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).


Anonymous said...

I am not a Christian and I don't believe in a god myself, although I do believe that god could be possible. I think that evolution is a way of making a species stronger, hence the survival of the fittest theory. So if there were a god who created the world in his image, surely he would want his creations to grow stronger and better themselves, thus leading longer and better lives. Ultimately I believe that there is a bigger power than us out there and there might not be an ultimate goal for our species or others, but if we can take time to thank god or the higher power that made us then surely we can only grow stronger and better understand this as time goes by, and help other species that arent as sentient as us to have better, longer lives.

Martin said...

Hey thanks for your comment.

I think it's important to recognise that survival of the fittest doesn't mean survival of the strongest. If it did, it would have been falsified many times over. It just isn't the case that those who are physically the strongest are those that are always selected for. Consider that in the standard evolutionary timeline, many mammals have decreased in size and physical stature.

What counts as 'fitness' or adaptability is entirely relative to the environment. There just isn't one trait (such as strength, intelligence, speed etc) that evolution is guarantee to select for. Because of this the phrase 'survival of the fittest' has been attacked as being a mere tautology. For if there is no criteria for fitness other than survivability then the phrase essentially reads "survival of the survivors".