Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Can evolution cause God's extinction?

Does God’s existence depend on the validity of biological evolution? I believe that evolution does not prove or disprove the existence of God (or gods). On a recent post of mine I was asked to clarify this belief.

To begin with, one might argue that evolution disproves the literal account of the creation story as found in the Bible. This is true, but the literal account is held by only one group of Christians living in a world where there are many other Christians (as well as other theists) who don’t necessarily hold the same view. I have the privilege of knowing some Christians who accept the idea of an old earth and biological evolution, but who still have a personal and meaningful relationship with their god. For them, evolution does not necessarily close the door on faith; they feel no threat, they see no conflict. Ultimately, the threat of evolution is only a threat to the theist who holds a literal view of religious text.

After all, a supernatural being could have started the whole process of evolution billions of years ago, as many theistic evolutionists believe. To see evolution as part of a god’s creation can be a wonderful insight to the theist who seeks understanding of the natural world around us.

For example, Theodosius Dobzhansky (1900-1975), who made incredible contributions to our understanding of evolution in the context of genetics, was himself a Christian. In his essay, Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution, he wrote:

"I am a creationist and an evolutionist. Evolution is God's, or Nature's, method of creation. Creation is not an event that happened in 4004 BC; it is a process that began some 10 billion years ago and is still under way... Does the evolutionary doctrine clash with religious faith? It does not. It is a blunder to mistake the Holy Scriptures for elementary textbooks of astronomy, geology, biology, and anthropology."

And what of the deist, who believes that a god (or gods) created the universe and then took a back seat? It is possible that the deist’s god can exist, even if life was not predestined or created by supernatural means.

So I don’t believe that evolution disproves or proves the existence of a god (or gods). At best, it only provides a possible god with a less defined role in the development of life on earth. For me, my non-belief in supernatural beings has nothing to do with biological evolution; it has everything to do with philosophical, and other, problems that I have with religion.

Update: 12/08/06
Francois Tremblay was kind enough to bring my attention to a counter argument to what I've written above (see here). If I understand it correctly, the argument is as follows: the only mechanism that we know of that produces intelligence is natural selection. In other words, intelligence is a product of biological evolution. The conditions that cause biological evolution did not exist before the existence of the universe. Thus, intelligence did not exist prior to the universe. Therefore, the universe did not have an intelligent creator. Read it through and let me know what you think.


Francois Tremblay said...

"An argument by Kyle J. Gerkin, which argues that evolution was not possible before the universe existed, and that no other mechanism could explain a god’s intelligence."

Dave said...

Thank you for that distinction, and for keeping friendly relationships with a group of people you disagree with.

marc said...

I don't see any problem at all with God and evolution.

It's clear to see that evolution exists, we can see that in animals in the last 500 years.

Strikes me that it is the way God creates and evolution is one of the ways he does it.

Maybe the question here is 'am I descended from an ape?

In that case i'd have to say no.

Lui said...

Hi Kevin, great blog. If I may give my two cents-worth, I'm studying biological science at university and one of my lecturers talked about the possibility that evolution is God's mechanism of creating life. (he said this because here in Australia there is also an abysmal level of ignorance about what evolution is and isn't, and to teach evolution one has to pander to the religoius sentiments of people who might be "offended" and reassure them that they needn't feel threatened by scientific discoveries and theories) I don't think that evolution proves or disproves God either. Actually, I don't know whether you've heard of this argument, but I think that creationists are ignorant of it: creationism (and it's twin, Intelligent Design) are DAMAGING to the idea of a God, because they imply that God had to VIOLATE THE LAWS OF PHYSICS HE ESTABLISHED BECAUSE THEY WEREN'T SUFFICIENT TO EVENTUALLY PRODUCE LIFE. Creationists spend all their time denigrating evolutionary theory without realising they're denigrating God's ability as a cosmic engineer. It's amazing how they belittle chemistry and physics - effectively insulting God in the process. It's hilarious!

Lui said...

To Marc: So all life evolved, EXCEPT for human beings? You accept the overwhelming evidence from genetics, the fossil record, morphology and biogeography that life evolved, but ignore that very evidence that undoubtedly points to the same conclusion for humans? I don't understand. Is there something dishonourable or "ikky" about the notion that we are descended from apes? If so, what? I'd really love to know what REASON you have to believe in this form of human exceptionalism, because it's a massive contradition of your admission that evolution exists.

Kevin Parry said...

Marc wrote:
Maybe the question here is 'am I descended from an ape? In that case i'd have to say no.

You are right. As far as I understand, current evolutionary theory holds that humans did not evolve from apes per se. Rather, we evolved from ape-like ancestors. These ancestors gave rise to both humans and present day apes.

In other words, apes are not our ancestors; they are our cousins.

Lui said...

The usage of the term "ape" can get mighty picky, and I'm still a bit mystified about when it's appropriate to say, for example, that humans are part of the "ape family" or if our ancestors should rightfully be called apes rather than ape-like. Some of the worst infighting in evolutionary biology has a lot to do simply with how we choose to name something. Names can be arbitrary but are unfortunately necessary for our purposes as we try to classify and organise our knowledge about the world. Be that as it may, I think that Marc's position was clear enough: he doens't believe that we evolved from apes, and since he didn't specify anything about the possible distinctions of ape and ape-like in our evolutionary tree, I think that he was clearly saying he doesn't believe we evolved from an ancestor per se, ie we were created while everything else evolved. (if that wasn't your intention, please let me know) I for one would like to know "once and for all" whether our ancestors were apes or ape-like and what criteria are used for saying it. Despite that quibble, I still believe that Homo sapiens are most closely related to chimpanzees, (sharing something like 98 percent of their genes and many morphological similarities that aren't shared by other members of the primate group) and that (if I understand this correctly) the common ancestor was probably more like a chimpanzee than a modern person. (perhaps on that basis it might be called an ape, but I really don't know and it's something I'm definately going to find out. Either way, though, it doesn't really bother me)

Kevin Parry said...

Hi Lui

Welcome! When I was still a Christian, studying Zoology and Botany at university, I held the same belief as marc: that plants and animals had evolved, but mankind had not. You are absolutely right when you mention the fact that this belief is somewhat tenuous: when you look at human genes, morphology, etc, you can’t escape the fact that humans have also evolved.

Francois Tremblay said...

Nice of you to post the argument. I would defy any Christian or liberal atheist to find fault with it.

marc said...

I would say that there is clearly a large difference between man and animals (with the way we act sometimes i'm not so sure!) - I think I would define that by saying animals are not self aware where as humans are.

Lui said...

Actually, it's interesting that you bring up self-awareness as a possible line with which to separate man from animal. I'm largely ignorant of what cognitive scientists have to say on the matter, but I think I've read somewhere that while certain non-humans may be self-aware, they are not aware that they are self-aware. Our cognition really is a cut above the rest, but it is still possible to find animals that may well have a "sense of self", capable of contemplating thinking of the intentions (if not just the possible affects) of other individuals of their kind. One of the factors thought to be key to the evolution of human consciousness is the demands of living in a social group, of having to keep track of other members of one's clan and all the intrigue that entails. There would have been selection pressure to be that little bit more crafty, that little bit better at forming alliances and keeping them, of avoiding being back-stabbed, and so on. These types of things are what we find in other species of primates. Anyway, it's a very fascinating area of research among anthropologists, evolutionary biologists, psychologists, and cognitive scientists. But I think you can get a feel for the type of thing I'm trying to convey. There really IS something special about human beings; in a very real sense, we aren't "just animals". But on the other hand, and also in a very real sense, we are - though still animals that are exceedingly hard to decipher. Perhaps it comes down to whether we believe in a soul. I, for one, don't. I really do think that the most reasonable (perhaps, the only viable) option is that of consciousness as an emergent property that arises from material interactions, and that these for these interactions to happen, you need intermediates. Evolution, in a word. Others see consciousness as a manifestation of something immaterial, perhaps something which can't be properly investigated by the tools of science. I can't help finding that intriguiging, but for now at least, I sit firmly in the materialist camp.

Mike said...

Well Francois, I do not believe your argument is a good one. In your article, you argue that it is much more plausible to believe that the universe has existed forever than it is that a god has existed. Well, I disagree, and here is why. Many people recognize the contingency of the universe - in other words, this universe does not need to exist. The question, "Why is there something rather than nothing?" has plagued even the brightest of minds. It's this contingency that bugs people, and it has led to a search for a non-contingent cause, or you could say a necessary cause. If the cause of this contingent universe is itself another contingent thing, then we are in the same quandry. And we just can't keep going back forever with causes or we will get caught in an infinite regress. We need a necessary cause at some point to give us firm ground to stand all our other causes on. The infinite regress problem really must be considered by people who take your position. So, enter God, who is believed to be a necessary being. Who created God? Ah, we will not allow ourselves to be trapped by an infinite regress of causes. God is the beginning, the first cause, the necessary foundation for all the contingent things we see.

Now I suppose at this place our intuitions will probably just butt heads. You might say, "What caused God? How can God have always existed?" And I would say, "You can't have an infinite regress of causes. There has to be a beginning point. Why is there something rather than nothing?" And either our intuitions converge or they remain at odds.

And with regard to the formal argument you made, the fatal flaw is that it is an argument from silence. Because WE have not observed any other mechanism that produces intelligence, therefore there can be no other intelligence? Wow, now that's a jump. A arrogant jump at that, putting our tiny little observational position in this immense universe in a much loftier position than we should.

I appreciate any responses.


Kevin Parry said...

Good point Mike! I just want to pose two questions about your first cause argument:
(1)How do you know that the first cause was a supernatural god, and it was the god of the Christian faith? Even if we accept the argument that there was a first cause, how can we determine if this first cause was actually sentient, and how do we know it still ‘alive’ today?
(2)I agree that it is nonsensical to have an infinite regress of causes. However, doesn’t this pose a problem when it comes to certain attributes of God? From what I see in the Bible, God seems to exhibit a causal kind of thinking when interacting with mankind. If God’s thoughts are causal, and God is eternal, then doesn’t the eternal chain of his thoughts represent an infinite regress of causes?

Kevin Parry said...

Mike asked:
”Why is there something rather than nothing?"

I will highlight the meaninglessness of this question by turning it back to you: “Why is there a God rather than no God?”

Mike said...

Hi Kevin,

Good thinking.

In response to your first question, "How do you know that the first cause is a supernatural god?" I just simply believe that it is the best explanation among the alternatives. Either the first cause is personal or impersonal. I think it makes more sense that it's personal, since thinking beings seem to be much more interesting than non-thinking beings. I believe this also covers what I would say in response to your question, "Why is there a God rather than no God?" I don't think it's wise to label a question "meaningless" when the brightest of minds have wrestled with it and still grapple with it today.

Your second point about an infinite regress of thoughts in the mind of God is interesting. I am going to think about that one and perhaps do some research. My first thought is to say that not all thoughts are linked together in causal chains. Many of our mental states occur simultaneously. I do not picture a mental life solely as a series of causal chains. But I need to think about this more...

You know Kevin that I think your epistemology includes the idea that knowledge must be certain. This goes back to DesCartes. I am pretty sure that most philosophers assume this, but I just don't think that knowledge has to be absolutely certain in order to be knowledge. I think we can know things and still say, "But I could be wrong." I know that the world exists, but surely its POSSIBLE that we live in a Matrix-like fake world... But possibilites are cheap. We must go on the best evidence. Unless there is some good evidence that we live in a Matrix then I am not going to consider it.