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Evolution as God’s Tool

A post on the Panda’s Thumb today calls attention to this post from Uncommon Descent, which claims that theistic evolutionists must believe contradictory things:

I would not have a problem understanding evolution as God’s “creation tool,” if TEs conceived of evolution as a “tool” in the strict sense. A tool in the strict sense is fully in the control of the tool-user, and the results it achieves (when properly used by a competent user) are not due to chance but to intelligence and skill. . . .

I immediately thought of the six sided “tool” that might be encountered in a casino or in a role playing game or other simulation. Of course, there are many other “tools” used to generate random or pseudo-random results. But those tools, used properly, produce random results, or nearly so. One may, of course, have the goal of cheating, in which case one tries to prevent the tool from functioning correctly.

There are a number of failures of logic in the referenced article from UcD, but I want to focus on just this one. There seems to be a tendency both on the part of advocates and opponents of Christianity to assume that all elements of the faith must remain static. If one doesn’t adjust to a new scientific discovery, one is stubbornly clinging to outdated ideas, and if one does adjust, one is obviously abandoning the faith.

But I believe that God created the universe and I believe that as an obvious corollary of that belief whenever we discover new things about God’s creation, we may discover new things about God. There is no direct information. Science is ill-equipped to study God. Yet the process of science is admirably suited to discovering information about the physical world. If I tie to that the belief in creation I must also acknowledge that the created thing can say something about the creator.

Unfortunately, many Christians have tried to do precisely the opposite. Because they assume that certain things are true about God, they believe that there are certain things that must be true about the created universe. When one [seems to] discover something that contradicts this point, one challenges the data based on the assumption of what must be. In effect, this argument tells us that what must be, is.

The universe does not seem to bow to this logic. It does not conform to what I expected it to be when I was a child. I thought that God had created the universe specifically for human beings, that the earth was the center of the spiritual universe. (I studied astronomy almost as soon as I could read, and realized that we were not physically the center of the universe.) I thought that each kind of plant and animal had been lovingly designed by God’s hand to have a precise set of features.

When I became a man–and after much struggle–I put away such childish things and realized that the universe is what it is, irrespective of what makes me feel better. And therein lies my major beef with the term “theistic evolution,” because that phrase suggests that theistic evolution is a different theory regarding the diversification of life than just plain evolution. For some, it implies that one must somehow shape one’s understanding of evolution in view of one’s belief in God. Theism becomes the means of making evolution more palatable.

But evolution is what it is. The theory of evolution is the best explanation we have at this point for a large and varied array of physical observations–the sort of stuff that science does well. The important issue is whether the theory of evolution is valid or invalid, not whether it is troubling or comforting, demeaning to human beings or affirming, or whether it is too bloody to be the tool of a loving God.

So could evolution be the tool of the God posited by orthodox Christianity? Well, that depends on just what one calls orthodoxy. Personally, I accept it, and I repeat the apostle’s creed without my fingers crossed, one definition of orthodoxy that I sometimes use facetiously, though I do have a point. Often we are dealing with embellishments to the creeds when we find objections to scientific data, not the creeds themselves.

There are some problems, however, and some adjustments to be made. If you want to make human beings, as such, the intended result of evolution, then you’re going to have to play with the randomness somewhere. If you even believe that God intended to create sentience, and did not have even the contingency that it might not happen, I believe you are talking about a process that is not entirely random.

Now there’s a perfectly good theological fall back point here, even though it is one I choose not to use. One can suppose that at the most basic level–some theists use the subatomic level–God intervenes, but in a way that cannot be detected. I think it is fairly likely that one could conceal quite a lot in the masses of random movements of particles. If that gene over there is mutated rather than this one here, and the two were of equal probability, who is to detect that God interfered?

For me, however, this seems a little odd. Why is it that God wants to make things happen a certain way, but pretends that they are happening a different way? Why make things appear to have a strong random component, while actually accomplishing a predetermined result? I don’t see any contradiction in this, simply because we are talking here about a personal God who chooses, and while I may find the choice weird, it doesn’t contradict anything except my sense of aesthetics.

But I suggest a different option–a God who actually does take chances, one who does, in fact, play dice with the universe. I suggest that evolution is much more like the random tool I describe at the beginning than like a fabrication device. To truly create free creatures, I think God had to allow all options.

As I have noted before, I do remain open to interventions, provided those interventions are designed to communicate with free creatures in a non-coercive manner, in other words, they do not change the way the universe functions. I’m actually much more comfortable with a resurrection, which happens once, is clearly contrary to the laws of nature, but doesn’t alter the way the physical universe works in general, than I am with the idea that God provides an appearance of randomness, but guides it to a predetermined goal. The resurrection seems more blatant, but actually has substantially less effect.

This may not be very comforting. It means that human beings might not have existed. Perhaps there was a moment when if a landslide had gone a different way, some essential line of development would have been cut off and humans would never have appeared. Just for fun, think of giant, intelligent cockroaches digging up the fossilized remains of our potential, but doomed, ancestors.

I think it would be quite easy to imagine an earth than went through it’s entire life cycle as a planet without producing intelligent life. For the entire universe, it would be vanishingly unlikely that no such life would develop anywhere, but I suspect that is a contingent possibility.

Does it make you feel insecure? It did me when I first read about the possibilities and thought about them. But if there is one thing that the study of the universe should teach us, that is that physical life is risky and ephemeral, on the universal scale of things, and even when we look at it very locally. It seems to me that the nature of the universe suggests that God likes freedom much more than he likes security.

(I’m working on another post dealing with the bloodiness of evolution and the implications of that, which I will hopefully post yet this week.)

15 comments to Evolution as God’s Tool

  • […] related to my post today on theistic evolution is this post from Frank Hagan, also worth reading, and in response to the […]

  • Well said!

    In certain types of statistical simulations the correct results can be obtained only if the input is truly random. If it is not, the results become clearly distorted. Although I don’t actually know of one, I can imagine a kind of mathematical pattern, perhaps something like a fractal, which can be generated with its proper beauty only from a truly random input. That would be a good illustration of how God generated humanity from random input.

    • It would be a great illustration, but it’s beyond my math knowledge. Perhaps some reader will pop by and suggest an example.

    • Larry B

      I’m not sure I can point to an example of what you are referring to here Peter, but it’s a tad tricky to even define randomness. If you take a fair dice for example, you have no way to prove that a series of rolls from the dice is truly random. It is equally probable that you will find a string of n 6’s in a row (n being any integer number above 0) as it is to see a long string of non repeating numbers. We might suspect that the dice isn’t fair if we saw a long string of 6’s, but it’s not necessarily the case.

      So, in reality, we can only be statistically confident that something is random, and not certain. Which to me presents a problem with Henry’s ideas about randomness. In my view the real problem is we can’t actually confirm randomness within the bounds of mathematics and therefore arguing that evolution is or isn’t a “random” process isn’t really possible.

      So in short, within true randomness apparent patterns will develop and if something isn’t random patterns will develop. The question is are we the apparent patterns or the intended patterns. I don’t think it can be answered by inquiry into math and science.

      • Larry – I believe I understand your point, but I think I already stated something similar when I noted that God could intervene at that level without anyone being able to tell the difference. That’s not the same point as you’re making, but it is compatible.

        My choice to believe in randomness is more theological than scientific. I think it’s really impossible to tell whether there is true randomness in the sense in which I’m using the word or not. The alternative seems to me to be complete determinism, which is also quite possible.

      • Larry, it is also possible to get genuine and intended patterns out of true randomness. That is a standard part of stochastic modelling in all kinds of engineering etc. True, most of the patterns can also be obtained from pseudo-randomness, but mixed with patterns from its not quite random nature.

        • Peter-pardon my math ignorance here, but it seems to me that what you say would imply that there would be a way to test and detect whether one was working with a pseudo-random generator, at least a percentage of cases. IOW a pseudo-random number generator might pass for true randomness, but if certain [types of] patterns appeared one would know that it was pseudo-random.

          Have I understood you correctly?

        • Henry, yes, you are right. I don’t have the details to hand. But I know that there is a way of testing for pseudo-randomness as opposed to true randomness. A set of numbers are plotted in some kind of graph. A visible pattern appears on the graph for pseudo-random numbers, but not for truly random ones. More sophisticated pseudo-random number generators require more sophisticated techniques to detect, but they can be detected. I’m sure this is important in cryptography e.g. to detect messages deliberately disguised as random noise. If there are currently pseudo-random series which (if long enough) cannot be detected as such, that is probably only a temporary matter until the next advance in detection methods. But I am by no means an expert in this.

          On the other hand, I would expect that any divine intervention in the universe would appear, even to the most sophisticated human techniques, to be truly random.

  • JuliaL

    You didn’t mention the possibility of an infinite number of universes, so that all possibilities, including humans, are realized somewhere.

  • Hi Henry … love your blog, and appreciate your trackback to my blog on the same subject.

    Regarding the apparent randomness of evolution, I remember a football coach who used to have the first few plays of the game set, and the team would go onto the field and sequence through those plays just as the coach planned. For the viewer, it seemed like the team was rushing to the scrimmage line and quickly running a play at random, without evidence of the intervention of the huddle. But in fact the plan had been formulated for a series of plays off-field, in the locker room.

    God could have set all parameters, including all the variables and alternate outcomes, and then started the ball rolling. I don’t favor this view, personally, but I think it is worth considering. (It reminds me of the Christian Deist view of the founders, in fact, which seems to fit the modern scientific world much more than our “literalist tinged” current thinking).

    There are some verses in the Hebrew scriptures that reflect the idea that God created evil as well as good (Isa. 45:7). I’ve heard this explained as necessary to provide a choice between two things to validate that man does indeed have free will. But there is also a sense in which we attribute things to God simply because of His foreknowledge of it.

    Just as students choosing to sit with others of their own race create de-facto segregation in the cafeteria, God allowing a thing to happen ultimately makes Him the author of it in a de-facto sense. God can certainly intervene in the workings of the Universe, but does it so rarely that we call it miracle.

    Anyway, enough rambling. I did want to chime in and let you know how much I appreciate your blog.

  • Henry,

    Very thoughtful post. There’s no doubt natural selection provides challenges to the received orthodox theologies, and it’s quite interesting to watch someone try to work through the ideas rather than simply reject one or the other.

  • Anna K.

    On physical life being risky and ephemeral — repeatedly in the Bible, life and ‘flesh’ is compared to grass and flowers, in that all soon wither away.

  • Great phrase: “. . . the universe is what it is, irrespective of what makes me feel better.”