A challenge to Elliott Sober about God-guided mutations

May 14, 2012 • 12:21 pm

The renowned philosopher of science Elliott Sober has, in recent weeks, given a talk and written a paper that both make the same points: Evolution is totally silent on the idea and actions of God and, further, that evolutionists have neglected the logical possibility that God could have been involved in creating some of the mutations involved in evolution. (These mutations are presumably adaptive—God wouldn’t make all those nasty mutations that cause muscular dystrophy and cancer!)

I see this exercise—of demonstrating the logical compatibility of a rarely-acting God with evolution, and, by extension, with all of science—as a trivial exercise and a waste of time.  No evolutionary biologist argues that evolution logically entails the non-existence of a God who can tweak the process. Or, if there are a few misguided individuals who do, they’re not important enough to contest in this way.

In his paper, Sober asserted that the philosophers Dan Dennett and Will Provine make the claim that evolution logically implies no theistic God, but Jason Rosenhouse showed that they didn’t, and Dennett vigorously denies it.  Sober’s responses on both my and Jason’s websites haven’t seemed convincing, to me at least.

So I’ll issue this challenge to Elliott, and have already sent it to him by email so he knows of its existence. I am not expecting or demanding him to respond, but it would be lovely if he did.  The challenge consists of three groups of questions:

1. Can you demonstrate that the logical compatibility of a rarely-acting God with evolutionary biology is a serious and important philosophical question?

2. Your argument about that logical compatibility would seem to extend not just to mutation and evolution, but to all of science. Is that correct? If so, why did you concentrate on mutation?

3.  If the answer to the first part of (2) is “yes,” then would it be equally important for philosophers to write papers and give talks about how we can’t rule out the logical possibility that God influences coin tosses to favor outcomes He wants (like a favorite football team winning)? If not, why not? After all, isn’t the coin-tossing argument basically identical to the one you were making for mutations?

141 thoughts on “A challenge to Elliott Sober about God-guided mutations

  1. May I please add a fourth challenge?

    By what possible mechanism do gods influence mutations, and what is the energy source and / or energy signature of this mechanism? Or, alternatively, are we to hold that the gods perform these actions outside of the normal flow of entropy — and, if so, why should this hypothesis be given any more consideration than one of a perpetual motion machine?



    1. “2. Your argument about that logical compatibility would seem to extend not just to mutation and evolution, but to all of science. Is that correct? If so, why did you concentrate on mutation?”

      Certainly, this would also “logically” (in the sense of logically valid) entail that God was responsible for the non-mutations as well, perhaps by failing to act.

      The opposite theistic view – there are always competing theistic views – is Richard Swinburne’s argument that in a world without God, all electrons would have individual characteristics and the fact that they don’t implies God. So we have the view that iregularities logically don’t discount God and so do regularities.

      1. “Richard Swinburne’s argument that in a world without God, all electrons would have individual characteristics and the fact that they don’t implies God.”

        What. WHAT. What is this I don’t even.

        This is why philosophers in general, and theologians in particular, should not be allowed to mention anything concerning physics until they can work out the S and P shells of a hydrogen atom from the Schroedinger equation, or some equivalent test of actual competence.

        (I can’t actually do that, so I shall refrain from saying physics proves my philosophies.)

    2. A very nice, scientific, fourth challenge. When anyone presents a hypothesis for testing, we don’t just look at the single phenomena its trying to explain – because if that’s all it predicts, we have a circularity problem. After all, hypotheses are often constructed knowing how that specific phenomenon behaves.

      No, when a hypothetical explanation for A is given, we look at other, independent things the hypothesis should also predict – the B’s, C’s and D’s.

      Thus, for the ‘God-influences mutation’ hypothesis, we should ask how else we might investigate the hypothesis based on its mechanism.

      1. Then why is Sober wasting perfectly good time arguing about the possibility of divine intervention? Why not of ghostly activity? The more one thinks about it the stupider this seems.

        1. Great Spaghetti Monster, Batman, it’s almost like Sober wants to *gasp* talk to the believers as if they’re worthy of being argued with rather than sent to the funny farm! What a trivial thing to do!

  2. I think you’re right to issue this challenge. I’ll suggest a few answers:

    (1) This argument draws our attention to a more general point: that no scientific observation by itself can provide evidence against God’s existence. Even the Problem of Evil requires an ethical premise: that it is wrong to permit gratuitous suffering.

    Also, arguments from alternative explanations such as the Theory of Evolution require principles (such as Ockham’s Razor) that go beyond scientific observations.

    So as I suggested in a previous comment, maybe Sober is pointing out that scientific theories by themselves do not provide evidence against God’s existence; they might only undercut theistic arguments.

    (I agree that if that’s what he meant, maybe he should have also said that.)

    (2) Because mutation is one way that evolution produces “new” organisms, and evolution is the scientific theory most widely believed (rightly or wrongly) to present a problem for theism. Don’t you agree that many theists think that the theory of evolution provides evidence against theism? They don’t think the same about plate tectonics, the atomic theory of matter, or the germ theory of disease.

    (3) Relatedly, no one argues that since the coin came up Heads, theism is less justified.

    1. Re (2)

      A mutation event isn’t enough. God, acting as a mutagen, would also have to rearrange the environment so the mutation spread through the population. Why didn’t Sober concentrate on climate or asteroids? I think the reason why Sober is singling out the lowly mutation is because it is an everyday, random event which to some opens up an anything goes wonderland of speculation. A lot like quantum woo

    2. I think it is much more related to the difference between logical and empirical exclusion, which I believe Jason argues too in his two posts. Logically you can exclude very little if anything, empirically you can exclude a lot and even generic stuff. (Say, exclusion of volumes without vacuum fields, exclusion of magic and exclusion of something “outside of the universe” are some generic empirical exclusions.)

      1. But why mutations and not something else is what I want to know. Is it all mutations or just certain ones God favors (like the chosen people, the chosen polymorphism), and if it’s typically chromosomal duplications what does that tell us about the handiwork of the divine?
        And most important, there must be a way to discern Holy mutations from Satanic mutations and normal mutations. Sober is silent on this.

        1. In case you hadn’t noticed, god has been shrinking. (That’s why I use lowercase.) He used to create worlds from the void. Then he drowned the all inhabitants of our world, except for a few highly incestuous, highly virtuous people whose job it was to get busy and repopulate the planet. Having disposed of all the excess water after that episode, all he could manage was to part one middling sea. Then he made loaves and fishes so people could have a picnic with his son. He and his son had to team up to raise the dead.

          All he can manage now is to screw with macromolecules. He’s tired, he’s old – give him a break.

      2. The nature of empirical observation is such that it can never prove that something doesn’t exist. It can prove propositions of the form “some x are y” and “some x are not y,” but it can’t prove propositions of the form “no x are y” or “all x are y.”

        Furthermore, something “outside the PHYSICAL universe” would be outside of the realm of empirical observation, so how one would go about excluding it empirically is beyond me…

        1. » Dave:
          The nature of empirical observation is such that it can never prove that something doesn’t exist.

          It seems you’ve got it exactly backwards. Empirical observation can prove, for example, that no perpetual motion machine exists. I’ll just quote you the relevant portion (§ 15) from Logic of Scientific Discovery for clarification:

          The theories of natural science, and especially what we call natural laws, have the logical form of strictly universal statements; thus they can be expressed in the form of negations of strictly existential statements or, as we may say, in the form of non-existence statements (or ‘there-is-not’ statements). For example, the law of the conservation of energy can be expressed in the form: ‘There is no perpetual motion machine’, or the hypothesis of the electrical elementary charge in the form: ‘There is no electrical charge other than a multiple of the electrical elementary charge’.

          In this formulation we see that natural laws might be compared to ‘proscriptions’ or ‘prohibitions’. They do not assert that something exists or is the case; they deny it. They insist on the non-existence of certain things or states of affairs, proscribing or prohibiting, as it were, these things or states of affairs: they rule them out. And it is precisely because they do this that they are falsifiable. If we accept as true one singular statement which, as it were, infringes the prohibition by asserting the existence of a thing (or the occurrence of an event) ruled out by the law, then the law is refuted. (An instance would be, ‘In such-and-such a place, there is an apparatus which is a perpetual motion

          Strictly existential statements, by contrast, cannot be falsified. No singular statement (that is to say, no ‘basic statement’, no statement of an observed event) can contradict the existential statement, ‘There are white ravens’. Only a universal statement could do this.

  3. I shall only pipe up, at this point, to note that to watch awards shows clearly demonstrates that some god does intervene in coin tosses (and football teams, etcetera). The only question is to distinguish which tosses (and victories) are chance or skill, and which are divinely jiggered. Anyone can play this game (and this is one of the reasons – not my snark per se – I have troubles taking philosophers seriously; they don’t police their own quacks).

    Ben Goren, I’m still waiting on DPRJones to finish out his work, but his Special Theory of Prayerism seems airtight to me (despite my challenge where I show the eggcentricity is askew and challenge him to a debate): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DeEZQaDD7yw

    1. » Justicar:
      I have troubles taking philosophers seriously; they don’t police their own quacks

      Small contribution though it is, that’s sort of what I am trying to do on occasion.

  4. Re # 1, Who’s to say what’s a “serious and important philosophical question”? I don’t think Sober will be able to demonstrate this to you, but that won’t necessarily make it undemonstrable. I.e, it wouldn’t be logically incompatible if the following is true:
    A) Jerry Coyne is not convinced that the logical compatibility of a rarely-acting God with evolutionary biology is a serious and important philosophical question.
    B) The logical compatibility of a rarely-acting God with evolutionary biology is a serious and important philosophical question.

    1. I partially agree; “demonstrate” was probably a poor choice of wording. But Jerry’s intent seems pretty clear: he wants Sober to give his reasons why he sees the logical compatibility of god with evolution to be a serious philosophical subject.

      1. Yes, his intent seems clear, but no, it’s not as anodyne as you suggest. It’s clearly to try to embarrass Sober by associating him with “woo”, when the question Coyne issues as a challenge is not a reasonable request at all. In other words, Coyne’s intent is to police the conversation, to establish and reinforce the boundaries which define the space of “reasonable” beliefs. And he is doing this in the guise of applying a neutral canon of rational belief. Newsflash: there is no neutral canon of rational belief that will decide which questions are philosophically significant. End of newsflash.

        1. It’s Sober who claimed he was saying something of significance, despite the triviality being obvious. Obviously it’s Jerry’s fault for pointing it out, not Sober’s for saying something ridiculous.

          1. The triviality is obvious to whom? Look, one can lament that it isn’t obvious to educated people, but the fact remains that many educated people don’t take it to be obvious. The way academic discussion works is not by deciding unilaterally that one’s own view of what’s philosophically interesting is the only defensible one, and restricting one’s conversation to those who accept it. That doesn’t mean all questions are equally substantive, but you can’t just decide that people who are in fact educated and are in fact taken seriously, should vanish into the ether.

            You also don’t address the point about Coyne’s move here: it purports to be appealing to a sort of canonical criterion of reason, when it is really doing no such thing.

            1. You’re saying “but it COULD be significant to SOMEONE!” This is a “significance of the gaps” argument. Perhaps it’s significant to an otherwise-undetectable god who twiddles DNA with effects indistinguishable from thermal noise.

  5. The way I think of it is: science doesn’t exclude god, it just doesn’t include god, and some people need god to be part of the equation.

    1. Well, there are two different discussions going on. Science does not exclude the logical possibility of a god that interferes with his creation. That is the philosophical point Sober is making. However, he says he is making this point in response to an altogether different discussion, which is that the ponderous lack of evidence for the god hypothesis and makes atheism the only reasonable conclusion. Nothing Sober has said makes theistic assumptions any more reasonable, however, so either Sober is confused or hopelessly unclear in what he is trying to say.

      1. Where’s the demonstration that “the god hypothesis” is the proper characterization of the grounds of religious belief? Is it based on some general principle that only science-like hypotheses can be reasonable conclusions? You’re not going to like where that principle leads.

  6. “God” could have caused the mutations. Or the FSM. Or any one of an inifite number of untestable hypotheses. What a complete waste of time. If it cannot be tested, why even bother discussing it? Haven’t these people got anything better to do?

    1. Good questions, and of course the answer is no, those people have nothing “better” to do. They discuss useless crap, or pontificate about useless crap, because they are unable or unwilling to do anything useful, and because they (and some others) believe that philosophizing makes them important, deep thinkers.

      ANYONE can philosophize, which is really just imagining things and speculating about them. What amazes me is that some so-called ‘philosophers’ make a good living at it and that some people look up to them as though they are prophets or psychic or something.

      1. I would never go as far as to say philosophy is a total waste of time, but I remember a “science versus philosophy” discussion I had with a friend a few months ago in a restaurant. It was a sort of “What have the philosophers ever done for us” discussion, with her taking the side of philosophy and me science. I’m still waiting for the list of the benefits of philosophy; those of science are virtually endless. I just pointed out all those things in the restaurant, the food, the tableware, the table, the lighting, the building materials, the glass windows, the glasses she was wearing, her mobile phone, our clothes, the transport that brought us there.

        It just goes on and on.

  7. 0.1. Can you explain why you are using the Christian-associated term “God”, when your argument equally applies to entities such as Quetzacoatl, Azathoth, Ahura Mazda, Odin All-Father, and Xenu?

    0.1.1 Can you also explain why you use the term in the singular, when your argument equally applies to the possibility of multiple entities, such as magic pixies and invisible gnomes?

    1. Just so. I’m amazed at how culture-bound theologians philosophers such as Sober are.

      Chthulu will eat him last.

        1. It is better to be eaten first, so you don’t have to witness the ensuing mayhem and madness. I learnt this from a fake Jack Chick tract on the subject!

    2. I agree, these questions are more fundamental and pivotal to the discussion. Gods are in the category of

      (say) tree nymphs, or unicorns, or anything else whose presence in fable, legend, myth and religion is the product of what ancient people have handed down as their stories about the world… The mistake made by many is to think that because a particular such tradition has been institutionalized, that fact somehow increases the probability that the entities referred to in its discourse is any greater than 0 or vanishingly close to it. — A.C. Grayling, To Set Prometheus Free (2009), pp. 40-41.

      Furthermore, Grayling wrote that passage as an aside to his main point that he sees probabilistic evaluation of their existence as a category error.

  8. The idea of a sort of God who micro-manages small mutations strikes me as not just speculative but utterly trivial.

    This guy has gone from “god of the gaps” to the “creator of the crevices”

  9. God does not need to cause rare mutations. God could simply raise a tree root slightly when a cheetah is chasing a gazelle with a useful mutation causing said gazelle to trip and be eaten, thereby removing said mutation through supernatural selection.

    The whole exercise is stupid, why would god need to toy, albeit rarely, with the genetic code? Was god too inept to get it right initially? Maybe is god took a molecular biology lab course, these kind of events wouldn’t be necessary.

    1. When you get right down to it, your raised-tree-root analogy is more or less how people think God intervenes in their own lives. Inside the religion narrative they see themselves as givens, characters/agents who exist above and outside of the world of matter, energy, object, and event (sort of like God.) When God intervenes in their lives then, it’s usually not to change them. Instead, “things” are somehow moved around or manipulated so that they have a new space to act or react. God made it so they missed the bus, went to the party, found their glasses, tripped on the root, passed by the right place at the right time — and significant things followed from that.

      Theists really don’t like to think about mechanism and details when they go “suddenly, a miracle occurred.” They want to gloss over that part and get to the good stuff at the end of the story. Because what they’re thinking — when they don’t think — is really weak.

      So yes; I bet God’s intervention in the world is not, and is not intended, to be confined to mutations. It enters natural selection — and the same approach which marvels that it simply could not have been a random coincidence that they were at a concert sitting right next to the person they would later marry (it must have been magically pre-arranged!)would also lead to amazement over each and every event in the Chain of Evolutionary Events leading up to them, and following the pattern of “what had to happen” for things to be what they are.

      1. How come nobody ever wonders why God causes half of all married couples to meet and marry in the first place when they would just end up getting divorced?

      2. I found Wikipedia an interesting read on the subject of science and religiousity. Their comments on studies undertaken as to why the religious suffer less from depression,drug abuse and suicide makes some sense when I look at members of my own family and circle of friends.

    2. There have been many times when I have been on long hikes that tree roots rise up from the trail and trip me near the end of the hike. It has to be true. The only other alternative is that I was tired.

  10. Doesn’t Occam’s Razor provide the answer?

    Evolutionary theory explains the how, the why, and the what without divine involvement. There is no need to assume any additional element (to wit, a god) in order to explain how life forms develop.

    1. Sure, but does it explain the situation that EXACTLY the same number of teams win games as the number that lose games? Maybe there is divine intervention to keep them even. Therefore God.

    2. Laplace said it best, we have no need of the god hypothesis; natural forces provide a perfectly satisfactory explanation.

  11. ‘God could have been involved in creating some of the mutations involved in evolution’

    But surely that doesn’t make sense. If god exists then surely all the mutations are under his control not just ‘some’ of them. Because if only some of them are under his control then that means some of them aren’t, in which case he’s not omnipotent and therefore not a god. If you accept god-guided evolution then surely you have to accept that god created mutations such as the ones that cause muscular dystrophy and cancer. God can’t simply turn around and say ‘Well those mutations weren’t under my control’ because by definition everything is under his control except the freewill of man. The whole idea doesn’t make any sense. It results in concepts like god spending 170 million years carefully adding slight mutation after mutation in order to perfect the dinosaurs only to then drop a large rock from the sky and start again.

    1. You’re driving down a straight bit of highway — say, I-5 in the Central Valley. You set the cruise control and rest your hands in your lap for a moment.

      Are you somehow no longer in control of the car?



  12. This can hardly be a deep or important observation, since I, myself, have entertained it on my way out of theism.

    Incidentally, why does God need to restrict himself to mutations? Why can he not equally work through selection by non-randomly culling individuals from the herd?

        1. That’s right — it is logically possible that the Christian God invisibly fiddles with mutations, while Poseidon undetectably causes drownings and shipwrecks, and Thor generates deadly storms unseen.

          Heck, it’s even logically possible that, unbeknownst to all concerned, gnomes undetectably work in Nike factories to actually produce the shoes.

  13. “3. If the answer to the first part of (2) is “yes,” then would it be equally important for philosophers to write papers and give talks about how we can’t rule out the logical possibility that God influences coin tosses to favor outcomes He wants (like a favorite football team winning)? If not, why not? After all, isn’t the coin-tossing argument basically identical to the one you were making for mutations?”

    Yes, Elliott Sober’s hypothesis taken to its logical extension is that all woo is “logically compatible” with science. Tarot cards, for instance. By his reasoning it is logically compatible with science to beleive that god affects the shuffling of the cards to give specific Tarot card readings, some or all the time. :-p

    1. Sober’s argument would also make homeopathy “compatible” with our understanding of modern chemistry. That’s because it reaches for compatibility by throwing out consistency.

      I am strongly reminded of Doug Adam’s little story about the man and the television set:

      A man didn’t understand how televisions work, and was convinced that there must be lots of little men inside the box, manipulating images at high speed. An engineer explained about high-frequency modulations of the electromagnetic spectrum, transmitters and receivers, amplifiers and cathode ray tubes, scan lines moving across and down a phosphorescent screen. The man listened to the engineer with careful attention, nodding his head at every step of the argument. At the end he pronounced himself satisfied. He really did now understand how televisions work. “But I expect there are just a few little men in there, aren’t there?”

      To which Sober would reply “Yes. The existence of a few little men inside the television set is not ruled out by LOGIC. So go ahead and think that.”

      Forget the whole fuckin’ point of the explanation and keep some of the magic genii around holding pictures up only sometimes — when we can’t catch them at it. That’s not consistent — but it’s compatible.

      For crying out loud, what a silly thing Sober is doing here.

      1. Forget the whole fuckin’ point of the explanation and keep some of the magic genii around holding pictures up only sometimes — when we can’t catch them at it. That’s not consistent — but it’s compatible.

        Did you mean to say “contemptible”?

      2. This is a complete mischaracterization of what Sober is saying. Look, Jason Rosenhouse has provided a link to his paper. Before getting all self-righteous about how Sober is so ridiculously wrong, at least do him the courtesy of skimming what he has to say.

        Look, I’d get the peremptory dismissal if this was some philosopher with not much knowledge of science pontificating about evolution. But Elliott Sober is widely recognized, not just by philosophers but also by evolutionary biologists, as an expert on evolutionary theory. It’s worth at least trying to understand what he has to say.

        1. Well, now who’s being self-righteous?

          Why not be specific about how you think Sober is being misrepresented? Please note that Scote is not quoting or paraphrasing Sober, but drawing further implications from the logical argument Sober is making. I draw the same conclusions.

          Do you agree that Sober is arguing that God-guided mutations are not out of the question given biological evidence on the nature of mutations? Now, do you have any specific arguments for why this reasoning would ever STOP at mutations? Why not intelligent falling, or accurate tarot readings, or God’s hand at work in internal combustion engines?

          You need to be specific, though. It’s not enough to say “that’s not what Sober’s saying!” Sober doesn’t have to explicitly state that his argument applies to everything under the sun for that to be the case.

          1. Why not intelligent falling, or accurate tarot readings, or God’s hand at work in internal combustion engines?

            And why “God”, and not Tsathoggua, or Baal, or the Demiurge? And why a single being, and not multiple entities, such as efreets, and pixies, and sprites?

            Sober’s argument is extremely broad, so much so that almost no one would accept that it has any import if he didn’t attach the Christian term “God” to it. (If I argued that Eliot Sober could be responsible for a particular murder because Eliot Sober is genetically human, the appropriate response would surely be that while it may be necessary to be human to commit murder, that argument is far too broad to be meaningful.)

          2. Sastra claimed that Sober’s argument renders homeopathy compatible with modern chemistry. This is the mischaracterization I was referring to. Modern chemistry provides strong evidence against homeopathy, going by the same sort of Bayesian understanding of evidence Sober uses in his paper.

  14. “There are two ways to live: you can live as if nothing is a miracle; you can live as
    if everything is a miracle.” –Albert Einstein


    1. Everything is a miracle.
    2. There is suffering in this world.
    3. Miracles cause suffering.
    4. The miracle worker is a sadist.


    1. Nothing is a miracle.
    2. There is suffering in this world.
    3. We can prevent and relieve suffering.

    I sure hope I don’t have to deal with a sadist for eternity in the afterlife.

  15. Skimming Sober’s paper, it seems fairly clear that he isn’t focused on the logical compatibility of evolutionary biology and theism. He seems to be arguing that evolutionary biology does not give us any evidence against theism. In other words, conditionalizing on evolutionary theory does not make the bare theistic hypothesis less likely. This is obviously a much stronger position than the one Jerry attributes to him, and it also seems like a much more interesting one.

    The opening of his paper makes it pretty clear what he’s going for:

    Does evolutionary theory have implications about the existence of supernatural entities? This question concerns the logical relationships that hold between the theory of evolution and different bits of metaphysics. There is a distinct question that I also want to address; it is epistemological in character. Does the evidence we have for evolutionary theory also provide evidence concerning the existence of supernatural entities?

    So while he is examining the logical compatibility of evolution and theism, he is doing it as part of a broader investigation of the evidential relationship between them. He goes on to say that evolutionary theory is “silent” on the question of whether there is a God. The natural interpretation of what he’s saying here is not merely that evolutionary theory is logically compatible with the existence of a God, but that evolutionary theory does not give us any evidence one way or another about whether God exists. He might or might not be right about this, but it is surely not the triviality of which Jerry accuses him.

      1. Evidence of nonexistence is not exactly unheard of in science. For instance, the Michelson-Morley experiments are evidence for the nonexistence of ether. The data supporting evolutionary biology are evidence against the existence of the biblical God. So yeah, it is possible for there to be evidence for the nonexistence of something. Sober is claiming that biology does not give us evidence for the nonexistence of an interventionist god.

        1. “Sober is claiming that biology does not give us evidence for the nonexistence of an interventionist god.”

          Nor does biology give us evidence for the nonexistence of supernaturally interventionist Celestial Teapots, yet I wouldn’t call such a hypothesis “compatible” with science.

          Just because something is non-falsifiable doesn’t make belief in it without evidence “compatible” with science.

    1. ” but it is surely not the triviality of which Jerry accuses him.”

      It’s a triviality. Evolution demolishes most of the reason for imaging a “God” might exist in the first place and torpedoes the strongest arguments that theists have. This is why they are so vehemently opposed to the theory of evolution, Darwin, science and everything related. Theists see the danger coming straight at them.

      1. If you genuinely believe that evolution torpedoes theism, then you obviously don’t think Sober’s claim is trivial. You think it’s false!

        I’m not saying you’re wrong and Sober’s right about this. I haven’t read Sober’s paper, and I’m skeptical of his conclusion. I’m just disagreeing with Jerry’s characterization that Sober is talking about the mere logical compatibility of evolution and theism. He is making a much bolder and more substantive claim. A claim that may well be false, but is not trivial.

        Also, it’s worth noting that Sober is not a theist and is a prominent champion of Darwinism. His book Evidence and Evolution is really excellent. I highly recommend it if you don’t mind wading through some technical language.

        1. “If you genuinely believe that evolution torpedoes theism, then you obviously don’t think Sober’s claim is trivial. You think it’s false!”

          NOT TRUE. You’re using your own reasoning rather than trying to follow Arachno’s.

          I think you’ll find most commenters here demand positive reasons for hypotheses. Paley’s design argument might be a positive reason to believe in God, but it is deep-sixed by evolution. Hence, Arachno’s comment that evolution torpedos theism.

          That argument does not in any way imply that Sober’s argument is false. It is compatible with Sober’s argument being trivially true.

          1. Um… Sober is explicitly claiming that evolution does not “torpedo” theism. Evolution, according to him, is silent on the truth or falsity of theism. So if you think that evolution torpedos theism, then you think Sober’s conclusion is false, not trivially true.

    2. “So while he is examining the logical compatibility of evolution and theism, he is doing it as part of a broader investigation of the evidential relationship between them.”

      But he never gets to any of the evidence EXCEPT logical compatibility — which isn’t evidence at all. So I disagree completely; if this is what Sober was trying to do he has failed.

      Evolution certainly constrains the types of Gods that are plausible and much more importantly it completely defangs the argument from design.

      Now, if you’re DESPERATE to affirm God’s existence, this isn’t such a big deal. Sober’s right that evolution doesn’t rule out the possibility of any God whatsoever. Then again, nothing does and nothing could. Nothing is certain. If I can’t be certain I’m not a brain in a vat I can’t be certain of anything.

      That’s why I demand positive reasons to believe things rather than settling for believing in “logical possibilities”. Because almost ANYTHING is a logical possibility.

      1. An omnipotent entity such as God is consistent with literally any hypothesis imaginable. Even in a bizarre science fiction scenario where humans are able to watch each and every mutation in situ to verify that God didn’t interfere it’s trivial to come up with some story where God does a magic show and guides mutation without being seen despite all the surveillance.

        Again, Sober’s argument is simply trivially true. If you disagree, simply describe what sort of evidence you think WOULD disprove the existence of God. I don’t think there’s any way to do so — and that’s exactly why I’m an atheist.

        1. Sober himself has said that the problem of evil is a powerful argument against God’s existence. So there you go: the existence of unnecessary suffering in the world is evidence against theism. Again, the question is not one of mere logical consistency (despite what Jerry says). Perhaps god’s existence is logically compatible with the presence of evil. But the presence of evil renders the existence of an interventionary deity less probable.

          If you’re looking for an example from science, I think recent cosmological models that posit an eternally existent multiverse (such as Sean Carroll’s spontaneous eternal inflation model or Roger Penrose’s cyclic cosmology) would, if sufficiently confirmed, be strong evidence against the existence of god.

          1. Sober himself has said that the problem of evil is a powerful argument against God’s existence. So there you go

            Has he done so without addressing the early Gnostics who considered themselves Christian and wrote about the demiurge as the solution to the problem of evil? One could also argue that Satan serves the same purpose for modern Christians. Of course, that their writings weren’t canonized is not scientific evidence that they were wrong about an evil creator god.

            If you’re going to come up with scientific examples why not stick with biology as Sober did. This is an evolutionary biologist’s website after all.

  16. “(These mutations are presumably adaptive—God wouldn’t make all those nasty mutations that cause muscular dystrophy and cancer!)”

    If God causes adaptative mutations isn’t it intelligent design all over again?

  17. Yet it takes a renowned philosopher of science to make such trivial assertions. Oh, but philosophy has so much to offer science and scientists who ignore the philosophy of science doom their enterprise!

    1. Searching:

      university closes philosophy department

      reveals just from the first page of hits that four universities – two in the UK and two in the US apparently either have closed or are considering closing their philosophy departments.

      1. Searching:

        university closes physics department

        reveals from the first page that programs at three universities in the UK and US have closed or were being considered for closing. Go figure?

  18. I get the impression that this is literally the last shot in the theist locker — though how they have recruited Sober to their side I have no idea. Every week or so I find myself debating some theist whose sole argument is: “Isn’t it POSSIBLE that..?” To which of course the answer is “Yes, but so what?” Unfortunately they only seem to hear the “Yes” part.

    I’ve developed a slogan for dealing with this: “From a vacuous possibility, nothing follows.” I live in hope that if I repeat it often enough, it might start to sink in.

    1. May I suggest?

      Don’t utter the word, yes. Instead, jump right to something along the lines of, “Well, only in the sense that it’s possible that invisible space gnomes have a mind control ray on you that makes you think you really wanted to say that. Sure, in that sense it’s also possible that Jesus guides evolution by manually tweaking spermatozoa tails to ensure that the right ones do and don’t fertilize an ovum. Is that really what you want us to believe?”



  19. Philosophers and theologians all, totally useless. Screw you all.

    That was my rant, here’s my point. In the past 300 years, picking a ball park number of years, human knowledge has grown to get a handle on most of the big questions: what is the nature of the universe, what is the nature of Nature, what is disease, how does the body work, what is the mind and so forth. Technically, well, I don’t have to go into detail because you all know physics, chemistry, technology, medicine and all that.

    But, regarding “god” or “gods” philosophers and theologians are no farther along then they were 10,000 years ago and possibly 200,000 thousand years ago. No farther. Not a jot. Nothing but 200,000 years of useless opinion.

    It seems to me on balance that philosophy and theology has failed on such a monumental scale that it is of no more interest to discuss, and possibly quite less, than the number of angels that can dance on one of Lady Gaga’s tits.

    I’m truly sorry that Sober et al have wasted their lives jacking off. They might have done something useful like be a bartender.

    Hmmm, on reflection it seems my point was a rant, too, but that’s my philosophy: Have Point, Will Rant.

    1. Theologians are worse than useless and always have been (I suppose there might be exceptions, but I can’t think of any right off).

      Philosophers are sometimes great, often interesting, and all too frequently as bad as the theologians. I can’t quantify how many fit in each category.

      But, Daniel Dennett is a philosopher and writes wonderful books that even you would probably like. Darwin’s Dangerous Idea is a favorite of mine.

    2. Nice rant and I fully agree wrt theologians. However, as Achrachno already said, philosphers are more of a mixed bag. There certainly have been many great ones who made important contributions and it would be unfair to toss them into the same bin as the obfuscators and those who are more in love with their own words than anything else.

      So you are right, it would have been better if the latter had been jacking off in the literal sense rather than engage in all that mental masturbation (and if it helps them get off they can use that ‘Lady Gaga and the angels’ image as far as I’m concerned 🙂 ).

      OK, now if Lady G. uses that in one of her next costumes we know that she or at least someone from her entourage is reading this website.
      The question only is if the prudes at the FCC are OK with that?
      Well, maybe they won’t object if at least one of the angles is keeping a foot on her nipple all the time 😀

      1. I always get myself in trouble when I slam philosophy when, actually, I enjoy the subject and think it’s useful to keep the mind limber, nimble and Jack be quick.

        But, still, it’s only opinion and in my opinion shouldn’t be done, Sober.

  20. A great song to explain it all

    “Well, Charlie Darwin looked so far
    Into the way things are.
    He caught a glimpse of God’s
    unfolding plan.

    God said: “I’ll make some DNA”
    They can use it any way they want
    From paramecium
    Right up to man.”

    “They’ll have sex
    And mix up sections of their code
    They’ll have mutations…
    The whole thing works like clockwork over time.”

    “I’ll just sit back in the shade
    While everyone gets laid.
    That’s what I call
    Intelligent design.” ”


    1. Thanks. Smithers is great, and I’d not listened to him in a while. Solves nothing here, but helps with the general atmosphere.

  21. And again, I raise the concern that if there is a god “tweaking” the mutations, he seems to be an incompetent boob.

    What does the vitamin C pseudogene say about god’s competence to tweak the genome. Here we have a perfectly functioning biologic sequence in virtually every other species, and yet in humans and other apes, the gene is borked. And in a single-substitution way that any “tweaker” of the genome could fix today, if it so desired.

    Sorry, but the vitamin C pseudogene and the many other pseudogenes are direct and complete evidence against the notion of a “tweaker” of mutations.

    Else you have to invoke either incompetence or malice.

    Those are the only three choices: A) Nonexistence; B) Incompetence; or C) Malice.

    Which is it, Dr. Sober? And no, you don’t get to claim “mystery”.

  22. Polls show that the overwhelming majority of elite natural scientists are non-believers. This is not because elite scientists harbor any a priori antipathy toward religion; it is because, the closer scientists study the natural world, the less they find that the explanation “goddidit” offers any insight — and the more they find, as Laplace is reputed to have told Napoleon, that they have “no need of that [God] hypothesis.” Indeed, that statement provides a neat synopsis of mankind’s journey out of superstition’s darkness, from the days when primitive man believed thunder and lightning were signs of divine displeasure; rainbows, a signal that the tantrum had passed.

    If, on the other hand, God is engage with the natural world — if He “poofs” things into existence in the universe — then that poofing should provide grounds for fascinating empirical inquiry, enough to keep teams of PhDs busy. There would have to be a process whereby what was once merely supernatural ideation, what was once just supernatural will, is transformed into a physical item or action in the natural world. Once we identify something attributable to God’s intervention in the natural world, we ought to be able to trace it back through its causal chain until we uncover the poofing event itself — trace it back to whatever mechanism God uses for his interventions in the natural world; back to, say, some phase transition (here I am venturing out of my scientific depth) or to some cosmic ray emanating from a figurative or literal black hole. (We should be able, that is to say, to screw our inquiry to the poofing place.)

    That we cannot seems to present three possibilities: Either God (if he exists) is the God of Deism who does not intervene in the universe He created. Or God confines Himself to acting within the ever-shrinking gaps in our scientific knowledge. (The Krauss-Albert contretemps recently covered on this site can be seen as Albert’s protestation that, in claiming the universe created itself from nothing, Krauss fails to account for the quantum vacuum state gap that underlay his primordial “nothingness.”) Or God is a deceiver who hides proof of his existence by disguising his natural-world interventions as purely natural phenomena — rendering God among the unnecessarily multiplied hypotheses eschewed by William of Ockham.

    Any of these Gods constitutes quite a comedown from the mad-poofer God of the Old Testament. That God did not confine Himself to mere gaps, or deign to disguise his direct intervention in the natural world. Rather, that God poofed up a storm (quite literally, in the case of the Noachian Flood). That God was busy, you might say, poofing to the east, poofing to the west, and (as to the Israelites) poofing for the people he loved best. That God poof-parted the Red Sea. And He poofed plagues and pestilence upon the Egyptian people to convince their obdurate Pharaoh to let His people go. That God poofed Lot’s nosey chattel-wife into a pillar of sodium chloride.

    Whatever became of that God anyway?

    1. Ezekiel mocked Baal when Baal didn’t show up to do some demonstrative tricks:

      “Perhaps he is deep in thought, or busy, or traveling. Maybe he is sleeping and must be awakened”

      Of course, Ezekiel’s god did show up, and brought down a big pillar of fire from the sky. Pretty cool. Modern theologians would be a lot more interesting if they had that kind of god on their side.

    2. “Whatever became of that God anyway?”

      He’s been replaced by a minimalist God whose most precious achievement is to have avoided being completely cashed out by evolutionary theory.

      1. You do realize that the LA Times article you sighted did not conduct a poll itself, but merely reported a Pew poll? That LA Times article has been highly critized for misrepresenting the result of that Pew poll, given that only 33% of the scientist polled believed in a “personal god.” See: http://www.examiner.com/article/are-todays-scientists-more-religious-la-times-allows-pew-researcher-to-misrepresent-poll-results

        The most comprehensive study of the gold standard for truly elite scientist — members of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences — was conduct by Edward Larson and Larry Withham and published in Nature in 1998. It found that only 7 percent of these scientists embraced a belief in God. So which do you dispute: that members of the U.S. National Academy of Science qualify as “elite”? Or that the 93% who reject a belief in God is “overwhelming”?

  23. JCs summary of Sober “Evolution is totally silent on the idea and actions of God and, further, that evolutionists have neglected the logical possibility that God could have been involved in creating some of the mutations involved in evolution.”

    Sober has neglected the fact that there is no definition of the word God as a supposed thing. What is “God”? No one knows. People will tell you what they think “God” did, but nothing about who’s acting. Of course, no actions by any god have ever been observed.

    If Sober shows me that “God” is capable of creating mutations, then I’ll be interested in his argument. As it is, it’s emptiness piled on nothing.

  24. Normal use of the word “random” means that the event so described is not the result of intentional action. If I run into a friend at the market, but I went there just to get bread, this meeting might be described as “random” in that it was not planned for or the goal of my going to the market. In this sense, “random” seems to entail that the occurrence was unguided by intentions. Sober is arguing that the use of “random” to describe the source of variation in natural selection does not have these same, we might say, semantic implications. It is the central role of the word “random” to natural selection that makes the argument more relevant here than in many other spheres. As pointed out in a comment on an earlier post, there are certainly theists who argue for non-compatibilism based on the supposed semantic entailment of accepting random mutation as the only the source of variation. Perhaps Sober’s argument is most effective against those folks, but hey don’t seem to be as concerned with the metaphysics of coin-tossing as with this issue.

  25. » 1. Can you demonstrate that the logical compatibility of a rarely-acting God with evolutionary biology is a serious and important philosophical question?

    No, since it is based on a) a misunderstanding of logic and b) a misunderstanding of science.

    a) In the words of the philosopher of science and logician Mark Notturno: “Logic cannot force you to accept the truth of any proposition; it can only force someone to make a choice between accepting a conclusion and rejecting some premise or set of premises from which it follows (and that, only if you do not reject the law of non-contradiction).” (Paraphrased from Science and the Open Society)

    b) Since Sober imagines ‘god’ to be a possible explanation for some empirical phenomenon, it has to measure up to the standards for explanations that aspire to be a part of our effort to help along the growth of knowledge. Here’s David Deutsch on the topic (from The Beginning of Infinity:

    The growth of knowledge does not consist of finding ways to justify one’s beliefs. It consists of finding good explanations. (p. 120)

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

    We do not test every testable theory, but only the few that we find are good explanations. Science would be impossible if it were not for the fact that the overwhelming majority of false theories can be rejected out of hand without any experi­ment, simply for being bad explanations.

    Any ‘god’, especially the unspecified variety, is the supreme bad explanation, in Deutsch’s sense. And I dare say Sober should know all this.

  26. What if we look at the mutation, or quantum event? How could anyone, ever, possibly distinguish between a mutation or quantum event that HAD been influenced by a divinity, FSM, pixie, etc. and one that had not?

    1. Well, I guess such a being could for instance influence radioactive decay.

      Let’s say you have two identical blocks of U238 (as identical as that is practically possible) and put them in an environment where any other source of radioactivity has been eliminated as good as possible.
      This entity could now influence the U238 nuclei in one block to stop decaying for a certain amount of time (a few seconds, minutes or even hours). Then let them decay at a normal rate again and do the same with the other block of uranium so you can make sure that your Geiger-counters aren’t defective.

      If it is able to influence matter in this fashion, then it can do this trick in a certain pattern. This way it can even communicate with us.

      Of course, this doesn’t mean that this phenomenon is caused by a god, it can certainly be some lesser supernatural being or even a very advanced alien race that can do something like that from a distance.
      But be that as it may, something like that would sure be evidence that there’s some really strange shit going on and it would keep many scientists occupied for a long time (given that any other source of error has been ruled out as good as possible).

  27. How does god intervene to make these changes? At what level of matter does godliness pervade the universe? How can we distinguish between the god bits & the random bits? Why does god intervene to do this?

    It it just so ridiculous…

  28. Sober’s logic fails by presupposing the most absurd thing: the existence of god. Without that foolish presupposition, his whole “logical” statement fails.

  29. God wouldn’t make all those nasty mutations that cause muscular dystrophy and cancer!

    That would be Satan. God does good mutations; Satan does bad. Science cannot logically rule out Satan.

    1. No, silly, cancer mutations are caused by the cancer pixies, and muscular dystrophy by the dystrophy fairies, while sickle-cell anemia and thalassemia are the responsibility of the globin gnomes. Those are totally logically possible, right?

      Bad philosophy, on the other hand, is most definitely caused by Satan.

      1. Yes, they could logically be responsible – but the law of spiritly parsimony would posit the minimum number of entities required to explain the existence of all things good and all things evil as two. Let’s not multiply spirits unnecessarily.

    2. The renowned philosopher of science Elliott Sober…

      just became a hell of a lot more reknowned.

  30. Evolution is totally silent on the idea and actions of God and, further, that evolutionists have neglected the logical possibility that God could have been involved in creating some of the mutations involved in evolution.

    Sober is flatly incorrect—evolutionary biology is not silent on this question. No less than R.A. Fisher wrote explicitly about why a god cannot guide evolution or design by tweaking mutations: because the designer’s efforts would be rendered “futile and inoperative” by evolution:

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

  31. As to question #1, this is only superficially a reasonable request. Can one, generally, demonstrate that a question is philosophically significant? How does one go about doing such a thing? Presumably by presenting a sound argument showing that the question relates to other questions that are of philosophical significance. And how do we demonstrate the phil. sig. of the latter questions? Does this have to go on forever? Are there questions that are of self-evident philosophical significance? (It would be odd if a naturalist like Coyne were to think so.)

    Well ok, maybe we don’t need self-evidently philosophically significant questions. Maybe we can just go with questions that are generally agreed to have philosophical significance. Here’s the nasty part: agreed upon by whom? If you include theists, then the answer in this case is laughably easy. If you don’t, then you’re defining a significant group of people out of the serious philosophical conversation. I suppose one can try to do this, but it’s better to be open about what one is doing, rather than cloaking it in a putatively neutral question. Basically, why can’t Sober respond thus? ‘I have reason to take it as a serious question because it relates to questions taken to be serious by serious, rationally responsible people.’ God forbid that someone should actually try to reason with these blasted theists!!!

    As to the third question, some philosophers who are serious Christians do indeed think that the flipping a coin case is relevant in just the same way as the evolution/mutations case. See, e.g., Alex Pruss.

    1. Can one, generally, demonstrate that a question is philosophically significant?

      My definition of “significant” includes at least potentially useful and fruitful while striving toward a solutions-based approach and not merely spinning ones wheels. Asking “How many Angels can dance on the head of a pin” fits none of these criteria.

      Sober is a philosopher of science not of religion, so including theists among those who decide whether it’s of philosophical significance is not self-evident–a case would have to be made. Sober ought to be addressing and concerning himself with working scientists like Coyne.

      1. This seems to presume that things would be better if serious philosophers of science never made their thoughts heard to those who most need to listen to them. No good deed goes unpunished.

Leave a Reply