Paper #1 

Paper: Thaxton

Respondent: Wright 


Yockey: I have a story that Charlie may or may not want to use to illustrate that there are sometimes more than one way to interpret data. Charlie, do you want to hear this?

Thaxton: Yes. (Laughter)

Yockey: Let the record show that I'm telling this story under duress. It seems there was a psychiatrist examining a patient and showing him the Rorschach ink blot test. The psychiatrist showed him the first one, and asked, "What is this?" The patient replied, "That's a naked man and a naked woman but I'm too embarrassed to tell you what they are doing." So he showed him the second one, and the patient said, "That's another naked man and naked woman but I'm too embarrassed to tell you what they're doing." He showed him a third. "That's another naked man and naked woman but I'm too embarrassed to tell you what they're doing." He showed him ten in all. Now, psychiatrists are not supposed to show their emotions no matter what their crazy patients do or say. But this was too much. So the psychiatrist said, "Look, you have a very serious sex problem. This is going to take a long series of therapy sessions." To which the patient replied, "You're the one with the sex problem, Doctor. You're the one who's showing me all those dirty pictures." (Laughter)

Wiester: Talk about point of view.

Wilcox: Charlie, will you put up your transparency again for a minute? Do you imply that if we find a natural cause for an event, then intelligent cause wasn't involved?

Thaxton: Not necessarily. I suggest that if intelligence was involved but you cannot detect it in any way by experience, then the event belongs in the category of natural-cause theism. A mind or intelligence may be behind the natural cause but I cannot affirm it through experience. If you are able identify the cause through experience, then it belongs in the category of intelligent-cause theism.

Wilcox: Isn't it intelligence versus non-intelligence that you mean? How do you define natural?

Thaxton: That which emanates from the activity of matter, energy, space, time, and motion is natural.

Wilcox: Really you're saying intelligence is supernatural, or non-material, or anti-natural, or something like that.

Thaxton: This is one of the vagaries of language and one of the reasons for this conference. In normal conversation, we use the words "natural" and "intelligent" without any problems in communication. As long as we are talking about ripples on a beach and the Old Man of the Mountain and Mount Rushmore, people don't get into these kinds of discussions. It's only when we enter the origins area, it seems to me, that the question comes up about what's behind what we observe.

My point is that within science, we are restricted to what we justify by experience. Whether or not there are causes at work that we cannot know through experience is a separate question. If on the basis of experience you can identify a natural cause, then do so. The same holds for an intelligent cause. And if on the basis of experience you can identify both, that's fine too. In science, the limitation on what we can affirm is experience. That's what I was trying to point out.

Wilcox: Well, as a Christian theist would you say there are any natural causes which do not involve intelligence?

Thaxton: Speaking from my philosophical point of view (as a Christian theist) I would say no, that God is certainly behind every event. But what about these terms, "natural cause" and "intelligent cause?" I'm not the one who thought them up. I just use them. So what do people mean by these terms?

If everyone who uses the term "natural cause" thinks there is a mind behind it, they don't say so. They just use the term "natural cause." If you hold that an intelligent cause, or supernatural cause, is behind the natural cause, that is a philosophical issue--not a scientific one. It's true that we all bring to our discussion of science certain metaphysical points of view. None of us on this planet is capable of being truly neutral and without a personal philosophy. But we still have a long tradition of using the vocabulary of natural and intelligent causes.

Wilcox: Natural versus intelligent.

Thaxton: Yes.

Wilcox: But you could have natural and intelligent. Could you have non-natural and non-intelligent?

Thaxton: If it was non-natural and non-intelligent I don't know how I could be expected to talk about it through experience.

Wilcox: No. But some of this business about bubbles found in a vacuum remind me of a materialistic miracle, or something like it.

Mills: A few years ago when some of these controversies between creation and evolution came up, the American Society of Biological Chemists submitted a resolution to the membership that read:

"Evolution theory is a scientific hypothesis predicting certain past, present, and future biological events, many but not all of which are subject to experimental observation and scientific tests....It is not a religious belief. Its proper place is the science classroom."

The point is that many scientists object to anything they can classify as a religious belief. So if they put an intelligent cause into the category of religious belief, most scientists are going to say that is not a scientific concept. I believe Charles' idea has merit: the idea of using the term "intelligent cause" as opposed to speaking about the supernatural or about religious belief. That, as I see it, is a major issue.

Wiester: The thought occurred to me that in science quite often we don't know the cause of something. I object, frankly, when I see philosophers like Carl Sagan saying, "Such-and-such happened quite by accident," or "purely by chance." This is the atheist's god-of-the-gaps.

Thaxton: Darwin himself pointed out that we sometimes assign causes as a cover for our ignorance. I certainly have done that myself, and I've been called on it. The lesson I've learned through the experience is that in science we must restrict ourselves to what we can affirm through experience. Whether or not there is a mind behind it is a matter of faith or philosophy or metaphysics. An atheist, a Christian, a Hindu, and a Jew can all practice science. This is what we mean when we talk about the "neutrality" of science. The reason people had the idea that science is neutral is that theists and non-theists alike can affirm a natural cause based on experience without getting into a philosophical or religious debate. Recognizing a natural cause doesn't commit you to any particular philosophical point of view.

People from different philosophical points of view may both use the term "natural cause" but mean something quite different. A theist who affirms a natural cause has in the back of his mind that there is a God behind it. But when he is in the presence of a scientific meeting what he talks about is not the God behind it but the natural cause. The atheist at the scientific meeting agrees about the natural cause but what he has in the back of his mind is not the same at all. He means there is nothing behind it. Neither of them says what they think is behind the observed causal relation. They only speak about what they agree on, namely, the natural cause.

There is an equivocation in the way people use the term "natural cause." People invest the term with whatever meaning they bring to it from their philosophical commitments and background. And my point is that there is just as much an equivocation in what people mean by the term "intelligent cause." People may invest it with different meanings depending on their philosophical and religious commitments. Speaking about an intelligent cause can be just as "neutral" as speaking about a natural cause. It doesn't tie one to a specific philosophical point of view. Our theist and our atheist attending a scientific meeting can both affirm an intelligent cause just as they do a natural cause without having to go into what they mean by it philosophically.

Bradley: I like the sense of the argument, but I think the bottom line practically speaking is that people don't have any idea what kind of an intelligent cause there might be besides the supernatural. I don't think there are any good examples that people can bring to mind of intelligent natural causes--natural miracles, if you want to think of them that way, miracles in nature that are not divine in their origin. I don't think scientists who are naturalists would accept your second category, intelligent-cause naturalism. They would simply argue that if something looks like a case of intelligent-cause naturalism, then there is really some hidden natural cause that we simply haven't found yet. I believe in principle what you're saying is fair, but in practice I believe it's going to be hard to get people to accept it.

Of course, in a sense Hoyle is arguing for intelligent-cause naturalism but most scientists regard Hoyle as someone who has sort of lost his mind. I believe they reject Hoyle partly because they don't accept this category. For them it is a delusionary category.

Thaxton: Of course, a materialist will always resolve the discussion into material terms. That's what a materialist is. But that's a case of drawing conclusions from one's philosophy, precisely on the same level as someone who draws the conclusion that there is a supernatural deity behind it all.

There is an interesting passage by Carl Friedrich von Weizsacker in The Relevance of Physics in which he discusses the base sequences on DNA. He says, When you first see the sequencing in the DNA, the first thing that comes to mind is that a great intelligence must have created this. But then he quickly says, Of course, we know that couldn't be. What he's saying is that the structure of DNA bears only a superficial resemblance to the products of intelligence, like we see in Old Man on The Mountain. But what I am saying is that the structure of DNA is more like Mt. Rushmore than the Old Man on the Mountain. This is something I hope to show in the context of this conference.

Bradley: I see your point. But the problem that I find is not theoretical as much as practical. In trying to press a point like this with people who happen to be materialists or atheists, I find they simply refuse to agree that there is such a category as a non-divine intelligent cause.

Van Till: With Dick Wright and Dave Wilcox, I, too, have considerable uneasiness with setting the terms "natural cause" and "intelligent cause" side by side as though we are forced to make an either/or choice. As a Christian theist, I am fully committed to seeing the whole physical universe and all of its patterned behavior as a continuous display of the Creator's intelligence. In fact, it strikes me as even more remarkable if the Creator has fashioned His handiwork in such a way that it need not be subjected to intervention in the normal working of things, even in its formative development.

So the question I'd like to raise is this: Is the created order the sort of order that is functionally complete, or is it not? Did God fashion the universe in such a way that it has an inherent functional incompleteness, requiring a Creator to come down and work along side of, or in place of, those incompletenesses in the created order? Personally, I am more impressed by a Creator who can design a created order which is functionally complete--not only for its day-to-day operation but also for its historical development. I'm not looking for places where God can "fit in" to the activity of the created world. He's there everywhere and at all times.

Ross: I support Charlie's contention that there is a need to distinguish between various meanings of the term "intelligent cause" because there are new meanings appearing in the scientific literature. In the physics literature in particular, there are attempts to attribute events to an intelligent cause--but what is meant is not God but the human race. Whether these ideas are valid or not is open to discussion. Nevertheless, scientists are raising the issue of alternative sorts of intelligent causes.

Wiester: Are you talking about the anthropic principle?

Ross: Yes, various forms of the anthropic principle would be an example of an attempt to define an intelligent cause as something other than a Creator God.

Denton: I'd like to make one comment as a non-Christian. The reason people are atheists is that they can't see any overall meaning to the cosmos. When we see a message "John loves Mary," we understand its source to be intelligent because you understand the intention of the author and the end of the message. You cannot say living systems are the outcome of intelligence unless you can understand the intention of the Creator and the end of creation. That's why people like myself are atheists. I don't see any meaning to the cosmos, or any intelligence in operation. If anybody here knows what the ultimate end of human life is, I will ask, like Hume, what it is.

Now, people say DNA is a message like a human language. That would imply that the phenotypes which it is specifying have some meaning or some end. That they haven't an end or purpose is the traditional view of atheism. And of course, I believe this position is irrefutable because nobody can really say what the intention of a hypothetical creator was in making the world or what its end is. But if they haven't an end or purpose, you can't say that its source was intelligence.

Nelson: It seems to me you could perfectly well have an artifact for which you could assign no purpose but you could nevertheless conclude that it's an artifact and not a natural object on the grounds of the properties it has.

Denton: Which properties?

Nelson: Symmetry, standing out from a random background, defying what other expectations you might have. It seems to me that in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence the whole research program would be dead in the water without this assumption that you can assign an intelligent cause to an otherwise natural phenomenon based on certain indicia that the phenomenon might have, irrespective of whether you know the purpose or know the end of that particular object. So it doesn't seem to me that you need to know final purpose or the ultimate purpose, contrary to what Hume argued.

Denton: We are talking about intelligence like man here because that's the only intelligence we know.

Nelson: I'm defending Charlie's point that assigning an intelligent cause can be proper within science. The conclusion that some phenomenon is the result of an intelligent cause can be a reasonable conclusion, and furthermore a falsifiable one, even if we do not know the ultimate end in a cosmological sense.

Pun: I'd like to introduce some theological arguments. Separating the spiritual world from natural world is a fallacy, in my view. I think John Calvin addressed this when he suggested that God reveals Himself in nature as well as in Scripture. So God is involved in both His supernatural activities at the original creation and in natural processes, such as natural selection, in creating all the varieties we see today. In that sense both theistic evolutionists and creationists have only half the story. Theistic evolutionists suggest God only works through natural processes and creationists suggest God only works through special intervention. It seems to me both are committing the error of deism. Theistic evolutionists see God as active only as the clock maker who set the clock in motion and now only watches from outside. Creationists see God as active only in the first seven days and in special miracles but has nothing to do with the normal processes in the world today.

Meyer: I'd like to make a short historical point about the difference between ordered cause and intelligent cause, or natural cause and intelligent causes. One of the things I've come across is that in the late middle ages there was a distinction drawn by most of the thinkers, starting with William of Ockham, between the ordered power of God and the absolute power of God. This was seen as a biblical distinction between what we would call miracles and God's power in sustaining the natural order. One of the advantages of being a theist in approaching the question of origins is that I have the option of being open in my investigation: If I assume there was a mind at work, I can still ask whether the means used were interventionist or ordered. The theist is open to either possibility and can freely investigate to determine what in fact was the case--whether, in Ockham's language, an ordered power or an absolute power was at work in a particular instance.

The materialist, on the other hand, has got only one possibility and I think that is why there is so much resistance to the notion of an intelligent cause. There simply aren't the categories to consider other possibilities. Intelligent cause must be reduced to material terms.

Thaxton: It was Aristotle who, as far as I know, first made this distinction between intelligent and natural causes. He used the terms "primary" and "secondary" causes, however-- along with his four types of causes: efficient cause, final cause, material cause, and formal cause. These same terms were used in the middle ages. They were modified by people like John Stuart Mill based on new ideas of causation stemming from Newtonian physics. At any rate, when we talk about an intelligent cause, what we mean is a primary efficient cause. When we talk about a natural cause, what we mean is a secondary efficient cause. I've just shortened it to natural and intelligent. My point is that these distinctions did not originate from within the theistic community.

Newman: Some years ago the Smithsonian Institution had an exhibition of various implements which they understood to be artifacts for which they did not know any use. Yet they had some evidence they had been made in the last generation or two in the United States. That suggests to us, I think, that use is not the only way by which we determine artifacts. There must have been some other things going on--for example, they were made of steel and they showed evidence of having been machined, or made of plastic, or things of that sort. That would be worth keeping in mind here when we talk about whether positing an intelligent cause requires that we know the purpose of an object.

On the distinction between natural and intelligent causes, we need to keep in mind that most people we encounter (other than strict atheists) are in fact going to postulate a combination of the two causes. What we really find, then, is a spectrum with positions that appeal exclusively to intelligent cause at one end, shading into positions that see an intelligent cause making use of some natural causes, shading into positions that see intelligence only as a metaphysical cause behind completely natural causes.

Van Till brought up the question of how complete the universe is. I'm not sure I would use that distinction. We can think of an incomplete guitar as one that doesn't have strings on it, or something of that sort. And yet a guitar when complete is a device that is intended to be used by an intelligent being to operate. We might think of the universe. Is the universe like an automaton--turn it on and it runs by itself? Is it like a puppet where God is pulling the strings all the time? Or is it something like a guitar where he's playing all the time but there's an interaction of natural and supernatural causes? I don't think we know the answer to that. As an apologist, I'm inclined to think the Bible is saying something to the effect that there are enough interventions that those who end up in an atheistic camp are going to have some things to answer for methodologically at the judgement. Our responsibility as Christians is to try and find out where those things are and press them a little so they can answer for it before the judgement rather than wait until it's too late.

Olson: I'm sensitive to Dr. Denton's comments and I believe the theologian Karl Barth was as well. Barth was very much against natural revelation, probably for the reason Dr. Denton has brought up. That the revelation in nature is incomplete and it does not answer the question of purpose. What's it all mean? That's why more and more as I get older I am impressed with the need to depend on special revelation, which adds to natural revelation: that Jesus Christ, the Revelation of God, the Word of God, entered the material world of which we are a part and capped it, if you will, with that missing ingredient that, no matter how we strive as scientists, will always be beyond us.