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This is the 3d and final part of RJS’s review of Vern Poythress, Redeeming Science. [SMcK adds later: Take advantage of this; you are reading a world-class scientist and Christian as you read this post today and interact with RJS.]
Over the course of the last few weeks we have been discussing “Redeeming Science” by Vern Poythress. In chapters 11-17 Poythress deals with the philosophical and biblical interrelationship of science and faith, while in chapters 18-22 he concentrates on Christian approaches to specific scientific disciplines. In this last post I would like to pull a couple of ideas out of the third section of the book for discussion. I encourage anyone interested to read the entire book, as there is neither time nor space to wrestle with all of his ideas here.
In chapters 18-19 Poythress deals with the mystery of life, and the origin of new life – intelligent design. These are the longest chapters in the book and the topics are much in the news. Although the furor has died down somewhat of late, I doubt that the controversy is going to disappear anytime soon.
First, let me make it clear, ultimately all Christians believe that God designed the world and created life – intelligently. We also believe that we are human as opposed to animal as the result of a special act of God. Being “in the image of God” means something special. The only issue here is the nature of the action of God in carrying out his intelligent design – his method.
So as you read on, a couple of questions to consider: (1) Do you find any of these positions on method incompatible with the Bible as you understand it? Why or why not? (2) Does the introduction of the concepts of irreducible complexity and “Intelligent Design” bring anything useful to the discussion?
Poythress considers three options for the method of God in creation: (1) Fiat Creationism, God created all forms of life as discrete species or kinds – generally held in conjunction with the 24-hour day view of creation or the Mature creation view. (2) Progressive creationism – acts of creation spread over millions of years, but different kinds still required distinct acts of special creation. (3) God used normal processes to bring about gradual changes leading to the evolution of species – or theistic evolution. Acceptance of the ideas of evolution does not necessarily exclude the possibility of a limited number of exceptions (Some consider Adam and Eve exceptions, some don’t). To quote Poythress (p 253): “‘Theistic evolution’ is simply a convenient label for the position that thinks that God consistently used ordinary means during the past.”
The theistic evolution position is the hardest for many evangelical Christians to embrace, or even accept in others. One common argument raised against this position is the fact that Genesis describes God as creator but mentions no secondary cause. Consider for example Genesis 1:3 “Then God said “Let there be light”; and there was light.” In this verse, and in all of the Genesis 1 passage, the formula followed is straightforward: God said … and there was… with no intimation of a secondary cause.
Does this formula imply that God is primary cause acting without secondary cause? Poythress asserts that “such reasoning is fallacious. Absence of mention does not imply absence of existence (253).” As one example illustrating his point he considers the comparison between three passages describing the exodus of Israel through the red sea. In Exodus 15 and Psalm 106:9 there is no mention of a secondary cause, while Exodus 14:21 states “and the Lord swept the sea back by a strong east wind all night and turned the sea into dry land so the waters were divided.” Clearly the lack of mention of a secondary cause in a text, especially a poetic text, must not be taken to require God as primary cause without secondary cause – otherwise these passages are contradictory.
So- in considering the text of the Bible we must remember that God often acts through secondary cause, silence of the text does not eliminate the possibility of secondary cause, and that scripture speaks equally to ordinary people in ordinary situations in ancient Israel, in 16th century Europe, and today in the 21st century. The language is not technical or scientific and is not intended to be. We must not allow our assumptions to determine how the scripture must be interpreted. Neither can we allow the naturalistic supposition that God never acts in extraordinary ways.
Poythress holds that all three of these positions – Fiat Creationism, Progressive Creationism, and Theistic Evolution are tenable on Biblical grounds.
Chapter 19 brings the discussion around to “Intelligent Design.” If one takes a point of view akin to theistic evolution, is there still room for special acts of creation in the production of biological components which are or at least appear to be irreducibly complex? Are there biological systems – such as the bacterial flagellum suggested by Michael Behe (Darwin’s Black Box) – which are useless until fully assembled? Poythress describes the positions of ID and works through the issues, coming to the conclusion that the question must remain open – future work may demonstrate a plausible mechanism for formation of biological machines which appear at present to be irreducibly complex. It is neither necessary nor wise to base theology on the presence of gaps in creation requiring the special action of God to bridge.
However Poythress considers failure engage with the ideas of Intelligent Design to be a defect of the current scientific method (p. 283). I disagree somewhat with his conclusion here. While, ID may be true – and cannot be disproved, at the practical level we must assume logical secondary causes and investigate. Statistical and probabilistic arguments for Intelligent Design and Irreducible Complexity are particularly suspect – as historically such arguments have simply highlighted ignorance – indicating that some natural piece of the puzzle was as yet lacking or misunderstood. Frankly we are arguing out of ignorance as we do not yet understand the entire “energy landscape,” and can not even assign accurate probabilities. It is philosophically interesting, but scientifically useless to posit irreducible complexity in any particular instance.

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