The Case for a Creator: Paging Dr. Provine

The Case for a Creator: Paging Dr. Provine April 17, 2009

The Case for a Creator, Chapter 1

At the close of the first chapter, Lee Strobel scales to an incredible height of lunacy:

I knew intuitively what prominent evolutionary biologist and historian William Provine of Cornell University would spell out explicitly in a debate years later. If Darwinism is true, he said, then there are five inescapable conclusions:

  • there’s no evidence for God
  • there’s no life after death
  • there’s no absolute foundation for right and wrong
  • there’s no ultimate meaning for life
  • people don’t really have free will [p.16]

These incredible assertions are presented without any hint of supporting evidence or argument, other than to call them “inescapable” and to say that he “knew [them] intuitively”.

Something worth noting here is that, despite the book’s title – The Case for a Creator – which would imply that the book’s contents contain a set of factual arguments and supporting evidence worthy of the description “case”, Strobel here does nothing of the kind. In fact, what he’s doing is exactly the same thing that his West Virginian interviewees were doing: trying to warn people away from accepting evolution by painting a frightening picture of its imagined consequences. Looked at in this light, it’s no surprise that he doesn’t attempt to cite supporting arguments for this staggering set of claims. Their sole purpose in being here is to evoke a gasp of horror from Strobel’s Christian readers, and for that purpose, it’s sufficient to cite just one scary-sounding atheist.

The obvious thing to do would be to e-mail Dr. Provine to find out if this quote really represents what he believes. I tried contacting him, but didn’t get an answer. Instead, I’ll respond to these five points myself, pointing out atheists who dissent from Strobel’s “inescapable” conclusions along the way.

Evidence for God: Why on earth would the truth of evolution imply the nonexistence of God? The whole point of faith in God, as atheists often complain, is that it is unfalsifiable – consistent with any possible evidence, disproved by none. You may look and fail to confirm the existence of God, but no matter how closely you investigate, you can never rule out a sufficiently subtle deity. This is as true for evolutionary biology as it is for any other branch of science.

Of course, some versions of God have more empirical contact with the world than others. I grant that, if your religion requires belief in two human beings created 6,000 years ago from mud by a local deity in a garden somewhere in Mesopotamia, then evolution probably does contradict it. (In much the same way, people who believe that thunder and lightning emanate from Thor’s almighty hammer have their beliefs contradicted by modern meteorology.) But that’s a far cry from claiming, as Strobel does, that the truth of evolution logically implies that no evidence whatsoever for the existence of any god has ever been or ever will be discovered. As I said last time, as an atheist, I’d be greatly pleased if that were true. But it simply isn’t the case.

Life after death: Although I don’t believe in life after death, I see no reason why that belief would be incompatible with evolution. The obvious reconciliation would be to believe that God created life on Earth through evolutionary processes, but at some point instilled the ancestors of human beings with a soul that survives bodily death. Indeed, that is exactly the position of the Roman Catholic church, as well as many mainstream Christian denominations. That’s over a billion Christian believers worldwide who hold to this theology – a rather large number for Strobel to sweep under the carpet!

Absolute right and wrong: The existence of right and wrong is a philosophical question that does not depend on any particular set of facts about the world. As atheists have noted ad nauseam, science deals only in questions of fact, what did or did not happen, while the job of moral philosophy is to evaluate whether those things should happen, and that is a separate question entirely. Therefore, the truth or falsehood of evolution has no bearing on whether there is such a thing as a universal moral standard.

Ultimate meaning for life: Assuming these are accurate quotes from Dr. Provine, I suspect that this point exploits a common apologist confusion of terms. Atheists do not believe in “ultimate” meaning for life, in the sense of a transcendent purpose handed down from above. But we do believe that there is meaning in life, which we choose to create for ourselves by participating in fulfilling actions. This point is made forcefully in atheist books like The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality or The Atheist’s Way. The difference is largely one of semantics, and again, what this has to do with evolution is left unexplained.

Free will: Again, semantics are important. If you’re referring to the libertarian, theistic version of free will – the one where people are possessed by a supernatural soul that has the magical power to make decisions that are completely without prior cause – then I agree that we don’t have that, and I also agree that science disproves that. But the science in question isn’t evolution, but rather neurology, which shows in increasingly greater detail how human decision-making originates from the structure of our neurons. Unless Strobel intends to devote his next book to arguing that human beings don’t really have brains, he seems to have chosen the wrong target here.

On the other hand, if you’re referring to compatibilist free will – that freedom means the ability to choose in accordance with our desires – then evolution not only allows for that view, it arguably requires it. That’s the thesis of prominent atheist Daniel Dennett, whose book on the topic is titled – what else? – Freedom Evolves. Needless to say, this isn’t a view explored by Strobel, who would evidently rather emphasize the one atheist view calculated to cause his audience the most shock and fright, as opposed to letting them know the true range of atheist thought on these topics.

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