With all of my recent travels, I feel like most of the last few weeks have been spent either on the road or preparing to go on the road. I will be making another pilgrimage to New York next week, mostly business this time, but some pleasure as well. As a result, a lot of good blog fodder has been falling through the cracks.
So, let’s try to get caught up on a few things. The first orders of business are two recent posts from Michael Ruse. In the first, he once more offers his thoughts on the question of human inevitability in evolution. He writes:
The problem is this. If Christianity is true, then the existence of humans cannot be a contingent matter. Perhaps we could have had green skin and twelve fingers. Perhaps even we could have had three sexes. But we had to exist. The whole story is meaningless if creatures made in the image of God – that is creatures with intelligence and a sense of morality – never appeared or will appear.
But Darwinian evolutionary theory flatly denies that any species, including humans, must appear. The process is random, not in the sense of uncaused, but in the sense of unguided, without direction. Natural selection gives no guarantee that any particular direction will be taken, and Mendelian/molecular genetics backs this up, by insisting that new variations, mutations, do not appear to needed order.
Yes, that is the problem. It’s a big one, too.
Now there are ways you can try to get around this clash, starting with the supposition that somehow God puts in enough guidance to get the job done. Perhaps down at the quantum level, God gives mutation a shove every now and then.
Logically, given the existence of God, I suppose this is possible. But it is to make religion mess with science, and Coyne is rightfully scornful of such a move. As was Charles Darwin a century and a half ago when his American chum, Asa Gray, professor of botany at Harvard, put forwards such a theistic take on evolution. Darwin simply said that this takes evolution out of science. (Emphasis Added)
That boldface remark is interesting. It is clearly directed at Elliott Sober, who, as we saw in two recent posts here and here, has argued that evolutionary science does not rule out the possibility of God-guided mutations. Ruse’s point here, that God-guided mutations are a logically possible but not very satisfying solution, is precisely the one that I made in my own reply to Sober. I’m glad Ruse agrees with my argument.
My bigger issue with Sober, and with many other non-believing philosophers who try to reconcile science and religion, is that they seem to think their job is done when they provide a logically possible scenario in which evolution and Christianity are both true. They never seem to worry too much about whether their scenario is plausible, or consistent with the traditions of the religion to which they are addressed. Sober himself was perfectly forthright that he does not find the idea of God-guided mutations plausible. He nonetheless seemed sincere in his belief that he had made a serious contribution to reconciling science and religion.
In this paragraph Ruse is properly dismissive of such invented-from-whole-cloth reconciliations of science and religion. Which is interesting, because, after several paragraphs in which he (correctly, in my view) discards other popular arguments on this point, he then offers his own solution:
I think, along with Augustine and Aquinas, at times like this, because it is a theological problem and not a science one, we need a theological solution not a scientific one. So if I invoke, as I will, the notion of multiverses – other universes either parallel to ours or sequential – I am doing so not on scientific grounds (although I know there are those who would defend them on scientific grounds) but on theological grounds. The God of Christianity can create these if He has a mind to.
Since we humans have evolved by Darwinian processes, then we could have evolved by Darwinian processes. Just keep creating universes until it happens! And don’t put any direction into the process.
You might think that this is an awful waste, but as God told Job, His ways are not our ways. In any case, as philosopher William Whewell pointed out in 1853 in his Plurality of Worlds, judged this way there is already an awful lot of waste in this universe. Think of the zillions of uninhabited globes out there.
You might think that God is going to get pretty bored waiting for us to come along. Well, he could try reading The Critique of Pure Reason. He might just get through it. More seriously, this is not a problem for the Christian God, because this being is outside time and space.
But is this not to admit a limitation on God’s powers? He cannot guarantee that we will appear the first time around? But no one – except possibly Descartes – has ever said that God can do the impossible, make 2+2=5 or Darwinian evolution guarantee a result first time around. So there is no real limitation.
Do I believe any of this? Not really, but that is not the point. The real point is that New Atheists like Jerry Coyne have some good arguments but before they declare the case closed they should let the philosophers and theologians have their turn to fight back. That is what a doppelganger is good for.
There is much to comment on here. First, to judge from these paragraphs it seems that “providing a theological solution” is just a euphemism for “making it up as you go along.” At no point does Ruse refer to some prior body of theological writing, or to the traditional teachings of the Church, or to anything else along these lines. He just tosses it off. Maybe God created multiple universes, confident that humans would appear in one of them. Problem solved! One wonders how long it took him to come up with this suggestion. Did it arise from his careful study of theology or from his many years of deep contemplation of the philosophy of religion? Or did he just make it up in the shower one morning?
(Incidentally, no fair arguing that this was just a short blog post with no room for specifics. If you would care to read his book Science and Spirituality, where he also floats this argument, you will find he provides no further detail there.)
The second point is that Ruse does not include, among the few counterpoints he considers, what is the most obvious and critical issue. One of the reasons Darwinian evolution is tough for a religious person to accept is the awesome amount of suffering and cruelty it entails. It seems like a horrible way of creating anything, especially when God could presumably have created everything all at once just as the Bible says He did. But if it’s hard enough to explain why God would set the process in motion once, how much harder is it to explain why God would set the process in motion multiple times, just waiting for humans to appear at least once?
We next note Ruse’s statement that it is beside the point that he does not believe it himself. The important question, though, is whether religious people should believe it. This is only a serious contribution to science/religion compatibility if it is true, or at least plausible. Ruse understood this point a few paragraphs ago, but seems to have forgotten it here.
The final point involves Ruse’s plea that the philosophers and theologians should be given their chance to fight back. Well, what are they waiting for? The issues here haven’t changed since Darwin’s time, and the philosophers have had a century and a half to find a good argument. Ruse seems to agree that they have failed in that regard. People like Jerry Coyne (and myself) are simply responding to the arguments we have seen from the philosophers and theologians, the same arguments for which Ruse himself has little use.
Now let us move briefly to Ruse’s follow-up post. He concludes with:
I see major similarities between the Tea Party and the New Atheists. There is a moral absolutism about both movements. It scares me. Always I think of Cromwell and the Church of Scotland. “I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible that you may be mistaken.” Perhaps it is not so much a question of being mistaken, but of realizing and recognizing that others do not share your views, and that while you have the right – and the obligation – to oppose them, you must live with them.
And if I – a non-believer – can show the world that it is possible to be both a Darwinian and a Christian, that is all of the political motivation I want.
I won’t even bother with Ruse’s standard twaddle comparing the New Atheists and the Tea Party. Instead, it’s that final statement that really caught my eye.
Ruse is perfectly forthright about his nonbelief, but anyone reading a few pages at random from Can a Darwinian be a Christian would quickly figure it out for themselves. He doesn’t write like someone who has any emotional energy invested in this issue. He treats it like a philosophical game.
His writing on this subject reminds me of the punchline to the joke Jane Fonda told in a recent episode of The Newsroom (video here):
Moses and Jesus are playing golf. Moses steps up to the tee and hits a beautiful shot 250 yards straight down the middle of the fairway. Jesus steps up to the tee and hooks one into the trees. Jesus looks up to the heavens and raises his arms. Suddenly the sky darkens. A thunderclap rings out. Rain pours down and a stream rises among the trees. The golf ball, floating on top, finds its way into the mouth of a fish. Then a bird flies down and takes the fish and the ball out over the green and drops it in the cup for a hole in one. Jesus turns to Moses with a satisfied grin.
And Moses says, “Look. Do you want to play golf or do you want to f*ck around?”
That’s how so much of Ruse’s writing on this topic seems to me. Do you want to reconcile science and religion or do you want to f*ck around? Offhand suggestions about God-guided mutations or about God creating multiple universes just so humans could appear in one of them are examples of the latter. Ruse will have to work harder if he wants to make a serious contribution to the former.