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Theistic Evolution: The Fallacy

of the Middle Ground

v2.0 ©2006 Laurence A. Moran

cience is not just a collection of facts and theories. It's a way of knowing. We may not be able to describe an exact scientific method that everyone can agree on but there are some fundamental principles that all scientists adhere to when they are doing science. One of these principles is called methodological naturalism or methodological materialism.

Here's the basic idea behind methodological materialism as described by Eugenie Scott of the National Center for Science Education.

Science is a way of knowing about the natural world. As practiced in the 20th and likely in the 21st centuries, science restricts itself to explaining the natural world using natural causes. This restriction of evolution to explanation through natural cause is referred to as "methodological materialism", materialism in this context referring to matter, energy, and their interaction. Methodological materialism is one of the main differences between science and religion. Religion may use natural explanations for worldly phenomena, but reserves the right to explain through divine intervention; science has no such option. Whether or not miracles occur, they cannot be part of a scientific explanation.

Eugenie C. Scott (1999) Science, Religion, and Evolution

There is widespread agreement among philosophers of science that adherence to methodological naturalism is one of the features that distinguishes science from non-science. If your explanation of the natural world allows miracles or supernatural beings, then it may or may not be correct but it isn't science. This naturalistic view of science is strongly opposed by some Christians, notably the Berkeley Law Professor Phillip Johnson. He argues that the world needs to develop a Christian approach to science that isn't restricted by methodological naturalism. Johnson's viewpoint is shared by a few religious philosophers such as Alvin Plantinga.

There are many religious scientists, philosophers, and lay people who disagree with the likes of Johnson and Plantinga. They do not advocate a change in definition of science; instead, they seek ways to minimize the conflict between science and religion without rejecting the materialistic basis of science.

In order to understand the point of view of these "compatibilists," it's important to distinguish between methodological naturalism and metaphysical naturalism. Methodological naturalism is what scientists have to practice in order to do good science. The practice of methodological naturalism does not necessarily lead to the total rejection of supernatural beings—that's metaphysical naturalism and it's not the same thing.

Here's how Michael Ruse describes it,

The methodological naturalist is the person who assumes that the world runs according to unbroken law; that humans can understand the world in terms of this law; and that science involves just such understanding without any reference to extra or supernatural forces like God. Whether there are such forces or beings is another matter entirely and simply not addressed by methodological naturalism. Hence, although indeed evolution as we understand it is a natural consequence of methodological naturalism, given the facts of the world as they can be discovered, in no sense is the methodological naturalist thereby committed to the denial of God's existence. It is simply that the methodological naturalist insists that, inasmuch as one is doing science, one avoid all theological or other religious references. In particular, one denies God a role in creation.

Michael Ruse (2002) "Methodological Naturalism Under Attack" p. 365

What Ruse is saying is that the practice of methodological naturalism doesn't necessarily lead to atheism. It's a distinction that is unlikely to convince Johnson or Plantiga. They realize instinctively that materialistic explanations conforming to methodological naturalism leave no room for an interventionist designer God. However, in order to stake out a middle ground between science, which does not permit appeals to the supernatural, and theistic science, which mandates a role for God, one must first establish that "true" science does not eliminate God. This is what Ruse and others are doing when they restrict science to its proper domain. Their goal is to avoid the complete rejection of modern science advocated by Johnson and Plantinga while retaining the option of theism.

As a general rule, seekers of the middle ground seem to be mostly concerned with restricting science and less concerned with the limits of religion. That's a mistake because it's just as important to make sure that religion doesn't intrude on the turf of science by offering up explanations of the natural world. The natural world is the domain of science. Stephen Jay Gould refers to these domains as "magisteria" and he advocated the principle of non-overlapping magisteria (NOMA).

One strategy of the compatibilists is to focus on demonstraing that science can't disprove the existence of God. Having made that point, it seems to follow that God can exist and God can guide or direct evolution. When scientists object to a religious explanation of evolution, their objections are ruled out-of-bounds because they invoke metaphysical naturalism. Thus, according to compatibilists, the elimination of the supernatural from science requires "faith" and this makes it no better than religion. Religion is also a valid way of knowing but it doesn't conflict with true science—or so the argument goes.

Scientists, on the other hand, argue that an interventionist God who guides evolution violates the rules of science. These rules do not rely on faith. Instead, they are the expression of a tried and tested methodology that has been remarkably succesful. In addition to being empirically validated, the methodology makes science universal, or open to scientists of any religion (or lack of religion). Supernatural explanations of the natural world are not scientific.

Where scientists and philosophers do agree is that extreme religious views are anti-science because they deny certain scientific facts. This means that Young Earth Creationism is not science because it postulates that the world was created in seven days according to the Book of Genesis. It also means that some other forms of scientific creationism aren't science because they all deny that humans evolved from other apes. In fact, scientific Creationism—with an upper-case "C"—is an oxymoron since the very word "Creationism" describes an anti-science point of view.

A different reasoning allows us to reject Intelligent Design Creationism as legitimate science. At the very least, intelligent design requires an intelligent designer who plays a direct role in evolution and such a role conflicts with a scientific explanation. As explained earlier, the scientific description of evolution does not rely on, or permit, the intervention of supernatural beings. This is why the original description of evolution adopted in 1995 by the National Association of Biology Teachers (NABT) said,

The diversity of life on earth is the outcome of evolution: an unsupervised, impersonal, unpredictable and natural process of temporal descent with genetic modification that is affected by natural selection, chance, historical contingencies and changing environments.

(see Eugenie C. Scott, NABT Statement on Evolution Evolves)

The key words in that statement are "unsupervised" and "impersonal" because they emphasize the true nature of the scientific meaning of evolution. Unfortunately, these are the very words that upset believers and, after much debate, NABT eliminated those words from its description of scientific evolution. [NABT]. While this may have been politically correct, it doesn't alter the fact that true scientific explanations, by definition, must not include appeals to the supernatural.

The incident reveals that theists are very uncomfortable with pure naturalistic explanations like the original description published by NABT. One of the original critics of the NABT statement was Alvin Plantinga, a well-known proponent of "theistic science." (See Eugenie Scott's article on "NABT Statement on Evolution Evolves" for a reference to Plantinga's involvement.) Back in the early 1990's, Plantinga wrote,

Returning to methodological naturalism, if indeed natural science is essentially restricted in this way, if such a restriction is part of the very essence of science, then what we need here, of course, is not natural science, but a broader inquiry that can include all that we know, including the truths that God has created life on earth and could have done it in many different ways. "Unnatural science," "Creation Science," "Theistic Science"—call it what you will: what we need when we want to know how to think about the origin and development of contemporary life is what is most plausible from a Christian point of view. What we need is a scientific account of life that isn't restricted by methodological naturalism.

Alvin Plantinga (1991)

With hindsight, we see that the biology teachers backed down, in part, due to pressure from Christians who are opposed to science. This is one more example of the watering down of science under pressure from intolerant religious extremists.

So, is there a middle ground where an interventionist, personal God is compatible with modern science? Perhaps not. The conflict between religion and science certainly isn't avoided by postulating a passive God who doesn't play an active role in guiding evolution. If science really does have to be strictly naturalistic, then even the softest version of intelligent design—that promoted by Michael Denton—is ruled out because God creates the laws of physics and chemistry. This point is worth emphasizing. If one's explanation of the natural world posits a God who created the laws of physics and chemistry then one is not behaving like a scientist. Of course, there's even more of a conflict if one's God is supposed to have set up the universe in order to produce humans.

On the surface it seems that all forms of religion conflict with science in one way or another. It seems as though there's no room at all for religious explanations of the natural world as long as we agree that scientists have to stick to naturalism. Do scientists really insist on this restriction? Yes, they do. A few years ago a group of American Scientific Societies prepared a document on evoluton. The document was created by a committee of scientists chaired by evolutionary biologist Douglas Futuyma. The committe addressed the issue in the following way,

Whether the science be physics or evolutionary biology, it teaches us only what the observable world is like and how it works. Such sciences as physics, chemistry, geology, physiology, and neurobiology, exactly like evolutionary biology, admit no supernatural causes for the actions of atoms, the sun's energy, the health or ills of the human body, or the powers of the human brain. These sciences recognize only natural, material causes, and we rely on their naturalistic theories when we build airplanes, synthesize new plastics, listen to weather reports, or consult our doctors. We would no more apply religious principles to these activities than we would seek moral guidance from medical doctors, engineers, or chemists. So it is with evolutionary science: no more nor less materialistic than any other science, it offers no moral guidance, only dispassionate analysis of how biological systems function and came to be. What use we make of such information is for individuals and society to decide.

Douglas Futuyma et al. (2001)

As I pointed out earlier, this conclusion is not acceptable to a great many religious scientists. They claim there's a middle ground between the complete rejection of all religious explanations (naturalistic science, materialistic science) and the anti-science position of the Creationists. The middle ground is occupied by believers in theistic evolution. They practice something that Plantinga might have called "Unnatural Science."

What is theistic evolution? The simplest definition is the one offered by Alvin Plantinga. He says that theistic evolution is a version of evolution that is not restricted by methodological naturalism (see above). Eugenie Scott explains it better in her book "Evolution vs. Creationism,"

Theistic Evolution (TE) is the theological view in which God creates through the laws of nature. TEs accept all the result of modern science, in anthropology and biology as well as in astronomy, physics, and geology. In particular, it is acceptable to TEs that one species can give rise to another; they accept descent with modification. TEs vary in whether and how much God is allowed to intervene—some believe God created the laws of nature and is allowing events to occur with no further intervention. Other TEs see God as intervening at critical intervals during the history of life (especially in the origin of humans).

Eugenie C. Scott (2000) p.64
see also: The Creation/Evolution Continuum

Eugenie Scott's description is not unique. Many theologians describe theistic evolution as a variant of evolution that involves direct or indirect intervention by God. For example, The Rev. Ted Peters of the Pacific Luthern Theological Seminary often gives lectures on the subject and one of his slides is reproduced below.

Peters also recognizes two types of theistic evolutionist but both types believe in an interventionist God. The difference between theistic evolution and intelligent design is not obvious. According to Peters, intelligent design creationists believe in a God who intervenes at the species level while theistic evolutionists may not.

Plantinga, Scott, Peters, and even Phillip Johnson, agree that theistic evolutionists allow for a God who intervenes in natural processes. In my opinion, the term "theistic evolution" is another oxymoron. Evolution is science and theism is religion. You can't mix religion and science and still call it science because the practice of science must exclude theistic explanations. There is no middle ground. There are only two possibilities: either what you're doing is science or it isn't science. In the case of theistic evolution, the magisterium of religion is overlapping the magisterium of science.

Many of the most prominent opponents of Creationism are also strong supporters of theistic evolution. In order to justify their beliefs, they present the range of opinions on evolution as a smooth continuum. At one end are the Creationists who believe in an anti-science, interventionist God while the opposite end of the spectrum is occupied by atheists. The Creationists at one extreme are fiercely attacked for being anti-science. Some theistic evolutionists are just as much opposed to materialistic science at the opposite end of the continuum.

The next figure is a graphical representation of this so-called continuum taken from a presentation by Ted Peters. Note that theistic evolution is presented as the comfortable middle ground between the two unacceptable extremes of atheism and creationism. On the left are scientific creationism and intelligent design, two versions of evolution that are definitely not scientific. On the right is evolutionary biology, which represents true science unencumbered by religion..

The spectrum of theistic evolutionists in the middle is quite revealing. Peters does not include Ursala Goodenough. She believes is a spritualistic version of pantheism where it's the awsomeness of nature itself that inspires a spiritual feeling. The well-known atheist, Richard Dawkins, has declared that if Goodenough is religious then so is he.

Deism is also outside of the theistic evolution middle ground. This is significant since many versions of deism are compatible with science—they do not require an interventionist God. Some of the responses I received when the first version of this essay was published were from deists and pantheists who referred to themselves as theistic evolutionists. They fully accepted the scientific version of evolution but they wanted to proclaim that they were not atheists. For that group there is no conflict but, more importantly, there is also no middle ground. They completely accept the scientific version of evolutionary biology. These deists and pantheists are using the term "theistic evolution" in a way that's very different from the description of Peters and other theologians. It would be more accurate if they called themselves "deistic evolutionsts"—or just plain "evolutionists" since they don't need to qualify their science in any way.

Teilhard de Chardin represents the softest version of theistic evolution, according to Peters. Teilhard's God is responsible for the direction of evolution but the intervention is subtle and his version of religion is close to deism. The hard version of theistic evolution is represented by Ken Miller (and others) and it is described in Miller's book "Finding Darwin's God." Miller's version of theistic evolution is close to intelligent design. So close, in fact, that I can hardly tell them apart.

Theistic evolution is described as a legitimate alternative to scientific evolutionary biology. The idea is that one can accept a theistic version of science as long as you don't fall for Creationism. In other words, science and religion are compatible—perhaps even desirable—as long as you position yourself close to the true science end of the continuum.

To my mind, this is a totally false view of the range of options. There is no continuum between science and non-science. Either your explanations of the natural world are scientific or they are not. Here's my version of the range of ideas about science and non-science.


In my version, theistic evolution ain't science. Admittedly, it is closer to the dividing line than the explanations of Young Earth Creationists but "close" isn't good enough. Theistic evolution is still in the "Non-Science" half of the diagram. There is no middle ground.