This is a guest post by Robert J. Asher. Asher is a paleontologist in the Department of Zoology at the University of Cambridge in the U.K. He is also the author of the recently-published book Evolution and Belief: Confessions of a Religious Paleontologist.
In February 2012, Asher authored the essay “Why I am an Accommodationist” for Huffington Post (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/rober[…]1298554.html).
Jason Rosenhouse wrote a reply at his EvolutionBlog in March 2012 (http://scienceblogs.com/evolutionbl[…]mmodationism). Asher’s response is below.
– Nick Matzke
God as a Superhuman: A (belated) Response to Jason Rosenhouse
Way back in February, I tried to make the case that accommodation between religious belief and a scientific worldview is a good thing. I remain convinced that in order to make a positive difference in science literacy, educators should distinguish between superstition and religion, understand that human identity can entail elements of both, and acknowledge that science does not render religion untenable. My particular focus in that essay was that believers need not attribute a human-like mode of creativity to their god. Conversely, I argued that anti-theists (by which I mean those atheists who view religion as terminally misguided) and creationists (by which I mean those who think natural mechanisms are insufficient to explain at least some aspects of biological evolution) often agree with each other in rejecting, or at least not liking, this viewpoint. Both argue (for different reasons) that a god without some human-like will to circumvent biology & physics for its own ends is too remote and/or abstract to be worth worshipping, or representative of “real” religion as practiced by millions of people today. I believe that both are wrong on this point.
Mathematician and evolution-blogger Jason Rosenhouse did not like my essay, and made some good points in rebutting it. Although I’m admittedly tardy in doing so, I’d like to discuss a couple points where I think Rosenhouse is mistaken, and argue that the premise of my February essay is still valid.
Consider the argument that anti-theists and creationists have something in common, for example when I wrote in my Huffington Post blog
For many theists, even if they would phrase it differently, “religion” requires a deity who leaves behind evidence in a similar fashion as a human being might do, like Santa Claus not finishing his cookies or a toga-clad Charlton Heston dispensing rules on stone tablets, capriciously ignoring his own natural laws. Many anti-theists agree: if God exists, “he” has to leave behind evidence in a human-like fashion. Notably, such a perspective is at the core of the so-called “intelligent design” movement, which claims to find evidence for clever intervention in biology, relegating what its adherents call “natural” and “random” to the profane.
He referred to the above paragraph as “complete caricature”, arguing that in the case of atheists,
absolutely no one is saying that God has to do anything. We simply observe that a God who works entirely through natural forces is hard to distinguish from no God at all. We ask for the evidence that God exists, and since nature fails so completely to provide that evidence we begin to suspect that maybe there is no God.
This complaint is less about the point I was making and more a result of ignoring it. He falsely attributes to me an oxymoron, as if I had said that an atheist’s god “has to do anything” since they are, after all, atheists. Rather, I was addressing his expectation about the category of evidence that he, as an atheist, thinks a deity should leave behind in order to be credible. Does being “religious” demand that you think that God works like a human with superpowers, regularly sticking his hand into nature? Many think it does, others don’t. Agreeing with the former, Rosenhouse has “asked for evidence that god exists” and found that “nature fails so completely” in providing this evidence. On the other hand, maybe God doesn’t work like a human with superpowers, in which case the existence of nature in the first place might comprise evidence.
Rosenhouse is right to point out that “no God at all” is a possibility that has to be dealt with by believers. I do so by arguing that his suspicion that “maybe there is no god” is no more justified than my suspicion that maybe God acts through nature. Furthermore, my view has the advantage that the consistency across, and existence of, natural laws follows reasonably from positing an agency behind them. While such an assertion isn’t necessary to understand the mechanism(s) by which a given natural law functions, it does lead to the expectation that such laws should not only exist, but also make sense.
Neither Rosenhouse nor I thinks that biology has been tinkered with by a human-like, grand designer. We’d also probably agree that—unlike Craig Venter’s autographed bacterium—there’s no evidence for secret messages in DNA sequences. And lest you think I’m kidding, it’s not hard to search for such things: “YHWH” himself appears in the amino acid translation of Tfp1 in Treponema pallidum as does “MALE” in the sex-linked SRY gene of a mouse. Whether the message is a King James Psalm or alleged cases of irreducible complexity, those who think that God acts like a superhuman are entirely serious about such “signatures in the cell”. But is belief in human-like, biological signatures a prerequisite for “real” religion, and why does Jason Rosenhouse, or evangelical Christians, get to decide that they are?
If we really had evidence for a human-like designer in the form of genuinely autographed DNA (so far this really is lacking, hype about ENCODE functionality notwithstanding), or remains of Miocene monumental architecture when our own habitually bipedal lineage first appeared, creationists would probably be right that something human-like is (or was) out there, paying attention to us— and anti-theists (and I) would be empirically wrong to deny it. No conspiracy is preventing anyone from finding such things, which quite simply don’t seem to exist. Rosenhouse concludes from this that “maybe there is no god”. I conclude from this that maybe there is no human-like designer. The two are not the same.
Getting back to what Rosenhouse said of my “caricature” of others’ views, my worst infraction was not about the atheists, but about Intelligent Design itself:
Asher has also badly misstated the ID position. There, too, there are no assumptions being made about what God must have done. I am not aware of any ID proponents who say that if God exists it simply must be the case that He has left behind, tangible, scientific evidence of His presence. Instead the claim is simply that, as it happens, there are, indeed, certain biological facts whose only plausible explanation involves the intentions of an intelligent designer.
This is an odd accusation, possibly based on how he sees an inductive chronology in the mind of an Intelligent-Design advocate. He seems to think observation of “certain biological facts whose only plausible explanation” leads to an “intelligent designer”, and only then does the ID advocate dutifully proceed to a conclusion about “what God must have done”. This objection reminds me a bit of Darwin’s aged mentor Adam Sedgwick, who upon reading Origin of Species complained that Darwin had “deserted … the true method of induction”, meaning that Sedgwick expected Darwin to refrain from theorizing until he had crossed some undefined Rubicon of fact-collecting. In reality, it was Sedgwick who didn’t realize that testing an already-existing theory against repeated data-collection is not only OK, but reflects the way the human mind generally works. All of us—creationists, theistic evolutionists, and anti-theists—start with some idea of how the world should operate given the presence of a god, and it’s just wrong to claim, as Rosenhouse does, that in ID
there are no assumptions being made about what God must have done. I am not aware of any ID proponents who say that if God exists it simply must be the case that He has left behind, tangible, scientific evidence of His presence.
Really? Isn’t the whole point of the Intelligent Design movement to distinguish biological complexity as a product of “design” vs. chance or regularity, based on our experience of “design” in its human context? I’d agree that design inferences per se don’t have to be about a deity. However, such “design” has been promulgated for about three decades now by ID-advocates who have left a substantial paper trail linking them to previous iterations of creationism. When applied to the origin of life, and biological evolution thereafter, by individuals who have been eagerly attacking Darwin’s theory since the 1980s, “design” clearly does entail expectations of how the “designer” of the anti-Darwin movement operates— like a superhuman would.
In the comments following Rosenhouse’s essay, consider this response by veteran ID-critic and biologist Nick Matzke to Rosenhouse’s statement that in ID, there are “no assumptions being made about what God must have done”:
Actually, IDists do make that argument pretty regularly, in response to theistic evolutionists and deist-like arguments against an interventionist God. IDists will say something like, well, if you believe the Bible, we have an interventionist God on our hands, one who likes to work miracles, so there is no reason we shouldn’t see this in biological history.
Rosenhouse responds to Matzke as follows:
But that’s not the argument Asher put in the mouths of his hypothetical ID folks. There is a big difference between saying that if God exists then he must leave evidence behind, which was Asher’s formulation, and saying that there is no reason why we shouldn’t see evidence of God’s action in biological history, which was your formulation.
It’s revealing to deconstruct the key sentence of Rosenhouse’s response by redacting the double negative:
1) “if God exists then he must leave evidence behind” (Rosenhouse paraphrasing Asher)
2) “there is no reason why we shouldn’t see evidence of God’s action in biological history” (Matzke)
See any major differences here? Me neither. Both represent the argument that “Asher put in the mouths of his hypothetical ID folks”, i.e., that the god of Intelligent Design is indeed expected (explicitly or not) to leave behind evidence in a more or less similar fashion as a human-like intelligence would.
Rosenhouse is correct to note that creationists object to the notion of a weak Imago Dei; that is, a remote, apparently distant god, is repellent to many ID-friendly theists:
Since God is commonly said to love His creatures, we are certainly entitled to wonder why He would create through a process as cruel and savage as Darwinian natural selection. It is not plausible to suggest evolution as God’s means of creation, since the mechanics of evolution are at odds with the attributes God is believed to possess.
So Rosenhouse actually does think ID (and creationism generally) makes “assumptions about what God must have done”, but objects to my interpretation that such assumptions can be material—whereas he prefers the theological or emotional ones. Henry Morris made such objections to theistic evolution in the 1970s, and they led him to believe in a young Earth. If all suffering and death were precipitated by the Genesis fall, the argument goes, an evolutionary mechanism involving differential survival could not have pre-dated Adam & Eve by eons of geological time. Most Christians do not buy this argument, whether or not they sympathize with ID. Rosenhouse was peeved that I did not provide great detail on these theological objections in my 800-word essay, so I hereby agree that they exist (and never denied them in the first place). Rebuttals of them from a Christian perspective have been made regularly, for example by authors I cited in my February post, among others.
Rosenhouse then asked me a question:
I’d also like to know more about the agency in which Asher believes. This agency, did it create the world through an act of its will or not? If it did, then I fail to see how it is importantly different from the anthropomorphic God he criticizes. If it did not, then whatever it is, it surely is not the God who lies at the heart of the world’s religions.
I don’t know how the agency behind the laws of the universe did its creating. Obviously on that scale we’re not really close to anything remotely human-like, so probably it didn’t have a “will” like you and I have. What I do know is that we seem to be inside of its creation, the laws of which exist whether or not us humans are around to notice. But not only do we notice, we can actually understand some of them. I also know that Judeo-Christian scripture tells us to love our neighbor, not to lie, and that we can accomplish more together than on our own. Despite its human imperfections, the global infrastructure that we have to promote these ideas, including religion, is a good thing. Good writers who are science-literate (like Jason Rosenhouse) should strive to improve this infrastructure, not trash it.
Let me close with a question for you, Jason: Why did Charles Darwin include the following quote by Francis Bacon on the title pages of every edition of Origin of Species?
“To conclude, therefore, let no man out of a weak conceit of sobriety, or an ill-applied moderation, think or maintain, that a man can search too far or be too well studied in the book of God’s word, or in the book of God’s works; divinity or philosophy; but rather let men endeavour an endless progress or proficience in both.”