Providential Evolution

The current issue of Books and Culture contains a review of The Language of Science and Faith by Karl Giberson and Francis S. Collins provided by Alvin Plantinga, the John A. O’Brien Professor of Philosophy Emeritus at the University Notre Dame. I worked through this book a bit over a year ago (March 2011) and you can find links to the posts in the Science and Faith Archive on the side bar (this one is easy to find as it is the first book on the page). The book by Giberson and Collins is an excellent book – one I would recommend to anyone who is beginning to think through the issues raised by science.

Plantinga’s review is something of a mixed bag, some excellent points mixed in with some not so useful comments and observations, the kinds of comments and misunderstandings I wish we could move beyond. You can (and should) read Plantinga’s review itself, available here. An excellent reflection on Plantinga’s review by David Opderbeck is also worth reading.

Plantinga meanders through a number of different issues that are raised by the intersection of evolutionary biology and the Christian faith. In rather annoying fashion he emphasizes “Darwinism” and separates it from evolution, he doesn’t appear to have read what Giberson and Collins actually wrote at places, rambles off on tangents (like the vitriolic nature of some of the internet world), and throws some asides I would not expect from a scholar of Plantinga’s reputation. As an example of the latter, he notes that many will think Giberson and Collins “a bit unduly sanguine about science” … well yes, that is true, “many” generic persons probably will; but Plantinga appears to endorse that thought and gives little reflection to the fact that Collins is both an expert on evolution and a Christian, while he is a Christian and a philosopher, but quite clearly not an expert on evolution. And then there is the ever annoying “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.” While the statement is true in a fashion, it is not true in any way that has bearing on the intersection of science and Christian faith.

On the issue of Darwinism and reading what Giberson and Collins actually wrote:

Another thesis often included under the heading of evolution is Darwinism, the thought that what drives the whole process of descent with modification is natural selection working on some form of genetic variation: the most popular candidate here is random genetic mutation. I’m inclined to think C&G endorse Darwinism, but whether they do is not entirely clear.

… As far as I can tell, they don’t present any evidence for Darwinism as distinguished from evidence for (1)-(4). And indeed the evidence for Darwinism is much more tenuous.

Giberson and Collins note that the term “Darwinism” is a misnomer, and it certainly doesn’t apply the way Plantinga uses it (p. 41). Darwin had a profoundly wrong view of inheritance, he knew nothing of genes, genetic mutation, epigenetics, or any of the multitude of “random” chemical and physical processes that provide the mechanism for the changes on which natural selection operates. Darwin’s view was qualitative, provided important new insight, but has been expanded enormously in the ensuing 150+ years. Plantinga should be more than “inclined to think” Giberson and Collins endorse the generally accepted mechanisms for evolution. The book makes it entirely clear that they do – except, of course, for the assumptions of scientific naturalism that are tacked on to the data by many, if not most, atheist or agnostic scientists. But this is a worldview assumption separate from the scientific description of evolutionary processes.

Separating “Darwinism” from evolution is one of those things we simply must move beyond. It is a rhetorical maneuver with no scientific significance.

Plantinga raises two significant issues, however. One, concerning providence and evolution, is not really an issue with the book by Giberson and Collins. It is a philosophical worldview issue of the kind Plantinga has contemplated in much of his work. Here Plantinga, Collins, Giberson, and all of Christians who look at evolutionary creation agree. The other, on death and disease as a part of the process of evolution, is a more significant issue that confronts any serious consideration of the implication of evolution for the Christian faith. Here there is not as much agreement and more nascent speculation.

Providential vs. unguided evolution. The first issue raised by Plantinga has to do with the guidedness or unguidedness of evolution. After talking around the issue for awhile, Plantinga ultimately comes to the point:

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. …

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.

Here it seems to me that Plantinga misses the point – and that he should know better.  There is no way to attach unguidedness to any physical or natural process in a fashion that eliminates room for the action and providence of God except as a metaphysical assumption. In fact Plantinga does know better and as his comments demonstrate just a bit further down:

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. (emphasis added)

We don’t need gaps, openness, or miracles to leave room for the action and providence of God. Room for his action is there at all times, whether through the ordinary processes of his creation or through the acts of special relationship where we see the actions of God (or his messengers) more directly.

Evolution is no more a problem for the providential action of God than any other “ordinary” process – from the development of hurricanes to the growth of an infant in its mother’s womb to the death of a sparrow.

Predation, Death and Suffering. The second issue Plantinga raises is much harder – the role of death and decay in the world. And here I think he makes an excellent point – on a problem that has not been dealt with well as of yet in any source I’ve read or heard.

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 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.”

All of this seems dubious. …

A God given freedom in nature does not seem a satisfactory solution to the problems raised by predation, the Black Plague, cancer and more. But I also find problems with the “traditional” story that places all at the feet of the wrath of God in response to Adam’s sin. Here we need theologians and scientists and philosophers wrestling with the issues.

Perhaps we can only rest with the message given by God to Job:

“Who is this that obscures my plans with words without knowledge?
Brace yourself like a man; I will question you, and you shall answer me.
“Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation? Tell me, if you understand.

And respond as Job responded:

“You said, ‘Listen now, and I will speak; I will question you, and you shall answer me.’
My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you.
Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.”

What problems do you find hardest when it comes to the relationship between evolution and the Christian faith?

Do you agree or disagree with Plantinga’s critique of  Giberson and Collins?

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail[at]

If you have comments please visit Providential Evolution at Jesus Creed.

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