North Western Winds

Contemplating it all from the great Pacific Northwest

Darwin and demarcation

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What follows are choice quotes I’ve come across in this weekend’s readings on Darwinism. This debate is what it is in part because the real problem at the core of it so often unidentified. It is, namely, what is known in philosophy as the Demarcation Problem. The group on top has a vested interest in drawing that line in such as way that they are secure in their position, and in getting others to buy into that division. It’s a bit like a tax collector plucking as much as he can, just shy of the point where his victim notices and questions the whole process. In this case, the spin is that science and religion (or, philosophy, if you prefer) are like oil and water. That’s a metaphysical proposition – and a dubious one at that.

James Franklin:

it is uncontroversial to assert that Darwinism is a logically complex theory, and that its relation to empirical evidence is distant and multi-faceted. One does not directly observe chance genetic variations leading to the development of new species, or even continuous variations in the fossil record, but must rely on subtle arguments to the best explanation, scaling up from varieties to species, and so on. The strength or otherwise of these arguments, individually and collectively, is a purely logical question. It is no answer to Stove’s attack on Darwinism to sermonize, as Blackburn does, about how disgraceful it is for philosophers to delve in matters that do not concern them. Marxists, or Freudians, or astrologers, or phrenologists are not allowed to ‘answer’ philosophers’ doubts about the relation of their theories to the evidence by saying, ‘Trust me, I’m a doctor’. Evolutionists have no such rights either.

David Fontana:

The picture that emerges from this literature suggests that at the very least there are impressive grounds for a serious debate on whether or not natural selection is the sole explanation for evolution, or just one explanation among many. No-one can usefully enter this debate without at the very least reading the meticulous arguments advanced respectively by Wesson, Goodwin and Behe, three highly respected academics with an impressive grasp of their material. Natural selection may account for some of the changes in flora and fauna traceable through recorded time, but there are legitimate doubts as to whether it can explain all of them. In fact, it may account for only a relatively small percentage. The opposition of neo-Darwinians to any informed debate on the truth of neo-Darwinism as an all-inclusive theory of evolution is therefore somewhat difficult to understand, and could have more to do with a doctrinaire aversion to any idea of conscious purpose behind existence than with an unbiased attempt to arrive at scientific truth. As with Shakespeare’s Lady MacBeth, there seems to be a little too much protesting going on among certain of the more vocal of them. (In this context it is perhaps worth reminding ourselves that Darwin was not himself prejudiced against the idea of purpose in the universe – e.g. ‘I cannot view … the nature of man and conclude that everything is the result of brute force. I am inclined to look at everything as resulting from designed laws … with the details … left to … what we may call chance’).

Lee Harris:

If an elite claims esoteric knowledge that I cannot verify in my own experience, then that elite automatically falls under suspicion in the eyes of the Protestant. If every man is a priest, according to the famous Lutheran maxim, then everyman is a cosmologist and metaphysician as well. If men I don’t personally know make claims about the world that I am unable to check out for myself, why should I trust them? And what happens, politically speaking, to any community in which more and more decisions about their life are left in the hands of a cognitive elite whose claims to knowledge become increasingly difficult for the average person to verify with the instruments of common sense that are at hand? Again, the farmer can always check the addition of the grocer who sells him his supplies; but how can he check Darwin’s theory of evolution or the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics?

The farmers in Dayton, Tennessee who did not want their children being taught Darwin’s theory of evolution, were questioning authority, unlike those people who have accepted the theory simply because it was what educated people of the time happened to think they ought to believe. This, after all, is a theory complicated enough in its implications that a philosopher of the stature of Daniel Dennett could attack a paleontologist of the stature of Stephen Jay Gould over its correct interpretation-and the farmers of Dayton were expected to be able to make up their own minds about it? On what possible basis? Should they have collected funds to take an excursion of the Galapagos Islands and seen the finches with their own eyes?

To associate scientific consensus with the concept of ecclesiastical orthodoxy is offensive to the Platonist, but a truism to the sociologist.

It’s offensive to the scientist too, I’m quite sure. Harris goes on to say that there IS a need for a group or organization to make claims about what is and is not acceptable science today, but that such groups must expect to be questioned and overturned. He cites Einstein and Darwin as examples of young scientists who came out of nowhere and upset the applecart as they found it. To do so, they had to be patient and persistent in the defense of what they felt was truth, and we are better off for their successes. This is crucial: they believed in truth and not merely in science as a social construction protected by a venerable elite. Where does this truth come from?

Lee Harris, from the same long article:

A humble example may make my point clearer. Suppose that you are given a message that appears to be in cipher, and you are asked to decipher it. You begin to work on the project, but after many hours you begin to wonder if there is really a message to be decoded. You have tried every trick in the cryptographer’s book, and yet nothing works. In despair, you go to the person who presented you with the puzzle and you ask, “Are you sure there is really a message here?”

Now imagine your reaction if the person testing you were to say, “To be perfectly honest with you, I’m not really sure. You see we were given two kinds of messages-one that was really in a code, and the other that was simply a string of utterly random letters thrown together arbitrarily.”

What would be your response? Certainly, it would come out as something like, “Why in hell didn’t you tell me that before I wasted all my time?” And, after all, what is the point of trying to decipher a code that isn’t a code at all, but simply a mishmash of random symbols, devoid of any intelligent organizational principle, and hence, by definition, impossible to decode?

And after you discovered that you may well have been given a pointless task, how diligently would you continue to work at deciphering it. Wouldn’t it be natural for your determination to flag on learning that even the best college try would yield no results, because no results could be yielded?

Yet that is how Plato viewed the problem of deciphering the code of the universe. There were some parts that made sense; but there were many other parts that didn’t, and never could be forced to make sense. They were simply the irrational, and it was pointless for a man of any intelligence to waste his time trying to make sense of this vast domain of irreducible insignificance. Shit happens, and when it does, the pursuer of knowledge stops, and humbly confesses complete ignorance.

The Christian cosmology, founded on the outrageous absurdity of creation out of nothing, asserted that shit doesn’t happen and that God doesn’t play dice. He made everything-hence everything is rational and designed in accordance with an intelligible plan. What appears on the surface to be irrational is, if examined in sufficient detail, full of hidden reasons. Everything makes sense because everything is the result of intelligent design.

Who could believe such twaddle?

Luckily a vast number of brilliant European scientists could, and because they believed in intelligent design they were able to devise models of the universe that assumed the existence of an intelligent designer. To use our metaphor from a bit earlier, they were all convinced that there was an intelligible code at the basis of the cosmos. They were persuaded that there was nothing irrational about our universe and that every last detail had been prearranged and planned from the beginning of time. They believed that every event that occurred had been ordered in accordance with a divine plan.

The notion that there was an intelligent designer who created absolutely everything from scratch and in accordance with a rational plan is the psychological precondition of the willingness to look for patterns that are hidden to the ordinary gaze. Unless we believe that there is a code to be deciphered, we are psychologically reluctant to devote hours of our life, let alone our life itself, to the pursuit of deciphering it.

Do not under stand me as defending all ID arguments. I’m averse to what has been called “God of the gaps” claims, for example. What I object to is the shutting down of a wide swath of commentary as being simply unworthy of listening to, simply because it does not conform to the political and ideological constructions of a power group. The gate keeping function is legitimate, but not every instance of it will be legitimate.

Harris is obviously influenced by Thomas Kuhn, and perhaps Paul Feyerabend as well. Feyerabend is a new name to me, but I find his Wikki page to be quite interesting, abeit his idea that science can be directed by democracy is nutty. Surely a high IQ is of major importance and cannot be overidden in detail by a mob (which is hardly disinterested). Specialization counts.

Harris continues:

The refusal to recognize intelligent design in the world would have kept science from ever getting off the ground, the willingness to resort to divine intervention in order to explain otherwise inexplicable anomalies in the universe would have quickly put a limit to its development. Men would have tired of looking for more deeply hidden patterns and regularity, and would have fallen back on appealing to divine intervention in order to keep from challenging themselves to ascend to a higher level of insight and understanding of the nature of things.

The point of this post is a simple one, and that is that the Demarcation Problem is deep and thorny and it is so because there is no escaping metaphysics, no matter how faith averse you are. This does not imply full blown Christianity or any other formal religion but also does not rule them out. The point of scientific research is to search for ontological truth (or at least predictive truths), and not to take a hatchet to organizations one dislikes.

Darwin’s theory of evolution makes no predictions, and this has been attacked by some as its weakness.

In fact, it is completely unavoidable. Any theory that hopes to explain the biological diversity of life on this planet will invariably fail to generate testable propositions. This is because the random variations that become the beautiful adaptations to an organism’s environment cannot, by definition, be predicted in advance. But neither could they be predicted in advance if God intervened in the creation of each new variation that appears in evolution of the organism. Thus, whether we assume that the variations come about by chance or by the hand of God, we are equally unable to predict them.

Those critics of Darwin who come from a more rigorous region of the scientific project, such as mathematicians and physicists, are often appalled at the leaps in logic made by the evolutionary biologist; but he can only work by such leaps. Like the cosmologist, he must make the most of every clue he can get. As Aristotle wisely said quite a long time ago, It is a mark of the educated man to know what degree of certainty he can expect from any particular domain of scientific or philosophic inquiry.

Amen to that.

Harris’ essay is very long but wothwhile. The final section, speculating on the metaphysics of Darwin’s upbringing is very interesting and very sympathetic, suggesting that Darwin’s inability to reconcile his theory with his own conception of God might have more to do with his theology than his science. Darwin may have been felled in this endeavor by problem of pain, struggle, and evil, which struck his sheltered conception of God as plainly and obviously tender, and which needs to be compared to a more worldy conception of God’s tenderness as being mysterious and an article of faith.


Written by Curt

September 11, 2005 at 2:23 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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