How to get your own way (undetected)

The particular variant of theistic evolution put forward by Deborah Haarsma in her recent post on BioLogos is, as I’ve suggested before, a considerable advance on other forms that, rightly or wrongly, have been attributed to BioLogos as an organisation before, not least by me.

She has firmly stated that God intended mankind. Within the meaning of the English language, that is a belief in design. Because the Creator God had an intention  (specifically the existence of mankind rather than some other intelligent form, or even no intelligent form at all) and because as a result it came to be, it is a fulfilled design, just as surely as if God formed it by his own hands from the dust of the ground.

At the same time, “official” posts on that thread suggest two reasons why God didn’t fulfil his intention that way (ie by hand). The first is in the OP:

…those who believe there are gaps in the natural order of things that need constant intervention from a divine agent (the typical Intelligent Design position), and those who affirm that God set up a natural process and actively sustains it without needing to intervene miraculously to bring about his desired goals (the typical evolutionary creation position).

The second is in Jim Stump’s first provisional reply:

We believe God intentionally created human beings in his image. But we are suspicious of accounts of the providential action of God (I’m not addressing miracles here) that treats it as just one of the causes that scientific inquiry discovers and catalogs. There is something more going on in the world than science can detect, yet scientific explanations might very well be complete within their domain.

Summarising: God’s action in the evolutionary world probably works by means that are entirely explicable by science (though actually more extensive), and therefore cannot be detected even when his means are providential and non-miraculous.

Now at the theological level this is perhaps reasonably sound. If we believe in concurrence, then we believe the material and efficient causes investigated by science are secondary: each natural event is actually initiated and sustained by God as First Efficient Cause, and yet because the secondary causes are thoroughly related to each other causally, God’s hand may only be visible if he witholds his concurrence (cf the miracle of the fiery furnace.)

Final causes are not considered to be within the purview of science (in the case of mankind, how would one tell scientifically that we were willed by God?), and so escape its scrutiny. Formal causes are a trickier matter, but since science currently considers them only under efficient causation, the weakness of that position is irrelevant here.

But let me flag up one problem for BioLogos here: Dennis Venema has just spent several posts showing the blurred distinctions between us and later hominins, basically to justify gradualist Neodarwinian evolution. This is of necessity promoting a nominalist, anti-realist metaphysics. But if there is no definable category of “human”, ie one denies formal causation (easily detected in the forms themselves), what was this “humanity” that God fully intended and brought about? In that sense it is the very existence of man, not just the detection of God’s hand in it, that science cannot confirm.

Nevertheless theology – good theology – allows for the possibility of God’s making a world entirely through “natural” causes. That was my starting position when I first went to BioLogos several years ago. But can its actuality be supported by what we know from science? What would God have to do to (a) intend mankind (as Homo sapiens) and (b) to have no detectable effect on the physical universe in bringing it about?

Darwinian evolution has no great problem with this, for it flat-out denies that mankind was planned. Gould said that evolution would play out very differently if re-run. Conway Morris, promoting convergent evolution, suggests (without any demonstrable mechanism) that some kind of intelligent life was bound to arise. But even that speculation (there is only one self-aware species: another hasn’t, to our best knowledge, appeared before) falls short of BioLogos‘ assertion that mankind was the specific goal in God’s will. Convergent evolution says that similar things keep happening – not that unique things are bound to happen once.

There is, in fact, no evidence that the basic laws of physics are, or could even in theory be, fine tuned enough for God to specify a particular outcome of evolution three billion years in advance. The physical world is simply not that deterministic – or if it is, the burden is on BioLogos to demonstrate it, because it’s been abandoned by physicists themselves.

Darwinism is notoriously dependent on contingent events, and there is no acceptance by the evolutionary mainstream that mutations are in any sense seriously non-random: on that empirical claim they base its purposelessness. Arguments over the statistical likelihood of certain events – the evolution of DNA replication (Koonin), the bacterial flagellum (Behe) or self-replicating polymers (Dembski) – have raged, but no serious Neodarwinist argues that any one outcome was inevitable, nor that considered overall, random mutations, drift and selection will, of themselves tend towards a predictable mean. All routes do not lead to man – and if you could not have predicted man scientifically, there’s already an anomaly to account for if you claim God’s non-intervention in the natural process.

Now, classical theology subordinates chance to God’s providence. God could, and biblically does, invisibly work through contingent events encompassed by the laws of statistics. An outcome was dependent on a coin toss, but God saw to it that Jim won the toss. Somebody had to win the lottery, but God ensured it was Jill. But the biology of macro-evolution doesn’t seem to work in that arena. As far as present knowledge goes, the statistical probabilities involved are so extreme as to be indistinguishable from miracle. To support God’s non-detectability in biological contingency, BioLogos has to achieve what science has failed so far to do: prove that there is actually, against appearances, quite low contingency at any stage of the process.

Conway Morris’s convergent evolution, which I think appeals to BioLogians, appears not to depend on the adequacy of Neodarwinian mechanisms as they are currently agreed. He’s looking for some new principle of emergent self-organising complexity that would account for the observations of convergence, as well as the non-observed speculation that intelligent life was inevitable; some principle by which the boulder takes any old course down the mountain but always ends up as the foundation stone of the temple. This, of course, would be the kind of low-contingency get-out that would allow God to act undetectably, and simultaneously, of course, atheists to say that life was no longer a mystery at all.

Laws of self-organisation have been favoured by such diverse people as Stuart Kaufmann, Dennis Noble and Michael Polanyi. But they remain pure speculation, which as far as BioLogos‘ statements about non-detection is concerned seems to be moving the goalposts. It’s one thing to say “God could act directly, but probably didn’t because the science explains it all quite adequately.” It’s quite another to say, “God probably didn’t act directly because one day we may discover a law to explain what currently looks like the hand of God.

As Monod said, chance and necessity are the only causes available to science (if chance can be said to cause anything). That makes them the only “scientific” explanations (“complete within their domain,” as Jim Stump says) through which God could work undetected. But I hope I’ve demonstrated that, as they are currently understood by science, neither alone or in combination are they sufficient means for God to fulfil an intention of God in biology as specific as mankind. If I’m right in that, then willy nilly the processes that produced mankind were either not fulfilling a specific goal, or else God’s fingerprints will be all over them.

Unless and until biology turns up a version of naturalist evolution that is complete and scientifically predictive, the slogan “God creates through evolution” has little more explanatory power than the phrase “Jesus raised Lazarus by resurrection.”

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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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1 Response to How to get your own way (undetected)

  1. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    Afternote: I’ve just come across some discussion of the original (2011) BioLogos position on the inevitability of humans (which is essentially the flip side of God’s intention). This, in the “questions” section, depended on assuming the truth of Conway Morris’s opinion that evolution will inevitably converge on “human-like” beings. It says: “The exact anatomical features of this ultimate sentient being might not be precisely specified by the evolutionary process, however. This thought can be unsettling to anyone who imagines our particular body plan is part of the imago Dei, or image of God.”

    One might add that our particular mental plan, social sense, power of language etc would be just as incompletely specified as our body plan. The current equivalent page, by Darrel Falk, has replaced the above, but depends on the same book by Stuart Conway Morris, quoting: “If the tape was rewound and evolution started over from scratch, Conway Morris says, the evolutionary details would be different, but the end result would be similar: a species characterized by intelligence and complex civilization…”. Which still seems to leave a wide latitude for actual outcomes. And that raises questions like:
    (1) Has the view of BioLogos changed, so that my paraphrase “God did not plan humanity, but was pleased when he arrived” was accurate in 2011, but BioLogos belief has been silently changed since? In responding to my words, it would have clarified things if that were stated, rather than implying it had never been BioLogos’ position. Or
    (2) That BioLogos, even now, is using a very loose definition of both “humanity” and “intention” . Does “arranging evolution so that an intelligence will arise” reallymean the same as “God intended mankind”? Is the former what one would naturally assume as a Christian from outside, not privy to a redefinition of “mankind”?

    Deborah Haarsma’s exact reply to me was: “Garvey’s example was that idea that ‘God did not plan mankind, but was pleased when he arrived.’ That is decidedly contrary to BioLogos, where we reject ideologies that claims [sic] that evolution is purposeless.”

    On reflection, she could have added a rider to clarify whether or not God’s intention was for “mankind” as mankind universally understands it, or in the biologically meaningless sense implicit in both position statements. I sense (not for the first time) that I haven’t really been answered, but defused (or sent along a garden path, maybe).

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