Did God Use Evolutionary Laws?

In my last post breifly addressed the issues involved in evolution, naturalism and Mormonism. These topics really do deserve another post to further clarify some lingering issues.

I mentioned the gaps which exists between methodological naturalism upon which the entire scientific method is based and ontological (metaphysical) naturalism. I used Philip Johnson and Richard Dawkins as examples of very intelligent men who reject the possibility of accepting the former while rejecting the latter. We Mormons find our selves in the middle somewhere. This middle ground needs to be further explored.

We have been working with the idea that God did not create nature law, nor can He break or change it at will. He must act in accordance with it. Thus, Mormons do not accept ontological miracles, only subjective ones. Hence it is God's imposition of His intentions which result in a startling coincidence which we interpet as a miracle by giving it meaning. There is nothing ontologically supernatural in anything that happens in these "miracles". Where does this position stand with regards to Johnson and Dawkins?

First lets consider Dawkins. He stated that as an ontological naturalist he cannot accept miracles as an ontological reality.
So, what do we mean by a miracle? A miracle is something that happens, but which is exceedingly surprising. If a marble statue of the Virgin Mary suddenly waved its hand at us we should treat it as a miracle, because all our experience and knowledge tells us that marble doesn't behave like that... [But this would not] be classified by science as utterly impossible. They would simply be judged very improbable... If, by sheer coincidence, all the molecules just happened to move in the same direction at the same moment, the hand would move. If they then all reversed direction at the same moment the hand would move back. In this way it is possible for a marble statue to wave at us. It could happen. -The Blind Watchmaker

In other words, it is all coincidence, no God. But this is exactly what we believe too, only we are a little more willing to view thing from the intentional stance. Trillions upon trillions of atoms do levitate on one another and unanimously moved towards a space enclosed by trillions of other atoms and then proceed to travel, again in almost absolute unison, to another city. It really does happen, but we usually call such an occurence by another name, specifically going to work in the morning. We reject miracles in the same way as Dawkins but are willing to attribute intentionality to such coincidences.

Now lets consider Johnson. He seems to take the other extreme. While Mormons do view miracles from the intentional stance, they are simply unwilling to deny the validity of the underlying physical stance as well. Johnson rejects the validity to the physical stance when it comes to miracles. Whereas Mormons are forced to consider physical possibility when it comes to God's omnipotence, Johnson need only worry about logical possibility. When the Virgin waves, it is not do to a physical force being imposed upon the atoms causing them to act in unison. Rather, it is a complete break in the normal chain of cause and effect, a break marked by God's will.

If the God of Mormonism wants to get something done, He does it or has it done by somebody or something else, but there must be some chain of events connecting God's wanting it and it happening. When Johnson's God wants something done, He wills it and it happens, no chain of causal events need connect the two.

It is in this context that we can address a quote from another vocal evoluitonist, William Provine.
A wide spread theological view now exists saying that God started off the world, props it up and works through laws of nature, very subtly, so subtly that its action is undedectable. But that kind of God is effectively no different to my mind than atheism.

Who's God is Provine talking about? Though many Mormons might think he is talking about us, I maintain that he is in fact talking about Johnson's God, or a version of It. This difference should not be looked over by us or our critics, for such an equivocation can lead us down unpleasant roads.

There is a difference between saying that God works "through natural law" and saying the God works "in accordance with natural law." We believe the latter, not the former. To say that God works through natural law is to say that God somehow created these laws to suit His purposes. This is not Mormon doctrine. God did not create laws such as natural selection. Indeed, it would be very difficult to image what that could even mean. How could we say that God created a law which says that those who survie long enough to reproduce will be the ones who are able to pass their mutations on to their progeny? How could it physically be any other way?

But to say that God works in accordance with natural selection and Mendelian genetics is to say something very different. He did not create the laws of genetics any more than scientists do today. He could, however, have influenced how those laws were used, in order to direct mutation in a way very analogous to what genetic engineers do today. He did not create the sound logic behind natural selection, but this is not to say that He couldn't have used it in a way analogous to what breeders have done for years.

This is very different from atheism as Provine sees it. There is nothing to have stopped God from intentionally influencing the past so as to bring about amazing coincidences (miracles). This does not say anything about natural selection. Indeed we cannot say that natural selection could not have created us, because it did. We are no less a product of evolution than are wiener dogs. We simply maintain that there was more artificial selection involved in us than in wiener dogs.

The real question is more along the lines of the anthropic principle. Were 'we' human beings intended? I would answer yes. Is this a miracle? A subjective one yes, but not an ontological one. Were all beings that have ever inhabited the earth intended? I would answer no.

Should Mormons dismiss methodological naturalism? Absolutely not. In fact, I would maintain that it was through methodological naturalism that God came to know how to use natural selection in the way He does. Giving up on methodological naturalism is a science stopper, plain and simple.

Should Mormons embrace ontological naturalism as it is currently intended? Absolutely not. This follows if only out of intellectual modesty. We maintain that there is a spiritual reality which is connected to the causal chain we observe around us. Spirit matter is material matter, only a "finer" version of it and it is through methodolgocial naturalism that we will learn about such spirit matter. Only then will we be able to embrace a form of ontological naturalism.

Getting back to the main question: Were we human beings intended? We can, and should as faithful Mormon's answer 'yes'. Contrary to what Marx thought, evolution is not the death blow to teleology. But we must confess that it is, in fact, the a huge blow against the teleological argument. We evolved from "lesser" animals in accordance with blind, purposeless natural law. We can't say that it couldn't have happened, because it did. What we can say is that God was acting in accordance with blind, purposeless natural laws to bring about His intentions.

Robert Pennock, a staunch opponent of the Intelligent Design movement, said quite accurately:
[Johnson] challenges scientists to say that they know, rather than just dogmatically assume, that God did not create us. But we have seen that biologists do not assert by fiat that God played no role in the development of life forms; they simply proceed, as all scientists must, to search for purely natural mechanisms. When they find evidence for a natural explanation... they may legitimately say that they have discovered something true about the natural world. To be sure, this is an approximate and tentative scientific truth, not an ontological truth in th esense that it cannot rule out the possibility that a supernatural Creator is involved in the process. (On the other hand, it does rule out one version of the teleological argument: that God is necessary to explain this development.)...
Scientists... have no way to test which, if any, events were caused by supernatural entities because, by definition, they are above natural law. The picture would look quite different if one "naturalized" the Deity by restricting God's powers and attributes [as Mormon's do], but this is not a "god" in the standard, Creationist sense...
Neither do I deny that there can be... a "science of the artificial"- we may study computers that were made by natural intelligences because neither computers nor their human creators are above natural law. However, organisms are not artificial and Johnson is not really interested in natural intelligences.

For reasons such as these, Mormons should not embrace a "creation science". Instead, we should be more interested in a science of the artificial since, although organisms themselves are not artificial, we maintain that humans are an intentional, and therefore artificial, outcome of evolution.

How this artificial selection and/or genetic engineering was accomplished, we don't know. But Neodarwinism is a BIG step in the right direction in our discovering how it was done. Rather than denying firmly established science, we should embrace it as a foundation on which to build.

Summary: We must be careful to distinguish between operating "through natural laws" and "in accordance with natural laws." The latter is what Mormons claim, not the former, which separates us from other proposed forms of "theistic evolution." God operates in accordance with the laws of genetics and natural selection, He does not control them.


I read C.S. Lewis's book Miracles  a couple of years ago. Alas, I returned to its owner, but I seem to remember him arguing that God's works are supernatural, but I don't remember the basis for his argument.

It's not directly comparable, but the immune system is testament to the fact that very specific outcomes are possible from random events.

I wonder if God started over with the earth and allowed evolution to proceed, how similar it would be. There are cases of convergent evolution which suggest to me that given enough time, ecological niches get filled one way or another. Can the spirit of a wolf also inhabit the body of a marsupial Tazmanian "wolf"? 

Posted by Jared

5/05/2005 04:41:00 PM  

What we can say is that God was acting in accordance with blind, purposeless natural laws to bring about His intentions. 

Jeffrey, it seems that the entire post, and perhaps the entire reconciliation, hinge on this statement. But it's a statement I don't understand in operational terms. What did God do, where and how did he intervene, to bring about his intentions?

On the nature of the Mormon God---I'm fond of saying he has more in common with aliens than with the traditional Christian God. Essentially, he's a being with vastly superior technology, rather than something outside of nature altogether.

Posted by Christian Y. Cardall

5/05/2005 06:08:00 PM  

What did God do, where and how did he intervene, to bring about his intentions? 

Thesea are difficult questions which I am not prepared to answer yet. I have some theories which will be presented for analysis later on but I don't expect to get very far with those.

As you can tell, I have mostly been concerned about cutting through doctrinal objections if only to allow more church members to consider the how as opposed to merely dismissing the question without further thought.

I was planning on posting more on your questions later on, but a lot of whats at stake has a lot to do with the method God used to direct things. Our merely filling a niche may not be good enough for Mormon doctrine. A couple of examples are in order.

1) Some people believe that God had relations with Mary so as to conceive Jesus. From this it would seem that God is VERY similar to us in genetic make up.

2) If we use the "transplantation" method, this will involve more than mere niche filling.

3) If some are to accept Adam as God, then we also assume that God is very similar to us in genetic makeup though the fruit eating process could account for something, I guess.

The point is, most members want God to be the same species as us, not merely similar to us in physical characteristics. I'm not sure that niche filling could give us a God that is more like us than aliens to use a modified version of Christian's sentiment. 

Posted by Jeffrey Giliam

5/05/2005 09:37:00 PM  

Christian, since this is a place Jeffrey and I agree, let me give a few examples. Let's say dinasaurs are dominating. So God lobs an asteroid killing off the realm of the dinasaurs and bringing in the realm of the dinasaurs. It's engineering, but its not anything akin to ID.

5/06/2005 11:28:00 AM  

I should make it clear that I'm not necessarily saying that ID is false altogether.

I'm saying that ID as other people are using the term is not what Mormon's should believe.

I'm saying that ID, as others use it, is not even close to science.

What I do allow for is ID in a Mormon context which allows, if not requires, God to have been involved somehow. But we do not know what this some how is. Pointing to perceived inadequacies in Darwinism doesn't tell us anything about what God did. Pointing out what is true about Darwinism can tell us a lot about what God might have done.

Our version of ID is a faith claim for now, pure and simple. We believe that God did something, but other than that, we should probably not get too riled up. We should embrace science as a way of discovering more about how God could have done what He did.

My nest post will deal more with this. 

Posted by Jeffrey Giliam

5/06/2005 12:32:00 PM  

Pointing to perceived inadequacies in Darwinism doesn't tell us anything about what God did. Pointing out what is true about Darwinism can tell us a lot about what God might have done. 

Well put. I'm might have to use that some time. 

Posted by Jared

5/06/2005 02:05:00 PM  



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