Recently I posted a reply on Uncommon Descent, to a post by Dr. James F. McGrath, an Associate Professor of Religion at Butler University, criticizing Intelligent Design. Dr. McGrath and I then continued to exchange views over on his post. I hope he will not mind if I reprint our online correspondence on this post at Uncommon Descent, where readers can view it at their leisure. I would also like to personally thank Dr. McGrath for his courtesy, professionalism and kindness, in taking so much of his time to respond to my queries.
First, a little bit of background information. In his original post, Dr. McGrath had posed the following dilemma to Intelligent Design proponents:
Either God can create a universe that can organize itself, in which case the claim of ID fails; or God cannot create such a universe, in which case the proponent of ID ought to be asked to explain why they view God as limited in this way.
To bolster his views, Dr. McGrath had also invoked the authority of Dr. Charles Kingsley, a nineteenth century Anglican clergyman, professor, historian and novelist who publicly espoused Darwin’s theory of natural selection:
We knew of old that God was so wise that He could make all things; but behold, He is so much wiser than even that, that He can make all things make themselves.
(The Natural Theology of the Future, a lecture given at Sion College, January 10th, 1871.)
In my reply to Dr. McGrath on Uncommon Descent, I responded to his original question by posing him a question of my own:
Do you believe God is capable of making a machine that is capable of writing a novel (such as Charles Kingsley’s The Water Babies) via a simple process, without massive amounts of information being input either at the start or subsequently? And if not, then why do you think God should be able to produce living things, with their genetic code and developmental programs, via the operation of a few simple laws? More specifically: where did the highly specific information that enables living things to make themselves originally come from?
However, a couple of commenters on Dr. McGrath’s thread objected to my claim that living things were in a class of their own, arguing that the complexity of living things could be compared to that of snowflakes, crystals or tornadoes. When I replied that living things exhibited both high information and specificity, one commenter, named Dorfl, responded with a rousing defense of the snowflake’s complexity:
The fundamental processes forming snowflakes are basically the same from one snowflake to the next. Even so, they end quite different from one another.
That is, however simple the underlying physical principles may be, the resulting snowflakes cannot be described in terms of a simple algorithm producing those particular snowflakes, meaning they do not have low information…
My point in bringing up snowflakes was mostly to show that even relatively simple processes* can still produce things that are both complex and orderly, for any intuitive definition of ‘complex’ and ‘orderly’.
* Well, compared to other chemistry. I’ve had a teacher who would go on at length about how enormously complicated and poorly understood pure water is.
I also pointed out that living things embody both a digital code and a developmental program, while snowflakes don’t. But my critics over on Dr. McGrath’s post weren’t buying it: terms like “code” and “program” were mere metaphors, they said.
Things picked up when Dr. McGrath himself agreed to join the fray, and what followed was a lively discussion.
So I thought I would begin my exchange with Dr. McGrath by asking him if he would acknowledge that there were indeed highly relevant differences between living things and snowflakes.
Vincent Torley’s first post
Thank you for responding. I’d like to keep this discussion as focused as possible. I have a few questions:
1. The genetic code is the set of rules by which information encoded within genetic material (DNA or mRNA sequences) is translated into proteins by living cells. Living things embody a code; snowflakes don’t. Do you agree that this difference is a significant one, and if not, why not?
2. Living things, unlike snowflakes, also embody a program. As DNA double helix co-discoverer James Watson put it: “We know that the instructions for how the egg develops into an adult are written in the linear sequence of bases along the DNA of the germ cells.” (James Watson et al., Molecular Biology of the Gene, 4th Edition, 1987, p. 747.) And as Bill Gates wrote: “Biological information is the most important information we can discover, because over the next several decades it will revolutionize medicine. Human DNA is like a computer program but far, far more advanced than any software ever created.” (The Road Ahead, Penguin: London, Revised, 1996 p. 228.) In the light of these statements, would you agree that we can speak of the human genome as having not merely syntax, but semantics as well? If not, why not?
3. Do you agree that it would be impossible even for God to make a machine that could write a novel like Ulysses without massive inputs of information either at the start (front-loading) or subsequently (tinkering)? If not, why not? If so, then what significant difference is there between such a machine and a living thing?
Over to you…
James F. McGrath’s first reply
Thank you for the clear and direct questions! Let me treat them in turn.
1) The processes by which life functions seem more significant to us, because they are the means by which our biological existence comes to be and perpetuates. But for something to be more significant, it does not therefore have to be completely different. And calling it a “code” reflects an analogy made by human beings. But living things have been around long before humans were there to provide such analogies, and so pressing such analogies too far seems ill-advised.
2) Here too it seems that you are putting the cart before the horse. We are beings who are based on DNA, but we have come along relatively late in the process. And we have developed languages with syntax. And so it is DNA which gives rise to minds which create language with syntax. To suggest the reverse is simply to create a loop. And while such a loop might be the way things are, it is not self evident in the way most ID adherents seem to simply assume, precisely because they have neglected to consider the order in which we find things appearing in the history of life on this planet of ours.
3) If we look at DNA, however much it is like a written human language, it is different inasmuch as it has only four letters, all words have three letters, and all combinations of letters mean something. And so if God were to create a world in which it was possible for more complex language to arise, making one in which such a simpler and almost infinitely flexible system could come to exist through natural means, giving rise to a process of evolution that could one day produce someone with the creativity to compose Ulysses, impresses me at least as much if not more than the front-loaded version, with Ulysses in view from the beginning, seems to impress you.
Over to you…
Vincent Torley’s second post
Hi Dr. McGrath,
Thank you for your reply. A few points:
1. The definition of code which I used presupposed only the existence of a mapping function from DNA and mRNA sequences to proteins. No analogy there; either the mapping exists or it doesn’t.
2. Your explanation of genetic programs seems to be confusing the program with the code. It is certainly true that any triplet of bases will encode one amino acid or another (or a stop signal). But the program instructions go beyond this. In bacteria (to use a simple example), the DNA consists mainly of genes coding for proteins, separated by flanking sequences that regulate the expression of new genes. Errors can occur at this level, so it is wrong to say that every combination means something. Here’s Emeritus Professor Franklin Harold in The Way of the Cell:
“The unique mark of a living organism, shared by no other known entity, is its possession of a genetic program that specifies that organism’s chemical make-up. The program has two essential and related features: first, it is ‘read’ by the organism, and the instructions embodied therein expressed; second, it is replicated with high fidelity whenever the organism reproduces. Rare errors do occur during replication, these will be perpetuated henceforth and commonly alter the sense of the genetic program.” (Oxford University Press, 2001, p. 44)
3. You seem to be arguing that our ability to create language (and write novels like Ulysses) is a product of our infinitely flexible DNA, and that no special parameters needed to be input by God at the beginning. Evidently you think the universe is a giant machine capable of generating (among other things) novels, which possess syntax and semantics. In other words, you’re ultimately reducing our human capacity for syntax and semantics to a few simple biochemical rules: in this case, the mapping from DNA sequences to proteins, found in all living things. Four comments:
(a) You still haven’t explained the origin of DNA. Work by evolutionary biologist Eugene Koonin suggests that its emergence on Earth would be fantastically improbable;
(b) Arguing that DNA explains our capacity for language because it preceded it is a classic example of the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy, as well as begging the question that no intervention was needed to generate the human mind;
(c) If your argument that mind can be explained in terms of matter were correct, it would eliminate the need for God. I presume you don’t want to go that far, as you’re a Christian;
(d) In any case, your argument that mind can be explained for in material terms is a flawed one. Materialism cannot be true; it is demonstrably false. Here’s a brief quote from Aquinas: a Beginner’s Guide (Oneworld Publications, Oxford, 2009), by Thomist philosopher Edward Feser (a critic of ID, I might add):
“Another basis for the inference from the immateriality of the objects of the intellect to the immateriality itself is one suggested by James Ross. When you think about triangularity, as you might when proving a geometrical theorem, it is necessarily perfect triangularity that you are considering, not some approximation of it. Triangularity as your intellect grasps it is entirely determinate or exact. (Of course, your mental image of a triangle might not be exact, but rather indeterminate and fuzzy; but as we’ve seen, to grasp something with the intellect is not the same as to form a mental image of it.) Now the thought you are having must be as determinate or exact as triangularity itself, otherwise it wouldn’t just be a thought about triangularity in the first place, but only a thought about some approximation of triangularity. Yet material things are never determinate or exact in this way. Any material triangle, for example, is always only ever an approximation of perfect triangularity (since it is bound to have sides that are less than perfectly straight, etc., even if this is undetectable to the naked eye). And in general, material symbols and representations are inherently always vague, ambiguous, or otherwise inexact, susceptible of various alternative interpretations. It follows, then, that any thought you might have about triangularity is not something material; in particular, it is not some process occurring in the brain. And what goes for triangularity goes for any thought that involves the grasp of a universal, since universals in general (or at least very many of them, in case someone should wish to dispute this) are determinate and exact in a way material objects and processes cannot be.”
Then there’s the argument from intentionality, summarized in a 2008 blog post by Feser:
“Now the puzzle intentionality poses for materialism can be summarized this way: Brain processes, like ink marks, sound waves, the motion of water molecules, electrical current, and any other physical phenomenon you can think of, seem clearly devoid of any inherent meaning. By themselves they are simply meaningless patterns of electrochemical activity. Yet our thoughts do have inherent meaning – that’s how they are able to impart it to otherwise meaningless ink marks, sound waves, etc. In that case, though, it seems that our thoughts cannot possibly be identified with any physical processes in the brain. In short: Thoughts and the like possess inherent meaning or intentionality; brain processes, like ink marks, sound waves, and the like, are utterly devoid of any inherent meaning or intentionality; so thoughts and the like cannot possibly be identified with brain processes.”
Over to you…
James F. McGrath’s second reply
Scientists do not have an explanation for the origin of DNA. There is really nothing to be said about that at present. But what is clear from all the available evidence is that, once DNA exists, life follows a course that is at least very close to that described by mainstream biology’s evolutionary theory.
Your statement “If your argument that mind can be explained in terms of matter were correct, it would eliminate the need for God. I presume you don’t want to go that far, as you’re a Christian” makes no sense. Within the Bible, we find both a Hebraic view in which human beings are an animated body, and a view borrowed from the Greeks in which human beings are an incarnated soul. Saying that one is “the Christian view” and that the other “eliminates the need for God” seems very odd indeed.
You seem to be concerned with materialism and so I wonder whether you’ve bought into the sort of thinking that some folks over at Uncommon Descent promote, which I blogged about here: link
Vincent Torley’s third post
Hi Dr. McGrath,
Now I feel we are getting somewhere. I think the fundamental difference between us lies in our metaphysics. As I understand it, you see mind as an emergent property of matter, like the emergent properties of water.
I’d like to ask you a question: do you believe that the behavior of matter (including our own free choices) is totally governed by laws (even if we can’t always predict how this or that body will behave)? In other words, are you a determinist? Or do you believe that libertarian freedom is an emergent property of matter – i.e. a top-down property of the brain, making our behavior to some degree constrained, but not controlled by the laws of Nature?
I’d also like to ask: do you believe that God is a spirit (John 4:24) and that He creates and controls matter by immaterial acts of will? If so, then what’s to stop Him creating other beings with spiritual powers, capable of performing non-bodily acts (in addition to their bodily acts)? (I would like to make it clear that my dualism is of the hylomorphic rather than the Cartesian variety.)
As to why I think your view of matter makes God redundant: you seem to hold that having a mind presupposes having a body. But if that’s true, it would apply equally to God. But an embodied God would be composite, and in need of an explanation – in which case, He wouldn’t be God any more, as God is the Ultimate Explanation.
Also, if our behavior is determined, then we ourselves are novel-writing machines. In that case, you would have to say there is a machine that can write a novel: Homo sapiens.
James F. McGrath’s third reply
Unlike you, I am not at all comfortable as a mere mortal to dictate to God under what circumstances God may be God.
The Hebrew and Greek terms for “spirit” also meant “wind” and “breath.” Their use ultimately stems from archaic ways of thinking about life that few today share. The attempt to develop the notion in a different direction, devoid of all corporeality, simply led to intractable problems caused by the seeming inability to explain how the incorporeal can interact with the material. And so it is that view that creates the serious problems, and not one that sticks closer to those ancient schools of thought in which spirit was a kind of thing, even if a very special sort of stuff.
But ultimately, there is a real danger in your reasoning that typifies the entire ID movement, namely the breaking down of the permanent and unsurmountable gulf between God and human beings…
Sorry, my iPad stopped responding to my typing and so I posted an incomplete thought. I was referring to the infinite distinction between God and mortals. To assume that, just because human personhood has certain characteristics, we can reason that God’s characteristics are essentially similar, leads one precisely to the potential criticisms of God’s design that ID invites, by anthropomorphizing God as though “he” were basically a very large human engineer.
I am not a determinist. How the mind works is mysterious to us even though we are minds. Thoughts emerge fully formed from recesses that we cannot look into directly. And so there is little we can do to get very specific about challenging problems such as free will, except to note that the only thing that we know with true absolute certainty exists is mind and thought, and we experience in the process that we have free will. To deny that based supposedly on observations of things that we can only know secondarily seems to me to be problematic. Keith Ward offers a good treatment of this.
I do appreciate that you are not pretending that ID is not about God and metaphysics – such honesty is refreshing compared to many ID proponents I have talked with in the past.
Vincent Torley’s fourth post
Hi Dr. McGrath,
Thanks for your reply. It seems that you are willing to allow that God is physical in some broad sense of the word: unless we acknowledge this, you suggest, we are stuck with the dreaded interaction problem (how does spirit act upon matter)? But if it is true that “in Him we live and move and have our being,” as Scripture declares, then God’s interacting with creation is no problem at all, since God is on another plane of existence from us, “upholding all things by the word of His power.”
Also, if God is in some sense physical, then it seems that God cannot be the cause of the existence of the cosmos. Indeed, it is hard to see how God can be distinguished from the cosmos at all. A Pantheistic (or at least, panentheistic) conception of the Deity seems to suggest itself.
Re the doctrine of emergence: I put it to you that it is no explanation to say that a thing’s higher-level or holistic powers emerge from the lower-level powers of its constituents, unless you can explain how this happens. We can explain the chemical properties of water in terms of its components. This is precisely what we cannot do with our higher mental abilities. To suppose that we will one day explain these is what Eccles would have called promissory materialism.
Finally, regarding the universe’s ability to make itself: the definition of information used by Dembski and Marks in their paper on Life’s Conservation Law had nothing to do with specified complexity: it was simply anything that improves on a blind search. Dembski’s point was that you cannot explain a system’s ability to hit a target (say, conscious life) better than chance would, by going back in time. No matter how far back you go, you confront the dilemma: either the system itself is built with an internal bias to reach that goal, or something has to be added to it to bias it in that direction – and the level of bias required never decreases as you go back in time. That’s why you can’t start with a simple unbiased universe, and arrive at us.
James F. McGrath’s fourth reply
Panentheism is a term that I find helpful. But as I said, I am persuaded that God is so beyond my ability to comprehend that such language is nothing but symbol and analogy. When it comes to human persons, however, your point about the inability of emerging properties to account for things like mind is mere assertion. Through combinations of wood and metal in particular ways, we can create an instrument that makes beautiful music. When hydrogen and oxygen combine, we get water which is wet even though neither hydrogen nor oxygen has that property. And we can see that damage to the brain seems to impair the mind. While we may not understand the processes whereby mind emerges, to insist that there must be another sort of substance which we understand even less is not progress.
As for hitting targets, unless one specifies the target not as life but as life with a particular form and in a very specific place, we simply don’t have enough information to assess whether the emergence of life in our universe is improbable, probable, or inevitable.
In view of all that we do not currently know, I object strongly to those who make sweeping statements that suggest that we know all we need to in order to provide definitive answers, and that the approach to science that continually provides us with important data can now be set aside.
Vincent Torley’s fifth and final post
Hi Dr. McGrath,
Thank you for your response. I’m sorry for not having replied sooner, but I have been very busy during the last two days.
You argue that we simply don’t have enough information to assess whether the emergence of life in our universe is improbable. That may be true if one defines life very broadly, in terms of self-movement for instance. But if one defines life more narrowly (and sensibly) in terms of the features that distinguish it most from other forms of matter – namely, the possession of a genetic code, as well as a genetic program that specifies an organism’s chemical make-up – then we can indeed say that the emergence of a system exemplifying these properties is vastly improbable, in our cosmos. It should be noted that this is still a general definition of life, as it mentions only generic features, and makes no mention of particular molecules such as DNA or proteins. So it cannot be said that my definition of life is ad hoc. Nevertheless, life on my generic definition is still highly improbable: hence it is still a target that Nature needs to search for. And as Dembski and Marks’ paper on Life’s Conservation Law showed, going back in time does not solve the origin of life problem: the “bias problem” that I mentioned in my previous post still needs to be addressed.
Regarding mind and matter: your analogy between mind and water does not hold. The wetness of water can be understood quite easily: it’s a simple consequence of hydrogen bonding. Water is wet because it clings, and it clings because it contains charged particles. By contrast, some kinds of reduction are impossible, because they involve crossing from one category of discourse into another, which is illicit. It would be a category mistake, for instance, to explain the funniness of a joke in terms of the particles of paper on which it is written (or for that matter, the neurons in the brain of the comedian who relates it). I maintain that attempting to explain the meaningfulness of our thoughts in terms of the processes taking place in our brains is equally wrong-headed: it’s a category mistake. Before we make progress exploring the mind, we have to cut ourselves loose from the apron strings of materialism: it is a false solution, even if we don’t know what the right solution is.
I might add that since we can never step outside ourselves, the attempt to construct a general theory of the human mind is doomed in any case. It is a vanity on our part. The best we can probably do is construct a theory explaining certain kinds of mental acts.
Finally, I’d like to thank you for declaring your views on panentheism. You have been very open about your position. However, a panentheistic view is difficult to square with the Christian concept of God as Creator of Heaven and Earth. Even Charles Kingsley, whom you approvingly cite in another post as suggesting that a truly wise God would “make all things make themselves,” nevertheless acknowledged (in the very speech you cite) that “Scripture says that God created,” before going on to say that the term “created” is never defined in Scripture, and he also explicitly ascribes the laws of Nature to the mind of God. A panentheistic God could not be the author of the laws of Nature; being in some way physical, it could not exist in the absence of laws.
I might add that Jesus Himself also preached a God Who is distinct from His creation: “Our Father Who art in Heaven.” Panentheism rejects this view. So it seems that the God you are inviting us to worship is a post-Christian one.
I think I’ll let this be my last post on this thread. It has been an interesting exchange, and I’m happy to give you the last word. Thank you for your courtesy, and thank you for posting our discussion in a public forum. Cheers.
James F. McGrath’s fifth and final reply
You say that explaining the funniness of a joke in terms of the substances used to print/write the joke are a category mistake, and I hoped for a moment that you were headed in the right direction. But then you go on to complain about materialism’s inadequacies as though you completely missed the force of your own point. To say that the material processes by which brains function invalidate mind is like saying that chemical analysis of paper and ink makes jokes not funny. You are making that very same category mistake.
As for the probability of life arising, what we know for certain is that there is life on one out of one worlds in precisely the range of distance from a sun-like star and with the specific kind of atmosphere Earth has. We have no basis for comparison at this stage.
Panentheism allows for a range of views – from a God who forms a world and interacts with it much as you envisage souls interacting with bodies, to other views such as radically emergent theism, or process thought which has God relating to the world akin to a soul and body, but never having been without a body. Even the latter is not inherently antithetical to Christianity since the rise of creatio ex nihilo in Christianity seems to have emerged in response to Gnosticism; Judaism did not understand Genesis 1 in that way until the Middle Ages.
I’ve enjoyed talking about this with you. I know you’ve said that you will bow out at this stage, but if you find that it is worth rejoining the conversation at some point, you’d be most welcome!
At this point, I’d like to throw the discussion open to my readers. Comments are welcome.