A good friend of mine with experience lecturing neophyte philosophy students as a Teacher’s Assistant (at the university of Western Ontario) has reported to me that many, if not most, of his students believed that the theory of evolution and the existence of God each entail each other’s negations. This is a depressing report, especially to a theistic evolutionist such as myself. Since the compatibility of both the theory of evolution and the existence of God is so conspicuously obvious to me, it continues to baffle me that anyone should think them contradictory. Perhaps one of the reasons for this naïve assessment is that evolution’s being ‘random,’ is thought (rather unreflectively) to be incompatible with the notion that it has been divinely guided. Ignoring the fact that God’s existence doesn’t, on its own, logically entail his divine involvement in the world, there still doesn’t seem, on the face of it, to be any incompatibility between God’s existence (and divine involvement in the world) and the biological theory of evolution. However, perhaps these people are reasoning in the following way:
- If God exists & evolution is true, then God (must have) guided evolution.
- If evolution is true, then it was ‘random’ (which is stipulated as part of the theory itself).
- If evolution was random, then it could not have been guided.
- Evolution is true.
- Therefore, God does not exist.
4.* God exists.
5.* Therefore, Evolution is not true.
Where is the problem with this reasoning? I think the problem is clearly with premise 3, though my critique is going to focus on sharpening, through analysis, the (so far) vague concept of randomness which makes its first appearance in the second premise. Here the work of Dr. Craig is useful; he has argued that what all biologists mean by saying that mutations occur ‘randomly’ is that they occur without a view to the benefit of the organism. Craig takes his cue from a prominent biologist, Francisco Ayala, according to whom:
“The meaning of “random” that is most significant for understanding the evolutionary process is… that mutations are unoriented with respect to adaptation; they occur independently of whether or not they are beneficial or harmful to the organisms.”
Elliott Sober reiterated the same point when he explained:
“Let me talk about this idea of ‘guided’ mutations. This has been a kind of lightning-rod term. Creationists and Theists in the United States often hear biologists say that mutations are ‘unguided,’ ‘random,’ and they think that biologists are denying that God has any role in the natural process, and they think ‘well, if your theory says that [then] I reject it because I think that God is involved in everything that happens…’ what I want to describe now is what Biologists actually mean by ‘mutations being unguided.’ What I just described [above] is, I think, a misunderstanding of the biology. The idea that mutations are unguided says nothing about whether God plays a role in nature one way or another. So let me explain what biologists mean, or ought to mean, by ‘unguided mutations.’ When they say that mutations are unguided they do not mean that they have no causes; we all know that mutations have causes. Radiation causes mutations, smoking causes mutations, there are plenty of causes [of mutations] so [that] when you say they’re unguided or random it doesn’t mean that they are uncaused. What it means is that mutations have their causes, but they do not happen because they would be good for the organism in which they occur. Most mutations are deleterious, and the good ones that occasionally come along, the adaptive ones that fuel the evolutionary process, they have their causes too but they do not occur because they would help organisms to survive in their environments.”
All biologists mean by stipulating that mutations are ‘random,’ therefore, is that the mutations do not aim toward (or away from) adaptive advantage. The biologist is clearly using the term ‘random’ in a very technical sense, just as the mathematician might use the term ‘random’ in a technical sense to characterize a certain set/series of numbers, and what the biologist means by this technical-theoretical term doesn’t seem to entail randomness in any sense which would preclude God’s providentially directing evolution. So, the question is, is there some deeper reason why this technical sense of ‘randomness’ does, after all, preclude God’s having a providential hand in evolution? Can this modest statement about biological randomness really purchase the metaphysically rich thesis that evolution was not (and could not have been) ‘guided’ by God? How could one cash-out such an incredible claim? Dr. Craig offers his thoughts:
“[Evolutionary creationists] would say that God has so set up the process that by chance alone these organisms will have evolved. Now… these folks would see the evolutionary process as under the superintendence of God and therefore is a guided process in that God allows it to function so as to arrive at his predetermined ends. Now, why can’t evolution be guided in that sense, in the sense that… the theistic evolutionist thinks of it? There the chance mutations and natural selection are within the broader purposes of God.
Well, what you discover when you read the evolutionary biologist is that of course they don’t deny that the process could be guided in that sense. That’s a metaphysical conclusion to which scientific evidence is irrelevant. What they simply mean is that the production of offspring does not occur with a view toward what will make these offspring survive better in the future, that there isn’t a kind of mechanism that produces offspring that will be well-suited to survival. Well, that’s perfectly within the purview of progressive creationism or theistic evolution. That’s a very limited, narrow, sense of guidedness that doesn’t need to be denied by the theistic evolutionist or progressive creationist. Suppose, for example, the [evolutionary] creationist thinks that the reason that God allows certain types of offspring to be produced is so that they will [become] easy prey for some other predator which he wants to flourish. Well in that sense, yes, it’s not guided with a view toward the survivability of the offspring – quite the contrary – the purpose is that they become prey for some other species or some predator. But the whole process is guided in this broader sense. So the problem here is that Miss Kirby [who thinks there is an incompatibility here] just has a philosophically superficial understanding of what it is to be guided, and the sense in which the evolutionary process is unguided is one that the theologian could affirm.”
This seems pretty airtight to me, and nevertheless not everyone is convinced (on the far right or the far left). Casey Luskin, for instance, writes:
“Generally speaking, I find myself nearly always agreeing with Dr. Craig’s arguments. A few years ago I had the pleasure of watching Dr. Craig offer a compelling debate performance against Christopher Hitchens on “Does God Exist.” But on this issue of the nature of Darwinian theory, I find myself in a rare situation where I disagree with Dr. Craig.”
I find this to be a frustrating situation; why aren’t these new atheists, or these evangelical creationists, convinced, as I am, by this reasoning? To answer that, I supposed I’d have to be a psychologist or a sociologist, or both. What I can do, as a philosopher, is try to come up with additional arguments which might help to change these people’s minds. Here is one such argument I’d like to present:
- If the theory of evolution were true, then physical determinism would be possibly true.
- If physical determinism were (even) possibly true, then God’s providential control over evolution would be possible.
- Evolution is true.
- Therefore, God’s providential control over evolution is possible.
It seems obvious to me that the theory of evolution is compatible with the theory of physical determinism; in fact, many naturalists who are strictly materialists or physicalists (and even some naturalists who aren’t) affirm both that physical determinism is true, and that the theory of evolution is true (which further reinforces what has already been said, namely that the technical sense in which evolutionary biologists use the word ‘random’ is compatible with other senses in which evolution might be guided or deterministic). However, suppose for the sake of argument that physical determinism is true (at least, if you like, up to the point of the appearance of the first creatures with libertarian free will), and that evolution is also true; why couldn’t God have so arranged the initial conditions under which the universe began to exist that he deterministically brings it about that evolution produces exactly what he intended it to?
Notice here that I am not claiming that physical determinism is in fact true (it seems to me rather dubious), but that it is possibly true, and that this possibility is enough to demonstrate the logical compossibility of evolutionary theory and God’s divine providential hand in directing the precise course of evolution. This seems to me to be a knock ‘em down drag ‘em out argument – I cannot even imagine what a (reasonable) critical rejoinder would look like, at least presuming that people are reasoning in approximately the way I imagined at the beginning of this post. I suspect that if some person remains unpersuaded by this argument, they won’t be persuaded by any argument, so that this is about as good as we can ever hope to do.
It may be worth saying a brief word about possible alternative arguments for the logical incompatibility of theism and evolution. Perhaps somebody could argue as follows:
- If God (being a maximally good, powerful and intelligent/rational being) had to choose between two different ways to bring about an effect, He would, ceteris paribus, elect to use the more efficient of the two means.
- Evolution is a means which is less efficient than other means which would have been options for God.
- Evolution is true.
- Therefore, God did not choose to actualize evolution.
- If God exists and Evolution is true, then God did choose to actualize evolution.
- Therefore, God does not exist.
The thought here is that a rational being always prefers, all things being equal, the more efficient of any two methods for achieving a given goal. This is a popular definition in economic theory, and sometimes makes an appearance in political philosophy. For instance, in his magnum opus, “A Theory of Justice,” John Rawls characterized his idealized denizens of the ‘original position’ as rational in the following sense:
“… rationality must be interpreted as far as possible in the narrow sense, standard in economic theory, of taking the most effective means to given ends.”
The trouble with this definition is well noted by William Lane Craig, to whom I will turn again. Craig has made the point numerous times that ‘efficiency’ can only be a value for a being with either (or both) limited time, or limited resources. As God has neither limited time, nor limited resources, there is no reason to think God could value efficiency. So, as well as this definition may work in economic or political theory, it isn’t very useful theologically or philosophically.
Strictly speaking, I disagree with Craig, but I take his point to be a useful one to show that the presumption of the first premise in this argument seems to be false. I am inclined to think that God could value efficiency for aesthetic reasons, which would help to explain why parsimony, for instance, appears to be indicative of the truth of a theory, and not merely of its usefulness. There are puzzles in the philosophy of science about why parsimony would, on naturalism, make a theory any more likely to be true, whereas on Theism, at least if God values the aesthetic quality of simplicity, it may not be so surprising after all. By analogy, consider that the elegance or beauty of a theory often seems to point to its truth, which seems an odd coincidence unless one is a Theist. Robin Collins has pointed out that beauty itself has been a seemingly useful indication of a scientific theory’s truth. He writes:
“To say that the beauty of the mathematical structure of nature is merely subjective, however, completely fails to account for the amazing success of the criterion of beauty in producing predictively accurate theories, such as Einstein’s general theory of relativity.”
Admittedly parsimony needs to be carefully defined, and even if God does value parsimony it would presumably be in competition with other aesthetic values God might have (as any good engineer will tell you, the simplest way, on the face of it, is not always the best way). However, if God does value parsimony (and hence ‘efficiency’ in at least some cases) for aesthetic reasons, that may provide Him with a good reason to elect the more efficient of two otherwise equally good methods. Efficiency would only be valued to the degree that it allows for an optimal balance between itself and other aesthetic values. This caveat of mine does nothing, however, to take away from the effectiveness of Craig’s response in the case at hand. There simply is no reason whatever to think that evolution is not parsimonious enough that God might have elected to use it (and this is never-minding the theological/apologetic justifications for God’s allowing evolution).
Another argument might go as follows:
- Evolution is a process which involves gratuitous evil (evil for which there is no morally sufficient reason which God has for allowing in the world).
- God exists if and only if gratuitous evil does not.
- Evolution is true.
- Therefore, God does not exist.
3.* God exists.
4.* Therefore, evolution isn’t true.
The trouble with this argument is that it is simply a version of the problem of evil, which comes in two forms; there is the so-called ‘logical’ problem of evil, and the ‘evidential’ problem of evil. As it stands today nobody thinks that the ‘logical’ problem of evil, which suggests that the existence of any evil is logically incompatible with the existence of God, stands any hope of being correct. Second, although there are significant problems with the evidential argument from evil, it is worth pointing out that if the above argument is intended to be a version of the logical problem of evil then it incontrovertibly fails, and if it is intended to be a version of the evidential problem of evil then it can be dealt with in all the standard ways in which all versions of the evidential problem of evil are dealt with. In other words, because ‘evolution’ as such is not an essential feature of this argument, but an accidental one, evolutionary theory plays no special role in the argument, implying that evolution as such poses no special challenge.
What other arguments could there be? Although there is always the possibility that there is some other clever argument to think that God’s existence and the theory of evolution are not compossible, an argument which I have never heard or thought of, still it seems unlikely that any such arguments exist or are forthcoming (and even more unlikely that they would be unanswerable). So, I think we can conclude with tremendous confidence that the theory of evolution is not only compatible with the existence of God, but also his divine providence.
 Francisco J. Ayala, “Darwin’s greatest discovery: Design without designer,” in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA, 104, no. Suppl 1 (2007): 8567-8573.
 Elliott Sober, “Darwin and Intelligent Design,” Lecture, the Sydney Ideas Lecture Series, The University of Sydney, Sydney Australia, April 22, 2010. http://fora.tv/2010/04/22/Elliott_Sober_Darwin_and_Intelligent_Design
 “Is Evolution a Threat to Christianity?” Narrated by William Lane Craig and Kevin Harris, ReasonableFaith Podcast, ReasonableFaith, December 5, 2011. http://www.reasonablefaith.org/is-evolution-a-threat-to-christianity#ixzz3RSURRy2s
 Casey Luskin, “Unguided or Not? How Darwinian Evolutionists Define their Theory,” http://www.evolutionnews.org/2012/08/unguided_or_not_1063191.html
 Rawls, John. “A Theory of Justice, rev. ed.” Cambridge, MA: Belknap 5 (1999): 12.
 See Pruss: http://alexanderpruss.blogspot.ca/2014/03/simplicity-as-sign-of-design.html; http://alexanderpruss.blogspot.ca/2013/08/explaining-simplicity-of-theories.html; http://alexanderpruss.blogspot.ca/2013/07/why-prefer-simple-and-elegant-theories.html;