Friday, 27 August 2010

Does evolution disprove God? (2)

In this entry we're going to have a look at what sort of state theism is in if evolution is true. We're not discussing Christian theism yet, just basic theism - the belief that there is a personal creator God, who is all-knowing, all-powerful, and perfectly good. So there'll be no talk of the Bible or any specifically Christian beliefs - that's for next time!

It's straightforward, isn't it?

Many people I've talked to say that they don't believe in God because they believe in evolution. The implication is that God and evolution just aren't compatible and it's that simple. But this is clearly false. It is perfectly possible for God to use evolution as his creative means. Evolution doesn't disprove God. But perhaps the skeptic is not saying that evolution disproves God, rather the skeptic is saying that evolution makes God an unlikely hypothesis...

Pip: Well look who it is! It's Benny.
Benny: Hello again Pip.
Pip: You think it is quite reasonable for someone to believe in God and evolution, right?
Benny: Gosh you waste no time with the questions! Yes I believe that.
Pip: Well while I concede that evolution doesn't disprove God, I think it gives us reason to doubt that he exists.
Benny: Ok ... why do you think that?


Pip: I have a few reasons. Firstly, it is needlessly time-consuming. Why take millions of years to create man when he could have done it instantly?

Pip's first objection appeals to the intuition we have that the whole process is a bit lengthy for an all-powerful God. There are a number of responses that could be made here. First we can note that for an eternal God, the matter of time is not really an issue. A process of trillions of years would feel no more drawn out than something instantaneous. Secondly, a theist might not necessarily believe that God has humanity as creation's ultimate goal. Perhaps the stuff that was around before us was as valuable to God as we are. Even if we take a human-centred view of creation, God might not see humanity as the only valuable part of his creation. Why must God necessarily rush to our creation? Nothing seems to demand that he do so.


Pip: Secondly, evolution is a blind process. It doesn't work towards any goals. Why would God use such a means for creating?

To answer this objection we need to take a lesson from the last entry; we need to separate the philosophy from the facts. Clearly Pip is right in some sense; looking purely at the material processes involved in evolution, we cannot detect any goal being worked toward. But Benny, as a theist, doesn't believe the material world is all that exists. Benny believes that God orchestrates many aspects of the material world toward God's aims. Benny can reasonably believe that God orchestrates or intends evolution to some purpose. Pip's objection is weak because it 'begs the question', it assumes the very point being argued, in this case, that God doesn't exist.


Pip: Thirdly, evolution is a wasteful process. Why go through millions of years of death and mutation to finally get to us?

This objection once again assumes that God would only have our creation as his goal. But again, why assume this? Can God not value our evolutionary ancestors too? Perhaps they aren't just 'waste' to him. Also included in this objection are issues related to the problem of suffering, i.e. why would a good God allow things like animal suffering? We looked at these problems very recently (click here). I also recommend Glenn Miller's article here for an attempt to assess how extensive and how severe animal suffering is in the natural world.

Better explained by ...

Pip: Lastly, evolution is the sort of thing that is more likely to happen if naturalism is true.

This is Pip's strongest objection. If theism is true then there are a number of possible ways life could come about. God could use some sort of evolutionary means, but he could also use a very different process or just create us instantly out of nothing. But if naturalism (the belief that the natural world is all the exists) is true then something like evolution appears to be the only way life could come about. And if we take it that evolution is indeed true, if we ignore everything else related to the question of God's existence, we would say naturalism is more likely to be true.

Of course it is because we don't have to ignore everything else related to the God question that Pip's final objection isn't a crucial blow against theism. So long as overall, Benny has better grounds for theism than naturalism, this objection doesn't oblige him to change his views. Even in science, we do not judge one theory as better than another just because it handles one bit of data better. All the relevant data needs to be examined. It might happen that one theory handles one bit of data very well but utterly fails to account for much other data.

In fact many theists are now turning Pip's objection on its head, and are claiming that the existence of any life would be very improbable if naturalism were true because life requires very precise settings that the universe seems suspiciously fine-tuned for. Head here to read a debate on the argument between Robin Collins (theist) and Paul Draper (atheist).

Saturday, 7 August 2010

Does evolution disprove God? (1)

Last time we saw that a theistic outlook on life is not incompatible with a scientific one. In fact, they gel quite nicely. This time we're going to discuss something rather more juicy. We're going to see whether a particular scientific theory - the general theory of evolution - gives theists an intellectual problem to consider. It is certainly true that of all the reasons skeptics often give for not believing in God, evolution ranks rather highly. But what exactly is the blow that evolution brings for the theist?

Before we recklessly dive into the question we need to break the issue down. As far as I can see, the broad question of theism's relation to evolution can be split into three lines of inquiry. Firstly, we should ask whether evolution is true. Secondly, we should ask whether, if true, evolution poses a challenge to basic theism. Thirdly, we should ask whether, if true, evolution poses a problem for specifically Christian theism (given the interests of this blog). In this entry we'll look at the first question.

Burn the heretic?

Many will consider me frighteningly fanatical, enormously ignorant, or horendously dishonest for even posing the question of whether evolution is true or not. Why is this? Well perhaps the evidence for evolution is so strong that in fact, accepting it is always the most rational choice for a person with the relevant facts at hand, and as it happens, the modern Brit does have such facts at hand. Even so, the shear horror displayed at the slightest doubt of evolution's truth is surely an exaggerated response, cultivated out of an (understandable) fear of mindless religious fanaticism. It seems clear to me however that with a question so bound up with important matters such as the origin and purpose of humanity - of ourselves - we have a right to have a little breathing space to voice any doubts we have even if these doubts are returned with a staunch assurance of evolution's truth. So let me breathe a little and a take a bit more of a personal stance in addressing this question.

I was a convinced evolutionist once. Then I was a convinced special creationist (I believed that God miraculously created all the basic kinds of creatures in the world). Now I'm somewhat agnostic on the matter. I'm not a scientist, and being so drastically removed from a subject I can claim even the most minor expertise in, I'm not going to tell you what the scientific facts are. I'm going to share some reasons as to why I personally have some reservations as to evolution's truth and then I'm going to talk about the nature of science so as to help you make a more informed decision for yourself.


The general theory of evolution states that every creature alive today is the result of millions of generations of ancestral creatures who had random genetic changes (produced by mutations or some similar mechanism) which conferred some survival advantage (or at least weren't enough of a hinderance to result in a creature's death before reproduction) and were passed down. So it goes that dinosaurs gradually accumulated mutations which produced wings and feathers, and these mutations proved beneficial over those who didn't have the mutations, so dinosaurs eventually evolved into birds. And similar stories account for all the variance of life we observe.

Nobody can reasonably doubt that creatures do undergo changes from generation to generation. What I (and others) doubt is the potential the mechanisms that produce these changes have for certain large scale changes. When do discussions about evolution really detail how a gradual change could be made from gills to lungs or cold-blooded to warm-blooded systems or any other significant changes? More puzzling yet is how sexual organs could have evolved from asexual reproductive methods. The sorts of changes involved would certainly be hazardous to the creatures who underwent them.

When I've raised these doubts in the past the response often given involves an account of why the trait which emerged was ultimately beneficial. This I do not doubt, but showing that a trait is beneficial is not the same as showing that a trait evolved or how it evolved. Even if it's not impossible, is it probable? In addition, given how sketchy our speculations are as to how consciousness emerged and as to how chemicals arranged themselves into the first living thing (which is technically the matter of abiogenesis rather than evolution but they are both wrapped in a similar over-arching narrative) I don't feel irresponsible in withholding some certainty about evolution as a comprehensive theory of life.

Anyway, even if I'm a fool and evolution is a dead cert' (or is at any rate, true) there sure are a lot of bad arguments put forward for it, and certainly a lot of bad arguments masquerading as science generally. Let's cut through the fog ...

Separate yer philosophy from yer facts

Looks like Benny has found himself in another tight spot ...

Pip: Funny, you know last time we chat, and you said that you're interested in science?
Benny: Yeah, I'm not that forgetful.
Pip: Well it seems your love is rather misplaced as a theist!
Benny: Oh?
Pip: Didn't you know? Science has proven that religious beliefs are just a misapplication of our evolved ability to understand the minds of other creatures.
Benny: Woah. Urm, really? Sounds like bad news for theists like myself.
Pip: Yup, it's true I have the paper that proves it right here. The study showed that people of all sorts of different religious backgrounds all use the same part of the brain to form beliefs about God's intentions. It's the same part we use to form beliefs about human intentions.
Benny: Lemme see that paper ...

This conversation is actually based on a recent experience I had with a skeptic on a debate forum. He too claimed that science had proved that religious beliefs were malfunctional in this manner and linked to a paper which he believed supported these claims. You can read the paper here. But what the skeptic and Pip (and the paper's author) haven't done is distinguish the facts from how those fact have been interpreted.

There are some parts of science which are essentially philosophically neutral. Measuring the distance from the earth to the sun, seeing what temperature water boils at, and calculating the speed of light are all such examples. We consider that you'd reach the same conclusion about these things regardless of your religious stance. But not all of science is like this (or at least certainly not everything that is passed off as science is).

Imagine (to loosely borrow an example found in Reason For The Hope Within) that you return home to find your house in tatters and your super-expensive television missing. You're a bit stunned and you aren't sure what to make of it. But you have two friends with you, and they both have their own explanation. One of them tells you regretfully that you have been burgled and your TV has been stolen. Your other friend tells you a somewhat cheerier account (she is something of an optimist). She remarks that possibly your neighbour scared the thief and took your TV into her house in case anyone else came in and stole it before the police arrived. Both interpretations fit the evidence. But they can't both be true ...

Naturalism. It's everywhere.

Sometimes science works like our example above. We all have the same facts but it's possible to interpret them in more than one way. In the buglery scenario, a cynic and an optimist will likely interpret the evidence in different ways. In some scientific matters, a theist and an atheist (or naturalist) will likely interpret the evidence in different ways. Currently it is far more popular and 'academically acceptable' to interpret the evidence in a naturalistic outlook. Philosophical naturalism is the belief that the natural world is all that there is, that there are no divine or supernatural beings of any kind. Naturalistic interpretations dominate scientific discussions at the moment. In fact naturalistic interpretations are often conflated with actual scientific data. This is a gross error that all of us must guard against. It would be like taking your optimistic friend's account of the burglar story as the observed fact, when actually that story is only a possible interpretation of the facts. This is the error that Pip made and the research paper made.

The facts of the paper (the things which have actually been observed) are that religious beliefs pertaining to God's intentions as a person are handled by the same part of the brain that handles beliefs pertaining to the intentions of human persons. Now see how these facts can be interpreted in two completely different ways ...

Naturalistic interpretation: human beings gradually evolved parts of the brain that allow us to consider what other people are thinking and feeling. Because this function of the brain isn't perfect it sometimes over-reaches and forms people-related beliefs about things that aren't people. People frequently observe things occurring in nature, like earthquakes, and they wrongly conclude that there is intent behind these things. People label the source of this intent as God.

Theistic interpretation: God is a personal being and through some process created humans with the capacity to relate to other beings by allowing them to consider what other people are thinking and feeling. Because God is a person, the part of the brain that enables this is also a perfectly appropriate tool for forming true beliefs about God himself.

So Pip was quite mistaken. 'Science' has proven nothing of the sort that she claimed. One must already accept naturalism to accept her conclusions. And since Benny is a theist he can go on his merry way. When thinking about the truth of evolutionary claims for yourself, make sure you distinguish the facts from the philosophy!

For the Christian, I consider Alvin Plantinga's advice very sound for discerning what to think about evolution. You can read his article 'When Faith and Reason Clash: Evolution and the Bible' over here. I also recommend his two part paper attacking the prevalent view that naturalism is a necessary assumption of science which can be found here and here.

Next time we do a bit of 'damage control' and see what would follow for theism if evolution were true.

Tuesday, 3 August 2010

Is science incompatible with God?

Having looked at the problem of evil, it's time to look at another objection frequently given as a reason to disbelieve Christianity. The objection is that science has disproved God or has in some way rendered belief in God obsolete. The reasons people give to support this objection can vary a fair bit. In this entry we'll look at one particular way in which people can believe that God and science are in conflict. We're gonna look at the claim that the scientific method is itself at odds with a theological outlook on life.

Medicine, cars, miracles, and God. They don't mix?

'House MD' is one of my very favourite TV shows. The lead character, Dr. Gregory House is an emotionally stunted medical genius and a pretty hardcore atheist. His atheism is not something he keeps secret and there are a number of episodes where he berates religious patients for their faith. For a short while in the show, House works with a colleague who happens to be a Mormon. House takes great delight in giving this colleague a hard time for his beliefs and in one particular episode he really gets aggressive. They're having a hard time diagnosing a tricky case and while the exact words escape me House asks something to the effect of, "I wonder what Joseph Smith [the Mormon prophet] would say? Doesn't the book of Mormon have all the answers?" The response he receives is that the book of Mormon gives answers to questions of morality and meaning, not science. House is not satisfied by the response (I think it was a fair response in the context but too simplistic to be taken as a rule of thumb) and calls the guy a hypocrit for believing in science and medicine alongside God. He seems to think it is unreasonable for one to take modern medicine, to drive to work, to use computers, AND to believe in God. And he's not alone in this belief.

People often claim that they believe in science rather than religion as if the two are mutually exclusive. Let's describe this belief as the claim not that some particular scientific theory is incompatible with a certain religious teaching, but as the claim that the scientific method itself is incompatible with a way of looking at the world that includes God. Let's see how someone might justify this claim...

Pip: I'm a scientist. I really love my science. Especially cutting edge physics. I can't wait till we understand more about the quantum world!
Benny: Yeah I'd love to learn about all that stuff.
Pip: Hang on, Benny, aren't you a theist?
Benny: Urm, yeah. So?
Pip: Well. I'm just a bit surprised. How can you believe in science and in superstitious stuff like God?
Benny: I don't think belief in God is superstitious but I'll let that slide. Why do you think I can't practise science and believe in God?
Pip: Because science is all about understanding the natural world. God is what primitive people used to explain what they couldn't understand.

The God of the gaps

Pip thinks that people only believe in God because they use him as an explanation when they are presented with some phenomena which cannot be explained by currently known regularities of nature (what we might call natural laws). There are a couple problems with this assumption that are worth noting.

Likely Pip considers that she has evidence for the claim she's making. She might point to an ancient polytheistic religion where natural occurrences were explained by a deity's whim - say, lightning bolts explained in terms of a god's anger. We can grant her that this explanation is false but that doesn't mean every religion is built on such false claims. In fact to discredit Christianity in the way she intends she would have to provide evidence that the Bible's claims resulted only from a misunderstanding of natural occurrences. This is a heavy evidential burden that I don't think anyone has ever carried.

In additions it ignores the fact that a theological view of the world accounts rather nicely for the necessary conditions that must be in place for science to work. What do I mean by the conditions of science? Well it may surprise you that whenever someone practices science they are making several assumptions about the world which cannot themselves by proven by science. For instance one must assume that the world is orderly, or there'd be no 'natural laws' to discover, everything would be a mess. One must assume that the future will resemble the past otherwise no past experiment would give us any bearing on how a future experiment will turn out. One must assume that the human mind can comprehend the world, otherwise they'd be no point in trying to understand the world. There may be others but these are certainly the key assumptions.

If we believe in God then we can understand that the world is orderly because it is the result of the creative act of a rational mind. We can understand that the future will resemble the past because God is consistent. We can understand that we are able to comprehend the universe because we were created with minds to do so. Scientific methodology fits quite nicely with God.

The God who sustains nature

Pip wouldn't actually just have skeptics as company in some of her ways of thinking. Some Christians might be worried that science might eventually find natural laws that describe essentially how everything works. The fear is that in such a scenario, God is left with nothing to do. But this is not a Biblical picture of God's relationship with creation. The Bible describes God as the being who puts nature's regularities in motion and who keeps them going. In Jeremiah 33:24-26 God declares that he has a fixed order of earth and heaven, and earlier in the chapter, declares that he has appointed times for the arrival of day and night. In Hebrews 1:1-4 Jesus is described as the God who upholds the universe by his word. The Christian then should not think that God is required to hide in the gaps of scientific understanding and should not base his/her beliefs on such gaps. The Christian ought to understand that God allows science to be possible by sustaining the universe with such regularity. Note: this isn't to say that God can't at times do unusual things (what we would normally call miracles).

In conclusion Pip's objection is not a very good one. We have a much trickier one to deal with next however, and that is the objection that some specific scientific theory discredits belief in God, namely, the general theory of evolution.