Varieties of orthodox theistic evolution

In a previous article I briefly reviewed Loren and Deborah Haarsma’s book on theistic evolution. The version of theistic evolution presented as their own preference, allowing for several other models, seems basically to endorse Jacques Monod’s dipole of chance and necessity, but viewed as a theistic mode of design. The initial “deposit” of the creation could be sufficient, the book suggests, to have produced the whole natural world, without the need for further divine activity, though their theology happily grants the possibility of the latter. But the position is that the fine tuning of the original laws and conditions makes known evolutionary mechanisms sufficient to guarantee the sort of bisophere we have. Stuart Conway-Morris’s theory of convergent evolution is cited in support of this sufficiency.

This is, in terms of creation doctrine, theologically neutral: it is a legitimate way (unlike the convolutions of the “free process” theologies) in which the God of Christianity could have used evolution as the means of his creation of life. In effect it constitutes a kind of front-loading. However I suggest that it is, in the end, an inadequate model.

Regarding the evidence of convergence in evolution it should be noted that even Conway-Morris is not satisfied that it is currently any more than a hypothesis based on observation, with no sufficient mechanisms either known or proposed – in his words there is “some other principle that we’ve failed to identify.” As a natural mechanism, it is as much a personal preference over alternative explanations (such as divine habit, coincidence or even platonic forms) as transformationism was over Linnaean fixism before Darwin provided a plausible mechanism.

Convergence deals generally in pretty broad categories: most significantly for our own story, intelligence has emerged in quite disparate taxa in quite disparate environments in quite disparate forms. It doesn’t, on the basis of the evidence, show any repeatable propensity to produce rational creatures in the least like man, nor even any other creatures with our self-awareness. So at most it shows a God whose creative aim is a biosphere with a relatively circumscribed set of niches, whose intention is not even as specific as mammals, reptiles or vertebrates: in convergent evolution, the ocean produces an ichthyosaur, or a shark, or a dolphin as equivalent alternatives. A bat is as good as a bird or a pterosaur – or possibly even a hawkmoth.

Convergent evolution aside, belief in the complete adequacy of the secondary causes of mutation and natural selection is something more of a metaphysical presupposition than a certain conclusion, and the jury is still out on whether the laws of physics alone actually can lead reliably either to life or to the rich temple of forms we see around us. Reproducing life from chemicals, or discovering a watertight theory of its origins would be the only real evidence of an entirely natural process. Finding life to be widespread in the Universe would, of course, render it far more likely even if we knew no more biology than we do now. But both prospects are not currently on the table, so this kind of “theistic naturalism” remains a faith position – and one that Christian faith has not made a doctrinal issue.

On the contrary, this is the same as the old claim of Leibniz that any decent God would set up the universe to do without further input, and is a by-product not of Christianity but of the clockwork model of reality that led to Deism. There is no reason why an eternal Creator who cares about his creation should privilege t^0 over any other time in history for his activity. The Bible, including the teaching of Jesus himself, would lead us to expect that the Father remains at his creative work until he brings about the fulfilment of all his desired aims. Only a misreading of the Genesis 1 account limits the entire work of active creation to the beginning of time.

Evolution, in fact, as re-defined by Darwin (though the word was put in general circulation by Spencer) to mean no longer the unfolding of what was inherent already in creation, but instead the establishment of what is completely new, actually favours an ongoing view of God’s postive activity in creation. We would expect him to be as intimately involved in the development as in the origin of creation. We would expect ongoing creative input, particularly by the provision of new information – formal causation.  In true theistic evolution, the most plausible means of his initiating such change would be in the government of “chance”, whether that be through his determining quantum events, or by “nudging” systems on the edge of chaos to produce significant changes.

Reformed theology allows for chance events to find a place in God’s “design”. He can determine all of its outcomes should he so choose. But the Haarsmas’ model seems to prefer him not to, the unguided statistical outcomes of random mutations and other undetermined or chaotic events being sufficient for God’s purposes. It is not entirely  clear if this is because they have some sympathy for the “autonomy” concept of the “free process” theology, which of course would be a denial of God’s unique creatorial role and the substitution of randomness as a Demiurge. But in fact any invocation of randomness independent of God’s power and knowledge would be a similar denial, even in the absence of the “freedom” theology: If God is subject to, rather than governor, of chance, then there is a radical dualism controlling the universe, not the Monotheistic Deity.

Furthermore, although it is easy to show how, in carefully designed systems such as the mammalian immune mechanism, stistical randomness can be put to work by a natural process, it is a lot – and I mean a lot – less evident that placing randomness centre stage in evolutionary processes would do anything but what it does in most familiar circumstances – that is, tend to cause disorder rather than order, and disorganisation rather than organisation. At best, it would underline the problematic idea that God has very indistinct expectations for the shape of his creation.

In fact, though, support for convergent evolution speaks surprisingly directly against the doctrine of “free process”. Whatever the chaotic or indeterminate elements of evolution, convergent evolution suggests, more or less similar results will emerge. Natural laws are, one supposes, so finely tuned that evolution will turn out pretty much as God intended by running in broad but circumscribed channels. That looks a very wise and effortless way of guiding the process, until you consider that it implies that all general outcomes are dictated by the design of the process: evolution could not possibly even work without producing, repeatedly by its God-given and built-in convergence, carnivores, parasites, efficient disease organisms and all the other prevalent evils that justify the “free process defence.” You can’t blame “free” nature for all the ingenious pathogens at the same time as congratulating God for all the convergent herbivores. God is responsible for both, or for neither. Which will it be?

Our friend Hanan took this incongruence even further in debate with a free-creation supporter, by pointing out astutely that if nature truly had significant autonomy (Karl Giberson extends it even to electrons), then we couldn’t even do science.

Science is possible only because the universe is consistent, and the universe is consistent because God is consistent. As soon as one grants “Nature” (let’s assume that weasel-word means electrons and actual entities) autonomy from God, then you’re also granting it autonomy from his order, and thus from the legitimate domain of orderly science. Any order we then see is logically fortuitous. Each electron is its own god – the ultimate polytheism. At least the pagans only had a few thousand gods at most – those worshipping at the altar of creation’s autonomy have to appease every single particle, and they’re not even listening. If, on the other hand, the autonomous particles are spontaneously orderly and scientific, it would be they, and not the Lord,  who are the “rational God” that makes science possible, and all those early believing scientists were in error. They were not thinking God’s thoughts after him after all, but “Nature’s”, as the Rationalists said all along.

If, instead, the particles are subject to God’s laws of nature, then their autonomy is a lie – electrons do nothing except by physical laws, including quantum indeterminacy – even that follows statistical laws set by God. God doesn’t play dice with the universe – why should TEs think he does?

My last point about the view that the laws built into nature are God’s entire contribution to evolution, and that rather than planning outcomes in detail he is pleased with the general results his process produces, is that it ignores the most important form of causality that Christian teaching – and especially the Reformed tradition of the Haarsma’s – attributes to God. That, of course, is final causality. Science has justifiably limited itself, as I’ve written before, to material efficient causes, but if Christians do the same in doing theology, they are selling the faith short.

The Bible is very strong on God’s purposes, and much less concerned with his efficient methods. It doesn’t present God as designing a process and hoping for outcomes, but rather as designing outcomes and suiting the processes to them. The New Testament, in particular, tends to view his “purpose” in the singular, as the final consummation of all things in Christ, and the creation in its entirety, as well as in every detail, as what it takes to get there. That does not preclude the possibility of flexibilility in the outworking of that purpose – there is more than one way to skin a cat, as they say. But it does mean that a theistic evolution without due regard for final causality is in danger of lapsing into scientism.

I sense that in the air when TEs view even mankind as an unplanned outcome of a wholly natural process.

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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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19 Responses to Varieties of orthodox theistic evolution

  1. Hanan says:

    >Science is possible only because the universe is consistent, and the universe is consistent because God is consistent.

    Of course, the retort was that THAT is a 19th century view of nature. The 20th century gave us Quantum mechanics and to say nature is consistent (or governed by set rules) is wrong.

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

      Hi Hanan

      I disagree, actually – even for quantum mechanics to be scientific, it is the statistical predictability of its events en masse that matters. There is pattern in the indeterminacy. Chaotic events are deterministic, but unpredictable because of our limited powers of measurement. So they show the limits of science, but come within its purview: we know the laws, but can’t do the sums accurately enough.

      The universe is not rigidly predictable, but it is consistent in a way that is still surprising and … unpredictable, as universes go!

      This doesn’t relate to the issue of reliability per se, but I was reading a paper today showing how quantum indeterminacy can only be shown scientifically to be epistemologically uncertain, ie we can’t predict it. The claim by certain people that it must be unknown to God is a purely metaphysical suggestion – of relevance to a thread on another webiste, I believe!

    • Lou Jost says:

      Hanan, this is probably the first and last time I’ll find myself agreeing with Jon, but he’s right that QM has extremely precise, mathematically consistent, rules and very exactly calculated probabilities— the time course of a particle’s wave function is determined by equations quite similar to those of Newtonian physics. There is a lot of order. Some things can be predicted with probability equal to unity, and some things can be calculated to an accuracy of nine significant figures! So though the theory involves irreducible randomness, it still shows nature is governed by a consistent set of rules. What has changed is that not every particular event has a cause.

      I do disagree with Jon’s last paragraph, though. Certain things cannot have definite values before they are known to us, or else we get a series of contradictions, as in Bell’s theorem. I’m still thinking about that, but I am nearly sure. The existence of free will may be involved….anyway, I’d like to see Jon’s source for his claim, and I look forward to a post on it.

      • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

        Lou, Hanan – link here.

        My phraseology was probably a bit careless above – the distinction should be between what is ontologically indeterminate materially, and what non-material causes might be involved (specifically, of course, God’s spiritual role as Creator).

        • Lou Jost says:

          Hmm, Beckman in your link doesn’t really seem to understand the relevance of Bell’s theorem to this question (he writes his footnote 8 on hidden variables as if Bell’s result did not exist). In my quick reading of him, it seems to me he also misses the importance of QM for his deterministic interpretation of chaos. As the articles cited by GD show, there is no sense in which initial conditions of complementary variables can be specified exactly, even in principle, so chaotic processes (which are hypersensitive to initial condition) cannot be deterministic.

          • Avatar photo GD says:

            The notion of uncertainty and quantum mechanics is an ongoing discussion, but the predictions of QM has been tested – weak measurement experiments are discussed in; An interesting approach is discussed in In the latter reference, a couple of quotes direct our attention to the intriguing nature of nature:

            “Therefore, one might wonder if the mechanical double-slit is even necessary, especially because the one of the two slits is matched to the separation of the two intensity maxima of the mode. Moreover, our theoretical analysis does not contain the slits and we still obtain the fringes. Therefore, interference may be observable even without the double-slit but a substantial loss in contrast may occur.”

            “In our experiment the simultaneous observation of the two physical entities “wave” and “particle” is possible due to the use not of a single photon but a correlated photon pair. Indeed we have used the detection of the idler photon in either the upper or the lower spot of the pump mode and the entanglement between the idler and the signal photon due to the process of their creation by SPDC to obtain information about the position of the signal photon without ever touching it. In this way we have been able to localize it within one of the spots of the double-hump structure of the TEM01 mode.”

  2. Ian Thompson says:

    Quantum mechanics certainly has rules!!!
    I am a theoretical nuclear physicist, and every day I use the rules of quantum mechanics to solve problems in the structure and reactions of nuclei, and make predictions of cross sections for experiments. It is the same in atomic, molecular and solid state physics, and now also with more complicated biological molecules.
    Of course the predictions are probabilities, as Jon says, but these probabilities can be verified experimentally to (I hope!) great precision.

  3. Avatar photo GD says:

    The notion of quantum indeterminism (or the uncertainty principle) is discussed in and in

    Ian may wish to elaborate, but I am uncertain (intentional pun) as to how well this discussion conforms to the uncertainty principle. Quantum entanglement is also one of those notions that may be given greater ‘breadth’ then science may wish; a great deal needs to be considered by perturbation of a system when an observer obtains information from measurements. We then have weakly perturbed systems – many such experiments use single photons and this in itself suggests particular systems have been set up by the observer. I am not sure that unpredictability is an issue in such work; if probabilities refer to results from QM computations, these, for example, are related to an expectation (e.g. for any electron) to regarding the population of energy levels – not that we cannot predict these levels or other properties of any molecular system.

    Extending these consideration into theology is a difficult exercise – I understand Polkinghorne has discussed some QM matters, but his views seem to be to be speculative and I cannot see any doctrine (except for the open theism that has been seriously discussed in Protestant/Evangelical circles)

    • Avatar photo GD says:

      The last sentence should read:

      I cannot see any doctrine (except for the open theism that has been seriously discussed in Protestant/Evangelical circles) that may be reconsidered.

      • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

        Good points GD

        The real challenegs that seem to come from, at least, the majority interpretations of quantum theory are not to theology, to which they’re indifferent, but to materialism. It may well be that entanglement, observer effects and all those deep mysteries eventually can be resolved in terms of material efficient causes, but they certainly haven’t been yet.

        So far, it seems to be another case of “There are more things in heaven and earth…”

        • Avatar photo GD says:

          So true Jon, and Shakespeare had an inkling about …….. but even than I ask, materialism? naturalism? How many -isms does it take to ’cause’ a light bulb to light? (may great failing again, a sense of humour(?))

    • Lou Jost says:

      GD and Jon, the thing that is interesting in this respect is Bell’s theorem (which doesn’t depend on the validity of present-day QM). It is a disproof of the claim that we are only ignorant of the true values of certain variables before they are measured. This is the most astounding and elegant and disturbing proof in all of philosophy. And some of the ways to escape its consequences are really weird. Bell himself thought it may indicate there are limitations on free will, and others have actually quantified those limits in terms of information theory. Highly controversial even among physicists, though.
      The Wikipedia article on Bell’s theorem is decent:

      • Avatar photo GD says:


        The main thrust of my comment is in regards to unorthodox theological conclusions from physics, including Bell’s theorem. Physics is not my areas of expertise; I use QM for molecular modelling, and am thankful that the current computer packages have made my task fairly easy (compared to theoretical work) – the reference you sited shows the considerations revolve about realism and locality, and Bell seems to have shown that that local hidden variables of certain types are impossible. This may be understood as incompleteness of our current understanding of QM, or there may be a profound aspect of the QM world that or less is constrained by the uncertainty principle. I find realism appealing, but have trouble dealing with locality as some sort of measureable space at the quantum level. Obviously theoretical physicists will continue to discuss these matters – but I agree with you, their opinions vary considerably.

      • Lou Jost says:

        One of the strangest conclusions from Bell’s theorem is that there is something wrong with the notion of contrafactional definiteness, the idea that IF we had done something, then X would occur. Other solutions are possible, but all are as strange and as fundamental as that. It is a fascinating subject.

        • Avatar photo GD says:

          It has been many years since I spend time coming to grips with some of these notions, so my comments are general and speak to what I remember and quick reading of one or two papers. I am more comfortable with the concept of unique results for unique experiments – by this I mean all of the artefacts involved in an experiment at a quantum level are subject to QM theory. I think your comment is on counterfactual definiteness; conclusions with respect to (non)locality, drawn from the EPR problem or from a violation of the Bell inequalities, may stem either from too stringent interpretation of the quantum formalism, or from too restrictive an application of the formalism itself. In any event discussions will continue on these matters. The following quote is useful,

          “It seems that the core of the controversy is that quantum counterfactuals about the results of measurements of observables, and especially “elements of reality” are understood as attributing values to observables which are not observed. But this is completely foreign to quantum mechanics. Unperformed experiments have no results! “Element of reality” is just a shorthand for describing a situation in which we know with certainty the outcome of a measurement if it is to be performed, which in turn helps us to know how weakly coupled particles are influenced by the system. Having “elements of reality” does not mean having values for observables. The semantics are misleading since “elements of reality” are not “real” in the ontological sense. Counterfactuals are things that might have happened, although they did not in fact happen.”

          I think such considerations should cause you and others to pause before you insist that ‘evidence’ is given by science to many aspects of our understanding of reality. An inadequate understanding is not equated with a so called ‘evidence based conclusion’.

          • Lou Jost says:

            “I think such considerations should cause you and others to pause before you insist that ‘evidence’ is given by science to many aspects of our understanding of reality.”

            Yes, much better not to use evidence….

            • Avatar photo GD says:

              You seem to admit that your inadequate understanding is equated with your prejudicial belief as an anti-Christian – and all of your nonsense may be supported by non-existent ‘evidence’. What a ‘state of reality’ for you? But then again you lot so ‘modestly’ claim to be science itself, so after that, the rest of your nonsense would come easy.

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