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(http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Evolution). 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.

Species

Nobody seems to be really sure what defines a species (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Species_problem).

One side of the debate insists that all of the species we know evolved from fewer species (a process called speciation: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/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?


4 comments:

Dimensio said...

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

Perhaps you should explain how you understand this position, then. It is entirely possible that your understanding is in error, and that thousands of biologsts over the last 150 years have not simply overlooked a fundamental contradiction between the theory of evolution and reality.


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

Your hypothetical exchange amounts to a "strawman" scenario. As such, it cannot be used as a logical premise toward any conclusion.


One side of the debate insists that all of the species we know evolved from fewer species (a process called speciation: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Speciation). However, they do not define the word "species" or agree with anyone on a definition.

I believe that you are misrepresenting the fundamental problem with identifying species in biology. When speciation occurs, it occurs over a gradient over successive generations. As such, it is impossible to define one generation as one species and an immediate subsequent generation as a different species. However, it is not disputed that there is a point at which species delimination can be unquestionably established. For example, homo sapiens sapiens and Pan troglodytes are two distinct species, with specific implications for the distinction.


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.

I believe that you are appealing to an undemonstrated premise, as you have not demonstrated that "Many of the participants are relativists". Moreover, you are confusing the acknowledgement that it may not be possible to know "absolute truth" with a position that there exists no "absolute truth". It is true that, in science, no explanation can be considered "absolutely true", because all scientific explanations are tentative, and thus subject to revision or rejection should contradictory evidence be observed. However, this does not mean that there exists no "absolute truth". Rather, it means that scientific explanations are not guaranteed to be entirely consistent with whatever "absolute truth" may exist and, as such, they will be revised when shown to be in error.


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.

This is simply not correct. The scientific method relies upon an assumption that the fundamental properties of the universe do not change and, as such, they constitute "absolute truth". You are confusing an acknowledgement that no current understanding of science is guaranteed to be a fully accurate representation of "absolute truth" with a position that no "absolute truth" exists. As a result, any conclusion derived from your misunderstanding cannot be considered reliable.

Brandon Jaloway said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Brandon Jaloway said...

Perhaps you should explain how you understand this position.

I have not provided an explanation of my understanding of evolution because my interest lies in the philosophical debate and not in the question of whether or not evolution actually took/takes place. As I explained, we should agree upon the terms of the debate before we start to argue about the conclusions. It is entirely possible (dare I say probable) that my understanding of their positions is in error. However, it is very unlikely that having thousands of people on your side over the last 150 years makes it any more likely that you are right. This is what is know in philosophical circles as a fallacy. This particular fallacy is a combination of Appeal to Belief and Appeal to Authority. Read more about them here: http://www.nizkor.org/features/fallacies/ Also, if we did agree on the terms of the debate, we would probably not have anything to argue about but since a gulf lies between our understandings of the terms, we continue to argue without getting anywhere (and throwing a lot of fallacies around).

Your hypothetical exchange amounts to a "strawman" scenario. As such, it cannot be used as a logical premise toward any conclusion.

My hypothetical exchange is a funny illustration of the way many of these "debates" often play out. It might be a Straw Man fallacy although I don't think I really distorted things that much. It definitely should not be used as a logical premise toward any conclusion! God forbid!

I believe that you are misrepresenting the fundamental problem with identifying species in biology.

Sure, chimpanzees and humans are different species. We agree on that. But double check the section "Difficulty of defining 'species' and identifying particular species" under the Wikipedia article http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Species Then look at the section "Definitions of species" with 13 different definitions. It also contains a link (right under the heading) to "Species problem" http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Species_problem with an entire article about the "difficult, related questions that often come up when biologists identify species and when they define the word 'species'." I guess what I am trying to say is I am not making this stuff up.

When speciation occurs, it occurs over a gradient over successive generations.

I suppose that you are referring here to Phyletic Gradualism, "evolution by creeps" http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phyletic_gradualism This is often contrasted with Punctuated equilibrium or "evolution by jerks" (ibid). OK, OK, I admit that was an Ad Hominem fallacy, but I couldn't help it. Besides it was in Wikipedia!

My real response would be, OK, whatever, lets agree upon the term "species" first!

As such, it is impossible to define one generation as one species and an immediate subsequent generation as a different species.

Hmmmm, did I mention that we are having trouble defining species? I think I did!?

I believe that you are appealing to an undemonstrated premise, as you have not demonstrated that "Many of the participants are relativists".

So, are the realists? Or nominalists? or what? and if we disagree on the epistemology why don't we try to settle that first?

Moreover, you are confusing the acknowledgement that it may not be possible to know "absolute truth" with a position that there exists no "absolute truth".

This is the stuff epistemology is full of! What is the difference between "not being able to know 'absolute truth'" and "there is no 'absolute truth'"? That leaves a person in the same position. You would have to KNOW the truth in order for it to be "true" to you. It wouldn't really be "true" if it were constantly changing. If you agreed upon one truth that could not be challenged tomorrow then you would have a truth acting as an absolute. But since you say that each conclusion will just be revised... well that is pretty basic relativism (at least in regards to any scientific explanations). I would oppose this to the argument that evolution is a "fact" and should not be challenged today or tomorrow. That seems pretty absolute to me!

This is simply not correct. The scientific method relies upon an assumption that the fundamental properties of the universe do not change and, as such, they constitute "absolute truth".

Of course I believe that the fundamental properties of the universe do not change. However many, if not most, claim, "There is no absolute truth in the world." I would refer you to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Evolution_as_theory_and_fact Especially the section "Related concepts and terminology"

Brandon Jaloway said...

My brother Kristian also replied.

Italic=Kristian
Normal=Me
Bold=Kristian


1) Not all physical scientists are relativists, because I know some that are not.

Correct, I never said that they all were. But some are... if not many, or even most... not to mention the huge number of atheists who are very vocal in this debate. I am mostly talking here about the scientists who are vocal in the evolution debate. OK.

2) It is important to distinguish between the different levels of knowledge and therefore the possibility to come closer to absolute truths. The closer we are to the first principles the easier it is to have absolute truth, like the principle of non-contradiction. But the farther away we move from these principles then the harder it will be have absolute truth, as in a particular scientific theory.

Exactly, that is what I was trying to bring into the debate. Philosophy would tell us that there are different levels of knowledge and that biology will never be able to make statements that override the statements of a higher level of knowledge like fundamental principles of philosophy (non-contradiction, causality, etc.). However, in the current debate this is not brought up at all. In fact, it is assumed that everyone is on the same epistemological page, which they clearly are not!

The fact is that scientists (and everybody else) work on the basic assumption that truth is possible, because otherwise science would not be possible either, as the other guy mentioned. Of course scientists can’t say what science is without getting into philosophy, which they probably haven’t studied. I agree with you that this lends to making qualitative statements about their findings that are usually overblown. They all want to make discoveries, because otherwise being a scientist has no goal at all, and many want to thereby become famous and above all prove that the money they are using is getting results. So it easy to say that a certain discovery is true or even perhaps a “fact” without really meaning it in a philosophical sense. Of course between scientists it is harder to move your discovery up the ladder of truth, but in publications meant for the general public it is much easier and is done all the time.



3) Truth is not purely objective. St. Thomas defines truth as the adequation between the species of the intellect and the object. In God that is the correspondence between his mind and the world that he created by his thought. In human knowledge it is the correspondence between man's intellect and the object that he knows. This is possible thanks to the fact that man participates in God's being and thus in his intellect and truth.

Of course, you are right, it is not PURELY objective. However, there is a huge element of truth that is objective. We only even know that there is a subjective element to truth when we reflect on the objective element. Many, if not most, of the people who are debating these issues never stop to think about these questions. They should be settled first. There are two elements to truth but the subjective element does not override the objective element. I think we can say that there are two elements and when they are adequate, or connected, or correspond, then truth results.

4) To get closer to the evolution/creation debate it is important to distinguish the different levels of knowledge. Darwinian evolution has basically been debunked, and I think that many physicists (even atheist ones) agree with that. But there is a lot of evidence that leans towards evolution (on a physical level). This doesn't affect philosophy, or much less theology, because they are on different levels of knowledge.

"All organisms on Earth are descended from a common ancestor or ancestral gene pool.[150] Current species are a stage in the process of evolution, with their diversity the product of a long series of speciation and extinction events.[151] " from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Evolution

"In the 1930s, Darwinian natural selection was combined with Mendelian inheritance to form the modern evolutionary synthesis,[12] in which the connection between the units of evolution (genes) and the mechanism of evolution (natural selection) was made. This powerful explanatory and predictive theory directs research by constantly raising new questions, and it has become the central organizing principle of modern biology, providing a unifying explanation for the diversity of life on Earth.[9][10][13] " from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Modern_evolutionary_synthesis

"Darwin's explanation of evolution is approximately correct, but required refinement." "The modern evolutionary synthesis is a refinement of Darwin's explanation of evolution. This modern synthesis is currently the most accepted explanation of the fact of evolution." from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Evolution_as_theory_and_fact
I tend to lean away from Encylopedia or dictionary definitions because they are written for the general public and often are not precise. My Larousse dictionary gives a the moral definition of truth, then the subjective and then a vague definition of “real truth”.
Darwinian evolution is, for the most part, accepted as true with modifications (the modern evolutionary synthesis).

Not being in frequent contact with much of the scientific community, I don’t know what the majority of them think, or what kind of evolution they propound. But it is important to distinguish between whether it happened and how it happened. Physical science can only study the physical mechanisms by which evolution could have taken place. It can’t go outside of the physical realm to see why it happens, as philosophy can.

To say that evolution is a fact is an example of pushing it farther up the ladder of truth than can currently be proven. Of course you have to take into account that they probably use “fact” in a much looser way then we do in philosophy. Which goes back to the philosophical debate on what truth, fact, theory, hypothesis really mean.




5) On a philosophical level, evolution demands finality in nature, even more than creationism, and therefore an intelligent mind. It is not in any way impossible for God to have made the world as we know it through a process of evolution. St. Thomas wrote that the first cause generally uses secondary causes to bring about the end. A dynamic universe, which is still in expansion, as proven by Catholic scientists, even seems to correspond well to a Christian view of nature. This does not mean that everything changes.

Sure, I am not worried about one or the other theory of evolution in biology threating the foundations of my faith in God. That would require me having a very weak mind (which could be debated). However, my mind is not weak enough to attempt (in order to appease certain scientists) to explain the presence of species (btw, we still need a definition of that word) on earth by throwing out the idea of causality. I am going to discuss causality in a later blog. Always or for the most part, I agree with always here, because even in an evolution scenario you need a first cause that is greater than the effect in order to explain it, and even more so than in a static universe because a universe in movement obviously (even physically speaking) has an end towards which it tends. we see that an effect is never greater than its cause. This is especially true in the physical world. That is a fundamental truth that stands up much better than "natural selection." To try to explain the physical world without that is like trying to come up with explanations of how the sun revolves around the earth. Sure, you can come up with an explanation but it is going to be convoluted, difficult to understand, and ugly. Contrast that with the beauty, simplicity (in a sense), and symmetry we usually find when we are getting closer to the truth behind some physical phenomenon. Take for example Garrett Lisi's use of the E8 model to try to explain the grand unified theory. The primary ways that his theory trumps String Theory is by being beautiful, simple (in a sense), and symmetrical. It also has predictive power but that seems to me to come as a consequence of the other qualities. (See attachment) Even he says that it is highly un probable that his theory works. But even if it does, it is always a PHYSICAL MODEL which means it remains only in the physical explanation of reality and that it isn’t really an explanation of what happens, because a model is a human construction that is in some way similar to reality.

6) Certainly there is no way to go back and observe evolution happening, so it will always be a theory at the best, not a "fact." As far as I know there is no current observations of macro-evolution (change of species).

Yeah, you should really check out the statements of many evolutionists! They would disagree with you about the "fact of evolution" even if they would agree with you about not being able to observe some forms of evolution happening. Just remind them that modern physical science depends on the ability to observe and therefore confirm or debunk what you propose. And again we remember that “fact of evolution” doesn’t mean it really happened, it only means that the current scientific community thinks it is the best possible explanation at the moment.

7) John Paul II wrote that "evolution is more than a hypotheses." Which means it is a theory. Physical science cannot say that something is "true" or not because it is based only on repeated observation, as your opponent mentioned.

Yeah, but if you cannot tell me if something is true or not I am not going to listen to you! I will tell you if something is true or not and you can either believe me or disagree! But I am not interested in just arguing about stuff if the goal is not to get to the TRUTH!! That is of primary importance and is the main reason for my article. I. E. What is our goal here? Truth? Because that is all that I really care about! See my last commentary. You can’t expect truth with a capital T in physical science, especially as they understand it today. Of course for a philosopher the goal is truth, and for everybody else too, even if they don’t know it. But they don’t like to use that terminology because they realize that science can and does make errors. For example, of his three main thesis, Galileo only got one right (most scientists don’t know that, but they know that they make mistakes all the time).

8) Even in the bible there are certain passages that seem to collaborate with a certain type of evolution, but theology cannot prove physical conclusions because the Bible was not written to tell us how the heavens were made but to tell us how to get there.

The bible is great. Theology is great. However, they do not really care about the evolution debate on a scientific/philosophical level. If the bible or theology did care about this debate I am sure they would have very good things to say about it but since they don't really find the debate interesting or useful and since they typically concern themselves with things that are much more important we should probably not turn to them for contributions to the debate. By the way, who are you debating with?