I will now follow-up on my post from Tuesday. In that post I made some criticisms of a recent talk given by philosopher Elliott Sober at the University of Chicago, the video of which is available here. In the ensuing comments, couchloc linked to this paper that Sober had written, the early sections of which discuss essentially the same material as what was presented in the talk.
Since it seems to me that the paper confirms everything I said in my original post, I felt it was worth diving in once again. Let me preface this, however, with something that really should go without saying. Nothing that I’m writing here should be interpreted as personally acrimonious towards Sober. I would direct you to this post from May 6 (Jerry did not post the video until May 7), where I linked to an interview I recently did with Think Atheist Radio. After looking at the list of previous guests I mentioned that I was excited to be in such distinguished company. I singled out four names in particular. Follow the link and note the first name on the list if you want to know my opinion of Sober. It is just that I am annoyed with him at the moment, since I think he is being very cavalier with regard to issues I happen to care about.
Since this is going to be a bit long, I have divided things into four sections:
- Did I misrepresent Sober’s argument?
- Are there any scientists who hold the extreme view Sober argues against?
- Is it trivial to show that modern science does not rule out the possibility of God-guided mutations?
- Is evolution silent on the question of whether God is involved in evolution?
Let us begin.
(1) In my original post I wrote:
[Jerry Coyne] embeds a video of philosopher Elliott Sober delivering a colloquium talk on the subject of whether it is logically possible that God could be subtly directing the mutations that arise in the course of evolution, even though biologists routinely describe those mutations as unguided.
In the comments Sober showed up to say this:
Jason Rosenhouse needs to read more carefully. The point of my lecture was not that “it is logically possible that God could be subtly directing the mutations that arise in the course of evolution.” The point was the evolutionary biology, when properly interpreted, is silent on this question, just as it is silent on the question of whether determinism is true.
This is a charge I take very seriously. I do make an effort to present the views of others accurately, especially when I am criticizing them. In this case, though, I don’t understand the basis for Sober’s criticism. For example, in his talk (at the 8:10 mark, specifically) Sober says:
So when I get started with the mutation issue, I’m interested in whether evolutionary theory is compatible not just with deism, which everybody thinks is true, but I’m interested in something that’s a bit more controversial, namely the question of whether evolutionary theory is compatible, logically compatible, with interventionism, and there I think a lot of people think, no way is that going to be true.
I would also point out that late in the talk Sober presents a slide labeled “Goals.” Here are the two goals he listed:
- My goal is not to defend any theistic position, but to point out that the science does not rule out some of them.
- There may be good reasons to reject theism, but these are philosophical reasons, not consequences of evolutionary biology.
Note that neither of those goals involves evolution being silent on the question of God-guided mutations, but the first goal sounds awfully similar to what I said.
But the paper I linked to above makes everything so stark and clear that I don’t see how anyone can claim I am misrepresenting Sober’s point. He writes:
Creationists maintain that the theory of evolution entails that there is no God. If they are right, then the theory has metaphysical implications. Atheistic evolutionists (e. g. Dennett 1995 and Provine 1989) often agree with creationists on this point. The conditional “if evolutionary theory is true, then there is no God” is therefore common ground. Where creationists have their modus tollens, these evolutionists have their modus ponens.
Both sides are wrong. Theistic evolutionism is a logically consistent position (Ruse 2000; Sober 2008b).
In saying that theistic evolutionism is logically consistent, I am not saying that it is plausible or true. I’m merely saying that it isn’t contradictory. Evolutionary theory is silent on the question of whether God exists. Even if you think the theory knocks the wind from the sails of the argument from design, you still need to consider the fact that there are other arguments for the existence of God. And even if you think that none of these arguments is rationally persuasive, you still need to consider whether belief in God must be based on evidence.
On the subject of mutations specifically Sober writes:
Theistic evolutionists can of course be deists, holding that God starts the universe in motion and then forever after declines to intervene. But there is no contradiction in their embracing a more active God whose post Creation interventions fly under the radar of evolutionary biology. Divine intervention isn’t part of science, but the theory of evolution does not entail that none occur.
That’s all plain as day, and it all says precisely what I said he said. Sober couldn’t be clearer that he is making a bare logical point, and he is equally clear about attributing to others a contrary view. The charge that I misrepresented him is groundless.
(2) In Tuesday’s post I asked
Who ever claimed that science has shown that it is flat-out logically impossible that God could be directing the mutations in a manner that is invisible to science?
In his talk, Sober provided no example. He simply asserted that this question causes controversy. In the paper he mentions Dennett and Provine. He specifically attributes to them the belief that, “if evolutionary theory is true, then there is no God.” I will show, however, that neither Dennett nor Provine believes this.
The Provine reference is to his essay “Progress in Evolution and Meaning of Life,” published in 1989 in the anthology Evolutionary Progress, edited by Matthew Nitecki. Much of the essay discusses certain historical questions about the nature of the neo-Darwinian synthesis. He also takes a dim view of theistic evolution. But does he hold the view Sober attributes to him? Referring to the narrowing of what were considered to be plausible mechanisms of evolution during the years when the synthesis came to be formed, Provine writes:
The evolutionary constriction drove from evolutionary biology all of the purposive theories of evolution that had been so common and popular before 1930. After the constriction, evolutionary biology was utterly devoid of purposive mechanisms. Thus one effect of the constriction was to make the conflict between evolution and religion inescapable, or put another way, the previously respectable compatibility of religion and evolution became less tenable.
Note that he says “less tenable” and not “untenable,” let alone “impossible.”
I think the statement from Provine that Sober had in mind was this one:
Modern science directly implies that the world is organized strictly in accordance with deterministic principles or chance. There are no purposive principles whatsoever in nature. There are no gods and no designing forces that are rationally detectable. The frequently made assertion that modern biology and the assumptions of the Judaeo-Christian tradition are fully compatible is false.
The key sentence there is, “There are no gods and no designing forces that are rationally detectable.” That leaves open the obvious possibility that God might be irrationally detectable. It seems clear to me that Provine’s point is that science has discovered not a shred of evidence to support the existence of purposive principles in nature, not that it is logically impossible that any such principles could exist.
This impression becomes clearer when you consider the discussion that follows this quote. Provine notes that many people say they see no conflict between science and religion. He does not accuse such people of being illogical, he merely asserts (without evidence) that essentially no evolutionary biologists are traditionally religious. Later he writes this:
Many theologians have reacted to the rise of modern science by retreating from traditional conceptions of God and its presence in the world, calling this a more sophisticated view. God used to be all around us earlier in our cultural history. It used to perform miracles. It used to guide its people. People could detect God’s presence all the time; but times have changed. God is more remote today. In fact, one cannot rationally discover anything that God does in the world anymore. A widespread theological view now exists saying that God started off the world, props it up and works through laws of nature, very subtly, so subtly that its action is undetectable. But that kind of God is effectively no different to my mind than atheism. To anyone who adopts this view I say, “Great, we’re in the same camp; now where do we get our morals if the universe just goes grinding on as it does?” This kind of God does nothing outside of the laws of nature, gives us no immortality, no foundation for morals, or any of the things we want from a God and from religion.
There is certainly much to object to in that paragraph. For our purposes, though, the relevant part is that he plainly does allow for the logical possibility that God works through natural laws in ways that are too subtle for us to detect. Thus, he does not accept Sober’s stark conditional that, “if evolution is true then God does not exist.”
Let us move now to Dennett. The reference is to Dennett’s book Darwin’s Dangerous Idea. That is a very big book, and Sober does not provide a page number, let alone a quote, to show that Dennett holds the view he (Sober) describes. I have browsed through the book but have not found anything to justify Sober’s characterization of Dennett’s view.
So I took the liberty of writing to Dennett to ask him about this. He replied that Sober has mischaracterized his view. He sent an e-mail to Sober, part of which I now quote with his permission:
Can you cite any passage in DDI or elsewhere in which I accept this entailment? Consider the attachment, from my recent little book with Plantinga. The passages I quote therein from my earlier work make it quite clear, I would think, that I have never accepted the ENTAILMENT you say I do. The whole point of my “Supermanism,” as should be clear, is to agree with Plantinga about the logical consistency of evolutionary theory and theism–and then to show how negligible this undeniable fact is.
In Chapter Two of his book with Plantinga he writes (this comes after a long self-quote from a 1990 paper):
So I agree that contemporary evolutionary theory can’t demonstrate the absence of intelligent design, and any biologist who insists that we can is overstating the case. But Plantinga must deal with the implications of another sentence from that paper: “Prehistoric fiddling by intergalactic visitors with the DNA of earthly species cannot be ruled out, except on grounds that it is an entirely gratuitous fantasy.” Now we might draw the debate to a close right here. I could happily concede that anybody who wishes to entertain the fantasy that intelligent designers from another galaxy (or another dimension) fiddled with our evolutionary prehistory, or salted Earth with life forms, or even arranged for the constants of physics to take on their particular “local values” will find their fantasy consistent with contemporary evolutionary biology.
So that settles that. Sober is wrong with respect to Dennett. Provine comes closer to saying what Sober needs, but it seems clear that he, too, would reject Sober’s stark conditional.
The only other attempt to produce a scientist who would accept Sober’s conditional was provided by Nick Matzke in the comments. He quotes Jerry Coyne writing:
The incompatibility between religious claims and scientific truths is most evident when it comes to evolution. As I noted above, not only do 40% of Americans hold the profoundly antiscientific view that humans were created within the last 10,000 years in their present form, but an additional 38% favor a form of human evolution guided by God. That’s also unscientific, since biologists see humans, like any other species, as having evolved by purely naturalistic processes. There’s a reason, after all, why Darwin’s greatest idea was called natural selection. Those who wish to harmonize science and faith tend to sweep this problem under the rug, but the fact remains that 78% of Americans disagree with the scientific view of evolution.
I can’t even imagine what Nick is thinking here. Nothing in that paragraph comes close to saying that it’s logically impossible that God guides the mutations on which evolution relies. Coyne says it’s unscientific to think that evolution is guided. Does anyone disagree? He says that a large percentage of Americans disagree with the scientific view of evolution. Plainly they do, since the scientific view is that the theory works just fine without any sort of divine guidance. In context it seems clear that the “incompatibility” referred to in the opening sentence is not meant to refer to an actual logical contradiction. Moreover, we know from Coyne’s posts about Sober’s talk that he (Coyne) regards Sober’s point as trivial. Plainly, then, he does not think Sober has refuted some deeply held belief of his.
Until someone can provide a counterexample, I stand by my statement that no scientist holds the extreme view Sober is arguing against.
As an aside, I also don’t think there are many creationists who hold the view that theistic evolution is logically impossible. You could probably find some juicy quotes that seem to say otherwise, but I think that even when creationists use terms like “implies” or “entails” they often do not mean something as precise as what a logician or philosopher would mean. At any rate, a common mantra I have heard from creationists goes something like this: “If science managed to prove that evolution was correct, that would not affect my faith. But I think the scientific evidence is against evolution.”
(3) Note that in the material quoted in the last section, we saw Dennett suggesting that it was trivially true that evolution cannot absolutely demonstrate the absence of intelligent design. That is my view as well. Sober writes very lucidly about what biologists mean when they say that mutations are unguided and about some of the evidence on which this conclusion is based. It seems to me, though, that he is working awfully hard to establish something that is genuinely obvious.
If you want to accept everything modern science is telling us about mutations, and also want to believe that God personally guides some of those mutations, just hypothesize that God does not intervene very often. We could imagine that most of the time God is content to let familiar naturalistic causes play out, but periodically He intervenes to lead evolution down some preferred course. It is hard to imagine what empirical evidence we might collect that could ever refute such an idea.
Most of Sober’s talk was centered around this point. His paper merely uses this discussion as a prelude to more technical questions (in the philosophy of mathematics, as it happens). But given that Sober seems genuinely to think he has resolved a question that causes controversy among knowledgeable people, I will need someone to explain to me what is difficult about establishing the logical possibility of divine intervention in the evolutionary process.
(4) Let us recall the statement from Sober’s paper that I quoted earlier:
In saying that theistic evolutionism is logically consistent, I am not saying that it is plausible or true. I’m merely saying that it isn’t contradictory. Evolutionary theory is silent on the question of whether God exists.
I’m not sure if I agree with this. At the very least, there seems to be a big jump from saying theistic evolution is not contradictory to saying that evolution is silent on the question of whether God exists.
Let us first conceive of God merely as some sort of superintelligence responsible for creating the world. Prior to Darwin’s work we had what most people regarded as a slam-dunk argument for God’s existence: Paley’s version of the design argument. After Darwin, that argument is completely dead. Does that not imply that evolution has something to say on the question of God’s existence? Evolution does not resolve the question of whether God exists, but it certainly must be included in any discussion of the question.
If we add to our thinking the usual assumptions that are made about God, the he is all-loving, all-powerful and all-knowing, then the situation becomes more stark. Evolution poses grave challenges to common beliefs about God. As an analogy, we might say that no amount of evidence presented at a courtroom trial could ever establish to a certainty that the defendant is guilty, but it would be strange to say that the evidence is silent on the question of the defendant’s guilt. That’s how I would describe the relationship between evolution and religion. Evolution cannot prove that traditional religion is false, but it certainly has some very loud and important things to say on the subject.
Perhaps Sober has in mind some very precise notion of what it means to say evolution is “silent” on the question of God’s existence. For now, though, I’m inclined to say that evolution is definitely not silent on these questions, even though it ultimately does not resolve anything.
So that’s it. Sorry for going on for so long. Feel free to have at it in the comments, but fair warning that it will take extraordinary provocation to get me to jump in. I have spent rather a lot of time on this already.