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Alvin Plantinga


Providential Evolution

Not unguided.

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As C&G point out, many of the great Christian thinkers of the past—Origen, Augustine, Aquinas, and many others—rejected this literalistic view. C&G go on, however, to claim that most evangelical Christians at present do endorse this literal interpretation of early Genesis; as a result, they are obliged to reject evolution and other substantial swaths of current science. C&G also hold that the dominance of this way of thinking among evangelicals is very recent, dating back, for the most part, to the publication of The Genesis Flood by Whitcomb and Morris in 1961.

Perhaps this is true. Another possible source of the rejection of evolution is the fact that very many scientific experts—G. G. Simpson, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Stephen Jay Gould, and Peter Atkins, to name a few—tell us that evolution is in fact an unguided process: unguided by the hand of God or any other person. But the claim that life on earth has come to be by way of an unguided process is incompatible with the Christian belief that God has created human beings in his image. That is because this Christian belief implies at the very least that if human beings came to be by way of evolution, then God intended that process to produce a certain result, and did what was necessary to see to it that it did produce that result. Hence the claim that the variety of life has come to be by way of unguided evolution is incompatible with Christian belief. Further, if all those distinguished experts insist that the theory is indeed a theory of unguided evolution, it's not surprising that many Christians believe them and reject the theory as incompatible with Christian belief.

So a second crucial question, here, is this: How shall we understand the scientific theory of evolution? The experts I mentioned above take this theory, just as such, to be a theory whose whole purpose and aim is to give a naturalistic explanation of the apparently purposive features of the living world—an explanation that doesn't involve or divine purpose or activity or design. Further, they take the theory to include the idea that there is no purpose or design in the living world: there is only the appearance of design, but not the reality. (Thus they add to evolution, as I construed it above, the claim that the process of evolution is unguided.) And of course it isn't only naturalists like Dawkins and Dennett who take it thus; so do many Christians (see, for example, many of the bloggers on "Uncommon Descent"). As they see it, the scientific theory of evolution just as such includes the thought that the whole process is unguided.

This thought arises in part, I believe, because of the cultural role currently played by evolution. Prior to Darwin, atheists and agnostics had no answer to the question, "Well then, how did this enormous variety of life, replete with apparent design, come to be? If God didn't create it, where did it come from?" Prior to Darwin, there was no decent answer to this question. "It just happened" was a bit unsatisfying. After Darwin, on the other hand, there is a response—not necessarily a good or convincing response, but a response nonetheless. How did all these creatures with their apparent design get here? By way of natural selection winnowing random genetic mutation, or genetic drift, or … Thus evolution provides atheists, agnostics, and their friends with an answer to an otherwise embarrassing question. And of course central to its being taken as such an answer is its presenting a scenario that does not involve guidance. The scenario it presents has to be one that excludes divine guidance; if it doesn't exclude divine guidance, it won't be a decent answer to the above question. So the theory of evolution, taken this way, is indeed a theory according to which the process in question is unguided.

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