Friday, July 15, 2011

Omnipotence & Evolution

I just got done going through some student homework responses on the argument from design. I posed the following: "True or False: Evolution is inconsistent with the existence of an intelligent designer of the universe." Mainly, I did this as a way of seeing what people know about evolution and where they are coming from.

Of note is that a considerable number of students conflate evolution with the theory of spontaneous generation (and so, as it were, run together cosmological and teleological issues). Keep that in mind (if you didn't already) the next time you discuss this.

I don't have any particular axe to grind on these issues, except that I am, as its called, an accomodationist. That is, it seems silly to me to think that evolution necessarily (logically) crowds out any sort of divine hand. Whether there is a divine hand (or whatever) is a different issue. I personally think it's silly to pit one's religions against science, and to be a strict literalist about creation. So here's a new sort of response I've hit upon, to challenge those caught up in literalism to re-think what they're doing: I ask, "In saying that evolution and intelligent design are incompatible, are you saying that there's something God can't do, namely, create things through a process of evolution?" I think this is a useful Socratic move because it uses their assumption that God can do anything to reconsider their resistance. Whether it works, we'll have to wait and see.

No doubt, Dawkins wouldn't like this kind of thing, since he would say that there's no need to posit the divine hand if random mutations can fully explain the origin of various species (etc.). But again, that's a separate issue. I just want them to think about the logical compatibility issue. Thoughts about the strategy above?

Certainly, one could say: but that isn't how God did it; haven't you read your Genesis? (And of course, there's not enough time to talk about that theological issue in the philosophy classroom, in all its various permutations. I do point out that, whatever the motivation for literalism, there were plenty of saints who weren't literalists, like Augustine.)


  1. Sounds like an interesting strategy. I wonder whether non-Catholics will care about what saints thought, but my main concern (not with what you're doing but with the whole issue) is that they don't learn about evolution in school and so know next to nothing about what the theory is. All they know (in the relevant cases) is that they are against it. But exploring some of these questions might both give you a chance to educate them a little about science (i.e. what the theory of evolution is) and help them think about it more deeply or carefully. Good luck!

  2. Yeah, I talk just a little about natural selection and inclusive fitness. I don't have profound examples about the evolution of proteins, though that probably wouldn't help. I should talk more about predictive power and such. Usually, some smart aleck insists that the blood or whatever is just "too complicated," and at that point I tell them they need to take the relevant biology courses because I'm not going to pretend I can talk through the details of biology. And maybe biology will expand their imaginative powers on this kind of issue.

    But yeah, you're right that, in the relevant cases, the operative assumption is that whatever it is, they're against it. And it's not inappropriate at all in philosophy to point out that that's just not an acceptable way of thinking. (There's always a surprised face or two when I point out that the Catholic church is accomodationist. Of course, maybe that's just more proof that Catholics aren't really good Christians...)

  3. The simplest way to counter a strict literalist is to ask whether they believe that the Earth is round. It appears to be a well kept secret that the Biblical Cosmology is a flat Earth cosmology; see:

  4. "And it's not inappropriate at all in philosophy to point out that that's just not an acceptable way of thinking." Absolutely agreed.

  5. it seems to me that your job is not to persuade them that evolution is acceptable (you're not a scientist, or a high school biology teacher, and philosophy doesn't necessarily oblige philosophers to become missionaries on behalf of modern reasonableness), so i think your question could work well.

  6. Certainly, one could say: but that isn't how God did it; haven't you read your Genesis?

    Actually it would seem that one couldn't say this, inasmuch as the very beginning of Genesis already contains two accounts of creation (1:1-2:6 and 2:7-2:25) that contradict each other. If plants were created before humans and humans were nevertheless created before plants, what can believing in "the literal truth of the Genesis creation narrative" even mean? Or even claiming personally to believe in it?

    Your argument on omnipotence, on the other hand, is very good. I'm always particulary impressed by someone's coming up with an argument that would never have occurred to myself, yet strikes me as cogent immediately. This is one of those.

    And perhaps one could actually use a similar argument here: isn't the fact that the Word of God contradicts itself a strong sign from God that the Word isn't to be taken that literally? Compare this Wittgenstein passage from Culture and Value:

    "God has four people recount the life of the incarnate God, each one differently, & contradicting each other - but can't we say: It is important that this narrative should not have more than quite middling historical plausibility, just so that this should not be taken as the essential, decisive thing. So that the letter should not be believed more strongly than is proper & the spirit should receive its due. I.e.: What you are supposed to see cannot be communicated even by the best, most accurate, historian; therefore a mediocre account suffices, is even to be preferred. For that too can tell you what you are supposed to be told. (Roughly in the way a mediocre stage set can be better than a sophisticated one, painted trees better than real ones, - which distract attention from what matters.)"