Two and a half phases of theistic evolution #3

When I was young, the issue of Christ’s miracles was a big problem to Christians. Scientific determinism had infiltrated the public mind so thoroughly that the Bible’s miraculous claims were one of the greatest stumblingblocks in apologetics. Even within Evangelical churches rationalising the miracles as social or psychological events was common.

I find it fascinating how much that has changed over forty years. Of course, atheists have become more vocal and rationalistic, but within the general community, there is much more of an attitude that, should the historical claims about Christ be true, then his miracles make sense. Yet it’s hard to pin down the reasons for this subtle shift in worldview, probably because I have been part of it. It’s an example of the kind of sea-change in society that is associated with, and may even help explain, the popularity of one kind of idea over another, even in the matter of scientific theories.

I’ve mentioned this in the two previous posts in connection with the general sense of “progress” both in Victorian society and Victorian Darwinism, as opposed to the “directionlessness” of post-war society and evolutionary science. But my introductory example above is exemplified by how many of the theistic evolutionists of our day, despite having a very “hands-off” view of evolution, nevertheless are quite ready to affirm Christ’s miracles, incarnation and resurrection, even though their arguments against divine action in nature would often seem to apply equally well to religion.

Though it is hard, living within a society’s worldview, to view it as analytically as one would that of a previous age, it seems to me that many of the assumptions and attitudes described in the last post are changing, if not back towards the older Victorian pattern, then away from the rather nihilistic pattern of the twentieth century.

I’ve mentioned the general softening of attitudes towards the supernatural in society. This is associated with a less gung-ho enthusiasm for the certainties of science, if not an outright antagonism. It is unthinkable that widespread climate change skepticism, or opposition to vaccination would have arisen in, say, the 1930s. There is a growing zeitgeist that science cannot ever explain everything, to which the New Atheists and their scientific supporters might be seen as a late reaction, as Pentecostalism was to Victorian rationalism.

How that influences, or is influenced by, academic developments may only be discernible to later ages, but I want to mention a few things that appear related to it, at least, and which are affecting the life sciences.

One place to start is with the vast increase in what has to be explained by evolution. I like the quote by David Berlinski, asked to describe the currently-known complexity of the cell if, at the start of the Modern Synthesis, it was seen as a Buick. His instant reply was, “Oh, a galaxy.” And that was before the publication of what we are now hearing about the degree of functionality of non-coding DNA and its three-dimensional function. At the same time, our knowledge of how these impossibly sophisticated organisms relate to their environment and each other in impossibly sophisticated ways has increased massively too.

Not surprisingly, this has raised an unprecedented degree of questioning of the ability of Neodarwinism’s simplistic mechanisms to account for what we see in life. That might come from those like the Altenberg 16 who want simply to incorporate a greater range of mechanisms into an updated synthesis or, at the other end, the complete questioning of essential parts of evolutionary theory from scientists within Intelligent Design, which has stirred up invective and controversy, but also new research.

ID’s deeper influence is sometimes masked by the superficial controversy. But the truth is that a succession of important thinkers have taken elements of its critique on board. For example amongst philosophers Anthony Flew, Alvin Plantinga and Thomas Nagel have all acknowledged the strength of some ID arguments, even though sometimes rejecting the overall thesis.

But though ID is one element of the critique of Neodarwinism, this takes many other forms amongst scientists. In some cases, such as those like Lynn Margulis or James Shapiro, the science itself bursts the ruling paradigm’s perimeter fences. Simon Conway Morris has documented convergent evolution, but believes it requires some non-Darwinian principle to account for it, which he speculates (if I understand him aright) to lie ultimately in cosmic fine-tuning. In Shapiro’s notable case, the challenge is to the fundamental ND principle of directionlessness. Shapiro finds a significant degree of internal teleology in organisms, which restores (by a circuitous route) something of the teleology inherent in Darwin’s original theory. If I may over-simplify:

Darwin said variation was going everywhere, and that selection channeled it into the best way.
Neodarwinism said variation was going nowhere, and that selection only stopped it destroying itself altogether.
Shapiro says variation is directed towards some survival goal, and that selection picks the most viable option.

Note that, theologically, Shapiro’s scheme, like Darwin’s but unlike Neodarwinism, allows the possibility of evolution as an efficient cause of creation under God, depending on the exact nature of the cell’s internal teleology. That is significant, but begs the question of how that teleology got there in the first place.

Other scientists have simply recognised that Neodarwinism, even in its latest forms, is carrying too much weight. The fine-tuning part of Simon Conway Morris’s thinking is like that, as is the extreme-fine-tuning of Michael Denton. But it must be doubtful how specifically any degree of initial fine-tuning could define outcomes: the more it does, the more it is deterministic and, in theological terms, Deistic.

Other theorists depend on emergence phenomena, which would make specific outcomes truly evolutionary in the original sense of the word – ie that the world we see unfolds from what is inherent within it, like a paper flower in water. Such theories would make the whole universe, including evolution and possibly even human consciousness, an efficient cause of what is. This would be theologically unproblematic (though incomplete and Deistic in the human realm), but since there is no good evidence for it, it is merely handwaving.
The same goes for suggestions like Eugene Koonin’s Multiverse explanation of DNA-synthesis – it is a desperate fictional attempt to make chance a creative force by making it infinite, an explanation that explains no more than chance itself does.

The net result of all this is to suggest that evolution may be more finely directed than Neodarwinism has supposed. It falls short of providing, as Darwin’s original theory did, an adequately teleological means for creation, but it moves significantly in that direction. One can see, so far, little admission of this “sharpening” of evolution’s precision amongst TEs. They have invested too much in theologies that designate specific outcomes as evidence of God’s “coercion” or “interference” or, more  generally, a denial of creation’s nebulously-conceived “freedom”. But in point of fact these new trends put significant pressure on such theologies: they significantly constrain such “freedom” as compared to the Modern Synthesis. Maybe that is why many TEs tend to be so slow to acknowledge them.

Meanwhile the inadequacy of materialism already noted in the public arena has been acknowledged in the academy. In philosophy, particularly, in the study of mind and the study of existence, and also in the study of knowledge itself, non-material explanations have become respectable again, and materialism itself found to be problematic. This is maybe not unconnected to the deliberations about whether quantum science demands that “mind” be considered in an ontological category of its own apart from matter and energy.

In theology, the divine action project similarly sought to carve out territory beyond naturalism. In at least some case, TEs like R J Russell were seeking to rehabilitate the respectability of divine action within science. In some instances this was to accommodate the category of “Miracle” (see Alvin Plantinga’s series on BioLogos), but in Russell’s case a wider category of “special providence” was in view.The reason for considering this important in an evolutionary context was not so much God’s ability to assist needy Christians or govern human affairs, but the fact that evolutionary theory failed to make sufficient provision for a Biblical view of God’s oversight of creation. In other words it is a reaction against the heterodox views of God of the “Phase 2” TEs, whose theology was formed by the indeterminate nature of their biological science.

It remains to be seen what effect all these new developments will have on theistic evolution. If the previous two phases are a guide, we are likely to see an increasing understanding that science points to life showing signs of teleological organisation towards highly determined goals, but fails to provide adequate mechanisms to explain them. The realisation that there is no longer any scientific reason to debar divine action, combined with these tell-tale signs in the science, may lead to a kind of TE that encompasses direct divine action within evolution.

Currently that seems to me more likely than the nearest alternative, ie that entirely adequate natural teleological mechanisms will be found, with explanations for their arrival, that make a “first cause + efficient cause” explanation viable, as it seemed to be in Darwin’s day.

What I do not believe is that the currently prevalent model of theistic evolution, which I have dubbed “Phase 2”, will last for long in the current climate of science and philosophy and, indeed, of theology.

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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.
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7 Responses to Two and a half phases of theistic evolution #3

  1. Bilbo says:

    I hope and suspect that you are correct about the future of “Phase 2” TEism. I think what accounts for its lasting this long is:

    1) It is still grounded in 18th-19th century scientific determinism: A proper God wouldn’t need to intervene in His creation, since to do so would be admitting that there were imperfections in it. Francis Collins argued this way in the Language of God. Ard Louis argued this way in his first posts at BL.

    2) The problem of natural evil: An old Earth means that living things have been suffering and dying for hundreds of millions of years. If God intervened in natural history, then certainly He would have intervened to stop all this unnecessary evil. Since He obviously didn’t, then it must be that He wants nature to have “freedom.”

    I suggest that (1) should go away, as TEs are shown the historical roots of their argument (note for example, that Ard Louis did not use this argument in his more recent posts). On the other hand (2) may be around quite a bit longer, since the problem of evil has been around quite a bit longer. I realize that you do not consider animal suffering to be a problem, but many Christians do, including myself. I certainly would be disappointed to find out that animals still suffer in the New Heaven and Earth. Wouldn’t you? I prefer the solution of Satanic influence on natural history, but there may be other explanations.

  2. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    Thanks for reading these three posts, Bilbo. I’m making quite a global thesis here, so feedback is welcome and valuable.

    Your (1) is agreed – interesting that Genesis 1 actually describes creation as the progressive taming of chaos, with some subduing left for man to do, so the incompleteness of nature shouldn’t be a surprise to TEs, who are keen to avoid simplistic interpretations of Genesis, or so they say. More surprising is that, though TEs teach that nature is botching things on a large scale, God should be excluded from having any further influence (despite the Bible’s clear teaching to the contrary).

    I have, I accept, underemphasised the influence of theodicy on “Phase 2”, but it’s good to ask why that, too, has become an issue when it wasn’t in phase 1 – Warfield was happy with an old earth and a Malthusian struggle. it’s only become an obstacle as purposeless natural evil has been emphasised in biology. Anyway, I have written quite a bit about theodicy before.

    You’re right that I’m no longer over-troubled by the “suffering” inherent in evolution, and in the end that’s grounded on the Bible’s favourite theodicy: that God is sovereign, and God is good, and I shouldn’t look for problems where he sees none.

    At the same time a few factors that influence my thinking include:
    (a) The Bible doesn’t actually teach a fallen creation, nor attribute that degree of influence to Satan, but it does teach as “good” some of what is said to be “evil” by people nowadays.
    (b) The early Church didn’t see the problems in the natural order that later Christians see, suggesting we may well have it wrong.
    (c) Animal suffering in evolution has been exaggerated both by hyperbolic language (“billions of years of agonising deaths” etc) and factors like the continued outdated view of mutation as “nearly all deformed monsters plus the odd improvement”, the statement of evolution in Malthusian terms ignoring cooperation, the failure to distinguish “differential reproduction” from “red in tooth and claw”, the seeing of extinctions as evils somehow worse than just dying etc.
    (d) Animal suffering itself has been anthropomorphised, in all likelihood largely falsely (cf
    (e) Failure to appreciate the possibility that the one significant effect of the fall on creation is that we may have failed to “finish” it as God commanded in Genesis 1. Who knows how things might have been different had we done our job?
    (f) Theodicies like Plantinga’s free will defence, along the lines that it might not be possible to build a Universe with free creatures like us without the existence of evil, and the end result will, indeed, outweigh any harm occurring on the way (though that particular argument is about moral, rather than natural, evil). After all, Jesus considered one human soul to be worth more than a whole herd of pigs.
    (g) There may, perhaps, be some truth in the emphasis placed on Jesus as the suffering God who redeems the suffering even of the creatures. I’m suspicious of it as theology, though, because it depends on admitting the creation to be evil.
    (g) I live in the country, quite close to nature. And the wildlife seems to agree with me that, overall, God’s made a wonderful world. They enjoy it and die happy.

    Do I expect animal suffering in the age to come? Probably not, but what do I know about it? I don’t even know fully about animal suffering in this age! A point to note though: The age to come, so far, is only really seen in the resurrection life of the Lord. And that short episode includes his eating of fish.

  3. Alan Fox says:

    I live in the country, quite close to nature. And the wildlife seems to agree with me that, overall, God’s made a wonderful world. They enjoy it and die happy.

    I won’t dispute that observing wildlife, such as young otters playing, one might anthropomorphise that they are enjoying life. But dying happy? What have you seen that would suggest animals or birds (presumably not anything below a certain level of consciousness such as plants) die happy?

  4. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    Hi Alan

    I had in mind more the robins raising their young with magpies raiding their nests, the buzzards buzzing the rabbits, the foxes foraging my chickens, etc, than otters playing (they’re in the next valley).

    Of course, anthropormorphism is inevitable and always at fault (cf Nagel’s “On Being a Bat”). But it works both ways – the Ayala “agonising deaths” version is no more accurate than the Disney version, as my (d) above indicates.

    But if we anthromorphise at all in order to try and get inside the animals’ heads, then it’s as relevant that otters play as that rabbits get preyed upon. It’s a matter of observation that animals spend a lot more of their time living than dying, more time surviving than suffering.

    The week my chickens found their way out and were wandering around the woods because I couldn’t secure their fence well enough, they were apparently on Cloud 9 until Mr Fox got two of them. He did a rapid job on them, which is why I consider they died happily, if suddenly. Then it was the fox’s turn to be on Cloud 9, which he still appears to be when he’s sunning himself in the paddock 18 months later, or watching us from the hill.

  5. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    PS My first job was as a scientific assistant at the Ministry of Agriculture Pest Control Laboratory, where I got some insight into the private, as well as the medical, lives of rabbits and moles especially, but also foxes and blackbirds (not to forget tapeworms, fleas and ticks). The most miserable lot were the white laboratory rabbits.

  6. Alan Fox says:

    …until Mr Fox got two of them,,,

    This is probably why I’m a bit touchy about anthropomorphisms. When my daughter was a teenager, she had her own cob, off we would go to events and I would regularly encounter members of the hunting fraternity who would inevitably be convinced that the fox was unique in killing for pleasure. They were not interested in the possibility that a fox in a hen house was presented with an unmissable opportunity to stash some food that it couldn’t immediately consume. Killing more hens, carrying off the carcasses and storing them by burying them, if presented with the opportunity is a good survival strategy.

  7. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    Fully agree Alan – though I’m open to the idea that the fox just goes into overdrive and forgets about the fact he’s after supper. Having said that, if I found a fox had taken my entire shedload of chickens, I would probably decide to do my best to make him an ex-fox.

    The hunt occasionally comes round our way – it’s amusing how often they disappear off down the road and the fox trots along in their foosteps a minute or so later. It’s a hard man who wouldn’t imagine the fox smiling…

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