Does evolution improve theology?

There are of course many ways to “reconcile” faith and science, although in my opinion none have been very successful.  One of the more popular ways is to see evolution as a big improvement in theodicy—the perennial attempt of the faithful to reconcile the existence of evil with that of a loving and powerful God.  How could such a god permit the existence of suffering, particularly the suffering of innocent people, and particularly when those evils are inflicted not by other humans but by diseases like cancer or natural disasters like tsunamis?  Science, so the answer goes, solves this problem by showing that much of our suffering is simply inherent in the process of evolution, a process supposedly chosen by God to work his will.

This issue is discussed in a surprising paper by John Avise in this week’s week’s Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.  I say “surprising” because I haven’t before seen a paper in a high-class science journal that tries to show how science can be used to upgrade theology.  Avise produces a great account of the jerry-rigged nature of the human genome (which, I should add, also goes for all eukaryotic genomes), but he goes astray, I think, when relating these facts to theology.

Avise is a highly respected evolutionary biologist who spent most of his career at the University of Georgia and is now at The University of California at Irvine. Among his many achievements has been the creation of phylogeography, the discipline that uses of molecular-genetic tools to study the distribution and evolution of organisms in the wild.  Avise has written over 300 papers and 20 books; his most recent book,  Inside the Human Genome: A case for Non-Intelligent Design, makes the case that, like all the more visible imperfections and “bad design” of animals and plants, the puzzling aspects of the human genome give evidence for evolution and against creationism.

The PNAS paper, “Footprints of nonsentient design inside the human genome”, seems to be a precis of the book.  The paper shows how the human genome is riddled with mistakes, inefficiencies, and just plain bad design that says Avise, makes no sense under any scheme of intelligent design.  He provides a very useful catalog of these problems in our own genome, which include the following:

  • The pervasiveness of deleterious mutations, which are responsible for many human diseases.
  • The fact that many of our genes are “split” by intervening sections (introns), which don’t produce a product.  This appears to be bad design because putting those split genes together “impose[s] energetic burdens on cells. These introns, which Avise sees as unnecessary (they may reflect the ancient assembly of eukaryotic genomes from segments in earlier genomes), can also lead to diseases if the splicing of different bits of a gene into the final messenger-RNA product goes awry.
  • Some of our genome resides in mitochondia, the cell organelles where biological respiration occurs. But some of that respiration also requires genes in the nucleus. Further, mitochondrial DNA “does not even encode any of the proteins that are directly involved in its own replication.”  There’s no obvious reason why this should be so under a design perspective.  As Avise notes, correctly, “None of
    this makes any biological sense, except in the light of evolutionary science (which has discovered that modern mitochondria are remnants of a microbe that invaded or was engulfed by a protoeukaryotic cell in an endosymbiotic merger that took place billions of years ago).”
  • Our genome is littered with repetitive DNA, much of which doesn’t seem to do anything at all.
  • Ditto for the many transposable “mobile elements,” which can, when they move, lead to mutations and genetic disease.  Many of these, though, are simply dead, and can be better seen as the remnants of ancient infections than as the handiwork of an intelligent god.

Avise argues, correctly, that these “problems” are the result of evolution:

From an evolutionary perspective, such genomic flaws are easier to explain. Occasional errors in gene regulation and surveillance are to be expected in any complex contrivance that hasn been engineered over the eons by the endless tinkering of mindless evolutionary forces: mutation, recombination, genetic drift, and natural selection. Again, the complexity of genomic architecture would seem to be a surer signature of tinkered evolution by natural processes than of direct invention by an omnipotent intelligent agent.

Now I won’t defend all of these things as gross “inefficiencies” or bad design.  Avise notes, for instances, that introns can be useful, for a single stretch of DNA can be spliced in different ways, yielding different and useful gene products from a single “gene.”  But in the main Avise is right.  Our genomes, like our bodies and organ systems, are pretty much a mess that reflects their evolutionary history.  They are jerry-rigged genomes, cobbled together from ancestral genes, bits of DNA from bacteria and viruses, and nonfunctional “dead genes” that were useful in our ancestors but not in us.  And their structure is, as Avise avers, a very powerful argument against intelligent design.

The problem with Avise’s argument comes when he claims that seeing our genomes—whose structure is not only inefficient but can sometimes lead to debilitating or fatal mutations—as products of evolution relieves us of the insuperable problem of explaining their structure as the result of intelligent design.  In other words, these problems (and the “evil” they create) are inherent in evolution, so one need not explain how each of them was part of God’s plan:

Evolution by natural causes in effect emancipates religion from the shackles of theodicy. No longer need we agonize about why a Creator God is the world’s leading abortionist and mass murderer. No longer need we query a Creator God’s motives for debilitating countless innocents with horrific genetic conditions. No longer must we anguish about the interventionist motives of a supreme intelligence that permits gross evil and suffering in the world. No longer need we be tempted to blaspheme an omnipotent Deity by charging Him directly responsible for human frailties and physical shortcomings (including those that we now understand to be commonplace at molecular and biochemical levels). No longer need we blame a Creator God’s direct hand for any of these disturbing empirical facts. Instead, we can put the blame squarely on the agency of insentient natural evolutionary causation. From this perspective, the evolutionary sciences can become a welcome partner (rather than the conventionally perceived adversary) of mainstream religion (Fig 1).

The evolutionary-genetic sciences thus can help religions to escape from the profound conundrums of ID, and thereby return religion to its rightful realm—not as the secular interpreter of the biological minutiae of our physical existence but, rather, as a respectable philosophical counselor on grander matters, including ethics and morality, the soul, spiritualness, sacredness, and other such matters that have always been of ultimate concern to humanity.

Now I’m not sure how Avise can tell us what religion’s “rightful realm” is, but never mind.  There’s a bigger problem here.   If evolution is to become a “welcome partner” to religion, the faithful will have to accept that evolution and natural selection were God’s plan for creating life.  And that just raises more theological difficulties:

  • Why would God choose such an inefficient and wasteful way to create life (and, for many religious people, to ultimately produce humans)?  So many individuals (including our ancestors) dying horrible deaths in the service of natural selection; so many species evolving and then leaving the scene through extinction!  If natural selection is anything, it’s is suffering, so the evolutionary process itself entails all the evils that theodicy must explain.  Positing that mutations occur because they’re inevitable byproducts of evolution just replaces the problem for theodicy with another one: why did God use a process that itself entailed so much suffering?  And why didn’t he just create everything de novo instead of using such a convoluted process? At least he would have avoided much of the misery associated with natural selection.
  • And of course God could have set up evolution so that it entailed less suffering.  He could have allowed only beneficial mutations to occur rather than ones that cause disease.  An evolutionist might respond that, “Well, natural selection requires random mutations, so that entails bad ones, too.”  But of course God can do anything he wants! Why didn’t he relieve malaria in Africa by creating a single mutation that fends off the parasites whether you have one copy or two, rather than the sickle-cell mutation that fends off malaria when you have one copy but causes a horrible disease when you have two?
  • This brings up an important issue: if you’re going to save the hypothesis of evolution as God’s plan, then you need to give up the idea that God intervenes in the evolutionary process, that is, you must abandon theism (the notion that God intervenes in the world) and embrace deism. God made evolution and then took his hands off—that’s why all that suffering from selection and mutation.  But few religious people buy that kind of god.  If you think that God can answer prayers, why can’t he stop the mutations that cause cancer in children?
  • A related issue involves the evolution of humans.  If, as a religious person, you see humans as the ultimate goal or product of evolution, how can you  reconcile that goal with the fact that evolution is messy, contingent on unpredictable changes in the environment, and itself dependent on the random and unpredictable process of mutation? It’s not at all clear that the evolution of humans, or of a god-worshipping humanoid creature, was inevitable, especially since, of the millions of species that ever lived, it happened only once.

There are two solutions.  The first is to claim that if evolution started all over again, it would still produce humans or something like us.  As I’ve argued, there’s no scientific basis for this claim; indeed, one could make a stronger argument on the other side.  The second solution is to say that God set up the evolutionary process so that it would produce humans.  But this posits that evolution is a directed process, and I don’t know many evolutionists who believe that.  I doubt that Avise does.

  • Finally, evolutionary theodicy deals only with genetic evils, and fails to explain away the rest of the world’s evils.   It still leaves the problem of why humans do evil to other humans.  And it doesn’t explain why innocent humans suffer and die from natural disasters.  Both of these could be prevented by a loving and ominipotent god.  And if you can find a satisfactory explanation for those, then you could apply that to genetic evils as well, so there’s no need to accept evolution.

In the end, evolution is not a “welcome partner” for religion or theodicy, for it raises more problems than it solves.  It’s easier and more parsimonious to simply discard the notion of God, or even to posit a malicious or unconcerned god, than to believe that a powerful and loving deity is author of the world’s ills.

_____

Avise, J. C.  2010.  Footprints of nonsentient design inside the human genome. Proc. Nat. Acad. Sci. US. online (May 5), doi: 10.1073/pnas.0914609107

h/t: Paul Jones

58 Comments

  1. Tulse
    Posted May 9, 2010 at 9:29 am | Permalink

    Avise may be happy to toss omnipotence and omniscience to salvage omnibenevolence, but I very much doubt most Christians would.

    God made evolution and then took his hands off—that’s why all that suffering from selection and mutation. But few religious people buy that kind of god.

    How can one even label something so deistic a “religion” in the usual sense? If god doesn’t intervene in the world, then worshipping god makes as much sense as worshipping Maxwell’s Equations, as both are part of the foundation of the universe, but praying to either will not alter the universe.

    • oldfuzz
      Posted May 10, 2010 at 11:36 am | Permalink

      My electrostatics professor revered Maxwell’s equations and liked to put the homework assignment on the board: problem on the left… answer on the right… saying, “The solution is intuitively obvious to the casual observer.” That night, ten pages of work later, the intuitively obvious appeared.

      For me, a former theistic Christian who has become a secular Christian (there are many of us, but few who care to engage in the debate) the core problem is trying to equate contemporary science with an eighteenth century god view.

      God is a word, originally used in one form which evolved into another and in my view evolving still into the secular with Gaia as the emerging god equivalent.

      Someone asked me here why I don’t just say, “I don’t know.” Too slow witted at the time I failed to respond with, “When I say god I am referring to the ineffable, the I don’t know.”

      This public debate is important for many reasons. My favorite is to try to bring religious discussions into a contemporary plane. Scientists have the luxury of referring to natural phenomena in their discourse. The religious, having no such reference, can pose any position they choose. Anyone who refutes science in their explanations of religion is either ignorant or stupid. Ignorance can be temporary.

  2. CTC
    Posted May 9, 2010 at 9:59 am | Permalink

    When I was still a grad student, I used to hope I’d write something that was, at minimum, PNAS-worthy. I think those days of hoping are over for a number of reasons, but now I’ve got one more, because I wouldn’t want to get published next to this joke.

  3. Jonn Mero
    Posted May 9, 2010 at 10:30 am | Permalink

    I am still at a loss as to why som scientists want to reconcile the natural dichotomy that is science and religion.
    Religion is the death of science, as already proven for a millenium or so, and science is the death of religion as science shows up religious superstition up for what it is, – superstition.
    Something about square pegs and round holes?
    And another rentboy fishing for a Templeton here?

  4. Posted May 9, 2010 at 10:58 am | Permalink

    Why have the traditional religion circle at all. If removing the circle entirely doesn’t change any of the evidence and theories of evolution, why can’t scientists be willing to just remove the religion circle. This would be a literal application of Ocam’s razor.

    See “Parsimony” at http://is.gd/c1tRw.

  5. Don
    Posted May 9, 2010 at 11:08 am | Permalink

    Small point here regarding “jerry-rigged.”

    As Paul Brians notes on his helpful Web site concerning English usage, “Although their etymologies are obscure and their meanings overlap, these are two distinct expressions. Something poorly built is ‘jerry-built.’ Something rigged up temporarily in a makeshift manner with materials at hand, often in an ingenious manner, is ‘jury-rigged.’ ‘Jerry-built’ always has a negative connotation, whereas one can be impressed by the cleverness of a jury-rigged solution. Many people cross-pollinate these two expressions and mistakenly say ‘jerry-rigged’ or ‘jury-built.’”

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted May 9, 2010 at 2:41 pm | Permalink

      I know engineers that gets aggravated by the mixup. :-~

      But you can’t win this one. The term can be claimed to have been “coyned”. :-D

      • Don
        Posted May 9, 2010 at 3:38 pm | Permalink

        Nah. Too many others have beaten him to it!

        • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
          Posted May 10, 2010 at 9:56 am | Permalink

          At this time I do believe you win the nitpick war. Well played!

          • Don
            Posted May 10, 2010 at 5:07 pm | Permalink

            Merci!

    • Sili
      Posted May 10, 2010 at 2:34 am | Permalink

      Language evolves. Learn to love it.

      • Don
        Posted May 10, 2010 at 5:40 am | Permalink

        Language evolves for sure, but most common errors, however lovable, never find their way into standard usage. This one won’t.

  6. NewEnglandBob
    Posted May 9, 2010 at 11:17 am | Permalink

    I just do not understand how someone like Avise can have such clear, critical thinking in some areas, yet such muddled, unsupportable, unscientific gibberish in other areas of thought.

    Could this be something like the two brain hemispheres alternating control?

  7. Karel de Pauw
    Posted May 9, 2010 at 1:14 pm | Permalink

    ‘What kind of God can one infer from the sort of phenomena epitomized by the species on Darwin’s Galapagos Islands? The evolutionary process is rife with happenstance, contingency, incredible waste, death, pain and horror .. Whatever the God implied by evolutionary theory and the data of natural history may be like, He is not the Protestant God of waste not, want not. He is also not a loving God who cares about his productions. He is not even the awful God portrayed in the book of Job. The God of the Galapagos is careless, wasteful, indifferent, almost diabolical. He is certainly not the sort of God to whom anyone would be inclined to pray.’

    – David Hull (1991)

  8. Tim Martin
    Posted May 9, 2010 at 1:22 pm | Permalink

    “The second solution is to say that God set up the evolutionary process so that it would produce humans. But this posits that evolution is a directed process, and I don’t know many evolutionists who believe that.”

    In a deterministic world, no direction would be necessary; God would just have to start the universe in the correct state for humans to evolve. I’m surprised you didn’t mention that, since you’re a determinist.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted May 9, 2010 at 3:12 pm | Permalink

      On the contrary, it is only in a classical world that we have deterministic chaos, where dynamical systems can diverge exponentially and differences blow all predictive ability apart.

      In a quantum mechanical genuine probabilistic world that doesn’t seem possible to arrange, though you can get similar perturbations of the deterministic propagation of wave function by having chaotic folding. (For example, “quantum billiard” quantum chaos systems.)

      Deterministic physics predicts precisely that there is no universal predictivity (philosophical “determinism”).

      Also, and more funnily, it predicts that there are no omniscient gods either. Because exponential divergence blows up any differences indefinitely, it would take an infinite series of numbers to characterize the reals necessary to circumvent the natural unpredictability of chaos. You would run out of memory space, in whatever system.

      And the difficulties doesn’t stop there. You would further need another level of “supernatural” physics to keep track of the philosophical determinism of the subordinate level of “memory space” and so on indefinitely. The “tower of deterministic gods” would explode in chaos anyway!

      Do I have to say it?! Of course I do! :-D Philosophical determinism is daft.

      • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
        Posted May 9, 2010 at 3:14 pm | Permalink

        In a quantum mechanical genuine probabilistic world without a classical sector, I mean.

        • Tim Martin
          Posted May 9, 2010 at 6:41 pm | Permalink

          I’m afraid I have to admit that I don’t understand much of what you wrote… after several readings. Do you think you could run that by me again? Specifically, why can there be no “universal predictivity?”

          • Posted May 10, 2010 at 6:40 am | Permalink

            (I think)He is speaking of the practical concerns of actually running all the numbers to predict the outcome of the universe. There is just too much. Why he thinks it would be impossible in principle I don’t know. It certainly doesn’t follow from what he said.

          • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
            Posted May 10, 2010 at 10:54 am | Permalink

            Correct, I tried to distill too much of a lengthy argument. Sorry about that.

            To highlight and FWIW, it may be more confusing:

            It has been known since the discovery of chaotic systems that essentially they are deterministic systems. You can throw away other parts and still retain chaos.

            For all practical purposes, a deterministic system is such that you have full knowledge of the equations that guide it, you know it parameters exactly, there is no probabilistic part, and you can always tell from one moment to the next how a “frozen frame” of a movie of the system will turn into another “frozen frame”.

            From complete knowledge of the system and its initial state it is nevertheless not possible to predict the exact system trajectory it will take indefinitely. (Lorenz discovered this when he run simulations that wouldn’t repeat from the simple cause that he input rounded off data.) Exponential divergences will overwhelm the precision of the algorithms you use to handle the equations.

            But you might well ask, as Vince seems to do, if it isn’t instead enough to input system parameters (say, pi) and initial data with infinite precision when you turn the crank on your algorithms? That is however something you can’t do with physical systems.

            Precision means having actual numbers, which means having actual information. (Shortening here.) From computer science we know that we need physical memory to simplest provide that information. (Again, shortening.)

            But the observable universe, which is that physically could provide such data for us observers, holds a finite amount of bits. Not an infinite number. That is why I said you run out of memory space that way.

            (In fact, the actual classical physics which takes place does too. That is one reason why quantum mechanics saves the world.)

            Okay, so in physics having deterministic chaos means that there is no way you can predict such a system behavior exactly with physical means. That means that you can’t do this for all systems (“universal predictivity”) just on say so.

            Or more precisely, we have just falsified philosophical determinism that, it seems to me, claims exactly that this is possible in a world filled with only deterministic systems. Further, it means that “In a deterministic world, no direction would be necessary” isn’t true. Chaotic systems would loose the needed trajectory for a wanted result in little time. (And, actually, for the same reason you can’t expect to be able to “push them” in certain directions in all cases, I believe. Welcome to chaos. :-D)

            Hope all of that helps a little.

            [Now theologists would claim that omnipotent or omniscient gods means supernatural instant access to infinite memories. This would provide a religious get-out-of-physics card for gods such as Collins envision them.

            The rest of my analysis was a short description of how that leads to infinite regress of levels of memories. For the analogous reason "a first cause" model would need a cause before that.

            So that is clearly not a sensible model. Or a solution to the problem of forcing actual deterministic systems to behave like philosophical determinism claims they behave.

            Also, when you turn from classical systems, which up front can have deterministic chaos, to quantum systems, there are complications to take care of. I tried to do that. Never mind.]

  9. oldfuzz
    Posted May 9, 2010 at 1:44 pm | Permalink

    “Does evolution improve theology?”
    Well… yes… and then again, no…

    Theology: Reflections on the nature and being of god. (First sentence of definition in The Oxford Dictionary of World Religions which continues for another five hundred words of consideration)

    In the strictest sense atheism is a form of theology because atheists, being rational, have reflected on god and dismissed the concept as bogus.

    Within my corner of the Christianity science is the factual or theoretical base of natural phenomena and any mystery imagined beyond scientific boundaries is fair game for theology; therefore, every new scientific insight moves the theological boundary farther into the mystery.

    For example, my understanding of the BBT is that there is some disagreement among scientists as to its certainty, that some still propose alternate theories. If this is an erroneous position on my part it is due to my ignorance, but it is still part of my comprehension.

    Within the proposition of the BBT lies the question of causation. If there was a cause, was there an prior cause… etc. If there was no cause, what happened?

    Some theologians, especially today, see Lloyd Geering’s Coming Back to Earth, might posit that God has become Gaia, nature. Others might mythologize a spontaneous BBT as a cosmic virgin birth.

    The diagrams shown ignore a popular, albeit unorganized trend away from organized religion toward a personal meaning system, which may be how religion began with the first hunter/gatherer groups.

    Could it be we are returning to the place where human doubt, wonder and awe began, but with rhetoric?

    • MadScientist
      Posted May 9, 2010 at 3:41 pm | Permalink

      Ah, the Prime Mover fallacy. “There must be a first cause and I can’t imagine what it is, therefore it must be the biblical god”.

      • oldfuzz
        Posted May 9, 2010 at 3:43 pm | Permalink

        So there was no cause?
        Ergo, a virgin event?

        • Notagod
          Posted May 9, 2010 at 6:01 pm | Permalink

          Yes yes, Mary lay back and pooped out the christian god right then and there!

          • oldfuzz
            Posted May 9, 2010 at 7:39 pm | Permalink

            Please read before responding.

            “…might mythologize a spontaneous BBT as a cosmic virgin birth.” Nothing about Mary or Jesus. Cosmos creation stories abound in many, maybe most, tribal cultures and are updated to stay current with the science of the day as long as they are an oral tradition.

            • Notagod
              Posted May 9, 2010 at 8:04 pm | Permalink

              Yes yes, I read that already.

              That’s what is so exciting about having a personal god, you can pull the puppet strings at any time, in whatever way you like. Just make sure you’re as vague as possible about it!

            • oldfuzz
              Posted May 10, 2010 at 11:17 am | Permalink

              Who said anything about a personal god? That would come as a natural extension of one’s worldview, not some universal prerequisite for a personal religion.

    • Kevin
      Posted May 9, 2010 at 8:42 pm | Permalink

      “…my understanding of the BBT is that there is some disagreement among scientists as to its certainty…”

      Then your understanding of the BBT and whether it has been proven beyond scientific certainty is lacking.

      The BBT was proven almost 50 years ago. The only objections to the BB are religious, not scientific.

      Massive, total, complete, utter, wondrously enormous fail on your part.

      • simbol
        Posted May 10, 2010 at 10:01 am | Permalink

        No. BBT does not explain “the beginning”, the first moment or the time before inflation. What BBT explain is the aftermath of what is called “the singularity” but not that singularity or even if it is right to consider a singularity at the origin of this universe.
        The fact is that we don’t know what caused this universe or even if it necessitates a cause. And I am afraid that we will never know.

        • oldfuzz
          Posted May 10, 2010 at 12:01 pm | Permalink

          Thank you simbol. That the actual creation of the universe was caused or spontaneous is unknown is an important issue in the discussion of faith which is how one views the ineffable.

          It doesn’t matter whether one is religious or not, theistic or atheistic, it matters only whether having a personal view of that unknown is important. I see “the singularity” as spontaneous. It resolves a doubt. This quality of choosing from unknowable possibilities may have been the original causation of tribal rituals which evolved into formal religions.

          • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
            Posted May 10, 2010 at 12:43 pm | Permalink

            That the actual creation of the universe was caused or spontaneous is unknown

            As I explain in my, unfortunately lengthy, commentaries that is not a description of the actual physical situation.

            First, there is no “creation” but a physical process. As far as such processes go we don’t need to specify how the initial state came to be, it isn’t “unknown”, but unnecessary. (1st comment.) This si what simbol told you, “What BBT explain is the aftermath”.

            Second, again as simbol told you, we know that we don’t know “if it necessitates a cause”. In fact, we see many processes where that is unnecessary. Systems such as universes (or physical laws) can spontaneously emerge. (2nd comment.)

            How you translate known to be unnecessary to know the exact pathway to a need to know the exact pathway (“unknown”) is a mystery. But any way you parse this, we know enough today to know that this isn’t an “ineffable” mystery or an area of faith or doubt or “unknowable possibilities”.

            [That is another mystery: how can it be both? Pleas don't try to tell us, it removes the mystery!]

            There are precisely knowable, and known, possibilities, even likelihoods. That is exactly what “known to be unnecessary to know the exact pathway” _means_, known pathways make up knowable possibilities.

            • oldfuzz
              Posted May 10, 2010 at 2:47 pm | Permalink

              Thanks. We have come to a place beyond my comprehension. Therein may be part of the challenge. The question may be a simple as how does one deal with the unknown?

              From the content of your previous posts I am confident of both your knowledge and wisdom; however, much of what you say exceeds my grasp.

              For example if your saying “there is no ‘creation’ but a physical process” is a refutation of a supernatural creation, I agree. My use of creation is more general.

              It seems that the terminology used herein is often more narrow than what I would call common usage. With that in mind I’ll try to be more tidy in my comments, but I am not a scientist. I’m an engineer and as any pure scientist knows, a good engineer can be limited in developing new technologies if they have too much knowledge of science. ;-)

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted May 10, 2010 at 11:30 am | Permalink

      You know, I browsed that comment and didn’t see that it had a discussion of science in it.

      The discussion on atheism is daft (no, atheism isn’t a religion for obvious reasons no more than the study of gravity is) and has been dealt with any number of times on WEIT; so go see the archives.

      any mystery imagined beyond scientific boundaries is fair game for theology

      Good. That means reciprocally that any theology imagined inside or beyond scientific boundaries is fair game for science. It also means you weren’t really serious about your “atheism is religion” claim; you know better.

      Just remember to tell this to NOMA advocates.

      For example, my understanding of the BBT is that there is some disagreement among scientists as to its certainty, that some still propose alternate theories.

      That depends on exactly how you define a “big bang theory”. So in principle you are equivocating on a term.

      For myself, I would define such a theory based on a process view of the observed expansion of the universe. In that sense, the big bang theory has been certain for decades, and it has been incorporated in the tested and factual Standard Cosmology we have today.

      It is also the case that when you run an expanding universe backwards, you will meet a state of compression that makes known physics break. That is the common definition of “big bang” theory, the initial state that moves forward into the observable universe we see.

      Feasible “alternate theories” are nothing but, as they universally embed todays “big bang theory” of Standard Cosmology into larger ones.

      This is analogous to how having a thermodynamical state model of water embeds the state of ice instead of “proposing alternate theories”. So again you are guilty of equivocating on a term.

      Wouldn’t it be more exciting to try to understand reality instead of trying to cover it up under a blanket of religious “mystery” that is in fact mere knee-jerking?

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted May 10, 2010 at 11:32 am | Permalink

      Sorry about the double posting, I messed up the links. Any replies should go here instead:

      You know, I browsed that comment and didn’t see that it had a discussion of science in it.

      any mystery imagined beyond scientific boundaries is fair game for theology

      Good. That means reciprocally that any theology imagined inside or beyond scientific boundaries is fair game for science.

      Just remember to tell that to NOMA advocates.

      For example, my understanding of the BBT is that there is some disagreement among scientists as to its certainty, that some still propose alternate theories.

      That depends on exactly how you define a “big bang theory”. So in principle you are equivocating on a term.

      For myself, I would define such a theory based on a process view of the observed expansion of the universe. In that sense, the big bang theory has been certain for decades, and it has been incorporated in the tested and factual Standard Cosmology we have today.

      It is also the case that when you run an expanding universe backwards, you will meet a state of compression that makes known physics break. That is the common definition of “big bang” theory, the initial state that moves forward into the observable universe we see.

      Feasible “alternate theories” are nothing but, as they universally embed todays “big bang theory” of Standard Cosmology into larger ones.

      This is analogous to how having a thermodynamical state model of water embeds the state of ice instead of “proposing alternate theories”. So again you are guilty of equivocating on a term.

      Wouldn’t it be more exciting to try to understand reality instead of trying to cover it up under a blanket of religious “mystery” that is in fact mere knee-jerking?

      • oldfuzz
        Posted May 10, 2010 at 8:56 pm | Permalink

        I’m a bit embarrassed that you have spent so much time on this. I agree that it would be “it (would) be more exciting to try to understand reality” which is my intention. I see several problems:

        1. My knowledge is limited, but I am working on it.

        2. Physics was not my strong suit. I had to retake Modern Physics. The Schrödinger wave equation was my nemesis the first time.

        3. My time and intelligence are limited.

        As for the blanket of religious mystery to which you refer, I am pursuing a path of inquiry that seems appropriate from where I am and make no suggestion that it is universal.

        I do appreciate your time and have reserved three books on the big bang for study.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted May 10, 2010 at 12:24 pm | Permalink

      Gah, it was the formatting of my terminal. Please disregard the 2nd, incomplete, comment.

      Now for the rest of this lengthy “cause”:

      Within the proposition of the BBT lies the question of causation.

      Sorry to disappoint, but it does not.

      First for the simple reason that theories or even facts of initial states aren’t necessary for the theory of a process.

      Compare to how it isn’t necessary to know how the first populations of cells come to be to understand (predict) how the process of evolution changes a population into another. Or how it is unnecessary to know how mass comes about to understand how the process of gravitation affects any such.

      In the same way no actual cosmology have to or in fact refer to what causes their initial states. Standard cosmology describes how big bang takes us to todays universe.

      This also show that there is no actual “question of causation” in physics. Causal theories are, like correlation theories, observational facts.

      Second, what you claim is a property of the process of causality is known and in cases proposed to be system properties. With that I mean that it is an observation of how initial states can spontaneously emerge with nothing but the system “to cause” them.

      For example, it can be interesting to know how universes may appear. There is a relatively simple -04, IIRC, arxiv paper that shows how universes of our kind, so called FLRW universes, behave. They are predicted to be zero energy entities. (I haven’t seen any adverse reaction to this paper.)

      That means that they can spontaneously tunnel from previous universes. And that zero energy thermodynamically means, they note specifically, that no third agency could be involved.

      Similarly from inflationary theories that embed Standard Cosmology in the way described in my previous comment, you can predict that the simplest forms of inflation (part of SC) incessantly spawn of new universes. I see no reason why you can’t adopt Linde’s suggestion that this state can be pushed eternally backwards. (Long discussion omitted here.)

      But even if you don’t do that, you can derive that similarly to how spontaneous tunneling from previous universes emerges from the system property inflationary volumes spontaneously fluctuates into being from previous universes.

      In these cases eternal causation processes obviates the need for initial states. But in case you need them, there are theories where again they emerge spontaneously.

      Vic Stenger describes one such in his “GOD – the failed hypothesis”. In short, physic laws comes from symmetries and later symmetry breaking. As an observation we see symmetry breaking happen spontaneously, another emergent property of systems. And since all out chaos is both the ultimate “nothing” of no laws yet, and the ultimate symmetry case which immediately breaks, we have that physical laws must spontaneously emerge out of “nothing”.

      Third, that again is what modern math tells us would happen. (Note: I can’t remember the name of that math area at the moment. I’ll have to get back to you, if needed.) Out of disorder order spontaneously appear.

      Fourth, this is where the weak anthropic principle makes specific states appear from system properties. Sensible and lasting physics and cosmology appears where order appears, and this is also the place where observers such as us becomes likely.

      To sum up, there are at least 4 different causes of causation emerging from system properties without having the need of the process itself pulling it up by its own bootstraps, as it were. One can soundly predict that one such, or one like them, or several worked in concert, to take us to the state we are today.

      Causation appear to go meta on itself but only by the fact of having spontaneous emergence as part and parcel of systems alongside causality.

      In reality it is seen that “systems emerge out of systems” that is the meta principle here, with systems incorporating such objects as eternal processes or wholesale chaos.

      • oldfuzz
        Posted May 25, 2010 at 5:29 pm | Permalink

        I am remiss in not responding to this. Thanks for your thorough post. I have work to do. Sometimes I forget that science, especially physics, has moved far beyond by science education a half century ago.

        BTW, your replies to posts, mine and others, prompted me to buy a set of Oxford Dictionaries–one each on Science, Physics, Chemistry, Biology, World Religions, and World Mythologies–so I might check current definitions of terminology to make mine more current.

        Irony of ironies, the Dictionary of Science has no definition of science. All the others have definitions for theirs. My conclusion is that the meaning of science is obvious.

  10. Posted May 9, 2010 at 2:00 pm | Permalink

    This is a rather weak argument to try to absolve a god from responsibility, especially an omniscient one. If this guy were a defense lawyer, he would probably try to argue that his gun-wielding client is not responsible for the murder, it’s really the fault of the bullet.

  11. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted May 9, 2010 at 2:38 pm | Permalink

    To term a similar “jerry-rigging” of words, I’m a little dumb-based by science papers that willingly accept analyzes of religion as such. That would leave it open for a very encompassing criticism of both religion and theology, to say the least. And as I never tire to point out in the face of religious stupidity, it is really easy to predict and test that naturalism is the best theory.

    On a similar matter, it is palpable how religious advocates takes the opportunity to propagate superstition in such cases. Searching PNAS for “theodicy” reveals that it is the first theological “peer reviewed” article on the subject. However, “religion” gives 90 hits, and the first 10 incorporates Ayala’s editorial where he supports the religious belief that “Science and religion concern different aspects of the human experience.”

    I wonder what would happen if papers that is critical to religion, or to religious papers in scientific journals, should appear. Would discussions on “the problem” of calling religious claims out start? For once people could benefit from religious special pleading.

    • Tulse
      Posted May 9, 2010 at 4:39 pm | Permalink

      PNAS allows members to organize their own peer-review of their papers — in other words, it’s not really peer review. PNAS is somewhat notorious for this, and for the odd papers that sometime get through.

      • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
        Posted May 10, 2010 at 9:53 am | Permalink

        Thanks! I noticed that, but I didn’t think of the consequences.

        So you are saying that they are jury-rigging the review list system?! That would be an particularly apt example of the term, but a particularly bad example of consequences.

        Also, I would perhaps need another set of quotations mark beyond the one showing that scientists can’t properly peer review theology: “”peer review””. The poor term will collapse under the weight of exceptions.

  12. MadScientist
    Posted May 9, 2010 at 3:39 pm | Permalink

    I’m pretty sure the “rightful realm” of all religion is the same as any mythology – sitting on a bookshelf largely forgotten but occasionally read for amusement. With any luck, future generations can read translations of the various mythologies and say “gee, people sure were stupid back then”.

  13. Wayne Robinson
    Posted May 9, 2010 at 4:32 pm | Permalink

    I have read “Inside the Human Genome: A Case for Non-Intelligent Design”. I think his claim that evolution absolves religion of the need to explain suffering is just a rhetorical concession to believers (as Richard Dawkins in “the God Delusion” notes, scientists often make concessions in one area to make a point elsewhere), to make it more palatable to them and to discount ID.
    I don’t think he actually believes it.
    His book is actually very difficult for someone who doesn’t have much knowledge of genetics, and certainly wouldn’t be understood by the average ID proponent, so I’m not certain as to whom his book is actually written for.
    Just mentioning “junk” DNA is enough to create paroxysms of rage from ID proponents, who claim that it is increasingly being shown to have function and therefore all of it has function, which they reckon ID predicted and evolutionary biology didn’t.
    “Junk” DNA is just easier to say that “DNA for which we currently don’t know the function of”, which in humans is around 95%. And anyway, is it a tenet of evolutionary biology that “junk” DNA had to exist? I seem to remember that DNA was originally thought by science to be, well, “intelligently designed”. Barbara McClintock’s description of transposition and “jumping genes” received a lot of opposition just for this reason, causing her to drop this line of research (ironically) in 1953, when the structure of DNA was worked out.
    John Avise’s argument is that structures that work well (such as the vertebrate eye) don’t distinguish between evolution and ID. He argues that it is the ugly, the messy which distinguishes, and eukaryotic cellular DNA certainly is messy, unlike the well designed bacterial genome.
    Did he write his book in response to Stephen Meyer’s “Signature in the Cell: DNA and the Evidence for Intelligent Design”? If so, he worked quickly.
    But anyway, Stephen Meyer, in his usual confused manner, reckons his argument was actually not about DNA (despite the title).
    In a reply to Francisco Ayala’s comments on “Signature”, he wrote: “My book is not about the origin of the human genome, nor about human evolution nor even biological evolution generally. It’s about chemical evolution, the origin of the first life and the genetic information necessary to produce it. In fact, I explicitly acknowledge in the epilogue that someone could in principle accept my argument for the intelligent design of the first life and also accept the standard neo-Darwinian account of how subsequent forms of life evolved. I don’t hold this “front-end loaded” view of design, but my book makes no attempt to refute it or standard accounts of biological evolution”.
    … What the heck?

  14. Chris
    Posted May 9, 2010 at 8:24 pm | Permalink

    What sophistry! If there was a personal God who cared about sentient beings, you would expect creationism. Evolution would be the last thing you’d expect.

  15. Mike from Ottawa
    Posted May 9, 2010 at 10:03 pm | Permalink

    It is amusing to see how certain folk who believe in no gods can be about the mind of God. No surprise, I suppose, given how certain guys like Ken Ham are about science.

    • Chris
      Posted May 9, 2010 at 10:29 pm | Permalink

      This is doubly true of most believers, who, while not certain of all aspects of god’s mind, are at least very certain of god’s tri-omni attributes, his will for human beings, and the particular religion he has revealed himself in.

      Yes, how dare we presume that a benevolent god would create his creatures as described in the holy book that contains his revelation and instuctions for human beings, and not in the wasteful, slow, violent process of evolution.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted May 10, 2010 at 1:13 pm | Permalink

      I don’t care much for these arguments myself, but in fact no assumptions about gods were used in this production. But boy, where they harmed! :-D

      What happens is that in any theory testing you take the ideas (in this case, no sensible theory) and push them through to their consequences. By this you make the ideas suffer in comparison with what we actually see without in no way having to use them later.

      Maybe you should point out exactly what Coyne, a man who believe in no gods, believe for certain about the mind of gods. I don’t see how you can have actual beliefs about the later without believing in the former.

  16. Owlmirror
    Posted May 10, 2010 at 12:00 am | Permalink

    I argue with a lot of people about religion, and it looks like Avise, like Ayala, like Miller, seem to have completely missed the point of the religion of most people.

    Perhaps, as scientists, they think of God as secretly encouraging science by making the universe be as close to something suitable to investigation and analysis by methodological naturalism as possible. So they imagine God as being this hands-off kind of guy.

    But most people are not scientists, and if the non-scientist apologists I’ve argued with are any indication, the whole point of God is for God to be very much a hands-on kind of guy.

    I think, from the point of view of the common believer, the hands-off God is a heresy, quite possibly from Satan.

    But hey, I could be wrong.

  17. Kerim Mansour
    Posted May 10, 2010 at 2:20 am | Permalink

    “In the end, evolution is not a “welcome partner” for religion or theodicy, for it raises more problems than it solves. It’s easier and more parsimonious to simply discard the notion of God, or even to posit a malicious or unconcerned god, than to believe that a powerful and loving deity is author of the world’s ills.”

    I think you fail in that summary above. For believing people it is NOT easier to discard of their belief. It is easy for someone who doesn’t believe in the first place but people that are deeply interwoven with their faith will not follow your path. They depend on somehow merging reality with their faith. For those Avise draws some alternative.
    Of course nobody has to agree with it but it is the only step the “faithfull” can take.
    It might be the first step in many that result in your view.
    I think it is not very fruitful to simply reiterate something which in the real world will not happen as easily as you might think: people simply getting rid of their religion because of “facts”.
    Facts are the last think believers are interested in provided they contradict their belief.

  18. Sigmund
    Posted May 10, 2010 at 2:52 am | Permalink

    The discussion section (“A reconciliation”) reads like the sort of waffly nonsense you get on Biologos.
    What on Earth is a sentence like the following doing in a modern scientific journal?
    “Exactly how a fall from Grace in the Garden of Eden might have
    become translated into these molecular defects is mechanistically
    unclear (to say the least)”
    Why stop at Christian superstitions?
    Why not add a few more to the mix.
    “Exactly how gazing at the Medusa’s head turned one to stone is unclear at the molecular level.”
    “Exactly how Thor’s hammer worked is unclear at the molecular level”
    “Exactly how Mohammed’s winged horse managed to fly is unclear at the molecular level”
    “Exactly how Leprechauns hide pots of gold at the ends of rainbows is unclear at the molecular level”

  19. Posted May 10, 2010 at 4:45 am | Permalink

    Given that this theological argument has already been put forward (at length) by Ayala, I hope Avise acknowledges it. I also hope he deals with the objections that were made when Ayala put it forward. Obviously, I haven’t yet read the article or I’d know! But surely the piece shouldn’t have been accepted unless he’d done both of those things. So I hope he has.

    • Sigmund
      Posted May 10, 2010 at 5:45 am | Permalink

      Ayala is cited several times in the text but not in the context of the theodicy argument. He is cited for his scientific efforts in pointing out the fallacies of the various arguments from design propounded by the likes of Behe.

  20. justsearching
    Posted May 10, 2010 at 9:26 am | Permalink

    On this issue I’m going to have to say that Ray Comfort, Kirk Cameron, and Ken Ham are correct about evolution. The mainstream Christians understanding of God and His operations don’t match the happenings of evolution. God is loving; evolution is brutal.

    Avice is comforted by the fact that it is the dog on the chain, and not the actual dog owner, that is ripping you to shreds.

  21. Evan
    Posted May 10, 2010 at 2:06 pm | Permalink

    Interesting tidbit, but mitochondrial DNA doesn’t seem like an episode of ‘bad design’, although it’s still a great example of the power of evolution. I heard a talk last year by Doug Wallace, also of Irvine, who suggested, quite plausibly, that only genes involved directly in Ox-Phos have been left in the mitochondrial genome for one simple reason: Those genes cant tolerate the shuffling that sexual reproduction brings to the rest of the genome. Since these proteins are in almost crystaline concentrations in the mitochondrial matrix, theres strong pressure that mutations that co-evolve together stay together, and that random shuffling would just tend to break the mitochondria. Almost all of the other genes have fled the mitochondrial DNA because the inside of a mitochondria is super reactive- its, in general, a terrible place to keep DNA. So rather than ‘bad design’, this seems likely to be another example of ‘evolution is smarter than you are’.

    Thought you might find that interesting; check out Doug Wallace’s stuff, its quite good.

    Evan Guiney

  22. Posted May 12, 2010 at 9:49 am | Permalink

    Bad/good/jury-jerry-rigged design aside, Avise’s paper, sadly, seems to be a good example of the means by which religious scientists might find ways to keep God in the picture. That is, “It happenened JUST the way we scientists have discovered it happened, backward human retinas and detouring giraffe vagus nerves incuded. And GOD was actually behind it all. Praise God,the grand evolutionist!”

  23. Posted May 12, 2010 at 11:00 am | Permalink

    No longer need we agonize about why a Creator God is the world’s leading abortionist and mass murderer. No longer need we query a Creator God’s motives for debilitating countless innocents with horrific genetic conditions. No longer must we anguish about the interventionist motives of a supreme intelligence that permits gross evil and suffering in the world.

    This all would make perfect sense if he was pitching atheism, not theistic evolution…

  24. Brian
    Posted May 25, 2010 at 12:34 pm | Permalink

    Does evolution improve theology? No, not at all. Coyne and I are in complete agreement.

    We part company when his argument assumes that real evil exists when his own world view denies that this is even possible. A couple quotations:

    Dawkins: The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind pitiless indifference.

    Wilson and Ruse: As evolutionists, we see that no [ethical] justification of the traditional kind is possible. Morality, or more strictly our belief in morality, is merely an adaptation put in place to further our reproductive ends. Hence the basis of ethics does not lie in God’s will…. In an important sense, ethics as we understand it is an illusion fobbed off on us by our genes to get us to cooperate. It is without external grounding.

    One way or another he needs to bring his argument in line with naturalism’s presuppositions.

    If he decides to go for internal consistency, he could accept that he is the arbitrary product of a thoughtless process that did not have him in mind, and that any conception of good and evil he might hold is an illusion, fobbed off on him by his genes. Admittedly, this is difficult; I have yet to meet the person who lived through the many atrocities of the 20th century—pick whichever ones you want—who can actually do this.

    Another possibility would be to re-evaluate those presuppositions: If he accepts that evil is real, this would require a complete remodel of his world view down to its foundation. He would have to provide a basis for ethics, good, bad, and evil from within the framework of a world view whose primary driver is a thoughtless, unthinking, uncaring, amoral blind watchmaker, whose only “goal” (if we can even use that term) is reproduction, and whose most prominent apologists insist ethics is a fiction.

    It’s tough either way. But instead of the heavy lifting required by such questions, Coyne opts for the glib: “It’s easier and more parsimonious to simply discard the notion of God…” Easier? Sure. But only if the shortcomings and inconsistencies of one’s own position can be comfortably ignored.

  25. Posted May 25, 2010 at 1:38 pm | Permalink

    I don’t understand Brian’s dilemma. The “universe” isn’t capable of formulating evil. (Or 2-bit philosophy, for that matter). But evolved Homo sapiens certainly is. Or, as you suggest, the ability to understand good and evil and then choose evil certainly got “fobbed off” on some of us — or perhaps ALL of us — by our genes. I concur that the 20th century featured numerous atrocities. And though we haven’t met, I don’t believe that the pitiless universe had anything to do with those.


3 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. [...] http://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2010/05/09/does-evolution-improve-theology/ There are of course many ways to “reconcile” faith and science, although in my opinion none have been very successful. One of the more popular ways is to see evolution as a big improvement in theodicy—the perennial attempt of the faithful to reconcile the existence of evil with that of a loving and powerful God. How could such a god permit the existence of suffering, particularly the suffering of innocent people, and particularly when those evils are inflicted not by other humans but by diseases like cancer or natural disasters like tsunamis? Science, so the answer goes, solves this problem by showing that much of our suffering is simply inherent in the process of evolution, a process supposedly chosen by God to work his will. [...]

  2. [...] leave a comment » http://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2010/05/09/does-evolution-improve-theology/ [...]

  3. [...] Darwin) brought out a terrific general book on evolution: Why Evolution Is True. He also runs a blog by that name, and for those of us who are interested in evolution, it is compulsory reading. No one [...]

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