Evolution and Divine causality

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 freely 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.

11 Responses

  1. […] The argument from causality claims that any event with a worldly cause can not have a divine cause. I often hear the claim that the theory of evolution proves that God did not create humans, but that humans evolved. Another slightly less common claim is that the scientific discoveries of the early modern era “prove” that weather, natural disasters, etc. are the consequences of natural processes rather than acts of God. Finally, I once heard a well-educated and otherwise intelligent acquaintance claim that the divine rights of kings are bogus because European monarchs are not hand-picked by God, but rather inherit their positions or are appointed by parliament. (I assume she would be happy only if the bearded and robed God of Michelangelo personally stuck His head through the clouds and named His preferred king.) Claims of this type fail because they ignore the full implications of omnipotence. To the theist, God is responsible for everything that happens, including those events that have other, intermediary causes. No worldly cause is divine, but every worldly cause has a divine and transcendent cause. This applies to both natural events and human action; to even ask whether it is creature or creator who is responsible for an action is to misunderstand the relationship between the two. Blogger bonald puts it like this: When a theist hears that X did something to Y, he understands that God created X and Y, and He cause… […]

  2. we should trade links on our blogswe have got simmilar content

  3. Just a fine point here. As a physicist, you should realise that there are things popping into existence randomly. They’re callled virtual particles. But I’m sure you knew that already, right? What excludes these virtual particles from being considered contingent? Other than that, excellent piece. Your “Othello’ analogy is a very interesting way of viewing the unvierse.

  4. Hello John,

    Here’s something I wrote on a comment at “Collapse: The Blog” (http://collapsetheblog.typepad.com/blog/2011/09/bergs-third-way-the-god-has-no-explanatory-value-argument.html?cid=6a014e5f8c82d2970c0154359bd631970c#comment-6a014e5f8c82d2970c0154359bd631970c) a while back on virtual particles:

    Interestingly, some people have claimed that quantum field theory (QFT) does provide an example of “something from nothing” in the case of virtual pairs which, as we say, pop out of “the vacuum”. Let me explain why I don’t think it’s a good idea to try to derive ontological conclusions from *perturbative* QFT. It’s been years since I took QFT, so please forgive me if I sound shaky in places.

    First, I emphasized the word “perturbative”, because virtual particles are things that come out of Feynman diagrams, and the latter are really just an iterative way to approximate a path integral. Arguably, we should not assign distinct ontological statuses to the different terms of a mathematical expansion.

    More importantly, we must remember that QFT is basically a quantum mechanical harmonic oscillator at each point, and the physicist’s “vacuum” really means the zero-excitation state. It doesn’t *necessarily* mean nothing in the full ontological sense. We can, if we like, interpret QFT as saying that virtual pairs pop out of the vacuum uncaused and shield bare charges. Mathematically, that’s a perfectly acceptable thing to tell yourself you’re doing when you’re computing the vacuum polarization correction to the coupling constant. Philosophically, I think it gets
    you into trouble.

    One might ask why only virtual pairs of the known particles pop into being. I can imagine a particle–the “bonaldon”– with a low mass and high charge that would completely wreck the confirmed calculations of high energy physics if we added the bonaldon-antibonaldon one-loop correction to the photon propagator. The answer, of course, is that bonaldons aren’t real, but electrons are. But what does that mean? If the vacuum is really nothing, then an electron-positron pair that has not yet appeared is just as nonexistent as a bonaldon-antibonaldon pair.
    You will point me toward the QED Lagrangian, perhaps? But what makes this Lagrangian describe all the perturbations of the vacuum? If the vacuum is really nothing, then it should have no structure and no nature. I really like this example, because it forces us to see the logic in the weak causality principle. The vacuum must not be nothing, because if something really could come from nothing, we would have no way of saying *what*.

    When interpreting QFT, I like to go back to one QFT we really do understand: the theory of phonons in solids. Here we know what everything is. The zero phonon state isn’t “nothing”; it’s the ground state solid. It makes sense that only certain excitations can happen, because they’re fixed by the nature of the solid. The Lagrangian comes from the interaction potential between atoms, not from “nothing” and not from some Platonic realm. It seems to me that the most philosophically reasonable interpretation of the standard model is that all the elementary particles are excitations of something preexisting. What we can’t say; all we know are its excitation modes. In this understanding, our ignorance is really quite profound, which seems right to me.

  5. I’ll probably regret this, but here goes:

    1) It seems to me that your post implies and/or assumes that there is no teleological argument *as distinct from* the cosmological argument. Traditionally in philosophy of religion these have been treated as two different arguments, to some extent proceeding from different premises which premises are not mutually entailing.

    2) Your post implies and/or assumes that there can be no _empirical_ teleological argument but only a much more a priori type of argument. An empirical teleological argument would involve, for example, evidence that the apparent teleology in living things is not fully accounted for even by the orderliness of the laws of nature but rather implies some further ordering by God above and beyond the creation of the universe with its laws.

    3) While the conjectured initial conditions of the universe at the Big Bang do indeed seem to have had some rather surprising and special properties–hence, not purely random–my understanding is that these were necessary for the development of, say, stars of a particular type and so forth. _Not_ that there is any good evidence to believe that these anti-entropic properties of the universe at the Big Bang were _sufficient_ conditions for the later development of life from non-life and of various species, involving only the interaction of secondary causes and the laws of nature. Any scientist who says that we know that all of that was built in at the Big Bang is arguing in a circular fashion against any further intelligent direction or involvement–namely, we _assume_ that it must have all been inevitable from the Big Bang because, after all, here it all is. But there is not strong _independent_ evidence that the interesting-in-itself orderliness we know of at the Big Bang was sufficient for the development of the biosphere as we know it. Very much to the contrary. The origin of life even given the existence of the early earth (hence, ex hypothesi, the existence of our nearest star with its special properties) was a very improbable event. (This is even admitted by as virulent a materialist as Richard Dawkins.)

    While you are right that the cosmological argument would still be there even without any separate argument from the origin of life or other specific features of living things, it does not follow that there *isn’t* such an additional argument. Moreover, while one layer of a teleological argument can (and is) made from the interesting special features of the universe at the Big Bang and from the uniquely life-permitting qualities of our universe’s laws, that is only one layer. It does not by any means follow that those conditions are sufficient for what we in fact find and that there is not yet a _further_ argument from the _actual_ existence of life and species (as opposed to the fact that our universe _permits_ their existence).

    No one who isn’t a die-hard materialist argues that Chartes Cathedral or even Microsoft Windows was built into the Big Bang. However special the conditions we know of at the Big Bang, there is no reason to believe that these artifacts were the inevitable result. In fact, it’s fairly easy to see that they required the further free choices and intelligent action of agents–in those cases, human agents. It is difficult to see why we should assume that no such additional free choice and intelligent action were necessary for the coming-to-being of the living cell or the many organisms we see, which are far more integrated, organized, and (apparently) teleologically packed than any human artifact.

  6. Hello Lydia,

    Thank you for commenting; it’s very useful for me to get feedback from actual philosophers. Regarding your trepidation, I had hoped that discussions here would be a pleasant experience, even if it means you having to bear with my ignorance.

    You’re right that I prefer the cosmological argument based on the existence of any orderly but metaphysically contingent universe (even its eventual potential habitability not mattering for the argument) to teleological arguments. Partly it’s just that I have trouble following the latter. The arguments that manifestly teleological levels of being require the existence of a Creator regardless of whether they came into being via natural secondary causes are obscure to me, unless I assimilate them into the cosmological argument. I know some also claim that things like the origin of life require further direct divine intervention, but while you’re right that I haven’t proven that this isn’t so, it seems even harder to imagine how one could prove that it is. I know, for instance, that many Thomists claim that life could not have arisen from more lowly forms, but I don’t find the arguments convincing (although, not being a philosopher, I may have misunderstood them). My counterexample is to imagine any process whereby a living organism is reduced to inanimate matter, then “play the tape backwards”, and you have a very improbable but physically possible scenario where a living being is created naturally. Of course, the proposed scenarios for how life might have arisen are much less implausible than this.

    Actually, I look on teleology in nature the way you recommend we look at benevolent coincidences. I don’t take them as proof that God exists, but knowing already that He exists, I take them as signs of His providence.

  7. I would have to say that the existence of any universe that has a beginning (I prefer the Kalam version of the cosmological arg. to the Leibnitzian version) would be an argument for a self-existent First Cause, *regardless* of whether it was orderly. That is, even a universe that met some definition (though that definition might be hard to nail down) of being chaotic and pointless, if it *came to be* rather than having always existed, would require an explanation for its coming-to-be. So “orderliness” is a fifth wheel in a cosmological argument.There isn’t even any point in bringing it up. This is perhaps especially evident if one phrases the cosmological argument in a way that isn’t my favorite way but is useful for making this point: “Why is there something (contingent) rather than nothing?” The “something” needn’t be orderly for the question to arise.

    I’m not actually a Thomist, and so I prefer contingent, empirical versions of the teleological argument to deductive ones. Here my on-line good friend Ed Feser will have to pardon me. 🙂 Therefore, I don’t think of, say, the origin of life problem as strictly a *proof* for a creator of life but as a non-deductive explanatory argument. It’s one of the odd and interesting differences between Ed and me that, while he tends to disdain non-deductive teleological arguments, including many that I regard as some very strong ones, on the other hand he regards the origin of life as a *deductive* teleological argument.

    So, yes, abiogenesis by otherwise non-guided secondary causes is not strictly speaking logically *impossible* on my view (and I don’t have a very robust notion of “metaphysical impossibility” as opposed to logical impossibility and hence rarely invoke that category), but its enormous improbability leads us to a very strong inference to the best explanation which favors an intelligent, personal Cause instead.

    The interesting thing is that we have *many* experiences of teleology that we know to be intelligently caused. In fact, from our own experiences of intelligent, personal agents, we know that making teleological objects is one of the things they love to do and do very well, all the time. This blog comment being just one example, but of course there are gazillions of others. We see means-end ordering in computer programs, in homely things like bicycles, in paintings, books, and musical compositions. And we know pretty clearly (having deliberately produced things with means-end ordering ourselves) how it came about there: Someone made it like that on purpose. Someone made the parts fit together *so that* they would accomplish this function. Someone put the paint on the canvas *so that* it would look like a beautiful woman. Someone put the notes together this way *so that* they would sound like this. Someone programmed the computer software *so that* it would interact in this way with the OS. And so on and so forth. In our own experience we never see that sort of means-end ordering, especially not when it must be very exact and precise, arising by secondary causes. Clouds don’t appear to have it, nor do other weather patterns.

    But living organisms or even single living cells aren’t like cloud formations. They’re packed with teleological layers upon layers, enough to boggle the mind. Finding the DNA code is like finding a book (or a library, or a city) on the moon or some distant planet. It argues intelligent agency in much the same way. Not deductively. We can, if imaginative enough, make up a scenario in which the city is merely an “apparent city” and came into existence by sandstorms, or the book was the result of the infamous “whirlwind in a junkyard.” Those would be what it would mean for these things to come into being by secondary causes. Such things are *logically* possible. But they are, by a laughable margin, far less probable than that someone wrote the book or built the city on purpose.

    So, I would argue, teleology in biology has a very high Bayes factor favoring an intelligent cause. And *that* means that, unlike the coincidences I was describing in the other post, they really *are* strong evidence of something other than secondary causes. As you’ll note, in those cases I was at pains to argue that secondary causes are a not-bad explanation of the events. That’s why they have, at most, a minuscule Bayes factor favoring something other than secondary causes. But it’s otherwise for the origin of life and of the array of biological organisms we have.

    Now (and this does offend some Thomists, I’m afraid), it’s also possible that the intelligent causal agent was merely another contingent being, super-powerful alien or something. And if it was a disembodied alien or an alien embodied in a non-living body (say, a brilliant mind in a crystal or something), I suppose at that point we move to the Argument from Mind when discussing the question of where the alien came from. But the fact is that the vast majority of Darwinians and Darwinian fellow travelers (remember, Darwinism _assumes_ the existence of life and has nothing to say about the origin of life problem) will balk good and hard at invoking *any* intelligent cause. The whole *point* of their theory is that it allegedly provides an explanation for things that “look designed but weren’t.” I’m of the opinion that, for that purpose, it doesn’t work.

  8. Hi Lydia,

    I’m sorry for taking so long to respond. I’ve been spending my off-work time today pope watching.

    I’m not a Thomist either, but I guess I’ve picked up their prejudice of disdaining probabilistic arguments. However, the only conclusion I would draw from some proposed mechanism for the origin of life being very improbable (assuming this is true–I don’t really know much about the state of this field; I know amino acids are easy to make, but the jump to a self-replicating molecule is much harder to explain) is that we just don’t yet know how it happened and we should keep looking for better hypotheses. Is there really a way to argue that all the possibilities have been exhausted.

  9. Inference to the best explanation doesn’t require you to exhaust all possibilities of a particular kind. It requires you to decide which explanation fits the evidence _best_. Biological entities are a type of thing closely related to the types of things that we know agents make–a lot of apparent means-end teleology and connection to functionality. That makes an argument for an intelligent cause that isn’t dependent on exhausting all natural-cause possibilities. Why think that we have to exhaust all natural-cause possibilities? That’s what one might call “naturalism of the gaps.” There is no reason to have that kind of extreme bias in favor of natural-cause explanations, anymore than you would have for some object discovered in the desert if you were trying to figure out whether it was an artifact or not. You would go with the probabilities and see what was the better explanation.

    (I’ve been watching my furnace all day and hob-nobbing with contractors. I could make a comedy routine out of it. Plumber: “So, ma’am, you want me to figure out where the water is coming from?” “No, I called you out here at a high price so that you could shrug your shoulders and go away again without even making an attempt to find out where the water is coming from.” Okay, I didn’t really say that. Perhaps pope watching would have been more interesting. Actually, I normally think very highly of plumbers. This was just an exceptionally young and inexperienced one.)

  10. I guess at this point there’s no getting around looking implausible the naturalistic explanation currently looks. Remember, we have to apply the test of whether something looks designed to the lowest-level life form that natural selection could start working with. Also, the natural process must not only be unlikely, but so unlikely that it would not be expected to happen even given geological timescales. It may turn out that the leap is still too big, and a nonchemical (possibly intelligent) mechanism makes more sense. That would be a remarkable conclusion. Other arguments for the existence of God might still be more certain (not relying on the lack of a good natural explanation that someone may figure out tomorrow) and establish more about His nature.

  11. I can only suggest that further research would hopefully lead you to look at this differently. By no means is this a matter of something “someone may figure out tomorrow.” Not even close. Moreover, getting natural selection “working on something” hardly allows natural selection to “make” just *anything*. Again, I think that, perhaps partly because of your physics background, you’re too readily inclined to think that this is a matter of “something we just haven’t gotten fully figured out yet, but it’s not a big deal.”

    The other thing is that the case is *positive* not merely negative. The appearance of teleology in biological systems is incredibly strong, to the point that biochemists find it pretty much impossible to do without concepts such as signal, message, function, and other “so that” ideas. Those are the kinds of things that we know agents do create. That’s a matter of positive experience. The reason that agents make such things and, in our experience, natural processes don’t, is not far to seek: Agents have the capability of thinking ahead and putting things together with true foresight for literal intentional purposes. Natural processes don’t actually think and use means-end planning, and when we talk as if they do (“Nature planned it that way” or “the cell knows” and the like) we are using metaphors and should bear that always in mind.

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