Friday, August 12, 2005

Evolution v. religion: the problem of evil and the problem of design

Abiola Lapite argues that evolution cannot be compatible with an omnipotent, benevolent, activist God, due to the problem of evil:
Simply put, there is no room in the universe of Darwinian struggle and pitiless death for a benevolent, omnipotent, activist deity of the kind put forward by Judaism and its more popular offspring.
This is manifestly true, but it's not the point of conflict between evolution and religion that I would focus on. After all, the problem of evil isn't just true for evolution - it's true for, well, all of reality. Even if God did create the world 6,000 years ago, it would still be true that all sorts of horrible suffering goes on in the animal world, not to mention famines, natural disasters, and man's inhumanity to man in the human world. Some solutions are at least plausible for Deist gods, but not for the kind of interventionist God postulated by the great monotheistic religions. In any case, it doesn't take Darwin to raise the problem of evil.

The real Darwinian threat to religion is "Darwin's dangerous idea," the one that this blog is named after. It's the idea that all the fantastic complexity of life, humanity and consciousness was never designed, but happened on its own through a mindless, stupid, blind algorithmic process: natural selection. Cranes, not skyhooks. Complexity from the bottom up, not the top down. The watchmaker is not only blind - he's not even a real person.

This is the point on which evolution cannot be reconciled with most forms of religion. Insofar as religion is about ascribing meaning and intent to the natural world, a meaningless and intentless natural selection fundamentally contradicts the whole religious outlook. I wasn't surprised when the Catholic Church clarified its position on evolution as being that evolution-as-common-descent might be true, but evolution-as-unplanned-mindless-algorithm is definitely false - because the latter leaves no room for the Catholic God.

This common descent v. mindless natural selection distinction means that whether or not evolution and religion are compatible depends on what you mean by evolution. If you mean Darwinian evolution in its full glory, then they are not compatible (excepting Deist non-interventionist gods). If you mean evolution as common descent and gradual modification, then - they might be compatible. I think it's possible (and not logically inconsistent) to be a practicing biologist, understanding how random mutations spread through a population through natural selection and how protein domains are conserved across species and so on, while retaining some belief in the back of one's head that the mutations just appear random, and God is working in mysterious ways in the background. It's still a failure to take Darwinian evolution to its final philosophical conclusion, but doesn't conflict with the scientific theory of evolution itself, in that science just ignores "mysterious ways" that can't be observed, inferred, or falsified.


Blogger Abiola said...

While you're correct that the ability to demonstrate the superfluity of a designer is what most sets Darwinism apart from any other ideas which undermine belief in an all-powerful, all-knowing "God", I think that from a purely psychological viewpoint, it is the sheer profligacy and cruelty (or "pitiless indifference", as Dawkins put it) of the whole process which makes the sternest impression on the average person's mind. It's one thing to be able to show that an all-powerful designer isn't necessary, and something else again to show that the way any such supposed designer works is through so heartless a process as that by which all life is as it is today. Indeed, the one factor most important in undermining Darwin's own faith in God wasn't the Ichneumonidae but the untimely death of his beloved daughter Annie at the age of 10, the kind of thing religious types usually try to "explain" by indulging in sophistical talk of the all-knowing, all-powerful, ever-loving [sic] God's "mysterious ways" - ways so "mysterious" mere humans can see that there are better options ...

8/13/2005 03:00:00 PM  
Blogger Andrew said...

Yes, I can see that pitiless indifference might be a more persuasive factor from a psychological, if not "intellectual" (or whatever), point of view... though, I'm a bit confused by the example of Darwin's daughter - doesn't that support the idea that it's the problem of evil in our everyday lives that undermines faith in God, not the problem of evil over the past 3 billion years of organisms that we've never met and can barely imagine?

Thanks for the article - classic Dawkins...

8/13/2005 05:53:00 PM  
Blogger Abiola said...

doesn't that support the idea that it's the problem of evil in our everyday lives that undermines faith in God, not the problem of evil over the past 3 billion years of organisms that we've never met and can barely imagine?

The difference is that he now had a compelling alternative explanation available to him, in the form of the theory of evolution. Without the personal tragedy, he might have otherwise been tempted to continue to carve out a special exemption for human beings.

8/13/2005 06:35:00 PM  
Blogger Andrew said...

The difference is that he now had a compelling alternative explanation available to him, in the form of the theory of evolution.

This seems to return to the classic explanation of why Darwinism undermines theism - that design was the last stumbling block of anyone arguing that there is no God. Even David Hume, rejecting the influence of God in all moral matters, couldn't get past the argument from design. Darwin's personal tragedy was a doubt experienced by millions before him ("how could God do this?") but you couldn't reject the existence of an Intelligent Designer before Darwin came up with natural selection.

8/14/2005 06:48:00 AM  
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