God as the product of evolution and the need for absolute knowledge

Someone named Jeff Smith has written an article for the Seattle Post Intelligencer entitled "God is a product of evolution" in which he concludes that the concept of God arose out of the need for parents to answer questions for their children that the parents couldn't otherwise answer. He says, in pertinent part:

[W]hen we get past the toddler stage, we learn that there are questions that even our parents don't have the answers to. And some of those questions are the big ones. You know, like where did we come from, stuff like that. And some are little, like where does chocolate come from.

And some are fuzzy, often we call them moral questions, like the difference between right and wrong. And there are questions we can't know the answer to, like how does an owl think and what does he think about? And even some that are beyond the capacity of our brains to comprehend. No matter, we grew up learning that there is always an answer, but who, we may ask, can answer the hard questions, and where is he so I can ask and learn? Well, it's someone somewhere.

Difficult questions need not be idle questions; they may be matters of life and death. Or so they can seem. Our desire for certainty, even for absolute knowledge, is built into us just as surely as our brains are. And the anxiety of not knowing -- about what's around the corner, about imminent danger, about the threats of the weather -- has led us to fashion answers and a source of those answers.

That source can be speculation and guessing, it can be divining by looking at chicken entrails, questing like a pilgrim monk or creating a being that knows everything. Yes, a god.

And all of this happens because it's the way we have learned to survive. If we didn't do it, we wouldn't survive as a species. It's the essence of natural selection. Yes, God is a product of evolution.

This type of thinking is not uncommon. We are so enmeshed in evolutionary teaching that suggests that everything started from a simple proto-entity and grew into what we see today, that we see everything as having evolved in some way. For example, the universe as we know it began as a single massive singularity that burst forth in a big bang creating the universe as we know it. Life began with a single-celled organism that grew and advanced through the process of natural selection until we have the vast living flora and fauna of the world. With this background, we errantly conclude that everything grew and advanced in the same fashion. We see it in virtually all complexity -- from our automobiles to our philosophical worldviews. Much of education is learning where things came from and how they ultimately came to be as they are.

In this case, Mr. Smith's argument is as follows:

Premise 1: We have a built-in need for answers to all of our questions.
Premise 2: Our parents are the original source for the answers to our questions.
Premise 3: No one, not even our parents, has answers to all of our questions.
Premise 4: Because as children we experience having parents who have answers to all of our questions, when they don't have all of the answers, we invent a being who is a super-parent figure who has all of the answers.
Conclusion: God evolved from our built-in need to have answers to all of our questions.

In other words, Mr. Smith sees the answers that we received from our parents as children as the proto-concept for the idea of the super-parent-type god who can answer all of our questions. I see several problems with this argument. The first is this: Assuming that it is true that some things, perhaps most things, started small and simple and became complex, it certainly is not necessarily true that everything arose that way.

Some things did not start small and become increasingly complex

What can I point to that did not arise from a simpler proto-entity and develop from there? How about the laws of mathematics? It may be that we developed our ability to do mathematics, but can anyone pretend that originally only one plus one equalled two, but it was only a later development that two plus two came to equal four? Likewise, while we have learned more about the laws of logic by studying the way we reason (including the development of truth tables and Venn Diagrams), I don't think anyone would argue that originally the law of non-contradiction ("It is not possible that something be both true and not true at the same time and in the same context") did not exist at one time but only evolved from earlier less developed laws of logic.

In Mr. Smith's argument, we made up God because we needed to make up God to answer the unanswerable. I suppose he would say that God started off as a simple god who explained thunder to the god who now explains the events that led to the big bang. But while it is certainly possible that a particular god could be made up to explain some then-unanswerable phenomenon (such as rain or thunder), there is certainly no reason to believe that because we may have wanted answers to questions that God was necessarily created for that purpose. Doesn't it remain possible that God exists independent of our alleged need for him to answer questions that are unanswerable?

What about other reasons to believe that God exists?

This argument also implicitly denies without discussion the arguments and evidence that exists for the existence of God. There are many arguments that provide evidence for the existence of a God that exists independent of our creating him that, taken together, form a pretty strong cumulative case for the existence of God (e.g., the cosmological argument, the teleological argument, the argument from history, etc.).

Historically, there is evidence for God's intervention into the history of the world -- especially in the lives a particular people known as the People of Israel. In their history, there was a man who was born who, if the accounts of his life are to be believed (as I assert that they ought), claimed to be God, performed miracles, was crucified, was buried, and was resurrected. If these facts are true, then there is evidence of an historic nature for the existence of God.

The biggest problem with his argument

What does Mr. Smith say that most alerts me that he is not a clear thinker? Consider this statement that I quoted above: "Our desire for certainty, even for absolute knowledge, is built into us just as surely as our brains are." Oh really? Exactly where did our desire for certainty come from? It seems clear that it wasn't a necessary component for our survival in the evolutionary scheme. Consider the following from J.P. Moreland's Scaling the Secular City, p.50:

[I]t is not clear that the ability to know truth from falsity is necessary to survive. As long as an organism interacts consistently with its environment it need not interact accurately. For example, if an organism always saw blue things as though they were red and vice versa, or large things as small and vice versa, that organism and its offspring would adapt to its environment. It is hard to believe that an amoeba grasps the way the world is, but it does interact with the world consistently. It will react to heat in a consistent way regardless of whether or not it grasps the essence of heat.

Second, our capacities to sense and think accurately about the world go far beyond what is needed to survive. The mind grasps abstract truths that do not seem to have anything to do with the survival value they impart to the organism.

To rephrase J.P., it seems as if there is no need for an organism to grasp with certainty the truth about the universe in which it exists so long as its understanding permits it to interact with that environment consistent with survival. Suppose, for example, that primitive men living in the Congo avoided tigers because they were afraid that tigers were going to tell them bad jokes. Now, their reasoning for avoiding the tigers is seriously flawed because tigers don't tell bad jokes, but if it keeps the primitives away from the tigers then regardless of the fact that their reasoning is wrong, the wrong belief is just as effective for purposes of survival as fear of being eaten.

More importantly, Mr. Smith notes that our questions that we cannot answer may involve less concrete matters, such as questions about right and wrong, but he only asserts that there is an evolutionary explanation for this "desire" while providing no clue as to the nature of that explanation. Again, it does not seem that answers to these types of questions are necessary for evolutionary purposes since they are abstract in nature. What evolutionary benefit is derived from our wondering such arcane philosophical questions as "why is there something rather than nothing?" Wondering about the answer to that question isn't going to result in any more food on the table at the end of the day. Yet, Mr. Smith doesn't identify the evolutionary benefit, he merely intones "If we didn't do it, we wouldn't survive as a species. It's the essence of natural selection." Really? How so? Unfortunately, no answer is provided (which really fouls up my need for certainty for a basis for his claims).

The need for absolute knowledge fulfilled

So, if the desire for "certainty, even for absolute knowledge are built into us just as surely as our brains are", where did that come from? From where did that need arise? Is it also evolved, and if so, for what reason? If not, why is it there? Unless he can identify the basis for such a desire in us that is built in as surely as our brains, it seems absurd for him to speculate that we created god to fill this built-in need. It seems more probable that the reason that we have this need for knowledge of the absolute built into our beings is because the being who created us built the need into us, and this desire for absolute certainty can only be met by knowing the designer who is the Absolute, the Alpha and Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end (Revelation 22:13). When you know God, you have that "desire for certainty, even for absolute knowledge" fulfilled.


One must also ask another important question: why is it that an account of God (or pick your supernatural flavor of the week) actually fills the need for certainty? Quite separate from asking where such a need comes from, why is it that the divine seems to be such a good fit?

In a sense, I'm asking the same question people sometimes ask of bio-evolution: why two arms, two legs, a big brain and speech? Why not five arms? Why not three? Why not telepathy?

Why God?

The standard answer to "why two arms" is "because that's just the way it happened." But once we've got two arms, we're pretty much stuck with them. This is not true of answers regarding the nature of the universe. If we have better answers, we can use them. Yet it seems undeniable that religious people are, generally speaking, happier and more content than secularists (at least in Europe and the United States). Something about the notion of the divine "fits" with the human psyche and that is not so easily explained away as the desire for mommy and daddy to know everything.
BK said…
Since I don't disagree with what you just said, I will simply say: "Excellent point!!!"

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