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The Talk.Origins Archive: Exploring the Creation/Evolution Controversy

Evolution and Philosophy

Is evolution just another religion?

Copyright © 1997

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

Summary: Evolutionary theory is a scientific theory dealing with scientific data, not a system of metaphysical beliefs or a religion. It does, however, set the sorts of general problems biology deals with, and also acts as a philosophical attitude in dealing with complex change.




Some claim that evolution is a metaphysic equivalent to a religion. To attack evolution, these critics feel the need to present it not as just a scientific theory, but as a world view that competes with the world views of the objectors. For example:

"When we discuss creation/evolution, we are talking about beliefs: i.e. religion. The controversy is not religion versus science, it is religion versus religion, and the science of one religion versus the science of another." [Ham, K: 1983. The relevance of creation. Casebook II, Ex Nihilo 6(2):2, cited in Selkirk and Burrows 1987:3]

"It is crucial for creationists that they convince their audience that evolution is not scientific, because both sides agree that creationism is not." [Miller 1982: 4, cited in Selkirk and Burrows 1987: 103]

Metaphysics is the name given to a branch of philosophical thought that deals with issues of the fundamental nature of reality and what is beyond experience. It literally means "after the physics", so-named because Aristotle's book on the subject followed his Physics, which dealing with the nature of the ordinary world, which in Classical Greek is physike . It is defined in the 1994 Webster's Dictionary (Brittanica CD edition) as

"a division of philosophy that is concerned with the fundamental nature of reality and being and that includes ontology, cosmology, and often epistemology: ontology: abstract philosophical studies: a study of what is outside objective experience".

Metaphysical systems come in three main flavors: philosophical systems (overall systems such as Kant's or Hegel's, or more recently Whitehead's or Collingwood's); ideologies , which are usually political, moral or other practical philosophical systems; and religions which in their theologies attempt to create comprehensive philosophical structures.

A metaphysic is often derived from first principles by logical analysis. Aristotle, for example, started with an analysis of "being" and "becoming" (ie, what is and how it changes); Kant, with an analysis of knowledge of the external world; Hegel, from an analysis of historical change. Religious metaphysics often attempt to marry a philosophical system with basic theses about the nature and purpose of God, derived from an authoritative scripture or revelation.

In some traditions, metaphysics is seen to be a Bad Thing, especially in those views sometimes called "modernisms". The great 18th century Scottish philosopher Hume once wrote that any book not containing reasoning by number or matters of fact was mere sophistry and should be consigned to the flames (he exempted his own philosophical writings, apparently). This distaste stems from the excesses of the medieval Scholastics, whose often empty formalism was applied to Aquinas' theology based on Aristotle's metaphysics. Early science arose in part from the rejection of this vapid quibbling.

No-one can deny that views such as Luther's and Marx's rely upon metaphysical assumptions and methods. If views like these come into conflict with science, then there are four options: change the science to suit the metaphysics; change the metaphysics to suit the science; change both to fit each other; or find a place for the metaphysics in a "gap" where science hasn't yet gone. The last option is called the "God of the Gaps" approach [Flew and McIntyre 1955], and of course it has the disadvantage that if (when) science does explain that phenomenon, the religion is diminished.

Historically, evolutionary science grew out partly from natural theology such as Paley's and Chambers' arguments from design, which defined the problems of biology in the early 19th century [Ruse 1979: chapter 3]. These writers sought evidence of God in the appearance of design in the natural world, yet, only a century later, when the evolutionary biologist JBS Haldane was asked what biology taught of the nature of God, he is reported to have replied "He has an inordinate fondness for beetles", since there were so many species of beetle. Other than that, he couldn't really say. Evolutionary science removed the ground from underneath natural theology. Arguments from design for the existence of God were no longer the only conclusion that could be drawn from the adaption of living things [Dennett 1995].

All the furore generated about the nature of chance in evolution is based not upon challenges to the scientific nature of the theory, but upon the need to find purpose in every facet of reality [cf Dennett 1995]. Often, this derives from religious conviction, but sometimes it arises from a more considered philosophical view.

Metaphysical theories tend to fall into two kinds: those that view everything in nature as the result of Mind (idealisms) and those that view Mind as the result of mechanisms of Nature (naturalisms). One may take a naturalistic approach to some things, and still be an idealist in other domains; for example, one may accept with equanimity that minds are the result of certain sorts of physical brains and still consider, say, society or morality to be the result of the workings of Mind. Typically, though, idealism and naturalism are held as distinct and separate philosophical doctrines.

Idealists, including creationists, cannot accept the view that reality cares little for the aspirations, goals, moral principles, pain or pleasure of organisms, especially humans [cf. Dawkins 1995:132f]. There has to be a Purpose, they say and Evolution implies there is no Purpose. Therefore, they say that evolution is a metaphysical doctrine of the same type as, but opposed to, the sort of religious or philosophical position taken by the idealist. Worse, not only is it not science (because it's a metaphysic, you see), it's a pernicious doctrine because it denies Mind.

Christian creationism may rely upon a literal interpretation of Christian scripture, but its foundation is the view that God's Mind (Will) lies directly behind all physical phenomena. Anything that occurs must take place because it is immediately part of God's plan; they believe that the physical world should, and does, provide proof of God's existence and goodness (extreme providentialism). Evolution, which shows the appearance of design does not imply design, is seen to undercut this eternal truth, and hence they argue that it must be false. In the particular (actual) demonology of fundamentalism, it follows as a corollary that evolution is the work of the devil and his minions. [note 11]

It should be noted that many evolutionists think that the mere fact and scientific theory of evolution in no way prohibits further moral or spiritual meaning, and many do not think that any particular purpose to the universe is implied just by evolution, but requires some religious or philosophical commitment.

Philosophers of science mostly conclude that science is metaphysics neutral, following the Catholic physicist Pierre Duhem [1914]. Science functions the same way for Hindus as for Catholics, for Frenchmen as for Americans, for communists as for democrats, allowing for localised variations that are ironed out after a while. However, science does indeed rule out various religious etiological myths (origin stories), and often forces the revision of historical and medical stories used in the mythology of a religion. And when cosmologies are given in ancient scriptures that involve solid heavens, elephants and scarab beetles, science shows them to be unqualifiedly false as descriptions of the physical world as it is observed.

Science can rule out a metaphysical claim, then. Is evolutionary science therefore a metaphysical Weltanschauung (a nice pretentious German word meaning world-view)? I don't think so. Many things claimed by metaphysical views such as fundamentalist Christian biblical literalism are not themselves metaphysical claims. For example, the claim that the world is flat (if made by a religious text) is a matter of experiment and research, not first principles and revelation. If "by their fruits shall ye know them", false factual claims are evidence of bad science, not good religion.

Many of those who do hold religious views take the approach that they get their religion from their scriptures and their science from the scientific literature and community. They therefore treat the factual claims made in those scriptures the same way they treat the metaphysical views of scientists: as not germane to the function of that source of knowledge [Berry 1988]. Does the fact that Stephen Jay Gould admits to learning Marxism at his father's knee or Richard Dawkins to being an atheist mean that evolution is either Marxist or atheistic (as so many immediately and fallaciously conclude)? Of course not.[note 12]

If it were the case that personal views of scientists defined the results of scientific work, then the broad range of metaphysical views of practising scientists would mean that -- at the same time -- science was Christian, Hindu, Marxist and probably even animist, as well as agnostic or atheist. While some extreme cultural relativists do try to claim that science is no more than the sum of its cultural environments, this view fails to explain how it is that science gets such consistent results and acquires such broad agreement on matters of fact. Nevertheless, this does not stop idealists from sometimes disingenuously claiming that science is what you want (or "will") to make of it (see the section on the nature of science).

There is a tradition in modern Western philosophy, dating at least from the Romantic philosophers of the 18th century, that treats overall theories of the natural world as self-contained and self-validating systems of belief that are beyond criticism from other such systems. Many Christian and some Jewish philosophers and theologians have claimed that Christianity (or any religion) is indeed a self-contained Weltanschauung, and that it is immune from attacks upon its claims by scientific research. This takes several forms. One theologian, Rudolph Bultmann, once said that even if Jesus' physical remains were found, Christianity (as he interpreted it) would still be true. Others hold that all of science is just a religion, in the sense that it is a self-contained belief system, and therefore it cannot objectively disprove or challenge the claims made by another system (ie, Christianity). This is the approach often taken by creationists.

In the final analysis, this boils down to an "anti-science" prejudice, for science is not, in this sense, a metaphysical system. Since science is not a system of thought deduced from first principles (as are traditional metaphysical systems), and that it deals precisely with objective experience, science is not, nor is any theory of science, a true metaphysical system.

However, the claim is sometimes, and more plausibly, made that evolutionary theory, along with some other scientific theories, functions as a kind of attitudinal metaphysical system [Ruse 1989]. It is (in my opinion, rightly) thought to influence the kinds of problems and solutions dealt with by science. There is no problem with this, since in order for a discipline to make any progress, the field of possible problems (essentially infinite, to use a malapropism) must be restricted to some set of plausible and viable research options. The theory of evolution as now consensually held acts to narrow the range and limit the duplication required. This is harmless, and is true of any field of science.

Ruse also describes what he calls "metaphysical Darwinism" [Ruse 1992] (as opposed to "scientific Darwinism") which is indeed a metaphysical system akin to a worldview, and which has expressed itself in numerous extra-scientific philosophies, including Spencer's, Teilhard's, and Haeckel's, or even the quasi-mystical views of Julian Huxley. These must be considered separate to the scientific theory, and are often in contradiction to the actual scientific models.

Other than this, the "metaphysic" of evolution by selection is primarily a research-guiding mindset that has been extraordinarily fruitful where no others have been [Hull 1989]. However, as a metaphysic, evolutionary theory is fairly poverty-stricken. This is what should be true of a scientific theory; for the number of conclusions beyond the empirical evidence that can be conjectured is unlimited. Any theory that committed itself to a metaphysical conclusion as a logical inference would be almost certainly false.

Those who need Cosmic Meaning need not fear that any version of evolutionary theory prohibits it; although neither does nor can it support it. Those evolutionists who have either argued in favour of Cosmic Meaning on the basis of evolutionary theory, or have argued that there can be no Cosmic Meaning because things evolve, are both wrong. The conclusions do not follow from the premises, simply because 'is' does not imply 'ought'.




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