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Words With Friends

bar_0.JPGMy wife enjoys an online game called Words With Friends. It's like a crossword puzzle app that you play against friends and strangers. Her favorite opponents include a girlfriend who introduced her to a cousin, an older gentleman who goes by the pseudonym Dudder and is an awesome, aggressive and tireless player. Dudder is retired and has played these kinds of games forever. He is always online and up for another round. I imagine him going at it with hands tied behind his back, to give others a competitive advantage, pecking at letters on the iPad with his nose.

He's that good.

In the online and in-print debate about evolution, intelligent design and theism, University of Delaware physicist Stephen M. Barr, a Roman Catholic and frequent contributor to First Things, plays the role of Dudder. Dr. Barr (pictured at left) wrote what I understand is a good book back in 2003, Modern Physics and Ancient Faith. But since then, in particular since 2005 when Cardinal Sch´┐Żnborn of Vienna wrote a New York Times op-ed observing that the random, directionless element in Darwinian evolution makes it incompatible with Catholicism and arguing therefore in favor of intelligent design, Professor Barr's signature issue has been an attempt to define the word "random" in what might seem an idiosyncratic way.

He wants it to mean not purposeless, directionless, as most readers would use the term, but just statistically uncorrelated: "The key point is that randomness in empirical science boils down in practice to the absence of significant statistical correlation." This allows Barr to say that Darwinian evolution poses no challenge to theism since evolution isn't necessarily fueled by mere purposeless churning but may, as Barr believes, be the result of "design," reflecting God's providence. Thus evolution could be "random" yet intended. This in turn allows Barr to disavow intelligent design theory which appears, in the end, to be the whole point of the exercise.

He is very practiced by now at making this argument, as you'd expect given how long he's been at it. He has another go in this month's issue of First Things ("Chance, by Design") where he takes on our Discovery Institute colleagues Jay Richards and Michael Behe who have tweaked him for holding so steadfastly to an eccentric view. Richards has written here at ENV that Barr commits the "fallacy of private definition" while Behe joked in a debate that "Most scientists -- with the exception of maybe one or two in Delaware -- understand Darwinian evolution to mean [unguided and unplanned]."

Yet like Dudder, Barr is a skilled player. He's got all his (sharply disputed) quotations from Thomas Aquinas down, all the learned juggling of primary and secondary causation which he renames "vertical causality" and "horizontal causality," the analogies to auto license plates and tossed coins, the citations from Ayala, Kiger and Mayr that appear to support his "scientific" definition of "random," and the citations from Kenneth Miller and Joseph Levine, the National Association of Biology Teachers and 38 Nobel Prize winners that go strongly against it yet that Barr can dismiss as "the popular or polemical uses one finds in manifestos or even, at times, textbooks."

Does he ever tire of arguing this way? Apparently not. Do the readers of First Things get tired of it? I would guess so. Scientists and others routinely use the word "evolution" itself in a variety of senses, allowing Darwin defenders to confuse the public by seeming to affirm one thing everyone can accept when they really mean something else. Retiring the world "evolution" from the evolution debate, if it could be done, would be a wonderful step toward clarity. Why should "random" be any different?

Sure, some scientists and philosophers of science have used the term in a way that might seem to make random-driven Darwinian evolution compatible with orthodox Christianity or Judaism. But the Darwin debate isn't a game. It's not some sterile scientific or philosophical exercise, to which everyone may bring his own definition of a vitally important concept so long as he can support it with quotations from famous scientists and where it only matters whether you can rack up more points than your opponents. The debate has a burning ultimate question at its heart, one that deeply influences the way real people think and feel about their own life's worth and meaning, and about the worth and meaning of other people's lives. In the real world, everyone knows what "random" means.

Because Barr is a smart man who would be a valuable ally and friend, someone who plainly cares about important issues, to which he brings both scientific and philosophical depth, I would be happy to grant him his preferred definition of "random." Fine, he can say it means whatever he would like it to mean. But let him in turn put aside word games and turn his attention to the meat of the discussion about evolution, the question of whether life gives scientific evidence of purpose and design. Or in Barr's terms, whether there really is some genuine correlation between a purpose at work in evolutionary history and the changes, variations and mutations that arise in the course of that history.

Let's have his detailed evaluation of the most up-to-date evidence offered by intelligent design theorists, of the kind analyzed daily here at ENV. Dr. Barr, will you join us in a fruitful discussion?

Photo credit: University of Delaware.