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Some Thoughts on Evolution and Intelligent Design April 14, 2009

Posted by Ian Duckles in Culture, Philosophy, Science.
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In the “debate” between proponents of the theory of evolution and the proponents of intelligent design (ID) I have always had difficulty understanding why the major attacks on the theory of evolution come from religious individuals. That is, why is it that religious individuals see such a conflict between religion and evolution? The short answer is these individuals perceive an incompatibility between the God of Abraham and evolution, an incompatibility that does not exist (so they seem to think) between belief in the Abrahamic God and Intelligent Design. In what follow, I will argue that just the opposite is true and that a commitment to the theory of evolution is more compatible with a belief in God than ID.

First, what are the major characteristics of the God of Abraham? Following the mainstream tradition, this God is omniscient (all knowing), omnipotent (all powerful) and eternal. Though seemingly simple, these are notoriously difficult concepts to actually articulate in a coherent and consistent manner. I claim no expertise in theology, but I find Anselm’s analysis of these issues in the Proslogion to be quite illuminating. In section 7 Anselm discusses God’s omnipotence and concludes, “Therefore, O Lord, our God, the more truly are you omnipotent, since you are capable of nothing through impotence, and nothing has power against you.” In section 13 Anselm discusses God’s eternality and concludes, “But everything that is in any way bounded by place or time is less than that which no law of place or time limits. Since, then, nothing is greater than you, no place or time contains you; but you are everywhere and always.” Again, I claim no deep insight into the nature of religion, but it would appear that if one does not believe at least these characteristics of God, one does not believe in the Abrahamic God but in something else.
So, let’s take this conception of the Abrahamic God and see how it relates to evolution and ID. ID is, very simply, the view that at certain points in the history of the universe, after its creation, some intelligent agent intervened to create new species or to modify existing creatures in various ways. The theory suggests that there are certain structures in nature that could not have come into existence without direct intervention in the universe by God (In reading some of the material on ID, it is difficult to ascertain when in the history of the universe this intervention is supposed to have occurred. The Discovery Institute website seems to suggest that at least some of this intervention by the intelligent designer occurs after the creation of the universe. In particular, it appears that ID proponents believe the designer was active during the Cambrian “explosion” 530 million years ago.) By contrast, the theory of evolution argues (and demonstrates and proves in the scientific sense) that everything that exists can be accounted for entirely by natural processes. At this point it is worth noting that the evolutionist (like any good scientist) does not claim that the theory can currently account for everything we observe in nature. There are many open and unanswered questions within the theory of evolution and it is these open and unanswered questions that drive the theory forward and which has led it to develop and, yes, evolve over time. Nevertheless, the evolutionist operates under the assumption that every question about the natural world is, in principle, answerable without resorting to supernatural means.

Now, to my final point. Which theory is more consistent with the Abrahamic God as described above? A theory which holds that God has to constantly intervene into the natural world to make adjustments to how species develop or a theory which holds that God is able to create the world in such a way that it develops in exactly the way He wants without requiring further interference? Or analogously, who is the better watchmaker? The one who makes a watch that requires constant tinkering and intervention by the watchmaker to tell the correct time, or the one who makes a watch that tells perfect time without any external interference or tinkering? For both questions it seems like the second option is the better answer. If God really is omniscient and omnipotent, wouldn’t he know how to create the world such that it would develop in exactly the fashion he wants without any external interference? Similarly, if God had to enter into time to make adjustments to the development of the universe wouldn’t this imply that he is not, as Anselm argues such that, “no place or time contains you?” If God had to enter into time to make adjustments to the natural order, this would seem to suggest that he is limited and bound by time. In either case, it seems clear that a God who uses evolution to achieve his ends is a more powerful, more omniscient and more clearly eternal God than one who only has recourse to the methods of Intelligent Design. For this reason it seems that anyone who truly is committed to a belief in the God of Abraham should be a proponent of evolution rather than an opponent.



1. Paul Moloney - April 15, 2009

It seems that the only interpretation that cannot be given to the scriptural account of creation is the literal interpretation. The literal interpretation contradicts itself. I am waiting for someone to explain to me how there could be literal days before there were literal days. According to scripture, the literal days we know with the sun were created on one of the following days of creation, so they cannot be the same kind of days as the days of creation, unless the scriptural account contradicts itself.

2. Nina Rosenstand - April 23, 2009

Ian, welcome to the blog! A welcome that is overdue. You raise some wonderful questions—one being the entire idea of God’s attributes. It is hard to reconcile the “omniscience” and “omnipotence” with the attribute (which I don’t think you mentioned) of universal goodness, which leads to the theodicy problem: how can a good god allow terrible things to happen? But let’s take your argument about the God of Abraham one step further: According to a literal interpretation, God has had to make at least one huge adjustment already: the Flood. Humans didn’t work out the way God had envisioned, except for Noah and his people, so God destroyed the rest. And there’s another one, albeit apocryphal: Lilith didn’t work out, either, in the Garden of Eden, so God threw her into the abyss (where she became a demon) and created Eve. And, to be sure, the whole story of the Fall from the Garden of Eden hinges on whether it was God’s intention for the serpent to tempt Adam and Eve, and for them to disobey his orders (which would imply malice, or at least parental deception) or whether he was surprised that they disobeyed him (which would imply lack of omniscience). So a precedent is really set in the Bible for God having to adjust his creation. But that makes God less than omniscient, and less that omnipotent. That dovetails with the ancient theory of Gnosticism where Jehova is really a usurper and pretender, and so on and so forth. But the bottom line for this critique is of course that you’re right—a creator god is, in Anselmian terms, better if he doesn’t have to make adjustments to his creation. That is, of course, under the assumption that we agree that evolution is a fact. All you have to do is deny that, with the usual intellectual difficulties, and you get rid of the problem of creative adjustments!
What boggles my mind is that a person will have to jump through hoops to do the double bookkeeping that it requires to deny the evidence of evolution on the one hand, and function in the real world on the other, with the very same kind of evidence we use to determine if the car needs oil, if it has rained last night, and whether viruses mutate into new forms that need new medication being developed.

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