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Darwinian Schizophrenia

Weeks and weeks ago, I promised to write this post, in response to a provocative comment by my friend Tim Enloe. So I finally got around to making some kind of stab at it.

Darwinism is a fine example of the ambiguous foundations of modern science. On the one hand, it is generally agreed that the rise of nominalism and voluntarism, which drove a wedge between knowledge of the world and knowledge of God, helped liberate science from theology, and thus enabled the rise of natural science as we now know it. On the other hand, science had to maintain a faith in the meaningful fixed regularities of created nature, something which realism had guaranteed, but which, in a nominalist and voluntarist universe, was by no means certain. Thus science found itself in the uncomfortable position of biting the hand that fed it. So it is that we find an odd tension within modern science, which has grown as science has become increasingly secularized: on the one hand, science insists upon the law-like regularity of the natural world, and yet must also insist that things need not be as they are, could easily have turned out differently, and may yet turn out differently.

Darwinism, and the Christian accomodation to it, manifests this tension perfectly. On the one hand, Darwinism starts from the presupposition of regular processes of nature, ostensibly eschewing the voluntarist God who simply creates at a whim (deceptively too--with the appearance of age), and intervenes from time to time. Theologians who embraced Darwinism often took this oddly realist tack (as the lecturers at the book release emphasized), arguing, “Which God is greater? A God who creates a world according to fixed inherent laws and principles, or one who creates everything by fiat, via random interventions?”

And yet, Darwinism argues that all takes place by chance, and thus, while certain base chemical laws may be fixed, traditionally understood biological natures are not fixed--there is nothing intrinsically human about human beings, or canine about dogs--they just happen to be the way they are, and could very well be something else entirely. And Darwinian theology, as I mentioned in an earlier post, happily jumps on this nominalist bandwagon, asserting that the special status of human beings has nothing to do with any inherent nature, but only of an apparently arbitrary decision by God at some point in history; nor does the particular form of creation at any given time reveal God’s purposes, which must instead come only through special revelation.

So we find these hopeless theologians simultaneously arguing that we need a God who operates by fixed principles, rather than arbitrary interventions, and that our relationship with this God and knowledge of him has nothing to do with any fixed principles, but only with his arbitrary interventions. And to think that these folks hold the chairs of theology at most of our top seminaries and universities...

5 comments:

on the one hand, science insists upon the law-like regularity of the natural world, and yet must also insist that things need not be as they are, could easily have turned out differently, and may yet turn out differently.

Here it sounds like you're getting confused on the distinction between a first-order scientific claim like "That rock will fall through the air at such and such a speed" and a second-order scientific claim like "All objects of mass X will fall with speed Y."

Science's insistence "upon the law-like regularity of the natural world" is an assumption that concerns second-order claims: it is asserting that there is One Theory to Rule Them All--i.e., one second order scientific claim (or set of claims) that is immutably True.

However, when we talk about the contingency of scientific truths ("things need not be as they are, could easily have turned out differently"), we are talking about a property of first-order scientific claims. For example, a scientist might say, "It is true that greenhouse gases are causing the planet to warm, but it might have been otherwise". The contingency of first-order scientific truths is derived from the fact that they are generated by the application of (immutable) second-order "natural laws" to some set of initial conditions that might have been otherwise (that are, in other words, contingent).

So I don't see why there should be any tension within science between these two things--in fact, I think they complement each other pretty logically. I mean, certainly you can start talking about the contingency/necessity of second-order scientific claims (i.e., natural laws, like the laws of physics), but such a discussion would be outside of science (it'd be metaphysics, right?).

December 7, 2009 at 8:51 AM  

Hey David,
I think you're misunderstanding my criticism. A large part of my point is, as you mention in your last paragraph, the metaphysical point--science asserts the law-like regularity of the natural world, but without being able to establish any reason why these laws, rather than others, should be the case. Of course, this is not a contradiction, if science acknowledges that it must be in subordination to a metaphysics that will make sense of it, but science rarely does that.

I am also critiquing what is perhaps not a logical contradiction, but certainly an interesting tension, between science's increasing tendency to assert the chaotic, random character of natural changes (Darwinism's random mutations, and now quantum physics) and its desire to conceptualize the world as an ordered, logical structure of laws.

December 12, 2009 at 2:34 PM  

Of course, this is not a contradiction, if science acknowledges that it must be in subordination to a metaphysics that will make sense of it, but science rarely does that.

Right--exactly. Although I'm not sure why you tack on "but science rarely does that"--can you name anyone who holds the extreme position that science contains within it the answers to all metaphysical questions--that contra Hume it can explain causality, that it can generate normative claims? I think probably the only person who believes something like that is Daniel Dennett--but his views are considered very controversial!

In any case, to address your second critique:

an interesting tension, between science's increasing tendency to assert the chaotic, random character of natural changes (Darwinism's random mutations, and now quantum physics) and its desire to conceptualize the world as an ordered, logical structure of laws.

I submit that there is no tension here whatsoever--that there is nothing about randomness that is in tension with the idea that objects follow regular natural laws. Consider the following:

* When I roll dice, the objects abide by the laws of physics established by Newton. But their movement is random. So randomness is a property that emerges from objects abiding by regular laws.

* The second law of thermodynamics states that entropy--which is a measure of randomness or disorder--cannot decrease in a closed system unless energy is added to it.

* In chemistry, a basic concept is that of equilibrium: that when particles are flying around randomly for a long enough time, they get distributed evenly.

* Forget Darwin--what about Mendel? The distribution of physical characteristics he found in his pea plants led him to theorize that the characteristics were being passed down by a random process. Darwin's concept of random variation is no more problematic than Mendel's.

And so on. I guess the point is, you seem to want to tell some kind of story like: "ah, science began by positing that the world proceeds according to natural laws, but now it discovers that it proceeds quite randomly." But not only does randomness not stand in tension to regular second-order natural laws in principle, but historically randomness has been an integral part of scientific understanding for a long time. And not only that, but you can show this relationship between randomness and natural laws in something as simple and canonical as flipping a coin.

(PS: I think it's quite wrong to characterize Darwinian evolution as "chaotic" and "random", when what is happening is randomness is providing the raw material that the environment imposes constraints on. It'd be like saying that panning for gold is a random, chaotic process, when really you should probably say that it is a process in which randomness plays a part (you randomly shake the silt on the sieve).)

December 13, 2009 at 8:57 PM  

Oh, and let me add:

Maybe it'd be helpful to make a distinction between what we'll call chaos and randomness. Chaos is a higher order, metaphysical property, and something that science explicitly renounces with its assumption that the world abides by natural laws. Randomness, on the other hand, is a first order property found within science, and is the common every-day phenomenon we see in such actions as flipping a coin.

So what's interesting here is that science is in principle incapable of any claims as to how chaotic the universe is, because it always operates under the assumption of non-chaos. So even if we supposed the universe to be chaotic (or increasingly chaotic, say), science would not tell us this fact--it would just continue to flounder about, unable to come up with any natural laws that describe or predict anything.

So there couldn't, in principle, be any tension between the theories that science generates and its own assumption of a non-chaotic universe. Any scientific theory that entailed anything at the metaphysical level would not, I think, be a well-formed scientific theory (which is to say, it wouldn't be a scientific theory at all). As far as metaphysics is concerned, science is a black box--science's specific claims are opaque to it. What do you think?

December 13, 2009 at 9:20 PM  

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December 18, 2009 at 6:53 AM  

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