Science & Theology: God and Evolutionary Randomness.

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Many Christians, as well as an ever increasing number of them, hold that evolutionary biology is compatible with theism. It is therefore not a big surpise that in our scientifically advanced contemporary setting there is an ever increasing engagement between theology, Christian theology, and evolutionary theory.

One of the touch points between theology and evolutionary theory concerns the nature of randomness that is often employed in the scientific literature. Evolutionary biologists claim that the genetic mutations driving evolution forward occur randomly. Such claims have caused theists who believe in a personal God, such as the God of Christianity, a great deal of concern, and they often end up viewing evolution as being incompatible with theism. Why? Because theists believe that events do not occur randomly in a universe designed by God. Usually, on the part of a theist, “random” is taken to denote something without purpose and design. Thus, we can understand some of the motivation for why theists often oppose the theory. We therefore need to dig a little deeper into what biologists mean when they use the word random. We also need to have a more accurate understanding of evolutionary theory. We shall consider the latter first.

Evolution, firstly, is not random in the sense that many theists think that it is. Though certain factors that drive evolution, such as mutations, transposition, and genetic recombination, are unpredictable, the driving force of natural selection is not itself random (1). It is driven by the environments in which organisms live, and these environments are regulated by the laws of physics and chemistry, which are not random either. The survival and reproductive success of the organism is directly related to the ways its inherited traits function in the local environment (2).

Secondly, evolutionary biologists do not intend random to mean purely by chance or without purpose and design. To say something like that would manifestly not be a statement of science but instead a metaphysical. Why? Because science, by virtue of being limited to dealing with objects, events, and processes in the natural world, cannot provide answers to those questions. Science can be used in ways to come to philosophical and theological conclusions, as so many people use it to do, but such conclusions are not themselves scientific conclusions. Philosopher William Craig explains that “science is just not in a position to say with any justification that there is no divinely intended direction or goal of the evolutionary process” (3). In agreement Professor Alvin Plantinga argues that “The theory of evolution doesn’t say that the whole process is guided by God. Of course it doesn’t say that. But it also doesn’t say that it isn’t. Being a scientific theory, it doesn’t make any statements on that point” (4).

Well, then what does the biologist mean by the term? Random means that mutations occur without benefit to the host organism. As some theists and apologists have pointed out, this would mean that evolutionary theory can be viewed as compatible with belief in God, God’s setting up the evolutionary process, as well as God’s directing the course of evolutionary development toward an intended end. Likewise, if “random” is defined in this way then it is not incompatible with direction or purpose. For example, Craig speculates how a mutation can be both purposeful and random, “suppose that God in His providence causes a mutation to occur in an organism, not for the benefit of the organism, but for some other reason (say, because it will produce easy prey for other organisms that He wants to flourish or even because it will eventually produce a fossil that I will someday find, which stimulates my interest in palaeontology, so that I embark upon the career God had in mind for me). In such a case, the mutation is both purposeful and random.” Therefore, the theistic evolutionist, the Christian who believes in both God and evolutionary theory, may argue that God caused some mutations to occur at certain key junctures in the process towards an end goal. And although that might be one view of theistic evolution, other theistic evolutionists believe differently. Kenneth Miller, a Professor of Biology and Catholic, sees evolution as a fully natural process but one that is the result of God’s handiwork, “If God is real, as I believe he is, that means that those natural processes are part of his providence. Does it also mean that he was such an incompetent planner that he had to constantly reach in and supplant his own laws and rules to make things come out the way he wanted? And the answer to that is no, for theological purposes” (5). Miller’s view takes inspiration from the famous 13th century theologian Thomas Aquinas. Aquinas said that if something occurs in the natural world and that event has a natural cause that does not remove God or make him irrelevant because God is the author of all things natural.

Of course, these cannot be said to be a statements of science, but rather theological and philosophical interpretations and conclusions pertaining to the relationship between evolutionary theory and theology. However, the same applies to skeptics who tend to use evolution, and its “randomness,” as the knockdown blow to God. Craig explains that when the atheist-naturalist scientist, like a Richard Dawkins for example, use randomness to mean “unguided” or “purposeless,” it is a good case of “the philosophy of naturalism which tries to piggyback on legitimate science” (6). This peggybacking is what Professor of physics Howard Van Till calls an “irritating cultural phenomenon,” (7) since evolutionary theory is so often associated with philosophical naturalism by both theists and naturalists alike. Thus, explains Peter Hess, “Theologians, clergy, scientists, and others belonging to many religious traditions have concluded that their religious views are compatible with evolution, and are even enhanced by the knowledge of nature that science provides” (8).

References.

1. Francke, T. 2013. Ken Miller calls intelligent design ‘a negation of everything science stands for.’ Available.

2. PBS. Frequently Asked Questions About Evolution. Available.

3. Craig, W. 2012. Evolutionary Theory and Theism. Available.

4. Bishop, J. 2016. Alvin Plantinga on Christianity, Science & Naturalism. Available.

5. Francke, T. 2013. Ibid.

6. Craig, W. 2012. Ibid.

7. Van Till, H. When Faith and Reason Cooperate. Available.

8. Hess, P. 2012. Science and Religion. Available.

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3 responses to “Science & Theology: God and Evolutionary Randomness.

  1. While randomness of mutations doesn’t disprove the existence of god, it likewise offers no support for the existence of a god. Moreover, the robustness of evolutionary theory eliminates yet another of the gaps for which the “God of the Gaps” has been proposed (though it is still vigorously defended by Creationists, in spite of the overwhelming evidence in support of evolution).

    As for the statement in the concluding paragraph that “Theologians, clergy, scientists, and others belonging to many religious traditions have concluded that their religious views are compatible with evolution, and are even enhanced by the knowledge of nature that science provides”… This strikes me as a heads I win -tails you lose sort of conclusion. If evolution were to be disproved, those same theologians would obviously conclude that it proves their beliefs.

    Religious folks have always shown a remarkable ability to draw conclusions that are favorable to their beliefs, no matter what the evidence shows.

  2. One can but laugh at articles like this, full of question-begging nonsense such as ‘Craig speculates how a mutation can be both purposeful and random’!

    As the previous commenter has quite effectively pointed-out, theists cannot but help from trying to ‘eat their cake, and have it too’ – of course, there is the implicit reaffirmation that empirical evidence, whatever it shows, cannot have any bearing on that which the theist already presupposes to be true, so why even bother (with the pretence of looking at the empirical data) in the first place?

    Much more amusingly, however, is the corresponding (but similarly implicit), acknowledgement (in Craig’s idle musings) that there is (for us mere mortals, at least) *precisely zero* difference between God’s having some ‘Master Plan’ that we cannot discern, and God’s having no plan whatsoever (most plausibly, because ‘he’ doesn’t exist, in the first place). To anyone who doesn’t already share the same presuppositions, the entire exercise is palpably, transparently self-serving.

  3. James, Do you really buy Craig’s speculation that “God in His providence [might] cause a mutation to occur in an organism… because it will produce easy prey for other organisms that He wants to flourish, or even because it will eventually produce a fossil that I will someday find, which stimulates my interest in palaeontology, so that I embark upon the career God had in mind for me.”

    Sounds to me like Craig is suggesting some wild explanation that the Designer is constantly busy making minute design changes in order for some designs to defeat other designs, and in order to make his own works go extinct. Moreover, every organism eventually dies due to predation, age, natural disaster, or accident. Also, most organisms never reach the age of sexual reproduction, and of those that do, many don’t get to mate or raise many young that survive. That’s a helluva lot of weeding going on each generation, a helluva lot of hurdles the majority of fertilized eggs never pass. And then there’s extinction, several mass extinction events, and countless individual extinction events, such that only a small portion of the total array of inter-related cousin species ever survive longer than the rest. And all of the death and extinctions occurred for a couple billion years (starting with single-celled organisms that ruled earth alone for a couple billion years before multi-cellular organisms arose) and all long before species of hominins arrived on the scene.

    At most I’d say the evidence suggests a Divine Tinkerer.

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