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Consequences of theistic evolution

Last updated on 22 Jun 2018

So in parts one and two I proposed a problem and solution to the reconciliation of a limited theism with science, and in particular evolution. The aim was to preserve a complete scientific explanation, with no constraints or hedging or intervention, and to see if it could be made consistent with a providentialist view of a God aiming to produce humans. The approach taken was to suppose that God’s creativity and design consisted in his choosing this world out of a number of possible worlds, because this world met or exceeded his utility functions, whatever they might be, satisfying his providential Plan.

Suppose this works. What does it mean for theists and the notion of a theistic evolution?

Objections to evolution come late. Apart from a few theologians like Charles Hodge and B. B. Warfield, who seems never to have had a personal name, only initials, objections to evolution as such did not arise until the early 20th century, and even then it was initially a heterodox opinion in the Seventh Day Adventist Church, hardly representative of Christian thinking. But what was objected to, almost from the beginning, was natural selection. Common descent, descent with modification, even sexual selection were all acceptable, but the idea that selection might generate the appearance of design without God’s direct intervention was highly problematic. Evolution might be real, but for the things that matter – humans and in particular the human soul – evolution by natural selection was insufficient.

There was an irony here, for the original meaning of “creationism” was the medieval Catholic doctrine that God created each human soul by fiat, and souls were neither natural nor eternally existing (the Platonic view of the Phaedo). When John Paul II announced that evolution was a true scientific theory with evidence neither sought nor fabricated in its favour, he exempted the doctrine of the creation of souls. This was something a naturalistic theory could not account for.

Now, whatever view we may have about souls, and I would suggest that the Christian doctrine has no empirical impact whatsoever even by their own account, the rest of the properties of humans are necessarily thought of as natural, especially in the light of the massive strides into the domain of divine activity over the past four centuries: development, inheritance, psychology, cognition, and indeed life itself. Preformationism, divine heredity, Cartesian parallelism, Berkeleyan idealism, and so on are all otiose at this point. If we have a natural account, then all these other adjunct hypotheses become unnecessary. The science is sufficient.

Creationists most of all fear evolution because it undercuts the origin stories of the Fall, and makes the rest of the fundamentalist theology of salvation a waste of thought. But the majority of theists do not read, and for a considerable period, going back at least to Augustine’s De Genesi ad litteram, have not read, the origin stories of Genesis as literal accounts or histories. They are “allegory” or “metaphor”. Creationists do not wish to reconcile science with their theology, they wish to impose their theology upon the science, and so we can ignore them here.

More surreptitious, however, is the creeping creationism that is called “intelligent design”, and proponents of this form of creationism (dressed up in a cheap tuxedo, in the memorable phrase of Adrian L. Melott) attack theistic evolution as being a sell-out. That the majority of theists accept evolution is, to them, evidence of the failure of theism in the modern world.

I embarked upon this quest for a reconciliation for two reasons: one, playing with extreme ideas like God is fun, as thinkers from Descartes to Einstein have all found. Taking the limit case allows you to do philosophical thinking in ways you couldn’t if you simply presumed that things are the way everybody thinks they are. This needs no further justification to a philosopher and makes little sense to everyone else, so I will leave it for now. But the second reason is to show that on some fairly uncontroversial premises (for theists at any rate; I reckon that theists all ought to be block theorists given the ruminations of Augustine in the Confessions about God and time), one can rationally be a theist and a proper evolutionary thinker. No need for Asa Gray’s interventions, and no need to deny Darwin’s claim that natural selection occurs on accidents.

This, it should come as no surprise, is a classical move in theology as well. The so-called neo-Thomists held that creation was not an event in history, but the creation and sustenance of history. God’s creation occurred by the making of the physical world. Eric Mascall, in his little book Words and Images, has a diagram (pp74, 75) which I redraw here, and add to to explain our view:

Darwinian accidents figure.png

In the final figure, which is not in Mascall’s book, you see that I have God creating a finished universe, rather than each individual event. He sustains the existence of the universe, in which things occur according to natural laws. Even if the universe is irreducibly stochastic in some sense, God creates that universe (primary cause), in which natural laws (secondary causes) occur untrammelled.

Now this should mean that theists are able to accept a totally scientific picture, because science is effectively silent on the metaphysical aspects of entire universes. Science can only investigate and explain what happens within universes, multiverse theories notwithstanding.* God remains a prime mover, and moreover, even has a providential Plan that he instantiates with the universe he chooses to create. So the theistic doctrine of creation is not threatened either. Questions of the Fall and so forth I leave as an exercise to the reader theologians.

So, with the resources of some metaphysics and theology, theists may in my view fully accept a scientific picture of the universe without cost to their core beliefs. If miraculous events are required, this may detract from the totality of the scientific worldview, of course, and such things as resurrections from the dead and what have you are problems in any event. However, if miracles are regarded as “signs” with potential natural explanations, it is the fact that they occurred in this universe rather than that they lack a natural account that makes them significant as messages from God, because he chose a universe in which they occurred.

This should obviate accusations that theistic evolutionists are neither theistic enough, nor that they are scientific enough. You can have your metaphysical cake and physically eat it, too.

  • A Multiverse is the totality of all physical things, and so even if a physical theory were able to explain, say, other universes, it is effectively still restricted to the physics of these universes, and cannot speak to their metaphysical underpinnings, if any.


Mascall, Eric L. 1967. Existence and analogy. Hamden, CN: Archon Books.


  1. DiscoveredJoys DiscoveredJoys

    An interesting exercise, but I think there is another way of accommodating religious belief and science (nobody is going to like it though).

    There is a creator god.
    It has a plan.
    It uses the unfolding of natural laws to realise that plan.

    God’s plan is about producing crystalloid beings floating on a methane lake on a planet in a galaxy far far away.
    Humans are a mere spandrel (ahem) of this plan.
    Human religious beliefs are a natural. consequence of the unfolding of the plan.

    Supporting evidence:
    The universe appears to exist.
    It took 14 billion years for humans to evolve (I bet those crystalloids were early starters).
    Natural laws appear to exist.
    Prayer doesn’t work (god isn’t interested).
    No evidence of god interacting recently with our physical world (god isn’t interested).
    The existence of suffering (god isn’t interested).
    Many different religions thrive.

    There, I told you no-one would like the idea, even though it explains ‘everything’.

  2. According to figure 3., God is directly responsible for every individual event in the universe. I don’t see how a figure 4. God can shirk that responsibility either – however you interpret figure 4. God set things up so that they were likely to turn out as they have.

    Thus, God must take responsibility for every bit of suffering and pain in the universe. Likewise for every act of “sin” that God punishes. How is this a benevolent God or a just God?

    • Chris' Wills Chris' Wills

      End justifies the means.

      All apparent bad/evil leads to greater good.

      God designs her universe with the end result in mind. How the universe evolves to that end is of minor importance.

    • No one holds that every form of causal responsibility is a form of moral responsibility, and since the diagrams only identify a particular form of causal responsibility, getting from the diagrams to moral responsibility requires additional assumptions about the nature of the causation involved.

    • Given that the ‘normal’ Christian God, whether Catholic or Protestant, is all mighty, omnipotent, omnipresent, creator of the universe and master of all I would say he’s pretty much responsible for the whole shebang anyway you look at it.

      • Yes, causally. There is no complete consensus on what this entails beyond that — indeed, no complete consensus on what the causal responsibility amounts to if we get beyond generalities (although there are a few positions that are very widely accepted) — which, in a sense, is the latitude John is making use of in his argument.

  3. Ian H Spedding FCD Ian H Spedding FCD

    A worthy attempt, although unlikely to impress either creationists or atheists I think.

    As an aside, what I find fascinating is this concept of block time in which no ‘present’ can be privileged over any other; that my ‘present’ at this moment is no more ‘real’ that that of a George Washington in our past or that of our unknown descendants, hundreds or millions of years in our future and that the same period of time that, for Washington and his contemporaries, held the mysteries of the future is, for us, well-established history.

    I rather like the little analogy used to illustrate the problem by Fred Hoyle in his science-fiction novel October The First Is Too Late. In it, one of the characters asks us to imagine this concept of time as row upon row of pigeon-holes or sorting-boxes such as you might find in a sorting-office. In each of the boxes there is a piece of paper providing information about the boxes on either side but there is much more information about he boxes on one side than on the other. You can look into any of the boxes that you like and in any order, the only restriction being that you cannot leave any kind of note to tell you that you have looked in a given box before. On tat reading, we could be jumping around to different points in time at random yet still having the impression of being embedded in a single coherent stream of time. The question, as Hoyle points out, is who or what is doing the looking?

    • John S. Wilkins John S. Wilkins

      On the issue of the present, your observing it is a function of your state at some coordinate in the 4d universe. You “see” “now” because the causal relations are what they are at or near that time point. Likewise your “seeing” “later” is exactly the same thing. There are only a number of instants in which you perceive that time or the immediate past because the causal relations are appropriately instantiated there. There is no “present”, just a succession of perceptions due to the causal arrows at each moment. We “experience” time at each instant because that’s the way your spacetime worm is constituted. We experience it seriatim for the same reason. There is no present, just a series of experiences and causal relations. That’s how I see it, anyway.

      • jeff jeff

        I don’t see that way. The present is always there as long as we are conscious *of* something (intentionality), no matter what the immediate causal relations with the past are. The experience of the present is a phenomenon intimately associated with the phenomenon of being consciousness. There is no present for an unconscious person or thing.

        • John S. Wilkins John S. Wilkins

          Intentionality is a linguistic illusion. So is consciousness. I have a proof, but it is too large to put in this margin.

      • jeff jeff

        If there is an illusion, doesn’t that necessarily imply that something is experiencing the illusion?

        • John S. Wilkins John S. Wilkins

          Language users. Perceptual systems.

      • jeff jeff

        Objective perceptual or language systems don’t experience illusions, or anything at all for that matter. They are composed of purely objective processes – no subjectivity. However, people (such as myself) most certainly do experience something, so your assertions are at odds with my direct observations.

  4. sbh sbh

    Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield, Princeton theologian and contributer to The Fundamentals (“The Deity of Christ” in the first volume), is considered to be one of the architects of the fundamentalist movement that infested the United States during the twentieth century.

    That Fred Hoyle observation is a favorite of mine as well.

  5. John Farrell John Farrell

    Thus, God must take responsibility for every bit of suffering and pain in the universe. Likewise for every act of “sin” that God punishes. How is this a benevolent God or a just God?

    I’m going to go way out on a limb and guess Russell used to be a fundamentalist Christian.


  6. MKR MKR

    Figure 3 looks like occasionalism to me. I don’t know exactly what “ne0-Thomism” is, but that is surely not a view of Thomas himself.

    • For figure 3 to be occasionalism there would have to be no arrows between the dots representing finites.

      • MKR MKR

        I guess it all depends on what the arrows represent. If the ones coming from God represent causation and the horizontal ones represent succession, then the diagram expresses occasionalism. But if the horizontal ones represent causation, then what is there for the ones coming down from God to represent? Contrariwise, if God creates events (a funny-sounding combination of words!), then there can be no causation between them, because they are caused by God—which is just occasionalism again. I guess I’m just saying the figure 3 does not seem to me a coherent representation of anything.

        • John S. Wilkins John S. Wilkins

          Perhaps we can let Mascall express what he means by it:

          [Of figure 2] This, however, is far less than we require, and far less than is involved in St Thomas’ thought as a whole. As the treatise on Creation shows, he does in fact maintain that, without suppressing or superseding the secondary causality of creatures, God’s primary causality operates directly on every element of every finite process, englobing as it were all the secondary causes. This is the situation indicated by Figure 3. The essential point is that God does not merely initiate the motion but sustains it…

          Since secondary causation is proper causality, in the physical sense, God’s causal involvement in sustaining the physical events is not a substitute for causation, but causation of a different (primary) kind; it is creation. So this is not occasionalism: God is still “creating” each event, but each event is caused (the sense of secondary causation of physics) in an ordinary manner. On my and Phil’s account, God creates the entire causal chain or network, that is, the entire physical world, in a single act.

  7. MKR MKR

    Oops! I mean: figure 3 does not seem to me a coherent representation if all the arrows are supposed to represent causal connections.

    • MKR MKR

      Aw, nuts! That comment went in the wrong place!

      • but was it the right comment in the wrong place or the wrong comment in the right place?

  8. Sam C Sam C

    You can have your metaphysical cake and physically eat it, too.

    Not if the unicorns come along and steal it first!

    [End of oblique, oh bleak, comment on contents of post.]

  9. The hypothesis of vortices is pressed with many difficulties.

      • I was trying to quote Newton’s sarcasm about Descartes since it is very similar to my emotional reaction to the tortured artificiality of defenses of evolutionary theism. One can make sense of anything, but the expense of spirit in a waste of shame is enjoy’d no sooner but despised straight.

      • Therefore the hypothesis of vortices can in no way be reconciled with astronomical phenomena and serves less to clarify the celestial motions than to obscure them.

        Isaac Newton, “The Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy”, Book II, Section 9 Scholium.

    • John S. Wilkins John S. Wilkins

      A Cartesian problem I suspect…

      • me too, but wots that gotta do with anything?

  10. AK AK

    At the risk of being redundant, I’m going to expand on a comment in an earlier post.

    Modern quantum indeterminacy (AFAIK) posits that every time a wave function breaks down, information comes (out of nowhere, or at least where?) regarding the new location and momentum of the particles involved. Given that such a (probably partial) breakdown occurs every time one molecule in the atmosphere collides with another, not to mention similar situations in liquids such as the oceans and the insides (and outsides) of each cell (including/especially neurons) in our bodies, there is a huge amount of information coming at a massive rate from somewhere science currently cannot address (except for some highly speculative notions).

    If we assume some correspondence between “God” and the source of that information, then we can expand figure 3 to cover it. This approach also addresses Einstein’s famous problem with “God playing dice with the Universe”: He’s not playing dice, he’s loading them.

    It also manages to divorce the creation of the world, life, animals, and humans from the original source of the universe: assuming the “Big Bang” notion to be roughly correct, it doesn’t necessarily take any intelligence or other designing ability to concentrate an enormous amount of energy into a minuscule space, just the ability to handle the energies and forces involved.

    As for the “God who is creator of the universe, the World, life, animals, and Humans”, that could be simply an artifact of the way our brains perceive the world, analogous to the way a road leading off into the east when the Moon’s rising appears to go to the Moon.

  11. jeff jeff

    You’ve covered the issues of primary causes, souls (and by extension, an afterlife), and some signs and miracles to a limited extent, but how do you get around the resurrection – maybe the cornerstone of the Christian religion? How can that be compatible? It would have to be a empirical event, and not simply a matter of choosing a universe. Would theistic evolutionists give that up?

    • John S. Wilkins John S. Wilkins

      I do discuss miracles: “If miraculous events are required, this may detract from the totality of the scientific worldview, of course, and such things as resurrections from the dead and what have you are problems in any event. ”

      In other words, miracles are a problem for the theist no matter how we conceive of the universe. They must therefore think that God intervenes in these privileged events only. But I don’t want to defend miracles, or solve the problem of evil, or any other theological problems, other than the question of reconciling evolution and cosmology with providence.

  12. RBH RBH

    Russell Blackford wrote

    Thus, God must take responsibility for every bit of suffering and pain in the universe. Likewise for every act of “sin” that God punishes. How is this a benevolent God or a just God?

    I made that same point to Francisco Ayala last year, but more succinctly: “You’re letting God off way too easy.” That was in reply to his claim that accepting evolution, which entails an enormous amount of waste and pain and suffering, relieves God of responsibility for all that pain, etc.

    He skated the remark, merely shaking his head and saying “I don’t think so,” which of course is no answer at all.

    • Perhaps if at that time you elaborated more than you do here. If the whole of your objection was “You’re letting God off way too easy,” there’s not really much more that could be said, without actually specifying the way in which he was doing so, because it could mean any number of things.

  13. After reading through parts 1, 2, and now this one, I wonder if you’ve ever read or heard of a book by a cell biologist turned epigeneticist, Bruce Lipton, called “Spontaneous Evolution.” It’s great, great stuff. As well, I think the documentary of Amit Goswami called “The Quantum Activist” might also be interesting as it relates to this topic.

    With Love and Gratitude,

    The Intentional Sage

    • John S. Wilkins John S. Wilkins

      No, I haven’t. Should I have? Why?

      • John S. Wilkins John S. Wilkins

        A quick look, and no, I should not have…

  14. Perhaps I am being unfair but I can not help but think of dear old Professor Pangloss.

    • John S. Wilkins John S. Wilkins

      Think instead of dear old Dr Leibniz. Voltaire managed to ignore most of the argument.

    • You have my sympathy.

  15. H.H. H.H.

    I have to admit, I’m having trouble understanding your conclusions. I think you are saying that a theistic evolutionist whose views are compatible with science must accept that natural selection occurs on accidents, but then I can’t reconcile how you can reach the conclusion “God remains a prime mover, and moreover, even has a providential Plan that he instantiates with the universe he chooses to create.” How can there be a providential Plan if the creator didn’t know what would evolve?

  16. Robert Hagedorn Robert Hagedorn

    Well, here I go again sending a lot of people into a white-hot rage. The folks over at “Christianity Today” are terrified of me. The owner of the blog “RELIGIOUS FORUMS” has banned me for life from posting comments on that blog. A certain Lutheran theologian has actually threatened me. Most just laugh at me as they spew out expletives and obscenities. Why all the rage and terror and nervous giggling? Because Adam and Eve had anal sex. And I’m the unfortunate messenger caught in the mess. If something is wrong with this very upsetting exegesis, then who is intelligent enough to find the error? I challenge you: find it! Google “Robert Hagedorn’s Blogs” and click on “WikiAnswers”

  17. Matty Matty

    To save anyone else looking. Robert Hagerdorn’s blog is a rather incoherent review of his own poem about Adam and Eve having anal sex. A poem that I can only describe as of Vogon quality.

    He manages many of the classic signs of internet whackaloonery such as words in ALL CAPS and the insistence that the reason he is reduced to spamming blogs is that the world is terrified by his genius. Missing however are the more extreme font changes and graphics that mark out a true master and I can find nothing about the global conspiracy or the lizard people. In short I would rate this at around 2 1/2 timecubes. To riase the score maybe consider adding some animations or a looped soundtrack of the poem being performed by a Country singer.

    • A poem that I can only describe as of Vogon quality.

      If it’s really of Vogon quality it might even be worth a look 😉

  18. Many of your questions and assumptions — Does God have a plan? Are humans part of it? Does God have foreknowledge? — are subsets of a broader question: What is God like? Here’s what I think can be said to that question.

    First, a summary of the evidence. When you look at concepts of god across all times and all cultures, you find lots and lots of them, and they are generally incompatible. And there is no reason to think that my own view, or yours, is privileged above those others. (After all, several of those others claim firsthand knowledge.) It follows, then, that I cannot justify saying anything about the nature of god — not about god’s deeds, plans, abilities, or even existence. Nor can anybody else so speak. Well, it’s not quite as bad as that; we can same something about what God is not, based on what we observe of the universe. Most famously, for example, we can say that God is not simultaneously omniscient, omnipotent, and all-good, because that would conflict with observations of bad stuff happening. But to a good approximation, God is a complete, absolute unknown. Now, surely that is a god which is compatible with evolution.

    The question remains whether such a god is compatible with theism. Many people would think that an object without any known qualities would not be terribly useful, but that is not quite true. Joseph Campbell views god as a metaphor for the unknown, and I think a good case could be made for placing such a metaphor in a position of veneration.

    More important, a blank slate is useful for writing one’s own ideas upon, and an undefined god allows people to attribute to god whatever qualities they want in a god. This suggestion will raise the hackles of everyone who wants some external basis for their views, whether in science or theology. They will claim, accurately, that it is anti-reason. But does that make it a bad idea? I submit that it becomes a bad idea only when taken too far, particularly when people start to insist that their idea of god has to be yours, too (which, I admit, happens way too often). But if someone recognizes that their ideas about god have no application beyond themself, then what’s the problem? Their belief will make them feel good, it will likely not do them any harm (certainly no more than most folk health beliefs), it will do nobody else harm, and if they find others who share the beliefs, it will give them a social group to be a part of. Besides, since the belief applies only within them,
    we outsiders get no say in the matter.

    Ultimately, beliefs about god are not really about god anyway; they are about our relation with the universe. So the only thing that really matters about god’s attributes is how we, individually, view them.

    This view of personal gods will not please atheists who believe that “god” must have an objective presence to be meaningful. It will not please creationists for the same reason. It will probably not please most church leaders and theologians, whose jobs it threatens. But I believe it can be considered a valid theistic view which is wholly compatible with evolution.

    • John S. Wilkins John S. Wilkins

      Yet again I say: I do not wish to defend or assert any theist position, as I am an agnostic with no opinion. I am merely discussing whether a theist might be able to accept both their theism and science.

      What you may think about god or gods is up to you, and what theists say is up to them. I am much more concerned with the abstract question of compatibility.

  19. “But the majority of theists do not read, and for a considerable period, going back at least to Augustine’s De Genesi ad litteram, have not read, the origin stories of Genesis as literal accounts or histories. “

    Presumably it goes all the way back to at least a decade or so prior to Philo putting the perspective into writing. That’s a damning indictment on modern literalism, which clearly warrants little more than a scratch on the time line of Judeo-Christian theology and so can hardly boast at being the conventional wisdom.

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