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Questions on Evolution

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Questions I was asked to answer for a Forum on the Christian Faith and Evolution

1. Why is this issue important? What is at stake in the question of evolution and faith?

It’s very satisfying to discover that what science tells us about the world and the place of human beings in it is deeply in accord with what the Bible tells us about God’s aims in creating. I don’t think this serves as evidence for Christianity, but because so many scientifically educated persons take it for granted that faith and evolution are at odds, we have an opportunity to remove a serious obstacle to Christian witness. And, it affords persons of Christian faith an opportunity to bear witness to the fact that a commitment to the truth is an essential part of Christian vocation.

2. Are there different ways of “accepting” the theory of evolution as a plausible explanation of the data concerning the development and variety of life on earth?

Yes. Some seek to restrict the operation of evolution to producing change within species, so-called “microevolution,” in contrast to “macroevolution.” This has no credibility whatsoever.

Some seek to restrict the operation of evolution to producing the world’s biological complexity and diversity, including the human body, but inject an immaterial human mind or soul that has non-natural origins. We have every philosophical, scientific, and theological reason to reject the assumption that there is such an entity, so this approach also lacks credibility.

Some grant that the human mind, is the functional brain, and thus a product of evolution, but contend that evolutionary theory has little of import to say about its particular structure and capabilities. The mind is more or less a “blank slate” on which the world, i.e., experience, culture, writes. This, while popular in many quarters and perhaps still the “official” doctrine of the academy, has been in retreat since the 1960’s.

Some claim that our minds and, derivatively, the societies and cultures they create, can to a significant degree be understood as products of evolution. The mind is comprised of a host of evolved, innate information processing mechanisms, and much of human thought, feeling and behavior can be explained as adaptations. I find such explanations at least plausible, but many of the specific claims remain speculative.

If the universe is deterministic, then the evolutionary process is giving rise precisely to the creatures God intends. If the universe is indeterministic God might ‘guide’ the process of evolution to specifically intended results? A handy way to effect such guidance would be by interventions in the quantum domain targeted to bring about the seemingly random mutations on which natural selection operates. However, I think it more likely that evolution is neither deterministic nor guided, but proceeds to an outcome knowable in advance only in general outline, not specifics. In my view this coheres with God creating the world as a home for persons distinct from himself, who can enter into communion with him.

3. How can a Christian reconcile a Biblical view of God as creator with evolutionary science?

Should we assume there’s something in need of reconciliation here? We should recall that our predecessors thought Copernicanism, lunar craters, and Newtonian inertia needed to be reconciled with biblical creation. God created the world; its basic laws and initial conditions are directly due to his creative act and answer to his intentions: “In the beginning…” The latter effects of that initial act of creation, the formation of atoms, galaxies, stars, planets, and the diversity of complex living things, are what God creates indirectly.

The scientific investigation of nature, and the interpretation of the Bible, are both reliable ways of finding out about God’s creation. Neither is infallible, but scientific methods are obviously more reliable than those of biblical hermeneutics. (I see convergence of opinion as a principal mark of reliability.) When apparent conflict arises, it’s generally more reasonable to suspect we’ve misinterpreted Holy Scripture than that scientific inquiry has gone wrong. Further, supposed conflicts between Scripture and science are often bogus and reveal, not the misreading of the Bible, but tacit commitments to dispensable philosophical theories.

We should understood Christian theology well enough to see that the world natural science in general, and evolutionary science in particular, portrays is the sort of world the God of the Christian faith might reasonably be expected to create. Faith and reason should here ally to compensate for the poverty of imagination and tradition.

4. What is your reaction to Intelligent Design?

There’s nothing charitable to say about ID in the context of biology, neither with respect to the origins of life nor the diversity and complexity of living things. Its perpetrators are, I think, sincere: but it’s the sincerity of zealous prosecutors so convinced of a defendant’s guilt they feel justified in “cooking” the evidence. The harm they do in associating the Christian faith with intellectual dishonesty is very great.

In the cosmological context, the case is different. The “cosmic fine tuning” in virtue of which this is a universe in which life can come into existence and then evolve by natural selection, so far admits of no compelling ‘naturalistic’ explanation, and the idea that it’s due to divine design is at least as reasonable as the known alternatives. However, we should resist the temptation to invest much in this; it might well turn out to be wrong, and nothing in Christian faith renders it antecedently likely.

5. What is the role of science in explaining origins?

We can reasonably believe that natural science provides, or will provide, adequate explanations of the general features of the universe, including the existence and nature of living things, human beings, the human mind, and human behavior. This includes features once thought beyond the scope of science, such as our moral sensibilities and religious inclinations. However, science employs the basic laws of nature to explain whatever it explains and thus makes no plausible claim to explain those laws themselves. Therefore it has nothing to say about ultimate origins, at least on the supposition that the existence and nature of the universe is contingent, an assumption constitutive of modern science.

6. In explaining sin?

Science has nothing of direct relevance to say in explanation of sin. Human beings are sinners; this means that as a contingent matter, our relationship with God is impaired by our unwillingness to trust him, not by human nature.

Contemporary evolutionary thought promises a thoroughly naturalistic account of morality and religion, one that undermines their supposed transcendent status. In light of the moralism that persistently infects the Christian faith, theories that put these idols in their proper, i.e., mundane, place should be welcomed. Morality and religion are human things, always under divine judgment, but God condescends to them, making use of them for our sake.

7. What is the best way for a Christian to understand the opening chapters of Genesis (1-11)?

Although tied to the real acts of God in the creation of this world, the Genesis creation stories are neither history nor science; they are theology expressed in poetic narrative. It’s relevant to point out that in colloquial English the term “literally” has come to mean “really,” so some hear the statement that these texts are not literally true as equivalent to not really true. On the contrary, they really are true, but figuratively, not literally. To take a figurative text literally is to fail to take it seriously. The not literally true story—the naked man named “Man,” the woman named “Woman” made from his rib, the talking snake, the trees bearing magical fruit—all this asserts the literal theological truth about the God who for our sake created.

8. What are the limits of evolutionary theory in explaining “life on earth”? What does it leave unexplained?

Evolutionary theory explains why there are so many different kinds of living things adapted to their environments. Why there are living things in the first place lies outside the scope of evolutionary theory, which only becomes relevant once there are self-replicating molecules upon which natural selection can go to work.

But I take it for granted that the first, simple living things came into existence by means of natural processes, and no divine intervention was involved.

9. Is there reason to agree with some of the critics of evolutionary theory who claim that “Darwinists” are promoting a faith that is goes way beyond science?

The essential claims of evolutionary biology are well confirmed. They are, in one way of speaking, not mere hypotheses but theories. The extension of evolutionary theory to account for human psychology remains much less well grounded. However, the ways in which evolutionary psychology integrates with understanding the human mind in terms of highly modularized neurocomputation gives it a fairly high degree of antecedent plausibility

Anyone, whether atheist evolutionist or Christian anti-evolutionist, who claims that evolutionary theory implies that God does not exist, or did not create, is simply wrong. Anyone, whether atheist evolutionist or Christian anti-evolutionist, who claims that the confirmation of evolutionary theory removes any reason to be a Christian manifests a defective conception of the Christian faith, one that implicitly assumes that the acts of God in human history, including, above all, the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, are insignificant when it comes to warrant for Christian belief.

10. What are the religious implications of evolutionary theory’s position on human origins? That is, was there a Garden of Eden, and an Adam and Eve? If so, how can that be reconciled with evolutionary theory? If not, how can that be reconciled with the Biblical account of the fall?

I take it that the Genesis story of the Fall as an historical event points to the theologically vital fact that sin is not a feature of human nature, not a defect in the way God made us, but a rejection and rebellion that did not have to be. And I regard the truth of original sin as the fact that we are bereft of God’s empirical presence, born into a world from which we have expelled God, who always intended to become incarnate among us.

I take it that the Genesis story of God breathing the “breath of life” into the man-shaped being formed from the soil, i.e., the Special Creation of humans, cast in the vitalist framework of Ancient Near Eastern thought, is rightly understood as revealing the special vocation humans have been given in God’s creation, and beyond that the fact that God created this world with the aim of there being creatures like us, creatures capable of receiving the gift of a share in God’s triune life.

I take the Genesis teaching about human beings being made in the Image of God not, principally, as telling us that we resemble God in some way, and are thus in some respect transcendent of the natural order and metaphysically unique among creatures, but as announcing God’s gracious election of the human species

11. Are there different “levels of analysis” which all lead to truth, but on different “levels”—spiritual, material, economic, social, etc.? Does this approach solve any of the science/faith conflicts? Is it an adequate approach?

I don’t think there are any genuine faith/science conflicts, but if there were, I don’t think the fact that things can be described in a variety of ways would help. The world can be understood on a lot of different “levels.” But what’s true on one level must cohere with what’s true on any other level. Chemistry has to agree with physics; economics has to agree with psychology.

I see ‘emergence,’ ‘downward causation,’ ‘non-reductive physicalism,’ and so on, as hoped for, but unreal, and unneeded, loopholes in the naturalistic picture on offer from contemporary science.

I think it is important to insist on the Christian faith having “empirical content.” What Christians believe has implications for the same world that science investigates, so it is always possible for the claims of science and those of theology to conflict. As a matter of fact they don’t. To rule conflict out a priori, rendering Christian belief unfalsifiable, is to empty it of content. To decide conflicts in favor of theology a priori is to replace faith with ideology. Part of trusting God now is being confident that future evidence, scientific or otherwise, won’t force us to stop believing in God, but real beliefs are vulnerable.

On the one hand, it is rational for the Christian to evaluate the evidence for scientific hypotheses in light of what’s antecedently likely given her faith. It’s a mistake to think “scientific objectivity” means leaving your faith outside the laboratory. One’s faith should shape her science. On the other hand, science should shape one’s faith. Scientific inquiry is, in general, the most reliable way of finding out about the things in its purview, and we should be ready to modify our theological beliefs in light of what it tells us.

12. How should educated Christians react to “creation science”?

We should pass over “flood geology” and all that with an embarrassed silence. There was once a day when Christians who took it for granted (mistakenly, in my view) that the Christian faith renders Darwinism antecedently unlikely could reasonably resist Darwinian conclusions, contending that the evidence is not good enough to confirm an improbable hypothesis. That day is long past.

13. Isn’t someone who is a Christian automatically a proponent of intelligent design?

It depends on what is meant by ID: Yes: the universe exists, and has the general characteristics it has, because it is the creation from nothing of a free, wise, and loving Creator, the God incarnate as Jesus Christ. No: We have no reason to expect that God intervened in the natural processes that gave rise to the first living things, or to the first human beings. God interacts with humans, intervening miraculously in this world to do so; the physical, chemical, and biological processes that brought humankind into existence in the first place were, I have every reason to believe, adequate, bringing forth the sorts of thing God intended without supernatural filling of gaps.


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