Sober and God-guided mutations

Elliott Sober, an atheist and distinguished philosopher at the University of Wisconsin, posted a paper that shows science can not rule out the possibility that some mutations had been engineered by God across the deep time of evolutionary history.  Or, from a theistic position, science cannot rule out that possibility that God intervened to guide evolution such that humans came into existence.

You can find the paper here (it’s a pdf file) and here is a key excerpt:

Evolutionary theory does not entail that God never intervened in the mutation process, but the theory, when supplemented by auxiliary assumptions, does have implications about divine intervention. Here are some possible auxiliary assumptions. The list is not exhaustive:

(Deism) God created the universe, the laws that govern the universe, and the initial conditions of the universe, but he never intervenes in natural processes after that first moment.

(The Theology of the Unhidden God) If God ever intervened in the mutation process, then we’d have scientific evidence that mutation probabilities change in beneficial directions when the environment changes.

(Evidentialism) If you lack scientific evidence as to whether X is true, then you should suspend judgment about whether X is true.

(Fideism) You should believe that God guides the mutation process whether or not you have scientific evidence that he does so.

The first two of these, when added to our best scientific picture of what causes mutation, entails that God never intervened in the mutation process. The third, when conjoined with what biology tells us about mutations (properly understood), entails that we should be agnostic about divine mutational intervention. And the fourth, of course, entails that we should believe that God intervenes in the mutation process. It is beyond the scope of this essay to consider which of these auxiliary assumptions we should adopt (or whether there are other candidates that are even better). My present point is that none of these auxiliaries is part of evolutionary theory; they are ─ all of them ─ philosophical theses. My Duhemian claim is that evolutionary theory has consequences about divine intervention in the mutation process only when evolutionary theory is supplemented by further assumptions. (emphasis added)

And appropriately ends his argument with:

Atheists who think that evolutionary theory provides the beginning of an argument for disbelieving in God should make it clear that their arguments depend on additional premises that are not vouchsafed by scientific theory or data. Philosophy is not a dirty word.

About these ads
This entry was posted in Evolution, God and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to Sober and God-guided mutations

  1. Crude says:

    Atheists who think that evolutionary theory provides the beginning of an argument for disbelieving in God should make it clear that their arguments depend on additional premises that are not vouchsafed by scientific theory or data. Philosophy is not a dirty word.

    And with that, Elliot Sober’s reputation shoots to the stars in my eyes.

  2. Crude says:

    Actually… instead of just applauding that quote, I should go down Sober’s article and make some comments.

    Evolutionary theory says that life began about 3.8 billion years ago and that all current species are genealogically related.

    Since when?

    As near as I can tell, this is a flat-out mistake. Maybe Sober could argue that evolutionary theory requires some long timeframes, he can certainly argue that the evidence supports the idea that life began 3.8 billion years ago (though the panspermia people will reply to that.) But I think the claim that ‘evolutionary theory’ says life began 3.8 billion years ago just doesn’t fly. This comes close to committing evolutionary theory to OoL claims.

    I’d even wonder about the claim that ‘all current species are geneologically related’. Again, I’ll cop to common descent without argument, but if tomorrow we turned up a species that wasn’t genealogically related, would that skunk evolutionary theory? That seems flat out incorrect.

    It is worth mentioning that both deists and interventionists can maintain that God has arranged for this or that mutation to occur; the difference is that deists think that God does this indirectly while interventionists thinks that God acts more directly.

    I wonder about this too. I think “Deism” covers a spectrum of views, sometimes entailing a completely apathetic deity (in which case, indirectly intended mutations are verboten), other times not. But that’s minor.

    “Unguided” does not mean uncaused. What it does mean is that mutations do not arise because they would benefit the organisms in which they occur.

    A problem here: guidance doesn’t have to be beneficial. If mutations were guided to be harmful, that may mean the guider is a jerk. But they’re guided all the same.

    Another problem: guidance can be harmful at some steps, but beneficial at later steps building on the earlier ones.

    I began this paper by saying that Michael Ruse and I have our accommodationism in common and that neither of us is a theist.

    Ruse’s view of “accommodation” is insane and, as near as I can tell, in direct and dire conflict with Sober’s view.

    The proposition that God undetectably intervenes in the evolutionary process is not testable. Positivism says that this proposition is meaningless, but I do not.

    There’s a problem Sober is not mentioning: the proposition that God – or even sufficiently powerful natural agents – do not intervene in the evolutionary process is also untestable. Atheism is every bit as untestable as theism. I dislike how this is always glossed over, though everyone, theists and atheists alike, seems to do it.

  3. The Deuce says:

    I think we can do one better. The notion that the origin of humans, with all of our features, is thoroughly accounted for by blind mechanistic processes, logically implies a position of eliminativism in philosophy of mind. Eliminativism is an incoherent position, which is incompatible with the objectivity of logic and truth itself, and implies that there is never any rational reason for believing anything (nor any such thing as rationality or beliefs at all, for that matter). Hence, it’s false, and so is anything that implies that it’s true, such as the notion that our existence is thoroughly accounted for by blind mechanistic processes. It’s not a question of whether God guided the evolutionary process but how, even if that question is deemed off-limits to science.

  4. Crude says:

    Also, I think it goes without saying, I had criticisms of Sober’s article, but none of it really impacts his general conclusion, which I endorse. As Deuce said, it may not go far enough – but that gets into more philosophy than science, which I think Sober is rightly setting his sights on.

    That limit is extremely important.

  5. Bilbo says:

    I was recently in a conversation with Dennis Venema about a duplicated gene that had undergone 5 point mutations in the past 3 million years. Venema was using this gene as an example of what unguided mutations could accomplish (in this case a new function of some kind, though biologists still are uncertain exactly what it is). Behe had pointed out that we’re only allowed to assume that 2 of the mutations were neutral. That would mean that if the other 3 were also unguided, then they had to confer some selective advantage. Otherwise we cannot assume that they were unguided (not designed). Venema said that there is no way to know if those 3 mutations were selective, since we can’t retrace the past 3 million years. But Venema is apparently willing to believe that they were unguided but selective, even though we have no empirical evidence that they were. Now I have no problem with Venema’s personal beliefs about such a matter. What I have problems with is that Venema thinks we should teach students in public schools that those 3 mutations were unguided but had some selective advantage. In what sense of the word is this science?

    I bring this up because it impinges upon Sober’s essay. He desperately wants to argue that evolutionary theory is not atheistic. Yet I think he would agree with Venema that we should teach students that those 3 mutations were unguided but selective, even though we have no empirical evidence that they were.

  6. Bilbo says:

    Would Sober allow that God could have designed those 3 mutations? Or would that violate evolutionary theory? Could a school teacher tell her students that it is possible that God designed those 3 mutations? Or is the school teacher only to tell them that the 3 mutations were unguided and had some selective advantage that we probably will never know about, since they happened so very long ago?

  7. Bilbo says:

    Sober: I bother to publish in defense of accommodationism in part because I want to take the heat off of evolutionary theory. The more evolutionary theory gets called an atheistic theory, the greater the risk that it will lose its place in public school biology courses in the United States; if the theory is thought of in this way, one should not be surprised if a judge decides that teaching evolutionary theory violates the constitutional principle of neutrality with respect to religion.

    I think my example puts Sober between a rock and a hard place.

  8. Crude says:

    Bilbo,

    Did you read through Sober’s essay? He touches on what ‘unguided’ means in a scientific explanation, and what this does and doesn’t say about God’s interaction in the whole thing. Saying “it had some selective advantage” is entirely compatible with “God/some agent designed it”. I doubt Sober would say that the teacher should say, as a teacher, “God guided this”. It seems his response would be “questions of design, or the lack of design, are entirely outside of science”.

  9. “I bring this up because it impinges upon Sober’s essay. He desperately wants to argue that evolutionary theory is not atheistic. Yet I think he would agree with Venema that we should teach students that those 3 mutations were unguided but selective, even though we have no empirical evidence that they were.”

    But Bilbo, even if the science on those three mutations is just as you’ve described it, we know all kinds of things that are relevant to what a teacher should say about the mutations. We know the (random) chemical causes of mutations. We know these in great detail. We know that synonymous changes are typically neutral and nonsynonymous ones often aren’t. We have direct evidence of the statistical randomness of mutations from first principles (the relevant chemistry), from lab experiments where randomness-with-respect-to-adaptation is observed, and from the observed distribution of mutations between pairs of species, which follow exactly the distribution you would expect if the chemistry was controlling what mutations happen (transitions and transversions occur at different frequencies, for example).

    This creates a strong and very reasonable presumption of “unguided mutation” being the cause of those mutations. There is no reason *at all* to postulate divine intervention behind those mutations. I think a teacher can/should say this if it were to come up in class. I would prefer to dispense with the whole guided/unguided language, though, since these terms have both modest meanings (statistically random or not) and grand metaphysical meanings (divine intervention vs. God guides every random events vs. ….) which seem to be permanently confused in the minds of the easily confused.

    We should just talk about statistical randomness and leave it at that, perhaps making the point somewhere that statistical randomness doesn’t say anything about grand metaphysical conclusions about the randomness/unguidedness of Existence In General.

  10. Crude says:

    This creates a strong and very reasonable presumption of “unguided mutation” being the cause of those mutations.

    Not at all. It creates a strong and very reasonable presumption of those mutations being caused by the processes you describe. It says nothing at all about whether the mutations are guided or not in the relevant sense. It’s not as if you have a list of the results any and all agents would want to see out of those mutations, you check against the list, and what do you know – it doesn’t correlate, therefore it’s unguided. You’re off into metaphysics land then and there.

    There is no reason *at all* to postulate divine intervention behind those mutations.

    Yes, there is, once you’re into philosophy and metaphysics. Insofar as the science and science alone goes, there’s no reason to postulate the existence or non-existence of either divine or natural guidance behind those mutations. The question does not computer, scientifically.

    And notice the change of language you just engaged in: you spoke of ‘intervention’. But guidance, in Sober’s own paper, doesn’t require direct intervention – hence his mistake about Deism.

  11. Crude — again, you seem to like disagreeing with me without really disagreeing. I was using Bilbo’s language with the guided/unguided terminology, but I put it in scare quotes. I made it clear I don’t think science can speak to guided/unguided in some grand metaphysical sense.

    Bilbo was specifically *contrasting* random mutation+selection *versus* guided mutation. In his usage guided mutation was something *other* than random mutation+selection, not some metaphysical layer on top of the standard scientific explanation. So I highlighted the evidence showing that the standard scientific explanation was not arbitrarily preferred.

    “There is no reason *at all* to postulate divine intervention behind those mutations.”

    Yes, there is, once you’re into philosophy and metaphysics.

    Really? This looks like you are defending Bilbo’s view. If so, give the philosophical and metaphysical evidence that those 3 mutations were not due to the standard natural processes of mutation and selection.

  12. The Deuce says:

    Crude:

    As Deuce said, it may not go far enough – but that gets into more philosophy than science, which I think Sober is rightly setting his sights on.

    Yup, but what I said illustrates precisely why most materialists prefer the tactic of claiming that “science says” that mutations are unguided (and performing the equivocations necessary to reach that conclusion from our inability to measure guidedness in a quantifiable manner amenable to science), rather than doing the philosophical work necessary to argue that they’re unguided and attempting to defend the philosophical implications that logically follow from it. It would force them to espouse and defend incoherent positions like eliminativism, which ends up as a reduction ad absurdum of the notion that evolution is unguided in the first place.

  13. Crude says:

    Nick,

    Crude — again, you seem to like disagreeing with me without really disagreeing. I was using Bilbo’s language with the guided/unguided terminology, but I put it in scare quotes.

    I like being accurate, which usually means getting into anal fights over terminology. It’s how I have fun. This is me having fun.

    If so, give the philosophical and metaphysical evidence that those 3 mutations were not due to the standard natural processes of mutation and selection.

    False question: just because something is due to the processes of mutation and selection (adding ‘natural’ adds nothing worthwhile to this) does not mean something is not the result of guidance. Mutation and selection do not preclude guidance, intent or purpose.

    Metaphysical and philosophical arguments that conclude the existence of God, particularly an omnipotent/omniscient (Five Ways, etc) or even powerful God (various others) automatically get you the guidance in the relevant sense, or within striking distance of it.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s