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Reconciling God and Evolution

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Scientifically-minded religious believers contend that a careful reading of the Book of Scripture teaches that God is the creator of the heavens and the earth, and that a careful reading of the Book of Nature teaches that the means of creation is evolution. The Book of Scripture and the Book of Nature coalesce in what is often called "theistic evolution."

Self-proclaimed atheist, Greta Christina, claims in a recent Salon essay that theistic evolution is internally contradictory. She claims that, on the one hand, theists believe that God has guided the process of evolution and that, on the other hand, evolution is by its very nature unguided. The flaw in the ointment, she claims, is random stuff (her catchy term for mutations), which entails that "There's no direction: there's no selecting for a particular feature of life to take any particular form at any point in the future."

Here's the random stuff problem. Favorable mutations, variations, must occur at just the right time for species to adapt to changing environments. Imagine the first living, single-cell creature. If a single, favorable variation had not occurred at precisely the right time for that cell, as the earth got warmer, say, life on Earth could have ended once and for all, perhaps never to be repeated. If species don't acquire variations that enable them to adapt to changing environments, they might simply go extinct. "Adapt or die" seems to be the law of the evolutionary land. This has already happened to 95 percent of the species that have ever existed.

Now think of all of the favorable "random stuffs" that were required to move from that original, single-celled species to Homo sapiens. It is astronomically improbable that all of those favorable variations would have randomly occurred at just the right times. Of course, we know that they did. But, it seems, even God himself must have been holding his breath waiting for precisely the right random mutation to occur at just the right time.

While natural selection itself is not a method of chance (it selects for survival value), what it selects from is a matter of chance -- mutations. Mutations supply the fuel that fires the evolutionary machinery. Without mutations, natural selection is empty. But, and here's the God and evolution problem, mutations are random. How can a random process be compatible with God's intentions to create plants and animals, and then humans? If the process were random, how could God have known what he was going to get? And how could God have guided a series of random events?

Here is how Christina puts it:

Random stuff happens: if it happens differently, then different living things survive and reproduce, and it all turns out differently. Yes, the particular forms that life takes right now are wildly improbable -- and if things had turned out differently, those forms would be wildly improbable. There's no direction: there's no selecting for life to take any particular form at any point in the future.

How did God do it -- given so much random stuff?

I honestly have no idea. In fact, whenever someone claims to know how God did this or that, I get clammy and resist the urge to shout out, "No, you don't!" Who among us creatures has any idea how the Creator does anything? Read the book of Job if you need to get over the presumption that knowing the divine mind would involve.

And yet, Christina's protestations to the contrary, there are at least four or five models for how God might have created all species using random stuff. I explore those models in my new book, Religion and the Sciences of Origins, and briefly present one model here.

Christina seems to assume that God, if there were a god, is inside of time and has to gaze as best he can into a hazy future. Given random stuff, then, some things about the future cannot be known from present conditions (even by God). If God is in time and reality is unpredictable, then the future can't be known with certainty even to God. If the future involves unknowns, God would have to enter into natural history and create just the right mutation at just the right time to get what he wanted. And we have no evidence of that.

But what if God is not in time? Classical Western theism has long held that God exists outside of time. While God's relationship to time is difficult or impossible for humans to grasp, the implications for the present discussion are significant. Suppose we agree with Christina, that God could not have known by calculation which random stuff would happen when, and so could not have temporally guided the results of random processes (without inserting himself in natural history).

If God is not in time, he doesn't know anything or do anything temporally. God does not know the results of evolution by calculation, or temporal instigation, or looking into the future. So even if God could not have guided physical processes that are unpredictable, a timeless God could will both the processes and their outcomes now.

According to this view, if God were fully apprised of the initial conditions and natural laws, he could not have predicted the existence of a single species. So what? This would present no problem for a timeless God because he does not know "the future" by predicting it. He knows "the future" by willing it. If God transcends time, he knows and wills at one and the same time the initial conditions, the physical laws, the random mutations, the current environment, and the produced result (say, a new species). And he knows the result not by predicting it or by inserting himself occasionally into natural history but by willing it.

Here's a way to think about it: A timeless God creates everything -- past, present and future -- all at once. So God at once (now, for God) creates the heavens, the earth, and all they contain. For God, the creation of humans is certain not because God inserted himself in the muddy natural evolutionary processes. God ensures human existence not by inserting himself into a temporal process but by simultaneously willing the evolutionary process that would produce them (with all of its glorious random stuff) and the result of that process -- human beings.

Is that how God did it? I have no idea. But it's possible that God did it this way, and if he did, there is no contradiction in believing both that God created the heavens and the earth and all that they contain and that every species evolved by evolution operating on random stuff.