Sunday, November 16, 2008


Theism and Evolution

Elliot Sober hasn't just written the book Evidence and Evolution, that I have been humping over the past few months, on the subject of Intelligent Design Creationism. He also has a number of scholarly articles on the subject available on the web here. One of them, "What is wrong with intelligent design?," in Quarterly Review of Biology, 2007, I've already blogged about, as well as the comical response by the Discovery Institute's pile-out-of-the-tiny-car brigade.

Another is "Evolution without Naturalism," in Oxford Studies in Philosophy of Religion, volume 3, (forthcoming). One of the questions addressed by Sober in this article is:

Does evolutionary theory have implications about the existence of supernatural entities? This question concerns the logical relationships that hold between the theory of evolution and different bits of metaphysics.

As part of that issue, Sober asks:

... whether theistic evolutionists must be deists. Must they hold that God starts the universe in motion and never intervenes in what happens after that?

Sober is clear on that point:

Creationists maintain that the theory of evolution entails that there is no God. If they are right, then the theory has metaphysical implications. Atheistic evolutionists (e.g., Dennett [Darwin's Dangerous Idea] and Provine ["Progress in Evolution and Meaning in Life," Evolutionary Progress, M. Nitecki (ed.)]) often agree with creationists on this point. The conditional "if evolutionary theory is true, then there is no God" is therefore common ground. Where creationists have their modus tollens, these evolutionists have their modus ponens.

Both sides are wrong. Theistic evolutionism is a logically consistent position ... This is the idea that God uses the evolutionary process to make organisms. ... According to theistic evolutionism, God produces organisms indirectly, by setting the evolutionary process in motion.

In saying that theistic evolutionism is logically consistent, I am not saying that it is plausible or true. I'm merely saying that it isn't contradictory. Evolutionary theory is silent on the question of whether God exists. Even if you think the theory knocks the wind from the sails of the argument from design, you still need to consider the fact that there are other arguments for the existence of God. ... Evolutionary theory has no implications about the cosmological argument or the ontological argument nor does it say whether you are entitled to believe in God even if you can offer no good argument that such a being exists. Atheistic evolutionists may scoff at these other arguments and at those who believe in God while admitting that they can offer no compelling argument that there is such a being. But this is not the theory of evolution talking.

Sober points out that theistic evolutionism is consistent with evolution because evolutionary theory is probalistic and, therefore:

... it does not say of itself that it is causally complete. The theory is consistent with there being hidden variables, natural or supernatural.

Sober explains this with an example:

A probabilistic model of coin tossing is consistent with the thesis that the system is deterministic. If determinism is true, there are hidden variables, not represented in the probability model, which turn all the probabilities into 0's and 1's when their values are taken into account. In just the same way, a probabilistic model of the evolutionary process is consistent with the thesis that the process is deterministic. If determinism is true, there are hidden variables that affect the evolutionary process. Evolutionary theory says nothing about whether such hidden variables exist. It therefore says nothing about whether there are supernatural hidden variables.

Thus, Sober concludes:

Theistic evolutionists can of course be deists, holding that God starts the universe in motion and then forever after declines to intervene. But there is no contradiction in their embracing a more active God whose postCreation interventions fly under the radar of evolutionary biology. Divine intervention isn't part of science, but the theory of evolution does not entail that none occur.

I have, over the years, engaged in many discussions in various forums on this subject and people who have (been unfortunate enough to have) followed those arguments will know that this is very close to my own thinking. That a renowned philosopher of science sees the issue the same way I do is, of course, no evidence that either of us is right ... but there is a certain comfort in the knowledge nonetheless.

First of all, I agree with your high evaluation of Sober's writings.

But there are two issues that I want to comment on here.

One is the question of "deism". Deism, in the newest sense of the word, a view of a non-interventionist God, the kind of God who makes the universe and then lets it run unattended. That, it seems to me, is the creationist God. The creationists tell us that divine intervention was ended in the distant past, and remote from us individuals. God created "kinds" and there was no change since then. In particular, the appearance of individuals - you and me - was not the same sort of divine intervention as the creation of Homo sapiens.

And that leads me to my second point, which is that just about all of the complaints we hear about evolution of "kinds" apply with at least as much soundness against the generation of individuals. (As a matter of historical fact, a lot of those arguments were actually used in the 18th century as arguments in favor of "preformation" - the idea that all individuals were created at the beginning and that reproduction and development is just the appearance of already existing individuals. I am not convinced that Paley, for example, was not arguing in favor of divine creation of each individual eye.)

Tom S.
Both are good points ... that you've made (correctly) many times. :-)

"Deism," never having had an official church to enforce orthodoxy, is a fuzzy term to begin with. But you're right that most creationists have a disconnect and seem not to have a problem with the "birds and the bees" -- a thorougly naturalistic process -- accounting for individual human bodies (if not "souls"), while balking at species or above (irrespective of "souls"). As always, it is more rooted in an adversion to being related to yucky animals than any thought-out and consistent ontology.
I agree that you and Sober see the issue in the same way.

I can think of a few philosophers who agree with me. Does that make you happy? :-)
How good philosophers are they?

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