“Darwin’s Gift to Science and Religion” Part 2

comments form first comment
This entry is part 2 of 5 in the series Darwin's Gift?


Book Review

In his book Darwin’s Gift to Science and Religion, Francisco Ayala suggests that evolution supplies the answer to a serious theological conundrum. I alluded to this in my first post on this book: Things that Seem Wrong About the World:

When I was studying theology in Salamanca Darwin was a much-welcomed friend. The theory of evolution provided the solution to the remaining component of the problem of evil. As floods and drought were a necessary consequence of the fabric of the physical world, predators and parasites, dysfunctions and diseases were a consequence of the evolution of life. They were not a result of deficient or malevolent design: the features of organisms were not designed by the creator.

Related to that is evolution’s explanation for imperfections in nature (pages 22-23):

If functional design manifests an Intelligent Designer, why should not deficiencies indicate that the Designer is less than omniscient, or less than omnipotent? … We know that some deficiencies are not just imperfections, but are outright dysfunctional, jeopardizing the very function the organ or part is supposed to serve…. Even if the dysfunctions, cruelties, and sadism of the living world were rare, which they are not, they would still need to be attributed to the Designer if the Designer had designed the living world.

He returns to a similar theme later in the book (p. 154):

One difficulty with attributing the design of organisms to the Creator is that imperfections and defects pervade the living world…. Defective design would seem incompatible with an omnipotent Intelligent Designer.

But does evolution really solve that problem for Christianity? Phillip Johnson has a timely word on this topic in the current issue of Touchstone. He says,

Another motive for adhering to theological naturalism is a desire to protect God from having to take responsibility for all the nasty things in nature. It is all very well to give God credit for designing the beautiful things, but what God would have designed the mosquito? I fail to see, however, how theological naturalism protects God from responsibility for everything that exists. Granted that God created by natural laws, should he not have designed the laws of nature so that mosquitoes would not come into existence?

Ayala’s solution is no solution. He posits something like a deistic God in relation to natural history (I don’t know where he stands on God’s intervention in salvation history). This God kicked off a world and let it run. Some of it ended up looking nice and fine, but much of it’s a mess; an especially, painfully obvious mess in this month of a devastating cyclone and a horrible earthquake in Asia. And not just that; there have been terrifically damaging tornadoes and floods near my own home, and even worse to the west. I was near enough to see the smoke of a major brush fire earlier today, near Orlando where I’m visiting for a few days; it’s one of many threatening homes in Florida this week.

God cannot get off the hook for these things the way Ayala says he can. He would have us believe God has just let things be this way. Maybe God couldn’t do any better–he doesn’t know how to fix the mess he has made. Or maybe God feels that getting his hands dirty by touching his creation just isn’t very nice. Or is God is letting natural law and chance run their course, because he’s just dying with curiosity to see how it will come out in the end? Which is it? What kind of God does Ayala suppose this Creator is? Which of those options absolves God of responsibility for evil?

There is a solution to the problem of evil, but this is not it. We’ve discussed it at length before (this Google search may be the best guide to those links I can provide you, or you can explore further here). If I were to try to outline it in brief, I would run the risk of doing as much violence to the real answer as Ayala has done with his facile resorting to an evolutionary solution. (Any easy, brief answer to the problem of evil is guaranteed to be wrong.) I own up to having a purely critical purpose in mind for this post: to show that if evolution is supposed to be a gift to religion, in the sense of solving a certain theological problem, it fails to do so. We have better solutions than that, and thank God that we do.

Ayala wants to bridge a perceived gulf between science and religion. That’s a noble goal, and it certainly ought to be achievable, provided that we interpret both revelation and nature accurately; for if Christianity is true then its truths must be consonant with truths of nature, and vice versa. The bridge Ayala has tried to build here, however, won’t bear the required weight.

Darwin’s Gift to Science and Religion, by Francisco Ayala. Washington, D.C.: Joseph Henry Press, 2007. 256 pages. Amazon price $24.95.

Series Navigation (Darwin's Gift?):<<< “Darwin’s Gift to Science and Religion” Part 1“Darwin’s Gift to Science and Religion” Part 3 >>>
top of page comments form

13 Responses to “ “Darwin’s Gift to Science and Religion” Part 2 ”

  1. to show that if evolution is supposed to be a gift to religion, in the sense of solving a certain theological problem, it fails to do so. We have better solutions than that, and thank God that we do.

    I’m with you, Tom. Ayala’s solution is no solution at all.

  2. Why “ought” the gulf between science and religion be bridgeable? And why “must” Christian truth be consonant with natural truths?

    The gulf between science and religion may not be as broad as one thinks, but it may be unbridgeable. Science and religion may well be two different kinds of faith that believers practice. And while you can be a scientist and a Christian, one doesn’t do science in church and one doesn’t use Bibles to test hypotheses.

    And could it not be that Christian truth, like scientific truth, are truths but very different kinds of truths. That we affirm Christ is the way, the truth and the light is very different than, say, the truth that when you release an apple it will drop to the ground.

    With all this loose talk about truth, what do you mean by truth? Is truth merely correspondence? Is truth useful? Or are there religious truths and scientific truths and the two shall not meet?

  3. Jacob,

    I would say that “truth” in many ways is a synonym for “reality”. That 1+1 = 2 is the truth. John 14:6 expresses a truth. They are statements about that which corresponds to reality, and statements contradictory to those do not correspond to reality.

    There is a danger in saying that Christianity teaches “different kinds of truths”. It might be better said that it simply teaches “different truths”. There is only one kind of “truth”.

    Christianity must conform to reality – therefore, Christianity must be concordant with “natural” truths.

    Truths do not have to be useful (I call this the hopeless hypothesis idea), and useful ideas are not always true.

    I would say that the “truth” expressed by Jesus in John 14:6 is exactly the same kind of “truth” expressed in the belief that apples fall towards the earth. They correspond to that which actually is, and their contradictions do not.

  4. Tom, you state rather confidently that “there is a solution to the problem of evil”. You also say that it can only be discussed in length or not at all. That kind of eliminates the possibility to discuss the topic, because any short comment would do injustice to the solution, eh? Perhaps you can improve the following, supposedly superficial, discussion or criticism.

    So far as I can see, your links present the usual reasons for evil. Call me a simpleton, but to me they just don’t seem to require a lenghty introduction.

    1. Free will. God can’t prevent evil human deeds because granting free will has a higher priority than preventing suffering.

    2. We live in the best of possible worlds. Creating invulnerable physical life is impossible.

    Problems:
    1. Free will is just assumed. I dare suggest that few scientists or even philosophers believe in a truly free will. We do have a working illusion of a “self” that is in control, but we are utterly unable to analyze from the inside whether this “self” truly is an agent partially independent of physical causalism. And we know for sure that our “self” is at least partially dependent on physical causalism. At the very least, our genes surely affect our behavior on a statistical level. Do we have the best possible genes? If not, why would it be wrong to suggest that we were created more evil than we could be?

    2. It is trivially wrong to think that Earth, at least, could not be any more hospitable. While one could argue that at least some amount of suffering is inevitable, assuming that humans had to be physical even in a dualistic worldview, it should be rather self-evident that we are experiencing more ills than is necessary.

    1 and 2. One can attribute various imperfections to the Fall, of course. However, in the 21th century, it is fair to ask whether such a response represents mainstram Christianity. Also, a literal interpretation of the Bible makes God look like an under-achiever in master planning. Oops, they Fell. No matter, let’s expell them from paradise, *make them even more imperfect in a degenerating world*, and continue. (Time passes.) No, wait, doesn’t work, I’ll destroy most of them to fix this. (Time passes.) No, wait, still doesn’t work, I’ll finally admit my master plan failed, crucify a prophet, and just forgive those who belive in crucifiction without evidence (for what? and crucify – why?). (Mockery? Please criticize.)

    1 and 2. Finally, based on standard explanations 1 and 2, please describe afterlife. Do conditions 1 and 2 apply there, too? (a) If so, are humans mortal and subject to evil choices even in the next life? Do they die and move on to afterlife #2? (b) If not, why not? And why bother with this first phase at all if afterlife is more blissful? Why was it necessary to condemn most people before removing free will and suffering from the select few in Heaven? Do the rest suffer in Hell (where “eternity” is long enough to make the age of mountains a blink of an eye in comparison) or are they laid to rest?

  5. I forgot one explanation that was judged “reasonable” behind your link:

    3. It’s a mystery beyond present and future human understanding. Mysteries are ok in theology — not admitting the abundant limitations of human understanding would be arrogance, after all. So suffering is not really such a critical problem that is commonly claimed.

    This is, perhaps, a matter of taste, but the explanation does not satisfy me at all. While theoretically valid, it seems like an enormous cop-out to me.

  6. Esko,

    I was just looking over your comments, and I think there’s a theme that needs to be addressed. It’s captured here:

    While one could argue that at least some amount of suffering is inevitable…it should be rather self-evident that we are experiencing more ills than is necessary.

    The cornerstone of your assessment is not just that things certainly could be better or different than they are, but that they are obligated to be. I don’t think you can make the case for either in any objective sense. Saying that the nature of reality is self-evidently wrong carries an enormous amount of arrogance – which you probably don’t intend – by implying that you have sufficient wisdom to see all ends, all purposes, and all possibilities. To a large extent, you’re denying that God has the sovereignty to make moral decisions, and taking that sovereignty upon yourself.

    You also seem to have a misunderstanding of the Christian concept of God’s plan. God’s not changing the blueprints in response to His “errors”, He’s working through a process for very specific reasons, giving mankind exactly the kind of evidence (and examples, and lessons) we need in order to sustain our faith. You’ve managed to cram enough caricature into your version of history that it makes the prospect of patching every hole tiring before we even start. Frankly, that paragraph demonstrates a sufficiently shallow understanding of scripture and Christian theology to warrant this response: You need to look for some decent resources and get a better perspective through your own research.

    That might seem like a dodge to you, but if the forum topic was Calculus, and you demonstrated that you don’t have a good understanding of Algebra, it would be reasonable to point you to your own studies before a real conversation can ensue. Your paragraphs after 1) and 2) seem to be asking for an overly broad and extensive explanation of practically the entire Christian faith; that’s something you need to commit some personal energy to before you can expect someone to offer responses to specific concerns.

    I can’t speak for everyone in the world, and least of all Tom – but my experience says that trying to start a conversation from what you wrote will be totally unproductive…unless you choose to limit your questioning to more specific ideas, and develop a less cartoon-ish understanding of what you’re criticizing.

  7. I would say that the “truth” expressed by Jesus in John 14:6 is exactly the same kind of “truth” expressed in the belief that apples fall towards the earth. They correspond to that which actually is, and their contradictions do not.

    …..

    God’s not changing the blueprints in response to His “errors”, He’s working through a process for very specific reasons, giving mankind exactly the kind of evidence (and examples, and lessons) we need in order to sustain our faith.

    Well said, MM.

  8. “but my experience says that trying to start a conversation from what you wrote will be totally unproductive”

    Fair enough. I would like to point out, however, that the “master plan” part never meant to represent mainstream Christianity. I don’t think the average Christian today even believes in a literal Fall or Flood.

    As for this claim: “you’re denying that God has the sovereignty to make moral decisions”. Explanation 2 for evil is claiming that there is suffering because (a) physical creatures are always logically bound to experience mortality and suffering; and, implicitly, (b) for some reason we have to be physical beings even under a dualistic worldview. It is this claim that I’m responding to in the part you find arrogant. I point out that, even granting (a) without further scrutiny, there is more suffering on Earth than any logical necessity, real or imagined, requires. This ain’t exactly paradise. So explanation 2 falls short. One can always use explanation 3 instead of explanation 2, like you just did, but I have responded to 3 separately. We can always explain everything by saying that mortals can never understand God’s ways, but personally I would not call it a satisfactory “solution”.

  9. Esko,

    Whether or not you were describing your personal view of “mainstream” Christianity is irrelevant. It doesn’t match the rational message portrayed when the Bible is read “directly” – which sometimes involves reading it “literally”. Also irrelevant is the question of whether or not “most” self-professed Christians hold a particular belief. Opinion does not define reality, and I’m far more interested in dealing with truth than popularity.

    I point out that, even granting (a) without further scrutiny, there is more suffering on Earth than any logical necessity, real or imagined, requires. This ain’t exactly paradise. So explanation 2 falls short. One can always use explanation 3…but personally I would not call it a satisfactory “solution”.

    So you find it self-evident that there cannot be an explanation for the amount of suffering that we see. And yet you find the explanation “Well, God only knows, we can’t know” unsatisfactory. Your response to #2 is really just a re-phrasing of #3, namely, “we can’t possibly know, so let’s move on.” In other words,

    We can always explain everything by saying that mortals can never understand God’s ways possibly imagine a reason for the suffering we see.

    Part of my personal reluctance to engage in a deep discussion on these things with you is your (probably well-intentioned, but still real) deep lack of understanding about what it is that the Bible actually says, or what Christian theology actually teaches. Stating that there couldn’t possibly be a justification for what we see in the world doesn’t lend me confidence that you’re open to an answer, either.

    A person can either learn what someone believes or attack it – but they can’t do both at the exact same time. My suggestion would be to seek a better understanding of the doctrines you’re so dismissive of.

  10. Don’t worry. The feeling that further discussion would be unfruitful is mutual. Apparently my responsibility was never limited to following the given links, and the claim concerning the solution was something of a bait-and-switch. I am not interested in running errands on studying what may well be fringe beliefs rather than mainstream Christianity. Unfortunately, my earlier experience is that the errands will see no end, and that the iteration will not guarantee any mutual consistence between the various sources (something that became obvious even by studying the links provided by Tom so far).

  11. Esko,

    I am likewise not interested in running errands – that is, expounding on the subtleties of Christian belief to someone who has already made up their mind that no rational explanations are possible for those beliefs. I didn’t make any claims about any solution, but I did read your comments suggesting that you’d already determined your opinion, and weren’t so much interested in getting answers as pontificating.

    If you don’t think that developing a basic understanding of something is necessary for critiquing it, then nothing I could have said would have been worthwhile to you in the first place.

Comments close automatically on posts older than 120 days.