Me and Mr. TE: A Discussion Hovering Around Theistic Evolution

The following is the better part of several email exchanges I had with a Christian (Mr. TE) regarding the issue of theistic evolution (TE). We enter the exchange with Mr. TE responding to an earlier email of mine in which I reject TE. I sent a more lengthy reply to him. Mr. TE responded to several points in my reply. I then rejoin his response.

 

Mr. TE’s first argument:

Richard, How can you dismiss TE as wrong when the most prominent and accomplished authorities in the field in Christendom, namely Behe, Collins and McGrath, all agree on the factual nature of common descent? By what authority do you dismiss their testimony? Surely you must admit that they collectively know something about this issue and that it should be looked into. Granted science has gone too far and theology has been hijacked by it but you igonored my examples of the same thing happening on the theology side. I know this as perceived as compromise but again so was a round earth and a heliocentric solar system. You simply are in denial by not responding to this. There is a middle ground position here that is faithful to the scientific evidence and not compromise and as a thought leader in the faith you should be striving to help the church find that.

  

Richard’s reply:

The answer is very simple (though not easy). I believe that TE is incompatible with revealed truth from God, viz. the Bible. Now I could be wrong on several levels. It could be that the Bible is not revealed truth at all (though I know you and I agree that it is). Second, it could be that the Bible is revealed truth, but not necessarily on such matters. (I’m not sure where you stand on this. I suspect that this would be where Behe, Collins, and McGrath would come in.) Third, it could be that TE is not incompatible with revealed truth when that revealed truth is properly interpreted (and thus I would be mis-interpreting it).

 

I am summarily unimpressed with Behe, Collins, McGrath as authorities on any one of the above issues. Since I myself am not a scientist, I cannot referee the debate to very much detail. I can only go with what I can understand, bearing in mind the track record of science over the past two thousand years. I am much more comfortable with the philosophical and hermeneutical issues than with the scientific ones. Thus, I don’t dismiss the testimony of the TE people on any “authority” but rather reject it on the basis of my commitment to the laws of logic (conflicting propositions cannot both be true) coupled with my understanding of both philosophy and hermeneutics.

 

Also there are theological issues (which are of course tied in with the philosophical and hermeneutical issues) that come into play. Likewise I am summarily unimpressed with Behe, Collins, and McGrath as authorities in such matters.

 

There are examples going both ways of where theology illicitly refused to acquiesce to the truths discovered by science and where science refused to acquiesce to the truths of philosophy and theology. Thus, the debate between us will not necessarily be advanced by appeals to such historical examples. I acknowledge full well the examples you could and have brought forth and I suspect that you would acknowledge full well the examples I could and have brought forth. The thing to do is to see if there is a pattern in these examples in the underlying principles, assumptions, and methodologies of the philosophy / hermeneutics / theology, etc.

 

Of course, to re-assert your position is not the same as proving your position. I simply deny that my rejection of TE is a case of “being in denial” of things (a loaded rhetorical phrase reminiscent of phrases like “holocaust denier”). My rejection is a result of my considered (admittedly incomplete and fallible) judgment on the matter. But this rejection has not occurred in a vacuum. I remember when I first broached the subject with you of hermeneutics and what bearing hermeneutics might have in this debate and you told me that you wouldn’t know hermeneutics if it bit you on the butt. Discoveries like this only serve to re-enforce in the minds of people like me that that commitments to TE (for some people) might be the result of not being as fully informed on the broader issues relevant to this whole debate. It is much bigger than “pseudo-genes” (for example).

 

Mr. TE’s Response together with my rejoinder (The points from my first reply are indented and introduced by the label “Richard:”):

 

Richard: I believe that TE is incompatible with revealed truth from God, viz. the Bible.

 

Mr. TE: I know you believe that. We agree it is a belief as opposed to factual or objective knowledge.

 

Richard’s Rejoinder: Either you’re playing games with me, your waxing Medieval (with their distinction between belief and knowledge), or you’re being unnecessarily obtuse. For me to qualify my statement by saying that “I believe” this about TE should in no way be construed to mean that I think this is anything less than factual and objective knowledge. Perhaps I should change my rhetoric and say “TE is incompatible with revealed truth …” instead of saying that I believe that it is so as to prevent you from trying to introduce a distinction that I never intended. Now, for someone to say that “X is objective and factual knowledge” does not mean that there is no way they could be mistaken about X. Only God is omniscient and infallible. So my saying “I believe …” was just a way of tacitly acknowledging that my beliefs could be mistaken. But to try to distinguish those beliefs as if they were somehow different in nature from “factual” and “objective” is wrong. You may think I’m mistaken about TE and thus would want to characterize my position as being only a belief (as opposed to being factual or objective knowledge) but I can state the same thing about you and say that special creation (or whatever term you would want to set in contradistinction to TE) is factual and objective and that your position on TE is a belief “as opposed to factual or objective knowledge.” Tu Quoque.

 

Richard:  Now I could be wrong on several levels. It could be that the Bible is not revealed truth at all (though I know you and I agree that it is). Second, it could be that the Bible is revealed truth, but not necessarily on such matters. (I’m not sure where you stand on this. I suspect that this would be where Behe, Collins, and McGrath would come in.) Third, it could be that TE is not incompatible with revealed truth when that revealed truth is properly interpreted (and thus I would be mis-interpreting it).

 

 Mr. TE: We agree on point 1 being false and points 2 and 3 being true.

 

Richard’s Rejoinder: Just a clarification: All three of my points are “true” in that they are logical possibilities (in other words, I’m saying that “It could [logically] be that ….” It is true for all three that they are logically possible.). The first option is actually false. But the second is actually false as well. The Bible most certainly does reveal truth on such matters, at least in the sense that revealed truth and general revelation overlap on the subject to some extent. (cf. McGrath’s POMA as opposed to Gould’s NOMA; See my earlier blog on this.) But it could not be the case that the second and third options are both true. I can’t be the case that the Bible does not speak to such matters, and yet when interpreted correctly it speaks to such matters. I think you’re misunderstanding me here.

 

Richard:  I am summarily unimpressed with Behe, Collins, McGrath as authorities on any one of the above issues.

 

Mr. TE: This implies that you hold revealed truth through the Bible to be superior knowledge of revealed truth through nature or creation. But you don’t really believe this. When your toilet backs up, you don’t go see your pastor or Bible teacher, you call a plumber. And when your car starts making funny noises, you take it to a mechanic. You respect the domains of knowledge of plumbers and mechanics, why not biologists?

 

Richard’s Rejoinder: I’ve implied no such thing. Whatever position I hold concerning the relationship between revealed truth and general revelation (your “truth revealed through nature or creation”) one could not tell my position from what I said here. Rather, I’m saying that I don’t regard Behe, Collins, and McGrath as authorities on any of the three [logical] options I proposed, viz, whether the Bible is or is not revealed truth, whether the Bible does or does not speak to such matters (as TE), and whether the Bible, properly interpreted, does or does not support TE. None of these three options are scientific issues as such, but are rather theological and philosophical issues. McGrath would come the closest, being that he is both a scientist and a theologian (or historical theologian at least). In any event, I don’t agree with some of his theology and whatever philosophy one could distill from his material. I hope I don’t have to point out the shortcomings of a Behe or a Collins on these three issues. I was not saying that I was unimpressed with their authority or abilities regarding the science of the matter. But, since they lack what they do regarding the theology and philosophy of the matter, I’m not impressed that they could find a way to reconcile their TE with any commitment they have to the Bible as revealed truth. In that regard, they are perhaps somewhat like you. You apparently don’t have any problem reconciling your position on TE with your position regarding the authority and truth of the Bible. But, and I mean no offence in this, I’m not impressed that you don’t have any conflict. It is very easy for me to understand how you could be comfortable doing so. I don’t think you are especially astute or informed about theology or philosophy either. (Though you probably could run circles around me regarding the science.)

 

Richard:  Since I myself am not a scientist, I cannot referee the debate to very much detail.

 

Mr. TE: You are not a plumber or a mechanic either ( I don’t think anyway) and so you defer to them on their judgment and knowledge and feel no need to challenge them based on what you understand of the Bible. Why not give Collins Behe and McGrath the same benefit of the doubt as professionals in their field and professing Christians?

 

Richard’s Rejoinder: So? This does nothing to advance your position. To say that I have a problem with X and don’t have a problem with Y is not to necessarily say something profound. I disagree with Behe, et al. regarding TE and at the same time I defer to the plumber who unclogged my drain. Shocking!!! Call the newspapers!!! Richard Howe is being so inconsistent because he makes a distinction between a scientific/theological/philosophical view and unclogging a drain!!! Sorry for my sarcasm. If we were together, I hope you would see the twinkle in my eye and smile on my face. My point is that there is nothing inconsistent between me resisting Behe, et al. and acquiescing to my plumber precisely because the difference between the issues involved. Richard Dawkins (and some philosophers) insist that science has proven that God does not exist. But I suspect that you are summarily unimpressed with them saying so. No doubt you would say “Well, that’s because the issue of whether God exists is not a scientific issue.” Well said. But if you should say this, then you are making the exact same critical thinking maneuver that I have made, to wit, that certain issues (whether God exists, whether TE is compatible with the Bible) involve multiple disciplines. Thus, if someone (Behe, et al.) weighs in and I believe that they’re wrong, it’s because I believe all truth is consistent (reality is not contradictory) and that the evidence (all of it—scientific, theological, philosophical, historical, hermeneutical, etc.) says so. Again, no doubt you will say “But the scientific evidence proves TE.” I disagree. If you will indulge me with a (usually unpersuasive) historical example, all the scientists also at one time said that the earth was the center of the solar system. Most of Galileo’s detractors were the scientists of his day. When the church condemned Galileo, it was precisely because they were siding with the prevailing scientific view. It’s what all the universities were teaching. It’s what all the astronomers held. Now you want me to repudiate what I believe (there’s that expression again) the Bible teaches regarding the origins of the human race (for example) because it’s what “all the scientists” are saying. No thank you. Frankly, when it comes to these expansive scientific theories that overlap with any number of hermeneutical, theological, and philosophical issues, then I’ll go with the preponderance of the evidence taken as a whole.

 

One other comment on your statement: You say that I “feel no need to challenge them based on what [I] understand of the Bible.” But this is only accidently so. This is not so in principle. If indeed the mechanic or plumber tried to teach me something that I thought contradicted the Bible, I would most certainly challenge them. It’s only because it is hard for us to imagine what a plumber or mechanic (qua plumber or mechanic) could say that would contradict the Bible that using them as examples seemingly serves your argument. Further, the analogy is flawed because you are illicitly comparing specific people (Behe, Collins, McGrath) with general categories (plumber, mechanic). This won’t work. You would have to argue that I was inconsistent by showing that I reject general categories (biology, genetics) with general categories (plumbing, mechanics) or specific people (Behe, Collins, McGrath) with specific plumbers and mechanics. Thus, I am not inconsistent precisely because of the differences between matters concerning human origins and plumbing.

 

Richard:  I am much more comfortable with the philosophical and hermeneutical issues than with the scientific ones.

 

Mr. TE: But this is irrelevant when it comes to evidences of broken pseudogenes shared between humans and chimps.

 

Richard’s Rejoinder: Herein lies the problem, and I am seemingly incapable of getting you to see the truth here. This issue is greater than the evidence of pseudogenes. It’s much easier (rationally) to qualify the so-called evidence for pseudogenes in order to reconcile it with a proper reading of the Bible and sound philosophy than the other way around. You clearly don’t agree with me here, but I am not surprised since you don’t know much about biblical interpretation (by your own admission), theology, or philosophy.

 

Richard: Thus, I don’t dismiss the testimony of the TE people on any “authority” but rather reject it on the basis of my commitment to the laws of logic (conflicting propositions cannot both be true) coupled with my understanding of both philosophy and hermeneutics. (Now one might say that I am rejecting the testimony of the TE people on the authority of the Bible. I accept this characterization as long as one realizes that my acceptance of the Bible as authority is rationally predicated upon antecedent consideration of the evidence (philosophical, historical, theological) that the Bible is revealed truth from God. There is no need for me to defend this here since you and I agree on this.)

 

Mr. TE: Also irrelevant when it comes to evidences of broken pseudogenes shared between humans and chimps.

 

Richard’s Rejoinder: Wrong.

 

Richard:  The thing to do is to see if there is a pattern in these examples in the underlying principles, assumptions, and methodologies of the philosophy / hermeneutics / theology, etc.

 

Mr. TE: No, the thing to do is to learn to recognize objective truth when you see it, whether it is the fallacy of utopian socialism or the earth orbiting around the sun.

 

Richard’s Rejoinder: No, the thing to do is to see if there is a pattern in these examples in the underlying principles, assumptions, and methodologies of the philosophy / hermeneutics / theology, etc. You can’t even say what it means for something to even BE “objective truth” without making philosophical commitments, even if you’re not aware of what they are. I defy you to present to me your philosophical accounting for “objective truth,” and how one recognizes it.

 

Richard:  My rejection is a result of my considered (admittedly incomplete and fallible) judgment on the matter.  But this rejection has not occurred in a vacuum.

 

Mr. TE: You admitted you have not considered the scientific evidence in any detail and that you instead look to logic and hermeneutics. This is what the church leaders did when they refused to look through Galileo’s “devil glass”.

 

Richard’s Rejoinder: You misread what I said. I never “admitted” that I had not “considered the scientific evidence in any detail.” Go back and re-read my statement. What I said was that I cannot “referee the debate to very much detail.” This is far from “admitting” that I have not considered the scientific evidence in any detail. But, let’s say that I had “admitted” this: What follows? I could be that, after having done so, I would change my mind about TE. This apparently is what happened to you. But what I think some Christians are failing to admit is that, if TE is true, then certain teachings of the Bible are not true. I know that some try to reconcile the two by straining at the text, but they can only be successful by rejecting certain hermeneutical, theological, and philosophical positions, the truth of which is much more substantiated than the current position in biology regarding pseudogenes. You’re putting way too much faith in the arguments and “evidence” for them and what they mean. You again appeal (as I did above) to an historical example. Be careful in doing so; especially with Galileo. His experience is actually an argument against your position. The “devil glass” (I assume this is a reference to his telescope) of Galileo (which I’ve actually looked through, by the way, when I visited the Museum of the History of Science in Florence, Italy) proved that there were Sun spots. But the scientists insisted that there could not be Sun spots. The theologians and biblical interpreters only insisted such because this is what the scientists and philosophers (yes, I said ‘philosophers’) were saying. The scientists, who had unwisely bought into Aristotle regarding the concentric circles of the heavens, “knew” that the Sun, being the heavenly body it is, could not possibly have spots on it (which would indicate imperfections). But this was the scientific view. Galileo was criticized because he knew that the empirical evidence contradicted the prevailing scientific view of the scientists. Thus, his experience, in this regard, is not the same as our current debate. I’m not at the point (yet) of trying to refute pseudogenes with other scientific evidence and unsound philosophy. That’s what was happening to Galileo. Take note: there is nothing more obvious to our observations than that we are standing still on the Earth and that the Sun moves across the sky. Isn’t it odd that, that which is the most empirically obvious, is something that none of us believes.

 

Richard:  I remember when I first broached the subject of hermeneutics with you and what bearing hermeneutics might have in this debate and you told me that you wouldn’t know hermeneutics if it bit you on the butt.

 

Mr. TE: That’s my story and I’m still sticking to it.

  

Richard’s Rejoinder: I’m disappointed that you are not bothered by this. I would never say a similar thing regarding general principles and truths of science and I would expect that you would be disappointed in me if I did. But since you seem to be comfortable with your ignorance of such matters, there’s not much more I can say in hopes of advancing our debate.

 

Richard:  Discoveries like this only serve to re-enforce in the minds of people like me that commitments to TE (for some people) might be the result of not being as fully informed on the broader issues relevant to this whole debate. It is much bigger than “pseudo-genes” (for example).

 

Mr. TE: This a red herring and desperately dishonest. I have no control or concern over what reinforces what ever in your mind but I had no commitment to TE when I started reading Collins. In fact I was adamantly opposed to it like you are but I thought to be fair I would hear what his justification for it was. Mark is my witness that I was as shocked as anyone when I read the evidences of pseudogenes because I just could not bring myself to believe that that was true. One reason why was that I know that if it was true then special creation would likely not be true. That is hardly a commitment to TE but more accurately just a failed commitment to special creation and a commitment to truth and following the evidence wherever it leads which is the mantra of ID. And there are no other inputs on pseudogenes that are relevant from the field of logic or philosophy or hermeneutics. This is the height of hubris for you to think so and the root cause of your blind spot. This is no different than Ahm-in-a-jihad claiming to be preparing the way for the Mahdi on the same basis, revealed truth. The witness of God in creation revealed through science is what sets Christianity apart from this and gives it an objective and testable basis as opposed to other religions, but you can’t be selective and picky about what science you accept and what science you reject.

 

Richard’s Rejoinder: I am not dishonest (even if I am wrong). Even so, what does it matter if you were not in control with “what reinforces what ever in your mind”? But in fact, you are in control. When you say ridiculous things like you said, or worse, seemingly are comfortable with saying so and then go on to debate complex issues that unavoidably involve matters about which you’ve admitted ignorance, then you lead people like me to conclude that there’s something more going on. By this, I’m not implying that this “something more” is immoral or shows any lack of character. I’m referring to the fact that some, let us say, Christians’ commitment to TE betray a lack of commitment to sound principles of hermeneutics, theology and philosophy. I appreciate your story. I can only believe that, humanly speaking, your journey has been an honest one. My hope is that it’s not a finished one, and that you’ll consider these other disciplines as relevant to the truth of the matter. You say “And there are no other inputs on pseudogenes that are relevant from the field of logic or philosophy or hermeneutics.” You’re wrong. Very wrong. You either don’t know what you’re saying here or you’re not thinking clearly. You admitted twice that you don’t know anything about hermeneutics. Now you’re trying to tell me that it has no input on the issue of pseudogenes. But how could you possibly know whether hermeneutics does or does not have any input if you don’t even know anything about hermeneutics? What about the philosophy or theology? You can’t have it both ways. You can’t say that you wouldn’t know hermeneutics if it bit you on the butt and then go on to comment about whether it does or does not have any imput.

 

You’ve also made another blunder. You say “you can’t be selective and picky about what science you accept and what science you reject.” In fact, you cannot do otherwise. No one should ever assume that what some scientist says about such expansive issues is the last word on the subject. I remember when, in one day, the estimated age of the universe was cut in half. This was because of a mistake that was discovered in Hubble’s Constant. So, the day before, if someone has suggested that the universe was half as old as the scientists “knew” it was, then he would have been laugh at. Then, when the mistake was discovered, everyone had to chose which “science” they were going to believe: the science the day before that had “proven” that the universe was X years old or the day after that had “proven” that the universe was X/2 years old. Now, by this I’m not advocating a skepticism toward science. But I’m warning against a blind faith toward it. I think I could give a number of examples where even you would have to “be selective and picky about what science you accept and what science you reject.” Do you accept the prevailing views on global warming? (I hope that you don’t.) What about the prevailing view in neurophysiology regarding the relationship between the mind and the brain, and whether there even is a mind in the first place? What about biological physical processes and freedom of the will? Do you accept the prevailing scientific view there? How about ADHD? Self-esteem psychology? What do you do with the historical critics of the Bible? Do you acquiesce to the “assured results” of their scientific findings (archeology, etc)? Of course you’re picky. That’s because many of the things that scientists say, even as scientists, overlap with many other disciplines of knowledge, aspects of which often fall outside the scope of the methods of inquiry and tools of analysis that the scientists usually limit themselves to. But reality is bigger than those limited methods and tools. Hopefully, you’ll become more acquainted with more of these disciplines. I’m still learning too.

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