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Tuesday, February 14

The Trouble With Theistic Evolution

Category: Religion

Posted on: February 12, 2012 4:39 PM, by Jason Rosenhouse
The current issue of The Philosopher's Magazine contains a lengthy interview with philosopher Elliott Sober, a prominent philosopher of biology.

Most of the interview focuses on the problem of reconciling evolution and theism, with Sober serving up the standard talking points. For me the interview is a reminder of what I find most frustrating about theistic evolution. Too often the defender of reconciliation acts as though his job is done as soon as he has tossed off a logically possible scenario that includes both God and evolution.

The interview does not seem to be freely available online, so I will transcribe a few sections. The first person pronouns refer to the interviewer, James Garvey.

The interview starts off acceptably enough, with Sober discussing the threat of religious extremism both in society generally and in science education. But things go wrong when Sober is asked to discuss the various views people hold on this subject:

I ask Sober to outline the opposing positions in the debate about evolution and God, and he does it in a nutshell. “Creationists think, `If God exists then evolutionary theory must be false. Of course God exists. Therefore, evolutionary theory must be false.' A certain kind of atheist thinks, `If evolutionary theory is true, there can't be a God. Evolutionary theory is true. Therefore, there is no God.' I dislike both of these arguments.” He claims that the two main camps in the debate are both wrong. Both presuppose that conclusions about the existence of God tumble straight out of evolutionary theory, but Sober argues that philosophy is needed to from science to atheistic or theistic conclusions.

Even as a nutshell summary this is far too simplistic to be helpful. Maybe you can find a few atheists who argue in the way Sober describes, but most do not. From the other side, few creationists are really as simple-minded as Sober's version of their argument suggests.

The argument from evolution to atheism, or from theism to no evolution, proceeds by looking at what evolution says about natural history, adding a few premises about God's nature and goals, and then concluding that it is very unlikely that evolution and theism are both true. For example, evolution claims that natural history is marked by millions of years of cruel and savage bloodsport. This seems odd if we assume that God is all-loving and all-powerful. Likewise, evolution strongly suggests that human beings are just one more animal species among many. How do we explain this, if we assume that God created the world specifically so that humans could live? The parts where we insert premises about God's nature and goals involve doing philosophy and not science, but so what? Labeling the argument “philosophical” does not negate its force.

If you want to avoid the unwanted conclusions of either “No God,&rdquo or “No evolution,” then you can certainly add other premises. You can argue, as many do, that God had creative goals that absolutely could not have been achieved through any mechanism other than Darwinian evolution. Or you can argue that human-like intelligence was an inevitable end result of the evolutionary process. These are the sorts of premises you have to add to reconcile evolution and theism, but good luck trying to make them seem plausible. The incompatibilist argument takes its premises from the traditional, centuries-old teachings of various religious faiths. The compatibilist argument, by contrast, simply invents premises for which there is no evidence, for no reason other than to avoid unpleasant conclusions.

There is an analogy here with the argument from evil, which comes in two forms. In the logical form of the argument we assert that there is a contradiction entailed in believing that God and evil both exist. This argument has had its defenders over the years, but nowadays most philosophers find it overly ambitious. The evidential form of the argument, by contrast, claims more modestly that the prevalence of evil and suffering are strong evidence against God. Many philosophers defend this argument, and rightly so, since it is very powerful.

And that's my main beef with so many defenders of theistic evolution. They act as though their job is done when they have refuted the logical form of the incompatibility argument. The evidential form, however, is unimpressed by their efforts. Their refutations are inevitably based on premises that are logically possible, but highly implausible.

This becomes clear when Sober provides specific suggestions for reconciling God and evolution. His first suggestion is that God established the initial conditions of the universe and then allowed natural forces to do the rest. This is possible, of course. But what reason is there for believing it? And why would God create through savage natural processes when it certainly seems as though he had other options? And why would he employ a process that is not even assured of producing multicellularity, much less human-like intelligence?

Sober's second suggestion involves God personally manipulating the mutations. He provides an analogy:

Suppose we're going to examine gambles made on the outcome of coin tossing, and we want to know whether coins land heads more often when gamblers bet on tails. So let's do the experiment, go to a casino, watch people make bets, and get the frequencies of heads and tails. We will discover, of course, that what's good for the gambler has no causal relevance to how the coin behaves. It's wishful thinking to think that the coin is going to land heads more often just because you bet on heads, just because it would be good for you. And that's how mutations are according to our understanding of mutation. Whether a mutation occurs or does not occur is not affected by whether it would be good for the organism.

Go back to the coins. Suppose someone said, “Okay, you just got all the frequency data on heads and tails in your experiment. How do you know that on toss 342 God didn't intervene and ensure that it would land heads?' I think maybe you could have a reason for thinking that's wrong, but the frequency data you obtained in your experiment is not that reason. Frequency data do not tell you anything about the causes of individual coin tosses, so it's consistent with your perfectly reasonable view about coin tosses not being influenced by what would be good for gamblers, to think that occasionally in the history of coin tossing God reaches into the world and biases the coin. Not that it's true, but it's consistent with what you know.

It would be pretty remarkable if the experiments that biologists do on mutations would tell us whether divine intervention occurs. That's not what science is about. It's not about trying to test things like that. The theory of evolution is a probabilistic theory. It does not tell you what causes each and every thing that happens. Maybe there are hidden variables. Maybe some events happen for special reasons that are not described by the theory. The theory just doesn't say anything about that. I see no reason to believe in these hidden variables -- that's me the philosopher talking -- but the science understood correctly is silent on whether there are such hidden causes. (Emphasis added).

Notice just how tepid Sober's conclusions are. Hypothesizing direct divine action in evolution is consistent with the science. Evolutionary theory cannot absolutely rule out such a thing. But for me those two statements I placed in bold face really give the game away. Near the end he notes that there is no reason to believe in the sorts of hidden variables he discusses. Earlier he tells us that there could be good reasons for thinking that God does not intervene to affect the outcomes of coin tosses. Presumably he is talking about theological reasons, since he emphasizes that empirical data is silent on such questions. Certainly, given reasonable assumptions about the nature of God's interactions with the world, it becomes implausible to think that God is intervening in coin tosses.

But the same objection applies to God influencing specific mutations. If he is going to micromanage at that level, then why not skip the bloodsport by creating ex nihilo, precisely as the Bible says He did? Why does God operate in a way that seems tailor made to fool us regarding how nature works, by using what seem like random processes as a way of covering His tracks?

So, congratulations on showing that evolution does not flatly rule out the existence of God But by emphasizing that reconciliation entails believing premises for which there is no evidence, and which are strongly challenged on theological grounds, your victory seems Pyrrhic.

By this point in the interview I was getting pretty frustrated. But then, to my delight, Garvey made the correct point:

But doesn't evolution suggest there's no God? Doesn't evolution really very strongly point towards atheism? You can agree with Sober and think that, all right, strictly speaking, there's no incompatibility between the existence of God and evolution, but there's a strange hollowness in the thought. It's like someone defending the right to bear arms by pointing out that guns don't kill people, people kill people. Well, all right, strictly speaking, that's true, but guns aren't exactly neutral either. They point to something in our culture, they suggest a use. The theory of evolution, again strictly speaking, doesn't say that God doesn't exist, but it suggests atheism. For one thing, it knocks aside the idea that we need a Creator to explain life. The theory of evolution points to atheism, doesn't it?

Bingo! That's exactly right, and unless Sober has a good response his earlier harrumphing about where science ends and philosophy begins doesn't amount to much. But he doesn't have a good answer. In fact, his answer is jaw-dropping:

“It certainly suggests to some individuals that atheism is true,” Sober admits. “But I think that most of the impetus to that thought is just the old problem of evil. I don't think the theory of evolution does anything to challenge theism beyond what the problem of evil does.”

Now, even if the problem of evil really were the only problem then, as we like to say at Passover, dayenu. In the interview Sober does not even hint at a solution to the problem, but instead gets sidetracked on a digression about Darwin's religious views.

But come on! The problem of evil is the only issue? Garvey already alluded to a second problem, that evolution kills the best argument ever devised for God's existence. A third challenge comes from evolution's implications for the non-special role of humans within creation. And have we forgotten the Bible? Theism by itself may not entail an acceptance of what the Bible says, but since we are having this discussion specifically in the context of the American political and educational climate it seems like a mighty big thing to overlook.

It is when you start to appreciate the cumulative challenge evolution poses that you become distinctly unimpressed with the arguments made by theistic evolutionists. Sure, a skillful philosopher can go through each of my points and make stuff up in reply, just as a skillful defense attorney can poke holes in any piece of evidence the prosecution presents. But at some point, such efforts notwithstanding, the evidence just becomes too strong to resist.

Near the end of the interview we come to this:

And on the other hand, if he manages to persuade theists, he says, “maybe the reaction against evolution will be less extreme. Theists can accept evolution and believe in God. This compatibilist view is the least visible of the views out there in the public debate. Incompatibilism is the dominant idea whether you're talking about creationists who reject evolution or evolutionists who reject theism. I want to insert this third idea into the discussion.

I very much doubt that Sober will have much luck persuading theists skeptical of evolution. Considering the detached, academic way he discusses this issue, with his emphasis on the need to accept evidence-free, theologically dubious premises to support reconciliation, I think he is more likely to drive them over to the incompatibilist camp. They will not hear Sober's arguments, slap their foreheads, and realize that their skepticism is misplaced. Instead they will see only a confirmation of what they always feared.
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