Why evolution cannot be used to rationalize atheism.

Posted on September 17, 2011 By

“There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone circling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being evolved.”

–Charles Darwin

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“There is no real conflict between theistic religion and the scientific theory of evolution. What there is, instead, is conflict between theistic religion and a philosophical gloss or add-on to the scientific doctrine of evolution: the claim that evolution is undirected, unguided, unorchestrated by God (or anyone else).”

Philosopher Alvin Plantinga, as quoted in Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism.

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Because of all of the talk in the media about Darwinism and creationism, it can be easy to get lost in the rhetoric. But beneath the layers of rhetoric lies the simple fact that Darwinian evolution is actually a NON ISSUE when it comes to the question of the existence of God. What do I mean by this? Darwin’s proposed “blind mechanism” of random mutation and natural selection is cited as an alternative to creation of life by God.  But, as Oxford University mathematician John Lennox writes in his book God’s Undertaker: Has Science Buried God?:

“For, from one point of view, there is nothing controversial in describing forces or mechanisms as ‘blind’. Quite obviously, most are. The strong and weak nuclear forces, electromagnetism and gravity have no eyes to see with, either physical or mental. And most mechanisms are blind — think of a watch, a car, a CD player, a computer hard-disc. Moreover, they are not only blind but also unconscious; indeed, to be even more precise, they are incapable of conscious thought since they have no mind to think with. But those mechanisms, though blind in themselves, are all the products of minds that are far from being blind; such mechanisms are intelligently designed. What is more, this holds even for mechanisms that involve an element of randomness in their operation.”

Lennox provides a simple thought experiment as an illustration, which I shall paraphrase: Imagine an automobile factory in which all of the manufacturing is done by robots. Can we declare that, because all of the work is accomplished by robots, no intelligence is involved in the manufacturing process? To make such a declaration, we would need to also declare that the robots, the software that guides the robots, and the factory itself were not the products of intelligence. But any reasonable person can see that this is not the case…human intelligence was clearly involved.

Not a scientific question

The key point is that the question of whether or not life is the result of an intelligent or unintelligent source is not a scientific question. Rather, it is a meta-scientific or ontological* question.

The key point is that the question of whether or not life is the result of an intelligent or unintelligent source is not a scientific question. Rather, it is a meta-scientific or ontological* question. This is because biology is concerned with issues of intermediate causation with regard to the phenomenon of life, rather than ultimate causation. It would be impossible, put another way, to demonstrate through the scientific method how the natural laws and processes (that purportedly guide evolution) came into existence. Where these laws and processes came from would be a question of ultimate causation, and such ultimate questions are meta-scientific or ontological rather than scientific.  Put more simply, the view that Darwinian evolution does not involve intelligent input (even in the formulation of natural laws that guide evolution) is a philosophical add-on and not science.

Theists who accept Darwinian evolution adopt the meta-scientific view that (akin to the human agents responsible for creating the robots, the software, and the factory itself), a higher intelligence is responsible. Atheists must assume that such sophisticated natural laws and processes just are.

Indeed, Christian theists who endorse Darwinian evolution are plentiful.  Lennox cites several:

“In, Britain, for example, Sir Ghillean Prance, Fellow of the Royal Society (FRS), former director of the world-famous Kew Gardens in London, Sir Brian Heap, FRS, former Vice President of the Royal Society, Bob White, FRS, Professor of Geology at Cambridge University, Simon Conway Morris, FRS, Professor of Paleobiology, Cambridge University, Sam Berry, Professor of Evolutionary Biology, London University, and Denis Alexander, Director of the Faraday Institute, Cambridge, are all distinguished contemporary evolutionary biologists who are theists, indeed Christians.  In the USA there is Francis Collins, Director of the Human Genome Project, who prefers the term Biologos to that of theistic evolution.  They would all vigorously reject as invalid any attempt to deduce atheism from evolutionary theory.”

Perhaps most poignantly, Charles Darwin himself expressed his views on this subject matter. In his autobiography, he wrote:

“Another source of conviction in the existence of God, connected with the reason and not with the feelings, impresses me as having much more weight. This follows from the extreme difficulty or rather impossibility of conceiving this immense and wonderful universe, including man with his capacity of looking far backwards and far into futurity, as the result of blind chance or necessity. When thus reflecting I feel compelled to look to a First Cause having an intelligent mind in some degree analogous to that of man; and I deserve to be called a Theist.”

Physicist Stephen Barr makes the same point as Lennox in Modern Physics and Ancient Faith in the context of responding to Richard Dawkins’ book about evolution and atheism titled The Blind Watchmaker:

“When examined carefully, scientific accounts of natural processes are never really about order emerging from mere chaos, or form emerging from mere formlessness. On the contrary, they are always about the unfolding of an order that was already implicit in the nature of things, although often in a secret or hidden way…”

“When examined carefully, scientific accounts of natural processes are never really about order emerging from mere chaos, or form emerging from mere formlessness. On the contrary, they are always about the unfolding of an order that was already implicit in the nature of things, although often in a secret or hidden way. When we see situations that appear haphazard, or things that appear amorphous, automatically or spontaneously “arranging themselves” into orderly patterns, what we find in every case is that what appeared to be haphazard actually had a great deal of order built into it…. What [famous atheist biologist Richard] Dawkins does not seem to appreciate is that his blind watchmaker is something even more remarkable than Paley’s watches. Paley finds a ‘watch’ and asks how such a thing could have come to be there by chance. Dawkins finds an immense automated factory that blindly constructs watches, and feels that he has completely answered Paley’s point. But that is absurd. How can a factory that makes watches be less in need of explanation than the watches themselves?”

Those wishing to explore this subject matter in more depth are referred to Evolution: The Disguised Friend of Faith?  by the distinguished British molecular biologist (turned Anglican priest) Arthur Peacocke. Also, my essay titled Why Trying to Explain Away God With Science is an ERROR further elaborates on why it is an utter fallacy to cite natural mechanisms as an alternative explanation to God.

*For those not familiar, ontology is the branch metaphysics (which is in turn a major branch of philosophy) dealing with the nature of existence. Meta-scientific is a term which refers to a principle which is fundamental to science but cannot be scientifically tested.

 


  1. MartyKC says:

    Good points, and its a refreshing to hear a theist discuss this. It has always appeared to me, that ‘evolution’ and/or natural selection pose problems for young earthers, and fundamentalists who have literal views of Genesis, but contains nothing that would invalidate god. At some point, one has to consider what incredible mechanisms natural selection and evolution actually are. ‘The literal creation of man spontaneously can go the way of the earth centered universe: early thinking man’s attempt to explain the world without further information. The question as to whether evolution is by design or by chance leads us back to the foundation question of why there is anything. HOW evolution happens is certainly a scientific one; WHY it happens or came to be is the ontological one. Now, can you get the rest of the theists in the world to agree? maybe that’s asking a lot…..:)

  2. GerryD says:

    Everyone has read Richard Dawkins depressing take on the futility of life: “The Darwinian Universe we observe has precisely the properties we expect, if there is at bottom no purpose, no design, no good, no evil, nothing but blind pitiless indifference. DNA neither knows nor cares. DNA just is, and we dance to its music.

    Here is what Professor Ken Miller has said in response “The Darwinian Universe we observe has precisely the properties we would expect, if there is at bottom, the wisdom of a providential & purposeful creator, intent on a fruitful & dynamic world & committed to a promise of freedom that makes genuine love possible.

    Evolution disproves creation. Evolution is just a term for a process describing the biodiversity of life. It no more disproves the need for an intelligent Creator than gravity did for Newton & Einstein in describing planetary motion. “Life is material & a mechanistic capacity is built-in to the physics & chemistry of matter. Evolution is NOT a mistake but an inherent & predictable property of nature driven by the highly complex, immaterial laws & physical constants of the universe. The emergence of living world is made possible if not inevitable, by the very fabric of nature itself. As such it can easily be understood as part of God’s providential plan. Ken Miller, J.Haught, F.Ayala, F.Collins (some of the most well-respected evolutionary biologists in the world today).

  3. […] entirely compatible with both theism in general and Christianity in particular, as I demonstrate in Why Evolution Cannot Be Used to Rationalize Atheism and Doesn’t Evolution Prove the Biblical Account of Creation to Be False?).  Please note, […]

  4. nick says:

    It’s good to see a post acknowledging that evolution is not the death blow to the question of God. Your position a long time ago was that evolution was not happening beyond minimal change over time (or micro-evolution as you called it), that Darwinism was discredited and that the future of evolutionary theory was in jeopardy.
    I was wondering if your views had changed from this outlook in any way. It seemed like an old Earth position with theistic evolution of some sort that you held. Is this stll the case, or have your thoughts changed in any direction? I recall you favouring authors such as Jonathan Wells. Would you still support general views on Darwinism and evolution such as his?

    • Nick,

      No my position on Darwinian evolution has not changed since I chatted with you last. Recall that I mentioned that the Oxford University and U. of Mass. biologist Lynn Margulis (who won the U.S. Presidential Medal for Science) challenges biologists present at her talks to name a single unambiguous example of a new species emerging as a result of an accumulation of mutations. Her challenge goes unmet.

      This all gets back to the history, philosophy and sociology of science. Science cannot proceed, as Thomas Kuhn pointed out in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, without an agree upon theoretical framework, or “paradigm.” The reigning paradigm today is clearly Darwinian evolution, as your “project Steve” example illustrated.

      But please recall that less than 100 years ago, a reigning paradigm in physics was that light waves travel through “luminous ether.” If you ran a “project Steve” on luminous ether then, you would have gotten an even more consistent result than with Darwinian evolution today. The same is true with “bloodletting” in medicine, which reigned for the better part of 2000 years, etc.

      Darwinian evolution is clearly cracking at the seems, as illustrated by the necessity for “punctuated equilibrium,” as proposed by Stephen Jay Gould, and as illustrated by the inability of Darwinian evolution to explain the Cambrian explosion. Recall that all of the major phyla appeared in what amounts to a blink of an eye in geologic terms, during the Cambrian explosion.

      Please recall my citation from If the Evidence for God Is So Strong, Why Are So Many Smart People Unconvinced:

      In The Altenberg 16: An Expose of the Evolution Industry, Oxford University and University of Massachusetts-Amherst Professor of Biology Lynn Margulis (winner of the U.S. Presidential Medal for Science) discusses the persistence of neo-Darwinian theory, despite its deteriorating scientific basis, with journalist Susan Mazur:

      Margulis: “If enough favorable mutations occur, was the erroneous extrapolation, a change from one species to another would concurrently occur.”

      Mazur: “So a certain dishonesty set in?”

      Margulis: “No. It was not dishonesty. I think it was wish-fulfillment and social momentum. Assumptions, made but not verified, were taught as fact.”

      Mazur: “But a whole industry grew up.”

      Margulis: “Yes, but people are always more loyal to their tribal group than to any abstract notion of ‘truth’ – scientists especially. If not they are unemployable. It is professional suicide to continually contradict one’s teachers or social leaders.”

      The key point to grasp is that a paradigm is not dismissed as soon as it fails to explain natural phenomenon. Rather, as Kuhn pointed out, a new paradigm must first take its place because science cannot proceed without an agreed upon theoretical framework (paradigm).

  5. RATIONAL DUDE says:

    Another problem that would be significant in this issue is more logical than scientific. This problem is that evolution demands a big picture, and so cannot be used to justify atheism. The proofs I have written at other places (a large number of them) can give us at least one extra plank to stand on when we affirm that there is a God who has designed the universe we live in, if not an extra floor to walk upon (as Scott’s work has been very important to me).
    I seek to prove that, though consistent with deism, Darwinism is inconsistent with atheism.

    If Darwinism is True, Then Atheism is False.
    1. The Postmodernists have given us a nice little term: “Meta-narrative,” meaning a story about stories. Basically, it is a story which combines all the smaller ones, explains why they exist, allows us to understand the whole of reality. (Definition)
    2. Darwinism is a story which combines all the smaller ones, explains why they exist, and allows us to understand the whole of reality. (Axiom)
    3. Under atheism, there is no meta-narrative. (Axiom)
    4. If atheism is true, then there is no meta-narrative. (Corollary to Three)
    5. If there is a meta-narrative, then atheism is not true. (Contrapositive of Four)
    6. (1&2) Darwinism is a meta-narrative.
    7. (5&6) If Darwinism is true, then atheism is not true. (Substitution)
    Being a definition, One cannot be disputed; there simply is nothing to dispute, without cutting off communication.
    Premise Two seems false at first glance; under Darwinism, all life changes as the environment changes, the environment changes because of uncontrollable, capricious forces. These two stories, assert the Darwinists, are the only stories. Darwinism explains them both.
    Many atheists dispute Premise Three, but they are arguably being inconsistent. In an irrational universe, why should there be an organizing principle to bind all the facts? They are assuming that the universe is rational, when it isn’t.
    Premise Four converts Three into a conditional statement, so follows without external proof.
    Five is the contrapositive of Four. If Four is true, then Five is also true.
    Six is the first thing we have proven. Darwinism conforms to the definition of meta-narrative, and is therefore a meta-narrative.
    Our conclusion, named Seven, follows from substituting meta-narrative with Darwinism. We can make this move because Darwinism is a meta-narrative.

  6. David Rodda says:

    I am afraid that I find this argument a bit hollow. I know that you have quoted several eminent scientists who are theists and who accept the evolutionary theory.

    However, I feel I must respond honestly and personally about my own understanding.

    I studied Population genetics and animal breeding from 1971 to 1975 for a Ph.D. (Guelph, Ontario) At that time I gained enough understanding of the chemistry and maths of the evolutionary pathways etc to be able to assess the evidence offered by the various experiments for myself.

    As I looked at, for example, the peppered moths story, the development of the first living cell from inanimate chemicals, the development of separate species from a single population, I found that, while they had some validity, the actual data did NOT support the extensive conclusions which were being drawn and extrapolated upon!

    I delved in a little more deeply into the development of the first living cell from inanimate chemicals, studying the “greatest authority” in the area. However I found that he could only offer what at best might be described as “hand-waving” arguments backed up by enormous doses of time, over most of the nitty gritty parts of the process.
    I remember discussing this with my professor, and commented, “It is VERY hard to believe that this is what actually happened!”
    He replied, “Yes, it is, isn’t it!”
    I said, “Isn’t it much easier (implying Occam’s razor) to believe that God did it?”
    He responded immediately with, “Of course it is! But WHO wants to believe in God?!”
    It seemed, for him, the question was not a question of the evidence, but a question of personal preference. He preferred to accept the “fairy tale” arguments of the researcher than to accept that there might be a God.

    I found the same attitude prevailing with other professors who also acknowledged the weakness of the data in supporting the arguments, yet still taught it as if it were true.

    Some say that people who people who believe in creation by God deny the facts of mutation and natural selection which are patently obvious! As a geneticist, I see these very clearly, and I understand the processes involved. But I ALSO see that these processes involve the LOSS of genetic information, not an increase!!!!

    Prof Richard Dawkins in his speech to the Oxford Union took as an example the genetic changes from a wolf to a certain modern breed of dog ( I forget which one) by human selective breeding, over a relatively short period of time in an evolutionary timescale.
    He then took this evidence of “increasing information” (implied) and simply extrapolated it backwards. He claimed, since this degree of observed change in dogs was possible over a very short time, it was then reasonable to consider that natural selection, acting over a VASTLY longer time scale could have produced the necessary INCREASE of genetic information to make mankind, having started from a tiny minimal life form.
    Sounds reasonable, until you think of the hidden fact which that he did not state: the modern breed of dogs has LESS genetic information than the wolf; the slope of the line is downwards NOT upwards! (Sorry I cannot find that video on You tube, but see youtube video “Dawkins stumped”
    Hence his whole argument
    Similarly, the development of separate species from one population involves the LOSS (not increase) of genetic information.
    Yet, this type of evidence has been used over and over to promote the evolutionary theory that genetic information INCREASES over time! This is SIMPLY NOT TRUE! But it encourages those who WANT to believe it, since, but do not have the background and understanding to see how deceptive it is!

    Unfortunately this type of argument has been multiplied endless times in the popular literature and school “science” textbooks. And which teenager in secondary school, or even university, is to challenge the teachers of science who also tell them scores of things which REALLY ARE TRUE! One recent biology graduate told me that “evolution was just assumed to be true, nobody questioned it.”

    As for developmnent of drug resistance, I was reading just this week of one situation where certain bacteria had become resistant to a certain drug. When the detail was investigated, it was found that the bacterium had LOST a particular binding site. LOST IT! Not gained something new. LOST IT!
    Here is an illustration which seems to me to describe it:
    High speed cars are a major problem on a certain road, the exit road from the factory which makes those cars, using robots which follow the computer directions. As a remedy to this problem, someone gets the idea of snagging the rearview mirrors on the sides of the cars with a cord which opens a drogue (like a parachute) which in turn slows the cars down to safe speeds. This drogue represents the drug used in medicine.
    The drogue technique is very effective, until one day, for some reason, the instruction for adding the rearview mirror to the car is lost to the robots which make it. So the cars now come out of the factory WITHOUT rearview mirrors – they now are LESS complex than they were, and so there is nothing for the drogue line to snag on, and so they are “resistant” to that method.
    As I understand it, the resistance to medicines is like this! The resistant organisms actually contain LESS genetic information, not more! So they cannot be used to support the idea of upward evolution!

    I could go on for hours, but I won’t. There are lots of excellent articles on http://www.creation.com which make to cases very well. The authors are, as far as I can discern, honest scientists who state things as they are, and try to honestly evaluate the data available. Yes, they are committed Christians, but several were atheists earlier in life, but came to discover the emptiness of the evolutionary arguments.

    In all this, I guess that I am trying to say this: Until I actually studied genetics at graduate level, I thought that God somehow guided evolution; I did not have the understanding to query it. However, when the time came that I looked at it in detail, I could see that it was actually a big deception.
    So I would encourage you to actually look at the data as presented by honest scientists, and not fall for the interpretations of those who WANT it to be true!
    I cannot speak for other geneticists who see things differently; I have to be true to my own honest understanding.

    • Scott Youngren says:

      David,

      You may have misuderstood me. My view on Darwinian evolution is that it can, at best, be used to explain micro-evolutionary changes within species. This essay was not written to endorse Darwinian evolution. Rather, it was written to make the point that, even if true, Darwinian evolution cannot be used to explain away God. So, my attitude is that if one wants to believe in Darwinian evolution…go ahead. But to suggest that it is a threat to theism is absurd.

      My views on Darwinian evolution appear to be very similar to yours.

      Scott

    • Rod Carty says:

      I read your post with pleasure. I just want to add a little bit to your dog breeding example. I’m not a geneticist but I can say as a layman that it’s plainly obvious to me that dog breeding is a process of eliminating multiple choices in various traits in order to select only for a certain set of traits. It is clearly eliminating variation, reducing the amount of useful information. The fact that we can produce such an incredibly wide range of traits from the parent population shows it contained also an incredibly wide range of genetic information. The fact that the various dog breeds only produce a single set of specific traits shows those breeds have only a subset of the original information.

      • David Rodda says:

        That was in insightful comment, Rod. I knew that, but had never heard it expressed so clearly as that! You will be interested to know that in the practical breeding field, the basis of developing a new breed (for economic reasons) is often to scour the most distantly related genetic lines, and cross them with each other -which might take few generations depending on how many you have, – and then start the selection process from the most “mongrel” form you can get. In that way one hopes to find gene combinations which have been lost over the years. It all comes back in practice to the (unstated) assumption that the earliest members of that organism contained the best combinations!

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