Theological mental gymnastics over evolution

By Ken Perrott 08/02/2012

Darwin Day is this weekend so I thought I should do a couple of relevant posts.

Here I want to comment on a popular reaction to evolutionary science by mainstream Christians.  I am referring to the regular church-goer or adherent who will claim they accept scientific knowledge – not to creationists or similar people like the adherents of intelligent design who actively campaign against, or deny, this knowledge.

Theistic evolution?

Often these Christians accommodate the science and their religious dogma by describing their beliefs as “theistic evolution.” I have never understood that term. Evolutionary science is evolutionary science – one doesn’t go tacking on your ideological adherence. Are we going to have Marxist thermodynamics, conservative chemistry, libertarian zoology, etc? No, of course not. Science is science – it is informed directly by reality, not religious belief.

So I have always assumed that people who claimed belief in “theistic evolution” were simply saying that they believed in a god and also accepted evolutionary science.

But now I am not so sure. I recently heard a Christian speaker declare his acceptance of evolutionary science and claim it did not conflict with his religion – because he believed the evolutionary process was guided by his god! This description brought home to me that he did not accept evolutionary science – because that science explains evolution of life on earth as an unguided  process. The only “guiding” is in the process of natural selection – involving the environment and interaction with it.

The unguided nature of evolution was the great discovery, the revolutionary nature, of the ideas proposed by Darwin and validated against reality. It seems to me that to re-insert a guiding hand, as some of these “theistic evolutionists” appear to desire, is definitely throwing out the baby. Its like claiming to accept Newtonian mechanics, the laws of planetary motion, etc., and then claim they result from angels guiding the planets!

That is complete reversal of science –  a negation of the modern scientific revolution.

OK, I recognise that some people who all themselves theistic evolutionist are not saying this. They may simply mean that the accept evolution is a natural unguided process but occurrence within the nature created by their god. Well, good luck to them – my beef is with those who want to impose a divine guidance on evolution. To rewrite the science.

Religious apologists rewrite science

Alvin Plantinga, a philosopher of religion and religious apologist is one such person. He asserts, in a recent book based on his debate with philosopher Daniel Dennett, that Christian claims are consistent with “Darwinism.” (See Science and Religion: Are They Compatible?). As he describes it:

“God could have caused the right mutations to arise at the right time. He could have preserved populations from perils of various sorts, and so on. And in this way, by orchestrating the course of evolution, he could have ensured that there come to be creatures of the kind he intends. Now what is not consistent with Christian belief, however, is the claim that evolution and Darwinism are unguided or I’ll take that to include being unplanned and unintended. What is not consistent with Christian belief is the claim that no personal agent (not even God) has guided, planned, intended, directed, orchestrated, or shaped this whole process. Yet precisely this claim is made by a large number of contemporary scientists and philosophers who write on this topic. There is a veritable choir of distinguished experts insisting that this process is unguided; indeed, sometimes insisting that it is part of the contemporary scientific theory of evolution itself to assert that it is unguided so that evolutionary theory as such is incompatible with Christian belief.”

So he is telling those Christian who do accept genuine evolutionary science that their acceptance is “not consistent with Christian belief,” ” incompatible with Christian belief.”

Now – this is Plantinga’s claim, not mine. I am happy to see Christians like Ken Miller who accept and teach evolutionary science truthfully. That accept the evolutionary process is unguided – despite the myths in the holy books. But Plantinga is asserting that one cannot accept evolutionary science, which is unguided, and be a Christian!

Plantinga is being extremely disingenuous to assert:

“There is a veritable choir of distinguished experts insisting that this process is unguided; indeed, sometimes insisting that it is part of the contemporary scientific theory of evolution itself to assert that it is unguided.”

As if these experts are somehow misrepresenting the science. Of course they aren’t. However, Plantinga is. He is trying to reintroduce a pre-scientific concept, divine guidance, into a modern science. He is attempting to portray scientific experts as somehow the rebels in this situation. He  in fact is attempting to rewrite the whole nature of evolutionary science – as I said to throw out the baby.

The ultimate in cherry picking

And what does he do to put a pseudo-scientific gloss on his distortion of science? He refers to biochemist, and promoter of intelligent design, Michael Behe. To his use of the argument from ignorance – that he cannot see how anything as complicated as a living cell could possibly have resulted from an unguided process! Bloody hell – he relies on Behe and ignores Darwin and all the other scientists, biologists, biochemists, evolutionary scientists etc. Is that extreme cherry picking or what?

Of course – there is method in Plantinga’s apparent madness. Having redefined evolutionary science to require a divinely guiding hand (turning it into its opposite) he declares that conservative and fundamental Christians can happily accept evolution – because they are not the rebels. It’s those horrible atheists and naturalists who have got it wrong. Because they don’t accept divine guidance they cannot accept evolutionary science. He finishes his presentation with the words:

“Evolution, however, is one of the pillars of contemporary science. Hence, there is a science/religion or perhaps science/quasi‐religion conflict in the neighborhood of evolution alright. But not between evolution and theistic religion. The real conflict is between evolution (that pillar of contemporary science) and naturalism.”

It’s amazing what a bit of motivated ideology and some mental gymnastics can do to the honourable subject of philosophy.

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0 Responses to “Theological mental gymnastics over evolution”

  • I don’t know – evolutionary biology certainly gives us way of describing the incredible diversity and apparent design of biology.

    I don’t think much of theistic evolution as an idea – a tinkerer doesn’t seem very god-like and a god that uses a method as wasteful and barbaric as evolution to create his creatures seems positively evil to me.

    But I don’t think it’s surprising, or worrying, that a religious person should accept evolution but also think that their god created the conditions that would lead to the origin of our species. And in terms of tactics for the pro-science side – telling someone that can accept science or religion but not both is going to be a loser (I know, call me an appeaser!).

    We can both agree that Plantinga does appear to know what he’s talking about though.

  • Yes, David, I also have no problem with those who think “a religious person should accept evolution but also think that their god created the conditions that would lead to the origin of our species.” I hoped to convey that in my post.

    But my bitch with Plantinga is different. it’s that he has rewritten the science to claim evolution means there is a divine guiding hand controlling mutation and selction. That is dishonest. If Plantinga knows something on the subject it is also dishonest to base this understanding of evolutionary science on only Behe’s postion.

    Isn’t the current word “accomadationist” rather than “appeaser.”?

  • I am a Christian. I am a scientist. I have absolutely NO problem with accepting Evolution. I believe that the evolutionary process is random in that there is NO guiding hand. I believe Christians have to adapt their beliefs to encompass that fact. (Just as they had to adjust their beliefs when it was discovered that the earth was not the center of the solar system, that the heart wasn’t the center of thinking or whatever. )

  • My understanding of Theistic Evolution was always that- the generation of some initial conditions for evolution, followed by a handsoff approach from then on. It’s not a concept I buy into, but it’s also not one that bothers me greatly. I don’t think it’s very coherent, but it doesn’t get in the way of people doing science.

    The Plantinga argument is utterly contemptous however. What arrogance it is, to claim that as a philisopher of religion you have a better grasp of biology than those that actually study the topic. Here I am, going off into tropical swamps, playing with crocodiles, dodging tropical diseases- sometimes losing colleagues to the hazards of such environments- when apparently biology is really done by sitting on your fat arse in church, inventing reasons why an entire scientific community has got it wrong.

    Naturalism is simply a creationist shibboleth that has no bearing on how biology is done. We follow the evidence.The natural world looks pretty much what we’d expect to see in the absence of a divine creator.