Harries on Evolution and Religion

The Guardian series also contains this article from theology professor Richard Harries, arguing — surprise! — that evolution and Christian faith are compatible. Let’s have a look.

Here’s paragraph two:

As the Victorian novelist Charles Kingsley put it, God does not just make the world, he does something much more wonderful, he makes the world make itself. More generally, the scientist Asa Gray, a close friend of Darwin, said that there had been no undue reluctance amongst Christians in accepting Darwin’s theory. So how it is that some people still think the church was opposed to evolution? And what about creationism?


I think it’s highly debatable that letting the world “make itself” via eons of evolution by bloodsport, needing an assist from five separate mass extinctions to get it over various humps, is really better than making it all at once via the puff of smoke method so beloved of the creationists.

As for why people think the church was opposed to evolution, it is because Harries is being awfully selective about who he quotes. Darwin found some support from the clergy, but there weas no shortage of others who decried evolution from the beginning. The opinion of Charles Hodge, who asked “What is evolution?” and answered, “It is atheism,” was hardly an uncommon one at the time.

Harries writes:

The next element in the story is the rise of fundamentalism in America in the 1920s. Originally, this movement was not particularly committed to the literal truth of the Genesis story, but that is how it has come to be defined. This obscures the truth of sober historians of science – that the Christian public quickly accepted Darwin’s theory and found no incompatibility between it and their Christian faith.

Those sober historians of science are making stuff up. It’s not as if we have any actual data, from public opinion polls, say, that would tell us whether or not the Christian public quickly accepted evolution. What we know is that a handful of prominent preachers warmed to Darwin’s theory, while many others did not. As for the public, I suspect that then, as now, most of them knew nothing of Darwin’s theory and that those who knew of it at all did so in only in a very simplified and caricatured way. I very much doubt, however, that people at the time were more keen than people today to accept the idea that we evolved via natural processes from simple beginnings over billions of years.

Moving on:

Add to this the rise of Richard Dawkins and we have the curiously symbiotic relationship between him and creationists, so that they both need one another, and feed one another. If there were no creationists, there would be no enemy for Richard Dawkins to focus on. If there were no Richard Dawkins, creationists would have less reason for their feelings of beleaguered self-righteousness.

Total garbage. Neither Dawkins, nor anyone else, needs creationists. Were the creationists, and all other forms of religious lunacy, to disappear off the face of the Earth, Dawkins would happily go back to writing about science. Dawkins, like all mentally healthy human beings, does not need an enemy to focus his energies.

From the other side, it is clear that Harries has only a cartoonish understanding of how creationists think. Beleagured self-righteousness is their stock in trade. It is an essential part of their worldview that they are a tiny island of righteousness adrift in an ocean of godless immorality. This shines through on virtually every page of their prodigious literature. Removing Dawkins from the scene would be like removing one drop of water from that ocean. It would take the creationists all of two seconds to come up with a new target for their ire.

It is relatively late in his essay that Harries turns to the reasons people think evolution and Christianity are at odds:

Good intellectual work has been done on understanding the mechanism of natural selection and genetic mutation in theological terms, particularly by the late scientist and theologian Arthur Peacock. It is the combination of the fixed and the random that allows new forms both to form and then stabilise. If we only had the random element, then nothing would last. If we only had the fixed element, nothing new would emerge. Genetic mutation allows the new to emerge, and the steady pressure of natural selection ensures that certain forms can stay, at least for a period.

There seems a necessity and logic about this which is congruous with a creator who gives creation a life of its own, and wants to weave it from the bottom up.

More nonsense. Natural selection, a violent and bloody process that virtually entails massive pain and suffering, that flouts every moral precept human beings hold dear, is hardly the logical or necessary mechanism of creation for a loving God wishing to commune with intelligent creatures. If it is so congruous, one wonders why no Christian theologian in the centuries from the rise of the Church to the coming of Darwin ever conceived of the idea.

Happily, Harries does not completely evade the main point:

But there remains the extraordinary prodigality of nature, its immense waste and – certainly in the higher mammals – the capacity to experience pain, which is so distressing.

This points up another factor in the persistent myth that somehow, despite all the evidence to the contrary, the theory of evolution and religious faith are opposed to one another. Our very real human difficulties about reconciling the waste and apparent cruelty of nature with a loving and wise creator is displaced, and focused on the idea that the theory of evolution as such must be inimical to faith.

In fact it is not evolution that is the problem but the character and quality of the natural life it reveals which distresses us. The problem is particularly acute for us moderns, because with anaesthetics, pain killers and the general improvement in health for so many in the developed world, we take pain so much less for granted than our forebears. Only last week someone came to me, held up the photo of a much magnified mosquito, and said, “I just cannot believe that a God of love made this.”

It is cluelessness of a high order to suggest that conflict between evolution and Christianity is a myth, or that there is any substantial body of evidence to gainsay the notion. In the United States, at least, public opinion polls consistently show that close to half the population accepts the young-Earth creationist view of the matter. There is a reason that there is a nearly endless succession of books trying to reconcile evolution and Christianity, while there are very few making the case from the other side. Richard Dawkins, for example, actually says very little about evolution when he is defending atheism, and when he does bring it up it is mostly just to refute the argument from design. Harries is welcome to bury his head in the sand and deny the obvious if that is his desire, but I would suggest that a few minutes attending a meeting of the Kansas School Board might make him a bit less sanguine.

And lines like, “In fact it is not evolution that is the problem but the character and quality of the natural life it reveals which distresses us,” is pure, grade-A, USDA prime, theological argle-bargle. I’m not even sure what it means.

The character and quality of nature, specifically its general awfulness and cruelty, was obvious to everyone long before Darwin came along. It was already a powerful argument against the notion of an all-loving, all-powerful deity prior to anyone realizing that it was the result of an especially brutal evolutionary process set in motion by that very deity. The young-Earthers at least have an answer of sorts to this point: they say the cruelty of nature is not what God created, but is rather the result of sin entering the world. It’s not much of an answer, but at least they acknowledge the problem. Sophisticated theologians like Harries have no answer at all to this point (and notice that Harries does not even suggest such an answer here.) And, as I have already indicated, it really is evolution itself which is the problem. Theistic evolution makes God Himself the author of all that pain and suffering.

Look folks. Christianity claims that human life is the result of a direct act of will by an all-powerful God who loves His creation. Evolution tells us that we are the chance result of an awful, amoral, bloody evolutionary process that has been going on for billions of years and offers no guarantee of ever obtaining anything better than single-celled organisms. That’s pretty close to X on the on hand and not X on the other. If Harries has a serious argument to make for why it is reasonable to think they are nonetheless two sides of the same coin, then I will be happy to hear it. Until then, I will not take seriously his eye-rolling at those of us who refuse to duck the issue.

Comments

  1. #1 John S. Wilkins
    February 11, 2008

    Jason, one thing: there was almost no religious opposition to evolution (but quite a lot to natural selection) until the 1920s. Even the series The Fundamentals did not deny that species evolved from common ancestors. Be careful about making claims that conflate evolution and selection.

    Moreover, the problem of selection is no worse for the religious than the problem of evil, which is the context in which selection occurs in theology. But you make a mistake if you think that natural selection is a moral problem. It is no more a moral problem than the fact that most investments fail is a moral problem. The problem is that it is supposed to be the method of a beneficent deity. The problem is no worse theologically than a single evil act or event would. The rest is just numbers.

  2. #2 Wes
    February 11, 2008

    Jason, one thing: there was almost no religious opposition to evolution (but quite a lot to natural selection) until the 1920s.

    I guess that depends on whether Adam Sedgwick was voicing merely his own opinions or giving voice to broader concerns in his criticism of Chambers’ Vestiges. He didn’t just critique Chambers’ bad science–he accused him of undermining religion and society! But there’s no “selection” in Chambers, and it was the notion of “transformism” and the animal descent of man–which “humanizes beasts and bestializes man”–that Sedgwick was objecting to. Where did Sedgwick’s sentiments come from if there was no opposition? I find it very hard to believe that he was the only person who felt that way.

    I think you’re downplaying the scandalousness of the claim that human descended from “lower” animals. There were definitely some very harsh reactions to this notion long before Scopes. Sedgwick was not a minor figure, and I seriously doubt his opinion was not shared with many others.

  3. #3 Wes
    February 11, 2008

    Oh, I guess I should also add that Darwin’s silence on the human descent issue also speaks volumes here. It’s not like he just didn’t feel like including it in the Origin. He knew it would raise a ruckus, didn’t feel like he had what it took to tackle the issue yet, and was hoping someone else would address the issue (and when he realized that wouldn’t happen, he finally sat down to write the Descent).

    But why would he be worried? Who would object? Atheists and Deists?

  4. #4 Dave
    February 11, 2008

    “Natural selection, a violent and bloody process that virtually entails massive pain and suffering, that flouts every moral precept human beings hold dear, is hardly the logical or necessary mechanism of creation for a loving God wishing to commune with intelligent creatures.”

    Um, how is natural selection any more violent than an animal’s normal day-to-day activities? I think you should try to think a bit more clearly on what natural selection actually is, and whether it really is “violent” and requires “massive pain and suffering”. You do realize that natural selection could occur even in the absence of death, right?

  5. #5 Pseudonym
    February 11, 2008

    It is cluelessness of a high order to suggest that conflict between evolution and Christianity is a myth, or that there is any substantial body of evidence to gainsay the notion. In the United States, at least, public opinion polls consistently show that close to half the population accepts the young-Earth creationist view of the matter.

    This is a British theologian, writing in a British newspaper. What opinion polls say in the United States is almost completely irrelevant to his point.

    What you call a conflict, he could easily dismiss as a quirk of the United States. This is not “cluelessness”. At worst, it’s myopia. But then, so is claiming that public opinion polls in the United States bear any relevance to the situation in Britain.

  6. #6 Pseudonym
    February 11, 2008

    Oh, by the way. Dave wrote:

    Um, how is natural selection any more violent than an animal’s normal day-to-day activities?

    This is what the “theological argle-bargle” quoted above means. I worked that out, and I don’t speak theologian.

  7. #7 Blake Stacey
    February 12, 2008

    Um, how is natural selection any more violent than an animal’s normal day-to-day activities?

    The Problem of Natural Selection is the Problem of Evil multiplied by Deep Time.

    Harries says of “the fixed and the random”,

    There seems a necessity and logic about this which is congruous with a creator who gives creation a life of its own, and wants to weave it from the bottom up.

    What?

    Seriously, what?

    I’m imagining Harries talking to a friend over a crackling phone line and saying, “Because I can hear your voice whilst there is also interference on the line, God exists.” Life is noisy; errors in transmission occur.

    Besides, if you say only one combination of “the fixed and the random” is a viable environment for life, then you’ve given yourself two problems:

    1. Were the balance placed at any other position, life wouldn’t exist, and we wouldn’t be here to worry about it. For all we can tell, we might just have been lucky — we don’t have the data to distinguish our situation from the “null hypothesis” of fortuitous accident.

    2. Does the great Balance-Maker live in a Universe like ours? If so, where did that Universe — call it Heaven — come from? And if not, doesn’t this mean that intelligence can live in an environment unlike our own, with different natural laws?

  8. #9 Jason Rosenhouse
    February 12, 2008

    John –

    Bishop Wilberforce was pretty clearly objecting to evolution, and not just natural selection, when he asked Huxley whether it was through his grandmother, or his grandfather that he had descended from a monkey. His was hardly a minority view. More generally, the religious opposition was not just to natural selection specifically but rather to any fully naturalistic account of evolution (that was Hodge’s view, for example). So if by evolution you mean “a fully naturalistic account of the origin of modern species from simple beginnings,” then there was, indeed, plenty of religious opposition to the notion.

    I’ll accept your distinction between evolution and natural selection, but you’re being far too generous to the church in saying there was almost no religious opposition to evolution at the time. As Wes rightly points out, plenty of people were repulsed by the idea of having an ape for an ancestor indendent of any notion of how the change from ape to man occurred. Harries claimed in his article that there was widespread acceptance of “Darwin’s theory” among the Christian public, which certainly implies natural selection and not just common descent. There is no evidence that that was the case, and there is ample reason to think that was not true.

    Furthermore, evolution was hardly a dominant social force at the time. It was still a new idea that had not permeated public education or the culture generally. The lack of widespread, vocal opposition to evolution does not indicate general acceptance of it among the Christian public. It indicates only that there was no need for such opposition. By the 1920′s it was no longer possible to ignore evolution, and that is why widespread Christian opposition to it appeared at that time.

    As for your second paragraph, I’m afraid I can’t follow your point. The large amount of suffering, cruelty and death that we see in nature is difficult to reconcile with an all-loving, all-powerful God, independent of any theories of evolution. You’re right that that is just a form of the problem of evil and suffering, albeit an especially difficult one since there is no possibility of appealing to human free will for an answer. I didn’t claim anything different in my post.

    Natural selection, viewed simply as a process that goes on in nature, does not add anything new to that problem. But if natural selection is viewed as the mechanism by which an all-powerful, all-loving God does his creating, then you do, indeed, have something new. Now the problem is not simply that God, through inaction, allows bad things to happen. It is that he is the direct author of all that evil and suffering. Fundamentalists and evangelicals recognize this problem clearly, and they resolve it by saying that we live in a sin-corrupted world that is not the one God originally created. As I said in my post, I don’t find that a convincing answer, but it does at least address the problem. Harries, by contrast, seems to be saying that there was something logically necessary in God using natural selection as the mechanism by which he created the world. I find that implausible.

    I don’t understand your analogy to most investments failing. What sorts of investments do you have in mind? I also don’t understand what you mean when you say that natural selection is not a moral problem. Natural selection is just something that happens; by itself it is morally neutral. It is its consequences that present the moral and theological problems.

    Finally, I’m not sure what this means:

    The problem is no worse theologically than a single evil act or event would. The rest is just numbers.

    What single evil act or event do you have in mind there? If you are talking about the rotten things human beings sometimes do to one another, then there is an obvious difference between that and what theistic evolutionists are suggesting. As I have already said, there is a big difference between God merely allowing evil and suffering to happen (perhaps becaue he gave people free will and must unhappily allow us to choose between good and evil) and God personally setting things up in such a way that such suffering will inevitably occur in nature for billions of years before humans ever arrive on the scene. That’s not just a difference in numbers.

    I think Phillip Kitcher makes this argument well in Living With Darwin. I saw you mention at your blog a while back that you were reading that book. What did you think of Kitcher’s argument?

  9. #10 Jason Rosenhouse
    February 12, 2008

    Pseudonym-

    Harries said nothing about limiting his focus to the situation in Britain. He was talking about conflicts between evolution and Christianity generally, and it is certainly relevant in that context to point out that in the U.S., a predominantly Christian country, relations between evolution and Christianity are distinctly chilly. If that’s just a quirk it’s a pretty big one.

    And there is plenty of organized creationist activity even in England. Certainly enough to show that the idea of a conflict between evolution and Christianity is not just some myth created by extremists on either side.

  10. #11 J. J. Ramsey
    February 12, 2008

    Jason Rosenhouse: “Bishop Wilberforce was pretty clearly objecting to evolution, and not just natural selection, when he asked Huxley whether it was through his grandmother, or his grandfather that he had descended from a monkey.”

    I’d be careful about citing that story. See here: http://users.ox.ac.uk/~jrlucas/legend.html

    Also available from The Historical Journal, Vol. 22, No. 2 (Jun., 1979), pp. 313-330.

  11. #12 Pseudonym
    February 12, 2008

    Harries said nothing about limiting his focus to the situation in Britain.

    That’s true, but it’s like how you’ve said in the past how you changed your mind on various issues by moving to the “bible belt”. Had you never moved there, you might still think that the “conflict” between science and creationism was just a storm in a teacup. I get the impression that Harries believes this too, but is willing to admit that the bible belt happens is a pretty big teacup.

    And there is plenty of organized creationist activity even in England.

    Do you have some numbers? It’s certainly nowhere near 50% on opinion polls. I would think it’s barely a blip on the radar, in fact.

    The UK, as you know, has an established church. In that respect, it’s even more Christian than the US; the church even has its people in Parliament. And yet, nobody in authority in the UK would ever take seriously the idea that creationism should be taught in schools. Nor would they ever take seriously the argument that you shouldn’t vaccinate against cervical cancer because it encourages promiscuity.

    Yeah, there’s creationism in the UK. Every loony belief has adherents somewhere. That does not constitute evidence that there’s a “conflict”, any more than the mere existence of Fred Phelps is proof that Christians want to picket funerals.

  12. #13 Michael
    February 12, 2008

    I would only comment that I don’t think the opposing natures of the creationist ideal and evolutionary bleakness is an argument against the hybrid theory. The motives and behaviors of a extra-universal being would be substantially beyond our mental capacity to understand to merit any kind of judgement on the likelyhood, or the lack there of, that the observed properties of evolution are compatible.

    Speaking for myself, I would certainly argue against creation, but the delta between “heavenly love” and “evolutionary bloodlust” is NOT a metric either side of the issue has any right to use, because the very notion of “heavenly love” is flawed to begin with. Although the notion of “evolutionary bloodlust” is well established on general scientific evidence, the idea that the creator opposes such an idea is a human fiction, as is the idea that the creator is for it. We don’t know what a hypothetical creator would create, so the whole argument about whether evolution is in line with a creator is void for both sides.

  13. #14 Jason Rosenhouse
    February 12, 2008

    Pseudonym -

    Tony Blair, for one, took very seriously the idea of teaching creationism in schools. Click here for example.

    Creationism is certainly not the social force in England that it is in the US, but I think there is enough of it to give folks like Harries pause before casually dismissing the idea of a conflict between evolution and religion.

    I guess the issue is how many people have to believe something before it becomse a genuine issue, as opposed to a handful of cranks being cranky. In the US, YEC is close to a majority view. I don’t have statistics handy for England, but there is certainly active creationist activity there as well. Regardless, it is unreasonable for Harries to imply, as he does in this essay, that the perceived conflict between evolution and religion is just a myth created by a handful of extremists on both sides. Evolution poses genuine and serious theological problems, and Harries needs to face up to that more forthrightly than he did here.

    J. J. Ramsey -

    I am aware that the canonical version of the story about the Wilberforce, Huxley exchange is not accurate. But as far as I know he really did use the line about descent through Huxley’s grandfather or grandmother, which I do think shows an antipathy not just to natural selection, but also to the whole idea of common descent.

    I would add that the passages Lucas cites late in his essay that are meant to show how open-minded Wilberforce was on the issue are precisely the sorts of things modern ID proponents say. Declaring yourself to be non-obscurantist and open to evidence does not imply that you are either of those things.

  14. #15 J. J. Ramsey
    February 12, 2008

    Jason Rosenhouse: “But as far as I know he really did use the line about descent through Huxley’s grandfather or grandmother”

    IIRC, that’s the dicey part of the story of the Wilberforce-Huxley exchange.

    Jason Rosenhouse: “I would add that the passages Lucas cites late in his essay that are meant to show how open-minded Wilberforce was on the issue are precisely the sorts of things modern ID proponents say.”

    They are at least roughly similar. However, I don’t think I’ve seen an IDer ever say outright that he/she has no sympathy for those who object to a theory because it contradicts the Bible.

  15. #16 Pseudonym
    February 12, 2008

    Jason: OK, I didn’t know about the Tony Blair thing. I guess that does change things a bit, though as the article points out, the suggestion did come with a sense of surprise, shock and, most importantly, criticism. Nobody would expect a British PM to be involved in such a thing.

    Just going on that article, however, it seems that Blair’s links to the millionaire car dealer might be a more serious issue than creationism; that seems like a tangential issue at best. One millionaire creationist does not a serious movement make.

    Regardless, it is unreasonable for Harries to imply, as he does in this essay, that the perceived conflict between evolution and religion is just a myth created by a handful of extremists on both sides.

    Well, no. Here’s the thing:

    There are two claims here. One is that science has a problem with religion, and the other is that religion has a problem with science.

    In the UK, whatever the specific numbers, it’s fair to say that it’s a small minority of theologians and clergy are creationists. So it’s fair to say that those experts on religion who believe that science poses a fatal problem to religion are in the minority. Probably a very small minority.

    On the other side, it’s also fair to say that, both in the US and the UK, to the extent that there’s any scientific consensus on the matter, the consensus is that evolution and religion aren’t in conflict unless some specific religion makes a specific claim that isn’t supported by the scientific evidence. I’m sure I don’t need to dig out references for you; it’s pretty clear in the recent NAS booklet on evolution, for example, and in the UK, the Royal Society has made statements along those lines.

    Either way, if we ignore the US (or, indeed, just the bible belt, really), those who believe that religion and science are in conflict over this stuff are in the minority. They are the ones going against the consensus on both sides.

    You can believe what you want, but you are the one with the extraordinary claim, so you have to put up the extraordinary evidence.

    It’s cool that you’re not convinced by (or, indeed, appear to comprehend) what theologians say on the matter. You’re not a theologian, and you don’t speak the jargon. (I feel the same way when economists start talking economics; they’re just speaking a language I don’t understand.) If you don’t believe it, don’t believe it. It’s not like that particular aspect of religion really affects you in any meaningful way, anyway.

    But I do have to wonder what is gained by creating a problem that doesn’t exist. They don’t have a problem with evolution. Why do you have a problem with them not having a problem with evolution? Do you not want them to agree with science or something?

    This attitude really puzzles me.

  16. #17 Pseudonym
    February 12, 2008

    Oh, I realised I said something that could be misinterpreted:

    It’s not like that particular aspect of religion really affects you in any meaningful way, anyway.

    Obviously, in the US, and in the bible belt, creationism really does affect you. That’s not what I meant at all.

    But mainstream/liberal Christians, the majority of Jews (indeed, pretty much any other religion than the US conservative religious groups), discussing what evolution means to them, affects you in pretty much no way at all.

  17. #18 windy
    February 13, 2008

    On the other side, it’s also fair to say that, both in the US and the UK, to the extent that there’s any scientific consensus on the matter, the consensus is that evolution and religion aren’t in conflict unless some specific religion makes a specific claim that isn’t supported by the scientific evidence.

    Problems with this assertion:

    -that’s diplomacy, not a “scientific consensus”

    -they all make such claims sooner or later

    Why do you have a problem with them not having a problem with evolution?

    One problem is that they demonstrate that they haven’t understood evolution, when they go around claiming it’s teleological. (‘woven from the bottom up by the creator’ is obvious teleological language, although it’s coated by talk about random variation)

  18. #19 Pseudonym
    February 14, 2008

    Problems with this assertion:

    -that’s diplomacy, not a “scientific consensus”

    And the problem with that assertion is that it’s circular reasoning. If there were no conflict between religion and science, there would be no “diplomacy” needed; we’d just get along.

    Incidentally, there’s a way to settle this question via some research. Suppose there was a survey of a lot of scientists which asked the following question:

    Do you believe that there is an inherent conflict between science and religion?

    a) Yes, they are incompatible.
    b) There’s no inherent conflict, but some religious extremists perpetuate it.
    c) There’s no inherent conflict, but some extremists on both sides perpetuate it.

    I’d be willing to bet money that the overwhelming majority of scientists would answer b.

    You’d have to word the question a bit more carefully than that, and include other questions relating to scientific ethics. If you take stem cell research, for example, no serious ethicist that I’m aware of (at least if you ignore the US religious right which, as I’ve tried to point out, is an exception to just about every rule) has ever claimed that it’s not useful and certainly won’t save lives. That is, there’s no dispute over facts. To the extent that there’s any serious dispute, it’s entirely about biomedical ethics.

    The survey would have to be phrased to take this kind of ethical dispute into account, since it’s different from a factual dispute.

    -they all make such claims sooner or later

    Got some non-anecdotal evidence for that?

    One problem is that they demonstrate that they haven’t understood evolution, when they go around claiming it’s teleological.

    Uh, no.

    The few mainstream theologians who bother about this sort of thing take great care to leave the science up to scientists, and concentrate instead on what it means.

    Science has, essentially, nothing to say about “meaning”. It’s not even a scientific question. As far as science is concerned, Harries’ gloss on “what it means” is just as good as anyone’s.

    Yeah, he’s adding stuff. But so is an atheist who asserts that it means nothing, or an existentialist like myself who asserts that the only meaning in it is what you put there. I arguably read less meaning into it than Harries does, but science has nothing to say on who is more correct.

  19. #20 windy
    February 15, 2008

    And the problem with that assertion is that it’s circular reasoning.

    No, it’s not. To say that there is a scientific consensus about the conflict of religion of science would mean that there has been research into the question and scientists are in agreement about what the results mean. The survey you propose is research about the opinions of scientists, not about the facts of the matter.

    Similarly, we could poll scientists and I bet most of them would say that society should devote a lot of money to research. But that’s not a *scientific* consensus, it’s a consensus among scientists about a non-scientific matter.

    The few mainstream theologians who bother about this sort of thing take great care to leave the science up to scientists, and concentrate instead on what it means.

    The science says that it’s not teleological, dumbass.

  20. #21 Pseudonym
    February 15, 2008

    The survey you propose is research about the opinions of scientists, not about the facts of the matter.

    OK, I see where you’re coming from. Even so, this is a far cry from “diplomacy”.

    The science says that it’s not teleological, [ad hominem redacted].

    Science says that teleology is not required to explain the facts. When you go beyond the facts and start talking about meaning, science has nothing to say.

  21. #22 tomh
    February 16, 2008

    Pseudonym wrote: The few mainstream theologians who bother about this sort of thing take great care to leave the science up to scientists, and concentrate instead on what it means.

    And what in the world qualifies these theologians, no matter how mainstream or careful, to pontificate on what it means? These mainstream theologians, who can no doubt explain at length about fantastic lands beyond our comprehension, not to mention how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, why would any sane person think that they have a clue about what any of it means?

  22. #23 tomh
    February 16, 2008

    [In the UK] It’s certainly nowhere near 50% on opinion polls. I would think it’s barely a blip on the radar, in fact.

    It certainly seems to be growing.

    “Schools are increasingly a focal point in this battle for hearts and minds. A British branch of Answers in Genesis, which shares a Web site with its American counterpart, has managed to introduce its creationist point of view into science classes at a number of state-supported schools in Britain, said Monty White, the group’s chief executive.”
    http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2008/02/10/MN8EUTA1E.DTL

  23. #24 Pseudonym
    February 16, 2008

    And what in the world qualifies these theologians, no matter how mainstream or careful, to pontificate on what it means?

    A valid question. I don’t have an answer, and I don’t especially care, but one could ask the same about any philosopher or, indeed, any expert in any non-science field of human endeavour.

    What qualifies anyone to pontificate on what art means? Unlike scientists, it’s not like they have a literal reality check.

  24. #25 jo5ef
    February 16, 2008

    The bishops apocryphal comments underline the big problem most fundamentalist xtians etc have with evolution: they dont care (and therefore won’t even try to understand) the mechanism, they just HATE the idea of being descended from apes, with the obvious conclusion that we ARE apes and therefore are just the same as all other animals. This then forces us to confront our inevitable mortality. The usual result of this train of thought is the kind of “la la la i cant hear you (hands over ears)” diatribes and sarcastic distortions weve been hearing from religious folk ever since Soapy Sam.
    In fact thats why the story of Huxley and the bishop rings so true. Weve all had some smug fool try to score cheap points like that, and perhaps we havent been able to put them in their place as well as Huxley did. If the tale isn’t true, it ought to be!

  25. #26 Pseudonym
    February 16, 2008

    [...] they just HATE the idea of being descended from apes, with the obvious conclusion that we ARE apes and therefore are just the same as all other animals.

    I think that underlies a lot of it, yes.

    One wonders, of course, if it’s any better to be descended from apes or clay.

  26. #27 ctw
    February 16, 2008

    “One wonders, of course, if it’s any better to be descended from … clay.”

    What a ridiculous concept. Who’s ever seen a clay pot with hair?

    - Charles

  27. #28 tomh
    February 16, 2008

    What qualifies anyone to pontificate on what art means?

    Unlike theologians art critics actually have something real to study, paintings, sculpture, whatever. Not to mention there is a real author of the products they study. Theologians pontificate on the products of their imagination.

  28. #29 Tyler DiPietro
    February 16, 2008

    “What qualifies anyone to pontificate on what art means? Unlike scientists, it’s not like they have a literal reality check.”

    As I’ve said before, I think that this analogy is poor. Art is (mostly) orthogonal to science because it concerns itself almost entirely with subjective impressions, emotions, intentions, etc. Theology makes objective and existential claims, and therefore should have a “literal reality check”.

    (As a side note, I’d like the mention my own distaste for the idea of “art credentials”. Usually questions of what qualifies as “art” or “craft” or “good taste” come down to status. If you like X, then you are cultured. If you like Y, then you are crass and unsophisticated. Example: Roger Ebert, the film critic, saying that video games can never be elevated to the status of “art”, when an identical charge was leveled by the established literati against his medium when it first came fruition.)

  29. #30 Pseudonym
    February 16, 2008

    tomh:

    Unlike theologians art critics actually have something real to study, paintings, sculpture, whatever.

    And philosophers study what, exactly? Certainly nothing that you could kick.

    Don’t tell me it’s not important. Ethics and morals are damned important. What constitutes “justice” is extremely important in an age when elected officials seem to have forgotten even the basics.

    Theology makes objective and existential claims, and therefore should have a “literal reality check”.

    Theology sometimes makes objective and existential claims. Not every theologian does, and not every theologian does all the time.

    If a theologian makes a claim that you can test scientifically, then we should do that. However, the discussion, if you recall, was specifically about teleology, which is something that, we have already established, is not scientifically objective.

  30. #31 Tyler DiPietro
    February 16, 2008

    “However, the discussion, if you recall, was specifically about teleology, which is something that, we have already established, is not scientifically objective.”

    Who’s “we”? The only person I’ve seen make this assertion is you. Since teleology is simply the bald assertion of “meaning” without anything, save the babbling of ancient tribesman, to back it up, the proper term is “nonsense”.

  31. #32 Pseudonym
    February 16, 2008

    Since teleology is simply the bald assertion of “meaning” without anything, save the babbling of ancient tribesman, save the babbling of ancient tribesman, to back it up, the proper term is “nonsense”.

    You’ve just insulted the work of many generations of secular humanist philosophers without, apparently, knowing a thing about what they have done and continue to do. Well done! Although, I might point out, this is hardly a first for scienceblogs commenters.

    One more thing, which is a little off-topic:

    As a side note, I’d like the mention my own distaste for the idea of “art credentials”.

    Although they are somewhat symbiotic, there are some very important differences between the art establishment (i.e. the wankery of artists and their groupies), art academia (i.e. the scholarly study of art, its history and its relationship with philosophy, psychology and cognitive science) and what, for lack of a better term, I’ll call art trade (i.e. the actual teaching of how to do art).

    A lot of uncomplimentary things can and have been said about the art establishment, but I was referring more specifically to art academia. The question of what is involved in making an aesthetic judgement is quite a fascinating one, and it’s not as simple as “status”.

  32. #33 Tyler DiPietro
    February 16, 2008

    “You’ve just insulted the work of many generations of secular humanist philosophers without, apparently, knowing a thing about what they have done and continue to do. Well done!”

    Of course, since the question of teleology is taking place within a discussion of theology, I assumed that we were talking about it’s theological variety and not any other sort. But I welcome you to your typical self-important wankery, asshole.

  33. #34 Pseudonym
    February 17, 2008

    Of course, since the question of teleology is taking place within a discussion of theology, I assumed that we were talking about it’s theological variety and not any other sort.

    It wasn’t just a discussion of theology (though that was certainly the focus), but it had already morphed into a broader question of fields of human endeavour that aren’t science. (That’s where the stuff about art came in.)

    It does raise an important question, though, which I think cuts to the heart of a lot of these discussions: Why is religion considered “special”?

    If you’re on one side of the argument, religion is something that you’re not allowed touch. You can criticise people’s political beliefs, hell, even their haircuts. But you can’t cricitise their religious beliefs! Those must be RESPECTED! This is ludicrous.

    And on the other side of the argument, religion is something to be singled out for special criticism. It’s so totally unlike anything else, unlike philosophy, unlike art, unlike politics, unlike any other human thing, that we need to criticise it more than anything else. This is, if you step back and see it for what it is, also quite ludicrous.

    Why religion is seen as special, rather than just another silly thing that humans do?

    But I welcome you to your typical self-important wankery, asshole.

    I wish! It’d be kinda nice to be important.

  34. #35 Tyler DiPietro
    February 17, 2008

    “It wasn’t just a discussion of theology (though that was certainly the focus), but it had already morphed into a broader question of fields of human endeavour that aren’t science.”

    And the teleology under discussion specifically referred the theological variety. But just like the last time, you see fit to toss out an irrelevant red herring.

    “And on the other side of the argument, religion is something to be singled out for special criticism. It’s so totally unlike anything else, unlike philosophy, unlike art, unlike politics, unlike any other human thing, that we need to criticise it more than anything else. This is, if you step back and see it for what it is, also quite ludicrous.”

    It’s also quite an elaborate strawman. What is being proffered in this discussion are, in my mind, very cogent critiques of theology (e.g., the fact that theological systems reason backwards from the assumption of their own essential correctness). You are the one tossing around red herrings about other things being “different from science”, when these things are “different from science” in ways that are not analogous to theology and don’t contain the same flaws.

    “I wish! It’d be kinda nice to be important.”

    I’d guess that you think that way, given that you took the first opportunity to accuse me of ignorance without taking into account the transparent context of my statement (i.e., “teleology” was invoked with regard to theology and “purposefulness” in nature in general, not other feasible uses of the term). No one likes hearing “OMFG YOU DIDN’T KNOW X UR SUCH A FUCKING RE RE LOL!!!”, especially when X isn’t relevant to what they said.

  35. #36 Tyler DiPietro
    February 17, 2008

    “…when these things are “different from science” in ways that are not analogous to theology and don’t contain the same flaws.”

    Actually, I’ll make an exception to this: politics is indeed much like theology and contains many of the same nagging flaws. The extent to which political ideologies are like religions and shoehorn the world into preconceived “narratives” is an obvious example of this. More evidence based politics would be helpful. I’d say the same thing about evidence based theology but I’m pretty certain that theology would simply cease to be viable with evidence applied to it.

  36. #37 Pseudonym
    February 17, 2008

    I think this discussion is essentially exhausted, but I’d like to clear up one thing.

    Now that I look at it, it was windy who fired the first insult at me, not Tyler. I wasn’t reading that carefully, and that fed into my later comments. So my apologies, Tyler. That was my fault.

    My final comment is that teleology is a huge area, and philosophers of all schools of thought, both religious and not, have found it a useful framework. It’s where the anthropic principle came from, for example.

    I do understand and appreciate that it’s been greatly misapplied and misused, with “intelligent design” being one of the more blatant examples. I also agree that “hard” science is purely naturalistic.

    But that doesn’t make the idea useless. Hell, every week we hear another story suggesting a “purpose” for some evolved trait. So scientists are not immune to invoking a naturalistic teleology.

    When talking about “meaning”, as I noted, I’m a existentialist. I don’t think there’s any “meaning” in evolution except for whatever meaning you personally get out of it. It’s important to study this, because “intelligent design” is, as I noted, based on bad teleology.

    We all know that ID is not based on the facts. Instead, it’s based on the bizarre idea that merely teaching evolution causes amorality. In other words, that the theory of evolution has meaning, and that it is amoral or immoral.

    There are a bunch of things wrong with that premise, but it seems to me that humans intuitively look for meaning. It is important to acknowledge that any meaning that we read into evolution isn’t in the scientific facts, but we can still derive meaning from it. It’s incorrect (or, at least, an overgeneralisation) to suggest that those philosophers (whether religious or otherwise) who seek to do so don’t understand evolution. I suspect they understand it quite well, though probably not as well as a biologist.

    I guess the bottom line for me, though, is this: Better Harries than Dembski. Better someone who is willing to work with the scientific facts than someone hell-bent on ignoring them.

  37. #38 Tyler DiPietro
    February 17, 2008

    “I wasn’t reading that carefully, and that fed into my later comments. So my apologies, Tyler. That was my fault.”

    Well, I probably should have tried harder not to lose my cool and drop the A-bomb. We all fuck up once in a while.

    “But that doesn’t make the idea useless. Hell, every week we hear another story suggesting a “purpose” for some evolved trait. So scientists are not immune to invoking a naturalistic teleology.”

    It’s the sort of teleology that is merely conceptually confused as opposed to being batshit insane. From what I understand, teleology refers to ideas of “ultimate ends”. Things like competitive reproductive advantage are completely local and mutable, and don’t really match the theological uses of the term.

    As for the “anthropic principle”, I’d say the same thing. Except I really don’t think I’ve grasped the argument over it’s significance. My impression is that it’s a premature logical inference from a limited set of observations, but many physicists seem to take these things very seriously. Usually in that case I think it’s safe to assume that there’s something I’m missing, I just haven’t found it yet.

  38. #39 J. J. Ramsey
    February 17, 2008

    “Christianity claims that human life is the result of a direct act of will by an all-powerful God who loves His creation.”

    Which forms of Christianity claim that? I’m inclined to apply Taner Edis’ notion of there being no “true” Islam to Christianity. Christianity is a human movement that has evolved and split over time and encompasses multiple and conflicting points of view. The Christians who insist on a literal interpretation of Genesis obviously insist that “human life is the result of a direct act of will by an all-powerful God.” The official Catholic line, IIRC, is cagier, conceding that we evolved but having God be the one who puts in human souls. Liberal Christians, especially those who are practically crypto-Deists or even crypto-atheists, can easily take issue with human life being a direct act of God.

  39. #40 windy
    February 17, 2008

    You’ve just insulted the work of many generations of secular humanist philosophers without, apparently, knowing a thing about what they have done and continue to do.

    And you insult the generations of biologists who treated teleology in evolution as a real question (and ultimately rejected it) by insisting that it should now be uplifted as a question of “meaning” outside science.

    “But that doesn’t make the idea useless. Hell, every week we hear another story suggesting a “purpose” for some evolved trait. So scientists are not immune to invoking a naturalistic teleology.”

    That’s not the same thing. Rejecting a purpose for evolution as a process does not mean that we can’t use the shorthand of “purpose” for products of evolution. But we are able to give ultimate non-teleological explanations for every proximately purposeful trait.

  40. #41 Pseudonym
    February 17, 2008

    I’m inclined to apply Taner Edis’ notion of there being no “true” Islam to Christianity.

    I think there’s something to that. I sometimes think that if you could ever live up to your ideals, they wouldn’t, by definition, be “ideal”. (As an added bonus, you can think also of this as yet another disproof of the ontological argument.)

    In a similar way, there’s probably no such thing as a “True Scotsman”.

  41. #42 J. J. Ramsey
    February 17, 2008

    Pseudonym: “I think there’s something to that. I sometimes think that if you could ever live up to your ideals, they wouldn’t, by definition, be ‘ideal’.”

    It’s not so much that as it is that there is no ideal form, not even in the sense of something that one approaches asymptotically but never reaches.

  42. #43 noodles
    February 21, 2008

    In my mind it goes something like this: Biological evolution can trace the origin of Man as part of a natural ongoing process and demonstrates that Man is part of the natural world like any other biological entity (i.e., science). Understanding science means we understand ourselves and our world. Superstition and the supernatural are not science and thus cannot add to our understanding of ourselves or our world. Ergo, since religion is supernaturalism; religion is little more than childish myths and irrational superstitious beliefs and can provide no true understanding of Man or the natural world.

    Furthermore, as the religious attempt to reconcile religion with science they find themselves abandoning childish myths (e.g., six day creation is figurative not literal) and dismissing irrational superstitious beliefs (e.g., people who act odd are not possessed by demons) to the point were very little religion (i.e., supernaturalism and superstition) remains. At some point, it become philosophy.

  43. #44 Jason S
    February 21, 2008

    The quote you called argle-bargle is actually dead-on. Let me elaborate. God can create in any manner he so chooses. Creation via evolution is not contradictory with the existence of God the creator unless you can show that it conflicts with the intentions of diety we have reason to suspect exist. Since we don’t know anything about what intentions a hypothetical diety had for creation, we can’t say a creative process that entails this or that is contradictory to God’s intentions. “Poof” might seem more quick and less circuitous, but there’s no reason to think God wanted to be quick and simple about it. There is one exception for most theists, however. The one intention we can attack God on is the desire for benevolence. Most theists believe that God is perfectly benevolent in his actions. You choose this route of attack repeatedly when you point to the ugliness of nature red in tooth and claw. This, however, is just a specific case of the argument from evil. It isn’t evolution per se that is the problem, but rather the pointless suffering it seems to cause. Or, in otherwords, “In fact it is not evolution that is the problem but the character and quality of the natural life it reveals which distresses us.”

  44. #45 Caledonian
    February 22, 2008

    God can create in any manner he so chooses.

    By that statement alone, you have placed God outside of the bounds of logic.

    Why are you trying to derive logical conclusions about a thing that logic does not apply to?

  45. #46 Jason S.
    February 22, 2008

    How does that place God outside the bounds of logic? Would you prefer me to say that God can create in any manner he so chooses so long as it is logically possible? I thought the latter was implied unless otherwise stated in contemporary theological discussion. There’s nothing logically contradictory about God creating via evolution. Good luck with trying to show otherwise. The problem is that we are not privy to God’s intentions in creation, so we can’t say this or that method is any better or worse in achieving God’s intentions. It is a mistake to assume that God would create via “poof” because it is simpler. That depends on the unsupported assumption that God was shooting for the quickest method. If God was shooting for what happened during evolution, then God rocked the house on that one. There is one way in which evolution qua method of creation can be used as evidence against God – or rather the God most people believe in – and that is an argument from evil. Evolution has entailed a great deal of inscrutable suffering that could have been avoided. However, the problem of evil exists regardless of evolution, so the theist naturally pivots to pointing this out since either the believer has made peace with the issue or because it at least it points out that evolution isn’t adding anything uniquely problematic to the table.

  46. #47 Jason S.
    February 22, 2008

    Of course, the same reason why you generally can’t say an object with traits x, y, and z are something God would or wouldn’t design because you lack independent evidence of God’s intentions is the same reason why you can’t say an object with traits a, b, and c is something God would design.

  47. #48 Jason S.
    February 22, 2008

    Shoot. That was supposed to read:

    Of course, the same reason why you generally can’t say an object with traits x, y, and z (such as earth’s evolutionary history)is something God wouldn’t design because you lack independent evidence of God’s intentions is the same reason why you can’t say an object with traits a, b, and c is something God would design. The only exceptions are when you are talking about more narrow conceptions of God that have some idea about his intentions, such as being benevolent or a creator of a 6000 year old earth.

  48. #49 Caledonian
    February 22, 2008

    There’s nothing logically contradictory about God creating via evolution.

    You mean, creating through a process that occurs spontaneously, doesn’t involve intervention in any way, and would require intervention to prevent?

    Sure, there’s nothing logically contradictory about God creating via not creating. Just as there’s nothing logically contradictory about an immovable object meeting an irresistible force.

  49. #50 Jason S.
    February 22, 2008

    Evolution doesn’t require intervention. However, evolution can manifest the intent of a creator in the exact same way salt dissolving in water can. The casual chain itself just has to be intended. I’m not sure if you understand what a formal logical contradiction is.

  50. #51 Caledonian
    February 24, 2008

    Evolution through natural selection not only doesn’t require intervention, it requires non-intervention.

    I can leave a moist piece of bread out in the air. That doesn’t mean that I’ve created the mold that appears. Quite the opposite.

    If you want to declare that the will of your creator deity was not to create, that’s fine. Just don’t expect us to take that declaration seriously.

  51. #52 Jason S.
    February 26, 2008

    A God is capable of setting up the causal chain that leads to the quantum event by quantum event process that results in moldy bread or evolution. Again, there is nothing logically impossible about this. Philosophically informed religious people like to pick on people like you because of this naivety. Don’t give them that oppurtunityl.

  52. #53 Oran Kelley
    March 11, 2008

    Jason:

    Why is it that you feel qualified to dictate what it is Christians believe?

    And why is it that you must insist on conflict?

    If Harries sees no conflict between his faith and evolution, that’s his business.

    I’d say it’s cluelessness of a high order to argue with the guy. (No way! Your faith says what I say it says! and you damn well best go out and burn some Darwin books right now! I don’t get it.)

    I would also say it is cluelessness of a high order to even imagine that the guy denies *any* real-world conflict between proponents of Christianity and those of science.

    He says that *faith* isn’t in conflict with evolution. By which any reasonable reader would say he means that faith does not necessitate conflict with science. Not that all Christians already think like he does.

  53. #54 Tyler DiPietro
    March 12, 2008

    Oran,

    I don’t think it’s “cluelessness of a high order” to take what are, according to broad consensus, the basic postulates of a religious belief system and see if they are logically compatible with evolution.

    I will concede at the outset that there are people who claim to be Christians but really believe some odd mish-mash of vague, quasi-mystical notions (Spong comes to mind). But an outsider can reasonably critique the case most Christians make for its own compatibility with evolutionary biology.