Thursday, October 06, 2005

Getting philosophical, getting committed.

There's something about the ongoing evolution versus intelligent fisticuffs that's been festering with me. It's one of the criticisms that's been leveled at evolutionary theory by folks like Phillip Johnson: the claim that evolution is a philosophical theory. Here's the claim, in context, as presented by a student newspaper at the University of New Mexico covering a talk Johnson gave there:

Johnson said the theory of evolution, or any theories like it, will not survive the 21st century because evolution is a philosophical theory.

He went on to say that one of the major flaws of the theory of evolution is that it excludes the possibility of divine intervention within the creation of living organisms.

“What we have is a theory that supports a moral view that nature is all there is and God is completely out of the picture,” Johnson said.

He said that one of the reasons God is left out of the theory is because scientists are either atheists or very liberal about religion.

Johnson’s speech concluded on the proposal that students should be taught a variety of theories regarding the way life is started — not just evolution.

Now, I know there's a long history of trash-talking various moments in the history of science by saying they look more like philosophy than science. Thomas Kuhn noted that a sure sign that your paradigm is in trouble is that the discussion gets philosophical. He wrote:

It is, I think, particularly in periods of acknowledged crisis that scientists have turned to philosophical analysis as a device for unlocking the riddles of their field. Scientists have not generally needed or wanted to be philosophers. Indeed, normal science usually holds creative philosophy at arm's length, and probably for good reasons. (Structure of Scientific Revolutions, p. 88)

Closer to home, I know what it's like to call one's mother and tell her her child is leaving a perfectly reputable scientific field to become a philosopher. I get that dropping the phi-bomb on a scientific theory is intended to damage reputations and hurt feelings.

But can we pull back for a moment to look at what the content of the slur is supposed to be?

PZ Myers responds (in part) to Johnson and his posse of trash-talkers this way:

You could also claim that Christianity, capitalism, and democracy are "philosophical theories"—that doesn't imply at all that they are going to expire. Evolution is not speculation and faith and guesswork, there is evidence…and what evolution tries to do is explain the evidence.

While I'm grateful for the assurance that philosophical theories aren't about to be yanked off the shelf like expired milk, PZ is gesturing towards a line one should draw that separates evolutionary theory from "philosophical theories" like Christianity, capitalism, and democracy. Johnson seems to be recognizing the same line, but disagreeing about what side evolutionary theory is on. PZ suggests that the "philosophical" side is where you'll find the theories based on speculation, faith, and guesswork. Johnson (as portrayed in the linked article -- even given his track record, I'm hesitant, given experiences with the school paper here, to assume the student paper at UNM necessarily got it right) seems to be saying "philosophical theories" are the ones that use their metaphysical commitments to support certain moral views and undermine others.

So, is the ideal supposed to be that scientific theories are utterly and completely free of philosophy? May I gently remind my scientific friends that, in the medieval university, we'd all be in the same department (or at least, on the same hall)?

Of course scientific theories bring some philosophy with them. You think the data we collect today can help us make good predictions about what will happen tomorrow? That reflects a metaphysical commitment you have about what kind of universe you're living in. And there's nothing wrong with having that commitment. Indeed, it's what helps some of us get out of bed in the morning. You want to show me the analysis that shows your results are statistically significant? Fine, but don't forget that the claim of statistical significance rests on metaphysical commitments about the normal distribution of data in the bit of the world you're studying. If you didn't start with some metaphysical hunches, there would be no way to do any science.

But, clearly, there is a difference between doing this and jumping into a "philosophical theory" of the sort Johnson and PZ seem to have in mind. And here, let me be the millionth person to point out that there is an important distinction between what one takes up as a methodological strategy and what one takes on as a metaphysical commitment. To Johnson, the fact that God is not mentioned anywhere in evolutionary theory is equivalent to biologists saying they're committed to the non-existence of God. To biologists, on the other hand, the non-mention of God reflects a methodological commitment to explain phenomena in the natural world by pointing to natural causes. Saying, "I'm only going to accept causes of types X, Y, and Z in explanations of this sort of phenomena" is not the same as saying, "There's nothing there but causes of types X, Y, and Z." If, as I pour a flask of water on a spoonful of table salt, I dance the tarantella, it would be silly to accuse the chemist, who explains why the salt dissolved by pointing to the structure of the salt and the structure of the water, of denying the existence of the tarantella. Clearly, the tarantella exists, but the chemist doesn't need it to explain why the salt dissolved.

(Occam's razor? Also philosophical. Don't let it freak you out.)

The deal with science — the thing that makes it different from some "philosophical theories" you might worry about — it that there's a serious attempt to do the job of describing, explaining, and manipulating the universe with a relatively lean set of metaphysical commitments, and to keep many of the commitments methodological. If you're in the business of using information from the observables, there are many junctures where the evidence is not going to tell you for certain whether P is true or not-P is true. There has to be a sensible way to deal with, or to bracket, the question of P so that science doesn't grind to a halt while you wait around for more evidence. Encounter a phenomenon that you're not sure is explainable in terms of any of the theories or data you have at the ready? You can respond by throwing your hands up and hypothesizing, "A wizard did it!" , or you can dig in and see whether further investigation of the phenomenon will yield an explanation. Sometimes it does, and sometimes it doesn't. In cases where it does not, science is still driven by a commitment to build an explanation in terms of stuff in the natural world, despite the fact that we may have to reframe our understanding of that natural world in fairly significant ways.

So really, philosophy is not the problem here. Rather, the problem is hanging certain metaphysical commitments on science that are extraneous to the job it's doing.

Which commitments are separable from which others, and which commitments are joined at the hip, can be a tricky business if you're not used to thinking carefully. (See, for example, the current debate over whether you can support disability rights and also support physician assisted suicide.) Even people who think for a living can let their assumptions go unquestioned if they've been humming along for a while. But, it seems to me, if you want to know what a scientific theory commits you to, you might want to talk to some scientists who use the theory. If you're really brave, you could even ask a philosopher of science.

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At 11:15 AM, Blogger PZ Myers said...

I should have expanded on that. One important difference between me and Johnson is that I think having a "philosophical theory" is a good thing -- I could have gone on and said more about how not only is it not a sign of imminent extinction, and that it is not merely an absence of material evidence, but it contributes to our comprehension of a subject.

Unfortunately, I had to run off and explain cladistics to a group of freshmen, so I cut it short.

At 2:57 PM, Blogger Doctor Free-Ride, Ph.D. said...

I was pretty sure you weren't thinking of "philosophical" as a term of abuse, PZ! But there are some who use it that way, and I needed to vent my spleen about the short-sighted view of philosophy it reflects.

You see to learnin' them frosh some cladistics, and I'll learn the rest of the young-uns some philosophy!

At 10:03 AM, Blogger Armageddon Thru To You said...

Armageddon Thru To You

If you've been wondering why it seems like the world around us is unraveling, it's because the last days as foretold in the bible are now upon us. Just as it was 2000 years ago, many were unable to discern the signs of Jesus Christ's first coming (Mat 16:3), as will many concerning his second coming, which will occur very soon. Yes many have proclaimed a similar sentiment many times in the past, but their errors have no bearing on today other than to lull you into spiritual apathy, and that too was prophesied to occur in the last days.

If you're not a believer in Jesus Christ because you're an atheist, consider that the underlying impetus for your disbelief is most likely borne of pride and here's why:

When we die, if you as an atheist were right, then there is no upside or downside for anyone regarding the afterlife. We will all simply cease to exist

However if we Christians were right about our belief in the afterlife, then we will be given eternal life and you as an atheist will receive eternal damnation

Given the choices, the position held by an atheist is a fools bet any way you look at it because the atheist has everything to lose and nothing to gain. It is tantamount to accepting a “heads I win, tails you lose” coin toss proposition from someone. And that someone by the way is Satan (see Ephesians 6:12).

The only way to explain the attitude held by an atheist is pride, pure and simple. The intellectually dishonest and/or tortured reasoning used by atheists to try and disprove the existence of God is nothing more than attempts to posture themselves as superior (a symptom of pride). And as anyone who has read their bible knows, this is precisely the character flaw that befell Lucifer, God's formerly most high angel. (Isaiah 14:12-15). Is it any wonder then why the bible is so replete with references to pride as the cause of mankind's downfall?

Pride permeates our lives and burdens us in ways that most of us seldom recognize. Ironically, pride is the one thing that can blind someone to things even the unsighted can see. And sadly pride will blind many with an otherwise good heart, to accepting the offer of eternal salvation that Christ bought and paid for with his life.

In any event, if you're an atheist, I wish you only the best for every day of the rest of your life because for you, this life is as close to heaven as you'll ever get, but for believers in Christ, this life is as close to hell as we'll ever get.

If you're not a believer and follower of Jesus Christ because you are of another faith, please take the time to very carefully compare your faith to Christianity and ask yourself, why is the bible the only religious book with both hundreds of proven prophecies already fulfilled as well as those being fulfilled today? No other religion can claim anything remotely close to this fact. Many Christians who are serious students of bible prophecy are already aware of the role and significance of bible prophecy in foretelling end time events. God gave us prophecy as evidence of his divine holiness to know the begining from the end (Isa 46:10). God also believed prophecy to be so important that to those willing to read the most prophetic book in the bible, the Book of Revelation, he promised a special blessing (see Rev 1:3), and this is the only book in the bible that God gives its reader a special blessing for reading. Something to think about.

Don't risk losing Christ's offer of eternal life by not accepting him as your savior and by thinking that the bible is nothing more than a compilation of unrelated and scattered stories about people who lived 2,000 plus years ago. If you take the time to study (not just read) the bible, you will literally be shocked to learn things you would have never imagined would be revealed in it. Did you know that like parables, God also uses particular months and days in the Jewish calendar, Jewish Feasts and customs, solar and lunar phases, celestial alignments, gematria (Hebrew numerology) early bible events and more as patterns and models to foretell future events?

Consider the following interesting facts about the bible that testify to its God-inspired authorship:

Did you know that in Gen 12:2, God said he would bless Israel?. How else can you explain the grossly disproportionate level of success achieved by Jewish people as a tiny minority in the world, especially after all they have gone through? And how can you explain the success achieved by the tiny nation of Israel, surrounded by enemies outnumbering them 100 to 1 and yet still they remain victorious in all their wars?

Did you know that as evidence to indicate that Israel is the epicenter of the world from God's point of view is the fact that languages to the west of Israel are written and read from left to right as if pointing to Israel, and languages from countries to the east of Israel are written and read from right to left, again as though pointing to Israel. Just a coincidence, you say? I think not.

Did you know that the six days of creation and seventh day of rest in Genesis is a model for the six thousand years of this age (ending very soon), that is to be followed by a 1,000 year millennial reign by Christ (see 2 Peter 3:8)? Adam was born sometime prior to 4000 B.C., therefore our 6000 years are almost up.

Did you kow that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is hidden in the meaning of the Hebrew names listed in the genealogy of the book of Genesis (Research it online)? To deny this was God-inspired, one has to instead believe that a group of Jewish rabbis conspired to hide the Christian Gospel right inside a genealogy of their venerated Torah, which is not a very plausible explanation.

Did you know that solar eclipses, which the bible describes as the sun being black as sackcloth, and lunar eclipses, which the bible refers to as blood red moons, have prophetic meaning? Research it online. God showed Adam (and us) his plan for man's redemption through the use of celestial alignments. (research Mazzaroth online)

Did you know that much of the symbolism in the book of revelation refers to planetary alignments that will occur when certain events occur as prophesied? These planetary alignments also explained the birth of Christ, just search out The Bethlehem Star movie on the Internet.

Did you know that the references in Eze 39:4-17 and Rev 19:17-21 in the battle of Gog/Magog and Armageddon respectively, in which birds of prey will eat the flesh of the dead in battle from two enormous wars is based on fact? The largest bird migration in the world consisting of bilions of birds (34 species of raptors and various carrion birds) from several continents converge and fly over Israel every spring and fall. Coincidence? I think not.

Did you know that Hebrew numerology, also known as Gematria, and the numbers with biblical and prophetic significance are hidden in the Star of David? Google the video called "Seal of Jesus Christ"

Did you know that the seven Churches mentioned at the beginning of the Book of Revelation describe the seven stages the Church will go through?

There are literally hundreds of hidden messages in the bible like these that testify to the fact that the bible was God inspired, and statistically speaking, are all exponentially beyond the likelihood of any coincidence. You can find them yourselves if you only take the time to look into it. Remember Proverbs 25:2 "It is the glory of God to conceal a matter; to search out a matter is the glory of kings".

And finally, if you are Catholic, or one who subscribes to the emergent Church or seeker-friendly Church movement, please compare the doctrine taught, advocated or accepted by your Church, with the actual bible, notwithstanding some new-age version of the bible. And remember that although the bible is often referred to as the living bible, the word "living" was never intended to imply in any way that the bible "evolves" over time to meet, or be consistent with, the standards of man. It's just the opposite.

Well, am I getting through to you? If not, the answer might be explained in the response given by Jesus Christ in his Olivet discourse when he was asked by his disciples why he spoke the way he did (in parables, etc.) in the book of Matthew 13:10-16. What Jesus said could have easily been paraphrased more clearly as "so that the damned won't get it". Why did Christ respond the way he did when asked why he spoke this way? Is there something about pride (the bible says there is) that closes one's heart to seeing or hearing the messages supernaturally hidden in bible parables, models, typologies, and similes, etc.? That should give you something to think about, but don't take too long. Time is now very short.

If it sometimes seems like there are powers at work behind the powers we know, remember what it says in Ephesians 6:12 "For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms." If you study the bible, it will become clearer.

And by the way, if you are a scoffer, this too was prophesied to occur in the last days. See 2 Peter 3:3.

Thank you and God Bless you! (at)


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