Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Does the theory of evolution preclude the existence of a divine plan for human beings?

Jim Manzi has been addressing the question quite a bit lately. He has helpful links to his arguments and his latest thoughts on the subject at "The Corner". Here is his latest statement of exactly which position he is arguing:
First, I am making a fact claim. My fact claim is this: The findings of the modern synthesis of evolutionary biology (MES) do not demonstrate that the universe is not unfolding according to a divine plan that privileges human beings. An informal specification of what I mean in my claim by “does not demonstrate” is not restricted to something like “does not demonstrate it because it’s possible that everything we believe we observe through sense data is an illusion” or things of that ilk, but instead is closer to the sense of “does not make it obviously unreasonable to believe it.”
Mr. Manzi has correctly interpreted evolution's attack on the concept of a divine plan vis-à-vis organisms as an epistemological one. Unfortunately, I think he has not considered other epistemological attacks that the theory of evolution poses, since he mostly construes the theory of evolution as an attack on the logical foundations of the divine plan concept. This is, in fact, a valid epistemological charge to be countered by the divine plan theorist; if one can prove that a divine plan cannot logically exist, it would definitely be irrational to believe in the existance of a divine plan.

Mr. Malzi counters this line of argument in two ways. First, he salvages the notion of a divine plan from the physical evidence against it:
It is obvious from the factory analogy that evolution does not eliminate the problem of ultimate origins. Physical genomes are composed of parts, which in turn are assembled from other subsidiary components according to physical laws. We could, in theory, push this construction process back through components and sub-components all the way to the smallest sub-atomic particles currently known, but we would still have to address the problem of original creation. Even if we argue that, as per the GA which spontaneously generates the initial population, that prior physical processes created matter, we are still left with the more profound question of the origin of the rules of the physical process themselves.
In other words, if we suppose that God can have a divine plan for, say, sub-atomic particles, then there might be a planned consequence for organisms that ultimately emerges from the sub-atomic physics. Of course, the theory of evolution deals strictly with organisms, so there isn't much that it can do to address this point.

Second, he argues for the possibility of goal-directedness of evolution:
Now consider the relationship of the second observation to the problem of final cause. The factory GA, as we saw, had a goal. Evolution in nature is more complicated — but the complications don’t mean that the process is goalless, just that determining this goal would be so incomprehensibly hard that in practice it falls into the realm of philosophy rather than science. Science can not tell us whether or not evolution through natural selection has some final cause or not; if we believe, for some non-scientific reason, that evolution has a goal, then science can not, as of now, tell what that goal might be.
Mr. Malzi correctly realizes that the existence of a plan presupposes the existence of a goal that is the purpose of the plan, and so the goal-directedness of the divine plan needs to be salvaged along with the plan itself. Unfortunately, in doing so he has walked directly into an epistemological trap. I believe that George H. Smith makes this point clear in "Atheism: The Case Against God": the theory of evolution does not challenge the logical possibility of a divine plan very well, but it does make a very good case against the meaning of the concept of a divine plan. In order for the concept of a divine plan to be a meaningful concept, we must have some data at hand to differentiate "divine plan" from "no divine plan". Otherwise, why should we consider it rational to believe in the existence of a concept that cannot be differentiated from non-concept?

The evolutionist could therefore say "I graciously yield that evolution does not logically disprove the existence of a divine plan. However, what the theory of evolution is really telling us is that we have no possibility of discovering any of the details of the divine plan vis-à-vis organisms. When we examine the available evidence of organisms living and dead, we find no way of connecting our findings to any non-natural cause whatsoever, so we have no guidance as to what the divine plan might be. You may still wish to believe in the existence of a divine plan for organisms, but I see no reason to grant that belief the imprimatur of rationality until you can establish some detail of the divine plan that can distinguish it from the non-existence of the divine plan."


Blogger Jim said...

Thanks for the very thoughtful comments.

I agree with almost all of what you say in this post. I am skeptical that there is some positive, rational case for the existence of God, and know for a fact that I don;t know of one that I find convincing (which also not to say that therefore it is foolish to believe in God). The point I was trying to make is the narrow one that you correctly identify: that the MES doesn't rationally rule it out.

Jim Manzi

5:41 AM  

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