The following is a repost from December 24, 2010:
One often hears the refrain that it’s possible to believe in both God and evolution. And it is in fact true, both psychologically and, more importantly, logically, that one may both believe in God and in evolution. Psychologically we have ample evidence that plenty of people believe in both and logically it is clear that the mere fact of evolution does not of itself preclude the existence of various sorts of gods.
Of course being logically compatible, on the one hand, and being scientifically or philosophically probable, on the other, are two entirely different things. Just because one realizes that it is possible to believe in both God and evolution does not mean one has reason to believe in both of them. And even though the existence of evolution does not immediately preclude the existence of a God, the existence of evolution removes a major reason that people historically had in inferring the existence of a God.
Of course, there may be other ways to infer the existence of a God besides with teleological arguments. But believing in evolution by natural selection means, for example, no longer being able to argue that there had to be an intelligence supernatural creator behind the universe to account for the apparent designs that structure plants and animals.
We now understand that given malleable and variable genes, enough time, and a big enough universe, by natural selection enough fortuitous and improbable evolutions of complexity and apparent designs can occur to explain the existence and marvelous functioning of the dizzying number of species of plants and animals which we know.
An intelligent designer was once as good an explanation as any offered for this variety and complexity of life. But given the discovery of evolution by natural selection, the intelligent designer hypothesis is an inferior and unnecessary one.
Might God nonetheless exist? Yes, God might exist, but it is no longer necessary or helpful to posit His existence for purposes of explaining how life emerges and becomes complicated. Maybe one can posit a divine explanation for something else but God no longer explains either how life arises or how it takes its present forms.
And, so, since random variations and natural selection among the variations in principle and in practice can account completely for life, it is both superfluous and highly improbable to posit that God in any way “guides” evolution. In fact, it is downright misleading and anti-scientific to say that God “guides” evolution.
Why do I say this?
The reason is that natural selection specifically explains how unguided evolution occurs. Before the realization of the existence of natural selection, humans already knew about artificial selection. Selectively breeding members of species for desirable traits is a concept we understood long before we figured out the primary mechanism for transmission of traits (the gene) even. Darwin’s innovative discovery was that selection could happen by the pressures of environment without any deliberate guidance.
This means that to accept the brilliance and explanatory power of Darwin’s discovery is not only to accept the fact that evolution occurs but to accept the mechanism according to which evolution occurs. More specifically, to look at the biological world with informed, scientifically consistent eyes is to look at evolution and recognize it specifically as an unguided process.
This means that to look at evolution scientifically is to recognize that even if there is a God, God does not intelligently guide evolution. An enormous amount of available evidence attests that change in species occurs in a way which (a) requires no intelligent guidance and (b) makes far more sense if there is no explicit, intentional guidance from a designer.
So, on other grounds one might think one can adduce that God exists and has a nature of a certain kind. Elsewhere I have amply explored the relative merits and demerits of such inferences. But whatever one thinks about the existence of God, a scientifically consistent person should not posit that God is either (a) necessary to explain the complex, highly functional structures of organic beings or (b) their ability to evolve or (c) the kinds of evolution which have occurred in fact (which actually give ample evidence of lack of intelligent design).
While it is possible in theory that God created all living organisms through an evolutionary process and only made it look like a process of natural selection, (a) that’s as unlikely as God making it look like bodies fall because of gravitational relationships while in fact he is always just pushing bodies when they fall and (b) the clear evidence of non-optimal designs for organisms clearly counter-indicates and refutes the supposed claim that a perfectly intelligent designer guides evolution.
The designs which have naturally emerged through natural selection are not evidence of a perfect designer but rather evidence of an imperfect, merely naturally selective process and so to posit an infinite intelligence guiding the process is strictly speaking illogical.
One might still logically posit that God has a perfect intelligence but instead of using it to design living things decided just to use natural selection instead. But the imperfect designs themselves are overwhelming counter-evidence against the rationality of holding the position that God used perfect intelligence to create them. It is possible that a perfect intelligence would decide for some inexplicable reason to not employ its full intelligence, but why believe such a thing without any evidence for it? It’s simpler and more intuitive to infer from the inefficient process of natural selection a non-intelligent, and especially a non-perfectly-intelligent, process than the existence or meddling of a perfect intelligence.
There may be another reason to posit a perfect intelligence in the source of existence and so posit a God with perfect intelligence even though evolution through natural selection gives no evidence of such a thing. This alternative reason one might posit a perfectly intelligent God might be the fact that the universe acts according to rationally observable regularities. Perhaps one might argue we can infer that the rationally understandable laws of nature indicate a rational mind as their origin. But even if such an argument were persuasive, we still wouldn’t know that there was a perfect intelligence and, again, the imperfections of natural selection would give positive reason to think the intelligence behind the universe was itself imperfect.
There is a further problem for biblical religious beliefs about God, as traditionally understood, if one accepts the reality of evolution by natural selection. If God indeed does not guide evolution but lets it occur through a process of natural selection, then God does not intentionally create human beings but we rather occur as a result of a process which involved a number of random elements which may have led to our never evolving (and which we can very well expect will lead to our untimely extinction). In other words, we are not special, we are the result of an algorithm without a pre-ordained conclusion. Or, despite all the appearances of this according to every scientific measure we have for understanding the process that resulted in us, one could say that the “formula” that looks like an inefficient process of billions of years of physical interactions that led to the first life and then the hundreds of millions of years that led to our lives was all just an elaborate way to create us. But to say this, that the laws of nature, including the apparent law of natural selection, were all fine-tuned ultimately to create us and, presumably, all of the other inorganic and organic beings on the way to us is essentially to say that there is actually no natural selection but one elaborately constructed design plan from a non-natural selector.
Therefore, one can only remain a theistic evolutionist and accept contemporary scientific discoveries about the mechanisms of evolution as accurate only if one posits that God does not control what beings do or do not evolve and, thus, human existence is only a contingent result of the laws of nature God wrote and not specially designed or loved beings with special purposes from God. In other words, to accept natural selection is to accept that beings with functional complexities that serve purposes are not actually made on purpose or for a divine purpose. To deny this and to posit instead that God does in fact create us on purpose and/or with a special purpose, as nearly all biblically influenced religious people seem to want to do, is to deny the existence of natural selection.
So, in sum, the intellectually sophisticated religious believer who wants to disassociate herself from the patently ignorant and unscientific creationist finds herself nonetheless in the same quandary as the creationist. Evolution by natural selection makes a purpose-giving God who makes humans on purpose and for a purpose an extremely unlikely proposition. To assert that God guides evolution is to deny the clear science and posit that even though it looks like creatures evolve through a haphazard process of natural selection, God is really artificially selecting according to God’s purposes. And, again, that’s as absurd as saying that even though a body of a certain mass falls at a certain rate because of a precisely mathematically predictable law of gravity that, nonetheless, the body falls only because God is pushing it downward.
God cannot guide evolution if natural selection is true. If one denies natural selection, one might as well be a creationist. If God does not guide evolution, God did not personally intend us and centuries of Jewish, Christian, and Islamic thinking about our relationship to God needs to be drastically reimagined in light of all this new evidence, or abandoned outright as irredeemably obsolete.
The disturbing inspiration for this long post was my discovery last week of a Gallup poll in which not only did 40% claim not to not believe in evolution at all, but 38% implicitly denied the existence of natural selection by choosing the answer which read “Humans beings have developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, with God guiding this process”. This is 38% of people who are not simply believing both in what science teaches and in their religion but 38% denying the science behind the theory of natural selection and only accepting the fact of evolution by adding a religious, and essentially creationist, explanation for it. This is not a compromise with science, it’s not a way of making science and religion compatible. It’s a way of taking a rationally indisputable fact and giving a religious rather than a scientific account of it. It’s tantamount to seeing a fact like “there is thunder” and going with the religious explanation that there is a god named Thor who causes it instead of a scientific explanation in terms of natural causes.
And it’s not like the poll’s alternative to creationism and God-guided evolution third was one that asked readers to deny the existence of God. The alternative offered was to say that “”Humans beings have developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but God had no part in this process”. This option was not an “atheist” option. It neither affirms nor denies God’s existence. It is simply the scientific opinion according to which natural selection which involves no intelligent guidance guides our development.
It was not as though people chose the “God guides” anti-natural-selection option because it was the only one consistent with their belief in God. They chose it over another option which would have been compatible with their religion but offered an actual scientific and non-religious account of evolution.
Perhaps Gallop worded the no-God-intervention option too strongly by saying God had no part in the process whatsoever. Perhaps some of the 38% of Americans who opted to say God “guided” evolution only meant to say that God wrote the laws of nature according to which evolution happened but that he did not intervene and void natural selection. Maybe they felt the option of God having no part whatsoever in the process was too unrepresentative of their position compared to the option that overstated his guidance of the actual process.
But to the extent that a badly worded question is not to blame and that they really think evolutionary developments are in any way explicable according to God’s “guidance”, they are believing in a scientifically observable fact but explaining it via a religious, unscientific theory which is totally undermined by our knowledge of the actual, scientifically understood process of natural selection.
Finally, as a post-script to all of these thoughts, I recommend to you Christopher Hitchens who with his inimitable rhetorical skill decimates the hypothesis that evolutionary and human history are compatible with the biblical view of a loving God who chose to specially intervene in human affairs a couple millenia ago:
If you enjoy reading my philosophical blog posts, consider taking one of my online philosophy classes! I earned my PhD and taught 93 university classes before I went into business for myself. My online classes involve live, interactive class discussions with me and your fellow students held over videoconference (using Google Hangout, which downloads in just seconds). Classes involve personalized attention to your own ideas and questions. Course content winds up tailored to your interests as lively and rigorous class discussions determine where exactly we go. Classes are flexible enough to meet the needs of both beginners and students with existing philosophical background
My classes require no outside reading or homework or grades–only a once weekly 2.5 hour commitment that fits the schedules of busy people. My classes are university quality but I can offer no university credit whatsoever. New classes start up every month and you can join existing groups of students if you want. Click on the classes that interest you below and find the course descriptions, up-to-date schedules, and self-registration. 1-on-1 classes can be arranged by appointment if you write me at email@example.com.