My Review of Giberson and Collins

Francis Collins and Karl Giberson have a new book out called The Language of Science and Faith: Straight Answers to Genuine Questions, published by InterVarsity Press. It is yet another defense of theistic evolution.

I’m always a bit conflicted when I write about this topic. On the one hand I do not think theistic evolution is a reasonable view, and I think the arguments made on its behalf are very weak. On the other hand, if I am stuck with religious faith being a major force in society then far better that it be the faith of theistic evolutionists than that of young-Earth creationists. It’s why I tend to favor a multi-pronged approach to this issue. I’m all in favor of groups like the NCSE engaging in outreach to religious organizations, but I’m also in favor of atheists being vocal and outspoken.

I also found it interesting that InterVarsity Press published this book. In the past they have published books by William Dembski and Phillip Johnson, which led me to think they were in the can for ID. So it seems like progress that they would publish a book supportive of evolution.

I’m afraid, though, that this is not a good book. I don’t like theistic evolution to begin with, but this is a poor defense of it regardless. Ken Miller’s Finding Darwin’s God is far better, in my opinion. As I waded through the authors’s frequently murky prose, I was struck by just how unserious they are on this issue.


The problems start in the book’s introduction:

More recently, advocates of creationism, intelligent design and even new atheism have claimed that accepting evolution (at least in some forms) is embracing atheism. They argue that evolution is incompatible with a theistic worldview. This argument is illogical and philosophically preposterous. It would be like a girl inferring that because her mother, and not her father, bought her a bike, her father must not exist. (p. 23)

The basis for the comparison escapes me. One assumes that the girl, prior to receiving the bicycle, already had strong evidence that her father exists. This is far different from the situation with God, where we simply do not have any good evidence that He exists at all. Evolution is menacing to a belief in God because it refutes the best argument ever devised for God’s existence. It also threatens certain specific religious views by challenging the goodness of God, the meaning of the soul, the importance of human beings in creation, and the accuracy of scripture. For all of that, the usual claim is not that evolution flatly disproves God, but simply that it makes belief in a traditional God seem very implausible. I fail to see the analogs of any of these points in the authors’ insipid analogy.

From here the book proceeds in question and answer format. The first two chapters are Do I Have to Believe in Evolution? and Can We Really Know the Earth is Billions of Years Old? Even here there is a lot weirdness that weakens their arguments. For example, keen to downplay the significance of the infamous “Dissent From Darwin” list they offer up two main points in reply:

The “Dissent from Darwin” list includes philosophers, physicists, engineers, mathematicians and academics from other fields. Many of them never took even a single course in biology beyond high school. No doubt they are sincere in their views, but do we need to take their concerns about evolution seriously?

Many names on the list are of emeritus professors from various institutions. Emeritus is a recognition that institutions bestow on faculty when they retire, typically around age seventy to seventy-five. Seventy-five year old emeritus professors would have finished most of their education a half-century ago, before the developments of the past few decades provided so much support for evolution. (p. 32)

Truly, the term “tone-deaf” has now been taken to dizzying new heights. How delightful to be told that the concerns of people who lack degrees in biology are not to be taken seriously, or that older people must have stopped thinking about the subject a few decades ago. Let me suggest that such rhetoric is not the best way of communicating with lay people worried about evolution, especially since many such people already think academics are elitist and condescending.

Later in the chapter they address the question, “What is the Best Proof That Evolution Has Occurred?” They reply with a semi-coherent explanation of certain genetic and molecular comparisons. There is no mention of a consilience of inductions or the fallacy of thinking in terms of “the best evidence.” Worse, there is no mention of what I would think is the most compelling argument, especially to lay people, namely that evolution works in both the field and the lab. That is, evolution gets results when applied in practical situations. A good example is the discovery of the fossil Tiktaalik.

The next chapter is “How Do We Relate Science and Religion?” It contains gems like this:

Prior to the appearance of these books [by Draper and White], science and religion, except for the occasional skirmish like the Galileo affair, got along fine and were actually supportive of one another as recent scholarship has clearly shown. And even the infamous Galileo affair was nothing like its urban legend. Galileo was not tortured and his so-called imprisonment was confinement to his house. (p. 84)

Every word of this is nonsense. First of all, house arrest is not “so-called” imprisonment, it’s the real thing. And while Galileo was not actually tortured and imprisoned, he was actually threatened with those things and forced to recant in the most humiliating terms. This, mind you, because he poked fun at the Pope and suggested that science, not scripture, should be the tool for learning about nature. Moreover, to the extent that science and religion got along fine it was only because for the most part the Church controlled the purse strings, and science needed quite a few centuries to discover anything that was seriously disconcerting to theology. The view through most of European history was that science was the handmaiden of religion, useful for working out the calendar and other trivialities, but something which definitely needed to be kept servile and obsequious. Got along fine, indeed. Draper and White may have gone overboard with their polemicizing, but Collins and Giberson are no improvement.

After quite a few pages of the standard cliches (many scientists are religious! the Bible was never meant literally! science can’t teach us morality!) we come to this:

Divine action figured prominently in discussions of Darwin’s theory in the late nineteenth century. For some theologicans evolution was compatible with theism only if God acted supernaturally at some point in the evolutionary process … But while most theologians — and scientists, for that matter — were comfortable with evolution, most of them supplemented Darwin’s theory of natural selection with other processes like divine intervention or built-in teleological trajectories that unfolded God’s preordained creative intent. (p. 114)

Indeed. It is very misleading to say that most theologians were comfortable with evolution. Many were willing to accept common descent, but the verdict on natural selection was almost unanimously negative. The reason was that natural selection eliminated any reasonable notion of teleology from the evolutionary process. It was precisely this aspect of Darwinism that provoked Charles Hodge, for example, to equate it with atheism. Reconcilers of the time were endlessly carving out exceptions for human beings or placing God right in the middle of the process. They were saved from charges of obscurantism by the fact that there were many legitimate scientific objections to Darwinism at that time. Historian Frederick Gregory summarize the situation (from his contribution to the book God and Nature edited by Lindberg and Numbers:

Unquestionably, the attempt to reconcile evolution and Christianity depended on a rejection of natural selection as the mechanism of evolution. A few writers, for example Asa Gray and George Frederick Wright, claimed that natural selection was not incompatible with a divinely ordered creation, but after Hodge, theologians for the most part abandoned the attempt to reconcile natural selection and design.

This is hugely significant, because no one could hold such views today without being considered a creationist. The version of evolution feared by these late-nineteenth-century theologians, that of a blind, fully naturalistic process that did not have humans in mind, is precisely the one that has triumphed today. This makes it problematic to use them as talking points against modern creationists. Not only did they flatly reject evolution in the modern sense, but they did so for reasons having nothing to do with a literal interpretation of Genesis One.

Eventually we come to the two most serious issues, the problem of evil and the problem of human significance, and it is here that I believe Collins and Giberson really have not thought things through. Their basic replies are familiar: Evolution ameliorates the problem of evil by distancing God from the rottenness of nature, and evolutionary convergence shows that humans were inevitable.

Of course, there is an obvious reply to that first point. If you set in motion a process that you know will lead to a horrifying end, then you are as morally responsible as if you caused that horrifying end directly. If you drop an anvil onto someone’s head, you cannot absolve yourself by saying, “It wasn’t me! It was gravity!” We must explain, then, why God set in motion a process that he knew would lead to massive pain and suffering. Here is their answer:

That nature has freedom is highly provocative and theologically suggestive. God created the world with an inbuilt capacity to explore novelty and try new things, but within a framework of overall regularity. …

The key point here is that the gift of creativity that God bestowed on the creation is theologically analogous to the gift of freedom God bestowed on us. Both humans and all creation have freedom. Our freedom comes with a moral responsibility to use it properly. But that does not prevent us from doing terrible things. The freedom God gave humans was exercised in the construction of gas chambers at Auschwitz and Dachau, and in the destruction of the World Trade Center on 9/11. But because humans have freedom, we do not say that God created those gas chambers. God is, so to speak, off the hook for that evil.

In exactly the same way, outside of the moral dimension, when nature’s freedom leads to the evolution of a pernicious killing machine like the black plague, God is off the hook. Unless God micromanages nature so as to destroy its autonomy, such things are going to occur. (p. 136-137).

This, I’m afraid, makes little sense. Their proviso “outside of the moral dimension” effectively kills their argument. As is clear from the discussion leading up to these paragraphs, nature is “free” only in the sense that it lacks causal determinism. That is not at all the sense in which humans can be said to be free. (Of course, there are thorny issues about the meaning of free will, but I think we can leave those aside for now.)

The reason the “free-will defense” has any force in this context (to the extent that it does, mind you. It is very debatable whether God is really off the hook for the holocaust), is because we all recognize it as a great good that humans are free to make their own decisions. We also recognize that the ability to choose righteousness loses its significance unless it comes with the possibility of choosing evil. There is nothing comparable to that in nature. When evolution produces the black plague, that is not an expression of choice or moral judgment. It is simply what happened. Moreover, the logic of the evolutionary process is such that whenever nature tries to explore true selflessness and altruism, it is immediately punished by natural selection. All of this talk about nature being free or autonomous or engaging in explorations is just a crass abuse of language. It is a category error; mindless nature is not the sort of thing that can be free or autonomous.

If Collins and Giberson want to defuse this problem they need to explain why God created through a lengthy process and did not simply create humans supernaturally precisely as the Bible says He did. Having explained why a process was desirable, they must then explain why it had to be a specifically Darwinian process. What great good, comparable to giving humans free will is made possible by letting evolution produce awful pain and suffering? Phillip Kitcher writes (in Living With Darwin):

When you consider the millions of years in which sentient creatures have suffered, the uncounted number of extended and agonizing deaths, it simply rings hollow to suppose that all this is needed so that, at the very tail end of history, our species can manifest the allegedly transcendent good of free and virtuous action. There is every reason to think that alternative processes for unfolding the history of life could have eliminated much of the agony, that the goal could have been achieved without so long and bloody a prelude.

Other philosophers and theologians have attempted to answer this objection, without much success in my opinion. But at least they understand the magnitude of the problem. I am afraid I cannot say the same for Collins and Giberson.

Things get even worse when you try to combine this argument with the notion of human inevitability. After gushing for so long about nature’s freedom and autonomy they then switch gears and tell us that, actually, things are so constrained that humans inevitably arise. What kind of freedom is that? The appearance of humans, it would seem, was not the result of free nature exploring higher and higher states of being. It was just something that happens inevitably. Evolution producing humanity is no more an expression of freedom than is the anvil falling to the ground when you drop it. This makes it all the more pressing to explain what great good was served by four billion years of evolution by bloodsport that could not have been obtained by “fast-forwarding the tape,” if you will, to the moment when humans appeared.

(Incidentally, we should also put it on the record that the argument that evolutionary convergence shows that humans were inevitable is very dubious, to put it kindly).

There is plenty more that is wrong with this book, but I think you get the idea. In the end there is not a single thought or example here that is original, and Collins and Giberson repeatedly fail to grapple with the real concerns people have about evolution. All is standard boilerplate, about how to read the Bible, or resolve the problem of evil, or preserve notions of human specialness, or to protect any meaningful role for religion in modern life. They will need to do better if they really want to persuade sincere Christians that their worries about evolution are unfounded.

Comments

  1. #1 scott
    March 11, 2011

    I’ve always liked the saying that if you have two contradicting view points, one can be right and the other wrong, or both could be wrong, but there’s no way both can be right.

    It seems that Francis Collins violates that concept. Its like believing the world is flat and round at the same time, and then attempting to rationalize it until you reach absurdity.

  2. #2 Josh Rosenau
    March 11, 2011

    Somehow this all puts me in mind of the classic Darwin letter to Gray:

    With respect to the theological view of the question; this is always painful to me.— I am bewildered.— I had no intention to write atheistically. But I own that I cannot see, as plainly as others do, & as I shd wish to do, evidence of design & beneficence on all sides of us. There seems to me too much misery in the world. I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent & omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidæ with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of caterpillars, or that a cat should play with mice. Not believing this, I see no necessity in the belief that the eye was expressly designed. On the other hand I cannot anyhow be contented to view this wonderful universe & especially the nature of man, & to conclude that everything is the result of brute force. I am inclined to look at everything as resulting from designed laws, with the details, whether good or bad, left to the working out of what we may call chance. Not that this notion at all satisfies me. I feel most deeply that the whole subject is too profound for the human intellect. A dog might as well speculate on the mind of Newton.— Let each man hope & believe what he can.—

    Certainly I agree with you that my views are not at all necessarily atheistical. The lightning kills a man, whether a good one or bad one, owing to the excessively complex action of natural laws,—a child (who may turn out an idiot) is born by action of even more complex laws,—and I can see no reason, why a man, or other animal, may not have been aboriginally produced by other laws; & that all these laws may have been expressly designed by an omniscient Creator, who foresaw every future event & consequence. But the more I think the more bewildered I become; as indeed I have probably shown by this letter.

    Most deeply do I feel your generous kindness & interest.—

    Yours sincerely & cordially | Charles Darwin

    I think Darwin’s point that “A dog might as well speculate on the mind of Newton” applies just fine to the question of why an omnipotent, omniscient being would use evolution – possibility of evil and all – rather than just *poof* create. If we could imagine what it was like to be an omniscient, omnipotent, immortal, infinite being, that question might be sensible, but as it is, all we can say is that if any god exists, that’s apparently how the creative work was done (or there was some sort of omphalism along the way). I’m guessing Giberson and Collins are not trying to prove that this god exists a priori, only to “justify the ways of God to man,” as Milton put it.

    There are several possibilities. One is that the prospect of creating through the unwinding of natural processes held some inherent intellectual interest to the creator. Another is that creating through natural law would not inevitably lead to evil, or at least to any particular evil. By the Doctrine of Double Effect, one could argue that the good aimed at is all that matters, and that accidental ill effects are not relevant. Of course, this raises the question of whether anything done by an omniscient, omnipotent being can be said to be unintentional. There are surely many other angles on the question, but Darwin’s objection seems valid, they all require speculation about the nature of an untestable and unmodelable phenomenon: the intellect of an omnipotent, omniscient, infinite being that exists independently of time and space, not to mention comparing what actually is to what an omniscient being would know would have happened had the laws of nature (including those governing evolution) been other than they are. It’s fine to say that some other process would have been less evil, but what process? Why would it be better? Might there be unforeseen tradeoffs? Might the natural laws we have really be the best of all possible worlds? It’s scary to think that could be true, but can we refute that idea?

    Anyway, it doesn’t sound like anything has happened in the last 141 years to make this issue less “bewildering,” but I appreciate that you try, and that you take others efforts seriously and thoughtfully even when you disagree.

  3. #3 Hercules Grytpype-Thynne
    March 11, 2011

    Interestingly, it takes only a couple of tweaks to make their bicycle analogy meaningful:

    It would be like a girl inferring that because her mother, and not her fatherSanta Claus, bought her a bike, her fatherSanta Claus must not exist.

    But then it wouldn’t make the point they want it to make, would it?

  4. #4 Jason Rosenhouse
    March 11, 2011

    Josh –

    I think Darwin’s point that “A dog might as well speculate on the mind of Newton” applies just fine to the question of why an omnipotent, omniscient being would use evolution – possibility of evil and all – rather than just *poof* create. If we could imagine what it was like to be an omniscient, omnipotent, immortal, infinite being, that question might be sensible, but as it is, all we can say is that if any god exists, that’s apparently how the creative work was done (or there was some sort of omphalism along the way). I’m guessing Giberson and Collins are not trying to prove that this god exists a priori, only to “justify the ways of God to man,” as Milton put it.

    This is known as theistic skepticism, that is, that the ways of the almighty are so far beyond us that we cannot hope to comprehend them. According to philosopher Richard Gale it is “by far the most favored response [to the problem of evil] among sophisticated contemporary theorists.” To me it just seems like an admission that all of the other theodicies people have devised are not adequate.

    Theistic skepticism certainly gives you something to say to the nonbeliever, but it is very unclear that it’s main premise is really correct. What reason is there for thinking that our moral intuitions are so inadequate that what we perceive as the waste and savagery of the evolutionary process actually serves some greater good that no one has managed to articulate clearly? Should our skepticism extend to all o four basic moral intuitions? Personally, I think a more promising route is drop the traditional idea of omnipotence, like process theologians do. An even better route, of course, is to just drop the idea of God altogether!

  5. #5 SLC
    March 11, 2011

    Things get even worse when you try to combine this argument with the notion of human inevitability. After gushing for so long about nature’s freedom and autonomy they then switch gears and tell us that, actually, things are so constrained that humans inevitably arise.

    This is an argument that even Ken Miller has, apparently, abandoned. Prof. Millers’ current position seems to be that the rise of intelligent life, not necessarily human, was inevitable. The inevitability of human life is not scientifically supportable; however, the inevitability of intelligent life is at least arguable.

    A necessary condition for the rise of intelligent life is encephalization, that is, the ratio of brain size to body size. Here, we have some favorable evidence. The Cretaceous dinosaurs were more encephalized then their Jurassic antecedents and todays’ mammals are more encephalized then the mammals of 50 million years ago. Thus, based on a sample of 2, one might hypothesize that there is a selection advantage to encephalization.

    However, encephalization is not a sufficient condition as brain organization also plays a role. For instance, Neanderthals had encephalization factors approximately equal to modern Homo sapiens. However, it appears that differences between the two sub-species were, in part, due to differences in brain organization.

  6. #6 eric
    March 11, 2011

    Josh Rosenou: I think Darwin’s point that “A dog might as well speculate on the mind of Newton” applies just fine to the question of why an omnipotent, omniscient being would use evolution – possibility of evil and all – rather than just *poof* create.

    Just to add to what Jason said, another problem with the “his purpose is unknowable!” argument is that most priests spend their Sunday mornings telling people what’s God’s purpose and plan are. It appears God’s purpose only becomes unknowable when someone starts asking difficult questions. Even if its a good argument in content, the manner in which its used (inconsistenly and selectively) causes it to lose credibility.

    Directly analogous to the typical God of the [physical explanation] Gaps argument, this is simply a God of the [metaphysical explanation] Gaps argument.

  7. #7 Birger Johansson
    March 11, 2011

    Intelligent entities bending time and space for the benefit of humans? Two Words: “The Eschaton”

    https://www.amazon.co.uk/Singularity-Sky-Charles-Stross/dp/1841493341/ref=sr_1_9?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1299855128&sr=1-9
    Charles Stross: “Singularity Sky”

  8. #8 Glenn Branch
    March 11, 2011

    Minor point: it’s “skeptical theism” — not “theistic skepticism” — in the philosophical literature.

  9. #9 MKR
    March 11, 2011

    Thank you, Jason, for the informative report on this book, which I am sure I would not have the patience to read. The quotations that you include are especially valuable, as besides substantiating your judgments they allow the reader to sample the book for him- or herself. It seems to me, however, that you go too far in trying to prove that “every word” of the passage that you quote from p. 84 “is nonsense.”

    First of all, house arrest is not “so-called” imprisonment, it’s the real thing. And while Galileo was not actually tortured and imprisoned, he was actually threatened with those things and forced to recant in the most humiliating terms.

    House arrest is literally imprisonment? Really? I don’t think so; and your own words indicate that you don’t think so either: “Galileo was not actually tortured and imprisoned.”

  10. #10 Jason Rosenhouse
    March 11, 2011

    Glenn –

    Actually, I think you’ll find that both terms are used interchangeably. For example, RIchard Gale uses the term theistic skepticism in the article I quoted in my previous comment. (From Gale’s contribution to The Routledge Companion to Philosophy of Religion, edited by Meister and Copan). :)

  11. #11 Glenn Branch
    March 11, 2011

    Well, not to diss Gale, who’s a good philosopher, but his usage seems to be idiosyncratic. Don’t take my word for it. There are 17 hits for “skeptical theism” in Philosopher’s Index (which doesn’t cover the full text) — including a review article entitled “Skeptical Theism” in Philosophy Compass — and 0 for “theistic skepticism”; there are 87 hits for “skeptical theism” in Google Scholar, and the first page of hits are all relevant, while there are only 14 hits for “theistic skepticism,” and the first page of hits is only about 50% relevant. But that exhausts my interest in the terminological issue; I imagine that everyone else’s was exhausted about as soon as I raised it.

  12. #12 Ophelia Benson
    March 11, 2011

    The idea that we should just throw up our hands and say “gosh, I dunno” about why a god would create a system guaranteed to produce colossal suffering to sentient beings over billions of years is, in my view, simply revolting. An agent that did that on purpose is morally [there are no words for how bad that is]. The suggestion that the agent did it because it held intellectual interest hardly redeems the agent.

  13. #13 Deen
    March 11, 2011

    I always wonder: if “we can’t know/understand anything about God” is an acceptable response to theological questions, why are there still theology departments? Either stop using that argument, or use it and admit that you’re done with all of theology.

  14. #14 Kirth Gersen
    March 11, 2011

    Theistic skepticism just might be the one element of theology worth salvaging. Simply go through all theological statements and replace every instance of “God did…” and “God wants us to…” with a more succinct and more accuare “We don’t really know…”

  15. #15 gillt
    March 11, 2011

    Rosenau:

    I think Darwin’s point that “A dog might as well speculate on the mind of Newton” applies just fine to the question of why an omnipotent, omniscient being would use evolution – possibility of evil and all – rather than just *poof* create.

    That criticism cuts both ways and should be applied to people such as Milton and Gibberson and Collins who do attempt to nonetheless describe the insoluble. Where’s your criticism of their, and your own, human presumptuousness?

    Of course, this raises the question of whether anything done by an omniscient, omnipotent being can be said to be unintentional.

    Hand-waving? That major point (the three omnis) alone undercuts the argument sufficiently.

    It’s fine to say that some other process would have been less evil, but what process? Why would it be better? Might there be unforeseen tradeoffs? Might the natural laws we have really be the best of all possible worlds? It’s scary to think that could be true, but can we refute that idea?

    Unlike the original Plangloss Voltaire mocked, you know that over 99% of documented species are extinct. It’s perfectly reasonable to assume improvements could have been made by an omni-powerful and benevolent creator.

  16. #16 Lenoxuss
    March 11, 2011

    Everyone interested in the Problem of Evil, especially such defenses as the “mystery card”, should check out Stephen Law’s clever piece, “The God of Eth”.

    There’s only one decent method of response that I know. It’s to attempt to prove that a being with all of God’s other attributes (specifically, someone that is the omnipotent, omniscient first cause of all things) would necessarily be omnibenevolent as well, so there simply can’t be an evil God. But such arguments, when attempted, are uniformly weak, nearly as bad as the Ontological Argument; the listener usually has to first share certain intuitions with the arguer (such as the intuition that evil is only an absence of good).

    Not to mention that even if such is proved, the world’s evil is still strong evidence against an omnibenevolent entity, and if that somehow means there can’t be an omnipotent one either, so be it — an atheist certainly won’t complain!

    Ultimately, if all those theistic arguments were true, it would mean that an unjust universe is logically impossible. (Because the absence of God is logically impossible and God ensures perfect justice.) This makes scrambled eggs out of the very idea of justice (particularly divine justice) by rendering it unfalsifiable.

    It also betrays an odd lack of imagination — couldn’t Satan create a tiny, horrible universe? How could God stop him without infringing his free will (if that’s so darn important)? Indeed, why can’t God get away with inspiring every conceivable evil by suggesting it to a dictator or demon (the “free will loophole”)? Or would that be okay? Oh, the oddities theology makes us fathom…

  17. #17 Tulse
    March 11, 2011

    if “we can’t know/understand anything about God” is an acceptable response to theological questions, why are there still theology departments?

    A much deeper problem is why are there still worshippers? How is one supposed to know that such a god is worthy of worship? If a god’s motives/qualities/interests are so beyond human understanding, what precisely is there to praise? Why bother worshipping something that is so beyond human kenning? Indeed, the very notion seems positively Lovecraftian.

  18. #18 Lenoxuss
    March 11, 2011

    I think when people speak of God as mysterious, they really mean that he’s not completely fathomable. They just don’t sense the world in terms of “more likely / less likely”, but rather “certin / uncertain”. They don’t actually think God is like Two-Face in Batman, who makes decisions based on coin flips. Rather, God “has his reasons” just like people do, and people don’t always explain their purposes.

    Of course, the mystery exucse is definitely used much more than any human could get away with. A prime minister or president can’t claim to have a grand mysterious plan.

    Okay, actually, the nature of term limits means that s/he can, because there’s a straightforward “deadline” by which this mysterious plan for ultimate good can reach fruition (and some have been vindicated by history) so it’s not an ideal example. The real problem is that God is undemocratic! And that his propaganda is such blatant hyperbole. “Omnibenevolent”, oh please…

    Addendum: The song that just now came on the radio at the Internet café where I’m composing this: U2′s “Mysterious Ways”. Make of that what you will…

  19. #19 McWaffle
    March 11, 2011

    The analogy kinda works, if you assume the girl’s father has been tragically absent (either abandoned them or is assumed dead). The mother claims the dad bought the bike in order to make the daughter think he’s still around. But then the girl finds the receipt in the mother’s purse and concludes the mom bought it and her dad is gone. It is really sad that way, but works better as an analogy. Except that realizing God isn’t around is not sad, so it’s not a GOOD analogy, but better.

  20. #20 Jason Rosenhouse
    March 11, 2011

    Glenn –

    Well, OK, but I have plenty of other papers in my files that use the term “theistic skepticism.” I didn’t just make it up! But if “skeptical theism” has won the day then that’s the term I shall use from now on.

  21. #21 386sx
    March 11, 2011

    Further improving on the analogy: It would be like trying to ride a bike with a drunken whack-a-mole. Oh wait, that’s not an analogy because theology actually literally is a drunken whack-a-mole.

  22. #22 Josh Rosenau
    March 11, 2011

    For the record and for those commenters who don’t know, I’m not a theist and am not interested in any grand defense of theism, or of particular theistic frameworks.

    In referring to “justifying the ways of God to man,” my point was that I think much theology is not aimed at proving a priori that any god exists, but in trying to explore the nature of a god which one presumes is extant, reasoning back from the creation to learn about the creator. Even most attempted apologetic proofs really fall into that category (though those offering them often seem not to realize that), and I don’t get the sense that Giberson and Collins have set themselves the goal of proving a priori that the Christian God exists, only in showing how knowing that evolution is real impacts Christianity.

    If that is taken as an axiom, not as a point to be proven or disproven (as I gather Giberson and Collins do), then the question is mainly what the nature of that god would be. And it seems entirely unreasonable to suggest that we can apply a human model of the mind onto that (infinite, omnipotent, omniscient) god.

    Which doesn’t mean that this god’s mind would be totally unknowable. After all, we have the evidence of this god’s actions in the world to examine which can tell us something about how that god thinks (again, granting the assumption that the god exists). So if we take for granted that the Christian god exists, then the issue is not whether we with our limited capacities would use evolution to create but what it tells us about the otherwise unknowable mind of god when we learn that evolution was, in fact, the tool used.

    Granting that approach (which I don’t for various reasons, not least that I don’t grant the underlying assumption), it seems almost obligatory to conclude that evolution as we see it must have been the best available means for accomplishing whatever that god’s goals might have been. If we think it’s cruel and wasteful, that simply reflects some difference between how we see the world and how that god sees the world.

    For instance, the issue of extinction was raised above. But every auto worker knows that the cars she builds will eventually turn to rust (and before that, the car’s design will be surpassed, and it’ll be regarded as a heap of junk), but still she takes pride in building the car. Similarly, every human parent knows that the children they are bringing into the world will, in time, die. Yet we have children anyway, even though doing so consigns them to death. Is this cruel on our part? I don’t think so, because that window of existence is valuable in its own right, and the potential exists in each birth for great good (and great harm). Each live is valuable partly because it is finite and brief. Why shouldn’t we think a creator god would take the same attitude to individual humans and even entire species that we take to our children, to the cars we build and the books we write (most of which fail and are forgotten)?

    Or maybe this universe is an experiment and we are small parts of the study. Our lives and deaths, and the origins and extinctions of species, are of no more consequence to whatever god exists than the death of a bacterial colony is to a scientist. Do we think a scientist is cruel or evil for wiping out a petri dish of bacteria? If not, why not take the same attitude towards whatever god might exist?

    And if we still conclude that the god is cruel or indifferent, that still doesn’t mean god doesn’t exist. I wouldn’t regard such a being as worthy of worship, but others might. Either way, examining the empirical world (including religious texts) does let us narrow the range of possibilities about what a god might have intended and what that god’s nature might be (thus giving theology something to study without being able to conceive of the world the same way an omni-^3 being would).

  23. #23 JimR
    March 11, 2011

    W/O arguing the pros/cons of theism, the assumption that a god is infinite, omnipotent, omniscient seems to be a stretch. That seems to be a way to set up the straw man for unknowable, so that we cannot argue motivations. What if there is a god that is a dunce and all misery and evil is due to that? Then it seems it is better to hope there is no god at all.

  24. #24 Lenoxuss
    March 11, 2011

    Josh Rosenau @ 24:

    If we think it’s cruel and wasteful, that simply reflects some difference between how we see the world and how that god sees the world.

    Well, yes, this goes without saying (more or less). Why does the second one trump things, though? I could substitute as follows:

    If the the opposition party thinks the budget is wasteful, that simply reflects some difference between how they see the world and how the prime minister sees the world.

    Obviously, we need more information to figure out just what model is best; we can’t just take someone’s word for it. And some theists actually do the requisite work there (at least, they actually present defenses of apparently defective structures like the human retina), rather than play the mystery card. For that I do respect them.

    Extending from that, though, theology is clearly the wrong approach to figuring out the question of whether God’s intentions are wise, for the obvious reason that it presupposes an answer of “yes”, and could never allow itself to conclude anything contrary. An atheistic approach would also be a mistake there, for the obvious opposite reason that a purely atheist model cannot, by definition, even conclude that God exists. A scientific approach would be dicey, to say the least (it’s difficult to generate a scientific conception of something as inconsistent as the God hypothesis); what would be needed is something philosophical.

    That said, I think the issue I raised about theology examining these questions is a damning fact about religion in general. Within theism, there’s a uniform unquestioning acceptance of God’s goodness. (It’s combined, oddly enough, with immense disgreements over just what God does or wants — apparently, we’re not really sure who this God guy is, but we know he’s really nice.) There’s no genuine debate or effort to evaluate Creation.

    I feel that if God really existed, people would have mixed opinions on him, just like no actual human being has universal popularity. Instead, when people are swayed by evidence against God’s goodness, the cognitive dissonance causes them to drop the idea of God altogether. If I become disillusioned about my state’s governor, I’m not going to stop believing he exists, but that’s precisely the way it works for God — almost as if God were solely an idealization, consisting of people’s mental models of a perfect authority figure / artist / whatever.

  25. #25 Badger3k
    March 11, 2011

    “Either way, examining the empirical world (including religious texts) does let us narrow the range of possibilities about what a god might have intended and what that god’s nature might be (thus giving theology something to study without being able to conceive of the world the same way an omni-^3 being would).”

    Better yet, why not wait until these theologians have evidence that such a being exists before they start wasting time thinking what an imaginary being wants? Seriously, the amount of time and effort wasted into making things up is astounding.

  26. #26 gillt
    March 11, 2011

    Similarly, every human parent knows that the children they are bringing into the world will, in time, die.

    What parent would deny their child ever-lasting life if it were within their power to do so? Instead, they’re decision is between no child or hopefully a child that will outlive them but will nonetheless die anyway because it’s part of a larger system they have no control over. The Master of the Universe is not constrained this way.

    Bringing up extinction was to remind everyone of the apparent absurdity of suggesting that a planet where more than 99% of all species has gone extinct is the best of all possible worlds made by a just and benevolent creator.

  27. #27 H.H.
    March 11, 2011

    Josh wrote:

    If that is taken as an axiom, not as a point to be proven or disproven (as I gather Giberson and Collins do), then the question is mainly what the nature of that god would be. And it seems entirely unreasonable to suggest that we can apply a human model of the mind onto that (infinite, omnipotent, omniscient) god.

    Which doesn’t mean that this god’s mind would be totally unknowable. After all, we have the evidence of this god’s actions in the world to examine which can tell us something about how that god thinks (again, granting the assumption that the god exists). So if we take for granted that the Christian god exists, then the issue is not whether we with our limited capacities would use evolution to create but what it tells us about the otherwise unknowable mind of god when we learn that evolution was, in fact, the tool used.

    Ok, fine. Let us grant the assumption god exists and that nature is our only means of inferring the traits of this being. What does the mechanism of natural selection tell us about this god?

    Granting that approach (which I don’t for various reasons, not least that I don’t grant the underlying assumption), it seems almost obligatory to conclude that evolution as we see it must have been the best available means for accomplishing whatever that god’s goals might have been. If we think it’s cruel and wasteful, that simply reflects some difference between how we see the world and how that god sees the world.

    What? No, no, no. This is exactly the opposite of what you just suggested. This is rejecting the implications of what we see in nature in favor of a view that is not supported. If we see nature as cruel and wasteful, then the obligatory conclusion should be that god is cruel and wasteful. Otherwise you aren’t “inferring” anything about god here. You are merely presupposing it, and then letting your presuppositions supersede the evidence.

    Why shouldn’t we think a creator god would take the same attitude to individual humans and even entire species that we take to our children, to the cars we build and the books we write (most of which fail and are forgotten)?

    Do you think any parent would spare their children death if they were able? What kind of argument is this, Josh? We aren’t omnipotent gods, as you reminded us above, so why is it okay to constrain god by our limitations when you wish to excuse him but not when others wish to condemn him?

    Do we think a scientist is cruel or evil for wiping out a petri dish of bacteria? If not, why not take the same attitude towards whatever god might exist?

    Because bacteria aren’t intelligent, sentient beings, unlike humans.

    And if we still conclude that the god is cruel or indifferent, that still doesn’t mean god doesn’t exist. I wouldn’t regard such a being as worthy of worship, but others might.

    No, it doesn’t mean he doesn’t exist. (But remember, we had to start the conversation by hypothetically assuming that he does because even that much could not be established.) So this is where the evidence leaves us. No evidence for god, and if there is one he’s cruel and capricious. Hurray! You’ve finally managed to make sense.

    Either way, examining the empirical world (including religious texts) does let us narrow the range of possibilities about what a god might have intended and what that god’s nature might be (thus giving theology something to study without being able to conceive of the world the same way an omni-^3 being would).

    Oh, religious texts are part of the empirical world now? And how do they let us “narrow” the range of god intentions when most of them directly contradict each other? Should we privileging certain religious texts above others? Keep just the Abrahamic religions or include even polytheistic ones? The writings of Scientology? Church of Satan? You tell me where and how to draw the line.

  28. #28 386sx
    March 11, 2011

    Do we think a scientist is cruel or evil for wiping out a petri dish of bacteria? If not, why not take the same attitude towards whatever god might exist?

    That’s a good run at pinning “is/ought” and projection fallacies on Mr. Rosenhouse, but it fails since it is based on a quite severe category error. Scientists aren’t omnipotent/omnibenevolent/omni-niceness-and-cookies.

    You want to conveniently ignore the attributes the believers say their god has when it is convenient for you. You’re more than welcome to do so, but it isn’t very convincing, and it does put you in the “whack-a-mole” theology business.

  29. #29 Just Al
    March 11, 2011

    The idea that we should just throw up our hands and say “gosh, I dunno” about why a god would create a system guaranteed to produce colossal suffering to sentient beings over billions of years is, in my view, simply revolting.

    Yep. The problem with arguing that we mere mortals cannot comprehend the vast goodness of god’s plan fails to take into account that our brains work as (divinely) intended – we have moral values about suffering and harm, and god is plainly falling outside of them. We know what “good” is, and god ain’t it.

    So the choice is, abandon our ideas of what “good” actually is to conform to god’s plan, which admits to exactly the kind of immoral behavior and brutal society those upstanding religious folk think we’ll be prey to if we abandon god (and is probably impossible for us to do anyway); OR, find that “god” is a vapid concept and recognize how nature works, which lets us keep our concept of moral behavior intact. Hmmmmm…

  30. #30 Tacroy
    March 12, 2011

    Personally, I’d just be happy with a working definition of “God” – it seems that, rather than being monotheistic, Christianity is massively polytheistic: each Christian has their own, personal God who is, upon close examination, utterly unique to them.

    It’s like everyone claiming to have the same social security number, because every single one of them is a “social security number” – because they all have the same label, they’re the same thing, right?

  31. #31 Alex SL
    March 12, 2011

    Nice post, but the greatest entertainment value is in the twisted pretzel logic somebody must employ to justify other people’s faith in a benevolent god in the face of evolution.

  32. #32 Josh Rosenau
    March 12, 2011

    Like many commenters above, I see plenty of cruelty in the world, and I can certainly wish that things were other than they are. But not being omniscient and omnipotent, I can’t know whether the changes I’d make in the world would actually reduce the cruelty. Immortality for all sounds nice, sure, but plenty of novelists have built stories around the horrors that follow from immortality, no Not least Douglas Adams, who created Wowbagger the Infinitely Prolonged, whose immortality led him ultimately to “despise the Universe in general, and everybody in it in particular.” Maybe mortality is better than the alternative. As the song says and Shakespeare agrees, sometimes you have to be cruel to be kind.

    Then again, maybe things really could be better for us without ill consequences, but that change would not suit the infinite, omni-whatever intellect’s purposes. Maybe the god in question is omni-^3, but not omnibenevolent (which I never stipulated). Job shows a god willing to lie and inflict suffering on a lark (he and Satan basically bet on how much suffering Job will endure before cursing God, then God appears before Job and insists that there are totally good reasons for his suffering and how dare Job question God’s wisdom), so Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition hardly obliges us to make the assumption of benevolence. You cannot read Job and think that the ancient Hebrews thought God was perfect and concerned only with human wellbeing.

    I know religious theologians who have no beef with Dawkins’s opening description of the Old Testament God from TGD. Maybe whatever god might exist really is sadistic. What then?

    The problem with theology, and the reason I’m apathetic about these attempts to divine the nature of god(s), is that all of it relies on the assumptions that I and others have highlighted. Not only that god(s) exist (a big assumption!), but that god(s) have particular untestable traits and desires and capabilities. Maybe bad things happen because, while some god had the power to set the universe in motion, that god lacks the power to intervene thereafter (deism, or if you allow nudges but not overt intervention, process theology).

    It’s all unknowable and untestable, and doesn’t make any difference in how I’d live my life, so apathistic agnosticism seems the only way forward, but it’s interesting to try figuring out how other folks might see the issue (we can’t put ourselves in a god’s mindset, but we should be able to do that for other humans). Thanks all for indulging me.

  33. #33 BenSix
    March 12, 2011

    Moreover, the logic of the evolutionary process is such that whenever nature tries to explore true selflessness and altruism, it is immediately punished by natural selection. All of this talk about nature being free or autonomous or engaging in explorations is just a crass abuse of language. It is a category error; mindless nature is not the sort of thing that can be free or autonomous.

    Makes sense to me. It’s also a bit heartless to think of nature as some kind of autonomous whole, as if it can just weather hardship rather than – as with, say, the tortured zebra or half-chewed gazelle – comprise billions of individual agonies.

  34. #34 Pablo M. H.
    March 12, 2011

    You can put yourself in whatever twisted mindset you want, but why waste your time with something unknowable, untestable, and irrelevant?

    The claims about god in the Judeo-Christian tradition are so patently contradictory and absurd that the only way forward with respect to THAT deity is atheism, i. e. that particular god, as it is presented to us, cannot and does not exist.

    You can remain agnostic and apathetic about some ineffable imagined deity. Fine. But all the gods of organized religions and sects are demonstrably born of human storytelling, and part of the countless mythologies that have come and gone over the eons. Can we agree on that much?

  35. #35 gillt
    March 12, 2011

    …but it’s interesting to try figuring out how other folks might see the issue

    I don’t buy it. Unless Josh Rosenau has Gnostic friends and is here defending their views, speculating on demiurges and cruel gods is not trying to figure out how other folks might see the issue, especially Collins and Giberson and most of the Judeo-Christian-Islamic world.

  36. #36 J.J.E.
    March 13, 2011

    Josh, I don’t see how your description is at all intellectually consistent given how dismissive you are of creationism. You make up all of these hypothetical roadblocks to objections to theism and then say it is irrelevant anyway so you’ll be apathetic. But don’t you see, all of those roadblocks are equally applicable to more specific objections, like those you deploy against creationism? The only difference is that you care about creationism v evolution, but you don’t care if religion continues to be strong. But just because you care less about weakening the grip of religion doesn’t mean you get to change your standards of skepticism without having this hypocrisy pointed out to you.

  37. #37 Bill Walker
    March 13, 2011

    At eighty five, a loong time Atheist, I am satisfied that all of the thousands of religious beliefs are simply the ones geography & parentage laid on us, with few exceptions. The biggest of these exceptions are those of us who have put it all behind. Nature rules.

  38. #38 heddle
    March 14, 2011

    As much as I respect Jason, he has never convinced me that evolution contributes to the problem of evil in some unique way. I’ll point out once again, that if you consider:

    1) Theistic evolution (a la Collins)
    2) OEC w/o evolution (a la Hugh Ross)

    They both have the same amount of “red tooth and claw.” They both have the same problem of evil relative to YECism. Whether the problem of evil is much worse than for YECism (or not) is irrelevant. Theistic evolution and non-evolution OECism increase the problem of evil by the same amount. Evolution is no more of a problem than non-evolution OECism.

  39. #39 Jason Rosenhouse
    March 14, 2011

    Theistic evolutionists have to explain why a good God would create through a bloody and wasteful process when it certainly seems like he had other options, such as direct supernatural creation or creation through a more gentle natural process. I don’t think you can defuse that objection by arguing that OEC’s face big problems of their own.

  40. #40 david
    March 14, 2011

    I could not have stood to do the review myself unless I were getting paid.

    The arguments, the best by Jason, are very old, as with Job, his three friends, the wife, the messenger, Jemima, and something like Jesus walking on the water, same stuff, to me, all as old as Homer. In Sunday school they never figure out all the arguments, can’t since every word is sacred, so each word must be right and holy, nor do they read the juicy part about Job’s wife grinding on another, good evidence for who was on top, while in the arguments alternate generations, about, must reword and redefine, forget Job and Jemima, which is the way of the world, flipping who is on top or flipping who listens to the storm god or thinks he does not exist.

    The basic rhetorical strategy of Collins and his machin is to refer to a vague “we” which means of course “right thinking Christians.” The two lads are telling those Christians that here is a new Catechism, with points for saying, to be repeated as a belief.

    On the other hand, instead of “we” Jason refers to “I,” telling.

  41. #41 heddle
    March 15, 2011

    Jason,

    OECs do not just face a big problem of their own–they face exactly the same problem. The difference between Hugh Ross and Collins is that 1) in the former God let all of species X suffer and die, and then supernatural introduced successor species Y, while 2) in the latter God let species X suffer and die, as he supernatural controlled the evolution into successor species Y.

    Both entail the same degree of suffering, and both face the exact same question: why didn’t god choose a more pleasant path?

  42. #42 Jason Rosenhouse
    March 15, 2011

    heddle –

    1) in the former God let all of species X suffer and die, and then supernatural introduced successor species Y, while 2) in the latter God let species X suffer and die, as he supernatural controlled the evolution into successor species Y.

    Actually, that looks like a pretty clear explanation for why they are not exactly the same problem. More to the point, though, I have no idea why you think this is relevant. Theistic evolutionists have a problem to solve. That OEC’s have a very similar problem to solve is neither here nor there.

  43. #43 eric
    March 15, 2011

    Jason, I think the point heddle is trying to make is that the ‘facts on the ground’ of how animals behave are the theodicy problem. So, its not that “Theistic evolutionists have to explain why a good God would create through a bloody and wasteful process…” Its that they have to explain why such a bloody and wasteful process exists, period, regardless of whether the process (of evolution) is creative or not. IOW if you imagine a world in which we had never thought up the TOE, theologians would have the same counter-omnibenevolence evidence to explain as they do now.

    Josh Rosenou: But not being omniscient and omnipotent, I can’t know whether the changes I’d make in the world would actually reduce the cruelty.

    That is not the point (IMO). The point is that this argument is used selectively and arbitrarily by theologians, and that it is this selective and arbitrary use which invalidates it. If theologians answered “God’s purpose is unknowable” to every question, that would be at least self-consistent. But they don’t. Instead, it appears God is only unknowable when the priest doesn’t have an opinion on the answer to a question.

    Thus, the “god is unknowable” reasoning takes on the classic form of a God of the gaps argument. When priests have an answer, they give it, but when they don’t, they substitute unknowability.

  44. #44 Ruth
    March 18, 2011

    I haven’t read the comments yet, so someone else has probably already made the same point, but surely a closer analogy would be that if the bicycle was supposed to have been delivered by Santa Claus, and the girl found out that her mother had actually bought it, this would be evidence that Santa Claus did not actually exist.

    Except of course that such an analogy would have made precisely the opposite point to the one that the authors wanted to make.

  45. #45 Captain Howdy
    March 21, 2011

    Evolution is menacing to a belief in God because it refutes the best argument ever devised for God’s existence.

    The best argument for It’s existence would be the Cosmological Argument, to which the theory of evolution has no bearing. (NB: The Cosmological Argument fails on other grounds.)

    Evolution is not in any meaningful way “menacing” to god beliefs, though it erodes certain western spiritual concepts, such as the primacy of humans within the animal kingdom (indeed, the placement of man among animals in the first place).

  46. #46 Jud Fink
    March 21, 2011

    Captain Howdy writes:

    The best argument for Its existence would be the Cosmological Argument, to which the theory of evolution has no bearing….

    Evolution is not in any meaningful way “menacing” to god beliefs….

    I’d say they’re both quite menacing, each bidding to nullify one of the Big Guy’s Greatest Hits: (1) Creation of the universe; and (2) Man, the pinnacle of Creation, possessed of an immortal soul.

    Thus all the fuss about Galileo, then Darwin.

  47. #47 Glenn Borchardt
    March 22, 2011

    Good work Jason! You obviously have gotten a few theists to examine their line of thought. You might be interested in my book, The Scientific Worldview, which explains the universal mechanism of evolution as being applicable to every portion of the universe, not just the biological.
    Glenn

  48. #48 Juno Walker
    March 23, 2011

    Collins is wrong from the start:

    “They argue that evolution is incompatible with a theistic worldview.”

    Evolution is not incompatible with just any theistic worldview; it is incompatible with a fundamentalist worldview – where “fundamentalist” means taking the Bible literally. And this type of theism is what is driving the anti-evolution legislation throughout the contiguous United States. Just check out NCSE’s website.

    Evolution is the death-blow to fundamentalist Christianity: without Adam & Eve and “original sin”, or “the fall”, or whatever you want to call it – there is NO NEED FOR A SAVIOR. There is no need for Jesus Christ (at least by the Bible’s logic). And yet both Jesus and Paul attest to the historicity of Adam.

    Of course, there are those who claim to know what in the Bible can be taken literally and what metaphorically; but they are in the throes of controversy amongst their fundamentalist, evangelical peers.

    Just sayin’

    Juno

The site is undergoing maintenance presently. Commenting has been disabled. Please check back later!