I was struck by a succinct observation by poster StephenB on an Uncommon Descent thread about theistic evolution:
For guided evolution, the design precedes the process. For Darwinian evolution, the process precedes the design (appearance of).
He was responding to someone who had argued that teleological goals may be served by using ateleological processes (eg yearly floods on the Nile being anticipated for agriculture, pearl formation in oysters being exploited). StephenB pointed out that in both those cases, the process existed before the purpose, which cannot be the case in creation, for God precedes all processes. I might have added that pearl formation is an adaptation that serves a prior purpose for the oyster, and that the Bible sees the flooding of the Nile as God’s deliberate prior provision for Egyptians, but we’ll leave those aside.
Later, StephenB expands his meaning:
Either the evolutionary process precedes and shapes the design (Darwinism, Neo-Darwinism) or the design precedes and shapes the evolutionary process (ID, Teleological Theism). It must be one or the other. It cannot be both.
This, to me, is the core of the issue that still rumbles below the surface of the usual theistic evolution discussions and muddies the waters (earth tremors under the Nile, maybe?). The official BioLogos description of Evolutionary Creation runs along the lines that “God uses evolution to create.” And to a Christian, unless you’re a YEC, that is unexceptionable if, and only if, “design precedes and shapes the evolutionary process”.
Historically, and as far as the atheist is concerned, the whole appeal of Darwinian and Neodarwinian evolution has been specifically its open-endedness. Goals develop purely from events. It’s not just that it doesn’t need God, but that it’s so elegantly self-powered that for God to do anything more than keep things in existence spoils it as a process, like moving the hands of a supposedly reliable watch (except that this watch changes the hour to match the perceived need, not the actual time).
Theistic evolution generally seems sensitive to that complaint, for it’s not kosher to talk about guided evolution, that being part of the dreaded Intelligent Design concept which, for the most part, it rejects. The result is some idea that God had purposes (how precise is seldom clear) in his original creation, but being God is able to use an atelological process to bring them about.
This leads to the rather bizarre sequence of ideas that follows:
- Living things give every appearance of being designed (as per Paley and the natural theologians) BUT
- That appearance is an illusion, evolution being able to design without a designer (as per Dawkins and the naturalist materialists) BUT
- That lack of design conceals the ultimate purpose of God the Creator.
An analogy to this might be a book (or even a blog post). You read this, and finding it makes sense (more or less!) you assume that it’s the product of my designing mind.
But no! You are corrected by a scientist, or maybe a theologian, who tells you that, on the contrary, everything about the book or blog post is the product of ateological forces. The book is easiest to reduce in this way – you can account for the physical artifact entirely by the laws of physics and chemistry, and the manufacturing process involves a whole sequence of machines that have no intelligence, and no idea whatsoever of what the book is about. It is an autonomous mechanistic process.
But then, running into me in the pub you realise that I originally conceived the document with the express intention that people like you should understand it, and you conclude that I managed, in my wisdom, to use a purely ateleogical, and even partly random, physical process as the sandwich-filling between my conception and your understanding. I managed to achieve purpose through non-purpose.
Well that is absolute nonsense, of course. The whole mechanics of setting down my book, or this blog, into a transferable medium which could reach you and impart understanding was designed by me, or others, for that very purpose. It is all part of one process of communication, and to pretend that the physical book is in any way separable from that single process of creation is crazy talk.
If the middle part of the sandwich, the physical process, were separate in the cases of either book-writing or creation, then as a matter of logic rather than of God’s power or wisdom, it would act analogously to the rate-limiting step of a chemical reaction. No matter how quick and well-planned a reaction is, if in the middle there’s a slow or inadequate process, it is that which will determine how quickly, if at all, the reaction proceeeds.
In other words, the Creator can achieve no more than the process itself will allow. If there is a loss of my purpose when I send my work to the publisher (let’s call it loss of information, for that’s all it is) then you will never benefit from my deathless prose (because it will have died). An autonomous editor feeds my text into an evolutionary algorithm, perhaps, and produces a nice Shakespeare play – but not my creation.
If evolution is truly as open-ended as it claims to be (which is its scientific USP, after all), then no purpose of God whatsoever will survive it – the information of the Creator’s will can only be be lost. It makes no difference if he is transendent, immanent or as kenotic as cookies, unless the purpose of his will informs the process he created and closes off its other possibilities.
The only way for that to be any different is to believe, or find evidence that, the process of evolution is not as open-ended (ie unguided) as it is claimed to be – or conceivably that it is only a small part of a system governed by some more important process. It may be constrained to some lawlike outcomes by the laws of physics, laws of form or some emergent magic, whether in the variations of life or the effects of the environment. It may be providentially tweaked by quantum events or anything else God has up his sleeve. The complexities of gene networks may operate by some complex but directionally constrained rules.
But none of that matters to the core issue: anything that enables one to say that “God creates through evolution” requires absolutely that the “through” must be real – it actually requires there to be information originating in God’s mind that is retained and transmitted through the process. That is entailed whether that process is entirely “natural” or involves miracles, or something in between. There can be no ateleological filling to the teleological sandwich, or God is not creating anything, any more than there can be an open-ended purposeless stage between my authorial intent and your reading of it.
The argument that needs to be seriously addressed by ECs, then, is whether teleological evolution can still, legitimately, be termed “Darwinian”. Most scientists would regard retaining the term within a teleological conception of evolutoon as operating under false pretences – and theistic evolutionists should, of all evolutionists, eschew false pretences. But they should also eschew intellectual fudges. The honest thing to do is to say, “We do not believe evolution is, at root, Darwinian and open-ended, but theistic and teleological.” It must be one or the other. It cannot be both.
Unless you can come up with a coherent refutation of the original point: For guided evolution, the design precedes the process. For Darwinian evolution, the process precedes the design.