Christian Faith, Evolution, and Improbability

Is there a conflict between Christian faith and evolutionary science? This post is partially based on thoughts I had to a number of posts made on the Shadow to Light blog. I will cite them as I go along.

The following quote is attributed to Stephen Jay Gould:

“…if the tape of life was replayed from the beginning, an entirely different reality would exist, a reality that would not include us.”

This implicitly acknowledges the improbabilities of life emerging by chance rather than the inevitable result of deterministic (quasi-)Darwinian processes. If you accept that the probabilities are random enough that a replay would definitely result in a different reality, then there must be some chance, whatever it is, that life would not evolve at all. Knowing that life did evolve, then, tells you nothing about the mathematical chance that it would happen again.

Once we accept this, we can just haggle over the price, that is, the specific probabilities that life could evolve by chance. Between you-the-particular-individual and life-at-all arising by chance is a many orders of magnitude difference, but… there is some probability threshold for believing a particular event cannot happen by chance. That’s an interesting potential defeater.[1]

This acknowledgment that there is some threshold for disbelief opens the door for the possible acceptance of intelligent design or even the supernatural (the “God Hypothesis”). Our existence cannot be considered a scientific inevitability. This will become important in a bit. Before that, let’s examine the Christian Faith in light of humanity’s origins and neo-Darwinianism:

“The Because of Us perspective that I have outlined defeats the claim that evolutionary contingency is incompatible with Christian Faith….the reason why God chose to actualize this particular reality among all the possible alternatives is precisely because of us…But from God’s perspective, our coming into existence was inevitable…Yet I suspect there are people, both atheists and Christians, who perceive this argument as a theological contrivance designed precisely to make peace with the science of neo-Darwinian evolution.”

The extensive Bayesian probability discussion between Richard Carrier and Luke Barnes included the following implication: our existence as a product of evolutionary processes is not a subject of debate precisely because we know we exist. It doesn’t matter how improbable such an event is, it must have happened otherwise we wouldn’t be here.

When the Neo-Darwinian argues that there is no evolutionary event that is too improbable because we know the outcome, he is engaging in circular reasoning by assuming his conclusion (along with a bit of special pleading). The formulation that states that evolutionary contingency is not incompatible with Christian Faith suffers the same fate.

Our existence is the result of many rolls-of-the-dice. The two notions of theology and science are compatible, but this is an unsatisfying conclusion. It isn’t that the viewpoint is a theological contrivance, it is that it has no logical power. It just doesn’t work. Like Gould’s implication, there must be some probability threshold by which we can differentiate between design and chance, God and nature. This, incidentally, makes both intelligent design and evolution subject to testable mathematical propositions.

It is not enough to say that our origins don’t matter and that existence alone is sufficient. To the question “I exist, so, if God exists, was it intended?” is an answer: “No God, No Intention”, “God, No Intention”, or “God, Intention.” But the answer doesn’t matter for the reasons that I’ve given. Compatibility only requires our existence and our existence only.

It’s easy to show that marrying the two is plausible, but it’s still just a speculative thought experiment. Evolutionary contingency and Christian Faith are not incompatible at the scientific level if we can agree that they use the same processes. That’s tautological. The irreconcilable differences are whether or not there is a God and whether or not we were intended. For that you need separate arguments and explanations.

Now, let’s examine what constitutes a scientific explanation:

“…“documenting” something doesn’t really capture the essence of science. Science is concerned with explaining phenomena in terms of cause-and-effect, where the cause of one effect can be the effect of another cause.”

An article by Evolution News on a hummingbird evolution study by Dakin et al. (University of British Columbia) documented the basic physiological causes for each studied trait (such as agility) and then said the root origin was evolutionary changes. Assertions of evolution as an completely sufficient explanation replaced the demand for cause-and-effect analysis. It lacked meaningful explanation.

I watched the “Information, Evolution, and intelligent Design” lecture by Philosopher Daniel Dennett. He argues for quasi-Darwinian convergent processes for everything. For example, he uses three-variable spaces as an explanation for how life began and how language/information/memes developed. I was careful to note, however, that again there is the assertion of quasi-Darwinian cause-and-effect without actually providing a meaningful explanation.

I’ll suggest that this view of science is not fringe at all, but common among many. If some atheists are pressed for what would constitute a miraculous proof of God[2], either they will say nothing at all (and expose their bias) or they will give a God-of-the-Gaps example. Almost everyone intuitively understands that not everything can necessarily be explained by cause-and-effect analysis.

Almost everyone has some threshold by which they believe certain highly improbable events cannot happen.[3] They may not understand that going past the probability threshold is a God-of-the-Gaps explanation, that it represents an intuitive rejection of highly improbable events, or that every day they take for granted things that they cannot prove.

Science and faith are compatible. Some atheists will double down and insist that there can be no evidence for God, highlighting their predetermined, close-minded conclusion. Yet most will use a god-of-the-gaps explanation on some extreme probability event as proof of the supernatural, acknowledging that there is some scientific evidence that could constitute evidence for God.

[1] Or else not explicitly defining thresholds to use as an excuse to move the goalposts later. This is what separates the close-minded from the open-minded.

[2] Interestingly, many scientists who are Christian consider existing evidence to be sufficient proof of God and do not require the huge standard of a supernatural miracle, whatever that means.

[3] If Jesus returned in the way that is described in the Bible, they would believe because the alternative would be so fundamentally improbable that they would be unable to do otherwise. The Bible itself declares that everyone will acknowledged Jesus’ supernatural return, so whatever the threshold is, Jesus will exceed it for everyone, including atheists.



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