September 29, 2010

This Post is Old!

The post you are reading is years old and may not represent my current views. I started blogging around the time I first began to study philosophy, age 17. In my view, the point of philosophy is to expose our beliefs to rational scrutiny so we can revise them and get better beliefs that are more likely to be true. That's what I've been up to all these years, and this blog has been part of that process. For my latest thoughts, please see the front page.

Evolution and Teleological Arguments

Much of Sobel's chapter on teleological (design) arguments is devoted to Hume interpretation and to explaining Bayesianism. The latter seems to be one of several places where Sobel has not decided whether he is writing a textbook or a monograph. As for the former, the 'analogical' version of the teleological argument is, I think, not the strongest version and, although I haven't conducted a survey of the various treatments, I would be surprised if Hume's version turned out to be the best. After all, Hume is at most a half-hearted supporter of the argument; even he doesn't think his argument is all that compelling. (Because the argument is contained in the Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, there are even some who doubt whether Hume means to endorse it at all.)

The first really interesting thing in this chapter is the discussion of whether the appearance of design in the biological world, or other facts about biology, might manage to make theistic evolution more probable than unguided evolution (pp. 272-277). Sobel makes essentially two points: first, with the possible exception of pre-biotic evolution (the development of the first life forms) there aren't really any 'gaps' left for a God to plug, and, second, that given what we now know, evolution really doesn't look planned or, at least, whoever was doing the planning could've done a better job of it.

The first point, I think, is completely misguided, but I am not inclined to blame Sobel because so many of his opponents are misguided in this way. Hume (according to Sobel) believed that some kind of indefinite and probably imperfect designer was needed to bring about life. 'Intelligent Design' advocates frequently claim that there is some feature of the world that must have happened by a supernatural entity interfering with the course of nature. Hume didn't mean to be defending the religious tradition, but many of the ID folks are trying to do just that. Now, a frequently cited problem with 'God-of-the-gaps' arguments is that history shows that 'gaps' have a tendency to get plugged with perfectly naturalistic solutions. Some ID folks have tried to solve this by giving some kind of reason for thinking that some of the 'gaps' are special and unlikely to be plugged. For those who are trying to defend the religious tradition, however, there is a bigger problem: the doctrine of divine sovereignty. The God of western monotheism can never be a 'God-of-the-gaps': either he is Lord of all creation, or he does not exist. This is not, in itself, an argument against law-breaking miracles (though I've got some of those); it is just to say that, from the perspective of the religious tradition, we must attribute the whole natural order to God, rather than only crediting God with deviations from the natural order. In my view, then, the plugging of 'gaps' should not be troubling to traditional theists, though it might be troubling for non-traditional theists/deists such as Hume might have been. This, let it be stressed, is because even if there were unfillable 'gaps,' this would not help to support theism. I would even go so far as to say that such 'gaps' would be evidence against the existence of God, as traditionally conceived. (In addition to my paper, see Christine Overall, "Miracles as Evidence Against the Existence of God," The Southern Journal of Philosophy 23 (1985): 347-353. Also, I recently stumbled upon this short news item which quotes Guy Consolmagno, the Vatican astronomer, comparing ID to Paganism, on the same grounds I've mentioned.)

Sobel's second point is more interesting. Although Sobel doesn't consider a theory that has God accomplishing his purposes through natural evolutionary processes without law-breaking interventions (this is the account I favor), he does point to some issues that should trouble evolutionary theists. The evolutionary process is brutal and seems to proceed by fits and starts. Many species die out; many animals have useless organs of various kinds; the system depends crucially on death and suffering. Wouldn't we expect God to do better?

On the other hand, as I've been arguing for some time, from an engineering/design principles perspective, evolution is really quite pretty: it's a self-improving system. And not just self-improving like Bayesian learning for artificial intelligences; self-improving like going from ooze to the human brain. That's quite an improvement! There are problems about a benevolent God accomplishing his purposes through death and suffering, and I don't mean to minimize those. But they may be counter-balanced, at least to some degree, by the sheer impressiveness of the system. Furthermore, since Sobel is interested in considering non-traditional gods (p. 259), we might consider a designer who doesn't care about pain and suffering and just wants to generate sophisticated and intelligent creatures from the simplest basic principles possible. Such a designer would, it seems, be very likely to choose a process like evolution.

It seems to me, then, that evolutionary theory has two effects on the debate at this point: (1) it rules out some, but by no means all, non-traditional gods, and (2) it introduces some new complexity to our treatment of the problem of evil. However, contrary to Sobel's assertions (pp. 272-274), it has not undermined any argument for the traditional God which was any good to begin with.

[cross-posted at The Prosblogion]

Posted by Kenny at September 29, 2010 9:41 PM
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I'm curious about your problems with "a benevolent God accomplishing his purposes through death and suffering"?
Given that the Christian God accomplished His purpose of bringing salvation to man via allowing His own son to be crucified, should be evidence that God is not anti-death and suffering. I would say that it is obvious that God has used much death and suffering to accomplish many of His purposes as revealed in scripture.

Posted by: Phillip Honea at October 1, 2010 9:55 AM

Hi Phillip,

It is certainly true that Christians already believe, independent of evolution, that God accomplishes his purposes through death and suffering. But most Christian philosophers and theologians think that there is some kind of problem to be solved here. This is not to say that the problem can't be solved, but given that God is benevolent - i.e. wants the best for his creatures - and is omnipotent, most people find it puzzling and/or troubling that he should take the route he does, and many people think that this is evidence against the existence of God. (This, of course, is really the essence of the problem of evil.)

Posted by: Kenny at October 1, 2010 10:10 AM

I agree that suffering could be used as an argument against the existence of God. However, you are not arguing against the existence of God in this post, but using suffering as an argument against theistic evolution. To even begin to argue theistic evolution, we are assuming a "theo" exist. The specific characteristics of this God is a tangent discussion from the idea that this God may be involved in the evolution of life. I think it is a very important tangent, but not strong enough to list as a main point when discussing evolution.

However, I understand that this is a post about a book I haven't I'm not seeing the whole picture.

Posted by: Phillip Honea at October 1, 2010 3:54 PM

Phillip, the point is to compare the relative plausibility of theistic evolution with that of unguided evolution. Insofar as theistic evolution (when the theism is understood in a traditional way) posits a benevolent God who accomplishes his purposes through pain and suffering, it has an unfortunate sort of tension in it. Someone might think that this made unguided evolution preferable.

Posted by: Kenny at October 1, 2010 5:24 PM

Evolution is pretty flawed actually. It created beings that can effectively turn it off. Survival of the fittest that can also breed does not apply to humans anymore because we use medicine.

Objectively speaking the population is getting sicker by the year. That's rather self worsening than self improving.

Of course I am going to want them drugs when I need them but that does not change the fact.

On the other hand, evolution is a LOT more plausible than the theistic version. But this doesn't mean it disproves the existance of some god. It only challenges religious texts and scholars but these two are not god.

For all we know some 'god' may simply allow a mechanism of natural selection to function, nothing more (nor else).

Posted by: Fotos at November 30, 2010 8:21 AM

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