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.