Jerry Coyne is challenging Elliot Sober to answer these three questions about his paper and talk about the compatibility of evolution and theism:
1. Can you demonstrate that the logical compatibility of a rarely-acting God with evolutionary biology is a serious and important philosophical question?
2. Your argument about that logical compatibility would seem to extend not just to mutation and evolution, but to all of science. Is that correct? If so, why did you concentrate on mutation?
3. If the answer to the first part of (2) is “yes,” then would it be equally important for philosophers to write papers and give talks about how we can’t rule out the logical possibility that God influences coin tosses to favor outcomes He wants (like a favorite football team winning)? If not, why not? After all, isn’t the coin-tossing argument basically identical to the one you were making for mutations?
Now, I won’t make too strong a claim that what I reply will, in fact, represent Sober’s views fully or even partially. Sober is perfectly free — should he ever read this — to say that I’m getting it completely wrong. Let me start, though, by putting in one caveat: it’s actually debatable — and being debated in the comments on Jason Rosenhouse’s post here — whether Sober’s point is about the logical compatibility or if that’s just an implication of his argument, but not the point of it. Rosenhouse generally only gets to the implication part, before saying it’s a small step from there to it being the point. I disagree. But let’s put that aside for now, and answer the questions:
1) It’s important for the incompatibilist-accommodationist debate, which Coyne is, in fact, incredibly interested in. This is in large part because incompatibilists like Coyne, like Stenger, like Dennett argue that evolution in some way proves or demonstrates the incompatibility of science and religion. In that case, it’s fair to ask “How?”. Sober’s claim here is that it isn’t because you cannot have the mechanism of evolution in the world and also have a theistic God, because he points out that there very much could be various types of theistic Gods acting through mutations, and the evidence that we can gather can’t settle that question (although Larry Moran denies this, and to be honest he’s the only incompatibilist I’ve read who has a clear, consistent position, so that’s not all that surprising). So, then, in what sense are incompatibilists using “incompatible” here, if not that strong sense of “Because of evolution, there reasonably cannot be a God”? Thus, it isn’t obvious or trivial, or else their argument is, or else somehow we aren’t getting what that argument is.
But it’s more than that, because eventually in this debate we start getting into talking about worldviews and/or philosophies. Scientific worldviews, religious worldviews, philosophical worldviews, naturalistic worldviews, supernaturalistic worldviews, and everything in between. And so if we are, again, going to talk about science and religion being incompatible in general and because of evolution specifically, that seems to me to suggest that you simply cannot have a worldview that contains both evolution and a theistic God without there being an inconsistency in what worldview, that would or should cause cognitive dissonance that needs to be patched up or suppressed (and please don’t make me look for the comments and posts where cognitive dissonance is suggested at being the case for theist scientists). But Sober’s point here would show that that simply is not the case; one can indeed have a worldview that contains both without there being an inconsistency, because there’s no logical incompatibility between the two, and worldviews only require logical consistency among all their parts. So, if I can have a worldview that contains both theism and evolution, then again it raises the question of what they mean when they talk about them being incompatible.
Now, ultimately, all this proves is this: if a scientific worldview and a religious/theistic worldview are going to be incompatible, it isn’t simply going to be over evolution. It’s going to be over other beliefs that are in that worldview that then do make them conflict. And many of those beliefs are going to be actually theological or philosophical claims, and not scientific ones. You accept naturalism, and so must prefer an evolution that does not contain supernatural entities if you can. You value parsimony, and consider the theistic interference to violate that. You have a concept of God that requires much stronger and much more direct intervention by God. You think that the suffering involved in evolution is too much for a benevolent God. And so on and so forth. But none of these are scientific claims. All of these are philosophical or theological. Which, then, as has been pointed out was rather Sober’s point: it’s not the science and empirical evidence of evolution that’s causing the problems, but instead the philosophical/theological considerations that are doing the work.
And this, then, is really important to know, because it lets us get past arguing over the empirical evidence of evolution — allowing all sides to at least nominally accept it — and into arguing over the philosophical and theological issues that are really at stake here. So we’d start arguing over naturalism instead of over mutation, over intervention instead of over gradual development. This would be critically important for the debate, and important philosophically since one of the things philosophy really loves doing is clarifying what the debate is really about.
Thus, yes, it is really, really important philosophically.
2) I suspect that he focused on mutation because that’s what happened to come up at the time, and he also may have a vested interest in trying to separate these philosophical issues out from the science of evolution so that people won’t be able to argue that evolution is itself atheistic and so should not be given precedence in public schools. Thus, by clearly separating out the issues that directly impact religion, evolution without those additional commitments can be taught unfettered. That being said, this logically compatible point may not, in fact, apply to all science either. We’d have to take the arguments one at a time, because it is, in fact, possible to eliminate some conceptions scientifically. Thus, a God who is not deceiving us about the age of the world is not compatible with the scientific evidence about the age of the world, and so that would be a contradiction. There are ways around that, of course, and for those concepts philosophical or theological arguments must be mustered, such as arguing that God has no reason to deceive us about the age of the world and so it’s a bad theological argument. Again, we can sort the arguments out and address them properly instead of trying to destroy different arguments with different commitments piecemeal.
3) God, of course, certainly could do that, and some people do claim that He does. Those who don’t tend to claim that God has no reason to, or point out that it isn’t generally required for God to do so by our concept. Taking the football team example, the argument would generally be that, theologically, it makes little sense to suggest that God has a favourite football team, and so would only do so if He has an overall purpose in doing so … and we generally don’t think He does. Thus, again, we look at it from the right perspective and know exactly where we need to focus our attention to answer the question. This can only be a good thing.