Is theistic evolution incoherent?

At the First Things blog, Joe Carter has a post challenging the coherence of “theistic evolution.” This view, held by people like Kenneth Miller, accepts the orthodox Darwinist position that the evolution of human beings did not require any special intervention by God (contra both old-school creationists and Intelligent Design proponents). Further, according to an article that Carter quotes, Miller denies that God has human beings specifically in mind. Instead, God “set up” the evolutionary process so that some intelligent creatures capable of offering praise to their Creator would emerge, but not necessarily human beings.

Carter writes:

If God did not have a plan for the specific outcome of evolution, as MIller contends, then he must have at least had a general plan for the process to create some form of creature with “exceptional mental capabilities.” But then the process would no longer be undirected, which means that it is not compatible with the Darwinian view of evolution.

Ironically, the view held by [Francis] Collins and Miller shares much in common with the position of creationists. If evolution is random and undirected then the probability of a “creature capable of praising Him” (i.e., a being similar to humans) coming into existence is extremely low. God would likely need to run the experiment a number of times to get the desired outcome and then select that instantiation (maybe that’s why we have the multiverse). This special selection of results, however, is not so different than creationist’s view of special creation—in each God simply chooses the outcome he desires. Also, Collins’ view of God making evolution appear undirected is similar to the idea that he planted dinosaur fossils and created geological strata to fool us into thinking the earth has been around more than 6,000 years. Creationists have to interpret the evidence to fit their theological preconceptions; Collins has to interpret the evidence to fit his theoretical preconceptions.

I think Carter goes astray here by taking the language of “random and undirected” too literally. Clearly, evolution is not random in any absolute sense: it operates within the constraints provided locally by the environment and the qualities possessed by organisms, and globally by the fundamental constituents of the universe (e.g, the laws that govern the behavior of subatomic particles). There are reasons–which have been widely canvassed–for thinking that the emergence of intelligent life is, if not inevitable, then at least intelligible given the nature of our universe. All a theistic evolutionist is committed to is that God set up those fundamental constraints in such a way that He could foresee–at least with a high degree of probability–that intelligent life would emerge at some point.

The difference between the theistic evolutionist and the ID proponent is that the former doesn’t think we need to appeal to special divine intervention to explain how life (including human life) evolved. We can ask why the universe has the fundamental constituents it does and not others, and this is where the theistic evolutionist might bring in God. But it’s important to note that this doesn’t present a conflict with orthodox Darwinism; biologists qua biologists don’t ask, much less answer, the question of why the universe has the basic features it does. That’s a properly philosophical (and perhaps theological) question. The fact that a high percentage of evolutionary biologists are atheists isn’t particularly relevant. The theistic evolution position is an interpretation of the process as a whole, not an appeal to God as one causal input among others.

I should add that I’m not personally dogmatically committed to the view that God never intervenes in the evolutionary process. There are a variety of models on offer for thinking about how God might do that without giving up the idea of a basically law-like process. Nevertheless, the methodological naturalism of biology is entirely appropriate; I just don’t see how ID constitutes a research program. What we can and should do as Christians is offer a way of integrating the findings of the sciences with a richer picture of reality that takes account of all our experience (moral, aesthetic, religious, etc.). Reality is a many-layered thing.

It also strikes me that Kenneth Miller’s statement that human beings are “an afterthought, a minor detail, a happenstance in a history that might just as well have left us out” is a salutary and properly humbling one. Christian theology has been entirely too anthropocentric, and a more theocentric and creation-centric perspective is urgently needed.

UPDATE: See also this post from the ubiquitous John Schwenkler who, in addition to his other gigs, is now blogging at “dotCommonweal,” the Commonweal magazine blog. I should note, in clarification, that I was assuming, for the purposes of this post, that God is not eternal in the traditional sense of being “outside” of time altogether. I have some problems with the traditional view of God’s timelessness, and I think attributing temporality to God can be combined with a sufficiently robust notion of divine transcendence. I recognize that this is a minority position in the tradition, and John’s approach is certainly a legitimate one to take.

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9 thoughts on “Is theistic evolution incoherent?”

  1. Ubiquitous? Damn …

    But you’re also assuming that God isn’t omniscient, right? Which strikes me as an even more problematic move to make …

  2. Ha – that wasn’t meant as a dig. The more Schwenkler-goodness the better. Full Schwenkler dominance!

    Yeah – I’d have to think about this some more, but does it compromise God’s omniscience (at least in spirit) to say that God knows everything that can possibly be known? I.e. if God is temporal, and some events are genuinely indeterminate, then it’s simply not possible for even God to know how they will turn out. This would be sort of like the classical argument that it’s no limitation of God’s omnipotence to say that He can’t do the genuinely impossible. Clearly there are problems with this view (not least some exegetical ones), though I’m not sure they’re insuperable.

  3. Wow-what an insightful comment!

    Come to think of it, maybe there is something here. Could be that theistic evolution is redundant, just like theistic gravity (or geology or what have you). After all, if God is the creator of all that is, why append the modifier “theistic” in the first place?

  4. I said this on the First Things blog but no one seemed to pay it any mind.

    One thing that doesn’t make sense; if a perfect God created it all, why isn’t it perfect? Granted it’s close to perfect (in some places) but it ’should be’ flawless throughout, and God Himself seems strangely removed from it! I have to agree with Plato (and, more recently, quantum physics), this must be an imperfect reflection (mirror image, hologram if you will) of the ‘real’ and perfect reality.

    A big bang just came out of no where and voila – an incredibly complex universe, that is still expanding (not infinite) no less! It worked quite well (earth, perfect imperfection), evolution and natural selection being the laws governing it to a large degree. Afterall, when was the last time you saw God interfering in nature?

    The question remaining is, “Why would a God as the one described in Bible writings create somehing and then for a large part (war, death, suffering), appear to divorce himself from it?”

    Darwin was brilliant, a man before his time:
    man/Adam (Hebrew-ruddy) was initially only a ’soul (animal principal only). He changed ‘after’ God put him into the garden (Gen. 2:7-8), which makes me wonder what was wrong with the earth that God decided to move him there? In that supernatural and perfect place, apparently Adam/man gained ‘God’s image (supernatural spirit – aura)’ and became ‘more than an animal’. It’s just too close – in his initial state Adam must have been a primate!

    Theistic Evolution!

  5. Well Dawn, if I follow you, you’ve basically posed the problem of (natural) evil: if the world was created by a perfectly good, all-powerful, all-knowing God, then whence imperfection, suffering, and the like?

    I don’t think there’s a knock-down answer by any means, but one of the more promising, in my view, is that there are constraints on the kind of world God could create if God wanted a world that exhibits some kind of rational order and law-like regularity, as ours does. In other words, much of the evil we experience is the (inevitable?) by-product of certain natural processes.

    Of course, Christians (and others) go a step further and say that God doesn’t want the world to be this way forever, and will ultimately bring it to a state of fulfillment. (What that will look like, however, we can only speculate.)

    1. Lee,

      I didn’t pose the problem of evil, it’s always been there – hence the question, ‘if God created it, what went wrong?’

      If it was all so perfect then why did God feel the need to remove Adam from it?

      So-called ‘civilized’ society is merely a veneer that would quickly crumble in the face of real adversity.

      The universe (as amazing as it is) is obviously not the perfection – whatever it’s hiding is!

  6. I hope no one minds me reiterating from another post?

    The God of the Bible is not the ruler of this earth. The evidence that God is not here is that there is suffering and death.

    Satan is the ‘god of this world’ (2 Cor. 4:4) and consequently it’s a world of suffering.

    Yes God created it all, but something went horribly wrong and there was suddenly mortality and evolution and natural selection took over.

    However, when Adam/man/ruddy/primate gained God’s image, this one primate was enabled to change (this early primate had to have been dual-sexed as the woman came from him).

    Even though human beings inherited God’s image from Adam, the earth is still under a harsh master.

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