Can God create mutations? Elliottt Sober says we can’t rule that out.

May 7, 2012 • 6:27 am

I intended to go to this talk, given by renowned philosopher of science Elliott Sober at the University of Chicago on April 13, but missed it due to other commitments. Given the content, I’m sure I would have participated in the discussion, but am now limited to posting it and making some post facto comments (the video below was first posted on Vimeo).

The talk itself is about 48 minutes long, with about an hour of questions and discussion. I hope some readers will listen to it and comment below, for I profoundly disagree with Sober’s thesis. It seems to me that he uses a lot of words to say something that is both trivial and almost meaningless.  But, naive about philosophy as I am, perhaps I’m wrong. Here’s the video including the discussion afterwards:

What is Sober’s thesis?  Here’s his abstract of his talk:

Can conclusions about God – for example, that he does not exist, or that he lacks this or that property if he does exist — be deduced from well-established scientific theories? For example, do established results in biology concerning mutation show that God never guides mutations? I answer this question by explaining what biologists mean (or should mean) when they say that mutations are unguided. I make use of the fact that evolutionary theory is a probabilistic theory; its truth does not entail that it is causally complete.

His point is that although there is scientific evidence that mutations are “random,” that doesn’t mean that God can’t affect the probability of a given mutation occurring.  So science cannot rule out a theistic hand in evolution.  The apparent disparity between random mutations and God-guided mutations comes from the difference between how scientists and theists view “random mutations.”

To scientists, as Sober points out, mutations are “random” because the probability of their occurrence does not depend on the likelihood of their being favorable.  That doesn’t mean that the rate of mutation of a given gene can’t change with environmental circumstances, or that different genes always mutate at the same rate, but simply that whether a mutation would create a new form of a gene that replicates better than its alternative forms (i.e., has higher “fitness”) doesn’t increase if that mutation would be favorable. Mutations that induce antibiotic resistance in bacteria, for instance, don’t increase in frequency when the bacteria are exposed to antibiotics.

Scientific evidence supports this contention: we haven’t found a single case of a gene whose mutation rate depends on how favorable it may be.  There is some evidence from bacteria that the general mutation rate of many genes may increase in times of stress, which may be an adaptive response of the genome to changed conditions, but we have no evidence that any gene’s chances of mutating to an adaptive as opposed to a maladaptive form increase when the environment changes.  So the definition of “random” mutation I gave above still stands and is accepted by evolutionary biologists.

Sober claims, however, that this cannot rule out the theistic proposition that God can affect, at least occasionally, the mutation rate. This could, for example, have been God’s way of making humans moral, and facilitating our evolution in other ways. (Sober doesn’t say this, but that’s what theists would claim).  He says that the scientific proposition “mutations are unguided” does not equate with the idea that “God never guides mutations.”

Why is that? At about 38 minutes in, Sober, using a quantum-mechanics analogy, claims that God could be a “hidden variable” that affects the probability of mutations occurring, even though they seem random to us.  So, just like a coin appears to have a probability of 50% of coming up either heads or tails, but in reality its fate is completely determined by forces like the force and angle of the toss, local air currents, and the surface on which it lands, so in reality mutations could appear random but some of them could have been engineered by God.  In other words, God could be a “supernatural hidden variable” in the process of mutation.

Sober, then, draws a distinction between the “scientific” view of mutation (that the mutation rate in is the same for a gene regardless of the environment it’s in, which isn’t precisely true, but it’s close enough), and the “theistic” view, which he presents as this (the slide below shows the view that theists deny):

So the theistic alternative, which Sober finds completely compatible with scientists’ view of mutations as random, is that the probability of a certain mutation given that most of them are caused naturally is not equal to the probability of the mutation given that most are caused naturally but some can also be caused by God’s intervention.

Now this can’t be widely true, because if God intervenes in at least a consistent way, we’d expect that mutations in general would occur more frequently when they were more beneficial.  And that isn’t observed. (This, of course, presupposes a beneficent God who hastens the progress of selection.) Alternatively, you can say that God just intervenes rarely to cause a mutation to occur (I suspect this is Sober’s position, though he’s not clear about it), so that we’re unable to distinguish God-guided mutations from those that are both natural and “random.”  Under this position, rare mutations would be the same as miracles; and presumably theists would argue that these miracles were more frequent in the evolutionary lineage that produced Homo sapiens.  All of this justifies what Sober calls “interventionism”: the proposition that God sticks his hand into the natural world from time to time, affecting the course of events in a way that’s undetectable.

I am not sure why Sober is making this argument, which doesn’t really say anything new (“miracles could have happened rarely in the course of evolution”) but gives theists the comfort of knowing that a reputable philosopher supports their views.  Here is his summary slide:

But why does a philosopher spend his time arguing that it is philosophically cogent to accept the existence of miracles in evolution? Indeed, if you take that tack, you can’t rule out the occurrence of miracles anywhere if they’re sufficiently rare and cryptic to masquerade as natural events.  It could have been a miracle that God guided the asteroid that hit the earth and caused the dinosaurs to become extinct, thereby (supposedly) setting the evolutionary stage for the radiation of mammals.  We have no way of knowing for sure. Is that good philosophy?  Why not also argue that God affects not just mutations, but the course of evolution itself? After all, genetic drift, another process that can cause evolution and even override natural selection, is taken to be a “random process” (based on Mendelian segregation and limited family size), but why couldn’t God have affected which allele got into which offspring? Why didn’t Sober add that to his lecture, too?  Lots of evolutionary phenomena could have occurred via God’s hand, but of course there’s not a jot of evidence for any of it, or of God himself.

Indeed, during the question session (at 1:12:50), a student asks Sober why we couldn’t rule out the possibility that the appearance of the Earth’s great age is a miracle too: that maybe God created the Earth 6000 years ago but made it look old.  That, too, is a divine intervention that we cannot philosophically rule out as a logical possibility. To me, that question is a devastating critique of Sober’s argument. And he doesn’t give a good answer, responding only that we have to take the scientific evidence at face value and trust what it tells us about reality (which he doesn’t do when it comes to mutations), and adding that “We are not totally deluded in what we believe about empirical evidence.” But he says we might be completely deluded when it comes to the empirical evidence about mutations!

I’d appreciate readers’ takes—particularly if they know some philosophy and biology—about whether Sober is saying anything either profound or new. My opinion is that he isn’t.

Over at EvolutionBlog in February, Jason Rosenhouse, who knows about evolution, philosophy, and probability, took apart an earlier interview of Sober in Philosopher’s Magazine. After reading about Sober’s “divine mutations” argument, Jason gives a right-on response:

Notice just how tepid Sober’s conclusions are. Hypothesizing direct divine action in evolution is consistent with the science. Evolutionary theory cannot absolutely rule out such a thing. But for me those two statements I placed in bold face [ “I think maybe you could have a reason for thinking ] that God’s intervention is] wrong”, and “I see no reason to believe in these hidden variables”] really give the game away. Near the end he notes that there is no reason to believe in the sorts of hidden variables he discusses. Earlier he tells us that there could be good reasons for thinking that God does not intervene to affect the outcomes of coin tosses. Presumably he is talking about theological reasons, since he emphasizes that empirical data is silent on such questions. Certainly, given reasonable assumptions about the nature of God’s interactions with the world, it becomes implausible to think that God is intervening in coin tosses.

But the same objection applies to God influencing specific mutations. If he is going to micromanage at that level, then why not skip the bloodsport by creating ex nihilo, precisely as the Bible says He did? Why does God operate in a way that seems tailor made to fool us regarding how nature works, by using what seem like random processes as a way of covering His tracks?

Indeed. Sober might as well have expanded his talk beyond mutations to everything in the natural world: we can’t rule out rare, unobserved miracles in biology, physics, chemistry, or anything else.

But why posit that there is a God who affects these things when there’s not a scintilla of evidence for it? Why multiply hypotheses unnecessarily, unless Sober wants to give succor to theists? Indeed, why shouldn’t Sober give a talk saying that we can’t rule out that God occasionally influences the results of coin tossing because He wants a certain result?  Is that a good subject for a philosophy talk? Or why wouldn’t Sober argue that the probability of mutations, or of any other miracle, is raised by the existence of a particular unicorn who remains hidden from view?

Why is Sober doing this? The philosophy seems pretty lame to me, unworthy of someone of Sober’s intelligence. Perhaps a clue comes at 1:37:00, when Sober says he wants evolutionists and theists to realize that there is no real conflict between them. Jason quotes Sober from his Philosopher’s Magazine interview:

And on the other hand, if [Sober] manages to persuade theists, he says, “maybe the reaction against evolution will be less extreme. Theists can accept evolution and believe in God. This compatibilist view is the least visible of the views out there in the public debate. Incompatibilism is the dominant idea whether you’re talking about creationists who reject evolution or evolutionists who reject theism. I want to insert this third idea into the discussion.”

In other words, accommodationism breeds bad philosophy.  I was starting to gain some respect for philosophy, and now this—from one of the most respected philosophers of science in the business. It’s set me back.  My response is that of Laplace to Napoleon’s supposed question about why there was no God in Laplace’s book on celestial mechanics: “I have no need of that hypothesis.”

(Note to atheists: see the discussion starting at 1:23:15 when Bob Richards asks Elliott if New Atheists have any good scientific arguments against God’s existence. Sober avers not, but I think that the absence of evidence for God, when there should be such evidence, is indeed empirical evidence against God, just as the absence of evidence militates against the existence of pink unicorns living in New World rain forests.)


UPDATE: Alert reader Sigmund notes in the comments below that Sober’s talk is part of a lecture series on “Debating Darwin” run by Bob Richards from the University of Chicago and Michael Ruse from Florida State University. The series website says this:

The Debating Darwin workshops are a series of lectures given by the most acclaimed historians and philosophers of science. These workshops, headed by Robert J. Richards of the University of Chicago and Michael Ruse of Florida State University are co-sponsored by the Fishbein Center for History of Science, the Office of the President, and the Templeton Foundation.

Ah, good old Templeton—always ready to hand out big bucks to those who purport to effect a consilience of science and religion.

171 thoughts on “Can God create mutations? Elliottt Sober says we can’t rule that out.

  1. It seems to me that he uses a lot of words to say something that is both trivial and almost meaningless.

    That may be a good summary of philosophy.

    I have not listed to the video. Perhaps I will find time later.

    Sober, and other philosophers, are on the other side of “The Two Cultures” (from CP Snow). What they find important is different from what we find important. And what they find trivial is different from what we find trivial.

    At a minimum, Sober is arguing against the view you often express, that science is incompatible with religion. People on his side of the two cultures won’t consider that trivial and meaningless.

    1. “It seems to me that he uses a lot of words to say something that is both trivial and almost meaningless.”

      I took a philosophy of biology course last semester and that is what I ultimately took from it. I thought it might have just been the readings that were selected. I hope not all philosophy of biology is like that.

      1. No, as Neil says that’s pretty much it. Once in a while you might find some philosophical musings which aren’t entirely nonsense but they are trivial and of no value to scientists. Worse still, the trivial and obvious are described with obscure words which frequently don’t even mean anything.

    2. If Sober is a philosopher of science he’s obviously doing it wrong. One of the tenants of science is that you don’t get to pick and choose the data that you will consider, you are obliged to consider all the data.

      Sober is only considering the random mutations that could be considered to lead to a positive outcome for humans specifically. He is silent regarding mutations that could be considered negative. He also frames his argument in terms of only one god without any reasoning as to that limitation.

      So some gods that can make changes to form and function in such a way that humans evolved, those gods could by the exact same methodology intervene to stop cancer, ailments, deformation of limbs and organs. Those gods could presumably have tweaked the senses to provide more accurate tactile awareness, better eyesight, hearing and smell.

      Sober only explores the data that he wants, to reach the conclusion that he wants. That is considered bad procedure scientifically. If the christian gods had any decency at all they would have tweaked Sober and Templeton’s bad scholarship genes to save them from embarrassment.

      1. This is a shame, since Sober is normally fairly sensible – in my limited experience with his work, anyway.

        There are, however, many philosophers who I would say are hesitant to speak out about nonsense and imposture …

  2. Perhaps a clue comes at 1:37:00, when Sober says he wants evolutionists and theists to realize that there is no real conflict between them.

    Not all theists are the same; what Sober is doing is showing a compatibility-in-principle between science and those sects which believe in a hidden, almost-deist God of a clockwork universe who only rarely and undetectably intervenes.

    But so what? Those theists aren’t the problem in the first place. They aren’t the ones attempting to inject creationism into science classes, for instance.

    So, as I see it he’s come up with an argument that might appeal to the Ken Millers of the world…if they needed convincing. Which they don’t.

    On the other side, I doubt he’s going to convince many non-believers that “you can’t rule out my God” is a quality argument for any sort of active accommodationism. We don’t go around telling the world science can’t in principle rule out fairies, so its okay with us if you believe they are taking care of your garden. We demand fairy-believers produce evidence for them. How is this different?

    1. It’s too long to be fully laid out here, but “those theists” are only marginally less harmful than the fundamentalists. Don’t bring that fallacy again – from the sloppy irrational thinking to the self-destructive disconnected-from-reality anthropocentrism, most of the ills that religion brings upon mankind remain even if you remove the most rabid crazies from the picture, because they are core the the very nature of religion. Which means that all religion should be attacked at any opportunity, no matter how benign it may seem.

  3. “Sober says he wants evolutionists and theists to realize that there is no real conflict between them”

    A minister who has become an atheist has just written on this very subject:

    “If there is no original ancestor who transmitted hereditary sin to the whole species, then there is no Fall, no need for redemption, and Jesus’ death as a sacrifice efficacious for the salvation of humanity is pointless. The whole raison d’etre for the Christian plan of salvation disappears.”

  4. “I think that the absence of evidence for God, when there should be such evidence, is indeed empirical evidence against God, just as that point is against evidence against the existence of pink unicorns living in New World rain forests.”

    Put another way, naturalists generally discount the possibility of something’s existence unless there’s good evidence it exists, part of good epistemological hygiene when seeking reliable models of realty,

    Note that it’s good epistemic practice that leads to naturalism; no worldview is assumed at the start of inquiry.

  5. Surely this is an old argument – you can’t prove that all mutations are random therefore doG! And how does doG do it? quantum tunneling and jittering – doG of the gaps!

    So how, if you adopt this philosophy that doG occasionally messes with random mutation, do you identify with which random mutations does he mess? If you can’t identify those then the whole point is lost.

  6. Pure sophistry.

    What does a “guided” evolutionary process look like under his model?

    Well, it looks exactly like an unguided evolutionary process. Except with a completely hidden, unmeasurable, unnoticed, unverifiable, hypothetical, unreliable, invisible hand rigging the roulette wheel.

    Consider me unimpressed.

    1. Exactly! It’s akin to the argument that Shakespeare’s works were not written by Shakespeare, rather by a contemporary with the same name.

  7. Or in other words, Sober’s deliberations about mutations and other “hidden variables” are no better than an “Angels on the head of a pin” discussion i.e. entirely tangential to the question of whether any religion is true.

    It’s no better than any god of the gaps argument.

    1. It’s no better than any god of the gaps argument.

      Or the god who hides below the noise floor.

  8. I think we should also explore the possibility that the devil is taking over mr Sobers speech at some points.
    Sure, we have a good working theory that mr Sober is using his own mind to come up with this stuff, but can we really disprove the “devil made him do it” theory?
    I mean really, we can’t rule that out either, can we?

    1. I think we should also explore the possibility that the devil is taking over mr Sobers speech at some points.

      It is far more likely that Sobers is being possessed by a demon.

      According to some xians, this is quite common and happens all the time.

      A good exorcist might do wonders improving his thinking abilities.

      1. You bring up a good point (though not the one you were making :)). Konradius might be better off using space aliens or government mind control lasers; his target audience might not get the satire as long as he uses Satan.

    2. Guys! Have you considered the possibility that Mr. Sober is possessed by THE HOLY GHOST (one of the majestic triumvirate)!

      Remember, as part of god(s) the HG is also working in mysterious way! And those mysteries are far deeper than those the scientist can fathom! Fathomless!


  9. Someone give Sober a lollypop and place him in a corner of the nursery in diapers until he is big enough to grow up and discuss things with adults.

    If this is philosophy then philosophy is equivalent to astrology and is nonsense.

  10. I can’t rule out the idea that my room is full of invisible fairies holding the furniture down. So what?

    “Can I rule something out” is the wrong question. The question he should be asking is, “is there a reason to suppose [alternative explanation] exists.

    1. “Can I rule something out” is the wrong question.

      We can’t rule out Last Thursdayism either, omphalos.

      The universe was created last Thursday with us and all our memories. It will end in 4 days so enjoy your week. Next week is giant squids swimming in methane seas universe.

    2. Once you accept occasional divine intervention as an explanation, then anything goes.

      Planes fly because of engine thrust, air flow over the wings, AND divine cooperation, but sometimes god, for mysterious reasons only she can understand, directs a random goose through the turbine blades, and thus kaboom.

  11. Assume that Adam is heterozygous A-1, A-2 and Eve is heterozygous A-3, A-4. What are the possible allelotypes of Cain and Abel? With 4 alleles of the gene “A” Cain and Able could be one of each of the ten possible allelotypes, however, only 4 of these possible allelotypes could be realized in these doomed brothers. Neither brother could be heterozygous as their parents and niether brother could any one of the 4 homozygous allelotypes. Let us assume that there have been no mutations of the “A” gene, thusly all human would be one of the 10 possible allelotypes. If Cain and Abel were either A-1,A-3: A-2,A-4: A-1,A-4; A-2,A-4, how do we account for the 6 “missing” allelotypes?Possible incest, bestiality? Within 4 years, the world population will add a population equal to the population of The United States. Why do we absurdly conjure up the divine origins of alleles of a gene when millions of Sahelian children are suffering from marasmus and today will silently exhale their last deathly fraction-of-a-liter?

  12. I’m reminded of an early episode of the US version of The Office. A speaker tells everyone that they’re all heroes, and Dwight objects, saying something like “That’s not a hero, a hero fights crime with his fists!”

    I kind of feel the same way about this. You can’t redefine a miracle or divine intervention to mean ‘making something happen that could just as easily happen on its own’. In order for it to be a miracle, there has to be no way that it could have happened on its own. Why assume that a god would occasionally intervene and make a mutation, when the system is already set up to produce them and winnow them anyway? If you’re going to imagine a god, clearly, you could also imagine it as a clockmaker, having already set up the rules to produce what it wanted. Its just the same sort of apologetic that wants to take everything good and credit it to a god, while ignoring the fact that there are tons of malformed organisms miscarried every day, and tons more that aren’t able to make it to adulthood without being consumed by something else. This man’s whole exercise just seems pathetic… as if he already accepts that his position is ruined, but is still trying to imagine that life can’t get by with out an extra kick, and that greatness is impossible without divine input. I call that god-groveling BS.

    1. You can’t redefine a miracle or divine intervention to mean ‘making something happen that could just as easily happen on its own’.

      Just a quibble, but I think this idea of a miracle is pretty conventional. Aquinas included ‘doing stuff nature can do, but normally wouldn’t’ as a type of divine miracle as far back as the 1200s. And it also seems to fit with common useage, e.g., “its a miracle Joe Bob survived the tornado” is often taken to mean that God guided Joe Bob to the right place to be, not that God was personally directing the tornado’s path in a way inconsistent with physics.

      1. Ah, but a mutation is exactly the sort of thing that nature can do, and does do. A person not dying in a tornado is pretty unusual, but mutations occur at a fixed rate all the time. There is nothing about a beneficial mutation occurring within a gene that requires any special circumstances at all, since it can occur by any of the same processes that any mutation works by. In fact, it is exactly what we’d expect to see happen in evolution by natural selection.

        It seems like a major, major step down from what I define as miracles, clearly supernatural interventions that cannot have any logical natural explanation. A coin toss turning up heads when you call heads is not a miracle, even though this philosopher seems to be suggesting that we can’t rule out god’s actions in turning that coin.

        1. It IS a major step down from you define as a miracle. My quibble was that many Christians (including major theologians such as Aquinas) have a broader definition than yours.

          1. I suppose that’s fair enough. It mostly that ‘every day life is a miracle’ has become a pet peeve of mine. Cause if it is, you need to redefine what rising from the dead, changing water to wine, or parting the sea is. Because I’m sure Aquinas believed all that actually happened as well. Are they ultramiracles?

  13. His thesis is that the evidence does not rule out theistic intervention in inconsistent or non-uniform ways at some time in the past, where a deity could have fiddled with the random outcomes to accomplish a goal.

    This is undeniably correct.

    It is also true to say that a random number generator can be fiddled with in non-uniform ways and the results would be indistinguishable from a random set that went unmolested. Consider, for a moment, what you would expect from a random outcome, such that a subtle change here and there would be noticeable?

    He’s not saying that the evidence supports theism.

    What I like about Sobers’ ideas are that they create a space for retreat for religious people stuck with a choice. Whether they choose to accept it or not is open to debate, but I think a compelling theistic case can be made in favor of evolution as a first move away from YEC.

    Furthermore, my experience with discussions about evolution with religious people makes me more open to the idea of taking baby steps. You just don’t throw a bunch of evidence at a creationist and convert them, it’s a process.


  14. I’ve heard that Ken Miller protects his Catholicism with this same exact argument – God could have guided evolution by twiddling quantum events. Physicists have ruled out “hidden variables” – the idea that quantum events aren’t really random but there’s some as-yet-undetected laws, and Miller and Sober are saying that God could be the ultimate undetectable hidden variable.

    I don’t see a hill of beans difference between this view and the DI’s Intelligent Design. Well, I guess the DI guys say that they can actually detect Intelligent Design, while Miller and Sober realize that these are just their own beliefs which are not demonstrable.

    1. To be slightly fair, what the physics says is that there are no *local* hidden variables. Since god is supposedly not “in” spacetime, this might be the out. This is ridiculous for any number of reasons, including “theological” ones. For example, note Miller apparently thinks this “fudging the dice” is what happens sometimes, but then when it gets to doctrinally important things *to him* he then says oh, no, that happened as described (either by the text or the bastardization of tradition, etc.)

  15. “The Debating Darwin workshops are a series of lectures given by the most acclaimed historians and philosophers of science. These workshops, headed by Robert J. Richards of the University of Chicago and Michael Ruse of Florida State University are co-sponsored by the Fishbein Center for History of Science, the Office of the President, and the Templeton Foundation.”

      1. Every time I read a statement from a scientist or philosopher giving away too much ground to religion I do a google search with the name of the academic and the added search term “templeton”

        1. This is terrible. I’ve been reading a couple of Richards’s books. I would never have bought them had I known he’d sold his academic soul.

          I want my money back and will have to double check his scholarship.

          Weak as water.

          1. In what sense has Bob Richards “sold his academic soul” because he put on a conference partially sponsored by Templeton money (and also sponsored, I should note, by the university and the Fishbein center for the History of Science)? Among this series of talks, Sober’s was the only one that deals with religion (see for the complete list), and Sober apparently chose this topic himself. Templeton had no influence over the programming of this series (I know this for a fact), and it’s frankly ludicrous to consider Richards’ previous scholarship suspect as a result (but if you think you’re up to “double-checking” his scholarship, go at it–Richards is one of the world’s foremost experts on 19th century German romanticism and biology, a 2 time winner of the highest book award given by the History of Science Society, and recipient of that society’s lifetime achievement medal).

            Look, I think Jerry’s stance on not taking Templeton money–especially for funding science–is a perfectly principled one. I respect it. But it does not necessarily follow that therefore if one does take Templeton money one is acting in an unprincipled way, or being influenced by the Templeton agenda, or especially that one’s research is now somehow “tainted” (and remember, this was a modest amount of money in partial support of a series of talks, not a research grant anyway). It matters much more what one does with that money, and aside from Sober’s talk–which I’m sure he would have given anyway–the money in this case did not fund anything that the Templeton foundation is even particularly interested in. Bob Richards is an extremely principled person who would not cave in to the ideology of any organization just for a little bit of cash, and those people who are suggesting otherwise frankly don’t know what you’re talking about. Jerry does know this, I think, and I didn’t get the impression that he was suggesting anything of the kind, so please don’t make unwarranted assumptions.

            Bob Richards’ books are excellent, as are those of several of the other people who were sponsored in this series (Greg Radick, for example), so please don’t go assuming guilt by association. I don’t particularly agree with Sober’s take, either, but those ideas are his own, and certainly have nothing to do with the influence of some nefarious organization. I’d add that funding in the humanities is a lot scarcer than it is in the sciences, so people really have to shake all the trees in order to get projects, conferences, etc. paid for. Unfortunately this means sometimes turning to private sources like Templeton, but if it really bothers you, write to your congressperson and demand better government funding for academic research!

            Sorry for the long comment, Jerry, but I think this issue is a bit more complicated than it’s sometimes presented here.

            1. David’s absolutely right here; I have a lot of respect for Bob Richards, and consider him a friend and colleague. Not for a moment do I think he slanted this seminar series toward Templeton’s ill-conceived goals simply to get the money. Moreover, as far as I can see, Bob’s scholarship on Darwin and other evolutionary issues is impeccable, as evidenced by his recent book on Haeckel, which I’ve touted publicly.

              Of course I wouldn’t have applied for the money myself, or participated in this seminar as a speaker had I been asked, but that is my choice. I do, however, think that Sober’s talk was just the thing that Templeton likes to hear.

              1. Thanks for the clarification, Jerry–I felt sure this was the case. Incidentally, it would be fun to have you in the audience at more of those Fishbein events–I always go when I’m up in Chicago, which is frequently (and there’s free Eduardo’s at Friday noon talks!).

              2. Fair enough. I certainly worded that very poorly. I mean to simply express my personal surprise and disappointment that he would resort to using Templeton money and shouldn’t have suggested any academic lapse on Robert Richards’s part.

                I have just finished his work on Haeckel and savored every word of it. He stuck such a clear and fascinating course through the scientific and theological controversies of Haeckel’s life, that I’m disappointed to see him involved with the Templeton Foundation.

                I’m glad to see people sticking up for his integrity, because I was really impressed with his work. I found his book on Goethe (The Romantic Conception of Life) just as engaging and instructive. I’m impressed that he could make such difficult and obscure subjects accessible to a novice like me with little background in biology.

                My impression as a complete novice was that his scholarship certainly seemed impeccable, but obviously I’m in no position to judge that with any certainty. So I’m glad to see it confirmed by Prof Coyne.

                Thanks to both of you for correcting me.

  16. I would have thought a philosopher would have heard of William of Ockham and his razor.

    1. Which reminds me, I have to shave today. He also forgot about the beast of burden of proof.

      I still want to know how the supernatural world interacts with the natural world, and what the evidence for this is. Does god push and pull molecules around, and if so, how do we detect this?

      1. Never mind how we detect Jesus’s parlor tricks for fiddling the outcomes of quantum whoosits. What’s his energy source?

        If he has one, it’d be an awesome one to plug into. If he doesn’t, it’s a perpetual motion machine and therefore even more awesome to plug into.

        Somebody remind me again why even the devout will laugh at perpetual motion conmen, but then unhesitatingly and solemnly agree to any perpetual motion proposition put forth in the names of one or more of their favored gods?


      2. This is the problem with Philosophy – it is based on the conceit that one can know about the world by thinking and dialogue, rather than evidence.

    2. The really odd thing is that it appears from his CV he’s reasonably well qualified to follow the contemporary mathematical versions of Occam’s Razor — and in fact, familiar with some of them.

      Looking through some of his writings, he’s aware of the problem parsimony presents, and therefore is trying to reject parsimony. That paper appears to involve a sophisticated confusion of is and ought, used as a basis for casting doubt on naturalism as a consequent. However, I’ve only skimmed it.

      1. Sober construes parsimony as an epistemic principle based on Bayesian considerations of likelihood rather than an ontological one based on the number of entities or processes involved. Since we have no prior reason to believe reality will be simple (as Occam’s Razor assumes) instead of messy, we have no reason to favor a simple explanation over a messy one, all else being equal.

        The idea that ontological parsimony shouldn’t necessarily be a factor in theory choice is one that might be defensible, but for some reason Sober likes to argue as if scientists are already using his re-interpreted concept of parsimony rather than the traditional ontological one.

        1. The mathematical form means simplicity doesn’t have to be directly assumed. Instead, one can assume there is pattern — formally, experience has a pattern recognizable by some arbitrary ordinal degree of Turing hypercomputation. Occam’s Razor results as consequence — or rather, a mathematical expression that’s more exact, much like statistical mechanics form of the second law more exactly states “disorder tends to increase”.

          Now, that “pattern” premise in turn IS one not justified by priors; and (like any Axiom) it’s equally valid to take the Refutation. The catch is that the Refuation means any appearance of order is merely an isolated island in a suitably large Ramsey sea of chaos.

  17. We also can’t rule out the possibility that a colony of space hamsters once lived on the moon and left no evidence behind.

    1. Were those space hamsters in suits? I don’t think hamsters can breath on the moon.

  18. tl;dr version:

    You can’t prove anything with 100% certainty, ergo Jesus.
    Alice ain’t the only one lost down the rabbit hole…

  19. How is proposing small miracles (Dembski theories) to salvage God any different than proposing grand miracles (Hovind theories)?

    Considering the number of events in a universe and the number of conceivable events or sequences of events, some are inevitable. The theist must admit that some of the extremely unlikely events were simply inevitable yet say some were actually guided with no way to determine which was which.

    In card games, every hand is equally likely but some are better than most. How does one tell which Royal Flushes were caused by the unguided shuffling of the deck and which were caused by the rabbit’s foot?

    1. I vaguely recall reading a paper on low-dose radiation effects after Chernobyl. It was prospective rather than retrospective, meaning the author was trying to figure out what effects epidimiologists should see in the population in the future as a function of dose.

      He made the point that the ability to determine whether there was any effect at all is limited by population numbers. If too few people are affected, it is statistically impossible to tell if anyone was, because of background rates of disease, cancer, etc… A small effect against a background of noise is not just hard to detect, it can in some cases be statistically impossible to detect, even in principle.

      Sort of like with your royal flush example: you’d have to play millions of hands before a very low amount of cheating was statistically distinguishable from random shuffle.

      The sort of God that Sober is talking about may likewise be like that – not just undetected, but undetectable in principle. Statistically indistinguishable from noise.

      I kinda like that parsing of it (better than “not inconsistent with…”). Dear Dr. Sober – is your God statistically indistinguishable from noise?

  20. The video will have to wait until I’m home later, but does he address the possibilities of multiple/infinite gods? It seems to me, from reading the summary and bits of comments here, that once you allow the possibility of ‘god’, it’s a simple step to go to ‘gods’. If anyone is familiar with the multiple designer hypothesis, it’s actually much more cogent than any other, really. (I personally, like Douglas Adams’ take on it.)

  21. Sigh. Parsimony (Occam’s Razor) is one of principles used in science, which can be derived mathematically (in a bit more formal sense than the colloquial) from the more basic assumption that experience has a pattern. In so far as there is no evidence which requires such divine causation to explain, the conjecture is less likely than the conjecture of a random distribution. Ergo: the notion is more likely wrong than alternatives.

    Or in short: he ignores that science shaves with Occam’s Razor. Divinely-caused mutations have presently all the scientific support of underpants gnomes.

    Anyway, I have to argue about flying saucers on the beach with people, you know. And I was interested in this: they keep arguing that it is possible. And that’s true. It is possible. They do not appreciate that the problem is not to demonstrate whether it’s possible or not but whether it’s going on or not.– Richard Feynman, The Meaning of It All: Thoughts of a Citizen Scientist

    1. Although it should be noted that “Underpants Gnomes” would be a possible name for a rock band.

      1. 1. Found a rock band with the name “Underpants Gnomes”
        2. ??????
        3. Profit

        Hm, sounds like a plan 😉

  22. Jerry,

    I agree that it’s not at all clear that Sober is saying anything particularly earth-shaking, at least not earth-shaking to scientists or philosophers.

    His point seems to me to be directed at a fairly narrow section of participants in this debate: those who think that somehow, scientific evidence taken by itself proves (or is alleged to prove) that God does not exist or that God did not have a hand in evolution. He’s right that scientific evidence doesn’t do that. And that might be helpful for strategic reasons, because at the end of the day, if we can’t get people to be atheists, let’s at least get them to accept something like the theory of evolution.

    Now, does scientific evidence–say, the evidence that supports the theory of evolution–at least provide evidence against theism? Sober might be saying something more interesting here, namely that it doesn’t even do that. So given some phenomenon P, suppose that we can explain P without divine intervention. Suppose further that theism predicts that God intervened in P. Then if we have evidence that God did not intervene in P, we have evidence against theism. Is the evidence that we can explain P without God, itself evidence that God did not intervene in P? The only way I can imagine would be through a principle of parsimony.

    Unfortunately, I worry the principle required here is too strong. We can support parsimony probabilistically if we’re using it to choose between two theories such that one makes more commitments than the other, but the hypothesis that God did not intervene makes just as many commitments as the hypothesis that He did, when those hypotheses are considered independently of the other commitments they entail. Therefore, they’re epistemically on a par so far.

    Finally, you might respond that theism is overall a more complex hypothesis, with more commitments in general, than the hypothesis that a mutation arose randomly. That’s true, but that doesn’t really make any contribution beyond the more general probabilistic arguments against theism and theistic explanations. So again, the contribution that scientific observations make would be fairly minimally in the overall debate about whether God exists.

    TL;DR: The only evidence that God did not intervene in mutations is from general theoretical principles such as Ockham’s Razor, but that’s not really enough for an independent, new argument against theism.

  23. This seems to me like a theological rather than Scientific question, at least insofar as all the questions it raises are ones about the nature of god. Furthermore, as in all discussions about an interventionist diety, whether he intervenes frequently or not, the question of theodicy comes up. A god could guide mutation. But why some and not others? Why allow sickle cell or Tay-Sachs or borth defects?

    1. Grrr…birth. Does WordPress not have a preview button option? 🙁

      “We need more Bort license plates in the giftshop.”

  24. There is such a thing as good philosophy. After all the scientific method is its child. There is also bad philosophy the moment one forgets about Ockham’s razor. All supernatural explanations suffer from the same basic violation of the law of parsimony. For example why should we blindly believe in the powers of psychics when all of what they do can easily be replicated by illusionists?

  25. That is a false debate, even from my non-atheist perspective.

    When an uncreated consciousness organizes itself to evolve on a material plane, all it needs is to let it go, like evolution is showing us.

    And because of the essence of consciousness itself, it will inevitably lead to more and more complex organic arrangements that will lead to more and more complex self awareness.
    Nothing needs to be guided.

    As for the uncreated nature of consciousness, you could check that by yourself but you need to experience a non-dual mode of perception comparing to the average dual mode we develop by default. But we evolve, yoga wasn’t that popular just 20 years ago…

    1. Any conclusions about reality gleaned from experiencing a non-dual mode of perception – e.g., about the uncreated nature of consciousness – have to be checked against public evidence to validate them. You can’t reliably model reality on your own. To suppose that one’s experience is self-validating is one of the basic epistemic errors underlying supernaturalism,

      1. It is a dead end because no equipment or no one else can check this except the person who experiences it. It is normal at the same time. I can’t taste an apple at your place just like I can’t see for yourself how “something” in your self is uncreated because of the “matter” we deal with, i.e.: the process itself that makes you conscious.
        What philosophy addresses about it doesn’t change anything to this technical issue.

        1. Yes it does, though. If your experience isn’t a perfectly reliable guide to the world you’re experiencing — and there’s good evidence that it isn’t — then conclusions based on that experience are similarly unreliable. Hence skepticism.

          Talking about the specialness of veridical experience doesn’t do anything to change this technical point.

          1. If nobody does the work that is required to obtain a certain result, well, the specialness of the veridical experience is a major issue. Notice that it is special only because a few people are doing the job, not because it is in itself special.

            It is like playing Blackbird on the guitar. It may sound difficult but it is not. If you learn it little by little, section by section, with a good teacher, you’ll be able to play it. Of course you need to want to.

            There is a long tradition of non-dual teachings that are basically saying the same things. Again, no one or nothing outside the experiencer can know or measure what it talks because it deals with perception itself, but on a different mode than our default one.

            It is like a C chord. You may learn that you have to play a C, a E and a G simultaneously in order to produce the sound it makes, but you won’t know the sound it makes until you play it.

            1. I do mindfulness meditation and I’ve done my fair share of psychedelics in the past. I suspect there’s little you could tell me about “non-dual modes of consciousness” that I haven’t already experienced for myself. It’s in no small part because of these experiences that I remain skeptical of your perspective on them.

              Let’s stop pretending you have some kind of super secret special knowledge and just write as if each of us wanted the other to understand and be able to respond, huh?

              It is like a C chord. You may learn that you have to play a C, a E and a G simultaneously in order to produce the sound it makes, but you won’t know the sound it makes until you play it.

              I don’t know for sure that I’ve ever played a D flat half-diminished add 2 chord but I’m fairly certain I know what it would sound like if I did. And yes, Blackbird is an incredibly easy song to learn — the second song I ever learned on guitar.

              1. I don’t pretend to know something special, I mean, the concept of non-duality is very old. But the difference between the concept and its experience a wide one. Looks like your experience didn’t change your mind about your mind. Mine did.
                I can,t know for sure that my experience is 100% true. Again, in front of the impossibility to know the truth I’ll choose what I think is useful.

  26. So if God wants to help the Notre Dame football team, He’d do it by fixing the pre-game coin toss — but only in really big games where they need an edge, like against Southern Cal, and He’d even it out by having them lose the toss against lesser teams, so it all works out to 50/50, and nobody’s the wiser?

    If God’s gonna do that, why not kick up a breeze when the other team goes for a field goal — or, what the hell, just grow the Fighting Irish bigger linemen and faster backs ab initio? Unless He disguises his acts as natural, because He wishes to remain hidden, invulnerable to detection by either bookmakers or scientists? The invisible dragon hiding in my garage is like that, too!

    1. It is good that Notre Dame will never have to play Southern Baptist U. That would be really confusing, even for God.

      1. Perhaps confusing for the two teams, as well, Sunny: Either would have to take a time-out to supplicate The Lord for the forgiveness of sin, were that team to even consider running a naked reverse.

    2. When he played for Barcelona back in the 70s. Johan Cruyff once said that he does not think God exists because if he did all games with end up draws as all 22 players in Spain invariably pray to God before and during the game, so if their prayers were heard, draw is the logical outcome…

    3. An old 60s Catholic joke: What was the 3rd secret of Fatima? “Hire Ara Parseghian”

      1. That may be, Cornbread, but there was something distinctly non-divine in the demonic suggestion to hire Ara’s successor, the Devil’s own Dan Devine.

        And The Irish were clearly calling the Forces of Darkness down upon themselves — indeed, calling them down, quite literally, by name — in choosing the next coach in the post-Ara era, Gerry (I shit you not) Faust.

  27. Omphalos all the way. I will not bother to watch the video; however, I am glad that it was brought to my attention–along with the Templeton’s sticky fingers.

  28. I’ve had similar discussions with freshmen-level biology students. Student would speculate, “Maybe the earth is young and evolution doesn’t happen, but God made it look like the earth’s old and evolution happens.” I’d have to agree that it was logically possible — with a couple of qualifiers.

    First, you can’t say “God made the earth recently and the devil put the evidence for evolution in it.” Why? Because the evidence for evolution isn’t a few fossils in rocks. It permeates your every cell, all the geology of the earth, the speed of light. If the devil did he, he’s at least co-equal with God as creator. That’s logically possible but neither scientific nor Christian (though it does fit some other religious views not relevant to my edge of the bible belt class).

    Second, if God created the earth recently, without evolution, but made it look like earth is old and evolution happens, then God is a liar. God lies in a really big way. While that is logically possible, I’d like to think better of him.

    Therefore, in this class, we’ll assume that the world really is the way it seems to be, and evolution happens.

    Seemed to work.

    1. Last Thursdayism is unfalsifiable and unprovable. It isn’t a scientific theory for that reason.

      1. A god that tried so hard to fool humans is a monster. Might as well call it satan.

      2. It also means that you can’t trust what you see about anything. The earth could be 6,000 years old and appear to be 4.5 billion years old.

      Or it could be 2 hours old and appear to be 4.5 billion years old.

      The entire universe could change every 10 minutes with we and all our memories keeping pace.

      It predicts nothing, goes nowhere, and is useless.

      1. Yet another problem with the omphalos argument is that it means science is finding the answer it ought to find. In an omphalos universe, the empirical evidence does support the conclusion of an old universe and evolving life.

        Creationists, of course, don’t want that taught. So they have to reject omphalism because it doesn’t get them where they want to go (more Jesus in public schools).

  29. “Sober avers not, but I think that the absence of evidence for God, when there should be such evidence, is indeed empirical evidence against God …”

    What about the irony that the truly faithful person is indistinguishable from the truly ‘hard’ atheist?

    As an atheist, I have complete faith in an omnipotent, omniscient god and therefore I can assume she knows everything and thus knows what she needs to know so I shouldn’t try to contact her with updates.

    Further, I shouldn’t attempt to influence her decisions since they will always be the best decisions.

    I shouldn’t attempt to carry out her will by word or deed since she needs no help from me.

    And finally she clearly doesn’t want to be found so I should honor her wishes.

    Same same. Therefore we should never contemplate such a being.

  30. Makes me think of Neal Stephenson’s _Cryptonomicon_. About a third of the book is a flashback to WWII code-breaking efforts in which the protagonist mathematician is working in what would now be called SIGINT for the allies. Essentially, he’s applying information theory to espionage. When the allies break an axis code and use the information tactically, the axis catches on the the fact that the code has been broken (otherwise they wouldn’t be losing so badly) and so they switch codes. The protagonist’s job was to hide the fact that these codes were being broken by engineering “setbacks” for the allies so that it would not be statistically obvious that the allies were breaking all the axis codes.

    That’s pretty much what Sober has to argue here: God might be able to add a little special sauce but if he adds too much it becomes statistically obvious that God is playing favorites. That’s fine, except that there’s good genetic evidence that God isn’t playing favorites; mutations don’t seem to be more beneficial than not.

    So we’re in the position of being able to consider the notion that God might cook up some special mutations just for us, BUT if He’s doing so it’s surreptitiously — God again intentionally hides evidence of his providence from us (kind of hinky how consistent He is on this policy, isn’t it?).

    Seems to me Sober is not doing philosophy; he’s doing theology. There’s no philosophical reason to suppose a trickster God is seeding our genome with the genetic precursors of altruism and self-awareness, but there certainly are theological reasons to do so.

    1. So, god gives us intelligence, but borks the vitamin C gene just to make it look like he’s not playing favorites?

      I guess if that’s what someone wants to believe, we can’t lock them up in a rubber room for it.

      All we can do is shake our head and give them a little condescending pat on the head.

      1. So, god gives us intelligence, but borks the vitamin C gene just to make it look like he’s not playing favorites?

        LOL, yes, that’s my point in a nutshell. Well said.

    2. “a trickster God” – Exactly my thought. And which religion so characterises it’s deity?


      PS. IRL Ian Fleming devised some of the “noise” to cover up code breaking. For ex., sending a reconnaissance plane to cover an area that “just happened” to include the know position of a U-boat.

  31. Re ‘absence of evidence’:

    When I claim that there is a teapot in orbit around Venus, can this only be refuted by launching a mission to Venus to search for that teapot? Isn’t it enough to point out that Bertrand Russell once proposed the idea of a celestial teapot in orbit around the sun, making it highly likely that my claim is based on his idea? Isn’t this overwhelming evidence that I just made it up?

    When there is strong evidence that a claim was simply made up, then it is reasonable to treat absence of evidence (for that claim) as evidence of absence (of that what was claimed).

    What would count as evidence that a claim was made up? Here are some clues (not all need to be satisfied at the same time):

    1. There are no witnesses at all.
    2. Identity of witnesses unknown.
    3. Witnesses known to be unreliable.
    4. A literary source for the claim can be identified. In that source, the claim is not supported by known, reliable witnesses.
    5. There are no other, reliable, sources for the claim.

    Not surprisingly, on this evidence all the supernatural stuff in the Bible was evidently made up.

    1. “… on this evidence all the supernatural stuff in the Bible was evidently made up.”

      So was all of the ‘science’ which pretty much deals a death blow. Flat earth, sun travels across sky and can stop, stars not identified as suns, planets are identified as stars, enough water to drown the earth …

      One error suffices to invalidate the whole. There is more than one.

      1. Quite. You have to ask: if they couldn’t even get the real world right, why should we believe that they had more accurate information about the supernatural?

  32. Jerry wrote,
    “accommodationism breeds bad philosophy.”

    More critically, philosophy breeds bad science.

    And, the philosophy of science breeds the worst science of all.

  33. As a philosopher working on evolution (and American pragmatism), I can say that this type of logical accommodationism is very, very common in philosophy. It is really mild in fact. For those of you out there who might think that philosophers are like scientists—just at a higher and less practical level of generality—you are mistaken.
    I am in a department that is mostly centered on the study of classical American pragmatism. This means that we do the history, critique, and use of the philosophy of William James, Charles S. Peirce, and John Dewey (Mead and Royce to a lesser extent). All three of these philosophers were working scientists. (psychology, experimental psychology, geodetics). But their deep ties to evolution and science receive a tiny fraction of the interest. For every paper given about the science aspect of these thinkers, there are hundreds given for other topics (totally fine in most cases) and dozens given that focus on their religious leanings (James and Peirce) or their lack of religious leanings (Dewey).
    I am using this small case study to make a point about philosophy in general. As Dewey would say, a vast proportion of philosophers are on a “Quest for Certainty” (a book title of his where he describes and derides this tendency). It may not always be the literal capital G god they are searching for in philosophy but it is almost always some similar idea. These ideas are always capital letter ideas: the Absolute, the Universal, the True, the Good. This type of certainty is not the probabilistic certainty of science. They approach these ideas—and defend these ideas—in much the same way a fundamentalist approaches or defends their capital letter God.
    The philosophy of biology and evolution is much better at avoiding this tendency of philosophy but it is not immune. There is still talk of “natural kinds” that seems suspiciously similar the work of Aristotle (who did quite a bit of “biology”) or Kant (who also wrote about teleology in the “biological” world) who both wanted capital N and capital K natural kinds. Michael Ruse and Eliot Sober are not outside of the norm in their odd philosophical accommodationism. Do not jump too quickly to conclusions; they may not even be believers in god, but they will be believers in the quest for certainty. This odd philosophical disease that Dewey spent much of his career fighting is still doing remarkably well in philosophy departments around the world.

    1. I was with you right up to the 180 you pulled in the last 2 sentences. I’m struggling to understand how someone, like Sobers, who adopts the position of the skeptic on the philosophical case for naturalism, can rightly be accused of being a “believer[] in the quest for certainty.” Perhaps you can clarify?

      1. Sorry that I did not more explicitly link the first and second part of my post together. I am implying (and of course I do not know Sober’s inner views) that for a thinker such as Sober their logical accommodationism–i.e. god is not explicitly denied therefore god is at least plausible–is tied to a very singular and very common type of logical thought. This type of logic has a long tradition in philosophy. It arises when logic (an abstraction from experience) is mistaken for experience itself. The simplicity and certainty of this abstraction becomes so attractive that we (philosophers and theologians mostly) try to make our everyday existence fit into the model of our logic. This use of logic takes many forms, anything from an almost harmless palliative (if we lived more logically the world would be better) to literal “proofs” for the existence of god (ontological argument). We can find this use of logic most explicitly in the theological philosophers–Plato (Timaeus), Augustine, Aquinas, Spinoza (or a contemporary thinker such as Alvin Plantinga). But shades of it are found in almost all contemporary analytic and continental philosophers and even–it seems–in philosophy of biology (I could go into detail with many examples). We can see the opposition to this type of “logic” in thinkers like Hume (his essay on “Miracles” is a great example) and John Dewey (his essay “The Influence of Darwin on Philosophy” or the “Quest for Certainty” are good examples).

        Hopefully you can see more clearly what I mean. Sober could quite easily fall into this type of logical preference (a mild version of the quest for certainty)and “believe” that the very logical possibility of god entails (causally) that he not exclude the possibility of god…however small that possibility might be. His “logic” determines his world view in the same way a believer’s “belief” determines their world view. (please do not think I mean to say they are equivalent–only that the style of thought is similar. The belief determines the experience instead of the experience determining the belief).

        1. “Sober could quite easily fall into this type of logical preference”

          Yes, of course, but notice that his discussion is a response to the reverse of that preference: the evidence does not, in fact, rule out the possibility of god-guided evolution. It seems to me that rather than him falling into this trap you speak of, he is pointing out that we naturalists hang on a similar, insurmountable precipice. Clearly, in addressing the position we find ourselves in, Dewey and Hume are excellent guides to naturalism, but I fail to see how they are relevant to the substance of Sobers’ actual, narrow point about the evidence.

          It’s one thing to critique a fine point of philosophy in context, and rather another to critique all the possible avenues such a point might lead to.

  34. This is the same God who — so the story goes — couldn’t create a single garden and two human beings without collapsing the universe into entropy and death, right?

  35. Imagine a guy who thinks that his car is being pushed along by invisible elves. This guy enrols at college for an automotive technology course. On the course he learns everything that there is to know about how a car actually works and the real reasons that the car moves. For some reason he still thinks that the elves must be involved, moving the pistons or something.

    The whole point about evolution by natural selection is that it is a complete explanation for biodiversity, it doesn’t need divine intervention any more than a car needs elves.

  36. If God is the Second Foundation, then who the heck is Hari Seldon in this scenario?

  37. Jerry,

    Thanks for posting a link to the video of my talk. Your summary is misleading:

    (1) I am not trying to justify “interventionism” (the view that God sometimes intervenes in nature). My claim is that the findings of evolutionary biology do not rule this out, any more than evolutionary biology can tell us that determinism is false.

    (2) I am not arguing that it is “philosophically cogent to accept the existence of miracles in evolution.” I am saying that the empirical findings of evolutionary biology do not rule this out.

    I hope you were wearing your theologian’s hat when you wrote “I think that the absence of evidence for God, when there should be such evidence, is indeed empirical evidence against God.” This is not a finding of evolutionary biology. It is philosophy. Not that there is anything wrong with doing philosophy. But let’s not pretend that your theological claim is a finding of evolutionary biology.


    1. Prof. Sober, you do realize your arguments are every bit as cogent to completely man-made systems like the telephone system in the US, right? There’s no way to demonstrate conclusively that the telephone system works purely through the application of technology; there’s no inconsistency in supposing that certain elements of the phone system would cease to work if it weren’t for the daily intervention of some benevolent deity. We can’t look for God in every relay every second of every day, so we can’t prove He’s not at work there.

      Should we suppose such a thing? Should we argue such a thing? I must conclude that you think we should, given that there’s no real philosophical difference between your arguments applied to evolution and your arguments applied to the telephone system. Or even between those and your arguments applied to my stepmother’s chocolate chip cookies (well, to be fair, those are actually heavenly).

      Given the fact that your argument applies to essentially any example I can think of, I immediately wonder: Why evolution? Since we’re talking about hats, may I ask if you’re really wearing your philosopher’s hat here?

    2. Prof Sober.

      1. Yes, they do. If you believe otherwise, you’re sadly and appallingly under-educated.

      2. Ditto.

      1. I enjoyed reading many of the refutations in this thread, but yours unquestionably the most. I guess this accommodationist Templeton monkey will now have to resign his chair in disgrace.

    3. Professor Sober, isn’t there an unspoken assumption that science is falsification? Suppose instead that science is aimed at explaining the world. Science has now found out enough to know that there is no way for God to intervene to direct mutations. Bell’s theorem demonstrates that hidden variable theories have measurable consequences and the experimental tests have ruled out hidden variable theories, which inclues the ones where God is the hidden variable.

      1. If God is a non-worldly being who is responsible for the totality of our world then God is a non-worldly hidden variable. Laboratory experiments can only rule out worldly hidden variables – surely?

        But then it would be absurd to talk about God leaving well alone and directly acting on the world only rarely. Every last quantum jigger would be intended just so.

    4. (1) I am not trying to justify “interventionism” (the view that God sometimes intervenes in nature). My claim is that the findings of evolutionary biology do not rule this out, any more than evolutionary biology can tell us that determinism is false.

      Yes, it can not be ruled out. But do you also happen to point out how unscientific it is to actually believe that such a thing is true? No, you don’t. Well, then we have a problem here.

      (2) I am not arguing that it is “philosophically cogent to accept the existence of miracles in evolution.” I am saying that the empirical findings of evolutionary biology do not rule this out.

      But, again, leaving the part about how you can not be thinking scientifically and actually be convinced that God intervenes, makes it seem as if you do exactly that. And, in the end, it makes it equivalent to supporting such a view because that’s how the majority of people who are looking for a justification of their faith will take it.

    5. There are infinitely many things that are ‘not ruled out’ by the findings of evolutionary biology, precisely because there is no evidence for them whatsoever. If the conjunction of the findings of evolutionary biology and ‘statement X’ (say, interventionism) are philosophically cogent, then this only means that being part of a philosophically cogent observation doesn’t necessarily convey any factual information about statement X.

      On the other hand, it is true to say that nothing in evolutionary biology requires statement X to be true.

    6. Dr Sober – there are an infinite number of other entities that science does not rule out, but which you dismiss out of hand.

      So my question to you is: what is your justification for treating this one entity exceptionally compared to all the others?

      Why should I treat someone’s Yahweh belief more seriously than I do someone’s fairies in my garden belief?

    7. Elliott,

      Thanks for commenting. I do think you are trying to justify interventionism in the sense of giving it a philosophical grounding, and ten to one that’s how creationists are going to see this.

      As for #2, what I meant by “philosophically cogent” is “philophically clear and logical,” which the same as saying, to me, that empiricism doesn’t rule it out. That is, one can justify such a belief through philosophy.

      And no, I was not wearing my theologian’s hat when I made that statement. Do you think that the argument that Bigfoot does not exist is a philosophical one, too? I claim it’s an empirical one: observation has revealed no evidence of bigfoot (or of God) and there SHOULD be evidence if these things exist. Therefore, we can provisionally rule them out. That’s called science, not philosophy.

      1. Bigfoot is believed to be a creature of the world whereas God is believed to be not of the world. How can science rule out something not of the world? Science can rule out certain claims about how God operates, such as intervention – there being no scientific evidence for which – but science cannot rule out the existence of a non=worldly being who causes the laws of nature to be and to operate unfailingly.

        1. Sober’s miracles are irreducibly invisible. Sober’s theism invokes a God whose operations are indistinguishable from those of deism and pantheism and atheism. I would like to know what Collins and Miller think of it.

        2. Bigfoot is believed to be a creature of the world whereas God is believed to be not of the world. How can science rule out something not of the world?

          Oh, you misunderstand. You see, we’re not talking about a corporeal bigfoot. We’re talking about the spiritual essence of bigfoot.

          Science can rule out certain claims about how God operates, such as intervention – there being no scientific evidence for which – but science cannot rule out the existence of a non=worldly being who causes the laws of nature to be and to operate unfailingly.

          You’re right. Science can’t rule out the spiritual essence of bigfoot. How silly of me to ever have doubted the existence of the spiritual essence of bigfoot.

          1. One may legitimately doubt the existence of a worldly Bigfoot and a non-worldly God even if their existence cannot be categorically ruled out. I think the existence of Bigfoot is far more probable than the existence of God; I put the probability of Bigfoot’s existence very close to zero.

      2. Jerry,

        1. This post just seems to be kicking up lots of dust. Elliot is giving a fairly general talk here (did you hear where Richards says the series will focus on biology within the humanities and social sciences?). It’s plausible to suppose there are a broad range of people in the audience (I see students at the table), and people are sometimes confused about what science “proves” about God and what it doesn’t no doubt. So what you think is trivial might be worthwhile and interesting to others.

        2. “I do think you are trying to justify interventionism in the sense of giving it a philosophical grounding…..”

        This is not what he is doing at all. You are running together “giving a justification” with “demonstrating the logical compatibility” of something, which are totally different things.

        To justify something X, you need to provide evidence in favor of the (actual) existence of X. To show that X is logically compatible with something Y, you don’t. You merely need to show the truth of X is logically compatible with the truth of Y (this is a claim about possibility, not actuality). Establishing logical compatibility does NOT commit one to saying that the thing X exists. The mere fact that I can establish that unicorns are logically possible does not imply “I’m justifying belief in unicorns in the sense of giving it a philosophical grounding.”

        Now, you might think this is unhelpful since you already accept the logical point (as do almost all philosophers I know). But some audiences might find this useful (see 1 again).

        3. “Do you think that the argument that Bigfoot does not exist is a philosophical one, too? I claim it’s an empirical one: observation has revealed no evidence of bigfoot (or of God) and there SHOULD be evidence if these things exist. Therefore, we can provisionally rule them out.”

        I see what you are trying to say, but this is misleading (I don’t mean this is a nasty way: I just think you’re missing it here). Your argument here depends on a suppressed premise (look up “enthymeme”):

        [P] If there is no observable evidence for E, then we are entitled to reject the existence of E.

        The problem is that P is not derived from empirical evidence itself (what observation could justify such a principle, pray tell?). Notice that your argument here appeals to what “should be” the case.
        Claims about what “should be” the case are not factual claims, right? So how could they be “empirical”?

        1. couchloc, elementary logical proof of P:

          1. Assume the opposite:
          ~P: If there is no observable evidence for E, then we are not entitled to reject the existence of E.

          2. Since we are not entitled to reject the existence of E, for ALL E such that there is no evidence for E, we must believe in all such E.

          3. Since the mind is finite and there is an infinity or incredibly large number of possible Es for which there is no evidence, we cannot believe in all such Es.

          Therefore, we cannot believe ~P. We must, at least once in a while, be able to reject belief in an entity E for which there is no evidence.

          Therefore P.

          1. As far as empirical evidence goes, there is an eight foot tall invisible bear behind you right now.

            Still there? Not mauled? That’s empirical evidence that in some cases we should reject the existence of entities for which there is no empirical evidence.

          2. There is a difference between not believing all E, and rejecting all E, on the basis of not having evidence for E. I can fail to believe a proposition without rejecting it e.g. remain open to the evidence should any surface.

            1. That’s semantic cavilling. It’s completely dependent on your interpretations of the words being used. I considered doing that TO couchloc but decided rather than uselessly nitpicking I would try to understand what couchloc is arguing and respond to that. Since you won’t do me the same courtesy I’d rather not discuss with you.

              1. Dan L.,

                I’m afraid that Lee is right and I would say your premise 2 is false (although I think you make an interesting try here). Compare this to the following set of words:

                1. Interested
                2. Disinterested
                3. Uninterested

                Which of these is the opposite of 1? To say that someone is “disinterested” is to say they have a positive disliking of something. To suggest that someone is “uninterested” is to say they have a lack of interest in something (i.e., apathy). Your premise 2 above is trading on a similar ambiguity, which Lee is trying to point out. I don’t think this is just a matter of semantic caviling.

        2. @couchloc below:

          Then I misinterpreted your argument because it was ambiguous. In fact, my initial inclination was to point out that it is ambiguous and have you make it more precise.

          It seems to me your argument does nothing more than make excuses for believing whatever one wants to believe. Can you explain how it does not do that?

          Finally, let’s update premise 2:
          2′: Since we are not entitled to reject the existence of E for SOME E, we must believe in all E which we are not entitled to reject.

          Then the question is, how can we determine which Es we are entitled to reject, and which are we not entitled to reject?

          1. Can we determine that there are any such entities? That is, entities for which there is no evidence but in which we must believe.

            1. Oh, and I disagree with your analysis of “disinterested” and “uninterested” which I consider simple synonyms.

              1. Actually, no. Ignoring the fact that through common (mis)use, “disinterested” can be a synonym of “uninterested” (indifferent), it does also have a discrete sense (impartial).

                However, couchloc’s question is badly formed, as “disinterested” (meaning “impartial”) and “uninterested” are each antonyms of different senses of “interested”; that is, there’s a 1a and a 1b, not just a 1!


          2. “It seems to me your argument does nothing more than make excuses for believing whatever one wants to believe. Can you explain how it does not do that?”

            I don’t agree. I would say that one should believe in something X only if there is evidence for X. What people want doesn’t play a role.

    8. Prof. Sober,

      As should be clear from the comments, most of us note that your arguments can apply to virtually every empirical observation we make – evolution being no special exception.
      Hence, why is your argument not, in the end, simply making the mundane point that we can not have absolute certainty in our knowledge…about virtually anything? (Since, for every observation we make, we can conjure alternate possibilities to explain it, that can not be disproved)?

      It just seems most atheists I know have acknowledged this and simply say we apply the same type of criteria to God claims as to any other claims.

      When you say, concerning God being the cause of apparently “random” phenomena in evolution, that we can not empirically rule this out…what does this make of the very concept of “evidence?”

      Take a murder case in which two people were investigated, George and Fred: Every bit of physical evidence we have points to “George” as the murderer – witnesses, fingerprints, DNA evidence, hair, clothing samples etc. The evidence rules out Fred as the murderer. Can we rule out that an unseen force, intelligent or otherwise, has skewed the data to look like George is guilty, when in fact he is innocent and Fred was guilty? Strictly speaking, of course not. But what rational person in the world demands such a criteria? By any reasonable criteria, and by any reasonable concept of “empirical evidence,” we can say the evidence points to George as being the cause of the victim’s death. If we have to stop ourselves from making empirical claims because someone can imagine unprovable scenarios that are also compatible with what we see, then all notions of “evidence” and observation seem undermined, for no good reason.

      In just the same way, testable hypothesis, lab experiments, and in-field observations all support the explanation that the evolution process is unguided. If we can not have evidence in this way, then we can not have evidence establishing ANYTHING empirically. It’s not a full-stop claim of confidence, but then, who demands such things?

      Which is why many of us are wondering what substance we are supposed to take from your argument. Thanks.


    9. I think lurking behind all of this is Elliot’s in principle objection to theistic explanations. To paraphrase, he claims that if we can’t know what kinds of things God may want for the world (and we can’t), then we can’t rule out his intervention by reference to the findings of evolutionary biology.

      I discuss this argument (as well as Gregory Dawes’s response to it) here if anyone is interested.

      I will add that I think Elliot has done some great work on philosophy of science and, in particular, on the design argument (from a critical perspective). I would highly recommend the latter to all non-theists.

    10. One more thing, to echo somewhat Jerry’s response:

      “I hope you were wearing your theologian’s hat when you wrote “I think that the absence of evidence for God, when there should be such evidence, is indeed empirical evidence against God.” This is not a finding of evolutionary biology. It is philosophy. Not that there is anything wrong with doing philosophy. But let’s not pretend that your theological claim is a finding of evolutionary biology.”

      Jerry’s empirical qualification is right there, (bolded by me). In the cases were there ought to be evidence for a God and you go looking and find there is none where it should be, that certainly corresponds to the scientific process; it’s standard procedure for hypothesis testing!

      God is not excepted from this, and one no more has to put in their “theological” hat to discount a God by this method than one has to put on their “Bigfootology” or “Ufology” or “Dragon-in-my-garagology” or any other such hat when evaluating claims in this way. If I claimed to have turned the statue of liberty into gold via Black Magic, one only needs to investigate whether the Statue of Liberty is now made of gold as would be expected from the claim. If it’s not, the claim can be discounted. One doesn’t have to put on a “Black Magicology” hat to do so. One merely has to put on their “science” or “critical inquiry” hat for all of them.

      Beyond that, if we are talking only of the type of God that is described as purely undetectable and leaving no evidence, then as stated earlier, that type of God is also dismissed as a cause on grounds of parsimony, etc.


      1. Vaal is exactly right here.

        That there is no evidence for a stampeding flock of angry triceratopses running amok in the room where you read these words is proof that the flock does not exist. Such a flock could only produce unmistrakable evidence were it to exist; that the evidence does not exist is conclusive proof that the flock, too, does not exist.

        In a similar vein, we know that the Luminiferous Aether also does not exist.

        And, similarly, we know that there are no gods.

        Jesus, for example, is said to want humanity to know and understand him. This mission of his was so important that he went out of his way to get tortured to death and then bring himself back to life as a zombie with a fetish for getting his guts groped, just so that people would believe he was the real deal. Oh — and it’s also so important to him that we believe in him that he’ll infinitely torture those who don’t.

        Well, where’s his Web site? What’s his telephone number? What channel is he on? Directly communicating with the entire planet is trivial these days, and yet the only way that Jesus can communicate with us is by way of centuries-after-the-fact copies-of-copies of translations-of-translations of documents that describe themselves as fifth-generation hearsay in the opening line?

        Yeah, right. Pull the other one.

        I’m sorry, but I’ve searched this room high and low, and it’s equally devoid of dinosaur doodoo and zombie entrails. Jesus’s included.


  38. I consulted my cats on this matter. They explained that according to the video, just because you can’t see Ceiling Cat, you can’t assume that he isn’t sitting on the roof. Hey, he just sprayed the front door! Of course we never see him do it, so we can’t prove that it isn’t him and not a random visit from a stray.
    My cats would be more likely to believe in Ceiling Cat if he walked in and handed out fish and crunchies once in awhile. But most of mine are minions of Basement Cat, anyway.

  39. See, this is what I’ve long suspected: nothing can be ruled out. Rain, then, may well turn out to be god’s tears – which actually makes sense.

  40. Sober unfortunatley obfuscates things by simply writing Pr(mutation x | natural causes) != Pr(mutation x | natural causes & God’s intervention). Everyone knows that it is more accurate to say Pr(mutation x | natural causes) > Pr(mutation x | natural causes & God’s intervention). This is true necessarily. Thus we have more epistemic justification for restricting ourselves to Pr(mutation x | natural causes).

  41. Because of evolution, the attention is on Biology, and medicine gets a fair share of studies over prayer and miracles. But Christian theology widely asserts that God intervenes on an ongoing basis in the natural world. In my field (geophysical/meteorological hazards) such interventions should be detectible, given that Christians assert:
    1) prayer will mitigate the harm the faithful suffer;
    2) God punishes the ungodly with disasters (directly, or via a withdrawal of his grace, depending which brand you subscribe to).

    That is both a positive and negative bias that should work together to product an observable difference. I’m working on an analysis of 25 years of detailed tornado tracks and damage data for a project. As a personal side effort I’ve been looking at the frequencies Churches (categorized as Protestant or Catholic) get hit vs. Public Schools and Post Offices, as well as tracks that pass near these locations. As an additional metric, I compared tornado tracks/frequencies with county level abortion rates. Within the uncertainty levels there is no difference – if anything, God hates Protestants (but I suspect that is due to construction type; Catholic churches are generally more substantial). An automated analysis showed no anomalous tracks – tornadoes avoiding churches, or swerving to take out planned parenthood clinics or DNC offices. So God is so subtle he makes no difference . . .

    Would love to publish this, but not sure any of the met journals would touch it.

    1. It was my contention that god was punishing states that had a substantial anti-gay marriage prohibition in either law or state constitution.

      I was doing pretty well with that hypothesis until Iowa had to foul it up by legalizing gay marriage.

      1. The Iowa justices who legalized it were voted out of office by extremists in the 2010 election, so your contention may hold.

  42. “In other words, God could be a “supernatural hidden variable” in the process of mutation.”

    It sounds like special pleading to me, and it begs the question- why would an all powerful creator choose to hide in the numbers and constrain itself to actions within the limits of statistical background noise?

    Covert extraterrestrial genetic engineering sound just as plausible to me.

    So, let me get this straight, mutations that are bad, like mutations that cause cancer or Huntington’s are really random, but mutations that are good could be the intervention of a shy god, or they could also be random, just like the bad mutations, is that about right?

    Let me guess the reason why god does not intervene and prevent the bad mutations: The Fall.

  43. That it doesn’t rule it out doesn’t give much comfort to people who see no reason to rule it in. As far as the mutation goes, it’s really no different than saying that unguided evolution would be God’s preferred method as God would have known the outcome from the process (omniscience). But when people think that evolution is in conflict with their scripture, then what good is saying that evolution doesn’t rule out God?

  44. He makes the presumption that there is a god. His argument, however, could also apply to any god, or gods, or angels, or demons, or IPUs, or possibly garden fairies; making it meaningless.

    Science does not care whether there is some entity manipulating anything, or not. If there is something meddling around, science will more than likely find it. As of yet? Nope!

    So far, in the past 12,000 years of the existence of known religion; religion has gotten everything wrong about the universe, nature, and ourselves. That is a pretty poor track record to allow for his presumption.

    He has no justification in assuming a deity, and then use his talk as an argument for it. He is providing no evidence, just hearsay.

    The argument of a False Dichotomy. Even if we would grant his argument that a deity was somehow involved, how would he know that it was his Christian/Abrahamic god, versus the 60,000+ gods mankind has claimed over the millenia; or just as arguably, a deity that we as of yet know nothing about?

    It is not the responsibility of science to disprove the existence of a deity. It is the responsibility of those that are making a claim – to prove their claim. As in any court, if you make a claim, then it is your responsibility to prove that claim is true. It is not the responsibility of the defendant to disprove that claim.

    The Quantum Quack argument. It is interesting to first note, that it was science that discovered quantum mechanics, not religion. (It is so interesting (enough to make me puke) that they’ll use a ‘piece’ of science at their choosing for their defense, and then ignore or argue the rest) Further, quantum mechanics, in a simplistic nutshell, states that anything can/could happen. However, this is not a justification for the existence of a deity. Just because QM allows for basically anything, it does not mean that anything, or everything has happened.

    This doesn’t even make it as circumstantial evidence.

    We go back to the beginning; proving the claim. Again, this is nothing more than hearsay. Can you imagine a lawyer using QM in a trial as a defense? Or how about as the Plaintiff? Yikes!

    “In science, the burden of proof falls upon the claimant; and the more extraordinary a claim, the heavier is the burden of proof demanded.”
    –Marcello Truzz

    I suggest that Sober retakes his undergrad class in logic. (He seems to have forgotten it.)

  45. Ah, we’re back to the god who diddles nature in a way that is indistinguishable from nature behaving without a god. See – there really *is* a god, there’s just no evidence for it!

  46. That is Massimo Pigliucci all over again: The idea that ruling the supernatural out is beyond science but instead philosophy. The answer should really be trivial:

    Consistently applied, that means that science cannot ever say anything, because we also cannot be totally sure that, say, professional and skeptical naturalists have always just looked where the Yeti did not happen to be at the moment, or that gravity does not sometimes stop working for a bit but only where we will never see it. So really, by that logic, science is a completely useless exercise. Which is why I would argue that the elements of philosophy that are needed to make conclusions on the lines of “beyond reasonable doubt”, “the burden of evidence is on you”, “extraordinary claims need extraordinary evidence”, etc., must necessarily be part of science for it to be useful.

    Saying that science cannot do this, only philosophy can, is like saying a car cannot move, only engines can. Well yeah, but the engine is part of the car, and that is why the car can also move.

    1. “Saying that science cannot do this, only philosophy can, is like saying a car cannot move, only engines can. Well yeah, but the engine is part of the car, and that is why the car can also move.”

      I agree. Science and philosophy are interconnected and we should be able to work together — as parts of one car.

      “That is Massimo Pigliucci all over again: The idea that ruling the supernatural out is beyond science but instead philosophy.”

      It would be OK with me if they’d take over the lead on that job. I have other things I’d rather be doing. But, I wish the philosophers would get cracking and actually DO it. If they see remaining holes in the philosophical work of folks like Dennett, Mackie and Martin, please get them patched up well enough that we can move on.

      1. If philosophy is part of the car it’s the speck of rust that appeared on the engine block.

  47. It’s god of the gaps again, on the next level of unknown, on the next frontier of human understanding.

    When Darwin showed divine creation wrong, the role of god receded into being a probability-twiddler for gene mutations.

  48. Presumably the existence of Bigfoot is not ruled out as a consequence of evolutionary biology. Sober is just arguing that divine intervention is also logically compatible with evolution; which just means that accepting evolution does not logically entail the rejection interventionist theism all on its own. That’s not an argument for theism or against evolution, and to think otherwise is just intellectual laziness.

  49. Dr. Coyne,

    As for this argument’s novelty, it’s mostly similar to Plantinga’s argument with Dennett in “Science and Religion: Are they Compatible?”.

    As to “why” Sober might make this argument, I think Sigmund is on to something by noting who is funding the series.

  50. It seems to me that arguments based on what “God” supposedly did or could have done are so completely speculative and vaporous as to be useless. Meaningless strings of words, really.

    Exactly what is this “God” that that we’re to imagine might create directed mutations? Is there any evidence anything named “God” exists or that it can do anything at all, let alone alter genes? Has even one “God” induced mutation been demonstrated?

    No conclusions can be reached about “God” until the word has been clearly defined as an object and some thing corresponding to the definition has been shown to exist. As it stands, “God” has more in common with “bliffernix” than with “mouse”. Saying that perhaps “bliffernix” guides mutations is obvious nonsense. How does substituting “God” add meaning?

    Without evidence and clear definitions, it’s just theobabble.

  51. Chuck Watson: why not publish your Protestant punishing tornadoes (ok, that’s not quite what you said) in Skeptical Inquirer?

  52. I’ll have to beat the drum for David Deutsch again, I’m afraid. You’ll find his The Beginning of Infinity to be very good philosophy, as well as superbly written. Among the things that are relevant to this debate he says this:

    In general, when theories are easily variable in the sense I have described, experimental testing is almost useless for correcting their errors. (TBoI, p. 22)

    Science is not just about proving or disproving things. Testability, however, which is where science actually can rule things out, comes in only if there is a good explanation to be tested in the first place. To say that science cannot disprove God’s meddling with our jeans is to profoundly misrepresent science, since there is a reason that science doesn’t even consider bad explanations (i.e. those that are easily variable).

    Long story short: Might miraculous mutation be an explanation for our evolution? No, stupid, because it’s a bad explanation that cannot even be ruled out.

    1. For that matter, even if we’re restricting the discussion to the eponymous divinities, we’ve still got quite the list to choose from.

      Is this the Catholic god named, “God,” who regularaly corporeally manifests on command in the form of a cracker; or is this the Jewish god, confusingly enough also named, “God,” who would never dream of doing anything so crass?

      Because those’re most emphatically two entirely different deities, each with their own distinct properties.


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