Update: Over at Choice in Dying, Eric has an even more splenetic take on Ruse’s lucubrations, including this conclusion:
But, here’s another thing. If no limitations can be placed on God, as Ruse assumes, then God should be able to know, by calculating the probablities, which one of the gazillion possible universes would come up with human beings, if that was his aim in the first place. Wouldn’t someone who knew everything, and could work out the probabilities from initial conditions, come within an ace of predicting which of the possible universes would include us? If so, we are necessitated after all. Why can’t Ruse see this? Because he wants to leave the world safe for religion, and any old argument, apparently, will do. This is not philosophy; it’s not even theology; it’s really opinionated posturing, and it does no good at all for Ruse’s reputation as a philosopher. He should stop this empty, posturing attempt to produce throw-away philosophy, and try to act like a reasonable human being.
Philosopher Michael Ruse, although himself a professed nonbeliever in God, has spent an inordinate amount of time trying to show Christians how they can reconcile the findings of science—especially evolution—with their faith. I am baffled by this endeavor. Presumably there are good reasons why Ruse rejects Christianity, so why, instead of convincing Christians why he has rejected God, does he try to help them find Jesus despite the ineluctable and contrary facts of science?
One of those ineluctable facts is that, scientifically, we can’t say with assurance that the evolution of Homo sapiens was inevitable. Mutations are random and may even be caused by non-deterministic quantum phenomena; and since mutations are the fuel of evolution, whether or not a given mutation occurs may strongly affect the course of future evolution. Further, if the Earth started off under even slightly different conditions, environmental contingencies like the asteroid strike that extirpated the dinosaurs may have profound effects on life’s diversity. (In his book Wonderful Life, Steve Gould argued that in the absence of that asteroid, mammals may forever have been insignificant creatures running around beneath the legs of dinosaurs, ergo no humans.)
All of this addresses the question of whether the evolution of humans was inevitable. The only scientifically supportable answer, in my view, is “We just don’t know.”
That doesn’t sit well with Christians, since the evolution of humans (if you’re a theistic evolutionist who believe that we did evolve) is a non-negotiable issue: we were designed in God’s image, and therefore, as the apotheosis of God’s plan, our appearance was inevitable.
In his latest column in The Chronicle of Higher Education, “Does Darwinian randomness make Christianity impossible?” Michael Ruse takes up this issue. He considers several scientific arguments for why the evolution of our species might have been inevitable, including Dawkins’s “arms race” scenario (evolution produces an inevitable arms race between species to outdo each other, and human intelligence is the ultimate weapon), and the existence of an ecological “cognitive niche” that could only be filled by humanlike animals. But even Ruse admits that these arguments are not absolutely convincing:
But again, I don’t think anyone – certainly not Gould – would say that humans absolutely had to evolve somewhere in the universe. So again, we seem to have a contradiction with Christianity (and, I presume, the other Abrahamic religions).
This leaves Ruse with a problem. If science can’t assure us that the evolution of humans was inevitable, as required by Christians who accept theistic evolution, what does that make of Christianity? Well, he could give up and admit an incompatibility between faith and evolution, but that’s not Ruse’s style. So he presses on:
So, where do we go from here, and it is at this point that the 10 percent kicks in [JAC: Ruse says that he and I are in general agreement on most issues but disagree ten percent of the time] and Jerry Coyne and I (and, I suspect, my beloved fellow Brainstormer David Barash and I) part company. For Jerry, and I suppose for David, this is the end of the matter. One more evolutionary nail hammered into the coffin of religion. For me, the problem just starts to get interesting and challenging. This is not because I am a believer, because I am not. It is not really because it is a politically good thing to do, although I think that is so. It is rather because, well, it is a problem that is interesting and challenging!
Well, if you think that reconciling nonexistent deities and insupportable beliefs with science is “interesting and challenging,” yes, maybe. But the endeavor seems like a waste of good philosophical brainpower. To solve the problem, Ruse turns not to science but to theology:
I think, along with Augustine and Aquinas, at times like this, because it is a theological problem and not a science one, we need a theological solution not a scientific one. So if I invoke, as I will, the notion of multiverses – other universes either parallel to ours or sequential – I am doing so not on scientific grounds (although I know there are those who would defend them on scientific grounds) but on theological grounds. The God of Christianity can create these if He has a mind to.
Since we humans have evolved by Darwinian processes, then we could have evolved by Darwinian processes. Just keep creating universes until it happens! And don’t put any direction into the process.
You might think that this is an awful waste, but as God told Job, His ways are not our ways.
Well, yes, but if you accept the last sentence, then anything can be reconciled with Christianity. Ancient fossils? God’s “way” is to fool us by putting those fossils in the rocks. Stars millions of light years away? God’s way was to create the light in transit along with the stars. A literal Adam and Eve? Well, yes, there were really only two progenitors of all humans, but God pumped up the genetic variation in our ancestors to make us think that the human population could never have been smaller than a few thousand individuals.
And if Ruse’s solution is that God works in mysterious ways, why not just accept Elliott Sober’s argument that God could have tweaked an ancestral genome to bring the human-creating mutations into existence on Earth?
If you seek a theological solution to a scientific dilemma, then you’re not reconciling science with faith—you’re distorting science to comport it with faith. Truly, God is mysterious, for although he had the power to create humans anywhere, he chose to do it by making millions of universes until he got the one he wanted! We can’t argue against that, for God’s ways aren’t our ways.
Ruse gives the game away in his last paragraph:
Do I believe any of this? Not really, but that is not the point. The real point is that New Atheists like Jerry Coyne have some good arguments but before they declare the case closed they should let the philosophers and theologians have their turn to fight back. That is what a doppelgänger is good for.
If one doesn’t believe something, and presumably for good reasons, then the point is to defend your beliefs, not cater to unfounded superstition. This is not a case of a philosopher trying to make the best counterargument for his beliefs, but, contrary to Ruse’s assertion, it’s a politically motivated way to give Christians a loophole.
I’ll let a commenter on Ruse’s blog, “pianiste,” answer for me:
It’s only interesting or challenging because it is a political problem: coming up with a way to make evolution palatable to believers so that they won’t quit denying evolution and making it that much harder to teach scientific subjects scientifically in the public schools. We don’t waste a lot of time “accommodating” lost tribes in the Amazon regarding the red shift in astronomy, do we? No, because their not believing it–or even knowing about it–doesn’t constitute a political problem. We can live and let live. Unless he’s got a jones for wasting a lot of time on crossword puzzles for his own amusement, Professor Ruse is being a bit disingenuous about this “accommodation” business not being a political problem.
“Atheists like Jerry Coyne…should let the philosophers and theologians have their turn to fight back.”
What, pray tell, is Jerry Coyne doing to prevent philosophers and theologians from fighting back? He’s debating them into a corner where the only thing accommodationist philosophers and theologians can say is that is they don’t have anything convincing to say in rebuttal.
The zillions of parallel universes argument might explain how God could have it both ways: a) have humans evolve as He intended, yet b) not oversee evolution directly. But remember, among those universes would be ones in which humans do come along, are tainted with Original Sin, but have no chance to be saved and escape eternal damnation. Nice guy, this parallel-universe God. Think I’ll start tithing to Him.