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Saturday, July 01, 2006

Stephen M. Barr on science and Intelligent Design

I have previously posted about Stephen M. Barr. He authored an article in the February 2006 First Things. In it, Barr discusses Intelligent Design (ID) and mainstream science.

The article is well worth reading, and readable, but I'll post my own rather lengthy summary.

Barr begins by pointing out, correctly, that there are two battles raging about origins. One of them pits young-earth creationists (I wish he would use this entire term, but he doesn't) against mainstream science. Young-earth creationists claim that almost no evolution could have occurred, and that the Bible shows this, because it teaches that the earth isn't old enough for this to have happened. Again, in my opinion, Barr muddies the water by not defining his terms well. He says that young-earth creationists deny that evolution occurred. Scientists who believe in young-earth creation don't deny natural selection, which is, of course, one aspect of evolution, and, in fact, what Darwin mostly wrote about. Living things have changed, at least a little, and almost everyone agrees with this. Young-earth creationists deny, for example, that amphibians are descended from fish.

The second battle, as he says: . . . concerns not the fact of evolution but the standard neo-Darwinian explanation of it, and the issues at stake are primarily philosophical and scientific. Leading the charge in this second fight is the Intelligent Design movement. Its main thesis holds that natural mechanisms are insufficient to account for all the complexity seen in the biological world. The Intelligent Design theorists therefore argue that the existence of an intelligent designer can be scientifically demonstrated. Sometimes they say that such a demonstration already exists; at other times, they demand merely that the “design hypothesis” be placed alongside neo-Darwinism as an alternative scientific theory deserving of further research, grant funding, and space in textbooks.

Barr blames some mainstream scientists for deliberately confounding these two battles. He is correct in this. It is also true that Christians have muddied the discussion of origins quite a bit.

Barr says that some writers are using questions of origins in an unwarranted and unsupported attack on belief in God. He names Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett. They aren't the only ones. They do this, he writes, in three ways. The first is to rule out extra-natural, or supernatural, explanations. The second is to say that the Argument from Design has been disproved. The third is to say that humans are not special.

As Barr says, none of these three attacks have any scientific basis. Science cannot do any of these things -- they are outside the realm of science. Barr goes on to expand upon his arguments against these three attacks, and this expansion makes up the bulk of the article. He also has some words for IDers, including:

There exist legitimate reasons, however, to resist the idea that the “design hypothesis” is an alternative scientific theory. God is not a scientific theory.

I close with this wonderful statement, by Barr:
If biology remains only biology, it is not to be feared. Much of the fear that does exist is rooted in the notion that God is in competition with nature, so that the more we attribute to one the less we can attribute to the other. That is false. The greater the powers and potentialities in nature, the more magnificent must be nature’s far-sighted Author, that God whose “ways are unsearchable” and who “reaches from end to end ordering all things mightily.” Richard Dawkins famously called the universe “a blind watchmaker.” If it is, it is miracle enough for anyone; for it is incomparably greater to design a watchmaker than a watch. We need not pit evolution against design, if we recognize that evolution is part of God’s design.

Thanks for reading!


Anonymous said...

Stephen Barr also has written a wonderful book entitld Modern Physics and Ancient Faith.

Martin LaBar said...

Thanks. Yes. That book was my first introduction to Barr.