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Evolution and ID: Some Categorical Confusions

First, some good news. I have taken all of my written comprehensive exams, and the graduate office informed me yesterday that I passed all three. This Tuesday afternoon I go in for oral exams, and if I pass them, I’ll be a candidate for the Ph.D. (Concretely that means that I’m cleared to start work on the dissertation.) Thanks to all of you who prayed, and continue praying for another few days if you could. And I promise that I’ve just been away studying–I’m not wired for sound.

This post is not a response to any particular articulation of any particular position on the Evolution/ID debate so much as it responds to some of the categorical sloppiness that seems to pervade the discussion. Lacking a clear sense right now of how to organize this, I’m just going to start with some words that never pop up in the discussion but should, move on to some words that get bandied about but never explained, and finish, I hope, with a concluding statement that’s somewhat intelligent.

Oh, and I’ll probably cross-post this on my own blog, Hardly the Last Word, for the sake of folks who read there but not here.

Metaphysics and Epistemology

Folks who recognize these words will doubtless first think of academic philosophy rather than academic biology, but the big questions (as I see them) at play in this debate are in fact philosophical ones. To start in reverse order, the big epistemological question here is one that got its most famous articulations in the Continental philosophies of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In separate but related developments (horribly oversimplified here), Descartes began to maintain that all human knowledge begins with the knowledge of one’s own activity as thinker; Spinoza developed a pantheistic philosophy that named all things, visible and invisible, human and not-human, as part of God, thus collapsing the distinction between creator and creation and between perceiver and perceived; and Kant asserted that human knowledge is limited to the interactions between the mind and sensible objects, that human knowledge does not begin until manifold sensory data hit the mind’s categorizing machinery and cannot extend beyond what that machinery produced, thus cutting off knowledge both of material things-in-themselves and any entities not apprehensible by the five senses.

The common threads in all of these modes of knowing is the location of knowledge in the human mind, and Kant, the latest of the three, has the most influence on scientific epistemology in that the category “natural causes,” a subspecies of Kant’s “cause/effect” category of experience, largely fuels the rhetoric of those who would eliminate questions of a supersensible designer from the equation. But more on that later. For now the point to be made is that the critical philosophical tradition makes the axiomatic epistemological assertion (in other words, a claim that in its own terms cannot be challenged) that human knowledge has very definite and narrow borders and that any claims beyond those borders are necessarily nonsense claims.

Such claims naturally lead to questions of metaphysics. Again a bit of history is in order: the word metaphysics names that hard-to-name branch of philosophy that has to do with what exists and how different orders of existence relate to one another. Because Aristotle didn’t title his own books, and because his book on this topic comes right after his book on the nature of things (physike, scholars called it the after-physics, or the metaphysics.

The differences between neo-Platonic, Augustinian, and Thomist metaphysics are of little concern to this essay; what stands important is that the Kantian tradition effectively walled off metaphysical speculation from genuine human knowledge, making all claims about invisible entities (God, angels, the soul, etc.) are necessarily matters of “belief” or “faith” (note the departure from the Latin root, fides, faithfulness) rather than of knowledge.

Law and Theory

Thus we enter the question of teaching evolution as an exclusive theoretical option in science classrooms. Modern experimental science got its classical formulation in the essays of the English philosopher Francis Bacon (mmm… bacon), who held that the old ways of knowing about the world, rooted as they were in observing things passively, was no knowledge at all. Instead, Bacon suggested, true knowledge of creation comes from manipulating it, making it do what on its own it would not do. It was in this context that Bacon formulated his famous saying “Knowledge is power.”

Thus when Bacon wrote about the forms of reality, he wrote not about abstractions in which things participate but in terms of predictable effects that follow from reproducible and (most of the time) manipulable causes. On the other hand, he also wrote about speculating from those observable and repeatable forms. The former, over the course of modern science, came to be called scientific laws, the latter scientific theories.

The differences between “law” and “theory” in science are categorical differences, not matters of more or less certainty. When Big Bang and Darwinian evolution are called theories as opposed to laws of gravity or of thermodynamics, the differences have to do with repeatability rather than of certainty. Both have their places in scientific practice, but they just name different kinds of knowledge.

In the papers’ coverage of various evolution/ID, therefore, both the ID advocate who does a little endzone dance after saying, “Evolution is only a theory, not a law” and the evolution advocate who says, “Evolution is a theory just like gravity is” are both mistaken categorically.

Science in fact consists both of theories and laws, just as Christianity consists both of doctrine and practice. To give one of either pair priority over the other might sound pious but in fact distorts the reality on either side.

Science and Faith

To return to Kant for a moment, sometimes in these articles an evolution-only advocate will attempt to offer an olive branch by saying something along the lines of “We don’t want to deny anyone’s faith; we only want to keep science scientific.” What actually seems to be going on here is a discussion about allowable theories that leaves out a very important metaphysical/epistemological premise.

Now for the English translation. The aforementioned olive branch carries with it a heap of baggage, beginning with an implied concession that real human knowledge cannot, by definition, say anything about God or angels and thus must limit itself to observable causes and effects. That much is just Kant rehashed. But the next step that the olive branch requires is a dogma that any explanation of the (by definition) unobserved must play only by rules identical with what a laboratory can reproduce.

Now that sort of metaphysical claim still leaves holes, and the word for holes in a system that does not allow holes is “chance.” It’s the rough equivalent of X in algebra, and the ethical implication of this use of that word is that what is unknown now in terms of laboratory-derived rules will become known in precisely those terms as laboratory procedures become more precise. This is not an invalid metaphysic, philosophically speaking. But it is a speculation (again philosophically speaking) and thus belongs not in the category of experiment or law or even of theory but in the category of philosophical metaphysics.

Moreover, to say that another metaphysic, one that says that otherwise-inexplicable phenomena result from a designer’s design, is a matter of “faith” as opposed to “science” is to make a categorical error, a multiplication of categories without necessity. In fact both metaphysical claims have devices and vocabularies to account for the available phenomena, and the differences between the two cannot be settled in a laboratory but must be matters of persuasion on a rhetorical level.

(Tentative) Conclusion

As you might have guessed by this point, I do prefer pedagogies that present both the materialist/progressive metaphysic and the intelligent design metaphysic as alternatives for explaining the data generated by experiment and observation. To call one side evolution and the other intelligent design, in fact, seems itself to be an error in categories: what is really at stake in these things is a choice of metaphysical frameworks, one materialist all the way down and the other open to transcendence. As I wrap up this post, I’ll say explicitly what should be evident to even a casual reader: I am not a practicing biologist, but I am a student of the history of philosophy, and my claims here neither rely upon nor negate any biologist’s experiments or observations. Rather I am attempting to make sense of some of the ways that people frame those experiments and observations for the sake of teaching students, a practice to which I am no stranger at all. I hope to hear some feedback from critics and friends and friends who want to criticize.

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About Nathan Gilmour

Nathan P. Gilmour is a Christian, a husband, a father, and a college English teacher. He tries to do all of that and write something worthwhile on occasion.

Discussion

11 thoughts on “Evolution and ID: Some Categorical Confusions

  1. >I can vouch that evolution is at the core of the biology curriculum in Indiana. However, since the ID debate didn’t yet exist in the early nineties, I’m not sure whether my teachers would have given it any consideration or not. As I said before, ID as a category does not exclude evolution; ID is a metaphysical rather than a mechanical/efficient cause position.

    Posted by Nathan P. Gilmour | May 27, 2008, 9:35 pm
  2. >Kind of related:Where (and How) Evolution Is Taught In the US

    Posted by J.Wizzle | May 27, 2008, 5:42 pm
  3. >”…what’s at stake is not evolution per se but metaphysical materialism.”Agreed

    Posted by Jeff Wright | May 27, 2008, 2:54 pm
  4. >”Do you mean “Expelled”?” Er, yeah, something like that. 🙂

    Posted by Jeff Wright | May 27, 2008, 1:46 pm
  5. >Jeff,By the way, have you seen B. Stein’s “Exposed?” I hear it is very good.Do you mean “Expelled”? As with most movies, I’m going to have to wait for the DVD. (The perils of parenting young children and living six hundred miles away from the nearest family.)Hylander,It is great to hear that we will soon have another christian champion like yourself in the philosophical ranks as Schaeffer, Plantinga, Moreland!Actually I’m English literature scholar by specialty, but a generalist nonetheless, so my delusions of grandeur are more along the lines of Lewis and Tolkien. ;)matt,I have a question–“science” as a discipline limits itself to the study of things that can be validated empirically. Much of life (concepts such as beauty, justice, truth, love, and God) fall outside of this realm.I’m not sure I agree with that definition of science–to limit it thus eliminates the realm of scientific theory. My main concern is the limiting of scientific theory by means of dogmatic metaphysical boundaries. So to answer your second question, I’d say that biologists can and should talk about the origins of life, but they should, rather than calling metaphysical differences “pseudo-science,” locate honestly the differences in metaphysical/epistemological terms.Jeff again:Nate’s post reminds me of the absurdity of excluding ID from science courses while leaving evolution in. Actually, this distinction belies the categorical confusions that I’m trying to get at. The iterations of ID that I’ve seen use some kinds of evolution as explanatory devices; what’s at stake is not evolution per se but metaphysical materialism. In my mind theistic evolution and ID are, if not identical, at the very least close cousins, and their metaphysical assumptions do not rule out the mechanical/biological mechanisms that characterize what I think of as evolution.Jeff and matt:”But that raises the question from a developmental psychology perspective of whether or not a 16-year-old is mature enough to work through those questions.”I would definitely think so. Teaching a class like that would be so funI think that philosophy and–more importantly–intellectual history can and should constitute a healthy part of high schoolers’ education. I could and might write a book on public education, and at least part of it would be a reiteration of Neil Postman’s call for a robust sense of history to be part of math, science, and other currently history-deprived subjects. Being a Socratic by disposition, I think that an honest look at the history of materialism would be enough to discredit it.

    Posted by Nathan P. Gilmour | May 27, 2008, 12:52 pm
  6. >”I appreciate the scientific community’s right to define it’s discipline by it’s own rules.”I do as well but “it’s discipline” is the key. Origins would not be considered within its discipline. “But I think that the scientific community asserts itself as being able to do more than what it’s rules allow them to do.”Exactly.”But that raises the question from a developmental psychology perspective of whether or not a 16-year-old is mature enough to work through those questions.”I would definitely think so. Teaching a class like that would be so fun.

    Posted by Jeff Wright | May 26, 2008, 10:08 pm
  7. >I appreciate the scientific community’s right to define it’s discipline by it’s own rules. I also see how, by the scientific community’s rules, ID is “not good science” (thanks Nathan for the explanation). But I think that the scientific community asserts itself as being able to do more than what it’s rules allow them to do. In my angrier moments, I feel like saying, “Know your role. Maybe you should spend more time trying to find cures for cancer and making better iPods and less time telling us where we came from. Leave the questions of origins to the philosophers and religious, whose disciplines have appropriate methods to answer such questions.”Maybe the answer is, as Jeff suggested, making western (or perhaps eastern, too) philosophy/religion a part of the public school curriculum. Maybe high school students need to study epistemology and metaphysics. But that raises the question from a developmental psychology perspective of whether or not a 16-year-old is mature enough to work through those questions.

    Posted by Matt | May 26, 2008, 8:39 pm
  8. >”Does this limitation inherently disqualify scientists from discussions of origins and/or metanarrative? After all, much of reality falls outside of their discipline.”I just wish they would not attempt to disqualify us from the discussion. The game is rigged by assuming empiricism as axiomatic. Lets put all our presuppositions and limitations on the table. Nate’s post reminds me of the absurdity of excluding ID from science courses while leaving evolution in. If one belongs in the philosophy classroom, so does the other. To greatly oversimplify it, lets keep how things work in the science class and how things came to be in the philosophy class (again, if we’re going to be about the business of excluding theories from the science classroom). Therefore, no more science texts that include phrases such as “billions and billions of years ago when such and such happened…” or proven hoaxes such as Piltdown Man or Nebraska Man. If we’re going to remove philosophy from science courses, lets remove it all and y keep things to what can be, as Matt said, validated empirically.

    Posted by Jeff Wright | May 26, 2008, 6:45 pm
  9. >Great post, Nate! Thanks for that. I have a question–“science” as a discipline limits itself to the study of things that can be validated empirically. Much of life (concepts such as beauty, justice, truth, love, and God) fall outside of this realm.Does this limitation inherently disqualify scientists from discussions of origins and/or metanarrative? After all, much of reality falls outside of their discipline.

    Posted by Matt | May 26, 2008, 4:16 pm
  10. >Nathan,Congrats on your progress and you will certainly be in our prayers for your oral exams. It is great to hear that we will soon have another christian champion like yourself in the philosophical ranks as Schaeffer, Plantinga, Moreland!Thank you for your thoughts on this. I grapple with this issue from time to time and always thought that they were like 2 different dogs barking up different trees if you will. I have always wondered, when or if, there would be someone to come along and perhaps combine or build an entire new theory based on a classic metaphysic. What I mean is, there are some great arguments, such as the Cosmological “Kalam” argument; or the Teleological “Specified Complexity” argument; or a modern Ontological argument which synthesizes the Anselmian/Cartesianpremises to a contemporary view that Alvin Plantinga has developed. Granted, I realize that these are all primarily “proofs of theistic world views”, which is a totally different category of the current subject at hand. But, I wonder if properly used in the context of a philosophical metaphysic approach, if it is possible to develop a new contemporary theory, not only one that is valid, but sound as well?

    Posted by hylander | May 25, 2008, 8:49 pm
  11. >”…I passed all three. This Tuesday afternoon I go in for oral exams, and if I pass them, I’ll be a candidate for the Ph.D. (Concretely that means that I’m cleared to start work on the dissertation.)”Great news! You have sucessfully endured your beatings earning you the right to receive some more beatings. ;)”This is not an invalid metaphysic, philosophically speaking. But it is a speculation (again philosophically speaking) and thus belongs not in the category of experiment or law or even of theory but in the category of philosophical metaphysics.”If both sides were open and transparent about these matters you are addressing, the dialogues/debates would be more profitable. By the way, have you seen B. Stein’s “Exposed?” I hear it is very good.

    Posted by Jeff Wright | May 25, 2008, 4:39 pm

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