Evolution and the Conservative
I hold conservative (or maybe libertarian) views on most topics. However, as an agnostic, I often find myself at odds with the views expressed by some conservatives – particularly when the conversation turns to the topic of evolution. I decided to try to put together an argument to suggest that there is, in fact, no real need for those of faith to attack evolution theory. I should make it clear, that this post is NOT an attempt to convince anyone that evolution is true and that it should be accepted. In fact, if you do decide to read this, you will see that I’m actually going to argue for something like the opposite of this.
I should first point out that I have nothing against those who hold strong religious beliefs. As an agnostic, I don’t believe in the existence of God but I also don’t reject the possibility. In a nutshell, for whatever reasons, I’ve never found the faith to believe in a supreme being. I view this as the result of the details of my life, not the result of some deep philosophical ideas that force me to intellectually reject the idea of God. It seems to me, that belief in God rests on faith and you can’t force faith. You have it or you don’t.
Consequently, I’m not very impressed with the tendency among many liberals of bashing those of faith. Generally, I find it immature and I tend to view the practice as being motivated by a desire to convince others (and themselves) of just how smart they are(1). In particular, many liberals argue for the “truth” of evolution as “scientific fact” and use that attitude to paint people who believe in creationism as being ignorant, in denial or just plain stupid. The problem is that most of those same liberals don’t really understand science, so their arguments tend to rest on false assumptions.
Similarly, I’m not very impressed with the attacks and criticism I see made by many conservatives against evolutionary theory. Again, from what I’ve seen, the problem generally stems from a misunderstanding of what science is.
So here goes…
What science is and isn’t
Well, obviously I can’t really answer this in full. First, I don’t really have the background (that’s for philosophers) and I don’t have the desire or energy to devote the hundreds of pages it would take just to get started. But I do work in a scientific field (and I did stay at a Holiday Inn Express last night) and I have thought about this a bit, so consider this my (very simplistic) take on the topic.
First, science isn’t really about discovering the “truth”. Aside from the fact the there isn’t a generally accepted definition or theory of “truth” (notice what seems like a contradiction in that statement), the business of science is to put together models that hope to describe the empirical world in some way. I use the word “model” on purpose here. Others might use the word “theory”, but I think that word carries too much baggage with it. Using my terminology, Special Relativity is a model that attempts to describe the behavior of macroscopic objects and Quantum Mechanics is a model that attempts to describe the behavior of microscopic objects. Models are not the things they model. They are a kind of replica. They attempt to mimic some part of the thing being modeled. No model is perfect. There are always some differences. And so it goes with scientific models. They are models of the empirical world. They are not the empirical world. That last sentence seems obvious, but I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard someone say something like “well, it has to be that way because such and such a theory said so.” No! The world is the way it is – regardless of how we describe it or what we say about it. Scientific models hope to describe its behavior. They don’t dictate its behavior. Given this view of science, it seems natural to reject the idea that scientific models (of sufficient complexity) are “true”. They might be good models or bad, but not true.
On top of that, I’d like to suggest that in principle, it isn’t even possible to “prove” as “true” any scientific model (or theory). This view stems from a consideration of the manner in which these models are created – they are built up from empirical knowledge.
Empirical knowledge – information we get about the physical world around us through our senses (or using instruments that extend our senses) – is inherently limited in space and time. To use an old example, it is difficult to show why I should accept the statement “all crows are black” as true when neither I nor any other human has actually taken the time to view every crow in the world at any given moment to confirm this. Yes, every crow seen so far has been black, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that every crow is (or has to be) black. You can use the same kind of argument (as David Hume did) to question the truthfulness of a statement like “the sun will rise tomorrow”. Just because it has for as long as anyone can remember, doesn’t mean that it will (or has to) tomorrow.
To get a bit fancy with the terminology, scientific models involve the creation of general statements from a finite collection of empirical statements using induction. This is in contrast to the way math works. In mathematical systems, you can prove that some set of statements follow logically from some other set of statements (taken as true) via deduction. In these kinds of systems, you can say that some statement is “proven true” in light of the axioms of the system. But this doesn’t work in science. The crow and sunrise examples above allude to what is called the “Problem of Induction”. In a nutshell, there is no way to prove that any given scientific statement (model or theory) is true beyond a shadow of a doubt since, ultimately, these statements are based off of a limited number of empirical observations (which might, themselves, be flawed).
As an aside, I differential models from singular empirical statements. I recall seeing an argument where the validity (or soundness, to get technical) of the statement “the Earth revolves around the Sun” was debated. Although you can see this as the basis of the Copernican Model of the Solar System, I consider this to be the kind of thing you can verify or reject, based on direct observation – in the same way that I can accept or reject “a pen falls toward the ground when I release it” by doing a little experiment and making an observation. In science, singular empirical statements are accepted, by convention (or faith) as “true” or “false” based on how well they agree with (repeated) observation.
Another thing I’d like to point out is that scientific models change and, in some cases, get replaced over time. Special Relativity replaced Newtonian Mechanics about a hundred years ago. Does this mean that Newtonian Mechanics was “false” and that Relativity is “true”? No. It just means that Relativity is a better model. It does a better job of describing the behavior of macroscopic objects than Newtonian Mechanics does (particularly when the objects are moving very fast). My point is, if scientific theories were “true” there would be no sense in trying to replace them with something “more true”.
As a final comment, as far as I know, every scientific model has shortcoming or deficiencies of some kind. Given the purpose of this post, that obviously includes evolutional theory. But as another example, consider two of the most fundamental theories in physics – Quantum Mechanics and General Relativity. For reasons that (thankfully) I won’t get into, Quantum Mechanics (specifically, Quantum Field Theory) and General Relativity (Einstein’s theory of gravity) seem to be deeply incompatible with one another. Not just a little incompatible, but incompatible in the very way in which each describes the world. In fact, trying to resolve this conflict is one of the largest tasks (if not the largest task) of current physics. This suggests that there is something wrong with one or both of these models(2). Does this mean we should chuck them in the garbage? No. It just reflects the idea that scientific models are … well, models. They all have their shortcomings.
Science as a Game
You can view (and many philosophers have viewed) science as kind of a game – one with certain rules. One of the rules is that scientific models should (at least in principle) be grounded in empirical evidence. Put another way, the game of science doesn’t allow its players to invoke or use supernatural agents or causes in their models(3). I use this game analogy because, viewed in this way, science is a regulated activity which limits what scientists can talk about and how they talk about it. If you can get past the idea that science is some kind of search for the “truth”, then you can accept science as a human activity which tries to describe nature in a kind of limited fashion.
From this, it seems to me that just because science doesn’t comment on some aspect of the world, that doesn’t mean we have to look at that aspect of the world with suspicion. As far as I know, science doesn’t have anything close to a coherent model of emotions, but, on a personal level, I have no doubt that my parents love me. Similarly, science doesn’t comment on matters of faith. They fall outside of the allowed topics of science. Same goes with supernatural agents. They aren’t (officially) allowed in science. But that doesn’t mean that these matters aren’t worthy of serious attention.
Criticisms of Evolution
Ok, given what I’ve said above, you can see where I’m going with this. Evolutionary Theory (whatever version) is a model. It has deficiencies – like every other scientific model does. To criticize evolution because there are holes in it, in the hopes of “proving” that evolution is “false” doesn’t really make sense. Not only does the idea of “proof” not apply to scientific theories, but you can attack any other theory or model in science on the same general grounds.
Now, don’t get me wrong. For all you followers of Karl Popper out there, pointing out the deficiencies or incompatibilities of a model with empirical evidence is an important part of scientific progress. It’s what helps us recognize weaknesses in models and allows us to see where we should concentrate our research in an attempt to improve the model or replace it with a better one (which will hopefully have fewer weaknesses). But the motivation, in this case, is scientific progress.
In the case of those who object to evolutionary theories for religious reasons, the motivation isn’t progress in the way I described above. Remember, if you view science as a game with certain rules, you know that no scientific model is allowed to incorporate supernatural agents. Consequently, even if evolution is improved in a way that does address its weaknesses or is replaced with a completely different model – it still won’t be one that uses supernatural causes and so won’t be compatible with creationism. Does that mean the creationists are incorrect? No. It just means that, according to its own rules, science can’t embrace something like creationism.
I get the sense that some who believe in creationism think they can prove or show that creationism is right if they can prove that evolution theory is false (or, a least, by showing that it’s garbage and should be rejected). This, of course, doesn’t follow. If it were the case the there were only two possible theories – evolution and creationism – and you somehow knew that one of them was true, then this tactic would work. But this isn’t the case. Not only can you come up with a bunch of other theories to explain the origin and development of life on Earth, but we have no way of know if any of them are true. But this actually leads to my final topic …
Science and Religion and Truth
Fundamentally, I don’t think you can really compare religious and scientific theories or views or models on how things are, will be or where. They don’t use the same standards for defining what is accepted as “true”.
You might argue that this attitude is ass backwards. The world is, was and will be a certain way – the indisputable truth of the matter, so to speak. And a given view or theory either has it right or it doesn’t. Whether it’s scientific or religious doesn’t matter.
Well, that sounds reasonable, until you actually get down to looking at how we decide if something is true or not. It seems to me, that we really aren’t in much of a position to assert, with complete confidence, the truth of much of anything. To become a bit of a skeptic here, I think I know what’s going on right know, and I’m pretty sure I know what happed a moment ago and I can maybe guess what will happen in a moment, but … when you get down to it, a lot of what we accept as true rests on a mountain of assumptions which are simply accepted as true without proof.
Like I mentioned, even philosophers can’t agree on what “truth” is, let alone coming up with a theory that helps us define it concisely. If you accept the idea that, ultimately, just about everything can be questioned on some level (see Rene Descartes) and that most of what we think we know follows from a bunch of assumptions which are assumed to be true (without proof), then you have to mindful of the process that gets us to what we accept as true. You can accept certain truths based on faith in a certain religion. You can decide to play the game of science and only accept as true things that can be tied to direct empirical observation. Ultimately, both are based on assumptions and in reality, most people rely on both.
If two people agree on the same set of assumptions, then a meaningful debate can follow. If they don’t, then there is no real point to a debate (other than to simply trip up or embarrass your opponent). The argument can never be resolved. Arguing about the origin of life on earth from two different sets of assumptions (religious and scientific) is, in my opinion, fundamentally pointless.
But the flip side to that, I think, is that there is no need for people who believe in evolution and those who believe in creationism to butt heads over it. You might say “Well, at least one of these views has to be false since they don’t seem compatible with one another.”(4) OK. But I doubt we’ll ever be in a position to really know. So it’s ultimately a matter of faith – for both sides.
1. I expand on this in my other post “Why Liberals Do What They Do” in this forum. (Nice plug, eh?)
2. You can argue that the two theories are, in fact, basically correct but we just aren’t interpreting what they mean correctly. If that is correct and if the proper interpretation is found, it would still amount to a development and extension (i.e. a change) in one or both theories. And if you don’t buy that, then ok, my point still holds in general – most scientific theories have some holes or areas that still need to be developed – so substitute any of those instead.
3. Historically, scientific theories have incorporated non-empirical elements in their interpretations. Things like “cause and effect” or “action at a distance” are more recent examples. To get around this, I could argue from the standpoint that a scientific theory is really just its non-interpreted elements. In physics, that amounts to the equations which serve as its basis. But that’s debatable and anyways, it’s harder to extend this to other areas of science that aren’t as equation heavy. So, I’ll argue that traditionally, the non-empirical elements of a typical scientific theory have some (maybe philosophical) basis in empirical evidence, thought the nature of that basis might be unclear. At the least, they aren’t of the “deus ex machina” variety.
4. This is debatable. Fundamentally, I don’t think there has to be any incompatibility between creationism and evolution – but that’s another disc