Saturday, January 21, 2006

Stephen Barr's "The Miracle of Evolution"

In Darwinian Conservatism, I argue that there is no necessary conflict between biblical religion and Darwinian evolution. Darwin employed the metaphor of God as speaking through two books--the Bible as His word and nature as His works--which was commonly used by Christians to justify the scientific study of nature as compatible with reverence for the revelation of Scripture.

All explanation depends ultimately on some ground that cannot itself be explained. Natural science ultimately relies on the laws of nature to explain the observable world of ordinary human experience. But if we ask why nature is lawful in this way, the naturalist has no answer except to say, that's just the way it is! The biblical believer will appeal to God as the Creator of nature. But if we ask why God is the way He is, the believer has no answer except to say, that's just the way He is. We must ultimately rely either on an uncaused nature or on an uncaused God. Even if Darwinian naturalism could explain the emergence of all life through natural evolutionary causes, that would still leave open the possibility that God as Creator of nature chose to work His will through such natural causes.

In the February issue of FIRST THINGS, physicist Stephen Barr has an article with the title "The Miracle of Evolution." Barr agrees with me that Darwinian evolution does not necessarily deny biblical religion. This is significant because generally the people at FIRST THINGS--a leading journal of the religious conservatives--have agreed with the proponents of "intelligent design theory" in assuming that Darwinian evolution must be atheistic. Oddly enough, such conservatives agree with atheists like Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett on this point. But Barr points out that the declarations of atheists like Dawkins and Dennett express a philosophical commitment to atheism that has no necessary grounding in natural science.

In his last paragraph, Barr writes:
"If biology remains only biology, it is not to be feared. Much of the fear that does exist is rooted in the notion that God is in competition with nature, so that the more we attribute to one the less we can attribute to the other. That is false. The greater the powers and potentialities in nature, the more magnificent must be nature's far-sighted Author, that God whose 'ways are unsearchable' and who 'reaches from end to end ordering all things mightily.' Richard Dawkins famously called the universe 'a blind watchmaker.' If it is, it is a miracle enough for anyone; for it is incomparably greater to design a watchmaker than a watch. We need not pit evolution against design, if we recognize that evolution is part of God's design."


Gert said...

I find your "third way" far more refreshing than the "Atheist v. ID" "debate" which has reached debilitatingly low levels, apart from being an issue which remains unresolvable, and thus rather futile.

Personally I'm agnostic because I see no evidence of God, but I see no counter-evidence of His existence either. It's a question of free will, the choice to believe or not...

Larry Arnhart said...

Yes, the assumption that Darwinian science must deny religious belief is nothing more than a dogmatic assertion of atheists like Dawkins and believers like Dembski. As Barr's article indicates, there is no good reason to deny the possibility of theistic evolution.

By the way, Barr has suggested to me in an email message that FIRST THINGS does not have an editorial position in favor of "intelligent design theory." After all, he points out, he is a member of the Editorial Advisory Board; and he has written various articles over the years for FIRST THINGS defending evolution as compatible with theistic religion.

I should also note that Barr's book MODERN PHYSICS AND ANCIENT FAITH is a wonderfully lucid and engaging exploration of science and religion.

Darwin said...

I was very impress with Barr's piece several months back critiquing Cardinal Schonborn's editorial about "Darwinism" in the NY Times.

Have to lay my hands on a copy this month's issue of First Things -- which Barnes and Noble is tiresome enough not to carry.

Glad to hear the article looks sound.

Anonymous said...

This seems fairly routine. Science is bound by natural causes of natural phenomena, and must necessarly remain silent about the supernatural. Science can't rule any gods either in or out. No scientific theory or hypothesis can mention, rely on, or deny any gods and still remain science.

The notion of religion (in the sense of the supernatural) and science being 'incompatible' is entirely artificial. From the viewpoint of science, gods are irrelevant. The controversy invariably arises when some religious doctrine makes a valid, testable scientific statement - *and fails the test*.

By implication, science (by its very nature) is saying that everything in the objective universe can be fully explained without recourse to anything supernatural. Of course, anyone is free to believe in the supernatural, and to attribute to it anything beyond the competence of science to investigate.

The only contribution science makes to any conflict is highly indirect, therefore: if there ARE any gods, they are too subtle for science to notice and contribute nothing to our understanding of reality. This position doesn't deny their existence, but it can be viewed as denying their relevance.

Larry Arnhart said...


Doesn't this point to the fundamental problem of explanation as resting on an ultimate ground that cannot itself be explained? Either we take the regularities of nature as the ultimate ground, or we invoke God as the ultimate ground of nature.

Anonymous said...

The hard thing that I've personally been struggling with is this: if Darwinian evolutionary theory, or some derivation of that theory, most accurately explains the diverse biology we have today, and thus we are products of a common ancestor and a billion chance occurrences, then there must not have been a first "Adam" and an "Eve", as described in Genesis.

Given that, then do we take the beginning of Genesis as allegory only? When we begin to allow that scripture is allegory, how do we define which parts are true, as in infallible and inerrant, and which parts are allegory only? Is the fall allegory? Is Christ’s death and resurrection allegory?

Isn't this perhaps the reason conservative evangelicals are so preoccupied with this issue. Is that at the foundational levels it appears to undermine basic biblical truth?

Any ideas on this would be appreciated.

Jerry said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jerry said...

[somewhat long; I apologize in advance...]

As a reader of First Things for over 10 years now, I find that their articles that touch on questions of faith and science to be rather profound. While many claims are made that science and religious faith are somehow at war with one another, I have always adhered to something Father Theodore Hesburgh, president emeritus of Notre Dame, once said: "Anyone who sees a conflict between science and religion is either a bad scientist or a bad theologian."

In reply to Mr. Forbes' comment above, I would note that the Catholic Church has long interpreted the creation accounts in Genesis as a story that, while not historically accurate in the modern sense of the word, reveals many truths about the human condition, especially in man's relation to God. The Church also has never had a problem with humans evolving from other creatures, with the qualification that the soul (the having of which makes one fully Human) is created by God. Therefore, 'Adam' and 'Eve' were the first creatues God ensouled, making them the first Humans in the complete sense of the word. The Church also maintains that there truly was a Fall (though it almost certainly did not involve a forbidden tree or an apple :-) ); it can be thought of these first two ensouled individuals rejecting God's friendship and Lordship and wishing make themselves their own God. Even in an extremely primitive state of human development, an ensouled individual would certainly be capable of such an action.

Still, in light of scientific knowledge about populations and genes, how can all of subsequent humanity be descended from 'Adam' and 'Eve'? I ran across one scientist's thoughts on this a while ago (I have long since lost the link, but saved the text in a Word file):

"They [Adam and Eve] are the first human couple, who we all share as common ancestors, who we inherit human nature, and thus Original Sin from.

That isn't to say that there was a two-creature bottleneck...there are lines and diversity of genetic material that show the bottleneck was at least several tens of thousands of individuals...

But that doesn't mean all alive today can't be descendents of Adam and Eve...because you can be descendants of MANY couples. I am descender from TWO couples of grandparents, FOUR couples of great-grandparents...etc. We may have alternate ancestors who are different...but we all at least share Adam and Eve...

Genetically, our diversity was probably from their Fallen descendants mating with other lines...but our Human nature...and original inherited from one pair...humans are those who have Adam and Eve as ancestors...but not necessarily their ONLY ancestors...

At this odd transitional Border-Line...other genetic lines probably supplemented the gene pool...their descendants' mates, mates who were not themselves descendants of Adam and Eve...but whose children would, through the parent who Was in fact a descendant of Adam and Eve, become descendants of Adam and Eve and recieve human nature (assuming that it is a dominant characteristic [not necessarily genetically speaking, of course] and having at least one parent with a soul gives you a soul) and eventually those with souls overtook and bred-out the population of non-humans until their were all Humans and no "almost-humans" left...

Though, it is assumed that if humans hadn't fallen...the descedants of Adam and Eve would have only bred with other ensouled humans (and not the near-human apes)...their brothers and sisters (incest, remember, is only in the vertical line of descent and ancestry...not the lateral line of relations...even if in our modern culture brother-sister is pretty much just as forbidden)...but since humans did can be assumed that the genetic diversity came from Adam and Eve's descendants taking mates from the non-souled almost-human population...because a Fallen primitive human wouldn't have really known the difference nor cared back in primitive cave-man times...that is, again, assuming that having even only One human you a human nature as long as all the necessary genes are there (and from the Christ-Mary situation...I think this is evidently true)...and thus the cross-breeds between ensouled humans and non-souled Near-Humans...would have been Full Humans...and so there is no religious objection to the Fallen descendants of Adam and Eve breeding with other Lines from non-souled long as it is admitted that all who have souls, all alive today, share Adam and Eve as ancestors (though not necessarily their ONLY ancestors...not necessarily a my cousins and I all share a pair of grandparents and get our inheritence from them...even though we have Alternate pairs of grandparents who we dont share)..."

While I certainly don't consider this the last word on the subject, it does raise some interesting points.

As to Mr. Forbes' question about the proper interpretation of the Bible, while I have neither the desire nor the intention to start a sectarian religious debate, since he asked "how do we define which parts [of the Bible] are true, as in infallible and inerrant, and which parts are allegory only?" I will state this: Serious study and thought about Scripture and religious questions take much more time and energy than is desireable or even available to many. To quench my thirst for answers to the very type of questions Mr. Forbes asks, I, after much internal debate and questioning, came to trust in the Catholic Church's authority in interpreting Scripture and Tradition, and found that many of the historical charges against it were either outrightly false or based on a serious distortion of the facts. Still, if the Catholic Church does not suit you as an authority, I suggest you find one that does. However, in my twenty years of religious studies, I have found Martin Luther's claim that we can all be our own Bible scholar to be a rather disasterous miscalculation.

Take care,