Francis Collins and Intelligent Design

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President Obama has appointed human genome superstar Francis Collins to head the National Institute of Health. Collins is an evangelical Christian with a best-selling book on his conversion to Christianity from atheism and how he thinks about his scientific work as a Christian.

Collins is an interesting character for sociological study of the language of politics. He's a supporter of intelligent design, although you'd never hear him admit it. He accepts the fine-tuning argument for the existence of God, which by any reasonable standard counts him as supporting intelligent design and its detectability by scientific study. He at least thinks you can observe through science enough evidence to make the existence of God reasonable as an inference to the best explanation.

Still, he regularly speaks of intelligent design arguments as bad arguments, presumably meaning the ones based on biological evidence rather than the evidence from physics that he himself thinks makes the inference to a designer reasonable. He doesn't think biology shows the kind of evidence that leads to an reasonable inference to a designer. At least that's the charitable explanation for his resistance to ID. He might just misunderstand the argument, thinking that the arguments don't disprove evolution. I've heard him putting ID arguments in opposition to evolution even though there's nothing in the ID arguments that should rule out common descent from non-human animals or purely natural causes for how human beings came to be. That makes me wonder if maybe he'd accept the arguments given a proper understanding of them, since he is open to evidence that could be taken as a reasonable basis for an inference to a designer as the best explanation of the data. I've regularly found myself shaking my head at the failure of those who discuss this issue to make proper philosophical distinctions between the various positions in conceptual space (most of them actually occupied by real people in this case).

Consider the following views:

1. Atheistic evolution: Everything we experience is best explained by naturalistic explanations such as natural selection and random chance, with no guidance from an intelligent being.

2. Naturalistic-like theistic evolution: Natural selection and what appears to be random chance constitute the best scientific account of human origins, but God intelligently guided the process along by setting up the laws of nature so that they would lead to human development.

3. Non-naturalistic theistic evolution: Natural selection and the mechanisms of the standard evolutionary account are correct in postulating human origins from common descent with other animals, but God intelligently guided the process along by intervening in the natural order.

4. Special creation (old-earth): Divine intervention occurred to create human beings at a certain time in history without humans having descended from other animals. Nevertheless, this took place in the general time scheme scientists accept for when humans first appeared, and the universe and the earth are as old as our best science generally takes them to be.

5. Special creation (young-earth): Divine intervention occurred to create human beings at a certain time in history without humans having descended from other animals. This happened during the one exact week that God used to create the universe and all life on earth, with humans appearing on the sixth day of that week.

Now here's another set of views on a somewhat separate issue:

6. There is no design in nature. It's not just that there's no evidence of a designer. No being had any intelligent plan in doing anything related to however the universe got to be here and however it developed.

7. The universe is designed in such a way that we cannot observe any design. If God exists, God did not set the universe up so as to provide evidence for God's existence. Nevertheless, we can know or have reasonable belief in a designing God by means of divine revelation through scripture or some other religious source.

8. The most reasonable inference to explain surprising facts about the cosmological constants is that the universe was fine-tuned to allow for the possibility of intelligent beings like us. So we should believe in a designer based on what physics tells us. But biology gives us no information that should lead us to believe in a designer.

9. The most reasonable inference from some biological discoveries is that some designer arranged for some very unlikely things to occur that were necessary for human development. Natural causes could explain how it occurred but could not offer a convincing explanation of why such an unlikely occurrence did occur.

10. We can infer not just that there is a divine plan behind biological processes but that some miraculous intervention took place to cause something that natural causes could not explain on their own.

11. We can observe through science that evolution from non-human animals took place.

12. We can observe through science enough evidence to support the biblical account when taken the way those who hold to view 5 take it, and any evidence to the contrary has been contrived or misinterpreted.

Atheist scientists of course accept views 1 and 6. Collins seems to me to accept views 2 and 8. He explicitly denies 10-12, and maybe he denies 9 also, but that's what I'm not sure of. Everything I've heard him deny when he denies ID is a denial of 10 or 10-12. But I'm not sure. I know of at least one other major player in these debates who holds a view like this, and that's Howard Van Till. Most of what I say here about Collins is probably going to apply to Van Till too.

William Dembski seems to me to hold view 9 and either view 4 or view 5, but he explicitly claims that ID arguments are compatible with 3. He rejects a view that he calls theistic evolution, but it's clear from his explanation of what the view is that it's theism plus evolution in form 1 and 6 that he means (i.e. Ken Miller, not Francis Collins). As far as I can tell, Phil 
Johnson is in the same category as Dembski.

Michael Behe seems to me to accept 9 alongside either 2 or 3. He explicitly denies 4 and 5 but happily cooperates with Dembski, who holds 4 or 5, because they both agree on 9, and that's the central claim of the biological ID supporters.

Many who oppose intelligent design will look derisively at any view other than the combination of 1 and 6, but some are more tolerant of those who accept views 2 and/or 7. A lot fewer are tolerant of the combination Collins holds, which is 2 and 8. One prominent anti-ID blog has a post on its front page deriding Collins as supernaturalist, a dirty word for being a theist and thinking God has some impact on the world. So if he's motivated by acceptance from the anti-ID crowd, as some have accused him of being, it doesn't seem as if he's achieved it. I suspect that it's a more principled objection to the view but perhaps one based on a misunderstanding of what the view actually holds.

Here is one piece of evidence that Collins doesn't think of ID accurately. On his website, you can find the following statement:

Although advocates of ID do not disagree that evolution is change over time, they deny the biological process of evolution by natural selection could account for the present complexity of life forms on Earth. Intelligent Design proponents argue evolution cannot explain certain aspects of creation. In particular, ID claims certain features of the world are irreducibly complex and could not have evolved from less complex predecessors. Although ID supporters believe that such findings refute evolution, Theistic Evolutionists --along with the vast majority of mainstream scientists -- do not see these examples as a threat to the theory of evolution by natural selection.
Now it should be clear from the above list of views that he's attributing view 10 to the ID crowd, when I've already pointed out that it's only 9 that they all agree on. They do not argue that natural causes cannot produce irreducibly-complex machinery, just that it's very unlikely that natural causes would do so. Some of them may well hold to 10, but some of them do not. The arguments themselves at best establish only 9, not the stronger conclusion of 10. So he's taking issue with a view they do not hold. That makes me wonder whether he'd be more accepting of what they say if he were to make that distinction. What it means to be irreducibly complex, as Behe uses the expression (and he coined it), is to be of such complexity that natural causes would be extremely unlikely to produce such a structure without guidance from an intelligent designer. It's not that it's impossible to be caused by natural causes. It's an issue of "why", not an issue of "how".

The reality is that Collins is much closer to ID people than he is to Ken Miller, who doesn't accept design in nature. His view of miracles and his view of the role of God in evolution show that he has no problem in principle with views 3 and 9, even if his view of the actual evidence is closer to views 2 and 8. That makes him closer to Behe and Dembski than to Miller, in my book. He accepts purposes and design in nature, and he's open to miracles that go beyond the laws of nature, even if he thinks they will be very rare. The anti-ID crowd will largely dismiss him as a supernaturalist, therefore.

So did President Obama select an ID opponent or an ID supporter to head the NIH? I think the answer is a qualified "yes" to both. He selected someone who opposes most of the ID arguments, but he also selected someone who supports the principle of intelligent design and who is open to there being good arguments that we haven't discovered yet, as far as the principle of the thing goes. He certainly selected someone who believes that the universe and human evolution are intelligently designed. My prediction is that most people talking about this from a variety of perspectives are going to misrepresent Collins in some way by failing to see the philosophical distinctions I've laid out here. This whole issue can only be served by more careful attention to these distinctions, even if some of the distinctions don't amount to an important enough difference in the end. Such a conclusion needs to be argued for, while showing an awareness of the distinction to begin with, not by confusing two things that are distinct, as is too often done.

8 Comments

Much of the evidence presented by the biological evolutionists seems logical to me. However there is one aspect of this theory that troubles me.
It seems that at one point in this gradual developmental process a nonhuman female animal gave birth to a human baby.
This is where my logical mind comes to a screaching halt and says; "Prove it". ..James E Gambrell

According to the standard account, that's not true. The standard account will insist that there's no sharp line between human animal and non-human animal, so there's no clear point where you have one generation that's not human and one that is. There are theological problems with this if you also accept Christianity, but it's not a problem with evolutionary theory itself. It's no more of a problem than the fact that there's no sharp line between when a few grains of sand don't make a pile of sand and when you have enough to make a pile.

As for the theological question, there are things that can be said. Collins has answershere and here, for example.

It's nice to see a person like Francis Collins appointed to such a position in a governmental agency. It shows that there's some hope in an Obama Administration. Anyway, I've struggled in bouncing back and forth between views # 2-4. I find all these 3 views plausible within the confines of inspiration and infallibility of scripture, which are things I don't want to throw out. But I find that with view #2 I have a tough time reconciling with the infallibility of Scripture. I don't know.

Thanks for outlining the many differences of ID/anti-ID. On your point, "that it's only 9 that they all agree on" may not be true. This category can be further divided into:

9a: ID natural cause-skeptic
9b: ID cause agnostic

Your original 9 is really 9a; 9b does not care whether natural cause is adequate or inadequate to explain. They only accept that the nature of explaining the cause is open. How does it sound?

Kevin, I don't see the problem with 2, at least not if Calvinism is true (and it is). As long as the natural laws would include things beyond what science can capture, you can have miracles that seem to be in violation of what normally seem to be the natural laws. Was it because of that kind of miracles that you were worried about 2?

Anonymous, I suppose you could subdivide those who think there are only naturalistic-like causes, those who are open to but unsure of non-naturalistic causation, and those who are sure there is non-naturalistic causation. I'd still insist that the weakest of those claims is all the IDers would all agree on. All three categories would be occupied by IDers, and they all accept some kind of divine final cause. The arguments themselves don't insist on the stronger kind of cause beyond the naturalistic-like causes.

Jeremy, no it was concerning the idea of creation in six days (infallibility of scripture). I was wondering how flexible the principles of "infallibility of scripture" would be. Will this conflict with the idea of naturalistic-like theistic evolution and what appears to be random chance?

I don't think the infallibility of scripture requires creation in six days, but if it did then it would also rule out 3 and 4. The Chicago Statement on Inerrancy pretty clearly allows 2, 3, and 4 (and many who signed it hold such views). I don't see how the difference between being inerrant (not having errors) and being infallible (being incapable of error) will lead to different results on this issue, so I'm not sure why we shouldn't go by the main statement of such a position of our day.

"contrived or misinterpreted"?

As you would well know Jeremy, every large scale research programme/paradigm has issues with some observations. It hardly seems fair to lump YEC with this phrase, when all paradigms could similarly be tarred.

I agree that the infallibly/inerrancy view of scripture does not require 6 days, as any written text cannot be locked down to a single interpretation with 100% confidence. Of course, the clear reading frame of genesis 1-11 should be historical narrative, and to choose otherwise causes a few interesting theological issues.

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