Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Are evolutionary theory and intelligent design incompatible?

A critique of the discussion between Plantinga and McMullin.


In this paper I will first analyse and counter the arguments put forward by Plantinga in his paper, When Faith and Reason Clash: Evolution and the Bible. I will do this when appropriate by using the analysis of McMullin in his paper Plantinga's Defense of Special Creation. I will consider Plantinga’s points on how we should proceed when faith and reason clash and on faith and evolution in detail before touching on his discussion of what the way forward for Christian minds should be.

Through the analysis of Plantinga I should like to create a full defence of the theory of evolution by showing the flaws in all the arguments he provides against it. Upon reaching a viewpoint that the theory of evolution is sound science we will be in agreement with McMullin’s doctrine; he believes that it is futile to continue finding meaningless holes in evolution and accepts evolution as God’s chosen way to bring about life in the universe. I will then go on to refute his belief that the theory of evolution is compatible with intelligent design, or creationism, which I will use interchangeably throughout the paper.

I will proceed to show that evolutionary theory and intelligent design are incompatible by applying what we learn from the theory of evolution to what we can know about God and by showing how believing in an intelligent designer is an irrational point of view that just greatly complicates the matter and is incredibly improbable.

Before continuing I would first like to clarify some terms of use. As I have already stated I shall use ‘intelligent design’ and ‘creationism’ interchangeably throughout the essay. It is also worth noting that as Plantinga and McMullin are both discussing the Christian God, whenever I use the word God I am referring to the Christian God of their beliefs. Lastly throughout the essay, when I am referring to and defending evolution I will be defending evolution as a general argument, as McMullin states:

“Evolution is a generic label for the natural process whereby potentialities already present are actualised. What precise theories of evolution one chooses to defend is another matter.”

In this way I will not be arguing over the various intricacies of evolution, or indeed noting the different between the special creation and intelligent design lobbyists, I will just be taking their overarching themes and reasoning into consideration.

Plantinga: When faith and reason clash

I will begin with an analysis of Plantinga’s response to what the correct course of action should be when faith, or scripture, clash with reason, or science; how can Christians deal with the clashes? I will show how throughout his response he forgives religion of its dependence on faith and tries to show that it should be given an equal base like science has for reason in the real world, but moreover how his arguments are inadequate and fail to put religion on an equal pegging with science.

Plantinga begins by setting out how the Lord could not be wrong – that instead what the bibles says as ‘a special revelation from God Himself, demanding our absolute trust and allegiance’, is often misinterpreted by us, as inadequate and unknowing humans. I personally would have hoped an omnipotent God could have made it clearer for us; you would have thought that with divine power we could have at least been able to understand what we are supposedly meant to live our lives by. But regardless, Plantinga has to allow that Christians interpret things wrongly as varied interpretation of ‘God’s’ word is epidemic amongst modern Christianity. He gives the example:

“He sets the earth on its foundations; it can never be moved”

What this suggests is clearly wrong as has been proven by modern science and is admitted by Plantinga. However Plantinga should also be held responsible for saying that the bible contains the truth, it is just we are unable to interpret it. On examination the statement appears to be pretty set in stone against modern science, but I will grant that with a lot of kind imagination this phrase could still fit with today’s knowledge – God set the earth on it’s course, and we can’t do anything to change that. I do however fail to see how this would still qualify for the statement, ‘it can never be moved’ - I don’t see how you can get away from the fact that when we launch a space ship up into space we are actually minutely changing the earths orbit, no matter how minute a change it may be. But back to the point, if God wants you to live by the bible, why leave it so open to interpretation and imagination? One might think God was trying to trick his followers; surely he could have said something a little clearer with his omnipotence:

“He set the earth in orbit, circling the sun, rotating on it’s axis in a vast universe that makes its very existence negligible.”

For now, we will have to give God the benefit of the doubt. Plantinga goes on:

“Sadly enough, we have no guarantee that on every point our grasp of what scripture teaches is correct; hence it is possible that our grasp of the teaching of scripture be corrected or improved by what we learn in some other way – by way of science, for example”

Let us take an obvious divide in what the bible teaches – whether homosexuality is ‘ok’ in God’s eyes. Here Plantinga would agree that the Bible does contain the truth – the Lord cannot make a mistake, but we can, and we interpret the bible incorrectly in numerous ways. If in 5 years time scientists were able to show there was a genetic explanation for sexuality and that indeed humans can be born gay, I would assume Plantinga would take up that God designed us that way, and that the correct interpretation of the infallible bible was that homosexuality is ok. However, this seems to leave Plantinga conceding the bible teaches us nothing unless it is corroborated by a superior source: science.

Reason is the base of this science, and so Plantinga quickly lays out the obvious doubts we should have in the deliverance of truth from science. Even if he wrongly infers that the reason for reason being generally reliable is because we are created in God’s image, nonetheless he has agreed that science is for the most part reliable:

“The sensible view here, overall, is that the deliverances of reason are for the most part reliable... By and large, over enormous swatches of cognitive territory, reason is reliable.”

Plantinga goes on to say that as science is only for the most part reliable, scripture will be able to correct current science. This is incredibly flawed, and another example of the typical creationist committal of the fallacy of excluded middle. So current science is wrong, this will never infer that scripture will correct it. Indeed as scripture remains un-testable, as it is not subject to observations and empirical evidence scripture will never reveal anything scientific, indeed it will never replace anything scientific. The only thing that could ever happen is that current science is proved wrong by new science upon which creationists jump with imaginative explanations from the ambiguities of scripture.

Furthermore, Plantinga’s speculation at the accuracy of current science is at times very hypocritical for any rationally minded person:

“It is vastly easier to see what he [God] proposes to teach us in the Gospel accounts of Christ’s resurrection from the dead. On the other side, it is clear that among the deliverances of reason is the proposition that the earth is round rather than flat; it is enormously harder to be sure, however, that contemporary quantum mechanics, taken realistically, has things right.”

I have no definite knowledge of what quantum mechanics constitutes, just the knowledge that it is based upon empirical evidence and observation, or indeed deduced from mathematical or physical formula’s we have currently. Therefore, as I am not an expert on the subject I am open to the fact it could be proven wrong, however I would ask the reader what exactly about the resurrection of Christ, Plantinga would deem to be more realistic than contemporary quantum mechanics?

It is with this one rule for judging science, and another rule for judging religion that Plantinga continues, coming to his first personal conclusion that he judges the evidence for an old earth to be strong and the evidence for a young earth from what the lord teaches to be relatively weak. From my understanding of the bible, in Genesis it definitely teaches that God created man on the 6th day; that is to say, one day after the birds and the bees; Plantinga’s answer to this is that we misinterpret the bible, but again, if the bible is God’s revelation to us it does seem to be suggesting he should have endowed us with greater intelligence and imagination to overcome his numerous riddles. The bible teaches man was created on the 6th day, Plantinga doesn’t hold this view because science sufficiently, in his eyes, has enough evidence against this. First fell Poseidon deliverer of earthquakes, next the God of Genesis, and with a few more small steps the whole lot can be disregarded.

Plantinga: Faith and Evolution

Plantinga now sets in to address the three main issues of his paper; first, he wants to establish that the theory of evolution is not religiously neutral. Secondly he would like to discuss how probable the theory of evolution actually is, before outlining how he feels Christian academics should proceed against evolution.

1 The theory of evolution is not religiously neutral

Plantinga’s view that science is not religiously neutral is wrong. Science is finally answering the questions that have for the past eternity always and only been the domain of religion; now with an evolutionary explanation of the origin of all species science can further encroach on to the religious explanation of things. First volcanoes, now ‘creation’ can be explained in scientific means. Indeed this is highlighted by Plantinga himself:

“So why all the furor? The answer is obvious: evolution has deep religious connections; deep connections with how we understand ourselves at the most fundamental level.”

However, Plantinga has this confused, science is not trying to ‘connect’ with religion at all; it doesn’t care about religion, it is just based on fact, and the facts we are learning are starting to walk in to the last remaining territories needed for God. I do agree partly though with Plantinga’s reference to Dawkins and that of being an intellectually fulfilled atheist; the theory of evolution allows an atheist to be more intellectually fulfilled, just as when we discover how black holes work we will be one more step closer to an completely intellectually fulfilled atheist.

At least as an atheist we don’t have to choose between the very varied and imaginative creation stories!

I think exactly what Plantinga is getting at is made clearer by McMullin’s account:

“Evolutionists… he [Plantinga] believes, covertly rely on an antitheistic premise in order to make inflated the claims for the certainty of what he calls the ‘Grand Evolutionary Scheme.’”

Basically, theists are able to see that there is an alternative possibility to how things were created other than just by evolution. As atheists are unable to accept this account they are left with no alternative other than evolution, and therefore make inflated over-certain claims about the actual facts, and probability of evolution. Moreover, a hidden premise in their argument is that there is no God, and it is needed for their certainty in evolution.

I hope I have already shown the neutrality of science, but moreover I hope to show later in this paper that there is absolutely no need for this covert antitheistic premise; science explains everything perfectly well on its own.

2 The Likelihood of Evolution

Plantinga now wants to address the probability of evolution occurring, but first it might be worth noting Plantinga’s concession that he is ‘no expert in this area’; indeed I suspect he should have been more appreciative of Richard Dawkins’ assertion that ‘ignorance is not a crime’ as we examine the arguments he puts forward against evolution. He however begins with a hypothesis as to how Christians should view the theory of evolution against intelligent design before we even weigh up the scientific evidence. Somehow, based seemingly on no evidence, just the revelations of scripture, he decides there is a greater probability God created us:

“According to scripture God has often treated what he has made in a way different from the way in which he ordinarily treats it… In fact it looks to me as if there is an initial probability…it is a bit more probable, before we look at scientific evidence, that the Lord created life and some of its forms – in particular human life – specially.”

With this hypothesis he begins to account the evidence for the theory of evolution, choosing to quote the philosopher and paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould to give what one must guess he considers the three best forms of evidence for the theory of evolution. I say this because after highlighting the following evidence:
a) Vestigial organs
b) Arguments from biochemistry; common deployment of DNA, the citric acid cycle etc.
c) Similarities that a human embryo displays to other simple forms of life during its development
d) Geographical distribution
Plantinga merely tosses aside the four arguments denoting them: “suggestive, but of course nowhere near conclusive.” Of course. It’s not like he can allow any evidence to be conclusive! As Plantinga gives no justification for his discounts of these very significant arguments, I cannot rebut them and as a result we move on to the arguments he does provide against Gould’s three main arguments in justification of the theory of evolution.

The Defence of Macroevolution

First, Gould outlines that we have “abundant, direct observational evidence of evolution in action, from both field and laboratory”, which Plantinga tries to argue is again inconclusive. He does this by providing short examples of the British Moths which failed to produce a new species, and through noting the experiments on fruit flies which have also failed to result in new species. He notes how ‘further selective breeding brings about sterility or a reversion to earlier forms.’ Whilst in these situations this statement is correct it might be useful for Plantinga to note that this very fact is another example of just how clever nature is. For example this statement is true in the case of laboratory experiments on bacteria; bacteria have extra DNA sections added to their plasmid forming recombinant DNA and are bred. After a few generations the extra DNA is dropped and there is a reversion back to an earlier form; have we proven that macroevolution is impossible? No. All we could speculate from this is how the added DNA would have to be an advantageous mutation to be passed on (or at least not a disadvantage), moreover what is amazing about biology is that it actually is able to drop this useless piece of junk (at times human) DNA, it was only a disadvantage to the organism.

However to continue with the problem of macroevolution I would point to a phenomenon that has come into existence in our own lifetimes: the HIV viruses which have led to millions of dead and millions more now HIV positive. Poignantly many will not know that AIDS can be caused by one of two retroviruses, in fact, there is a whole evolutionary tree of the AIDS viruses, with the viruses they have descended from and further viruses that they are closely related too. The AIDS viruses that have caused so much human loss are new species that evolved about 50 years ago; let me reiterate, that is to say there were viruses that did not harm us, they evolved, their new RNA chains now effect and ultimately cause death in humans, moreover they were distinct from similar AIDS viruses that did not have these effects on us. The example of the HIV viruses is often refuted as an example of macroevolution as debate rages even over whether viruses can be deemed alive, interestingly though some argue they are the very type of molecules that brought about the first changes from inorganic, to organic molecules. (Sharp et al, 1999).

Knowing therefore that the examples of the AIDS viruses and its family tree may not be a sufficient example, saltation is another weapon in the theory of evolution’s arsenal. Saltation as a definition would be a large jump and therefore, difference, in the genetic code between parent and offspring which produces a substantial change in phenotype. An example of saltation is polyploidy which occurs normally in plants, especially of the flowering variety, but is also common in lower animals like worms and in fact takes place in salmon and one known species of mammal, a desert dwelling rat. Without going into the biological detail and complicated genetics, polyploidy allows offspring to be formed which have a multiple of the normal numbers of chromosomes, this allows them to be offspring of their parents, but be a different species. To make that clearer, macroevolution – that is quite literally equating to the creationist analogies of a rabbit to a fox – can and has occurred in our life times; moreover, it has occurred as fast as is possible - in the time span of one, single generation so that both parent and offspring are of an entirely different species. An example of this is the Salsify plant. (Ruse, 1982).

No space for God’s of the gaps

Next we will continue to examine Plantinga’s refutations against Gould’s second argument, the argument from homology. Gould states:

“Why should a rat run, a bat fly, a porpoise swim, and I type this essay with structures built of the same bones unless we all inherited them from a common ancestor?”

Plantinga highlights how there are many examples of common phenotypes - be it similar mammalian features for example - that are not attributed to common ancestry and gives the example of the Tasmanian and European wolf. What Plantinga says is true, both the Tasmanian and European wolf have a line of ancestors that have evolved independently of each other, yet have led to two organisms that share a number of characteristics. John Maynard Smith gives a good explanation of how this is not unusual or unsuspected by evolution in a short comment he gives about Gould’s ‘replay from the Cambrian’ experiment:

“I would predict that many animals would evolve eyes, because eyes have in fact evolved many times, in many kinds of animal. I would bet that some would evolve powered flight, because flight has evolved four times, in two different phyla.” (Maynard Smith from Dennett, 1995).

Here Maynard Smith uses two examples often brought up by proponents of irreducible complexity (which I shall deal with in a moment), that of the wing (flight) and the eye and demonstrates that evolution has accounted for many examples like which Plantinga highlights – separate isolated instances of the same advantageous phenotype evolving. This sufficiently explains how animals like the Tasmanian and European wolf may share some phenotypes yet not a recent common ancestor.

Plantinga has a second argument against homologies, namely the question, “God created several kinds of animals; what would prevent him from using similar structures?” Indeed I would be inclined to reply, “Please do tell us - what act of reason do you need to see that could prevent God from doing anything, or everything?”

Moving on to Plantinga’s refutation of Gould’s final argument:

“Transitions are often found in the fossil record… If God made each of the half-dozen human species discovered in ancient rocks, why did he create in an unbroken temporal sequence of progressively more modern features, increasing cranial capacity, reduced face and teeth, larger body size? Did he create to mimic evolution and test our faith thereby?”

Plantinga’s reply:

“Nearly all species appear for the first time in the fossil record fully formed, without the vast chains of intermediary forms evolution would suggest.”

Even though Plantinga seems to completely ignore the fact that Gould is actually giving an example which more or less fits his requirements, we will evaluate his argument against other instances. The argument he puts forward is not new. You can be sympathetic, but essentially it is of the ‘God of the Gaps’ type – evolution cannot explain x, therefore, x must have been created by God. McMullin warns against the dangers of standing by this argument as a means of refuting the theory of evolution and supporting intelligent design. He, like many theists before him realise that it is daft to continue hypothesising that God allowed evolution to occur by his special influence over the intermediary gaps that for a creationist evolution fails to address. This is because McMullin realises that as soon as a once yet unthought-of of evolutionary explanation explains every gap that does exist, there is nowhere for an intelligent designer to hide.

Creationists often site that the fossil record is inaccurate, that there are no examples of the transitional states between fossils, to be more precise they site that the changes evolutionists claim to have occurred between two fossils is too great to have been overcome by evolution itself. They then invoke God as the only explanation that would allow such a special transition to occur! It is noted with humour that if we were to find a fossil that was transitional, as Michael Shermer pointed out, they would now have two gaps to question evolution over!

Nevertheless the evidence for evolution, regardless of the fossil record is, in my opinion, enough to warrant a theory of evolution. Nonetheless we happen to have evidence that is hundreds of millions of years old to back up every claim that evolution makes. Maybe I should rephrase that to say that we are lucky to have such evidence; only a very few organisms that die end up preserved as fossils, but these lucky finds have led to instances like Gould notes, where we have a number of fossils over many years that show small, gradual changes between each one. Again, this is not the only example, there are many examples of fossils from different time periods that show a gradual, incremental change to their phenotype; just take the most famous fossil of them all, the Archaeopteryx – the bird/reptile, with feathers! However what paleontology cannot provide is a perfect set of transitional fossils for every single fossil that we do have, and this is what creationist proponents jump on. It is just a vague hope of creationists - one should note that the bones of ones most recently deceased ancestor would fit Plantinga’s criteria in his argument quoted above. Your father died 5’2”, and you walk around 6’ high – where are the intermediary fossil records to explain this 20% jump in height?

On the one hand creationists will allow science the ability to discover that the vast sections of junk DNA that are found amongst human DNA would actually code for proteins and processes that we don’t yet understand. Here they will allow that when we gain greater scientific knowledge, science fills the gap. This is obviously because if there was junk DNA, or irrelevant processes, this wouldn’t suggest we had a very good architect. On the other hand, however, creationists will not allow (at least do not want) science to discover the gaps in the evolutionary fossil trail. This is just another example of religion clutching at straws with no basis on reason; whilst science in a more objective fashion applies the same structures of reason to everything, religion happily picks and chooses safe in the knowledge it has (or so they believe) an infallible belief in God.

Religion should have the foresight to extrapolate this trend – science will continue to unearth new fossils – sure, some will bring up many more questions, but gradually the gaps are going to get smaller and smaller until nearly everything is accounted for. Science began by explaining that there is no lava god and it will eventually show how everything that constitutes us is just the result of a purposeless path of evolution. The vast numbers of fossils that are in the ground just waiting to be discovered is nicely demonstrated by the fact we haven’t even discovered all the species alive on this planet, in this day and age – by a long way. Now the usual suspects to fill this criteria are small insects found in remote areas, however this is not always the case. Just last month, a 4ft long mammalian pig-like creature was discovered in the Amazon forest in Brazil! If we can’t discover living fossils running around on all fours plain for us to see, I have no idea how we will find every deeply hidden fossil!

Plantinga’s arguments against evolution continue to follow the usual trend by highlighting the problems of, or, the irreducible complexity of the mammalian eye. He quotes Darwin on the matter to support his cause:

“Darwin himself wrote, ‘To suppose that the eye, with all its inimitable contrivances… could have been formed by natural selection seems absurd in the highest degree.’ ‘When I think of the eye, I shudder’ he said. And the complexity of the eye is enormously greater than was known in Darwin’s time.”

This is an argument from irreducible complexity and was first defined by Michael Behe in 1996 as:

“A single system which is composed of several interacting parts that contribute to the basic function, and where the removal of any one of the parts causes the system to effectively cease functioning".

This argument maintained in Behe’s Darwin’s Black Box, that certain biological systems such as the eye which is made up of several very complicated structures simply will not function if any one of the structures are removed, seeks to show that any substructure of the eye on its own constitutes no benefit to the organism and therefore should not have been selected through evolution. Moreover it is impossible that all the substructures would have mutated and formed the eye all at once.

Evolutionists have countered irreducible complexity by showing how complex systems can be formulated in relatively explainable stages from various simple, small, random steps. Richard Dawkins in his book The Blind Watchmaker attempts to show through, for example the Weasel program, just how simply it can be done. He begins by reminding us of a version of the infinite monkey theorem, in his example, a monkey typing randomly away on a keyboard, will eventually produce every single work of Shakespeare’s. Very briefly, the Weasel program shows how cumulative selection can take only a very few steps to reach any target by utilising advantageous mutations in a sequence. In Dawkins’ point of view, the evidence supplied in his book is far superior to any design argument or idea of creationism, believing that evolution is the ‘only known theory that could, in principle, solve the mystery of our existence’.

The irrational arguments that creationists put forward is nicely highlighted by a comment Geoffrey Simmons makes in What Darwin didn’t know, a book Behe champions. In reference to the infinite monkey theorem Simmons retorts:

“Given an infinite number of monkeys with typewriters and infinite time we would use up all our forests and be lucky to get a single useful sentence.”

This is great, if you are used to the irrational, emotive arguments put forward by creationists. On closer examination Simmons is putting forward an argument much stronger than the argument put forward by Dawkins; which postulates only time being infinite. In this circumstance you just have to wait quite a long time for the monkey to produce every sentence ever written in history. However if you were to have an infinite number of monkeys then there will be a monkey that reproduces Hamlet, perfectly, on his very first attempt – from the first letter to the last letter, perfectly in order! Indeed, every sentence ever written, given an infinite number of monkey’s will be produced perfectly without mistake from the moment the experiment is started. With modern technology we could even connect a keyboard to a computer and save the forests.

However, heading back to Plantinga it is a shame he didn’t continue quoting Darwin as Darwin had actually already identified this possible angle of attack from irreducible complexity, indeed, in the Origin of Species he states,

“If it could be demonstrated that a complex organ existed, which could not possibly have been formed by numerous, successive, slight modifications, my theory would absolutely break down. But I can find out no such case.” (Darwin 1859).

Darwin goes on to give his reasons for this and I will not go into them. If the reader does not find them or the discussion so far sufficient I would point them towards Dawkins’ Climbing Mount Improbable which dedicates a whole chapter to how easy it would be for the evolution of the eye to occur. It also might be worth pointing back to the quote from Maynard Smith which highlights how eyes have not even simply evolved once, but on many separate occasions!

He concludes the common ancestry theory is not true, well at least unlikely; I hope however, I have proven that there is sufficient evidence to counter this claim. Indeed McMullin agrees, stating “the resources of the original creation were sufficient for the generation of the successive orders of complexity that make up our world”.

Theistic Science

Plantinga now begins to draw conclusions from his paper; moreover, he starts to layout how he believes Christians should proceed on the topics discussed. He proposes theistic science as an alternative world view for creationists, how exactly this is possible I do not know, and McMullin kindly outlines the problems of such a world view – he doesn’t think that “theistic science should be described as science. It lacks the universality of science”. Furthermore:

“It also lacks the sort of warrant that has gradually come to characterise a properly ‘scientific’ knowledge of nature, one that favours systematic observation, generalisation, and the testing of explanatory hypothesis. Theistic science appeals to a specifically Christian belief, one that lays no claim to assent from a Hindu or an agnostic. It requires faith, and faith (we are told) is a gift, a grace, from God. To use the term science in this context seems dangerously misleading; it encourages expectations that cannot be justified.”

Following this it is easy to see how Plantinga is mistaken in seeking a theistic science - a science that isn’t restricted by the laws of nature that govern our world – the laws of nature that govern our world are what and everything science is! By Plantinga’s argument we would not only need theistic science but Christian theistic science, Hindu theistic science and as Dawkins loves to bring up Flying Spaghetti Monster theistic science just to accommodate for all the different world views.

A Call to Arms

I will not spend long on this point; to start with I have no experience of dealings with the cognoscenti, the people that seem to inhabit an illuminate type aurora in Plantinga’s eyes. And fighting over the future beliefs of children is not for me, I would just hope they are allowed to make up their own mind, and whether that means choosing evolution as an explanation or intelligent design as an explanation, I do not care as long as if they have been presented with adequate evidence to make such a decision.

Plantinga concludes his paper with this call to arms against science and its naturalistic war path wound around some final points worth noting:

“Christians must think about [all the areas of academic endeavour] from a Christian perspective; we need Theistic Science. Perhaps the discipline in question, as ordinarily practiced, involves a methodological naturalism; if so, then what we need, finally, is not answers to our questions from that perspective, valuable in some ways as it may be. What we really need are answers to our questions from the perspective of all that we know – what we know about God, and what we know by faith, by way of revelation, as well as what we know in other ways.”

I’m just glad Plantinga wasn’t around to argue his case to the young impressionable forms of the great scientists of our past; if he had been able to, maybe we would still think that the sun will rise tomorrow and sail across our sky being pulled by a chariot. I would dare to ask, what can you ever know by faith alone?

Evolution as sound as the rising of the sun

Drawing conclusions from our counterarguments against Plantinga it is clear we cannot prove faith wrong; it is simply that – faith. However I am proud in the fact that evolution can be proved false in one swooping move, as J B S Haldane put it, by simply finding ‘rabbits in the Precambrian’. If one single fossil was to turn up in the wrong place it would prove evolution wrong. I am safe in the knowledge that my ‘belief’ in evolution can be tried and tested everyday. A belief in religion will, as it always has and religious leaders will strive to maintain, not be subject to such rationality in method and thinking.

It is clear to me that creationists attack evolution because science is finally encroaching on their religion’s forsaken ground. Creationists can and will continue to point out the evidence is not sufficient but scientists will continue to believe evolution is true just like it believes in other theories. As McMullin puts it:

“Calling a theoretical belief true customarily means that the cumulative evidence in its favour is so strong that it is safe to affirm it without qualification… nothing more than overwhelming likelihood is what scientists normally intend by this sort of usage.”

You should see no coincidence therefore that I have as much faith in evolution as I have the sun will rise tomorrow. Yes, I have faith in the parts of evolution that I have not researched enough, but I trust that when someone says there are the fossil records adequate for our belief that there are sufficient fossil records. If this is not a fair judgement to make we must discount most knowledge revealed to us and spend a lifetime seeking a direct explanation for simple things; from the fact that yes, the oil you put in your car powers your engine - it is not food for a 100 hamsters running and reproducing eternally inside - to how the lights work when we flick the switch. However one cannot get away from how creationists will continually make this out to mean I or indeed anyone has faith! If we apply this same religious attack to any knowledge it all comes down to faith. Take for instance that I know Taiwan exists. I’ve never been to Taiwan, but I believe in the information provided to me - even though I have no direct experience of Taiwan. So by this argument I have now created a new religion, based upon the faith that Taiwan exists. Taiwanism, the belief that there is a Taiwan.

I will conclude the discussion over Plantinga’s paper with a quote from Richard Dawkins’, ‘Is Science a Religion?’ speech, which I feel very accurately portrays the difference between a belief in science, and a belief in religion, or creationism:

“There is a very, very important difference between feeling strongly, even passionately, about something because we have thought about and examined the evidence for it on the one hand, and feeling strongly about something because it has been internally revealed to us, or internally revealed to somebody else in history and subsequently hallowed by tradition. There’s all the difference in the world between a belief that one is prepared to defend by quoting evidence and logic and a belief that is supported by nothing more than tradition, authority, or revelation.”

McMullin’s Alternative

Throughout this essay I have used McMullin’s own arguments against Plantinga to support the case for evolution. As we have touched on over the course of the paper McMullin himself believes in the evolutionary explanation of how life is actualised at this moment. However McMullin believes that an intelligent designer still exists, just one that designed the whole world and then set it off on its course and has not interfered since.

McMullin disagrees as we highlighted earlier with Plantinga’s claim that a covert antitheistic premise is used in concluding that the theory of evolution is a fact. This is obviously because he believes the evidence for evolution to be sufficient without the need for any intervention from God, but, as a Christian would like to see that he is still able to believe in God! Moreover McMullin outlines how judgement on evolution can be completely independent of what, ‘God could or could not do.’

Knowing the evidence for evolution is by a rationalist account becoming ever more invincible and that as a result even though there still remains a chance God could have intervened in the evolutionary chain of events, it appears to McMullin that the original creation was ‘sufficient in resources’ to bring about life as it is currently without further influence from God. Additionally McMullin makes it clear that even if God, as he believes, worked through evolutionary means it does not mean that it could not have been any other way, God could have chosen to intervene with the course of events as he desired. Furthermore, he outlines that even if he defends this evolutionary account, and that God has not intervened in the course of the universe so far, this does not mean God could not choose to intervene in the future.

Now McMullin and I have to part ways, we agree that the evidence for evolution is essentially irrefutable. McMullin goes on in a Christian perspective to infer a ‘Prime Mover’ of types whilst I will now argue that the theory of evolution allows no space for any interpretation of God.

Is intelligent design even plausible?

We have shown the arguments for and against the theory of evolution, what happens if we turn that same rational towards the creationists? Knowing that the theory of evolution stands up to all attacks and does offer an explanation of how life has evolved from the big bang till now no longer means it is necessary to have a God. A God was only necessary to explain the impossible intermediary gaps between fossils, between organisms in our history.

The creationist’s main argument for an intelligent designer (aside from that of scripture, which is just completely beyond rational evaluation) still revolves around William Paley’s famous watchmaker argument:

“In crossing a heath… I found a watch…when we come to inspect the watch, we perceive that its several parts are framed and put together for a purpose… to produce motion… so regulated as to point out the hour of the day. If the different parts had been differently shaped… or of a different size… or placed in any other manner, or in any other order… no motion would have carried on in the machine, [at least] none which would have answered the use that is now served by it. The inference is inevitable, that the watch must have had a maker… there must have existed, at some time… at some place… an artificer or artificers who… comprehended its construction, and designed it use.”(Paley)

Here Paley argues that the watch he found could not have been created by chance, unlike the stone you may have kicked aside, and that due to its many intricacies you would naturally infer a designer, even if you had never met, or knew anything about the designer. This is the exact same argument thrown around today – the eye is to complex, the voice box too improbable and the world is just too beautiful to have come about by chance, therefore, there must be a designer. Hopefully, having examined evolution we however can offer an alternative explanation for the creation of a complex biological structure or organism, such as the eye and I don’t need to outline this again.

Creationists love to make big exaggerations of the intermediary gaps in the theory of evolution. When admitting microevolution, macroevolution is often dismissed as we haven’t seen any bacteria turning into human beings. I would rather think of how amazing biology actually is in accomplishing an analogical feat; we do not need God to allow a single celled zygote to develop into a fully grown human! Why do we need to God to have designed it all in the first place? It all works fine without him.

Of course, I do not need reminding of the invalidity of analogies, but they make entertaining even if misleading reading. Another argument put forward for an intelligent designer (indeed inseparably intertwined with the design argument) is how creationists will point out that everything always seems to have a purpose, how things act to an end. Again I hope the evolutionary explain, that simple random processes have culminated in complex organisms, is sufficient to explain how the ‘purpose’ exhibited by the world and its organisms is due to evolution – there was no great architect who designed everything to fit together with such an intricate purpose, just random processes. I also would highlight how evolution allows characteristics which are unbeneficial to exist, that is to say modern biology contains an awful lot of what I would refer to as ‘mistakes’ if an intelligent (or not so omniscient) designer did indeed design the world. To give one interesting example, the Palmaris Longus, a tendon in the forearm is not needed; in a similar fashion to the appendix it is redundant. In fact not all humans even have it and it has no use. Subsequently, it is used in grafting; so with modern technology added as a twist, it can actually be seen as an advantage as you’ve got a spare part!

As a final point on the problems of the arguments for design, are we even able to speculate that something is designed? George Smith in his book Atheism: The Case against God outlines how he thinks we are unable to even speculate about design. We distinguish an object that is designed because it is different from those objects that are natural. Paley infers that the watch on the ground is designed by his comparison to the stone which appears natural next to it – you compare the designed properties of the object with the properties that a natural object should have and then you come to a conclusion that something is designed or not designed. But what Smith fatally points out is that if we were to infer an intelligent designer who had designed all of nature we can no longer produce evidence of design:

“To claim that nature as a whole was designed is to destroy the basis by which we differentiate between artefacts and natural objects. Evidences of design are those characteristics not found in nature, so it is impossible to produce evidence of design within the context of nature itself.” (Smith, p. 268)

Are evolution and intelligent design compatible?

Although I hope it is clear the arguments for design are relatively futile when expressed under the bright light of evolution, if we were to take for granted that intelligent design were ‘plausible’, would it be compatible with the theory of evolution?

No, evolution and intelligent design are not compatible, the first reason I give for this is due to the very nature of evolution. If you are a believer in evolution, you believe that complex things evolve from simple things. That is to promote the old diagrams of fish to reptiles, of reptiles to birds to mammals and mammals to humans and moreover the evolution of molecules into the first single celled organism which in turn led to a fish. You believe that simple, fundamental particles have had a cumulative effect so as to bring around you, and I.

So why is this a problem? God is the most complex being possible; therefore, it should be an evolutionary result of a much simpler ‘God’. I.e. to say a God created the world is to completely go against evolution, that a vastly complex being created a world doesn’t help solve anything. Without going into the ridiculous idea of an infinite regress etc, if you believe in evolution it does not make sense to think of a god that intelligently designed us. You could believe that an intelligent designer evolved from something, but from what, and how was that put there.

I asked the question before – what is the chance that the eye evolved, how improbably is it that the voice box evolved, what is the chance that the world could have evolved to be so beautiful? For some the answer is very improbable, and so they invoke the existence of God. This however, just multiplies the problems. By saying that it is highly improbable that the eye evolved you are saying that it is very unlikely such a complex organ could arise from such simple roots, by chance. You just can’t understand how simple molecules can arise to form such a complex organ such as the eye? I mean how could it? An intelligent designer? By postulating an intelligent designer, a creationist complicates things even further because however improbable you are saying it is that the eye should evolve; to say that it has been designed by an even more complex being is even more improbable! Not only do you now have to explain the origin of the complex eye, but you have to explain the origin of the even more complex intelligent designer, and things just got a lot more complicated.

The obvious rebuttal is the creationists claim that God is not complex, but just a simple, indivisible structure – it is just ‘one thing’. Dawkins in his book The God Delusion outlines the argument put forward by Richard Swinburne in Is there a God? Swinburne, much like Dawkins believes that simplicity is the root of all complexity, that is to say, any explanation of the universe would need to be simpler than the universe is itself. However after remarking how amazing it is that there are a handful of fundamental particles that make up everything around us, he notes how improbable it is that these fundamental particles would be all identical! He infers it would be much more likely that these fundamental particles were actually all different, all with different properties reacting to everything differently and uniquely. If this wasn’t absurd enough he trumpets this claim by hypothesising that the reason fundamental particles are not all different and are in fact identical is because God continuously maintains them in this identical format!

So this is Swinburne’s simple God, someone that constantly has always sustained every single particle to act like it should. He allows this to be as, without justification he concludes God is a single substance. This single substance is capable of constantly maintaining the properties of every single particle in the universe; just how is this a simple process? But Swinburne insists this is not enough, to quote from Dawkins:

“A God capable of continuously monitoring and controlling the individual status of every particle in the universe cannot be simple. His existence is going to need a mammoth explanation in its own right. Worse… God’s giant consciousness is simultaneously preoccupied with the doings and emotions and prayers of every single human being… according to Swinburne, [God] has to decide continuously not to intervene miraculously to save us when we get cancer… [because] then cancer would no longer be a problem for humans to solve.”

This entity that Dawkins demonstrates Swinburne describing is apparently simple, capable of causing an effect on ‘gigazillions’ or particles simultaneously whilst also attending seemingly to the rather irrelevant prayers of humans. This one substance cannot be simple, it offers absolutely no explanation as to how it could maintain order in all those particles, let alone how it could listen personally to every person alive. Dawkins goes on to quote Keith Ward:

“Its basic error is in supposing God is logically simple – simple not just in the sense that his being is indivisible, but in the much stronger sense that what is true of any part of God is true of the whole. It is quite coherent, however, to suppose that God, while indivisible, is internally complex.”

Ward highlights an important fact, even if we take the creationists claims that God is in fact a single substance this does not mean it is a simple substance. Moreover Ward highlights that, given this single substance’s tasks it is ‘quite coherent’ to imagine a single substance which even though indivisible is incredibly complex.

Simply put any intelligent designer that is posited as an explanation, or cause of a complex structure is in itself more complex than the object it is creating. In this light, God, although for some an easier explanation as to the origins of the universe does only in fact complicate the matter; God has to be many times more complex than what he is creating.

Moreover, this is why the theory of evolution is incompatible with intelligent design. Evolution proposes that vastly complex structures arise by random processes from very simple structures. If you are a proponent of intelligent design on the other hand, you believe that a vastly complex intelligent designer produced a less complex design. It is directly in contrast to the claims of evolution.

The Verdict

I began the paper by discussing Plantinga’s attempts to wind science down to the same explanatory level as religion; it is clear however that science remains less biased, more objective and testable in its universality – religion on the other hand cannot be rationally examined by anybody, it is merely open to interpretation at whim. In this way, the only parts of scripture that we can deem worthy of belief are those parts that are enforced by our understanding of science right now – for example, the ability for someone to survive beyond death is, by all current scientific knowledge and reason, completely untrue.

I went on to show that Plantinga’s claim that the theory of evolution was not religiously neutral was false; indeed McMullin’s own arguments supported us in our claims that evolution was not dependant on an antitheistic ‘covert’ premise. It could be seen that creationist attempts to demonstrate this property, of not being religiously neutral, is due to science encroaching on religion.

As for Plantinga’s attack on evolution, I hope to have sufficiently shown that evolution stands up to any attacks laid upon it; sadly, the only attack it is unable to refute is that of ignorance. When the full power of evolution is fully revealed it is able to explain any organism or structure in a sufficient enough way as to be deemed fact or truth.

From the strength of the theory of evolution outlined in the paper, and by showing the incredible flaws in any arguments for intelligent design we are able to conclude that not only is it very unlikely that intelligent design is true, but intelligent design and the theory of evolution cannot in fact, co-exist.

Even if critics of evolutionists say that evolution provides no answer as to the ‘first cause’ of the process of evolution, it is an irrelevance because it is the only theory that actually provides a logical explanation unlike any other attempt. I am always left questioning why creationists can allow their chosen designer to just be, without the need of a cause for its ‘existence’. If we are going to believe this, why not simply believe nature just is? Or more forcefully, that evolution is all that is necessary?

Science aims to be rational and objective, religion can only ever aim to be irrationally based on faith. In the same way, the logical analysis, and scientific principles that lead to the theory of evolution are insurmountable by any counter argument from creationism. Evolution allows us to explain the origin of all species simply - it does not need to infer the incredible problem of a designer. In this way it is clear that creationists hope for an intelligent designer is incredibly improbable – something that you may choose to believe when given no other reasonable choices. However, science gives us the theory of evolution the most simple and infallible explanation of the origins of life there has ever been. To refute evolution or to accept creationism as an explanation of life is to overlook the explanatory powers and implications of evolution. Whatever explanation creationism yields, evolution has an incompatible, superior and simpler alternative; the theory of evolution and intelligent design are incompatible and the only reasonable explanation for anyone to hold belief in or hope to gather truth from is the theory of evolution. Intelligent design is redundant.

I am sure that there is no God. Indeed, I, or no one, can prove this but I am as sure in this as I am the sun will rise tomorrow, or that when I step in the lift and the brakes are released that gravity will contribute to its fall. It ends in probability and any rational person will choose science as an explanation, not God. However, as is extremely evident very few humans behave rationally even in an economic sense, let alone in an area dealing with the largest, most complicated and most important questions in life – but that is another paper.

A Pragmatic Grounding

Throughout this paper I have held science with the utmost regard in its ability to offer sound explanations. However, as any philosopher of science knows, science is by no means unproblematic. To outline a small proportion of the problems facing science we should quickly consider two of the main thorns in its side. The problem of induction put forward by Hume questions the rational principle behind our reasoning in which from previous observation theories are constructed and used to predict future events. It enquires on what rational principle we are right to make generalisations and posit laws; a notorious example of this was before the discovery of black swans everyone had assumed all swans were white: results of the past do not guarantee the results of the future. The second, the problem of undetermination shows how any given set of observations and empirical evidence can be equally well explained by more than one theory whilst the competing theories are logically incompatible.

Regardless of these or any of the problems put forward by the philosophy of science I would point out the pragmatic approach to the issues at hand. Clearly science has its problems but the important point is that a religious explanation of anything, i.e. positing an intelligent designer, has a whole lot more to reckon with and we have an awful lot more problems to solve.

Science can always be held pragmatically better than religion because of its utility. We can actually use science - we do in fact use science - every religious person on the planet uses the fact: due to the law of gravity, when they walk off a cliff they normally fall to their death and therefore try to avoid this unfortunate event. Yes, we have the problem of induction and yes, we will have the next Jesus Christ when someone walks off a cliff and doesn’t fall anywhere, but more importantly we have the best explanation in science. That is to say all masses have a gravitational attraction, the earth is a large mass and therefore has a large gravitational pull, we, when walking over the cliff edge really exist and have a mass (unlike the imagined/hallowed-by-tradition Jesus Christ), therefore our mass is influenced by the earth’s and we fall to our untimely death. Moreover it isn’t God pulling our ankles (at least we don’t have to consider the problem of evil).

Plantinga and McMullin agree on numerous accounts that science offers a reliable and utilisable explanation as I have pointed out in the essay. Meeting the sceptics head on, science could be seen as separate from the truth. However, even then science can be held in a far superior light to religion and implemented as the best explanation because it is something that we can get tangible results out of, that has a common, everyday use in all our lives. Religion offers nothing of any practical value whilst science is an extremely successful tool that is useful at every level of all our lives everyday.

Whilst religion kindly has the Jewish community waiting endlessly for the return of the Messiah, science will only have me waiting until 28th July 2061 for the return of Halley’s comet, which if not useful enough alone is dwarfed by sciences usefulness in revealing that no – Halley’s comet is not the Star of Bethlehem, guiding us to the birth of Jesus, it is just a comet, returning predictably every 75-76 years. This is enough for me to warrant science as a suitable explanation over religion any day.


Behe, Michael J. Darwin’s black box : the biochemical challenge to evolution, New York Free Press 1996.

Darwin, Charles The Origin of Species, Edited with an introduction and notes by Gillian Beer, Oxford world’s classics, Oxford University Press sourced at http://www.netlibrary.com/Reader/ no later than 30/11/2007

Dawkins, Richard, Climbing Mount Improbable, New York: Norton, 1996.

Dawkins, Richard, Is Science a Religion? See assigned reading.

Dawkins, Richard, The Blind Watchmaker, Harlow: Longman 1986.

Dawkins, Richard, The God Delusion, A Black Swan Book, 2006.

Dennett, Daniel C. Darwin’s Dangerous Idea – evolution and the meanings of life, Allen Lane, the Penguin Press 1995.

McMullin, Ernan, Plantinga's Defense of Special Creation, http://www.asa3.org/asa/dialogues/Faith-reason/CRS9-91McMullin.html.

Paley, William, Natural Theology, sourced at the below no later than 30/11/2007 http://www.theapologiaproject.org/NATURAL%20THEOLOGY.pdf

Plantinga, Alvin, When Faith and Reason Clash: Evolution and the bible, http://www.asa3.org/ASA/dialogues/Faith-reason/CRS9-91Plantinga1.html.

Ruse, Michael, Darwinism Defended, A guide to the evolution controversies, Addison Wesley Publishing Company, 1982.

Simmons, Geoggrey, What Darwin didn’t know, a Doctor Dissects the Theory of Evolution, Harvest House Publishers Oregon, 2004.

Sharp, P. M; Bailes, Elizabeth; Robertson, D. L: Origin and Evolution of AIDS Viruses Biol. Bull. 196:338-342 June 1999. Sourced at http://www.biolbull.org/cgi/reprint/196/3/338.pdf no later than 30/11/2007.

Swinburne, Richard, Is there a God? Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.


Robert Iddiols said...

Well done with your essay. My eyes couldn’t handle a screen text that long so I actually printed it out from a reformatted .pdf file. I recommend it.

Obviously, from the educated and independently-thinking community, your arguments are irrefutable. Most people who venture the course of this text will be familiar with the surrounding literature but the discourse was friendly enough anyway. What’s more, you’ve inspired me to read those books in your bibliography that I haven’t already. Maybe then I’ll have a reread.

I particularly liked your explanation of fossil records. Indeed, creationists draw their most powerful arguments from the supposed “holes in the fossil record” – yet, the well-read audience will know the improbability of species being fossilized at all. Also, the section devoted to the plausibility of intelligent design itself drew strongly on consensual argument – especially your Maynard Smith citation – “it is impossible to produce evidence of design within the context of nature itself”. This perfectly encapsulates the never-ending regression of questionability – first cause of the first cause? Something out of nothing comes something? Etc.

I’m glad you watched the Boteach/Hitchens debate, as this highlights some of the ignorance shown by the religious community. Whilst Boteach was pointing at the holes in the fossil record, Hitchens could have easily drawn upon the latent inevitability of evolution being confirmed through fossils, but Boteach was convinced we’d dug up the whole crust. What an imbecile.

I kept thinking as I read that you would incorporate your post, Problems of Truth, Names & Certainty. The philosophical question of knowing anything ties in nicely with the premise of modern science. As you say, we can never disprove god exists, but we can accumulate a wealth of knowledge that suggest otherwise. Of course, people of faith could say the same to support their claims (indulging in the facile: blind faith), but this would be, as you mention, clutching at the final straw.

James Poulter said...

Thanks Rob. And thanks for the tip about the pdf. I am running my hand at html at the moment and might actually edit this blog page to give it more width; I doubt many people will print this off to read it!

I am glad it has inspired you to read some of the bibliography. Michael Behe is worth reading and researching just to be able to appreciate his fallacious arguments that are sited all over theistic propaganda.

Darwin on the Origin of Species, yeah sure, it is actually superb. He predicts and nullifies most arguments even put forward by theists now about evolution. Dawkins - obviously, though do be aware as Rabbi Boteach said against Hitchens, Dawkins is not really mainstream by any means. Dennett would be a good read to balance that slightly though he is one of Dawkins strongest allies check this.

Paley - the founder of the most famous argument for design, that of the watch on a heath; I like the paper.

Ruse really will give you a different perspective to Dawkins. He once wrote:

"The God Delusion made me embarassed to be an atheist."

If you haven't read anything of his before he has several books worth noting, you might like The evolution-creation Struggle for just one small example. Simmons: do not waste your time reading anything more than Behe's work you might aswell try and write your next essay in word with the font set to 'white' - you would waste less time than that spent on Simmons.

Swinburne - a theist and a very intelligent one. I feel I will be reading a lot more of him as I investigate time - he is at the very forefront of research into this.

Jenny said...

Sorry, that was a bit long for me to read properly. It might be worth breaking it up into manageable chunks with appropriate headings, to draw people in.

I would, however, object the the conflation of intelligent design and creationism - I'm pretty sure they are different. You also seemed to be saying at a few points that all Christians believed in creationism, which is by no means true, as I'm sure you know. It was probably just me trying to skim too quickly and tripping up over occasional misleading phrasing.

Also, descending into anti-theist rhetoric doesn't help your cause - phrases such as "Religion offers nothing of any practical value whilst science is an extremely successful tool that is useful at every level of all our lives everyday." are clearly untrue and don't help the rest of your argument.

It might be worth separating out the essay on why evolution and intelligent design are incompatible from the essay on why science and religion are incompatible and therefore religion is wrong.

James Poulter said...

I would suggest as you almost do yourself, that reading the whole paper would give you a clearer understanding of my argument. Most of the paper will make no sense without the words and passage of thought before it - that is why it is not broken up in to what I do agree would be more manageable chunks. Maybe take Robert's advice and print it from a 'reformatted .pdf file'.

I would hope my essay is clear enough not to conflate intelligent design and creationism - again I think reading the whole paper would help you see this. Plantinga essentially defends creationism in the traditional sense; I agree with parts of McMullin and use his own words to discount Plantinga's reasoning for this. I then go on to discount McMullin's own belief of an intelligent designer.

Creationism is an umbrella term for both a recent creation like the account given in Genesis, and for the creation of an intelligently designed universe. They therefore obviously share certain characteristics, like a belief in God.

I would hope the rhetoric makes the essay more enjoyable. I mean re-reading some of my essay to myself right now, I fail to see how even a theist cannot be amused by some of it:

“We can actually use science - we do in fact use science - every religious person on the planet uses the fact: due to the law of gravity, when they walk off a cliff they normally fall to their death and therefore try to avoid this unfortunate event. Yes, we have the problem of induction and yes, we will have the next Jesus Christ when someone walks off a cliff and doesn’t fall anywhere, but more importantly we have the best explanation in science. “

Maybe I just have a bad sense of humour. As for the quote you provide, it is again out of context. I would, however, tentatively bite the bullet and agree with the statement alone, though it would take an essay of interpretation and argument to put across what I mean by that.

One of the arguments I often get thrown against me by my opponent is that I am not discussing the Christianity or religion that they believe in or adhere to and that therefore my arguments have no ground against them. Obviously in that case they are correct. However, is this just not another highlighting of how theists pick and choose what they wish to believe in?

There is no, Christianity says X, therefore I believe X. There is just, I believe X, Christianity says X, therefore I am a Christian. It is the reason the church has split so many times.

Moreover my point against this original argument brought up against me is that, (regardless of your personal religion that you have made up to fit with your own beliefs) the religious principles that I do attack do exist and are adopted by millions of people.

I hope I need do more than point you in the direction of some Gallup Polls and analytics:


There are many more polls showing similar themes on the site.