John Farrell’s article, It’s Time To Retire ‘Theistic Evolution’ (Forbes magazine, March 19, 2016), cites three prominent Catholic thinkers who reject the term “theistic evolution.” But what Farrell overlooks is that these Catholics hold wildly divergent views on the simple question of whether living things were designed by God. Edward Feser insists that they were, and Stacy Trasancos apparently agrees; Ken Miller says they were not – which puts him in the same camp as Jesuit astronomer George Coyne and Catholic theologian John Haught, two outspoken defenders of evolution who were not cited in Farrell’s article. However, the clear teaching of the Catholic Church is that humans and other living things were designed by God.
What I find astonishing is that these critics of “theistic evolution” fail to recognize the enormous theological divide that separates them: Dr. Trasancos, for instance, declared she was “blown away with gratitude” that John Farrell had picked up on her recent blog essay, Theistic Evolution is Redundant (March 10, 2016), but she was curiously silent about Miller’s theological views on design, which contradict her position. In fact, the only thing that these authors share in common is their rejection of the term, “theistic evolution.” However, the various grounds on which they reject this term are quite different from one another.
The orthodox Catholic view on design
John Farrell might be surprised to learn that Thomist philosopher Ed Feser isn’t even an evolutionist, in the usual sense of the term: in a 2010 blog article, he declares his sympathy for the view that the first living things must have been specially created by God: “[T]he confidence that naturalists have that purely natural processes can generate life rests, I would submit, on their commitment to metaphysical naturalism rather than on actual empirical evidence.” In a more recent post, he affirms his belief in an original couple, Adam and Eve, and in the special creation of the human soul. Farrell quotes him favorably in his Forbes article, It’s Time To Retire ‘Theistic Evolution’, but as far as I am aware, Feser has never expressed an opinion on the use of that term. Feser is also a staunch believer in God’s design of living things, whether through an evolutionary process or a supernatural one. He maintains that “natural objects are not artifacts,” but insists, “I hold that they are designed by God,” adding that “when God creates them He does so in light of archetypes which pre-exist in the divine intellect” (Nature versus art, April 30, 2011). It would be hard to be any clearer than that.
For her part, Dr. Stacy Trasancos, whose Ph.D. is in chemistry, sees God’s design everywhere in Nature, even down to the level of the atom. In an article titled, Theistic Science Words are Going Out of Style (March 19, 2016), she writes: “I do not know how anyone can escape the conclusion that atoms themselves are designed, not just single atoms but their formation, their subatomic structure, their relation to each other, their rules for bonding.” She goes on to say that God’s design extends to “any natural process.” If Dr. Trasancos believes that even the way in which atoms bond is Divinely designed, then a fortiori, the same must hold true for complex organisms, such as human beings. As she puts it: “Design is an all-or-none proposition.”
Feser and Trasancos are both critics of Intelligent Design, but that is not the topic of this post. On this subject of God’s design of creation, the thinking of these two writers is clearly in alignment with the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which declares that creatures were designed by God – “Each of the various creatures, willed in its own being, reflects in its own way a ray of God’s infinite wisdom and goodness” – and that human beings were also designed. Speaking of man, the Catechism states: “He is ‘the only creature on earth that God has willed for its own sake'” (Gaudium et Spes 24 # 3).
In his recent encyclical Laudato si’, Pope Francis reaffirms this age-old teaching:
65. …The Creator can say to each one of us: “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you” (Jer 1:5). We were conceived in the heart of God, and for this reason “each of us is the result of a thought of God. Each of us is willed, each of us is loved, each of us is necessary“.
76. In the Judaeo-Christian tradition, the word “creation” has a broader meaning than “nature”, for it has to do with God’s loving plan in which every creature has its own value and significance… God’s love is the fundamental moving force in all created things: “For you love all things that exist, and detest none of the things that you have made; for you would not have made anything if you had hated it” (Wis 11:24).
77. “By the word of the Lord the heavens were made” (Ps 33:6). This tells us that the world came about as the result of a decision, not from chaos or chance, and this exalts it all the more. The creating word expresses a free choice.
The Catholic Church’s foremost theologian, St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), taught very clearly that living things were designed in detail by God, their Creator. In his Summa Theologica I, q. 103 art. 5, Aquinas addresses the question: “Whether all things are subject to the Divine government?” First, he lists some common objections to the idea that everything is subject to God’s government. Next, he rebuts these objections by citing the words of St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430), who asserted that all of the fine details of Nature had been planned by God:
On the contrary, Augustine says (De Civ. Dei v, 11): “Not only heaven and earth, not only man and angel, even the bowels of the lowest animal, even the wing of the bird, the flower of the plant, the leaf of the tree, hath God endowed with every fitting detail of their nature.” Therefore all things are subject to his government.
The novel theological views of Kenneth Miller, John Haught and George Coyne S.J.
By contrast, Catholic biochemist Kenneth Miller contends that “mankind’s appearance on this planet was not preordained” (Finding Darwin’s God, HarperCollins, 1999, p. 272), and that while God was able to guarantee the eventual emergence of intelligent life in the universe, the universe’s built-in randomness would have made it impossible for God to guarantee that these intelligent life-forms would be human beings. Miller expressed this point very candidly in a comment he made at the “Shifting Ground” conference, Bedford, New Hampshire, on March 24, 2007:
If you let the videotape of life run again, I think you’d get large streamlined predators that swam in the ocean. I think you’d get something that used photosynthesis not unlike plants but it might not be plants today. And eventually I think you would also get a large, intelligent, reflective, self-aware organism with a highly developed nervous system. Now it might be a big-brained dinosaur, or it might be a mollusk with exceptional mental capabilities.… my point is that I think eventually under the conditions that we have in this universe you would get an intelligent, self-aware and reflective organism, which is to say you’d get something like us. It might not come out of the primates, it might come from somewhere else.”
However, as Lita Cosner and Keaton Halley point out in their article, Did God create an ‘open’ universe? (Creation.com, June 2, 2015), “the Bible’s claim is not that God merely foreordained the existence of some undefined intelligent creature — it says He explicitly intended to make humans (c.f., Genesis 1:26; 2:18; Jeremiah 1:5), and to become incarnate as a human.”
Dr. Wayne Rossiter, who earned his Ph.D. in ecology and evolution from Rutgers University in February of 2012 and is currently an assistant professor of biology at Waynesburg University, nails the error in Miller’s thinking in a recent blog article (March 22, 2016):
For Kenneth Miller, God didn’t create any biological structure directly or intentionally. And, if He did, then that’s not evolution.
In a similar vein, Catholic theologian John Haught affirms the autonomy and radical spontaneity of God’s creation, in an essay titled, “Darwin, Design and Divine Providence” (in Debating Design, ed. Michael Ruse and William Dembski, Cambridge University Press, 2004): “Since God is love and not domineering force, the world must be endowed with inner spontaneity and self-creativity that allows it ‘to become itself’ and thus participate in the adventure of its own creation. Any other kind of world, in fact, is theologically inconceivable” (p. 243). Once again, living things are not designed by God; they create themselves through an autonomous capacity which God bestowed on Nature.
Jesuit astronomer George Coyne goes even further than Miller and Haught: in a talk titled, “The Dance of the Fertile Universe”, he claims that the occurrence of “chance processes” in the cosmos means that not even God could know … with certainty” that “human life would come to be,” concluding that “[i]f we take the results of modern science seriously, it is difficult to believe that God is omnipotent and omniscient in the sense of the scholastic philosophers,” since “God cannot know what is not knowable” (p. 7).
Which two of these thinkers are different from the rest?
Of the five thinkers quoted above, only Feser and Trasancos hold views on human origins which are compatible with the teaching of the Catholic Church. As a staunch defender of classical theism, which declares that God is one, eternal, immaterial, necessary, omnipotent, omniscient, and perfectly good, Feser roundly rejects “open theism” (as well as any other view that belittles God’s attributes as Creator) as a theological aberration.
For her part, Dr. Trasancos is quite theologically conservative too: in an article titled, Five Questions From Catholics About Evolution (February 25, 2015), she declares her belief in a literal figure named Adam (the first man), who was created with the preternatural gift of immortality, and whose sin transmitted death to mankind. Her quotations from Dr. Ludwig Ott’s Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma also bear out her orthodoxy.
The differing grounds on which Dr. Trasancos and Professor Miller oppose “theistic evolution”
In her blog article, Theistic Evolution is Redundant (March 10, 2016), Dr. Stacy Trasancos explains her reasons for rejecting the term, “theistic evolution”:
The term “theistic evolution” is used in contrast to the atheistic idea of evolution. It means evolution set in motion by God or under the direction of God, and seems appropriate for a believer who admits some truth to evolutionary science.
But I do not like the phrase because it is a confusing redundancy. Think about it. If you are a believer, it is already implied that you see all biological and physical processes as created and held in existence by God. You do not need “theistic” in front of biological terms. Who speaks of theistic reproduction? Or theistic gestation, theistic meiosis, or theistic menstruation? Plus, to qualify a biological process as “theistic” implies that the opposite is possible, that God may not be involved in creating certain laws of nature.
Just leave the unnecessary adjective out and treat evolutionary science as a biological and physical science. Refuse to treat it as anything else. Judge it on its scientific merits or lack thereof.
In other words, Dr. Trasancos rejects the term “theistic evolution,” precisely because she rejects the possibility of atheistic evolution.
Professor Kenneth Miller’s motivations for rejecting the term “theistic evolution” are quite different. As he declared to John Farrell in his article, It’s Time To Retire ‘Theistic Evolution’ (Forbes magazine, March 19, 2016), Miller rejects the view that the outcome of evolution was fore-ordained by God:
Brown University biologist and author Kenneth R. Miller states the term simply compromises the integrity of the science. When I reached him by email, he said, ‘To me, and in the minds of most people who use the term, it implies that a god had to pre-ordain the outcome of the evolutionary process or at the very least guide it along to produce the world of today, including human beings his chosen creatures. I don’t believe that at all. Evolution is a fully-independent natural process driven by chance and necessity.’
This has irked some of his non-religious colleagues in the field, who continue to suspect that, one way or another, religious biologists like himself are trying to ‘add’ something supernatural to the mix. Miller flatly denies this.
“People like Jerry Coyne routinely accuse me of holding to the view that God intervened in the evolutionary process,” said Miller, “and it seems like no matter how many times I post on his blog that I believe exactly the opposite, he persists. That’s one reason why I reject the label of theistic evolutionist at every opportunity I get.”
Miller is upfront about his belief in the autonomy of Nature in his book, Finding Darwin’s God: A scientist’s search for common ground between God and evolution (Harper Perennial, New York, 1999, p. 238):
Evolution is not rigged, and religious belief does not require one to postulate a God who fixes the game, bribes the referees, or tricks natural selection. The reality of natural history, like the reality of human history, is more interesting and more exciting.
The freedom to act and choose enjoyed by each individual in the Western religious tradition requires that God allow the future of His creation to be left open. … If events in the material world were strictly determined, then evolution would indeed move towards the predictable outcomes that so many people seem to want; but if this is the case, how could the future truly be open?
(Quoted in Did God create an ‘open’ universe? by Lita Cosner and Keaton Halley. Creation.com, June 2, 2015.)
In a nutshell: Miller rejects the term “theistic evolution” because he doesn’t believe that the process of evolution is controlled by God. As we saw above, he believes that Nature possesses a degree of autonomy, which means that the creatures it produced cannot be said to have been designed by their Creator. While the eventual emergence of some sort of intelligent life was an inevitable consequence of God’s plan, the emergence of human beings was not.
Farrell’s great misunderstanding
Miller’s reason for rejecting “theistic evolution” is thus quite different from Trasancos’s – a point which completely escapes Forbes writer John Farrell, who then proceeds to enlist Thomist philosopher Ed Feser in support of his crusade against “theistic evolution,” even though Feser has never expressed an opinion on the subject:
Now, what’s interesting here is that Miller and Trasancos are both Catholics, and Catholic intellectual tradition has a longstanding interest in science and philosophy going back to Aristotle and the ancient Greeks… Long before Darwin, for example, medieval scholastics entertained the notion that God could be viewed, to use one analogy, more as a CEO than an engineer.
One scholar who’s been all over this is Pasadena College philosophy professor Edward Feser, who regularly tangles with intelligent design creationists —and deconstructs their arguments on purely philosophical grounds…
The main point is Christian scientists who accept evolution have a much broader understanding of God than — chief engineer. And ‘theistic evolution’, as its (sic) summarized for example at Wikipedia, simply misrepresents their position.
Farrell overlooks three vital points here. The first is that Feser himself has previously refuted the very argument on which Miller bases his rejection of “theistic evolution” – namely, that fore-ordained outcomes would be incompatible with freedom. In a blog article titled, Are you for real? (May 8, 2011), Feser uses the analogy between a writer and a storybook to illustrate his point, although he is very careful to point out that “the world is not literally a mere story and we are not literally fictional characters”:
The idea is that God’s causality is not like that of one character, object, or event in a story among others; it is more like that of the author of the story. Hence to say that God is the ultimate source of all causality is not like saying that He is comparable to a hypnotist in a story who brainwashes people to do his bidding, or a mad scientist who controls them via some electronic device implanted in their brains. He is more like the writer who decides that the characters will interact in such-and-such a way.
Not only does Feser maintain that God’s authorship of creation is perfectly compatible with creaturely freedom, but he also argues (more controversially) that God’s authorship of our choices is fully compatible with libertarian human freedom, as well: “And so His being the ultimate source of all causality is no more incompatible with human freedom than the fact that an author decides that, as part of a mystery story, a character will freely choose to commit a murder, is incompatible with the claim that the character in question really committed the murder freely.”
The second point I’d like to make in reply to Farrell is that being a critic of Intelligent Design doesn’t automatically make you a critic of “theistic evolution.” Geneticist Dr. Francis Collins, author of The Language of God (Free Press, 2006) and a leading critic of Intelligent Design, strongly endorses theistic evolution, which he defines as the position that evolution is real, but that it was set in motion by God (“Building bridges“, Nature 442 (7099):110, 13 July 2006).
Finally, Farrell should also be aware that the term “theistic evolution” has evolved in meaning over the past few years – a fact which is documented by Discovery Institute Senior fellow John West in his 2009 article, According to theistic evolution, did God direct evolution and know its outcome?:
In the initial years after Darwin’s theory was proposed, most theistic evolutionists believed that God guided the evolutionary process to specific ends. However, as the Darwinian view of the undirected nature of evolution gradually solidified in the scientific community, defenders of theistic evolution increasingly disowned the idea of guided evolution. Consequently, many leading proponents of theistic evolution today insist that Darwinian evolution by definition is an undirected process and that not even God knows what the process will produce with certainty or specificity.
West then proceeds to quote passages from the writings of George Coyne and Kenneth Miller (who now disowns the label “theistic evolutionist”) to illustrate his point. He also quotes a remark in the same vein by Anglican theologian John Polkinghorne: “an evolutionary universe is theologically understood as a creation allowed to make itself.” (Quarks, Chaos, and Christianity, Crossroad Classic, 1995, p. 113.)
It appears to me that certain Catholic thinkers are trying to stake out a position that rules out any Divine “nudging” of the process of evolution, whether visible or invisible, not on scientific grounds but on a priori theological grounds. God, we are told, would never make creatures by a process that needed nudging along. The theological grounds for this view are dubious, as it assumes that stochastic processes lacking long-term foresight are nonetheless capable of giving rise to the genetic programs we find in living creatures, but let that pass. In their new-found zeal to create a version of evolution which is immune to scientific falsification by Darwinists, some of these Catholics have been led to throw the baby away with the bath water: they have abandoned the age-old doctrine that God designed each and every species of living creature, and all its parts. That, I have to say, is a great pity. And it is an even greater pity that many Catholic thinkers whose views on design are more conservative are curiously blind to the deficiencies of the noisy minority who are leading the headlong charge away from the Church’s traditional teaching.
What do readers think?