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God Guided Evolution

Ed Brayton has an interesting post on views of evolution amongst doctors, which is based on this post by Steve Reuland on the Panda’s Thumb. I should have gotten around to it earlier, like when it was first posted, but it’s finally Saturday, I have a few minutes to work on it, and Ed’s post got me started.

Quoting from the Panda’s Thumb:

One question gives respondents three choices, each of which requires the respondent to make a statement about his or her belief in God. The choices are as follows: 1. God created humans exactly as they appear now; 2. God initiated and guided an evolutionary process that has led to current human beings; 3. Humans evolved naturally with no supernatural involvement – no divinity played any role.

Ed further notes that:

Option #2 – God initiated and guided an evolutionary process that has led to current human beings – is not ID, it’s theistic evolution.

I have a serious problem with the survey question in that I would have to answer option 3 for myself, and yet I’m a theistic evolutionist–or I think that’s what I am. It depends on what one means by the word “guidance,” I suppose, though it seems to me that “thesitic evolutionist” should refer to one who is both a theist and who accepts the theory of evolution. Since option 2 refers specifically to human evolution, it gets right down to the ultimate question of guidance occurring within the process of evolution of one life form to another. Does evolution work by itself or not?

There are theistic evolutionists who believe that God guided the process of human evolution, for example, but did so in such a way as to conceal his tracks. Now that’s entirely possible, but it introduces a specific purpose into the process–the productions of humans such as you and me. To many, it seems a no-brainer that a Christian would have to accept this concept of evolution. After all, what meaning do concepts like original sin and redemption mean if God didn’t specifically create human beings, as we are, in some sense of the word. As I understand evolution, it would require some kind of guidance to guarantee that random variation combined with undirected selection would produce any particular creature. There are simply too many accidents involved.

Say we have a mastodon with a particularly nice mutation for dealing with excessive cold, but he is struck by lightning before passing on that trait. The trait disappears, but not because it’s not a good one; it is lost by accident. Over millions of years the likelihood of such accidents is extremely high, and the particular result cannot be guaranteed unless you have some sort of guidance, whether that comes from front-loading or from intervention along the way.

But I personally think it’s necessary to give up the idea that human beings, precisely as we now have them, are the goal of evolution. I do believe in a type of teleology in creation, i.e. that God has a purpose, but that purpose can be primarily stated as diversity. Given the possibility of intelligence being produced through evolutionary processes, and the extended amounts of space and time available, I think it was inevitable that intelligence would be produced by evolutionary processes. It’s hardly my field of expertise, but I suspect that we’ll find that life has come into existence numerous times and it’s quite possible that intelligence has occurred many times in the universe also and that we are not unique in that sense.

In fact, I think that such a God makes much more sense. In other words, I believe that evolution can contribute to broadening and deepening our understanding with God. The idea that God created this giant universe with the intent to deal solely and exclusively with one group of intelligent creatures off to the side in a rather ordinary galaxy has never made sense to me. Understand evolution as being God’s means of producing diversity makes sense of that point to me. I think it’s likely that there’s some creature out there somewhere who has a body type I might not even recognize and who is also trying to figure out just where he fits into the grand scheme of things. I find that fascinating and exciting!

So to me, as a theist, the guidance of evolution is solely in the sense that God chooses to produce a universe with natural laws that will eventually create a great diversity of creatures, and I suspect that we haven’t even a minimal clue as to just how extensive the variety this method can produce actually is. We may want to feel special, but I think we might as well get started now realizing that we’re just one of many very interesting things that could be produced by the evolutionary processes God created.

Christians may object that the Bible speaks of us as special. I would ask simply just what would you expect of a book involved in the specific interactions of God and human beings? Of course I see a much greater human involvement in scripture than do most Christians, but I think we’re reacting to certain statements much like the grandchild whose grandfather tells him that he’s “grandpa’s special boy” and assumes from that statement that granpa loves him more than all the other grandchildren. Meanwhile, grandpa is off telling the others that they are also “grandpa’s special girl or boy” and so forth. If we’re serious about God being infinite, then we also have to realize that “special” doesn’t exhaust his attention. He doesn’t have to have priority lists.

My own view is that any naturally occurring intelligence would call forth God’s spiritual contact and communication as those creatures struggle with who they are and why they exist. As they come to realize just where they stand in the general scheme of things it’s time also for them to realize that they have to make a lot of their own way in the universe, because while they may be special to God, they don’t have an exclusive on being special.

I’m not trying to exclude those who believe in a more direct guidance from the ranks of theistic evolutionists; that would be pointless, and they’d be more likely to win and exclude me. I just want to point out that there is more than one way to be a theist and also accept evolution. God is the ground of all being, as Paul Tillich said, and he is thus the ground of all evolution. But that doesn’t mean he has to tinker with it.

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  1. There’s a big question as to whether evolution leads to intelligence. Evolution doesn’t head in any direction. It solves problems, and if the problems don’t lead to intelligence, you don’t get it.

    Of course, cetacians and parrots sort of prove that intelligence may be a common outcome, but it’s still way debatable.

    If God is outside of time, does He even need to “hide His tracks”? Think of it as one of those fantastic domino layouts where the outcome is known. Where God is concerned, nothing is random.

    You can tell I’m a Presbyterian, with all this “God outside of time” stuff. Predestination falls out of relativity theory quite nicely.

  2. Rob, I think you have a number of good points, though I’m always interested in how many things I get told “fall quite nicely” out of relativity, or even more commonly, quantum physics. That’s not to argue–I do not know enough physics to do so effectively. It’s just that I keep getting told different things, and thus have to say I don’t know enough to pretend to know. 🙂

    I do want to correct one impression. I don’t maintain that evolution heads in the direction of intelligence. I agree that it doesn’t have a direction in that sense, although in general it seems to head toward greater diversity in the long term. (I’m not quite saying that right–try “evolution will have tried more characteristics the longer it continues”).

    My view is distinctly un-Presbyterian. I think God enjoys having freedom in the physical universe(s) he creates, and thus intentionally does not set the goal, but merely the processes. Note that this is 100% a theological and not a scientific view, but it does fit with at least certain views of what seems to go on in nature.

  3. This issue has interested me for a while. I do think that God is creative enough to have a universe with many other intelligent forms of life (otherwise, it would just be a huge waste of resources). On the other hand, I don’t particularly have a problem with guided evolution, as it relates to the origin of life. Science just doesn’t have the evidence to support any of the current theories of life’s origins on this planet. If you can accept that God gave life a jump start, so to speak, then he could also have guided the evolution of our species.

  4. Henry, it seems to me that your position is not so much “theistic evolution” as deism. You seem to hold that God put together a universe according to certain rules, rules which he knew would probably lead to various intelligent life forms evolving in different parts of the universe, and then sat back to watch what happened. That is the deistic view of God, not the theistic one.

    I take your point that from the perspective of the whole universe the human race may not be as special and unique as we sometimes think. But that leads to some serious theological issues, e.g. was the unique Son of God also incarnate as a member of various alien races in order to die separately for their sins?

    My own tentative position is that divine intervention in evolution can be seen in divine oversight of apparently random quantum and chaotic processes, such that the process of evolution, of humans and others, has been guided by God but in a very subtle way which is observationally indistinguishable from natural processes. That is what I would understand to be theistic evolution.

    I might also suggest that intelligent life is so intrinsically improbable, although not impossible, that it has in fact only evolved once in the whole universe, in the place where God chose to subtly intervene so that that would happen. That would remove the theological issues I mention. But I accept as an alternative possibility that intelligent life may also have evolved in many other places. This is an issue which of course may gradually become observationally testable, or at least we should be able to find out if intelligent life is common in our part of one average galaxy.

  5. Might I suggest that God could constantly intervene in evolution without any of us ever being the wiser? After all, evolution posits that mutations are random: If God influences a particular mutation, there is no way to differentiate between that and a random event which might yield the same result.

    In a sense, this is the logic behind the various improbability arguments pushed by some ID supporters. The argument fails due to the Anthropic Fallacy, of course.

    The upshot is that there is absolutely no reason to not accept evolution, even if one also accepts divine intervention. The scientific assumption of naturalism is fully justified because God’s action is totally unfalsifiable; it would also be completely wrong. Science, like any system of knowledge, has its limits.

  6. Evolution is the biggest hoax that humans have ever swollowed.
    Study biology carefully and if you have an ounce of ordinary logic left, you WILL conclude that it is, it was, and ever shall be IMPOSSIBLE for life to have orginated by chance. The odds are infinitely BEYOND possibility.

    Evolution is a clever mythology that for some reason has captivated many intelligent humans. It’s sad.

  7. I do not deny the possibility of guided evolution, especially of the sort that does not leave tracks. How could one prove that such a thing didn’t happen?

    I still prefer a more general view where God’s intereventions are explained in another fashion, understanding, of course, that we are both going beyond physical evidence.

  8. Peter,

    I think my position could be described as “deistic evolution” though I like that term no more than I like “theistic evolution.” But I am not a deist.

    I believe that God does act in the universe in order to communicate with his creatures/children. Thus while I believe the machinery of the universe does not require tinkering or guidance, but that God made it fully capable of living out its lifespan without such intervention, I believe that a personal God acts in relationship with those intelligences that appear by his intent though without guidance apart from the basic construction of the whole.

    Thus any deism applies only to the construction. I would note that I also believe that all natural laws exist as they do only because God so wills them. It’s not that God cannot intervene, it is that he does not intervene in certain specific ways in order to allow freedom to his creation.

  9. I accept your position as one option for theistic evolution, but as I already commented it is not my preference. But since we are definitely out in faith territory, and perhaps cannot even see evidence in our rearview mirror, it behooves me not to be dogmatic about it!

  10. Jim,

    What I find interesting about your post is this:

    1) You provide no particular evidence, just your assertions. Of course, you are commenting, and one doesn’t expect dissertations, but . . .
    2) You state:

    Study biology carefully and if you have an ounce of ordinary logic left, you WILL conclude that it is, it was, and ever shall be IMPOSSIBLE for life to have orginated by chance.

    So the overwhelming majority of people who have studied biology seriously do not have “an ounce of ordinary logic left,” according to you.

    As a non-biologist, I have to ask precisely how you calculated the probability of life evolving? Do you have a hypothesis on how life might form such as to determine precisely how improbable that particular thing is?

    I would note further that one can accept biological evolution without also accepting abiogenesis, though I personally think that we will eventually find a natural mechanism for the formation of life, though we’re certainly not there yet.

  11. Thank you for the response. Well, I guess most deists would agree with you that “It’s not that God cannot intervene, it is that he does not intervene…” But I am glad that you are not a deist, not even a Bible deist as I have described them. But what you seem to share with Bible deists is a belief that God intervenes in his creation only some of the time, for them never since the end of the apostolic age, and for you apparently from the time of the Big Bang until the first intelligent creatures appeared. Both ideas seem strangely limiting God. But my belief is that he is always interacting with his creation while also remaining at a distance from it.

  12. Kehrsam, there are ways to differentiate between truly random events and those which have been have in fact been controlled by an intelligent being but made to look random. Clever mathematical techniques can distinguish between true randomness and the output of the best pseudo-random number generators which humans can devise. Now I suppose God could design a pseudo-random number generator clever and complex enough to fool us humans, but there is still in principle a demonstrable difference between that and true randomness. So there is a difficult issue here.

    Another way to look at this combines the many worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics with the anthropic principle: every possible apparently random event divides the universe into two universes, one in which an event happens and the other in which it doesn’t. The number of universes multiplies extremely rapidly! I doubt if there is a number large enough to describe how many universes would have arisen since the Big Bang on this model. But we must live in one of the subset of these universes (whether a tiny subset or a large one we don’t know) in which there is intelligent life. And so the random events which have happened must be those which have allowed intelligent life to evolve. I don’t actually hold to this model, but it makes for interesting thinking about how intelligent life might have evolved according to a different model (more like the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics) in which there is just one universe with random events.

  13. I had some further thoughts about not quite randomness. There are examples of sequences of numbers which are not truly random but which, I understand, have the appearance of being strictly random: the series of digits of irrational numbers like ? pi. As these numbers have been proved to be irrational (not in the normal sense of the word, but in the mathematical sense that they are not a ratio of two integers), I believe it implies that the series of digits appears to be random; it certainly implies that the series cannot terminate or repeat. But these digits can be calculated from a simple formula. So perhaps they can be considered to be a part of God’s creation from the beginning. Yet the overall result of this collection of apparently random digits is not random, but a precise mathematical quantity. So, similarly, God could have put together a series of events which have every appearance of being entirely random but in fact when combined lead to a precise and intended result, such as the evolution of human life. This is not an argument that this DID happen, but surely is one that it might have happened.

  14. Peter Kirk:

    Yes, I agree, even random-“like” events may leave a possible trail for detection; I was merely pointing out that God COULD have intervened in such a way as to purely random, thus undermining both ID and the scientific assumption of naturalism. This is merely an extension of the “God can in theory explain everything and therefore explains nothing” agument. I am a Christian, but have a lot of trouble there, as it appears my belief is nothing more than a sincerely-held wish.

    Jim: If we don’t know how life began, how do you perform your calculation? How do you account for the fact that the probability of life existing must be 100 per cent?

    Cheers to all!

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