Prior commitments – 2: theistic

My last post showed the prevalent, and crippling, metaphysical bias of those who assess the evidence for evolution with a materialistic prior commitment. Richard Lewontin makes the case eloquently. Despite the popular rhetoric, though, theism as such has very much less at stake in the matter. Not to put too fine a point on it, God could have created using evolution, or in pretty much any other way. In practice things are not that simple, if we look at specific examples.

Those who approach the matter with a historically literal view of Genesis, such as American Fundamentalists, are naturally going to be drawn to a Young Earth Creationist scheme in which the days, the individual divine fiats, the Flood and the principled immutability of species may inform their theism. That in itself would actually put them on a par with the atheists in their degree of bias, but one has to factor in the possibility of anti-scientism in some cases, and the fact that they consider they have a positive source of authority in (their interpretation of) the Bible. This is commonly presented by their opponents as a unique case of pitting superstition against the evidence, but actually it’s just rather more visible than the denialism of atheists, which simply suppresses or ignores evidence against its position, and gets to write the textbooks. Creation Science is bad science, but how would one know if mainstream science was, in the light of Lewontin?

More mainstream Biblical Christians, particularly in the Arminian tradition, may well have problems with the usual formulations of evolution too, for there is a tendency for them to go along with the division of the world into “natural” and “supernatural”. If one believes that the world carries on by law and chance until God intervenes, to answer prayer and so on, then the naturalist claim to rule out God’s creatorial role runs counter to ones prior commitment. This may either lead to rejection of, or indifference to, evolution, or often to a rather soft form of theistic evolution – “Well, maybe it happened, but God moved the pieces.” This may be the position of most committed Christians.  The same, I think, would be true for the Catholic tradition of accepting mainstream science where possible whilst drawing lines in the sand when necessary. It’s a prior commitment openly stated, unlike that of most biologists.

There is an interesting confluence (scarcely accidental, in my view) between the naturalistic prior commitment of atheists, and those of more considered theistic evolution in the BioLogos mould. As I have said at length before it is curious how so many of those Christians very supportive of mainstream evolution have voiced support for far-from-mainstream theologies like Open Theism and Process Theology. One reason, I think, is that these are the only forms of Christian thought that sit comfortably with the absolute commitment to naturalism of the atheist biologists. In these theologies, God is for whatever reason committed to non-intervention, so that nature is effectively as unguided as any Richard Lewontin could wish. To me, this says less about the evidence than about the sociology: if one comes from, and/or identifies with, the community of those for whom design is anathema, then it is more comfortable to share their prior commitment, albeit from different metaphysical foundations. Maybe that accounts for why many of the same weak arguments, and the same debating tactics, are shared by both groups, and why ID is such a target for hostility. This should remind us of the possibility of sharing a prior commitment by proxy – an orthodox Christian may simply adopt the bias of his scientific colleagues with insufficient thought, just as someone of unsettled religious views might. Similarly many theists will tend to adopt the attitudes of their faith-communities without serious investigation.

For my own part I started to rekindle my interest in evolution and faith partly because retirement was approaching with more time to pursue it, and partly because it suddenly began to look more resolvable. I’d position myself well within the classical Reformed tradition (by choice, not upbringing), which takes the Bible very seriously, but not literalistically. For some reason it had not occurred to me that the Biblical doctrine that God governs chance as well as everything else in the world, by his sovereign power, applies to creation, too. Intrinsically, there was no reason why even straight Neodarwinian evolution should be incompatible with Biblical faith, provided one could resolve some issues like natural evil, the historical status of Adam and Eve, and so on.

Pretty quickly, once I started looking, I found answers to most of these that satisfied me, at least, whether or not they’d please anyone else. Random mutation and natural selection would pose no problems to my world-view. On the other hand, nothing in my theology precluded God’s direct involvement apart from the feeling that it would be unlikely to happen gratuitously or deceptively.

Somewhat to my surprise I found that I wasn’t that common a beast – I guess Reformed Evangelicalism has always been a minority, and as my friend Penman testifies, many Reformed churches here and in the US have thrown in their lot with Young Earth Creationism, maybe by a process of “prior commitment by proxy” with the Fundamentalists, as above.

Also to my surprise, as I examine my own prior commitments I find am probably less suceptible to metaphysical bias than many others in considering the evidence for evolution. I think I’d be on a par in that respect with that equally rare animal, the genuine agnostic, who has no particular fear of being convinced that God does exist.

If I’m right in my self-examination, then my attempts to assess the evidence for the ruling paradigm are at least as dispassionate as anybody elses’s, and more so than many. And the fact that I find that evidence gravely wanting has more to do with my reasoning than with my metaphysical commitments.

Of course, one is always somewhat blind to one’s own world-view, and it may just be that I’d really love to see the New Atheists eat humble pie during my lifetime!

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About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
This entry was posted in Creation, Politics and sociology, Science, Theology. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Prior commitments – 2: theistic

  1. Avatar photo penman says:

    Penman himself adds that I don’t have any THEOLOGICAL problem with random mutation (random with respect to fitness) or natural selection. But I do have non-theological problems with them, albeit as a layman, not a scientist. There is for me a credibility gap between things like the intricate complexity of social organization in (say) an ants’ nest or beehive & the postulation of the origin of that complexity in random mutation acted on by natural selection. There’s also the issue of whether enough beneficial mutations could arise randomly. Hence my leanings toward Stuart Kauffmann, James Shapiro, et al, in their pursuit of other mechanisms of change.

    On the General Theory (the genealogical linkage of all life) I’m pretty well persuaded of its overwhelming credibility. Don’t know about a SINGLE common ancestor, though: that seems to go beyond the evidence.

  2. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    Hi Penman

    Good to hear your angle on this. I’d be very happy to be able to endorse a self-organisational approach, but it seems to me those currently on the table raise similar bounds-of-probability issues to RM&NS . For example, Shapiro seems to suggest an “intelligent” organism shuffling functional bits of protein in an orderly way to produce new combinations of functions. But this paper ( by Doug Axe (technical, sorry!) suggests that doing this simply destroys function.

    It appears you have to design a protein from scratch – which takes an almost miraculously efficient cell R&D department!

  3. Avatar photo penman says:

    Hi Jon
    You dignify me with an intellectual weight I don’t have! I still don’t understand the nature/operation of the alternative mechanisms floated by Kauffmann, Shapiro, et al, owing to not being a scientist. The most I can rise to is approving of the quest for alternative mechanisms. If I’m pressed, I have two reasons:

    1. My “personal credulity” problem with giving RM-NS omnipotence to produce the observed reality of biodiversity & biocomplexity.

    2. My theological reluctance to invoke miracle. For me, miracle is a last resort, in the absence of divine testimony to its having happened. In scripture we have a combination of recorded amazing event plus God’s own interpretation of the event as miraculous (not explicable in terms of ordinary providence). But outside scripture we don’t have the “God’s own interpretation” element. And as a historian, I’m aware that rather too many things have been given miracle-type status which we now understand scientifically – eg in the medieval period the theologian Agobard of Lyons dared to suggest that the meteorological elements of thunder, lightning, etc, were explicable in natural terms, rather than being supernatural prodigies. He was also a medieval UFO debunker (!) (nothing new under the sun).

    So I’m all in favour of searching for natural scientific explanations, & not giving up too quickly in order to announce the presence of the supernatural = God = proof of theism, which can leave us with egg on our faces when natural mechanisms are then uncovered. BUT I’m obviously not espousing naturalism as a worldview. One has to leave open the possibility that an event may prove to be so insusceptible to any natural explanation that the weight of probability favours a supernatural explanation. In that sense, scientific investigation itself could drive itself into a stubborn hermeneutical barrier.

    Any thoughts? This is more stimulating than BioLogos currently…..!

  4. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


    Maybe my two posts today (Nov 25) speak to this a little. How could one distinguish a miracle from an improbable event? In my view the task of science is to find evidence for mechanisms that reduce improbability to measurably possible levels. In other words to find explanations that are convincing not just because they sound plausible, but because they’re demonstrated to happen. That’s why I share your “personal credulity” problem with Neodarwinism in all its (often contradictory) guises.

    Seems to me Kauffmann merely replaces one type of unsubstantiated plausibility with another. Shapiro does better because all his mechanisms are real and demonstrated by research, but I’m not sure they carry the weight of what’s required of them: his cells just seem to need too much intelligence.

  5. Avatar photo penman says:

    Hi Jon
    It’s embarrassingly beyond my competence to assess the science of Kauffmann & Shapiro, although it’s nice to see credible scientists sharing my humble doubts about natural selection’s omnipotence. There’s no escape – you’ll just have to write up that layman’s guide to Shapiro’s book.

    Feeling more comfortable with theology, I wouldn’t equate an improbable event with a miracle. If “by chance” I met an old friend in a very crowded location (eg a football stadium) it would be an improbable event but I wouldn’t call it a miracle. The paradigm miracles, I take it, are the Virgin Conception & the Resurrection, which belong to a different order of magnitude from meeting a friend in a crowd.

    The Westminster Confession (5:3) distinguishes “ordinary providence” from miracles by describing the latter as God working “without, above, or against” the “means” employed in ordinary providence. It gives examples thus: without means – a human being surviving without food; above means – the conception of Isaac; against means – Shadrach, Meshach, & Abednego surviving the furnace. There’s something here more than improbability, I think.

  6. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    Hi Penman
    Good to hear from you again, as I’ve found this weekend that most of my readers here are spam robots!

    Distinguishing “chance” and “miracle”… the example you give is in a very different league from, say, my example of a 50-nucleotide RNA molecule. Supposing at your football match you’re in a position to recognise, say, 60 people you pass, and if anyone in Britain might be there, then statistically there’s 60:60,000,000 (or 1:10^5) chance of meeting any one individual. If you have 100 friends, the odds increase to 1:10^3. In fact, if there are 60K people at the match, there’s a 1:1000 chance your friend is there somewhere, and a 1:10 chance that *someone* you know is there, which is not bad odds.

    One might say an event like the piling up of the Jordan whilst Israel crossed is in a comparable league: it’s said to happen very occasionally after landslips, but for it to happen at the right time is highly providential, at least. Or miraculous?

    By contrast, my example of a 1:4^50 chance of a particular protein occurring by chance means 4 followed by 50 “0”s. That’s about three times the number of atoms in the world. Now any protein of that length is equally improbable, just as every atom in the world has a unique position and history. If you just need an atom for supper, that’s fine – but if you’re looking for one particular atom someone marked with a red cross when the world formed (!) what are the chances of its turning up under your microscope? When you’re talking about chance producing a particular protein 150 residues long (shorter than average) it’s like looking for a particular atom in about 10^70 UNIVERSES.

    So were scientists to attribute the assembly of the first self-replicating molecule to a “fluke”, they would effectively be saying it happened despite being impossible. If a Christian scientist said it, and still talked about “natural causes”, you’d have to wonder if he believed in God at all.

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