Musings of the ASA Director Emeritus
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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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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: Directed or Undirected?

Posted By Randall D. Isaac, Thursday, December 21, 2017

Steve Meyer says “An even more foundational issue arises when considering the cause of biological change and the question of whether theistic evolutionists conceive of evolutionary mechanisms as directed or undirected processes.” (p. 42) This has become a frequent question in debates where an advocate of evolutionary creation will be asked whether they believe evolution is directed or undirected.

Meyer goes on to say “…depending on how this particular understanding of theistic evolution is articulated, it generates either (1) logical contradictions, (2) a theologically heterodox view of divine action, or (3) a convoluted and scientifically vacuous explanation.” (p. 43) He explains those three problems in the subsequent six pages. In essence, he says that no matter what answer is given, the implication is unacceptable. Hence, theistic evolution is not a tenable position.

All too often I have heard an evolutionary creationist attempting to respond to this question in public. It seldom ends well. In my view, it is the wrong question, a trick question that cannot be answered simply. It reminds me of several occasions recorded in the Gospels in which the Pharisees try to trap Jesus, or vice versa, such as in Matt. 22:15-22. What makes the directed/undirected evolution question a trap question? If the response is “directed,” then there must be an intelligent designer and theistic evolution is invalidated. If the response is “undirected” then you are a deist or agnostic because God is not involved.

Why is the question the wrong question? One way to see the inappropriateness of the question is to try to apply it to other fields of science. Is gravity directed or undirected? Is the weather directed or undirected? Why is it clear that these questions are meaningless but we ask whether evolution is directed or undirected? Similarly, the terms “theistic gravity” or “theistic weather” seem inappropriate but we focus on the term “theistic evolution.”

Another reason is that the question is ambiguous. The terms “directed/undirected” have more than one connotation. One is the theist/deist contrast in which “directed” refers to the view that God creates/sustains everything and every action to carry out his will while “undirected” indicates the deist or agnostic/atheist view that God is not involved in moment to moment phenomena. Another connotation is that “direct” refers to God’s intervention beyond the laws of nature. Here “undirected” implies that God acts in a manner consistent with the cause and effect relationships that we codify as laws of nature.

I would suggest that the theistic evolutionist would respond to the directed/undirected question with “Both! Evolution is directed because of God’s intimate involvement at each moment and it is undirected because it does not violate the cause and effect relationships by which God consistently acts.” Meyer claims that it is a logical contradiction for evolution to be both directed and undirected. But when those terms refer to two different connotations, then the contradiction disappears. The same answer would apply to gravity or weather.

Evolution differs from gravity or weather in one major way that we may cite as the reason for our different treatment. Gravity and weather are thought of as stand-alone happenings. In contrast, evolution is seen as directional, leading to a goal. The real question then is a teleological one. Do you believe evolution has a teleological goal? More to the point, do you believe that evolution can attain its teleological objectives, if any, without an agent superseding normal laws of nature? Here the distinction becomes clear. Theistic evolution says yes while the opponents in this book say no. This is not a deist vs theist issue but a question of how we believe God carries out his purposes in nature.

Ultimately, I would suggest that the primary concern about “theistic evolution” is how can a theistic, teleological perspective be reconciled with a scientific theory that is inherently contingent, depending on a vast number of random events? The Bible records several events where God’s will is carried out through random processes so we cannot claim it is a “logical contradiction.” Neither are we likely to detect a method by which God carries out his will.

Virtually all the skirmishes about scientific data and all the debates about fine points of philosophy and hermeneutics that comprise the rest of the book pale before this primary issue, in my opinion. Atheists and agnostics are in full agreement with Meyer that God’s active teleological involvement in nature is in direct conflict with a contingent evolutionary process. The former use scientific support for evolution as evidence for a meaningless, purposeless universe without God or perhaps a deistic God. The latter uses doubts about scientific data to claim that evolution is not an adequate description of nature. Theistic evolution disagrees with both and claims that God can and does carry out his will through consistent laws of nature that include random processes.

Tags:  evolution  Evolutionary Creation  theistic evolution 

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Theistic Evolution: Goals of the book

Posted By Randall D. Isaac, Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Part 2 of a series discussing:

J. P. Moreland, Stephen C. Meyer, Christopher Shaw, Ann K. Gauger, and Wayne Grudem, eds. Theistic Evolution: A Scientific, Philosophical, and Theological Critique. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2017.

Two of the editors, Steve Meyer and Wayne Grudem, helpfully provide a “General Introductions” section at the beginning of the book. In 45 pages, they offer a synopsis of all thousand pages. It is a good way to understand the essence of the message before looking at the details in the remaining pages.

On pages 64 and 65 of the book, Wayne Grudem offers this summary of the goals of the book:

“Our goal in this book is to say to our friends who support theistic evolution, and to many others who have not made up their minds about this issue,

1. that recent scientific evidence presents such significant challenges to key tenets of evolutionary theory that no biblical interpreter should think that an evolutionary interpretation of Genesis is “scientifically necessary”;

2. that theistic evolution depends on a strictly materialistic definition of science that is philosophically problematic; and

3. that the Bible repeatedly presents as actual historical events many specific aspects of the origin of human beings and other living creatures that cannot be reconciled with theistic evolution, and that a denial of those historical specifics seriously undermines several crucial Christian doctrines.”

My response is as follows:

1.       A. All scientific challenges of evolutionary theory concern the details of mechanisms and specific applications and none has yet arisen concerning the basic overarching theory. To the contrary, a tremendous amount of evidence for the basic theory of evolution has been amassed and its foundation is stronger than ever. B. I do not know of anyone advocating an “evolutionary interpretations of Genesis.” All that is sought is an accurate biblical hermeneutic that reflects the truth. While the truth of evolution may be helpful in some way, there is no evolutionary interpretation per se.

2.       No theistic evolutionist I know thinks that it depends on a strictly materialistic definition of science. The scientific data are vast and compelling independent of a strictly materialistic definition of science. A proper theistic definition of science does just fine.

3.       Grudem’s presupposition here is fundamental concordism, in which the Biblical message must correspond to modern science. I do not know of any biblical passage that teaches such concordism. The basis for concordism is no more than human imagination of how biblical inspiration might have occurred. A more proper presupposition is that the Bible is the inerrant revelation of God to us and that its theological message is inerrant, using phenomenological language understandable by all people of all ages, and specifically the cosmology accepted in the era in which it was written. No contradiction to evolution is evident.

 

Clearly, I have made many assertions that I will need to explain and justify in future posts as we address various specific chapters in the book. Stay tuned.

Tags:  concordism  evolution  Evolutionary Creation  faith  science  theistic evolution 

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Theistic Evolution: A First Impression

Posted By Randall D. Isaac, Friday, December 8, 2017

Part 1

Although I’m somewhat late in completing a couple of committed book reviews, I’ll take the liberty of interrupting that process to share some musings on another book. November 30 was the publication date of this book:

J. P. Moreland, Stephen C. Meyer, Christopher Shaw, Ann K. Gauger, and Wayne Grudem, eds. Theistic Evolution: A Scientific, Philosophical, and Theological Critique. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2017.

It is over a thousand pages long, of which 939 comprise the text with footnotes. I knew the book was coming and had already realized that I did not want to spend the time reading, let alone reviewing, this massive book. There are many other people more capable than I who will be doing that. But yesterday, a friend of mine gave me his free copy which he said he knew he would never read. As I flipped through the tome and read excerpts, I felt I wanted to share some thoughts and feelings. I would not ask any publisher to publish this but in this forum I feel free to say what I think. I hasten to add that all my comments are solely my personal opinions and do not in any way reflect the opinions of the ASA or anyone else. I also want to encourage any of you with differing views to share your comments. I learn much more from those of you who disagree with me than from those who share my opinions.

I will post some thoughts in the future about the content of the book. In this post I merely want to express my emotions at the existence of the book itself and what it says to me. In a tangible way, the book symbolizes a sharp repudiation of the effort for which I and many others have devoted so much time. We have urged that the core issues of the relationship between science and Christian faith be discussed freely with each other in a Christian spirit of civility and respect for one another. We have also held that science and Christian faith are inherently in harmony and we seek to understand that harmony in more depth. This book dispenses with all such attitudes and comes out swinging. It is an uncompromising attack on evolutionary creation, which I believe is now held by a majority of scientists who are Christians, though not by the broader non-scientific Christian community. The authors yield no slack for any other views and leave no door ajar for discussion. There is little evidence that effort was made to ensure that opposing views were included or were correctly articulated and addressed if they were. Even the title conveys a subtle message of antagonism. They authors are well aware that the term “evolutionary creation” has supplanted “theistic evolution” for more than a decade. Yet, they chose to continue with the older term, probably because it is more widely recognized but perhaps also because “theistic evolution” has been around long enough to attract an antagonistic reputation in the Christian community.

It didn’t have to be this way. The recently published book by BioLogos and Reasons to Believe is an excellent example:

Old Earth or Evolutionary Creation?: Discussing Origins with Reasons to Believe and BioLogos by Kenneth Keathley  (Editor),‎ J. B. Stump  (Editor),‎ Joe Aguirre (Editor)

Rather than simply publishing a book opposing the other viewpoints, these organizations, to their great credit, spent a great deal of time in personal discussion and in jointly writing their respect views. This is a demonstration of Christian love and respect that is a model for all of us. The ASA has always had a policy of not taking a stand on an issue for which there is honest disagreement among Christians. Its aim has been to encourage diversity of opinions among its members and to foster open discussion of differing views in spirit of love and civility. While not every interaction has measured up to its ideal, the organization continues to aim for constructive dialog. It is fair for those who oppose theistic evolution to publish their ideas. It is paramount that such attacks include an openness to respect other views and, preferably, to give voice to their response. No such attitude is apparent in a cursory look through the book. I hope to find some on a closer reading but the message is clear.

Personally, I find the book to be the final straw in showing the failure of what I worked hard to achieve in the ASA. When I became executive director in 2005, one of my high hopes and expectations was to find a way to bring the ID and anti-ID communities together in fruitful dialog with, at the very least, a measure of respect and continuing communication with each other. I worked hard, mainly in private with individuals but also in group settings, toward this end. But the task was daunting and positions hardened. Respect was in rare supply. We did manage to have some degree of ID participation in most of our annual meetings but the extent of personal mingling and follow-up discussion was generally meager.

This book will fuel the flames of the conflict model of science and Christian faith. Harmony is not to be found except on their own terms, redefining both science and the Bible. It sets back years of progress in understanding both science and the Bible. I am deeply saddened and I grieve at its publication. In some future posts, I will address the content of the book from selected portions but the tone of the book sets a major challenge before us all.

Tags:  evolution  Evolutionary Creation  faith  science  theistic evolution 

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