I simply cannot forbear, and must wade into swamps where others have already marked out the quicksands, and talk briefly about Elliott Sober’s argument that science does not contradict theism (the whole hour and three quarters of boredom available through Vimeo). Jerry Coyne and Jason Rosenhouse have already commented, and I need to put in my two cents worth. If this is all that philosophy is good for, then there’s not much point in doing philosophy! In fact, I think spending as much time as Sober does to show that for all we know there might be a being (like a god) guiding mutations is just so much time wasted, and I came to that conclusion after the first few minutes of his talk. All the distinctions that he makes, and the unnecessary introduction of Hume into the discussion, is wasted effort. He could have begun and ended by stating this: There is no way we can prove, logically, that a god or gods do not actually guide mutations, even though the evidence, so far as we can tell, indicates that mutations happen randomly. There still could be a guiding hand involved.
But this is just silly. It’s like the old philosopher’s joke that you can’t prove logically that there isn’t an elephant in the room right now, sitting on the sofa. As long as I am allowed to make as many qualifications to the characteristics of the elephant as I like (that is, in Dennett’s terms, if I am allowed to play tennis without a net), there’s no way that you can prove that he doesn’t exist. But the argument would be pointless: adding qualifications to qualifications to every response you make would not show anything. All it would do is to demonstrate that the notion of logical possibility is not a particularly interesting concept in a context such as this.
However, in the context of evolution, it is even less pointful. Sober seems to think that the guiding hand of god would be played out in the production of mutations. But that still wouldn’t do the trick of guiding, because the guiding in evolution is done by the environment filtering the mutations through its adaptational demands. It is the environment that provides the “guiding hand,” not the mutations. All the mutations can do is provide something for the environment to work on and to select from amongst. And this is not a random process. It is an algorithmic one. The mutations that are sorted out by the environmental process of selection are the real shaping forces acting on the mutations, selecting those mutations that give reproductive advantage to the animal or plant possessing them. It’s really that simple.
If a god were to work at this level, and give special advantage to animals or plants that did not have this reproductive advantage, then it would have to go on providing this helping hand all along, because, by definition, the reproductive advantage is not provided by the environment, but by a force outside the environment. Once produce an organism that is working at cross purposes with the environment, it would be necessary to continue applying the guiding hand in order to preserve that organism in the face of competing environmental conditions. But the question here is: Is there any evidence for this lack of fit between organisms and the environment that provides evidence for an intrusive and supposedly “guiding” hand. The point here is that this is the only place for a god to be involved, and yet it is the environment that is the selecting force, and it selects on the basis of fitness. The origin of the mutations matters not at all. This was made very clear by Darwin in the analogy he conceived between natural and artificial selection. In the case of artificial selection and breeding, the necessity of creating an environment in which the organisms, from pigeons to horses, from wild grasses to wheat, can prosper, is crucial. Breeders favour mutations by selecting them. That’s the point at which the guider’s hand must be intruded in the process, and, having done that, the environment must be controlled in such a way as to allow the mutated organism to survive. In natural contexts most such “guided organisms” would not survive, because they would not have been selected in and for natural environments.
Even if, as Jerry Coyne points out, God directs the rate of mutations, and supposing a beneficent god, who is interested in creating “beneficial” mutations, the guiding hand would still be the environment, no matter how often god intervened in the process. Of course, knowing everything, a god should be able to speed up the process of evolution, by creating mutations that would be most likely to be selected by the environment. A god might even be able to “design” organisms simply by creating mutations that would be selected by the environment in a particular order. But all this is (i) merely a logical possibility — as any possibility is if you add enough qualifications; and (ii) not science but an overly complicated type of creationism.
Towards the end of his talk, as Jason Rosenhouse says, Sober claims that
There may be good reasons to reject theism, but these are philosophical reasons, not consequences of evolutionary biology.
And Rosenhouse is justly sceptical of this attempt to put some questions out of reach of all but philosophers. This is very silly of Sober, having made such a hash of the other philosophical points he wants to make, and it’s not true. There are perfectly good reasons, good scientific reasons, why theism is implausible. The guiding hand theory of evolution simply doesn’t work. If you try to make it work, it ends up putting god in charge. But if god is not in charge, and natural selection is truly natural selection — that is, if the sieve of nature is the filter through which mutations must pass — then there will never come a time when the introduction of a god into the process will make sense. Not logically impossible, simply unnecessary. The only time it would really make sense, is, as Jerry Coyne senses, if the process of evolution were sped up by speeding up the rate of environmentally friendly mutations. Not only do we not see this, as Jerry says, but even if we did see it, we would immediately begin trying to explain it by studying the processes of mutation. Scientific questioning would not come to an end at this point, because, as Aristotle said, we are, as a species, rational animals, animals who want to know. And god is never an answer, because god takes the process of inquiry out of the natural realm altogether, and puts it out of reach of not only scientists, but philosophers as well. Theology is the “subject” that pretends to deal in such “knowledge,” but there are no compelling reasons to take its conclusions seriously.
Sober, of course, begins by warning us that the principle of the uniformity of nature is an article of faith. This implies his later argument that science and belief in god are compatible But the point is nonsense. Belief in the uniformity of nature, at least at the macro level at which we live our lives, is both a methodological assumption, and a recurringly confirmed one. All the Sturm und Drang about the problem of induction, which Hume aimed much more accurately against the scholastics, and not the new sciences, is, in many senses, beside the point. Certainly, Hume was a sceptic, as every reasonable person is. What he demanded was evidence, and evidence for the nature of human beings, as well as other aspects of nature, could not be built, as was thought by Aquinas, on a logical metaphysical foundation, but must include a foundation in evidence which only provides for probabilities, and not unquestioned and unquestionable certainties. So the so-called “faith” in the principle of the uniformity of nature, is not faith, but a reasoned conclusion based on experience, and a calculation of probabilities. It is perfectly reasonable to suppose that the sun will arise tomorrow morning. Are we absolutely sure? How much certainty is necessary? We have as much as is appropriate to the particular case in question.
When, for example, in answer to a question, Sober says something to the effect that the theory of evolution is like the statement that his car is grey (and god did not prevent it from being grey), and “it implies that God did not prevent the theory from being true,” the irrelevance of what Sober is doing becomes blindingly clear; for it is plain that theory as readily implies that there was no divine intervention in the evolutionary process. The statement that God did not prevent the theory from being true is really a silly point. Suppose you don’t think it true, as young earth creationists don’t — and it is in reference to young earth creationists that he makes the claim. He’s trying to say that the theory means that God didn’t prevent the earth from being billions of years old, and that, therefore, the young earth creationists are wrong. But this is silly. If we can use the idea of logical possibility as Sober is using it, then there is no reason a young earth creationist can’t say that it is logically possible that god made the earth to look old without actually being so (as one of the questioners suggests). And since it is logically possible that god has intervened in the evolutionary process, it is entirely possible that before biologists came on the scene and began examining the processes by which life came to be, god had actually sped up the process enough to make young earth creationism logically possible at the same time that it looks, to those who look at it without the eyes of faith, immensely old. But this just goes to show how useless this kind of philosophical argumentation is, because it can be used to “prove” almost anything, or at least not put it beyond the bounds of logical believability.
This kind of doing philosophy is a very poor example of how philosophy actually functions. Philosophy doesn’t need to be this kind of useless word-spinning. I know nothing of Sober, and now wish to know less, but I think of some of the philosophers whose work I value, work like Philip Kitcher’s, for example, or Daniel Dennett’s, or, in philosophy of science, Susan Haack’s. This is philosophy with bite and purpose. It actually clarifies concepts that are important to us, and without them we would be much poorer. Philosophy should be a corrosive discipline, undermining pious certainties, even, soemtimes, the pieties of science. If philosophy of science is anything like Eliott Sober’s version of it, it is a useless pursuit. I do not think it is. I assume that Sober is not a very good example of what philosophy of science can do, especially when it is holding out the olive branch to religion. When it does this, clearly, it has a very short half life, quickly decaying into meaninglessness and triviality.