Evolving Thoughts

There’s been a highly publicised conference at the Vatican about evolution. There are good and sensible things being said there, and silly ones.

The good and sensible things are that nobody questions that evolution occurs, and it is asserted that faith and science cannot conflict (which means, therefore, that faith will have to adapt to science, since science changes only in response to the evidence).

The less sensible things are that evolution is not the cause of atheism, and that those, specifically mentioning Dawkins, who claim that it does are being “scientistic”, that is, practising scientism. This is the view that science licenses broad metaphysical conclusions over and above the metaphysics of its specific theories.

While I do disagree with Dawkins that science makes atheism more likely, I have not seen him say explicitly that science shows there is no God. If he had, he’d be roundly laughed at, the way the reverse claims are (think: Deepak Chopra. It’s OK, I’ll wait until you catch your breath… ready now? Good).

But in one of the most quoted and misunderstood passages of all time, Dawkins said

An atheist before Darwin could have said, following Hume: “I have no explanation for complex biological design. All I know is that God isn’t a good explanation, so we must wait and hope that somebody comes up with a better one.” I can’t help feeling that such a position, though logically sound, would have left one feeling pretty unsatisfied, and that although atheism might have been logically tenable before Darwin, Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist. [The Blind Watchmaker, page 6]

Strictly and carefully read, Dawkins is 100% correct. An atheist before there was an explanation of apparent design in the natural (that is, biological) world could only say that there had to be some kind of account of which we do not know, yet. Kant a century before Darwin went so far as to state with typical Teutonic authority that “there will never be a Newton of a blade of grass”:

Now if this proposition, based on inevitably necessary maxim of our judgement, is completely satisfactory from every human point of view for both the speculative and practical use of our reason, I should like to know what we lose by not being able to prove it as also valid for higher beings, from objective grounds (which unfortunately are beyond our faculties). It is indeed quite certain that we cannot adequately cognize, much less explain, organized beings and their internal possibility according to mere mechanical principles of nature, and we can say boldly it is alike certain that it is absurd for men to make any such attempt or to hope that another Newton will arise in the future who shall make comprehensible by us the production of a blade of grass according to natural laws which no design has ordered. [Critique of Pure Reason, §75, 400)

So Darwin’s a posteriori theory of function and design by natural selection is in fact just what Dawkins said – a mechanical account of what had been a real stumbling block before Darwin.

This is not an argument from evolution to atheism. Atheism is a position one reaches for a multiplicity of reasons, and whether or not living things evolved by natural selection are, I warrant, far from being the major reason (the problem of evil, and the logical difficulties of infinite beings would have a far greater impact, I suspect). But if you are an atheist, and you want to make sense of the apparently teleological world, Darwin does indeed make it possible to be intellectually fulfilled.

It is noteworthy that the false reading of Dawkins is being promoted by the Catholic hierarchy. It no doubt helps them, both politically with their audience and personally, to think that he says that evolution proves there is no God. I have no doubt that Dawkins thinks – indeed he said as much in The God Delusion – that evolution reduces the likelihood of there being a God, and this is true given that prior to Darwin, the teleological nature of living things was touted as a reason for thinking their was a God. But he never, so far as I can see, asserts what he is supposed to assert. I’ve been critical of Dawkins before, but let’s not overstate our case.

So by all means assert that evolution is not responsible for atheism. It’s true in one way. By all means the Church should accept the reality, and I mean the complete theoretical story, of evolution. Nice to see the Church knock both ID and creationism in a semi-official capacity. But let’s not start accusing folk of things they do not say.

Comments

  1. #1 The Science Pundit
    March 7, 2009

    Dawkins does subscribe to the Victor Stenger thesis that “God” is a scientific claim in that a world with God would be noticably different from a world without God–and that would be testable, and the God hypothesis has thus far failed (I’m paraphrasing).

  2. #2 Brandon
    March 7, 2009

    It is noteworthy that the false reading of Dawkins is being promoted by the Catholic hierarchy.

    Except, to be fair, it’s really not ‘the Catholic hierarchy’; it’s Cardinal Levada, who falls somewhat short of being ‘the Catholic hierarchy’, making some remarks in a non-official capacity at an academic conference.

    The Pontifical Gregorian University has the program up, with abstracts of all the papers.

  3. #3 John Pieret
    March 7, 2009

    Unless things have change greatly since I was last even nominally in the Church, Cardinal Levada, as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (formerly the Supreme Sacred Congregation of the Universal Inquisition or the Holy Office) doesn’t say anything in public in a non-official capacity.

  4. #4 Mike Haubrich, FCD
    March 7, 2009

    While I do disagree with Dawkins that science makes atheism more likely, I have not seen him say explicitly that science shows there is no God.

    As recently as Wednesday, he reiterated that it would be foolish of him to claim that there is no God; and just as foolish to claim that there are no fairies. They are equally as unlikely, yet still possible.

  5. #5 Scott Hatfield, OM
    March 7, 2009

    John, I’m a theist, and I strongly agree with your ‘take’ here. The Church is doing some laudable things, but it seems the temptation to tweak Dawkins is just too great for some, even Cardinals.

    Personally, I’m of the view that this is the tip of the iceberg. There is a power struggle within the church, and the issue of ‘intelligent design’ is a flashpoint for conservatives concerned about the magisterium of the Church. Given Cardinal Schonborn’s trial balloon on behalf of ID some months back, this conference represents something of a smackdown for those folk, really. Somewhere, I think, it was imagined that a little smack directed back at Dawkins would balance things out.

    If so, they’re mistaken. There’s no going back now where evolution is concerned.

  6. #6 Chris' Wills
    March 7, 2009

    For a Christian, belief in a creator God is required and also that God is intelligent (though ‘all knowing’ might be better as the need for intelligence isn’t required then).

    Teleology is also required, however it is achieved, as God has a purpose for his creation.

    This isn’t to say that evolution should be out of bounds for the faithful, may just be Gods way of doing it within the bounds set by the constraints of this creation/universe.

    I’m not sure that (which means, therefore, that faith will have to adapt to science, since science changes only in response to the evidence) is correct, faith shouldn’t try to adapt to science at all times.

    If it did so it would be in a strange situation as science truths aren’t constant; they are working models that are effective and useful but are subject to change as new information or more inclusive models are developed (the sun centred model of the solar system was, for a long period, less predictive than the epi-cycles upon epi-cycles of the earth centred system. It happened to be true about the suns position except people remained in love with circles and only when ellipses replaced circles did it come into its own (i.e. navigators found it more useful) and the earth centred system ceased to be taught. Phologiston was another reasonable model for its time, as was the concept of heat as a fluid which is still used).

    What religion should do is keep stop trying to force science into supporting its claims, the methodology of natural philosophy has been set for a long time and gross interference by God was precluded. They can of course discuss what science tells us about the natural world, just as anyone can.

  7. #7 Brandon
    March 7, 2009

    Unless things have change greatly since I was last even nominally in the Church, Cardinal Levada, as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (formerly the Supreme Sacred Congregation of the Universal Inquisition or the Holy Office) doesn’t say anything in public in a non-official capacity.

    This does not seem to be coherent; how would that work under any papal administration? The CDF doesn’t have carte blanche; like every organization in the Curia it has procedures and a jurisdiction that any official communication presupposes.

    In any case, I find on some searching that we don’t have Levada’s actual words on this particular point; the quote in the article linked to in the post is attributed to someone else (a non-Catholic, in fact) and in other reports, the claim attributed to Levada is a vague summary by the reporter, who may or may not have gotten it right. (I don’t think this affects the main point of the post, by the way.)

  8. #8 Chris' Wills
    March 7, 2009

    Posted by: The Science Pundit #1

    Dawkins does subscribe to the Victor Stenger thesis that “God” is a scientific claim in that a world with God would be noticably different from a world without God–and that would be testable, and the God hypothesis has thus far failed (I’m paraphrasing).

    Do either Dawkins or Stenger give any examples of what these differences might be?

    Differences that could be tested scientifically rather than their personal preferences of how things should be.

  9. #9 Allen Hazen
    March 7, 2009

    Just for factual background: the (I’ve already forgotten first name) Russell, whose lecture is the main thing reported on in the press release John’s first link goes to, is identified as a “physicist and theologian” and as the “founder and director” of the “Center for Theology and Natural Science”. Wikipedia-ing back, the CTNS turns out to be affiliated with (given my experience of how academic links work, this probably means a mail pigonhole and if they are lucky an office and some part time secretarial help, but I suspect the CTNS has to contribute financially for the latter) with the “Graduate Theological Union” of Berkeley, CA.

    At which point we get some information that maybe tells us where he (Russell) is coming from: the GTU is a consortium of nine theological seminaries (none, probably, financially able to stand alone) three Catholic and six Protestant, the Protestant ones representing “main stream,” generally liberal, denominations. Including the Unitarian Universalists: a church that started as (two, later merged) liberal splinters from American Protestantism, and which tolerates (celebrates?) a range of belief among its members and pastors, a range that includes theists and atheists.

    So: not your Bible-thumping reactionaries.

  10. #10 KATZ
    March 7, 2009

    Brandon @ 8

    It is up to theists to state what the difference is between a world with god and a world without god. Then scientists will be able to investigate whether that difference exists. The atheist’s position is that there is no difference and therefore one cannot claim there is a god.

  11. #11 Chris' Wills
    March 7, 2009

    #10 Posted by: KATZ
    It is up to theists to state what the difference is between a world with god and a world without god. Then scientists will be able to investigate whether that difference exists.

    Why?
    Theists don’t, in the main, claim that it is a scientifically testable claim.
    As Stenger and Dawkins are said to make that claim (a positive claim) it is surely up to them to actually clarify what they mean.

    The atheist’s position is that there is no difference and therefore one cannot claim there is a god.

    If the atheist position is that there is no difference how does that preclude God or deny one the right to claim that one exists.

    Anyway, surely the atheist position is that there is no God or perhaps that they have no evidence that they deem acceptable that a God exists or is necessary.

  12. #12 John Farrell
    March 8, 2009

    Somewhere, I think, it was imagined that a little smack directed back at Dawkins would balance things out.
    I think this is exactly right, in fact Ken Miller alluded to this in one of his presentations (having heard, if I recall correctly, as much from some of the hierarchy he’s been in touch with). There’s a concern in Rome that if the Church is too obviously one-sided in favor of evolution, it will give credence to Dawkins and his ‘movement’, so they feel obligated to make some ‘little smacks’. I don’t agree with this approach myself, but I can understand the rather defensive concern that leads to it.

    For that very reason, I think you’re not going to see any more official statements on evolution than we’ve already had (Pope John Paul’s 1996 statement to the Pontifical Academy).

    Alas, that the Church insists on diplomacy precisely on those subjects we wish it wouldn’t.
    ;)

  13. #13 Aaron Clausen
    March 8, 2009

    John Farrell wrote:

    I think this is exactly right, in fact Ken Miller alluded to this in one of his presentations (having heard, if I recall correctly, as much from some of the hierarchy he’s been in touch with). There’s a concern in Rome that if the Church is too obviously one-sided in favor of evolution, it will give credence to Dawkins and his ‘movement’, so they feel obligated to make some ‘little smacks’. I don’t agree with this approach myself, but I can understand the rather defensive concern that leads to it.

    What is particularly sad here is the idea that Dawkins is some sort of ringleader, or pontiff if you will :-) in this alleged anti-religion. Now I don’t want to defend Dawkins too much, I think his anti-theistic arguments are pretty foolish and really don’t stand too close an analysis. But I don’t recall anyone sending the ballot my way so I could elect Dawkins as Supreme Leader of the Anti-Church. He’s a guy, a clever guy who has done some damned good science. Yes, he’s combative, but then again he has, for some time, been some sort of lightning rod for every religious kook out there with an axe to grind.

    It seems to me that it is a number of churches and religious commentators who have given Dawkins this position of importance, not Dawkins himself or many atheists either. Reactions like this from the Church, its supporters or representatives leads me to believe that they’re actually rather afraid of Richard Dawkins, which is pretty pitiable if you ask me.

  14. #14 jeff
    March 8, 2009

    He’s a guy, a clever guy who has done some damned good science.

    Well, I would say damned good science writing (and I’ve read most of his books). Dawkins may not be a ringleader per se, but he seems to be the most visible of the New Atheists, whether intentional or not. He’s certainly been in the game for a while, and lately he’s focused far more on atheism than science. His ability to communicate his ideas clearly and cogently in a public setting make him a formidable adversary for religion in general, but I would not say his ideas are terribly deep, or that he’s the last word on atheism, science, or anything else. He’s just a fine communicator, and plays the media well. It wouldn’t surprise me if the Church was worried about him.

  15. #15 John Pieret
    March 8, 2009

    … how would that work under any papal administration? The CDF doesn’t have carte blanche; like every organization in the Curia it has procedures and a jurisdiction that any official communication presupposes.

    It would work pretty much the same way it does in any government. You don’t suppose Hillary Clinton will be going around making off-the-cuff coments in public forums about, say, Russian foreign policy, without considering the fact that there will be a hoard of reporters trying to parse her every word for news stories, do you? If remarks are made by Clinton or by Levada about matters in their areas of authority (and matters of faith vs. science are in Levada’s area of authority), they will toe the official line, and they will make sure that they know what that official line is ahead of time … if they want to keep their jobs at least.

  16. #16 Anton Mates
    March 9, 2009

    Do either Dawkins or Stenger give any examples of what these differences might be?

    To my knowledge, both are considering specific hypothetical Gods who answer prayers, hand down messages via miraculous signs, and so forth. Thus, observable differences might be miracles which are genuinely difficult to explain away, a statistical pattern of successful faith healings, etc.

    There are of course other possible gods whose existence entails no observable consequences for the universe. Dawkins certainly (not sure about Stenger) acknowledges that such gods are conceivable. But (says he) since belief in such gods is not currently a significant social force, he doesn’t worry much about arguing against them.

  17. #17 Kaz Dragon
    March 10, 2009

    (Hello, everyone. This is my first post, thought I’ve been lurking for a while. *Shakes hands all around*)

    @11
    Theists don’t, in the main, claim that [their god] is a scientifically testable claim.

    But they do! Their god cures cancer, heals blindness, answers prayers. He, she or it guides footballs into receivers waiting hands.

    Any time a believer states that the deity of their choice does something that results in something in our universe happening, that is a testable claim.

  18. #18 Jason Dick
    March 10, 2009

    The less sensible things are that evolution is not the cause of atheism

    I don’t quite see why this is not sensible, unless you mean the fact that it would be more sensible to state that all of science is a cause of atheism, not just evolution. I gather from the context, however, that you do not mean this. It doesn’t make much sense to me to consider evolution as being special among the sciences as leading to atheism, though it may cause some people who have particular religious beliefs to recognize that their beliefs are incorrect, and therefore start examining their faith in more depth.

    That small issue aside, I would argue that science as a whole is perhaps the biggest promoter of atheism there is, completely independent of the attitudes of any of its proponents. The reason that I argue this is simple: science is, at its core, deeply skeptical. At the same time, theism requires very unskeptical thinking, at least in a portion of a person’s beliefs. Thinking skeptically will, for some people some of the time, leak into the religious side of peoples’ thinking. And if scientific thought is actually used in this area of thinking, there is only one possible reasonable conclusion: there is no valid reason to believe in any god or gods.

  19. #19 Jason Dick
    March 10, 2009

    In the above post, I managed to mess up my bold tags. I meant to only bold three words (all of science), not three and a half sentences. Sorry about that.

  20. #20 Brandon
    March 10, 2009

    John Pieret says:

    If remarks are made by Clinton or by Levada about matters in their areas of authority (and matters of faith vs. science are in Levada’s area of authority), they will toe the official line, and they will make sure that they know what that official line is ahead of time … if they want to keep their jobs at least.

    Except that (1) if Clinton made an off-the-cuff remark about Russian foreign policy during a commencement speech, no one of any critical thinking ability would actually take this as an official statement of White House foreign policy, because any sensible person can make the reasonable distinction between the Secretary of State’s personal opinions, delivered in a non-official context, and the official policy coming from the Department of State as representing a part of the executive branch under the Office of the President (where, after all, the buck really stops); and (2) distinctions were made all the time between Ratzinger’s academic work, which he continued here and there, and his official communications as prefect, because the latter only existed at all where some official process, either a request for clarification or an inquiry, had been initiated. So the analogy fails to support your case, as does precedent. Likewise, matters of faith and science are not under Levada’s authority unless an official process has begun to clarify or investigate some point of the former. To be sure, being head of the CDF is a very influential and prominent position, particularly in the hands of someone as assertive and efficient as Ratzinger was; but Levada is no Ratzinger, on either point, and even if he were, sphere of influence and official jurisdiction are things anyone is capable of distinguishing.

    In any case, my original point stands: not every little comment by Levada (or anyone else) need be regarded as representing the position of the Curia, much less the Church. I really don’t want to highjack the thread with a long discussion of the basics of ecclesiastical politics.

  21. #21 Book of Job
    March 10, 2009

    As a scientist (molecular biology, with a fair study of engineering and theoretical physics) and religious, I disagree strongly. First, science has nothing to say on the existence or not of a God and no ability to prove or disprove. Scientists and theologians that think otherwise are delusional or explicitly self-contradictory (How can you possibly test the existence of supernatural being that is scientifically or theologically valid?)

    Religion is by definition based on a faith about something that cannot be tested and prove or disproven. If you are believer, then science can strengthen faith by providing deeper insight and appreciation into creation, such as the astonishment of how the simple tools and laws of physics and all that flow from it (cosmological and biological evolution) led to where we are and will be in the future. His is just like the difference between an art expert or engineer and a child looking at a great work of art or construction…the experts really get the fuller experience. For those that do not believe, then science help them explain existence without reference to the supernatural.

    Thus, what science can do is help reveal the works of God. It also can help explain and rebut those who think that they are capable of “literalist” translation and interpretation of an inspired document. Interesting those that are most ardent in quoting the “literal word” cannot even read the source document (e.g., the Jewish Bible) in its untranslated form, and have no understanding about such small details such as it was written without punctuation and pronunciation guides, or that the proper meaning of many words and idioms have not been resolved after several thousand years of studies by some of the greatest minds. A true believer would understand that god can speak clearly to all through unchangeable natural laws as well as inspired text.

  22. #22 Chris' Wills
    March 10, 2009

    posted by Posted by: Kaz Dragon

    But they do! Their god cures cancer, heals blindness, answers prayers.

    Or doesn’t if God doesn’t want to.

    That’s why science cannot test such claims, they aren’t repeatable on demand; this may be disconcerting and lead you to suspect duplicity but that isn’t the faithfuls’ problem.

    It could also be that such events do occur naturally but have extremely low likliehood. So a miracle is assumed even though no natural rules have been broken and science, because of the low likelihood confirms that it isn’t natural because it can’t repeat it.

    He, she or it guides footballs into receivers waiting hands.

    Or God ensures that the full back is in the correct position to catch the kick off and calms his nerves.

    Though he obviouslly has something against the Scots as our Rugby team is pitiful just now.

    Any time a believer states that the deity of their choice does something that results in something in our universe happening, that is a testable claim.

    Not so, lots of things aren’t testable by Science. Some things happen just ones (in those cases we can often infer backwards to ascertain a liklihood or a possible natural causation but it cannot be proven); also, as Science is incomplete, some things may be natural but not contained in the existing models.

  23. #23 Chris' Wills
    March 10, 2009

    Posted by: Anton Mates

    There are of course other possible gods whose existence entails no observable consequences for the universe. Dawkins certainly (not sure about Stenger) acknowledges that such gods are conceivable. But (says he) since belief in such gods is not currently a significant social force, he doesn’t worry much about arguing against them.

    The bolded part seems to be a rather large assumption.

    Until someone says how a Godly and Godless universe would differ and why (as well as having some agreement amongst the interested groups) there is no way to say if the universe matches one or t’other.

    I suspect that most of the faithful hold that God works in unseen and mysterious ways. That’s what most of the mainline (not southern baptists or their ilk) religious groups seem to preach. So may be a larger force than Dawkins wishes to admit.

  24. #24 david
    March 11, 2009

    What a great – I should say civilized and intelligent blog! I have NEVER seen in any blog such a good comment section that tries to analyze and be respectful of each other. In these debates I typically see way too much demagoguery and less than intelligent debate.

  25. #25 Gino Barcal
    March 25, 2009

    The Atheist Counter-History

    Behind the pacifist and loving speech, the majority of the religions promote in fact the destruction of everything that represents freedom and pleasure. They hate the body, the desires, the sexuality, the women, the intelligence and all the books, except one. The religions promote the submission, the chastity, the blind and conformistical faith on behalf of a fictitious paradise after the death.

    Only an atheistic person can be free, because the idea of a god is incompatible with the freedom of the human being. The idea of a god promotes the existence of a divine dimension, which denies the possibility to choose your own destination and to invent your own existence. If god exists, the Is is not free; on the other hand, if god does not exist, the Is can be free. The freedom is never given. It is acquired day by day. However, the basic principle of a god is an inhibiting impediment of the autonomy of the man.

    It means that when a person does not content himself only in believing dully, but starts to make questions on the sacred texts, the doctrine, the teachings of the religion, there is no way not to reach these conclusions. It is about not to leave the reason, with capital R, in second plan, behind the faith, and to give to the reason the power and the nobility that it deserves.

    The mechanism of the religions is of an illusion. It is like a mysterious toy we try to decipher by breaking it. The enchantment and the magic of the religion disappear when we see the mechanism and the reasons behind the beliefs.

    The priests are limited to use only one handful of words, texts and references that allow to better assure the control on the bodies, hearts and souls of the followers. The mythology of the religions need simplicity to become more efficient. The religions make a permanent promotion of the faith, the belief before the intelligence and the reason, the submission of the followers against the freedom of the independent thought, the darkness against the light.

    The necessity of cultivate culturally a god is based in ridicules ideas. We don’t have nothing in the brain beyond what we put in it. Have you seen a child believing in gods? Religions and gods are human beings inventions, just like philosophy, arts and metaphysics. These creations have been made to answer the necessities of confront the anguish of the death; But, we can react in other ways: For example, using the philosophy.

    The believe in a god is an impotence signal. We must be conscious of our possibilities. When we cannot prove something is necessary to recognize these limitation and not make concessions to tale-stories or mythology. The idea of the divine child is a species of infantile illness of the reflective thought.

    The majority of the people is allured by the elected icons of the media, and believe more in them than in the physical truth. The truth is that the role of the religions was not the best one: Attacks against Galileu, genocide during the crusades, the Muslim radicalism, silence before the holocaust, etc. What history show is that the religions instead promoting peace, love, fraternity, friendship between the people and the nations, for the most part produced most of the time the opposite. It does not seem very worthy that the monotheists generated some good here and there. In compensation, they generated extreme human barbarity; and this seems much more important as prove of the impotence of the doctrines.

    We cannot make much about it, except to say what it is truth. The Christians have little moral to disapprove old truths, when they themselves promote old errors until today. The philosophy can allow each one of us the comprehension of what is the world, of what can be our morals, our justice, the rules of the game for a happy existence between the humans, without the necessity of appealing to a god, to the holy ghost, to the sacred one, to the skies, to the religions. It is necessary to pass from the theological age to the age of the mass philosophy.

    The weakness, the fear, the anguish before the death, are the sources of all the religious beliefs, and they will never abandon the humanity.

    The history of the Christianity has just as much value as the mythology of Santa Claus. It is in the same level of the fairies stories, where the animals talk and the witches eat little kids. A thought that only serves the children.

    It is necessary to allow the free construction of ourselves as independent beings. To develop the counter-history of the atheist, sexualist, hedonist and anarchist philosophy.

    Gino Barcal