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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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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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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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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: The Origin of Life

Posted By Randall D. Isaac, Tuesday, January 9, 2018

In the middle of the first nine chapters of the scientific critique, the editors inserted chapter 4 by chemist Jim Tour. Tour is a distinguished chemist at Rice University who has done outstanding work in manipulating and designing molecular scale mechanical devices such as cars and trucks, thereby elucidating many issues of quantum chemistry.

In his introduction to the book, Stephen Meyer includes this note:

We should make clear, in introducing his chapter, that Tour does not regard himself as a partisan to the debate over theistic evolution, one way or another. He has, nevertheless, kindly given us permission to publish an abridged version of a previously published essay in order to make more widely known the scientific problems associated with chemical evolutionary theory—in particular, its lack of any demonstrated mechanism for generating the molecular machinery necessary to the first life. (p. 51)

In my opinion, this disclaimer should have been repeated in the chapter itself and not just buried in the general introduction. In any case, Tour has allowed his essay to be used as an argument in this book. His view that there is no known mechanism for the origin of life is well known and, as far as I know, has universal agreement in the scientific community.

The quest to understand the origin of life, aka chemical evolution, is an unrelenting search for knowledge which most scientists agree may never be fully satisfied. At most, say active researchers in the field of origin of life, we might be able to discern a possible way in which life could have arisen.

The lack of a scientific explanation for chemical evolution is often raised in debates about biological evolution. Many times during a discussion of biological evolution, a critic will cry out “But where did the first organism come from?” And since there is no scientific answer, the scientific part of the debate is over. I would suggest that the lack of a scientific solution to the problem of chemical evolution has no bearing on the validity of the theory of evolution. Darwin’s concluding sentence in The Origin of Species clarifies his starting point:

There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.

In editions 2 through 6 he inserted the words “by the Creator” after “breathed” though later he expressed regret at having used the term Creator. Nevertheless, his starting point is clear. His theory starts with the existence of one or a few initial life forms, and presumably a large population of that form. That is, the theory of evolution is independent of how those initial life forms came to be. Biological evolution is independent of chemical evolution. Theistic evolution deals with the biological theory of evolution and the presence of Chapter 4 in this book is somewhat of an anomaly.

The question of the origin of life does raise an important metaphysical issue. The key issue is the implication of the lack of a scientific explanation. There are generally three possibilities for the absence of a scientific explanation:

1.       More time and research is necessary to obtain the solution

2.       The solution cannot be attained because the necessary information is forever lost

3.       The solution does not exist because there was a unique cause and effect which cannot be repeated (e.g., a miracle)

It is not unusual for people to quickly assume a miracle when no scientific solution is at hand. Unfortunately, one cannot distinguish among the above three possibilities scientifically until a solution is found which affirms that the answer had been the first one. No scientific information can be obtained to distinguish between #2 or #3. For this reason, the current lack of a scientific explanation for the origin of life does not enable us to determine which of these three possibilities is correct. A discussion of chemical evolution is of little value in a debate on biological evolution. Debates may flourish about whether or not a scientific solution is possible but they cannot be settled scientifically unless and until such a solution is found.

Tags:  theistic evolution 

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Theistic Evolution: Creative Power

Posted By Randall D. Isaac, Sunday, January 7, 2018

One of the major scientific critiques of theistic evolution offered by the authors is that the theory of evolution does not include mechanisms with adequate creative power to explain the complex and diverse biosphere. Therefore, they say, theistic evolutionists inappropriately attempt to reconcile Christianity with an inadequate scientific theory.

To assess the creative power of evolution, the authors ask, in effect, “What is the probability that random mutations, as proposed by the theory of evolution, could account for the existence of all the biomolecules, such as proteins, that are necessary for life?” In chapter 3, Matti Leisola writes: “Twenty amino acids are the building blocks of the proteins present in all living organisms, from bacteria to humans. The average protein is about 300 amino acids in length, more precisely, 267 for bacterial and 361 for eukaryotic proteins. These 300 amino acids can be ordered in 20300 (10390) different ways.” (p. 150-151) Using a multitude of detailed examples, the various authors calculate the enormous number of combinations of amino acids that are possible. They show that the fraction of those combinations that are functional is a vanishingly small number. To illustrate the argument, they offer examples such as bike locks, Shakespeare, and language. Hence, the probability that random mutations, even those starting from a known functioning biomolecule, could result in a complete set of the necessary biomolecules is effectively zero.

This argument is repeated in many different ways but the underlying principle is always the same. A probability of life based on the number of possible combinations of the building blocks of life is zero. Therefore, the theory of evolution has inadequate creative power to explain life.

I would suggest that the authors are considering the wrong question. It is well known that a posteriori probabilities are notoriously tricky. In evolution, we only know the a posteriori result and any probability must be treated with care. Dealing with this issue involves teleology which will be discussed in future posts.

The most important reason why this is the wrong question is that valid probabilities cannot be calculated, particularly using combinations, if the possible combinations aren’t all equally probable, or nearly so. In dealing a deck of cards, this is accomplished with a reshuffle before dealing each hand. In evolution, there is no reshuffle. Instead, there is active feedback at every generation that influences which combinations will continue to be pursued. With this feedback, probabilities can only be assessed if all known feedback processes can be identified and evaluated in detail. This cannot be done for evolution. The mutation processes we observe in nature are not just simple nucleotide or amino acid changes but large-scale changes such as chromosomal crossover in gamete formation, horizontal gene transfer, transposons, retroviruses, and many more, and most likely some we have yet to identify. Survival provides feedback at each generation about which combination will be sustained. As a result, probabilities are very weak arguments for or against the theory of evolution. 

Combination approaches to probability are known to scale exponentially with the number of components. This means, as in the quote above, that even average sized proteins involve an extremely large number of possible combinations. It can be shown mathematically that when feedback exists, probabilities scale much more slowly, perhaps as a power law or even logarithmically, depending on the type of feedback. This changes the outlook from impossible to the realm of possibility. This is the case for evolution. When the feedback from natural selection at each generation is taken into account, the probabilities no longer scale exponentially. The claim that evolution does not have the requisite creative power is not compelling.l.

It is nevertheless a mind-boggling claim to think that today’s diversity of life could ever have come from a simple population of primitive life. The right question to ask is not about the probabilities of evolution but to ask about evidence of what actually did happen. This is the topic of other claims in the book that we will discuss in future posts.

Tags:  Probabilities  theistic evolution 

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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: Scientific and Philosophical Messages

Posted By Randall D. Isaac, Friday, December 15, 2017

In my previous post I mentioned the two sections of “General Introductions” written respectively by Stephen Meyer and Wayne Grudem. I should have added that an excerpt including these sections has been graciously provided free of charge to everyone by the publisher, Crossway. The link is here. It is a 79 page excerpt of which 45 pages are text and constitute the “Scientific and Philosophical Introduction” by Meyer and the “Biblical and Theological Introduction” by Grudem. In that previous post, I commented on Grudem’s statement of the goals of the book. In this post I will cover Meyer’s summary of the scientific and philosophical sections of the book.

Meyer lays out the message of the book as follows:

“We start our scientific critique of theistic evolution discussing the alleged creative power of the main mechanisms of evolutionary change because theistic evolutionists want to argue that God has worked undetectably through these various evolutionary mechanisms and processes to produce all the forms of life on our planet today. They equate and identify evolutionary processes such as natural selection and random mutation with the creative work of God. Yet, we will argue in the opening section of this book, chapters 1–9, that the main mechanisms postulated in both biological and chemical evolutionary theory lack the creative power necessary to produce genuine biological innovation and morphological novelty.” (p. 50)

These all seem to be well known critiques covered in many previous publications. Setting aside for now the key issue of divine action in the process, the focus of this section seems to be on the scientific evidence, or lack thereof, for the creative capability of evolutionary mechanisms. In my opinion, the lack of validity or relevance of all these critiques has also been published elsewhere. In future posts, we’ll address some of these chapters in more detail. After briefly summarizing each of those 9 chapters, Meyer continues to explain the next section.

“After critiquing versions of theistic evolution that affirm the sufficiency of various naturalistic evolutionary mechanisms, the second part of the science section of the book (chapters 10–17) critiques versions of theistic evolution that assume the truth of universal common descent, the second meaning of evolution discussed above. These chapters also take a critical look at the claims of evolutionary anthropologists who assert that human beings and chimpanzees have evolved from a common ancestor.” (p. 53)

These chapters focus on oft-repeated claims that the scientific evidence for universal common ancestry and, particularly human ancestry, are not compelling. We’ll repeat the weaknesses of these claims in future posts. Finally, Meyer explains the section on philosophy.

“Our critique of theistic evolution does not stop with scientific concerns, however. In the second section of the book, we address philosophical problems with the versions of theistic evolution critiqued in our science section. Given the known scientific inadequacy of the neoDarwinian mutation/natural selection mechanism, and the absence of any alternative evolutionary mechanism with sufficient creative power to explain the origin of major innovations in biological form and information, we argue that theistic evolution devolves into little more than an a priori commitment to methodological naturalism—the idea that scientists must limit themselves to strictly materialistic explanations and that scientists may not offer explanations making reference to intelligent design or divine action, or make any reference to theology in scientific discourse.”

These philosophical points are also well traveled and are extremely important to understand. I’ll share a contrary viewpoint to these chapters in the future.

But first, I want to draw attention to a far more important consideration which Steve Meyer correctly raises in the first part of his introduction. This regards the question “is the evolutionary process guided or unguided?” Or stated in another way, “In theistic evolution, does God direct evolution or is evolution undirected? If directed by God, then how and what does it really mean?” In my next post I’d like to share a few thoughts on this but I’ll let all of you think about it for a while.

Tags:  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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