Over on his blog, Why Evolution is True, the eminent Chicago evolutionist Jerry Coyne has taken on the role of my doppelgänger, since we agree 90 percent of the time and then 10 percent of the time find ourselves in completely different positions. Although perhaps I am his doppelgänger and exist only as a function of his imagination or psychic aura.
Putting such fascinating Germanic speculations aside, a couple of days ago Coyne raised a point about the science-religion relationship that has long troubled me and that he thinks – and I agree entirely – is not dealt with adequately by those who want to promote harmony between science and religion, the dreaded (or pitiful) “accommodationists,” a label that Jerry Coyne bestows with scorn and that I wear with pride.
The problem is this. If Christianity is true, then the existence of humans cannot be a contingent matter. Perhaps we could have had green skin and twelve fingers. Perhaps even we could have had three sexes. But we had to exist. The whole story is meaningless if creatures made in the image of God – that is creatures with intelligence and a sense of morality – never appeared or will appear.
But Darwinian evolutionary theory flatly denies that any species, including humans, must appear. The process is random, not in the sense of uncaused, but in the sense of unguided, without direction. Natural selection gives no guarantee that any particular direction will be taken, and Mendelian/molecular genetics backs this up, by insisting that new variations, mutations, do not appear to needed order.
Now there are ways you can try to get around this clash, starting with the supposition that somehow God puts in enough guidance to get the job done. Perhaps down at the quantum level, God gives mutation a shove every now and then.
Logically, given the existence of God, I suppose this is possible. But it is to make religion mess with science, and Coyne is rightfully scornful of such a move. As was Charles Darwin a century and a half ago when his American chum, Asa Gray, professor of botany at Harvard, put forwards such a theistic take on evolution. Darwin simply said that this takes evolution out of science.
Staying just with science, there are a number of wheezes that one can try. From Darwin to Dawkins, a popular line is that there are biological arms races, with lines of evolving organisms competing and getter better – the predator gets faster and the prey gets faster – and that somehow in the end the best of all, humans, appear. Perhaps this is so, although some evolutionists are not keen on arms races, but in any case it hardly guarantees that humans must appear.
Another trick is to suppose that there exist ecological niches, getting ever higher, and that at the top is the niche for human-like culture. Even if we had not got there, some organism at some point would have done. Convergence, when two independent forms find the same solution – like sight or flying – suggests that some organism would have jumped into our empty space. This idea seems to be popular with paleontologists. Cambridge, Cambrian-fossil-expert Simon Conway Morris is keen on the idea. Before him, the late Stephen Jay Gould floated the idea: “Perhaps, in another form on another world, intelligence would be as easy to evolve as flight on ours.” (This is from an essay collected in The Flamingo’s Smile.)
But again, I don’t think anyone – certainly not Gould – would say that humans absolutely had to evolve somewhere in the universe. So again, we seem to have a contradiction with Christianity (and, I presume, the other Abrahamic religions).
So, where do we go from here, and it is at this point that the 10 percent kicks in and Jerry Coyne and I (and, I suspect, my beloved fellow Brainstormer David Barash and I) part company. For Jerry, and I suppose for David, this is the end of the matter. One more evolutionary nail hammered into the coffin of religion. For me, the problem just starts to get interesting and challenging. This is not because I am a believer, because I am not. It is not really because it is a politically good thing to do, although I think that is so. It is rather because, well, it is a problem that is interesting and challenging!
I think, along with Augustine and Aquinas, at times like this, because it is a theological problem and not a science one, we need a theological solution not a scientific one. So if I invoke, as I will, the notion of multiverses – other universes either parallel to ours or sequential – I am doing so not on scientific grounds (although I know there are those who would defend them on scientific grounds) but on theological grounds. The God of Christianity can create these if He has a mind to.
Since we humans have evolved by Darwinian processes, then we could have evolved by Darwinian processes. Just keep creating universes until it happens! And don’t put any direction into the process.
You might think that this is an awful waste, but as God told Job, His ways are not our ways. In any case, as philosopher William Whewell pointed out in 1853 in his Plurality of Worlds, judged this way there is already an awful lot of waste in this universe. Think of the zillions of uninhabited globes out there.
You might think that God is going to get pretty bored waiting for us to come along. Well, he could try reading The Critique of Pure Reason. He might just get through it. More seriously, this is not a problem for the Christian God, because this being is outside time and space.
But is this not to admit a limitation on God’s powers? He cannot guarantee that we will appear the first time around? But no one – except possibly Descartes – has ever said that God can do the impossible, make 2+2=5 or Darwinian evolution guarantee a result first time around. So there is no real limitation.
Do I believe any of this? Not really, but that is not the point. The real point is that New Atheists like Jerry Coyne have some good arguments but before they declare the case closed they should let the philosophers and theologians have their turn to fight back. That is what a doppelgänger is good for.