Friday, February 20, 2015

Do You Believe in Evolution?

When traveling in London recently Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker was asked whether he believed in evolution. As you know, he refused to answer the question. To be more precise, he punted.

Many other Republican presidential candidates have offered a similar response to similar questions.

Obviously, they all believed that it was a trap-question. Had they said Yes they would immediately have been accused of not believing in God.

To the atheist mind, you either believe in Darwin or in God… not both, and effectively, not neither. The same pertains to some who believe in a literal reading of the Bible.

The question is not merely tendentious; it lacks substance. Science, Adam Gopnik points out, is not a catechism; it does not contain beliefs and dogmas. If I may say so, it beggars belief.

Whatever the common mind thinks, and however Darwinian theory has been used by militant atheists, nothing about the theory of evolution disproves (or proves) the existence of God. To think otherwise is to misunderstand either science or theology or both.

When Newton discovered the laws of thermodynamics he did not conclude thereby that he had proved that God does not exist.

Gopnik understands this, but still he insists that politicians should answer the question. How else can voters know whether they are on the side of Enlightenment or the side of dark superstition?

He explains:

But the notion that the evolution question was unfair, or irrelevant, or simply a “sorting” device designed to expose a politician as belonging to one cultural club or another, is finally ridiculous. For the real point is that evolution is not, like the Great Pumpkin, something one can or cannot “believe” in. It just is—a fact certain, the strongest and most resilient explanation of the development of life on Earth that there has ever been. 

Shades of settled science.

At the risk of sounding churlish, Gopnik is neither a scientist nor a philosopher. Heck, he isn’t even a theologian. One marvels at his grasp of the issues, but his expertise is borrowed, not earned.

One recalls that Nobel laureate Richard Feynman once explained that science is never totally certain, never really settled. The scientific mind always maintains a healthy skepticism. It knows that it does not know whether a new experiment or an overlooked fact will one day appear to upend the edifice of settled science.

Assuming that evolution is, in Gopnik’s words, “the strongest and most resilient explanation” of the forms of life on earth, that does not, by his own argument tell us anything more than that it is the best we have for now.

Pile up all the superlatives you want; you have not precluded that another theory might arise to improve on Darwin or even refute Darwin.

Does this mean that evolution should not be taught in schools? Of course, it does not. If it’s the best that biology can produce, then it should be taught in biology courses.

Happily for those who are seeking enlightenment, Gopnik summarizes the basic principle of evolution:

Evolution may be hard to accept, but it’s easy to understand. All the available evidence collected within the past hundred and fifty years is strongly is in its favor, and no evidence argues that it is in any significant way false. Life on Earth proceeds through the gradual process of variation and selection, with the struggle for existence shaping its forms. Nobody got here all in one piece; we arrived in bits and were made up willy-nilly, not by the divine designer but by the tinkering of time.

Actually, most of us arrived in this world in one piece. I would not want to think of the infant who was born in bits and pieces.

Gopnik should be more careful with his locutions.

In truth he is suggesting that the alternative to evolution is a literal reading of the Bible. Since no serious theologian believes that the Bible recounts literal facts, one is within one’s right to say that he is striking out against a straw God—pardon the expression.

Many theologians would agree that life did not develop willy nilly, according to a random process, but they would add that saying that God created life means that the process is ordered and intelligible. This is what the theory of evolution shows.

Why should politicians be obliged to say whether or not they believe in evolution? Gopnik explains:

Do you have the courage to embrace an inarguable and obvious truth when it might cost you something to do so? A politician who fails this test is not high-minded or neutral; he or she is just craven, and shouldn’t be trusted with power. This catechism’s purpose—perhaps unfair in its form, but essential in its signal—is to ask, Do you stand with reason and evidence sufficiently to anger people among your allies who don’t?

This assumes that those who question evolution are irrational. It fails to notice that rationality was alive and well before the arrival of the Enlightenment philosophers. Surely, Thomas Aquinas was a rational thinker, as were many of the other medieval theologians who are so often derided by their intellectual inferiors.

Gopnik is most opposed to those who believe that the Bible is literal truth and thus, who reject Darwin on those grounds:

Opposition to evolutionary biology is overwhelmingly tied to an investment in some kind of defiantly anti-rational ideology: in our time, to fundamentalist Christian reaction; in dark days past in the Soviet Union, to the Lysenkoist belief in culture-made traits. To oppose Darwinian biology is not to announce yourself neutral or disinterested or even uninterested. It is to announce yourself against the discoveries of science, or so frightened of those who are that you can be swayed from answering honestly.

He adds this point:

But scientific reasoning is the basic way human beings achieve knowledge about their world.

The point is well taken, if you believe that the only relevant kind of knowledge is knowledge about the world. As is well known, since David Hume explained it, science has nothing to say about ethics, about what “should.” Science is about what “is” not what you should or should not do.

And that’s without considering metaphysics. Since, as Alexander Meiklejohn said, no one has ever seen, heard, touched, tasted or smelled an idea, our knowledge about ideas does not have a scientific basis.

There’s more to human knowledge than science.

To explain why a candidate’s belief in science matters, Gopnik offers a glib example:

But couldn’t someone who thinks the Earth is flat still be a perfectly fine dogcatcher? Well, yes—until he stops chasing the dogs racing ahead of him because he thinks they’re about to run off the edge of the Earth. 

What would Gopnik say about those who believe that gender, for example, is merely a social construct? Surely, Darwinian biology would reject such a notion.

And what would he say about those who believe that the purpose of human sexuality is to produce pleasure? Surely, Darwinian theory suggests that human sexuality and the institutions that regulate its expression have an ultimate procreative purpose: the survival of the fittest members of the species.

Should politicians risk offending certain constituent groups by saying that they believe that heterosexual intercourse has a greater potential biological value than other forms of sexual activity?

What would Gopnik say about those who believe that gender is a matter of belief… that you are the gender you believe you are, biology be damned. Are Democratic politicians willing to take on the transgender lobby?

Doesn’t the debate about transgenderism really concern the question of whether you believe that biological fact is less important than someone’s beliefs?

As long as journalists do not ask Democratic politicians whether they believe that gender is a social construct or a biological fact, Republicans should punt on trap questions that are addressed only to them.


n.n said...

Evolutionary (i.e. chaotic) principles are observable and reproducible in the scientific domain. I recognize that anthropomorphization of evolutionary theory, including creation, describe a system and article of faith, respectively.

As an individual of neutral faith (e.g. scientist), I neither believe nor reject (i.e. affirmative statements) articles of faith. I exploit philosophy (e.g. inferred or created knowledge) as a guide to further research, pending improvements in knowledge and skill (e.g. enhanced perception).

n.n said...

The evolution of a human life from conception (i.e. fertilization of an egg by a sperm) to a natural, accidental, or premeditated death can be assessed within the scientific domain. With the stipulation that death represents a loss of coherence, and in certain cases represents a soft partition or temporary deviation from life, that may be resolved (e.g. coma, "locked-in") in time.

Sam L. said...

It is pretty much a given that a question for a Repub is a two-way Gotcha, and a nerf-ball for a Dem.

Ares Olympus said...

re: Should politicians risk offending certain constituent groups by saying that they believe...

This in a very good question in anything that follows the word believe.

For instance this article says 42% of Americans believe in creationism (i.e. the earth is less than 10,000 years old and humans were created as humans with no connection to any other species.)

Meanwhile Stuart claims "no serious theologian believes that the Bible recounts literal facts" which to me is saying "no serious theologian believes in creationism" YET 42% Americans believe things that their priests, ministers, and pastors don't believe? Or are these religous leaders only listening to UNSERIOUS theologians?!

Myself, I'm not sure how many atheists believe evolution disproves god's existence, or whatever divine inspiration for our existence you'd like to imagine. I expect most will be more agnostic and say they don't know, even if they also add contemptuously they don't know about teapots or flying spaghetti monsters.

Anyway, so what is Scott Walker to do? Should he enable magical thinking of his supporters and say what they want to hear, or should he say what he believes true, regardless of what his potential followers want him to hear.

If he says "I believe the geological evidence supports the theory of evoution, the process of natural selection, and that humans and the great apes have a common ancestor between 6 to 20 million years ago, but I don't thing that has anything to do with proving or disproving God's existence or effects on the world", how many christians would abandon him for that?

So all of this is what I'd call "rational thinking" and you want leaders who can think rationally rather than those who base their decisions on wishful thinking.

On the other hand we have Rick Perry's Prayer for rain, which is perhaps a perfectly good think for a priest to do, seeing suffering people, but is it what we want in our politicians?

Prolifers have their joke about cancer, asking god "Why haven't you given us a cure to cancer yet?" And God answers, "I tried but you aborted her."

And I suppose Environmentalists have their own joke asking God "Why haven't you ended our decade long drought?" And God might answer "I wanted to, but you kept burning fossil fuels, so I figured you were not serious."

But in any case, whether drought or cancer are punishments from God, or just random things we have to deal with, or somewhere in between, depending on divine intervention seems a childish strategy for adult leaders to suggest.

We can do all the right things, and bad things will happen, and we can do all the wrong things, and get lucky, but that doesn't mean what we do doesn't matter. It means we have to depend on guessing, and hedge the bets of our survival as best we can.

But back to the original question "Do you believe in evolution?" if politicians put their finger to the wind and decide exaggerating the facts in favor of falsehoods increases their chances to win, perhaps most will do so, especially when it seems on things that don't matter, that have nothing to do with their decisions in office.

On the other hand, if bad beliefs are contagious, and "serious leaders" of all sorts, not just theologists, indulge their followers in nonsense for their own power, then we should expect the future will be diminished, and tragedy won't be completely random but due to willful ignorance.

And yes, I do wish more Democrats would stand up to the feminist gender-war rhetoric as well.

But Republicans should still stand up and say they are 100% sure the earth isn't 10,000 years old. That's a "no brainer" and should have no political cost in any world I want to live in.

Larry Sheldon said...

Contained here are the reasons I object strongly to any reference to scientific questions that contain the word "believe" (Do you believe in global warming?) (Just to try and tag all the bases--believe, believed, believes, belief, beliefs, ... faith, faith in, and so on.)

Those are all references to religious dogma (and may well be legitimate questions!), not to matters of science.

And just to cover it all, most are not relevant to matters of salvation--the requirement for which is wholly contained in the 16th verse of the third chapter of the Gospel according to John.

Dennis said...

Well stated Mr. Sheldon. I myself see no reason why science and a belief in God should be in conflict. Too many people want to break down any issue to an either or proposition that ignores all the possibilities in between. There are just too many things we human beings do not understand in our still barbaric state of existence.
I am always interested in people who state the something is settled science because they cut of all thought to the fact that science is self is constantly evolving. One only needs to study a little history to see the scientific landscape littered with Failed or discarded "settled science." The more we think we know the less we actually know. It is much like the lawyer who believes they can write laws to cover all "loopholes" only to find in practice they have created more "loop holds."

Sam L. said...

I am reliably informed that the state I grew up in was half-glaciated some 15K(+ or -) years ago; given that is not so now, I believe global warming has occurred.

Evolution: Flu viruses evolve, and insects evolve, and other things do too.

Ignatius Acton Chesterton OCD said...

So Scott Walker got a "trap question," eh? I wonder when Obama will get one of those.

Ignatius Acton Chesterton OCD said...

It's the narrative, my friends, the narrative... always the narrative. With the dogmatic evolutionary (chaotic) point of view taken to its necessary conclusion, we are an inconsequential accident, an undeserving aberration -- bumbling sacks of protoplasm. The problem is not evolution, it's the necessary conclusion dogmatic evolutionists demand of us: that there is something of faith that cannot simultaneously be true. This is at the heart of their arrogant, dualist point of view: if one thing is true, the other cannot be. They believe evolution disproves God, thereby seeking to evangelize a belief in material meaninglessness. Acceding to the narrative is the trap. Walker was wise to punt.

Anonymous said...

Sorry, but my god of statistics and probability says your god of evolution is full of shit. There are 7 billion iterations of humans currently on plant earth, and they all look pretty much the same. So far the best we have is Oprah with a couple extra toes. What we see instead is an astounding degree of error free duplication. On a cosmic scale the great minds say the universe is 13.8 billion years old. It takes 200 million years for the sun to get around the milkyway. So what is that, 69 times around? Does that sound right?

Larry Sheldon said...

I am surprised that I let slip by me an opportunity to grind on my favorite axe--"what DO scientists do?"

Elephiknow--I am not a scientist. Full disclosure, I am not an ordained minister in any religion, either.

If the scientists will forgive me and correct me, I am convinced that a genuine scientist never sets out to prove that something is true. (Applied scientists try to prove that something is useful--about as close as they get.)

They do not adhere to any democratic theory of Truth. They do not determine facts by secret ballot. The percentage of scientists (real or imagined) who think a certain thing is not useful except are regards the nature of refreshments available in the lunch room.

The efforts of a genuine scientist are wholly committed to efforts to prove that an idea is wrong, for an idea is considered useful ONLY as long as many diligent efforts to disprove it have failed.

And yes, some real scientists are sloppy in their speaking and writing ans way things like "I believe the speed of light is about 3 million meters per second."

That is easier to say than "I am not aware of any test results that show that the speed of light is significantly different from the widely accepted value of about 3 million meters per second at standard temperature in a laboratory setup using the best vacuum pumps available".

History is replete with examples or widely accepted and long-held facts eventually being shown to be wrong. (Interesting to note--one of the more famous examples is Galileo Galilei's battle with the Roman Catholic Church about who revolves around whom in our solar system. In the late news an Arab Scholar was quoted at length the other day as demonstrating that the Church was in fact correct in that discussion.)(Fun question: do you know who is buried in Galileo Galilei's tomb?)

I find a better example things "believed" that are in fact wrong in what I think are Newton's laws of motion where it has been discovered that at certain speeds and certain distances, they are just wrong due to the effects of quantum relativity. Turns out that for a lot of stuff (predicting where a struck golf ball will go being in the news a lot lately) Newton is "close enough" but if you want a space ship to be at a particular spot some time in the future, you will have to make corrections to the values Newton cranks out.

By the way, to a real scientist, the words "law", "theory", and "guess" are fundamentally interchangeable, (The first two really are interchangeable without loss or distortion of meaning, the third might imply that the idea has not been subjected to much rigorous testing. See Richard Feynman--he is a lot more fun to listen to than I am. #)

Oh. And on the questions about evolution. Are humans evolved apes? Dunno, put that one in the Too Hard box. (The feminazis seem to be claiming that male humans are but I am suspicious of their evidence, just as I am pretty sure that Harf does NOT prove widely held ideas about female blondes.)

Are this years Infulenza viruses and MRSA bacteria evolved from varieties we used to think were controlled? YEAHU! Sure looks like it.

So. Do I believe in evolution? If you are still asking that question of me after all these words, all I can say is: The DNC needs you annual dues payment.

Dennis said...

Alas, statistics, and probability theory are inferential in nature and in use and therefore not called fact. It is called statistical inference in most university course listing for a reason. It is why there are confidence levels, bounds, hyper-geometrics, Poisson distributions et al.
I believe that statistics are still not allowed in legal proceeding because they can so easily be manipulated by selection error. I believe the old adage is "There are Damn lies then there are statistics."
I think a better understanding of both statistics, Ops Research and Probability Theory, emphasis on theory, might be helpful.