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Deeper Than DarwinReview - Deeper Than Darwin
The Prospect for Religion in the Age of Evolution
by John Haught
Westview Press, 2003
Review by Kenneth Einar Himma, Ph.D.
May 7th 2004 (Volume 8, Issue 19)

John Haught's Deeper than Darwin is concerned with the issue of whether, if Darwin's theory of evolution is correct, there is anything significant left for religious traditions to explain -- that is, whether there is any room left for a theological or religious understanding of life. In the book, Haught argues that we must go much deeper than Darwin can take us to lead a rich and meaningful human life. As Haught puts the point: "Even though Darwin is illuminating, it by no means tells us everything we need to know about life, even in principle. It certainly does not alone provide the space within which people, including the most devout Darwinians can live their lives" (xi). Religious faith is needed, on Haught's view, to create a morally meaningful space within which to live.

Haught's case ultimately rests on the idea that the applicability of science and religion, as well as the relationship between the two, is most fruitfully regarded as a "reading problem." Thus conceived, science and religion are two different -- though not necessarily antagonistic -- ways of reading the universe. Viewed against this framework, Haught's thesis is that a scientific reading of the universe is, by itself, inadequate to tell us everything that matters about the universe; we cannot fully thrive without supplementing this reading with a religious or theological reading of our world. Without such a reading, we simply cannot thrive in all the ways that we need to in order to live a good human life.

Chapter 1 explores the ostensible tensions between the scientific and religious views of the universe. Many evolutionary psychologists, for example, believe that religious conviction remains widespread because it is adaptive (e.g., relieves stress) -- and not because it is true. Indeed, the two worldviews seem inconsistent at their very foundations: the scientific conception of an utterly purposeless universe shaped by unpredictable chance-driven forces appears inconsistent with the religious conception of a universe having properties that reflect the purposes of a loving personal God. The best that can be said by way of reconciliation is Stephen Jay Gould's condescending view that science tells us what is real while religion tells us what we value.

Chapter 2 develops the idea that understanding the universe is best understood as a reading problem. Like any other reasonably deep reading problem, the universe presents a variety of layers that require different interpretive strategies to understand. Just as one who approaches Moby Dick with a literal-minded interpretive strategy conceived to understand how the plot moves from page to page will miss the deeper layers of meaning that the plot is intended to suggest, someone who approaches the universe with a literalistic strategy, whether purely scientific or purely religious, will miss the deeper layers of meaning in the universe. Indeed, according to Haught, the penchant for literalism on both sides of the divide account for most of the apparent tensions between the two worldviews. According to Haught, a first step towards a full understanding of the world requires us to acknowledge that "nature, like a book, can be read on several different levels without contradiction" (23).

Chapter 3 is concerned with exploring the implications of the universe's "depth." Haught points out that science and religion are both largely motivated by a sense that the universe presents mysteries that require a deeper way of thinking than is needed to make our way through the mundane realities of life. But while the quest for depth motivates both approaches to thinking about the world, we must realize that literalism of any kind merely "skims along the surface" (31). For example, Haught believes that the literalism of the intelligent design movement "overlook[s] the disturbing novelty and struggle that evolution entails … [and thereby] leads only to an impoverished sense of both nature and God" (31). Similarly, the literalism of scientism -- the view that a scientific understanding of the universe exhausts what there is to know of the world -- suppresses the ambiguity that accompanies the profundity of what there is in the world. Reading the depth of the universe requires a path that has both inward dimensions of the sort stressed by religion and outward dimensions of the sort stressed by science. Religion must engage the facts of contemporary cosmology, while science must engage the facts of personal dimensions of a universe with spiritual significance.

Chapter 4 illustrates the role that a religious worldview can play in a complete understanding of the world. There are two stands to the argument. The first is grounded in the observation that different sciences can explain the same phenomenon in different ways that complement each other. The explanation that the physicist gives for, say, environmental degradation will be different from the explanation that an economist or sociologist will give; human intentions will play a role in the latter, but not in the former. The second strand is grounded in the claim that the scientific quest for clarity ensures that it will miss layers of depth that only a religious worldview can detect. On Haught's view, "[a] religiously informed consciousness -- especially one that is both acquainted with suffering and skilled in the habit of hope -- may be able to detect signals arising from the depths of nature that the methods of science, proficient in abstractive, mathematical and nonnarrative conceptualization, will inevitably (and quite appropriately) overlook" (45). Thus, just as the physicist's explanation can supplement the economist's explanation in providing a complete "reading" of the phenomenon of environmental degradation, so too can the religious worldview supplement the scientific worldview to provide a complete reading of the world that includes layers of depth that can't be reached by science alone.

Chapter 5 considers whether the world as it appears through the eyes of Darwin leaves any room for religious hope. Though many biologists believe the theory of evolution leaves no room for religious hope, many theists believe that evolution is guided by God who acts not as a direct primary cause of the earth's diversity, but rather as a secondary cause who creates the laws that dictate how things evolve as well as the initial conditions of the world. Haught argues that life can evolve only if (1) the universe is not completely deterministic in the sense of precluding chance-driven events of the sort that give rise to genetic mutations; (2) the universe is governed by invariant laws of physics and chemistry; and (3) the universe is durable enough to provide enough time for things to evolve -- conditions that point us beyond evolutionary theory to a narrative depth that requires a religious reading. "[N]ature still exists," as Haught puts it, "in such a way as to have the character of a story" (64).

Chapter 6 is concerned with Richard Dawkins's evolutionary materialist view that Darwin's theory is "so complete that it logically excludes any theological or 'providential' explanation of life" (74). The mechanisms of evolution are so clumsy that they logically preclude any explanatory role for an omnipotent, omni-intelligent deity to play; such mechanisms are inconsistent with the nature of an all-perfect deity. Haught rejects the separatist response that consigns religion and science to two logically separate domains in favor of a response that argues for engagement. Theology must engage with evolutionary biology by rethinking its understanding of divine providence so as to cohere with the compelling findings of evolutionary biology: "a serious encounter of theology with contemporary versions of evolutionary science may not only enrich our understanding of the universe but also revitalize our sense of divine providence" (78). The randomness of the evolutionary process can be seen as an expression of the freedom granted by a loving God to the universe to forge its own directions.

Chapter 7 attempts to make sense of "the naked fact of 'adaptive design'" (93). Haught argues that only an evolutionary theism that accepts Darwinian theory is capable of fully accommodating the depth in nature. Evolutionary materialism is flawed insofar as it fallaciously infers a metaphysical materialist view from a purely empirical theory of evolution. Intelligent design theory is flawed insofar as it resorts prematurely to what Haught characterizes as God-of-the-gaps thinking. But, by itself, evolutionary biology is incapable of making sense of the depth and nuance of the universe. Only evolutionary theism has the resources to make sense of the depth that human intelligence adds to the world: "an intelligence that naturally pursues understanding and truth, an intelligence that can 'survive' only if truth is inexhaustibly deep and attainable incrementally, can, at least in principle, form a tight adaptive fit with an environment that is inexhaustibly deep and endlessly intelligible" (100).

Chapter 8 considers the "Deep Darwinian" view that the human propensity for religious thought can be explained entirely in terms of its adaptive value. On this view, what explains the fact that the vast majority of people in history believe that some sort of divine supernatural entity constitutes the ultimate reality is not that they have somehow encountered an existing thing; rather, what explains this are genetic mechanisms that "strive to survive." Haught criticizes this view on three grounds. First, he argues that this line of reasoning wrongly presupposes that genes are centers of personal agency that can strive or act. Second, and far more plausibly, he argues that one cannot infer the falsity of religious thought from its being adaptive. Third, he argues that the view commits exactly the same sin it accuses religious views of -- namely, it attempts to explain the propensity for spirituality in terms of some sort of hidden agency (i.e., the striving of genes).

Chapter 9 takes on the idea, defended by both philosophers and scientists alike, that a commitment to evolutionary biology entails a materialist view inconsistent with the existence of God. Haught argues that evolutionary biology is an empirical theory that does not tell us anything conclusive about theism because the reality that is truly ultimate according to theism is not empirical in character. As Haught puts the point:

To declare that theology is superfluous as far as an adequate understanding of life and evolution is concerned would require a kind of surveillance that science as such cannot command. It is not within the range of any scientific readings of nature to hold forth on such issues as the ultimate nature of the real, on what lies in the ultimate depths of being and therefore on whether theology is an evasion of truth. Such claims belong to metaphysics, not science (127).

Moreover, materialism is itself problematic, on Haught's view, because it is incapable of accounting for "life's striving toward the incalculable not-yet" (129).

Chapter 10 is concerned with the issue of whether the diversity of religious views -- present and past (many religious views, after all, have long been abandoned) -- gives us a reason to think that all are false. Haught argues that the truth of theism can be reconciled with both religious diversity and with an evolutionary explanation of the persistence of religious thought. If theism is true, then one would expect both that religious belief would have adaptive value and that some predisposition towards religious belief would be hardwired into our genes. Moreover, if theism is true, then one would expect religious diversity precisely because the infinite depth to which theism points could never be fully captured by any one particular set of religious doctrines and symbols. Indeed, as time goes on, one would expect that encounters with the divine would lead people to realize that certain religious views are false and should be abandoned.

Chapter 11 attempts to identify those elements of nature's depths that require theistic explanation. Haught believes that the world is absurd unless there is a permanence somewhere in the universe that redeems the evil that results when a sentient being dies and finds this permanence in the imperishability of past events: "Deeper than evolution, beneath all becoming, perishing and death, there resides a rock-solid registry that prevents the erasure of all facts from the indelible record of having happened" (152). On Haught's view, the permanence of this rock-solid registry can be explained only by assuming the existence of God: "Something judges and measures the truth or falsity of all our propositions.... Some religions call it 'God'" (152). God preserves all transient events in a permanence that allows the past to "grow without ceasing" (153) and hence is needed to explain nature's inexhaustible depth as expressed by an ever-expanding past.

Chapter 12 asks the question of how we are to think of God in a way that harmonizes with the facts of evolutionary biology. Haught argues that a variety of theological doctrines must be radically rethought to square with the evolutionary picture of a world in a perpetual process of becoming. Perhaps most importantly, the doctrine of original sin, and the character of redemption that is needed to meet it, must be revised to acknowledge that evil is inevitable in a world that is continually changing. That the world is always in a process of becoming entails, on Haught's view, that it can never have been in a state of initial perfection that was compromised by some discrete human malfeasance: "if [the universe] is unfinished, then we cannot justifiably expect it yet to be perfect" (169). And this means that there is no need to continue the search for some culpable party on whom the imperfect state of the world can be blamed: Adam, Eve, and all other humans are absolved.

Chapter 13 considers the possibility of discovering extraterrestrial intelligence (ET) and the implications for our understanding of God, ultimate reality, and our significance in the universe. Haught believes that "[c]ontact with ETs would provide an exceptional opportunity for theology to widen and deepen its understanding of divine creativity" (179) and would enhance our understanding of God's love for diversity. While Haught argues that our significance would not be diminished by the discovery of ETs, he acknowledges that it would create problems for religions that claim a special status for a particular people; some adjustment would have to made in response to the possibility that some ETs have a special status as well.

There is much in the book that is worthwhile. Haught's critique of the attempt to infer the truth of atheism from evolutionary biology is sensible. As a logical matter, it seems pretty clear that the claim that human beings evolved from much simpler life forms just can't bear the weight of showing that a trans-natural, immaterial reality does not exist. And recourse to highly dubious claims about how an all-knowing, omnipotent, morally perfect being would go about creating life doesn't provide much support. It is a wonder that so many otherwise sophisticated philosophers and scientists have been tempted by such obviously problematic inferences.

Even so, Haught's positive case for the claim that theism is needed to explain "the inexhaustible depth of life" seems equally problematic. To begin with, exactly the sense in which nature is inexhaustibly deep is never made sufficiently clear to make plausible the idea that much more needs to be said than has been said by science up to this point. Haught's arguments here rely on premises that are too metaphorical to do the work they need to do to show that it is probable that theism is true -- which would be a reasonable inference from the claim that theism plays an essential explanatory role in understanding some theoretically significant feature of the universe. Moreover, even if one accepts that existing scientific knowledge cannot explain (or make sense of) nature's full depth, Haught provides little reason to think that science will never provide an adequate explanation; the claim that science hasn't explained something doesn't imply that it can't or won't someday explain it.

There are other equally serious problems. In support of his claim that theism plays an essential explanatory role, Haught argues that it is not possible to coherently assert a purely materialist explanation of mind: "[T]here is a blatant contradiction between an exclusively selectionist explanation of mind, on the one hand, and the implicit trust you place in your own mind's capacity to arrive at the naked truth, on the other. Clearly, in asking me to accept the truth of evolutionary materialism's selectionist explanation of human intelligence, you have tacitly introduced something extraneous to your pure Darwinism" (99). This overlooks the fact that trusting one's own capacity to arrive at the truth about the world is an obviously adaptive trait: an intelligent agent who failed to trust his mind's ability to arrive at truth would likely be paralyzed into the sort of inaction that would result in the agent's swift demise. The same can be true of the mind's tendency to trust the output of other minds: we could not bond with other persons, which we need to thrive and propagate, if we did not trust what they say and do.

Still, Haught is clearly correct about one thing: evolutionary biology can tell us nothing about how we ought to go about living our lives. Darwinian theory, like any scientific theory, consists entirely of empirical claims that purport to describe what the world is like as a matter of contingent fact. As a purely descriptive theory, Darwinian theory has no normative implications whatsoever. Accordingly, if there are objective constraints on how persons ought to live, then the explanation of that fact must come from some other source than Darwinian theory. And, contrary to the strident claims of Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett, science has told us nothing that rules out theism as an explanation of such constraints.

If in the end Haught fails to accomplish all that he wants to accomplish, there is much in Deeper than Darwin that deserves a careful read: while it fails to make its case for the explanatory necessity of theism, it shows how theism can be read as a supplement to what science tells us about life. For the faithful, this is surely good enough.


2004 Kenneth Einar Himma


Kenneth Einar Himma, Ph.D., lecturer in the Information School and the Philosophy Department, University of Washington


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