Monday, February 20, 2012

Causal Explanations of Evolution Cannot be purely natural

When we look for an explanation of how life came to exist on earth, we want not just descriptions or a few reasons why life happened. We want to know about the causes for what has happened. Any theory of evolution must depend on a theory of what kinds of causes exist and of how these causes operate. If theistic science investigation proposes a new (and plausible) account of how causes operate in the world, we are obliged to reconsider the theory of evolution and revise it to take into account the proposed kinds of causes and their manners of operation.
Darwin, in fact, was motivated to develop his theory of evolution via natural selection because he precisely wanted to follow the then new naturalistic theory of causation. It was the theory in which God was not involved in the day-to-day running of the universe. From an early stage, Darwin looked for a theory in which a self-sustaining and self-developing natural world could produce all the living creatures seen today without God being responsible for its details and (in particular) not being responsible for the disease, predation, and parasitism that he saw. We may debate whether or not Darwin’s theory is plausible or successful with its causal explanations. However, within the absent-God causal scenario, it is clear that it is more or less the only possible explanation. As a result, it has today a very large number of followers. Many of them are still seeking the detailed causal explanations but uniformly agree on the ‘sanctity’ of the laws of nature within a naturalist philosophy.
There are many scientists who do profess religion and think that theism and Darwin’s theory can co-exist. This compatibility is possible since theism means to them that God sustains the world, and Darwin has described how creatures in the world have functioned and developed together. (They remind us of Galileo’s phrase, “Scripture teaches us how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go.”) This view, however, is equivalent to deism, not theism. It holds that God is not involved with the world once its operation has started (except, perhaps, in special events such as the founding and/or culmination of new religions). Once ‘laws of nature’ are assumed to be inviolate, Darwinism can accommodate such deistic views.
Within our new scientific theism we are unable to follow Darwin, in either the naturalistic or deistic world views. When God sustains the universe, this is not accomplished ‘at a distance’ by ‘merely sustaining’ the universe according to laws of physics but (we now conclude) by the presence of God in some degree. There can be no power without substance and no substance without present existence. This means that any sustaining action of God in the world will necessarily require the reception of life from God, not abstractly but as a substance really existing. This life is not always according to fixed physical laws. It necessarily has spiritual and mental components that will be effective if a suitable receptive form (e.g. a human form) is present. The fitness of a living organism is not purely a function of its interactions with the physical world and other organisms. It depends also and at least on the fullness of its reception of life from God. This implies that, within a proper theism, it is impossible to have a purely naturalistic account of evolution. Fitness, and hence selection, are not entirely natural. They are subject also to spiritual and mental considerations. There must be some kind of theistic selection, as well as natural selection.


  1. I don't really see why it has to be deism (Darwin + God). Couldn't it just be the way we perceive what is actually immanent action by God?

    1. That is true: it could be that the immanent action of God is sustaining the world in such a way that Darwinian evolution is true.

      However, it would have to be a rather detached immanence from God, in the sense of not being involved with the outcome, and not influencing it any way. It could still be called theism, I suppose, but effectively (that is, as far as effects are concerning) it would be indistinguishable from deism. It is liking noting that Darwin -> evolution as we see it, and that Darwin+God -> evolution as we see it, so that (effectively) God = 0.

    2. If this is the case, and I'm not saying it isn't, it would seem that it must be shown that an occurence cannot be accounted for by any known natural law or process. And not just that, but also that it cannot in principle be accounted for by any natural law or process, either known or yet to be known. There have been many things known to occur for which no natural explanation has been available. In these cases, however, the naturalistic mind-set simply says, "We have not yet found a natural explanation for it. But the absence of a natural explanation, i.e., the absence of a known natural cause, is not proof that that isn't any, only a clear indication that it has yet to be determined." So it seems to me that the deck is stacked against being able to successfully prove God's active role in evolution in such a way that that role is undeniable. Anything observable in nature is claimed via a kind of emminent domain to be a part of nature. So if God's discernable, active role turns out to be observable in nature, the naturalistic mind-set will simply coin a term or phrase and chalk it up to nature. All the more so if that discernable active role should have some predictability about it.

    3. The reason I'd like to know about this, Ian, is that it always seems like you see something wonderful going on (where God has something flowing into humanity or reality) that no one else does. I've read your book and I know it has to do with reality actualizing out of many possiblities. But I still feel like I miss what the immanence is doing exactly. I think as a Catholic, I see the immanence as setting things up all along, and you see it as changing things along the way. ?

    4. AC1937:
      I don't think I agree with you that "it must be shown that an occurence cannot be accounted for by any known natural law or process." It would be clearly useful if we could do this, and even better show that in principle some events could not be accounted for by natural causes. It would help meet objections based on Occam's razor (that simpler explanations are better).

      However, it the simplicity of the whole explanation which is important, not just the simplicity of any given explanation of some particular natural event. Theories also become good by virtue of their comprehensiveness, and not just on the simplicity for explaining eg how salt dissolves. This means that we never look for 'strict proof', but only a judgement based on the overall picture of the theory in relation to the evidence. Maybe later we find 'prime examples' that give 'good demonstrations' of why the new theory is better, but they will never be proofs in the mathematical sense of being 'undeniable'.

      That means that I would deny that 'Anything observable in nature is claimed via a kind of eminent domain to be a part of nature.' Even if it partly predictable.* That would make God to be part of nature. I don't mind that personally, but that atheists should still be allowed a word to describe their position in which 'nature' does not including anything mental, spiritual, or divine.

      * More loving people are more reliable & predictable. Does that make them further from God?

    5. There has been very much debate in the philosophical literature about the meaning of 'physical' and 'natural'. For a summary of the issues, you can see
      Arguments Concerning Naturalism
      . More papers are listed at Formulating Physicalism.

    6. Sue, there is an preliminary discussion of this in my previous post at Law and Divine Intervention. In that post, I discuss whether or not the immanence of God (or spiritual or mental things) need to have any causal effects in nature, as distinct from letting nature run its course after it has been set up.

    7. It was said that if D=E, and D+G=E, then G (effectively) = 0. For G to not be (effectively) 0, D+G would have to be something other than E. Call it F. The difference between F and E (F-E), then, would have to be attributed to G. The reason why it was said, it would seem that "it must be shown that [the] occurrence cannot be accounted for by any known natural law or process, etc" is because if it can be accounted for in that manner, then the naturalistic mind-set, the scientism-ists (if you will), haven't the slightest reason to fidget. "That is accounted for by what we already know of nature. And, as we keep saying ad nauseum, there is neither need nor reason to invoke anything supernatural." If budging the naturalistic mind-set, however, isn't one of the reasons for developing a comprehensive theory of Theism, then the point raised is premature at best, irrelevant at worst.

    8. Philosophical debates over the meaning of 'physical' and 'natural' have to do, at least in part, with one side attempting to expand the scope of definitions so the other side can no longer claim that something is excluded. Personally, I don't think Pluto ever cared that it was called a planet, or that it now cares that it no longer is.

    9. It would be good indeed to find out the we did not have E after all, but something different like F, which could not be explained from a naturalistic standpoint.

      I think that there are many such things, starting with the existence of minds, that come into this category. One purpose of my theistic investigations is to find and explain more such things, and explain the details of their operation. I think that there will be much evidence to find, but many things will only been ever seen as evidence when there is a fully-fledged theoretical alternative to naturalism.

    10. Okay, I see what you're saying. I've a much clearer idea now of what you're doing, and how to view it. And it'll rightly serve as a filter in the event of future comments. Thank you.