Telos and Social Darwinism

Populist resistance to the concept of darwinism takes at least two forms: 1) skepticism, as seen in the writings of William Dembski and Michael Behe, and 2) moral opposition, as seen in Ben Stein’s movie “Expelled.” These two modes of attack often go hand-in-hand, but taken together they entail a contradiction. Before I launch into why this is, let me give some some brief definitions:

A summary of darwinism. Darwinism is improvement via natural selection. “Natural” in this context means non-teleological, undirected, blind, etc. “Selection” means that some things survive while others die.

A summary of the skeptical argument against darwinism. The skeptical argument emphasizes the “natural” aspect of natural selection. Natural processes are blind, lacking the foresight necessary to build the diversity and complexity of life.

A summary of the moral argument against darwinism. The moral argument emphasizes the “selection” aspect of natural selection. Darwinian evolution entails a morality of progress via the destruction of the weak, ultimately leading to a Holocaust situation.

So with that groundwork laid, consider these two scenarios: 1) A goat-herder selects the fattest goats to breed, and then slaughters the others. 2) A herd of wild goats gets thinned out during the winter, leaving only the most hardy to survive and mate. Both of these scenarios involve selection, but only scenario #2 involves non-teleological selection, a.k.a. natural selection, therefore only scenario #2 is a darwinian scenario.

Here are two more: 1) A person murders another person. 2) A person dies due to a congenital heart defect. The first scenario is teleological and therefore immoral, the second is non-teleological and therefore amoral. Because morality can’t exist independently of teleology, darwinism is by definition amoral. If a doctor had ended that person’s life because of the congenital heart defect, it would have ceased to be a darwinian scenario and become an immoral scenario. The two are mutually exclusive.

Okay, so back to the afore-mentioned contradiction. When someone wants to cast doubt on darwinism, they’ll emphasize the non-teleological nature of darwinism. Terms like “blind,” “mechanistic,” and “undirected” are used to great effect. “The blind laws of nature couldn’t have produced life,” etc. But when it comes to the moral implications of darwinism, this emphasis vanishes. Hitler planned to kill the Jews. Eugenics intends to kill the mentally challenged. Therein lies the contradiction: darwinism fails because it contains no telos, but darwinism fails because it contains telos. This is a disingenuous form of equivocation. It’s juggling premises to support a desired conclusion.

Let me drive the point home. Whether you know it or not, you, the reader of this essay, are very likely a proponent of social darwinism. You may think you’re opposed to social darwinism, but what you’re really opposed to are socialism and eugenics, which are forms of artificial selection. A government body chooses who lives and dies. A government body chooses how to distribute wealth. What’s the opposite of that? Natural, non-teleological selection. Laissez faire capitalism. Competition in the marketplace. Live and let live. Equal opportunity. In a nutshell, darwinism playing out in society. America is one big experiment in social darwinism, and its success speaks to the power and pervasiveness of the darwinian concept.

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Evidence For Evolution

It’s not unheard of to find Christian Theists working in the biological sciences who don’t see a conflict between evolution and their faith. One of them, Francis Collins, lead the Human Genome Project. Another one, Kenneth Miller, is a professor at Brown University. These people don’t see evolution as devaluing human life. Rather they see it as expressing the grandeur and wonder of God’s ultimate plan. Kenneth Miller also happens to be a passionate defender of the theory of evolution. Here are some nice, bite-size excerpts from a talk he gave in the aftermath of the Dover trial. He gives quite compelling arguments about why modern Intelligent Design theory is false and why Darwin’s theory is true.

Regarding “Missing Links” in the Fossil Record

Demonstrating Common Ancestry Between Humans and Other Apes

Deconstructing Irreducible Complexity

(Also, here’s a more detailed written account of the evidence falsifying irreducible complexity.)

The Problem of the Gaps

A typical argument against religious belief goes like this: at some point in the past, human knowledge hadn’t advanced far enough to account for most of what we see in the world. For this reason, supernatural explanations proliferated. As science advanced, the gaps in our knowledge narrowed, forcing many of these supernatural beliefs into obsolescence. Naturalists acknowledge this trend and are justified in believing that we’ll continue to find natural explanations, and that the gaps will narrow even further. On the other hand, naturalists accuse believers of failing to acknowledge the trend and clinging to an embattled “god of the gaps” theory. This is how the argument typically goes, and here follow some of my thoughts on the matter.

Both gaps and supernatural explanations abound, of course, even to to this day. For example, physicists can talk about the state of the universe between now and a few fractions of a second after the big bang, but they can’t speculate about the state of the universe before then. Theists interject that this is the time during which god created everything. This is fine, since that explanation is just as valid as any explanation offered by science. Even so, we need to acknowledge two things:

First, it’s a mystery what happened during that time, and the explanations aren’t so much equally valid as they are equally unverifiable. That is, any explanation is conjecture. We simply don’t know.

Second, we might someday discover a natural theory to fill this gap. To be sure, we’re not certain a theory will be found, we’re merely justified in allowing for the possibility. Sometimes people fail to grasp this distinction. Physicists, for example, might discover a grand unification theory between quantum physics and relativity. The theory might subsequently reveal what happened during those first few moments, and even why the big bang happened in the first place. Such a theory may of course never be discovered, but then again maybe it will. In the meantime, physicists ought to allow for the possibility and pursue the question.

I don’t think these things disprove religious claims so much as they undermine the traditional epistemic basis for religious claims. Rather than becoming unbelievers when a certain theological notion is displaced by science, believers simply refactor the epistemic basis of their belief.* Or, if refactoring is too painful, they may attempt to wedge open the gap. This is reminiscent of Han, Luke and Leia, who, faced with the prospect of being squeezed out of existence, wedged a metal pole between the narrowing walls of the Death Star’s trash compactor. We all know what happened to that pole.

We can see this refactoring/resistence being played out by looking at the mystery of biological origins. This gap has narrowed considerably in recent history, but up until a hundred and fifty years ago it was wide open. The traditional (read: literal) doctrine of creationism filled the gap nicely, but when Darwin entered the scene, the gap started to squeeze shut. Accordingly, some have tried to combat evolution by wedging the poles of creation science and intelligent design between the walls. Others have abandoned the old doctrine and built new doctrines in less threatening places.

Let me reiterate that I don’t think shrinking gaps disprove theistic belief, as some assert. I think that, at most, they force theists to refactor their beliefs. At the same time, I think shrinking gaps justify methodological naturalism, which exists in a high degree of tension with theistic belief. I define methodological naturalism as distinct from metaphysical naturalism, or just naturalism as it is commonly thought of. In other words, where metaphysical naturalism professes certainty that natural explanations exist for everything, methodological naturalism merely allows for the possibility of natural explanations, as a matter of sound practice. As such, it’s one of the founding principles of modern science.

Strictly speaking, methodological naturalism is compatible with theism, but doctrines that concern “the gaps” are held with some degree of skepticism, simply because such doctrines have a habit of being displaced by science. The origins of human fallibility and morality fall into this category. Disciplinary fields such as evolutionary psychology, cognitive science and neurology hint at what may, in the future, become scientific theories about why we’re moral, or why we should be moral, or why we make mistakes and do bad things, or what “goodness” and “badness” are in the first place. Other gaps include the question of first cause and the mind/brain relationship. These areas are often considered the turf of doctrine, and it is these kinds of situations where doctrine risks running afoul of methodological naturalism and science in general.

* The term “refactor” is a programming term that means rethinking and recoding portions of a program’s code, without changing its overall purpose. The term, as it relates to life in general, means to rethink one’s approach, but not one’s overall goals, and includes a sense both tearing down and rebuilding.

The Reason Bomb: A Last-Ditch Attempt to Circumvent Reason

If you’ve ever heard a phrase that begins like this: “You can’t understand, because human reason is…” then you’re familiar with the apologetical technique I call The Reason Bomb. This tactic allows the apologist[1] to wriggle free of inconvenient lines of questioning by undermining the authority and credibility of reason—especially (the apologist hopes) his opponent’s reason. Here are some common invocations of the reason bomb:

  • Human reason is finite
  • Human reason is corrupted by sin
  • Humans are deceived
  • God’s ways/thoughts are higher than our ways/thoughts

It comes in other forms, but this gets the basic point across. The implication is that certain questions are off limits—that reason is worthless in pursuit of truth X. In other words, each of the items above has an unspoken …therefore your argument is bunk appended to it. Armed with this weapon, the apologist can pick and choose whether to engage in rational discussion, or whether to invoke the reason bomb. It reminds me of the EMP weapon in the movie The Matrix. Facing imminent destruction from malevolent, squidlike robots, the crew of the Nebuchadnezzar (a hovership) detonate a weapon that scrambles all electronic gear within miles, including their own ship, leaving them safe but dead in the water.

Does reason reserve the right to dismiss itself? After all, maybe reason is ultimately worthless. Maybe consciousness is an elaborate deception. Maybe the Earth and the solar system aren’t real, and the air we breathe isn’t real. Maybe our minds are laid bare to manipulation by devious entities. And have we explained every mystery as of today? Is our knowledge infinite? Is human thinking infallible? Of course not. Any of these could potentially be used to question reason.

The problem with the reason bomb isn’t so much that it exists as a debate option. The problem is that it doesn’t discredit only the opposing line of reasoning. It takes everybody a step toward nihilism—a Mutually Assured Destruction that, like the Nebuchadnezzar’s EMP weapon, silences all opponents. If God is beyond our ken, neither you nor I can claim to say anything meaningful about God. If we can be deceived, you are just as likely deceived as I am. If a finite capacity for reason makes all arguments worthless, why debate at all? You can’t cast doubt on reason and then plead to be personally immune from the consequences. It silences you just as much as it silences me.

And yet, apologists want the exclusive right to compartmentalize the debate. They want to zone off certain areas with fences and signs that read Warning: Reason isn’t valid here. You can condemn genocide, because that jibes with the doctrine of sin, but you can’t condemn divinely commanded genocide, because God’s ways are higher than our ways, etc. That zone is off limits to reason. You can appeal to the scholarly authority of certain esteemed theologians, but when somebody points out that, in this or that area, the prevailing view among scholars happens to contradict the apologist’s view, the academic establishment is dismissed with a blanket statement about the worthlessness of intellectualism. That zone is off limits to reason. You can build a fine-sounding argument in favor of the apologist’s position, but a fine-sounding argument against the apologist’s position is dismissed precisely because of its fine-soundingness. That zone is off limits to reason. You should be seeing a pattern emerge here.

Ultimately, this compartmentalization doesn’t work. No amount of special pleading will place the apologist outside his or her own blast radius. Alternatively, imagine a world where we agree to disarm. Imagine if we agreed that, yes, we can understand these things, and we can use our faculties of reason to come to rational conclusions about them, without resorting to statements attacking the value of reason, even if we don’t like the questions that are being asked. That’s all I ask.

[1] Note: This post isn’t meant as an all-out attack against apologetics in general, but rather an attack against tactics that are typically used in apologetics, which I would like to see not used at all. So when I speak of “the apologist,” note that I mean specifically the kind of apologist who tends to use this sort of tactic.

Lust, Morality and Politics

[This post may seem off-topic, but I’m going to use it to tie into future posts.]

I’m going to borrow the term “lust” and use it in a morally neutral sense, meaning hardwired human desire. Basically, we humans are endowed with lusts that help us survive, both as individuals and as groups. Obvious examples are sex drive and hunger. Lusts are simply the raw energy of humanity. If unchecked, they can cause destruction and pain, but without them we’d die off as a species. There are other kinds of lusts.

Moral lust is a desire to seek the benefit of those around us. It’s a survival tool because it fosters peaceful, self-reinforcing communities. Shooting arrows at your neighbor, just for the heck of it, results in arrows fired back at you, which state of affairs isn’t good for anyone’s survival. Helping your neighbor fix his house benefits his survival and yours, because when you find yourself in need of help he’ll probably return the favor.

This raises a question: to what extent are good deeds done in order to get return favors, versus for the joy of doing good deeds? To an extent, at least, moral lust makes good deeds enjoyable in and of themselves, hence the term lust.

Political lust is a desire to control others. It sounds sinister, and it often is, but it can also be mundane. If Jim wants neighbor Bob to stop slaughtering cows near his drinking well, that’s an example of political lust. The will to control others is a survival tool, because you can influence others to act in ways that benefit you, or at least don’t harm you.

Like moral lust, however, people don’t act on political lust only out of pragmatism. The drive for power, and the euphoria that comes from controlling other people’s lives, is intrinsic, hence the term lust.

Now here’s an important distinction: political lust is not politics, nor is moral lust morality. It might be better to say that the political and moral engines of society would run out of gas without their respective lusts.

Furthermore, politics and morality need to work in tandem to create successful societies. In many ways they counterbalance each other. Subtract the Protestant work ethic from western society, for example, and suddenly the society wouldn’t function as well, despite an unchanged political system. Subtract democracy, and chaos or worse would ensue, despite a Judeo-Christian morality.

Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.

That’s a quote from Albert Einstein. Here’s a thoughtful essay about Einstein and his religious views. From the essay:

“Although Einstein was not always consistent in what he said about God, there is a consistent theme running through his thoughts on religion—a theme that he called “cosmic religion”. He used this term to reflect the awe he felt when confronted with the universe and our ability to begin, at least, to comprehend it.”

Response to Thor’s Comment (Science & Theology)

Thor, I hope you don’t mind if I respond to your comment in a new post. I don’t want interesting threads to get buried in comments. Here’s what you wrote:

The word “theology” comes from two Greek words meaning “God” and “word.” Combined, the word “theology” means the “study of God.” Christian theology therefore is the study of what Christian believes the Bible teaches about God.

For the Christian, the basis of “knowledge about God” comes from “reading” the Bible. The Bible itself is a presupposition book (Genesis 1:1 – “In the beginning – GOD”), it assumes that a God that is transcendent time and space exists. It describes a God that spoke and where there “was nothing,” the universe, with all the stars, planets, comets, etc. leapt into existence. It goes on to tell a story of God’s relationship with mankind, fashioning the first people from the very soil of their home. It also describes God’s faithfulness toward and interaction with mankind on the very assumption He exists.

Science refers to any system of acquiring knowledge “based on the scientific method,” as well as to the organized body of knowledge gained through such research. The sciences to which this is referred (natural and social), are empirical, asserting that knowledge must be based on observable phenomena and capable of being tested for its validity by other researchers working under the same conditions.

The presupposition is therefore, since God is the author of all truth, having created the universe and everything therein, all truths, Biblical and extrabiblical, are consistent and cohere, and that the Bible speaks truth when it touches on matters pertaining to nature, history, or anything else.

Truths presupposed in the Bible must be consistent (not contradictory) with those in nature, and vice versa, though the former may be the more difficult to work out using the scientific method. If the God of the Bible created everything there is, we would expect no less (many of us Christians that is).

“everyone who is seriously involved in the pursuit of science becomes convinced that a spirit is manifest in the laws of the Universe-a spirit vastly superior to that of man, and one in the face of which we with our modest powers must feel humble. In this way the pursuit of science leads to a religious feeling of a special sort”. (Einstein – 24 January 1936)

You’re essentially saying (correct me if I’m wrong) that theology and science lay claim to the same set of truths, or perhaps that theology is a superset of science. I want to explore this in future posts, but I’ll comment a bit now, because this doesn’t seem to address instances where theology and science conflict, which by all accounts they do.

I’ll start at the concept of the supernatural. This idea seems intended to rope off certain areas of truth as off-limits to empirical study. Why can’t we see spirits? Are angels made of atoms? Not only do we not know, but the concept of “supernaturalness” makes such questions inherently unanswerable. If theology can say things about both the natural and the supernatural, but science can only say things about the natural, then theology must be a superset of science.

The problem is, science is a bit of a maverick. The scientific method wants to prevent theology and other belief systems from informing empirical study, otherwise discoveries are tainted. In other words, theology doesn’t inform science. Science will discover what’s really out there, not what politics or religion dictates. This is all well and good as long as science doesn’t ruffle theological feathers, but as soon as that happens everything goes haywire.

Typically, when scientific study reveals something that upsets long-held theological traditions, the church digs in its heels. At best, they intellectually marginalize themselves, at worst, the church uses political force to suppress the theories in question. History bears this out all the way up to the present day.

Maybe theology isn’t a superset of science after all? Maybe it’s a heuristic that exists while science evolves toward something more complete? Maybe the attrition of theological notions in the face of scientific advancement is actually part of God’s plan? I’m just thinking out loud here. Whatever the case, it seems extremely dangerous to just let theology trump science whenever they conflict.