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This blog compiles the occasional musings of Randy Isaac who was ASA Executive Director from 2005 to 2016 and is now ASA Director Emeritus.


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Multiverse Theories do Not Explain Fine Tuning?

Posted By Randall D. Isaac, Saturday, September 7, 2019

I was delighted to hear from John Cramer today. He was on the physics faculty at Wheaton College when I was a Freshman and Sophomore and I hadn't had communication with him since then. He is now emeritus professor of physics at Oglethorpe U in Atlanta. 

John offered the following critique of multiverse theories and he gave me permission to post it. I will give all of you time to think it over and comment if you wish. In a day or two I'll submit my response to him and his response to me and perhaps we can keep the conversation going.

Thesis: Multiverse theories do not explain the fine tuning of our universe.


1)      Suppose at first that our universe, U0, has only one finely tuned constant, κ. That is, the value of κ in U0 lies in a small range of values, R, that permit intelligent life to exist in U0.

2)      Suppose also that U0 is only one of many extant universes, Ui, in which the values of κi can range over all real numbers. That is, a multiverse exists.

3)      Since the universes of the multiverse are countable, their cardinality is the countable infinity, א0.

4)      The upper bound of κi values in any multiverse is no less than the cardinality of real numbers, א1.

5)      As Cantor showed long ago, א1 >> א0.

6)      Therefore, a multiverse can never contain all possible values of κi.


Multiverse theories contain, as a standard feature, the implicit assumption that values of κ will be randomly selected from all possible real values and distributed among the universes. The U0 value of κ “must” somehow appear in one of the universes. This is an unwarranted belief. The probability that a multiverse contains U0 is not 1 but zero (א0/א1, with apologies to mathematical purists).

True enough, א0 universes may contain as many as א0 values of κ, but it is crucial to specify which values. The set of all integers is a countable infinity but it has א0 gaps (ranges like 0 to 1, etc.) in it, each with א1 missing values of κ. All multiverse theories necessarily have such gaps. Therefore, to explain the fine tuning of κ, a multiverse theory must be able to show that R is a likely range of values of κ in some universe (which will then be presumed to be U0). Thus, even a countable infinity of universes cannot, by itself, explain the fine tuning of κ.

Additionally, there are many more than one “fine tuned” quantities in U0. Consequently, it is incumbent on proponents of multiverse explanations to show that their choice of multiverse actually generates values of each κ in its proper R and that at least one of the universes of the multiverse has all κ values in the proper U0 ranges. Although I do not know this cannot be done, I very much doubt it can. Anyone undertaking such a project is to be commended; advancing a serious multiverse theory will be a prodigious undertaking. In fact, multiverse theories need to be theories of everything.

Tags:  cosmological constants  cosmos  fine tuning  multiverse 

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Detection of Intelligent Design

Posted By Randall D. Isaac, Wednesday, February 27, 2019

On January 1, 2019, Stephen Meyer published a post called “Intelligent Design Is Detectable by Science” on the blog. His main point can be summarized in this way. Functional (aka complex specified) information is necessarily and universally linked to intelligence so that when we observe functional information in DNA we can reliably infer that there must have been an intelligent agent. Since scientific methods can detect functional information in DNA, then an intelligent agent is detectable by science.

Meyer justifies the linkage between functional information and intelligence by citing a wealth of examples where we know such information requires an intelligent agent. His inductive argument relies solely on examples of human-designed systems such as language and computer programs. He then assumes without justification that this necessary linkage between information and intelligence can be extended from the human design realm to the biological realm. Yet he offers no indication of how and why functional information is connected to intelligence and no rationale for the universality of such linkage. This is a critical missing step in Meyer’s logic that needs to be supplied before his conclusion can be credibly considered.

I would suggest that one possible linkage between functional information and intelligence is abstract reasoning. Whenever functionality of information is determined by abstract relationships, then intelligence is indeed necessarily involved. However, when functionality is determined by physical relationships instead of abstract relationships, then no conclusion can be made about intelligence. In the case of biological systems, functional information of DNA is determined by the survival and ability to reproduce of the organism. This is a physical and not an abstract relationship. Thus it would seem that the connection between functional information and intelligence cannot be extended to the biological realm.

Tags:  information  intelligent design  theistic evolution 

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Detection of Intelligent Design

Posted By Randall D. Isaac, Wednesday, February 27, 2019

On January 1, 2019, Stephen Meyer published a post called “Intelligent Design Is Detectable by Science” on the blog. His main point can be summarized in this way. Functional (aka complex specified) information is necessarily and universally linked to intelligence so that when we observe functional information in DNA we can reliably infer that there must have been an intelligent agent. Since scientific methods can detect functional information in DNA, then an intelligent agent is detectable by science.

Meyer justifies the linkage between functional information and intelligence by citing a wealth of examples where we know such information requires an intelligent agent. His inductive argument relies solely on examples of human-designed systems such as language and computer programs. He then assumes without justification that this necessary linkage between information and intelligence can be extended from the human design realm to the biological realm. Yet he offers no indication of how and why functional information is connected to intelligence and no rationale for the universality of such linkage. This is a critical missing step in Meyer’s logic that needs to be supplied before his conclusion can be credibly considered.

I would suggest that one possible linkage between functional information and intelligence is abstract reasoning. Whenever functionality of information is determined by abstract relationships, then intelligence is indeed necessarily involved. However, when functionality is determined by physical relationships instead of abstract relationships, then no conclusion can be made about intelligence. In the case of biological systems, functional information of DNA is determined by the survival and ability to reproduce of the organism. This is a physical and not an abstract relationship. Thus it would seem that the connection between functional information and intelligence cannot be extended to the biological realm.

Tags:  information  intelligent design  theistic evolution 

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Theistic Evolution--Functional Information (ASA talk)

Posted By Randall D. Isaac, Saturday, August 4, 2018

It’s been a while since I’ve posted since I’ve been busy with preparations for the ASA meeting at Gordon College. One of the sessions included three presentations responding to this Theistic Evolution book. Denis Lamoureux gave a presentation addressing the theological critique, my talk covered the scientific critique, and Jim Stump addressed the philosophical critique. The links in that sentence take you to the multi-media recordings of those talks. In this post, I would like to briefly summarize the talk that I gave. A copy of my slides is attached.

As I have indicated in a previous post of this series, the primary, pervasive scientific critique of theistic evolution in this book is the dominant argument for ID from information. It says that evolution cannot be the cause of the generation of new information like that in the genetic code and that it has been shown that an intelligent mind can and must generate such information. The basis for this statement is the assertion frequently made in lectures, videos and books by Steve Meyer and other advocates of Intelligent Design that “all our experience shows that information can only be generated by an intelligent mind.” Applying this principle to biological systems means that the genetic code could only have been generated by an intelligent mind. Hence, evolution is not valid and ID is.

Let’s take a closer look at that assertion. First of all, it is an inductive argument which means that it could be falsified by any counterexample. Inductive arguments also need some rationale for extending the inference beyond the scope of the known examples. Secondly, it is important to understand the definition of the term “information” as used in this sentence. It is not the same as the term “information” used by scientists in information theory. It is not the same as “Shannon information” used by communications engineers. Rather it is known as “functional information” also referred to as “complex specified information” or “algorithmic specified complexity.” This specific type of information is meaningful information referring only to information that has the appropriate meaning.

As an example of functional information, consider the sentence in the assertion itself. It is composed of 63 letters and 13 spaces and a period. As printed above, this sentence has relevant meaning and is therefore functional. If these letters and spaces are randomly scrambled, the result would be gibberish and the information is no longer functional. What is the probability that continued attempts at random scrambling would eventually lead to a meaningful sentence, and this assertion in particular? Zero, or so close that it is essentially zero. In scientific terms, there is still information in the gibberish, it just doesn’t have meaning. In functional information, there is no information in gibberish, only in the desired sentence or any sequence that bears the same meaning. Only an intelligent mind with a knowledge of English could construct such a sequence in a practical timeframe.

Meyer then cites numerous examples from language, phone numbers, software, engineering designs, etc. to show that each of these requires an intelligent mind to achieve functional information. He then asserts through inductive logic that this requirement of an intelligent mind is a requisite for all types of functional information. Since the genetic code is clearly an example of functional information in a genome, then he says an intelligent mind must have been involved in establishing that code. However, he does not articulate the basis for a connection between intelligence and functional information.

My observation is that in the biological realm, there are ubiquitous examples of the generation of new functional information without the involvement of an intelligent mind. Every act of reproduction involves the rearrangement or modification, whether through sexual crossover or mutations, of the genetic base pairs in the genome. In all cases, this amounts to new functional information whether infinitesimally new or significantly different. The only intelligence that might be observed is that from mate selection in higher organisms but no direct modification, notwithstanding the current promise of such gene-editing ability in the future. Specific examples of new information in biology are provided in the informative series of 14 blog-posts by Dennis Venema. Every event of reproduction therefore seems to be a counterexample that falsifies the inductive logic of the assertion that all functional information requires an intelligent mind.

My proposal is that functional information is connected to intelligence through abstract relationships in the determination of functionality. One of the most important defining hallmarks of intelligence is the ability for abstract reasoning. Therefore, whenever the criterion for functionality involves an abstract relationship, intelligence is necessarily involved. This applies to all of the experiences to which Meyer and other advocates appeal. However, biological systems do not require any abstract relationship for determining what information is functional. The criterion for functionality of any organism is to survive and be successful in reproduction. This is an existential criterion and no abstract relationship is involved. It cannot therefore be inferred that intelligence is required for biological functional information.

To repeat this conclusion in different terms, it is the determination of functionality that indicates whether or not intelligence is required. If information is determined to be functional or not through an abstract relationship, then intelligence is required. If no abstract connection is needed to determine functionality, then it cannot be asserted that an intelligent mind must have been involved, though it might have been.

My conclusion is that the fundamental principle of the Intelligent Design paradigm is unpersuasive. No compelling evidence has been brought forward that nature cannot generate new functional information like the genetic code nor that intelligent minds were required to do so. The ID philosophy has not been shown to be a viable scientific perspective to be considered alongside the theory of evolution.

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Tags:  information  theistic evolution 

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Probabilities and Feedback

Posted By Randall D. Isaac, Sunday, May 27, 2018

One of the most common arguments used against evolution is that of probabilities. Someone will calculate the probability of a protein or a collection of biomolecules and show that the probability that it was formed by chance is 1 in a number so large that it takes an impressive number of digits just to write it down. The conclusion offered is that the probability is so low that anyone who believes in evolution must be ignorant and so biased toward evolution that they cannot think straight. Many people like to quote Herbert Yockey’s article “A calculation of the probability of spontaneous biogenesis by information theory”, in Journal of Theoretical Biology, 67:377–398, 1977.  He shows how many different combinations of amino acids are possible and he concludes that abiogenesis is impossible since the probability is on the order of 1 in 1065 that even a simple protein could form at random. Therefore evolution cannot even get started. Another favorite approach is to quote Fred Hoyle who, in a sidebar called “Hoyle on Evolution” in Nature, Vol 294, page 105, Nov. 12, 1981, cites the number 1 in 1040,000 as the odds of abiogenesis. Furthermore, Hoyle reportedly said the odds were comparable with the chance that “a tornado sweeping through a junk-yard might assemble a Boeing 747 from the materials therein”.

Much has been written to show the fallacies of this line of argument. The point I wish to emphasize in this post is the importance of feedback in thinking about probabilities. I have previously pointed out in a post on January 7, 2018 and in a letter to the editor in March 2012, the error in using combinations to derive probabilities. Evolution is a gradual process of change involving a high degree of parallelism and many steps, as I have shown in my review of the book Introduction to Evolutionary Informatics. Perhaps the most important element is that of feedback. It is not just the existence of many steps in evolution, but the role of feedback at each step. Survival to procreate is the crucial feedback factor that distinguishes any population of organisms or molecules. That is a feedback mechanism that provides active real-time information about the direction for evolution.

The importance of feedback has been shown mathematically by Herbert S. Wilf and Warren J. Ewens in their article “There’s plenty of time for evolution” in PNAS, December 28, 2010, vol. 107, no. 52, pp 22454–22456. They conclude that while combination-based probabilities scale exponentially, if there is any feedback those probabilities scale logarithmically. That is, for N elements, each selected from x possible values, the number of combinations scales as 1 in xN. However, with feedback at each step, the probability of success scales proportionally to 1 in x log(N). That is a very large difference. But their math isn’t easy to follow. A good way to illustrate the importance of feedback is to consider a familiar game.

The game of Mastermind, or any of the many variations of it, demonstrates the tremendous impact of feedback. In the game, two players each secretly select a short sequence of elements such as colors, numbers, letters, or words. Then the other player is challenged to guess that selection. For instance, one player may select the number 53882. The other player has a 1 in 100,000 chance of guessing it at random. This is equivalent to the scenarios that Yockey, Hoyle, and others would calculate. If this were the approach used in the game, both players would tire and starve long before the game was over. However, the game becomes interesting when some feedback is introduced. At each guess, the first player responds with some elementary feedback about the guess. Depending on the specific rules being used, it may be how many digits are correct, whether they are in the right position, or even which ones are correct, etc. With this feedback, the second player can usually guess the answer in about ten or fewer guesses. This makes the game challenging and interesting and possible. The probability drops from 1 in 100,000 to nearly 1 that the answer will be obtained.

In evolution, the feedback in each generation is the determination of which subset of the population will be the source of procreation for the subsequent generation. Unlike Mastermind, no intelligent being is required to make this determination. It includes all the individuals of that species that survive in the current environment and are able to reproduce. On average, this will tend to include a disproportionate number of those most likely to survive in a slowly changing environment. With a large amount of parallelism and continual feedback, the probability of attaining the combination of molecules necessary for life is very high.

Tags:  evolution  Evolutionary Creation  Probabilities 

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Theistic Evolution: Common Descent or Common Designer?

Posted By Randall D. Isaac, Thursday, April 5, 2018

The second major scientific critique of theistic evolution in this book claims that universal common ancestry, or simply, common descent, is not supported by the evidence. Common descent is the startling hypothesis presented by Charles Darwin (and Alfred Russel Wallace) in 1859, suggesting that all life forms have descended from “…a few forms or one…” At that time, there was scant evidence to support such an audacious claim. In the next half-century, most of the data obtained seemed to point against it. Lord Kelvin noted from thermodynamics that the earth was perhaps no more than 25 million years old, ensuring that there was not enough time for all life to evolve from the same source. The fossils that were discovered during that time could not be dated with any reasonable accuracy, leaving a puzzling set of data.

At the turn of the century the tide began to change. The discovery of radioactivity opened the door to solving both major dilemmas. It provided the source of heat that Lord Kelvin needed to realize that the earth was indeed very old, in the billions of years. Radioactivity was also the key to determining the age of the fossils. Amazingly, the story told by the fossils fit dramatically into Darwin’s proposal. In addition, the rediscovery of Mendelian genetics gave credence to the crucial role of inherited traits. In another half-century, the discovery of DNA added a major corroboration to Darwin’s theory. In yet another half-century, the ability to sequence genomes provided the icing on the cake, permitting extraordinarily detailed confirmation of common ancestry. There could be no further doubt.

Or could there be? The authors of this book present two arguments that they believe nullify the firm conviction of nearly all biologists. They are so confident in the strength of their arguments that they claim evolution is not even sufficiently viable for anyone to consider integrating it with Christianity. The two arguments are

1.       There are observations that cannot be explained by common descent

2.       The alternative explanation of common design is a superior claim

I will discuss only two of the types of observations they present as being contradictory to common descent. The first is the inconsistent pattern of hybridization found in nature. They list page after page of details of families and genera in which some species hybridize and others don’t. Their point is simply that if common descent were true, then all species within a family or genus would either all hybridize or all not-hybridize. What they fail to recognize is that the ability for species to hybridize depends on more variables than the proximity of their common ancestor. Both environmental factors and the specific types of differences underlying their differentiation have a great bearing on the ability to hybridize. In other words, while it is true that a near common ancestor would increase the likelihood of the ability for two species to hybridize, other factors come into play that prevent these observations from nullifying common descent.

The second type of observation they present is the occasional lack of orthologous genes. Orthologous genes encode for the same function in different species and are almost identical. Consistent with common descent, there are only a few differences in the genetic sequence of these orthologous genes due to a slightly different history of mutations. I recall hearing Paul Nelson’s talk at the ASA 2012 meeting at Pt Loma, CA. He described genes in certain species that had no orthologous gene in an ancestral or closely-related species. His point was that if common descent were true, all genes should have orthologous forms in closely-related species. The frequency of these “orphan” genes without an orthologous gene in closely related species, however, was very low, less than 1%. I later learned from my biologist friends that even today’s highly sophisticated sequencing technology can only detect with ease about 90% of an arbitrary genome of a species. The remaining 10% or so are extremely difficult to find and are generally not worth the trouble or the cost. A missing gene in a species could well be part of the remaining 10%. Consequently, an inability to identify a small number of orthologous genes in closely-related species is not a fatal contradiction of common descent.

Other types of examples are offered but, like these two, are the result of a misinterpretation of the scientific data. Many of the issues relate to familiar claims of missing links, sudden appearance of species, rapid extinctions, or a too rapid pace of evolution. Not one of these issues represents a fundamental contradiction of evolution but rather is within the range of complexities being explored within the realm of evolution.

The second main argument presented in the book is that common design is an alternative and superior explanation for all the observations. Simply put, the theory of common design says that any similarity between species is the result of a common designer who uses a common building block to design various species. Any differences between those species is the result of that common designer recognizing the different functional needs that those species may have. Voila, all observations have been explained. Similarly, the large number of pseudogenes are predicted to have some residual value for their organism, thus explaining their existence by a yet-to-be discovered functionality. For example, the defective gene for vitamin C in primates is imagined to have some unknown function, presumably more necessary than making vitamin C.

In a later post we will explore one of the philosophical problems associated with the assertion of a common designer. Here we comment on the scientific description itself. First of all, the common designer concept is not falsifiable. A similarity and a difference between two organisms are equally “explained” by the proposed existence of a common designer, which has not been observed. No evidence could render the explanation to be false. Secondly, the hypothesis provides no basis for understanding under what conditions there are similarities and when there might be differences. The only vague rationalization is that the alleged “common designer” knew it was better to have a similarity or a difference. Finally, the assertion of a common designer is best called “creation with the appearance of common descent.” Like the concept of “creation with the appearance of age” in the young-earth claims, it cannot be scientifically or logically disproved definitively but is neither theologically nor pragmatically defensible.

Tags:  theistic evolution 

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Theistic Evolution: The Source of New Information

Posted By Randall D. Isaac, Monday, February 12, 2018

Part 1 of the book we are discussing is devoted to a scientific critique of theistic evolution. The crux of the critique is that evolution is not a viable scientific theory and therefore it doesn’t make sense to try to connect it with Christianity. The claim that evolution is not viable has two main prongs. One is that evolution cannot account for the creation of new information as needed to generate the current biosphere. The other is that there is insufficient evidence for universal common descent. I will address the latter in the next post and I have already partially considered the first one in a previous post. In this post I want to focus more specifically on this first claim that evolution cannot create new information.

The first claim is sometimes called the “Law of Conservation of Information” which can be simply summarized as “new information can only be created by an intelligent agent.” The ubiquitous increase in complexity and information observed in the biosphere is therefore evidence that evolution is an inadequate explanation of nature and that there must be an intelligent agent that we as Christians worship as our God.

Very simply, there is no such universal law. It is an invention of the ID community to extend the concept to biology and is repeated often enough to become familiar to many. In their book An Introduction to Evolutionary Informatics, which I reviewed in the June 2017 issue of PSCF, Marks, et. al., trace the origin of this so-called law to Lady Asa Lovelace. She worked closely with Charles Babbage on mechanical computational machines and pondered the ability of machines to behave like humans. In the ensuing years, there have been many debates about whether artificial intelligence really exists and whether computer simulations can truly generate new information. Those who argue that computers cannot do so have coined the term “law of conservation of information” to lend credence to the argument. I do not wish to argue in this post whether or not computer simulations truly generate new information without it being inserted by intelligent agents. I believe it depends considerably on the precise definition of information being used. My main concern is to point out that whatever merit it may have in computer simulations or in artificial intelligence, it is not a universal law and there is no basis for extending it elsewhere, particularly to biology.

It must be pointed out that the definition of information used by the ID community is very different from that used in the scientific discipline of Information Theory. Marks, et. al., make this point very clearly. They reject the physical view of information as defined by Claude Shannon and Rolf Landauer and other pioneers of information theory, claiming it is of no interest to them. Rather they only want to focus on the meaning of information, which was explicitly excluded by Claude Shannon. This resonates with the general public who think of information more as who won the Super Bowl or what’s on sale at Walmart than the physical basis of information. The meaning of information is contextual and cannot be quantified. Therefore, it cannot be addressed scientifically in the same way as physical information..

An example of physical information would be the material shape of a letter of the alphabet, whether the distribution of ink on paper or a trace in the sand. Another example would be any sequence of letters or numbers. The number of ways in which letters of the alphabet can be arranged in, say, five letter words, can easily be quantified. In contrast, the meaning of the shape of a letter of the alphabet or of a sequence of five letters cannot be expressed as an equation or some universal criterion. It is not a physical entity but an abstract relationship.

Interestingly, meaning can also refer to a physical function as well as an abstract relationship. Specifically in biology, the meaning of a DNA sequence and the protein for which it encodes can be a specific necessary biochemical reaction. Even though the meaning is a physical process, it cannot be quantified since the need for a particular reaction is dependent on the environment, on the biochemical reactions leading from the DNA to the protein, and on the survival needs of the larger organism in which it exists.

Steve Meyer is well known for popularizing the law of conservation of information with a simple assertion. He often repeats some variation of this theme: “All our experience is that information is generated only by an intelligent source. Thus biological information can only come from an intelligent designer.” To illustrate his point, he cites in some depth a variety of examples such as language, computer software, telephone numbers, engineering marvels, etc.

This striking example of inductive reasoning would normally be rejected by the ubiquitous observation of information being generated without an intelligent agent, just as the 1697 discovery of a black swan falsified the inductive expectation that all swans were white. Dennis Venema has amply provided numerous such examples in his 14-part series at this BioLogos site, and we can all observe it in every reproductive event in the biosphere. But no, the position of Meyer and colleagues is that all these examples are not truly “new” or are inadequate to account for macroevolution or simply show that there must have been an intelligent designer to generate all this information. In my opinion, this is circular reasoning to the extreme.

To make a credible case, Meyer should have analyzed the examples he offered in an effort to understand just why the examples he cites require intelligent sources and whether those requirements exist in the realm of biology. I have personally asked him to do that but he has not done so. I would suggest that the reasons why his proffered examples require intelligent sources is that they are all instances of human-designed systems. All of them involve abstract relationships in some form for either the formation, operation, or verification of the system. Since abstract reasoning is one of the hallmarks of intelligence, it follows that each of those systems requires intelligence. In sharp contrast, no abstract relationship has been detected in the biosphere. All activity involves some kind of biochemical reactivity. Some would counter that the genetic code is an abstract relationship but it is only our human description of that code that is abstract. The actual nucleosomes, amino acids, ribosomes, etc. perform their physical activity without involving any abstraction in formation or operation. Even the verification, meaning the effectiveness of enabling survival of the organism, is physical. No abstract relationship is required. Hence, Meyer’s appeal to “all our experience” cannot be extended to biological information.

Virtually the entire book, from the supposed scientific critique to the philosophical and theological critiques based on it, depends on this fundamentally flawed claim that new information requires an intelligent agent. Without it, the critique of theistic evolution fails.

Tags:  evolution  information  theistic evolution 

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My Ancestral Story

Posted By Randall D. Isaac, Wednesday, February 7, 2018

I’ve taken a break from musing on matters of science and faith to read more about my Mennonite ancestors. This digression will summarize highlights of that legacy. I’ve been reading the book by Royden Loewen, Family, Church, and Market: A Mennonite Community in the Old and the New Worlds, 1850-1930. It is one of many works that details the history of this Anabaptist tradition.

The Mennonites are named after Menno Simons, the Reformationist who in 1539 published the Dutch-language Dat Fundament des Christelyckens Leers. Those who followed him and other Anabaptist writers moved from Switzerland to Netherlands in the 16th century but their uneasy relationships with the Dutch led to a migration to Prussia in the 17th century. In the 18th century, Catherine the Great lured a large number of these Prussian Mennonites to South Russia, now Ukraine, to develop agriculture there. The Mennonites flourished in Russia where they were granted official status as “foreign colonies” that exempted them from the Russian government system and its policies such as military conscription.

In 1812, Klaas Reimer founded a sub-group called the Kleine Gemeinde, which translates to “Small Congregation.” My heritage comes from this community. They developed an agrarian, religious and family based social structure that thrived in that region. There were several splinter groups that formed within that community and it endured a major schism in 1866. Then in the early 1870’s, Russia eliminated the “foreign colony” exception and forced the Mennonites to conform to Russian government. That radical shift, together with a shortage of farmland for growth, prompted the great emigration of the Kleine Gemeinde to North America in 1874. Over a thousand members of this community emigrated that year, part of the total of 16,000 Russian Mennonites who emigrated in that decade, diminishing the Mennonite population there by one third.

The approximately 166 families of the Kleine Gemeinde split into two groups in response to the conflicting recommendations of their advance scouts. The larger group of 110 families went to Manitoba and soon founded the city of Steinbach. The smaller group of about 56 families, including my ancestors, settled in Nebraska, near Fairbury. For thirty years, the Nebraskan community grew and prospered but eventually became landlocked. The critical heritage of giving each child an equal amount of land, coupled with a tradition of large families, inevitably led to a shortage of land. A group of about 36 families, approximately a fourth of the Nebraska colony, elected to move to Meade, Kansas, in 1906. My grandparents were part of that group and that is where I grew up.

The Meade Mennonite community endured droughts and severe winters and the Dust Bowl to become a well-established community. It exists today but not in its once-dominant agrarian economy. Much of the sod that was broken to become farmland has now returned to its prairie status. The absence of an underground aquifer for irrigation and the lack of oil or gas reserves underground disadvantaged its economic health. Today there are still scattered farms and the community exists with two Mennonite churches but the society is far more integrated into the broader Meade community and the global economy than it was throughout the first half of the 20th century.

What struck me is the long history of ultimately futile efforts to preserve both social structures and religious cohesiveness. Economic realities and market forces inevitably forced changes in family and social structures. And faith commitments could not prevent the frequent splintering of groups based on differing emphases on matters such as baptism by immersion, acceptance of religious experience, and focus on pietism. Other branches of Mennonites such as the Amish and the Old Order Mennonites have been more successful in preserving historic social structures but the effort and the cost of doing so is evident to all. On the other hand, the Kleine Gemeinde in Meade essentially disintegrated in a schism in the early 1940’s, leaving a somewhat independent group of Mennonites that is gradually blending into the broader evangelical community.

For me, this story highlights one of my own personal conflicts between science and religion. Forget the issues of origins and evolution. The issue of epistemology is what strikes me as the core conflict. The history of my people illustrates the divergence that is seemingly inherent in religion. No matter how focused a group may be on preserving a community of faith, differences arise and lead to splinter groups. There seems to be no epistemology that leads to a convergence of ideas. All new groups seem to thrive or break into a series of subgroups. In contrast, science has a workable, though far from perfect, methodology for resolving differences. Though with some erratic directions, science tends to be convergent with most groups coming to agreement as the data mount. Occasionally, fringe groups hang on for a long time, but the mainstream scientific community moves to convergence. This makes it hard to integrate science and religion without also separating them from each other. It is futile to closely connect science to any one particular religious position. But the alternative is to distance science from all of those positions or at least integrating science with such a high level, general theology that conflict exists only where the religious position dictates a particular scientific claim. This, I submit, is for me the real conflict.

Tags:  Ancestry  history  Mennonites 

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Theistic Evolution: Teleology and Front-End Loading

Posted By Randall D. Isaac, Thursday, January 25, 2018

Teleology plays a key role in our thinking about origins, often in an implicit way. One area where it comes to the fore is when thinking about “front-end loading.” Meyer uses a cumbersome title for his Chapter Six: “The Difference It Doesn’t Make: Why the ‘Front-End Loaded’ Concept of Design Fails to Explain the Origin of Biological Information.” It is primarily a polemic against Denis Lamoureux whose name Meyer mentions several dozen times. But the real issue is the tricky problem of front-end loading.

The term “front-end loading” is shorthand for the concept that all the influence God needs to carry out his creative intent is to establish the necessary conditions at the very beginning and let the laws of nature do the rest over time. Such a concept leads us to the precipice of deism in which God is no longer involved or necessary after the beginning. Meyer seeks to connect Lamoureux’s version of theistic evolution with deism and aims to discount theistic evolution by showing the failure of front-end loading.

In my opinion, the charge is misdirected. As I understand it, deism attributes autonomy to the laws of nature so that once created they exist and operate throughout time without God. Lamoureux never asserts anything of the sort. For him the laws of nature are our understanding of the consistency of God’s action as he sustains the universe at every moment. In other words, from a theological perspective, the laws of nature are descriptive and not prescriptive, describing how God acts rather than autonomously determining what happens. From a scientific perspective, the laws of nature appear prescriptive because they reflect a reliable cause and effect pattern so that given a known cause, the effect can be predicted.

Front-end loading does not demand deism but it is connected with our view of teleology. Our universe is not deterministic. Neither classical nor quantum mechanics compels us to a deterministic universe. This means that there is insufficient information at the Big Bang to specify the details of the universe nearly fourteen billion years later. The high degree of contingency in the evolution of planets, stars, and galaxies as well as in biological evolution ensures that no specific configuration can be mandated in advance. However, the possibility space explored by the expression of the laws of nature is vast and the existence of some life-friendly planets and some form of life may be highly probable, though we do not know for certain. A dilemma arises from the theological perspective that God from the beginning had us humans in mind in great specificity. Such a high level of detail cannot be specified in a front-end loaded system. This is the direction Meyer takes in rejecting front-end loading as well as theistic evolution.

However, front-end loading does set the stage for the evolution of a grand universe in which some form of sentient life is highly likely. Chris Barrigar, in Chapter 2 of his book, Freedom All The Way Up: God and the Meaning of Life in a Scientific Age (Victoria, BC: Friesen, 2017), takes this approach. He argues that God’s desire is to create a universe which would have a high probability of leading to beings capable of reciprocal agape love. One could also contend that God has infinite foreknowledge and knew what forms of life would be forthcoming from a front-end loaded universe.

In summary, the issue of front-end loading is not a deistic issue but deals with the way in which God carries out his purposes. This is the same issue I discussed in the previous post “Directed or Undirected.” Both theistic evolutionists and their critics in this book believe that God created the universe and that his purpose is to establish a loving, redemptive relationship with human beings. The difference seems to lie in the level of specificity of God’s intent and the manner in which God can carry out his purposes. Theistic evolutionists are convinced that God can carry out his purposes, whatever they may be, through actions consistent with the laws of nature. We may not fully understand or know the details of God’s purposes or how they are fulfilled but we have faith that they are. For the critic, God can only fulfill his purposes by acting in ways that are not consistent with the laws of nature. Such deviation need only be in skewing the probabilities of phenomena and we do not know just how God might take such action.

Ultimately, Meyer’s claims in this chapter fail on two counts, in my opinion. One is the erroneous charge that theistic evolutionists, or at least some of them, are deistic because of a front-end loaded emphasis. The other is the insistence that since sufficient information cannot exist at the beginning of the universe to determine the fulfillment of God’s intent over time, then God must intervene in the laws of nature to achieve his purposes.

Tags:  teleology  theistic evolution 

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Theistic Evolution: Computer Simulations of Evolution

Posted By Randall D. Isaac, Sunday, January 14, 2018

Winston Ewert, a former student and now colleague of Bob Marks, contributes Chapter 5 dealing with computer simulations of evolution. His aim is to respond to claims that computer simulations show the creative power of evolution without the need for an intelligent agent. He sets the stage by quoting the oft-cited claim by Stephen Meyer: “If we trace information back to its source, we always come to a mind, not a material process.” (p. 199). He points out that Darwinists claim that computer simulations demonstrate counter examples and thereby falsify Meyer’s claim.

I will return to Meyer’s claim in future posts but in this one I will focus only on the issue of computer models. Ewert discusses several simulations, including Dawkins’s Weasel, Ev, Steiner Trees, and Avida, with additional allusions to Tierra and Stylus. His main point is that each of these models involves teleological fine-tuning which requires intelligence and therefore none of them is a valid demonstration of the creation of information through evolution without intelligence. Therefore, he claims, the ID prediction that information cannot be generated without intelligence has not been falsified but has been confirmed.

Computer simulations are admittedly not the best or the easiest way to falsify Meyer’s claim. That has been done repeatedly and convincingly in biology, most notably by Dennis Venema in his series at this link. ID advocates retort that this simply demonstrates the ubiquitous influence of an intelligent designer. That, however, requires independent evidence of an intelligent designer which has not yet been done. All computer simulations require intelligence. By definition, they are a representation of nature and those representations are abstract models of nature. All abstract relationships require intelligence. The question then becomes one of just what aspects of the simulation involve intelligence. Ewert focuses on teleological fine-tuning and shows that each simulation involves that type of intelligence.

Teleological fine-tuning refers to the action or information that must be supplied to achieve a particular solution. This is a familiar problem in many activities. The most common analogy is that of dealing cards where a lack of a desired solution permits any arbitrary result. But if a particular target selection of cards is desired, success cannot be achieved without some information about the target influencing the process of dealing the cards, typically called cheating. The same is true of evolution which is inherently highly contingent. Any particular a priori target cannot be met with reasonable probability without information about that target affecting the contingencies. The essence of ID is that the current biosphere, particularly H sapiens, is a teleological goal and evolution cannot meet that goal without information about that goal influencing the mutation events. Such influence could only be done by an intelligent agent. On the other hand, evolutionists say that nature knows no such goal and that any solution that leads to survival will be selected at each generation. Any arbitrary solution will work and the need for intelligence is thus averted.

In summary, the real issue is whether the teleological fine-tuning in the computer simulations is a reflection of real evolution in nature or an artifact required for simulation. Ewert claims the former and I would suggest it is the latter. Furthermore, the ID prediction is amply falsified from biological observations. The issue of teleology in evolution is an important one that will be discussed in a number of future posts, such as the next one.

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