A Christian Response to Comfort’s Evolution vs God

Ray Comfort has recently released another youtube sensation with his movie Evolution v. God. In typical Comfort fashion, Comfort interviews a handful of relevant college professors and students on the topic of evolution. Comfort’s main assumption in this movie seems to be that one must choose between God and evolution. In this battle royal or winner takes all match, Comfort argues that since evolution is bad science (if science at all), and the existence of God is obvious, God wins!

In order to get to this conclusion, Comfort asks particular questions that range from basic epistemological questions to basic biological questions. It is in virtue of this that we will be separating this response into two major sections. The first major section will focus on the philosophical material that this movie contains, while the second major section will deal with the scientific material that this movie contains. In the following respective sections, we will be arguing that Comfort’s movie is based on both bad philosophy and bad science. Though in the end we will not be able to recommend this movie, we would like to recommend alternative apologetic resources at the end of this review.

Now before we begin this response, we would like to take time and mention that this response is in no way an attack on Comfort as a human being. We believe Comfort to be a loving Christian who has been mightily used by God. Though we are sure that many people will be in heaven because of Comfort and his ministry, we do feel that Comfort’s reasoning in this video reflects both poor philosophy and poor science. It is in virtue of this that we feel that Comfort’s video helps create an unnecessary stumbling block to the Gospel.

A Philosophical Response

Epistemology 101
Ray Comfort begins his video by asking if evolution is a belief. It is here that we are uncertain what Comfort was trying to ask. According to Louis Pojman, a belief is an attitude toward a proposition that assents to or holds that the proposition in question is true.[1] So of course if one affirms evolution then it would be rightly stated that the individual believes in evolution. This is not unique to evolution as the same would be stated if the topic was the existence of other minds, the geographical location of Houston, or that there is an external world. These would all be beliefs. Now we think what Comfort means by beliefs is something more on the lines of either faith or blind faith.

Having established this, it also appears that Ray Comfort attacks the process of accepting beliefs on the basis of their acceptance within a person’s community. Around 13 minutes and 38 seconds, a college student tells Comfort that he just goes on what he believes and hears from his class. Comfort then precedes to tell the man that this would be blind faith. But is accepting a belief from testimony blind faith? Most of our beliefs appear to be based on testimony. Such a wide range of beliefs would include everything from our belief in the quantum realm to our belief that Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492.

To accept something based upon testimony isn’t to commit an epistemic sin. In fact, it appears that it is a part of our basic cognitive structure. From a very early age we have a natural inclination to accept the testimony of others. We are often so gullible that we have to learn not to believe everything we hear. Now, if this is so, then a person accepting a scientific theory through the means of testimony would be acting according to his cognitive design plan. Since this is the case, we fail to see how accepting such views via testimony is a problem.

Ray’s Red Herrings
As the movie continues around the 14 minute mark, Comfort begins to ask if roses are intelligently designed. After each person tells Comfort that roses are not intelligently designed, Comfort then proceeds to ask if an intelligent person could create a rose from nothing. His argument here is that if a rose is not intelligently designed then an intelligent person should have no problem creating one. Comfort here commits his first red herring as he starts to bring up how something can’t come from nothing. Though we sympathize with Comfort regarding this issue, this is to go on a completely different trail. The topic of if something can come from nothing has nothing to do with if evolution is true of not.

Comfort’s second red herring begins when he starts to ask each individual if they could name a famous atheist. After each individual fails to name a famous atheist, Comfort then goes on a monologue about how atheists often misquote famous theists or agnostics and predicate to them the belief in atheism. Again, we are sympathetic to this critique on the atheism movement at large, however, we fail to see how this is relevant to if evolution is true.

Ethics and Evolution
Before Comfort starts introducing the Law and Gospel, Comfort starts asking those on the street if they believe in moral absolutes. He further clarifies what he means by asking if rape is absolutely wrong. Now what we believe Comfort means by absolute morality is something like objective morality. That is to ask if there are moral values and duties that are independent of human opinion. Now what is even more unclear is if Comfort is arguing that if neo-Darwinian evolution is true, objective moral values and obligations would not exist, or if he is assuming naturalism & evolution are incompatible with something like objective morality. If Comfort is trying to espouse something more like the former statement, then we must disagree with Comfort.

It doesn’t follow that just because it is the case that animals do act in a particular manner, that it further means that animals ought to act in that particular manner. To be committed to such a view would be to commit the is-ought fallacy. Furthermore, it seems logically possible that God could use evolution to bring about humans but then at a particular time He could have added something to them to make them special and reflect His image. If this is the case, humans would indeed have more value than animals, and of course God could always then act as a transcendent anchoring for objective moral values and obligate them to act in a particular manner.

A False Dichotomy
The major philosophical critique that we have in this video is that this video seems to be built off of a false dichotomy.  Though Comfort seems to affirm that either God exists or evolution is true, Comfort never demonstrates how an individual holding to both of these beliefs is committed to an explicit or implicit contradiction. In fact, Comfort never even mentions how these views are in conflict. Instead Comfort unnecessarily makes the evolution debate a debate about atheism v. theism.

Is Comfort right in making the evolution debate a debate about atheism v. theism? It appears to us that even given evolution, the argument from contingency, the Kalam cosmological argument, the moral argument, the argument from reason, the argument from religious experience, and the argument from the resurrection are all still sound arguments. If then there are good reasons to affirm theism and if there are good reasons to affirm neo-Darwinian evolution, then why couldn’t one adhere to the belief that God used evolution to create humans? As far as Comfort’s video goes, we have no reason to think that this isn’t a likely possibility.[2]

[1] Pojman, Louis P. What Can We Know?: An Introduction to the Theory of Knowledge. Belmont [Calif.: Wadsworth Pub. Co] 2001, 343.

[2] For those interested, Robert Collins in The Oxford Handbook of Philosophical Theology offers both a survey and a response to answering the philosophical question of why God would use evolution.

A Scientific Response

When it comes to the science, it is clear that Ray Comfort has not actually studied evolution in any formal sense, nor does he understand how the scientific method is to be properly applied to events that happened in history. And this isn’t a shot against him as a person, but if you’re going to critique something, it is best if you understand it. Universal common descent is a question about history, and there are principles of science that we can apply to historical events that are different than observation science.
Just to be clear, this short commentary is not designed to argue for the truth of Darwinian evolution. It is meant to demonstrate that, when properly understood, Darwinian evolution is not affected by Comfort’s critiques. In order to show this, I will model a conversation between Comfort and me (me playing an atheistic Darwinist). Knowing the questions beforehand will allow me to address the specific problems with Comfort’s approach.

Are you an atheist?
Yes.

What is your major?
Biology.

Do you believe in evolution?
Yes.

When did you start to believe?
When I took biology in high school, probably.

Do you think evolution is a belief?
Well, if a belief is just accepting that a proposition is true… then yes, I do think evolution can be characterized as a belief. It can also be considered to be a scientific explanation addressing the question of biological diversity.

Are you a strong believer?
Sure. As strong as I hold to any other belief about the past I guess.

Can you give me observable evidence for Darwinian evolution; something that I don’t have to take on faith?
Sure. Lenski’s E. coli long-term evolution experiment, antibiotic resistance in bacteria and stickleback fish.

In all of those examples, what did they become?
In those examples, they didn’t become anything remarkably different, but they did adapt to their environment via the mechanism of mutation and natural selection. The bacteria examples developed new biochemical pathways that allowed for adaptation to a changing environment. The stickleback fish did the same thing.

So your evidence for Darwinian evolution is bacteria turning into bacteria and fish turning into fish?
That is a very pejorative way of explaining it. These examples are scientifically observable examples of the Darwinian mechanism in action. So its not merely that “bacteria turned into bacteria” or that “fish turned into fish”, but that these are examples of the Darwinian mechanism working to produce beneficial changes in populations.

But that’s not Darwinian evolution. In order for it to be Darwinian evolution, we have to see a change in a kind. Scientific evidence must be observable and repeatable, so give me scientific evidence of a change in a kind.
Ok, there are multiple problems with what you just said there.

First, the examples I gave were of Darwinian evolution. They were examples of the Darwinian mechanism in action; beneficial mutations creating something that wasn’t there before and natural selection causing that mutation to become fixed within the population. That is Darwinian evolution.

Second, I really need a definition of a “kind”. The word “kind” was used well before the invention of the modern taxonomic categories, so before I give you an example of such a thing, I will need to have it defined.

Third, not all scientific evidence needs to be observable and repeatable. There are plenty of viable scientific conclusions that are based on inferences from the evidence. That is the nature of historical science; scientists do this all the time. And not just secular scientists, advocates of ID do this as well. In fact, Stephen C. Meyer’s book, Signature in the Cell, promotes this exact type of methodology when promoting ID. He calls it “inference to the best explanation”, and it is principally known as a form of abductive reasoning.
We look at the evidence and we infer a conclusion based on the evidence that we have. Inferring conclusions from the evidence is not an invalid form of scientific reasoning.

Fourth, from what I understand, creationists generally equate “kind” with the taxonomic rank of “family”. If this is the case, we can never observe this type of change. We see changes at the species-level, examples of which I used earlier. But it would take much longer to observe a genus-level change, which is still one level away from family. It would take even longer for us to observe a level of change great enough to call it a family-level (or “kind”-level) change.
But as I mentioned earlier, inferring such change is not outside of the realm of reasonable, scientific inferences. Darwinian evolution does not predict that we would observe this level of change, so the fact that we do not observe it does not mean that Darwinian evolution is false.
If a “kind” is the same as a family, does this mean that creationism predicts that we should observe genus-level changes? I would love to know about some observational examples of genus-level changes.

And fifth, the evidence that you’re looking for must be inferred from the evidence, not observed. So, unless you’re willing to abductively analyze the evidence and come to a reasonable conclusion, this conversation cannot move forward. You have to move past the idea that if something is not observable, it is therefore not scientific. That is a very strange view of epistemology, and would make it impossible for us to know anything about the past, about philosophy or theology (and I’m sure you’re not willing to bite that bullet).

Conclusion
We have argued that Comfort’s movie is based upon both bad philosophy and bad science. In order to demonstrate this, we surveyed the philosophical and scientific statements from this movie and then proceeded to interact with them. In regard to the philosophy section, we pointed out the basic epistemological mistakes that were committed in this movie. Furthermore, our main critique was found in critiquing the false dichotomy that Comfort’s movie is based upon. In demonstrating this, we argued that God could have used the means of evolution to bring about human beings who could have then been made in His image. After establishing this, by way of an interview format we argued that Comfort not only misunderstands the basic methods of science but that Comfort also misunderstands the basic theory of neo-Darwinian evolution. It is in virtue of these things that we want to recommend our fellow Christians not to share this video as it contributes to the anti-intellectual reputation that the Church is currently fighting against.
——————-
This was originally posted over at WarrantedReligion, co-authored by myself and Tyler Dalton McNabb.

Advertisements

2 thoughts on “A Christian Response to Comfort’s Evolution vs God

  1. Shawn Clayton Ferguson

    Interesting review. I agree with much of what you said here. I recently wrote a short (less detailed) review of Comfort’s video on my blog as well. It might interest you, as we agree on the crucial points. This isn’t a sly attempt to get traffic to my site; I genuinely think it may interest you. Check it out if you have a few spare minutes and the inclination. http://www.waxaxiomatic.ca/?p=127

    Reply
    1. ElijiahT Post author

      Hey Shawn!
      I like it. As you know, there is much more that could have been said. I like to hammer the point that universal common descent and Christianity are not directly incompatible with each other. It might bring up some interesting questions, but they’re not mutually exclusive.

      My primary concern has to do with the impression this video has on people; christian and skeptic alike. As you pointed out, Comfort is using a remarkably limited understanding of the scientific method in his conversations. Not everything needs to be seen in order to be a scientific conclusion.
      If Christians watch this and are convinced by it, they’re likely to embrace this poor understanding of the scientific method and (potentially) use it in conversation. If non-Christians were to watch it, they would probably going to look up responses to it and find reasonable responses by other non-Christians. This will give them the impression that all Christians believe this kind of thing, and will put up yet another intellectual wall between them and realizing the truth of Christianity.

      As “ambassadors for Christ”, I feel it is our duty to point out faulty thinking in non-Christians and Christians alike. And this is yet another example of Ray Comfort stuffing his foot in his mouth and making the Body of Christ look foolish.
      BananaMan has become EvolutionVsGod man. Ultimately, I think this video is doing more harm than good. But that’s from my limited perspective as a biology student, interacting fairly regularly with average atheists.

      Reply

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s