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DEPARTMENT: Opening Salvo

Closing the Gap

by James M. Kushiner

Journalist Mark Vernon, writing in The Guardian (January 4, 2013), gave "The Most Despised Science Book of 2012" award to Mind & Cosmos (Oxford University Press) by Thomas Nagel, an otherwise respected New York University philosopher. Nagel committed two politically incorrect sins.

The first sin is in the book's subtitle: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False. In his introduction, Nagel asks two questions:

First, given what is known about the chemical basis of biology and genetics, what is the likelihood that self-replicating life forms should have come into existence spontaneously on the early earth, solely through the operation of the laws of physics and chemistry?

Second, once life was set in motion:

In the available geological time since the first life forms appeared on earth, what is the likelihood that, as a result of physical accident, a sequence of viable genetic mutations should have occurred that was sufficient to permit natural selection to produce the organisms that actually exist?

Nagel sees serious "problems of probability." Then he commits his second sin:

In thinking about these questions, I have been stimulated by criticisms of the prevailing scientific world picture from a very different direction: the attack on Darwinism mounted in recent years . . . by the defenders of intelligent design. . . . [T]he problems that these iconoclasts pose for the orthodox scientific consensus should be taken seriously. They do not deserve the scorn with which they are commonly met. It is manifestly unfair.

It gets worse. Nagel also tells his readers that "the defenders of intelligent design deserve our gratitude."

The Irony

So Nagel, an atheist, respects and appreciates ID's criticisms of Darwin. Yet some Christians heap scorn on ID and instead are embracing "theistic evolution." Theistic evolution is essentially Darwinism with the added assertion that God chose to use Darwinian evolution to create all species, including man.

On page 51 in this issue, Casey Luskin writes:

[A]ccording to theistic evolutionists, design arguments insert God into the "gaps" in our scientific knowledge—but as those gaps shrink, so do our reasons for religious belief. Francis Collins adopts this position, writing in The Language of God, "Faith that places God in the gaps of current understanding about the natural world may be headed for a crisis if advances in science subsequently fill those gaps." It's much safer, some think, to avoid such risks by rejecting ID arguments from the outset.

The problem with this strategy is that it gets the gaps wrong. The so-called temporary gaps in Darwinism stem not from our ignorance but from our growing knowledge. In Darwin's day scientists knew nothing about the structure or contents of a living cell. Scientists have now discovered so many details in the cell—complex functions and an amazing capacity to store information and instructions—that it has been compared to a miniature city or factory. The inference to design is not to fill a gap in our knowledge, but is a positive conclusion about signs of intelligence evident through empirical research.

It is the Darwinian scientists who face a growing gap in explaining how the cell came to be—only because they have ruled out explanations other than "the laws of physics and chemistry." While "The Most Despised Science Book of 2012" does not embrace intelligent design or theism, its author sees the growing probability gap in Darwinism: "The more we learn about the intricacy of the genetic code and its control of the chemical processes of life, the harder those problems seem."

Instead of scorning ID, believers should welcome the new empirical and positive signs of intelligence to which it points. It's the smart thing to do.

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