Monday, 4 August 2014

Defending (a little) Theistic Evolution

     Today I saw this article by Greta Christina, which offers four reasons why theistic evolution fails. As should be evident by now, I tend rather strongly to an atheist view of things, particularly explanations of the origin of the universe and humanity. However, it seems to me that the arguments in this article rather unfairly misrepresent theistic evolution, and I'd like to speak up a little in defense of that view, even though I don't actually share it.  For those who don't want to follow the link, I'll summarize very briefly. Theistic evolution is the view that evolution is just the way that God chose to make us. The article claims that this view is flawed in four ways, which I'll address in turn below.

"1. It contradicts a central principle of the theory of evolution."
     Ms. Christina argues here (correctly) that the theory of evolution is all about probabilities, and is fundamentally undirected. That's actually its chief merit as a theory; it provides an account of how such amazing complexity as we see around us could have arisen without the need to postulate any kind of deliberate intervention.
     Where she goes astray is in assuming that theistic evolution must be directed in that sense. That is, she seems to believe that the God of theistic evolution was aiming specifically at producing us, of all the beings that could have come into existence through unguided natural selection. No doubt many theistic evolutionists do believe this, but it's not at all a necessary assumption for the theory.
     The reason I think it's not necessary is because I've "created" so many undirected virtual universes myself, in roleplaying games and simulations, where I quite deliberately included random elements because I wanted to see what evolved naturally within the system I'd put in motion. Now, to be sure, I'm not deemed to be eternal and omniscient, so it's possible for me to do such a thing without knowing in advance the outcome. But even if we suppose the God of theistic evolution to be omniscient, that doesn't mean that His foreknowledge is the same as intervening at any particular step in the naturalistic evolutionary process; the sequence itself unfolds in exactly the non-deterministic fashion it would without postulating God. The problem here is not with theistic evolution per se, but the deeper philosophical problem of reconciling divine foreknowledge with our notions of randomness and uncertainty.

"2.There's not a scrap of evidence for it."
      No, of course there isn't, and there shouldn't be. The mistake Ms. Christina is making here is in thinking that theistic evolution is a scientific claim, intended to explain something about the world that atheistic evolution cannot explain alone. It isn't. Rather, it is an attempt to preserve elements of a myth with deep personal meaning, in the face of the complete triumph of scientific reasoning. The thinking theistic creationist completely surrenders to science, at least in the arena of trying to understand how the physical universe works. The evidence shows that evolution is how we got here, so that's what the theistic evolutionist accepts. God is not a part of the theory at all. God is postulated entirely outside of the reality that the theory alone governs and exhaustively explains.
     Personally, I have no need of the postulate, but as an avid player of what-if, I recognize that there may be a solid aesthetic reason for including it. But aesthetic preferences are not evidence, and as long as that's understood, I have no beef with theistic evolutionists.

"3. There's a whole lot of evidence against it."
     This is actually the same mistake as in #2 above, and related to the error of #1. Scientifically, theistic evolution is exactly the same theory as atheistic evolution, and relies upon exactly the same empirical evidence. Theistic evolution does not make any of the special predictions Ms. Christina claims it does. The God of theistic evolution may or may not have preferred for us to have sinuses or blind spots or external testicles or any of the countless engineering imperfections we evolved with, but He chose to let the laws of nature produce whatever world would come into being, and He saw that it was good, warts and all. That doesn't mean He thought we'd be better off with an appendix; it means that of all the potential beings in the multiverse, He apparently didn't prefer the perfectly engineered ones to the naturally evolved ones. If I believed in God, that'd make me feel profoundly loved, which is kind of the point of the theistic part of theistic evolution. The evolution part doesn't need God at all. He's just a bonus, a source of comfort for those who need Him.

"4. If it were true, God would either be incompetent or malicious."
     This is a completely valid criticism of the anthropocentric creationists, who assert that God made everything for our benefit, but again, it has no bearing on theistic evolution, which is just evolution-with-God. True, it's hard to avoid the conclusion that such a God is at best brutally indifferent to the suffering of the creatures in this naturalistic universe, but theistic evolution at least has something like an answer to this: the naturalistic universe is what it is, and God wanted a naturalistic universe rather than a human-centered one.
     But that's one of my chief criticisms of a lot of mainstream religion, the preposterous notion that God should care about whether we get that raise or contract this disease or get hit by that bus, and the incredibly vain superstition that God will favour us in this life if we ask Him nicely or recite the proper incantation. Such a god is demonstrably non-existent by empirical comparison with the null hypothesis, and unworthy of worship if He did exist. The God of theistic evolution is not posited to intervene in such ways, and so there's no reason to blame Him for cruelty or incompetence. Blame Him for fatalism, perhaps, or better yet ourselves for not being fatalists.

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