Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Conor Cunningham and Darwinism

Philosopher and theologian, Conor Cunningham, argues that Darwinism is consistent with Christianity. His argument is that the Biblical account of the creation of man in Genesis, is merely allegorical, and that it was traditional amongst the Founding Fathers of the Christian church not to interpret Genesis literally. Augustine, he claims, would not have been perturbed were he to have known about Darwinian evolution.

Cunningham, however, seems to have missed a crucial point. Darwin’s account of the origin of mankind not only refuted the literal Biblical account, it also refutes the belief that God is responsible for the existence of mankind. Evolution by natural selection is not a deterministic process, hence unless one postulates that the universe is deterministic on a lower level than that at which evolutionary biology operates (a postulate which quantum theory renders problematic), the evolution of humanity by natural selection entails that the existence of humanity is a matter of pure chance; the existence of humanity is a contingent property of the universe, something which might not have happened at all.

Hence, Darwinian evolution is inconsistent with the essential Christian belief that God is responsible for the existence of mankind.


Anonymous said...

Well said. We can add Mr Cunningham to the long list of 'cherry pickers', me thinks.

Mark Vernon said...

Hi there -

I imagine Cunningham would respond to you by pointing to the work of individuals like Simon Conway Morris, which suggests that there is evidence for a certain kind of directionality and purpose in evolution - as shown, say, in the 'post-selfish-gene' work on convergence and cooperation. This suggests further that many creaturely features are inevitable, given enough time and so on, a conclusion that runs against the Stephen Jay Gould line about running the tape again and seeing it running differently. Conway Morris then adds the admittedly speculative thought that evolution could then also be thought of as searching out possible realities in nature, as opposed to 'merely' adapting for survival advantage. An example of that, as he said in the programme, would be that we and other creatures have music not just because it gives us some advantage, or because it is some of spandrel-like excess, but because there is some kind of universal music, to which we and other creatures are responding. It is, of course, highly speculative. But the argument is also that evolution is true but incomplete (though it's hard to say so given the politics of evolution), so reasonable speculation is worth making. When it comes to God, I suppose they'd say that God is not responsible for humankind in a directly causal way, but that through this wider conception of evolutionary processes, which are a product of the way the world is 'made', the emergence of humankind is inevitable. The issue that Cunningham didn't cover that I suspect is more damaging for Christian belief in a good God, is the tremendous waste in evolution, extinctions and so on - though that would not be a new thought to believers who have had to grapple with the problem of evil for centuries.

Incidentally, have you read Bernard D'Espagnat's 'On Physics and Philosophy'. I'm just sinking into it now, and would be interested to know what you think.


Anonymous said...

I agree entirely, I can't help myself from thinking that Dr Cunningham is clutching at straws here.

Gordon McCabe said...

Some good points Mark.

I read some of D'Espagnat's book on the foundations of quantum mechanics, what seems like a very long time ago. If I recall, the book was bound in a beautiful green hide. Very tactile. I haven't read 'On physics and philosophy' yet, but I'll see what I can do.

Anonymous said...

If one accepts the theory of evolution and that human life evolved from apes then it makes a nonsense of the cross. If you dismiss Genesis as myth you have dismissed the entire gospel. The wages of sin is death - Genesis 3 teaches us that death came at the fall. If death is not a result of sin then Christ's sacrifice is meaningless.

Ad Pikett said...

Cunningham's narrowness is breath taking. He sets out to [rather badly] undermine 'ultra-darwinism' by rewriting Christian belief into a system where you can believe in God, as long as you choose to ignore what was written in the Bible, or bend in it in a way that will suit you to make an idiotic programme to submit to the BBC.

Anonymous said...

You seem to be suggesting that God couldn't have used evolution as a tool because it might not have worked. I think that is clutchingat straws.

MarkeD said...

I think some of the points above were dealt with in the programme.

Christians had already accepted the Bible wasn't literal truth before Darwin, with many geologists concluding way before him the Earth must be at least a few million years old - those Geologists including members of the Anglican clergy.

What I took Cunningham as saying was that God is the laws of physics and evolution.

His God is existing outside of time, which means creation was created as a whole; past, present and future. It seems more a Gaia view of God rather than a "super-human" who can create man in his image.

The image quote (Created Man in his Image) refers to the way we can self observe ourselves through consciousness - a self awareness that the Universe(god) also possesses.

The Christian belief then equates this presence with the Christian God who took care of the whole Jesus myth.

Anonymous said...

I think alot of you who posted negative comments about Dr.Cunningham need to go back and watch the program again,he dealt with alot of your comments in the program already.Even St.Augustine wrote in his book in the 5th century,that the book of Genesis was not to be taken literally.And I agree entirely 100% with HollowMarkeD
and his comments.Yes, early christians had already concluded and agreed that the bible was not to be taken in a literal sense.

To the anonymous poster who posted that to accept the theory of evolution means that christs' sacrifice is meaningless..I got news for you,hate to pop your bubble for you,but christ nnever came here to die for you,for me or for anyone else,it wasn't his purpose at all.He came here to show us and to teach us how we can know god and how we can have a relationship with god,and he came here to save us basically from our ownselves,he came here to show us the way to enter the kingdom,he came to show us the way and the light.If he came here to die for all of us,he didn't have to have a 9 month birth process in the womb of Mary and be born as a human is born.If he came here to die and to die only,then God could have created him in one day,as he supposedly did,with Adam and eve,and God could have had Christ sacrificed and crucified on the first day., so why not just crucify Christ on the 25th of December on the day he is born and get it over and done with on the first day??,it's much more efficient don't you agree?? it's sure much quicker...seriously why drag things out???..according to Christianity it took more than 30 years to crucify Christ...he had to be born,then baptized by a human,no less,then he had to be tempted in the wilderness for 30 days,then he had to be arrested,then sold for 30 pieces of silver,beaten,whipped,made to carry a cross..it's all very messy,time consuming and very inefficient,...so if his purpose was to come here to die,as christians claim it to be,then we can skip all of the above,God can create Christ in one day,and we don't need a virgin anymore either,and we can nail Christ on the cross on the 25th of December and get it all over and done with on the first day, very efficient,very quick,oh,but that would all be too simple for christians to believe in,not much of a religeon is it??,not much substance is it??...so,christianity has had to embellish the story alot and drag it out...that is grabbing at straws if I ever seen it, maybe the straws came from the manger??

Anonymous said...

Big gaping hole:

Evolution is not in the bible. Therefore, the bible is wrong. If it's not in there, it's simply wrong. No marks, no points - wrong.
The bible is the source of supposed belief of god (specifically christian/catholic etc.) - you can't pick and choose the bits you would like to believe in the bible.
The bible said god created the earth in 7 days, evolution proves it was not. You can't believe in both because they contradict each other.

MarkeD said...

@anon If you take a literal meaning of the Bible like Creationlists then you are correct, but if you are writing about things that are outside human experience then only metaphor will work - Jesus didn't tell the story about the Good Samaritan to tell followers that Samaritans are actually kinda cool, it was a story to encourage kindness to strangers.

This is why Creationists are so hilarious, they actually misunderstand the teachings of the Bible so fundamentally they are very poor Christians.

If instead you read Bible passages as metaphors that may hint to higher wisdom you get a lot more out of them, if you believe in Jesus or not.

For instance, if you start to think of Adam being created without a soul and it had to be breathed into him by God, whilst Eve was created from Adam with a soul, it could be argued this says women are more likely to be in tune with other people's feelings than men, a truism and wisdom unlikely to be argued with and of real benefit.

If you actually believe Adam and Eve were real people you have to literally force your brain to reject reason.

"I cannot believe God would have created the powers of reason and then asked us to not use them"

This is the over riding point in Conor Cunnigham's program - science and religion aren't mutually exclusive to intelligent people, Evolution vs the Bible is a modern trend that could arguably be put down to reaction against the Eugenics (forced sterilisation of "unworthy" citizens) the US carried out on its own people in the 1930's, a twisted form of Darwinism.

Anonymous said...

I viewed Dr Cunningham's shallow exposition on the ABC's Compass Program in Australia recently. It appeared a very lame attempt to reconcile Darwinism with established Christian religion and seemed more interested in using Darwin to vindicate established religion than to follow the logical outcomes of Darwin's theory. He is very selective in quoting Saint Agustine to assert that the Catholic Church did not accept the literal interpretation of the Bible as it pertained to the Creation accounts making St Augustine out to be a real Liberal. The Catholic Church - and other Faiths - still believe that God is the author of the Bible and accept literally the New Teatament with God becoming man, working miracles and dying on the cross for our sins etc. Cherry picking as another blogger said. He also is not honest in his account of Darwin's rejection of the Christian faith. He puts it down solely to the death of his daughter. If the good Doctor cared to read Darwin's Autobigraphy, he would find far more explicit logical reasons for why he dismissed the Christian religion as being something of no consequence. He had said as early as 1839 that the Old Testament could be "no more trusted than the sacred books of the Hindoos". As for the New testament he said "the more we know of the fixed laws of nature the more ncredible do miracles become ...the Gospels cannot prove to have been written simultaneously with the events...they differ in many important details etc" he goes on to say "by such reflections as these ... I gradually came to disbelieve in Christianity as a divine revelation" Darwin at the end of his life conceded "I cannot pretend to throw the least light on such abstruse problems (the origins of the universe) The mystery of the beginning of all things is insoluable by us; and I for one must be content to remain an Agnostic". I haven't time to pursue other aspects of the godd Doctor's discourse, but it was essentially a lame attempt to give the impression that the Catholic or Anglican Churches had an enlightened, liberal outlook, not fearful of embracing the science of evolution which posed no threat to their faith. At the same time he attempted to strengthen his own postion further by lampooning - such an easy task anyway - the heretical Creationists and Intelligent Designers. What the good Doctor needs to do is to ge away and reflect a bit more and throw out the baby with the bath water next time.

Tony Dickson said...

I find I must side with those alleging cherry picking on behalf of Dr. Cunningham. However my thesis is that the question as to whether Darwin killed God, rather misses the point. The issue is not so much the existence of God but the relevance of God.
The Old Testament God was an authoritarian, legalistic tyrant who was forever smiting all and sundry for affronting "His" ego. This was an interventionist God who played a direct and pervasive role in peoples lives and psyches.
Christ reinvented Jehovah as a caring, sharing, paternal sort of God, who watched over his flock with tough love and listened to their prayers. He was a lurking Dad always there when needed for spiritual comfort and strength and the odd miracle.
However, science has pushed back the boundaries of credulity and faith, renfering God ever more remote and abstracted.
Dr. Cunningham maintains he is sanguine about the prospect of a God who has forsworn micro management in favour of a style that is so remote and hands-off that His only creative input into the whole shooting match is to seed the evolutionary process and then let things rip.
This may be satisfactory for academic theologians, but your average Judeo-Christian punter is probably looking for a little more spiritual and emotional support. We generally expect more from a Father figure than a one-night stand with our Mother.
Evolution is a process with an existence that is completely independent of human perception. The salient question is whether the same is true of God. If He ceases to be relevant to the daily lives of his constituents, how long will he keep his seat? What is the role of a God, in whom no one believes?
Tony Dickson

Tiberius said...

Conor Cunningham’s moderate view, as opposed to an extreme view, is to be commended. Why divide the world with black-and-white fundamentalist attitudes either for or against religion. Is either belief in God or unbelief such a threat to me that I need to rage against it with harsh words and bitter criticism as if needing to vindicate my position at the expense of others? An idea, whether it is theism or atheism, will never die as long as people like us keep thinking about it and discussing it. We are smart enough not to keep devoting a significant amount of our valuable time thinking about and debating something that we really think is of no value. And if we allow ourselves to be angry or unhappy because of someone else’s beliefs of words, we are giving them the power to darken part of our lives.

I suggest give to science what belongs to science and give to God what belongs to God, while subjecting both to reasonable on-going scrutiny and questioning to make scholars and religions more accountable for their ideas/practices and improve our understanding of them. Neither faith nor science needs to be considered valid at the complete exclusion of the other since we may consider ourselves as both rational and spiritual beings, with a long history of philosophical and material progress. And since we cannot definitively prove that either God exists or that God does not exist, having faith could be seen as a kind of soul insurance for the hereafter. We take out insurance on our cars, homes, travel, health and so forth, so why not have some contingency cover for the soul, just in case we find we need it when the time comes.

And when we reflect on the negative events of history and wonder if the world would be a better place if the worst of those people, ideologies and events had not occurred, it carries an interesting irony. We are really the children of the past. Just consider the great paradox of a person from a conquered land of mixed descent who endures a lifetime of apparently justified indignation reflecting over that part of his indigenous ancestry that were exploited and abused at the hands of invading foreigners who wiped out an ancient civilisation and imposed an alien ideology on the surviving generations. He wonders how much better his world would have been be if not for this act of barbarism. Yet, if those very events had not taken place he would not exist, just as we would not exist except for human history occurring precisely as it did. A different set of circumstances impacting on peoples’ movements and meetings would have resulted in a different gene mix with different circumstances impacting on that mix, and so producing a different lot of descendents at every generation onwards. And modern science has only increased out awareness of the probability factors governing our individual existence. For instance, of the approximately 100-500 million sperm released in every act of human intercourse, with each individual sperm carrying a different genotype, what were the odds that the particular one with your genotype would be the successful one to win the race to fertilise the egg? Take this to the next step by multiplying these sperm by the number of successive generations that have occurred in your ancestry since the first humans walked the earth (recent estimates by scientists put this at around 6 million years ago). A different sperm being successful at any level in your lineage and the individual that is you doesn’t exist. As such I am grateful for the past, with all its triumphs and tragedies, philosophies and institutions, individuals and events. When we attack history we attack our own origins and contradict our very existence. We need to learn from the past and not be angry about it or too hasty to want to do away with those concepts that are part of our heritage. As such we may reflect on that old saying “But for the grace of God go I”.

Bob Pfunder said...

I think we need to keep two things in mind during this conversation. First, with regard to determining the cause of humanity's existence - whether we'll posit an atheistic evolutionary perspective or the creationist perspective - we have to remember that there is a sub-conversation about the nature of divine agency also at play that seems to nearly always get over-looked. If we assume Cunningham's thesis against creationism, then there is it seems much room in Thomas Aquinas' account of agency for some sort of secondary instrumental causality with regard to the existence of humanity. Second, we also need to remember that there are two questions at stake when we talk about the mystery of the existence of the human person. First, how did we come to be the way that we are, meaning the human person in his/her physical, natural form (this is a question that evolution specifically answers -as well as does Creationism). And second, when asking about the nature of existence we must also ask the question: Why is there not nothing? Evolution is devoid of any resources whatsoever to answer this question. It seems the problem is a bit more complicated than your post intimates it is.

Joe said...

The point is surely this. Darwin's theory of evolution does not claim to have an answer to the first cause question. It is based entirely on secondary cause analysis and is convincing but probably incomplete on this aspect. To assume it disproves the existence of a creator God would be absurd, and certainly something that Charles Darwin would not have subscribed to. And to assume it is anything other than fully reconcilable with anything but a literalist interpretation of the Bible would be equally absurd. Cunningham's views represent a stand of Christian belief on this topic which I find very plausible, even as a liberal Christian ( which Cunningham, of course, isn't). What's certainly clear from the documentary is that Cunningham has a far more sophisticated understanding of Darwinism than does Dawkins of historical and philosophical theology.