The danger of dualism in theistic evolution

I’m continuing the theme here, from the last two posts, that origin of life questions may require not just new knowledge, but a new scientific paradigm – perhaps one that integrally includes God. This is counterintuitive to many Christians most involved in science, and who are comfortable with methodological naturalism as the only alternative to a crude supernaturalism. But I’ll try to justify it from a remark made to me by Joshua Swamidass on BioLogos.

Swamidass has suddenly (and perhaps to his own surprise) become a big player in the origins discussion. Firstly, a piece he’d written on common descent was attacked in several episodes by ID philosopher Cornelius Hunter. Then he crossed swords with scientists like Ann Gauger from the ID camp on the same issue, and then personally braved the lions’ den of Uncommon Descent, where he suffered undue savaging from vocal Creationist opponents of all things evolutionary there.

He’s now become a regular poster on BioLogos, promoting an orthodox and providential account of theistic evolution with which we’d be very happy here on The Hump. It’s notable how irenic his manner has been throughout, finding common theological cause with individuals within ID (and even with Creationists like Todd Wood) even after what was evidently a bruising encounter.

In my discussion with him at BioLogos (which I’ve pursued sparingly as he’s already engaged in too many conversations), my only real disagreement was his apparent belief that his own historically orthodox position is thoroughly representative of Evolutionary Creation overall, and BioLogos specifically. If it were, I’d have felt no need to critique it so strongly over the last six years. In fact, Swamidass’s replies show he is clearly aware that this is so, since he hopes BioLogos will be increasingly reflective of a more traditionally “theistic” position than “in the past”.

I just note, in passing, that when Casper Hesp, Eddie and I made similar comments about the need to clarify the difference between that shadowy “past” and “present” policy, James Stump of BioLogos carefully denied any real difference between them, describing those whose views had been criticised as having “valid approaches”. Like it or not, organisations are judged by the things they countenance. If BioLogos presents Thomas Jay Oord’s “weak God” theology, without critique, as one of three possible models of divine action, then Christian outsiders will inevitably see it as an endorsement. It’s far from clear that it isn’t, since former Karl Giberson’s Open Theism is still one of those valid approaches.

One thing I didn’t discuss with Joshua (it would have been distracting) was his valid point that science is limited in the question of Creation, in that, for example, evolution cannot explain the creation of an immortal soul. That clearcut example, however, throws up all kinds of issues. I did point out (I believe) that such a dichotomy between a created soul and an evolved body means one cannot quite so readily dismiss an historical Adam as many TEs do. If there was no first man, and the soul did not evolve, then who received the first one? Gradualistic continua cannot apply, surely, to non-natural eternal souls? If TEs give no answer to this, they have no answers worth listening to.

But such problems throw into relief, in my view, the shortcomings of the scientific paradigm for Christians. It creates, or assumes, a radical dualism between “natural” and “supernatural” that must make one vulnerable to accusations of “God of the Gaps”. Theistic Evolutionists include those like Nancey Murphy, a Christian physicalist who denies the existence of such a soul in order to avoid those gaps.

And Murphy has a real point: the kind of casual dualism that Joshua introduces implies that a human being is no longer a created being, a unity (or “a substance” in Aristotelian terms), but a biological artifact with a superadded supernatural “soul”. Not only is that unbiblical (for man is, not has, a living soul or nephesh), but it creates a Gnostic antipathy between the crude flesh, inherited by and in many accounts corrupted by “natural” evolution, and the eternal spark within which, presumably, will be liberated to heaven at death.

Nevertheless, the fact that man is not “merely” material is central to Christian anthropology: it is hard to ignore the “gap” without abandoning the historic Faith, and especially hope for eternal life.

But like all such gaps in creation, it tends to making increasing scientific knowledge destructive of the spiritual. A series on BBC radio currently is examining “the self” neurophysiologically. In its favour, the inherent mystery of human consciousness is not denied, but the sub-text is that since so many odd phenomena – sleep paralysis, out of body experiences etc, can be mapped to physical and neurological events, the idea of a truly separate ghost-in-the-machine decreasingly has anywhere to hide. And if it exists at all, because it is beyond science, it’s more parsimonious to ignore it.

The error, as I see it, is our tendency to resolve the dualism in favour of the physical, and this Nancey Murphy does, as if “the physical” were a true description of Creation, when in fact it is only a convenient abstraction which sits pretty loose to what we know of reality even from quantum science, let alone from faith. Why should we not equally validly resolve the dualism in favour of the supernatural, as the Creationists do? But if that is mistaken, should we not formulate a new research programme that unites the “natural” and the “supernatural” is a single explanation of the creative work of God through his Logos?

If the Bible speaks truly about Creation, it is a process in which God is intimately involved from start to finish. He creates not artifacts, but existences, their interactions and the ends to which he directs them providentially, and he creates them inseparably. A true account of man cannot hive off the body to piecemeal “natural” evolution, and leave the soul to one side as a non-scientific “supernatural” extra. We are unified living souls, and so explaining our origin needs to explain that, not some inadequate model of us.

I remind you again of the music analogy I used in the last post. Although it may be possible to study a guitar’s acoustics and mechanics while treating its human maker, and player, as a background assumption, it remains true that the phenomenon that matters – the music – must embrace the human. Human creation is about the human race as a musical performance, not as a collection of biological machines possibly possessing an invisible set of players “out there somewhere”.

That’s why it’s so misleading to say that God “creates through evolution“, when evolution does not account for what we actually were created to be. It is to say that God actually creates in a compound way: physically by processes we can understand without reference to him, and spiritually by fiat beyond our understanding and, perhaps, therefore, not worthy of consideration.

Aristotelian and Thomistic science (in detail, of course, as full of error as that of Lamarck or Darwin) paid attention to the unity of creation, not by hiving off everything mysterious to a supernatural realm and studying only the physical, but by recognising that the material and immaterial creation are part of the same entity – the cosmos –  to be studied as a whole.

Like Aquinas, but unlike Aristotle, theistic evolution ought to have the advantage of a clear concept of the God governing that creation in all its aspects (unless it muddies the waters by espousing heterodox views of God). It cannot plead the limitations of science, because it is not a scientific enterprise, but a bridge between science and God. There are plenty of atheist voices denying such bridges. They cannot be countered simply by saying the same things and adding, “but we believe in God, too.” Frankly, who cares, if they give no coherent justification for it?

Evolutionary Creation cannot give a naturalistic account of evolution, and then say “of course there’s an immortal soul, too”, or “of course, some of us think providence may be involved too” or “of course, God somehow turns stochastic outcomes into eternal purposes”. It must integrate those aspects of God’s creative activity into a unified picture, however incomplete that will inevitably be. Aquinas managed it nearly a millennium ago for his times. There’s a duty on Christians to be radically inventive in tackling these matters with new tools.

I speak as a citizen of a nation that wakes today to find itself, for better or worse, committed to reinventing itself. Sometimes circumstances demand new paradigms.


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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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17 Responses to The danger of dualism in theistic evolution

  1. pngarrison says:

    Jon, with the format Biologos has now, it would be helpful if you could say what post or topic on the forum you had these discussions in. I can’t tell if the search function covers comments or not. In any case I couldn’t tell where the discussion occurred.

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

      Sure thing Preston – I didn’t link mainly because I was only picking up on one small point Joshua made. But the thread is Here.

      FWIW I don’t think the BioLogos search function does cover comments (I don’t think it does here, either, which has sometimes led me to ages searching for what I or someone else wrote!)

      Link corrected 27/6 – sorry for error, folks!

  2. Avatar photo Sy Garte says:


    I went to Biologos, where I have not participated for several months to see if I could find that article (the link you gave didnt work for me), and instead I found a newer article on the forum by George Brooks that quotes this piece of yours, and responds to it. There are other comments as well. I just thought you might like to know.

    FWIW, I think you have identified one of the reasons that I do indeed believe in a historical Adam, (but not the progenitor of all humans).

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

      Hi Sy

      I’ve seen the start of that thread, but am on family business today, so I thought I’d go there once people have had a chance to comment. I can then get a better idea of whether they’ve actually attempted to hear what I’m saying here!

      BTW I’m currently listening (6.30AM!) to a programme about the dependence of science on faith. Apart from gems like the fact that the equal velocity of different weight objects was discovered by a Christian philosopher 1000 years before Galileo, it confirms to me that the metaphysical compartmentailisation of God and nature, whilst it has been a scientific convenience, is likely to be ultimately stifling to the progress of truth.

    • Henry Tudor says:

      Your last sentence makes a lot of sense to me. This solves the issue on how Cain found his wife.

  3. Ian Thompson says:

    You rightly want to deny to “resolve the dualism in favour of the physical” as well as being suspicious of to “resolve the dualism in favour of the supernatural, as the Creationists do”. Then you ask “should we not formulate a new research programme that unites the “natural” and the “supernatural” is a single explanation of the creative work of God through his Logos?”

    Since all evidence for dualism requires an interactive dualism (else how would we know about both sides?), it seems we need a “single explanation” which yet explains how physical and mental can be distinct yet interacting. The desire for monist explanations has to be resisted if we think it means there can be only one kind of being or substance.

    But we insist that, if there are two kinds of substances, they yet form an interacting and functional whole person. The desire of Aristotle for beings consisting of only one kind of substance is good, but in the end this is not an absolute requirement. The ‘single explanation’ of the reality God has made (and is trying to tell us about) must yet encompass multiple degrees of substances, as well as principles for their interactions. How can that be objectionable?

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

      You’re exactly the person to contribute here, Ian, and thanks for the input… I’m glad that you’re still reading and responding to your areas of interest.

      My objection is not to addressing whatever complexities are necessary to explain creation, but to adopting the materialist paradigm for doing science and not seeking to understand anything about “other substances” and how they interact, if we’re specifically addressing science and faith issues, and of course even more if we then start taking about human origins.

      How can we discuss human evolution (and as Sy mentions, in many cases conclude that it excludes an “Adam” event) and leave our bipartate nature somehow just hanging in the air?

      My phrasing may have been misleading – I’m not seeking a “unified field theory” of science that reduces these things in one formula, but (as I think you’re saying) a recognition that they are a real and necessary part of the study of creation, and not simply something to hive off to the “religion” category as if they weren’t relevant to the more physical aspects of the world.

      The “immortal soul” category arose from the BioLogos conversation – it may well be that it’s not even the most accurate way to understand the human being, but if one says one believes in it, one ought to include it in ones account of creation as much as one does evolution. And if one doesn’t believe in it, one needs to develop some robust and biblical alternative which, again, can be approached intelligibly (since it is part of the created order, as we agree).

      As I said in the OP, I have no personal program in mind, and just mentioned Aquinas as the best known thinker who tried to develop a complete system, with fair degree of success. The materialist paradigm for science replaced him, or perhaps Aristotle, but I’m concerned that after 4 centuries it’s becoming obvious that it is inadequate to deal not only with the nature of man but even the nature of physical reality (in terms of information, and so on).

      Is that in accord with your own approach?

      • Ian Thompson says:

        I’ve been following your posts with interest, certainly!

        I reacted to this post particularly, because it was another instance of ‘dualism’ being used as a frightener (much like ‘puppeteer’ and ‘micromanagement’ are used by the deists). What your title should have said instead of ‘dualism’ should have been ‘fragmentation’ or ‘disconnection’. That is what you are accusing the so-called theistic evolutionists of, when you point out the gap between their naturalistic evolution and their supernatural ‘immortal soul’. The problem is that they allowed no connection between the parts of their thinking, so their overall view is fatally fragmented.

        You used ‘immortal soul’ as the focus, but you could just have well have used ‘mind’ as an example. The fact that the mind has the following properties (in contrast to matter) brings up a completely analogous set of issues when it comes to understanding how naturalistically-evolved organisms can be influenced by mental things:

        Minds are (1) conscious, (2) intentional (able to refer to things outside it self), (3) governed by purposes, (4) influenced by reasons, and (5) motivated by love and desire for what is taken as good.
        Matter by itself is (1) unconscious, (2) unable to refer by symbols, (3) governed only by blind mechanism, (4) influenced by physical causes only, and (5) not motivated by any idea of goodness

        • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

          Nothing to argue about in this post, Ian – and your choice of words is certainly better than mine.

          I should have listened to slight alarm bells when I used the word “dualism” – it does tend to get tossed around whenever somebody can count up to two!

          Thanks also for following my train of thought from the triggering concept of “immortal soul” to the more general application I was groping towards. It’s less easy, except to a strict Cartesian, to treat the mind as an extra-scientific, supernatural entity. But it’s the primary datum for everything we know about the world, so ought to be at the heart of our theoretical approach to the world if we want to avoid that fragmentation (word choice noted for future use!).

          In closing, I’ll just remind people that what applies to the mind applies in varying degrees throughout the “natural” world – or at very least ought to be included in the analysis once we accept the existence of mind.

  4. Avatar photo Edward Robinson says:

    I agree that Ian Thompson’s objections help to refine the discussion and make things more precise.

    I like Ian’s point about how “dualism” is used as a “frightener” in many modern conversations in theology and philosophy. I think that some kinds of “dualism” are too crude, but I don’t think that all “dualisms” are automatically a bad thing.

    For example, whatever might be said against “body/soul” dualism, there does seem to be a sharp distinction between matter and mind, as Ian points out. The ID folks are good at building on this. I think that some sort of “dualism” is implied, in any theistic doctrine, between the divine mind and the matter of the world, and I also think it is reasonable to postulate that the human mind is not completely reducible to (though it can be influenced by) matter. I wouldn’t go from there to a Cartesian position (Platonism is much more nuanced and subtle), but I do think the matter/mind distinction is an important one. So I think that at least as a starting position, some sort of “dualism” is reasonable. The task then becomes how to relate or connect the two parts of the dual reality.

    What I dislike about the typical BioLogos and ASA forms of TE/EC is that they don’t even try to connect the parts. They radically compartmentalize “things known by faith” and “things known by science”. The two kinds of knowledge are declared to be so different that they can never even in principle contradict each other. Science can teach us the Big Bang and Darwinian evolution but can’t teach us anything, not even by implication, about God; faith can teach us of the Creator God, but can teach us nothing about the natural world. These dual knowledges are simply affirmed together; no *connection* is established between them (beyond the fact that they exist as “truths” together in the mind of the Christian scientists). Science and faith aren’t harmonized; they are compartmentalized.

    This is a weird sort of epistemological dualism, whereby there is only one world, but two utterly unrelated “truths” which describe it: the truth of randomness and anti-teleology, and the truth of providence and teleology. the same process, evolution is unguided when you are doing science, and providentially arranged when you are praying or praising God. You adopt the one set of truths when you are doing science and the other set of truths when you are appreciating nature as a believer. But you never explain how they cohere. You don’t even think you are obliged to *try* to make them cohere. A number of columnists and commentators on BioLogos have said that they don’t know how God is involved in evolution and frankly don’t care, and don’t intend to expend any energy finding out. They know by faith that somehow he has something to do with evolution, and that’s enough for them. In this compartmentalization, there is faith, and there is science, but not an ounce of philosophy — that linking and synthesizing form of knowledge which alone can put science and faith together coherently. That alone would be enough to put me in the ID rather than the TE/EC camp.

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

      On “dualism”: athough I think Ian is quite right in his criticism of the word “dualism”, on reflection there was a specific point in my OP which justifies it, and that is how Enlightenment science draws a single line between “natural” and “supernatural” and claims sovereignty over the former whilst outsourcing the latter to religion (or the rubbish tip).

      My point was that this line is drawn in a place that doesn’t correspond to anything significant in created reality. Ian’s list of the ways “mind” is immaterial, for example, has to do with things within nature, and not even (necessarily) in some kind of “spiritual” nature such as we might suppose to constitute the bodies of angels, or the “immortal soul”.

      What kind of science can treat our basic data-point, our mind, as a miracle? It’s absurd.

  5. pngarrison says:

    This has nothing to do with the above discussion, but I’ve lost your e-mail address and I thought you would might like this:

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

      Thanks Preston. I’ll try to remember to send you my e-mail address (assuming yours hasn’t changed).

      As you say, it’s strictly off-topic here, but Sy and I have already introduced the historical Adam to the thread in the context of the non-evolvability of an immortal soul, so it’s fine.

      Re the article, Wharton seems to be part of that consensus (which includes me!) on the relationship of the Eden story to the world as we know it, ie that properly understood it does belong in our world – albeit in a divinely special part of it – rather than in a supposed idyllic pre-fall cosmos necessitating the biological origin of the human species.

      Although there are clearly unusual or supernatural elements to be explained (Adam’s apparent uniqueness, Eve from Adam’s rib, talking snakes and so on), this seems to suggest it’s intended to be at core historical – or at least it fits comfortably in the historical context given it, allowing for genre.

      If we accept this as the author’s intention, rather than as a modern rationalisation – and to me the literalistic YEC version looks far more dependent on modern preconceptions – then the interesting question to me is how it could be treated as a-historical.

      RJS doesn’t seem to spell out whether Wharton is actively supporting an historical Adam, but if not, it’s hard to see what use the story is. A man (or a couple) is put in special relationship with God in sacred space, and is given a test of loyalty and obedience as a stage towards becoming God’s agent-race in the world. Their failure changes everything (cue remedial narrative of Genesis, torah and whole Bible).

  6. Henry Tudor says:

    Hello There, Dr. Jon.

    Do you see the human being as Thomas Aquinas would, or do you hold a view similar to that of W.D. Davies? Perhaps instantaneous resurrection. As a Southern Baptist, I have been debating with myself concerning this concept for years. When I wrote my father’s funeral liturgy in 1985, I used the instantaneous resurrection concept. I believe that Moltmann used this in his writings as well. It is true that nephesh does not imply the Greek immortality of the soul ; however, the Bible still teaches that the Christian goes to heaven at death and the Second Coming. It juxtaposes these two concepts in some of the writings of the Apostle Paul. In my opinion, Colossians 3:1-4 seems to imply these views. Is the human mind separate from the body that theistic evolutionists say evolves, or did it develop along with the human body through the efforts of the divine?

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

      Hi Henry

      I’m not dogmatic about “spiritual anthropology”, though I think Aquinas’ primarily hyelemorphic conception of the soul is attractive. It allows man to be thoroughly earthly and created, yet have immaterial qualities like mind.

      That idea gets a little strained in his idea that, at death, the attenuated “intellectual” element of the soul has a degree of consciousness of God’s presence or otherwise apart from the body. It’s certainly possible.

      As to the resurrection, I believe we shall all rise together when we rise, in keeping with pretty well the universal Jewish hope at Jesus’ time (for those who believed in resurrection at all). The Jews were hazier about the state after death and before the resurrection, and the NT isn’t a great deal more precise, but it seems to hold out the idea of being with Christ “apart from the body”, before the day of physical resurrection.

      That might, of course, be metaphorical, like the concept of “sleep” – which seems related to the earthly viewpoint rather than the experience of the dead. Who knows what relationship we have to time in death? Conceivably we don’t engage with time again until the resurrection, in which case it would seem instantaneous, be instantaneous from the point of view of eternity, yet still be a long time in terms of earth’s history.

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