Monday, October 18, 2010

God and Evolution Revisited

Jay W. Richards, Program Director for the Discovery Institute Center for Science and Culture, has the introduction to his new book, God and Evolution, available on line.  Additionally, on the DI's Evolution News and Views site, he has a post linking to an article by Msgr. Charles Pope on whether you can be a Catholic and uncritically accept "Darwinism" (note that Pope's comments are specifically Catholic only in that they don't insist that scripture has to be perspicuous -- interpreted "literally" -- to be inerrant; they are otherwise broadly applicable to Christian and conservative Jews).  Both writers seem content to accept the Big Bang, an old Earth, perhaps even common ancestry -- though both note that there are creationists who object strongly to some or all of these, they do not see these, by themselves, as insuperable obstacles to incorporating evolution and theism.

Rather, all three articles have a problem with the idea that evolutionary theory excludes God as a cause of biological phenomena.   Both authors seem to assume that "God didn't do it" is a key ingredient of evolutionary theory.  And both note, correctly, that quite a few biologists have explained evolutionary theory by contrasting it specifically with teleological processes.  Neither notes that this might be because, in the first place, there is a great deal of creationist opposition to common descent and adaption by natural selection, or, in the second place, that many people (both creationists and laymen who "believe in evolution") still have a vaguely Lamarkian, "evolutionary ladder" view of evolution in which humans are indeed the goal and inevitable result of evolution.  That is, evolutionary theory is not so much being defined as non-teleological or godless as being contrasted with distorted views of how it works -- or why it could not work.

That being said, evolutionary theory indeed doesn't invoke or incorporate a Creator at any stage in the theory.  Neither, to be sure, do atomic theory, or orbital dynamics, or meteorology.  Richards at one point notes that Newton was not trying to exclude God from the study of planetary orbits, but does not note that Newton's attempt to find a niche for Him to work in -- adjusting planetary orbits in small ways that his equations didn't quite predict -- was discredited by more careful calculations involving the gravitational pull of planets on each other.  By the time Pierre Simon Laplace got through with Newtonian dynamics, they no longer had any explicit role for God.   But then, Laplacian physics undercut only the "Prime mover" argument for God, which is always getting mixed up with the "First Cause" argument anyway and probably never had much traction as a defense of theism in its own right.  Evolutionary theory undercut the much more distinct and impressive argument from design (it also contradicts a perspicuous reading of Genesis, which probably aggravates the problem even if one doesn't explicitly accept six-day young-earth creationism).

This may explain why there are quite a number of areas where Richards, in his Introduction, seems quite content not to have any explicit acknowledgment of God.  He argues that the Big Bang, including stellar nucleosynthesis and even, presumably, the naturalistic origin of stars and planets, is quite compatible with theism and a belief in divine design.  The Bible may say that God created the Earth to be inhabited, but Richards apparently feels that this is compatible with God setting up the laws of physics so that at least one inhabitable planet would be formed eventually (though I'm not sure that this is compatible with EN&V's glee over the possible nonexistence of one such planet).   Richards isn't (nor is Pope) asking for a God Who hand-crafts the orbits and chemical makeup of individual planets.

Richards also notes that evolutionary theory has been applied, loosely and figuratively, in Niall Ferguson's The Ascent of Money, to the survival or failure of financial institutions.   He seems to have no problem with the idea that historical processes, in general, play out due to natural processes and human decisions (or to the idea that "due to human decisions" and "in accordance with human wishes" are not at all the same thing: history isn't necessarily what anyone actually wanted).  Nor does Pope insist that the Christian must incorporate God's providence into history as much as into the origin of species.  Yet the Bible is as clear and insistent on the idea that God is in charge of history -- that, e.g. He used the Babylonians to punish the Judeans for their sins against Him -- as it is that God is Creator of living kinds.  One might suppose that ID proponents would be as worried about the extreme (one might say vanishing) subtlety with which God seems to direct history (what exactly is God supposed to have done to make the Babylonians invade Judah on schedule? what was He doing during so much of church history?) as they are about finding gaps in the history of life that divine providence can fit into.  Of course, Richards probably assumes that all his readers will accept that God has acted, miraculously and spectacularly, on occasion in history; the problem is trying to make sure that God doesn't seem as if He's just sitting idly on the bench throughout all of prehistory.

For both Pope and Richards, it is not cosmology, or the age of the Earth, or even common descent, that is the sticking point; it is the idea that all this happened without some sort of plan, something that led up to humans.  Neither is quite clear what sort of role for God they want.  Pope insists that God must sustain and somehow direct evolution, though he offers no suggestions for what God might be doing.  Richards casts subtle aspersions on the ability of natural selection of random mutations to craft the avian lung or the human conscience, but he doesn't seem to want to rest his case purely on the insufficiency of known natural causes (possibly, at some point, it's been pointed out to him that from Darwin on down, "Darwinists" have noted that natural selection of random variation is surely not the sole cause of evolutionary change; other natural causes are possible and incorporated as evidence supports them -- and other natural causes might be involved even if we haven't guessed at them yet).   They seem to want something more than a mere verbal acknowledgment that, okay, a Christian can believe that God created and sustains evolutionary processes, and made them so that they would produce creatures who can believe in and love Him.  But it's not clear how much more they want.  Pope simply advises caution; Richards may hope that one of the contributors to his volume can add more.

The underlying problem, of course, is that science deals with what can be understood and supported by evidence.  ID proponents have noted in the past that "naturalistic" science has historically had no problem with intelligent designers, as in archaeology or forensic science.  The problem is, those designers need to operate according to discoverable regularities of their own nature.  And the larger problem, of course, is that there needs to be some evidence for them besides the felt need to reconcile science with religious dogma, and beyond the (admittedly multiply-confirmed) prediction that "somewhere, somehow, there's something that evolutionary theory can't explain yet."

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