Response to Mere Theistic Evolution

I’m in the process of revising an article for publication on CMI’s website critiquing Mere Theistic Evolution, which has been posted on Peaceful Science before. In the article, I reference some information I got from these boards, so I thought I’d post it here for some criticism before I finish revising it and send it in. Note that a previous version of the article has been reviewed by Jonathan Sarfati and I’ve revised it a bit in response to his criticisms already. I’m particularly interested in criticisms of the section entitled “2. Random Mutations in Evolutionary Biology” since there are some evolutionary biologists here. I’m sure you will set me straight. Since the footnotes/references do not copy and paste well, I’m uploading a pdf if you want to see them. They include hyperlinks to conversations on this board.

Kissling Mere Theistic Evolution rewrite.pdf (275.1 KB)

Mere Theistic Evolution Fails to Reconcile Evolution and Creation

By Ben Kissling


Theistic evolution claims that God used evolution to create. Evolutionary theory claims that random mutations are the driver of evolutionary change. But God’s creative acts cannot be random, so He cannot use evolution to create. Theistic evolutionists have made many attempts to resolve this contradiction. One such attempt was made at the 2019 Evangelical Philosophical Society meeting by Michael Murray and John Churchill. They presented a paper declaring a new definition of theistic evolution called “Mere Theistic Evolution” (MTE).

Intelligent design proponents Stephen Meyer and Paul Nelson presented at the meeting in opposition, while philosopher William Lane Craig presented in tentative support. The meeting itself was tense. After the discussion, Craig was asked privately if he thought the two sides had been speaking past each other. He replied, “Boy, I’d say!” Nelson later agreed with this, and even admitted that neither he nor Meyer directly addressed Murray and Churchill’s position.

Murray and Churchill’s paper appears to have touched a nerve. More recently, the paper has been posted at Joshua Swamidass’ website, Peaceful Science. Clearly, some theistic evolutionists believe they may finally have a viable way to reconcile evolutionary theory with the Christian doctrine of creation. They do not. While proclaiming the goal to be unity and synthesis between science and faith, MTE fails in that goal and actually entails persistent antagonism between science and Christian theology for three reasons.

Reason #1: MTE is not a Synthesis

A satisfying synthesis between science and theology would resolve the apparent contradiction between random mutations in evolutionary theory and God’s intentional creative acts in theology. Rather than attempt to remove the contradiction, MTE attempts to explain why we must live with science and theology coming to different conclusions. Murray and Churchill use a thought experiment about coin flips. They explain that the outcome of a coin flip is random because heads or tails each has a probability of 0.5. But the probability is only 0.5 if we do not know the physical facts of the system which determine the result. Not knowing these facts, a scientist must assign a probability which makes the scientific theory “predictively accurate.” If however, we did know all the relevant facts, the outcome would have a probability of 1. Evolutionary theory is analogous to the first situation where we do not know the relevant facts. The Christian doctrine of creation is analogous to the second situation where God does know the relevant facts and determines the outcome.

But this is not even an attempt at a synthesis. A synthesis requires some way of showing how two seemingly contradictory ideas are actually not contradictory. Murray and Churchill give the two contradictory ideas. According to theology, mutations used by God to create must be determined. These mutations would have a probability of 1. But according to evolutionary theory, the same mutations would have a probability of less than 1. Both cannot be true. A synthesis must explain why the two claims are compatible. Murray and Churchill never do this.

Instead, they say the difference is due to what relevant facts are allowed to be used within each discipline. Murray and Churchill state: “But assuming that we lacked knowledge of God’s intentions for this mutation, as well as knowledge of all relevant physical facts in each case, the right probability to assign a beneficial mutation…would have been 0.5.” But we don’t lack knowledge of God’s intentions. He told us that He created us and intended us to exist, and therefore we know we were not created by accident. On their view we don’t know the relevant physical facts leading to mutations , but we do know the probability that God achieved His intended outcome is 1. We also know what His intended outcome is. The only reason why we cannot use that knowledge in science would be if theology is not allowed to overlap with science. The solution offered by MTE is that the two contradictory claims can both be true within their respective disciplines. Truth is evaluated according to different sets of background knowledge in the two different disciplines. This is not a synthesis, but an unbridgeable boundary condition between science and theology.

Reason #2: MTE does not accurately define “random”

Murray and Churchill do not provide a definition of “random mutation” in evolutionary theory, but they do provide three references to other descriptions of the issues surrounding random mutations. One of them is the article Craig presented at the same meeting in support of MTE. It contains an evolutionist’s definition of the word “random.” Says Craig: “According to [evolutionary biologist Francisco] Ayala, when evolutionary biologists say that the mutations that lead to evolutionary development are random, they do not mean ‘occurring by chance.’ Rather they mean ‘occurring irrespective of their usefulness to the organism.’” “Occurring by chance” is the theological definition of “random.” “Occurring irrespective of usefulness to the organism” is the evolutionary definition of “random.” If this were correct, Craig would have resolved the issue by showing that each discipline is using different definitions of the word “random.” We could then accept that God could create using evolution because evolution would not be random in the theological sense. But Craig has misunderstood what the term “random” means in evolutionary theory.

Ayala’s definition of “random,” “occurring irrespective of usefulness to the organism,” is necessary but not sufficient to accurately describe what “random” means in this scientific context. “Random” also means “occurring irrespective of its type and position in a DNA sequence.” This is the second reason why MTE fails as a synthesis. A complete explanation of why this is the correct definition is beyond the scope of this article. I will try to briefly state two of the main reasons.

  1. Random Mutations in Biochemistry

Single Nucleotide Polymorphisms, or SNPs, are by far the most common type of genetic mutation and are usually assumed in evolutionary contexts. The physical event which results in a SNP is understood as an anomalous binding event between a class of proteins called DNA polymerases and their target molecules, the four bases of DNA. DNA polymerases are designed to bind only the base which correctly matches the base on the original strand of DNA and attach it to the new strand. However, DNA polymerases do not always bind the correct base. When this occurs, the wrong base is attached to the new strand. This is the molecular equivalent of fitting a square peg into a round hole. A complete physical description of how this happens would be immensely complex. Our most powerful supercomputers would have difficulty modeling it. But simply, a mutation happens against the overwhelming tendency of these molecules to fit a round peg into a round hole.

It is not, as Murray and Churchill seem to assume, an event whose probability even approaches 0.5. Mutations are very rare. They must be in order for biological populations to remain viable. When mutations do occur, they do not occur according to any discernable pattern or law specifying their position in the DNA sequence. They are modeled as occurring randomly with respect to their type and position in the new strand of DNA. This is the biophysical understanding of mutations. When a mutation rate of a DNA polymerase is cited in the literature, there is an implicit assumption of this definition of randomness. There are many ways to show this from the literature,.

  1. Random Mutations in Evolutionary Biology

One is the way evolutionary biologists decide whether a particular mutation is conserved or neutral. When two different DNA sequences differ at a particular position, it’s assumed the ancestral sequence common to both sequences mutated in one but not in the other. Evolutionists want to use this type of evidence to demonstrate that the two branches descended from a common ancestor.

But if the different sequences have different functions, common ancestry is not the only viable hypothesis for why the two sequences are different. Common design is an equally good explanation. The two sequences may not even be related, just designed to work differently. If that’s the case, the difference in the two sequences might not be due to a mutation at all, but separate creation. There is no way to distinguish between the two hypotheses if the difference(s) in the sequences have different functions. The only way to distinguish between common ancestry and common design is to use differences between sequences that do not affect function. This precludes them being either useful or useless in the sense meant by Craig.

There are two ways to identify nonfunctional differences in sequence. One way is by direct experiment with the products of the DNA sequences in question, but that is expensive and time consuming. DNA sequences like these are widely available in public databases. Evolutionists have developed statistical methods to differentiate between sequences that are under selection, and sequences that are not. They think if a sequence is not under selection it must be nonfunctional. This type of method only requires the sequence and a computer. These methods compare the functional, nonrandom hypothesis with the null or random hypothesis. The mutations themselves are assumed to generate as random with respect to their type and position on the genome, but can be statistically separated into those under selection and those that are not. Those under selection will be nonrandom with respect to their position on the genome because they were fixed by natural selection. Those not under selection will still be randomly dispersed. Their position and type were not selected and therefore still remain where they randomly occurred. The accuracy of these methods is often disputed, but the point here is not whether these methods are accurate or not. The point is that evolutionists assume this definition of “random” in evolutionary theory. This is standard practice within a field called phylogenetics. It assumes the definition of “random” mutations is “occurring irrespective of their type and position on a DNA sequence.” Rejecting these methods would be rejecting an important argument for common descent.

This refinement of Ayala’s definition of “random” is the second reason why MTE fails. His original definition means that “random” mutations aren’t really “random” in the theological sense. God could cause mutations irrespective of their usefulness to the organism but respective to some other purpose. But this argument depends on a definition of random mutations which is not philosophically or scientifically precise. The philosophically and scientifically precise definition of “random mutation” is “occurring irrespective of its type and position in a DNA sequence.” While this definition doesn’t imply ontological randomness, it does imply purposelessness. The only purpose of the DNA sequence is as an information carrier. The only purpose of a mutation is to change the sequence. If a mutation isn’t specified with respect to its type and position in the sequence, it cannot have any intended effect on the information carried by the DNA sequence.

Reason #3: MTE Arbitrarily Rejects Scientific Consensus

Lastly, MTE fails because it rejects the current consensus interpretation of quantum mechanics. The current consensus physical interpretation of our best theory of matter is that ontological randomness exists at the quantum level. If real, this type of ontological randomness would be part of the cause of mutations . MTE denies that ontological randomness exists in this way. It assumes that all events have a probability of 1 with the knowledge of all relevant facts. However, they have given no reason why they deny this consensus in science while defending the consensus in evolutionary biology. Murray and Churchill make no argument for why meticulous divine providence must be part of any synthesis if it runs counter to a scientific consensus.

To be sure, there are physicists who reject the consensus interpretation of quantum mechanics. But there are also biologists who reject the consensus of the modern synthesis in evolutionary biology. Why should we reject one scientific consensus in order to accept another? The consensus in physics around the interpretation of quantum mechanics is left out in the cold. That may be satisfactory to theologians, but it is not satisfactory to scientifically informed people. Since MTE requires the rejection of a scientific consensus in physics, what value does it add towards the main issue of synthesizing science and Christian theology? It merely accepts one mainstream position by rejecting another.

They could not just claim a successful synthesis between science and theology if they appealed to the scientific consensus on, for example, geocentrism 600 years ago, or to some future unknown consensus. Why does a minority scientific view right now count towards a synthesis? They need to give their reasons for this. Their implicit reason seems to be that scientific claims need to be theologically acceptable to be representative of science. This seems to be the only reason to take a minority interpretation of quantum mechanics. If they believe theology should once again be crowned queen of the sciences, that would be a real synthesis of the two disciplines. They need to argue for that position explicitly, since it is not generally accepted. But perhaps if they took this idea to its logical conclusion, the need to synthesize evolution and creation might be eliminated entirely, along with their thesis.


MTE fails to synthesize mainstream science and Christian theology. MTE attempts to do this by restricting what facts we are allowed to consider when drawing scientific conclusions. This does not lead to any sort of synthesis, but rather creates an unbridgeable chasm between the two disciplines. Random mutations in evolutionary theory are incompatible with God’s intentional creative acts. Evolutionary theory remains incompatible with the Christian doctrine of creation, and theistic evolutions remains an untenable position.

Yes it is. That is an attempt at a synthethis. In my opinion it also succeeds, and I can admit to this even without being a theist who therefore has no particular alignment to theistic evolution.

The two statements are not, in fact, contradictory. They explain the seeming contradiction with the limited knowledge, that is the ignorance by human scientists, who because of their incomplete knowledge are forced to state future outcomes in terms of probabilities, and the complete knowledge of the theistic God to whom the outcomes are known with complete certainty.
To God, the outcome of dice rolls (or coin tosses, or mutations) are not random like they are to us. We just don’t have the knowledge of the level of detail that would allow us to compute how the dice will land with perfect certainty. But God conceived as an omnipotent being has this knowledge by default, and thus knows how the die will land.

Thus to God, evolution isn’t random in the sense it is to us. Thus there is no contradiction. To derive a contradiction requires the assumption that the randomness in evolution exists at some fundamental ontological level. That there truly are no deeper explanations for why at some given moment a particular nucleotide is deaminated rather than another 22 basepairs downstream of it, or the next one upstream. But it is simply not a requirement of evolutionary theory that we posit ontological randomness to mutation, and we can basically just appeal to the historical contingency inherent to, for example, those deaminations as occurring when they do because at that specific moment a molecular agent known to cause deaminations was in close proximity and correctly aligned in space while carrying the necessary activation energy to facilitate deamination on that particular base, while those required conditions not being present at the bases that didn’t mutate.

It’s actually rather simple to square the two views if you just allow yourself to think about it. So the simple fact is that theistic evolution conceived of in this way cannot be said to contradict the doctrine of creation.


So just to be absolutely clear here. Creationists who accept “the doctrine of creation” must reject “the current consensus physical interpretation of our best theory of matter”, right?


One quick comment:

That’s a really bad assumption. So bad, in fact, that I thought it more likely that you have misunderstood what they wrote than that they actually made that assumption. So I checked.

Murray and Churchill do not assume that a mutation has a 0.5 probability of occurring. They assume that if a mutation that has an effect on colour occurs in their theoretical model organism, then it has a 0.5 probability of being beneficial and a 0.5 probability of being detrimental.

They aren’t talking about the probability of a mutation occurring. They aren’t even talking about actual biology.

You have attributed to them a mistake that would stand out immediately to any-one with any knowledge of actual biology. Like painting a horse with 35 legs and no head.

This error is so gross it leads to wondering how badly you’ve misunderstood what else Murray and Churchill wrote, and how your critique can possibly have any impact.

There are other errors you’ve made that I might comment on later - such as claiming to know God’s intentions - but this will suffice for now.


@BenKissling @Rumraket @Roy @gbrooks9

Before we get deep in the weeds about probability, I suggest we consider what probability means in this context.

Murray and Churchill use a thought experiment about coin flips. They explain that the outcome of a coin flip is random because heads or tails each has a probability of 0.5. But the probability is only 0.5 if we do not know the physical facts of the system which determine the result. Not knowing these facts, a scientist must assign a probability which makes the scientific theory “predictively accurate.” If however, we did know all the relevant facts, the outcome would have a probability of 1.

I strongly dislike how M&C wrote this thought experiment. It makes God out to be a micro-manager of every detail down to the quantum level. It also ingores the real strength of probability argument (see below). I don’t think that is necessary, and AFAIK not what Theistic Evolutionists really mean to say. If I had my druthers it would be something like this …

“We do not know the outcome of individual random events, but we believe that the cumulative outcome of many random events should be convergent with God’s will *with probability 1.0.”

I am applying the mathematical concept of Convergence, where many events creating “small” variations sum up to a predictable distribution of events. In statistics this would be the Central Limit Theorem which states the behavior of the sample mean (a Normal distribution). If that still allows too much randomness in the outcome, there are stronger versions of convergence that allow statements including *“with probability 1.0.”

That said, I don’t think TE requires more than a very mild assertion the God guides the Convergence of events in accord with His will. It seems apparent that God is very happy allowing some events to be random, but that randomness isn’t in any way contradictory to His will, whatever that may be.

@BenKissling I haven’t given your article a careful read yet, but I intend to.


Put simply, the argument is that evolution is the situation where we don’t know the outcome (but God does), while creation is the situation where God knows the outcome (but we don’t), and these are somehow incompatible.


@BenKissling I’ve hit a few speed-bumps. These are intended as constructive comments. You may disagree with me. but it is not my intent to argue with you on these points. :slight_smile:

[Footnote] 9: Why might this be? Murray and Churchill claim that MTE does not entail methodological naturalism. If this is actually true, it’s incumbent upon Murray and Churchill to explain the reason why science cannot use knowledge from theology.

Methodological Naturalism is a method, not a state of nature. Philosophical Naturalism (atheism) is a type of belief that denies the existence of God(s). I think what you mean to write here is that (M&G claim) MTE does not deny the existence of God.
I think this distinction is far too important to be consigned to a footnote.

They offer no such explanation, likely because they are unconsciously assuming Stephen J. Gould’s idea of Non-Overlapping Magisteria (NOMA), which explicitly rejects a synthesis between science and faith.

This would be stronger if you did not try to psychoanalyze what M&G are thinking. “Perhaps they are assuming …” is a better way to phase that.

More about NOMA: You are using this as a basis that there can be no reconciliation. This can only be true if MTE is attempting to make a scientific claim; it is not.

There seems to be some inherent contradiction at work here.I trace it back to the third sentence:

I’ve never seen anyone state that God cannot be random. That seems to contradict omnipotence (and perhaps imply that God doesn’t have free will).
Do you mean that God’s Will cannot be random?

… so He cannot use evolution to create.

This is a VERY different proposition from reconciling evolution and Creation. TE is all about God using evolution to guide the development of life (after life was Created, naturally).


Seems like a perfectly reasonable thought experiment to me. They’re not saying anywhere that I can see that God is required to cause all events (in that sense “micromanage”), merely that he knows the outcomes of the coinflips because he knows all there is to know about the details that determine how they land. This description is entirely compatible with a doctrine that says all events were pre-planned to occur, for example as a giant game of dominoes, that does not require God to intervene to tip over every domino brick.


Aside from the discussion of the nature of biological randomness, I have to ask by what revelatory or logical justification are you confident God’s creative acts cannot be random, by any definition of the word. That premise is not at all a given.

Even under Copenhagen, observation collapses a wave function to 1, and God is the omnipresent and omniscient observer of the universe. As long as the distribution is maintained, from a human perspective God could choose the world and we would be none the wiser.

They don’t need to. You omitted the fact that biochemistry and genetics do. Mutations have NEVER been random with respect to anything but fitness.

Not for mutations. We’ve always known that mutations are not random with respect to type, direction, and location.

Please stop spreading misinformation.

False. SNPs can be caused by mutations, but they are not themselves mutations. They are differences.

Not by people who understand organic chemistry and biochemistry. The most common type of mutation, transitions, are caused by keto-enol tautomerization, so the DNApol isn’t “binding anomalously” at all.

Watson and Crick noted this in 1953. This is literally encyclopedia-level knowledge:

Encyclopedia Britannica

Heredity - Mutations, Genes, DNA

A diagram:

Don’t you have an undergraduate degree in biochemistry?


Quibble - ‘random’ does not mean that all results are equally likely. Consider a cube with the faces labelled 1,2,2,3,3,3. Mutations can be random with respect to location yet still occur more frequently in some parts of the genome than others.

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And also reject the possibility of God building a random number generator.

A variant of this, with 2,3,3,4,4,5 actually exist – they’re called Average Dice. I can remember seeing them used in Miniature wargaming.

On the larger topic, it seems that creationist arguments against biological DNA randomness as somehow ‘God-stopping’ is (apart from being probably blasphemous) is a form of Special Pleading, in they don’t explain how DNA-randomness is different from or stronger than all the other randomness in the universe that doesn’t seem to impede God’s plan, providence, etc.


Yes I’ve always thought this idea that random is synonymous with equiprobable was odd.

Of course if equiprobable is the definition of randomness, then mutations also aren’t random with respect to fitness, since neutral, deleterious, and beneficial mutations aren’t equiprobable either and their relative frequencies can vary a lot depending on how well-adapted the organism already is to it’s environment. A very well adapted organism’s mutations are even more strongly biased towards the vast majority being deleterious than otherwise. Even their magnitude of effect is far from equiprobable, with the majority of mutations also being of much weaker effect. Nothing is equal about any of this.


Can be, of course, but we know they aren’t.

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What is missing here (IMO) is that God can allow a high degree of randomness and still be assured of certain outcomes. If the sticking point is “God’s creative acts cannot be random”, then it’s crucial to understand that the cumulative effect of random events can lead to certainty. If one further believes that God created the mathematical law that makes this so, then it should apparent that God CAN create randomly and still achieve his will.

@BenKissling I suspect you may not care for my interpretation, since it seems to directly counter your main point. I hope you might at least use this to describe why randomness isn’t a problem for MTE (or just TE).


I’ve got some.

[Moderator Faux Pas removed! – Dan]

@moderators - which of you is extending my posts?

Please explain - I don’t see how mutations are not random w.r.t. genome location.

True. If you want ten consecutive rolls of 6 with a die that is truly ontologically random, you can just keep rolling till it happens. God isn’t short of time.

Picking something out of a hat, if the origin of life requires very low probability events, God could still basically ensure they occur by making the universe big and old enough that even low probability events become likely.

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