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Answering Joshua Swamidass: What Do Theistic Evolutionists Believe?


Let me begin with a disclaimer. This post has nothing to do with intelligent design. Rather, it is an attempt to clarify ambiguous words about theological positions.  I am not a theologian or philosopher, but then neither are most of the people I will discuss. I write this to explain why the definition of theistic evolution in the book Theistic Evolution: A Scientific, Philosophical and Theological Critique is accurate. Nothing here is intended to disparage individuals or their beliefs.

As I mentioned in a post on Wednesday, I contributed to the book as an editor of its science section. A recurring theme expressed by theistic evolutionists in response to the volume is that our definition of their view is too narrow, representing something more like deism. Our critics, including Professor S. Joshua Swamidass of Washington University, all say that as believing Christians, they acknowledge God’s providential care in creation, but that as a scientific matter, his care is not detectable. Swamidass reports our definition and then explains his view of theistic evolution, in his review in Themelios:

Theistic Evolution is a critique of its moniker, as defined by its editors in a specific way: “God created matter and after that did not guide or intervene or act directly to cause any empirically detectable change in the natural behavior of matter until all living things had evolved by purely natural processes” (p. 67). As a Christian who affirms evolutionary science alongside the doctrine of creation, I join the editors and authors of this volume in opposing any view of origins that denies God’s action.

A non-intervention understanding of evolution, however, is a minority position among Christians that affirm evolutionary science. The non-intervention definition applies to Ken Miller, Thomas Oord, and possibly to John Polkinghorne and Karl Giberson. However, it is not accurately applied to Francis Collins, or the vast majority of Christians in science, or the vast majority of Christians I met when I worked with BioLogos. Most allow for God’s action in origins, while doubting science’s ability to elucidate the details. [Emphasis added.]

This is a direct demonstration of why we used the definition we did in the book. What does he mean by “non-interventionist?” or “God’s action in the world”? What does he mean by “elucidate the details”? What do the people he speaks of mean?

Innumerable Definitions

There are innumerable descriptions and definitions of theistic evolution. How things are phrased matters a lot. Some definitions are innocuous, like the view that God has caused change over time in living things, or even that God has caused “continuous and gradual biological change over time such that the history of life is best represented as a great branching tree pattern as Darwin argued.” (p. 41) But it comes down to this: If God guided or directed or intervened in the evolution of living things, can we tell? Did it produce any detectable effect? And assuming God used continuous and gradual biological change over time, did he guide, or did he not guide the process, and if he did guide it, is that detectable?

The issue for theistic evolutionists to address is thus not just guidance or no guidance. It’s also about the detectability of evolutionary change. Can we tell if design is real or illusory? Can it be seen, or detected, in living systems, or the cosmos?

I will focus mainly on the particular brand of theistic evolution advocated by Swamidass as quoted above, and secondarily on the views expressed by BioLogos. But I must first put the issue in context. Materialist evolutionary biologists agree that mutation, selection, and drift are sufficient to explain how life evolved, and that any appearance of design is illusory. In other words, evolutionary processes can produce the appearance of design without a designer. Stephen Meyer says in the Theistic Evolution book:

[As] the eminent evolutionary biologist Francisco Ayala has argued, Darwin accounted for “design without a designer” since “It was Darwin’s greatest accomplishment to show that the directive organization of living beings can be explained as the result of a natural process, natural selection, without any need to resort to a Creator or other external agent.”

…Richard Dawkins insists in The Blind Watchmaker that “biology is the study of complicated things that give the appearance of having been designed for a purpose.” Or as Francis Crick mused, biologists must “constantly keep in mind that what they see was not designed, but rather evolved.”

These atheist scientists affirm that life looks designed, but then they say that this appearance is illusory. The problem is that some theistic evolutionists go even further and deny design entirely, both actual and apparent.

Caught in a Contradiction

Clearly, any theistic evolutionist who affirms a scientific materialist position is caught in a contradiction. He cannot affirm scientific materialism and remain a theist. Swamidass is not taking that position, nor do the majority of theistic evolutionists.

The issue is more delicate for theistic evolutionists who acknowledge God’s providence in a general sense and say God used the creative power of neo-Darwinian evolution to make life, but then deny God’s guidance. Meyer writes:

[M]ost theistic evolutionists, including Francis Collins, perhaps the world’s best-known proponent of the position, have been reluctant to clarify what they think about [whether evolution is directed]. In his book The Language of God, Collins makes clear his support for universal common descent. He also seems to assume the adequacy of standard evolutionary mechanisms but does not clearly say whether he thinks those mechanisms are directed or undirected — only that they “could be” directed.

Others affirm that God’s providence directs or guides the mutation/selection process to create life. This is essentially an intelligent design position, with, for example, God providing direction as to the particular mutations that occur. However, the same theistic evolutionists may then deny the detectability of this guidance.

A Trickster God

Such a position, as stated, is incoherent and theologically dangerous. It asserts that while God guided the process of evolution, he made it look like he did not guide it. This is to cast God as a trickster. It is also a contradiction because even atheist biologists acknowledge that living things appear to be designed.

I find all this resistance to design detection odd, since the Bible, Richard Dawkins, Francisco Ayala, and Francis Crick all agree that the world looks designed. The resistance puzzles me. Clearly my theistic evolutionist friends believe God is intimately involved in his creation, and some say even intervenes at times. That sounds like intelligent design to me. Yet many of the same people deny that design is guided, and all deny that it is detectable.

The only reason I can think of for their denying actual design is a prior commitment to the standard evolutionary explanation of life. It seems that denying the detectability of design goes hand in hand with a strong desire, even an imperative, to uphold this standard naturalistic evolutionary explanation for the living world around us. To hold true to the standard scientific view of evolution, they must deny, just as we put it in the book, “any empirically detectable change in the natural behavior of matter.” If they allow the possibility of actual (guided or directed) design rather than illusory design, that puts them outside the walls of the standard theory of evolution and in the intelligent design camp.

There is another explanation, though. Perhaps they hold a neo-Thomist view of the place of science and philosophy in this debate, with science restricted to material and efficient causes, and inference is left to the philosophers. I will discuss this in the next part of my review, because the issue becomes more apparent.

There is one last point. These theistic evolutionists “allow for God’s action in origins, while doubting science’s ability to elucidate the details.” This is Swamidass’s definition. It’s pretty vague. To allow for God’s action means God could have guided or permitted or even intervened in our origins. But this puts us squarely in the neo-Thomist no man’s land, where guidance, direction, or intervention are assumptions of agency and thus are improper inferences. Did God do it without leaving any evidence that science could detect? That’s what theistic evolutionists must say, or they hold an intelligent design position.

Peaceful Science

But Swamidass himself says he is not a theistic evolutionist. To check his own account of his views I went to his website, Peaceful Science. He writes there: “I find confident faith in the scientific world, whether or not evolution is true.” This, I think, doesn’t mean he has faith in science, but rather he has faith in God that doesn’t depend on whether or not evolution is true. That’s an interesting way of phrasing it. His faith isn’t shaken by evolution. But it could also mean he has faith in science even if evolution should prove to be false. Josh, you might want to clarify. Then further down the page he says: “I see evolution as a reasonable (but incomplete) description of how God created us.” He has lots of other language about his faith in Jesus and his reasons for affirming faith and science. But in the end what he says is that there is good scientific reason to accept evolution as true, but also to acknowledge it as possibly incomplete. It might be that more than evolution is needed. This sounds like Francis Collins who concedes that evolution “might be guided.” It leaves the door open a crack. He doubts science is able to detect, demonstrate, or elucidate design. But he doesn’t rule it out.

That’s sufficiently vague to cover most of the bases. I wonder how many theistic evolutionist agree? And how does his position, or that of the theistic evolutionists described by Swamidass, deal with the book’s definition? Well, the key phrase in the book’s definition of theistic evolution is this: God did not “cause any empirically detectable change.” Here Swamidass might agree. He doubts science will be able to “elucidate the details.”

Swamidass likes to tell a story of a tree. The tree has an appearance of age, but it is really quite young. His lesson is in the form of a question: Why would God create a tree that looks a hundred years old but that is really only a week old? This story is pitched at anyone who doubts the evidence of neo-Darwinian evolution and favors (as I do not) a young age for creation. Swamidass would say, I think, “Why make life look evolved, if it isn’t?” A fair response would be, “Why make life looks designed, if it isn’t?” Josh rejects the label, but I would ask the same question of any theistic evolutionist.

Photo: An old tree, South Australia, by Jacqui Barker (uploaded by Jacopo Werther) [CC BY 2.0 ], via Wikimedia Commons.