Last night at the Socrates Cafe (hosted by our university's Philosophy Club!) the topic was "Can religion be reconciled with evolution?" Overall it was an interesting discussion, but what I was most interested in were points of conflict between evolutionary theory and religious views. I thought I'd gather up these ideas here. From memory, it seemed there were four clear points of conflict:
A Sense of Purpose
Literal interpretations vs. Alegorical interpretations of The Bible
The relation between Man and Animal set out in The Bible.
Knowledge of man vs. Knowledge of God
Naturally this all depends on what one means by religion, what one means by God, and what a specific religion denotes. The focus was upon mainstream Christianity, though, because this is the predominant religion in our region, and therefore it is here that we were most familiar with conflict arising. I'll first explain the conflicts, then move onto possible resolutions. To explain the conflicts --
A sense of purpose: The Bible, especially in the New Testament (I'm a little sketchy on the theological backing for this statement, however) states that man is on this earth for a special purpose. This gives meaning to an individual's life as they fit into a plan of some kind that a benevolent being has orchestrated for them. The conflict arises because evolution carries a purely materialistic connotation with it -- not as a necessity, but human existence and some of its traits are explicable in material terms. More than this, we thought that the word "random chance" tends to carry the connotation that man has no purpose, and therefore no meaning within an evolutionary context.
Literal vs. Allegorical: If one takes the Biblical account of the origin of man and the universe as a literally descriptive event, then clearly evolution and The Bible conflict. According to The Bible, man was created in God's image exactly as he is now. According to evolution, he was one of many species who made it to this point.
The relation between Man and Animal: According to The Bible, Animals were set upon the earth for men to use and take care of. This places man above animal. There comes a conflict with evolution when man is taken to be an Animal, because this relation is, at least in part, dissolved.
Knowledge: Some religious traditions claim to have knowledge of a superior or different kind. Because evolution is a man-made construct that admits itself of being tentative always, and because Godly knowledge is necessarily perfect, a conflict between scientific claims and religious claims arises in that a religious individual who believes to have a superior kind of knowledge will simply dismiss evolution tout court. In addition to this, the teaching of evolution might be frowned upon as it introduces a different way of looking at the world that may influence their children away from the perfect knowledge that the believer has.
Purpose: This one is complex to resolve because it is highly dependent upon how one interprets evolution and how one interprets their religion at a metaphysical level. However, one clear resolution seemed to be pointing out the meaning of the word "Random". Random can be easily confused because it has several meanings, and in the context of biology it has a specific meaning that probably doesn't reflect what one would consider "Truly Random". In the context of biological evolution, randomness isn't necessarily stochastic so much as it is unpredictable. An example may help here:
Mutations to genes can be introduced by a number of inputs. An example of a random input would be the molecular machinery making a mistake in transcribing DNA into RNA. Instead of the base that the machinery is supposed to pass along, another is put into place. This piece of RNA will then express another amino acid, which can change the function of the protein which is being made. This change of function almost always leads to a decrease in an organisms function -- it is unable to reproduce, whether it be because of death or some other reason. However, it is possible for this mutation to make a positive contribution to an organisms function, in that it is better able to reproduce than its fellow creatures. In either direction, this is a "Random" mutation. It may not be "Truly Random", but this is what the term is meant to imply -- that some changes are able to be accounted for, but are not predictable at the level of predictability that one tends to expect in a scientific theory. As such, evolution isn't "Random" in the sense that we don't have a purpose. I used the term function on purpose. There is an interesting analogue here.
When Adam and Eve leave the Garden their purpose becomes to have a family. In a sense, this is their function. They must plow the earth and work in order to procreate and be happy. Similarly in biology an organisms fitness can be simplified to their ability to procreate. The function of life is to create more life. If one doesn't take the Bible too literally, the parallels between these supposedly disparate disciplines are interesting, which leads me into the next resolution.
Literal vs. Allegorical: A literal interpretation is clearly irreconcilable with evolution. I won't get into whether a literal or an allegorical interpretation is better, but I will note that allegorical interpretations are in almost all cases reconcilable with evolution.
Some interesting parallels exist between the creation story of the Bible and currently accepted scientific cosmology. While God separated the light from the darkness, the current model on the universe's beginning is the Big Bang. The Big Bang doesn't explain the question of being in the least, but it does start with a large conflagration where all being was mixed. With time the light was parsed from space. In the second creation story within Genesis there is a parallel between what is created on Earth and what currently cosmological models describe. First came the waters, then came the plants, then came the animals, and then came man. The Knowledge of Good and Evil corresponds to man's birth of consciousness. The innocence of species-hood without higher cognitive functions was a sort of bliss. A new perceptive ability brought about the realization of pain in this world, work for our bread, and a longing for a heavenly existence. I didn't come up with that story, but I think it's neat.
Between Man and Animal: This is something of a specific problem, since not everyone will think that their religious background gives them right over animals. However, supposing that man is greater than animals -- If one accepts the doctrine that man is fallen, then there shouldn't be a problem in accepting that Man is an animal. Man can still be greater than other animals, in that he prefers those rationally inclined, but it seems to run parallel with theological teachings to assume that we actually have an animality. In Christianity this animality is to be overcome, something which I can't say I agree with, but the existence of animality seems to go with, not against, religion.
Knowledge of Man vs Knowledge of God: Here I don't think there is a resolution. I only think it important to point out that in "Knowledge of Man" (i.e. Science) class that we should stick to the subject matter of "Knowledge of Man". I have some theological problems with revealed knowledge, but that is outside the scope of this post. Still, it seems unreasonable to be worried about knowledge of man infecting a child's knowledge of God if the knowledge of God is perfect. There shouldn't be much worry at all here.
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