Friday, April 18, 2008

Truth, Evolution, and Controversy (beta)

The Role of Philosophy

OK, so I have finally decided to write my thoughts on evolution and the controversy surrounding evolution.

The current debate on evolution tends to run between various groups of scientists, creationists, "intelligent designers," and random people who feel like weighing in (whether they have anything intelligent to say or not). Very few philosophers like me tend to comment on the subject at all.

Full disclosure: I believe that it is impossible for evolution to happen in the way described by evolutionists as I currently understand their positions.

My take on the issue is that there are a lot of philosophical principles being missed entirely. Philosophy dictates the realm of each science and even philosophy itself. Philosophy can tell the other sciences what they can and cannot speak about. Philosophy is the only branch of study which has that kind of power. No other branch of human knowledge studies the scope of human knowledge and the scope of each science.

I imagine the discussion between a philosopher and a scientist going something like this:

Scientist: You creationists are so dumb!

Philosopher: Hey, wait a second! Lets get this straight. I am not a creationist and what makes you think you are qualified to tell me anything about evolution or creationism?

Sc: I am a biologist. I know all about evolution and...

Ph: OK, so what epistemology do you subscribe to?

Sc: What? What is epi...

Ph: Epistemology! Are you a relativist? Or a realist? Or what? What is your position?

Sc: I don't know what you are talking about and what does this have to do with evolution?!

Ph: OK, let me spell it out for you. Epistemology is the part of philosophy that deals with the validity of our knowledge and the scope of our knowledge. Why am I even discussing this with you? You obviously don't know the first thing about philosophy and have never studied anything which would make you qualified to argue about evolution or creationism.

Sc: But, in biology, evolution is the process of change in the inherited traits of a population of organisms from one generation to the next( Therefore evolution is within the realm of biology and I am an expert.

Ph: Says who? You?! Ha ha, good one. You are making a pronouncement on the scope of biology but you don't even know what the word epistemology mean! This is rich!

OK, so maybe no real conversation with a biologist about evolution has ever been this calm and rational but you get the idea.

The primary problem here is that this discussion covers ideas which are the realm of philosophy and not the physical sciences since, like I said above, only philosophy can tell the other sciences what they can and cannot speak about. Listening to someone who is trained in a particular physical science (e.g. physics, biology, or chemistry) as they expound on topics which are philosophical is typically not a very good use of time. Most scientists have not studied philosophy and have not thought enough about philosophy to make a useful contribution to the philosophical debate on evolution.


Nobody seems to be really sure what defines a species (

One side of the debate insists that all of the species we know evolved from fewer species (a process called speciation: However, they do not define the word "species" or agree with anyone on a definition. The other side claims that it would be impossible for a species to evolve from another species. However, they do not define species either. If this is a critical part of the argument, it is critical to have a definition of the word species that everyone in the debate agrees upon.

Truth and Bias

Truth is an important concept in the discussion of evolution. Many of the participants are relativists. (Full disclosure: I am a realist in the philosophical sense.) They believe that there is no such thing as a hard and fast truth. Anything that you point to today as a hard and fast truth can be disproved tomorrow. There is no absolute truth in the world. They believe that the truth is subjective (again, in the philosophical sense), i. e. that it resides in the subject or the observer rather than objective or residing in the object or thing observed.

Under these circumstances the debate over evolution becomes almost comical. You have on the one hand relativists insisting that the "fact" of evolution is dogmatic and cannot be challenged and on the other hand you have a bunch of creationists, who believe that there are some absolute truths, insisting that we call into question the "fact" of evolution. However, neither side of the debate has agreed on a philosophical basis for the debate. Are we going to try to achieve a better understanding of the truth? Is it even possible to know the truth? Do we really care if it is really true or not? Or are we just trying to convince those who don't really care that the other side is stupid? Why would anyone want to engage in a debate where the goal is to be seen as "smarter" by those who don't care in the first place?