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Creation, Evolution, and Christian Laypeople, Part 3

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March 9, 2012 Tags: Pastoral Voices
Creation, Evolution, and Christian Laypeople, Part 3

Today's entry was written by Tim Keller. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of BioLogos. You can read more about what we believe here.

This is the third of a six-part series considering questions lay people raise with their pastors when introduced to the teaching that biological evolution and biblical orthodoxy can be compatible. In the first and second posts, Dr. Keller gave an overview of the tension between biblical and scientific accounts on origins from a pastoral perspective and addressed the conflict between evolution and a literal reading of Genesis. In this post, he argues that an evolutionary account of origins does not necessarily diminish human dignity.

Three Questions of Christian Laypeople

Question#2: If biological evolution is true—does that mean that we are just animals driven by our genes, and everything about us can be explained by natural selection?

Answer: No. Belief in evolution as a biological process is not the same as belief in evolution as a world-view.

Today every effort is being made to insist that belief in the process of biological evolution leads necessarily to belief in ‘perennial naturalism’ (to use Alvin Plantinga’s term),1 the view that everything about human nature—our ability to love, act, think, form beliefs, use language, have moral convictions, put faith in God, and do art and philosophy—can all be understood as originating in random genetic mutation or some other source of variability, and prevailing in the human race today only because of natural selection. We may feel that some behaviors are universally right and should be performed, and some things universally wrong and should not be done, whether those behaviors promote your survival or not. But perennial naturalism insists that those feelings are there not because they are universally true, but only and entirely because they helped your ancestors survive.

One of the cardinal principles of the ‘new atheists’ is that perennial naturalism automatically flows from belief in the biological evolution of species. A great example was Sam Harris’ recent castigation of Francis Collins, after he was nominated to be head of NIH. Harris was deeply troubled that Collins as a Christian believer understood that human nature had aspects (such as intuition of God’s Moral Law) which science could not explain. Collins was denying, therefore, that science could provide ‘answers to the most pressing questions of human existence.’ This troubled Harris. He wrote:

“As someone who believes that our understanding of human nature can be derived from neuroscience, psychology, cognitive science and behavioral economics, among others, I am troubled by Dr. Collins’s line of thinking… Must we really entrust the future of biomedical research in the United States to a man who sincerely believes that a scientific understanding of human nature is impossible?”2

The argument here is clear. If you believe human life was formed through evolutionary biological processes (from here on, referred to as EBP), you must therefore believe in the Grand Theory of Evolution (from here on, referred to as GTE) as the explanation for every aspect of human nature. Collins, he says, should see that human beings have no ‘immortal soul, free will, knowledge of the moral law, spiritual hunger, genuine altruism’ based on our relationship with God.3 Evolution, Harris claims, has shown that these things are illusions. All features of human life have a natural, scientifically explicable cause. If you believe in EBP, you must believe in GTE.

GTE is fast becoming what Peter Berger calls a ‘plausibility structure’. It is a set of beliefs considered so basic, and with so much support from authoritative figures and institutions, that it is becoming impossible for individuals to publicly question them. A plausibility structure is a ‘given’ supported by enormous social pressure. The writings of the new atheists here are important to observe because their attitudes are more powerful than their arguments. The disdain and refusal to show any respect to opponents is not actually an effort to refute them logically, but to ostracize them socially and turn their own views into a plausibility structure. They are well on their way.

This creates a problem for the Christian layperson if they hear their teachers or preachers telling them that God could have used EBP to bring about life forms. Evolution as a ‘Grand Theory’ is now being used at the popular level to explain nearly everything about human behavior.

Many Christian laypeople resist all this and seek to hold on to some sense of human dignity by subscribing to ‘fiat-creationism.’ This is not a sophisticated theological and philosophical move; it is intuitive. In their mind ‘evolution’ is one big ball of wax. It seems to them that, if you believe in evolution, human beings are just animals under the power of their inner, genetically-produced drives. I have seen Christians in a Bible study on Genesis 1-2 read the following quote and become confused:

"If 'evolution' is…elevated to the status of a world-view of the way things are, then there is direct conflict with biblical faith. But if 'evolution' remains at the level of scientific biological hypothesis, it would seem that there is little reason for conflict between the implications of Christian belief in the Creator and the scientific explorations of the way which--at the level of biology--God has gone about his creating processes." 4

Atkinson is saying that you can believe in EBP and not GTE. I have seen intelligent, educated laypeople really struggle with the distinction Atkinson has made. Nevertheless, this is exactly the distinction they must make, or they will never grant the importance of EBP.

How can we help them? I believe that Christian pastors, theologians, and scientists who want to argue for an EBP account of origins must put a great deal of emphasis at the same time on arguing against GTE. Christian philosophers have paved the way here and there are many good critiques of philosophical naturalism. Many know about Alvin Plantinga’s ‘Evolutionary Argument against Naturalism’ in which, much like C.S. Lewis in his book Miracles, he argues that “Evolution is interested (so to speak) only in adaptive behavior, not in true belief. Natural selection doesn’t care what you believe; it is interested only in how you behave.”5 The argument goes like this. Does natural selection (alone) give us cognitive faculties (sense perception, rational intuition about those perceptions, and our memory of them) that produce true beliefs about the real world? In as far as true belief produces survival behavior—yes. But who can say how far that is? If a theory makes it impossible to trust our minds, then it also makes it impossible to be sure about anything our minds tell us--including macro-evolution itself-- and everything else.6 Any theory that makes it impossible to trust our minds is self-defeating.

Another very important area where we must ‘push back’ against GTE is in its efforts to explain away moral intuitions. An excellent recent volume where, again, Christian philosophers take the lead is Jeffrey Schloss, ed. The Believing Primate: Scientific, Philosophical, and Theological Reflections on the Origin of Religion (Oxford, 2009.) See especially Christian Smith’s chapter “Does Naturalism Warrant a Moral Belief in Universal Benevolence and Human Rights?” (By the way, his conclusion is ‘no.’) So what does this mean? Many orthodox Christians who believe in EBP often find themselves attacked by those Christians who do not. But it might reduce the tensions between believers over evolution if they could make common cause against GTE. Most importantly, it is the only way to help Christian laypeople make the distinction in their minds between evolution as biological mechanism and as Theory of Life.

Next week, Dr. Keller continues to explore the issues most often raised about evolution and faith by Christian laypeople, turning to questions about the origins of sin and suffering in light of the trustworthiness of Scripture.


1. Plantinga sees the two great alternatives to orthodox religious views: a) perennial naturalism—and b) creative anti-realism—the view that is often called ‘post-modernism’ or post-structuralism. See “Christian Philosophy at the End of the Twentieth Century” in The Analytic Theist: An Alvin Plantinga Reader (Eerdmans, 1998.)
2. Sam Harris, “Science is in the Details”, New York Times, July 26, 2009.
3. Ibid.
4. David Atkinson, The Message of Genesis 1-11 (The Bible Speaks Today Series), p.31.
5. A.Plantinga, “Naturalism Defeated” 1994, available at www.calvin.edu/academic/philosophy/ vitual_library/articles/ plantinga_alvin/naturalism_defeated.pdf
6. This argument is worked out in detail in A. Plantinga, Warrant and Proper Function (Oxford, 1993) chapter 12. Also see also William C. Davis, "Theistic Arguments", Michael J. Murray, ed. Reason for the Hope Within (Eerdmans, 1999) p. 39.
7. Granted, often New Testament writers see Messianic meanings in Old Testament prophecies that were doubtless invisible to the OT prophets themselves. Nonetheless, while a Biblical author’s writing may have more true meanings than he intended when writing, it may not have less. That is, what the human author meant to teach us cannot be seen as mistaken or now obsolete without surrendering the traditional understanding of Biblical authority and trustworthiness.

Timothy Keller is the founding pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City. The “Influentials” issue of New York magazine featured Keller as “the most successful Christian evangelist in the city” for his engagement with the young professional and artist demographics. He received his bachelor’s degree from Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Penn., his Master of Divinity from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in South Hampton, Mass., and his Doctor of Ministry from Westminster Theological Seminary. He is the author of such New York Times bestselling books as The Reason for God and Prayer. He is also Chairman of Redeemer City to City, which has helped start over 250 churches in global cities worldwide. He lives in New York City with his wife Kathy.

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Tim - #68446

March 9th 2012

I agree with Keller that Sam Harris’ efforts to norm science along atheistic lines as somehow the only “proper” scientific way of thinking is unhelpful and unwarranted.

That said, I have to ask where Keller (as well as Collins) find fault in current sociobiological explanations of morality as well as, more specifically, even “genuine” altruism.  The advantages of biologically based moral/pro-social dispositions to early hominid communities (or “tribes”) that had to function cooperatively in order to survive and care for their young should be fairly evident.  This would include “genuine” altruism.  Certainly genuine altruism, often elicited by feelings of compassion and sympathy over the need or misfortune of another, when expressed in early communities would have a high probability of benefiting one’s kin due to how genetically close knit such communities would naturally be.  In today’s society such is no longer really the case.  But it isn’t hard to see that something so ingrained in our nature would persist, though the adaptive basis for it may have weakened somewhat for kin selection.

So I think statements such as, “Harris was deeply troubled that Collins as a Christian believer
understood that human nature had aspects (such as intuition of God’s
Moral Law) which science could not explain” ought perhaps be critically challenged in light of these explanations.

Chip - #68470

March 12th 2012


My personal objection to such adaptive explanations is that, if true, all references to morality ultimately become arbitrary.  While it does make sense that altruism would be persisted by natural selection because it provided for some kind of reproductive advantage (cooperative or otherwise), adaptations like rape, theft or even murder would have been persisted by natural selection for exactly the same reason.  Natural selection does not—and cannot—care about notions like right and wrong; it’s only goal (if I can even use that term) is to help the next generation survive and reproduce.  If I do that by murder and pillage on the one hand, or by generous altruism on the other, natural selection happily signs off either way. 

I’ll send the question back to you:  if you argue from the perspective of current sociobiological explanations, why would sacrificially feeding my neighbor be “right” and stealing from his pile of yams be “wrong,” when all natural selection cares about is what is expedient?    

Tim - #68471

March 12th 2012


I would say that it all depends on how you identify with your humanity, with one’s common heritage/traits as a human serving as a kind of objective standard “universal” to one’s species.

Now, there are a lot of proclivities that come along with being human.  We hunger for food.  We experience sexual desire we call “lust.”  We experience anger.  Even hate.  We have a tendency to want to exert dominance over our peers, if attainable.  We fear.  We envy.  And of course we love, feel compassion, express self-sacrificing altruism, express mercy, loyalty, and even bravery in defending our communities. 

But that doesn’t mean then that these all get thrown into the blender, where one could say, “well, since it’s “human” to do one thing it’s therefore just as “human” to do the other.”

The thing is, pro-social/moral dispositions have their own unique feel, or experience to them.  They are associated with what we call our “moral sense.”  So when we discussing moral virtues, we are not talking about hunger or rage or any such thing.  We are talking about these pro-social/moral dispositions.

Whether you identify with them or not is a personal choice.  But, as a species, one could argue that it is normative that we do identify with them, that we do care about them, and that we do in some degree or another, as mediated through our culture as well as individually, express them.

Chip - #68475

March 12th 2012

Whether you identify with them or not is a personal choice. 

So, if my own proclivities don’t synch up with those of my neighbor, I can steal his stuff (or engage in any other behavior that someone else might consider unethical), and this would be a perfectly legitimate expression of my own personal “moral sense,” as understood by the “unique feel” that it has?

Tim - #68476

March 12th 2012


The idea is that our pro-social/moral dispositions do on a broad level “sync up” in some, basic sense.  The culture we are raised in further refines how exactly these dispositions are experienced and expressed.  Based on these cultural understandings, laws are written to hold each other accountable to, at a minimum, avoid engaging in egregious “anti-social”, as opposed to morally valued “pro-social” behavior.  If you don’t like that, then your case would have to be with society as a whole embracing their universal, as well as cultural, moral heritage.  Nothing stops you from saying that this isn’t necessary or required from some abstract “outside” point of view (if you were to just ignore the idea that a well functioning society and good mental health for its populous are virtues), but rot in prison you would just the same.

Merv - #68481

March 12th 2012

Tim and Chip, I think your discussion has a perspective component to it that I think may illuminate Chip’s concerns (which I share).

It is one thing to choose to embrace (or not!) morality as a “citizen within that moral code” and quite another to attempt to “step outside” of that moral dimension for the purposes of having abstract discussions like this one where sources of moral code are evaluated and their origins discussed as if we ourselves are detached observers who can handle the box, turn it over and examine all its sides and labels, so to speak.

Some (Chip? —certainly myself) think of ourselves and the world from inside this code, even if we pretend to “step outside” for the purpose of academic discussion such as this.  But all the time, we do not feel free to just toss it to the wind and make up our own morality along the way.  The reason I don’t is that I think I (and society at large) have some basis for our moral code as currently received.  When others try to objectify that basis (and fail), the natural reaction from those “living within the code” is—-okay it’s all fine for you to say social mores and conventions manufacture morality.  But the strong (overwhelming) undercurrent of your “objectification” is that there is really no absolute to impel us to choose one morality over another; this box over that.  Sure I may go to prison for defying social mores of my time, but hey!  Lot’s of saints and martyrs spent time in prison for doing the same—and they were morally justified (from my ‘in-the-box’ perspective).  So the reactionary alarm bells will always ring when some look to science for an analytical dissection of morality.  They will never get there, and in fact will never succeed in actually getting outside of their box.  Altruism or selfishness may have interesting short or long term consequences that science can study.  But those who recognize absolutes will never find the “whatever is right in culture’s eyes” argument to be convincing, and will in fact recognize it as a dangerous experiment historically carried out many times over.


Tim - #68482

March 12th 2012


The focus of my response was to ultimately address Keller’s and Collin’s assertions that there seems to be some inadequacy in naturalistic explanations for morality, “genuine” altruism in particular

I personally don’t see these inadequacies, and plenty of scientists engaged in, or at least well familiar with sociobiological research share much the same sentiment.

The thing is, morality insofar as we have moral dispositions is something we can study scientifically, as something universal to our species.  Just as we can investigate the workings of appropriate social behavior for bees.

To take that comparison and draw out an analogy to illustrate my point, take what is “good” bumblebee behavior.  A “good” bumblebee diligently works to produce honey for the hive, and protects it when it is attacked.  Now, take some hypothetical “bad” bumblebee.  A “bad” bumblebee may steal honey from the hive, and attack it to boot.  Now, do we, using some an outside standard, have any objective reason to say that it is more “moral” for a bee to do one thing as opposed to another?  No.  But taking what it is to be a bumblebee, and what it is to function in bumblebee society, can we make objective characterizations of “good” vs. “bad” bumblebee behavior?  Yes, of course we can.  Bumblebee workes who don’t produce honey, steal it, and attack their hive are bad, broken, deranged bumblebees.

Same thing with humans.  We can understand the biological basis underlying morality, understand something of their origins.  We can understand how moral dispositions operate at a broad, universal level.  And we can understand how morality is culturally mediated, having even “evolved” culturally over time.  And we can understand the cultural norms for our own society, and have some appreciation for how those relate to norms that are biologically universal to our species.

So just as you can have a “bad” hypothetical bumblebee who violates all the social norms of the hive, you can have a broken or “bad” human as well.  For instance, there is Anti-Social Personality Disorder.  For people with this disorder, their experience of a “moral sense” is very different than ours.  But it isn’t the moral sense that we inherit as a species, that we universally share and experience as humans.  It is something broken.  Something deranged.  In fact, you could even say it is “inhuman.”  You could even go far as to call people who engage in severely anti-social behavior “monsters”, as we don’t see the humanity in them that we share.

So I would argue that morality is not something that is so ethereal that we can’t study it or talk about it objectively.  I feel that we can.  We share a common moral heritage as a species, and we can explore and elucidate that.  And I think fields such as sociobiology, anthropology, psychology, sociology, and, of course, ethics are very helpful in doing just that.

Merv - #68484

March 12th 2012

I agree that morality and its social effects can be studied.  But it is problematic to equate it with something like Bumblebee behavior insofar as non-human animal behavior is generally seen as 100% instinctual.  Whereas human behavior is seen as a mixture of instinct with something else that is seen (or taken) to operate above the instinctual level.  It may be easy to find a ‘norm’ by studying a culture or even entire human populations.  But it is problematic to then equate that norm with a prescriptive morality.  At one time the ‘norm’ was to own and trade slaves which would have made any radical abolitionists ‘immoral’ for going against the culture of their day.  Here is where atheists can trot out the old canard about how Christianity in particular failed miserably to rectify slavery; and of course they are only partially right.  Every system of thought (including anything we call science) has always been abused to justify cultural norms as we would like to have them.  But Christianity also had the seeds (always there) for the Wilberforces or Browns to leverage it against a cultural norm.  Perhaps science can claim to have good seeds for cultural change as well, as long as it is in partnership with something outside itself that can supply an authoritative imperative; a driver with a map and a mission to make use of the powerful car that science has in part helped to build.


Tim - #68486

March 12th 2012


I should clarify that I was not equating human morality with instinctive pro-social behavior of insects.  I was merely drawing an analogy between something complex (pro-social expressions in humanity) and a simple counterpart (pro-social expressions in bumblebees) to better illustrate a point.

I would also want to make clear that I am not advocating making cultural moral norms “prescriptive.”  What I was arguing though was that the common, innate, roots of morality are universal to our species, and that, in a more relative fashion, culture mediates their expression. 

Now, culture is not limited to just a national unit.  Religions are cultural as well, for instance.  And of course, there is also individual variation in expression.  You can be raised in, and certainly influenced by your broader societies cultural norms, as well as your local community’s (perhaps religious) norms. And then there is also your own individual, expression of morality as well. 

Now, in terms of an “objective” comparison between competing cultural expressions of morality, the universal human condition that informs our morality can certainly be used as one standard to which we could return and reference in calibrating our moral compass.  For example, if we understand that it is intrinsic within our pro-social dispositions as humans that we naturally abhor causing harm to the vulnerable and innocent, then cultural norms that permit or encourage the opposite could be deemed as less “human” (or one could perhaps say humane) than cultures that are more aligned with our innate cultural universals.  And I would not that culture does have the potential to override our natural moral dispositions (as seen for instance in Nazi Germany).  But even in such instances rationalizations are normally given such that human beings can pallet such behavior so opposed to what we would otherwise be inclined to do).  So even in such extreme cultural situations, we are returning to a universal standard through the necessity of rationalizations (i.e., they’re not “truly” innocent, etc).

So on issues of “prescriptive” morality, we could ask the question, “what is it to be human?”  And more specifically with respect to our culture, “what does it mean to us today to be human?”  So, on a universal level, we could say “humans care for their young, we feel compassion for the helpless, we cooperate with one another, and we protect and nurture our communities.”  On a more relative cultural level, we could say, “Marriage should be between two consenting adults, not multiple wives and one man.  Citizens should have the right to vote for their government.  Draft dodging is wrong.  Etc.”  Now, these more relative cultural values don’t just manifest out of thin air.  They aren’t completely arbitrary.  They do derive from our universal moral values (such as loyalty and the desire to protect your community and those you love, for example, which manifests as duty to one’s country to heed the call when they conscript you to defend your country).  But again, we can always have competing moral claims (e.g., pacifism can often be in conflict with carrying out one’s duty with respect to a draft).

So moral dilemmas will always persist, and different morally-informed expressions, as well as decisions, will often be in tension with one another.  And of course there will always be the biological universality as contrasted with the cultural relativity.   So while there is some consistency, there is also some chaos.  While there are some constants, there are variables as well.  But being human is often a very dynamic process.  We aren’t “instinctual” like the bees, as you’ve noted.  Our morality is far more complicated.

But that isn’t to say that clear things can’t be said about morality.  Grabbing a gun and going from door to door shooting innocent people is always wrong.  Sharing your bread with a starving innocent child is always right.  Just as we can say that, in medical science, a person can be demonstrably, unequivocally “alive”, and they can be demonstrably, unequivocally “dead.”  But in both situations, moral and medical, there can be a grey in the middle.  And we can continue to investigate that, and wrestle with that.  But let’s not pretend that we don’t have objective, universal criteria with which to work with.  We do.

Steven Curry - #68488

March 12th 2012

Tim, thank you for expressing these much-needed arguments here.

Steven Curry - #68487

March 12th 2012

When I read the Sam Harris NYT article to which Keller refers I was surprised by how unremarkable it was, in contrast to how Keller has portrayed it. It’s not an article on new atheism. It seems to me that religious and non-religious folks alike could readily agree with it. Here is the full version of what Keller quoted, sans his eliding:

     As someone who believes that our understanding of human nature can be
     derived from neuroscience, psychology, cognitive science and
     behavioral economics, among others, I am troubled by Dr. Collins’s
     line of thinking. I also believe it would seriously undercut fields
     like neuroscience and our growing understanding of the human mind. If
     we must look to religion to explain our moral sense, what should we
     make of the deficits of moral reasoning associated with conditions
     like frontal lobe syndrome and psychopathy? Are these disorders best
     addressed by theology?

     Dr. Collins has written that “science offers no answers to the most
     pressing questions of human existence” and that “the claims of
     atheistic materialism must be steadfastly resisted.”

     One can only hope that these convictions will not affect his judgment
     at the institutes of health. After all, understanding human well-being
     at the level of the brain might very well offer some “answers to the
     most pressing questions of human existence”—questions like, Why do
     we suffer? Or, indeed, is it possible to love one’s neighbor as
     oneself? And wouldn’t any effort to explain human nature without
     reference to a soul, and to explain morality without reference to God,
     necessarily constitute “atheistic materialism”?

     Francis Collins is an accomplished scientist and a man who is sincere
     in his beliefs. And that is precisely what makes me so uncomfortable
     about his nomination. Must we really entrust the future of biomedical
     research in the United States to a man who sincerely believes that a
     scientific understanding of human nature is impossible?


Francis Collins has indeed been criticized for his God-of-the-gaps approach to behavior (http://pandasthumb.org/archives/2009/07/francis-collins-3.html). Considering the power of his role at NIH, there is legitimate reason for concern.

Chip - #68493

March 13th 2012

Wow.  I had no idea that “the future of biomedical research in the United States” has been entrusted to a single invididual.  I better write my congressman. 

Chip - #68494

March 13th 2012

Good thing we have really smart guys like Sam Harris to clarify these hard issues for us. 

Merv - #68489

March 13th 2012

Thanks for your reply, Tim.  I agree (have faith) that we do have some access to objective information, even about morality.

Per the concerns expressed by Steven (and you?) about Collins’ science position or Keller’s post here, I don’t hear Keller trying to deny that science can help us understand many things.  I hear him denying that science can address *everything*.  And I think Collins would agree.  One can see limitations on the domain of science without being a science denier. 

Indeed to have suspicions that Collins religious faith compromises his work puts one in the curious position of then needing to hold Newton’s, Boyle’s, Faraday’s, ... scientific contributions as suspect since they too along with many other were devout believers.  It is  a blinkered view of history.

I guess my question to those who think so is this:  In what ways would Collins’ faith compromise his work?


Steven Curry - #68491

March 13th 2012

Merv, did you read the NYT and Panda’s Thumb articles? Collins is stating upfront where God gets involved. It would be like Newton declaring that God is responsible for guiding planets. Oh wait, Newton actually did declare that, and as a consequence his inquiry stopped there. God of the gaps has always been bad for science.

Merv - #68501

March 13th 2012

Good point, Steve—about Newton’s gappish thinking, though I don’t know of any theistic scientists today who insist that planetary orbits are unexplainable, so apparently the “harm” done to science wasn’t enduring.  Is Collins threatening to curtail valuable scientific studies because he thinks they are treading on God’s territory?  I don’t see the bogeyman there that Harris is so afraid of the the NYT article.  He uses the same hyperbole that also appears in your own critique of Keller here—namely it seems that Keller and Collins are charged with saying that science can’t explain *anything* about morality.  Maybe I need to reread the article above, but what I got from it was that Keller thinks science can’t explain *everything*.  The former is, of course, a science stopper, and the latter a different claim in its scope.  When someone insists that morality is unexplainable, I don’t take it to mean that nothing about behavioral consequences can be observed and studied.  They are claiming rather that there will never be any “ought” made available by an “is”.  Science can only touch the latter.  To get to the former, it has to borrow from something outside itself.  Science can’t reach into philosophy without ceasing to be science.  If your claim is that the scientific domain is all there is and all other fields of study are either harmful or at best worthless, then of course I and much of the rest of humanity will disagree.  But the claim of philosophical-naturalism is 100% non-scientific, and therefore such an emphasis is self-denigrating. 


Steven Curry - #68502

March 13th 2012

Merv, like Keller you’re introducing a whole lot of culture warring that just isn’t there. The issue is simple:

Newton believed that God guided the planets. Consequently, Newton had no clue about perturbation theory. He could have discovered it, but his beliefs prevented him.

Michael Behe believes that the immune system did not evolve. Consequently, Behe has no clue about the evolution of the immune system (about which much is known), as his Dover trial testimony showed.

Francis Collins believes that morality did not evolve. As the Panda’s Thumb article notes, Collins does not seriously address the scientific literature on the issue. This is suspiciously analogous to Behe.

Nobody cares that Collins is a Christian. It’s his stated positions which are problematic. Now we can hope that Collins will not let them interfere with his role as director of NIH, and for all I know that is the case. But let’s not pretend that there is no basis for concern.

Merv - #68547

March 16th 2012

Long overdue reply—-sorry about this; I hope you are still checking back here Steven.  I’ll try to keep up but my upcoming spring break doesn’t look to be any less busy than this week was.

I do understand your point:  you see a clear historical pattern of religiously motivated belief compromising scientific investigations that might otherwise have gone further.  And I agree with you about that danger—I think your example of Behe is particularly apropos and also applies to age of earth issues for YECs today.  In this regard, I don’t understand your comment about an absence of “culture warring”.  If there was none, this whole web site wouldn’t exist.  I am probably misunderstanding what you mean by the term.

My remaining source of disagreement with you and/or Tim is that I believe you are implicitly assuming a universal definition for science, that it MUST, in principle, have access to all aspects of reality.  Under that assumption those who recognize morality as rooted in something absolute seem to be “witholding” something from science.  I don’t think Collins would say “Science isn’t allowed here.”  It’s more that science is unable to reach it.  As Chip is trying to point out to Tim, reality must ultimately be illusory in the naturalistic view.  We can manufacture, study, and even adhere to “moralities” (or rather those culturally visible manifestations tied to morality)  till the cows come home; but either morality is rooted in something (or someone) outside humanity or else it has no objectivity beyond our choices or cultural norms (which is to say no objectivity at all.)  I don’t deny that science can study what the “natural selection” sources for morality may be.  But however detailed or successful those explanations may be, they will not “consummate” or fill out any morality with the actual substance of moral imperative.  So I don’t think science is being told “do not trespass”.  Science is just being told “You can’t be religion.”   Among many other worthwhile things which science also can’t and shouldn’t try to be.  When it does, it stops being science and becomes all the worse for its self-delusion that it still is science. 


Merv - #68548

March 16th 2012

woops—-serious blooper in my post above, where I say:  “As Chip is trying to point out to Tim, reality must ultimately be illusory in the naturalistic view.”

That should have read:  “As Chip is trying to point out to Tim, *morality* must ultimately be illusory in the naturalistic view.”

Steven Curry - #68551

March 16th 2012

Merv, Harris’ article is not about culture warring. The issue it raises is simple. If you can understand how BOTH religious and secular people can have legitimate objections to Michael Behe being appointed director of NIH, then you can understand how the same would apply to Francis Collins. Again, this is because of Collins’ stated position and the ignorance he demonstrates in support of that position (see Panda’s Thumb article), not because of his religiosity per se. The analogy with Behe is very close.

Merv - #68569

March 17th 2012

Well, Steve; I think we understand each other well enough, and its obvious we’ll just disagree.  I re-read the NYT article searching for anything Harris brings up that should be a concern about Collins specifically and instead it became more apparent on closer scrutiny that Harris fails to distinguish Collins from Behe other than at the beginning where Collins is praised for “what he is not”.  I can agree that Behe should have known more about the development of the immune system; but expecting Collins to keep up on evolutionary research into socio-anthropological treatments on the origins of morality?  And even for that, it wasn’t made clear that Collins objects to such studies or calls them off-limits for science.  His big sin is that apparently he thinks morality has an ultimate aspect to it that doesn’t fall under the domain of science.  In short, he’s guilty of not sharing Harris’ presuppositions that science does and must cover everything.

So far it appears Obama appointed the right man for the job.


Steven Curry - #68573

March 18th 2012

You suggest that Collins is simply saying that science cannot “cover everything”. Indeed most people would agree with that view, and there would be no objections if that were all he said.

But that is not all he said. He has made specific claims about the intervention of a deity in evolutionary history. This is intelligent design’s bacterial flagellum all over again.

Collins must totally put aside his God-of-the-gaps beliefs when acting in his role of director of NIH. Nobody doubts that he *can* do that. The point of the matter is that this situation is very far from ideal.

“I can agree that Behe should have known more about the development of the immune system; but expecting Collins to keep up on evolutionary research into socio-anthropological treatments on the origins of morality?”

The reason we can criticize Behe for his ignorance of the evolution of the immune system is because he claimed that the immune system did not evolve. The reason we can criticize Collins for his ignorance of the evolution of morality is because he claimed that morality did not evolve. I don’t see why you are giving Collins special treatment in this regard.

Merv - #68575

March 18th 2012

My distinction between Collins and Behe is this:  I think Behe was/is advocating for a ‘God-of-the-gaps’ view, though in fairness Behe would probably deny this.  But to stop investigating something because it seems unexplainable at the moment, so God must have done it ... that is a God of the gaps approach. 

Collins, though, I am certain has disavowed any kind of gappish thinking.  I can’t quote page numbers from his book,but I have read it and generally know his approach.  He will have nothing of the view that either science explains it, or God expains it but it can’t be both.  His approach is amply demonstrated by his acceptance of (contributions to!) scientific studies of origins and seeing no conflict between that and his conviction that we are all created by God.  Again I think the article mistakes Collins’ claims that morality comes from God for a claim that therefore there is nothing of morality for science to study.  Collins may not have been familiar with whatever research has found on altruism, but I’m pretty certain he isn’t going to deny the validity of such study since he already sees God’s hand in *everything* anyway (the total antithesis of ‘gappish’ thinking), so why should morality be any different?


Chip - #68497

March 13th 2012

Tim et al,

After having made several attempts to root morality in culture, in the end, you make several assertions about notions like “universal moral values” and claim that certain behaviors are “always wrong” or “always right.”  And while I might agree with some (or even all) of these particulars, this is not the point. 

The point is that you have yet to bridge the gap from is to ought.  The social sciences which you have repeatedly referenced can (and do) provide us with valuable descriptive insights about human behavior as it is practiced in its various cultural contexts.  But it can never prescribe what I should do, any more than chemistry can tell the vinegar how it should react with the baking soda, or physics what terminal velocity of the stone I drop out of my window ought to be. 

I’ll end with one of my favorite quotations on this score, which I appreciate as the authors—at least on a certain level—seem to understand the implications of their world view as it applies to morality (although I have my doubts as to whether they can actually live consistently with it…): 

Morality, or more strictly, our belief in morality, is merely an adaptation put in place to further our reproductive ends.  Hence, the basis of ethics does not lie in God’s will… [but rather it is] an illusion, fobbed off on us by our genes to get us to cooperate.

-Ruse and Wilson, The Evolution of Ethics

Tim - #68498

March 13th 2012


A naturalistic approach of course does not call on any supreme, authoritative standard outside of or transcendent to nature.  It works within nature.   But that said, there are certain conditional statements one can make.

We can say that it is universal for humanity to “care” about morality.  The sociobiological explanation is that it is adaptive to do so.  But care we do nonetheless.  There are always exceptions of course (e.g., sociopaths), but these are exceptions, and very much aberrant and dysfunctional expressions of humanity.

We can also say that if one does care about morality, and identifies with their pro-social inheritance/makeup as a human being, you then have a basis for declaring something about what they “ought” to do.

So “ought” really depends on how you embrace your moral inheritance as a member of the human species.  And most of course do.  We’re geared to in fact.  But if anyone chooses to reject that condition, then the most you could say about them is that to the degree they do so they are “inhuman” from a pro-social point of view.  And of course you can deal with such individuals as societies typically have with respect to monstrous persons in their midst.  You protect the rest of society from them.

KevinR - #68506

March 14th 2012

Most importantly, it is the only way to help Christian laypeople make
the distinction in their minds between evolution as biological mechanism
and as Theory of Life.

What IS evolution? I still don’t get the point just by reading this. What exactly is the definition of evolution? Is there an evolution for Christians and then another one for atheists or non-Christians?
Is there a firm, concrete and fixed definition of evolution? Currently it seems to mean everything and anything under the sun that changes even in the least little bit.

Right now there is no distinction between biological evolution and cosmological evolution. Why? Simply because as an atheistic idea, it means that because there is no god, everything had to have made itself - all from random physical processes to the first life to what we know as human beings. Nothing is exempt. To try and make some kind of distinction is going to prove to be distinctly impossible.

Many Christian laypeople understand only too clearly that the word evolution is used to mean that all life as we know it comes from a single ancestor - and that God had no hand in that development whatsoever.  For those C laypeople who do not profess to know what it means because they have zero interest in it, they usually understand it to mean that humans descended from apes/chimps/gorillas as espoused by most television shows and other popular media. It also implies the same idea: there is no God in it.  Now it’s only because some people have fixated on the idea that “science” is always right and true and that evolutionary theory is science  that evolutionary theory must be correct and therefore the bible must be wrong. It’s from holding onto this mistaken idea that the controversy about evolution and 6-day creation arises. If you believe in the one-ancestor evolution you HAVE to believe in billions of years - no matter what you want to call it, GTE or EBP, there is no difference. Once you believe in billions of years you no longer believe what the bible clearly and quite simply teaches about how long it took everything to get created. Let me state that again : you don’t believe what the bible says in clear, plain and simple to understand language. If you don’t believe when it speaks about earthly things, how are you going to believe when it talks about heavenly things?

Tim - #68508

March 14th 2012


I would suggest to you that science, at its most fundamental level, is about inquiry into nature.  It’s not a pulpit from which to make proclamations and declare to others what truth is, for them to accept because “science is always right.”  Rather its a manner of investigation that allows ideas to be tested.  These ideas can be falsified and relegated to the garbage bin of science, no matter how cherished they may be by their proponents.  And they can accumulate considerable support.  And sometimes this support is so strong, so convincing, that to withhold provisional consent would be an act of stunning intellectual perversion.  Denying heliocentrism in favor of geocentrism would be one such act.  Denying the germ theory of disease in favor of some medieval notion of humours would be another.  Many consider the support for evolution, while perhaps more difficult to understand for the non-expert, just as compelling.  I am one of them.

But it is the support I find convincing.  Not merely a proclamation by a body of scientists.  I suspect that many others here at Biologos feel the same.  And this stems from an open-minded spirit of inquiry, which I would contrast with dogmatism, which starts with the answer and then forces all evidence, regardless of whether it would otherwise be supporting or disconfirming, to conform.to the answer that one “knows” just has to be right.  This type of thinking is pretty much the precise opposite of free scientific inquiry.  And we have seen again and again that our quest for truth tends to benefit from free inquiry rather than a closed, dogmatic approach.

Chip - #68516

March 14th 2012


And most of course do…

I agree.  For the most part, people do “embrace [their] moral inheritance as a member of the human species” and follow the herd. But (again), anything you choose to define as a “moral inheritance” is still arbitrary and merely descriptive.  It is not authoritative, and has no power to prescribe, which morality requires.  (I might also point out that many of the most morally courageous acts of history have been performed either by individuals or by tiny minorities who acted against the “moral inheritance” of the majority culture in which they lived). 

But let’s say that I decide not to give a damn about your pro-social proclivities, and adopt a strategy to kill or drive off weaker rivals like many other animals do.  If I get away with it, it’ll improve my chances to mate, make my progeny stronger when I do, and I will have eliminated weakness from the gene pool. If I fail, my own weakness will have been eliminated and the gene pool is still better off.  It’s a win-win for the species! Such a strategy is “monstrous” only if you sneak theistic assumptions about the intrinsic value of people into the mix. But that would be cheating, since we’re just animals and “morality” is just an adaptation.   

On the other hand, if you reason consistently from naturalism’s presuppositions, Wilson and Ruse are clearly right.  There is no transcendent standard.  Natural selection cobbled one set of mutations together to make you, and a different set to make me.  We’re both just matter and chemistry—and nothing more.  And if the chemical reactions in your head turn out to be different than those in mine, you have no basis whatsoever to tell me I’m “wrong.” You might disagree tactically, but there is no wrong, when all natural selection cares about is whether I survive and breed. 

Tim - #68521

March 14th 2012


Please elaborate on how you feel that our moral inheritance is arbitrary.

And please explain why you feel that morality “requires” the power to proscribe by some externally authoritative means right behavior.

Also, I have tried to make clear that sociobiological explanations for morality are not merely culturally relative, but rather biologically universal with relative cultural mediation.  This is analogous to genotypic and phenotypic variation.  You can have a specific set of genes in your DNA, but the environmental factors you’re exposed to will often influence their expression.  So while you may, for instance, have the genes to be tall, if you’re undernourished you may not grow to be as tall as you might otherwise have.  Same thing for morality.  You can have the same biological pro-social heritage shared by all humanity, as embedded in our very DNA, but culture can influence how that is expressed.

So this addresses the idea of how “moral” behavior can go against cultural norms, as morality is not in total defined by cultural norms.  Rather, cultural norms only mediate the expression of morality.

Moving on, I want to make clear how it is I am using some terms you’ve seem to honed in on.  When I say “monstrous”, I am not meaning objectively worse from some outside perspective.  Rather, I am meaning something very foreign and aberrant with respect humanity.  Our moral behavior could be considered “monstrous” to some hypothetical alien race.  And vice versa.  We would have no objective outside basis for declaring which is better.  The question wouldn’t even make sense.  But if they came to Earth, or we landed on their planet, the intruding species could be accurately described as “monsters”.  This is how I mean to use the term.  Sociopaths who share so little of our own moral experience and values and instead engage in behavior that violates the core of our natures are considered “monsters” to society.  No outside standard required.

Chip - #68523

March 14th 2012

No time for a lengthy response, but for now…

And please explain why you feel that morality “requires” the power to proscribe…

C’mon Tim…  Any moral argument is meaningless without this.  Anyone who says “X is wrong/right” isn’t just expressing a preference; they’re making a claim that they believe the listener is obligated to submit to, regardless of what their personal preferences might be. 

Thus, when you make a claim like the one you did earlier (“Sharing your bread with a starving innocent child is always right”), you are saying that I am morally required to share my bread—even if I’m short myself, or perhaps don’t know where my next meal’s coming from. 

And the basis for such a requirement in a naturalistic framework?  Again, I turn to the experts (whom to this point, you have consistently ignored): 

An illusion, fobbed off on us by our genes to get us to cooperate.

The short answer to your question:  An illusion just doesn’t cut it as a foundation for making the difficult and often self-sacrifical decisions that morality requires. 

A personal God, who has gone out of his way to initiate self-sacrifice on a scale that I’ll probably never be able to grasp, does. 

Tim - #68524

March 14th 2012


I don’t think you’re hearing me. 

What I am saying is that any moral “ought” is contingent on an acceptance of / identifying with one’s pro-social inheritance as member of the human species.  Most people intrinsically accept this, so it is a moot issue for them, as well as for me. 

But in those rare cases where someone rejects this (whether through some choice or through a sociopathic condition), then what they “ought” to do cannot be prescribed authoritatively.  The most we can say is how the rest of society will deal with them. 

This isn’t to say that there isn’t such a thing as morality, just that there is no objectively “authoritative” morality outside one’s acceptance of their moral heritage as a human.  So when I made the “always” claims about morality.  It was within this understanding.

As far as your quotation, the “illusion” may be one of a dualistic, transcendent, objectively authoritative understanding of morality as a naturalistic explanation.  One that we can’t say is “better” or “worse” than the morality of the praying mantis, but just that ours is more “human.”

As far as “cutting it” for a foundation of self-sacrifice, I think naturalistic explanations of morality serve quite well in that regard.  As we have to ask ourselves, do we value being human?  We don’t have to value that of course.  But most do.  I do.  And almost if not everyone I know does as well.  And so we embrace our pro-social inheritance, even if self-sacrificial death, say in rescuing the lives of a loved one, is the result..

Tim - #68525

March 14th 2012

...should be:

“As far as your quotation, the “illusion” may be one of a dualistic, transcendent, objectively authoritative understanding of morality as OPPOSED TO a naturalistic explanation.”

KevinR - #68527

March 14th 2012

“which I would contrast with dogmatism, which starts with the answer and then forces all evidence, regardless of whether it would otherwise be supporting or disconfirming,”

You might therefore be very surprised by the fact that atheistic AND “biologos"tic evolutionism subscribes exactly to this dogmatism which you claim to eschew. They both presume to know the answer and disregards anything and everything which clearly points to the contradictions and incoherence within it.

The bible clearly states that everything was created within six literal days. You CHOOSE to ignore that and thereby have to invent your own religion. I use the word religion because once you discard what the bible says you are no longer abiding within the relationship that God requires of you and then have to find other ways of appeasing Him. In effect you are then saying that you know better than God himself what happened at creation. Please explain how you get to that point, after all Genesis 1 is GOD’s eyewitness account of what happened. If you can’t believe God, who ARE you going to believe?

Tim - #68529

March 15th 2012


I am open to any argument, and am always willing to consider changing my mind.  Please don’t mistake conclusions arrived at from an evaluation of evidence/arguments as somehow a-priori presuppositions or convictions. 

Also, I want to clarify that my arguments above in favor of naturalistic pro-social morality are not meant to be anti-theist.  I just find them valid and supportable from a scientific point of view.  God could still supervene over them, and from a theistic viewpoint I would consider that he does.  But I don’t consider the “moral law” as very good evidence for his existence.  Aesthetic experience, and consciousness, would be a better bet, and certainly something I consider.

As far as choosing to ignore anything in the Bible, I don’t.  I weigh that also.  There is the question you could ask, “is the Bible real revelation from God?”  Even if the answer then is “yes”, you could still ask the question, “how is Genesis 1 and 2-3 to be read?”  The answer may surprise you.  The ancient Israelites had different literary conventions than we have today.  There are very good arguments that Genesis 1 was a temple creation text.  And there are very good arguments that Genesis 2-3 follows in the venerable tradition of morally instructive mythic storytelling popular in the ancient near east.  But again, these are conclusions.  Not a-priori starting points that one “chooses” to adopt.

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