Thursday, February 12, 2009

When is Theistic Evolution acceptable?

If you thought I would go another Darwin Day without any mention of the Evo/Creo wars, you were wrong! This has little to do with Darwin himself, but I hope you enjoy it anyway.

When you first join a social networking site (ie Facebook or Myspace), one thing that takes a little getting used to is how friendship is treated in such a black and white manner. You're either a friend with a person or you're not. There is no "we say hi every time you run into each other", "we like to chat, but we've never actually met", or any other in-between. There are workarounds, but I'm already used to the black and white, and I'm just not willing to invest the effort to change it.

When it comes to respect or acceptability, I am not used to black and white. I don't like to say that I respect or don't respect a person, or that I find a certain view acceptable or unacceptable. There are many different levels of respect and acceptability, and I'm perfectly willing to invest the effort to yammer on about their distinctions on my blog.

When it comes to Theistic Evolution (which is merely any system of belief which includes evolution and God), there are many levels on which I consider it acceptable or unacceptable. In one sense, it is unacceptable, because theistic belief is unacceptable to me. In another sense, it is acceptable to the extent that it politically opposes the Intelligent Design movement and other Creationist movements. On this same level, I would also find it acceptable if a Young Earth Creationist opposed Creationist movements on the grounds of separation of church and state. The enemy of my enemy--that's another thing that doesn't exist on Facebook.

I want to outline another in-between level on which Theistic Evolution is acceptable, but Intelligent Design is not. The distinction: A belief is acceptable if and only if it would not hamper a person's efforts to academically study any specific branch of science. Let's apply it to various positions on evolution!
  • Young Earth Creationism - Obviously not acceptable, because there are lots of things, from evolution to geology to astronomy, which you just can't study while believing the Earth is six thousand years old.
    • Subcategory: Omphalism (aka Last Thursdayism) - Omphalism is the belief that, even though the Earth and everything was created six thousand years ago, it was created to look exactly as if it would look if it were much older. Omphalists believe that sciences which go beyond six thousand years ago are incorrect, but still have predictive power because God made it that way. Omphalism is acceptable to the extent that they accept the predictive power of evolution (and other sciences).
  • Gap Age Creationism - This is the type of Creationism which states that life was created on a previously existing old earth. Technically, this is slightly better than Young Earth Creationism, in that it might not hamper earth science as much--but that's just not good enough!
  • Intelligent Design - Usually by "Intelligent Design", we refer to the political movement which wants to promote "alternatives" to evolution in schools. But for the moment, I am referring to general attitude of evolution denial which underlies the Intelligent Design movement. This is bad. You can't be a respectable biologist and simultaneously support Intelligent Design. And most Intelligent Design arguments just don't pass muster. Examples:
    • Irreducible Complexity - The explanation for this has been around for a long time.
    • Only microevolution, no macroevolution - Not good enough! If you believed in Electromagnetism but not Special Relativity, that wouldn't cut it either.
  • Theistic Evolution - This is acceptable, because it accepts evolution. As far as I can tell, theistic evolutionists do not make any worse scientists than anyone else. Argue all you like about how hard it is to reconcile science and religion, but that's only in theory. In practice, theistic evolutionists don't have those problems, so that's good with me.
    • Exception: God made altruism - If you believe that altruism can't evolve, and that divine intervention was needed, you got problems. You may not be barred from evolutionary biology, but you are barred from a particular branch of biology, the evolution of cooperative behavior. Similarly, if you have a problem with junk DNA, then you have a problem.
    • God made the soul - If you believe that it required divine intervention to create the human soul at one point of evolutionary history, then that's actually okay. Unless you think the insertion of the soul makes some prediction about the natural world, I just don't see how this would hurt your scientific study. However, this may change with developments with psychology, if the common conception of the soul becomes noticeably at odds with science.
I leave it as an exercise to the reader to apply this principle to other beliefs.


Anonymous said...

Nicely done. There are too many skeptics out there who are willing to say that any person who believes in God is an irrational idiot not worth talking to about anything. Glad to see there are some more reasonable skeptics about too.

Anonymous said...

While it is pretty irrational to believe that any God of today is the same as that described in the Jewish/Christian bible, Evolutionary Theory says nothing about a divine creator, one way or t'other. While I don't think one ever existed, Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem shows that no system can determine the veracity of all of the statements that can be formulated within that system. If you consider the universe as a whole to be such a system, then there must be at least one question that the universe (or anything within it) cannot answer. "Is there a God?" is possibly one, particularly if this God created the universe (not just Earth) since they must therefore exist outside this universe.

Back on topic... my favourite quote regarding all this comes from biologist J.B.S. Haldane. When asked my a member of the clergy what could be inferred about the mind of God from His Creations, Haldane replied "He has an inordinate fondness for beetles".

miller said...

I would be careful to invoke Godel's incompleteness theorem, since it doesn't obviously apply to a system which is built on inductive reasoning rather than deductive reasoning.

If we're going to talk about a god whose existence cannot be determined, I think this implies at minimum that belief in this god should not affect one's study of science. Therefore, the deist god (if properly formulated) is "acceptable" by these standards.

Raffi Shahinian said...

I'm glad that you find my cosmology "acceptable." Actually, I find that Theistic Evolution is the mostly widely accepted cosmological worldview in my circle of Christianity. Thought you might be interested in my new post, Faith and Theistic Evolution: A Top 10 List.

Grace and Peace,