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Evolution and the Atheist Worldview

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June 2, 2010 Tags: Science & Worldviews

Today's video features Os Guinness. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of BioLogos. You can read more about what we believe here.

In this brief video Conversation, Os Guinness addresses the problem of holding a purely naturalistic worldview—one that does not coincide with many basic human concepts.

For example, Guinness notes that there are certain things very important to human beings including freedom, justice, purpose in the universe, moral intuition, and altruism, which are either nonexistent or else devalued when viewed through a naturalistic lens.

When these things are filtered through the lens of a Judeo-Christian perspective, however, they make sense. One is able to recognize that regardless of individual circumstance (physical limitations, poverty, etc.) all people made in the image of God have a precious dignity.

The naturalists cannot say the same—so there is a bleakness to their dogma that we do not see with Christianity.

Commentary written by the BioLogos editorial team.

Os Guinness is an author, social critic, and founder of the Trinity Forum. He has been a guest scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Studies and a guest scholar and visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution. He is a frequent speaker at political and business conferences around the world and has written or edited more than 25 books.

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Taylor - #55738

March 26th 2011

I am a Christian and a scientist. Previously I had never seen any conflict between Christian Theology and Evolutionary theory, in fact I had always found that they supported each other. But recently I had a conversation with an uncle of mine who was formerly an eminent physicist, but has now turned his attention to biology.

He presented me with a thesis on the natural origins of ‘spirituality’ that is so logical I can’t help but consider it. If an animal evolved to be able to think abstractly, wouldn’t you expect that they would start to conceptualize all of their deepest instincts in abstract terms?

For example, all animals demonstrate altruism. It is an instinctual desire to help others of your kind because if you help them, they will likely help you later. Is it a stretch to go from altruistic instinct to ‘Love’. All it would take us thinking about it abstractly.

Also, consider that our deepest natural instinct is to survive. If an animal evolved to be able to comprehend that one day they will die, wouldn’t they HAVE to create a concept of an afterlife or else live their lives in conflict with their deepest instincts? I hope I am wrong, but I don’t see any way around this logic. Can anyone comment?

John - #55748

March 26th 2011

“Also, consider that our deepest natural instinct is to survive.”

How can you say that? I’d give my life to save my child’s without a second thought.

Why do males tend to engage in longevity-shortening activities if our deepest natural instinct is to survive?
Taylor - #55752

March 26th 2011


Although I feel your tone is somewhat accusatory, and not really a helpful answer to my question, I will respond to your comments:

“How can you say that? I’d give my life to save my child’s without a second thought.”

You are correct. The only instinct which is as strong as the instinct to survive is the instinct to perpetuate one’s own genetic material.

“Why do males tend to engage in longevity-shortening activities if our deepest natural instinct is to survive?”

A fair question: Testosterone leads to risky behaviour in males because under high amounts of enviromental pressure risky behaviour results in greater rewards than conservative behaviour. For example, when you are hunting or when defending yourself from an enemy it is better to be bold than scared. Under low amounts of environmental pressure it might be better in the long-run to be meek than always putting yourself in harm’s way - but selection doesn’t happen under low enviromental pressure.

But consider this: if I gave a male animal or human a choice to be in a place where there chances of surviving are 90% versus a place where there chances of surviving are 10% wouldn’t they choose the first every single time?

John - #55757

March 26th 2011

But consider this: if I gave a male animal or human a choice to be in a place where there chances of surviving are 90% versus a place where there chances of surviving are 10% wouldn’t they choose the first every single time?”

It depends on other factors. Your claim was that survival is our deepest instinct, so isolating it from other instincts isn’t a valid consideration of your claim.

And as for your simple claim about testosterone being the cause, I’m skeptical. I’m not disputing that it plays a huge role, but it isn’t the whole enchilada.
Gregory - #55761

March 26th 2011

Hello Taylor,

You wrote: “a thesis on the natural origins of ‘spirituality’ ... If an animal evolved to be able to think abstractly… For example, all animals demonstrate altruism.”

How can a supra-natural category have ‘natural origins’? ‘Spirituality’ to me by definition *cannot* have ‘natural origins.’ For you, Taylor?

Here is a way to solve your dilemma with your uncle:

First, ask him if he thinks human beings are different in ‘degree’ or in ‘kind’ with (other) animals. If he says ‘degree’, then all of the uniquenesses of human beings that quite obviously distinguish us from (other) animals are reduced to a ‘zoocentric misanthropy’ (Fuller 2005) and can be safely dismissed from contention as a serious ‘thesis’. Go play with beetles or ants, then, & don’t bother people who take this issue seriously. Basically, his view is something like Thatcher’s: “There is no such thing as (human) society.”
Second, make clear the distinction that (non-human) animals demonstrate ‘zoological or zoocentric altruism,’ but they do *not* demonstrate ‘anthropic altruism’ (cite the UNDHR if needed to establish ‘higher’ anthropic ground). This allows ‘human talk of human things’ (e.g. not just ‘automatic’ or ‘instinctual’ responses based on biological or genetic reductionism) its proper place. This move is extremely important, but is often lost in the western, analytic philosophy (of science) tradition.

‘Altruism’ was coined by August Comte, the French sociologist, while constructing his ‘religion of humanity’. It was either ‘stolen’ or simply ‘misappropriated’ by ethologists & others *up to the current day*, who are likely now influencing your uncle in a nihlistic or spiritually emptying way. So, when you speak of a supposedly “altruistic instinct to ‘Love’,” this is not what ‘altruism’ actually means, only a jaded (oftentimes cynical & sometimes anti-humanitarian) view of it.

‘Altruism’ actually means “love for the other”, specifically & exclusively regarding human beings (but i suggest test your blades on A. Rand’s anti-altruism too), so the dehumanized naturalistic view is quite shallow. It suggests a secular vision of human relations, interactions & social harmonizing, based roughly on the institutional structure of the Roman Catholic Church. We have by now outgrown Comte’s three-stage reasoning which de-privileged philosophy and theology under the positivisim of naturalistic science. But in the process but many people lost the meaning of ‘altruism’ until Pitirim Sorokin and the Harvard Centre for Creative Altruism came along to revive it 1949.

Peddlers of zoocentric misanthropy (just about *every* evolutionary biologist, evolutionary psychologist & outdated sociobiologist) & naturalisation of spirituality are not offering views of humanity based on flourishing or unselfish love, i.e. given of oneself to help others. They are instead declaring the failure of ‘natural-physical science’ to discover the most important things about humankind. So, who can your uncle turn to if he has questions that exceed the boundaries of science, or even reason/rationality itself?

E.g. Freeman Dyson’s ‘subversiveness’ - how could one accept a worldview like Christianity, Islam or Judaism, or honestly, respectfully visit a Priest, Imam or Rabbi, if one were always trying actively to subvert them? Here is perhaps a difference between science otoh & philosophy & theology otoh: the timeless truths of the latter two need not be subject to ‘progress’ in the same way as the former.

I’ve met several physicist-priests, who have no problem engaging their ‘science’ with their ‘theology’ & ‘philosophy’. Does your uncle feel no ‘spirituality’ within him or is there simply no religious musicality? Not everybody can dance (at first steps).

Jon Garvey - #55804

March 27th 2011

“If an animal evolved to be able to think abstractly”

There’s actually quite an assumption, there: that abstract thought is only the result of biological evolution. Since the only example we actually have is man, and there is massive debate about the adequacy of science to account for consciousness, abstract thought, aesthetic sense, will, conscience, fear of extinction, and, of course, awareness of God, we’ve plenty of issues to grapple with.

In other words, the very uniqueness of man as he is is one powerful argument for his being more than biology. John says he wouldn’t hesitate to risk his life to save his kid - but it’s a fair bet he might also risk a serious accident trying to avoid running over an animal crossing the road. Certainly there are humans so passionate about saving rare mammals that they put themselves at risk of tropical diseases or armed poachers. If an intelligent tiger evolved, would it fight to save humans, or just find a way to farm them? It’s not necessarily obvious, I feel.

Nicholas - #61335

May 17th 2011

Taylor,Check out Alvin Plantinga’s talk on “An Evolutionary Argument against Naturalism”.


It doesn’t directly address your concerns , but I think the implications of what he is saying is that a “naturalistic” explanation for spirituality is lacking. 

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