Kingdom of Priests

Kingdom of Priests


Just a Coincidence?

posted by David Klinghoffer
Panorama_Hvalhai_lite.jpg
I admit to a fond wish to impute significance to coincidences. Cynics such as Matthew Cobb writing at Jerry Coyne’s blog, Why Evolution Is True, explain away such things, like they do absolutely everything, as a function of survival value tucked into our genome from ancient days. In some recent posts, Cobb was full of mockery for people like me:

Animals are very good coincidence detectors. It’s how we learn. Bell rings, food comes, dog salivates. Light comes on, floor is shocked, rat avoids light. Humans are particularly good at it, so much that we end up feeling spooked when banal coincidences happen. “I just thought of you, then you phoned/mailed/turned the corner.” (Of course, we’re never struck by all those times that we thought of someone and they didn’t immediately hove into view). This capacity is at the root of all religions.

Uh huh. So the human feel for synchronicity (Carl Jung’s term for meaningful coincidence) is nothing more than the continuation of a warning instinct that would alert an animal to possible dangers to life or opportunities to gather food. How such a profound thing would be coded in your DNA — which is the thing Darwinian natural selection has to work with, DNA which itself codes for constructing proteins — is always left conveniently vague in such explanations.
Confronted with simplistic views like this that obsessively try to squash human experience as flat as the flattest pancake, I wonder why my own predominant response to synchronicity is not to feel “spooked” as Dr. Cobb says (another way of saying that we feel somehow on alert to danger) but rather to wonder at the hidden orders of existence, underlying our own, of which Judaism and other faiths speak. It’s the feeling of endless hidden vistas unfolding before you, of something vast and yawning under your feet. There’s an eerie satisfaction in detecting an apparently meaningful coincidence, but I get nothing out of detecting what seems a meaningless coincidence, however unlikely the genuine chance event might be. I fail to see how my capacity for taking delight in such things reflects any evolutionary advantage that might have accrued to my ancient ancestors. Surely there’s much more to it.
The Hebrew Bible certainly suggests as much. As my friend Rabbi Daniel Lapin points out, the Bible lacks a concept of “coincidence” to match our familiar idea of what that word means. Yes, you have a case like Balaam, the wicked prophet who hoped for a lucky encounter with God: “Perhaps the LORD will chance upon me and will show me something that I may tell you” (Numbers 23:3). But Balaam’s belief in coincidence is held by Biblical tradition to be a mark against him, reflecting his own shame and disgrace. 
So too when God advised Moses on how to address Pharaoh. He should do so in terms of God’s having “chanced upon” the Israelites (Exodus 3:18). As a pagan, and much like Matthew Cobb, Pharaoh is committed to a picture of how the world works that misunderstands an encounter with divine reality as nothing more than chance. Samson Raphael Hirsch explains that this is why the Hebrew word for coincidence (mikreh) is related etymologically to the word for calling (kara). Subjectively, what appears to the heathen as chance can be, in reality, a call from outside us — “the product of divine providence which by this mikreh, this ‘chance,’ calls us into the direction intended by it.”
I’ll give you an example, an apt one, from last night. My wife was going to be out for the evening with a girlfriend so I consoled myself by picking up a DVD from our local public library’s small selection. The movie I chanced upon was The Squid and the Whale, which was quite good as I can now report. Jeff Daniels (heavily bearded) and Laura Linney (lovely) are highbrow artistic writer types living in Brooklyn’s Park Slope neighborhood. They are in the process of divorcing, with their two adolescent sons caught in the middle. 
The title comes from the eerie display at New York’s Museum of Natural History, in which a giant squid and a sperm whale battle “in near total darkness,” in the phrase from the explanation under the display that I myself remember well from visiting many times. In the film, we learn that when he was a little kid and his mother would take him to the museum, the couple’s older son had felt scared of the squid and whale depiction. Now, it seems from the way the movie ends, he associates it with his mom and dad’s battling each other, and with his own clumsy wrestlings with sexuality.

Back when I lived in New York I always loved that particular undersea diorama, fake-looking though it is, for the way it evokes the mystery of existence far below the surface of the ocean — and of reality. I adore the phrase about its all happening “in near total darkness.” From our perspective, that’s sure how it seems. This all came back to me as I was watching the movie. But so too did a funny coincidence.
Just that afternoon, I’d done a fruitless web search, looking for photos that I wanted to share with you. I was hunting for pictures of some other fake looking but strangely stirring underwater dioramas from the museum I associate most with my own youth. That was the Cabrillo Marine Museum, at Cabrillo Beach in San Pedro, California, long since defunct in the form I knew it. My mother would take me to the museum when I was a little kid. I was always drawn to and stirred by, yes, the undersea dioramas. One, I remember, was of a diver searching for pearls, another was a dimly blue-lit grotto with various fish. Unlike the character in the movie, I wasn’t scared but rather just, as I say, weirdly stirred. I remember being similarly struck by another undersea diorama, this one of a whale shark at the Kon-Tiki Museum in Oslo, where my parents took me when I was five or so. That actually does still exist (see above).
OK, all this about dioramas of ocean animals in one day can very easily be dismissed as coincidence. Obviously I’m not going to try to mount a serious argument to the contrary. But the image of what goes on beneath the surface of the ocean is oddly appropriate, isn’t it? Because when it comes to synchronicity, that’s exactly what we’re talking about. The orders of existence that elude our normal senses and ordinary intellect, yet seem to make themselves fleetingly apparent now and then. 
Sensible folks know the difference between synchronicity and mere happenstance that signifies nothing. I’m not the first to have suggested this is exactly what draws so many people to contemplating the ocean, and I agree with Dr. Cobb that it has something to do with the religious sensibility as well. Freud associated the religious instinct with what he called the “ocean feeling.” Whether the intuition of hidden existence is illusory or not is the question that separates a religious believer from a pancake maker like Matthew Cobb. The question can’t be satisfactorily resolved with yet another easy Darwinian just so story.


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Ray Ingles

posted January 21, 2010 at 8:57 am


Speaking of being struck, I was struck by this phrase:

Confronted with simplistic views like this that obsessively try to squash human experience as flat as the flattest pancake…

I know that’s a very common picture that many religious people have of the non-religious… but it’s a caricature. People who think that human experience can be accounted for without recourse to the supernatural don’t think less of humanity or human experience. They simply have more respect for what ‘mechanistic’ processes can do.
Google up the “Mandelbrot Set” or the “Lorenz Attractor”. (Seriously, look them up. It’s impossible to appreciate what I’m about to say unless you’ve actually seen them.)
They are described by simple – indeed, apparently trivial – formulas. And yet, these formulas produce structures and processes of literally endless, infinite complexity. One can believe that humans are similarly complex, amazing, and wonderful… even if one thinks they arise from foundations that are ultimately simple, or apparently trivial.



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Miles

posted January 21, 2010 at 9:47 am


I have been enjoying your column for several weeks after having discovered it (synchronicity?) through a link with Fox News. I derive from a proud line of Texas and West Virginia hillbillies (the rest of you can call us rural agrarians). I hunt, fish, farm, sell guns and enjoy stewardship granted to us by God. For nine years I taught radiation physics, radiobiology, radiopharmacology, pathology, anatomy, and physiology and several other related courses. I have read the major texts of the most prevalent religions and have studied many of the lesser known belief systems from all parts of our world.
The point of all of the above I’s, is that, although not an expert in any any specific area of existence, certain coincidences tend to accumulate within one over time. No matter how small our view, as in subatomic nuclear physics or no matter how grand as in religion, the evidence of God and creation is everywhere if one simply allows oneself observe.
Belief and interpretation are individual if left unfettered by cultural constraints. However, empiricism tends to truth. The underlying grand scheme of God is evident when observing the beauty and complexity of biological evolution, cyclic rhythms of nature, the elegant behaviors of each new atomic particle, in the dynamic belief systems and endeavors of humans worldwide, in the wonder of weather and climate, and in the depths and organization of the cosmos as revealed by each new space telescope.
This is the only reply something on the net that I have ever written. Keep up the good work.
Sincerely,
Miles



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Your Name

posted January 21, 2010 at 10:25 am


There is an interesting take on the reality of coincidences from quantum physics. The essence of a quantum system is that it is absolutely impossible to know anything about its “state” until you make a measurement (this sentence has a strict technical meaning, but you get the drift). In a way, then, the result of any measurement is just a Mikreh — it’s “whatever happened,” it is as close as we can get to a totally unpredictable outcome. BUT — and here’s the weird part — I can set up a system in which I know not only the outcome of my experiment, but know with certainty the result of your experiment, should you ever do it! YOU don’t know what your mikreh will be, but I know! You can even do your mikreh, and it’s a REAL mikreh, completely unpredictable to you, if you do it before I have the time to tell you what your result will be. When you get my message and check it I will be right every time. Einstein called this “spooky action at a distance.” Nowadays it’s called “entanglement.” But it really is LINKED mikrim — linked coincidences.



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Turmarion

posted January 21, 2010 at 10:52 am


Broadly, I don’t disagree with you here, but something strikes me.
In essence you are saying here that there are layers of reality, deeper processes, going on below the surface of what seems to us to be mere coincidences in the ordinary flow of life. What seems random happenstance may have a deep, even a Divine basis.
Which exactly what theistic evolution says about things like natural selection and seemingly “blind, random” forces.
Thank you for elegantly making a nice argument against your own ID position!



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wayne w

posted January 21, 2010 at 11:18 am


Ray,
The Bible itself teaches Man was made from one of the simplest substances on earth, but it was what he was made into that is the marvel. I do not deny my elements are simplistic, mostly water (maybe our affinity for the oceans is tied to this), but what a wonder to imagine and be the receipient of the creative power of God and His purposes for the basest of these seemingly mundane elements. Man’s existence is the result of biological and chemical reactions, but I give thanks to God for this, not to time and chance.



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Philip Koplin

posted January 21, 2010 at 11:29 am


Miles
Your aesthetic response to those aspects of the cosmos you prefer to see as evidence of beauty and design (as opposed to, say, earthquakes and birth defects) tells us nothing about the universe beyond the existence of creatures capable of having such feelings and drawing disproportionate conclusions from them.



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David Klinghoffer

posted January 21, 2010 at 1:33 pm


My friend Turmarion, welcome to the intelligent design community! What you describe is not TE at all but ID.



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Steve

posted January 21, 2010 at 2:09 pm


1. David wrote: “So the human feel for synchronicity (Carl Jung’s term for meaningful coincidence) is nothing more than the continuation of a warning instinct that would alert an animal to possible dangers to life or opportunities to gather food. How such a profound thing would be coded in your DNA — which is the thing Darwinian natural selection has to work with, DNA which itself codes for constructing proteins — is always left conveniently vague in such explanations.”
There have been instances in which (1) two or more events occurred that were not causally connected and (2) the occurrence of these events was meaningful to one or more of the people who experienced them. However, my knowing that event X occurred helps me reasonably infer that event Y occurred only if I know of multiple events similar to X having caused multiple events similar to Y. For example, I don’t know of any event having occurred that is similar to a fairy’s putting money under my pillow, and it would be unreasonable for me to infer that a fairy put money under my pillow at time T. Moreover, I don’t know of any event having been caused by a God. Thus, that there have been instances in which (1) two or more events occurred that were not causally connected and (2) the occurrence of these events was meaningful to one or more of the people who experienced them doesn’t help me reasonably infer that God caused either the events themselves or the existence of some of the organisms that have experienced the events.
2. David wrote: “My friend Turmarion, welcome to the intelligent design community! What you describe is not TE at all but ID.”
What do you mean by “TE” and “ID?” What exactly do you think occurred?
3. Miles wrote: “The point of all of the above I’s, is that, although not an expert in any any specific area of existence, certain coincidences tend to accumulate within one over time. No matter how small our view, as in subatomic nuclear physics or no matter how grand as in religion, the evidence of God and creation is everywhere if one simply allows oneself observe.”
That something interesting exists doesn’t help me reasonably infer that God proximately caused it to exist. For instance, I’m interesting. And my existence was proximately caused by sexual reproduction.



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Steve

posted January 21, 2010 at 2:51 pm


I wrote: “However, my knowing that event X occurred helps me reasonably infer that event Y occurred only if I know of multiple events similar to X having caused multiple events similar to Y.”
That didn’t come out quite right. What I meant is the following: My knowing that event Y occurred helps me reasonably infer that event X occurred only if I know of multiple events similar to X having caused multiple events similar to Y. For instance, I know that my burner’s being on at Time T contributed to my water’s boiling at Time T partly because I know of multiple events similar to my burner’s being on (for instance, my friend’s burner’s being on) causing events similar to my water’s boiling (for instance, my friend’s water’s boiling).



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Turmarion

posted January 21, 2010 at 3:51 pm


Thank you for the welcome, David, but I must decline, since you are either inadvertently or willfully misreading what I said. I am quite firmly in the TE camp.
ID implies that God directly intervenes at certain points in the process of development of life. TE says that God works by means of seemingly random or chance forces such as natural selection, happenstance, etc. This seems to be a place we’re not communicating. You seem to insist that TE necessarily implies that after the initial Big Bang/Creation, God is strictly “hands-off”. This would be a Deistic view, and, as you rightly point out, incompatible with the theism of the Abrahamic faiths. Some proponents of TE may indeed take that view, but it seems to me perfectly in keeping with TE to assume that deep, unknown processes are at work beneath what we perceive to be random or undirected events.
Your story about the movie, the diorama, etc., is a perfect illustration of how TE sees God as working. Every step of the process had a “natural” explanation (someone made the movie, someone made the diorama, you decided to check out a movie, etc.), but upon reflection you saw a deeper meaning in it. God was at work, albeit invisibly; but no less authentically, for all that. ID would have it that everything proceeded by natural explanations up to the point where you got to the library, at which point God booms to you from on high, “David, check out The Squid and the Whale!!” Because, you know, if He didn’t intervene directly, well, you’ve not got the Biblical God, but the Deist one, since He couldn’t have been working through coincidence.
See the difference?



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Ray Ingles

posted January 21, 2010 at 7:22 pm


Wayne – I wasn’t saying anything about people finding inspiration, meaning and dignity in thinking themselves created by God(s). All I was trying to point out is that believing otherwise does not automatically imply a lack of inspiration, meaning, or dignity in humans. One can respect and rejoice in human experience even if one thinks it comes from other means.



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What's Good for the Goose

posted January 21, 2010 at 8:49 pm


Tumarion: I don’t think you are right about ID. As I see it, not as an expert in the field to be sure but as an interested observer, it is a scientific hypothesis that some life processes are best explained by the actions of an intelligent agent. Some say that means God, but it isn’t trying to prove the Judeo/Christian God. And unlike Creationism, it doesn’t seek to prove Genesis or another creation story. What ID doesn’t state is that God “acts” in the gaps, or other such thing, but that the best explanation, and perhaps in some areas, the only logical explanation, of observable processes is an agent acting upon life. It’s a minority and heterodox view, but it isn’t religion. It is science.
From my perspective the real difference between TE and ID is that TE seems afraid to challenge the Darwinists, since they accept the argument of pure random materialism as seeming to explain all, but posit a secret intelligence–God–beneath it that can’t be detected. It is having one’s cake and eating it too.



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roy pologe

posted January 21, 2010 at 9:28 pm


What if in a dream something relevant to someone other than the dreamer is communicated and incidentally revealed. Followed by the person to whom it was casually revealed finding it to be faultlessly true, and being the only person by reason of time, place and circumstance to evidence its’ happening. If not for a witness to atttest to its’ happening as foretold, I would myself remain doubtful. By no stretch of intellectual imagination could it be described as coincidental. Was it then TE or ID?



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Turmarion

posted January 22, 2010 at 10:22 am


What’s Good for the Goose: Some say that means God, but [ID] isn’t trying to prove the Judeo/Christian God.
That’s what ID people say, but if you look at the religious affilition of most prominent ID advocates (nearly all conservative Christians with a few Jews and a very insignificant number of others) and the so-called “Wedge Strategy”, you’ll see that in effect “proving the Judeo-Christian God” is exactly what ID is trying to do. Now, there’s nothing wrong with proving God’s existence, but that’s the job of philosophy, not science, and that should be done openly, not covertly for a purportedly different reason.
What ID doesn’t state is that God “acts” in the gaps, or other such thing, but that the best explanation, and perhaps in some areas, the only logical explanation, of observable processes is an agent acting upon life.
Well, if the “agent acting upon life” is God, then ID does say that God acts in the gaps. No IDer is seriously asserting that the “agent” or “agents” are aliens from Sirius or the Flying Spaghetti Monster. They’ll say things like that when speaking to the secular public, but when speaking to church groups, they honestly talk about getting God back into public life, or about creationism. A good example is here.
From my perspective the real difference between TE and ID is that TE seems afraid to challenge the Darwinists, since they accept the argument of pure random materialism as seeming to explain all, but posit a secret intelligence–God–beneath it that can’t be detected.
TE is no more “afraid to challenge the Darwinists” than it is to challenge the spherical Earth theory. Given that there is not the slightest shred of evidence that Earth is flat, “challenging” the spherical Earth theory would be absurd. Likewise, the most ID has ever done is to show that there are gaps in our knowledge of evolution. To say that there is a gap is very much different from saying that this implies design. An analogy I’ve discussed at much greater lenghth previously on this blog is the motion of the planets. Without going into detail, until the 17th Century, is was thought that only the action of intelligent agents could explain the motion of the planets, since nothing else known to the science of the time could explain it. Then Newton’s theory of gravity in one stroke explained it all, with no need for recourse to intelligent agents.
Now one could argue that gravity is an “argument of pure random materialism”; but I don’t think anyone is suggesting that we should return to the idea that angels move the planets or that gravity disproves God just because He or His angels aren’t directly moving the spheres. I mean, God made gravity, right?
Anyway, ID in effect makes what is called the “God of the gaps” argument–since we can’t explain it, it must imply God did it. The problem is that gaps tend to get filled, and if one bases one’s faith on them, then one’s faith tends to get damaged. TE tends to avoid this by being macroscopic in focus. That is, that anything exists at all is indicative of God’s creation of it; but we don’t try to dictate how He did it or the extent to which He worked and works through secondary causes.
As to God “not being detected”, isn’t that what faith is for? And remember Isaiah 45:15–“Truly you are a God who hides Himself.”



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Philip Koplin

posted January 22, 2010 at 10:29 am


Good for the Goose.
Saying that “some life processes are best explained by the actions of an intelligent agent” is not a scientific hypothesis because it specifies no mechanism that observation or experiment could prove or disprove. In fact, it specifies no mechanism at all beyond the same one-size-fits-all vague “God did it” every time you can’t find an alternative explanation you like, and so, in spite of your disclaimer, invoking an “agent acting on life” is exactly the same as saying that God acts in the gaps. It isn’t science, it’s religion.



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miles

posted January 22, 2010 at 10:34 am


Dear Phil,
You miss part of my intent in my sharing some personal observations. Having worked in close contact with the results of many abhorrent events, and having witnessed many such events, I do not believe that one may ascribe to the hand of a specific deity, any specific causation. The nature of the universe is such that all one may possess in reference to it, is an opinion based on ones frame of reference which results from the accumulation of experience. The proportionality of ones conclusions to the conclusions of another individual are based on ones very limited ability to perceive, analyze, and comprehend. When studying physics, one discovers alternate dimensions, parallel universes, and entanglement. These ideas start as a philosophical concept and are then described utilizing aesthetically elegant mathematical descriptions. These ideas persist until an even more elegant solution surfaces to supercede the previous position. The discussions in these pages in which we partake, are analogous to the evolution of ideas of physics. I remember my first geology professor stating that he was going to introduce to us, a brand new theory. He stated further that we could take it with a grain of salt, because the plate tectonics paper had just been published and was still viewed with some skepticism. Thank you for your perspective. I sincerely hope that you continue to explore your existence and and that you find proportional conclusions that contribute to your happiness.
Dear Steve,
Sexual reproduction is a wonderful proximate cause for our being and should be indulged frequently. You are interesting and I like your argument for those that believe that God must exist simply because some interesting things are beyond their capability of explanation. Most of the time our western oriented discussions of God imply an entity, individual or being. It is an interesting but futile exercise to try to persuade one of the existence or non existence of the concept since each concept is individual in nature. It is fun however to share in the discourse.



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Philip Koplin

posted January 22, 2010 at 2:11 pm


Miles
First you stated “No matter how small our view, … the evidence of God and creation is everywhere” and “the underlying grand scheme of God is evident,” but now you say “I do not believe that one may ascribe to the hand of a specific deity, any specific causation.” If no specific causation can be ascribed, where is the evidence?



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What's Good for the Goose

posted January 22, 2010 at 6:23 pm


Undirected evolution has not been proven in anyway near the same way as gravity or the spherical earth. Not even close.
Again, ID is science, in that it uses evidence to investigate a heterodoxy hypothesis. TE is religion, either true or pseudo, as in using a pretense of faith to convince otherwise skeptical religious people to surrender their healthy skepticism. That is a big difference, I guess.



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Miles Wyatt

posted January 22, 2010 at 8:05 pm


Dear Phil,
I am merely sharing a lifetime of personal perception. Ones personal perception does not exist to nor should not exist to constitute evidence for others. I do not personally believe that it is important to present evidence or philosophical argument in order to persuade others of the validity of my perceptions. I used to think it amusing to question others about the nature of or about the existence of God. One either perceives or does not, based whether one has shared and assimilated similar experiences. It is easy to observe the causative effect on a dropped object and to mathematically calculate the potential and then kinetic energy of the object while in motion. However what happens when you drop an elemental particle? The first thought experiment is rather simple and the second is theoretical. We believe the first empirical experimental result because it is visible and tangible. Why believe anything at all about the elemental particle since it is neither tangible nor visible. If one were to measure the position of the elemental particle then one can not measure its’ velocity. The converse is true. This is not an argument for the existence of God. Perception and belief are personal and do not require causative verification to exist. If you are looking for verifiable, tangible, measurable parameters as the basis for your beliefs, then the belief becomes a commodity. One must be open to perception and to ongoing reevaluation of belief. When I perceive our universe I see God in everything. Others may not see anything while others believe in the existence of an anthropomorphic deity or believe in the non existence of such a deity. This is a narrow dichotomy and tends to prevent us from exploring other perceptions. We do not know one another however I am curious. Are you seeking confirmation of the validity of your perceptions?



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Philip Koplin

posted January 24, 2010 at 1:15 am


Good for the Goose: With regard to ID, what is the scientific hypothesis, and what sort of scientific evidence bears on it?
Miles: What I’m seeking is clarification of the apparent contradiction in your statements that (a) there is evidence of God and (b) there is no causation ascribable to a deity. If there is no evidence of causation, of on what sort of evidence does your personal perception rely?



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Turmarion

posted January 24, 2010 at 10:58 pm


What’s Good for the Goose: Undirected evolution has not been proven in anyway near the same way as gravity or the spherical earth. Not even close.
Probably nothing biological can be demonstrated to the level of gravity; but opponents of the heliocentric solar system fought every bit as hard as IDers, and lost. In any case, evolution is proven very nearly to the level of gravity, as it ties in with things in other areas of science (e.g. radiometric dating, etc.). Also, slipping in “undirected” is misleading. Whether the processes that drive evolution are directed or not is a philosophical question, not a scientific one. Something that to us seems “random” may not be from God’s perspective (e.g., the movie David chose to check out). We cannot “prove” one way or the other. That evolution occurs, however, and that it occurs through natural processes (natural selection, mutation, etc.) are undeniable to anyone who’s actually studied the evidence. Whether it’s directed or not is a philosophical question, and not really relevant to the reality of evolution.
Again, ID is science, in that it uses evidence to investigate a heterodoxy hypothesis.
Using evidence to investigate a hypothesis, heterodox or otherwise, is not science per se. What makes science scientific is the rules for what hypotheses you consider, what kind of evidence is acceptable, what predictions a theory can make, whether what you theorize is repeatable, and so on. Without these checks and procedures, you might as well call someone claiming Bigfoot exists on the basis of a few “footprint” casts or someone who says that “fairy circles” of mushrooms are evidence for the Little People scientists, since they are “using evidence to investigate a heterodox hypothesis”!
TE is religion, either true or pseudo, as in using a pretense of faith to convince otherwise skeptical religious people to surrender their healthy skepticism.
Theistic evolution is not science, nor does it claim to be. It is a theological/philosophical reflection on what science tells us. Analogy: When it was proved that gravity, not angels, explains the planetary movements, people of faith on reflection concluded that gravity is not proof against God, but that it reflects His glory that much the more since He was able to ensure the workings of the cosmos with the forces He created, and didn’t have to delegate angels for the purpose. Likewise, TE takes the well-established fact of evolution and reflects on the ways in which we can see God working through it. This makes Dawkins-type atheists and anti-evolution theists upset; but the science is the science (to those who don’t like it) and no amount of science can either prove or disprove God (to the Dawkins crowd). In any case, TE certainly does not make unscientific and unsupportable claims as does ID.



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