Separating mechanisms of origin from faith is unwise

I have not called my mom for a month. Her phone messages put my unresponsiveness into sharp relief. Yet she knows I am alive, having read and left me a message regarding my last column on evolution and religion.

Some would call my position compatibilism. Evolution properly understood is not a comprehensive theory, and remains silent on many facets of the human condition. Contrary to the claims of Richard Dawkins and other proponents of “ideological evolution,” evolution as an explanatory theory does not suggest the rejection of religion or justification of atheism. Giambattista Vico, an 18th century Italian thinker, cements the compatibilist conclusion when he explains, “The natural science of the ignorant is a sort of popular metaphysics, which explains the unknown in terms of God’s will without considering the means he uses.”

Yet I think “compatibilism” does not do justice to my position. If evolution and religion deal in the realm of explanations and origins, compatibilism seems to leave the work of explaining the human origin to evolution while asserting God’s ultimate control through faith. Call me “unfaithful,” but the assertion of God’s sovereignty, in Kierkegaard’s words, “by virtue of the absurd,” is not a satisfactory grounding for religion. While compatibilism theoretically allows room for religion, it only allows for a kind of personal religious faith relegated to the realm of values rather than the realm of competing truth claims.

If I told you I believe a blue pig on Mars is ultimately behind evolution and human origins, I would be asserting personal religious faith. But this position would never enter the realm of competing truth claims. You would simply disagree with my personal religious faith and the conversation would end. You may respect my right to believe what I like, but my personal religious faith has no argumentative force, and certainly would not belong in the public realm of competing truth claims.

I want to provide a religious argument that can enter that realm — an argument that cannot be simply cast aside as a relativized personal faith. I think I can do so with regard to the mechanism of human origins. We need not look to religious texts to find such religious explanations. We need only look to human experience.

I have not given my mom a phone call for a month and have no legitimate excuse. Such an excuse would be nice for me; if it were impossible that I call my mom, I would not have to take responsibility for my actions. Determinism is so useful! Unfortunately, when I explain to my mom the mass of forces of this fatalistic universe conspired to coerce me into not calling her for a month, she is generally unlikely to buy it. I am responsible for my inappropriate action because I was free to do otherwise. I have the capacity of free will.

But we know material forces act according to natural laws and the velocity of every atom is an effect with a proportionate cause. The human body and brain are made of atoms. If the human body constitutes the human being, it is materially determined.

I have established that I have the capacity of uncoerced action. All of us experience freedom. The human body, then, must not constitute the entirety of the human being. In addition to this facet, the human being must also have a non-material facet. I will call this the soul. I know this soul is non-material and enables the capacity of uncoerced action. But I know I, as a human, have an origin. Thus, my soul must have had an origin. My soul must have been created by something. No material thing could have created my soul, for the effect would have been greater than the cause.

There must be a non-material thing that created my soul. I will call this God. I will explore the consequences of this and define my position in a column next week.



Peter Johnston is a freshman in Saybrook College.

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