Epistemological Surrender

Sorting out Conflicting Authority Claims at the Intersection of Science & Faith

Salvo #57, now hot off the press, includes a Surveillance column addressing Joshua Swamidass' criticisms of intelligent design. Co-written with Casey Luskin, I used an intelligent design (ID) framework to address the scientific and theological problems in Swamidass' model for reconciling science and faith.

But what is ID, and how does it relate to the current controversies? The theory of intelligent design (ID) is really quite simple to state. According to the Discovery Institute, the hub of ID research, ID holds that “certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause, not an undirected process such as natural selection.” And while ID stops short of suggesting who or what that intelligent cause might be, certain tenets do have theistic implications.

ID is one of four broad conceptual models Christians may adopt for reconciling the truth claims of Christianity with those of mainstream science. The other three are:

  • Young Earth Creationism (YEC). This holds to a strict literal interpretation of the Genesis creation account.
  • Old Earth Creationism. This allows for multiple possible interpretations of the creation “days.”
  • Theistic Evolution (also called Evolutionary Creation). This uncritically accepts the tenets of evolutionary biology while also professing biblical Christianity.

Joshua Swamidass, a computational biologist and associate professor at Washington University in St. Louis, has spent time in at least three of those camps. Raised by YEC Christian parents, he later rejected YEC. In college, he became “fully convinced of ID,”[1] but then rejected ID in the wake of the 2005 Kitzmiller v Dover trial.[2] After that he aligned with but then separated from BioLogos, the leading theistic evolution advocacy group, and then went on to found the online community Peaceful Science. Through all these changes, he never, as far as I know, renounced his Christian faith.

I can only imagine the challenges facing a professing Christian in academia and science. At this point, he affirms both mainstream evolutionary biology and Christianity, but he doesn’t clearly explain how he reconciles the competing claims into an integrated worldview whole.

When Cameron Bertuzzi invited him to explain his intellectual journey, his lengthy exposition touched more on what he has rejected than on what he now believes to be true. He explained how he saw among YEC apologists a kind of controlling insistence on interpreting Genesis according to YEC, to the point that science was being misinterpreted or misapplied in pursuit of an anti-evolution rationale by which Christianity would then be proven true. To be sure, to the extent that YEC apologists were mishandling science or Scripture, he was right to reject it. But he didn’t merely reject what he was taught because of its own flaws. Instead, as he explained it, “opposition to evolution” was for him an idol. And he had to leave that idol in order to follow Jesus.

His opposition to ID takes different forms in different venues, but he collapses it into this same category of being “anti-evolution”—for reasons having to do with theology. “I couldn’t really stick with ID because I couldn’t see the theological reason why proving things scientifically was important,” he said.[3] Yet anyone familiar with ID arguments knows that they aren’t attempting to prove anything for the sake of theology.

Swamidass has now offered a novel scenario in his 2019 book, The Genealogical Adam and Eve: The Surprising Science of Universal Ancestry. But even here, he only suggests it as a possible scenario, calling it “a thought experiment.”[4] Nowhere does he explicitly say he believes it to be true. (For more about what the genealogical Adam and Eve (GAE) thought experiment entails, see Casey Luskin’s and my Surveillance: Joshua Swamidass's Methods and Models for Reconciling Science and Faith are Problematic Scientifically, Theologically, and Rhetorically.) It seems the primary appeal of the GAE is that it makes room for a creation story that poses no challenge to mainstream evolutionary biology.[5] “If this hypothesis survives scrutiny,” Swamidass writes, “it returns territory to theology.”[6]

But, since when does theology need science to grant it epistemological territory? From this statement it appears Swamidass is operating under the assumption that “science” possesses some kind of authority to which all other disciplines must submit. But does it?

I’m not saying science should be ignored, only that it does not merit epistemological supremacy. Christian friends, regardless how you choose to sort out the conflicting claims of science and your faith, do not cede authority over your own mind to anyone’s claim, stated or unstated, to be the arbiter of truth.

Related Reading


[1] Unbelievable? Intelligent Design on trial. 15 years on from Kitzmiller-Dover – Mike Behe and Joshua Swamidass (approx.. 24:00)

[2] Unbelievable? Intelligent Design on trial. 15 years on from Kitzmiller-Dover – Mike Behe and Joshua Swamidass (approx. 18:00 min)

[3] Dr. Joshua Swamidass Explains Why He Changed His Mind on Evolution (after 21 min mark)

[4] The Genealogical Adam and Eve, p. 7.

[5] Swamidass writes “one layer of the GAE speaks to Christians who want to engage mainstream science” Another “challenges a key plank of the ID movement, that the rules of science have to be changed in order to make progress.” Nelson: On the Swamidass Hypothesis — The Cheese Stands Alone.

[6] The Genealogical Adam and Eve, p. 11.

 is Deputy Editor of Salvo and writes on apologetics and matters of faith.

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