Oreos and Origins

Author Greg Koukl Published on 04/22/2013

Many scientists exclude God as an explanation for any event. In some cases, agent causation is the only rational conclusion.

I want to try to explain why making reference to a designer is legitimate in the scientific arena. As some have argued, whenever you make a reference to a designer, you are making reference to something that is not natural. It is supernatural by definition, therefore you are talking about religion. Well, I guess I have to plead guilty to that. But when someone makes the comment that now you are talking about religion, what they are essentially saying is “foul.” You cannot bring supernatural questions into the discussion about science because science, by definition, is limited only to naturalistic explanations.

Now, that is philosophically true in our time, but my point is that that is an arbitrary distinction. It implies that the only thing truthful that can be known is known through empirical studies. Science does that kind of thing, so science gives us truth and keep your religion, your metaphysics out of this discussion because it’s out of place in science. The fact is, agent causation is an acceptable scientific explanation for things because we understand that in the world of natural cause and effect, there are acting agents that make things happen.

In fact, when you try to solve a murder, this is precisely what you are trying to determine. Who was the acting agent? Not what are the scientific laws that can account for the body being in this position at this particular time. You are not concerned with that. You are concerned with the guilt and the identity of an individual who made a choice to do an immoral act, a homicide in this case. And so you are trying to determine, even using scientific evidence much of the time, who was the agent who acted.

Now that same mentality can be applied to a lot of scientific examples. For example, we have this thing called a seismograph, right? It’s a little needle on a piece of paper that gets drawn across this needle that wobbles back and forth according to the vibrations of the earth and it makes a little squiggle, right? And by looking at this squiggle you can determine the force of an earthquake or what kind of seismic activity is going on. These are blind natural forces being recorded by this stylus on a seismograph.

What would happen, though, if you were looking at the etchings of the stylus on the seismograph and you saw these wobbly, side-to-side movements with an unbroken line of ink, and you saw someone’s signature written in there and then it continued on with these wobbles. What would you conclude? Would you conclude that this was some really wacky earthquake? Of course not. You would see the unmistakable signs of agent causation and you would rightly conclude that someone got in there and made a conscious, intelligent choice to move the stylus and make the form of a signature. In other words, you don’t explain that even on a scientific instrument by naturalistic causes. You explain it by agent causation.

Now to give you an illustration about how scientific naturalism arbitrarily excludes agent causation from scientific explanations, I have suggested what I have called the Oreo Experiment. You go to your chemistry teacher and ask if he is able to look at a solution and describe, based on his scientific testing, what is in the solution and how the solution, the precipitate, came to be. The precipitate is the heavy stuff that falls out, precipitates in the solution. In a beaker, for example. It seems that someone who is well-versed in the area of chemistry and well-versed in the area of physics can look and measure and test and describe what happened in a simple kind of thing.

Your chemist teacher takes the challenge and you say, “Okay, I’m going to put out a beaker full of stuff. There you see it, and now I’m covering it. Tomorrow we’ll uncover it and you’ll see something that has precipitated. Then it is your job to figure out how that happened.” Sure. Fair enough. I know science. I know the laws of chemistry. We’ll do it.

However, just before the chemist comes into the room the next morning to begin his experiments to look and observe the precipitate and begin to measure it to solve the problem, you lift the cover on the beaker and drop in an Oreo cookie. He walks in, you remove the cover to the beaker, and there is this discolored solution, but clearly visible is this rapidly decaying Oreo cookie. Very obvious. You can still see the word “Oreo” on it. And you say, “Okay, now using the laws of physics and chemistry, explain to me how that Oreo cookie got there.” And he says, “Wait a minute, it’s obvious that someone put it there because Oreo cookies don’t just manufacture themselves out of nowhere in the middle of a beaker. You are playing a trick on me. Someone dropped it in there.” And then you say, “Foul. You’ve broken the rules. You’ve inferred an outside agent here. You’re not being scientific. It’s your job to be a scientist. This is a chemistry lab. Let’s stick with science. You are obliged to come up with some kind of explanation limited to the laws of chemistry and physics and time plus chance to explain how that Oreo cookie got there in the last twelve hours.” Now, he would be hard pressed to do so. Why? Because it was put there. You know it was. The evidence indicates it was. There was an agent that caused that, but the rules have restricted him from concluding what it obvious in the circumstances.

Now I think it’s possible that the rules like that can be so hammered into one that what is obvious to a casual onlooker will not be obvious to the person who is convinced of the rules. Who will deny agent causation even when it is staring him in the face?

This is the argument of Phillip Johnson in Darwin on Trial. He says the cards have been stacked against those who would hold some form of agent causation when it comes to the issue of origins, because when you infer agent causation naturally from the evidence, they say, wait a minute you mean agent as in God? You can’t talk about God here. You’ve broken the rules. So you might legitimately ask, What if the evidence indicates God did it? Isn’t the most important concern that we figure out what actually happened and not necessarily keeping an arbitrarily restricted set of rules? Any conclusions that involve an agent—even if they’re justified by the evidence—are out of bounds and are ruled inappropriate. But that’s philosophy, not science.