Naturalism, Evolutionary Biology and Theism


In yet another excellent interview at 3AM: Magazine, Richard Marshall talks with Elliott Sober (Wisconsin). There is a lot of interesting material in this interview, including Sober’s takes on the criticisms of evolutionary theory by Jerry Fodor (Rutgers) and Thomas Nagel (NYU).

On Nagel, he says:

Nagel thinks that “remarkable facts” can’t have low probabilities, given the initial state of the universe. He thinks that the existence of life, the existence of mind, and the existence of consciousness (call this triplet LM&C) are all remarkable. He further thinks that contemporary evolutionary theory says that LM&C had very low probabilities of occurring, so the theory must be false or seriously incomplete. Nagel calls for the construction of a new, teleological science, one that shows that LM&C were in the cards from the universe’s first moment. According to this sought-for theory, earlier events happen because they will help LM&C to appear later. The teleology that Nagel wants isn’t theistic, and it isn’t causal; he doesn’t think that later events cause earlier ones.

The main flaw in Nagel’s criticism of evolutionary theory is his demand that remarkable facts must have high probabilities, given the initial state of the universe. I think that the existence of Beethoven is remarkable, but I do not bristle at the suggestion that this event had a low probability given the initial state of the universe. Another problem with Nagel’s position is that it isn’t clear what probabilities current science assigns to the existence of LM&C, given the state of the universe at the time of the Big Bang.

The start of the interview contains an interesting discussion of naturalism and its implications regarding the relationship between evolutionary biology and theism. Sober says:

“Methodological naturalism” and “metaphysical naturalism” are terms that often surface in the continuing battle between evolutionary biology and creationism/intelligent design. The methodological thesis says that scientific theories shouldn’t postulate supernatural entities; the metaphysical thesis says that no such entities exist. In this debate, God is the supernatural entity at issue; the question isn’t whether science gets to talk about mathematical entities if Platonism is correct. Biologists often maintain that evolutionary theory abides by the 1st ism without embracing the 2nd. I agree with this interpretation despite what creationists and some atheists have maintained. I disagree with those who argue that evolutionary biology and the existence of God are incompatible.

This is not to deny that there are versions of theism that do conflict with evolutionary biology. Young Earth Creationism is an example; it claims that God created life on earth within the past 10,000 to 50,000 years. But other types of theism are different. Deism, for example, is compatible with evolutionary theory. Deism claims that God creates the universe and the laws of nature and then is hands-off, with everything that subsequently happens in nature being due to natural processes. Deism is logically compatible with evolutionary theory for the simple reason that the theory says nothing about the origin of the universe or of the laws of nature. More controversially, I also think that some “interventionist theisms” are compatible with evolutionary theory. (By “intervention,” I don’t mean that God violates laws of nature; I mean that God affects what happens in nature in ways that are additional to the ones that deism recognizes.) Evolutionary theory, properly understood, does not conflict with the idea that God occasionally intervenes in nature—for example, by once or twice causing a beneficial mutation to occur. Biologists have not detected any such interventions despite the data and theory they have assembled about mutation. However, I think it is a mistake to expect biological experiments to be able to detect such one-off acts of divine intervention, especially if those acts occurred in the distant past. Science isn’t in that line of work.

This point becomes more obvious if you consider the statement “guided mutations that are scientifically undetectable have occurred.” Many scientists will scoff at this statement, and I do too. However, the reason for scoffing is not that there is scientific evidence that such events never occur. Rather, the reason for scoffing is that there is absolutely no evidence that such events have happened. True, if you embrace the philosophical doctrine that whatever happens in nature is scientifically detectable, you will conclude that the statement in quotation marks is false. But now it is a philosophy (one that resembles the verificationism of the logical positivists), not a scientific theory, that is doing the talking.

I don’t endorse deism or interventionist theism. My point is just that evolutionary biology is logically compatible with the former and with some versions of the latter. I have bothered to make this point in print because I want to take the heat off of evolutionary biology. The more evolutionary theory gets called an atheistic theory, the greater the risk that it will lose its place in public school biology courses in the United States. If the theory is thought of in this way, one should not be surprised if a judge at some point decides that teaching evolutionary theory violates the Constitutional principle of neutrality with respect to religion. Creationists have long held that evolutionary theory is atheistic; defenders of the theory do the theory no favor when they agree.

The whole interview is here.

The Grimpoteuthis

The Grimpoteuthis

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