A workmate of mine who writes (better than I do) largely upon topics of mutual interest has recently taken apart Will Provine's list of inconvenient truths which are alleged to follow from Darwin's theories:
- There are no purposive principles whatsoever in nature.
- There are no inherent moral or ethical laws, and thus no absolute guiding principles of human society.
- Human beings are complex machines, which become ethical persons by means of two primary mechanisms: heredity and environmental influence.
- When we die, we die, and that’s it.
- There is no such thing as free will.
1. There are no purposive principles whatsoever in nature.We can all agree that purpose and intention are subjective phenomena which can only exist in the mind of a conscious being, one capable of ruminating upon as yet unfulfilled desires. If Darwin was right, then purposive principles are adaptations which exist in any creature with enough of a neural network to process sense data and act thereupon. For example, my dog intends to catch the bunny in my neighbor's yard, and he takes actions so as to fulfill his purposes.
If Darwin was wrong, and the theologians correct, animals are no less purposive and nature per se is no more so. Supernatural minds are another matter entirely, perhaps best addressed by philosophers and theologians than naturalists and biologists. That said, perhaps supernatural minds have their own purposes for nature, but even natural minds do that.
2. There are no inherent moral or ethical laws, and thus no absolute guiding principles of human society.
This assumes that we might reasonably state (a) what constitutes a moral law, and (b) a sense in which such laws might inhere in someone. If moral laws are construed in a utilitarian fashion, then a moral rule is that which (given the current state of society) generally leads to greater human happiness within a given society. Some rules are clearly better than others, judged by this standard. For example, "thou shalt not murder, except those who commit adultery, blasphemy, or calumnious derogation of elders" obviously leads to worse outcomes than a more general prohibition upon murder.
Our theist friends may object that this isn't quite so satisfying as moral laws which are inherent to the cosmos as a whole, or to its creator, but they are inevitably impaled upon the horns of Euthyphro's dilemma. Either the gods decree the moral laws because they are objectively good and true apart from the gods subjective preferences, or the gods moral commands are subjective after all. The subjective preferences of very powerful immaterial magical minds are no less subjective, for all that.
3. Human beings are complex machines, which become ethical persons by means of two primary mechanisms: heredity and environmental influence.
It might well be asked, though, what other mechanisms might possibly engender ethical thinking and still be worthy of the “mechanism” moniker?
4. When we die, we die, and that’s it.
Moreover, assuming Darwin was right, many of us will leave genetic legacies for future generations to build upon. Granted, though, even the apes, bonobos, and chimps can make this boast (if boast they may).
How does this possibly follow from Darwinism, either broadly or strictly construed? Can primates not make uncoerced choices?
Apart from (im)moral creatures living within constrained natural environs, how can the problem of coercion arise in the first place? Put another way, will there be any coercion in heaven? If not, the idea of free and unfree choices makes perfect sense down here in the material world, but not necessarily in the spiritual realm. How then must one invoke gods and spirits in order to make sense of the idea of freedom?
In sum, one can accept common descent, random mutation, and natural selection without believing that any of William Provine's assertions. Far from being "the core beliefs of the faith, made by a member of the faithful" they are merely speculations made by one with far more expertise in science than ethics and metaphysics. If charitably interpreted, they are trivially true. However, if these five assertions are seriously considered, they are too fraught with ill-begotten metaphysical baggage to hold water of any significant depth.