#253

February 20, 2012

Evolutionary Theory and Theism

Dear Dr.Craig

I want to start off by thanking you for what you’ve done for Christianity and for Jesus both in your written work and all through out your career.

However I do still have a two Questions regarding the nature of evolution and God’s role to play.

Q1) Stephen Meyer who is an American scholar, philosopher of biology and advocate for intelligent design says, “Evolution is a purposeless undirected process no one not even God can direct an undirected process or give purpose to a purposeless process.” He also has called theistic evolution is Oxymoron. And yet he is not alone amoung many biologists theres a trend to think like this in the United States. A 2009 poll by Pew Research Center found that “87%” of scientists say evolution is due to natural processes, such as natural selection genetic drift and random mutation. And so does that really bother your theism?

Q2) If you do accept evolution at what point did humans become human?
Did God sort of intervene in this point of history were he decided this creature is speacial? Because in evolution a species is always the same as its parent there is no one time in the history of any species where you can say “thats a new species.” why did God favour this one creaure As opposed to the very similar
Homo sapiens heidelbergensis,
Homo sapiens neanderthalensis,
Homo floresiensis,
Homo habilis,
Homo georgicus,
Homo erectus,
Homo ergaster,
Homo antecessor etc.
Many of these displayed human like behaviour and may have asked the ‘why’ question also.
So does that bother your theism either?

Andrew

United Kingdom

No, Andrew, neither point is bothersome for theism, it seems to me.

Q1) I disagree with Steve Meyer’s statement because the terms “undirected” and “purposeless” are not being used univocally by the theist and the evolutionary biologist. If they were, then evolutionary theory would be enormously presumptuous, since science is just not in a position to say with any justification that there is no divinely intended direction or goal of the evolutionary process. How could anyone say on the basis of scientific evidence that the whole scheme was not set up by a provident God to arrive at homo sapiens on planet Earth? How could a scientist know that God did not supernaturally intervene to cause the crucial mutations that led to important evolutionary transitions, for example, the reptile to bird transition? Indeed, given divine middle knowledge, not even such supernatural interventions are necessary, for God could have known that were certain initial conditions in place, then, given the laws of nature, certain life forms would evolve through random mutation and natural selection, and so He put such laws and initial conditions in place. Obviously, science is in no position whatsoever to say justifiably that the evolutionary process was not under the providence of a God endowed with middle knowledge who determined to create biological complexity by such means. So if the evolutionary biologist were using words like “undirected” and “purposeless” in the sense that the theist is using those words, evolutionary theory would be philosophy, not science (which is precisely what some theists allege).

But the evolutionary biologist is not using those words in the same sense as the theist. This fact, unacknowledged by both critics of theistic evolution and apologists for naturalistic evolution, became clear to me in the course of my preparation for my debate with Francisco Ayala on the tenability of Intelligent Design in biology. According to Ayala, when the evolutionary biologist says that the mutations that lead to evolutionary development are random, the meaning of the word “random” is not “occurring by chance.” Rather it means “irrespective of their usefulness to the organism.”

Now this is hugely significant! The scientist is not, despite the impression given by popularizers on both sides of the divide, making the presumptuous philosophical claim that biological mutations occur by chance and, hence, that the evolutionary process is undirected or purposeless. Rather he means that mutations do not occur for the benefit of the host organism. If we take “random” to mean “irrespective of usefulness to the organism,” then randomness is not incompatible with direction or purpose. For example, suppose that God in His providence causes a mutation to occur in an organism, not for the benefit of the organism, but for some other reason (say, because it will produce easy prey for other organisms that He wants to flourish or even because it will eventually produce a fossil that I will someday find, which stimulates my interest in palaeontology, so that I embark upon the career God had in mind for me). In such a case, the mutation is both purposeful and random.

By contrast, when an Intelligent Design theorist like Michael Behe uses the word “random,” he means “not oriented to any goal.” He says, “if ‘random’ is defined as ‘not oriented to any goal’, then I think the ambiguities disappear and it does clearly conflict with intelligent design” (personal communication). Right! But that’s not the sense in which evolutionary biologists (at least when they are being careful rather than sloppy) are using the word. Meyer and Behe are right that not only the theist but scientists in general should correct naturalists who assert, on the supposed authority of science, that the evolutionary process is “not oriented toward any goal,” but such a correction is relevant, not to evolutionary theory, but to the philosophy of naturalism which tries to piggyback on legitimate science.

So as for the Pew survey, I think you can now see why it is irrelevant to theism that “evolution is due to natural processes, such as natural selection, genetic drift, and random mutation.” Of course, it is! The statement as you give it doesn’t even say that it is due only to such factors. Many evolutionary biologists think that additional non-genetic factors also play a role as well. In fact, I’m shocked that only 87% of scientists think that evolution is due to the three factors you mention.

In a recent report from the National Center for Science Education, which self-advertises as “the premier institution dedicated to keeping evolution in the science classroom and creationism out,” Daryl Domning writes,

In truth, many (perhaps most!) evolutionists are theists of one sort or another. Their views are as sincerely and validly held as those of the atheists and have as much (perhaps more!) claim to be representative of evolutionist thinking. Atheists have every right to believe that theists are woefully misguided in failing to see the obsolescence of religion after Darwin; but that is their philosophical opinion, not an infallibly proven proposition of science or logic.

That puts a very different face on the matter, doesn’t it?

Regardless of the numbers, however, the point remains that non-univocal use of words has misled many people into thinking that evolutionary theory presents some sort of challenge to teleology and, hence, to theism. I tell you, Andrew, this is just one more of those cases that illustrate so powerfully the importance of careful philosophical thinking about science. (See further my “Naturalism and Intelligent Design,” in Intelligent Design, ed. Robert Stewart [Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007], pp. 58-71.)

Q2) As an anthropological dualist who thinks that human beings are body/soul composites, I think that a hominid animal, however advanced, which lacks a human soul is not a human being. So it really doesn’t matter whether or not there was a sharp dividing line biologically between pre-human hominids and human beings. In any case, anthropologists to my knowledge have not been able to come to any sort of consensus on the tree of human ancestry, so that all the hominids you mention may simply be dead ends on the tree of primate evolution which never led to man. Were Neanderthals truly human? God knows! I don’t need to know exactly when humans emerged in the evolutionary process in order to maintain that in God’s providence a first human being did arrive on the scene. So while your question poses an intriguing puzzle, I don’t see that a theist needs to be able to answer it in order for theism to be rational to hold. Indeed, the existence of so improbable a biological organism as man is perhaps itself evidence that the evolutionary process, if it led to human beings, is under the supervision of a provident Designer.