A Place for Evolutionary Theory in Theology?

The question seems not only absurd, but also to work against the position I have staked out in this blog over many months. On the view I have defended, Evolutionary Theory (ET) is a theory whose application is restricted to a particular domain, namely, the domain of the material and the empirically verifiable; theology is not so restricted, and so the utility of ET to theology seems to be very low, if not zero.

There's certainly no need to convince the working evolutionary biologist of such a possible utility: what the working biologist has to say about theology, qua biologist, is irrelevant--indeed, meaningless. Nor is there any particularly compelling reason to convince the orthodox (small "o") theologian of such a possible utility, because the orthodox theologian already knows that materialist, empirical theories have nothing to say about, and no ramifications related to, theology. This is why, in fact, no orthodox theologian is worried about the question whether Christianity is compatible with ET, for he already knows that they are as compatible with each other as Euclidian geometry, qua geometry, is compatible with musical composition, qua musical composition: the disciplines do not impinge on each other in any way.

So what possible utility could ET have for theology, and to whom are we addressing this argument? ET is a theory about certain forms of material beings and how they relate to each other as individuals and in populations situated in certain environments. It is one of the most robustly confirmed scientific theories in history and serves, if anything does, as a paradigm case of the importance of human reasoning in understanding human nature as such. But all scientists and philosophers of science know that it is open to revision: if and when new empirical evidence should prove to be incompatible with the theory as it stands, the theory will be revised appropriately. This is not a threatening fact to the scientist or the philosopher of science, it is further proof of the value of scientific investigation and, hence, a motivation to keep doing scientific research. (In this regard it is somewhat strange that writers like Richard Dawkins write about ET as "an established fact". Established facts, whatever else they may be, are not open to revision, otherwise they would not be established facts. No scientific theory is "an established fact" in the sense of not being open to revision, though it is, of course, quite true to say that ET is well confirmed. It would be a mistake, however, to conflate the notions of confirmation and facticity.)

That scientific research is a hallmark of the human mind and an expression of the human essential nature is one reason to think that ET has some value to theology, since it is a fact that is not merely consistent with but appears to follow from what theology claims about human nature; but it is not something that is unique to ET. Any robustly confirmed scientific theory can claim an equal utility for theology. ET, however, has a unique value that is not shared by any other scientific theory. ET is essentially a theory about change, and more specifically it is a theory about change that is due to variation. Where there is no variation, evolution by means of natural selection cannot take place (drift would still be possible, of course, but that would be true even if ET were false). A necessary precondition on variation is, of course, difference. Indeed, variation is arguably just another term for difference. Without getting overly Parmenidean about it, we may also say, somewhat loosely, that difference is a kind of opposition: a property p is said to be different from any property that is ~p and, according to the Law of Concontradiction, ~(p & ~p). This is an ontological as well as a logical claim: just as the two propositions, p and ~p, cannot be true at the same time and in the same respect, the state of affairs cannot be in two orthogonal states at the same time and in the same respect (according to ET; according to quantum mechanics this may not be the case; whether the consistency of ET with quantum mechanics is more of a problem for ET than for QM is a question for another context, but it certainly underscores what I said earlier about the revisability of scientific theories).

The fallen world in which we live is, from a theological point of view, above all a world of oppositions: opposition to God, opposition to one another, even, in a sense, opposition to ourselves (I want to resist sin, but because of weakness sometimes I cannot). To move from sin to grace is to make a change that is, in a certain extended sense, adaptive. Sin is, by definition, a willful turning away from God; by God's grace we are given the capacity to turn back to him, and doing so is as salutary as adapting to the environment in which we live. Every time I turn away from God, every time I sin, I die a little (sometimes, completely), but through Reconciliation I am given another "generation", as it were, another seed to plant in the environment in which I live to nurture and train to grow towards God rather than away from him. If I learn anything from my sin and reconciliation, it is rather like an adaptive change in a genome that did not survive in a previous setting. Without opposition, without variation, none of this would be possible ("O happy fault, O necessary sin of Adam, that gained for us such a Redeemer"). Life before the fall was, in a certain sense, a static sort of life in the sense that Adam and Eve had not yet sinned, there was not yet any opposition to God, to each other, or within themselves; in the eschaton life will again be static: as the Talking Heads once said, "Heaven is a place where nothing ever happens". All will be one at that time, and the Sacraments, including Reconciliation, will pass away. Only here, in this world, are the Sacraments necessary and good, and although ET does not explain anything about our relations to God or one another (since it is not a theological but a materialist explanatory account aimed not at theological truth but empirical truth), nevertheless by its very truth it illustrates something deeply true and important about the very fabric of being itself as we experience it. It is, in short, a sacramentally sound description of the way things are in addition to being empirically verifiable.

In my opinion, this will be true of any robustly verifiable scientific theory, precisely because every such theory, if accurately representing they way things are to any significant degree, will be consistent with the theological truths about how things are. But ET seems to play a special role in this illustrative sense, since it paints a very vivid picture of what "survival of the fittest" means when translated into "survival of the most grace-filled". By the way in which natural processes play themselves out at the level of merely material beings, we see writ large the far more important way in which our spiritual survival is tied to adapting our own wills to the will of God by means of a sequence of generations of reconciliation. That God would use perceptual evidence--evidence at the materialist, empirical level--to communicate to us this great truth is not in the least alien to our theology, since the core of our faith was made known to us empirically, by means of the life of Our Lord and the eyewitnesses who have made known to us the facts and meaning of that life.

So my claim here is aimed principally at those who fear that ET represents some sort of a threat to Christian truth, or that it raises difficulties for Christian theology. Far from doing that, it is fully consistent with that theology and, indeed, serves to illustrate certain very important aspects of it. I have argued elsewhere that it even serves quite well as an answer to the so-called "problem of evil", since it makes suffering, death, and dying all perfectly natural processes that are in fact valuable elements of any evolutionary story of the origins and development of life, just as, theologically, suffering and death are turned by God into ways of growing closer to him and experiencing first hand what it means to abandon oneself to him. This is a message that will be of no interest to the biologist qua biologist (though it may interest the biologist who happens to be a Christian), and no news to the theologian. Perhaps it will be of service to nobody in particular. In fact, I hope that is the case, if what it means is that everybody already knew it to be true. But for those who were still worried about ET, it may perhaps serve as some sort of palliative.


John Farrell said…
This is so good I'm tempted to mischief--sending it off to one of the more militant science bloggers.


On another note, however, perhaps not directly related to theology, but to philosophy, I wonder whether ET does require any neo-scholastic philosophy to reconsider the meaning of substantial forms.

John Wilkens had a recent post about this at Evolving Thoughts.
Apollodorus said…
I'm not sure I understand your view of the relationship between empirical theories and theology.

You write: "materialist, empirical theories have nothing to say about, and no ramifications related to, theology."

One reason for thinking otherwise is that at least some theological claims seem to have empirical implications even when they are not reducible to empirical claims. The doctrine of the Resurrection, for instance, claims that Jesus rose from the dead. Talk about the Fall implies at least that there were at one point in history sinless human beings who chose to sin. These claims are, in principle, open to empirical falsification. The nature of the evidence available to us may not allow for such a task. In principle, though, it would presumably be possible to adduce evidence that Jesus did not rise from the dead or that the first human beings were never without sin. For the theological claims to be true at least excludes some empirical possibilities.

I know that some theologians disagree and interpret the theological claims in ways that would be compatible with any and every empirical possibility. Those theologians, though, tend to be liberals of a kind that you have ridiculed in the past. So I don't know if you would go that route.

It could be that I've misunderstood what you mean by 'empirical theories,' though. I'm curious to know what you think about this.
Tom said…
If a correct scientific theory is consistent with the theological truths about how things are, what do we say about the truth of evolution prior to the Fall of Adam?

Also, tangentially: I think saying eternal life will be "static," in any sense, is extraordinarily misleading. Eternal life is a participation in the life of the Divine Trinity, a life of pure act. I think it's far truer to say that in the eschaton life will be that than which nothing less static can be.

(Relatedly, I'd caution against quoting the Talking Heads as a theological authority. "When I have nothing to say/My lips are sealed"? What the heck kind of weirdo thinking came up with that?)
Scott Carson said…

You make an interesting and important point. If you have not already done so, read as much C. S. Lewis as you can, and the sooner the better. Surprised by Joy and The Four Loves are good places to start vis-a-vis this particular topic. A good introduction to Lewis is Alan Jacobs's The Narnian (HarperOne, 2005).
Scott Carson said…

If you investigate the theological notion of "act" a little more carefully, I think you will find that is has absolutely nothing to do with change and variation in the sense that you seem to want to give it. Indeed, if St. Thomas is right about what God is, then the Talking Heads are exactly right about what heaven is like.

And, for the record, complaining about the sense of Talking Heads lyrics is a bit rich coming from the man who had the temerity to lecture me about the sense of Paul McCartney lyrics.
John Farrell said…
Myself, I haven't read any Lewis since the Screwtape Letters, which I loved. I'll have to revisit....
Tom said…

But I don't want to give "act" a sense of change and variation. I was close to including something along the lines of, "Don't say 'static,' say 'unchanging,'" in my first comment.

Also, the fellow who defended "Helter Skelter" is a different bloke called Tom.
Scott Carson said…
That's what comes of too many Toms in a room.

So what, exactly, is the difference between "static" and "unchanging"? I don't have any objection, in principle, to saying "unchanging" instead of "static", but only because I think they mean the same thing. If you think that "static" is misleading and "unchanging" isn't, then you must think they mean different things. What is the advantage of the one over the other?
Apollodorus said…
Gee, thanks.
Scott Carson said…
It's not like I was trying to blow you off or anything, it's just that he does a much better job of addressing that question than I do, and those are all great books. Besides, surely you're looking for things to read over the summer.

I suppose a short answer to your question might go something like this. When I say that theology has no ramifications for empirical science, what I really mean is that the subject matter of theology is different from the subject matter of any empirical science (remember your Aristotle here). The empirical claims of Christianity are not, in themselves, theological claims. The claims that Jesus of Nazareth was crucified, died, and was buried do not have any theological meaning on their own. Neither does the claim that Jesus of Nazareth arose again from the dead. That could mean literally anything from an empirical point of view, including something like "He forgot to file his DNR forms." The (theological) claim that Jesus was raised from the dead by the power of God as a sign of his victory over death takes the empirical claim for granted, but does not attempt to prove it by theological means; rather, it attempts to give meaning to the empirical claim by interpreting it within a certain kind of framework.

So for me the empirical sciences make only empirical claims; the theological science makes only theological claims; and the two sorts of claims are entirely different, even though the theological, being the higher science, assumes some of the facts of the empirical sciences.

You're welcome.
"Life before the fall was, in a certain sense, a static sort of life in the sense that Adam and Eve had not yet sinned, there was not yet any opposition to God, to each other, or within themselves; in the eschaton life will again be static: as the Talking Heads once said, "Heaven is a place where nothing ever happens"."

After you read Joseph Farrell's book on Maximus the Confessor, I'm really surprised to hear you say this and I'm surprised to see you imply that the principle of history is the Ancestral Sin.
Scott Carson said…
Yes, well, several people have found fault with my little continuum here. I think that if I were to write this essay again I would leave out the before and after part and just concentrate on the utility of ET for understanding the now part.
Apollodorus said…
Now thank you for real. Being referred to Lewis for clarity is usually a good sign that there's not any to be had, and I much prefer to hear what you have to say. I can't deny Lewis' charm, and he deserves a lot of credit for thinking and writing as he did during the height of positivism. But I've never found his thinking especially clear on anything at all. There are insights there, but they're mixed up with so much confusion and carelessness of expression that it often isn't worth the effort.

Your explanation seems not to explain your original claim. You say here that theology and empirical science have different subject matter and that theology does not make empirical claims, but interprets (some) empirical claims in a distinctly theological way. What you said earlier was that empirical theories have "nothing to say about, and no ramifications related to, theology." If you're just retracting the earlier statement in favor of the new one, I can accept that. If you still maintain the earlier point, though, then I don't understand why.

Even if theology makes no empirical claims and simply interprets empirical claims in a distinctive way, it does not follow that no theological claims could turn out to be falsified by empirical inquiry. Theological claims might offer up interpretations of false empirical claims, or they might have empirical implications that turn out unrealized. If empirical inquiry can, even in principle, falsify a theological claim, then it's just not true that empirical inquiry has "no ramifications related to theology," unless 'ramifications' means something unlike the English word 'ramifications' that I and every other competent speaker of the language know.

I'm confused when you say that the claim that Jesus of Nazareth rose from the dead "could mean literally anything from an empirical point of view." Surely not. How on earth could such a claim mean, for example, that Jesus ate a fig at noon on June 8th of the year 32AD? It is not just impossible for the sentence "Jesus of Nazareth rose from the dead" to mean anything like that. The theological claims about the Resurrection could not be claims about Jesus of Nazareth eating a fig at a certain time on a certain day. I suspect I've misunderstood something here, but if so, I blame it on you: you shouldn't say things like "literally anything" if you don't mean "literally anything."

Whether you've retracted the original claim or it turns out to be false, in either case evolutionary theory and empirical inquiry more generally create issues for theology. They should lead us to wonder, for example, what it can mean to say that human beings are made 'in the image of God' if it does not involve the kind of special creation of the human race or the individual soul that the tradition says it does. If empirical inquiry does not force us to give up claims about special creation, then we should be able to say why not. Plenty of sensible and even orthodox theologians agree. If they're wrong, I want to know it, but so far they still seem right.

In the past I've usually found that you mean something important and at least possibly true when I think you're talking nonsense. I hope this is another one of those times. I'll wait to see.

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