God, Darwinian Evolution and The Teleological Argument

Does Evolution make belief in God untenable? At the recent conference, Faithful Science? – Just How Well Do Science and Faith Get Along? I presented a paper examining this question.[1] This blog series has grown from that paper and the discussions I had with the theologians and scientists in attendance at the conference.

It is commonly argued that darwinian evolution renders belief in God rationally untenable because it refutes the teleological argument, commonly referred to as the argument from design. Darwin himself suggested this in his autobiography;

The old argument of design in nature, as given by Paley, which formerly seemed to me so conclusive, fails, now that the law of natural selection had been discovered. We can no longer argue that, for instance, the beautiful hinge of a bivalve shell must have been made by an intelligent being, like the hinge of a door by man. There seems to be no more design in the variability of organic beings and in the action of natural selection, than in the course which the wind blows. Everything in nature is the result of fixed laws.[2]

John Dupre adds, “Darwinism undermines the only remotely plausible reason for believing in God.”[3]

However, this purported refutation of theism is far too quick for several reasons. First, the claim that darwinian evolution refutes the teleological argument is false. There are several different versions of teleological arguments. What is arguably true is that it undercuts one particular version, that proposed by William Paley in Natural Theology. Although, in a recent study Del Ratzsch has suggested Paley’s argument has in fact been misunderstood and when these misunderstandings are stripped away it is not clear that discovery of the laws of natural selection do refute it.[4] Nevertheless, to rebut one particular teleological argument is not to undercut them all.

To justify the inference that darwinian evolution refutes teleological arguments one would need to show that darwinian evolution provides grounds for rejecting all such arguments. It does not. If one focuses on the contemporary literature, it is evident that there are currently several teleological arguments from design that are untouched by darwinism which are being seriously defended in the literature. These arguments may or may not be sound but whether they are or not has nothing to with darwinian evolution.

Two examples will suffice to illustrate this; the first is the teleological argument proposed and defended by Richard Swinburne in The Existence of God. Swinburne proposed an inductive teleological argument based on “The orderliness of the universe.” Swinburne elaborates what he means by this;

The temporal order of the universe is, to the man who bothers to give it a moment’s thought, an overwhelmingly striking fact about it. Regularities of succession are all pervasive. For simple laws govern almost all successions of events. In books of physics, chemistry, and biology we can learn how almost everything in the world behaves. The laws of their behavior can be set out by relatively simple formulae which men can understand and by means of which they can successfully predict the future. The orderliness of the universe to which I draw attention here is its conformity to formula, to simple, for mutable, scientific laws. The orderliness of the universe in this respect is a very striking fact about it. The universe might so naturally have been chaotic, but it is not—it is very orderly.

Swinburne argues that theism explains this order and that its existence increases theism’s probability. Regardless of the merits of Swinburne’s argument, it is evident that darwinian evolution does not refute it. This is because darwinism, far from explaining away such laws, actually assumes their existence;

Evolution can only have taken place, given certain special natural laws. These are first, the chemical laws stating how under certain circumstances inorganic molecules combine to make organic ones, and organic ones combine to make organisms. And secondly, there are the biological laws of evolution stating how organisms have very many offspring, some of which vary in one or more characteristics from their parents, and how some of these characteristics are passed on to most offspring, from which it follows that, given shortage of food and other environmental needs, there will be competition for survival, in which the fittest will survive.

The second example is the teleological argument defended more recently by Robin Collins. Robin Collins appeals to the existence of what has been dubbed cosmic fine-tuning, the contention that, “Almost everything about the basic structure of the universe–for example, the fundamental laws and parameters of physics and the initial distribution of matter and energy–is balanced on a razor’s edge for life to occur.”[5] Frances Collins explains that for life to evolve there are around 15 constants necessary, each must have precise values and if they were off by a million or one in a million, life could not evolve.[6] Robin Collins argues that this fine-tuning is significantly more probable if theism is true than if atheism is true and hence confirms theism over atheism.

I do not here wish to go defend (or criticise) this argument in any depth, my point is simply that darwinian evolution does not refute it. This is because the cosmic fine-tuning argument appeals to the conditions needed for life to evolve. The fine-tuning both Collins’ refer to are preconditions for the evolution of life to occur. As they are preconditions, evolution can hardly provide an explanation for this at all; even if it could, it is not clear that this would show that the probability of such fine-tuning occurring if atheism were true is as probable as it occurring on the background hypothesis of theism’s truth.

Hence, darwinian evolution does not undercut teleological arguments. It is worth noting that even it did then the conclusion that Dupre and Darwin draw, that theism is rationally unwarranted, does not follow. Even if all versions of teleological arguments were refuted by Darwin, it does not follow that all the other arguments for God’s existence are undercut; even if they were, it could be the case that belief in God is justified independently of any argument. Let me briefly elaborate on both these ideas.

The first, Dupre’s suggestion that the argument from design is the only plausible ground for believing in God, is simply false. In Two Dozen or So Theistic Arguments Alvin Plantinga sketched 26 arguments for God’s existence currently being defended in the literature. Earlier this year, Blackwell published the Blackwell Encyclopaedia to Natural Theology which contains current versions of 11 arguments used to defend the existence of God in the literature today. While the cogency of these arguments remains, like most philosophical claims, a subject of substantive debate it is undisputed that they exist and have been give serious and sophisticated advocacy from competent philosophers. To rebut them then requires serious philosophical argument not assertion.

The suggestion then that a refutation of all teleological arguments dismantles the case for theism is false. A true refutation of the plausible grounds for theism would involve a detailed rebuttal of all of the arguments for theism, not just commentary on one type.

Even if it were the case that teleological arguments were the only arguments for the existence of God, it does not follow that their failure would undercut the rational acceptability of theism. Such an assertion assumes that theism is rationally justified only if there is a good argument for it. It is widely acknowledged in epistemology that not all beliefs need to be demonstrated by argument to be rational. To claim they do creates a regress problem;

If everything needs to be proven then the premises of every proof would need to be proven. But if you need a proof for every proof, you need a proof for your proof, and a proof for your proof of a proof and so on-forever. Thus it makes no sense to demand that everything be proven because an infinite regress of proofs is impossible.[7]

To avoid this problem an influential movement in epistemology known as foundationalism maintains that at the base or foundation of one’s noetic structure are beliefs that one is justified in believing independently of any argument. These are called properly basic beliefs. Since the late 1970’s an extremely important movement within Philosophy of Religion, known as the reformed epistemology movement, has offered detailed and rigorous defences of the contention that for theists, belief in God can be a properly-basic belief. The most important defender of this position is Alvin Plantinga, though many others such as William Alston and Nicholas Wolterstorff have defended similar views. Plantinga notes the implication of this movement, “The demise of the teleological argument, if indeed evolution has compromised it, is little more of a threat to rational belief in God than the demise of the argument from analogy for other minds is to rational belief in other minds.”[8]

It seems then that the claim that evolution undercuts teleological arguments is a non starter. Even if it were true, this conclusion only has significance if all other arguments for God’s existence are also refuted and an argument can be provided that shows that belief in God is not properly-basic. This would require significant philosophical work, over and above, any appeal to natural selection. It is evident then that by itself, darwinian evolution would prove very little except, at best, that one 19th century argument by Paley might be unsuccessful.

[1] I am grateful to Alvin Plantinga who sent me a copy of his unpublished paper, “Science and Religion: Where Does the Conflict Really Lie?” which was extremely helpful in formulating my thoughts.
[2] Charles Darwin Life and Letters of Charles Darwin ed Francis Darwin (NY: D. Appleton, 1887) Vol. 1 279.
[3] John Dupre Darwin’s Legacy (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003) 56.
[4] Del Ratzsch Teleological Arguments for God’s Existence Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
[5] Robin Collins “God, Design, and Fine-Tuning” originally published in God Matters: Readings in the Philosophy of Religion eds Raymond Martin and Christopher Bernard (New York: Longman Press, 2002).
[6] Frances Collins The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for the Existence of God (Free Press, 2006) 75.
[7] Roy Clouser Knowing With the Heart (IVP, Downers Grove, 1999) 69.
[8] Alvin Plantinga “Science and Religion: Where Does the Conflict Really Lie?” (unpublished).


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