In Defense of "Theistic Evolution"
John Schwenkler June 12, 2009 - 1:07pm
Via Lee McCracken, my erstwhile Culture11 editor Joe Carter discusses "theistic evolution" at the First Things blog. Taking his cue from a Washington Post op-ed in which Intelligent Design proponent John West criticizes Kenneth Miller, Francis Collins, and others, Joe complains that if evolution were undirected, then the low probability of ending up with creatures like us would mean that God "would likely need to run the experiment a number of times to get the desired outcome". He concludes:
The debate over Gods role in evolution is often portrayed as pitting proponents of theistic evolution (Miller, Collins) against advocates of intelligent design (The Discovery Institute, Voltaire). But a more accurate distinction would be between those who believe that evolution is intelligently directed and those who think the process was random and undirected but overseen and/or set in motion by an intelligent agent. This later [sic] view appears to be incompatible with both orthodox Christianity and orthodox Darwinism. So why is it considered an intellectually respectable option for believers?
And Lee responds:
I think Carter goes astray here by taking the language of random and undirected too literally. Clearly, evolution is not random in any absolute sense: it operates within the constraints provided locally by the environment and the qualities possessed by organisms, and globally by the fundamental constituents of the universe (e.g, the laws that govern the behavior of subatomic particles). There are reasonswhich have been widely canvassedfor thinking that the emergence of intelligent life is, if not inevitable, then at least intelligible given the nature of our universe. All a theistic evolutionist is committed to is that God set up those fundamental constraints in such a way that He could foreseeat least with a high degree of probabilitythat intelligent life would emerge at some point.
Well, yes and no. If God is omniscient, then his knowledge of the course of evolution is eternally perfect - and whether the evolutionary process was random or not has no bearing on this at all. Contra Carter, then, the randomness of evolution wouldn't require God to tinker around with multiple universes any more than the reality of free will means that Gabriel had to be prepared to ask women other than Mary whether they'd bear the Christ child; in each instance, the fact that the universe's prior state constrained but didn't fully determine what was going to happen doesn't mean that God had to have been ignorant about how things would go.Ultimately what's needed, then, is a view according to which humans are both "an afterthought, a minor detail, a happenstance in a history that might just as well have left us out" (Kenneth Miller's words) and beings created specially by God whose nature he saw to be good: the former phrase is an entirely appropriate characterization of the remarkable series of physical processes that led to our development, while the latter is an admittedly imperfect attempt to understand things from the perspective of the supernatural order. One of the central defects of the ID movement is, of course, its inability to respect such a distinction between what Aquinas called primary and secondary causes. As the citation of the Angelic Doctor suggests, however, that's hardly a distinction that deserves to be held in intellectual disrepute.UPDATE: Stephen Barr beat me to it. And since this is my first post here, hi all. I'm a graduate student in (surprise!) philosophy at U.C. Berkeley, and I've contributed book reviews to Commonweal a couple of times over the past year or so. I blog regularly here, by the way, and beginning next calendar year I'll be an assistant professor of philosophy at Mount St. Mary's University. Many thanks to Matthew and Grant for the opportunity to join the discussion here at dotCommonweal.
About the Author
I am Assistant Professor in the Department of Philosophy at Florida State University.