Category Archives: evolution

evolution Existence of God God history Jerry Coyne John Haught NOMA science science and religion scientism theist arguments

On the Haught/Coyne Debate


I recently re-watched the debate between University of Chicago evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne and Georgetown theologian John Haught, which Haught had famously (infamously?) not allowed to be posted online (until a great deal of ruckus had been raised over the issue, at which point Haught eventually relented) (debate here and question/answer session here). Coyne’s view is very close to my own, though I thought he has done a better job at presenting his view elsewhere when he had more time to speak. On the other hand, I think that Haught performed poorly in this debate.

In this post, I will first explain how Coyne and Haught fit into my present theoretical understanding of the science/religion debate, why Coyne and Haught were likely speaking past each other, and then I will show why I think that Haught’s central argument (concerning his layered view of reality) is weak. I’ve broken this post up into various sections so readers can skip those parts that they are not interested in.

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Alvin Plantinga Atheism beleifs Christianity Daniel Dennett evolution Existence of God intelligent design New Atheism science and religion theist arguments

Review of Plantinga & Dennett’s “Science & Religion: Are They Compatible?”

When I found out that Alvin Plantinga and Daniel Dennett co-authored a book, I was shocked. I could not think of two more diametrically opposed philosophers. It turned out that the book, entitled “Science and Religion”, resulted from a debate between the two famed philosophers at the American Philosophical Division Meeting in Chicago for 2009. The book consists of alternating short readings from each philosopher. The book contains a transcript of the original debate along with two more essays from each philosopher. Having now read the book, I think that Plantinga largely missed the point of Dennett’s arguments and that Dennett was probably more terse than he should have been.

The debate organisers had asked the two philosophers to discuss whether science and religion were compatible. However, the debate topic promptly changed when both philosophers agreed that there was no logical inconsistency between theism and science.

I’ll start by describing the arguments given by the respective parties and then offer commentary on some aspects of Plantinga’s argument I found problematic. Then I will briefly describe the response that I think Plantinga should have given to Dennett, followed by the response that I think Dennett would have given.

Plantinga argues:

1. Theism — in particular, Christian theism (Plantinga calls this “classical theism”) — is compatible with modern evolutionary theory. According to Plantinga, evolutionary theory is consistent with the idea that God guided the evolutionary process. One might object that evolution is random (and is therefore unguided). However, no part of evolutionary theory states that evolutionary events do not have causes; in fact, there are (often) causes cited for mutations. One such cause could be divine intervention.

2. The reliability of our beliefs is inconsistent with the conjunct of evolution and naturalism (where naturalism is *defined* as strong atheism — i.e. as the belief that are is no God or god-like beings). Plantinga argues that evolution cares only about adaptivity, not about truth tracking.


3. In response to (1): True, at least some forms of theism are consistent with evolution. But many things are logically consistent with evolution and that they are consistent is not evidence that theism is the case. Consider Supermanism — the thesis that Superman (son of Jor-El and an alien from the planet Krypton) caused the Cambrian explosion.

In response to (2): Dennett provides two replies:

4. Human brains evolved to track truth; that they do so is a sign that they are functioning properly. Just as the proper functioning of our hearts is to pump blood, the proper functioning of our neurophysiology is to produce correct beliefs about the world. Importantly, Dennett argues that the various parts of our bodies have functions to which they were tuned by evolution. Our hearts pump blood efficiently because that is the function they evolved to have. Brains track truth because that is what brains were evolved to do. So, evolution *is* truth tracking after all.

5. While it is true that our beliefs are, at least in part, the product of our neurophysiological states, they are also the product of our collective cultural evolution, discourse, and deliberation. So, while there might be poor beliefs that are produced by evolution, cultural evolution tends to expunge the bad and leave us with the good (this is why scientific — or, more generally, intellectual — progress is possible at all).


6. In response to (3) (in particular, to Supermanism): Plantinga characterises the Superman thought experiment as trying to show that theism is absurd (or just as absurd as supermanism). Plantinga argues that Dennett, and the other New Atheists, may think that theism is absurd (or as absurd as Supermanism), but they have not provided an argument to show this point (or so Plantinga asserts). Plantinga argues that since there are a tremendous number of religious people in the world, and they do not appear to be irrational, it’s not clear that theistic belief is irrational. Thus, it would be incumbent on the New Atheists to argue for the irrationality of theism, something which Plantinga charges they have not done.

7. In response to (4): Plantinga does not think that organisms need to have accurate belief states in order to survive. Rather, organisms only require unconscious indicators that result in “correct” actions when provided with a given stimulus.

8. Plantinga does not provide a response to (5).


I think that there are a number of problems with Plantinga’s strategy. One particularly vexing problem concerns (6). Plantinga mischaracterises Dennett’s argument. Arguing that theism is absurd (or as absurd as Supermanism) would be a rather poor rhettorical strategy; after all, Tertullian* notwithstanding, presumably no one holds beliefs which they think are absurd (again, in the Supermanism sense). However, that’s not what Dennett appears to be arguing.

The argument which Dennett presents concerns the burden of proof.

When Plantinga argues that theism is compatible with modern evolutionary theory, Dennett is right to respond with agreement. There are many things which are logically consistent with our best scientific theories, but the more interesting question is which of those things is the case. Supermanism is one idea which is logically consistent with our best scientific theories, but we do not think Supermanism is something that anyone should believe. Thus, Dennett presses Plantinga to do more than just argue for the logical consistency of theism with evolution. Dennett asks, can Plantinga provide us with a positive argument for theism? Dennett’s argument was categorically not to assert that theism is an absurd claim (though, no doubt, Dennett does think that).

In this book, Plantinga does not provide us with a positive argument for theism; instead, all he can offer is an argument against what he calls naturalism (really, a strong form of atheism). However, to be consistent with the rest of his work, there is a response that Plantinga should have given to Dennett instead of the one that he gave.

Plantinga should have responded that he does not need to give a positive argument for classical theism. Plantinga thinks that there is an additional sense — the sensis devinitatis — which provides human beings with non-propositional information concerning the existence of God. On Plantinga’s account of religious justification, theists are justified in their beliefs because belief in God is properly basic in virtue of having been caused by the sensus divinitatis. On Plantinga’s account, theists are people who have the proper sort of sensory experience to justify god-beliefs. Just as we do not ask people to justify that they are having the experience of the color purple when they see a purple object, Plantinga thinks people do not have to justify their having theistic beliefs.

In turn, Dennett could have responded with at least two arguments:

–that the best explanation of religious belief is not that it is caused by the sensus divinitatis. Rather, the best explanation would be in terms of standard evolutionary psychology, cultural evolution, sociology, anthrology, etc (that is, the sort of thing Dennett details in “Breaking the Spell”). Naturalistic (though not in Plantinga’s sense!) explanations of religious belief and  experiences are capable of explaining much more than classical theism (for example, they can give good explanations of the global diversity of religion. They can also explain why we see the sort of religions that we do and not others, etc).

–even if the best explanation of religious belief was the sensus divinitatis, if non-theists are truthful about their belief states, then they apparently lack the sensus divinitatis (or atheists have an inactive sensus divinitatis, etc). If theists would like to convince non-theists then it is incumbent on them to provide other lines of argument/evidence than to appeal to non-propositional sensory experiences which are closed off to the rest of us (or so they would claim). Theists certainly do not have to convince non-theists, but one would think that the point of debate is to convince those who disagree with oneself. Thus, while some theists might claim that they do not want to convince others, they should refrain from asserting arguments for their position. Furthermore, given Plantinga’s account of religious beliefs, theists might think that convincing an atheist that God exists would be rather like trying to convince a blind person that you are experiencing purple. Since such an endeavour would be utterly futile, debate would be pointless. However, Plantinga both participated in a debate with Dennett and writes books arguing for theism. Thus, Plantinga presumably thinks that there is a point to the debate.


*Tertullian famously stated: “Credo quia absurdum” — “I believe because it is absurd.”

creationism evolution Gary Trudeau Roanoke Times science and religion Young Earth Creationism

Bafflingly Ignorant Letter in Roanoke Times

On Wednesday, August 10, Ronald Bessette wrote a column (here) for the Roanoke Times claiming that the Doonesbury cartoon from July 10 (available here) erred in its presentation of Creationism as “unscientific and foolish”. Bessette claims that, in this process, Gary Trudeau, the Doonesbury cartoonist, “deliberately deceives his audience.”

Bessette claims:

“[Trudeau’s comic] states that evolution has massive amounts of evidence to support this atheistic idea, yet fails to provide or produce even one statement indicating even a portion of this supposed evidence. This is known as elephant hurling. Where is this massive amount of evidence?”

Obviously, Trudeau is not going to be able to include this evidence in his comic. There is simply too much of it. That doesn’t mean that this evidence cannot be touched on elsewhere — namely, here.

Before I proceed, I want to note that evolution is not an “atheistic claim”. Many prominent Christians have voiced their support for evolution. The head of the Human Genome Project, Francis Collins, is an evangelical Christian and a supporter of evolution. Pope John Paul II famously voiced his support for the theory. The Clergy Letter Project asked clergy to sign a letter stating their agreement with evolution and their denial of Creationism (particularly Intelligent Design.) The project earned 12,508 signatures of US Christian clergy, 471 signatures from rabbis, and 224 signatures from Unitarian Universalist Clergy. The project is associated with the United Church of Christ and is available here.

Young Earth Creationists (like Bessette) do not simply reject biological evolution. To make their claim about the young age of the Earth, they must also reject massive amounts of astrophysical, geophysical, biological, and historical data. The age of the Earth is known from comparing radiometric dates from independently confirmed sources (i.e. multiple different isotopes from around the world) with the ages of meteoritic rock. These dates are compared against data that is known from observations of accretion disks and computer simulations thereof. These dates are all consistent with those we have from lunar rocks gathered by the Apollo astronauts, together with calculations on the rate of bombardment on the Lunar surface which are compared to the density of craters on that same surface. Furthermore, all of those dating techniques are consistent with what is observed in the layers of strata, independently confirmed from multiple locations by using the presence of global events (such as the K-2 boundary) to establish what is termed the Geologic Column. These dates are consistent with both fossil and genetic records, in that we do not observe lifeforms older than 4.5 billion years (in fact, life is uniformly younger than that age.) All of these independent methodologies — which are all based on independently verified mechanisms in the peer reviewed literature — are consistent with and invariably lead to the Earth being 4.5 billion years old. Anyone who rejects this age must reject all of these independent lines of evidence from these disparate fields together with the purported underlying mechanisms. That means rejecting some of the best understood science from the 20th century.

Biological evolution itself has been intensely studied. We should distinguish between two different things — evolution as fact and evolution as theory. It has been observed over the course of human history that animal species change over time. It used to be the case that there were no cows; in early human history, there was instead a cow-like animal called an Auroch. Now, we have cows. We can go out and dig up fossilized remains. From these, we can note that the various flora and fauna that once dominated the Earth do so no longer, being somehow replaced by other flora and fauna. Furthermore, species tend to diversify over time, somehow splitting off into different groups. These are all demonstrable facts that have been observed about the Earth. They are not in doubt, and have been noted by scholars since at least the ancient Greeks. This is what is referred to as evolution as fact, the former sense of the word “evolution” that I alluded to. But there is another distinct sense in which the word “evolution” can be used. This latter sense of the word is the purported explanation of the former fact. We should really be calling it “Darwinian Evolution” since it is Darwin’s explanation of the observed fact of evolution. There were other attempts throughout history (the earliest apparently with Aristotle — see to explain this observed fact. By and large, they all failed in the face of new evidence, with the exception of Darwin’s theory.

I should pause here to explain what the word “theory” means in the scientific context as opposed to the way that it is used colloquially. In scientific circles, the word “theory” means “explanatory framework” (especially in the biological sciences. In physics, we care more about being able to compute things than to explain them.) It should include certain key features, like the ability to predict the outcomes of experimental measurements or of observations. There should also be well-spelled out conditions for how we could disprove the theory if it turned out to be false (i.e. falsifiability.) It does not denote the same thing as the word “guess”. A theory can be either well supported by evidence (in which case we should not reject it) or it can be torn apart in the face of evidence. Whether a theory is well supported or not, and the degree to which it is supported, do not in any way diminish or advance the degree to which something can be called a theory. For instance, atomic theory, heliocentric theory, and the germ theory of disease all have the status of being facts. It turns out that Darwin’s theory of evolution is marvelously well supported by the available evidence (in fact, better supported than most other theories we have in science.) It can explain every observed feature of the fact of evolution, something we should require from good scientific theories, and it has yet to be falsified (i.e. it passes every test that has thus far been devised to disprove it.)

Like the age of the Earth, Darwin’s theory of evolution is supported by a broad network and accumulation of evidence from nearly every scientific discipline. Radiometric dating (based on well understood principles from nuclear physics), the layering of strata (understood in terms of field observation, laboratory experiments, and computer simulations), and genetic evidence are all consistent with the associated fossilized remains. Computer algorithms in the field of cladistics (see this and this for more details) allow us to sort animals by genetic similarity, and thereby unambiguously reconstruct family trees through the use of rigorous and robust statistical methodologies (and before any Creationists say something about this showing similarities, and not common ancestry, turn back and click those two links I already gave. In fact, I’ll give them again here: this and this.) Those reconstructed family trees are consistent with the placement of fossils in the Earth and the purported ages of those fossils from the previously mentioned independently performed tests. Mathematical models further confirm the underlying mechanisms in Darwin’s theory. Furthermore, all of those findings are consistent with independently gathered results from comparative anatomy.

In rejecting biological evolution, creationists must reject the use of techniques derived therefrom or else they would be hypocritical. In the medical profession, evolution (through the mechanism of natural selection) is a powerful explanatory device. It explains why strains of bacteria develop resistance to certain kinds of treatments and it informs modern vaccination treatments. Even cancer treatments are now being developed with the help of biological evolution.

The mechanisms of evolution essentially constitute an algorithm, and software developers have begun to write the mechanisms of evolution into their programs. This allows one to specify a problem to the computer, and then have the computer evolve solutions. So-called genetic algorithms use the mechanisms of evolution to develop new solutions to difficult problems that we would not have otherwise. This method has broad industrial applications and is even being used in some places in the music industry. I have a friend who uses genetic algorithms to develop solutions for the pharmaceutical industry. Still others use such algorithms to find solutions to sophisticated mechanical problems or problems in computer graphics. Still others use these methods to design energy efficient solar cells and engines.

Artificially induced evolution in farm animals explains, among other things, why we have cows instead of Aurochs. Without the explanatory power of evolution, we would not be able to explain this historical fact.

Furthermore, evolution has been observed in laboratory experiments. The process has been observed to occur, under laboratory conditions, in E Coli, in apple maggot flies, in maize, fruit flies (see the paper “An experimentally created incipient species of Drosophila” by Dobzhansky, et al) and in several other species of animals, plants, and micro-organisms (see, for example, this paper from 1993). In the experiments listed here, researchers observed full-blown speciation events. Extrapolating these experiments over the course of millions of years reveals how life on Earth diversified into the many myriad species we observe today.

But this is just the tip of the iceberg on the evidence for evolution.

Bessette not only doesn’t understand evolution, but doesn’t understand his own literature either. He states:

“Finally, Trudeau claims that Noah forgot the dinosaurs. If he was well read on the creation account and understood what young-Earth creationists teach, he would know that Noah did not forget anything. In fact, the Bible teaches that God brought to Noah and his family at least two of every kind of bird and land-dwelling, air-breathing animal, including dinosaurs, to board a barge-sized ship (ark) to repopulate the Earth after the global flood.”

It might be the case that the form of Young Earth Creationism to which Bessette subscribes teaches that Noah brought the dinosaurs onto the Ark. I don’t know where he thinks the dinosaurs are now, though he might believe, together with Kent Hovind, that the Loch Ness Monster and Mokele-mbembe are the modern descendants of dinosaurs. These sort of positions are shared by the Creationist think-tank Answers in Genesis. He might likewise believe Hovind’s totally bizarre claim that Jackson chameleons are triceratops with a grossly stunted growth (this is truly bizarre because the gross anatomical features of a Jackson chameleon and the triceratops are not even superficially similar and because we have fossilized remains of baby cerotopsians which do not at all resemble chameleons).

Regardless of whatever he believes, there are other Young Earth Creationists who believe that the dinosaurs did not go on the Ark and that the global flood was responsible for their extinction. They also claim that the global flood was responsible for the K-2 boundary. This latter point is not even remotely physically tenable, and there is simply no evidence at all that there was a Global Flood. I won’t go into detail here on why a Global Flood is deeply problematic and why scientists are justified in rejecting that such an event occurred. I will state that the existence of other Young Earth Creationists, who would reject Bessette’s account, indicates that he is either ignorant of other members of his tradition or is being deceitful. Either way, it is simply not true that ALL Young Earth Creationists teach that the dinosaurs went on the Ark. It is an interesting empirical question as to how many Creationists actually do teach this.


The Blind Watchmaker: Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe without DesignHealth, Mind & Body Books)

The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution

Evolution, Second Edition