Rosenhouse: Why theistic evolution is implausible

February 13, 2012 • 12:04 pm

I’ve been banging on about why theistic evolution doesn’t count as real evolution, at least not in the way we biologists think of it, when along comes Jason Rosenhouse (as is his wont) with a more thorough analysis of the problem.  Go read “The trouble with theistic evolution” at EvolutionBlog.

Jason’s piece was motivated by some truly shallow statements by Elliott Sober, a philosopher of science whom I’ve respected but lately is treading in the marshy hinterlands of accommodationism.  Interviewed by The Philosopher’s Magazine, Sober says the following:

I ask Sober to outline the opposing positions in the debate about evolution and God, and he does it in a nutshell. “Creationists think, `If God exists then evolutionary theory must be false. Of course God exists. Therefore, evolutionary theory must be false.’ A certain kind of atheist thinks, `If evolutionary theory is true, there can’t be a God. Evolutionary theory is true. Therefore, there is no God.’ I dislike both of these arguments.” He claims that the two main camps in the debate are both wrong. Both presuppose that conclusions about the existence of God tumble straight out of evolutionary theory, but Sober argues that philosophy is needed to from [sic: from] science to atheistic or theistic conclusions.

The creationist statement is not too far off, though it’s not the existence of God per se but scriptural statements about creation that lead to rejection of evolution. What’s dreadful is Sober’s notion that atheists argue “evolution, ergo God can’t exist. ” This characterization is so misleading that I can’t believe Sober said it.  And Jason immediately attacks it:

Even as a nutshell summary this is far too simplistic to be helpful. Maybe you can find a few atheists who argue in the way Sober describes, but most do not. From the other side, few creationists are really as simple-minded as Sober’s version of their argument suggests.

The argument from evolution to atheism, or from theism to no evolution, proceeds by looking at what evolution says about natural history, adding a few premises about God’s nature and goals, and then concluding that it is very unlikely that evolution and theism are both true. For example, evolution claims that natural history is marked by millions of years of cruel and savage bloodsport. This seems odd if we assume that God is all-loving and all-powerful. Likewise, evolution strongly suggests that human beings are just one more animal species among many. How do we explain this, if we assume that God created the world specifically so that humans could live? The parts where we insert premises about God’s nature and goals involve doing philosophy and not science, but so what? Labeling the argument “philosophical” does not negate its force.

I’d add to that the idea that natural selection eliminated one of the most powerful arguments for God that ever existed.  Absent that, the evidence against God becomes stronger.  And I’d throw extinction in here, too.  The vast majority of species that have ever existed have gone extinct without leaving descendants. That implies an apathetic god at best.  If (s)he really does guide evolution, why do so many branches reach dead ends?  And yes, the argument is philosophical (it’s not theological because it actually involves evidence), but it’s relevant because it says, “if this is the kind of God who created evolution, then this is the kind of God you must accept.”  Responding that “we don’t understand God’s ways” is no answer, because in many other respects the faithful do purport to know God’s ways: He’s beneficent, loving, and omnipotent.

Jason explains the problem of theistic evolution:

If you want to avoid the unwanted conclusions of either “No God” or “No evolution,” then you can certainly add other premises. You can argue, as many do, that God had creative goals that absolutely could not have been achieved through any mechanism other than Darwinian evolution. Or you can argue that human-like intelligence was an inevitable end result of the evolutionary process. These are the sorts of premises you have to add to reconcile evolution and theism, but good luck trying to make them seem plausible. The incompatibilist argument takes its premises from the traditional, centuries-old teachings of various religious faiths. The compatibilist argument, by contrast, simply invents premises for which there is no evidence, for no reason other than to avoid unpleasant conclusions.

There’s a lot more, but I leave you to read for yourself. Like the atheist Michael Ruse, Sober, whom I don’t think is religious, helpfully suggests ways to reconcile God and evolution. As if the faithful can’t concoct their own reasons! Sober even goes so far to suggest, à la Michael Behe and Kenneth Miller, that God might have simply brought about the mutations necessary to create certain “special” species.  Sober doesn’t believe this at all, I think, but he’s either trying to help the faithful over the Darwin’s Hump, or pulling some philosophical shenanigans to show that “science can’t rule out that possibility.”  Jason replies, quite properly, that if God wanted to send evolution is certain directions by creating specific mutations, why not just create whole species out of thin air, as the Bible asserts?

It’s a mess, and I’m sad to see Sober engaging in this form of accommodationism, even if it be a philosophical ploy.

104 thoughts on “Rosenhouse: Why theistic evolution is implausible

    1. Maybe it’s “creator’s block”. You give it a shot; it doesn’t work out; start again. It’s cheaper than building arks every time.

  1. The vast majority of species that have ever existed have gone extinct without leaving descendants. That implies an apathetic god at best.

    God killed them Himself in the flood.

    For yet seven days, and I will cause it to rain upon the earth forty days and forty nights; and every living substance that I have made will I destroy from off the face of the earth.

    Get your story straight!

    1. “And of every living thing of all flesh, you shall bring two of every sort into the ark to keep them alive with you. They shall be male and female (Genesis 6:19).”

      Get your story straight, Steve.

      1. “Take with you seven pairs of every kind of clean animal, a male and its mate, and one pair of every kind of unclean animal, a male and its mate, and also seven pairs of every kind of bird, male and female, to keep their various kinds alive throughout the earth (Genesis 7:2-3).”

        Get your story straight, FJ.

  2. … marshy hinterlands of accommodationism.

    I like it. 🙂

    Just short of the swamp and quick-sands that Karl Giberson and Michael Zimmerman seemed to be mired in.

    Reminds me of a related joke about Lenin and Stalin. Seems that the cant in Russia at one time was that anything that Stalin did was a result of him figuratively standing on Lenin’s shoulders. The joke describes a modern day Dante who had a tour of hell where he noted that a whole raft of Communists were in a swamp of ordure up to their noses except Stalin who was several feet above that level. On being asked the reason for the difference Satan said that he was standing on Lenin’s shoulders.

  3. There’s an analogy I find helpful when dealing with theistic evolution: While it may be true that Zeus isn’t LITERALLY throwing lightning bolts, he COULD be using his magic powers to manipulate the atmosphere in such a way as to make lightning strikes (directed at those mortal who have recently angered him) more likely. One consequence is that innocents may be occasionally fried, but I’m sure he has a good reason for doing it this way instead of just throwing them himself.

    1. Wait…Zeus isn’t LITERALLY throwing lightening bolts? Next you’ll try to claim that thunder isn’t really coming from Thor’s hammer or that Apollo doesn’t actually pull the sun across the sky every day. YOU are in trouble, mister.

    2. Aristophanes, 2400 years ago:

      What Jupiter? Do not trifle. There is no Jupiter.

      What do you say? Who rains then? For first of all explain this to me.

      These to be sure. I will teach you it by powerful evidence. Come, where have you ever seen him raining at any time without Clouds? And yet he ought to rain in fine weather, and these be absent.

      By Apollo, of a truth you have rightly confirmed this by your present argument. And yet, before this, I really thought that Jupiter caused the rain. But tell me who is it that thunders. This makes me tremble.

      These, as they roll, thunder.

      In what way? you all-daring man!

      When they are full of much water, and are compelled to be borne along, being necessarily precipitated when full of rain, then they fall heavily upon each other and burst and clap.

  4. “if God wanted to send evolution is certain directions by creating specific mutations, why not just create whole species out of thin air”

    Playing devil’s advocate, one might counter here that “theistic” evolution means that the process of mutation and selection is the method God uses, and does not want to (or is *gasp* incapable of) creating species out of thin air.

    I think the true argument here is that if God creates the mutations to direct evolution, then why does he bother to create the ones that don’t get selected. Why does (S)He intentionally create so many handicapped organisms that don’t survive and reproduce as well as the ones that have the “correct” mutation (S)He actually wants.

    More importantly, why does he create mutations that appear to follow random error patterns. If God’s capability is displayed in a pattern of mutation that mimics exactly a random gust then it demonstrates that the glory of God’s power can be described as no more than the intelligence of the wind.

    1. Could Sober have argued that philosophy is needed to form science to atheistic or theistic conclusions? It doesn’t quite make sense but it satisfies Ockham’s razor.

      1. …but Sober argues that philosophy is needed to from [sic: from] science to atheistic or theistic conclusions.

        I read that as supposed to say, “…is needed to get from science to…”

  5. I think you’ve misunderstood Sober who is not, so far as I can tell, an accomodationist.

    See, for example, ch. 2 of his “Evidence and Evolution” wherein he argues, on Bayesian grounds, that theistic or ID hypotheses do not increase the likelihood of observing the biological complexity we currently observe because we cannot assume that a divine designer would be more likely than chance to have produced the specific patterns we now observe.

    But, he notes, while this may comfort the atheist, it also reduces the force of the problem of evil (which includes mass extinctions, needless complexity, and outright bad biological design) since we cannot fathom what reasons the putative designer might have for bringing about certain forms of evil (164ff).

    And while theists frequently claim to know God’s intentions, this is no objection to Sober, since he doesn’t endorse them.

  6. As far as I can tell the logical status of theistic evolution is exactly equivalent to the logical status of the claim: “General Douglas Macarthur wrote all the poems attributed to TS Eliot.” It’s what I call a ‘vacuous possibility’, which we have no reason whatsoever to think is true. And most of apologetics these days seems to consist of just such vacuous possibilities. It’s the last shot in the apologist locker.

  7. >> evolution claims that natural history is marked by millions of years of cruel and savage bloodsport.

    Cruel and savage, indeed, but I’m not sure evolution, per se, is a cause of that. Nature would be ‘red in tooth and claw’ even if, hypothetically of course, the mechanisms of evolution came to a screeching halt: predators would still eat their prey and animals of all types would still die of starvation and disease. If not a single species were ever to go extinct again, the unyielding brutality of the natural order would be testament in its own right to an absence of an intelligent designer.

  8. Rosenhause has many good points as usual. But after having read him read him and made Sober deliberation, I can’t agree with either. My take, which I suspect both would label “incompatibilist” while it doesn’t exclude gods otherwise:

    Sober is discussing the fact of evolution, the evolutionary creationist home territory. But that isn’t all of science. The main part is in the theory.

    And it is in evolutionary theory that the incompatibility between theology/philosophy and science comes out. While Sober claim that “The theory of evolution is a probabilistic theory” which “does not tell you what causes each and every thing that happens”, it is a naturalistic theory.

    The theory that explicitly counts natural contingency as a parameter of the stochastic process is more parsimonious than the theory that explicitly counts natural contingency + intelligent agent creation. The latter is rejected on parsimony but foremost untestable parameters. As is the more conscientiously labeled theory that explicitly counts natural contingency + magic, as magic prevents testing if hidden.

    So while we don’t have to explicitly detail all hidden variables, we do have to state their nature. They should be in principle testable as we may learn of them. (Say, mutations by copy errors.) Science use the “natural contingency” theory, while the others have been found wanting as science.

    To sum up, and end in a familiar theme: science and religion are incompatible worldviews as one is based on tested methods to uncover facts, while the other is based on sophistry to hide facts.

    1. ”The theory that explicitly counts natural contingency as a parameter of the stochastic process is more parsimonious than the theory that explicitly counts natural contingency + intelligent agent creation.”

      Parsimony does not necessarily equate with reality, despite what Occam philosophized. Contingency depends on all factors, and intelligent input [induced mutations] are a possibility, despite the alleged increase in complexity, and a reduction of parsimony, that that would have entailed.

      ”Science use[es] the “natural contingency” theory, while the others have been found wanting as science.”

      That’s fine, if natural processes are all that was involved, but neither the existence of intelligence, nor its ability to gene tweak can be ruled out based on being less parsimonious than the former. To paraphrase, RD argues that ‘an entity that monitors and controls every particle in the universe and listens to all our thoughts and prayers cannot be simple.’ And ‘that it would need to be more complex than the universe itself.’ Quite speculative, IMO.

      I just ran across “Let’s Razor Occam’s Razor” from 1990 by Sober, and although a scanned copy [not searchable for a quick assessment], I do see the word parsimony/ous in quite a few places. In it, he uses some Bayesian logic, and of course his own.

      He states on pg. 139, “When parsimoniousness augments a hypothesis’ likelihood, or its prior probability, well and good. But parsimony, in and of itself, cannot make one hypothesis more plausible than another.

      And on pg. 141, “My own view is that it is perfectly legitimate, in both cases, to ask why parsimony is connected with plausibility.”

      I’ll be sure to read this essay when I get a chance, but it appears to parallel a few thoughts I’ve had about the validity of Occam’s Razor when it comes to trimming hypotheses to make them more palatable. I can guess what Occam would have concluded regarding the clotting cascade. 😉

      1. “And on pg. 141, “My own view is that it is perfectly legitimate, in both cases, to ask why parsimony is connected with plausibility.” I’ll be sure to read this essay when I get a chance, but it appears to parallel a few thoughts I’ve had about the validity of Occam’s Razor when it comes to trimming hypotheses to make them more palatable.”

        The reason we use Occam’s Razor is because it works. The reason we get fussy about what constitutes an “entity” when applying it is that that usage of “entity” is what works.

        The actual reason we use it, and the actual reason we use it the way that we do, is because of the stunning success we’ve had from doing so. You can try to approach it from the “why?” angle and imply, as you are here, “I don’t understand it so maybe it doesn’t work,” but we use it at all because in practice it does.

          1. You’ve entirely failed to make clear the domain you’re speaking of it being overused in (with examples), or whether “can easily” there actually means “is likely to be”, “could conceivably be” or “you can’t prove in absolutely all cases it isn’t being, so there”. Could you please clarify the substance of your claim?

  9. Sober also fails to answer one of the most devastating theistic attacks coming from the theory of evolution. As Richard Dawkins puts it:

    “Mental things, brains, minds, consciousnesses, things that are capable of comprehending anything — these come late in evolution, they are a product of evolution. They don’t come at the beginning. So whatever lies behind the universe will not be an intellect. Intellects are things that come as the result of a long period of evolution.” (Richard Dawkins)

    It’s not just that evolution gives God less to do.
    It’s not just that the evolutionary process makes God unnecessary.
    Our understanding of evolution opened up our understanding of how complexity comes from what is simple; how life comes from non-life; and how mind comes from non-mind.

    The God hypothesis assumes the opposite. It’s a sky-hook, coming from nowhere. That’s how the primitive mind explains things: like comes from Like. Minds are magic. They have no history, no development, no mechanism, no physical substrate. The ghost in the machine is modeled after the Ghost in the Universe.

    The theory of evolution, however, changed the way we think. We now think from the bottom-up, as opposed to the top-down. Mechanism, process, growth and development — and lo, there is something new under the sun. And we turn this method of explanation … on God. Evolution is the universal acid that eats through the container: the presumed Creator.

    I think that’s the real beef theists and accomodationists have with the gnus: we’re treating God like a hypothesis. Theologians, however, scream and scream that God is NOT an empirical claim that needs to fit into the model of reality. It’s not to be treated like an ordinary hypothesis and run through our understanding of evolution. No — we special plead it into being treated like a value. Which makes it “outside” of science — when it suits their convenience.

    And suddenly God is within the scope of science if it looks like there might be an apologetic in it.

    Sober missed the best part of the argument, imo.

    1. “The ghost in the machine is modeled after the Ghost in the Universe. ”

      Actually, the [Holy] Ghost in the Universe is modelled after the ghost in the machine, our own “souls” dwelling (in reality functioning – in fact the thing is the functioning) in our own brains.

      It is very clear that god/dess/es evolved memetically into God, and God into a more and more abstract version as his earthly functions, like lightning and earthquakes, were stripped from him. Maybe philosphers (but probably not theologians) can even evolve a form of God that is both sufficiently abstract and sufficiently comprehensible that people like us can accept “his” “existence”, but I see few signs of it yet.

    2. Sastra said it, I agree with it, and that settles it. To paraphrase a fundie axiom…

      Srsly–well said! (As always…)

  10. Another obvious problem is the implications evolution has for the concept of sin. If god designed the universe for humans to evolve through competitive survival, the whole concept of being punished for sin goes to a whole new level of nonsense

  11. I have never met Sober’s “certain kind of atheist” – in fact, that is the caricature created by the creationists and if it exists at all it is the smallest of minorities.

    1. I went there at first, but it was clear that he was setting that strawman up in order to set up his “third way”…which is just as loony-tunes as the other two.

  12. I was recently talking (in real life!) with a creationist about evolution, and I found myself granting, for the sake of argument, a couple intelligent-design-like assumptions such as God creating the first DNA. I did this because I wanted to focus on common descent without getting sidetracked by abiogenesis. I also felt that common descent should be the first hurdle, and that arguing two topics at once — common descent and God — would not be fruitful.

    Given his foundational commitment to God, it seemed much more likely for him to accept common descent than to reject God. One could say I was being expedient by granting untenable assumptions just to argue for common descent. But I saw it as a “Rutherford model” way of teaching. All kids learn the Rutherford model of the atom, which is an incorrect model. Electrons are not like planets that orbit a nucleus. It’s a lie. Why do we teach it? Because it’s a first step — it’s easy to understand and it’s not wholly wrong.

    So the only value I see for theistic evolution — if it has any value at all — would be as a waypoint to a full understanding of evolution. Like the Rutherford model, it is a disposable tool for teaching core concepts. But of course this sidesteps the fact that people may not actually dispose of it.

      1. But a foundation in quantum mechanics and partial differential equations is necessary to dispose of the Rutherford-Bohr model. So we lie. Is it ethical? Probably not, but what else is there to do?

        The distance between Average Joe’s conception of atoms and the truth is about the same as the distance between Average Joe’s conception of evolution and the truth. Like the Rutherford-Bohr model, theistic evolution is a sufficing lie for the masses.

    1. I had the good fortune of being taught chemistry at school by a teacher who was also a young professor of the didactics of chemistry at the local university.
      He bypassed the traditional Bohr-Rutherford model completely, starting with molecules and crystal structures, bonding and ionisation energies, using X-ray diffractometry as a heuristic paradigm, then proceeding to atomic structure models. Even if we could not then handle the quantum mechanical equations by ourselves, we were shown enough of the workings to perceive the concepts of, e.g., orbital, resonance, exchange, hybridisation, in the context of the approximations used in the calculations, and not to view them as observable real phenomena. Bohr and Rutherford were relegated to the history of science recap, with much emphasis on the experiments.
      It may have been a lot of work, but the lesson has lasted me a lifetime: by not dumbing down unnecessarily the teaching of science, teachers show their fundamental respect to those whom they are entrusted to teach. Teaching should be challenging, and a wager on the student’s intelligence and curiosity. ‘Good enough’ is not good enough. What Average Joe—or Jane—get out of their teaching is their responsibility. The responsibility of a teacher, and more generally, of a scientist towards the general public, is precisely not to treat them as Average Joe or Jane, but to impart knowledge and foster understanding to the best of their abilities.

      I find the concept of “a sufficing lie for the masses” (cf. below) arrogant and cynical.

      1. That sounds excellent. Can you or anyone else recommend a text (preferably online) coming at it from that sort of angle?

        I remember during A level Biology the teacher admitting that one of the bits he was teaching was “wrong, but we teach it because its simple”. I refused to listen as a matter of principle, and as a result can’t even remember what the exact topic was.

        A more charitable interpretation of Bohr-Rutherford is that it is a grossly simplified model, used for introductory purposes.

  13. I only have one thing to say to anyone who espouses the “god nudged evolution” hypothesis.

    Vitamin C pseudogene.

    A gene that is full present, yet inactive due to a small defect. Why would god turn that gene off in a creature that it nudged the entirety of creation towards?

    Unless that god just hates the shit out of sailors.

    1. No matter how sophisticated they try to make the argument sound, when confronted with this kind of inconvenient detail, the only answer has to be, “God works in mysterious ways, doncha know?”

  14. I don’t see anything terribly accommodationist in the excerpts from Sober’s interview quoted by Jason Rosenhouse. I’ve not read the book of Elliott’s which is the apparent topic of the interview, so I don’t want to form too strong an opinion, but what’s in the excerpts, and familiarity with many of his other works, lead me to conclude he’s not saying much more here than that there are certain theologies (e.g. deism) that are not logically inconsistent with evolution (or science in general). And note that while positing this, he explicitly finds no reason to accept these theological claims. These theologies are not the theology of evangelical Christianity (the main opponent of evolution in the United States), and thus creationists would draw little comfort from the fact that these other theologies cannot be dismissed on logical grounds alone.

  15. I was a fundamentalist christian–even a foreign missionary for 15 years. Now I am a gleeful atheist. Perhaps the only statement to which I adhered then and to which I still adhere is the following: Those who believe in theistic evolution don’t understand two things: theology, and evolution.

    There are more than enough reasons, some given in this thread and its comments, others in standard science vs. religion texts, to reject theistic evolution (at least if the theism involved is abrahamic) as compartmentalization at best, but more likely simple irrationality.

    How does F. Scott Fitzgerald’s quote, “The test of a first rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function” relate to this issue? I have always felt that Fitzgerald was being ironic.

  16. It seems very evident that a traditional concept of God and literal belief in the creation story of the scriptures leaves no room for biological evolution. Evangelicals/fundamentalists must give up some aspect of their belief to accommodate evolution. Once they do this they can call themselves theistic evolutionists. I think this is the first step toward atheism and should be encouraged as a temporary stopping point on their journey. Most atheists went through this transition, by rejecting supernatural events one by one until there were no more left to reject. I did.

  17. Lolz. Isn’t it enough to tell accomodationists that inserting a complicated god that guides evolution defeats the purpose of the explanatory power of explaining apparently complicated things with simple things.

  18. Would someone draw a cartoon of Darwin’s Hump?

    On one side, the classic flat earth scenario of the earth with the vault held up by pillars, much like a classic temple, in the middle Darwin’s Hump, – a hill with Darwin sat as in the Lincoln Memorial or as at the NHM, with a diplodocus grazing nearby, in the third scene, something from Hubble…

  19. It amazes me how many people don’t seem to understand that a lack of disproof of something does not preclude there being overwhelming evidence against it.

    Clearly “strong evidence for” and “proof of” are not the same thing, and neither are “strong evidence against” and “disproof of”.

    Jason hits the nail on the head there, and a reply by Sober in the comments thread over there shows that he still doesn’t get it.

    Science can’t formally disprove something, so it must “remain silent”???

  20. Theism and evolution aren’t contradictory at all. In a space/time plan, dualism rules. The world is mainly grasped through opposites -psychologically, physically, morally, etc… – this is what the oriental traditions mean by dualism. Because this is the only mode we usually know, we take for granted it is absolute, and we conclude that there is a moral incompatibility between God and Evolution. But if God exists, it is beyond the absolutes we can perceive. God is beyond good and evil, no matter what people wrote about it.
    On the other end, if morality exists only when trapped in dualistic perceptions (i.e.: you know, the effect of of the fruit of knowledge of what is good and evil…) and has no solidity in itself, there is no way to prove or disprove that Evolution is not driven by the will to produce naturally (!) more and more complex self-aware organic machines… Why would that be is another topic, but that hypothesis has the advantage to give meaning to meaning, which is very useful I find. Evolution wouldn’t disagree with that, would it?

        1. Sure. I point to post #24 in which we find strings of words that take the form of statements and questions but are impossible to make sense of.

          1. I guess it is hard to know what you don’t know, especially when you think it is crap. But would you at least concede that think in a certain way, and that this way could be analyzed and qualified?

            1. I don’t even know what that question is asking. If you are suggesting that post #24 can be analyzed in some way, then I’m afraid I must disagree. It is far to incoherent for that.

              1. I’m saying that there is a way we think. But because it is the only one we use and know since we are born, we don’t realize that we think in a “certain” way, and therefore, we don’t realize that it is not necessarily an absolute way of thinking, that “reason” can operate on other modes.

              2. The essence of your argument, as near as I can tell, is self-negating. If one can’t conform to commonly agreed modes of thinking (a.k.a. “reason”), then there is nothing you can contribute to this conversation, or any conversation for that matter. You’ve wandered off into an imaginary land of your own making.

                At this point I’m coming to the conclusion that it wasn’t just _any_ word salad bar you visited. I’m pretty sure it was the salad bar at Deepak Chopra’s House of Quantum Pancakes.

            2. “On the other end, if morality exists only when trapped in dualistic perceptions (i.e.: you know, the effect of of the fruit of knowledge of what is good and evil…) and has no solidity in itself”

              Ok, take this for instance. It is undeniable that theists claim to have knowledge of what constitutes moral and immoral behavior. Many use this claim of knowledge to point to the natural world and identify clear examples of the goodness of God. However, when these moral criteria are applied to a larger number of observations, such as those provided by our knowledge of how evolution operates, we find it difficult or impossible to classify this data as moral or good.

              Instead of admitting this, which would lead to a conclusion that God is perhaps indifferent to us or even malevolent, theists simply ignore their earlier criteria and assume that every observation we can make is consistent with a benevolent God, whether it makes sense to us or not.

              Sam Harris described this trick of pointing to nature for examples of God’s greatness but punting on everything else as the ultimate case of “playing intellectual tennis without the net”.

              From what I can gather from your post, you are doing something similar. If evolution can’t be reconciled with a “dualistic” moral scheme, then there must be some other kind of moral scheme that God uses in which evolution is perfectly consistent with his goodness.

              Of course, this is completely unfalsifiable – what observation could possibly contradict this idea? Also, it trashes any notion that we can have real moral knowledge.

              1. Of course this is falsifiable. The problem is that only you could see by yourself that the mode of reasoning you are experiencing since you are born isn’t absolute.

                But there is an abundant literature about non-dual experience…

              2. “Of course this is falsifiable.”

                How? Falsifiability relies on modes of reasoning that you seem to reject out of hand.

        1. To blitz:
          I’m saying that our dual mode of reasoning isn’t absolute. If it isn’t absolute, it means you can experience non-dual mode of reasoning. Oriental traditions are all about that, zen especially. The problem is that the dual mode is the default one and it is very hard to escape it. The christian notion of original sin is related to that, especially when you realize that the sin in question is related to the fruit of knowledge of what is good and evil… I think it is a myth btw…

          1. “I’m saying that our dual mode of reasoning isn’t absolute”

            Who said that any of our conclusions here are “absolute”? And I am still unclear as to exactly what you mean by “dual mode of reasoning”. I have indicated that I appreciate that what is considered moral or immoral often lies on a spectrum or a landscape.

            Also, you have done nothing to demonstrate that you even understand the argument. What is being claimed is that evolution and certain forms of theism (i.e. the three O God of the great monotheisms) are very difficult to reconcile.

            This is what we know about evolution:

            – It is mindless
            – It is unguided
            – It relies on a ruthless culling process
            – It inevitably produces jerry-rigged, suboptimal design in organisms
            – Things like diseases and parasites are not only explainable in an evolutionary model, they are expected
            – It is incredibly wasteful; almost every species that it has produced has gone extinct

            This is what many religions claim:

            – Creation is guided and directed to an ultimate purpose
            – God would never allow unnecessary suffering
            – God is perfect and is incapable of design error

            Now, you see some blatant contradictions there, right? Of course, the religious can always claim that you cannot PROVE that evolution is unguided, you cannot PROVE that organisms are sub-optimally designed, etc.

            But shit, all the evidence points that way. And we don’t need to prove anything absolutely, that’s not what science does.

            But we can certainly follow the evidence, and invoke Occam’s Razor to reject gratuitous and superfluous concepts like theistic evolution.

            1. It is ironic that a “theist” devalues morality while an atheist uses morality in order to give weight to scientific theories…
              Like you said, there is no way to prove that Evolution is mindless and unguided. You can keep the mechanic of Evolution as it is now explained and it could be still a conscious process if that process is using randomness on purpose because it is the best way to achieve the goal.
              BUT it is certainly not with morality that you’ll disprove a theistic theory of Evolution, especially when based on what was written about God 5000 years ago…

              That Evolution is a wasteful process is a moral judgment made by someone who has a dual mode of reasoning. Where you see waste, I could see an enormous unstoppable creativity where nature tries its best to get the best self-aware organic machines. In order to do that, it is NORMAL that diseases and death and errors and parasites and evil are on the way, otherwise you wouldn’t be able to get good self aware organic machines…
              But most important, if Evolution is not mindless and uses randomness on “purpose”, all the waste and suffering the try and error process brings would only affect God in the end. The illusion of being separated from the rest of the world while having an unpleasant part to play is caused again by our dual mode of perception. And it is certainly not by using this (limited) mode that we’ll explain how something beyond this mode, beyond good and evil, beyond opposites because unlimited, has the will to play with itself on a space/time plane…

              When consciousness is trapped into organic machines, the egotic feeling of separation that arise has no choice to produce a dual mode of thinking, which prevents in return to see the uncreated, unborn unseparated quality of consciousness. All suffering begins with the feeling of being separated from the rest of the world. Way before Sam Harris, the Buddha put suffering at the center of his teaching and it is not a coincidence if non-dualism is the answer he found to end suffering.

    1. Reading your post is like walking past the scene of a mass murder, where words and concepts lay strewn upon the ground and mangled beyond all recognition.

      The word “moral” is one of the biggest casualties. What is the difference between being “beyond good and evil” and being completely amoral? Also, I’m not sure that you can speak of morality in the absence of something to be moral TO.

      1. Form a dual mode of reasoning, beyond good and evil can only equal amoral but it is not the case. Amoral is related to moral while beyond good and evil is beyond morality because it is beyond opposites, the limits that our dual mode of reasoning is shaped by.
        Now, that “beyond” cant be put into words because words are themselves dual tools and what is dual can’t talk about what is non dual.

        But I’m not the one who brought the “moral arguments” to disprove theistic evolution…

        1. I think that you are really getting hung up on the idea that our human notion of morality is simply a black and white issue (which it isn’t), and that God sees beyond that.

          Even in God’s more sophisticated, “non-dual” sense of morality, there are still events that would be considered more moral or less moral.

          For instance, imagine a Universe where babies often burst into flames for no reason and die in agony. Now, perhaps this is perfectly good in a way which we cannot see but God can, but if we are going to argue like this then what in the world would be considered bad or evil? Also, the argument could easily be turned around – what we consider good might actually be the highest form of evil imaginable.

          1. Of course there are tones of grey, but grey basically exists because of white and black.
            I’m only saying that morality exists because when self-awareness gets a certain degree of complexity in a space/time plane, dual boundaries, good and evil, appear, just like dual boundaries (absolutes) appear everywhere (man/female, night/day, high/low, beauty/ugliness…), with all the nuances within.

            But the reason why it pays to have harmony, organization and peace is because it has more resemblance with the “Good” that relies beyond “good and evil”. To anything good that I can write, a negative can be assigned too. But that good, even if it is a pale image of a “good without opposition” (which our mind can’t grasp, unless you do the job to go out of the dual mode of reasoning -Sam Harris knows about this-…) is what pushes you to get the “real-good-without-opposition”.
            That is why I believe evolution produces more and more complexity. It wants consciousness to know where it comes from, and where it comes from is beyond dualism.

            1. “I’m only saying that morality exists because when self-awareness…”

              If you’d read Harris, then you’d have much more concise explanation of morality: that is, morality really relates to the well-being of conscious creatures.

              “But the reason why it pays to have harmony, organization and peace is because it has more resemblance with the “Good” that relies beyond “good and evil”.”

              I can appreciate that we can have good without necessarily having evil, in fact I have argued this very point with theists. In fact, most Western religions agree with this whether they realize it or not (i.e. the denizens of heaven are perfectly good in the absence of evil).

              So is your point that evolution can be viewed as a tool used by God or gods to produce more harmony, organization, and complexity, and all of this results in a higher level of “good” that is not dependent on any opposing evil?

              If this is it, then the argument still falls prey to exactly the same objections raised in the OP. You still have to deal with the MECHANICS of evolution and ALL of its effects. Evaluate the specifics of evolution against Sam’s concise definition of morality (which introduces the key concept of suffering), and ask yourself whether any diety would use this method to acheive their creative ends.

              You can’t simply bury the reality of how evolution operates and its relation to suffering under a mountain of wooly language.

              1. You can insist on using morality as an argument. I think I demonstrated in a coherent way why it is not a good argument. I addressed the problem of suffering above. I would repeat that before Harris, the Buddha addressed clearly the problem of suffering. Get rid of the illusion of being separated from the rest of the world i.e. embrace a non-dual mode of perception and suffering will end. As you can see, this is not a western perspective where God is separated from its creation.
                That is why from my perspective, Evolution is a process consciousness uses in order to experience itself on a space/time plane. By doing so, it can only increase complexity and self-awareness because it is in the nature of consciousness to know itself. Putting distance between itself and itself, through matter, creation and dualism is a way to do so, even though in its ground, it remains unknowable, uncreated and unlimited.

              2. You are just repeating the same oddly-worded mantra, and this definition of evolution…

                “That is why from my perspective, Evolution is a process consciousness uses in order to experience itself on a space/time plane”

                seems to be straight out of a dodgy Po-Mo text.

                And who cares about your perspective if you have no evidence for it? From what I can make out from this rather circular statement, your description of evolution imports a teleology and a direction that is just not observed.

                Sometimes I don’t know who is worse – the creationists who lie about evolution being just a “random” process, or the pseudointellectuals who try to infuse mysticism and purpose into it, and in the process mangle evolution beyond recognition.

  21. Blitz, maybe I have no evidence, but between my no evidence and yours, I’ll choose what is more useful, just like Evolution would do. At least, my no evidence has the advantage to give meaning to meaning and reason to reason, all this accordingly to what science is able to tell.
    Now, when it comes to non-dualism, you could find evidence, but only you could do it. I know Sam Harris wrote about this, at least about zen and the oriental traditions. I think he even received mixed critics from his fellows because some interpreted that he might have endorsed some oriental “woo woo”. You maybe know more about this…
    Obviously we disagree but thanks for the polite exchange, insults come usually pretty fast when I debate in these kind of forums.

    1. Thank you for the exchange but you would be much better served in future conversations by making a concerted attempt to be more clear in what you actually mean.

      “At least, my no evidence has the advantage to give meaning to meaning and reason to reason, all this accordingly to what science is able to tell.”


      If people insult you, it might be because they suspect you are being deliberately vague in order to avoid critical analysis. It took a lot of dialogue to ferret out some semblance of a point from your posts, and only now do we finally learn that you have absolutely no evidence to support your position.

      1. No.Clue.What.This.Means

        Precisely. This is always the situation you face when confronted with a plate of hot buttered word salad.

      2. I’m not deliberately vague. Non-dualism is a tricky thing. No analogies can be made with it because it is outside our average mode of perception. It would like trying to explain what red is to someone who is color blind. He just can’t get it until he sees it.
        This have huge implications because we talk about the way we perceive things and how our intellect is shaped. And because language is a dual product of a dual mind, it is not with words that you can get what is non-dualism.
        Again, my first comment was about the using of moral against theistic evolution. If you are aware that our moral boundaries aren’t absolute, that we perceive good and evil because of some mind dispositions (dualism), well, you don’t mix moral with science to give weight to a theory… I know Sam harris wouldn’t agree on that but…

      3. I speak french so this might not help but I’m only saying that because you can’t prove or disprove if there is an intention behind Evolution, in front of the choice that is left, I’ll prefer to choose something useful. It is personal but I find it useful that our sense of meaning isn’t just an illusion, that it is at the heart of the universe, same thing for reason.
        That is what I mean by “the advantage to give meaning to meaning and reason to reason”.

  22. Dear Jerry,
    I have no interest in defending theistic evolution. I do have an interest in getting straight on exactly what evolutionary theory says and what it does not. There are lots of ways of formulating the theory, of course, so which one is the “right” one? I think we should answer this question by seeing which version of the theory is best supported by the evidence we have. The argument I develop in chapter 4 (“Darwin and Naturalim”) of my book Did Darwin write the Origin Backwards? is that evolutionary theory says nothing about whether God exists. I also think it says nothing about whether God, if there is such a being, ever intervenes in the evolutionary process. Of course, the theory does have plenty to say about the claim that God started life on earth within the last 50,000 years.

    If someone takes the theory, properly understood, adds some philosophical assumptions, and then concludes that there is no God, this argument can be judged on its merits. What bothers me is arguments that pretend to derive theological conclusions just from the science. Here’s an example: “Mutations are unguided. Therefore God never intervened in the mutation process.” The sense in which mutations are unguided [i.e., the proposition about this that is justified by abundant scientific evidence] does not show that God never intervened in the mutation process. I develop this idea in my book.

    You refer in your blog post to “some truly shallow statements” that I make, and then cite just one remark I made, in an interview. I am tempted to reply in kind.


    1. The sense in which mutations are unguided … does not show that God never intervened in the mutation process

      And it doesn’t show that there never interventions by Jupiter, Ba’al, Muhammad al-Mahdi, or Aiyappa the forest god. Do you also discuss these in your book? Why not?

      Are you actually serious about this? Do you you really not understand your glaring fallacy?

      1. The way I understand Elliot’s comment when he talks about God has more to do with an irreducible uncreated “primal” force than the cultural explanations of that force. It is a general concept that has nothing to do with what men wrote about God 5000 thousands years ago. (Am I really explaining that..?)

        But it won’t be possible to discuss with you about the possibility that this “force”, when interacting with matter, doesn’t need to be guided, it just does its best to evolve and grow in complexity and increase self-awareness… just like the theory of Evolution is telling us.

        If you were honest enough, you would admit that the theory of Evolution doesn’t tell anything about God, that when we start to mix God and Evolution, we can only speculate.

        1. when we start to mix God and Evolution, we can only speculate

          You are forced to speculate when you talk about god at all because there is no evidence that any god exists.

          In contrast, when we talk about evolution we know exactly what evolution is and can draw conclusions about the effect any designer might have on evolution, including some god.

          In fact, R. A. Fisher, one of the foremost contributors to evolutionary theory and a self-described Christian, saw the obvious reason why a god cannot guide evolution or design: because the designer’s efforts would be rendered “futile and inoperative”.

          If we imagine, then, some extra-natural agency endeavouring to influence the organic evolution of mammals and birds by the production, on millions of different occasions, of this single mutation, we can recognise that its efforts were futile and inoperative. –R.A. Fisher, Creative Aspects of Natural Law

          But I suppose Christians and others would prefer a “futile and inoperative” god to a nonexistent one, which is what all the evidence points to.

          1. I knew I should have said that denying God (not the christian one but the concept of an uncreated irreducible force) is ALSO a way to SPECULATE about it, especially when you mix it with morality and Evolution.
            I’ll just paste what I write because I kind of knew that “it won’t be possible to discuss with you about the possibility that this “force”, when interacting with matter, doesn’t need to be guided, it just does its best to evolve and grow in complexity and increase self-awareness… just like the theory of Evolution is telling us.”

            In other words, science can’t address that.
            And it is ok, science can’t address EVERYTHING… That was my main point.

            But for your information, Sober is far from being a fan of creationism. It is not because he doesn’t think like Coyne that he is against science. It is not because he doesn’t think that Evolution as we perceive it now is not a closed case that he is a devoted christian…

            1. Again, I don’t see why the need of imagining some extra-natural agency if God is behind evolution. I can’t prevent you to see failure and inoperative process in Evolution but that is merely an opinion. If it takes the time it takes to build the best reliable self-aware machines like humans, so be it…

              To work in the real world, nature has to be efficient for real. WhyTF extra-natural agency needs to be added if God is in the picture? Because the picture doesn’t fit with your idea of a non-existent God? Because of some moral arguments?

            2. JF Fortier: Check out the definition of the word “speculate”. Your dictionary will say something like: “Form a theory or conjecture about a subject without firm evidence.”

              You said that “denying God … is ALSO a way to SPECULATE “. This is untrue. To refuse to credit an idea for which there is no evidence is not, and can never be, the same as forming a theory without firm evidence. These things are opposites.

              1. The problem with scientism, is that it can’t see the assumption it makes.
                There is no way to prove or disprove that an uncreated “primal” force uses Evolution, even randomly, as it is now described by the theory of Evolution. It is truly a technical issue. The “random force” that brought complexity and self-awareness through an evolutionary process, you have to assume it by default. You may call it an evidence but if in your mind it escapes the realm of speculation, it is because you don’t see when you started to speculate, i.e. : from the beginning! And if you add moral arguments on the top to prove or disprove anything, you are surely speculating big time.

              2. I also suffer from the failure-to-close-italics-tag affliction from time to time, so I sympathize on that front. (That is a truly technical matter!)

                Anyway, I’m do the best I can to parse what you wrote. Without much success. My objection is that you are making a hash of the argument by asserting things which are logically impossible.

                If you want to stick to the claim that non-belief (for reason of a lack of evidence) is the same as belief-without-evidence, that speculation is the same as refusing to speculate, then there is little purpose in continuing the conversation. You are using your own dictionary and making communication impossible.

                (I wonder if I closed my italics tags correctly this time!)

  23. Again, if you rely on moral arguments to dismiss a theistic evolution, you are speculating. You can for sure have the theory of Evolution as it is now accepted and still have god (a primal uncreated conscious force) in the picture. Science can’t say anything about this. You can have an opinion or a preference but no certitude.

    Now, what seems evident isn’t necessarily true. I wouldn’t be able to tell that the earth is round if I was only relying on my perceptions.
    So I’ll speculate a bit and I’ll offer yo an explanation why you can’t see the evidence you are looking for.

    If we are borrowing right now our own consciousness from that primal uncreated conscious force right now, the evidence you want would be right in your face, and hidden at the same time. If your consciousness is God’s consciousness but fragmented individually among everyone of us, the only way to see the irreducible nature of your self would necessitate a shift of perception, i.e.: a shift from a dual mode (egotic)to a non-dual mode (non-egotic). Otherwise, if you continue to assume that your sense of self can merely be resumed to nerves and chemical reactions, if you don’t try by other means to see what or who is looking for exactly, this equals to light up the sun with a flashlight in the afternoon. You are maybe pointing a beam of light at the sun, but you won’t be able to see it.

    1. Funny thing… Relying on my senses I’ve been able to verify that the Earth isn’t flat.

      Just because you assert something that you think is profound doesn’t mean other people will find it compelling. For that you need evidence. The burden is on you to provide it. Running on about modes and flashlights pointed at the sun doesn’t cut it.

      Otherwise you are just making it up.

      1. Yeah, I’m just making it up what the tao, buddhism, zen, sufism has developed since a few centuries.
        Would you at least concede that you are perceiving the inside/outside world in a certain way? Is this evident enough for you?

        1. We all perceive the world in some way. A statement like that illuminates nothing. It is a deepity. Perhaps you find it comforting in some way. I find it rather like wind, but less refreshing.

          1. So I’ll take this as a yes.
            It is normal that you find it illuminates nothing. You are right, what can be said about the way we perceive things..?

            But you would have something to say about the way you perceive things if you could compare it with another way. And by comparing it, you would learn new things about your default mode of perception. You would be able to see that you grasp the world through opposites and discontinuity and that it is not an absolute way. It is a certain way, it is a dual mode of perception.

            Because it deals with consciousness, with the core of perception, with the psychic mechanism that gives birth to the egotic self, no instrument, no measurement could tell anything about non-dual mode of perception. Instruments could probably show a different brain activity, but that wouldn’t reveal anything about the experience itself.

            Again, I’m not making things up here, a vast literature exists on the subject. The technics to escape our average dual mode are numerous. What is surprising is that no matter the culture, the tradition and the time the testimonies come from,they describe pretty much the same process, the same ineffable description…

            Even non religious work like Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil is eloquent about it…It is a universal thing because it is linked profoundly with our origin.

              1. Thanks for the links. It confirms my opinion regarding the value of your argument.

                Honestly, JF, it mystifies me that you think that linking to other pages of unsupportable word salad constitutes anything resembling evidence. Well, by now I really don’t think it should mystify me at all. It is all of a piece.

                It doesn’t matter how many decades or centuries old a collection of nostrums is. Nor does it matter whether there is one or a thousand variations on the theme. It doesn’t improve your case that there are folk out there who offer seminars in woo but insert the word “science” into their name. It isn’t science any more than Christian Science or Creation Science are science.

  24. I suggest that you first experience a non-dual perspective before you call it word salad…

    Only then, you would know what it is all about…

    Your last remark probably talks about the last thing in wiki, 3 lines on 250… I don’t know what this is all about, but I kind of know what is non-dualism…

  25. It is the Fortier’s reply…
    Anyway GB…
    The last thing I will tell is that from where I come from, atheism is the main default state of mind. Nobody I know, me included, goes to the church. Until the age of the 33, I was deeply convinced that words like religion or spirituality were just crutches to help weak people to face the evident fatality of death.

    But my lectures on buddhism slowly, very slowly changed my mind. And I started to become aware that I was taking a lot of things for granted, including my self. And one day, a new perspective appeared…

    Good for me I guess.

    It was nice playing ping-pong with you…

    Bonne nuit,


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