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In my intro religious studies course last semester, I taught a unit on theism and evolution. This was the first time it really hit me that God had once been considered a verifiable – and confirmed – scientific hypothesis. Until he made his famous voyage, Charles Darwin, just like so many medieval philosophers, had looked at organisms’ suitability for their environments and concluded it must have been the work of an intelligent designer. The particular theory that had best fit the available empirical evidence, Darwin and most of his contemporaries thought, was Charles Lyell‘s view that there were “centres of creation,” different places on earth where divine creative activity had been focused. In an era of rapid-discovery science like our own, that had been the best available hypothesis.

Then, the HMS Beagle made its famous voyage to the Galàpagos Islands, where Darwin observed his famous finches. A huge variety of birds, each on different islands and looking dramatically different, each well suited to the conditions of its own island – but they all turned out biologically to be finches, closely related to each other and to the finches of distant South America. It seemed needlessly complex to suggest that God would create so many different birds in so many different places and yet make them all part of the same family. A more straightforward hypothesis was that the different finches had evolved from a common ancestor, by natural selection. God was no longer needed as a scientific hypothesis – and hasn’t been needed since.

In retrospect, the point that God was once a legitimate hypothesis seems obvious to me now. But when I encountered it, it came to me as something of a surprise, because I’m so used to living in a world where any attempt to find empirical evidence for God’s existence looks like a desperate grasping at straws. The worst of these is the “First Cause” version of the cosmological argument for God’s existence, that you need to have something setting the world in motion. Even if that argument works, it proves nothing like the existence of any God that has been ever worshipped. A mere First Cause is no more significant than any other cause. If God is a mere Divine Watchmaker who sets things in motion and then goes away and is no longer involved – as this hypothesis would suggest – then the universe with him is hardly different from the universe without him. This is not a God that matters.

Rather, nowadays, if you’re going to get rationally to anything like the traditional Abrahamic God, you need to keep science at arm’s length. This is one of the beauties of Anselm’s argument – it has nothing whatsoever to do with empirical evidence, it is 100% a priori, and therefore natural science simply can’t touch it. If it is wrong, its wrongness can and must be demonstrated without reference to natural science. The same seems to be true for ibn Rushd’s First Explanation cosmological argument when properly understood, though not for First Cause arguments in the usual sense. For here the question is not “what caused everything?” but “how can there be causation in the first place?” It is an explanation going much deeper. Unlike Anselm, it doesn’t necessarily get you to an omnipotent or omnibenevolent God; but it does seem to get you to something like the brahman of Śaṅkara’s or Rāmānuja’s Vedānta, a cosmic principle underlying everything, and such a principle does a lot to change the way we see the rest of the universe.

To me it’s been clear for a long time that any attempt to find God must go a priori, must not try to look in the empirical world. But looking back on Darwin’s story, it’s easier for me to realize that many people don’t see it that way. And that helps me understand contemporary views that have always struck me as a little curious. Not just the intelligent design movement, but the arch-materialistic atheists of contemporary analytic philosophy, like Paul and Patricia Churchland, who look at neuroscience and conclude that consciousness and free will don’t exist. They actually think that consciousness and free will are empirical hypotheses whose existence can be refuted with empirical evidence. Once upon a time, they, like God, might even have been exactly that.