Evolution, creation, and human uniqueness

There’s an account making the rounds of a recent debate between atheist philosopher Daniel Dennett and Christian theist Alvin Plantinga. One of the issues that comes up is the compatibility between Christianity (or theism more generally) and evolution, a perennial topic of interest here at ATR.

Dennett seems to see them as incompatible. Plantinga not only thinks they are compatible, but makes the stronger argument that believers in evolution ought also be theists, because only theism adequately accounts for our ability to understand the world in the ways required by modern science, as opposed to being just adaptive enough to get by. In other words: if naturalism is true, we have no reason to trust our ability to know that it’s true!

That’s a difficult argument to evaluate, and I’m not particularly interested in trying right now. In fact, I probably disagree with Plantinga almost as much as I would with Dennett, so I don’t really have a dog in this fight. However, I do have a dog in the fight about the compatibility between theism and evolution.

Some critics point out that evolution would seem to be a circuitous and wasteful means of bringing humans into existence if that was the creator’s sole intention. But there’s no reason for a Christian, or any other variety of theist, to think that creating human beings was God’s sole purpose in creating.

It’s quite plausible–and indeed I think true–that God’s purposes, so far as we can discern them, include bringing into existence the entire array of creatures that exist and have existed for their own sake, not just as a means to the end of creating humans. I see no reason, for example, to think that God isn’t quite fond of dinosaurs, considering they were around for a lot longer than we have been.

Clearly Christian theology is committed to some kind of unique status for human beings. Though we should be wary of confidently stating what that is. After all, the gospels teach that God goes to excessive lengths precisely for the ones who least deserve it. So it could be that we’re special in our unique ability to ruin things.

However we come out on that issue, though, it’s perfectly consistent with Christianity to say that the purpose of the evolutionary process is to bring into existence not only humans but the entire bewildering array of creatures, each of whom in their own way reflect something of God’s glory. Humans, with our intelligence and potential for spiritual awareness, are one, but by no means the only, reflection of that glory.

(Link via John Schwenkler)

4 thoughts on “Evolution, creation, and human uniqueness

  1. John

    Nice post, Lee.

    Dennett seems to see them as incompatible.

    Actually, I think that Dennett conceded that they are compatible, but argued that mere compatibility is cheap – the existence of e.g. Superman is also compatible, he argued, with evolution, and the key challenge (though how has Plantinga not taken this on in countless books and papers?) is to show how God is different.

    Also: Plantinga’s argument, at least as I understand it, is that evolution makes more sense (and: is more probable (?)) given theism than naturalism, and correspondingly (I think) theism makes more sense (and: is more probable (?)) than naturalism given evolution. At least that’s what I recall.

  2. Hi John – Thanks for the clarification on Dennett’s view. I guess its salience will depend on what work the theist wants the compatibility to do. It’s not clear to me a theist needs to show that evolution requires the existence of God in any strong sense. (Assuming there are other grounds for believing in God.)

    My recollection of Plantinga’s argument, at least as I’ve seen it formulated, is that naturalism introduces a worry about the reliability of our cognitive apparatus. That is, if God wasn’t overseeing its development, then we have no reason to trust in its reliability to deliver truth, at least beyond fairly mundane facts of the sort that would be required for day-to-day survival. That seems slightly distinct from saying that theism makes evolution more probable; it’s more like saying that theism provides the justificatory underpinning in our belief in the reliability of our cognitive faculties, and thus the likelihood that our scientific theories are true. It seems to be a relative of the argument C.S. Lewis deploys in his book Miracles. But maybe P. is deploying a different kind of argument these days.

  3. In other words, I’m not sure Plantinga’s argument requires him to say that evolution makes more sense or is more likely given theism, just that our justification for believing that evolution is true depends on having (or having good reason to believe we have?) reliable cognitive faculties, and that is unlikely on purely naturalistic grounds.

    Obviously I’m a little foggy on this…:)

  4. Pingback: Asking the right question « A Thinking Reed

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