God and evolution 2: The problem of creation

Objections to evolution from the particular perspective of religion come in three forms: the problem of creation, the problem of purpose and the problem of chance. All other objections are general philosophical ones, and I’ll discuss them under that heading.

The problem of creation

The majority of believers in the world either think God created the universe or shaped it from some prior substance. Consequently, when a scientific explanation reduces some previously divine work to natural phenomena, religious sensibilities are raised. Only the so-called “Abrahamic” religions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam and their offshoots – are truly creationist in the sense that they believe God created the universe out of nothing, or as it is expressed in theological Latin, creatio ex nihilo, but all religions have a role for God or the gods making some things, especially humans.

This raises an immediate problem: if science tells us, based on evidence and explanation, that something that was thought to be the work of God is a natural process, it has both the effect of reducing God’s effective action and undercutting some of the reason for believing in God. This is the problem of naturalism, or making natural what was God’s domain. The term “naturalism”, however, is ambiguous. On the one hand it can mean giving a natural explanation through the use of scientific methods such as the use of human reasoning and observation. Or, it can mean the claim that only “natural” things exist. The first is sometimes called “methodological naturalism”, and it is the underpinning of all science, and indeed all learning about the world. The second is sometimes called “metaphysical naturalism”, although I think it is instead a claim about what exists (which is called “ontology” amongst the philosophical community). God might be natural in that sense. There is no real sharp dividing line between the natural and the supernatural that would satisfy most believers. For example, human nature for some is held to include a soul, which is divine. So let us call the second kind ontological naturalism.

“Nature” is a very variable word. It can mean many things, including the world apart from human intervention, or it can mean what is physical, or it can mean the underlying causes of behaviours (as in “human nature”. So when a philosopher or theologian talks about “naturalism”, it pays to pay attention to what they think it contrasts with. In theology it often means what is not divine, that is, what is not supernatural. However, theology, at least in the Islamic-Christian tradition, has several alternative accounts of God’s actions and cause. One of these is called “occasionalism”, a view devised by the Muslim philosopher al-Ghazali in the 11th century: there is no natural cause for anything. If you light a match and it burns, it is because God made it do so, not because matches are made from chemicals that tend to burn when struck. Few Christian thinkers accept this, however, and they often make a different distinction: between primary and secondary causes.

A secondary cause is a usual natural cause. Matches burn because they are made from stuff that ignites when struck. But the existence of that stuff is God’s doing. This is the primary cause. The idea that God is the primary cause of what exists, comes from an idea of Aristotle’s, the Greek philosopher. He thought that nothing changed (“moved”) unless something acted on it. Since it is clear that change occurs in a regular way, then what makes this thing change must have been, in its turn, moved by something else. The Greeks didn’t much like infinity, and so there must, he reasoned, have been a first mover; it had to terminate in something that was, of its nature, in motion. Incidentally, this is what made Newton’s first law so radical:  he thought the exact opposite of Aristotle, that things tend to move (in a straight line) unless they are stopped by something from doing so.

With this in hand, we can ask if things are caused by something to exist. Another argument from the Muslim thinkers is the so-called Kalam Argument. According to this view, which is championed today by William Lane Craig, if we observe that something has a cause, then it has to have had a cause in its own fashion, and so on. This implies to Craig that there had to have been a cause for everything that exists, by extrapolation from what we observe. Critics say that a cause within a universe is one thing, a cause of a universe is another. As David Hume, the 18th century Scottish philosopher noted, you can’t make inferences from things you observe in the universe to the universe itself.

This of course doesn’t stop people from trying. That subsection of physics known as “cosmology” offers explanations of our universe as something generated by prior or larger universes in what is called the “multiverse”, a staple of many bad science fictions shows. But this is untestable (so far) and anyway it just pushes the issue back a step. In such arguments, you can simply replace “universe” with “multiverse”.

But none of this has anything much to do with evolution. There is a common misunderstanding that evolution is about the origins of the universe or of life itself. In fact, modern evolutionary theory is about what happens after both events. For the origins of life, you have to go to the chemists and geologists, who have not so much a lack of theories as too many theories. Every second month, it seems, there is another way that life could arise published in the literature, all of which are quite feasible. In such cases, we know that it is possible that life could arise naturally, but we may never know exactly how it did. If there were only one feasible way that life could arise, then we could have some confidence in that explanation being true, but as it is we have partial explanations for what might even be separate steps in the origin of life. They may all be true, and what life we now see is what “won”. At least one philosopher has proposed that there might be “life” now we don’t even notice, because it uses vastly different chemistry from our own, but this is so far just a supposition.

So the real issue for theology with evolution has to do with the idea that there are things in the universe that are the result of a natural process, and in particular living things, and in particular again, us. Almost everyone (except occasionalists) think that some things naturally cause other things. So we can take that as read. If you don’t think that, then science itself becomes impossible, and we are no longer able to argue about the issue. The beginnings of science can be found in the very early Greek speaking philosophers who thought that things had natures, and were not just the actions of gods on whim. This was a major break with previous ideas. It made possible attempts (very crudely at first) to explain why things happened, rather than simply repeating “the gods did it”, which, as it applies to everything that possibly could happen, explains precisely nothing. But if things have natures, that is, internal properties that cause them to behave as they are seen to behave, then the task of the natural philosopher (which is what scientists were called before that term was invented in the 19th century) is to uncover these natures. This permits us to predict how they will behave, such as predicting what will burn and under what conditions, or when an eclipse might occur. This allows us to manipulate these things.

Of course, all learning about the world, whether scientific in a formal manner or not, involves observing it, and well before science evolved this is how we learned to make spears, smelt iron, grow crops and breed animals for our purposes. But prescientific thinking often invented “explanations”, like the Chinese notion of Chi or the idea there is a “vital force” in living animals, which turned out not to have any real scientific basis. We can have useful knowledge without understanding it. A good example is the case of Balinese agriculture before the arrival of Europeans. Over hundreds of years, the Balinese planted rice and diverted water according to a Hindu calendar of festivals, but when the Europeans came, they inserted European techniques. However, these techniques did not take into account the special developmental requirements of rice, and the result was a series of poor crops and erosion. The Hindu system contained knowledge (justified by theological narratives and festivals) that made Balinese agriculture successful. Nobody “knew” this knowledge, but it worked because the festivals were modified to make it work over many years. The explanations offered, however, were not themselves scientific.

Likewise, in the Bible, and right up until the invention of modern genetics, it was common “knowledge” that the experience of a pregnant animal would affect its progeny’s characteristics. In Genesis 30:37-43, Jacob tricks Laban by placing striped and speckled poles before the stronger breeding sheep and cattle so they would be striped and speckled, and he would get them under the terms of his agreement with Laban. Likewise, as late as Darwin you find accounts by breeders of experience of the mother affecting the progeny. Yet, for all these errors, breeders were still able to breed varieties of quite remarkable diversity, as the pigeons Darwin bred indicate. So the explanations of the success is quite different from the explanations we now hold to be true in our best science.

So it does not follow that all our knowledge is based on science, nor that all we do know was gained through the use of scientific method. We gain knowledge by trial and error, but we do not always understand why it is knowledge. The idea that all knowledge is based on science, and that religion is not a way of knowing, is far more complex than it may seem. All knowledge is gained by trial and error through observation, but it need not be the case that the religious explanations are correct. Nor need they be false in one way: they can encode information gained that way.

That said, the conflict between religious stories, sometimes called etiologies (from the Greek for “causes” or “accounts”), and science can be severe. People have a great emotional commitment to stories that play a role in traditions, and which serve to shore up communal identity. In particular, they find scientific reductions of ideas like the origins of life, of species, and of humans in particular very challenging. This is understandable. Similar things happen in other domains as well, such as national myths. While this is psychologically understandable, it isn’t philosophically interesting: it gets called “psychologism” in those debates. Psychologism is the view that our psychology is the same thing as our knowledge or logic. Philosophers distinguish between what we want to think and what we should if we are being reasonable. Even though we may wish things to be one way, if reason and evidence points in another direction, we should follow them, not our preferences. As Bishop Butler wrote in the 18th century:

Things and actions are what they are, and consequences of them will be what they will be: why then should we desire to be deceived? [Bishop Joseph Butler, Fifteen Sermons, Sermon VII, §16.]

The interventionist belief

All religions bar a few rather philosophical varieties have God or the gods intervening in the “natural” order. This is because gods are agents, which is to say they have goals and purposes and act to realise them. Some religions have inactive gods (Epicurus’ gods contemplated their own perfection, and had no interest in the finite and imperfect world) but almost all the religions that people follow have active deities.

Many people accept that evolution occurs, but deny that it happens naturally, at least when God’s purposes are involved. Darwin himself argued (in the final chapter of the Variation) that evolution was independent of God’s interventions, when debating his friend and defender, the Christian botanist Asa Gray, who held that God intervened in evolution to make humans come out as the end product, by making the right chance mutations occur. Darwin’s response was that this would undercut the whole point of evolution by natural selection, since selection is the “designer” and not the processes (which he didn’t understand, since mutation was not known at the time) that provided the building blocks.

The idea that God intervened, as a micromanager would in ensuring that their staff delivered the “right” outcomes, is sometimes called “theistic evolution” or TE. This is a widely held view. Strict naturalists think of it as a kind of creationism, and it is, but not in the usual sense of God creating species ex nihilo. It is creationist in the sense that God is the primary cause of all that is, and occasionally a secondary cause of individual events. In short, it is an occasional occasionalism. We’ll address God’s purposes in the next post, but for now let’s consider the role of causation here.

Saving creation, Darwin and naturalism

“Darwinian” evolution is the idea that events cause variation on which natural selection acts to modify a population to become better adapted to the “conditions of life”, or the environment in which that population lives. This is not to say that every change that happens to a population is the result of natural selection. A process known as genetic drift is caused when the next generation randomly samples the genes of the past generation, and the sample is not representative of the genes that existed. However, what is often called “Darwinian” evolution is natural selection, so we’ll focus on this.

It is possible to set up a situation where the “right” mutations exist so that an outcome can be forced by natural selection, so long as you also know the conditions in which the population will live. This can be, and has been, done experimentally and in computer simulations. But for God to do it, he needs to know that the mutations exist, and what the environment is in which they will be selected, as well as the size and distribution of the population. This involves there being a world in which the right conditions happen.

So God would need to ensure these conditions and mutations. It is well understood that in natural terms mutations are chance events. A mutation occurs when for one reason or another a gene is copied incorrectly in a number of ways. These are chance events, but not uncaused – every mutation is caused by surrounding conditions, which might be a chemical, or a radiation particle, or just thermal energy acting on the molecule at replication (that is, when the DNA molecule is duplicated when a cell divides).Also, he would need to ensure that the environment is what it needs to be. Since all these things are caused by physical processes ranging from weather, incoming meteors, geological processes, an so on, nothing remains to be explained in other than physical terms.

The sense of “chance” will be explored later, but for now it means, roughly, that an event cannot be predicted. God, however, has no such limitations: He can predict how things will turn out, because he has complete information and no limits on how much computing he can do, by definition. So if things are caused in a predictable fashion, God can design a world in which all these things will happen as he wants, without intervention.

But what if he cannot? What if, for example, quantum events are unpredictable even in theory? Could God create a world in which Darwinian accidents occur such that they will lead to the goals he has in mind? I think he could, and here is my argument:

Suppose God can simulate entire universes in his mind. As an analogy, suppose God has a supercomputer on which he can simulate all possible universes or worlds, the way we now simulate evolution on computers. Computers are generally determined: they run programs in a way that the results are forced by the programming. However, when simulations of evolution are run on computers, they often introduce a degree of randomness by using a RAND() function. These, in our computers are only pseudorandom; they are not properly random. But presumably God has either a truly random function, or his pseudorandom function is in every observable respect random to those within the universe.

Now God can simulate any universe, and so he runs full simulations for all possible universes, and picks the one that best meets his providential goals. This is, according to Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz,a 17th century philosopher and polymath, “the best of all possible worlds”. This was parodied by Voltaire in his novel Candide, but Leibniz never said that every event in the world was optimal, only that the whole universe was, so it allows for there to be individual cases of evil and tragedy within it.

So God runs either a very large number of simulations or all possible simulations including those with random events, picks the best world, and makes it real (pours in the ontological cement, as it were). In this world, we have fully Darwinian accidents, a contingent evolutionary process, but it’s a world that realises God’s goals. This is a kind of higher level kind of theistic evolution. God is not a micromanager on this account, but truly a creator. This would permit God to be a creator of Darwinian accidents and secondary causes, without contradicting God’s role as primary cause.

This allows theists to be both committed to natural science and the basic beliefs of creation.

Next, I will consider the problem of purpose.

27 thoughts on “God and evolution 2: The problem of creation

  1. I don’t know, John. The God you describe sounds more like an accountant. An omnipotent accountant to be sure, but an accountant nonetheless :)

    It’s certainly an interesting conceptualization of God, sifting through a presumably infinite array of possible universes and “running” those that best achieve His goals. I can well imagine a Deist appreciating such a god.

    Many Christians (and Jews and Muslims) would reject this sort of god, I think, precisely because it does away with the interventionist ideal that many find so important. It would make the act if prayer, indeed all sacraments and rituals pointless. Maybe some hard ass Calvanists might find it plausible, but you’re average Catholic or Evangelical would find the notion in opposition to an active deity (even if that notion ultimately undermines the omniscience so critical to their concept of godhood).

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      1. If God is able to pick from an infinite number of possible universes, then he is choosing the universe that will unfold as he wishes, so it dispenses with most interventions.

        Unless God can make mistakes in the selection process…

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  2. If you light a match and it burns, it is because God made it do so, not because matches are made from chemicals that tend to burn when struck. Few Christian thinkers accept this, however, and they often make a different distinction: between primary and secondary causes.

    I can recall many different things being taught to me as a lad. One was, in a catechismal way, that if God were to stop thinking about me for even an instant, I would cease to exist. Presumably this fits with the above sentiment of occasionalism attributed to al-Ghazali. I imagine it holds stronger sway than you think, especially among the masses. (Of course it does not seem to be a significant risk except within certain political environments like Argentina’s Dirty War.)

    Because it never seems to happen, I’m not sure how to test it. I certainly can’t do so directly, Suddenly making a loud noise has never appeared to distract the Old Boy to making things go poof. Round and about, I can note that it’s an ad hoc sort of invention, much like other ad hoc inventions that are more readily refuted. I can surmise that if not true, somebody would make it up and it would be believed. That seems to be a common form of refutation. And I find it pretty convincing. But I don’t know that I can call it a scientific refutation. I think I reserve that moniker for more direct ways of ruling something out.

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    1. No, that is God as primary cause. Occasionalism is the view that things happen because God makes it actively happen in each causal (secondary cause) event.

      Also this post is not about scientific testing, but about the implications of science (that is, evolution) for theism.

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  3. all religions have a role for God or the gods making some things, especially humanity

    I have two possible quibbles.

    The lesser of the two is to question whether this is true of all religions. Is it true of Jainism and of Buddhism?

    The second is to question the use of the word “humanity”, where I think that “humans” is the more appropriate term. Do all religions have a concept of such a collective (species or whatever), and that that collective, rather than individuals, were created?

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  4. “I can recall many different things being taught to me as a lad.”

    I can as well but if I remember were around 16 different christian denominations in a community of around 1000. Ranging from people who did not watch television, radio, or play music as it was a mortal sin to the more orthodox but a vast spectrum of belief that you had to understand and negotiate.

    Were also specific local customs, most people worked the seas and working life was dictated by the tide, when that hit on a Sunday, wives put the clock back or forward to Saturday or Monday, so the men would ‘not know’ and did not knowingly engage in the sin of work on a Sunday potentially helping to keep them alive at sea or ensure the catch was not poor. Reminds me of you’re Hindu example and modification of ritual practice.

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  5. Now God can simulate any universe, and so he runs full simulations for all possible universes, and picks the one that best meets his providential goals.

    Why bother? If He’s omniscient He knows the outcomes of all possible simulations in advance.

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    1. It’s a metaphor. “Running the simulation” is formally the same as “knowing in advance”. Given that God is supposed to be outside time – at least on the Augustinian view – there is no need to presume that God was in a state of ignorance before he considered universes. But it makes it easier to grasp if you make an analogy with simulations like Tierra.

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      1. I am not convinced that your ‘simulation’ concept can allow for a non-interventionist God as you appear to intend. Here’s your passage:

        Suppose God can simulate entire universes in his mind. As an analogy, suppose God has a supercomputer on which he can simulate all possible universes or worlds, the way we now simulate evolution on computers. . . . But presumably God has either a truly random function, or his pseudorandom function is in every observable respect random to those within the universe.

        Now God can simulate any universe, and so he runs full simulations for all possible universes, and picks the one that best meets his providential goals. . .

        So God runs either a very large number of simulations or all possible simulations including those with random events, picks the best world, and makes it real (pours in the ontological cement, as it were). In this world, we have fully Darwinian accidents, a contingent evolutionary process, but it’s a world that realises God’s goals. This is a kind of higher level kind of theistic evolution. God is not a micromanager on this account, but truly a creator. This would permit God to be a creator of Darwinian accidents and secondary causes, without contradicting God’s role as primary cause.

        Here’s my worry:
        Suppose God runs the simulation in His/Her/Its own mind, then attempts to pour the ontological concrete. How does this happen? Well, let’s imagine God writing down on his divine sketchpad a series of actually random numbers that represent the random mutations that gave rise to the preferred universe. Now God then implements those numbers, somehow, into the universe as those events occur. This would require an interventionist God of some kind. God would intervene, on this picture, by making the world conform to the random process that ran in the simulation in God’s mind.

        Clearly that’s not right because that’s an interventionist God.

        So how does God create a universe (some of) whose events are fundamentally random and not controlled by God? To say that God creates ‘that’ universe, the one that turns out the way God chooses but is nonetheless uncontrolled, seems at least prima facie logically incoherent. Put another way, once God starts the simulation, how does God guarantee, without intervention, that the random processes in the reality will perfectly match the random processes in the simulation? God could, we suppose, make it happen by intervention, but that’s ruled out since this view is supposed to take God to be non-interventionist. I just cannot grasp what the alternative is supposed to be that allows God to pick a universe in which these events are random yet turn out precisely as God wants. We can say that God has the power to do this by fiat, by pouring ontological cement, but this phrase tells us nothing about how such an action is logically/metaphysically possible.

        Perhaps this is just a specific form of the general, “How does God create by fiat anyway?” problem, but I don’t think so. The problem, as I see it, is: How does God create an uncontrolled process, by fiat, to result in a predetermined outcome? There has to be a one-one map from the random simulation to the random universe, and I don’t know what can force the random universe to conform to the random simulation absent some intervention by God. Just saying that God ‘pours the ontological concrete’ does not help me see how this is possible at all.

        I would be happy to be wrong about this, and I don’t really have a dog in this fight, but it would at least help me if you could explain how this creation is logically possible in a way that goes beyond the simple analogy to a mental simulation.

        Thanks.

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  6. “Only the so-called ‘Abrahamic’ religions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam and their offshoots – are truly creationist in the sense that they believe God created the universe out of nothing, or as it is expressed in theological Latin, creatio ex nihilo, but all religions have a role for God or the gods making some things, especially humans.”

    For clarification, a believer in creatio ex nihilo could believe that the creation from nothing was only the initial origin of the observed universe in the case of God making equal proportions of matter and anti-matter in a zero-energy universe. And the process of biological evolution began only roughly 10 billion years later and was not creatio ex nihilo but natural processes with possible occasional subtle guidance as proposed by the folks at BioLogos.org.

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  7. “Ontological cement” — I like that.

    Could you give me the specific source for Hume’s assertion that, as you put it, “you can’t make inferences from things you observe in the universe to the universe itself”? I believe this is essentially what undermines the attempts by Dawkins and others to argue that atheism is the rational upshot of science. It’s like pieces on a chessboard using the rules of chess to argue that no rider on horseback could ever move in a circle. (In this case the argument itself is circular.)

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    1. From Hume’s Dialogues:

      If we see a house, Cleanthes, we conclude, with the greatest certainty, that it had an architect or builder; because this is precisely that species of effect which we have experienced to proceed from that species of cause. But surely you will not affirm, that the universe bears such a resemblance to a house, that we can with the same certainty infer a similar cause, or that the analogy is here entire and perfect. The dissimilitude is so striking, that the utmost you can here pretend to is a guess, a conjecture, a presumption concerning a similar cause; and how that pretension will be received in the world, I leave you to consider

      There’s more:

      But can you think, Cleanthes, that your usual phlegm and philosophy have been preserved in so wide a step as you have taken, when you compared to the universe houses, ships, furniture, machines, and, from their similarity in some circumstances, inferred a similarity in their causes? Thought, design, intelligence, such as we discover in men and other animals, is no more than one of the springs and principles of the universe, as well as heat or cold, attraction or repulsion, and a hundred others, which fall under daily observation. It is an active cause, by which some particular parts of nature, we find, produce alterations on other parts. But can a conclusion, with any propriety, be transferred from parts to the whole? Does not the great disproportion bar all comparison and inference? From observing the growth of a hair, can we learn any thing concerning the generation of a man? Would the manner of a leaf ’s blowing, even though perfectly known, afford us any instruction concerning the vegetation of a tree?

      Et. seq

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  8. Intriguingly, today we can learn the generation of the man from the DNA of one cell of the hair root. – The great disproportion vanishes. – I would like to think that, similarly, the great disproportion between our understanding of universes, and say our puny attempts to understand ‘the meaning behind a bacon sandwich’ will vanish too. – It would be nice to think that knowledge will one day give us irreducible keys – or even one key.

    My key to evolution is death. – ‘What of today is going to die before tomorrow?’ – Natural selection’s god carries an egg-timer and a scythe.

    To me, natural selection and genetic drift are one and the same thing – though one might say that genetic drift one observable result of natural selection.

    You say:

    “ “Darwinian” evolution is the idea that events cause variation on which natural selection acts to modify a population to become better adapted to the “conditions of life”, or the environment in which that population lives. This is not to say that every change that happens to a population is the result of natural selection. A process known as genetic drift is caused when the next generation randomly samples the genes of the past generation, and the sample is not representative of the genes that existed. However, what is often called “Darwinian” evolution is natural selection, so we’ll focus on this. “

    I would translate this as:

    “Darwin’s version of evolution is that events cause variation on which natural selection acts to modify a population, to become better adapted to the “conditions of life”, or the environment in which that population lives.

    But surely it is that death simply eliminates those of variety produced today who fail to match “conditions of life” tomorrow. – Each new generation, with a certain randomness, samples the genes of the past generation and is then subjected to death’s critical analysis. – The result of death’s selection process may be seen statistically as genetic drift, when comparing what is now, to what existed yesterday.

    It might seem in “Darwinism” that nature has selected the advantaged to survive better – but all nature has done is have death eliminate those not happy in their surroundings on the day. – Every change that happens to a population is the result of variety produced in a population, and death acting thereon.

    For any god to intervene in this process – perhaps to an aim for betterment on a whim – then simultaneous control of both circumstance and genetic variation would be essential – so to thwart death.

    However, what is often called “Darwinian” evolution – his natural selection based more on what survives, rather than what is eliminated – does contain an element of an aim to betterment, so we’ll focus on this.“

    I’ve gone through five cups of coffee to write this. – Is coffee anti-chocolate or comparable?

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  9. Hi John,

    The idea that God intervened, as a micromanager would in ensuring that their staff delivered the “right” outcomes, is sometimes called “theistic evolution” or TE.

    This seems more like a description of “intelligent design” than “theistic evolution”, and in fact seems to misrepresent the latter. See e.g. Wiki for what I’m taking to be standard descriptions of the positions.

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      1. Fixed.

        Can you be more specific? I don’t use Wikipedia as a source here, because too many people have agendas on this topic. But since Asa Gray, TE has presumed that God intervenes to, as Gray said, run variation along useful lines, which is a form of interventionism. ID, on the other hand, treats design as intervention, directly.

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        1. My understanding is that ID theory invokes intervention specifically when it comes to certain “irreducibly complex” structures, which (according to ID) can’t be accounted for without design.

          “Theistic evolution” as I understand it is broader than you suggest. It is in general negative or noncommittal about divine interventions in biological development, and describes little more than the combination of theism of one sort or another, and natural selection of one sort or another (normally via an acceptance of methodological naturalism in the sciences).

          I can’t find a good potted definition of the latter term online, but a Google Books search turns up e.g. this:

          In the broad conceptual framework known as Theistic Evolution, God is seen as utilizing natural cause-and-effect processes inherent in the world to accomplish His creative goals.

          Here’s Dembski denouncing theistic evolution.

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    1. Many who hold to TE see God as an occasional micro-manager who lets the mechanics of nature do their natural thing most of the time. Perhaps divine nudges were needed only a small percent of the time in earth’s life history for the goal of developing creatures with human intelligence that is capable of inventing engineering theories and religious imagination. Others holding to TE assert that the initial expansion of the observable universe set into motion the inevitability of creatures with human intelligence. We can only conjecture the likeliness of the latter that appears extraordinarily unlikely to me. (I’m sure that this debate appears odd to materialists who assert that there was never the possibility of divine intervention, but this is all in the context of debate among proponents of TE.)

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  10. “Theistic evolution” as I understand it is broader than you suggest. It is in general negative or noncommittal about divine interventions in biological development….”

    That certainly sits more comfortably and looks more familiar at the moment with my understanding of pre-darwinian thought on such matters in the late 17th century although I have as yet a less than full picture.

    Audience reception is certainly different and leads to difficulties and some inconsistency in attempting to reassure, but the above certainly seems recognizable.

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  11. “I’m sure that this debate appears odd to materialists”

    What got me reading these posts was how ignorant I am with regard to the issues surrounding a belief system I don’t use and does not fit with my own beliefs. That’s the part I found odd.

    Its inexcusable ignorance really as I am a Western European so can hardly claim to have no knowledge of Christianity as it is so rooted in the culture and these issues are live in a significant minority of the community in which I live.

    It does look highly weird at first but all outside beliefs have a tendency to provoke that emotive response when you lack the wider context in which such things live and are of value and relevance. Its an emotion that should of course be fleeting unless you go no further and just run with emotive first responses to cultural difference.

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  12. Let’s not forget there are billion Hindus, and several hundred million Taoists and Buddhists who have no “role for God or the gods making some things, especially humans.” (There are creation stories to be found in Buddhism but they are not particularly central to its ontology.) Somewhere between a quarter and a third of the Earth’s religious population have no use for a “fabrication model” where the world is engineered by a divine intelligence. Seems significant.

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    1. I have all kinds of qualifying phrases for those who do not have a fabricating deity. I’m addressing those who do. But there’s a distinction to be had between folk religion and elite religion: often what is “the” Buddhist” or “Taoist” cosmology is held only by intellectuals and theologians, and they have no need for this series [book, if it ever comes out]. The folk versions have all kinds of quasideities, from ancestors and dragons to devas and kami, and they have to reconcile these entities with science.

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      1. Perhaps, but you nonetheless imply here (and in some cases overtly state) that world religions are universally interventionist, which is not at all the case. (And I’m not just talking about “elites.”) I really think you have a blind spot about this, perhaps because it complicates your thesis that religion is essentially a function of agency detection.

        You wrote that “The majority of believers in the world either think God created the universe or shaped it from some prior substance.” That may be trivially true, but it is misleading, as the minority in this case represents many hundreds of millions, if not billions of people. Across the entire span of this post you refer to a “God” that has little to no resemblance to anything believed in by many adherents of non-Abrahamic faiths, representing as much as one third of the earth’s population.

        There are some creationist elements to some strains of Buddhism and Hinduism (which is itself massively heterodox.) But we have to be very careful about how we casually project our ontology onto other traditions, particularly when it comes to hylomorphism and dualism. Most of the major Hindu denominations (e.g. Vaishnavism, Shavism) are predominantly monist and panentheist–there is little of the separateness between the Divine and the Natural that would allow for the Interventionsim that you claim typifies all world religions (except the “philosophical” ones.) Often what seem at first blush like creationist elements in “Eastern” religions are more properly stories of transformation by natural processes. And more often than not they are cyclical, rather than the linear story found in bible, torah and koran. (This also means they don’t have to grapple with the teleological problems of first and final causes).

        I just think you’d be on much firmer ground here if you restricted the discussion to the conflict between naturalism and Abrahamic theism.

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