Monthly Archives: September 2013

Evolutionary theory and Christianity

Are certain non-chance coincidences, as understood in the Christian sense as occurrences attributable to God, something it is reasonable to believe occurred in the development of organisms?

The obvious, standard secular answer is that we have ‘no need of that hypothesis’. I.e., it is believed that whatever the causal story, it won’t involve non-chance coincidences attributable to God.

1. The specific claim tends to be that we already have a sufficient causal story of how organisms developed through evolution (i.e., some sort of random changing of genetic material and natural selection). 2. The more general background belief is that there isn’t a God, and therefore there can’t be non-chance coincidences attributable to God occurring in the evolutionary development of organisms.

The more general claim, 2., is based on considerations for or against there being a God of the Christian sort, which in a partially circular way also encompasses beliefs about evolutionary theory. It therefore becomes a bit more tricky to use this belief as a reason not to believe that God was operative in evolutionary development. One would have to suss out the aspects of the belief not based on a belief in some kind of secular evolutionary theory, and then argue from those.

The specific claim, 1., seems lacking. It is fairly difficult to test most claims about evolutionary development – indeed, most evolutionary explanations that trade on the standard theory of evolutionary development simply assume it’s true, and then try to show how it could make sense of observed behaviour, morphology, and so on. There are a few claims that can be investigated in a fairly robust way, but they are only suggestive – explaining a small fraction of what is to be explained (typically, these involve small changes in animals that replicate very quickly), but with large promissory notes (“but this can in principle also explain everything else”). Everything else is largely coherent – it makes sense given certain premises – but is difficult to actually test in a robust way.

My background belief is that we probably know very little about evolutionary biology – we have a few contingent, rapidly changing ideas about how things work. We have a few theories that are at least partially correct.

The Christian background belief is that there are lots of evidence for non-chance co-incidings – bringing together of events – that are broadly compatible with Christian understandings of God. So, for a Christian, postulating these co-incidings as being operative in evolutionary development is not theoretically ‘expensive’  but rather economical. (This is a far cry from showing these co-incidings are or have been operative in evolutionary development.)

Why is this important? There are a few aspects of evolutionary theory that are seemingly incompatible with Christianity. The first is a collection of claims, such as the amount of time involved or the order of appearance of animals. The second is contrary to the idea that God in some important sense is involved in the creation of humans.

The first one is part of a class of claims that is not really specific to evolutionary biology – it includes geology, astronomy, and so on. It is also a type of issue that has been noticeable for a long time – well before modern articulations of evolutionary theory – and has been dealt with for a long time by Christian thinkers. For example, in a creation story in the book of Genesis the Sun is described as being created on the fourth day, after several mornings or nights. Ancient readers long have recognized that one cannot have a morning or night without the Sun, and indeed the authors themselves probably would have noticed such a thing. The obvious conclusion to draw was that the authors weren’t meaning what might make the story obviously false. This sort of consideration could also apply to conflicts between evolutionary time, ordering of species, and so on. (This is the standard Catholic view – different parts of the Bible are different kinds of literature, Genesis in large part is not doing what a modern cosmology or geology textbook is doing, or trying to do. For example, the Sun being created on the fourth day might be a response to those at the time who worshiped Sun godsthe point here then is something like the Sun being created by God, and not even being created first by God.)

The second one – that God in some important sense is involved in the creation of humans – seems more important, and central to everyday Christian belief and practice. One way God could be involved is through co-incidings – bringing together of events in the unfolding of the universe such as to lead to creatures like humans.

So, on the one hand a considered evaluation of evolutionary theory only gives us broad outlines of what happened. On the other hand, a Christian has a large empirical basis to support a phenomenon – non-chance co-incidings of things – that could support the idea of God creating humans in some relevant sense.

How would one test this? Well, like most things in evolutionary theory, it seems quite difficult to test in a robust way. However, if one were to show that it simply wasn’t likely for life to develop the way it has given the time available and the postulated secular mechanisms, then that would lend support to the idea of non-chance co-incidings attributable to God being in operation. Yet, it would still only be suggestive, as there are a large number of possible mechanisms that could be in operation, or our understanding of the relevant biology could be incorrect in some other way.

The practical outcome of these considerations, I think, is that a belief that God in some relevant sense created or had some part in the creation of humans in the evolutionary process, given the extent of our knowledge at this time, is reasonable to the extent that a belief in God in general is reasonable. So, for Christians who have warranted grounds for believing in God on other bases, it is reasonable. Of course, that could change as we learn more about evolutionary processes.