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Is Evolution a Threat to Christianity?

December 05, 2011     Time: 00:18:12
Is Evolution a Threat to Christianity?

Summary

Dr. Craig looks at an article from the Washington Post which claims "evolution" is still a threat to Christianity. He begins by showing why defining one's terms is so important.

Transcript Is Evolution a Threat to Christianity?

 

Kevin Harris: Well, come on in! Thanks for joining us. This is the Reasonable Faith podcast with Dr. William Lane Craig. I'm Kevin Harris in studio with Dr. Craig, and as we begin today, let me give you a heads up that the new Reasonable Faith app will soon be available. We're rolling this out and you can get information at ReasonableFaith.org. So look for the new Reasonable Faith app and the information there at ReasonableFaith.org.

Dr. Craig, we just can't go very long, either with these podcasts or in life, before the issue of evolution comes up either in the news or in the questions that we get here at Reasonable Faith. And, again, there are lots of resources at ReasonableFaith.org on this issue. I'm referring to an article in the Washington Post by Paula Kirby who says that evolution threatens Christianity. Once again, as I read this in the Washington Post it just shows how important it is that we define our terms – what is evolution?

Dr. Craig: Right, she says in the editorial that evolution is a simple fact; there's no need denying it nor use in denying it; and to deny it is just to be ignorant. And she just asserts over and over again that it is a fact that is recognized by all biologists today. And the problem with that, Kevin, is that the word evolution is an accordion word. That is to say, it can be expanded or contracted like an accordion at will to mean what you want it to mean in different contexts. In preparation for my debate with the very eminent evolutionary biologist Francisco Ayala, he says that evolution can mean at least three different things, and he is an evolutionist himself obviously. He says, first, evolution can simply mean that present day organisms are descended from organisms that lived earlier with modifications. Now that is hardly a radical doctrine. I think he would also take it to probably mean common descent, but at least descent with modification is what evolution means. And he says this is what everybody means when biologists say 'evolution is a fact.' They just mean that organisms that lived today are descended from earlier organisms with modifications. The second definition of evolution is the explanatory mechanisms behind evolution, that biological complexity is to be explained through genetic mutation and natural selection. The third definition of what evolution could mean would be the reconstruction of the evolutionary tree of life that would show all of the branches going back to some primordial ancestor in the past.

And what Ayala says very candidly is that while evolution in the first sense is a fact, the other two are matters of tremendous dispute, and he says there's much, much, much, much that we do not know about these issues and that these are still a matter of ongoing research programs. Well, it's primarily those second and third points that contemporary intelligent design theorists have called into question. Now, some do also call into question the doctrine of common ancestry. But nobody, not even the strictest creationist would deny that present day organisms are descended from earlier organisms with modification.

So what she's talking about as a simple fact is misleading. That doesn't imply the truth of the explanatory mechanisms or the reconstruction of the tree of life. Those are still a matter of ongoing research and dispute.

Kevin Harris: When we see adaptation of a species to its environment it takes to this day a tremendous amount of extrapolation to get from this adaptation to speciation.

Dr. Craig: Right, and even speciation needn't be something that creationists deny. There's no reason to think that fixity of the species is true, that there can't be descent with modification between species. The doctrine of common ancestry involves an enormous extrapolation, Kevin, from observed limited cases of evolutionary adaptation to the whole of life, and very often in science these kinds of extrapolations fail. [1] For example, Einstein tried to make an extrapolation from his Special Theory of Relativity to frame a General Theory of Relativity which would show that all motion, not simply uniform motion but even acceleration and rotational motion, are relative. And in fact he failed to achieve that end. He was able to achieve a revolutionary new gravitational theory but he did not develop a general principle of relativity that would show all motion to be relative. That extrapolation failed.

And in the same way, to extrapolate from limited evolutionary change to a wholesale thesis of common ancestry is an extrapolation of just breath-taking proportions for which we really don't have any evidence. Even if you could show, Kevin, for example, that birds and reptiles are evolved from a common ancestor, do you realize all of that still takes place within the Chordata, that is to say within the vertebrates, which is just a tiny segment of the diversity of life. Even having evolutionary change of that sort is almost a triviality compared to saying that a bird and sponge evolved from a common ancestor, not to mention bacteria and the Archaea and other sorts of primitive life forms.

Honestly, when you look at the whole breath-taking diversity of life you can see that the thesis of common ancestry involves an enormous, enormous extrapolation for which we do not have really any convincing evidence. So even granting microevolutionary change doesn't allow one to conclude the thesis of common ancestry, which is an extrapolation that goes far, far beyond the data. And I wonder if Paula Kirby is aware of this. She talks about being ignorant, and saying 'ignorance is no sin; it's just not being aware of the facts.' I wonder if she's aware of these facts. She just seems to take it by faith that the thesis of common ancestry has been demonstrated by the data, when in fact for those who know the data that's really not true.

Kevin Harris: It's a big problem, as well, for a naturalist, a Darwinian evolutionist, a non-theist and so on, because they've got to come up with a theory, make predictions and so forth, in a system that excludes a divine or an intelligent designer.

Dr. Craig: I think what lies behind this confidence in the extrapolation from limited evolutionary change to wholesale common ancestry is naturalism. If you presuppose that only naturalistic causes are at work then you simply can't have these life forms popping into existence out of nothing without any sort of causal antecedent. So you've got to have some sort of evolutionary account. So there's a real question to which this extrapolation and the confidence in it is not based upon the presupposition of naturalism.

Kevin Harris: And I'm referring to this particular quote: “That's not to say that evolution poses a problem for all Christians, since many Christians happily accept evolution. They see Genesis 1 as merely a metaphor and declare that if God chose to create us using evolution that's fine by them. I used to be this kind of Christian myself. But I must confess that my blitheness was only possible because I had only the vaguest possible idea of how evolution works, and certainly didn't know enough about it to realize that unguidedness is central to it.” So her point seems to be, Bill, that in the case of any of these views the unguidedness of evolution is what is problematic for even taking Genesis in a metaphorical way.

Dr. Craig: Exactly, and here I think that Miss Kirby needs to reflect more deeply upon the nature of guidedness or supervision. Progressive creationists would say that God intervenes periodically to bring about new life forms through his supernatural intervention that would not have in all probability arrived by simple chance alone and the Darwinian mechanisms. Theistic creationists would say that God has so set up the process that by chance alone these organisms will have evolved. [2] Now in either case these folks would see the evolutionary process as under the superintendence of God and therefore is a guided process in that God allows it to function so as to arrive at his predetermined ends. Now, why can't evolution be guided in that sense, in the sense that the progressive creationist or the theistic evolutionist thinks of it? There the chance mutations and natural selection are within the broader purposes of God.

Well, what you discover when you read the evolutionary biologist is that of course they don't deny that the process could be guided in that sense. That's a metaphysical conclusion to which scientific evidence is irrelevant. What they simply mean is that the production of offspring does not occur with a view toward what will make these offspring survive better in the future, that there isn't a kind of mechanism that produces offspring that will be well-suited to survival. Well, that's perfectly within the purview of progressive creationism or theistic evolution. That's a very limited, narrow, sense of guidedness that doesn't need to be denied by the theistic evolutionist or progressive creationist. Suppose, for example, the creationist thinks that the reason that God allows certain types of offspring to be produced is that so they will because easy prey for some other predator which he wants to flourish. Well in that sense, yes, it's not guided with a view toward the survivability of the offspring – quite the contrary – the purpose is that they become prey for some other species or some predator. But the whole process is guided in this broader sense. So the problem here is that Miss Kirby just has a philosophically superficial understanding of what it is to be guided, and the sense in which the evolutionary process is unguided is one that the theologian could affirm.

Kevin Harris: And, Bill, would you say that, also, something that she says brings up the problem of evil, in that she says, well, even if evolution were guided in that way, boy, it really is brutal—nature, red in tooth and claw?

Dr. Craig: Right, and I talk about this in my debate with Francisco Ayala as well. This is an example or an instance of the problem of natural evil. Would a God of love create a world that involves nature, red in tooth in claw? And anyone who is an animal lover like myself feels the force of this objection. But I was greatly helped here, Kevin, by reading Michael Murray's book – Nature, Red in Tooth and Claw is the title of his book, published by Oxford University Press – and what Murray points out is that there are at least three different levels of what we might call pain awareness. Three different levels in a hierarchy. On the lowest level is simply the reaction to stimulus—you poke an amoeba with a needle and it recoils and moves away. But the amoeba doesn't feel any pain. It's simply a stimulus-response sort of reaction, at this lowest level. At the next highest level there would be a pain awareness where the organism would actually feel pain sensation. When a zebra or a cat or some other sort of animal is injured or attacked it feels pain. The third level of awareness is a second-order awareness that one is in pain. It is an awareness of that second-level that one is in pain. And what Murray shows is that studies have found that – all except of human beings and the great apes – that animals lack that portion of the brain that gives this second-order pain awareness, so that even though they may be in pain they're not aware that they're in pain.

He uses the analogy of a phenomenon, a remarkable phenomenon, called blindsight. People who are blindsighted can actually see, Kevin, they can see the objects around them and so forth, in a physiological sense. But they have no perception, they're blind insofar as their perception is concerned. So if a person like this were standing in the room with you and you threw a ball to him, perceptually that person wouldn't see anything – he is blind – but he'd catch the ball when you threw it to him. Or if you told him to walk toward you across the room, he would walk around the table rather than bump into it because he can see it, but perceptually he can't really see it at all, he has no awareness of his sight. [3] So to take a person who has blindsight to an art gallery, for example, would be a completely pointless exercise because he can't perceive any of the paintings, he couldn't see a thing, perceptually. And this is like an animal that lacks this second-order pain awareness. He might be in pain but he wouldn't be aware of it. He would have no consciousnesses of being in pain, it wouldn't know that it was in pain; it would have no consciousness whatsoever. Now, this is a tremendous comfort for people who are animal lovers like myself because what it means is this evolutionary history of nature red in tooth and claw is something that animals are oblivious to, they're not aware of being in pain, it's nothing that they really suffer. So I think God in his mercy has so created the animal kingdom that natural evil, natural suffering, is not really a problem for animals.

And as to why God would permit it, well, this forms the sort of ecosystem in which human beings can be introduced and live and provides a suitable environment in which fallen persons can come to know God's Kingdom and respond to his offer of grace and forgiveness. And it may well be that in any world of free creatures in which this many people comes to know God personally and find salvation, that there would also need to be this amount of natural evil. These all contribute to the whole arena in which this drama of the Kingdom of God is played out. And we have no way of knowing that in a world in which there was no animal suffering, no natural evil, that the same number or ratio of persons wouldn't come to know God and his salvation, so that on balance that world would actually be worse.

Kevin Harris: We see this time and time again – don't we? – when an article starts out or a person starts out being as strictly scientific as they can, and facts and hard data and all this, and then almost immediately go right into metaphysics.

Dr. Craig: Yeah, you're right. Look at these objections that she has to why evolution is incompatible with Christianity. They're philosophical objections based on the nature of guidedness, and really a theory of divine providence – that's what she's really attacking here: is a theory of providence – and then the other one is the good ol' problem of evil, the problem of natural evil once again. And in neither case does she go into this in any sort of depth. She just asserts that these are incompatible with Christian theism.

Kevin Harris: Thank you for listening today, and make sure you peruse many of our resources that we have on this topic at Reasonable Faith—that's ReasonableFaith.org. Thank you for being with us. [4]