A few days ago I did a post about philosopher Elliott Sober’s talk and paper about the logical possibility of God-guided mutations. In that post I offered Sober a three-point challenge, to wit:
1. Can you demonstrate that the logical compatibility of a rarely-acting God with evolutionary biology is a serious and important philosophical question?
2. Your argument about that logical compatibility would seem to extend not just to mutation and evolution, but to all of science. Is that correct? If so, why did you concentrate on mutation?
3. If the answer to the first part of (2) is “yes,” then would it be equally important for philosophers to write papers and give talks about how we can’t rule out the logical possibility that God influences coin tosses to favor outcomes He wants (like a favorite football team winning)? If not, why not? After all, isn’t the coin-tossing argument basically identical to the one you were making for mutations?
Elliott has kindly responded to this by email, and with his permission I reproduce his response, unedited and without comment, below. Readers may respond in the comments section, but please be polite and stick to the points at hand. Remember, Elliott did not have to respond, and I don’t want acrimony in the comments.
When people ask me about my theological convictions (not that you did), I reply by asking them what they mean by “God.” If by “God” you mean a being who separately created species within the last 50,000 years, then I am an atheist. But sometimes when people tell me what they mean by “God,” their answers makes me doubt that science could ever provide evidence about whether such a being exists. In this case, I feel obliged to be an agnostic. This is why I find statements like “there is strong scientific evidence that shows that God does not exist” unsatisfactory; the claim is correct for some concepts of God, but not for others.
The talk I gave at U of Chicago wasn’t about science in general, but about evolutionary biology in particular. But you are right that my argument applies to probabilistic theories generally (setting aside for now the possibility that quantum mechanics is a special case). I think that evolutionary theory is true, but this says nothing about whether it is causally complete. I hope you’ll agree that evolutionary theory says nothing about whether determinism is true; the theory leaves open that there may be hidden variables. It therefore leaves open that there may be supernatural hidden variables. As I said in my talk, the same story applies to our conventional probabilistic understanding of how gambling devices work.
My point in saying this is not to suggest that we should believe in supernatural hidden variables. The point is that evolutionary theory is silent about this. You ask why this is worth saying. The reason is that many theistic opponents of evolutionary theory think that accepting the theory forces one to be an atheist. They hear biologists say “mutations are unguided” and think that the theory says that God plays no role in the evolutionary process. I see no comparable reason to publish a paper about the possibility of supernatural interventions in gambling devices.
You ask why this is a “serious and important philosophical question.” One reason is that many smart people apparently don’t understand the difference between a theory’s being true and its being causally complete. Theology aside, it is important to philosophy of science (and to science as well) to understand what scientific theories actually say.
You have said on your blog that the absence of evidence for God is evidence that there is no such being. To me, that depends on what you mean by “God” (see above). But perhaps more importantly, I think that your statement about absence of evidence isn’t a consequence of evolutionary theory; it is a philosophical thesis. I trust you will agree. I mention this because I think it is important for atheists to make it clear that this or that argument for their position is not a consequence of evolutionary theory. Concerning your statement about evidence, you may be interested in my article “Absence of Evidence and Evidence of Absence”
I think that you and I differ in two ways. First, we disagree about what evolutionary theory properly includes – what its defensible scientific content actually is. Second, we differ about what the best strategy is for protecting evolutionary biology and science more generally from religion. Your strategy is to attack religion. Mine is to try to persuade religious people that science and theism can be reconciled. This probably won’t work for many fundamentalists, but I think it may have some chance of working for many other religious people.
Let me conclude by apologizing to Dan Dennett for the parenthetical remark I made in my paper “Evolution without Naturalism”, in which I say that he holds, in Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, that evolutionary theory “entails” that there is no God. What I should have said is that he thinks that there is a conflict between evolutionary biology and theism. Dennett thinks that evolutionary theory shows that it is irrational to believe that God exists; he thinks that the theory has this consequence because he thinks that the Design Argument was the only remotely plausible argument for God’s existence and evolutionary theory destroyed that argument. This interpretive error on my part doesn’t affect the points I was making in that paper.