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Alvin Plantinga

Providential Evolution

Not unguided.

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Well, does the scientific theory of evolution, apart from naturalistic glosses, include unguidedness? This question isn't entirely easy to answer. There is no axiomatic presentation of the theory engraved on the walls of the American Academy for the Advancement of Science. How does one tell precisely what the scientific theory includes? The fact (if it is a fact) that most biologists take evolution to be unguided isn't definitive—even if most physicists thought the laws of physics were established by God, it wouldn't follow that current physics includes the proposition that the laws of physics were established by God. True, the theory involves "random genetic mutation"; if these mutations are random, aren't they just a matter of chance, and hence not subject to divine guidance? But randomness, as construed by contemporary biologists, doesn't have this implication. According to Ernst Mayr, the dean of post-World War II biology, "When it is said that mutation or variation is random, the statement simply means that there is no correlation between the production of new genotypes and the adaptational needs of an organism in a given environment."[1] Another way to put that thought: there is no correlation between the genetic mutations and the adaptational needs of an organism. But clearly such mutations can be random in that sense and still be guided by God. So how do we tell precisely what the scientific theory involves? If the theory does include unguidedness, of course, then to endorse it à la C&G isn't acceptable for a Christian.

Still, perhaps C&G don't really have to answer this question. If the theory doesn't include unguidedness—if unguidedness is a bit of metaphysics or theology added on to the theory by the likes of Dawkins and Dennett—then C&G have no special problem here. On the other hand, if the scientific theory does include unguidedness, C&G can properly say that they don't endorse that theory, but only the result of subtracting unguidedness from it.

On the whole C&G make a pretty good case, although many will think them a bit unduly sanguine about science, at least as a matter of telling us what to believe. An important feature of science is that it keeps changing in the face of new evidence; this very virtue, however, makes it a bit dicey to invest total confidence in its current deliverances. Many will also think C&G lean too far in the direction of deism, the idea that God sets things up initially and then adopts a hands-off posture with respect to the world. C&G prefer to think that God seldom if ever acts specially and directly in the world, i.e., acts beyond creation and conservation; they prefer to think that God nearly always acts through natural laws. But why think that? Perhaps God is very much a hands-on God; perhaps he is constantly acting beyond conservation and creation; and perhaps the natural laws are really no more than accounts of how he ordinarily treats the things he has made.

There are some infelicities: (1) on page 208 C&G say, "Literalist readings of Genesis imply that God specially created Adam and Eve, and that all humans are descended from these original parents. Such readings, unfortunately, do not fit the evidence, for several reasons"; but on page 212 they show how such literalist readings can accommodate the evidence. (2) C&G seem not to reject Adam and Eve and the Fall as historical; but they don't say how they understand the Fall, or how they understand Paul's references to Adam as a historical character. (3) On pages 140 ff. the authors seem to confuse the question whether there could be such a thing as right and wrong, duty and obligation, apart from God, with the question whether there could be a natural explanation of human beings' thinking there is such a thing as right and wrong (as a result adopting moral codes, and—to some degree—acting in accord with those moral codes).

There is also at least one substantial issue where C&G seem (to me, anyway) to be mistaken. On their account, of course, the world was full of predation, death, suffering, and the like long before there were human beings; hence it is hard to see how (as the tradition has usually had it) death and suffering enter the world as a result of human sin. Their suggested solution: just as God gave human beings freedom (freedom that gets regularly abused), so God gives freedom to nature and natural processes. They understand quantum indeterminism as a matter of freedom: "The freedom of electrons is real." As they go on to say: "The key point here is that the gift of creativity that God bestowed on the creation is theologically analogous to the gift of freedom God bestowed on us." They think this idea has theological advantages when it comes to the problem of evil: "when nature's freedom leads to the evolution of a pernicious killing machine like the black plague, God is off the hook."

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