A philosopher infected with confirmation bias explains why evolution proves God

November 15, 2020 • 9:15 am

Religious affirmations like those in this video make me angry, wanting to call philosopher Holmes Rolston III a chowderhead who’s taking money under false pretenses. But I will refrain from such name-calling. Nevertheless, what you hear coming out of Rolston’s mouth in this short Closer to Truth interview is pure garbage: not even passable philosophy. It should dismay all rational people that such a man is not only expressing laughable confirmation biases, but is getting paid for it.

And yet here are Rolston’s bona fides from Wikipedia:

Holmes Rolston III (born November 19, 1932) is a philosopher who is University Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at Colorado State University. He is best known for his contributions to environmental ethics and the relationship between science and religion. Among other honors, Rolston won the 2003 Templeton Prize, awarded by Prince Philip in Buckingham Palace. He gave the Gifford Lectures, University of Edinburgh, 1997–1998.
And remember that the Templeton Prize, was worth over a million bucks, even back in 2003. What did he get it for? This is from Templeton’s press release when they gave him the Prize:

The world’s best known religion prize, [The Templeton Prize] is given each year to a living person to encourage and honor those who advance spiritual matters.  When he created the prize, Templeton stipulated that its value always exceed the Nobel Prizes to underscore his belief that advances in spiritual discoveries can be quantifiably more significant than those honored by the Nobels.

. . . .Rolston has lectured on seven continents including throughout Europe, Australia, South America, China, India, and Japan.

Seven continents? They left out Antarctica, and I doubt that Rolston has lectured there.  His prize-winning thoughts:

. . . science and religion have usually joined to keep humans in central focus, an anthropocentric perspective when valuing the creation of the universe and evolution on Earth.  Rolston, by contrast, has argued an almost opposite approach, one that looks beyond humans to include the fundamental value and goodness of plants, animals, species, and ecosystems as core issues of theological and scientific concern.  His 1986 book, Science and Religion — A Critical Study and his 1987 Environmental Ethics have been widely hailed for re-opening the question of a theology of nature by rejecting anthropocentrism in ethical and philosophical analysis valuing natural history.

Do I denigrate him unfairly? Shouldn’t I read his many books to give him a fairer assessment? Not on your life: I’m through with the Courtier’s Reply gambit.  Just let me add that Rolston is a believer, with a degree from Union Presbyterian Seminary, the same year he was ordained to the ministry of the Presbyterian Church (USA).  

Have a listen, and don’t be drinking liquids when you do. The good part is that this is only a bit less than seven minutes long.

Rolston gets a sense of “divine creativity” from the gradual and incremental changes wrought by neo-Darwinian evolution. But in this video he dwells more on serendipity, the “surprises” that punctuate the history of evolution. These include these “adventures that turned out right”:

a.) Swim bladders evolving into lungs (most people think it’s the other way around, but Rolston is right). This is a simple case of an “exaptation“, as Gould called it: the adaptation of an evolved feature into something with a new function.

b.) The capture of a photosynthetic bacterium by another cell to form photosynthetic eukaryotes: plants. (The same happened with mitochondria.) Yes, this is unpredictable, as is all of evolution, and was a major innovation, but it’s not evidence for God.

c.) The evolution of hearing began with a pressure-sensitive cell in a fish. This is another exaptation, though the function didn’t change, but altered a bit. Hearing still depends on pressure change, but we use it for apprehending and interpreting language and other sounds in air. Animals use it for intraspecies communication and detection of predators (which fish also use it for).

I could give a gazillion examples of such “surprises” in evolution, like the evolution of the ovipositor of insects into the stinging apparatus of bees and wasps, the doubling of an entire ancestral genome—twice—during the evolution of the vertebrates, and so on. Nobody can predict where evolution will go, for, as Jacques Monod famously noted in 1977, evolution is a tinkerer. And what about the “adventures that turned out wrong“, like the evolution of large dinosaurian reptiles? God killed ’em off by sending a big asteroid plummeting towards Earth.

The fact is that nothing we see in evolution contradicts the claim that it’s a purely naturalistic process, proceeding via unpredictable events—mutations and environmental change. This is the most parsimonious hypothesis given that we have not an iota of convincing evidence for God.

Then, in response to a softball question by the host, Rolston avers that he sees a theological underpinning of surprise, co-option, and serendipity. But since he also sees the hand of god in gradual Darwinian evolution, he sees the hand of God in all of evolution. In other words, there is nothing Rolston could observe about evolution that wouldn’t, for him, constitute evidence for God. As he says:

“It leaves open a place for surprising creativity . . . that I think exceeds any Darwinian capacity for explanation. Now I said when I began that I can find the presence of God in incremental evolutionary genesis. But maybe if the world is surprising as well as predictable that might further invite places where you might think if I should say, ‘God might sneak into the evolutionary process.’. . . .God may like serendipity as well as law-like prediction and determinism.”

So, If evolution is gradual and smooth, it’s evidence for God. But if there are “surprises”, as there have been, well, that’s also evidence for God. In other words, EVERYTHING is evidence for God. It is an academic crime that someone not only gets paid—and wins a huge prize—for spouting this kind of pabulum, but also is respected for it, for, after all, Rolston is a minister and a believer.

My contempt for this kind of reasoning knows no bounds. It could be filed in the Philosophical Dictionary under “confirmation bias; religion”. (Is that heading a redundancy?) Everything that happens is evidence for God because it’s “what God likes.” But of course if you argue that “whatever happens must be what God likes,” then you have yourself a million-dollar airtight, circular argument.  Some philosophy!

I guess the host, Robert Lawrence Kuhn, sees his brief as drawing out the guest rather than challenging him, and that’s okay. But I would have been pleased had Kuhn asked him this: “Is there anything about evolution that doesn’t give you evidence for God?”  I would think, for instance, that the evolution of predators and parasites that inflict horrible suffering on animals might make one question the existence of God, as it did for Darwin, but I’m sure Rolston has his explanation. Maybe it’s “God likes a little drama in his creation.”


h/t: Mark

45 thoughts on “A philosopher infected with confirmation bias explains why evolution proves God

  1. I laugh at his serendipity examples. He ignores that for every beneficial adaptation there can be thousands of failures which cause huge amounts of suffering. 99.9% of all species have gone extinct. I guess that part is not part of god’s plan, in his mind.

    It’s not hard to get “Closer to Truth” when one starts from light years away. Even Trump got one or two things right.

    1. You see the same kind of thinking when they come across a survivor of a plane crash, standing among the wreckage and the bodies of the others who died and, in altogether sublime obtuseness, exclaims; “God’s saved him! It’s a miracle!”

  2. Yes, it’s so painfully obvious that when it comes to god believers, their belief comes first, then they go and look for justifications for said belief. Their belief is like a child’s security blanket or pacifier, which they refuse to let go of, and remain in a state of infancy, yearning for their cosmic parental figure.

    John C. Wathey has written about this in his book: “The Illusion of God’s Presence”

    1. Thanks for the pointer on that book! I’ve just started to read some neurotheology, and that looks like it will fit right in.

  3. Professor Coyne,

    I have heard it said that evolution is not trial and error, but, error and trial. Perhaps Professor Rolston sees various forms of childhood cancer as evidence of “divine creativity”, but, to the extent that those cancers, if terminal, have a genetic origin, such traits perish with the individual and are not passed down, and, is not such evidence of evolution at work? By Professor Rolston’s standards, why not just say that the Universe was created last Tuesday (or Thursday, depending on the day of week) and simply be done with it? By the standards of the “boring billion” in the geological record, maybe God took a break or went on vacation? Pray tell, what in all of this non-falsifiable gobbledygook is not true?? If I, as an individual, want to believe that the South won the Civil War, who is someone like Donald Trump to say otherwise???



    1. I’ll let other readers deal with this comment, as I really don’t understand what you’re trying to say. If God controls evolution, he controls mutations that cause cancer and, if recessive, are present in high frequency without being expressed, and thus are passed down. At any rate, why would god allow the existence of cancer-causing mutations if he’s a good God. This is the problem of theodicy that Rolston, along with all theologians, has failed to deal with it.

      What is not true is that a. such mutations aren’t destroyed if they are partly recessive, but persist in the population, b. a loving God wouldn’t allow such mutations to happen (after all, he’s omnipotent), and c. the most parsimonious hypothesis is not to say that God controls evolution, or set it up, but to assume it’s a naturalistic process. Otherwise, one could say that leprechauns on Mars control evolution. And there is PLENTY in evolution that does not comport with an omnipotent and loving God.

    2. My question to you is – What does who won the civil war have to do with evolution and g*d. That is just senseless. We have history and absolute evidence of who won the civil war. There is no evidence for g*d in evolution. There is only religious people.

    3. Talk about gobbledygook – that is one impressive word salad you’ve mixed up for us Dawn.

      I’ll say only this; all cancers, terminal or otherwise, have a genetic origin. What you meant when were fooling around with your salad are those which are associated with heritable traits – genetic risk factors. Alas, even there you flounder about like a fish on the pier, as many cancers which have heritable risks arise later in life, beyond reproductive age. This is why they are… well… heritable.

    4. This is hard to parse, but maybe it helps to explain that harmful mutations that terminate an individual, or even put an end to a family line, are trivial to the bigger picture of natural selection. Natural selection is demonstrably concerned with selecting for the continuation of populations. Individuals and lineages are entirely disposable. That may seem that natural selection is cruel, but it is more accurate to say it is… indifferent.

      Organisms are full of flaws in design. Among these is the tendency to mutations from time to time. The ability to generate mutations is of course essential for ongoing natural selection, but in order to have any beneficial mutations upon which natural selection can act, there must also be some mutations that cause things like cancer or terrible birth defects. One thing we do know is you can’t have one (beneficial mutations) without also having some of the other (harmful mutations).

  4. … this video make[s] me angry, wanting to call philosopher Holmes Rolston III a chowderhead who’s taking money under false pretenses. But I will refrain from such name-calling.

    Pullin’ out the old rhetorical apophasis, huh, boss?

  5. Ewolucja jest dla mnie faktem ,istnienie Boga (z pozycji Deizmu ) kwestią mojej wiary .Co do ewolucji zastanawiam się tylko dlaczego ewolucji zajęło 3.5 miliarda lat wytworzenie mózgu,inteligencji i świadomości na poziomie człowieka ? To bardzo długi okres ,miliardy form życia i przypadek,procesy ewolucji jakoś nie chciały “wybrać ” tej ścieżki.”Wybrać ” to oczywiście nie w doslownym znaczeniu.
    Zastanawiam się czy gdybym przy pomocy inżynierii genetycznej obdarzył Labradora ,inteligencją na poziomie ludzkim i świadomością,przeczyło by to w jakiś sposób ewolucji? Chyba nie .

    Z innej beczki ,gdy obserwuję poczynania Trumpa,wojny na świecie,okrucieństwa,tortury ,wojny religijne ,skrajną głupotę,zastanawiam się czy wybór Labradora nie byłby lepszym pomysłem niż uzyskanie świadomości przez agresywną małpę (jaką ludzie często bywają)

    Można to żartobliwie podsumować pytaniem czy Labradory byłby lepszymi ludźmi niż ludzie?

      1. Courtesy of Google translate:

        “Evolution for me is a fact, the existence of God (from the position of Deism) is a matter of my faith. What for evolution I only wonder why it took 3.5 billion years for evolution to produce brain, intelligence and consciousness on the human level? This is a very long time, billions of life forms and coincidence, the processes of evolution somehow did not want to “choose” this path. “To choose” is, of course, not in the literal sense.
        I wonder if if I had genetically engineered a Labrador with human intelligence and consciousness, it would somehow contradict evolution? Probably not .

        On a different note, when I observe Trump’s actions, world wars, atrocities, torture, religious wars, extreme stupidity, I wonder if choosing a Labrador would be a better idea than getting consciousness by an aggressive monkey (which people often do)

        This can be jokingly summed up by asking if Labradors would be better humans than humans?”

        1. The problem with that is that religion seems to be as rejected by observation as astrology and homeopathy – there are no ‘gods’. The universe is observably fully natural and we can quantify it in cosmology (zero sum energy and work, which leaves no room for theism/deism or any other form of magic belief).

  6. When you add religion to anything there is nothing that is not possible. Add it to evolution and he is out there steering the drama. When it goes wrong here and there – well g*d works in mysterious ways? Like this virus it is just a small bend in the lovely road to heaven. Add the religion to politics and you have a whole new world that escapes reality and goes into ugly areas not seen before.

  7. You know, if I were to worship anything it would be the source of the matter/energy that makes up the universe and the source of the natural laws that shape it. I’ve never seen any convincing argument that any such source is conscious, aware, or gives a sh!t what humans think or do.

  8. The Jacques Monod link leads to a paper by François Jacob. As Monod an Jacob won a Nobel prize together, it is easy to confuse them.

  9. I can see the game he’s playing – as do many others of his ilk. They engage the listener with wonderful stories, little humanizing anecdotes involving true facts of nature, and once the naive listener is raised to the front of his chair by a sense of awe, he gently brings in a hopeful “maybe” about God having a “desire” to give life direction and purpose. It’s a game that can fool some of the people some of the time. At least enough to build a career and sell books.

  10. I for one had thought that swim bladders evolved from early lungs in fishes, and that interpretation appears online where I have looked. I have not seen descriptions to contradict that interpretation.

    1. I don’t know anything about this, but an argument supporting your report is here:
      The argument is based on the presence of a lung in Polypterus, supposedly a basal fish. But according to Wikipedia, polypterus is a distant side-shoot of fish phylogeny, suggesting that the lung of that fish could just as well have evolved from an ancestral swim bladder, which would seem to be more generally useful to fish than a proto-lung.

  11. The existence of mortality, predation, disease, and extinction seems to lead to the inescapable conclusion that God is one hell of a sadist. The Cathars of Provence solved this problem by the logical inference that the material plane is ruled by Satan, while God attends exclusively to non-material matters. A pity that there are no Cathars around to receive a Templeton Prize for this brilliant philosophical solution to the theodicy problem.

    1. “A pity that there are no Cathars around to receive a Templeton Prize”

      The Catholics slaughtered all of them! Jealousy over superior theology perhaps?
      On that note, the Manicheans are due for a comeback.

  12. Natural theology is still with us and getting a paycheck! This person would get along nicely with John Ray and William Paley.
    You know, once the horse is right properly dead, it would be nice if it did not keep showing signs of life.

  13. So god steered the process of evolution in such a way that a large number of sentient beings need to devour other sentient beings in order to survive. If it is a god who planned that, it certainly must be a very evil god.

    1. “So god steered the process of evolution in such a way that a large number of sentient beings need to devour other sentient beings in order to survive.”

      Yes. Whatever became of manna from Heaven?

  14. A counter argument is that observing floods, tsunamis, volcanic eruptions, cancers, infections, viruses, ichneumon wasps, jewel wasps, species extinctions, lawyers and politicians, shows that the existence of the Devil is proven.

    If not why not?

  15. good loard!

    Rolston simply produces as “evidence” a bunch of non-sequiturs where, as you say, bias is clearly doing the work of bridging those non-sequiturs in his mind.

    As for this:

    “It leaves open a place for surprising creativity . . . that I think exceeds any Darwinian capacity for explanation. “

    Including a “surprising” level of creativity in regards to cruelty!

    It’s amazing to see theists constantly trying to find God’s hand in the creation of life forms, while never following through on the more negative implications. It’s like the “God saved my life in the jet crash that killed everyone else, isn’t that wonderful of Him??!!!” type thinking.

    If God is the one guiding the evolution of life forms with surprising creativity, much of it has been put towards creating ways of organisms inflicting terrible suffering on other organisms. “I think I’ll make this parasite burrow in to the eyes, this one will eat away the tongue, this one will burrow from the intestine all through the body out the feet, etc.”

    And God’s creativity with bacteria and viruses has been diabolical causing untold levels of death and misery “the last one that made people die of their lungs filling up with fluid was nice, but I’m bored of that one. How about a virus that liquefies their organs and makes them bleed out their eyes!”

    Of course, all the “good” and benign designs are sings of wonder. The sinister ones…well, God’s mysterious, isn’t he?

    1. Monty Python has an answer for that:


      All things dull and ugly,
      All creatures short and squat,
      All things rude and nasty,
      The Lord God made the lot.

      Each little snake that poisons,
      Each little wasp that stings,
      He made their brutish venom.
      He made their horrid wings.

      All things sick and cancerous,
      All evil great and small,
      All things foul and dangerous,
      The Lord God made them all.

      Each nasty little hornet,
      Each beastly little squid
      Who made the spikey urchin?
      Who made the sharks? He did!

      All things scabbed and ulcerous,
      All pox both great and small,
      Putrid, foul and gangrenous,
      The Lord God made them all.


  16. Every thing that God does is absolutely perfect, that of course includes parasites that inflict horrible suffering on animals. And that is why no more perfect horrible parasites can be conceived. Well, that’s my own argument for the existence of God.

  17. Oy – philo$ophy!

    It leaves open a place for surprising creativity . . . that I think exceeds any Darwinian capacity for explanation.

    But we know it does not – it is purely natural process and the results are within its capacity (or we wouldn’t have a robust theory) – and we also know personal incredulity isn’t science.

    This is the same as pointing on everything and say “mygodsdidit”. An idea that “explains” everything isn’t a theory – it explains nothing.

  18. The question he should be asked is “why?”
    Why is god tinkering around with serendipity and evolution and lucky little accidents? Why not just create the bloody swim bladder or wing or eye complete?
    This sort of weaselly sneaking is almost worse than the bull-headed ignorance of full-on creationists!

  19. We now know that the Coronavirus uses some incredibly sophisticated genetic mechanism to evade and undermine our immune system. I hope the Intelligent Design people add that example to their list of wonders of creation.

  20. “When he created the prize, Templeton stipulated that its value always exceed the Nobel Prizes to underscore his belief that advances in spiritual discoveries can be quantifiably more significant than those honored by the Nobels.”

    ” . . . his belief . . . can be . . . .”

    Weasel words. What can one not believe to be true simply and solely because one thinks so? “Can be” is not a statement of reality. “Is” is. Pray tell, Templeton Foundation, if any spiritual “can be” has become an “is,” SHOW me how.

  21. The link to the source of the Jacques Monod quote points to an article by François Jacob. Also, does the quote exist in French?

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