were both methodologically and theologically serious and were theistically rather than deistically inclined (deism in the European tradition arose in the 18th century). They saw no fundamental inconsistency between science (or reason) and a God who could intervene in the world if God so desired (e.g., Robert Boyle and Isaac Newton).
This, of course, misses the whole point: I see science/faith incompatibility as a philosophical and methodological issue, not a historical one. Just because Newton could rely on revelation at some times and hard evidence at others doesn’t mean that he was using compatible methodologies.
And, at the end—as we see so often these days at BioLogos—Bishop lapses into JesusSpeak:
As long as Coyne and so many others continue to view the relationship between science and religion as a matter of integration rather than the reconciliation characteristic of actual relationships, acrimony will continue and we’ll miss out on the reconciliation science and faith already have in Jesus Christ (Col. 1:20).
I’m supposed to be an accommodationist to help bring people to Jesus? What is Bishop smoking? Oh, and some “actual relationships” aren’t characterized by reconciliation. When people are incompatible, they often get divorced.