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Oracle Soup – Dialogue with a Theistic Evolutionist, Continued

theistic evolution

This is the third part of my discussion with theistic evolutionist Hans Vodder about my book, Undeniable. I describe the background in the first post, and I end the second post by asking Hans to clarify what he means when he says that conditions on the early Earth may have been conducive to biological evolution. Here is his reply:

I used “conditions” as a catch-all term for any physical circumstances relevant to life’s emergence. When I suggested circumstances may have been “conducive to biological evolution,” yes, I roughly meant they may have been sufficient to cause biological evolution. So, I guess I’ve conflated two separate issues here: a) the question of abiogenesis and b) the question of evolutionary development — sorry!

However, I don’t wish to dogmatize. Even though I’m no biologist, I realize that “origin of life” questions have not been settled definitively (as Stephen Meyer has argued in Signature in the Cell). So, I won’t say such conditions actually were conducive to abiogenesis.

My point is far more modest. It is this: even if a completely naturalistic account of life’s origin and development turns out to be true — and I’ve been arguing we can’t rule that out on probabilistic grounds alone — design doesn’t automatically disappear. As Antony Flew put it in his book God and Philosophy, 2nd ed. (p. 71):

“It is…useless to try to dispose finally of the [design] argument with a reference to the achievement of Darwin… [T]he regularities discovered and explained with the help of the theory of evolution by natural selection, like all other regularities in nature, can be just so much more grist to the mill.”

So, even if neo-Darwinian evolutionary theory coupled with some theory of abiogenesis turns out to be completely spot on, that doesn’t obviously remove design (let alone God) from the equation. A universe capable of permitting the evolution of life from non-life would arguably be a remarkable indication of cosmic fine-tuning. So, I don’t think the stakes in the “evolution/design” debate are necessarily as high for theism as is commonly thought.

But the way we think about the divine action across natural/supernatural divide in these contexts is also important. Perhaps we can discuss the Collins quotation to explore these issues further?

Thanks again for clarifying, Hans — very helpful!

You nicely summarized our main point of disagreement by saying you think we can’t rule out a completely naturalistic account of the origin of living things on probabilistic grounds alone. Since I think we can, and this is a major theme of Undeniable, I’d like to unpack this more before we move on.

In my first reply, I used the example of searching blindly for a diamond in the Sahara to show why improbabilities can’t be erased by invoking “conditions” to narrow the search. Briefly: fortuitous conditions that narrow the search so helpfully as to ensure success are themselves improbable. So, invoking these helpful conditions is the explanatory equivalent of the shell game — it only pretends to make the improbability disappear.

We agree on this point, Hans, which is a very good start!

By my understanding of our discussion, here’s where we still disagree: you think the “rigging” needed for the universe to have produced things like fireflies and horses and humans can fit within the regularities described by science, whereas I don’t.

Think of oracle soup — the imaginary version of alphabet soup I describe in the second chapter of my book. As the story goes, you boil this soup in a covered pot, and then, after allowing it to cool, you lift the lid to reveal written instructions for building something that’s very clever — “worthy of a patent.”

Now, we have no trouble rattling off any number of “conditions” that are relevant to the process of boiling alphabet soup: the broth’s viscosity, density, surface tension, and boiling point, the sizes, shapes, and consistencies of the pasta letters, the thickness and conductivity of the pot material, etc., etc. The point is that it’s manifestly inconceivable for any combination of these mere conditions to provide a satisfactory explanation for how instructions appeared on the soup’s surface.

Think of it this way. If we imagine a pot of oracle soup actually working, all of us would recognize this as something astonishing to the point of spookiness, and none of us should be content with an explanation in terms of mundane properties like viscosity and conductivity. Why? Because it’s the startling coincidence that must be explained, and none of those ho-hum parameters diminish this coincidence at all.

As for what’s at stake here, I think it has to do with the fact that life seems to compel everyone to acknowledge a Designer from an early age, whereas arguments about the fine-tuning of the physical universe have been accessible only to relatively few people relatively recently.

Photo credit: © ra2 studio — stock.adobe.com.