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Theistic Evolution: Directed or Undirected?

Posted By Randall D. Isaac, Thursday, December 21, 2017

Steve Meyer says “An even more foundational issue arises when considering the cause of biological change and the question of whether theistic evolutionists conceive of evolutionary mechanisms as directed or undirected processes.” (p. 42) This has become a frequent question in debates where an advocate of evolutionary creation will be asked whether they believe evolution is directed or undirected.

Meyer goes on to say “…depending on how this particular understanding of theistic evolution is articulated, it generates either (1) logical contradictions, (2) a theologically heterodox view of divine action, or (3) a convoluted and scientifically vacuous explanation.” (p. 43) He explains those three problems in the subsequent six pages. In essence, he says that no matter what answer is given, the implication is unacceptable. Hence, theistic evolution is not a tenable position.

All too often I have heard an evolutionary creationist attempting to respond to this question in public. It seldom ends well. In my view, it is the wrong question, a trick question that cannot be answered simply. It reminds me of several occasions recorded in the Gospels in which the Pharisees try to trap Jesus, or vice versa, such as in Matt. 22:15-22. What makes the directed/undirected evolution question a trap question? If the response is “directed,” then there must be an intelligent designer and theistic evolution is invalidated. If the response is “undirected” then you are a deist or agnostic because God is not involved.

Why is the question the wrong question? One way to see the inappropriateness of the question is to try to apply it to other fields of science. Is gravity directed or undirected? Is the weather directed or undirected? Why is it clear that these questions are meaningless but we ask whether evolution is directed or undirected? Similarly, the terms “theistic gravity” or “theistic weather” seem inappropriate but we focus on the term “theistic evolution.”

Another reason is that the question is ambiguous. The terms “directed/undirected” have more than one connotation. One is the theist/deist contrast in which “directed” refers to the view that God creates/sustains everything and every action to carry out his will while “undirected” indicates the deist or agnostic/atheist view that God is not involved in moment to moment phenomena. Another connotation is that “direct” refers to God’s intervention beyond the laws of nature. Here “undirected” implies that God acts in a manner consistent with the cause and effect relationships that we codify as laws of nature.

I would suggest that the theistic evolutionist would respond to the directed/undirected question with “Both! Evolution is directed because of God’s intimate involvement at each moment and it is undirected because it does not violate the cause and effect relationships by which God consistently acts.” Meyer claims that it is a logical contradiction for evolution to be both directed and undirected. But when those terms refer to two different connotations, then the contradiction disappears. The same answer would apply to gravity or weather.

Evolution differs from gravity or weather in one major way that we may cite as the reason for our different treatment. Gravity and weather are thought of as stand-alone happenings. In contrast, evolution is seen as directional, leading to a goal. The real question then is a teleological one. Do you believe evolution has a teleological goal? More to the point, do you believe that evolution can attain its teleological objectives, if any, without an agent superseding normal laws of nature? Here the distinction becomes clear. Theistic evolution says yes while the opponents in this book say no. This is not a deist vs theist issue but a question of how we believe God carries out his purposes in nature.

Ultimately, I would suggest that the primary concern about “theistic evolution” is how can a theistic, teleological perspective be reconciled with a scientific theory that is inherently contingent, depending on a vast number of random events? The Bible records several events where God’s will is carried out through random processes so we cannot claim it is a “logical contradiction.” Neither are we likely to detect a method by which God carries out his will.

Virtually all the skirmishes about scientific data and all the debates about fine points of philosophy and hermeneutics that comprise the rest of the book pale before this primary issue, in my opinion. Atheists and agnostics are in full agreement with Meyer that God’s active teleological involvement in nature is in direct conflict with a contingent evolutionary process. The former use scientific support for evolution as evidence for a meaningless, purposeless universe without God or perhaps a deistic God. The latter uses doubts about scientific data to claim that evolution is not an adequate description of nature. Theistic evolution disagrees with both and claims that God can and does carry out his will through consistent laws of nature that include random processes.

Tags:  evolution  Evolutionary Creation  theistic evolution 

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David E. Singer says...
Posted Thursday, December 21, 2017
This is not a new discussion. In "The Problem of Pain" C. S. Lewis wrote, ". . . a single, utterly self-consistent act of creation which to us appears, at first sight, as the creation of many independent things, and then, as the creation of things mutually necessary. Even we can rise a little beyond the conception of mutually necessities as I have outlined it—can reduce matter as that which separates souls and matter as that which brings them together under a single concept of Plurality, whereof ‘separation’ and ‘togetherness’ are only two aspects." (Pg. 26) Lewis and Isaac both voice respect for complexity and deal adroitly with mystery.
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Paul R. Bruggink says...
Posted Friday, December 22, 2017
Nice summary of the key issue!!
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