Religion and cartography or I Was a Teenage Theistic Evolutionist

Following on from his review of two books by theistic evolutionists, Jerry Coyne recently wrote an article criticising the US National Academy of Sciences for saying that evolution and Christianity are compatible. Richard Hoppe at Panda’s Thumb disagrees with Coyne, but P Z Myers supports him. Atheist fight!

Is evolution compatible with Christianity? Well, yes and no. I was a Christian who believed in evolution. This means not having good answers to some stuff Christians might care about: was the Fall a real event, and if not, where does original sin come from? Did physical death really enter the world through sin? If, as Christians usually argue as part of their theodicy on natural disasters, creation itself was corrupted in the Fall (whatever the Fall was), how exactly does that work? If you’re a Christian who accepts evolution, you don’t need atheists to ask these awkward questions, your creationist brothers (and sisters) will do a much better job of it.

But that doesn’t show incompatibility. If you keep running into these problems and have to keep adding ad hoc patches to your theory, you should consider discarding it, but there are things I don’t have good answers to as an atheist, and that hasn’t stopped me being one.

I was a student of science who was a Christian. That seems to be where the real problem lies. Theistic evolutionists tend to say stuff like “Evolution could have been the way God did it” or “Maybe God nudges electrons from time to time”. They might make a wider point about “other ways of knowing”. At some point, someone is probably going to say “well, Science cannot prove your wife loves you, but you believe that, don’t you?”

The Less Wrong crowd recently discussed whether their community is and should be welcoming to theists. Theism, Wednesday, and Not Being Adopted is a good post which deserves reading on its own merits, but I was particularly interested in Eliezer Yudkowsky’s comment about compartmentalising rationality.

If Wednesday [the child of Mormons mentioned in the article] can partition, that puts an upper bound on her ability as a rationalist; it means she doesn’t get on a deep level why the rules are what they are. She doesn’t get, say, that the laws regarding evidence are not social customs that can be different from one place to another, but, rather, manifestations of the principle that you have to walk through a city in order to draw an accurate map of it.

Sam Harris mocks this compartmentalisation in his satirical response to Coyne’s critics (the paragraphs following “Finally, Kenneth Miller, arrives” are the key ones). Science is one manifestation of the principle that you draw a map by walking the streets, not by sitting in your room and thinking hard about it. There are other legitimate forms of cartography, such as the one you apply when you conclude that someone loves you (assuming you’re not actually a stalker). Perhaps, like the Tube map, they’re not doing quite the same precise measurement as you’d expect from science, but they make useful maps.

Recall the original point of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, before it developed into a cod-religion for annoying Christians with, like the worship of Invisible Pink Unicorn (PBUHHH). The FSM’s inventor used it to point out that if you’re going to say your god created the universe because you sat your room and had a strong inner conviction about it, on your own argument, the FSM revealed to me as a Pastafarian is as legitimate as the creator your conviction revealed to you. This point is not lessened if you say your god sometimes happens to do stuff in a way which isn’t directly incompatible with known science.

Perhaps theism isn’t incompatible with evolution, but it is incompatible with good cartography.

8 Comments on "Religion and cartography or I Was a Teenage Theistic Evolutionist"

    1. Also, ignoring the ridiculous use of the word “prove” in that statement, I’m really curious how you would know your wife loved you *without* observation and hypothesis? I don’t think imagining a loving wife is really the same thing 😉


      1. I think the natural way to translate “my wife loves me” into logical form is

        ∃X: wife(X, me) ∧ loves(X, me)

        and not, as you suggest above

        ∀X: wife(X, me) → loves(X, me)

        because pragmatically speaking, referring to “my wife” is a claim that she exists.


      2. You might even consider there to be an implicit claim in there that you have only one wife (otherwise you’d have said “one of my wives loves me” or whatever). So a fuller translation would be:

        ∃X: wife(X, me) ∧ loves(X, me) ∧ ∀Y: wife(Y, me) → X = Y


  1. Subject: Tonight Only!
    Ken Miller who was the plaintiff’s lead expert witness in the Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District (the one where they tried to make ID part of the science curriculum in the US) is doing a lecture on this tonight:

    Prof. Kenneth Miller (Brown University, USA) God, Darwin, and Design 5.30 pm Tuesday 28th April 2009 Queen’s Lecture Theatre Emmanuel College The scientific and legal failings of the ‘intelligent design’ (ID) movement in the United States stand in sharp contrast to its substantial gains in public support. Recently, the ID movement has also gained a footing in the UK and elsewhere in Europe. The popular support this movement has received points to a profound failure on the part of the scientific community to articulate its own message effectively. The appeal of the ID movement, I will suggest, stems from the way in which it has used the concept of ‘design’ as a counterpoint against Darwinian evolution. Analyzing the appeal of this concept is central to developing an understanding of why evolution continues to provoke such resistance a century and a half after the publication of On the Origin of Species. In reality, the concept of design is central to a scientific view of nature, and can be understood in ways that allow scientific and religious views of nature to coexist.


    1. Subject: Re: Tonight Only!
      Thanks, but alas I have to work. I see they do podcasts of some of their stuff, so maybe there’ll be one of Miller.


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