Thursday, November 18, 2010

A philosophical exploration of evolution: The apparent urgency to accept macro-evolution and evolution worldview as part of our identity?

Recently Thomas Jay Oord ended his post on Christian's relation with evolution with this normative, "Evangelicals: accept evolution!"

There are at least two positive ways to see the relation between God and macro-evolution.

1) God exists.
2) Macro-evolution is what has happened and what is happening in our world.
Conclusion: God and macro-evolution are realities that we need to accept. So our work now is to examine the relationship between them.

1) God exists.
2) Macro-evolution is one of the interpretation of what has happened and what is happening in our world.
Conclusion: God is reality while macro-evolution is still not entirely convincing. So the furthest we can say is that macro-evolution could be one of God's mechanisms in the world.

Oord obviously belongs to the first group. Both God and macro-evolution are realities to him.

Both groups affirm that God exists while the first group affirms also macro-evolution in the same or almost similar degree of certainty as the affirmation of God's existence.

The second group holds that God's existence as more certain than macro-evolution.

I belong to the second group. In fact I'm okay if we don't know how the species around us came to be what they are now. That is I can live without knowing life's origin as in how we came to be.

Knowing that God exists is sufficient to give sense to life and how we relate to other lives. The story of our origin perhaps can never be exactly told in our life time and, you know what? That is okay.

Macro-evolution is a sub-category of a broad worldview of evolution, the belief that materials are on an ever-changing and never-ending process. This worldview can be popular today but not so tomorrow.

Some theories lasted only a short while before it wane into oblivion, like phrenology that was popular for about thirty years (though I see similarities of that with some neuroscientists today who think that neuroscience can explain morality). Some lasted a long time for a few thousands years, like Aristotle's infinite time until the discovery of the cosmic microwave background radiation in 1964. And some others like Newton's framework lasted a few hundred years.

The notion of evolution is potentially a pervasive one, like Newton's mechanical worldview. Back then, everything makes sense and predictable by assuming that everything function in a mechanistic way; with right tools and right measurement, we will get the correct picture of everything.

Nowadays, not many people buy into the mechanistic worldview. First, Einstein's (who is no friend to quantum physics) general relativity replaces Newton's notion of gravity and so delivered a deadly blow to the worldview. Then quantum physics came and shattered the leftover confidence in a mechanistic world. At least for now.

'Evolution' is gaining fame like that of Newton's mechanistic worldview. Some like David Sloan Wilson thinks that the evolution framework should be applied in all other studies like "dance, literature, and religion in addition to political science, psychology, and sociology." (Emphasis added) He states that it is a great loss to us if we do not include this framework in all our fields. "...we handicap ourselves when we attempt to study our species without reference to genetic and cultural evolution."

If to go along with Wilson's reasoning, our notion of God is not only in the evolving process (à la Robert Wright) but also the result of the long chain of cosmic evolution (à la J. Wentzel van Huysteen). This does not necessarily pose problems to the belief of God's existence.

However, this does mean that the notion of evolution itself is the product of the cosmic evolution and by itself will one day evolve itself out of existence. If it does not evolve, then it defeats itself as a worldview. If it does, then it is contingent and therefore is not necessary.

The idea of God's reality is not like the evolution worldview which is fundamentally grounded in contingency. Besides, our relation to God is at best a Kierkergaardian leap, a dialectic that is contradicted by our attempts to grasp the ungraspable divine reality. And such "leap" is shunned as a methodology in science, although on hindsight we now know that some phrenologists, Aristotelians, and Newtonians approached their respective fields with plenty of leaps.

It requires another hindsight to show us that the evolution framework is not that dissimilar with the rest which are now in oblivion. Until that hindsight appear, it is certainly okay to accept macro-evolution as a reality, like the phrenologists, Aristotelians, and Newtonians in their own epoch.

For those who are not in a hurry, it is okay to know nothing about life's origin, as in the 'how' question. God still exists and lives still go on. Yes, we have human's genetic code mapped out. This might help us to find more efficient and effective ways to cure this and that sickness, yet the map makes no contributions to the most important questions asked of human "What makes us human?" and "What is a good life?"

Some say a long and painless life is the mark of a good life, so we need to map out genetic code to find cure for the diseases and extend lifespan. Really?

Sophie Scholl only lived up to 21 years before she was executed by Hitler's army for distribution newsletters criticizing the regime. Her life is less good simply because hers is shorter and more painful compared to those with longer and less painful lives?

Does or can evolution worldview contribute to these important questions? Perhaps in this way: People like Scholl gave up their lives for the sake of the common gene pool, to ensure the survival of the species. And this is good?

If yes, so all our language of morality has been reduced to materiality, as in 'moral' is simply a mask to make sense of the contingency of materials? Existence precedes essence? Materiality as the ground for the transvaluation of all values, in order for the emancipation of the Übermensch?

These questions are now more urgent than ever, especially when "human beings can now be rebuilt from top to toe with artificial parts." How and where would be the place for humanity in the evolution framework where contingency of the materials is a perennial reality? Humanity is simply a blip on the radar of the long chain of cosmic evolution?


eppursimuov3 said...

I guess I'll be somewhere in the first category. But I will stop short of saying that evolution is a reality - though I believe it happened. Science deals with models of reality - it attempts to describe reality as closely as possible - but in the end, reality is much more complex than whatever scientific model we have.

In fact, I think we can be more certain of evolution than of God, as we have so much evidence for evolution, whereas God in no way can be proven to exist nor be proven not to exist.

No doubt there is always revision in our scientific models, as in the examples you mentioned. But this is the same reason why it has been so successful. It is self correcting. If evolution didn't happen - somewhere, sometime, someone will find out and prove everyone wrong - and be awarded the Nobel prize - provided he can provide a convincing argument against it, and come up with a better model/explanation.

The scientific consensus is that evolution by natural selection (as the main mechanism) is currently the best explanation for the origin of all species on earth at this point in time - including humans. Some other genius may come up with some other explanatory framework in the future (though I doubt so), and the theory itself might be improved, as has occurred many times since its inception by Darwin - particularly with the rise of genetics that provided firm confirmation of its validity. It is, no doubt, an interpretation. But it is an interpretation that makes a lot of sense (to me at least) and makes a lot of predictions that can be tested - and have been.

Like most biological scientists (though I am not one myself), I am of the opinion that there is no real distinction between macroevolution and microevolution. All evolution is 'micro' in a sense, but when subjected to a long period of time, results in macroevolution - similar to a random walk problem in physics. :)

Sze Zeng said...

Hi eppursimuov3,

Thank you for sharing your thoughts here. It is good to hear from others who have different views.

"No doubt there is always revision in our scientific models, as in the examples you mentioned. But this is the same reason why it has been so successful. It is self correcting."

This is one good point about science. However, I am less optimistic. For example, I would need to find out what do we mean by "revision" and "self correcting".

One interpretation is that a theory is incomplete, hence it can be revised or corrected. In this case, the theory simply need to be supplemented.

The other interpretation is that a theory is not incomplete but outrightly wrong. In this case, it is not to be supplemented any more but abandoned. (This second interpretation happen in other disciplines as well (linguistic, philosophy, etc), and not confined to only to natural sciences.)

Both of these took place in history of science. So I guess it depends on what do we mean by science as a self-correcting enterprise :)

eppursimuov3 said...

believe it or not, I actually started out as a young earth creationist in secondary school, and stayed one right up till university. :)

It wasn't until I started reading Brian McLaren's A New Kind of Christian series that sparked a total revolution in my worldviews - not just on evolution but in terms of biblical interpretation, Christology, eschatology etc...

I think you are right on both forms of revision in science. Sometimes, a theory is found to be totally wrong e.g. the steady state theory where the universe was thought to be static and existed forever, which now has been totally replaced by the big bang theory which postulates the universe had a beginning and is now expanding. On other occasions, a theory is found to be incomplete and needs to be 'patched up' e.g the big bang theory was inadequate to explain why the universe is so smooth at large scales, so an inflationary model of the big bang was proposed - but till now remains unverified. :)

What I meant by self-correcting is that in science, someone who can prove a long held idea/theory to be wrong tends to be rewarded more than someone who confirms it to be right. I can see this around me everyday - as whenever we discover something that is consistent with current theory - we just think its boring. Whereas we get really excited when there's a possibility of proving some foundational theory wrong. At least, this is how science should work, though i admit this is not always the case. And whenever some new discovery is claimed, other scientists are always the biggest critics.

Sze Zeng said...

Hi eppursimuov3,

Wow... you had a dramatic conversion history :)

Thank you for elaborating. I see that the science enterprise by its own characteristics (eg. prioritizing paradigm shift than supplementation) is always self-criticizing, and hence always contingent. That makes supplementing "incomplete theory" is less prestigious than overturning "wrong theory," as you have observed from within your own field. In this case, science is quite sadistic. It is a form of cannibalism. It celebrates the fact that it eats itself, and the more it can eat up itself, the more it is appreciated and celebrated ("Whereas we get really excited when there's a possibility of proving some foundational theory wrong").

In this constantly self-devouring exercise, I wonder what is left at the end of the day? Nothing other than a black hole, where even a slightly meaningful statement does not escape being sucked into it to be devoured?