Believers see a “grounding” problem in the atheistic worldview. In that system of belief, life and intelligence are accidents of evolution. Things just happened to come together, to change slowly over time, until one day the first abstract thought appeared. But this thought wasn’t fundamentally different than what preceded it; it was simply the next step on the path of nature. Before it, no thoughts existed. No “truth” existed, because there were no minds to behold the truth. But eventually, more of these thoughts came into being, and the minds that beheld these thoughts became increasingly organized, until one day these minds invented religion – a creator God – to make sense of what evolution had done.
Believers see a problem in this. Intelligence, in the skeptic’s worldview, along with logic and reason, are simply illusions. They appear to be a certain way, but only because evolution caused the minds presently in existence to happen to see things that way. Had conditions been slightly different, evolution would have followed a different track. Our brains and bodies might have developed differently, leading us to call good evil and evil good, for example. In other words, without an outside anchor to ground reality – to ground truth and knowledge and intellect – our individual beliefs are no different than our individual tastes – preferences and opinions, nothing more.
But the modern skeptic seems pretty confident in his view. He says that science supports his claim, that science has put the lie to religion, or at the very least eliminated the need for it. But is this really the case? Does science presuppose a naturalistic worldview? Does it actually require one?
The first problem with such a conclusion is history. Science is based on certain presuppositions about the world, including: that orderly investigation of nature is possible through the use of our sense impressions; that these sense impressions provide reliable information about the way things really are; and that repeatability is possible. This means that some force that we cannot fully understand or explain is actually at work, guaranteeing uniformity of law, making sure that given the same conditions and actions, the same result should obtain. But why should this be so? Why should there be such uniformity? Why shouldn’t the same experiment under identical circumstances yield completely different results for no discernible reason? Why do our minds intuitively expect repeatability, that for instance every time I touch a hot stove, I will burn myself?
Indeed, the scientific method was formulated by people who were often deeply religious. They saw no conflict in believing in God. Quite the contrary, they made sense of the presuppositions of scientific experimentation through their understanding that an intelligent and personal Creator would want his creation to use their minds to understand him. Because he grounds reality, it makes sense to investigate, to learn more about him.
The skeptic insists that evolution can also ground the scientific enterprise. What difference, he asks, would it make whether mind evolved slowly over millennia or instantaneously as the work of a Creator? Isn’t the result the same either way?
As one skeptic put it:
“This has got to be one of the most common arguments from theists, but it is based on a simple misunderstanding. But evolution is not random. Part of evolution is random: mutations are accidents, and so are big asteroids striking the Earth. But natural selection is anything but random. And why this claim that something that evolves, such as our intelligence, is not worthy of belief? That’s like saying that the cheetah can’t “really” run fast if it “merely” evolved. This is part of the very general “top down” attitude of believers: that nothing can be real, or worthy of belief or respect or love, if it wasn’t ordained from on high, but “merely” built up over slow ages from below. But why should that be? I personally find the story of evolution very inspiring: it’s our parents, and their parents, going back through unimaginable time, with unimaginable amounts of love and strife and work and play, to some unknown beginning.”
The misunderstanding the skeptic points to involves evolution. In his view, evolution is not simply random. There is something called “natural selection” that inexorably moves living things to better and better states. Things that work, and are productive, get selected for, and things that don’t work as well, drop out of the gene pool, so that the end product is enhanced. Operating over countless ages, the result is the highly advanced products that we see around us today. This sounds so reasonable, in a way. What could be simpler?
But there is a fatal problem in this view. Evolution can only begin to work on an already living creature. The highly complex life we see around us runs on billions of pieces of information contained in DNA. It is highly complex. The fact that DNA can replicate itself and combine with other strands to form new, distinct life forms is not proof of evolution as an explanatory method, any more than a computer program spitting out new information is evidence that the program self-assembled. The question is how did DNA arise in the first place? Just as the computer program needed a programmer for it to ever start running, DNA needed a designer of unimaginable intelligence to account for what it is capable of achieving. Consequently, even if natural selection operates on living things that either overcome or succumb to environmental challenges, this tell us nothing about how the first inanimate strands of molecules assembled to form something greater than their individual parts. This is a hugely complex challenge and it is not sufficient to assert without proof that life simply emerged from inanimate objects. At the very least, the skeptic should be required to provide a theory as to how that could happen. Positing a poetic account of our “parents” in some unknown beginning is another way of saying, “you’re right; there is no way to rationally explain how the first life began, so I have to gloss over it with catchy lines.” But catchy phrases like “evolution” and “natural selection” don’t provide an explanation. Ironically, they cause the skeptic to engage in the very fallacy that he accuses the believer of – circular reasoning. By concluding that supernatural forces are not within the category of possible explanations, the skeptic is forced to conclude what he initially assumed – however implausible, life created itself. No other options are available.
The skeptic is right that believers hold to a top-down model, but not for the reasons the skeptic gives. It’s not because a “bottom up” approach isn’t “real or worthy of belief or respect or love.” It’s because the evidence does not support it.
Posted by Al Serrato