Is Sufficiently Compressed Thinking Indistinguishable from Magical Thinking?

Andrew Brown is in The Guardian claiming any sufficiently interesting theory of the world is indistinguishable from religion.  There’s a lot to debate there, but do you mind if I put the broader issue aside for a second to come to the defense of science!  Brown writes:

And atheism can be just as theologically incorrect: today’s paper told me that: “our bodies are built and controlled by far fewer genes than scientists had expected“. The metaphors of “building” and “controlling” have here taken a concrete form that makes them palpably untrue. Genes don’t do either thing. It seems to me that a belief in tiny invisible all-controlling entities is precisely a belief in the supernatural, yet that is the form in which entirely naturalistic genetics is widely understood in our culture. Religion can’t really be about doctrine and heresy either, because these concepts don’t make sense in pre-literate cultures. You can even ask whether the concept of “supernaturalism” makes any sense in most of the world without a developed idea of scientific naturalism, and scientific laws, that would stand for its opposite.

Whoa, whoa, whoa.  First of all, the conceptual errors and simplifications of science journalism (that linked quote comes from a reporter) are not a guide to the blind spots of science as an epistemology.  But I also take some issue with the idea that using agent-language is necessarily an error mode in science.

Science is a model-making endeavor.  It’s never possible to prove that your model is in one-to-one correspondence with the World-as-it-is, so you evaluate different theories by seeing how good they are at anticipating data collected from the world.

(Notice that I used a colloquialism there and let ‘theories’ take an active verb instead of saying something wordier and more precise like “there is a high degree of correlation between the outputs of your theory’s algorithm and previously unobserved observations, and it didn’t mean I literally believed that theories were immaterial actors or otherwise supernatural).

Your model may look different at different scales, because the most accurate model may be more granular than needed.  We can use a lot of Newtonian physics for human scale predictions, even though we know it’s not true.  It’s true enough for the problem at hand.  The trouble is, that if you’re making a habit of using an easier way but sloppier way of answering questions, you want to make sure you’re also setting aside time to practice recognizing the moments when precision matters enough that you should dust off your more accurate model and get out the instruction manual for all the little levers and bits that go boink.

Most of us, scientists or not, don’t spend enough time auditing our cached thoughts and heuristics, and the one that Brown flagged is a pretty persistent problem.  I think a better word than “supernaturalism” would be “agent-seeing.”  (Ok, better in the sense that it’s more accurate; I’m open to catchier substitutions).  Ascribing purpose or agency to inert matter or abstract concepts doesn’t necessarily lead to belief in the supernatural, though it may produce weird theories of consciousness or an increased expectation that other intelligent life exists.

The main problem when people talk about genes acting or wanting isn’t the use of shorthand.  It’s that once we use the word want, we assume genes must want what we want since we want the best things.  The map is supposed to reflect the territory, but you have to be careful about which way you’re letting the data flow.  The existence of fold lines on a map should not cause you to expect very regular divots in the landscape (Bryan Caplan terms this the metaphorical fallacy).

Don’t lose hope!  Shorthand makes life go a lot more smoothly, and if you take the time to check in on yourself, you can spot and correct for error modes.  So, if you notice that everything in the world has the same purpose and desires as you, that’s a good way to notice you’re slipping into error.  Pause, take a breath, and repeat to yourself: Camelot! (It’s only a model).”

About Leah Libresco

Leah Anthony Libresco graduated from Yale in 2011. She works as an Editorial Assistant at The American Conservative by day, and by night writes for Patheos about theology, philosophy, and math at She was received into the Catholic Church in November 2012."

  • Ted Seeber

    I would point out that Theology- at least rational theology, though maybe to a lesser extent so are some surprisingly irrational theologies- are about model making and testing as well. In fact- correct theology is all about how well your theological story fits the real world. How well the genes create, build, and control civilizations.

    The religions that do well at control, grow and spread. The religions that don’t- that err either on the side of too much control or too little- die.

    So yes, under this definition, science is just another religion, where religion is defined, in more Catholic terms, as “A philosophy containing dogma and doctrine that is taught by a given set of disciplines”.

    Within that loose framework though- when you add rationalism- you get some pretty neat ideas. And when you add Esperitu to it (the “good thing” that Catholicism has in concert with animism is seeing agency and purpose everywhere- spirits throughout the universe in everything) you get some good stories that can be used to teach the next generation.

    The atheism that Andrew Brown is talking about, is an atheism that I hope doesn’t exist, despite many people professing to believe in it- Material Mechanistic Atheism, where there is no agency, no spirits found anywhere, including in human beings. The type of atheism that not only denies the soul, but reduces free will down to chemical reactions and quantum probabilities in the organ known as the human brain. The logical conclusion of that kind of atheism is that politics is at best ridiculous, at worst predetermined at a level that we cannot accurately measure.

    And at that point, why have a civilization at all? If all you really have are a collection of individual impulses, then there is no reason to bother with all that mythical stuff about money, government, or religion.

    • ACN

      What a ridiculous line of reasoning.

      I really think that there are no magical spirits, gods, souls, or supernatural things of any kind.
      I also really think that having a civilization, a government, and money are pretty great.

      Why do you think that not believing in supernatural things should somehow transform humans into hedonist nihilists, as happy to live in squalor and darkness as otherwise?

      • Ted Seeber

        So you truly are a Material Mechanistic Atheist?

        Why is having a government, money, or civilization so great? These items are just infringements of authority on your personal wishes for how to live your life.

        “Why do you think that not believing in supernatural things should somehow transform humans into hedonist nihilists, as happy to live in squalor and darkness as otherwise?”

        The ONLY reason not to believe in supernatural things (and cut out, by axiom and assumption, all of the evidence for them) is to free the mind from the restraints of culture. Hedonism isn’t a bad result, it is in fact the point- the reason for atheism is hedonism.

        • anodognosic

          “The ONLY reason not to believe in supernatural things (and cut out, by axiom and assumption, all of the evidence for them) is to free the mind from the restraints of culture. Hedonism isn’t a bad result, it is in fact the point- the reason for atheism is hedonism.”

          Are you a post-modernist? If supernatural things did not exist, would you still say the same? Does the effect of a belief supersede the truth in all cases, or just this one?

          • Ted Seeber

            I’m a pre-modernist. In that I think the Enlightenment and most of Modernism was a very bad mistake, a model that has resulted in some pretty horrific thinking and that has done more to destroy civilization than the Black Plague.

            If supernatural things do not exist- or even are hinted at not existing and assumed to not exist- then the result is that there is no reason left to be ethical at all. The only good becomes *individual* good.

            It is only with an assumption of the supernatural that there is any reason to have a civilization. It is only with an assumption of a *rational* supernatural God that we can have science and technology at all (because with an irrational God, the rules change at a whim, and with no God, there is no reason to keep records and write, which only takes time away from hunting and rape).

          • ACN

            Are you actually a sociopath? Do you really think the only reason to be decent to people is because there is an invisible, omnipotent, omniscient, referee who is watching you all of the time?

            Humans have empathy. It’s the basis for the ‘golden rule’ which just about every civilization codifies. We also have the capacity to explore the consequences of our choices to ourselves and to those around us. This is why often, basic laws, like injunctions against murder, theft, violence, etc are common to every society regardless of their religious beliefs.

          • Anonymous

            Humans have empathy. They also have other desires which conflict with it. They either need to subject empathy below the other desires or subject the other desires below empathy. You can’t reason that we should choose the latter because empathy exists any more than you can reason that we should choose the former because other desires exist.

          • Ted Seeber

            I have aspergers, thus by neurotypical standards I am a sociopath.

            But then again, so is practically everybody else, given the DSM-V’s definitions.

        • ACN

          “The ONLY reason not to believe in supernatural things (and cut out, by axiom and assumption, all of the evidence for them) is to free the mind from the restraints of culture.”

          This has two problems. The first is that you’re assuming that believing or not believing in a claim is something one does before one assesses the logical coherency, and evidence for the claim, rather than after. The second problem is related, but it is an obvious alternative that the claim is logically incoherent, and/or has bollocks for evidence supporting it.

          I reject theism, and all supernatural things because there is no evidence for them, and worse, they often posit entities and ideas that are logically incoherent. Not because I seek to free myself constraints on my actions.

          On government, money, and civilization in general, you’re again assuming that I think the optimal situation is for to live my life with as few infringements as possible. That’s just not the case. I’m not some sort of Randian-objectivist-would-be-john-galt. I like having money. Money keeps us all from our wasting our time trying to barter goods and services. Governments obviously vary widely in goals/effectiveness, but at their best, they can help us to protect ourselves from internal and external threats, and can provide social safety nets. I like these things. I don’t like the idea of poor and elderly people starving to death in the streets, or being unable to afford medical care. Why? Because I have empathy, basic compassion, and am able to see the likely consequences of what till happen to people if these safety nets don’t exist.

        • Ted Seeber

          And to me, Empathy is a myth. There is no evidence for it.

          • Alan

            I’m not sure what you are trying to get at – but there is plenty of evidence for it. There are many fMRI studies that have showed and studied in different contexts the brain activity when others are experiencing pain that clearly show its similarities to the when the subject experiences pain themselves.

          • Irenist

            Ted, there’s quite a bit of evidence for empathetic reactions in the neurotypical population. You’re reaching here. Take a look at, e.g.,

          • Ted Seeber

            A study on Empathy, done by people who believe in the myth of empathy, has a huge potential for bias. If I was to use the same definition of objective truth that Atheists use for God, that is.

          • Alan

            You can’t be a serious person – why don’t you actually engage the studies so you know what you are arguing against. Responses to the pain of others have physical characteristics in the brain that mimic responses to ones own pain – that is what empathy is. Not a myth, not a feel good notion but a real physical, observable state.

      • Brian

        You need to be more discerning, ACN.

        He said that materialistic atheism logically leads to such absurdities, NOT that materialistic atheism will make materialistic atheists personally accept such absurdities. Big difference. Atheists can be inconsistent with their own philosophical commitments (and they often are).

    • anodognosic

      I lean toward that kind of atheism, depending on what you mean by spirit, soul, and free will. Just because I believe everything is reducible to lower-order mechanistic phenomena doesn’t mean that I believe that higher order emergent phenomena like the mind, ethics and free will don’t exist (also, money, government and even religion). It’s a category error to say that if something is reducible, it therefore doesn’t exist.

      And I’m not even that staunch a materialist. But it seems like dualism solves exactly zero of the hard problems that it’s supposed to solve. To take the example of free will: it’s plain to me that what we mean by free will is perfectly compatible with scientific determinism–in fact, it requires determinism, insofar as a choice is only really meaningful if it flows out of our nature, our preferences, our beliefs and ethics. Moreover, it’s not clear what non-determinism would even mean if not randomness, and randomness doesn’t help at all. Same with consciousness–I have no idea how to account for it in materialism, but I have no idea how to account for it even if I do assume dualism–it would just be a mysterious answer to a mysterious question.

      • ACN

        Obviously dualism solves the problem by piping the consciousness of your disembodied soul directly into your brain by some sort of bizarre carrier waves that originate from “who knows where”, carry “who knows what”, and are otherwise undetectable.

        Just don’t bother asking things like “well if the soul is conscious, why can’t my brain alone be?”

        Problem solved, no mystery :p

      • Ted Seeber

        “I lean toward that kind of atheism, depending on what you mean by spirit, soul, and free will. Just because I believe everything is reducible to lower-order mechanistic phenomena doesn’t mean that I believe that higher order emergent phenomena like the mind, ethics and free will don’t exist”

        I quoted that because I find the two sentences to be inherently in conflict. If everything is, ultimately, reducible only to material mechanical effects, then *by definition*, higher order emergent phenomena do NOT exist, they are only illusion and any order you think you see in the universe is just a hallucination.

        It is only when the mind(soul) is allowed to impose order, can order exist at all; and in certain realms we as finite, human beings simply aren’t allowed to impose order.

        I cannot prove that I think, therefore I cannot prove that I am. The logical end of atheism can *ONLY* be solipsism; the will of the individual and no higher morality at all. That is why it takes theism to create civilization and hold it together.

        • Watson Ladd

          So a car is made out of parts. Does a car not exist?

          • Ted Seeber

            Under mechanical materialism? Only the atoms exist. The parts are just groups of atoms. The car is just an arbitrary grouping of parts. It only exists and works because of the atoms it is made of. *everything* higher is just an illusion.

            It takes a God to make a Man to Make a Car- that’s top down thinking instead of bottom up thinking.

            The actual reality is something in between.

          • Alan

            Ted – that is just silly. You can still talk about higher order entities like cars. You say atoms exist even though they are in turn made out of subatomic particles – why is that not an illusion in your explanation?

          • Jay

            Ted, I would recommend this post on the distinction between “explaining” and “explaining away”: The key point is that just because we know the physics behind a rainbow doesn’t mean the rainbow no longer exist, or isn’t beautiful. It just means that what we call a “rainbow” isn’t a fundamental entity, but rather something that emerges from lower-level interactions (and much lower than atoms, by the way). But it’s still there. The rainbow has been explained, but not explained away.

            By contrast, when we understand the physics behind lightning bolts, then lightning has been explained, but Zeus has been explained away. “Zeus” isn’t some higher-level phenomenon that emerges from lower-level interactions, like lightning or a rainbow; there simply wasn’t anything like Zeus that ever existed in the first place. But notice how different Zeus is from any other higher-level phenomenon that, you know, actually exists. I’m unaware of any actual reductionist thinker whose understanding of reductionism is “only atoms really exist, so everything else is a meaningless illusion.”

          • Ted Seeber

            Jay- but the rainbow isn’t there. It’s just a light pattern interpreted by your eyes.

            You may think that explaining isn’t explaining away- but that is not consistent with the philosophy of mechanical materialism which insists that those things that *cannot be measured* *do not exist at all*.

            So you’re still left with an inconsistent philosophy, when you insist that rainbows, though explained by the way our eyes see light and how wavelengths are separated by the prism created by raindrops, still EXIST. It doesn’t fit within the rules of the philosophy, any more than a sex abusing priest fits within the rules of celibacy.

          • Robert King

            This is actually where Aristotelians (and their Thomistic revisionists) get the idea for “Substantial Form”: that some collections of distinguishable parts are more than their sum.

            But “emergent property” is either hand-waving magical thinking, or it is shorthand for the same sort of thing that A-T philosophers talk about when discussing form. In the first case, it is a contradiction; in the second, it is an acknowledgement that something besides material mechanism is at play here.

          • anodognosic

            The idea of emergent properties has neither of the implications that you ascribe to it. It is just an acknowledgement that looking at the level of parts is not enough in practice to predict how they will work as a system, so you therefore need to model the system in order to understand it in any useful way. Systems are perfectly comprehensible from their parts–provided you had precise enough sensors and enough computing power, you would be able to examine a group of atoms to determine whether it is, say, useful for getting around in. Adding up the parts is sufficient for making it what it is.

            The conceptual significance of “car” is a thornier issue. My intuition is that it exists, but as a mental phenomenon rather than a fact about group of atoms itself (and Ted: just because a phenomenon is mental doesn’t make it nonexistent). Of course, this assumes the existence of minds (which I’m going ahead and assume, because ). Is there something irreducible about minds? Honestly, I have no idea. Certainly, minds seem to have parts, but there is still something unexplained there, particularly in the puzzle of consciousness. But the only proper response to the unexplained is honest uncertainty. Since science has had a lot of success explaining the heretofore unexplainable, I lean towards physicalism. Here, the idea of emergent property is meaningful because we have other examples of emergent properties, like weather, gene translation, and insect swarms, which shows us that parts sometimes interact in surprisingly ordered ways. It’s not magical thinking, but rather the admission that we can’t easily predict how regularities of interactions cohere into an ordered system.

          • Jay

            Ted, maybe we’re just going around in circles here, but I can’t help responding. You say the rainbow “doesn’t exist,” and that’s it’s “just a light pattern interpreted by your eyes.” The word I object to here is “just.” As Richard Feynmann once said, “nothing is ‘mere.’”

            So yes, a rainbow is a pattern of light interpreted by my eyes. That’s what I mean when I say the word “rainbow.” There is, in fact, an aggregation of lower-level phenomenon that gives rise to a distinct and identifiable experience involving my eyes and my brain (all of which are themselves aggregations of lower-level phenomenon, of course). Rather than say all that, I just say “look, a rainbow!” That’s what I use the word to mean. And of course, the rainbow can be “measured.” In the usual case we wouldn’t go all the way down to the quantum level in explaining its mechanics — because then we’d never have time to get anything done — but we can go however deep we need to go to measure it for whatever purpose we might have.

            If the distinction between “explaining” and “explaining away” doesn’t do it for you, try the distinction between “exist” and “exist as fundamental entities.” Rainbows, minds, cars, etc. do not exist as fundamental entities — they’re not on the same level as quarks — but they still “exist,” in the ordinary sense by which we mean that term. To say otherwise is like saying that Congress doesn’t exist because it’s made up of individual people, and only individual people have consciousness/identity/minds, etc. Well, sure, Congress is made up of individuals, and it exists as something itself.

            So in whatever way rainbows, minds, cars, and Congress “exist” in the obvious sense, that’s just what reductionists mean when they say that these things exist despite not being fundamental entities. In the ordinary sense, however, there’s usually no need to specify that a rainbow isn’t fundamental, so we don’t bother to say “look, a rainbow, which of course is not fundamental but rather an aggregation of lower-level phenomenon that has a predictable effect on my visual cortex.”

          • Robert King


            I lean towards physicalism. Here, the idea of emergent property is meaningful because we have other examples of emergent properties, like weather, gene translation, and insect swarms, which shows us that parts sometimes interact in surprisingly ordered ways.

            I would argue that “order” is exactly one of the sorts of things that cannot be explained by physicalism or mechanism. Some “orders” – like the pattern of a rainbow, or of an insect swarm – seem to be reducible to their parts. The order, as @Jay implies, can be considered a construct of our minds.

            But other “orders”, particularly the “order” we call life, or an organism, is something different when reduced to its parts. The difference between a living body and a dead one – or between a non-living chemical combination and a living one – is not a matter of the parts, but of the ordered relationship between the parts. This order is something real, in that when the order is lost then something more than just the parts is lost: a life is lost.

            So when @Jay says:

            Rainbows, minds, cars, etc. do not exist as fundamental entities — they’re not on the same level as quarks — but they still “exist,” in the ordinary sense by which we mean that term.

            I would argue that “minds” are not like rainbows, which are patterns discerned by a mind, nor like cars or Congress, which are products of a mind. Rather, the mind is – in a different way than quarks – a fundamental entity. It is a form of life, a pattern or order that does not exist only in the perception of a perceiver, but is real in itself.

          • Alex

            What about the patterns that emerge from a three body orbit? Are they reducible to the gravitational interactions involved (and the laws of motion of course)?

          • Jay

            @Robert: When you say that minds are fundamental, is what you’re suggesting that the operation of the human brain is not, in fact, an aggregation of lower-level interactions that give rise to a higher-level phenomenon? If so, that’s an essentially empirical proposition, and while we haven’t quite “solved” consciousness to the extent that we’ve “solved” a rainbow, we do know quite a bit about neurology. And while I’m no scientist, I’m pretty sure that any physicist or neurobiologist would be quite surprised to hear that the human mind doesn’t actually operate according to the same physical laws as everything else.

            I would agree that minds are different from cars in the sense that they are not just patterns discerned by a mind. They’re also minds themselves (obviously), so we have a kind of direct, self-reflective (though incomplete) access to their nature. But that doesn’t mean that the laws governing quantum configurations, quarks, etc. aren’t ultimately at the root of the interactions that — way up at the surface level — give rise to the experience we call “consciousness.” It just means that in this particular case, the entity being considered is the same entity used to do the considering — if that sounds like “circular reasoning,” then please see “Where Recursive Justification Hits Bottom”.

            Even if we don’t have a super-strong grasp of consciousness just yet, there’s no reason to posit that this mysterious phenomenon — unlike the last 3000 at-the-time mysterious phenomena humanity has encountered — will turn out to be inherently mysterious, and governed by a totally different set of physical laws. It just means we have more work to do. As Tim Minchin puts it: “Because throughout history, every mystery, ever solved, has turned out to be: Not Magic.”

          • Jay

            Also, while we’re on the subject, I’d like to take this moment to give a super-duper huge plug for Douglas Hofstadter’s Godel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid, which is, in some sense, all about how meaning can arise from seemingly meaningless symbols and interactions — in terms of math, language, life, and intelligence. It also likely to be one of the most beautiful books you’ll ever read.

          • leahlibresco


          • Ted Seeber

            But GEB isn’t Mechanical Materialism. And neither is admitting that thought exists (after all, under MM, thought is just an illusion produced by chemicals in the brain- you can get the same result in a sufficiently advanced laboratory).

            I agree that Mechanical Materialism is invalid; which is why I said in the beginning “I doubt anybody really believes this way”.

    • Alan

      Cool, so Islam has the most correct theology – good to note.

      Or maybe correct theology has nothing to do with its span of control over civilizations…

      • Ted Seeber

        Islam is too young to judge yet. Give it another 500 years and we’ll see.

        • Alan

          Ah, so 2000 is that magic number? So 500 years ago it was two early to judge christianity?

          What a coincidence that the optimum time frame for judging your religion coincides with when you are alive but for judging a competing religion, that happens to have more adherent than Catholicism, is to soon.

          Not the least bit self serving there, is it?

          • Ted Seeber

            Not really. Actually becoming old enough to admit you might be WRONG is the magic number. Islamic schools of thought haven’t reached that point yet. They may eventually. IF they survive.

          • Ted Seeber

            Also, where does that leave Buddhism? Might I suggest that they too, have a rational philosophy?

          • Alan

            Great, so Catholicism admits its wrong, finally you are making sense.

    • Alex

      This is addressed extensively by Gary Drescher in “Good and Real”.

  • Andrew Summitt

    To clarify, in this post are you affirming the theory that “All models are wrong. Some models are useful”?

  • Alex Godofsky

    Basically, the “evolution doesn’t have goals, you can’t say that it ‘wants’ anything” observation is no longer an important correction to flawed analogies; it’s just a “gotcha” people can use to make themselves look smarter than someone else.

    • Christian H

      Well, not quite. Sometimes people do use the metaphor of evolution wanting something to smuggle in a telos, just like saying “selecting for” rather than just “selecting” sometimes does. The problem, of course, is the telos that gets smuggled in, not the metaphorically inaccuracy, but that doesn’t mean that looking out for metaphorical inaccuracies isn’t a good way to begin an assessment of someone’s claim.

  • Steve

    First, nice post Leah. You covered most of what would have been my response to that blurb.

    Next, there is a difference between Atheism & Science. To say that a scientific theory might be incorrect or incomplete says nothing about the only real claim Atheists make, that being that there is no god.

    Finally, part of what makes science so appealing, to me at least, is that there is always an underlying agreement in the community that should evidence come along that is inconsistent with previous theories, then a bunch of really smart proud people go back to the drawing board and revise revise and revise until they have the a model that more closely resembles what is observed.

    • Crude

      Next, there is a difference between Atheism & Science.

      Yeah, I was coming in here to comment… if we’re going to correct this article, shouldn’t equating science with atheism be the first-up, immediate change that needs to be corrected? Despite all the lip service from some atheists, science and atheism are not unified concepts whatsoever.

      That said, I think Andrew Brown is getting to something important. I’ll take a stab at what I think he’s saying: religious claims often seem to be classifying as making fundamentally radical claims that go against common sense, but when you look at most anyone’s developed thoughts, they’re going to seem the same way, including atheistic ones. It’s good that Leah brought up newtonian physics, since quantum physics seems every bit as magical, weird and even supernatural compared to it.

      So if I have him right, I’d support his basic point. Another way of putting it would be, “if you dismiss a worldview on the grounds that it comes across as magical thinking, you’re going to dismiss every positive worldview out there, including naturalism”.

      • Mitchell Porter

        “It’s good that Leah brought up newtonian physics, since quantum physics seems every bit as magical, weird and even supernatural compared to it.”

        The purest expression of quantum physics is the dry, positivist view which says it’s a calculational procedure for obtaining the probabilities of observable microscopic processes. The weirdness enters when you start trying to understand it by supposing that wavefunctions are real objects – or really, when you try to understand *why* it works, from any starting point at all. If the options which are routinely considered, when people try to understand why it works, are at all indicative of the truth, then it’s the stage *after* quantum physics that will be the weird one.

  • keddaw

    I’m pretty sure Leah’s new religion disagrees with her rather strongly on this point – evolution is ‘guided’ by God so that humans had to evolve from lower species. Kinda defeating the scientific understanding of random mutation and natural selection, no?

    • Brian

      Pretty sure, huh? Oh brother.

    • Brian Green

      Theistic evolution does not require an interventionist God, it could just be that the laws of the universe as initially set eventually result in human-like intelligence. Then again, when you are God, what exactly can “random” or “natural” mean to you when you created and sustain everything and already know the outcome? It all depends on how interventionist you view God to be. Occasionalists see God as literally forcing our hands all the time. Extreme deists say God only intervened once, at the beginning. And there is everything in between. The extremes are not Catholic, though.

      • Alan

        According to the theory of evolution, you cannot predict from the initial circumstances where evolution would lead – it is not possible that they would inevitably result in human-like intelligence.

        • Brian Green

          That is correct. From a temporal perspective you cannot predict the future. But from an eternal perspective you can.

          • Alan

            But doesn’t that mean from an eternal perspective God could predict that his future creation would fall, he knew he would offer eternal punishment for that, and he knew that he would wait thousands of years after that point before sending his son to die to save humanity in a very localized way so that the rest of his creation would doubt its truth and that he would punish them for that?

    • R.C.

      Uh, no. Catholicism does not disagree with Leah on that point. Catholicism allows a very wide range of understanding here, and certainly encompasses several ways of agreeing with her.

      Look, I can’t take you from where you are right now, Keddaw, all the way to something like the way a Thomist would view cosmology, all in one swell foop, in the five minutes I have for writing this post.

      But the way a Catholic would typically look at the issue starts with the Creed: God created everything; He is the source of all existence; nothing exists except by borrowing the property of existence from Him as a temporary loan, or conditional gift, or derivative work, depending on whether you’re discussing the material, the rational, or the spiritual. Aquinas put it this way: His essence is His existence. (But that’s not very helpful to the modern English speaker unless he goes and reads Feser’s introductory book on Aquinas, and then maybe Etienne Gilson, and finally a good long stretch of Aquinas’ actual writing, so as to learn how Aquinas uses such terms as essence, existence, accident, substance, and “being,” or Ens.)

      Thus the evidence against the existence of the Judeo Christian God is very different, by nature, than the evidence against the existence of some space-alien kind of deity such as exists in the Norse and Greek legends. Saying that Thor doesn’t exist falls under the same heading of argument as saying that the Loch Ness Monster doesn’t exist; it’s more an exercise in cryptozoology than in theology. But if you understand what is meant by the word “God” in the Judeo Christian context (and incidentally, what a shame that we don’t have an entirely different word for such a radically different concept!) you see that, whether or not God exists in actuality, an argument to state that He doesn’t exist must fall in the category of stating that A is not A, or of denying the principle of non-contradiction; it will necessarily be an exercise in philosophy. (I heard a story, probably apocryphal, of some Soviet cosmonaut who returned from space and stated that he had not seen God in space. The real scandal, from a Christian perspective, would have been if he had.)

      The reason I start from that point is to clarify that when people get hung up on Young Earth Creation, their failure is inadequate respect for the literary genre of the early chapters of Genesis (more like a 70′s Yes lyric than a newspaper column, it is rife with parallelism and suggestive imagery fit to put Jon Anderson’s bluebirds, eagles, and flying purple wolfhounds to shame) and the sheer antiquity and orthodoxy of the Christian view that the time-periods are to be understood in a poetical or categorical sense (a view expressed by St. Augustine around the year 400 A.D.). But, when they get hung up on Intelligent Design, their failure is of another kind: They are wandering too close to theology as cryptozoology. Their imaginations have begun the process of falling away from the Christian sphere back to the pagan.

      (I should add that I think this failing is true of some of them. I don’t know if it’s true of all of them, because I have not read all of them — it was hard to sustain interest — and chances are pretty good that the brightest lights among them are not the more well-known popularizers and apologists.)

      So qualified, the “guided” evolution folks seem to be saying that evolution would have gone one way, producing such-and-such results, had God not periodically done quiet little miracles here and there to cause it to have improbable alternative effects.

      [Warning, I acknowledge my heavy debt to C.S.Lewis in what follows; I know I'm loosely repeating some of his phraseology.]

      Now, it is perfectly alright for a Christian to say that God does miracles other than the ones mentioned in the Creed and the Gospels. It is perfectly alright to say that you think He did particular ones, although that claim needs to be able to bear scrutiny and because it involves historical claims, sufficient evidence is generally unobtainable. But it is not okay to say that you think He was required to have done them, for both evolution and God to be true.

      To see this, let’s first be clear what is meant by the word “miracle” by temporarily abandoning our quantum-informed non-deterministic view of the universe and lapsing back into 19th century determinism. (I am doing this not because I think 19th century determinism is true, but because our language of saying certain things is easier in that mode. This is permissible since I am not attempting to speculate directly on how God effects miracles, but only to stretch your imagination sufficiently wide to get a gut-level, intuitive grasp of the idea of miracle.)

      Now certain “miracles” are in a special category which I am not going to address here; they are those related to glimpses of the New Creation at its Final Consummation “after” the Last Day. The various appearances of the Resurrected Christ fall in this category, including St. Paul’s conversion, and probably the Transfiguration and Pentecost and the dove-like manifestation of the Holy Spirit at Jesus’ baptism, and (I suppose, though it is insensible) the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist.

      But the kind of miracle that’s relevant to “guided” evolution is that where God does something which causes a particular observable event affecting ordinary matter at a given place and time: The kind of thing that could theoretically happen through a thermodynamic miracle by virtue of mere quantum weirdness, except that on the macroscopic scale it’s far too improbable.

      Take for example the “fire from heaven” that conveniently burned up Elijah’s altar during the showdown with the priests of Ba’al atop Mt. Carmel. Suppose you’re there, with a materialist philosophy, and you actually see it happen: What do you conclude? It looks like a meteoroid strike, so you say, “Easy. Meteoroid; though if any fragments are left I’d say meteorite. Nothing supernatural here.” And your Christian friend says, “Well, of course it was a meteoroid. God likes them; He invented them; and every now and again He likes to do something flashy with them.” To which you’d reasonably reply, “What? God just said, ‘Let There Be Meteoroid’ somewhere a mile up, and it was so?” And he replies, “Why a mile? Why not the edge of the solar system half a million years ago? Or halfway across the galactic arm, several billion years ago? For that matter, why not in the Big Bang?” For of course the point is that your Christian friend sees the Big Bang, and the design of whatever physical laws made it possible, and the design of the mathematical/philosophical realities that make physical laws sensible and intelligible, to all be supernatural.

      Or to put the same thing another way, if God creates matter out of nothing, then once it is created, it is matter. It reflects light, and if you drop it in a pool, it makes ripples. And just as when you drop a rock in a pool, once under the water it takes on the green shadowy hue of everything else on the bottom of the pool, when God drops a miracle into the physical world, it takes on the character of all the rest of creation and participates in the dance of cause-and-effect like a child adopted into a large and happy crowd of siblings.

      There is, in a way, no getting away from God if one happens to live in a physical universe; there is only the question of whether an unlikely-seeming event is in God’s character or not.

      Seen that way, it should be perfectly clear that God needn’t go in “nudging” evolution with microscopic miracles. If He were such a micromanager, He could just as easily wiped time off the whiteboard and tried it again several times until He got precisely the Big Bang that’d lead to precisely the evolution He wanted. And that’s wrong because it depicts God having to wait to see what any given iteration of the Big Bang would produce before knowing whether He’d have to restart it and try another; in the Christian view, He’s seeing all times as Now and is instantaneously experiencing both how He’s Banging the Bang and what its final outcome is. So then you have to rewrite your mental picture to put Him as a master billiards player, striking the cueball just right with His first and only cue-stroke so that every ball sinks in precisely the right order, from the beginning of time to its end, and knowing all along exactly how it’ll turn out because He’s experiencing the whole unraveling of time all at once.

      And that’s just the way I’d talk about it if I thought determinism was true, which I don’t. If you want to account for quantum weirdness, then think about that bit where Einstein wanted to insist that “God does not play dice with the universe,” and that answering bit from Hawking where he says something like, “Actually it seems that God does play dice with the universe, and sometimes He throws the dice in places where we can’t see them.” Picture Him as knowing exactly how improbable it is for Philip to teleport from the Road to Gaza all the way to Azotus after his visit with the Ethiopian, and calculating, like Zaphod twiddling dangerously with the Infinite Improbability Drive, just how Improbable a simultaneous jump of so many zillion quanta would be. He plays dice, except that when He wants to, He weights them.

      Except that that, once again, is an incorrect picture, for a whole lot of reasons. Closer to the truth might be that he designed the probabilistic behaviors of those particular quanta to include that unusual behavior from the beginning: Philip Teleporting isn’t a miracle so much as a law of the universe.

      And again, all of that is not a theory. All of that is a step in the right direction, to show how very, very “meta” you have to be, in order to look at God as a creative artist and the universe as His handiwork in an orthodox way.

      Which leads me back to the “guided” evolution thing: Setting it up against what I was just describing, and including the caveat that I think what I was just describing was also not “meta” enough, do you see what I mean when I say that folk who think God was required to use microscopic miracles to guide evolution are definitely not “meta” enough? That they’re in danger of falling from a Christian theology of God back into a pagan cryptozoology of a god?

      Okay, yeah, that took longer than five minutes. Gotta go, now. I apologize for the length and for whatever style failures I haven’t time to correct.

      • keddaw

        No problem at all with the length or any style failures, you gotta say what you gotta say, just the factual and logical error.

        Either, as QM predicts and experiments verify to an incredibly accurate degree – but may still be wrong, there is actual randomness in the universe or there is not. If there is, and that seems to be the scientific consensus on things like radioactivity, then the random mutations, being at least partly a result of said radiation, cannot have been ‘pre-destined’ or predetermined when God took his first and only shot.

        Also, please refrain from quoting Hawking and Einstein in relation to God, their quotes are about the universe and use the word “God” poetically. And Einstein’s quote was later recanted when he realised he was wrong.

        • TerryC

          Since before Aquinas Catholics have understood that time itself is a creature. That is God is outside of time. Since time, as far as we know, is a single pass proposition, every random act’s result would be fixed to an external observer, from outside time’s flow. God is the ultimate external observer. Nothing is per-destined or predetermined however God always knows the result. Randomness does not prevent this.

        • R.C.


          I think you just misconstrued my quoting of Einstein and Hawking, or else made assumptions about my intent which are not only incorrect, but (if you look at what I said attentively and without prejudice) are unsupported by the text of my post.

          Of course I am not quoting Einstein’s reference to “God” as some kind of evidence that Einstein supported the Judeo-Christian idea of God. He was if anything a kind of loose quasi-deist. I’m aware that some of my co-religionists make the error of saying that because he used the word “God” he was a capital-T Theist. But I don’t make that error and if you’ll notice, none of my argument required any such interpretation of the quote.

          Likewise with Hawking: Of course Hawking takes an atheist view. He’s hardly shy about that! And it follows that his reference to God in the quote is jocular, in reference to Einsteins earlier expression “God does not play dice with the universe,” which of course he later retracted when confronted with the ability of the probabilistic interpretation of QM to produce reliable predictions. But, again, I never suggested otherwise, nor does my use of the quote require or suggest that I was using it in anything other than the way its original author intended it to be understood!)

          I only made reference to the two quotes as a transition from treating the question of miracles the way one might have in the 19th century (with a deterministic worldview, epitomized by the original Einstein quote) to a more modern approach (with a non-deterministic worldview, epitomized by the Hawking quote and by Einstein’s later view). In doing so I in no way misrepresented either man…and you have to admit that, properly interpreted, those quotes really do show the contrast between the two views. So, while I never have nor ever will misconstrue either man as an orthodox Theist, I see no reason to refrain from quoting them when the situation calls for it.

          At any rate, the second paragraph of your post re-iterates the very point I was making, while oddly missing it entirely:

          1. Either there is or is not actual randomness;

          2. If there is, then there is nothing to prevent God’s hand having determined the die-rolls either on an individual basis by “weighting the dice” for particular quantum-level events, or globally by writing the initial “rules” of probability just so — and in fact from God’s “outside Time” perspective I don’t think there’s a real difference between the two. This would, of course, produce exactly the observations of randomness we have observed;

          3. And if there is not actual randomness, then there is nothing to prevent God having deterministically planned the whole spinning out of the cause-effect chain of the universe to produce exactly the natural events He wished to produce, so that (in the example from my original post) the “fire from heaven” hit Mt. Carmel exactly when required to allow Elijah to go on smack-talking his rivals;

          4. So in either case, the scientific view of the universe provides no “protection” against the miraculous, but only says that “miracles” can’t be common enough that we would begin to mistake them for the normal physical laws of the universe, and of course no Theist ever thought that;

          5. But in either case, an orthodox Judeo-Christian conception of God doesn’t quite allow a Christian to argue that “weighting the quantum dice” or “predetermining the outcome of the universe” is the actual “mechanism” for God doing miracles, because neither one is sufficiently “meta” to refer to what the Judeo-Christan means by the word “God”;

          6. And thus both examples, the deterministic and the non-deterministic, are intended by me not as arguments for how God “does miracles” (it would more closely describe Zeus than YHWH), but rather as examples which serve two purposes: (a.) they’re sufficient to demonstrate that a scientific view does not preclude miracles; and (b.) they’re insufficient to give the entirely non-pagan (entirely “meta”) conception of God intended by orthodox Theists but, by being a bit more “meta” than the pagan conception, they point in the right “outward” direction that leads us closer to the Theist’s understanding of God through a purely iterative process;

          7. And while it is possible for a Theist like me to immediately list some of the insufficiencies of either view (e.g. the “outside Time” requirement), it is not possible to list all of them because it is not practically possible (and may not even be theoretically possible) to know all of them; thus,

          8. A person who (reasoning from outside of Theism) is trying to wrap their heads around what an orthodox Catholic means by the word “God,” cannot do so by wrapping their minds around a fixed concept which the Catholic already grasps and that they’re trying to grasp also, because any given thing the Catholic already grasps is explicitly not what he means by the word “God.” Instead…

          9. …the orthodox Catholic is taking what he can grasp and trying (vainly, but there’s “joy in the journey”) to get ever more “meta” by going one step more “meta” than he was in his conception of God five minutes ago, and then, having “landed” on that new view, he corrects that new view by noting its insufficiencies, in order to leap from there to a new, even more “meta” view that he’ll hold five minutes from now. The person reasoning from outside Theism must follow this same path and try to catch up with where the Catholic is, only to find when he gets there that the Catholic is not saying, “this is what I mean by the word ‘God’” but is rather pointing further ahead along the same road and saying, “somewhere up there is what I mean by the word ‘God’ but at least we’re closer than we were before”; and,

          10. …since most non-Theists are (understandably! excusably!) not willing to take the time to do this, when they use the word “God” in argument and claim that, by it, they mean what the Theist means by the same word, the Theist finds the non-Theist referring to a conception that the Theist has long-since worked his way past and which he himself didn’t believe to be “the whole show” even at the time, but took to be only a step in the right direction (ages ago, back when he had progressed no further than that particular conception). He thus feels a bit impatient and feels that the non-Theist is positing a strawman…which, practically speaking, he is, but not (one assumes) intentionally, so it isn’t really (one assumes) his fault.

          That is the point I was making. I hope I’ve made it better this time, and I repeat my earlier apology for style failures because, however well I may have said it the first time ’round, it apparently wasn’t well enough to prohibit misunderstanding! Mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.

          And as for “factual and logical error”; well, as I wasn’t making an argument but trying to widen your imagination a bit in the right direction through association and iteration, I’m not sure how I could have been guilty of logical error. I wasn’t doing the premise-and-conclusion thing at all.

          But I apologize if I was guilty of some factual error. But I’m not sure what it could have been…unless you were referring to the Einstein and Hawking thing, in which case I’ve already explained that I know the facts in both cases and was not misusing the quotations, in either case. So if that’s all you meant by “factual error” then I believe that’s settled. But if you had something else in mind, do tell me.

          • keddaw

            R.C. I fully accept you know what you were talking about with regards to Einstein and Hawking, but you left it unclear initially and could have led people to think that you were pushing religion onto them, or that Einstein’s final position was that the universe was essentially clockwork. I’m glad you clarified. My only quibble is the way you use “of course” as if I’m being wilfully obtuse in not reading the subtext of your words when many of your co-religionists are blissfully ignorant or intentionally misleading when using quotes like these.

            If God “weights the dice” then that’s fine, there still exists a randomness, but he just makes certain outcomes more likely but not certain, like an atom of plutonium decaying before an atom of uranium.

            A deterministic universe would be entirely aligned with a creator, but would completely demolish the concept of sin, blame, free will etc. since the creator would have known and planned all from the get-go. Fortunately for all the universe doesn’t work that way and there exists a small gap for the concept of libertarian free will to exist (which, in my view, is the only free will that a creator could give us that would necessitate or justify punishment and reward).

            The factual/logical error I see is that if ‘God’ is making the universe seem random by making all uncaused things, like radioactive decay, happen when ‘He’ sees fit then it is not random (it just appears that way to us and there’s no way we could know otherwise) but this seems like a stretch for all but the most committed believers. The alternative that I think you were getting towards was that ‘God’ had set the universe up in such a way as to lead to humans, but that precludes actual randomness (short of MWI) since all ‘God’ did was weight the dice in such a way as to make the conditions for a universe with heavier elements, stars and planets, and the potential for life much more likely.

          • R.C.


            Thanks for your reply.

            Re: “Of course”: Fair enough; you and I haven’t corresponded before this occasion, that I recall, and I can see how the standard approach of giving me the benefit of the doubt (in the absence of any evidence of mistaken intent) might be overwhelmed by your prior experience of another Christian misusing those quotes. In your shoes, I might have been equally suspicious.

            Re: Determinism preventing free will for anyone other than God: This is one of those things that are perhaps easier to see from inside Christianity (where it’s been talked about for 2,000 years, if not always under the same terminology) than from outside it (where you haven’t been privy to the conversation!).

            Monistic Determinism that’s kicked off by a blind random chance of some kind resulting from an entirely non-personal, non-willful source, would have exactly the limits you suggest: No free will, no culpability, no sin. (There may be a way around that through a certain kind of system-independence, like maybe human personalities existing in a parallel dimension outside our space-time but having the ability to influence sufficiently-sensitive systems — like the neurons in a particular human brain — from outside the deterministic causation stream. But that’s a whole other rabbit-trail and we’ve no need to follow it at the moment.)

            But, put the Judeo Christian God in the picture — a personal being with free will and able not only to freely create a deterministic universe as He sees fit but to see all “outcomes” at the same moment he’s creating it — and the situation changes. For it has always been the assumption of Theists in this tradition that our free will is derivative of His; a branch off the main river. He somehow creates and sustains our free will, just as He creates and sustains everything else. Every time we exercise free will, it is because He has made, is making, and will make it possible…somehow. That much is orthodox; but I’ll go a step farther than what orthodoxy has typically expressed and speculate that the parallel can even be phrased thusly: Just as we would abruptly cease to exist were He to ever stop sustaining our existence by loaning His ability to BE out to us, likewise, were He to ever stop sustaining our ability to choose by voluntarily enabling choice in us, we’d be every bit the deterministic automatons of 19th century determinism. (I’m not entirely certain of that bit; though: If some orthodox theologian who knows better than I comes in and says there’s something wrong with that expression, I’ll probably defer to him.)

            Now take a God outside time creating individual human personalities which exist in an in-between way — everlasting in duration but wedded to the material universe’s time-stream in such a way as to perceive through the senses of a human body — and the question becomes: How does free will exist for all those little individual souls, if the signals sent by brains to nerves and muscles was determined from the beginning? How can my eternal soul’s choice to commit adultery or write a sonnet be carried out bodily in the material universe if all the firings of my neurons are predetermined through a giant cause-effect chain by God’s finely-tuned Banging of the Bang?

            But then the question answers itself: The all the firings of my neurons were predetermined through a giant cause-effect chain by God’s finely-tuned Banging of the Bang. My free will, sustained eternally by God outside the cause-effect stream, makes Choice X; God alters the starting point of the universe sufficiently to make the corresponding neurons fire much later at the end of a giant cause-effect chain, and muscles flex in response, in 2012.

            Again, I am not a theologian, so there may be a problem with this which I lack the training to foresee. And I suspect a Thomist would have serious problems with the picture of the soul that this implies, because it suggests a body-soul separateness which is disallowed by the Thomist view. (I don’t think it requires it, however.) At any rate, you and I agree that this is all irrelevant unless a deterministic universe is correct, which neither of us thinks it is, even seen purely from within. I just wanted to point out that even in a deterministic view freedom of action is possible as long as the actors’ intentionality/agency has a conduit for modifying the starting state of the whole, and of course God would be exactly that.

            And, incidentally, this would demonstrate the truth of what Christians have been saying theologically for centuries: That predestination and free will need not be antagonists, but that God’s sovereignty can be the very thing that enables free will.

            But this is just one possible solution; there may be others I haven’t thought of. I only offer it to demonstrate that a deterministic universe wouldn’t, after all, necessarily disprove human free will and culpability; not to assert that I somehow know this to be how it all really works!

            Re: “the factual/logical error”: I see what you’re saying. But when you say “this seems like a stretch for all but the most committed believers,” perhaps you reveal that you have a wrong impression — not, perhaps in the mind, but emotionally and associationally, in the gut — about what a serious Theist means by the word “God?”

            (Don’t take that as a criticism: You are not a Theist and so, naturally, you won’t have spent as much time thinking about it as you would have if you were. Someone who isn’t a Constitutional Law scholar doesn’t have the same thoughts spring into his head at the sound of the phrase “Incorporation Doctrine” as a Constitutional Law professor does.)

            But here’s what I mean: You raise a possible solution to the question of how to integrate God and miracles with probabilistic quantum weirdness — a solution which, by the way, isn’t any weirder than quantum weirdness is to begin with! — namely, that God actually determines the outcome of every event at the quantum level throughout the whole universe of space and time, and does so not the same way every time, but varies his outcomes in such a way as to usually do something expected but occasionally do something unexpected, thereby creating exactly the probabilistic distribution we’ve witnessed in our experimental observations. Put another way: Our experimental observations of how interactions on the quantum level go off as expected most of the time but not all the time turn out to bear witness to God’s artistic style or even His character: He doesn’t always play it safe, He sometimes likes to throw in surprises.

            Now it’s just a speculation, but that speculation solves the problem: It makes God capable of everything Theists say He is capable of, while contradicting nothing of what science observes about the regular behavior of the universe. This is not to say that it is the solution (there may be others) but it proves (barring refutation from some theological principle) that a solution exists…which means that God and the quantum theory can get along without doing violence either to experimental observation or to what the Christian means by the word “God.”

            So: You raised an objection, and just as quickly answered the objection, and it seems to me you could have stopped there. But you didn’t. It seems to me that you recoiled from the very solution you had just posited: “…but this seems like a stretch for all but the most committed believers.” Why so? Did you step back from that because you found a logic problem in that idea? Or just because it felt disconcerting, because it painted a picture of God that was mind-blowingly whopping big? Is that why you said it seemed like “a stretch?”

            If so, then look at it from the other side: Walk a mile in Theist moccasins, and realize that this is exactly the feeling a Theist gets every time he uses the word “God” and really thinks about what he is saying. And even then he knows that he isn’t grasping the half of it.

            From the non-Theist side, it feels like a “stretch” and so it stretches both conception and credulity. From the Theist side it likewise stretches the mind, but because he’s been told that that’s exactly what one is supposed to expect when thinking about God, it stretches conception but not credulity. The fact that it’s a mind-bender is “par for the course” because the Theist went in expecting that whatever he might think about God would turn out, in the end, to be only a small slice of what was meant by the word “God.”

            So I don’t see why a “believer” should find it odd, provided that by the word “God” he means what the Judeo-Christian tradition means, and is not thinking of a created, derivative thing like Zeus or Thor. (To assign Thor such power would make the comic-book hero utterly incomprehensible and any story involving him utterly lacking in pathos. In fact you could only give him a story at all by having the God of Thunder lose all that sovereign predestinarian power and get stuck in a body that could be wounded. And because his power would be so vast to start with, there’d be no Loki that could take that away from him without his permission. He’d have to give it up voluntarily, for reasons of his own.)

            But for the prexistent omnipotent creator God of Christianity, that kind of power, not just universally but in every Planck-length detail of the universe, is all in an eternity’s work. If anything, to me, it seems undercommitted; it is not saying enough. Were it to be true, and no more than that, it would be disappointing. Were it to be offered as advertising copy, one would feel that it was understating the case, playing coy about God’s omnipotence, transcendence, and immanence. (That’s immanence, with an “i” and an “a,” by the way, not an “e” and an “i.”)

            In fact, to return to my “iteratively more meta” approach from before: I think the next step would be to say: Remember timelessness. God doesn’t “wait” for a particular quantum event to be about to happen, and then “weight the dice” to make it come out a certain way, like a man at a carnival shooting gallery waiting for a particular duck to scroll across and then knocking it down.

            He rather establishes a set of “dance steps” for all the quanta from the very beginning and every quantum-level event from then on in the history of the universe is just a particular quantum carrying out its steps in the dance. But because He is both a Classicist and a Romantic, He likes to balance the hierarchical and courtly progression of the Royal Ball at the macroscopic scale with the wildness and wooliness of a Bacchanalian frenzy at the quantum scale. When the superstrings (assuming Witten & Co. have it right) are playing in symphony, they all follow their wild-haired Conductor’s baton as it thrashes madly about now speeding up, now slowing, now lingering on a fermata almost forgetfully. But when all these gyrations are added up, the harmonic progression and symphonic structure turn out to be very regular so that the audience feels the next cadence arriving, not on a C#min9, but on an E=mc2.

            Or something like that.

            Anyway, I bring it up because when you said that God determining (for His own joy) the outcome of each quantum event seemed like “a stretch,” I kinda got the feeling that your prior picture of God had been a bit cramped and that stretching a bit was actually a step in the right direction…if you want to “get” what Christians are saying, I mean.

            The Christian picture is “transcendent and immanent”: Not dependent on anything in the universe, but active throughout the universe, everywhere all at once: Holding each quantum in existence by His constant and effortless attention to maintaining the laws which allow that quantum to go on existing and applying them to each quantum individually at each moment of time. The ultimate carnival performer, He tap-dances while keeping a trillion gazillion plates spinning at the top of a trillion gazillion canes: To the fermion plates He gives a half-integer spin; to the bosons He gives integer spin. Fortunately for all of us, there’s no danger of Him dropping them (!) and He’ll keep them spinning until the Show Ends.

          • keddaw

            R.C., there are very, very, good reasons why this is not mainstream theology: “The all the firings of my neurons were predetermined through a giant cause-effect chain by God’s finely-tuned Banging of the Bang. My free will, sustained eternally by God outside the cause-effect stream, makes Choice X; God alters the starting point of the universe sufficiently to make the corresponding neurons fire much later at the end of a giant cause-effect chain, and muscles flex in response, in 2012.”
            Not the least of which is the massive changes that happen in people’s brains over time and after injury. Unless you want to posit some kind of feedback loop where the eternal soul is impacted by physical damage to the brain then this feature cannot work. This is why most people who want to think free will comes from the soul think of the body as an ‘aerial’ or receiver so that physical damage to the body/brain means that the signal from the eternal soul is misinterpreted by the body and a good soul can cause bad things if, for example, someone has a tumour in their adrenal gland and becomes incredibly aggressive and violent it is not their (soul’s) fault. But, as you say, this only applies to a deterministic universe… Even so, I still think that Occam’s Razor would make us doubt this increasing list of assumptions lacking in any evidence.

            The reason I “recoiled” from the solution I proposed to the QM issue is because it is not the ‘personal god’ that most theists want. If you want an all-pervasive deistic god, fine, you may as well replace it with Laplace’s Demon, but the point is that it stops the conversation and gets us nowhere: QM, goddidit; Relativity, goddidit; Big Bang, goddidit; Experiment didn’t come out as expected, trickster goddidit. It explains everything by explaining nothing.

            “Walk a mile in Theist moccasins”
            Why? Give me a reason to do this that has more to it than someone suggesting I think like a believer in acupuncture, homoeopathy or horoscopes.

            The reason I say it’s a stretch is not because it blows my mind, it just makes this god clash rather starkly with the god of the bible. The god that holds the existence of all is simply a redefinition of god to mean universe, multiverse, or everything. Again, it explains nothing by trying to explain everything.

          • R.C.


            I’m puzzled by several things in your last reply. You seem to be reacting with some heatedness (or do I misunderstand your tone? it’s always very tricky through the Internet) to what I said, and yet I can’t figure out either the cause of the emotion or the reasons for the particular assertions in your reply.

            To take the next-to-last assertion first:

            I don’t see any way in which the God I am describing, which is the God of the Old Testament Jews and the New Testament Christians and Augustine and Aquinas, conflicts with “the god of the bible,” as you put it.

            I am able to guess only one way you might come to that conclusion; namely, that you’re in the habit of reading the Bible in a willfully unsophisticated way…a way that even a Kentucky mountains pentecostal snake-handling young-earther would blink at.

            I mean, your mountain-clan young-earther is remarkably (willfully) obtuse about Genesis 1-3 being a Hebrew word painting with strong parallelism; largely because he’s approaching the text with a preexisting political bias dating from a last-century seminarian conflict of which he knows nothing. He has his alliances, real and imagined, and while he may sometimes be a better human being than you and me put together in other ways, his “hermeneutics” are more about those alliances than anything else. “Scientists,” from what he’s heard, have contempt for him; so he naturally dislikes them in turn and doesn’t trust anything they say. He opts for the religion he learned at his mother’s knee, and she (God rest her soul) always was a better person than you and me and him put together, he’s sure of that, so don’t you be disrespectin’ his mother.

            So, he has his myopias, where existing sectarian disagreements have pushed him into a corner from which he refuses to budge. But if you ask him how, for example, it can be true that God is a “jealous” God, you’ll find that that same young-earther gets all flexible and sophisticated on you and is quick enough to point out that this doesn’t mean God has an adrenal gland which squirts fight-or-flight chemicals into his bloodstream; that the poetical figures of speech which describe how God “feels” about X or Y are conveying truth by analogy but not by direct comparison.

            So when you get a God who is depicted as King of the Universe with a “mighty right hand” who “bares His holy arm,” and at the sound of His Word all the trees “clap their hands” and the rocks “shout for joy,” everyone knows not to take these notions in a comic-book kind of way, with glowing biceps in the sky and trees sprouting hands like an Ent. These are understood to be grasping, by analogy, at something beyond grasp. But what, particularly?

            Well, for any given analogy, there are a set of potential interpretations. (I’m thinking of a Venn Diagram here.) Each of the other analogies, hints, and outright theological assertions provided by the Bible also provide a set of potential interpretations. But there are places where two sets don’t overlap, and as they both must be true, one discards the possible interpretations which are correct for one set but not for another. The intersection of all the sets is what we get when we whittle down all the possible implications and clues to the interpretation that fits what we know.

            Even the proverbial blind men touching different parts of an elephant are not helpless, if they keep moving ’round the elephant and communicating their findings and debating about the significance, for several thousand years. They may start off saying “it’s a snake” or “it’s a tree,” but give ‘em long enough and they’ll at least conclude that “this mastadon is oddly bald.” They won’t know everything there is to know, but their working model will improve significantly. It’ll be close enough for jazz, as they say.

            So when you complain that the Omnipotent Creator that sustains existence at every moment in time throughout every location in space for all eternity independently from all created things clashes “starkly with the god of the bible”; I answer that it clashes only in the way that a Wikipedia article about the taxonomic order Proboscidea clashes with the first guesses of the blind guys around the elephant. First touch is unsophisticated, just like a cursory scan of the Old Testament is unsophisticated.

            But give those blind men long enough and the their increasingly-sophisticated modeling of the beast will start to resemble that Wikipedia article pretty closely. Christians have been looking at how the Bible speaks of God for a long time, and the Jews before that, and the Hebrews and Patriarchs back when it was all just a lump of oral tradition processed through the family history of a particular Chaldean.

            After that, you add, “The god that holds the existence of all is simply a redefinition of god to mean universe, multiverse, or everything.” No, definitely not. This is not at all what I meant to say. That’s pantheism or maybe universal consciousness, but not Theism. That’s immanence without transcendence.

            By the “universe” or “multiverse” a philosophical materialist/naturalist means “all that is” because they have a prior philosophical commitment that anything other than matter/nature either does not exist or is unknowable. But a supernaturalist does not mean “all that is” by using these terms, but instead refers by them only to the “created order of things”…and not even all of those, but only those composed of matter and energy and living a temporal/spatial existence. For the supernaturalist that leaves out a lot of categories of “things” in the set “every thing.”

            And God doesn’t even quite qualify as a “thing”; for when we use that term in English it has some connotation of mere object-hood: Something contingent, something which at some point was-not and which might not be at some later point. When a person is viciously immoral we often depersonalize him and start calling him a “monster” and if we want to indicate our disgust and contempt yet more we might even call him a “thing.” But one of the early lessons God taught when declaring Himself to humans was to call Himself “I AM”, and in such phrasing that it was clear something significant was being said. Aquinas summed up the lesson in saying that His essence is His existence…which gets us back to the point of all other existence being utterly derivative on His. He IS, even if nothing else is. Indeed their “is-ness,” their being, is shadowy and ephemeral in comparison to His solidity.

            And that doesn’t make Him the universe! Were that the case then the existence of every particle would be dependent upon a bunch of other particles whose existence is dependent on other particles. Every physical law, and every mathematical principle underlying the expression of every physical law, would be dependent for its existence upon those same particles, or they on it, or one law on another, or on all the others. And in that case none of them would be, because you can’t start by having a dependent thing, in order to jumpstart all the other things into being. Your jumpstart would have needed a jumpstart, and that doesn’t scan. (Read Feser on Aquinas to get a better overview of simultaneous chains of causation than I can possibly give here.)

            So God is distinctly “outside” the universe (“outside” here being understood by analogy, not as a change in location within the universe). He is utterly distinct from it, and needs it for nothing. If He didn’t opt to create whatever universes or multiverses there may be, they wouldn’t be, because their ability to “be” is borrowed from His essence. Existence is, so to speak, a “talent on loan from God.”

            You say that this “explains nothing by trying to explain everything.” Well, I was not really trying to write an apologetic for the existence of God; I was just trying to correct the “cramped” or comic-book-hero view you seemed to have absorbed, which is an erroneous impression of what Christians mean by the word “God.” I know you don’t believe in God so I don’t see myself as teaching an RCIA class or anything. But I know you often engage Christians in discussions, so I thought it important to clarify terms that are central to such discussions. We don’t want to be talking past one another! Even if you’re only visiting a province of the Christian blogosophere on holiday, it helps to know a few critical phrases in the language sufficiently well, y’know?

            And that answers your other question: “Why? [...should I walk a mile in Theist moccasins?] Give me a reason to do this….” Why? Because if we engage in conversation, we ought to try to mean the same things by the terms we use when possible. And if we discover we’re using the same word to mean two different things, we ought to enhance our communication by using a different word or qualifying term for one of those things.

            Your initial post, to which I replied, dealt with the topic of God “guiding” evolution and whether this was a requirement of Catholicism. I stepped in to explain in what sense it did or didn’t, and how certain “Intelligent Design” views failed because they didn’t go far enough, weren’t “meta” enough, hadn’t pursued the concept of God through enough iterations of stepping outside of the pagan/comic-book view.

            That is indeed a view of “God” expressed by a lot of atheists commenting on religion (much as the Hawking/Einstein error has been committed by some Theists, as you rightly noted). And as I said before, it’s no great dishonor to make that error: If you’re not a Theist and haven’t really given a lot of time to understanding God, why wouldn’t you have a simplistic view? No shame in that. Perfectly understandable. But, if you’re going to have conversations with Theists, and have those conversations be meaningful, then it’s more important to cull out the misunderstandings.

            Prior to that, you stated that the God I was describing was “not the ‘personal god’ that most theists want.” How so? I said nothing about personal-ness in any assertion I made. I addressed nothing other than the topic of omnipotence and how, by iteration, to move away from a “mighty Thor” conception of power to an Eternal Creator God view. I don’t see anything about God’s authorship of the laws of Quantum Mechanics that precludes Him from having intentions and doing things to fulfill them! That’d be like saying that because an architect can design a house, he couldn’t possibly love his wife.

            To deal with the first part of your note last, you say several puzzling things about my proposed solution to God’s material omnipotence in a deterministic universe:

            First, that it is not “mainstream theology,” to which I reply that I wasn’t offering it as such, but, since you raise the point, I don’t see how it’s incompatible with “mainstream theology” in any way: It deals with a topic about which “mainstream theology” can’t possibly say for sure and usually doesn’t much care. “How many angels can dance on the head of a pin” is probably a far more urgent question for “mainstream theologians” than whether, in a deterministic universe that neither of us thinks is the real one, God would opt to interrupt the flow of cause-effect at some point after the Big Bang, or just change the whole flow from the outset at the moment of creation.

            But I offered that solution only to illustrate that there is at least a solution, and there are almost certainly others; I didn’t intend to assert that this is the way God does it. Indeed I repeated that caveat almost ad nauseam.

            Finally, you offer one reason why you feel this solution is not compatible with mainstream theology, namely, “the massive changes that happen in people’s brains over time and after injury.” But I don’t see how this makes any difference at all. Indeed this view seems to me to be entirely compatible with the view that you raise in opposition to it, that of treating the brain as a receiver antenna (“aerial”) with the attendant possibility of corrupted signals, et cetera. The two seem to mesh just fine.

            But you allude to other “reasons,” the one you state having been “not the least” of them? If you want to pursue the idea farther, let me know some of them. Still…this is all assuming, for the sake of argument, a Deterministic universe we neither of us “buy.” There might be better uses of time!

        • Robert King

          I’m struggling to understand what you mean by “actual randomness.”

          Does “random” mean “unpredictable”? Does it mean “uncaused”? Does it mean “unpredictable in its very essence because it has no determinate cause”?

          An Aristotelian/Thomist considers randomness to indicate something unpredictable in fact because we do not understand the cause, but would reject the idea that there are essentially uncaused events at any scale in the universe.

          On the other hand, A/T philosophers don’t consider determinative mechanical causes to be the only kind of cause at work, either. I’m not entirely sure whether an even could be seen as “random” with respect to efficient cause, but as predictable with respect to (say) formal cause.

          • R.C.


            I think you’ll have to look to a professional Thomist to find an A/T-compatible update that accounts for quantum weirdness. I wouldn’t trust myself to speculate directly on it.

            But while Bohr and the other defenders of the probabilistic “randomness” of the Quantum Theory would have insisted on an actual “uncausedness” at the quantum level, I get the sense that these days physics folk (even those who don’t fall back on the “Many Worlds” interpretation) are willing to allow some leeway either for “causedness” of a kind intrinsic to the quantum but inaccessible to us not merely due to practical instrumentation problems but outright; or, “causedness” which is (to use the sci-fi phrasing) from a “parallel dimension”) and thus inaccessible to us because it’s outside our spacetime.

            The first form of “causedness” which doesn’t actually posit a separate “universe” is what you get from the String Theorists, so far as I can follow them: A good popularization of that whole discussion can be found in Brian Greene’s The Elegant Universe and the really hardcore discussion is found in a book by Ed Witten, John Schwarz, and Michael Green. (I never made it through that book, to be frank.)

            The second form gets postulated by a lot of guys, from the M-”brane” parallel realities of the String Theory guys to non-stringy cosmologists who just want to establish a cause for the Big Bang. It looks as if time didn’t exist prior to the Bang, so normal (= prior) causation goes out the window (there being no “prior”); but what if parallel universes, like adjacent slices in a loaf of bread, can get too close to one another, collide at one point, and grow a new spacetime expansion from the point of collision? This gives a sort of escape hatch for the lack of prior causation because it allows causation from another, unrelated, reality to intrude when necessary, producing an effect which has no prior causation in our universe but emerges from an external causation. All of this is subject to criticisms of various kinds, untestability being paramount. It’s falls into the category of things that some scientists say which makes other scientists complain, “It isn’t even wrong.”

          • keddaw

            I think R.C. is off here when he describe the views of modern physicists. My understanding is that much of the quantum world, from radioactive decay to virtual particles, have a cause, but that the exact moment or place that something happens is completely impossible, even in theory, to predict.

            e.g. if I have a carbon 11 atom (half-life 20mins) and a carbon 14 atom (half-life 5,730 years) there is no way to tell which will decay first since half lives work on a statistical basis over huge numbers of atoms. The reason either atom decays may be a fundamental instability but there is no tipping point or ’cause’ for it to decay at any given time. This may change as knowledge increases, but it appears to be the accepted state of affairs at present. Obviously if you have information that differs please let me know, I don’t want to hold inaccurate views.

          • R.C.


            I may very well be mistaken in this; it’s a field with which I have only a dilettante’s level of familiarity.

            But the specific objection you raise doesn’t quite sound like an objection to what I was saying. Note the two times in my earlier post that I used the phrase “inaccessible to us.” I quite agree that, in your two-atom example, “there is no way to tell which will decay first.” I don’t think any modern physicist hedges on that.

            But I get the sense that there is a little hedging on whether…

            (a.) There is no tipping point or ’cause’ for it to decay at any given time, and the decay is literally an uncaused thing which “just happens”; or,

            (b.) There is a cause but one which is inaccessible to us, meaning that we’re unable to measure the prior state in such a way as to predict the timing of the decay.

            And within option (b.), let me clarify that there are subordinate options:

            (b.1.) We’re unable to measure the prior state for reasons which relate to instrumentation, and which are not permanent obstacles but which are theoretically surmountable given adequate technology, however beyond our imagination such technology might currently be; or,

            (b.2.) We’re unable to measure the prior state for reasons unrelated to instrumentation or technology, but because simply knowing the prior state and predicting the outcome would be logically inconsistent with the whole theory that we relied upon to know and predict outcomes from that prior state, thus causing the equations to “blow up” and the whole thing to crumble in a kind of mathematical Reductio ad Absurdum.

            My impression is that when modern physicists hedge on whether there is no cause, or whether there is an inaccessible cause, they’re viewing the inaccessibility of that cause in (b.2.) fashion, not (b.1.): That it’s not something you can “fix with a better microscope.”

            But, to whoever’s reading this, I’m with Keddaw: I’m on the bleeding edge of what I know about this, and perhaps just went over that edge unawares. If you have a superior understanding of all this, please let us both know.

      • Dan F.

        haven’t finished your comment yet (it’s a good one but I predict keddaw won’t engage your arguments directly) but at this line I nearly snorted my coffee: “instantaneously experiencing both how He’s Banging the Bang and what its final outcome is”

        pure gold my friend, pure gold.

        • R.C.

          Glad you liked it. This stuff can bend your mind around backwards and if there isn’t any comic relief in there somewhere, it just gets too grinding to continue.

      • Alan

        Correct me if I’m wrong, but I thought the last Pope said that while you could believe that physical nature of human evolved as theory suggests you have to also believe that all existing Human descend from a sing Adam and Eve, which of course current theory contradicts.

        • R.C.

          Yes and no; as I understand it the requirement is not that Adam and Eve are the sole pair who are ancestors of all living persons, but that…

          1. They are in the ancestry of all living humans today; that,

          2. They represent the earliest of all humans to have the capacity for a love relationship with the Creator and of being moral actors with full agency; and,

          3. That the first sin committed by humans was a personal sin by them, such that all humans now alive, while not deriving guilt from that sin (because it wasn’t a personal volitional act by anyone other than them), nevertheless (without exception) suffer consequences (deprivation of grace and preternatural gifts) because they are descendants of Adam and Eve.

          So in the end the gist is that one cannot take the view that human fallen-ness is the result of anything other than sin, and that, a personal sin done by particular individuals, and that all humans alive today share in the consequences of that sin, not merely by living in a fallen world, but by descent from the particular persons who committed that sin, however many thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, or millions of years ago.

    • deiseach

      From the most conservative view of the matter, the 1950 Papal Encyclical “Humani Generis” of Pope Pius XII:

      “36. For these reasons the Teaching Authority of the Church does not forbid that, in conformity with the present state of human sciences and sacred theology, research and discussions, on the part of men experienced in both fields, take place with regard to the doctrine of evolution, in as far as it inquires into the origin of the human body as coming from pre-existent and living matter — for the Catholic faith obliges us to hold that souls are immediately created by God. However this must be done in such a way that the reasons for both opinions, that is, those favorable and those unfavorable to evolution, be weighed and judged with the necessary seriousness, moderation and measure, and provided that all are prepared to submit to the judgment of the Church, to whom Christ has given the mission of interpreting authentically the Sacred Scriptures and of defending the dogmas of faithful. Some however rashly transgress this liberty of discussion, when they act as if the origin of the human body from preexisting and living matter were already completely certain and proved by the facts which have been discovered up to now and by reasoning on those facts, and as if there were nothing in the sources of divine revelation which demands the greatest moderation and caution in this question. ”

      Souls are directly created by God, the bodies those souls are incarnated in can come about through the actions of natural forces on pre-existent matter. Does that mean those bodies of necessity have to be the ones we possess now as humans?

      Excerpts from the “Summa Theologica” of St Thomas Aquinas on man as the image of God:

      “I answer that, Since man is said to be the image of God by reason of his intellectual nature, he is the most perfectly like God according to that in which he can best imitate God in his intellectual nature.

      …Objection 3. Further, an image seems to apply principally to the shape of a thing. But shape belongs to the body. Therefore the image of God is to be seen in man’s body also, and not in his mind.

      Reply to Objection 3. Although the image of God in man is not to be found in his bodily shape, yet because “the body of man alone among terrestrial animals is not inclined prone to the ground, but is adapted to look upward to heaven, for this reason we may rightly say that it is made to God’s image and likeness, rather than the bodies of other animals,” as Augustine remarks (QQ. 83, qu. 51). But this is not to be understood as though the image of God were in man’s body; but in the sense that the very shape of the human body represents the image of God in the soul by way of a trace.”

      So if a rational soul is in a tentacled ooze-beast from the planet Xi Episolon XIII, then that tentacled ooze-beast is also made in the image and likeness of God. See the astronomer and Jesuit brother (not priest) Br. Guy Consolmagno in this interview.

      See this post by Catholic statistician and SF author, Michael Flynn, on mediaeval questions about dog-headed humans and whether or not they possessed souls.

      And, not to heap up Catholics on you, see C.S. Lewis’ “Out of the Silent Planet” on hnau:

      “Then something happened which completely altered his state of mind. The creature, which was still steaming and shaking itself on the bank and had obviously not seen him, opened its mouth and began to make noises. This in itself was not remarkable; but a lifetime of linguistic study assured Ransom almost at once that these were articulate noises. The creature was talking. It had language. If you are not yourself a philologist, I am afraid you must take on trust the prodigious emotional consequences of this realization in Ransom’s mind. A new world he had already seen – but a new, an extra-terrestrial, a non-human language was a different matter. Somehow he had not thought of this in connection with the sorns; now, it flashed upon him like a revelation. The love of knowledge is a kind of madness. In the fraction of a second which it took Ransom to decide that the creature was really talking, and while he still knew that he might be facing instant death, his imagination had leaped over every fear and hope and probability of his situation to follow the dazzling project of making a Malacandrian grammar. An Introduction to the Malacandrian Language – The Lunar Verb – A Concise Martian-English Dictionary… the titles flitted through his mind. And what might one not discover from the speech of a non-human race? The very form of language itself, the principle behind all possible languages, might fall into his hands. Unconsciously he raised himself on his elbow and stared at the black beast. It became silent. The huge bullet head swung round and lustrous amber eyes fixed him. There was no wind on the lake or in the wood. Minute after minute in utter silence the representatives of two so far-divided species stared each into the other’s face.”

      • deiseach

        If, on the other hand, your problem is with the very notion of God as Creator and Sustainer of all that is, seen and unseen, I can’t help you out there :-)

      • deiseach

        I also must include another post by Michael Flynn; On St. Augustine and the Dog-Heads.

      • keddaw

        As nice as it is to think that, we have the problem that if we lined up your family from you to your mother, to her mother etc. etc. for a few hundreds of thousands of generations you’d see that the one at the far end is clearly not what would be considered ‘human’, would certainly not have a soul, and may not even be clearly an ape-like creature. However, every single mother-daughter link in the chain is the same species, but your contention is that there is a point in that chain where a mother has no soul but her daughter has? Good luck justifying that.

        • Brandon Watson

          However, every single mother-daughter link in the chain is the same species, but your contention is that there is a point in that chain where a mother has no soul but her daughter has?

          This muddles together several distinct issues. When Catholics are not talking colloquially they use terms like ‘soul’ in a scholastic sense, and in the scholastic sense everything that is alive has a soul — the terminology simply comes from Aristotle, and psyche for the ancient Greeks means ‘whatever it is that makes you alive’. It is indeed the Catholic view that human life has fundamentally distinctive characteristics, since we are capable of moral action, for instance, and of inquiring into the fundamental causes of the universe, however crudely — in the scholastic sense of ‘human’, anything that is at least in principle naturally capable of these is human, and anything that is not even in principle naturally capable of these is not. There are, however, non-human capabilities that can approximate different features of this rational, moral life. So your question really should be phrased: “Every single mother-daughter link in the chain is the same species, but at some point in the chain the daughter has full rational and moral potential (can conceive of properly universal principles, necessary truths in the strict sense, genuine moral obligations, etc.) and the mother only has something approximating to it in particular ways?” To be sure, no precise line can be drawn, since our evidence of the moral or moral-like life of your typical hominin even a few dozen thousand years ago is essentially nonexistent, and it requires a certain conception of rationality. But most of the implausibility of your question arises from your misstating the position.

          • keddaw

            Soul, moral responsibility, affinity with god, ability to go to heaven/hell – whatever. Obfuscation of the issue does not help the fundamental problem with an acceptance of both Catholicism and evolution.

            Unless you want to postulate one of the links in that chain is Eve…

          • Erick

            I don’t see where you find your “problem”.

            Isn’t it true that it is possible (in evolutionary terms) for a child to have more abilities than their parent? I would think of something along the lines of the movie “I am Sam” for a very minimal “within species” example. So how can you say it’s impossible for a “non-hominid mother” who birthed “the mutated child that we call hominid” to have less abilities than the child? We don’t need God to explain that.

            Soul, affinity with God, etc., as difference making abilities/features of ours need not be beyond evolution, just as hoping for a future or theory of mind evolved in humans but not in chimps.

          • Brandon Watson

            “Whatever” is precisely the wrong answer here; the refusal to make relevant distinctions is the complete rejection of critical reasoning. The distinctions are relevant, in fact, for the obvious reason that the problem you are raising requires that there be such a sharp contrast between the gradual change of the distribution of biological characteristics in a population over time and some cut-off line. Now this is, far from being something weird that happens only in Catholic theology, one of the most common phenomena of reasoning: obviously things change from A to B, and A and B are distinguishable, so there must be some point at which B is definitely B and not A, despite the fact that at some previous point it was definitely A and not B. This serial vagueness is not in general a problem, however; it’s entirely possible for A and B to be sharply distinct in how they should be classified despite the fact that A and B are very close to each other, if there is some causal account for how B can come from A. The plausibility of such an account will depend on several different things. One thing it might depend on is just how much it would take to move from A to B. This is all that your rhetorical sleight of hand with equivocation on words like ‘soul’ is really doing: it’s trying to make the change really, really big. But the change is not really big, and the so-called problem is not particularly Catholic. Since explaining both of these two you would take too long, I will simply follow your lead and insist without much development that it is nonsense to claim that it is a big change; and thus leave time to go on to the more serious problem, which is that your so-called problem is in fact a pervasive phenomenon of reason, and not a problem at all.

            Essentially you are taking what is actually an artifact of human classification, namely, that when you cannot identify the distinctions between things to perfect precision you get vagueness or gray areas, and pretending that it is somehow a feature of Catholic doctrine as such. Take any position whatsoever on what makes human beings moral. In evolutionary history, the history then extends from things that we would certainly consider inanimate (prebiotic soup, clay crystals, or whatever is your preferred abiogenetical origin) all the way to things that are capable of morality in that sense. Unless you are a panpsychist, somewhere between A (inanimate structures and forms of life so simple that morality cannot be attributed to them in whatever sense is meant) and B (moral agents) there will be a point at which you definitely have B and not A and there will be a point at which you definitely have A and not B. If those points are immediately successive then we have a sharp shift from A to B, but this is entirely possible if (to take just one example) B requires a constellation of factors to work together in order for us to have B. The individual factors can all be gradually introduced and developed and you only have B when you have them all up and running. In the meantime those factors can be doing whatever; they can even be doing quasi-B work; but actually to have B you just them all to develop gradually. The other alternative is if the definitely-A-and-not-B line is some distance down the line from the definitely-B-and-not-A line. In this case, if there’s a gap between all the forebears who are definitely not moral agents and all the progeny who definitely are, leaving a gray area in between where we might call them moral and might not. There are different positions on why this might happen, but the most plausible explanation in most cases is simply either (1) that the original principle of classification does not admit of complete precision; or (2) we don’t have enough evidence about the series to use the principle of classification completely. When Gregor Mendel was sorting peas, for instance, he sorted them by (e.g.) whether the peas were smooth or wrinkled and whether they were yellow or green. In fact, he ran into precisely this problem; some peas are definitely smooth (or yellow) and some peas are definitely wrinkled (or green) but the transition is not sharp; and as it happens if you distribute these vague cases randomly you will get results very similar to Mendel’s. That’s a gradual series that is not itself a change, but the same sort of thing happens, for precisely the same reasons, when the series is a change, even if it is not, in fact, a perfectly gradual change, like that of a chain of forebears and progeny. (One of the more interesting things about your lecture to deiseach on gradualism was your confusion of the sense of ‘gradual’ as it applies to biological populations — that is a very fine-grained gradualism — and the sense of ‘gradual’ as it applies to lineages, like mother-daughter chains, which is a very coarse-grained gradualism. In animals that sexually reproduce there are always in fact significant differences between mothers and daughters; mothers and daughters are not clones with only minor mutational differences. And depending on the precise underlying genetics the differences can be quite startling — very ordinary people can have geniuses for children, hearing people can have Deaf children and vice versa, people without unusual trisomy differences can have children with Downs, etc., it just depends on how genetic factors end up being combined. It would surprising if there were not significant differences in many of the mother-daughter pairs of any lineage, just as it would be surprising if a population shifted characteristics in single generation; they are very different kinds of gradual change. Trying to pretend that they work in the same way is utterly absurd and shows either that you don’t understand what is meant when people talk about gradualism in biology, despite your lecturing, or that you are deliberately equivocating.) You would expect only a very high-level gradualism in a matrilineal line, but the same thing happens: regardless of one’s account of moral agency or responsibility, at some point in this history the structures or organisms are definitely not responsible moral agents and at some point they are. Either these two categories share a border or they don’t. If they share a border, then it’s possible for there to be a mother-daughter pair in which the mother lacks some feature required for her to be classified as moral and the daughter happens to have it. Notice that across this dividing line, the series itself is still as gradual as it is anywhere else; it’s just that the categories are precise enough, or easy enough to apply, that you can cut the gradual series cleanly. That you can cut a number line cleanly doesn’t conflict with the fact that the series is gradual; it just means that we’re dealing with a case in which our classifications and knowledge of the series are capable of considerable precision.

            What if the borders between definitely-not-a-morally-responsible agent and definitely-a-morally-responsible-agent are separated by considerable gray area? The same thing actually happens, just in a different way. The line would just be between not-definitely-a-morally-responsible-agent and definitely-a-morally-responsible agent. And since definitely is definitely, this means there would be a mother-daughter pair in which the daughter is definitely a morally responsible agent and the mother is not definitely a morally responsible agent (although she might be). This is simply an artifact of classifying when our precision is limited. Every account of what it is to be a morally responsible agent will exhibit the same phenomenon, because every such account will have a gradual history from non-moral to moral where there will have to be some point beyond which things definitely count as morally responsible agents. This is in fact logically necessary: assuming that morally responsible agents are generated from things that are not morally responsible agents, any account of moral responsibility has to say something definite about what is required for something to be morally responsible; and any definite statement of that will put a line somewhere in the series.

            So in summary: this is something every account of moral agency or responsibility involves, including your own, if you’ve ever bothered to have one, and it’s even more general than that — it occurs everywhere that you are drawing distinctions on a gradual series, even at times in mathematics. Claiming that this is somehow a specifically Catholic thing, when in fact it is virtually universal, or that it is somehow a problem, when on its own it is never a problem anywhere, is merely silly. At the very least it shows that you are going to have to actually work, rather than impatiently waving your hands and saying “whatever”, to get this objection up and running.

          • Alex

            Perhaps it would be best to focus on the characteristics that aren’t fuzzy namely the ability to go to heaven or hell after death. I’m not sure it’s a serious problem for Catholicism, but it is an interesting question.

            Is there some mother-daughter pair in which the daughter has the ability to go to heaven or hell and the mother does not? There’s no grayness involved in this case.

          • Brandon Watson

            Hi, Alex; you said:

            Is there some mother-daughter pair in which the daughter has the ability to go to heaven or hell and the mother does not? There’s no grayness involved in this case.

            (1) I don’t think this is true at all. Gray areas can arise wherever precision fails for any reason, and precision can fail for a lot of reasons. One of the ways it can fail is that we simply don’t know enough. Another way it can fail is that we can specify our system of classification enough to be useful and well-established but not enough to handle all the cases.

            And in fact Catholic theology is simply not that nosy about who is going to hell or who is going to heaven in general, so there is no reason whatsoever to expect it to have any hard and fast rule for who has the ability. Why in the world would we ever need to know whether a specific hominid Z three million years ago could possibly be in hell? That’s a thoroughly ridiculous degree of precision; I don’t see why one would expect anyone to specify anything to that degree of precision, outside purely quantitative subjects. I agree it’s an interesting question — if we have the means of answering questions that precise.

            (2) It actually doesn’t matter: ‘ability to go to heaven or hell’ is logically downstream from moral responsibility, and any supposed problem it inherits it is inheriting from moral responsibility, and thus something it shares with all accounts of morality.

            (3) I do agree that these kinds of questions can be interesting, when there is precision enough to answer them; and they are so precisely because there is no logical or rational problem with having sharp differences in mother-daughter lineages: they lead into the more serious question of whether there is any possible causal account to explain the transition.

        • deiseach

          Point out to me, dear keddaw, the exact point in the chain where a mother is not a member of Homo sapiens sapiens but her daughter is; the point where the critical threshold of number of neurons necessary to support self-awareness, or the extra few cubic centimetres of brain matter or what you like. Obviously, since I am in a long line reaching uninterruptedly back to non-humans, therefore I am myself a non-human (an opinion upon which my family would be all too glad to agree with you.) Naturally, since it is unthinkable that a parent generation should lack a quality an offspring generation possesses, I cannot possess either a soul or opposable thumbs.

          Why do I suddenly feel the urge to quote from “I Am the Walrus”? I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together.

          • keddaw

            Thanks deiseach, you could not have pointed out more starkly the problem many Catholics (esp. US ones) have with evolution. You have a fundamental misunderstanding of gradual change over time – or you have an understanding and wish to pass Catholicism’s problem onto biology, but the two are totally different.

            Your faith claims humanity is incredibly special (made in god’s image, sense of right and wrong, soul, ability to enter heaven etc. etc.) but biology makes no such claims. Biology understands that species diverge slowly over time and there is no noticeable difference even over tens or hundreds of generations, but over long periods differences accumulate, specialisations occur and speciation happens.

            So, to answer your question, there is no point where one is homo sapien and one is not, for many, many generations members across those generations could interbreed and produce viable offspring (except for the difference in times when they lived, obviously). Such is the fluidity of change. However, since we have such long time frames, we can differentiate distinct species along this gradual branch on the tree of life.

            Now, back to you, where on this line of subtly varying creatures does the part of humanity you claim that God says makes us special come in? Is that a gradual thing like opposable thumbs, and if so does that mean some animals might also have it to a certain degree? If not, is there a point in your own timeline where one ancestor doesn’t have that special divine spark and their offspring does? If not, please tell me how you square this circle.

          • TerryC

            Indeed it is not a gradual thing, which is the whole point of the poetical allegory called Genesis. At some presently undefined time God say fit to change the nature of the soul with which every living thing is endowed. Normally each creature borrows life from God. At its death that life returns to God, from whom it was borrowed. At some point God changed the nature of that relationship. Creatures were endowed instead with a soul patterned on God’s own. That is they became permanently independent creatures having free will and immortality. So yes the woman who is no longer like her mother becomes Eve, because she has an immortal soul and her mother has a mortal soul. So yes there is at some point on my own timeline a point where one ancestor does not have a special dive spark and their off spring does.

          • keddaw

            TerryC, thank you for representing what I believe to be the official Catholic view on this topic, now please feel free to let Brandon Watson know. Or Brandon can convince you otherwise. Either way, I can’t discuss this with both of you when you make starkly competing claims on when God decided to show up and make hominid X special.

    • deiseach

      keddaw, I have just been reading poetry, so I am presently overflowing with sentiment and optimism (don’t worry, it’ll go away soon and I’ll be back to normal).

      So I really must sincerely and genuinely express my appreciation for, and gratitude to, you – something I have heretofore neglected to do.

      Thank you, dear sir, madam or other-identified of choice (including the choice to be non-identified). Were it not for your urgings, amongst others, I would have no impetus to investigate the doctrines of my faith and find out what it is I claim to be believing when I claim to believe it. Generally, I am relieved to find that I can agree with the things I am supposed to be believing, and the rest of the time, I am instructed and chastened in a proper spirit of humility and instruction.

      Thank you, keddaw. Keep up the good work of encouraging a believer in her beliefs!


      • keddaw

        I do not seek your de-conversion, just the openness to query your beliefs and reasons for holding them. This may ultimately make your faith stronger and your communion with God more fulfilling.

        • Irenist

          “I do not seek your de-conversion, just the openness to query your beliefs and reasons for holding them. This may ultimately make your faith stronger and your communion with God more fulfilling.”
          Since Brandon Watson’s elucidation of the issues involved is both entirely orthodox Catholicism (despite your suspicions to the contrary) and presents a real argumentative challenge to your position, perhaps you could exhibit the openness to query your beliefs and reasons for holding them by engaging it instead of amusing yourself by taking fruitless potshots at less sophisticated presentations of the Catholic position. It might make your model stronger and your contemplation of nature more fulfilling. You might even learn something.

    • Ted Seeber

      Nope. Catholicism claims God is smart enough, and evolution natural enough, to have occurred based on the initial antrhomorphic conditions set up in the big bang. It’s one of the few places where Catholicism is deist.

      What we would insist, however, at that level is that what appears to be “random” in quantum mechanics, is actually limitations in our biology and our ability to measure the physical world, leaving plenty of room for God to work all sorts of miracles *without actually violating his own rationality*.

      Contrast this with the theology of Islam that says God isn’t rational.

      • anodognosic

        Those gaps are getting pretty small, huh Ted?

      • Irenist

        Ted, you write, “What we would insist[.]”
        I think it would be more accurate for you to write “What I would insist,” since you are explaining your position on a matter in which the Church has not, and will not, constrain the liberty of believers to work out their own understandings.
        My own understanding: An entirely stochastic cosmology will still lead to rational animals somewhere in an infinite cosmos, be it universe or multiverse. There is no need to posit any weighting of the dice to arrive at that result, given that the Eternal God stands outside space-time(s) and always already knows the results of even entirely stochastic physical processes.
        Ted, since your position leaves itself justly open to anodognosic’s “god of the quantum gaps” objection, I think you would bear better witness to the Truth if you didn’t represent your own idiosyncratic understanding of causation as the Official Catholic Answer to the questions here.

  • jose

    from one of the posts you link: “I’d love to hear commenters on either side explain how they can distill moral instruction from a blind process that can’t take ethics into account.” I’d rather comment here because that post is old and noone mentioned it. I’d say Darwin himself set up that field of study in the Descent of man, specifically chapter 4.

  • Noe

    Well that’s…that’s Herman Dooyeweerd in a nutshell, with a thankfully more thorough conception of what constitutes “religious”;
    Clouser’s “Myth of Religious Neutrality” is probably the most accessible exposition of Dooyeweerd’s theory of theories.
    Clouser, elsewhere;
    “Central to every religion is a teaching about what is divine—about what is regarded as utterly independent and on which all else depends. No matter what or whom any religion considers to be divine, that is what it recognizes or defines as the unconditional reality. The divine, in other words, is whatever people consider to be uncaused and unpreventable—as ‘just there.’ The crucial point for our discussion is that this definition of religion makes clear that ideas of divinity are not confined to traditions most people recognize as ‘religious.’ Whatever is regarded as ultimate, independent reality thereby has the status of divinity, no matter how it is conceived and regardless of whether it is worshipped. Worship is not essential to religion; there have been beliefs in gods that did not include worship and there still are versions of Hinduism and Buddhism that include no worship. Understanding religion in this way also allows us to see that there are many more religious beliefs involved in scientific theorizing than are generally recognized.”$551

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  • jenesaispas

    I don’t really get what the fuss is about it’s quite a safe assumption that the other other journo is Atheist. Its not even anti-science I think his final point is this:

    From Guardian comments (Peter Thompson):
    “The reason you can’t dance to atheism is that it has too many tunes and none”

    so it doesn’t really work to hold society together.

    Perhaps “meeting” or “feeling of togetherness” would have been a better word for Atheist rituals.

    Still love that photo- Grease Lightning!.

    • CBrachyrhynchos

      It’s consistently annoying to me that arguments about atheism (Brown’s included) seem to make the category error of criticism atheism as having or lacking a common cultural ethos, praxis, culture, history, and tradition. Beyond the principle that at least one god exists, there’s little in common among all the expressions of theism across thousands of cultures and thousands of years of history. In Brown’s case, I think this serves as something of a blank slate on which he can draw his own caricature of atheism-as-individualism ignoring the millions of us who fully engage in welcoming communities of ethical thought and practice.

      “God exists,” or “god doesn’t exist,” is either a starting point, or a tangent for living traditions that create “music” so to speak. On its own, it doesn’t say much about the human condition or the relationship of that deity to humanity.

      • jenesaispas

        True. He does specify “liberal, individualistic atheism” at the start of the last paragraph so it wasn’t (entirely at least) a caricature of all Atheists. There isn’t really a lot binding Atheists together though beyond actual atheism, though is there?

        • DaveJ


          • jenesaispas

            No, always been bad at expressing myself through words.

  • Scott Gay

    After reading 70 or so comments, I’ve paused and taken breath before responding.
    I came to mereology(parts and the wholes they form) through Roderick Chisholm, and that trajectory because of his take on the well known dilemma of determinism. Once it becomes clear that mereology is not a tantamount denial of set theory, it is one of the most useful tools for metaphysics and ontology.

  • Irenist

    Leah, this is one of my pet peeves with popular science journalism, too. I have no love for Richard Dawkins, but when my fellow theists complain of his “faith” in selfish genes as if Dawkins really thinks that genes are agents feeling the emotion of egotism, it annoys me to no end that they can’t have the intellectual honesty or capacity (as the case may be) to allow that he’s speaking metaphorically. And that kind of error happens all the time. Part of the problem is that our educational system, which tends not to teach any of the logic and rhetoric of the trivium, or much of the mathematics of the quadrivium, or any sophisticated physical science, tends to leave journalists and the rest of the general public statistically innumerate, scientifically illiterate, and prone to substituting self-righteous slogans for reasoned argument.

  • DaveJ

    Instead of supernatural or agent seeking-causation bias?