Monday, February 19, 2007

Living with Darwin

Living with Darwin, by Philip Kitcher, is a book that I have mixed feelings about. While I applaud his efforts to disentangle the mess that has become the Darwin-education debate, I feel like overall he makes some fairly large leaps of faith himself (that he would otherwise criticize religious people for doing). So here goes nothing….

As far as the distinction between the 3 types of Darwin opponents (those who take Genesis literally, quasi-literally, and those who are merely anti-selectionists), I agree that all three branches of dissent ought to be subject to scientific scrutiny if they are candidates for being taught in school. However, disproving a theory that is intrinsically supernatural merely because one doesn’t believe in the supernatural is clearly begging the question. I concede that these theories musn’t be taught in schools if they aren’t purely scientific (physical) explanations; however, using that same measure to judge its inherent value is misleading. This requires a bit of heavy-lifting in the metaphysics arena, one that Kitcher made no effort to do (which would have been understandable if his critique of the theories was not so sweeping). Though I will officially agree that evolution should remain a theory taught in schools. I was taught it, and I can only figure how my beliefs fit into that because I learned about it. More on that in a bit.

Kitcher’s dilemma for Christians is that science, as we have it today, is not at all compatible with the providential God (one who created us on purpose for whatever reasons….etc). However, his justification for this is a bit odd. He rejects Intellectual Design (of which I don’t hold in high esteem myself), and in doing so rejects the supernatural altogether. The reason this is strange is that ID supposedly (on its less meaty versions) includes very little (if any after the initial set in motion of things….like the unmoved mover of Aristotle…I think) intervention on behalf of God. This intervention, though by no means extensive (according to ID), is not possible because Kitcher does not see how God could do it (as he denies the supernatural). He is upset that there is not “the slightest inclination of how Intelligence performs the magic that poor, limited, natural selection cannot” (104). Well, if you discount the non-material possibilities, I don’t suppose there could be any “magic” anyways…He operates under an assumption that he does not prove, but he can confidently rely on the fact that most of his readers (non-believers) will placidly agree with it. On a separate note, I'm reading another book that is extremely helpful (Darwin's God, appears in a footnote by Kitcher but he never takes a stand against the book which is weakness on his side if you've ever read it...). Quantum physics, the indeterminate nature of molecules that correspondingly affects all other sciences, provides an amazingly huge relief to any believer who grew up in the Diestic world of Newtonian physics (which leads to a God that at best just watches his creation unfold and neither He nor we have any power to change anything about what happens). It provides a cool way for God to intervene in a non-intrusive/ non-detectable way that you wouldn't have thought of, the unpredictable motion of subatomic particles. God created a world that He could leave independent and could give us free will. One where we could choose to love him, but one where He could still step in as needed without threatening that independance...You have to read the book to fully appreciate that view.

I am also uneasy with his conclusion that a “truly intelligent designer…could do much better” (49) than this. Why should humans, Kitcher argues, share traits with a whale or share genes with a fly (it was a different animal, but same point)? The common makeup of living things seems to be a problem for Kitcher’s view of God. I, however, take it in a different light (and I openly admit my bias on this point). Let’s say you want to make two sculptures, one of ladybug, and one of a human. These should arguably turn out much different from each other, and they do. Only later a friend argues that they are too similar because you made them both from clay, and you should have made them out of completely different moldable substances. Does that complaint seem reasonable? Not to me. The property of life seems to be crucial here. Who’s to say that genes and DNA and all that jazz aren’t a crucial aspect of having this property (regardless of what organism you are), and how does that reflect poorly on a creator? I think it’s ingenious that such slight variations can produce such a variety of organisms. The other problem for Kitcher is that of the imperfectness of this world. He slides the problem of evil under the table masked as a scientific objection. Again, Kitcher is dealing with a philosophical problem that I think he too easily dismisses (although at the end he does come out and admit that he’s referring directly to the problem of evil, he just isn’t so obvious in the preceding chapters and uses under the pretext of scientific problem). Maybe I’ll take that up later (but I’ll have to read up on some Plantigna…).

Kitcher’s best objection to evolution being reconciled with faith came at the end of the first chapter. His objection is forceful, and I applaud him for it. If one can’t take the literal meaning of one part of the text, then shouldn’t that lead you to wonder if any of it can be taken literally. If it can’t, then the very foundation of the religion you believe is gone (Christ’s resurrection, for example). That, to me, is the most serious objection. I will not pretend to be a Biblical scholar (though I have studied it to the best of my own ability), but I feel as though there is a solution. The Bible, as Pastor Chris often points out, was written for us but not to us. The crowd that it was intended for lived in a very different world from our own. They carried their own issues into the text, and would have read the texts in a much different manner than we do. Each section corresponds to a different part of history, one that should be studied to gain more understanding. The Jews who studied Genesis were not interested in how God created the earth, but rather why they were created. The important part to them was that God took nothing and made something and gave that something a purpose for being. Genesis delivers that message very well. Personally, I think God could have made the earth anyway he felt like, and while I think he gives us glimpses of his process, we are far from ever fully understanding it (a position, or retreat, that Kitcher does not like, I admit).

There are two main principles of Kitcher’s that I want to challenge, both of which I will argue against later as I think on it more. The first is his denial of the non-physical. The second is his ability to maintain morality in spite of his physicalism (which I have reason to believe is contradictory). These both involve reflecting more on metaphysical arguments (which I just so happen to be studying this semester, though not as in depth as I could use).

I’d like to end by mentioning that I enjoyed the book (really I did!), and I found it very enlightening (as I’m not well versed in matters of science). His admission of the importance of religion today shows he understands more about what's really going on than many of his comrades. What he sees as a function of society that can be replaced by secular humanism doesn't fly with me though. The crutch he describes I've already seen in people. I call it the "God-hole". The need we all have to find meaning and hope that only God can truly fill. Some fill it with drugs, academics, family, friends, possessions, but none of that can fully fill you. People inevitably let you down, things don't come even close to filling the void. So I'm not sure his version of modified religion would do all that much (the only ones it could even sort of help are those few intellectuals who study and embrace it already, but even then I think it's still lacking in a huge way). Also, it’s clear to me that Kitcher’s denial of the supernatural is as much on faith as my support of it. One reason that evolution doesn’t worry me is that science is always changing. By denying that in the future the non-physical will never be an acceptable part of science is arrogant. If your denial depends on predicting the future path of science, you had best find a new foundation. No one would have predicted relativity or quantum mechanics. So it’s best to not rule things out prematurely. That’s all for now, more to come…

(I had way more thoughts while reading the book, and I should have written them down. I'm reading a new book, Darwin's God. And so far it says everything I've always kind of thought but wasn't sure if it was some fanciful notion I had or an actual scientific I like it a lot so far!)


Anonymous said...

I haven't yet read Kitcher's Living with Darwin, but I have read his "Abusing Science" which was very good in exposing missing links in the reasoning of Creationists and ID folk.

Two comments about your comments.

1) You can't and don't have to prove the absence of something. The presence of the material world is provable. We can test the size and texture and traits of the earth, of humans, of the wind, etc. etc. etc.

The testing of the material world is verifiable, most people testing it out will agree on the shape of an apple, the smell of a rose, the strength of a biceps muscle. Causcasions, Blacks, chinese, we will all agree pretty much, even with blind testing. Christians, Jews and Muslims will agree when tested blindly that the material world has the same characteristics for all of us.

But the belief of/in God, of the supernatural is outside the testable, It's presence demands documentation, not the real materialistic world.

Blind testing fails to find agreed upon criteria or characteristics of the supernatural. different people has very different ideas and experiences of God. Muslims have a very different idea of what God demands and sanctions than the God of Jews or the God of Christians. The ideas of the supernatural are untestable, unverifiable, and overwhelmingly dependant upon which religion one was born into.

Knowledge about the real world is not dependent on which religion one was raised in, unless religion blinds one to ignore reality out of fear of having to give up the belief in an active/intrusive God.

2) Morality is not lost with a non-religious world veiw. Altruism is common in "sub" human species, individuals helping out others for their and the common good of a family or species.

What's so good about treating others well if my reason is to avoid hell. Have I've shown any concern about the other person, if I'm concerned about saving my soul?

Lindsey said...

Of course the physical world can be tested, because our tests are completely dependant upon the physical world. But, there is no physical test (this you'll agree with) that can say anything about the supernatural. Physical tests, the senses, can only speak to the physical. But, that also means that they can't verify the lack of anything supernatural either. Take this claim:

"The only verifiable knowledge or truth is what we can test empircally."

Well, that statement can't be proven or disproven empirically, so it sort of defeats itself. It, by its own definition, can't be proven either true or false. In the same way, a test set up for the physical world is not equipped to tell us anything about the nonphysical. I'm not saying you have to disprove the supernatural; I'm just saying that you cannot disprove it empircally. Ask most philosophers, and they'll agree. You have to do some metaphysics to say anything above and beyond the natural world (or even to prove that the natural world really is what our senses lead us to believe). So I guess I'll have to disagree with you.