Friday, September 05, 2008

I would never describe myself as a theistic evolutionist, but John Wilkins (as always) has a thoughtful post on the implications of Darwin, God and Chance that is, as the late William F. Buckley might say, felicitous.

There is a simulation program called Avida, which simulates a process of evolution by selection on "animats" or cellular automata that simulate organisms in an environment. Suppose I want a particular outcome, and I have plenty of time - not an infinite amount, but enough to run simulations of "worlds" that will approach my utility function. After running several millions of simulations, I find the "universe" that serves my needs, and build it to the specifications drawn from that. If my needs include allowing a builder to make a house from rocks off a cliff, then I ensure that the universe I choose includes that outcome.

In this way, everything is the result of secondary causes, while the Neo-Leibnizian God remains the primary cause, including of each event that satisfies the God's utility functions. So Darwin is, I think, not correct in saying that one cannot reasonably maintain that the outcome is designed by the deity.

However, Darwin is entirely correct about the secondary causes - God is not a micromanager. Instead God has chosen the best available, or most satisfactory, world to create (note that this doesn't require that God is omniscient, or choose the best of all possible worlds; in fact it may even be that to choose that world God might have to abandon some of HisHer goals, unless the two are identical - that is, unless what God wants is the best of all possible worlds). So we have a difference of levels of causes here, not unlike the distinction made by some Neo-Thomists, between creation as the instigation of each individual event, which they rejected, and creation as the subsistence of every event as they unfold according to secondary causes.

Why does this matter beyond a bit of mental gymnastics, especially since I am not a theist? Well it has one rather significant implication: it means that those who criticise theistic evolutionists (like Asa Gray) for being inconsistent or incoherent are wrong: it is entirely possible to hold that God is not interventionist, and yet hold that God desired the outcomes, or some outcomes, of the world as created. In simpler terms, there's nothing formally wrong with believing the two following things: 1, that God made the world according to a design or desired goal or set of goals; and 2, that everything that occurs, occurs according to the laws of nature (secondary causes). In other words, it suggests that natural selection is quite consistent with theism, solving a problem I discussed earlier.

So we should not, as Dawkins and his fellow ideologues do, attack those who are religious and accept and even promote evolution. The primary cause explanation is entirely distinct from the secondary causes that are the domain of science. I don't for a second think that this is the way things are, but neither do I think that someone is just playing courtier's games if they think this.

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