Michael Ruse Has It All Figured Out

Philosopher Michael Ruse objects to a recent comment from Pope Benedict:

“If man were merely a random product of evolution in some place on the margins of the universe, then his life would make no sense or might even be a chance of nature. But no, reason is there at the beginning: creative, divine reason.”

According to Ruse, this view is a no-no because it contradicts science.  To show this, he, well, quotes from Stephen Jay Gould:

“Since dinosaurs were not moving toward markedly larger brains, and since such a prospect may lie outside the capabilities of reptilian design, we must assume that consciousness would not have evolved on our planet if a cosmic catastrophe had not claimed the dinosaurs as victims. In an entirely literal sense, we owe our existence, as large and reasoning mammals, to our lucky stars.”

Well, that just settles it once and for all. He then adds:

Gould was not saying that human evolution was uncaused or random in that sense. But he was saying that there is no design. Human evolution had no more forethought than, say, the pattern that a pile of sand makes when emptied from a bucket.

Yeah, I understand the argument and position, but where are the actual data that show “there is no design” and there was no, NO, NO foresight involved in human evolution?

Speculating that something akin to humans would not have evolved if a cosmic catastrophe had not claimed the dinosaurs as victims doesn’t exactly count as a scientific demonstration.  If you are going to make such a strong, negative claim, you need some strong evidence and not philosophy posing as a vague thought experiment.

Of course, when you don’t have strong evidence, it’s best to resort to group think:

And while Gould was a bit of a maverick in some ways, there is no modern evolutionary biologist who would disagree with him on this.

But is that because all these modern evolutionary biologists have published tons of data that clearly show “there is no design?”  If so, where is it?  What were the data that was supposed to count as evidence for design and how did we rule it out for the entire history of life?

Or could it just be that invoking teleology is simply against the rules that are taught to budding evolutionary biologists and enforced by current evolutionary biologists?  If so, noting that “there is no modern evolutionary biologist who would disagree with him on this” would be about as meaningful as noting that no modern football team has ever won by having the lowest score.

Ruse finally tries to tap into some data:

Evolution depends on mutations that simply don’t have direction.

So what’s the logic here?  If evolution has a direction, mutations must have a direction?  That is silly.  We know evolution can have a direction.  It’s called artificial selection, something that even Darwin appealed to.  And we know this form of teleological evolution does not in any way depend on the designers (humans) giving direction to the actual mutations.  On the contrary, one might argue that what extends the directional reach of artificial selection is the size of the pool of variants, which in turn is expanded by a mutational process that has no direction.  Ironically, the very fact that mutations have no direction might be precisely what allows for evolution to have a significant directional reach.

For, you see, a direction to evolution might not be found in the mutations themselves, but by the context in which the mutations occur.  It is the context, not the mutations, that impose the direction.  I have explained this with the example of nudging (here and here) and have fruitfully explored this possibility with many examples over the years.  Put simply, Ruse’s notion of direction and evolution are quite shallow and clichéd.

But he’s not done.

Charles Darwin was absolutely adamant about this. When his good friend, the Harvard botanist Asa Gray, tried to put divine direction into the changes, Darwin simply told him that he wasn’t doing science any more.

Yes, and Darwin was also absolutely adamant about insisting that evolution proceed by strict gradualismHow did that turn out?

So in the end, Ruse insists that science has shown “there is no design” to evolution.  But what do we have behind the posture of certainty?

  • Speculations about what might have happened if dinosaurs did not go extinct.
  • An appeal to “no evolutionary biologist” believes.
  • The shallow observation about mutations.
  • And as a finishing touch, an appeal to Darwin’s authority.

Sorry, but that looks more like hand-waving than a scientific demonstration.

Finally, Ruse closes with this:

My own thinking is that if you are going to get anywhere then you need to work on the theology. I have suggested that, since we have appeared, we could appear. Hence, God (being outside time and space) could simply go on creating universes until humans did appear. A bit of a waste admittedly but we have that already in our universe.

Actually, that is very close to my own theological and metaphysical position.  Except mine is better.  How?  Why in the world would Ruse think that God has to keep creating universes until humans appear?  God, being omniscient, would know precisely what universe would spawn humans.  He would know which one would spawn us.  So He would bring that very universe into existence.  Why?  Precisely because is houses us. Precisely because it is our home.  Because of us.

I mention this simply to show that I have long accepted a theological/metaphysical view that is very similar to the “solution” Ruse proposes.  And what this means is I have no theological or metaphysical need to insert design into nature or evolution.  None.  So while people like Ruse might think my skepticism of his “no design” claim from above is rooted in some metaphysical need to give God “a job,” people like Ruse would be relying on shallow stereotypes.  In reality, my metaphysical/theological views allow me to approach this subject in an open-minded and intellectually honest fashion.  And it is from THAT vantage that I can see that Ruse’s “science has shown there is no design” position to be hand-waving.

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7 responses to “Michael Ruse Has It All Figured Out

  1. Mike: “Why in the world would Ruse think that God has to keep creating universes until humans appear? God, being omniscient, would know precisely what universe would spawn humans. He would know which one would spawn us. So He would bring that very universe into existence.

    I could be mistaken about this, but if quantum physics is correct, this might be a problem for your view (and Behe’s suggested view in EoE, where the uberphysicist picks out the desired universe and “just adds water”). For it seems that given quantum physics, a possible universe could have an initial set of conditions, yet development in many different directions. It seems the only way to guarantee the desired outcome is to either create many universes until the desired one appears, or to control events in the first universe.

    I have no problem with either of those views, though personally I don’t think God wouldn’t mind controlling events in the first universe.

    A possible solution would be that God foresaw what the outcome of the first universe would be and said, “It’s good enough for me.” And that universe just happened to include us. Notice that in this case, God doesn’t have a pre-existing idea of what He wants in His universe, and the first universe just happens to match it.

  2. For it seems that given quantum physics, a possible universe could have an initial set of conditions, yet development in many different directions. It seems the only way to guarantee the desired outcome is to either create many universes until the desired one appears, or to control events in the first universe.

    That would be true for any being that was restricted to existence in our space-time reality, but God is not held hostage to time. God stands outside of time and creation. As such, there is no reason to think God had to create while waiting for the future to unfold. God could simply choose any possible universe among an infinite set, and he when he chooses, he sees all – beginning AND END. It’s the “and end” part that helps us rearrange our thinking. When thinking of God choosing to create a particular universe among an infinite set of possible universes, think of him as choosing a particular end state. To bring that end state into existence is to bring all of its history into existence.

    Make it more personal. What if God wanted you, Bilbo, to come into existence? Not just some human, but YOU. If God chooses to bring you into existence, then more than you has been chosen. Your parents, and all the people who helped to shape your identity, have also been chosen. You would not exist without them. And your parents parents. And their parents parents. All the way back to our first human ancestors. And their non-human ancestors. All the way back to the origin of our universe.

  3. “For it seems that given quantum physics, a possible universe could have an initial set of conditions, yet development in many different directions.”

    What’s the source of the apparent randomness of wavefunction collapse? Only some interpretations of QM (e.g, Copenhagen) pose a problem. Many Worlds does not. If what is “running” the universe at bottom is actually deterministic, then the same initial conditions would always result in the same outcome.

  4. Mike: “…think of him as choosing a particular end state.

    It seems we have four options:
    1) God creates a deterministic universe, where everything that happens is determined by the laws of physics.
    2) God creates a quantum universe, where everything that happens is the result of quantum physics, and is therefore indeterminate. God foresees what will happen in this universe, likes it, and therefore creates it.
    3) God creates multiple quantum universes, until the one He wants comes into existence.
    4) God creates a single quantum universe and intervenes in some of its events in order to bring about what He wants.

    If I understand your position, Mike, you would say that (2) has happened. If I’ve misunderstood your position, feel free to add another option.

  5. That’s a nice break down. Yes, I favor #2, but not because He merely likes it, but because it is the universe that houses us. You see, I believe that God wanted you and me to exist. And since we can only exist in the universe we exist in, the whole thing was brought into existence. Nothing else would do.

    I’d rule out #1, as the laws of physics did not determine our existence. You and I exist because a particular sperm and egg united. Any other sperm or any other egg and we would not exist. Also, #4 is unlikely to be involved in our existence, as I don’t think God intervenes with each and every fertilization event. I dismiss #3 because it ignores the omniscience of God.

  6. This is a comment on Michael’s May 20-th post. He speculates that if God wanted Bilbo to come into existence, then he had to create all his ancestors. As much as second guessing God’s motives and capabilities is usually no more justified than authoring SF stories, this particular assertion is internally inconsistent. If we assume that God is a stand-in for the omnipotent supreme first cause in our discussions, he is certainly not bound to painstakingly nurture endless generations through the ages in order to get Bilbo to appear. He can materialize him in an instant out of a pile of atoms, or from nothing, and let him float out there in empty space. This would not constitute a miracle of a first order which is the negation of natural laws. Coming into existence through cellular reproduction is the convenient self-perpetuating way we are familiar with, but shortcuts would represent an alternate design only, of which there must be trillions out there in the vastness of the universe.

  7. Tamas

    he is certainly not bound to painstakingly nurture endless generations through the ages in order to get Bilbo to appear.

    Being the product of “endless generations through the ages,” there is no other way for \ Bilbo to exist.

    He can materialize him in an instant out of a pile of atoms, or from nothing, and let him float out there in empty space.

    Bilbo is who he is because of his past experiences and choices. For example, Bilbo’s identity was shaped, at least in part, by his experiences with his family when growing up. And to this day, he has memories of those experiences. For God to create Bilbo as you say, He would have to implant false memories and shape his personality according to experiences and choices that never happened. In other words, the Bilbo you envision would be the product of deception. He wouldn’t be “real.”

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