Design by Divine Cognitive Relations

by Max Andrews

This argument is within the confines of theism.  My case is that Darwinism entails design by the notion of purposive permission via God’s knowledge.  For any X, if X is a possible circumstance, which is then actualized even by the natural order of cause and effect relations within the natural system, then X is permitted to happen.  If X is permitted to happen it has a purpose.  If X has a purpose it holds teleology.  In other words, this is any argument from cognitive relations, omniscience, or providence.  This is still in its infancy and since this was originally formulated, more has been developed within the argument that I will share later.

Asa Gray (1810-1888) was a proponent of evolution who suggested that God guided evolution.  The problem for the theistic evolutionist at this point is that if God guides evolution, it is design.  Guidance implies purpose and involvement.  The theistic evolutionist, so defined as God guiding evolution, is not really a detractor from design, rather he would be a proponent of common decent, which is entirely compatible with design.

It was not until the early twentieth century when a movement that emphasized Darwinian natural selection did theistic evolution attempt to reconcile unguided evolution with God.  The following theistic evolutionist present an appropriate summation for the current understanding:

“An evolutionary universe is theologically understood as creation allowed to make itself.”[1]

“Mankind’s appearance on this planet was not preordained… we are here… as an afterthought, a minor detail, a happenstance in a history that might just as well have left us out.”[2]

“Evolution could appear to us to be driven by chance, but from God’s perspective the outcome would be entirely specified.  Thus, God could be completely and intimately involved in the creation of all species, while from our perspective, limited as it is by the tyranny of linear time, this would appear a random and undirected process.”[3]

It may be important to distinguish the last quote from Collins from the former quotes.  It is difficult, even impossible, to distinguish Collins’ position as not being intelligent design.  Why would Collins use the human perspective as the objective standard for whether or not there actually is design?  He willingly concedes that God could be intimately involved in creating yet it is illusory to the human perspective.

The argument from cognitive relations may be understood as an argument from omniscience or providence.  If God allows any state of affairs to be actualized, and knows that it will happen, and then there is a teleology in that events actualization.  The underlying principle is what is called “purposive permission.”  This principle makes a minimal commitment to any event X, such that X will come to be either by it being permitted to occur or by being strongly actualized to occur.  Purposive permission assumes that if any event is permitted to happen then it is within the will of the knowing agent that the event be actualized.  If the event were known that it would come to pass and it was not desired to come to pass, then it would not have been permitted to be and would not have happened.  Under the current understanding of unguided evolution, the only way to reconcile that with theism is to adopt process theology, an understanding that God is not ontologically perfect and is literally evolving with the world.[4]


[1] John Polkinghorne, Faith, Science, and Understanding (New Haven, CT:  Yale University Press, 2000), 23, 111, 197.

[2] Kenneth Miller, Finding Darwin’s God (New York:  Harper Perennial, 2000), 272-273.

[3] Francis Collins, The Language of God (New York:  Free Press, 2006), 205.

[4] Even weak understandings of cognitive relations, or interactions, would still render design (categorically defined from an orthodox perspective).  All that would require from the knowing agent (God) is that, within the mind, there must at least be two moments of knowledge:  natural knowledge (the first logical moment) and free knowledge (the last logical moment).  In the first moment the agent must know all tautologies and every possible circumstance.  The final moment is knowing the actual world, the current, past, and future state of affairs.  The only theistic model that does not hold to these two moments would be the process model.  I want to note, that open theism would not even be compatible with a Darwinist understanding of evolution because God would only be ignorant of future contingencies that involved human freedom.


7 Responses to “Design by Divine Cognitive Relations”

  1. Why bother trying to have God involved (or even exist) at all if Darwinian theory successfully explains the development of nature? What are you trying to salvage with your ideas here? Is it an expression of the truth of things, or an attempt to save some remaining scraps of Christian theology?

    You appear to fully embrace the claims of Darwinian theory (even the contradictory ones?) … thus, the dilemma.

    There’s enough debate within Darwinian circles on what was determined by law to emerge — as with self-organization. It is claimed that the evolution of “something like humans” (in Kenneth Miller’s view) was inevitable given some initial starting conditions. Others deny this by claiming that if “the tape were replayed” no human life would emerge.
    So, the theory itself is ambiguous. Why seek to reconcile theological truths with a moving target?
    But for a strict new-Darwinist, evolution has to act without plan or purpose. It relies on two random variables (mutations and evironmental conditions). You’re right, if evoution was guided, then this is the design-argument and a falsification of Darwinian claims.
    Kenneth Miller claims that God did not know that human beings would emerge from the evolutionary process. That’s consistent with Darwinism but theologically and philosophically incoherent. It’s a purposeless universe that accidentally (or determinedly) evolved human life. Thus, human life itself it without ultimate purpose (that’s one logical conclusion that Mr. Miller struggles to accept).
    Your ideas are interesting in an attempt to reconcile theism with Darwinism. But since evolutionary theory attempts to to be a science of origins, then God’s involvement (or lack thereof) has to be addressed. The question left unexplained in your view (for me, anyway) is how “giving permission” differs from causality. If nature itself had a free-will consciousness, then you could model something like God’s permission to humanity to make choices.
    On the question of why certain mutations occurred, or certain selection pressures existed, it’s not a question of permitting, but of guiding and causing them since they either occur by chance or purpose.

  2. Thanks for the response!

    I am not a Darwinist. I have scientific roadblocks to common descent even, primarily the Cambrian explosion. I digress. I am an ID proponent, but the point of this was to suggest that even conceding Darwinism, if it were to be true, and God exists, design is inevitable. As you point out, there’s a difference between causality and permission. God can certainly have strong-actualization for whatever circumstance which would be causally connected to God (weak actualization wouldn’t really apply since that primarily involves free agents) whereas if God sets something into motion, i.e. the universe, and life occurs by happenstance, it’s still design because God permitted it to happen. Even if God did not strongly actualize the constructs and proponents of the first living cell, just be merely allowing it to happen is purposive. So why try to reconcile? As I said, I’m not even embracing the point of Darwinism, but for those theists who do believe in Darwinism, they must also affirm design and Darwinism as categorically within design (or a meta-design). Did I answer your questions?

  3. ‘Darwinism’ isn’t the right word. Christians can’t hold to ‘Darwinism’ because ‘Darwinism’ implies that the processes of evolution are random and unguided. Christians *can* believe that evolution is true; they just can’t believe that it’s an unguided, random process.

    The point, then, is this. The fight isn’t between Christianity and evolution per se; it’s between Christianity and Naturalism. That’s what you want to focus on (and, for what it’s worth, Plantinga’s done a lot of work in this area, recently).

    I’ll add this one last thought. I’m not sure why Christians are so against the very thought of evolution’s being true (and by ‘evolution’ I mean evolution simpliciter, not Naturalism). It’s not as if the Christian normally sees, for example, a lightning bolt and thinks to herself “God just shot that lightning bolt from his hand.” No, instead she thinks that natural processes (though upheld and sustained by God) caused (strongly actualized) the lightning. Why get all fussy over other (probably) natural causes (e.g. the decent of the species)?

    • Hey Roger, thanks for coming back!

      I think my claims are much more modest than identifying the designer as the Christian God and the revealed attributes that gives us. This is much broader, even the Aristotelian understanding of God would be appropriate for the argument. My claims are really an explication of your reason for why Christians cannot be Darwinists (I don’t think either of us are judging salvifically; rather, mere consistency). If nature has the capacity of acting on random mutations and has the ability to create new information (as problematic as that actually is), then it is still within the realm of design. So, a priori, you could have a commitment to theism, but say you’re convinced that nature has the characteristics consistent with Darwinism, you would still have to commit yourself to design given theism. Your point on methodlogical naturalism and naturalism itself are problem, to which I agree. I think your claims were encompassing more than I had intended :-)

    • Roger,
      Along with my agreement on Max’s points, I’ll offer this regarding your lightning-bolt example.
      It’s common to see this kind of comparison with evolution. We could take evidence like a pile of rocks at the bottom of a hill. How did they get there? This is explained through gravity. Rocks roll down and form a pile.
      This is something we can observe and repeat and test.

      Now, in biological terms, we see a school of fish in the Atlantic ocean and we ask the same question. “How did they get there”? Using your analogy, we have a natural law: The males and females of that species of fish spawned minnows and they are now swimming in a school.

      Problem solved. Question answered.

      Ahhh, but you’re asking: “What is the ultimate origin of those fish”?

      Let’s apply that to the rocks on the hill: “What is the ultimate origin of those rocks”?

      Ok, first there were no such thing as rocks, then those rocks existed.
      Thus, we have the origin of planet earth, tracing back to the origin of the universe.

      Now can you see why it’s a problem to exclude God from this discussion? Did the universe cause itself? Did it appear out of nothing?

      Evolutionary theory purports to explain the origin of things through the eons of time — a history which we cannot observe and test. We see artifacts of that history, but the rest is an interpretation of what might have happened.

      This is not at all like looking at a lightning bolt in the sky.

      It is, rather, like asking: “why does the planet earth positioned in such a way, and contains a number of essential properties that support the existence of life, when all other planets that we’ve ever found are hostile to life and could not support it”?

  4. Max – thanks, that was excellent. Yes, I see your point now. Exactly. Even conceding Darwinism, theists have to accept design/purpose. This is a point that Francis Collins misses. He even gives evidence supporting the design argument, while at the same time claiming that there is no design (???).

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