#269

June 10, 2012

Who Speaks for Science?

Dear Bill:

I hope you’re doing well.

A couple of people forwarded me (in distress) your response on “Evolutionary Theory and Theism” at Reasonable Faith.

As you no doubt know, your answer is similar to the one that Al Plantinga gives in his important book Where the Conflict Really Lies. Unfortunately, I think you’re making the same mistake that Al makes. (I still love his book and have made it required reading for our summer seminars.) You and Al are two of the most prominent and able defenders of the faith on the planet. So a mistake on this point is profoundly consequential.

Of course you’re right that scientists are not justified in claiming that the history of life is the result of a purposeless processthat is, the empirical evidence doesn’t establish anything like that (quite the contrary, in my opinion). The question, however, is what Darwinists typically claim for their theory and for the evidence. I think you’re confusing what evolutionary biologists are justified in saying with what they typically are saying.

It’s true that if the word “random” in evolutionary theory, Neo-Darwinism, etc., means merely something like “irrespective of their usefulness to the organism,” then it’s logically compatible with theism and teleology (though even this definition clearly excludes all sorts of possible divine activity and goes far beyond the empirical evidence). In your post, you quote Francisco Ayala to establish the official definition of “random” in biology. But why would you trust Francisco Ayala on something of this nature? He has devoted much of his career since he lost his faith by studying (Darwinian) evolutionary theory, trying to convince Christians that they have nothing to worry about (he had been a Dominican priest). He tells Christians that there’s no conflict between Darwinism and Christianity, but if that is so, one might wonder why Ayala lost his faith once he came to identify with Darwinism.

But that’s a tangential issue. The crucial question is this: Do evolutionary biologists, Neo-Darwinists, etc. consistently and representatively restrict their explanations in this way? Absolutely not. Biologists in general, and most presentations of (Neo-Darwinian) biological evolution, are not careful to circumscribe the meaning of “random” or “chance.” One can construct an ideal form of the theory that avoids the metaphysical pretentions, but that a private language game.

In fact, if one reads for long in the relevant literature, one discovers a common bait-and-switch strategy used by Darwinists, which is to present a metaphysically minimal definition of the word/theory in contexts such as “Debating William Lane Craig in public,” and quite another definition in, well, every other context. Their equivocation is often coordinated and intentional. Other times, it’s simply the Darwinian default. Surely one of the important services of “careful philosophical thinking about science” is to identify and expose this equivocation, rather than to obscure it or miss it.

The distinction between “popularizers” and scientists is common but artificial. The problem started with Darwin, who relied heavily on the argument form, God wouldn’t do X that way, so X must have evolved by selection and variation, and it persists across the discipline to this day. If you doubt that the theory is normally and pervasively defined in a-teleological ways, I’m happy to send you quotes from scores of biology textbooks and official statements making it quite clear that the theory is intended to explain biological adaptation as an alternative to design. Words such as “blind” and “purposeless” turn up everywhere. This practice has been ubiquitous since Darwin wrote the Origin of Species. In the quote from Steve Meyer that you discuss, Steve is paraphrasing the famous quote from G.G. Simpson: “Man is the result of a purposeless and natural process that did not have him in mind.” Simpson was hardly a “popularizer.” It’s inaccurate to treat the a-teleological part of the Darwinian theory as an accidental but easily detachable piggybacker.

I have a hard time understanding the wisdom of defining a theory in a way that fails to accommodate the language and explanations of the theory’s founder and defenders. Surely they have a privileged claim on the question of what they mean by the theory.

Ayala himself often slides into anti-teleological language when talking about evolution even when he’s trying to give a more nuanced definition of the theory. See, for instance, his “Darwin’s greatest discovery: Design without designer," published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA in 2007 (Vol. 104:8567-8573, May 15, 2007). PNAS isn’t exactly a populist publication. He provides some nuanced definitions of “random” and “chance” there as well, and yet notice the very title of the article. He even uses “natural processes” in a-teleological way, as if natural processes by definition exclude divine activity. He says that by finding that “the design of living organisms can be accounted for as the result of natural processes,” Darwin completed a “conceptual revolution” that “is nothing if not a fundamental vision that has forever changed how mankind perceives itself and its place in the universe.” Now why would that be?

He claims that the Darwinian revolution, like the Copernican Revolution, brought a part of nature under the explanation of “natural laws.” One of many problems with this common claim: the selection/mutation “mechanism,” unlike natural laws in physics and chemistry, has no predictive power or mathematical expression, and no significant evidence in its favor apart from some trivial examples within species that no one has ever doubted. He also endorses the old historical myth about Copernicus “displacing the Earth from its previously accepted locus as the center of the universe and moving it to a subordinate place as just one more planet revolving around the sun. In congruous manner, the Darwinian Revolution is viewed as consisting of the displacement of humans from their exalted position as the center of life on earth, with all other species created for the service of humankind.” Notice the metaphysical water that Darwin is carrying here. It is ever thus.

He then goes on to explain: “Biological evolution differs from a painting or an artifact in that it is not the outcome of preconceived design. The design of organisms is not intelligent but imperfect and, at times, outright dysfunctional.” (This doesn’t make sense, since a design could be both intelligent and imperfect. This mistake is ubiquitous with Darwinists but isn’t central to my point here.) He also explains: “The design of organisms as they exist in nature, however, is not ‘intelligent design,’ imposed by God as a Supreme Engineer or by humans; rather, it is the result of a natural process of selection, promoting the adaptation of organisms to their environments.” Notice the word “rather.” He concludes the article by saying that "[n]atural selection does not have foresight; it does not anticipate the environments of the future," and thus "n evolution, there is no entity or person who is selecting adaptive combinations." This is how Darwinian Theory is usually explained by its proponents. The entire point of Ayala’s article is to argue that the Darwinian process provides “some appearance of purposefulness” without actual purposefulness. Notice the explicitly theological language, in an article in the Proceedings of the Natural Academy of Sciences.

The Meyer quote, incidentally, looks like a garbled quote from a transcript of an extemporaneous speech. I know it’s not from anything he’s written, and it doesn’t come up on an Internet search. In any case, Steve obviously wouldn’t argue that “evolution” is by definition purposeless. His point, no doubt, was something like this: If evolution is a blind and purposeless process, then, by definition, not even God could guide it. If He guided it, then, by definition, it wouldn’t be purposeless. Do you think it’s plausible that Mike Behe and Steve Meyer, after all these years of studying, reading, writing, and debating on the subject, have failed to understand what Darwinian theorists are saying, and that no one had bothered simply to explain to them that the word “random” has a specialized, metaphysically neutral meaning when biologists use it? On the contrary, I can assure you that Steve, Mike, and every other prominent ID advocate is intimately familiar with this Darwinian language game.

Although it’s a separate issue, I’m surprised you would cite a report by Darrell Domning at the National Center for Science Education to the effect that “most evolutionists are theists of some sort.” The NCSE, like Ayala, works to persuade religious people that there’s nothing metaphysically problematic about Darwinian theory, and so has every motivation to misrepresent the facts here. It’s headed by Eugenie Scott—a signer of the third humanist manifesto--and employs several village atheists. This is not exactly an organization we should trust to represent the subject under dispute.

In any event, in most polls, biologists are consistently identified as one of the most atheistic of the scientific disciplines (mathematicians and physicists tend to be the most theist-friendly). And in polls of biologists who are members of the NAS, 95% say they are atheists. In a well-crafted 2003 survey, Gregory Graffin and Will Provine polled 149 elite evolutionary biologists and found that 78% were "pure naturalists." Strikingly, "[o]nly two out of 149 described themselves as full theists." (See http://www.americanscientist.org/issues/id.3747,y.0,no.,content.true,page.2,css.print/issue.aspx.)

In short, Darwinism as it is taught, explained and understood by most of its proponents, and as it is identified with evolutionary biology itself, is not captured by Ayala’s stipulated definition of “random,” which you focused on in your response. In fact, by following Ayala in this way, I fear that you’ve taken the Darwinian bait but missed the switch.

All the best regards,

Jay

United States

Thanks for these trenchant comments, Jay! Lest distressed readers miss the forest for the trees, we agree on the central point: that insofar as a person claims that the evidence of evolutionary biology has shown that the evolutionary process, based as it is on genetic mutations and natural selection, is undirected, purposeless, or non-teleological, he is making a claim that hopelessly outstrips the scientific evidence and so is unjustified. The remaining question is: is this vaunted claim, as I suspect, really philosophical, though masquerading as science, or is it, as you believe, in fact part and parcel of the scientific theory itself? If I am right, we should chastise biologists who transgress the bounds of science in making such a philosophical claim; whereas if you are right, we should reject the scientific theory which makes such a claim. In either case, the claim itself is rejected as unjustified; but are we rejecting a philosophical claim or a scientific claim?

The fundamental question, then, is, who determines the content of a scientific theory? Who speaks for science? Now at one level the answer to that question is easy: the expert practitioners of a theory tell us what the content of that theory is. In practice, however, things are not so easy. For scientists, being philosophically untrained, may be blind to the philosophical assumptions and ramifications of their views, so that careless statements are often made, especially by those who have a philosophical or theological agenda, that are not really part of the theory itself. So when we find the expert practitioners disagreeing amongst themselves about the proper content of a scientific theory, that raises suspicions that extra-theoretical assertions are being made by some of them.

This is precisely the situation we confront concerning the definition of the word “random” as applied to genetic mutations. It is baffling when we hear so many expert biologists asserting that these occur wholly by chance or are wholly purposeless, since such claims could not be established scientifically. For that reason, Ayala’s explication of randomness as “irrespective of their usefulness to the organism” is so stunning. It makes sense of the theory as science.

You ask, “Why would you trust Francisco Ayala on something of this nature?” Two reasons, I think. First, he is an expert practitioner of the theory, with more decorations than an Argentine general! Second, the principle of charity demands it. On Ayala’s understanding, the theory makes sense as science. But on the non-teleological understanding, the theory turns into metaphysics, making claims that could not be established by empirical evidence. We should charitably interpret people’s views in a way that makes the best sense of them, rather than construct straw men.

So I don’t agree with you that “The crucial question is this: Do evolutionary biologists, Neo-Darwinists, etc. consistently and representatively restrict their explanations in this way?” Rather, the question is, when evolutionary biologists engage in making inflated claims about the absence of teleology, have they begun to philosophize about a theory that, strictly speaking, makes no such inflated claims? The very bait and switch strategy that you describe makes me suspect that they are, indeed, making philosophical claims on behalf of the theory which the theory itself does not make.

It’s important to understand that it is not just popularizers who make such philosophical assertions on behalf of a scientific theory. Expert practitioners, especially in statements for popular audiences, will often make such claims. I see this happen all the time in an area of science with which I have more familiarity: cosmology. Expert physicists like Stephen Hawking and Lawrence Krauss have made outrageous claims on behalf of certain theories of the origin of the universe. The statement you quote from G. G. Simpson is similarly reckless and is a philosophical inference from evolutionary theory rather than a sober statement of it.

As for Ayala’s seemingly inconsistent statements, you need to understand that he has other reasons for thinking that organisms are not designed in the form in which we find them, namely, the problem of natural evil and examples of poor design. This fact is alluded to in the remark you quote: “The design of organisms is not intelligent but imperfect and, at times, outright dysfunctional.” Debating Ayala on the viability of Intelligent Design therefore required me to prepare briefs on the subjects of animal pain and instances of non-optimal design. Those are very different issues than just the definition of “randomness!” Here are philosophical arguments against design. Indeed, Jay, how can you be sure that the authorities you mention are not saying that the evolutionary process is non-teleological, not simply by definition of randomness, but on the basis of arguments from evil and dysteleology?

So in my view, if there is a bait and switch going on here, it is the switch from doing empirically based science to making philosophical claims which far exceed the science. Rather than missing or ignoring the switch from science to philosophy, we need to spotlight it and call naturalists on it.