Evolution and divine causality

Here’s the next-to-last chapter to my “Aristotle and Darwin” essay.  It’s about two pages.  In this installment, I address the claim that evolution has removed the need to invoke God’s creative action.

From time to time, I’ve seen newspaper articles reporting surveys on the relative popularity of “evolution” and “creationism”.  The survey will have questions which ask whether one believes that life or humanity A) was created by God or B) evolved from lower forms through natural processes.  These articles always end with reporters lamenting the “unscientific” attitudes of Americans, because some people checked “A”.  The real scandal, though, is the philosophical ignorance of reporters who think A and B are mutually exclusive.

Let’s take a simpler case.  Suppose there were this survey question:  “I exist because A) God created me, or B) my parents produced me through the natural process of procreation.”  Religious people are always thanking God for creating them, right?  So they must believe A.  On the other hand, they surely know about the birds and the bees, right?  So they must believe B.  This must be a great mystery, I suppose, but this example should show that modern science doesn’t have anything in particular to do with it.

The mistake in both these survey questions is that it mistakes God’s activity for being like that of other actors, as if God were one cause among many.  It’s as if we were to regard Him as a fifth Force, on an ontological level with the other four, so that what’s caused by God is not caused by natural forces, and vice versa.  That’s not how theists understand divine causality.  As theists understand it, God is the cause of everything, including natural events.  When a stone rolls down a mountain, it is God who creates the stone and holds it in being from instant to instant, God who creates and maintains the mountain in existence, God who maintains the gravitational field driving the motion, God who gives these things their specific natures, and God who causes them to interact with each other the way they do.  A theist can simultaneously believe that he is created by God and that he was produced by his parents precisely because the two forms of causality operate on different orders.  Rather, God caused my parents to give me life.  Without God’s creative action, my parents couldn’t exist for an instant.  In scholastic language, God is my primary cause, and my parents are my secondary cause.  So it is with every natural event.  When a theist hears that X did something to Y, he understands that God created X and Y, and He caused X to do whatever it did to Y.  The relationship is sometimes compared to that of a playwright and his play.  Who caused Desdemona to die, Othello or Shakespeare?  Either or both, depending on your point of view.  Note, though, that if one says that she died because that’s how Shakespeare wrote the play, it would not follow that Othello was actually innocent, and that his hands were guided by some magical force.  No, Othello deliberately killed her in a jealous rage, because that’s how Shakespeare wrote it.

If these events have natural causes, why invoke God at all, then?  Why not say that some things just happen to exist, without anything causing them to exist?  Why not just say that the universe and the stuff in it is just there?  The reason is that everything in the universe is finite and contingent.  Pick any object in the universe.  Suppose you know everything about that thing—its essential nature and all its intrinsic properties.  That information can’t tell you why that thing should actually exist at all, why it should have that particular nature, or how many instantiations of that thing there actually are.  There’s no logical reason why there might have been a universe without that thing at all.  If there is a reason for the thing’s existence, it must come from outside.  Suppose a thing X can exist for no reason at all.  Then, one might wonder, why don’t instances of X just pop into existence out of nothing all the time?  What’s to stop it?  But if such a thing was possible, there could be no order to the universe, because imaginary objects would always be randomly popping into being.  Therefore, contingent beings can only exist if they’re caused.  Since a collection of contingent beings is still contingent, the only way contingent beings can exist is if something non-contingent exists.  Such a thing would have to be inherently single and totally self-complete and self-sufficient.  One can argue that the only conceivable such being is God.

The above is a version of the so-called “cosmological argument”, which goes back, in its essentials, to Aristotle.  I present a fuller version of the argument in my Defense of Religion.  Philosophers have argued for and against it for millennia.  The important point is that neither evolution by natural selection nor the big bang theory affects the arguments one way or the other.  The cosmological argument is as good as it ever was.  (Conversely, one could say that the argument is as bad as it ever was, since the major objections to it were formulated by Hume and Kant long before The Origin of Species.)

People who think that evolution threatens belief in God tend to have an idea that some kinds of universe could “just exist” without a cause, while others couldn’t.  They see the current world, with all its beauty and order, and they think that surely this world requires an intelligent cause.  When they think of the mess of subatomic particles created by the big bang, though, they think that probably that’s the sort of thing that could “just exist”.  Now, since modern astronomy, geology, and biology tell us how the latter state can naturally give rise to the former, such people will tend to think that their original intuition of a divine providence must have been mistaken.  But in fact, the error was in seeing the primordial “mess of particles” as a random chaos.  In fact, the universe at this time was, in a way, highly ordered and intelligible.  It consisted of a fixed set of particles that obeyed a very precise set of mathematical laws.  It’s only because of this order that the more visible order of our world has come into being.  If the universe had been a true chaos, with no law or regularity, nothing could have come out of it.  So the mess of particles has the same combination of order and contingency that leads one to infer a divine Creator.

All the most philosophically grandiose claims made for the theory of evolution rest on the idea that natural selection is a mechanism that allows order to come into being out of chaos.  In fact, this is not true.  For natural selection to work, there has to be fixed regularity in the environment and in the laws of nature.  If the “rules of the game” changed from generation to generation, so that what helped one generation to survive hurt the next, natural selection would never be able to operate.  So the correct way to understand Darwin’s mechanism is not that it creates order out of chaos, but that it explains how order in one order can spill over to order in another order.  This is still a remarkable achievement, but one that can’t possibly explain why there should be order at all.  Nor can physics or chemistry explain this.  Science is fundamentally a description of the cosmos, not an explanation.  It tries to determine what the order of the world actually is.  It can’t explain the order itself, however, because it must presuppose this in all its explanations.

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