Materialism Isn’t Enough (RJS)

Materialism Isn’t Enough (RJS) December 18, 2014

The next two interviews in Science and Religion: 5 Questions are with William Lane Craig and William Dembski, both Christian philosophers. (See the post 5 Questions … And Some Answers for the questions posed in this book). William Lane Craig is trained in Philosophy (Ph.D. University of Birmingham) and Theology (D. Theol. University of Munich), while William Dembski is trained in Mathematics (Ph.D. University of Chicago)  and Philosophy (Ph.D. Univ. of Illinois, Chicago) with an M.Div. from Princeton.

Both William Craig and Bill Dembski hold to an old earth and neither sees any reason to read Genesis as portraying creation over a literal six days some 6000  years ago. Both, however, find reason to question the “natural” evolutionary mechanisms for the origin of the diversity of life and argue against the sufficiency of natural mechanisms for the origin of life and the evolution of the diversity of life we see. Materialism alone simply isn’t a sufficiently powerful explanation. Both Craig and Dembski hold to a form of progressive creationism.  Their arguments are interesting – especially in light of the post on Tuesday outlining the reaction to Darwin’s theory of evolution at Princeton college and seminary (Purpose Matters!).

William Lane Craig addresses question two “Do you think science and religion are compatible when is comes to understanding cosmology, biology, ethics, and/or the human mind? at length,” giving only short responses to the other four questions posed in this book. Each of the four areas in question two is considered separately.

Cosmology. Science and Christianity are compatible when it comes to cosmology. The Judeo-Christian view that the world was created a finite time ago is consistent with the Big Bang theory for the origin of the universe. There is a beginning to time in our universe.  The fine-tuning of the universe is not only consistent with Christianity but points to a Creator and Designer of the universe. He argues against the various multiverse type explanations, considering them incredibly improbable. The fine-tuning is not plausibly explained by either physical necessity or chance, leaving a designer as the best explanation.

Biology. Craig also argues that biology and evolutionary theory are compatible with theism. When scientists claim that there is no direction or purpose they have overstepped the bounds of science.

… science is just not in a position to say with any justification that there is no divinely intended direction or goal of the evolutionary process. How could anyone say on the basis of scientific evidence that the whole scheme was not set up by a provident God to arrive at homo sapiens on planet Earth? (p. 35)

God could intervene to control direction or he could set the initial conditions to arrive at the desired end. There is no way that scientific inquiry alone could determine that this is or is not so.   Craig also argues that the religious scientist has a freedom to follow the evidence that the atheist committed to naturalism does not. The probability of the origin of life from inanimate chemicals appears so small as to be effectively impossible. The most natural explanation is  that the origin of life is “an event which was supernaturally brought about by God.” (p. 36)  He also argues at length that the evolution of the diversity of life by “natural” means is improbable.

But that raises the question, then, why think that it has evolved by these neo-Darwinian mechanisms? Indeed, doesn’t the evidence suggest just the opposite? A progressive creationist view involving periodic divine causal interventions seems to fit the evidence better than naturalism. (p. 39)

But this is an argument about mechanism, the sufficiency of natural mechanisms, and the presence or absence of divine intervention. It is not an argument against the general evolutionary process, which is well supported by the data.  The argument makes a leap from “this proposed natural mechanism is improbable” to “the best explanation is God.”

The human mind is the biggest issue though. Craig believes that humans are composed of body and soul, and science alone can’t account for the soul. The reduction of the mind to nothing more than the chemical processes of a brain doesn’t fit the data. This has led some to a non-reductionist physicalism where the brain gives rise to states of awareness. But Craig finds this unsatisfactory as well. Reducing the self to states of awareness is (1) incompatible with self-identity over time, (2) doesn’t make sense of intentional states of consciousness, (3) is not compatible with free will, (4) is not compatible with mental causation. A purely natural explanation for the human mind reduces intentionality, free will, and mental causation to nothing more than illusion.

Finally ethics … “science can at the very most tell us something about the way in which we have come to hold our moral beliefs, but it says nothing about the objective truth of those beliefs or their ontological foundation.” (p. 42)

William Dembski addresses all five questions, but his answers for all five focus on the problems with a purely materialist worldview. He notes that evolution can be compatible with Christian faith when it is simply a claim that organisms changed dramatically over time – but the eradication of teleology, purpose and plan, is not compatible with Christian faith. He finds it troubling that evolution provides the atheist with an account for the world without any need for God or purpose. As Richard Dawkins claimed “Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist” and this is a problem. While this isn’t enough to negate evolution, it brings up the possibility that the natural mechanism is defended primarily to remove God from the picture. Dembski agrees with Craig that evolutionary explanations for the development of the diversity of life are exceedingly improbable. “Now if I thought that reason and evidence for this evolutionary view were persuasive, I might have been swept into this materialist form of thinking, possibly adding a theistic twist to it, as the theistic evolutionists do. But I did not find the theories of chemical and biological evolution persuasive.” (p. 46)

Dembski sees mainstream science as straight-jacketed by materialism. Most philosophical discussions concerning science are also limited by the implicit assumptions of materialism. Science and religion are not separate magesteria. He notes that Stephen Jay Gould had to redefine both science and religion to ensure separate magesteria – in particular he “had to redefine science as a materialist enterprise and religion as a purely personal one.” (p. 48)  Dembski sees a major problem with an all encompassing materialism that eliminates the possibility of supernatural intervention.

[M]y debate partner Michael Ruse … wrote a book titled Can a Darwinian be Christian? There he allows that Darwinians can be Christians provided that Christianity can be made compatible with unbreakable natural law. A consequence of this requirement is that the Resurrection of Jesus must be understood not as a real miraculous event. As Ruse puts it, “Even the supreme miracle of the resurrection requires no law-breaking return from the dead. One can think of Jesus in a trance, or more likely that he really was physically dead but that on the third day a group of people, hitherto downcast, were filled with great joy and hope.” I would much prefer that Gould and Ruse simply say that Christianity is nonsense (like Richard Dawkins) than go through such contortions. (p. 48)

Dembski considers his greatest contribution to the science and faith discussion one of breaking the straight-jacket of materialism.

In my view science – an ideologically invested science where the ideology in question is materialism – has run roughshod over religion. My contribution to this dialogue, as I see it, is to help stop this abuse of religion by science. Now there are two ways to stop the abuse. One is to assert, as Alister McGrath does, that the content of science as we now have it is just fine and that what’s really the problem is people like Richard Dawkins who illegitimately draw anti-religious implications from science. If you will, McGrath will grant Dawkins his science but question his metaphysics. The more radical approach, and the one that I and fellow ID theorists adopt, is to challenge Dawkins not just on his metaphysics but also on his science, arguing, in particular, that key aspects of his understanding of evolution (such as the creative power of natural selection) are not based on evidence (despite his protestations that the evidence is “overwhelming”) but follow as a logical consequence of his atheistic materialism. His key claims for evolution, therefore do not stand up under scrutiny. (p. 50)

He and his coworkers are attempting to build a positive argument pointing to a real teleology and purpose in the design of the universe. Impersonal “natural” processes alone are insufficient. Materialism is the problem and materialism is not enough.  Materialism is the greatest challenge for the future of the relationship between science and religion

materialism has subverted the content of science and therewith radically undermined religion.

a materialist science ensures that all of religion’s high ambitions are merely pretense and grandiosity.

The need to dismiss or radically reconceive religious ideas such as the supernatural, divine transcendence, divine action, divine power, and knowledge, teleology in nature, ethical realism, etc. has all flowed, as I see it from this commitment to a materialist science. (all three quotes p. 52)

The hope for the future lies in breaking this destructive overarching materialist worldview.

Summary comments – my own view. Both William Craig and especially Bill Dembski are right to identify overarching and unrelenting materialism as a major problem. Dembski’s quote of Ruse is especially appropriate because it illustrates the way in which Gould, Ruse, and many others, do not actually understand Christianity. That God interacts with his creatures in a personal fashion is a inescapable part of Christian faith. God became man is central to Christianity and quite simply not natural. This is the point I was making in the post No Miracles Allowed? on Gould’s book Rocks of Ages a few weeks back. It has been the subject of numerous other posts as well.

Dembski’s approach to counter this materialist worldview strikes me as ill conceived. His approach is certainly more radical than that of McGrath – but it is also less convincing. The probabilistic arguments that he and Craig put forth against evolution are not going anywhere. There is not enough information available to effectively calculate final probabilities. The most they could possibly achieve is a demonstration that a specific mechanism is insufficient. Such a conclusion, however, doesn’t lead to a designer as the best explanation.

Protein Folding1An example I’ve used before is Levinthal’s paradox in the protein folding problem. A protein has an astronomical number of possible conformations. There is simply not enough time to sample all of these conformations. If proteins fold through a random search of conformation space most will never fold into productive structures, even if they search for 14.7 billion years (the age of the universe).  This doesn’t mean that God folds every protein individually, but that the process of protein folding does not involve a random search of configuration space. With respect to the evolution of the diversity of life … if random variation and natural selection is not sufficient, that doesn’t mean that God must have intervened to produce different kinds (sorry Craig). It means that other mechanisms must also be at work. In fact a number of different evolutionary forces are thought to be at work and ongoing research is likely to identify more influences and mechanisms. Bill Dembski and William Craig are welcome to consider the possibility that one of them might be divine intervention, but we are also, as scientists, obligated to propose and investigate other “natural” mechanisms as well.

Finally it is important to point out that Alister McGrath will grant Dawkins his science (or most of his science) not on Dawkins’s authority but because McGrath also understands science (he has a Ph.D. in Molecular Biophysics). Likewise I, Francis Collins, Dennis Venema, Denis Alexander, Darrel Falk, Ard Louis, Simon Conway Morris, and many other “theistic evolutionists” grant the science because we understand much of the science, the process of science, and are working scientists, not because we defer to authority.  None of us will grant Dawkins his metaphysics because here we agree with Dembski. Materialism isn’t enough.

I don’t think an approach that seeks to undermine well established scientific understanding in evolutionary biology will achieve the desired goal of breaking the destructive overarching materialist worldview.  Better to focus on the materialist metaphysics.

Where should we focus – on the science or on the metaphysics? Are these separable?

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail [at]

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