It’s not about evolution

I listened to a popular debate about the relation between Christian theism and Evolution yesterday (by “popular” I mean one of those evolution-says-how-not-why debates). Anyone who reads this blog has already heard a dozen such debates so there is no reason to give the details again. Once we know whether the other guy is for it or against it we more or less know how the explanations will go.

There is something unsatisfying and incomplete about these discussions. One part of this stems from boredom, another from the fact that we postmodern people are more comfortable dealing with conflicts by shrugs, irony, and exaggerated irenism. But a very large part of it comes from this: we’re wasting all of our time talking about evolution when in fact our problem is more general. The Christian objection to evolution is identical in all relevant details to an objection against generation or reproduction. There’s no difference between the claim “our species arose from descent with modification, and therefore not from an act of special creation” and saying “I arose from the sexual activity of my parents, and therefore not from an act of special creation”. We know this is the case since Christians have had such an argument before, namely over traductionism, that is, the idea that since human being arose from the sexual activity of his parents, there was no need for an act of special creation to explain them. St Thomas treated this question at considerable length – there was a good deal of dispute about it in his day, and again in the Reformation period, and it was still a live topic during the Enlightenment – and all that’s changed in moving from traductionism to evolution is that gone from asking about any old person being generated from purely natural causes to asking about whether the first member(s) of some population arose from purely natural causes.

The objections that Christians legitimately have to evolution don’t concern evolution as such. We can flip this around and point out that an attempt  show how theism and evolution are compatible also doesn’t concern evolution as such. Darwin’s theory and its various developments are not the problem: the problem of compatibility would be no different if Darwin, upon sailing to the Galapagos Islands, didn’t end up finding various lengths of finch beaks but instead found a large tree that grew new plant and animal species out of giant seed pods.  The fundamental problem remains irrespective of whether nature generates the first member of some new population by seeds or by chance or by aliens. For that matter, the same problem would remain if all species have existed for an infinite time. The fundamental problem is whether natural science suffices to explain human beings. In its present state, natural science never has to be forced to see an inadequacy since it proceeds dialectically, and so whenever one side of a hypothesis would require that it terminate in a supernatural explanation, it can simply choose to follow out any one of the innumerable hypotheses that go the other direction. “Fine tuning” arguments are a case in point: the data can either lead to a supernatural explanation or a natural one (multiverses) and, as a matter of dialectics, one is free to simply choose which path he wants to follow. It suffices to explain the multiverse choice to say that, by choosing it, one can continue with natural explanations, which are exactly the sort of explanations that natural scientists are interested in. Aristotle, on the other hand, was forced out of physics to a supernatural explanation because his physics did not proceed dialectically but in a demonstrative manner from the definition of motion and other facts of nature given in common experience. If Aristotle had the choice to keep his explanations natural, then qua natural scientist, he was duty bound to take them, but demonstration does not allow the same liberty as dialectics in this matter.


  1. October 29, 2011 at 11:25 am

    Shouldn’t the scientist object to the notion that either hypothesis is equal and that one is “free to simply choose”? After all, the claim for science is that it is based on objective and observable evidence which supports one hypothesis over another. If the evidence supports the supernatural branch over the natural, the former should be adopted. This is, I believe, the basic argument the ID proponents make, whether they are right about what the evidence supports or not. So I would qualify your post by noting that one is free to choose only so long as the scientific evidence is inconclusive. One cannot choose spontaneous generation of the sort that Pasteur disproved as an equal alternative to special creation, for instance. (And on the flip side, I don’t think its easy to choose simple special creation as an alternative to evolution, also because of the evidence.) The multiverse, too, is only tenable as an alternative to creation because there is no real evidence for it one way or the other. The naturalist who hopes to preserve his philosophical position has to hope that either evidence will be found in the future or that the evidence will remain forever beyond reach.

    Of course, the thing is, whether the concept of the multiverse turns out to be real or not, it is no threat to the theist precisely because of the validity of other arguments that escape the natural plane that prove there must be a God. The multiverse is simply irrelevant to these arguments. I think this is one of the reasons the debates can sometimes get “boring”. We don’t need to figure out whether something happened before the Big Bang in order to figure out whether there is a God. Arguments about the multiverse or evolution are just scientific arguments about the multiverse or evolution, not philosophical arguments about God.

    • October 29, 2011 at 1:39 pm

      one is free to choose only so long as the scientific evidence is inconclusive.

      But it’s the nature of dialectics that the evidence is never conclusive in the sense of compelling one and only one conclusion, since if we understood the topic well enough to have this sort of conclusion we would not need to use dialectics. The sense in which we understand water or elephants or elements well enough to simply define them and draw out the consequences does not give us very concrete knowledge, and so we define them in more creative ways (operationally, or in relation to some measuring unit, or as instances of their contrary, etc.) which allows us greater power to know the things concretely while sacrificing some amount of speculative certitude. We do not pretend that everything about our definition or hypothesis is taken from the object, pure and simple. In this spirit, a scientist might define rest as a sort of velocity, necessity as a sort of probability, elements as a streak across a steel plate, species as nothing other than the ability to interbreed. There is some relation to the real thing here, but also latitude and freedom which characterizes a dialectical definition. (All this is Dekoninck’s great contribution to the philosophy of science.) This is why the scientist will always be able to choose the path of inquiry that allows him to continue with his science, that is, which allows him to follow out natural causes, so long as there are causes to find; and there always will be such causes to find, since the human mind could only entirely exhaust the intelligibility of nature if it saw it in light of its first cause- and this requires seeing it in the light of the beatific vision.

  2. October 29, 2011 at 4:40 pm

    I think I begin to understand your point, but if I may, a couple of clarifications…

    What do you mean when you say that a scientist “chooses” a path of inquiry? Do you just mean that he can start investigating along that line? I can see him following that line as it is the obvious next step for investigation, but I can’t see him endorsing that path as the right or true alternative to, say, creation until he knows whether there is actually anything down that path at all.

    How can we know in advance that there will always be more natural causes along a specific line of inquiry? If it were the case (and I do not think it is) that organisms were created completely and immediately without any natural precursors and that it was impossible for inanimate nature to produce the structures of living organisms, wouldn’t that be a situation where there were no more natural causes to find (for a scientist looking to explain biological structure)?

    Also, I have no yet read de Koninck … where would you recommend one start? (I am interested specifically in philosophy of science.)

    • October 30, 2011 at 6:15 am

      The scientist, qua dialectician, chooses his path in the sense that the way he defines his inquiry is not wholly determined by the object but is in some sense under his creative power. This is what allows for metrical definitions of things not purely metrical, operational definitions that relate things to what is easily verifiable or the result of registering on an apparatus, poll, or questionnaire, etc. Dialectics is more or less what Kant called knowledge – we only find what we place in the object, and we can only know what in some way owes its existence to us.

      There are always more causes in the sense that to exhaust the intelligibility of a natural cause would require seeing it entirely in light of its proximate cause, but this is God.

      Dekoninck’s magnum opus on philosophy of science is the dissertation he directed “Thomism and Mathematical Physics”. It is available at This is, to my mind, thelast word on the relation of Thomism to modern and contemporary science.

      • October 30, 2011 at 7:38 am

        Thanks! I’m eager to give it a look.

      • Brandon said,

        October 30, 2011 at 10:25 am

        This connects, I think, to Duhem’s argument that physical theory requires le bon sens; good scientific work always requires the cultivation through experience of a sort of good taste or bit of prudence by means of which one makes fruitful dialectical choices (What should I do with this unusual experimental result? Should I treat it for now as just an anomaly? Or, at least provisionally, as a genuine counterexample? And if it is confirmed should I add yet another assumption to the theory to account for it? or modify an assumption in place? or tear it down and start again? or replace this set of assumptions with that set of assumptions that other people have favored for other reasons? &c. &c. &c.)

  3. bgc said,

    October 29, 2011 at 10:46 pm

    “The fundamental problem is whether natural science suffices to explain human beings.”

    This is an excellent framing of the discussion – with evolution by natural selection as merely a subtype of the general class of ‘scientific’ (non-divine, natural) explanations.

    From a somewhat different angle, I discussed this topic my my blog:

    My summary is that science gets its precision as a by-product of its metaphysical simplification – that which science leaves-out, it does not first disprove, it simply ignores and proceeds on that basis.

    The consequent model of reality has no intrinsic validity (no matter how self-consistent that model may turn-out to be) because it is built on deliberately simplified, and therefore presumably incomplete, foundations.

    For the conclusions of science to be valid, would require a demonstration that the deliberate incompleteness of the foundations of science did not (?significantly) affect the validity of the model built upon them.

    Interestingly, one of the ways that science has assume its own completeness is to denigrate common sense, spontaneous knowledge, natural law, the consensus of human history etc. If common sense is regarded as having zero validity then the fact that aspects of common sense reality have been left out of the scientific model is of no consequence. If the consensus of history is ejected wholesale, this does not matter since it was, anyway, arbitrary.

    Humans are (by this account) born into the world naked of mind and body, to be shaped by society, which has no intrinsic validity.

    In a word: nihilism.

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