26 June 2008

Survivor:UD -- when will they vote Matheson off?

Okay, that'll probably be the last UD moderation joke, because my irresistible charm has had its predictable (non-random) effect. I have a nice discussion going with two regulars at Uncommon Descent, StephenB and the original poster, Thomas Cudworth. I'll post my contribution below as usual, and you can read the rest of the conversation in the growing thread at Uncommon Descent.

Before you go there, have a look at this nice (older) post on randomness in the Bible, at Martin LaBar's blog, Sun and Shield. Martin is a regular commenter here, and his blog is a joy to read.

Please jump in here if you wish; I don't moderate comments and will welcome any and all.



I'll respond to both Thomas and StephenB here. First, to the moderator: thanks for posting my comments. The discussion has been profitable, and I take it that Thomas and StephenB would agree. Please note that I am mirroring my own contributions on my blog, Quintessence of Dust, and will continue to do that, at least so that others can participate in the conversation. (I don't moderate comments.) In answering both Thomas and StephenB, this post got pretty long, and I would understand if you asked us to move it elsewhere. Just let me know.

To Thomas @61:

I do think that your statements appear to bracket God's power, but you didn't mean to say that, and I think I see why we're struggling to understand each other here. You discuss "pure Darwinism" and "strict Darwinism" and "the naked Darwinian mechanism." Here you are referring, I gather, to random mutation and natural selection with a further stipulation: that no divine guidance of any kind is involved. (We could substitute 'design' or 'teleology' here and my point would be the same.) And you are, I think, correct in identifying that -ism with Mr. Darwin, as Prof. Hodge so ably demonstrated. Hodge was right: "Darwinism," so defined, is atheism. This may mean that I'm not a Darwinist, but a Grayist. (I would be most pleased to bear that name if I thought anyone else would get the allusion.) The point, though, is this: your criticism of Christians who embrace "Darwinism" only makes sense if those Christians embraced the Darwinism that Hodge railed against, which he correctly identified as atheism. And that means your criticism reduces to this: Christians shouldn't be atheists. I'm struggling to understand why you think so many Christians are that stupid, which we'd have to be in order to embrace the "Darwinism" that you condemn. With all due respect, you should reconsider a line of argument that can only imply abject stupidity (or perhaps evil) on the part of the Christians that you name. For my part as a Christian evolutionist, I'll gladly make the statement you call for: Darwin was indeed "partly wrong" about the "mechanism of evolution," because he insisted on ateleology, with neither scientific nor metaphysical justification. Trivial.

So, Thomas, I'm not at all sure who these Christian TEs are who embrace atheistic Darwinism. I'm pretty sure they don't exist. In any case, I'm not one of them, and my intention here at UD is to speak only for myself.

With the understanding that I do not seek to speak for others, I will say that I reject your accusation against three of the four Christian scholars you singled out. Francis Collins contradicts you on page 205 of The Language of God; Ken Miller in chapter 8 of Finding Darwin's God, and especially on pp. 238-9; Denis Lamoureux refers explicitly to evolution as a "teleological natural process ordained by God." I don't know Ayala's work on this subject well enough to know where he stands, but I very much doubt that you have gotten him right. Perhaps I have misunderstood you again, but whether you retract your accusations or not, I can't currently take them seriously.

My point about atheists was meant only to note that the viciousness of the rhetoric on UD constitutes a major deterrent to me with regard to your movement. I would not count myself among Christians who engage in such practices. But that doesn't mean I wouldn't have lunch with you. I'll even buy.

Finally, thanks for making me feel welcome as a "friendly critic." I don't buy your martyr case, and I'm mostly amused by the apocalyptic martial prose, but I also don't doubt that people have been treated unfairly. More importantly, I won't call you a bad scientist or a bad theologian for thinking about design. I may, on the other hand, point to bad science or bad theology (mostly bad science) done in the name of ID, and you and your friends are going to have to do a better job of distinguishing criticism of your ideas (some of which are spectacularly bad) from diabolical attempts to destroy you and anyone who looks like you. (Bill Dembski botched this badly in his fatwa-like rant from two weeks ago; read it carefully and see if you can understand my disgust.)

To StephenB @62:

I'm not sure what to do with most of your comments, except to thank your for taking the time to lay out your thoughts and to do it with a measure of respect. Just a few responses, then I'll answer your question at the end.

1. I do not belong to any particular school regarding God's work in the world. Kenosis is interesting -- that's all I said. Your thoughts parallel mine for the most part. I wouldn't go as far as to say that Psalm 19 and Romans 1 imply that "design in nature is detectable," but that might be because I'm suspicious of the word "design" here. I suspect that your claim regarding those scriptural passages is indicative of some very significant differences in outlook between you and I.

2. Your rebuttals of Stephen Barr are interesting and informed, but my purpose in citing his piece was to highlight Aquinas' very clear pronouncements regarding "chance" and providence. That was all.

3. You write: "God CAN use random events. The problem is, however, TEs insist that God does EVERYTHING that way." Well, StephenB, obviously I'm not a TE. I'm not sure there's any such thing as a Christian TE, by your reckoning, and I'm not sure there's anything more for us to discuss on this particular topic.

4. You asked about the various phenomena I listed as examples of scientific explanations that invoke randomness. Here's a brief overview.

a. Axonal pruning is widespread during vertebrate brain development, and is preceded by the overgrowth of axonal projections into a target field. These projections are guided by various mechanisms into that target field, but once there they find themselves in competition with an excess of other axons. These so-called exuberant axonal projections are postulated to fill the target field randomly, meaning that they display no discernible pattern. Pruning (also termed selection for obvious reasons) occurs following competition, which usually involves electrical activity of the axons. Analagous processes are involved in the elimination of excess synapses, and even excess neurons.

b. Mammalian females have 2 X chromosomes, while males have only one. Since gene dosage seems to be adjusted such that one X chromosome is enough for any given cell (which makes sense given that male cells have only one to start with), one of the two X chromosomes in every cell in a female's body is inactivated. (This occurs during early development, and results in the organism becoming a chimera of areas that express the maternal X chromosome and areas that express the paternal version.) Because the exact chromosome that will be chosen in any given cell cannot be predicted, the process is referred to as "random." Evidence in favor of this view comes from the examination of coat color in cats and mice.

c. Erosion...the Grand Canyon...think fractals. And meteorites...if I say that meteorites are falling "randomly" onto the earth's surface, would you think I was making an atheistic metaphysical claim? Or would you understand me to be saying that there seems to be no discernible pattern?

d. Random (meaning unbiased) fertilization is the basis of Mendelian genetic analysis. If I ask you about the probability of your getting cystic fibrosis based on your parents' known status as carriers, I'm assuming random fertilization. And when geneticists see non-Mendelian inheritance patterns, they don't think "design."

e. The genes that encode antibodies (in mammals, at least) are generated by a frenzy of genetic shuffling during embryonic development. The shuffling involves some non-random processes combined with an error-prone process that randomly generates vast combinations of antibody structures.

Apparently random processes are ubiquitous in biological systems, especially during development, and I'm a developmental biologist. Is it clear why I'm completely turned off by all the nonsense about random vs. God's work?

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