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:
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.