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Does evolution support atheism or theism?

This article was originally published on the 25 February 2011 at www.thinkingmatters.org.nz as “The Atheistic Argument from Evolution”

It is a common taunt among combative non-theists (henceforth called atheists) that evolution, because it is a well-established scientific fact, somehow provides positive proof that God does not exist. God, as the title of the evolutionary zoologist Richard Dawkin’s book proclaims, is a delusion. If this is so it then follows that belief in God is the same as belief in Santa Clause, which directly opposes our best scientific knowledge. It appears as if there is an atheistic argument being made.

  1. If evolution is true then God does not exist.
  2. Evolution is true.
  3. Therefore, God does not exist.

Notice a couple of things about this argument. First, it follows logically. By virtue of the law of logic called modus ponens the conclusion is necessary and inescapable if the two premises are true. That means in order to defeat the argument at least one of the premises will have to be denied.

Second, notice is that premise 1 is a theological in nature, and premise 2 is a scientific in nature. If someone wants to defend or refute premise 2, they will have to do some science, and similarly, if someone wants to defend or refute premise 1 they will have to do some theology (something atheists generally don’t want to do). Now we could argue against that second premise and question if evolution is in fact true. But today I want to look at that the more crucial first premise.

Premise 1: If evolution is true, God does not exist

If evolution is true does this imply that God does not exist?

It seems clear that it is not so. If evolution is true, the most that means is a certain literal interpretation of Genesis 1 is incorrect. Now if such an admission shakes you, I hope that those shakes don’t register on the Richter scale. There have been many Christians who have believed in God, and found no contradiction in also believing in evolution. Many very clever people have been and are theistic evolutionists. C.S. Lewis was one of these who thought that God very well could have used the process of evolution to bring about human life.

Howard Van Till of Calvin College asks:“Is the concept of special creation required of all persons who profess trust in the Creator-God revealed in Scripture? . . . most Christians in my acquaintance who are engaged in either scientific or biblical scholarship have concluded that the special creationist picture of the world’s formation is not a necessary component of Christian belief . . .”[1]

Augustine in the fourth century (1500 years before the pressure of modern science) was suggesting that the days of Genesis one were not literal “solar days,” but narratorial devises to explain a logical framework. Davis Young from Calvin College explains Augustine’s view:“Some things were made in fully developed form as we see them today, and other things were made in a potential form, so that in time they might become the way we see them now. Augustine went far beyond any superficial reading of the text by claiming that neither the creation nor the subsequent unfolding took place in six ordinary days. He is explicit that God did not create the world over the course of six temporal days. “The sacred writer was able to separate in the time of his narrative what God did not separate in time in His creative act.”[2]. [3]

Yet even if the Bible’s creation account demands a literal interpretation, then all that would follow is that the doctrine of inerrancy needs adjusting. Studied theologians generally suggest essential doctrines should form a central core. Tenets like God’s existence, his essential attributes, the doctrine of Christ, and of Salvation: these you never up and fight to the wall for. But there are other doctrines positioned nearer the periphery of your theological circle that you could take or leave without causing irreparable harm. If the doctrine of inerrancy falls away, that is not the end of Christianity. (Now in light of scientific and philosophical critiques of evolution, such an admission might be too hasty.) Still, it is worth noting that if the scientific community can establish a convincing proof of evolutionary theory and give explanations of the model’s shortcomings, the existence of God is not what is at stake.

What this brings to light is an assumption that upholds the atheistic argument; that God’s existence is dependant on the Bible’s revelation. That assumption is false. God’s existence does not rely on the special revelation of Scripture. Even the knowledge of God need not depend on Scripture if one has a high view of the project of Natural Theology, so such an argument need not sway the defender of God’s existence.

If God exists he can use the process of evolution. But if God exists he does not need the process of evolution. Therefore, regarding God’s existence, it is a matter of complete indifference if evolution did or did not occur. Evolution therefore brings a very different challenge to the table then the atheist charges. The discussion is an in-house one; less an external attack on Christianity and more a matter of internal consistency of interpretation, as well as an issue of integration with the discipline of science.

What is so irksome to the committed atheist is he sees if evolution fails scrutiny it leaves a gaping hole in his world-view. What can plug this hole? The only option is some form of creationism – which of course is an unacceptable option for the atheist. In the words of Richard Dawkin’s “although atheism might have been logically tenable before Darwin, Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist.”[4] Ergo, if Darwin topples there goes the intellectual kudos of the atheist. Alvin Plantinga, philosopher at the University of Notre Dame says,“For the nontheist, evolution is the only game in town; it is an essential part of any reasonably complete nontheistic way of thinking; hence the devotion to it, the suggestions that it shouldn’t be discussed in public, and the venom, the theological odium with which dissent is greeted.”[5]

Strange as it may seem, it is not the Christian who is biased towards the evidence, but the naturalist. The Christian can be open to where the evidence leads on the basis that the Genesis creation account permits a wide manner of interpretations, while the atheist is totally committed to evolution and its speculations.

The Tables Turn

It is perhaps with this realisation in mind that led Jeffery Lowder offers a more cautious argument from evolution. In the year 1999 during The Lowder-Fernandes Debate: Naturalism vs. Theism he stated in his opening address.If evolution is true, then God is not needed for the account that various life forms that exist today and have existed in the past, and therefore evolution is compatible with naturalism. If theism is true however, evolution may or may not be true. Evolution is logically compatible with theism; God could have used evolution, but God could of used many other methods than evolution – methods which are ruled out by naturalism. Moreover, given that over 99% of species that have ever lived on earth is now extinct, evolution seems like a pretty strange way for an all-powerful being to create living organisms. Did God have to keep experimenting till he got things right? Thus evolution is some evidence for naturalism over theism. [sic] [6]

This argument cedes the point that evolution is compatible with theism. This then constitutes a denial of the first premise. If he were to then make the conclusion that God does not exist, he would be then begging the question in favour of naturalism. Lowder avoids this by cautiously concluding that if evolution is true it is more likely given naturalism rather than theism. This conclusion he bases on the assumption that any intelligent designer responsible for the origin and diversity of life would have used an efficient method.

Efficiency however, is only a consideration for beings with limited time, limited resources and limited power. But on the Christian view, the intelligent designer is God, who does not lack time, or resources, or power. There is no reason to think that the Creator of Christian theism would desire efficiency when he was creating. Moreover, the way in which God bought about the origin and diversity of life may have been in accord with other over-riding concerns, such as how the universe was to operate for the living beings he planned would occupy and observe it. With that in mind, Lowder’s conclusion is baseless and needs no further refutation.

But perhaps there is more we can say to blunt the force of this modified argument. Are there any other reasons to think that evolution is not more likely given naturalism rather that theism? Well I think there are and I’m going to briefly sketch two of these reasons.

In the last fifty years the scientific community has made some astounding discoveries that serve to strengthen the teleological arguments for God’s existence. The first of these discoveries is the incredible fine-tuning of the universe. When the laws of nature are expressed mathematically, there are certain arbitrary constants just given in the initial conditions of the universe, tuned precisely such that if they were to be adjusted to the smallest fraction, would not create a life-permitting universe.

To illustrate, imagine if you will, that you discovered a room that could generate universes. In centre of this room is a large circular control panel and arrayed around it very large dials. One dial is labeled the charge of an electron, another the mass of a proton, another the strength of the gravitational force, another the electromagnetic weak force, next to it the strong force. There are over 50 such dials arrayed on the big board in the centre of the room. In the centre of panel is a button labeled “Create.” Initially you thought that these dials were all coloured black, but on closer inspection you notice a thin red line on each, representing a sliver of perhaps a 5000th of a degree, on others a millionth of decimal place. Then you noticed that all of these dials were set right on that red line. If you were to shift a setting of just one of these dials off that red sliver and press the create button, the universe generated would be unable to produce life.

Such is the universe we find ourselves in: finely tuned to permit life. One of these dials or constants is the rate of the universe’s expansion one second after the Big Bang. Stephen Hawking estimates that if this constant had been smaller by one part in a hundred thousand million million, the universe would have re-collapsed into a hot fireball.[7] P. C. W. Davies calculates the odds against the initial conditions being suitable for star formation (which is necessary for planets) is one followed by at least thousand billion billion zeroes.[8] He also estimates that a change in the strength of gravity or of the weak force by only one part in 10100 would have prevented a life-permitting universe.[9] (That number alone is far in excess of the amount of atoms in the universe.[10]) But each improbability should rightly be multiplied with each improbability, creating a numbers that are simply inexpressible with analogies. Davies concludes “Through my scientific work I have come to believe more and more strongly that the physical universe is put together with an ingenuity so astonishing that I cannot accept it merely as a brute fact.”[11] Fred Hoyle similarly remarks, “A common sense interpretation of the facts suggests that a super-intellect has monkeyed with physics.”[12]

For evolution even to be able to occur in the first place is so incredibly improbable the mind cannot comprehend. Evolution is therefore not more likely given naturalism rather than theism. Here, is the second reason.

In the movie Contact, Jodi Foster plays a SETI researcher.[13] One night she discovers a message picked up from one of their satellites pointing at outer space. This message was the first 20 prime numbers in order. She instantly recognised this was a message from an intelligence. How did she recognise this?

Scientists have been careful in how they distinguish between randomness, simple order and information. Organisations like SETI have needed such careful definitions so they know what they are looking for, and can recognise it when they find it.

Randomness is both simple and non-specific. An example of randomness would be if I were to spill alphabet soup on the table. If I were to give instructions to a computer for creating a random sequence, I would give it two instructions, 1) Select any letter, and 2) Repeat. The sequence I would get might be A, P, G, 9, N, 6. That is simple and non-specific.

Examples of simple order are sodium chloride – also known as table salt, other crystalline structures, and water. To create a sequence of 500 ME’s, I would instruct a computer to 1) Select an M, 2) Select an E, 3) Repeat. Simple order is therefore, Simple, Specific, Repetitive, and finally the parts are prior to the whole. This means the individual ME’s are selected before the entire sequence of ME’s. The consequence being if one part of the sequence was removed it wouldn’t do anything essential to the whole.

Information is entirely different to simple order. Examples of information rich sequences include language, codes, and equations. For instance, the message “John loves Mary” is information. It is information because it is 1) Not simple – there are 15 instructions to create that sequence, 2) Specific – because every letter needs to be there in the right order, 3) Not repetitive, 4) The whole is prior to the parts. That means the parts are integral to the whole, such that if I removed or replaced a letter here or there the meaning would be lost.

One of the most incredible discoveries of the twentieth century was that the DNA was an information-bearing molecule. That in every cell there is a non-repeatable code more complex and more specific than a library of encyclopaedias.

Now SETI researches make an assumption that information is the product of an intelligent mind. That I think is a good assumption. It is more reasonable to think that information is the product of non-intelligent natural processes. If I was on the beach and I saw shapes inscribed in the sand “All-black rule, Aussies drool.” it is more reasonable to believe an intelligent mind is responsible rather than believe it was from an accidental natural process. But if that is a reasonable assumption for SETI, that should also be a reasonable assumption for a molecular biologist. Hence, if evolution is true, it requires an intelligent mind.

Moreover, in the Anthropic Cosmological Principle two of the world’s leading cosmologists, John D. Barrow and Frank J. Tipler, point out 10 steps in the course of human evolution, such as the development of the DNA base genetic code, the origin of mitochondria in the cells, the origin of photosynthesis, the development of aerobic respiration, the development of the inner skeleton and the development of the eye, each of which is so improbable that before it would have occurred the sun would have ceased to be a main sequence star, and would have incinerated the earth. The odds they calculated for the assembly of the human genome was somewhere around 4 to the -360th power to the 110,000th power — simply an incomprehensible number. For reasons like this as well as others, “there has developed a general consensus among evolutionists that the evolution of intelligent life. . . is so improbable that is unlikely to have occurred on any other planet in the entire visible universe.” [14]

The first example was the fine-tuning needed for the universe to be life-permitting, and even allow evolution in the first place. The second example is the existence of information in biological structures, coupled with the enormous improbability of a purely naturalistic explanation, points to the existence of an intelligent mind. Both these cry out for an explanation, and the best explanation is that there is a single intelligent mind responsible for both the fine-tuning of the universe and the information in biological structures. Jeffrey Lowder was wrong to suppose that evolution is more likely given naturalism rather than theism. In fact, it seems quite the opposite; that if evolution is true it is more likely given theism rather than naturalism. We therefore have grounds to amend the original atheistic argument.

1`) If evolution is true, then a divine miracle has taken place 2) Evolution is true 3`) Therefore, a divine miracle has taken place.

If follows then, that God exists.

Isn’t it incredible that what the atheist originally thought disproves God, can actually be turned on its head and made a powerful argument for God’s existence? That in the end, we can proclaim with the psalmist;

“The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands…”[15]

Footnotes

[1] Howard Van Till, When Faith and Reason Cooperate, Calvin College, Grand Rapids, MI, http://www.asa3.org/asa/dialogues/Faith-reason/CRS9-91VanTill.html

[2] St. Augustine, The Literal Meaning of Genesis, translated and annotated by John Hammond Taylor, S.J., 2 vols. (New York: Newman Press, 1982), pg. 36.

[3] Davis A. Young, The Contemporary Relevance of Augustine’s view of Creation, Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Ml, Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 40.1:42-45 (3/1988), http://www.asa3.org/ASA/topics/Bible-Science/PSCF3-88Young.html

[4] Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker (London and New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 1986), pp. 6, 7.

[5] Alvin Plantinga, When Faith and Reason Clash: Evolution and the Bible, University of Notre Dame, Notre Dame, IN. Christian Scholar’s Review XXI:1 (September 1991): 8-33. http://www.asa3.org/aSA/dialogues/Faith-reason/CRS9-91Plantinga1.html

[6] Jeffrey Lowder, The Lowder-Fernandes Debate: Naturalism vs. Theism: Which Way Does the Evidence Point? (1999), (http://www.sermonaudio.com/sermoninfo.asp?SID=8220615357, retrieved 12 October, 2008)

[7] Stephen W. Hawking, A Brief History of Time (New York:  Bantam Books, 1988), p. 123.

[8] P. C. W. Davies, Other Worlds (London:  Dent, 1980), pp. 160-61, 168-69.

[9] P. C. W. Davies, “The Anthropic Principle,” in Particle and Nuclear Physics 10 (1983):  28.

[10] Matthew Champion, “Re: How many atoms make up the universe.” 1998 http://www.madsci.org/posts/archives/1998-10/905633072.As.r.html

[11] Paul Davies, The Mind of God (New York:  Simon & Schuster: 1992), p. 16.

[12] Fred Hoyle, “The Universe: Past and Present Reflections,” Engineering and Science (November, 1981), p.12.

[13] SETI is the Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence.

[14] 15. Barrow, John and Tipler, Frank (1986): The Anthropic Cosmological Principle. Clarendon Press, pg. 133.

[15] Psalms 19:1

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5 thoughts on “Does evolution support atheism or theism?

  1. “Second, notice is that premise 1 is a theological in nature, and premise 2 is a scientific in nature. If someone wants to defend or refute premise 2, they will have to do some science, and similarly, if someone wants to defend or refute premise 1 they will have to do some theology (something atheists generally don’t want to do).”

    Nice false claim there. I’ve done theology, having been a christian, and I’ve done the science. Guess which has evidence supporting it? Yep, the sciences including evolutionary theory. We have Christians who can’t agree what to believe and that is because they have no evidence for their versions of how to interpret the bible, which parts should be declared literal, metaphor or to be ignored altogether. That you can’t even convince each other on one idea is evidence that you all make it up as you go along.

    “1`) If evolution is true, then a divine miracle has taken place 2) Evolution is true 3`) Therefore, a divine miracle has taken place.”

    No evidence for any gods nor that they caused evolution to take place. But nice try with a tautology that has baseless premises and presuppositions.

    “The first example was the fine-tuning needed for the universe to be life-permitting, and even allow evolution in the first place. ”

    no evidence of “fine tuning” either. When desperate christians run to this, I have to laugh at them. At best, the fine tuning claim is we have an argument for a “force”, not your version of your god. You would have to show no other forces/gods exist to show that there is any reason to think that your god is the one and only creator. Can you?

    The claim of “fine tuning” is nothing more than the puddle insisting that the depression it is in was made for it and only it. The reality is that we happen to fit the universe, not that the universe fits us. If fine tuning worked, then 99.999…% of the universe being inimical to humanity is a stupid action on a god’s part. Most of the earth is inimical to us. Why? I’m going to guess you’ll run to the “best possible world” argument, which also fails since this postulates a limited god that is beholden to external forces.

    “Isn’t it incredible that what the atheist originally thought disproves God, can actually be turned on its head and made a powerful argument for God’s existence? ”

    Nope it isn’t incredible and requires the Christian to lie and remain willfully ignorant. Your apologetics might work with an ignorant Christian but is worthless to a non-chrsitian.

    1. Hi Clubschadenfreude,

      Thanks for your comment. You say that my parenthetical comment noting theology is not something atheists in general are inclined to do is false. This claim cannot be refuted by noting that you yourself, a specific individual, are apparently willing to do theology. Your experience of yourself, an atheist, doing theology, does not override my experience of many atheists being unwilling to do theology.

    2. You next say that the evolutionary sciences have evidence supporting it. I agree. Theology is likewise a discipline that requires evidence and reasoned arguments. You have indicated that you are one who is willing to engage in reasoned argumentation. I can’t guarantee I’ll have the time or patience to continue an exchange, but I do hope that id we have one, it will be more reasonable.

  2. You cite the lack of agreement for various theological matters as evidence that everything is made up as the theologian goes along. This is at once both a caricature of the discipline of theology and a double-edged sword. In fact, Christians are more united than you make them out to be, especially on the matter of God’s existence and Christ’s resurrection. Moreover, science is also a discipline that has and continues to feature considerable disagreement among its practitioners, and yet, I think we shall agree, this disagreement should not lead one to the conclusion that what they say is just made up as they go along.

    You say there is no evidence for God. Oh my! On the contrary, have you never heard of the arguments of natural theology (not to mention special revelation)? You say there is no evidence that God caused evolution to take place. On the contrary, did you not read the part where I said,

    “The first example was the fine-tuning needed for the universe to be life-permitting, and even allow evolution in the first place. The second example is the existence of information in biological structures, coupled with the enormous improbability of a purely naturalistic explanation, points to the existence of an intelligent mind. Both these cry out for an explanation, and the best explanation is that there is a single intelligent mind responsible for both the fine-tuning of the universe and the information in biological structures.”

    Perhaps you meant that one of the arguments of natural theology – the fine-tuning argument – is not a good one, and therefore provides no evidence for God (and no evidence for the necessity of God for evolution to take place). Very well. Let’s discuss. You say, “The claim of ‘fine tuning’ is nothing more than the puddle insisting that the depression it is in was made for it and only it.” It’s clear that you do not understand the argument from the fine-tuning to a designer. See here;

    1. The best explanation of the fine-tuning of embodied conscious agents is either design, necessity or chance.
    2. Necessity and chance are not the best explanations.
    Therefore,
    3. The best explanation of the fine-tuning of embodies conscious agents is design.

    The explanation of design entails a powerful and intelligent (therefore personal) designer. It can’t be a mere “force,” as you say, as forces as impersonal, lacking intelligence. Its doesn’t show the fullness of the Christian revelation of God, but it does show something compatible with it – a general theism consistent with deism, and the other monotheistic religions. For sure it is not compatible with naturalism.

    Insofar as you say “the claim of ‘fine-tuning’ is nothing more than…” it seems you don’t understand what fine-tuning is. This is a technical term for the fundamental constants and quantities of nature’s falling into a very narrow life-permitting range. Its not a term that means “designed.” It’s a neutral term that says nothing by way of explanation. It’s also very well-established in physics.

    You say, “The reality is that we happen to fit the universe, not that the universe fits us.”

    This sounds like slogan. What does “fit” mean in this sentence? You can’t mean “designed for” as that subverts your objection. You can’t mean that the life’s parameters to fall within a narrow universe-permitting range in order for the universe to exist. That doesn’t make sense either.

    The best I can make of this puddle analogy is that it is the old objection of the Anthropic Principal: if the hole (the universe) didn’t exist, the puddle (someone) shouldn’t be surprised at its (his) own existence.

    However, the analogy of the puddle is muddle-headed. It suggests that the proponent of the argument from fine-tuning is trying to explain why our universe exists. That’s not correct. Rather, they are attempting to explain why a universe with these particular life-permitting properties exists. Puddles can be any shape or size – they don’t require fine-tuning. Moreover, they could change their size and shape and still exist. But the universe we find ourselves in didn’t have to be the shape and size it did.

    You may wish to tacitly presuppose a multiverse (many different puddles), in order to multiply your probabilistic resources to explain the existence of a universe with observers in it. However, that metaphysical hypothesis will need to be defended.

  3. Clubschadenfreude,

    You say, “If fine tuning worked, then 99.999…% of the universe being inimical to humanity is a stupid action on a god’s part. Most of the earth is inimical to us.” And ask “Why?”

    What do you mean by the antecedent, “If fine-tuning worked”? This betrays your misunderstanding of what fine-tuning is. It is not a synonym for design. Do you mean, “Why is the universe mostly inimical to life?” Since there is life in the universe, it’s not inimical to life, is it? The supposition is wrong. Do you mean, “Why is the design of the universe mostly inimical to life?” I could be ignorant of this answer, and it still be the case that some part of the universe being life-permitting is surprising, given the radical improbability of it being so.

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