Sunday Summary


Hearn: Charles, if you are introducing mystery as a category to be considered within science, I think I'm against that. There's an old trichotomy that I like: It says science deals with problems, religion deals with mysteries, and philosophy deals with questions. Now, of course, one of the questions when you confront some phenomenon is, should you deal with it as a problem or a mystery. Take, for instance, dying as an existential problem we all confront, our mortality. Medical people in research treat this as a problem to be solved. Eventually you come to the religious question: You have to face death as a mystery and you have to be reconciled to it and you have to know that it's not going to be solved for you, and so on.

I think that's an example that may explain why I want to keep science relatively narrow. It's not clear to me how you introduce mystery into science without all of the problems that brings up. It's not even clear to me that that's the right environment to deal with awe and mystery. You face things either as problems to be solved, which I take it to be the scientific kind of enterprise, or as mysteries to stand in awe of, and it's hard for me to see how you can do either one profitably by blending them.

Thaxton: I have to admit that I did not sit down and reflect on this for days and days. (Laughter).

Hearn: I suspected that.

Thaxton: Here's what I had in mind. We start out with a little bit of experience, and it grows. I think of it as something like a water reservoir. Our accumulated reservoirs of experience are all different. If my individual reservoir of experience allows me to recognize a cause as natural or intelligent I will do so. If it doesn't then I have to say I don't know. That "I don't know" area is what I called mystery.

Mills: Why don't you call it "I don't know." (Laughter).

Thaxton: Fine.

Hearn: That's what I would call a philosophical question. You have to decide whether it's a problem that is solvable or whether it is unsolvable and therefore a mystery. The reason detective stories are called mysteries is that they appear to be unsolvable at the beginning, and then the detective comes along and treats it as a scientific problem and solves it.

Thaxton: That's what science is. You start out with an apparent chaos, then you reduce it to order.

Hearn: It's one of the reasons people aren't taking science. For the same reason that if you called the books "detective stories" nobody would buy them. They buy them because mystery sounds interesting and solving problems sounds like a lot of work. (Laughter).

Thaxton: Do you understand what I am trying to get at? I was trying to avoid the dichotomy of either/or, natural or intelligent, as if we had to fit everything into these two categories. Sometime we don't have enough experience to tell which it is. What do we do then? The point in my paper was that if we still insist on identifying a cause, we usually end up drawing upon our philosophy or religion or worldview to assign a cause. But that approach is unproductive. What it does is mask the problem. Until your reservoir of experience is big enough to discern the cause, you don't know what you are doing. Calling it "I don't know" isn't a catchy name, but if that's better than "mystery," then fine.

Hearn: Maybe this is the time to turn to mathematics and just call it categories 1, 2, and 3, with 2A, 2B, and 3A, 3B, etc., as possibilities.

Bossard: I came to this conference with the feeling that people were expecting some magic set of numbers to come out of our work, and these numbers prove conclusively A, B, or C. I would just like to say briefly what it means to be a deductive science, mathematically deductive. It shows how consistent you are. The human mind has a strong tendency to wander off track and mathematicians can help keep you on track. It shows the consequences of what you assert.

The point here is, you've got to say something or assert something and the statements of mathematics are only valid conditioned on what you've said or asserted. If you postulate a process then I may be able to talk about the likelihood of that process. But I can't just look at the data and talk about the likelihood of the data.

Finally, so-called mathematical facts -- and I would include here the mathematical content of DNA -- are always a commentary on the person who made the statistics. They are not a commentary on the data. That is, they are a commentary modula the assumption you made in forming those statistics. The whole country goes wild over statistics. We love statistics. But the plain fact is, statistics don't mean anything without the assumptions behind them. As a mathematician I cannot endorse a number, whether it is information content in DNA or whatever, unless you tell me what went into that number, what were the assumptions behind it. To that extent I am deductive. Your assumption may be derived assumption, but when you draw consequences from it, that is deductive. That's what mathematics does. It just deduces from what you told me. I can't tell you anything new. I can only tell you what you told me, in different ways perhaps.

Rust: I think we have to distinguish between the level of scientific inquiry and the level of philosophical or theological inquiry. Most of us probably wouldn't disagree about the theological background. God did it, but how? That's the question. Science deals with the question of how, not who did it. When we are talking about explanations of the evolution of life, etc., we are asking a scientific question. We want to talk on the level of science. As far as I can see, natural cause is a scientific explanation. Intelligent cause is a scientific explanation as far as human intelligence goes. But that doesn't go farther back than a million or so years. Now if you are talking about intelligent causes which go farther back you are implicitly talking about divine intelligence, which is no longer a scientific inquiry because it is a question of who did it, not how it is done. I would suggest that the evolutionary hypothesis is certainly a very bad hypothesis. It conflicts with many data. Nevertheless it is at least an attempt to formulate a scientific explanation. But when you start talking about intelligent causes, I say you are switching gears, you are switching to a different dimension. And this is not what we want to do in science.

Thaxton: Paul, you mentioned in your paper that there is a formal exclusion of the concept of intelligent cause in science. I want to know when science did this, and which writers did this, because with my reading of the literature I have not found that formal exclusion.

Nelson: Perhaps I should have been more scrupulous in my language. I didn't mean to imply a formal exclusion, and I agree with you. I have done the same sort of search and I never found it. I'm talking about a sociological phenomenon that when I am face to face with somebody in the evolutionary biology department and say intelligent cause, a look of disgust crosses his face. It's not as if anybody wrote it down and said you can't do it. But nobody does it. It's implicit. It's sort of embedded in the working grammar of science. You just don't do that sort of thing. It's like bad manners. I think the reason no one's done it is it seems like you can't find a good justification for it.

I believe there is a real problem in characterizing an intelligent cause as an explanation. It seems to be the kind of thing you might want to say about persistent failure to explain a system, to explain, as Denton has pointed out so beautifully, integrated characteristics of the system. Maybe. This is a real problem to me. I'm working on it in my dissertation. How to understand what this sort of hypothesis or explanation means.

Newton, in the General Scholium, talked about the order of the planets and comets on their eccentric orbits. He said this system could only arise from a divine creator. In a way, he was throwing down the gauntlet and saying, if you can somehow derive this system from what we know about the world from physics, then I lose. Until then, expect to fail. That's the empirical content. That's where this hypothesis pays off: expect any naturalistic hypothesis to fail. I'm guessing from what I see of the integrative nature of the system that any naturalistic program to explain the origin of life won't work. My own inclination is to say I've done something wrong and passed out of science into philosophy. But then I say, but it could have happened. And if it could have happened, then we have to have some way to talk about it within science.

Denton: I'm struck by the Psalm that says, "My ways are past finding out." I believe there is something sort of dangerous, sort of Greek or Western, about this whole business, as though God could be defined. The Psalmist says, "I went east, and I went west, I went north and I went south, looking for God and I couldn't find him. Yet Thou art there." I think there is something almost naive and simplistic about the whole idea that God can intervene once or a million times. Perhaps there is some transcendence above these logical categories.

I'm finding this unsatisfactory intellectually because there are other views of God, probably Islamic or Judaic, where the transcendence of God is stressed, above all the categories of human thought and logic. Although it's there, you know it's there, yet you can never really define it, whether there is one or a million interventions. To me, there is something very Western about the whole approach I see here.

I'm a skeptic, I don't know really what I think about these theological matters, but it seems to me there is another view of God that says, "My ways are past finding out." When God spoke to Job in the Old Testament He said, "Where wast thou when I laid the foundation of the earth?" You are never ever going to find out about these things. This transcendent realm is completely beyond you. The Hebrew word for God is plural and yet it says, "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth," and it says He in one minute, then it's plural in the next minute. This is to tell one that in the matter of creation and these theological matters you're dealing with something beyond finding out, ever.

Nelson: The problem is that people are going to want to tell a story about how we got here, and if they're going to tell a story that's false from everything I can tell about the world, then I'm going to want to call them on that. Unfortunately, you have to do it in these kinds of crude ways that bring God into our own experience. I don't think any of us have a desire to dictate to God His methods of creation. Notice in Job, that God gives him a good scolding at the end. The problem is that people are going to want to tell a story about how we got here. I just want to make sure the story I think is true gets a fair hearing. That's part of the motivation.

Mills: One of the most positive things I've heard at this conference is the possibility of discussing the idea of an intelligent cause. I like to leave it as an option to people when they look at science, particularly in regards to origins. Usually it is ruled out of science by definition. So far, the public discussion has been between the proponents of "creation science," which I don't agree with, and evolution. It has not engaged this idea of intelligent cause. To me this is very exciting.

Back in the 1950s, people writing about the origin of life would almost invariably introduce the topic saying we're not sure science has an answer to this question. But I have not read this kind of disclaimer in any recent writings. This never seems to be a viable option that they will present.

Stien: I'm going to make a comment on maybe how intelligent cause was ruled out. I know of two ideas or notions that are simply off limits to biologists, or they have been historically. If you suggest Lamarckianism to biologists they will fly at you. The other thing is vitalism -- if you say that the whole of a cell is more than the sum of its parts, that some things emerge that weren't there in the parts. Maybe this says something about why biologists oppose intelligent cause.

Nelson: When you look at early work in molecular biology, people like Crick were motivated by the desire to attack vitalism. Vitalism wasn't really an explanation at all because the vitalists said, you'll never be able to find this elan vital. That's no explanation at all.

Ross: This is not just an interdisciplinary conference. All of us have been involved in interdisciplinary work, so it is not just a gathering together of a group of experts. It is gathering together a group of people who have been working in an interdisciplinary fashion. I have never seen this before in my life. I've never been in a conference where people have been brought together doing interdisciplinary work. It's been very exciting. This conference is also interpresuppositional. It is a rarity to pull together people with different presuppositions on how to deal with science, theology, and philosophy. To me it has been a real value. We don't just have one brand of theism here. We don't just have one brand of agnosticism here. There is a spectrum. It has been really valuable to me to interact with people from these different perspectives and different disciplines.

One question is, have we made any scientific progress here? I believe we really have. I came to this conference with a gut feeling that the way to go on the issue of DNA was a probabilistic approach. The definitions are not firm and hard enough for us to really make mathematically precise comparisons of the inorganic world with the organic. But probabilistically we still can. So I think we've made some scientific progress in that respect.

Olson: Paul, you mentioned that when you used the expression intelligent causation at the University of Chicago, eyebrows were raised. I want to suggest that that's not surprising. As I reflect on this, maybe there is an attempt to establish three positions. One is an overt atheistic position, another is an overt theistic position, but in between is a position which is scientifically based, namely intelligent causation.

Yet I think there is a failure in the use of the word intelligent. When we attach it to causation we are sort of disembodying it and yet all of our experience does not allow us to disembody the word intelligence. Who's intelligent? People are intelligent. There has been some suggestion that birds are intelligent. The reason we ascribe intelligence to birds is that they do the sorts of things that we do, navigate by the sky. When you talk about intelligent causation, then, what comes to mind is a person, an entity, a thinking entity. So if you use the term, isn't this an attempt to keep you in the theistic closet? It is better to come out of the theistic closet and just admit that's what you mean than to say there is this sort of intermediate position?

Nelson: Carl Sagan believes there are intelligent causes beyond earth. There is no evidence for them yet, but they are certainly not human, not in terms of his evolutionary biology. He thinks they are out there. So I have to have a category in which I can fit Sagan, and, for that matter, Hoyle, who thinks there is a big silicon chip out there. They all assume, and I think rightly so, that from a particular phenomenon you can find the indicia of intelligence in what might otherwise be a natural phenomenon.

If that assumption can't hold water then they ought to shut off all the computers that are analyzing electromagnetic signals from space. That whole SETI program rests on the assumption that we can pick out signals and assign them an intelligent cause. As far as I know, there is no homo sapiens out there. I believe the look of disgust comes from exactly what you mention -- they want to say, come on Paul, 'fess up, we know you are a creationist. The fact is, I use the term intelligent cause very rarely. I usually talk in more bluntly theistic terms.

Bossard: Some of the stuff I read from physicists I find a little bit disturbing. Douglas Hofstadter's book, Godel, Escher, Bach [Basic Books, New York, 1979], for example, though I don't know if he is a physicist or not. Basically what you see coming in is Hinduism, Taoism, etc. I have a strong suspicion that what's going to happen is that, as biologists discover there has to be an intelligent cause, they're going to embrace something like Hinduism, or Taoism, and Christianity is going to be on the back burner. We ought to be prepared for that fact. Just because physicists are becoming theologians doesn't mean they're becoming Christian theologians. In fact I would suggest they're heading in the other direction. Maybe we ought to start developing a universal philosophy of God's intervention. I'm just observing that we may wake up in 50 years and discover half the world is Hindu because they suddenly discover that there's intelligence in biology but they don't want to become Christian.

Thaxton: I agree. That's the reason for using the vocabulary, natural and intelligent cause. Why did authors develop these terms? Why did Hume use them? I think they used them because they were trying to be empirical and to delimit what you can say on the basis of experience.

Christians who work in modern science jump into the same arena as atheists. Why are they successful? Because they both capitalize on a fundamental ambiguity or equivocation on the word "natural." The philosophical naturalist would mean there is nothing behind natural cause. The theist would mean there is something behind it. But they both use the same word "natural."

On the other hand, all theists tend to use the word "intelligent" to mean God. Atheists come along and use the word "intelligent" to mean God, too, and reject it. Then, still others come along who see the need for some category besides natural cause, and there is no other category. Hence the appeal of Hinduism. It is a worldview category which incorporates intelligent cause and avoids the supernatural.

I have been accused by some, in my correspondence, of trying to destroy science because of using the term intelligent cause. On the contrary, I am trying to preserve science. I believe passionately that belief in supernatural creation helped produce an arena where we could have both theists and non-theists practicing natural science. All I am trying to do is say, may it not also be possible that that same belief in the supernatural may be helpful in creating an arena where we can effectively use the idea of an intelligent cause?

We have operated a long time on this equivocation of the word "natural." I am suggesting we can do the same with the word "intelligent." It doesn't need to be pinned down to any particular philosophy or belief, so that people with different beliefs can all use the general category, just as they all use the category of natural. I feel we have had a very productive interchange about this, and I thank you all very much.

Wilcox: With regard to vitalism, let me make a suggestion for a different set of axes and what could sit on them. Oppose intelligent with unintelligent; intrusive with natural, or intrasystemic causes and extrasystemic causes. So intelligent intrusive causes are craftsmanship; intelligent natural causes are providential rule; natural unintelligent causes are materialism; and intrusive unintelligent causes are vitalism.

Wirth: Charlie, I have appreciated your desire to develop a vocabulary. And we have all seen the value of the interdisciplinary approach. We are all investigators but we all need each other to correct each other. We have seen the benefits of this self-correcting process. We can't afford not to have this kind of exchange in the future. The rules of science are changing, bending.

Wagner: I'm disappointed about the result of the conference when I reflect on the title: The Sources of Information Content in DNA. I haven't heard anyone address this question, or I haven't heard what the source is. So where do we go if this is still in the category of mystery? Two different directions:

A. Further research, because it's in the category of mystery.
B. Change or bend the rules, as Kevin Wirth mentioned.

I think those are the two directions we go if we want to answer the question, what are the sources of information in DNA.

Thaxton: This is the question John Herschel tried to address with his idea of an analogy being "very close and striking". How close does close have to be for you to be able to assign a cause? This is why people take different sides on this issue. It seems to me that if we are talking about one small detail then there's not sufficient data to decide. But if you continue, and your reservoir of experience gives a consistent testimony, then you can draw an analogy with much greater confidence. I think more and more people are considering intelligent cause. But they do not have a category to bring it in and talk about it as science. If they equate the intelligent cause with the supernatural they say that can't be science. So they look to the East, to a worldview that includes intelligent cause but denies that it is supernatural, to various brands of pantheism.

Augros: I want to say something very controversial and shocking: You can't do good empirical science if you exclude intelligent cause. You can't do good physics, biology, psychology, astrophysics, etc. It's not a question that we have these arbitrary rules we have to follow that somebody set up back in the 1800s. Let's talk about the truth about nature. Can we understand natural things.

I'd also like to thank Paul for that absolutely brilliant talk. Not only could I not find anything to disagree with, I ended up wishing I had said all those things myself. One point was very good. It's important because it is used by opponents to discredit intelligent cause, and that's people who bring it in prematurely. For example, saying God is the cause of lightning. He's the God of ignorance at that point. The general rule of thumb, I think, we can take from the detective or the criminal investigator. He comes into a room; a dead person on the floor. He doesn't automatically assume this is a murder. He says, let's eliminate the other possibilities. This could be an accident. It could be suicide. It could be natural causes. We've got to eliminate those first before we assume there is somebody behind this who has to be apprehended. That's just good method. I think it's good method in theology also. In fact, the principle goes back to Thomas Aquinas who said this a long time ago. You don't drag in divine cause. God delegates as much as He possibly can to creatures. When things cannot be delegated, like creation -- no creature can do that -- then obviously He's got to act immediately by Himself.

This principle applies to all sorts of cause, not just divine or intelligent. Was this produced by animal activity, if we are looking at a fossil, or is this explainable in geological terms alone? You take the lower scale first and show that simply can't work. Then you say, I've got a higher phenomenon here. I've got to shift up to another level. I think that is perfectly reasonable.

Denton: I'd like to mention a point that hasn't been made yet. One of the skeptic's arguments against all design arguments is, of course, necessity. For example, men and women are adapted to reproduce. Design theory is that God did it like that because He wants reproduction. The other explanation is that if it wasn't like that we wouldn't be here. This is the Humean point. This is, of course, always a possible argument against all design theories, all explanation for order. Only order can be here because it's the only thing that is stable. That's another Humean point.

Democritus, Hume, Darwin -- they have suggested alternatives for design. A world view that completely explains design by saying it's simply necessary that the world be like this if we are here. I find this an irrefutable argument. I don't necessarily agree with it, but I think it's irrefutable. In the philosophical tradition of the west for 2500 years it's appealed to brilliant minds like Hume, Kant. In short, highly intelligent men have found an alternative to design in the theory of necessity. It can explain everything. You could say that the world has to have these sorts of things, that I must be here. This is a logical alternative to any sort of design hypothesis.

Nelson: John Leslie argues this in response.

"When an artillery shell has exploded in my trench I can well find it curious that I live. My living follows unsurprisingly from my ability to ask whether to be surprised, but this ability is itself a surprising one. If one simply says if the universe had not expanded at a rate compatible with life's evolution then we should not be able to discuss the affair, this is to give no explanation whatever. When the thousand sharpshooters of the firing squad all miss the intended victim, not only does the suspicion arise that the sharpshooters did not intend him to be a victim but the condemned man himself can share the suspicion instead of commenting if they hadn't all missed then I shouldn't be in a position to find all this so uninteresting."

Thaxton: Why don't we reflect on that one, and call this grand conference to a close?