09 April 2008

Religion: Evolution versus Theism

The Objectivist
The Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
March 30, 2008

It is not uncommon to see prominent scientists who also proclaim their Christianity or Judaism. This past semester, Brown University biologist Ken Miller gave an excellent talk at Fredonia State in which he laid out the overwhelming case for evolution over intelligent design. Miller was the lead expert witness against intelligent design in the landmark case, Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District, 400 F. Supp. 2d 707 (M.D. Pa. 2005). In this case, parents of students challenged the school board's mandate to incorporate intelligent design into the school curriculum. The federal district court found that the mandate violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment (government “shall make no law resecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”). After laying out his case, Miller proclaimed that the truth of evolution is consistent with Catholicism. Miller asserted that there might be evidence for the virgin birth of Mary, the trinity (there is a father, son, and holy ghost), and transubstantiation (Jesus’s body exists wholly and completely in each and every wafer), but that the evidence is a different from that which shows evolution to be true.

Geneticist Francis Collins who led the Human Genome Project, which pioneered the first map of the human genome, and who received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2007 for his work on genetics, is also a Christian. He became a Christian after reading C.S. Lewis’s book, Mere Christianity (1943) and observing the faith of patients who were critically ill. At many colleges and universities, hard scientists (for example, physicists, chemists, and geologists) and life scientists (for example, biologists and geneticists) regularly attend church.

Despite this overlap, evolution and religion are inconsistent and the scientists who go to church inhabit contradictory worlds. Contradiction, like sin, might be tolerable in small amounts, but this degree of contradiction is as great as Elliot Spitzer’s hypocrisy. It’s breathtaking.

The argument for the inconsistency of evolution and theism rests on three ideas. First, evolution supports the notion that persons are brains. The idea here is that evolution favors certain types of minds, namely, those with thoughts and emotions that lead to increased reproductive fitness. This occurs because some types of thoughts and emotions give individuals an advantage in reproducing and this advantage leads to the increased frequency of genes that encode for them. Because genes control the formation of bodily structures, they likely affect a person’s thoughts by shaping the structure and function of his brain.

Second, if persons are brains then they are not souls. This is because brains are physical objects and, by definition, souls are not.

Third, mainstream Christianity asserts that persons are souls. This explains why human beings can survive their earthly death even as their brain rots away. This also explains how human beings can have free will despite the impersonal forces that govern physical objects like their brains. Free will is central to the explanation of why a perfect being created a world with evil in it and why God is not vicious in allowing some persons to be annihilated or go to hell when they refuse to believe in him or do good works.

Some religious folk might try to escape this argument by claiming that even if persons are their brains they might still have free will. There are two problems with this. First, this doesn’t explain the afterlife. If persons are their brains, then when their brains cease to exist they must also. Second, this claim is mistaken. The brain just is a collection of particles. If impersonal (mechanistic or quantum) forces control the nature of particles and how they interact, then so are the physical objects that they compose. Brains are just physical objects.

Other religious folk might argue that persons are souls but assert that souls and brains causally interact with one another. At issue, however, is whether a significant share of a person’s thoughts and decisions result from what goes on in the brain. If they do, then it is hard to see how a human being can be responsible for his thoughts and actions if they largely result from brain firing-patterns over which he has little control. Also, on this account, less of a person survives into the afterlife than we might expect. For example, memories, loves, and emotions are likely lost along with the brain. On this account, then, persons who persist in the afterlife lose much of what they treasure, namely their memories, loves, and emotions.

If a significant share of a person’s thoughts and decisions do not result from what goes on in the brain, then evolution has little effect on our minds. This appears to be the view of Francis Collins who believes that humans are different from other animals in ways that defy evolutionary explanation and depend on human beings’ spiritual nature. He thinks this nature includes knowledge of right and wrong and the search for God. On this account, evolution would not have had much effect on our thought patterns.

On this view, the vast overlap in behavior and emotions between human beings and other apes would be a mystery. So would the fact that chemical changes in the brain (for example, the effects of alcohol or Prozac) affect our thoughts and moods. Also, mysterious would be why brain-degenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s degrade humans’ ability to think. This is unappealing to anyone who thinks that evolution has had a major role in shaping how we think, a common view among evolutionary theorists.

Desperate theists might blurt out that science and religion occupy different realms. The late Harvard biologist Stephen J. Gould was a proponent of this idea. The idea is that science tells us what’s true and religion tells us why it’s true. However, in explaining the nature of a person the two theories give contradictory explanations. Theorists who adopt this view are not taking religion seriously.

Even more desperate theists might argue that God designed evolution so both are true. However, this still doesn’t address whether persons are brains and, if not, how this fits with evolution. If evolution and Christianity are inconsistent, then the Christian God could no more bring about both than he could create square circles.

The inconsistency between evolution and Christianity explains why many Christians fight against the teaching of evolution in public schools. Evolutionary ideas are like atheistic tanks threatening to crush the Christian worldview. The fact that many prominent scientists and well-meaning parents don’t see it that way does nothing to undercut the ugly conflict between science and religion.


The Objectivist said...

The theist might try to stake out a middle ground where the theist gives up the persistence of some thoughts in heaven (those dependent on the brain) and some ability to control one's actions (due to very strong inclinations from the brain).

It is not clear how much thought- and responsibility-preservation remains at the middle ground, but it is worth considering whether this is a way for theist to go.

The Objectivist said...

Note that the avoidance of conflict between Christians and scientists is a good reason to favor vouchers. With private schools there is no need for the two sides to compromise their world views.

Andrew Cullison said...

Chisholm was a physicalist who believed in agent causation. I'm not saying that just because Chisholm held this view that we should reject the claim that souls are the only explanation for freewill, but if libertarian freewill is intelligible at all, then surely his view is a live option.

Second, there are many Christians who are physicalists about persons (e.g. Lynne Rudder-Baker)and that the soul is a johnny-come-lately - a platonic import. That orthodox Christian theism requires souls is far from clear.

So it's far from clear to me that Christian theism requires souls.

Both of those views are HIGHLY controversial, but they seem like they are definitely live options.

[I'm sure The Theist can set the record straight on whether it requires souls...I bet he's got some interesting stuff to say even if we grant that it does require souls...]