Paper #7 

Paper: Mills

Respondent: Stien


Stien: I have some difficulty about the distinctions that are drawn between natural and not-natural, or natural and intelligent. If one assumes that the only way to explain the origin of life, or the origin of informational molecules, is the intervention of an intelligence, it seems one is obligated to wonder about other points in the process at which intervention may be required. The step from these molecules to cellular organization is a big, big step. From cell to multicellular organization is another big step. From brain to mind or consciousness is another one. Are we going to assume that, in terms of our contemporary investigative abilities, we don't know how these work, and then assume that intervention by intelligence is the only answer to it all? For myself, I'm hopeful that, with the power of investigative biochemistry and molecular biology as they are now practiced, these are going to give us more and more information about what is going on here. I believe that is our best hope of understanding where this all comes from.

Thaxton: Usually in the origin-of-life discussion, we think in terms of DNA first, or protein first. It's a return to the old chicken-and-egg problem: Which came first? Dr. Stien points out that it may not be a question of a chicken and an egg but of the whole barnyard. You have to bring in not just the DNA and protein, but the whole cellular context in which both of these function. That's certainly true.

Let me come back to the question about natural and intelligent cause. To me, not knowing how Antonio Stradivari made his violin does not prevent me from concluding that an intelligent, or non-natural, cause made that violin. My point is that if we find something in the natural order that has some of the same characteristics as a violin, we don't have to know how it was made in order to conclude that it was made by some sort of intelligent cause.

Mills: I believe the idea of an intelligent cause is perfectly consistent with a scientific viewpoint. The National Academy of Sciences came out with a statement that anything classified as a religious viewpoint is not legitimate in science. It is this doctrinaire point of view that has driven people to extremes in searching for some natural explanation for life, even when the theories are not plausible.

I believe you ought to have the option, particularly in regard to the origin of life and maybe other areas as well, of keeping open the possibility that there is an intelligent cause for it. Not that we can necessarily determine in science what this cause is. But I believe the thermodynamic evidence is particularly strong that the sequence of amino acids or proteins cannot occur by chance. Anyone who postulates chance has to use far more faith than one who postulates an intelligent cause behind it.

Thaxton: Of course, when we look at a Stradivari violin, we don't say it's because we cannot find a natural cause for it that we think an intelligent cause made it. We don't say we believe in Stradivari by faith. It's that in our experience it is intelligence and not any natural causes that make that sort of thing. It's a rational conclusion from our experience. It fits the pattern of what we know.

Stien: I believe there is a difference between the question who did something and how he did it. The Stradivari violin is supposedly different from other violins, but we don't have the option of asking Stradivari how he did it. The only thing we can do is look at his violin and see how it is different from other violins. Maybe that will give us insights into how he did it. Likewise, if we are curious about how this all came about, the one thing that we really have to investigate is what is here now. That might give us some insights about how, setting aside the matter of who did it.

Meyer: Dr. Van Till and Dr. Stien and others have expressed a discomfort about the distinction between intelligent causes and natural causes. The discomfort comes, I think, from a theological viewpoint that sees God as both the creator and the sustainer of the universe. But Charles' distinction comes from a scientific viewpoint, i.e., our perspective looking at nature. So the distinction seems to rest on whether we are approaching the question theologically or scientifically.

We see regularities in nature and we acknowledge as theists that those come about because of the pattern of God's working in the world. We have many scientific colleagues who see the same regularities but who are naturalists--who believe that these are simply properties of nature and go no further in explaining them. So on the level of observation or science, we agree with our naturalist colleagues, though on the level of faith we go beyond them.

It seems what Charles is trying to do for the origin-of-life question is identify ways we can agree with naturalists on the level of observation, even though on the level of faith we disagree. On the basis of observation we can say what sort of structures result from natural causes, as we know them, and what sort result from intelligent causes. And so we should be able to say whether a given structure resulted from natural or intelligent causes. But how we identify or name an intelligent cause is a matter of faith, just like saying what's behind the regularities of nature.

Wilcox: A hundred years ago Aubrey Moore made the comment "The doctrine of God's occasional presence is the doctrine of his usual absence." I believe that's the concern that some of us feel. We don't want to speak of natural causes as though that means God is absent.

Thaxton: I get the impression that people think that to affirm natural cause is the same as positing God's "usual absence," and to affirm intelligent cause is to bring in His "occasional presence." I would agree with Steve Meyer at this point: that if you look at things like the violin or any other artifact, it doesn't take a theological perspective to say that a violin was made by something other than natural causes.

Bradley: Let me clarify, as one who believes in some form of intelligent intervention, that it is in no way an attempt to deny God's absolute responsibility for things that we describe by the laws of nature. It is a question of whether God chooses to work solely in His patterned way, or in some combination of His patterned way and some special way, or solely in some special or unusual way. And I don't believe that there is anybody here who takes the view that you (Wilcox) were indicating. I agree with your comment but I don't believe that's the position that people who believe in intelligent intervention necessarily take.

This is not to say there aren't some Christians who believe that if God does a miracle He is responsible and if He doesn't do a miracle then it's nature running its own course. Some Christians are haphazardly deistic in their thinking. But I don't believe that's true of the people at this conference. I believe most of them fully appreciate that God might have chosen in His sovereignty to work entirely through process. I don't deny that as a possibility. I don't see compelling scientific evidence for it. But I don't feel that the comment made is a very accurate reflection of the thinking of the people here, including myself, who take the position that we don't believe God works solely and entirely through process.

Wilcox: You're saying an intelligent cause may work via the natural process or by intervening in the natural process?

Bradley: The point I was trying to make is that God works in both ways. If you want to say the patterned way of working may in someway have marks of intelligence too, well, I believe that is the question of the conference.

Wilcox: I believe the objection to the terminology of natural or intelligent is that intelligence means God at work, and so if you oppose it to natural causes, that implies that God is not at work.

Van Till: There is another pair of terms that might help us in future discussions: We can talk about God's immediate action and God's mediate action. Mediated action is what we have access to via the sciences. The immediate is something that perhaps is beyond our scientific ken. Maybe this mediate/immediate distinction, a more traditional one, is more fruitful than the natural/intelligent distinction.

Olson: We've been bringing God in, and the trouble I find in thinking about these things is that I happen to believe that God is not bound by time. Just as matter and energy were created, so was time. When we talk about intervention I see that as a time word. To have intervention you have to have a time line and little tics along the time line which are the marks of intervention. That creates a God who somehow is standing above it all and tinkering. But God doesn't live in time. Therefore how can He tinker in time?

Nelson: It seems to me we need to focus not so much on God's activity as on the empirical content of the intelligent cause hypothesis. Defenders of the intelligent cause hypothesis should be able to say precisely what follows from it. If you go out into the world and look, on the basis of the hypothesis you should find X, Y, and Z (namely, certain chemical and biological facts). Whatever else you want to say about my intelligent cause, these things follow from it and if you run a test you'll find that they are, in fact, the case. We're not going to worry about how it happened but only whether it leads to testable results that can be counted as reliable knowledge that you can build your science on. I appreciate all the points that are made about God's immediate and mediated activity, and so on. But I'd like to see us nail down the empirical content of this hypothesis.

Stien: My point of reference is my occupation as an undergraduate instructor. Students ask interesting questions. They're concerned about their own identity and how that relates to God. They think of themselves as somehow unique creative events. So I point out they are the result of the fusion of a sperm and an egg, and that one sperm was among a whole sea of sperm. There's a little poem, "Of all the spermatozoa in the sea, boy am I glad that you are me." (Laughter) How do you relate that God working this out? It seems to me that the fusion of a sperm and egg is the result of natural on-going processes, if you want to use that word.

Now if you extend this idea to the other end of human existence, to the emergence of intelligence, can you explain that as the result of natural processes? Or is it something superimposed? This is one of the places one might want to invoke an intervention. I'm inclined to say that we don't know enough about it yet to say one way or the other. But I'm inclined to argue that here is a case where intelligence emerges out of natural processes. So intelligence might be the effect of something, not the cause.

Bradley: If I may leap-frog back to the comment Ed Olson made, he seems to express a concern with regard to a God who somehow has to intervene and tinker in time. Yet it seems to me that one of the main stories of the Bible--and I'm not talking about the first chapter of Genesis, I'm talking about the Bible as a whole--is a God who tinkers quite often. It seems to me that if you have a problem with that sort of tinkering as a matter of principle, then you've got a lot of problems with much of what the Bible seems to teach. He even changes His mind in response to prayer, etc. It seems to me that if I'm going to be consistent, and if I believe in a God of miracles, as reflected in the Bible, then it's quite conceivable that these miracles may include some creative activity. They don't have to include that. But the idea that it would somehow be beneath God to get down and tinker is to me quite at odds with what I think the Bible teaches.

I would like to get a point of clarification from Dr. Stien with regard to this business of intelligence. Are you saying that intelligence is something that evolves, that human intelligence is the end product of evolutionary processes? Was that the gist of that last comment?

Stien: I said natural processes, natural biological sequences that result in the production of the human brain.

Thaxton: In reproduction today?

Stien: Yes.

Bradley: Are you talking about the origin of intelligence within each child that's born today or are you talking about a power implicit in mankind to produce people that have human intelligence?

Stien: I'm not sure I see the distinction.

Olson: I think I know what he meant. If you look at a fertilized egg just after conception you don't see intelligence in the sense that you could carry on a conversation. But between that fertilized egg and that, say, Howard Stien, something called intelligence has emerged. Is that what you mean?

Stien: Sure. I'm going to argue that that process by which that zygote becomes a complex multicellular creature is the result of natural processes.

Ross: Ed (Olson), you raise the issue of God being transcendent to the universe. What does that mean? We have the beginning of time for the universe, yet there is cause and effect that brings the universe into existence. And like the Bible states, God created time, there is a beginning for time. What that really implies is that we are talking a minimum of two time dimensions. String theory speaks of a minimum of 9 space dimensions to explain all the fundamental particles in existence here. Therefore, I believe we can begin to stretch our thinking into what phenomena might be possible both naturally and theologically when you are dealing with a realm of existence of two or three or more time dimensions and nine or more space dimensions. When you start talking about two dimensions of time it begins to open up a whole realm of creative possibilities. That's just to stimulate a little thinking on what transcendence might be like and God might be able to pull off.


Rust: In Psalm 104 we read about the natural origin of animals by the procreative process and at the same time it is said that God created them. So I don't have any problem combining these two aspects in the creation of an individual human being--by natural process on the one hand and by God's intervention on the other hand, which are just two aspects of the same thing.

Pun: Last summer Dave Wilcox and I were at a conference in Toronto. One of the biologists there was postulating a view that I think is very helpful. Most biologists hold a worldview that stresses continuity: that matter evolves into a cell, and a cell evolves into a multicellular organism, a multicellular organism evolves into a man, a brain evolves into a mind, and a mind evolves into a soul. There is a continuity from matter to soul. This biologist suggested, on the other hand, that reality consists of several hierarchical levels: the material level, the organic level, the conscious level, and finally the spiritual level.

It seems to me that maybe there is some truth to this view. Scripture seems to suggest that we have three parts to our person: body, soul, spirit. A person is a unity but nonetheless made up of three different levels. Maybe we shouldn't be consumed with continuity. The materialist assumes continuity all the way from matter to man. But theists may want to consider that there is a hierarchical structure to reality.

I'd like to suggest my own terms for the two ways God acts: ordinary and extraordinary action.

Thaxton: Much of the discussion we have had these two days probably would not take place at a AAAS [American Association for the Advancement of Science] meeting. This is precisely the reason I tried to come up with terminology, natural and intelligent cause, so that I could go to a AAAS meeting and talk about these things. If we talk about natural causes, people are not encouraged to raise theological issues. Theists sit there and think to themselves, there is a God behind this, and naturalists sit there and say to themselves, nature is all there is. But we both use the same term, natural cause. I'd like to have a term for non-natural cause that has this same versatility--that it can be used by people with very different theological and philosophical commitments. But you notice that when I use the term intelligent cause, immediately it is assumed that we are talking about the biblical God. That's why I used examples like the Stradivari violin. I wanted to make the point that if we begin with the empirical realm as the basis for discussion, we have this normal, everyday terminology available, natural and intelligent. So I thought, why can't we use this terminology when we talk about the origin of life, too? Notice that I myself did not raise the issue of theology. I did not raise the issue of the supernatural, except to say that when you raise such issues, you are dealing with the metaphysical realm. I have tried to come up with terms that can be used to describe the empirical realm, whether we are talking about Stradivari violins or DNA molecules.