Why I am not a ‘theistic evolutionist,’ etc., part 2

Why I am not a ‘theistic evolutionist,’ etc., part 2 September 4, 2012

In the first part of this discussion, I objected to the idea that the modifier “theistic” in “theistic evolution,” might simply refer to the believe held by us theists of God’s pervasive providence.

The problem, we noted, is that if we’re talking about God’s constant presence in all things, that can’t explain the use of this word in this exceptional way. If “theistic evolution” means only that God is present in the process of evolution in the same way that God is present in the process of photosynthesis, then why should we feel compelled to speak of theistic evolution but never of theistic photosynthesis?

We don’t use that word that way. So how do we actually use this word “theistic”?

One way is in order to distinguish something from its binary opposite. We may say that something is “theistic” in order to clarify that it is not “atheistic.”

I think this brings us closer to what may be intended by this phrase “theistic evolution,” that it may be an attempt to clarify that we are not speaking of “atheistic evolution.”

But that begs the question instead of answering it. And yet again we find ourselves up against the implication that evolution is some kind of special case — specifically that, somehow, it carries some unique presumption of atheisticity (atheisticality?). And that, in turn, brings us back to the same problem: Why should we imagine some presumed quality attached to evolution when we do not make the same presumption about any of the myriad other natural processes we have also observed and studied?

Again, it would seem weird to speak of atheistic photosynthesis or atheistic quantum physics or atheistic fusion because we correctly understand that metaphysical claims of atheism or theism are wholly separate and distinct from what we can observe and learn and know about these physical processes. The same ought to be true for evolution, unless evolution is some kind of special case.

But evolution is not a special case. It is not magically imbued with some intrinsic metaphysical aspect that separates it from all of those other processes.

So what is it about evolution that makes us keep trying to treat it as an exception, as though it is a special case?

One guess is that it has something to do with the Bible — with the idea that evolution is unique because, unlike photosynthesis, it seems to contradict the words of scripture.

But evolution is not unique in this regard, and this still cannot account for why we seem so determined to singled out evolution and not, for example, the germ theory of disease, or a heliocentric model of the solar system.

In order to perceive the alleged conflict between the Bible — specifically, the creation stories in Genesis 1-3 — and the reality of evolution, one has to employ a particular hermeneutic, a particular system for interpreting the Bible. That hermeneutic is selectively and spastically literalistic, disregarding the metaphysical concerns of the ancient storytellers and twisting them into modern-style scientific and historical claims. Apply that same hermeneutic to the rest of the Bible and evolution will not be the only natural process that conflicts with “what the Bible says.” This hermeneutic also demands the thorough rejection of modern medicine, of meteorology and of astronomy. Yet few of the Christians who deny the reality of evolution “because of the Bible” seem equally eager to deny the reality of any of those other “unbiblical” natural processes.

And, more to the point, Christians who happily accept the reality of all of those other processes are not called on to qualify that acceptance by saying they only believe in theistic disease, or theistic meteorology, or theistic astronomy.

And that point also illustrates another reason I’m uncomfortable with the label “theistic evolutionist” and the term “theistic evolution.” Imagine you meet a local news weather forecaster at a party. “Ah, so you’re a meteorologist?” you ask.

“Well, actually,” she says, “I’m a theistic meteorologist.”

That distinction, you would reasonably suspect, implies that she’s referring to something distinct — that, whatever it means, “theistic meteorology” refers to something different from and something other than that which we typically refer to as simply “meteorology,” without such qualification.

Might something like that be what that odd phrase “theistic evolution” is meant to imply? Is it meant to suggest that we’re talking about something distinct from and other than simple, unqualified “evolution” — something other than the natural process we have observed and studied and fruitfully built upon as the foundation for all of biology?

I hope not, because then we’d be back to that old will-o-the-wisp of the god of the gaps. And that ever-diminishing entity doesn’t strike me as a deity worth bothering to believe in.

I noted in the previous post that we refer to people who believe in the existence of God — people like me — as “theists.” And we thus also refer to the beliefs of such people as “theistic.” But it would be idiomatically awkward and unnatural to describe a theist as “theistic.” That’s not how we use that word. “Theistic” is not an adjective we usually attach to people. It’s an adjective we usually use to qualify metaphysics.

And this is why that phrase “theistic evolution” — just like its counterpart, “atheistic evolution” — seems inelegant and strange. It begs the metaphysical question. It presumes that evolution is intrinsically metaphysical in a way that other natural processes are not. It treats evolution as a special case.

But evolution is not a special case. It is no more intrinsically metaphysical than photosynthesis, or condensation, or thermodynamics.

Just like those other processes, evolution makes no claims as to the existence or non-existence of God. Nor does it require us to make or to reject any such claim.

If a theist at sea level heats water to 212 degrees Fahrenheit, the water will boil. If an atheist does the same thing under the same conditions, the atheist will get the same result. There is no such thing as the “theistic boiling point of water.” The boiling point of water is not contingent upon the metaphysical perspective of any given human who might be observing it. Nor is evolution.

Evolution is not a special case.

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  • alias Ernest Major

    We don’t know whether anatomically modern humans and Neanderthals were conspecific or not.

     Back when all we had was bones, tools and mtDNA sequences there was a tendency to infer that they were separate species from a lack of interbreeding inferred from the distinct clusters of mtDNA haplotypes. That was never a slam dunk conclusion.

    Now that we have pretty good evidence for interbreeding from the nuclear genome some people have jumped in the other direction.  That’s not a slam dunk conclusion either.

    In Mexico there is a cotton species. In one population on the Pacific Coast the chloroplast DNA and about 3% of the nuclear DNA comes from another species, from Baja California. No-one has suggested merging those two species; they’re not even considered to be sister species. But that 3% number is rather similar to the Neanderthal contribution to extra-African anatomically modern human genomes.

  • PJ Evans

     Actually, nothing. The speed of light is defined as a constant; the meter is defined as a fraction of it.

  • Flying Squid with Goggles

     That is a good, and correct, point. It touches on a common problem in logic, the small numbers fallacy, which is an even larger problem than creationism in my view. People just have trouble believing that small things are significant, regardless of evidence to the contrary.

  •  He’s quoting Pratchett’s Death, who always speaks in all caps.

  • Carstonio

     If someone like Collins is presenting that as a proposed hypothesis and not a statement of personal belief (and I don’t know how Collins himself is presenting it), then it’s fair to challenge the basic premise of an undetectable being causing events to happen. The hypothesis would be so broad as to explain anything, which would mean that it really explains nothing.

    Option 2 would be a contradiction if one presumes that “natural” means undirected. Offhand, I don’t know of a way to verify that option as a hypothesis without buying into the intelligent-design premise that order can only be designed. Philosophically, it suggests a thought-out response to the god-of-the-gaps idea that “miracles” are suspensions of physical laws.

    “Statement of personal belief” deserves some clarification. I suspect it would be mean-spirited to question someone who believes that a god saved hir from falling off a cliff. But not so if the person insisted that anyone walking along a cliff need not be careful when doing so.

  • Carstonio

    Yes, the false macro/micro distinction looks like an attempted end-run around evolution by appearing to endorse its mechanism. It treats species boundaries as if these are hard-coded into nature instead of human-created classifications. The same mistake that creationists make with physical laws.

  • I’m not sure I belong in this comment section because most of what everyone is talking about is going over my head.  I just wanted to say this why I make the disctiction that I am a *theistic* evolutionist as opposed to just an evolutionist. 

    Evolution, in the mainstream public conscience, has been slightly jacked by atheists.  Atheists who have said that evolution proves that there is no God (which it can’t) or who say that evolution disproves the Bible (which it doesn’t) or that evolution means that man is accidental and without purpose (which, again, it doesn’t).  So when a person says they accept evolution, the mainstream public takes it to mean that you don’t believe in God, the Bible or human purpose. 

    Since I believe in God, the Bible and human purpose, and evolution I feel the need to clarify my evolutionary position with the phrase *theistic*.  No one assumes that if you believe in physics or chemistry that you are a God-hating atheist.  Many people assume that if you belive in evolution that you are.  Especially if you have grown up in a Young Earth Creationist church.

  • Tricksterson

    I don’t “worship” Trickster (who I consider a personified archetype from whom Loki, Hermes et al to be sun off of)  so much as I consider myself as following his Path.

  • Tricksterson

    I believe some versions of Gnosticism believe exactly that.  Could be wrong though.

  • Ross Thompson


    I’ve seen the answer that a rabbit fossil in a pre-cambrian stratum
    would disprove evolution. Your post seems to imply that you would
    disagree. So, if I may ask, how would a pre-cambrian rabbit, assuming
    you were made confident of the dating and that the fossil had been
    undisturbed since Cambrian times, change your understanding of

    Honestly, I’d almost believe that it was left there by time-travellers before believing that our understanding of natural history was that wrong.

  • Carstonio

    True, there are some atheists out there who indeed insist that evolution disproves the existence of gods. But the true jacking has been done not by them but by the creationists, a far larger group. They’re the ones responsible for convincing the public that evolution and atheism are the same thing. Fred has written many times that their larger goal is defining Christianity in tribal terms.

  • Ross Thompson

    The one I’ve heard a little more often is that the speed of light just used to be a lot faster than now, like, by a factor of billions.

    The speed of light is intimately tied to things like “distance” and “mass” and even “colour”, all of which we can measure directly for things far enough away that creationists feel the need to invoke such an idea. We can look at the amount of space a distant galaxy takes up , or the amount it curves space around it, and we can be sure than any change in the speed of light is below the sensitivity of our instruments. And the instruments we point at the deep sky are very sensitive indeed.

    The red-shift that we see in galaxies is a combination of the speed of light and the speed of space being created between us and them*. If the speed of light were greater, everything would be bluer, making it look as if the more distant galaxies were coming back towards us. And we’d be able to see further before we hit the brick wall of microwave background radiation. Which would no longer be in the microwave – maybe it would be visible, or even gamma ray spectra.

    I’m pretty sure it would also affect the rates of nuclear reactions, which is something else we can directly measure for the time they’re talking about.

    In short, the universe probably wouldn’t be destroyed by such a change, but the deep sky would look very different from what we see, in easily identifiable ways.

    *There’s an alternate explanation for why all the galaxies seem to be receding from us: that we’re right in the middle of a spherical void that has only 2/3 the density of the regular universe, and extend just slightly past the edges of the visible universe. Astronomers dislike this solution because it means we need to be in a very special location, and that’s always turned out to be false before.

  • Jim Roberts

    And since they use the words of the “atheist evolutionists” as a cudgel, it become truth.

    I’m in about the same boat as Fred. There was a point where I did like the label of “theistic evolutionist,” but that time has passed. At this point, I’m a Christian who happens to see the theory of evolution as the best, most cogent explanation for life as we know it.

  • Off the top of my head, the speed of light slowing down over time would most sensitively affect the weak interaction. If you assume speed of light propagation of the W+/- and Z0 particles for the duration the uncertainty principle ‘allows’ them to exist, then if the speed of light is faster, they can go farther. Since the Z0 exchange competes with photon exchange in electromagnetic interactions (remember, the true form of this is the electroweak interaction), any parity conserving electromagnetic processes in the early universe would have been ‘contaminated’ with a higher fraction of the partially parity violating Z0 exchange involving the weak interaction.

    In short, chemistry would have looked somewhat different back then and I’m sure there’d have been evidence of it.

  •  Ah.  Okay.

    I tend to tense up when I see all caps in an online setting, just as if someone really was yelling.

  • GDwarf


    To make a point about avoiding assumptions, I’ve sometimes suggested the
    possibility of a god existing who had no role in the universe past or
    present. The usual response has been something like Fred’s – what’s the
    point of believing in a god like that? I’ve never been sure how to
    answer that, since I’m not talking about belief, except to ask if there
    should be a point.

    But can such a being really be said to exist? If it has no influence on anything then it certainly doesn’t exist for any practical standard, and if we want philosophy to be more than solipsistic navel-gazing we have to anchor it at least somewhat in reality.

    It’s sort-of like the invisible pink unicorn argument, only taken even further. Since this unicorn has no influence on anyone ever no one even thinks it exists. It displaces no air. It leaves no footprints. It has no mass. I’d say that it doesn’t exist. Even random imaginings have more actual existence than these things. At least there’s some electrical activity in your brain.

  • GDwarf


    I assert the existence of things that cannot be proven by scientific
    methods, actually. Love, beauty, art, basic human rights, compassion…

    But all of those things can be proven by science to exist. They cannot be proven to be correct, but the fact that there are people who believe in them means that the concepts do provably exist.

  • Carstonio

    Sounds as if you misunderstood my reasoning for suggesting that possibility. I was challenging the idea that if a god exists, it’s likely to have properties that would make it worthy of belief or worship. Or that a god that’s worthy of belief or worship is more likely to exist than one that isn’t. Theodicy seems to assume that a god would automatically be loving.

    While I can understand believers seeing the “invisible pink unicorn” concept as insulting, that argument makes the valid point that we have nothing that we can positively say was caused by gods. (As opposed to caused by belief in gods.)  Putting aside the issue of personal belief, all such assertions about gods causing events seem indistinguishable from speculation.

  • CBrachyrhynchos

    This is a bit of a long-winded explanation as to why a pre-Cambrian rabbit would be a crisis for evolution. 

    The multiple lines of evidence used to support evolution require the same form of “interpretation” used to support heliocentrism. Heliocentrism has never been observed in the form shown in science textbooks. Voyager is off the ecliptic by a mere 32 degrees, and is forced to use a mosaic of multiple exposures to spot all of the planets. The fact that Kepler (and later Einstein) were forced to interpolate elipses from a series of discontinuous observations probably hindered the development of their particular theories of how the solar system works. 
    One of the deep misunderstandings of evolution (I also reject the notion of “theistic” or “atheistic” evolution), is that it’s a series of “just so stories” like, “How the Hominid got Her Voice and Became Human” or “How the Velociraptor Got Feathers and Became a Bird.”  It describes and explains family relationships involving correlations among anatomical, metabolic, and genetic data. A modern rabbit is part of a family with ~60 living species and a few more fossil species, which in turn, is part of a larger nesting set of clades, of the class mamalia, which appears to have a common ancestor somewhere in the Jurassic or Triassic.  Just as Kepler interpolated elipses from thousands of discontinuous observations recorded by Tycho, zoologists interpolate a set of common-ancestor relationships using metabolic, genetic, and anatomical observations across hundreds or thousands of species.

    The existence of a modern rabbit in the pre-Cambrian or Cambrian would be equivalent to waking up tomorrow to discover that the planet Mars was over 100 million miles away from where it’s supposed to be in early September 2012. If the model of planetary motion developed by Kepler (and later Einstein) is correct (accounting for minor gravitational deviations from other bodies), we should be able to predict both the actual position and relative position of Mars down to a handful of kilometers. If Mars moved 2/3rds of its orbital radius in a matter of moments, we would be forced to say that Kepler and Einstein were wrong. If that error was only a matter of a few kilometers, it’s possible that K & E were generally right, but there might be some additional minor force, or nuance of n-body gravitational interactions that we need to consider. (We have a plausible explanation of the Pioneer anomaly, for example. MOND lost.) 

    If our model of descent with modification is correct, then newly discovered species should fit in reasonably well in our existing taxonomy and timeline of probable common-ancestor relationships built using thousands of observations using anatomical features, metabolic features, and DNA analysis. And they generally do. Archaic prokaryotes might become the special-case supermassive black holes of the theory, and we might bicker about the details of relationships among genus Homo (a tiny fraction of zoology), but we probably are not going to find any modern mammal billions of years out of sequence with the rest of its kin.  If we did, zoologists would have to radically rethink all of their theories.

  • The_L1985

     I think it’s possible.  I can’t exactly prove it, after all. :P

  • Tricksterson

    Now you have me thinking of a story idea involving time traveling creationists planting evidence to disprove evolution.  Coincidentally I;m currently reading Strata by Terry Pratchett which takes place in a future where entire planets are created from scratch including fossil record and the supervosors have to keep an eye out for pranks like Neanderthal skeletons with gold teeth or Tyranosaurs with wristwatches.

  • Joshua

    Well we seem to have two votes for the time-travelling rabbits. Awesome, I’m all in favour of that.

  • Joshua

    As I understand it, this taxonomy is not settled. I’ve seen  H. neanderthalis more often than 
    H. sapiens neanderthalis. Perhaps the tides of change are, er, tiding.

  • Joshua

    The whole “precambrian rabbit” thing annoys me, because everybody knows, including Haldane and Popper, that no such thing will ever be found. 

    Well, of course not. But scientific theories are falsifiable. If you happen to believe in a particular theory, of course you expect that contradictory evidence won’t be found. But you have to be able to describe what contradictory evidence would look like, or the theory isn’t falsifiable.

    The evidence for an evolutionary process, both fossil and genetic, is as clear as the evidence for gravity. How that process works in detail, of course, is quite another thing. 


    Yeah, we have some idea about how evolution works in detail, unlike gravity.

  • Joshua

    Actually, nothing. The speed of light is defined as a constant; the meter is defined as a fraction of it. 

    I can’t figure out which post of mine you are replying to, and Disqus isn’t helping, so I’m afraid I can’t figure out what you mean.

  • The_L1985

    Perhaps.  Of course, when you’re brought up with a view of hominid evolution that focuses primarily on the hoax nature of Piltdown Man, and that the first Neanderthal found was “just an old man with rickets” (I’m assuming he was actually an old Neanderthal  man with rickets?), you tend to latch onto the first piece of non-“gotcha” science you find as the Real Truth, even if it’s inconclusive.

    I apologize for this unfortunate tendency.  However, it unsettles me when something still that uncertain is being written about and published in a tone that suggests that the matter was settled.  It reminds me too much of Mr. Ham.

    Instead of “many factors appeared to cause the extinction of the dinosaurs (the K-T meteor, vulcanism, disease, etc.) so we can’t conclusively pin it on just one of them” like I got in my dinosaur books growing up, I got a clear “H. sapiens neanderthalis,” with no mention that many scientists aren’t convinced of this status and still call them by the other label.  This was about 10 years ago, IIRC, in either Time, Newsweek, Popular Science, or National Geographic, because those are pretty much the only waiting-room magazines I ever pick up.

    Which means that journalism, once again, is making science look like something other than what it is.

  • EllieMurasaki

    Which means that journalism, once again, is making science look like something other than what it is.

    This surprises you? http://xkcd.com/882/

  • AnonymousSam

    Unrelated, but I love that fossil. Here’s one I found many years ago:


    I always thought it was curious how I found it: out back behind a laundromat in a pile of rocks. The block is an imperfect square measuring 2.75″ x 2.75″, flat, cut to a sharp edge at one corner with incredibly flat sides. Altogether, it contains eight fossilized imprints.

    For all in the world, it looks like a museum piece, but it was just dumped out in a pile of rocks like any old piece of slate.

  • Ross Thompson

    I got a clear “H. sapiens neanderthalis,” with no mention that many scientists aren’t convinced of this status and still call them by the other label.

    One reason for this is that it’s simply a question of labelling; the degree of relatedness between modern humans and neanderthals  (oh, and it’s neanderthalensis, not neanderthalis, just by the way), but they’re on the boundary between being a sub-species of H. Sapiens and a very closely related sister-species. 

    As “species” is an arbitrary division (though not as arbitrary as any other taxonomic division), these arguments crop up all over the place (cf the arguments about whether there are one or two species of African elephant), but they don’t reflect any disagreement about underlying reality, just which semantic box to put it in.

  • Ross Thompson

    the first Neanderthal found was “just an old man with rickets” (I’m assuming he was actually an old Neanderthal  man with rickets?)

    Not the first found, not by 50 years, but I assume they’re thinking of this guy.

  • Joshua

    This happens often enough in taxonomy. I wouldn’t blame the journos too much (this time) because the biologists involved probably just use one name, and not mention alternatives that others prefer.

    It’s hard to work out what an extinct population could or could not interbreed with, and assigning species based on the shapes of fossils and old bones will inevitably involve judgement calls.

    Even if we had perfect knowledge, nature doesn’t always provide a clear place to draw a line.

    My understanding is that taxonomy, even of living species, has always been revised regularly. Modern gene technology might settle some questions definitively in the end, but I expect right now while the work is ongoing it’s probably making things even less stable.

  • The_L1985

     Oh wow, that makes a lot of sense, actually.  It’s not hard to spin “We goofed about Neanderthal anatomy and they actually looked a lot more like modern humans” into “the scientists were WRONG and those so-called Neanderthals were actually FULLY HUMAN!!!  They just had bone diseases that made their skeletons look all ape-y!!!”

    Especially when your goal is to pick and choose paleontological evidence to support the idea that “there were never any ‘ape men,’ just regular apes and regular men.”

  • Tricksterson

    Had a friend who opined that Neanderthals were just a mutation that cropped up occasionally until I pointed out the enormity of the fossil evidence and then he conceded.  He was a dittohead at the time but got better.

  • Slashdotbin

    Exactly, with no Adam and no Eve and no literal interpretation there is no original sin from which we must be absolved though Jesus Christ’s death and the whole messiah story comes into doubt.

  • Phil Esteen

    The first truly sad and sadly true assertion I have read on this thread.

    Such ‘mash-ups’ do seem inevitable:
    Isn’t it the ‘duty, obligation, calling… whatever’ of Christians to inject and instill morality into every aspect of human existence?