Saturday, July 01, 2006

A Response to Howard Van Till's "No Place for a Small God"

A Christian friend of mine who disagrees with Intelligent Design sent me a copy of Howard Van Till's essay No Place for a Small God in which Van Till argues that the universe was set in motion by God with all the requisite capacities and design to unfold by itself all the biological forms and structures that we encounter today. Van Till calls this the Robust Formational Economy Principle.

First, I readily agree with him that a preset capacity and design in creation would show the brilliance of God and does not equate logically to a rejection of a Creator. Atheists still have to account for the law and design inherent in the Creation from the beginning.

However, Van Till attacks "episodic creationism" from his standpoint. Like young-earth creationists, he believes in an instantaneous form of creationism, though in the case of young earth creationists they may believe in a series of these, he suggests that everything was present in the first moment of creation and that God did not have his hand in it any further from that point. He denigrates episodic creationism , saying it "conflates the action of 'Mind' and 'Hand'. However, there is little reason, to my mind insufficient reason, philosophically or theologically or Scripturally to make the deistic presupposition that the Creator binds himself from the initial point of creation not to again effect its processes. Clearly in order to be a Christian Van Till must in some form believe in the divine intervention in the affairs of humanity in the life death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, but he might reply that believing in Redemption is another matter than believing in episodic Creation, which it is, but consider: Christ it is averred in Scripture was crucified before the beginning of time, which it seems suggests that the intervention of Christ was in the plan from the beginning. Why not also other interventions or episodic creation? Surely the Redemption does not show the weakness or smallness of God but His incomparable greatness, though it is astonishing to the Greeks, etc.

Another reason that considerations of the grandeur of a robust economy might be mitigated is that we find in Scripture where the Creation activity and the rest of God are in some sense suggested as a model for man. On the seventh day God rested, so man is to rest on the seventh day, being created in the image of God.

A central assumption Van Till makes throughout his essay is encapsuled in this statement by him:

Contrary to the presumptions of episodic creationism, there is strong empirical encouragement for the idea that the formational economy of the universe is sufficiently robust to account for the assembly of all known physical and biotic forms.

Throughout the essay he makes no attempt to support this assertion or to persuade the reader of its merit beyond arguing how accomodating a naturalistic account to the extent he does still does not let those like Daniel Dennett off the leash.

However, as Phillip Johnson observes:

Perhaps the best way to start is by answering Howard Van Till's question: just what would biological history have been like if left to natural phenomena without God's participation? If God had created a lifeless world, even with oceans rich in amino acids and other organic molecules, and thereafter had left matters alone, life would not have come into existence. If God had done nothing but create a world of bacteria and protozoa, it would still be a world of bacteria and protozoa. Whatever may have been the case in the remote past, the chemicals we see today have no observable tendency or ability to form living cells, and single-celled organisms have no observable tendency or ability to form complex plants and animals. Persons who believe that chemicals unassisted by intelligence can combine to create life, or that bacteria can evolve by natural processes into complex animals, are making an a priori assumption that nature has the resources to do its own creating.

To see the exchange between Howard Van Till and Phillip Johnson in First Things see God and Evolution: An Exchange.

Van Till discusses Daniel Dennett's opposition to religion in comparison to his teleological stance.

Dennett forcefully rejects the "Handicrafter-God" of both episodic creationism and the Argument from Design, characterizing such approaches as ill-conceived attempts to inject supernatural explanations into circumstances where natural explanations would suffice. Dennett's position is composed of claims at several quite different levels (although his rhetoric does not demonstrate an awareness of these differing levels). First, the credibility of unbroken genealogical continuity among all life forms has, he says, been established. Second, the concept of episodic creation has, once and for all time, been discredited. And third, the existence of the entire universe, complete with its remarkably robust formational economy, may therefore be taken for granted as a starting point that needs no explanation.

First regarding Dennett's suggested that we should park our brains and take for granted the existence of the entire universe as it is symptomatic of his complacency over fundamental issues of human existence, a state of mind he not only personally cultivates but which he energetically evangelizes for especially in his adoption and expansion of Dawkins meme theory in an attempt to ultimately describe human thought in non-agency terms like a good materialist. To Dennett I would simply ask why should we park our brains there?

Van Till assumes that Dennett's opposition to religion is based on his opposition to episodic creationism. Is this true? Perhaps Dennett's complacency comes first. Perhaps he does not derive the complacency from the first two but rather because of his complacency he is more likely to accept the first two. Afterall this has been the contention of many regarding Darwinian narrative from very early. The philosophical worldview of materialism already had a social standing historically and minds were primed to hear such a narrative. The argument is that when it comes to evolutionary narrative the commitment to naturalism compromises the perspicacity because it so temptingly provides a creation myth congruous with materialism and that many of our best minds are lured by their subtle philosophical commitment with its drive to rationalize so that they become like sugar daddies that never discipline their children, that is that they become much too forgiving in a laissez faire sense because of the need the narrative subtly provides for.

Van Till when all is said comes out squarely for design and much of his argument is similar to those like Michael Denton who to a degree stand under the umbrella of Intelligent Design. Paul Nelson's Is "Intelligent Design" Unavoidable-Even By Howard Van Till? A Response diagnoses Van Till's stance as follows:

Howard Van Till has long been a critic of interventionist conceptions of God's creative activity, and he places the "intelligent design" position in that category. Yet certain lines of reasoning in Van Till's own work can best be understood as arguing for design. It is likely that this reasoning will eventually bring Van Till into conflict with an increasingly naturalistic scientific community.

I would certainly recommend reading Van Till's essay and the others I cited here.

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