Evolving Thoughts

Evolution, culture, philosophy and chocolate! John Wilkins' continuing struggle to come to terms with impermanence... "Humanus sum, nihil humanum a me alienum puto" - Terence

Monday, September 19, 2005

Evolution - guided or unguided?

From Panda's Thumb:
A group of 38 Nobel Laureates headed by Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel have asked the Kansas State Board of Education to reject science standards that criticize evolution. [Read letter here]
This is a good thing, but one of the comments they make in that letter has caused a considerable amount of discussion and drawn criticism from several people, including a number of Christian evolutionists. It is this:
Logically derived from confirmable evidence, evolution is understood to be the result of an unguided, unplanned process of random variation and natural selection.
This is a lot like several earlier claims that evolution is unplanned and did not have "Man" in mind. Is it true? Is this a logical implication of evolution by natural selection?

Theists object to claims that the world is unguided, of course. It is a central tenet of their faith that God planned the world, and all its outcomes, and that He (or She) maintains control over the course of events. Asa Gray, one of Darwin's correspondents, and a leading ornithologist in America at the time, held that God provides the variations necessary for the outcome He (or She) wills in evolution. Darwin was, in my opinion justifiably, unhappy about this.

A large part of the problem lies in how the questions are framed. If the question is
Do we need to conclude that evolution is a guided process?
the answer is, scientifically, no we do not. Evolution is a naturally-occurring process that, as the letter says, follows logically from observable facts about the biological world (although I would cavil at the implication that it is all down to natural selection). No guide is needed - the outcomes are entirely consistent with the presumption that design is absent in these evolutions. Guidedness is (scientifically) something to be forced upon us as a conclusion - it is an onerous hypothesis.

But if we frame the question so:
Do we need to believe that God guides the world?
then it is obvious that we do if we are theists, since for theists that is what being a theist is all about. For those who believe, guideness (under the name of Providence) is a default assumption, and science is held, rightly, by them not to be able to reject the "providential hypothesis".

Only, providence is not a scientific hypothesis. It is a doctrine, a matter of faith, and an outcome of revelation, not investigation. So when a scientific theory is under consideration, the Nobel Laureates are entirely correct - evolution, as a natural process, is unguided if there is no evidence or conceptual need to posit a guide. Guided evolution is only a justified conclusion when we see evidence that in a given case, there is some kind of direct intervention.

The two questions deliver answers that seem to be in conflict. But they aren't, because they answer different questions, don't they? Answers can seem to conflict if you don't carefully disambiguate the questions they respond to. A famous example is one I like a lot - the WIlly Sutton case. Willy, a prisoner convicted of bank robbing was asked by a priest, "Why do you rob banks?" Willy replied, "Because that's there the money is". Willy answers a different question to the one the priest is asking. The priest asks, Why do you rob banks when that is a wrong thing to do. Sutton answers the question, why do you rob banks rather than, say, drug stores. His answer makes good sense if that is the right question, and is a non sequitur for the other kind.

So the answer to the question is evolution guided? is No if it is a question of scientific knowledge, and Yes if it is a question about God's role in the world. But this seems wrong to theist evolutionists. Surely the latter question trumps the former?

Well, no, because the former question is one of explanation of difference between guided and unguided processes. An unguided process is one that lacks a (worldy) intervention. Water running down hills is unguided. And evolution is a process like that. Of course, theologically one can say that water is guided down hills if you like, but that won't fly as a scientific hypothesis. Either everything is guided by God, including unguided natural processes, or there's no point in being a theist. But nothing is added to the scientific explanation by saying that God created the world and supports it, etc. It is either a truism or unknowable.

So don't get upset that evolution is held by science to be an unguided process if you don't get upset at the hydrological cycle being unguided, and if the evolution case bothers you, so too should meterology.