Monday, September 17, 2007

Can Kooks make valid points?

Because Jonathan Wells' name came up again on my blog, I am redating an old post I did on Wells.

· At 7:53 AM, Ahab said…
Wells wrote:
As a theology graduate student in the late 1970s and early 1980s, I learned that the anti-religious implications of Darwinism have profoundly influenced modern theologians. Even with only an undergraduate background in science, however, I knew that the evidence for Darwinism was not as solid as the theologians seemed to think. If Darwinism were solid science, its anti-religious implications would (in my opinion) be inescapable. The more I learned, however, the more it seemed to me that Darwinism was just old-fashioned materialistic philosophy masquerading as modern empirical science. Because of its profound and harmful consequences for religion, science and culture, I decided to devote my life to criticizing this philosophy and destroying its domination of our educational system.


Victor, this guy comes across as a real quack. How can you take him seriously?
Dawinism dominates our education system? Damn, a large percentage of people in our county don't even understand the basics of evolutionay theory because so little time is spent in school explaining it.
And the idea that theologians have been relying on Darwin is even kookier.

Again, how can you, or anyone, take him seriously?



These comments are certainly ones that I would not make, simply because using the term "Darwinism" without clarification is a recipe for confusion. It's a mistake to treat "Darwinism" as a package deal. At least Alvin Plantinga, in his well-known essay "When Faith and Reason Clash" , suggests five different claims made by “Darwinists,” which in my book I distinguish as the five points of evolution. These points are:

1. The Ancient Earth Thesis. The earth has been in existence for a very long time.
2. The Gradual Emergence of Species Thesis. Different species emerged gradually over this time-period.
3. The Common Ancestry thesis: All life is related to a single common ancestor that was the first life form.
4. Darwinism or the Grand Evolutionary Story: The claim that speciation occurred exclusively through naturalistic processes like random variation and natural selection.
5. The Naturalistic Origin of Life thesis, the claim that life itself emerged naturalistically, with no supernatural intervention.

One of my editorial readers at IVP suggested that I include a sixth point, that the initial conditions of the universe were not selected by design. This would make Darwinism explicitly atheistic. Without the sixth point, Darwinism is perfectly compatible with theism.

However, I am not sure that I understand the claim that people don’t understand Darwinism. There’s a “one-minute version” of evolutionism which I sometimes present in class, which says that if you have enough time, if you have a way for species to vary, if species reproduce, then it is theoretically possible to produce the effects of intelligent design without a designer in virtue of the facts that these non-designed products would not survive to pass their characteristics on to descendents if they didn’t have design-ish characteristics.

Evolution has certainly been a very influential idea in our culture, and it can be an influential idea without most people knowing much of the details of how evolutionary theory works or deals with the problems it faces. There are people in theology who have been greatly influenced by evolution; Pierre Teilhard de Chardin would be a good example. Lewis liked to distinguish popular evolutionism from the actual scientific theory, which he considered to be theologically benign.

Wells’ motivations and understanding of the role of evolution in Western culture are, however, independent of his claims concerning the strength or weakness of the evidence supporting it. The question I wanted to pose while getting into the discussion of the icons was: do the standard evolution textbooks make overblown claims about the “icons” of evolution. It seems to me that a person can have a good handle on the evidence surrounding Darwinian theory and at the same time have pretty flaky ideas about the social and philosophical implications of that same theory. I think Richard Dawkins is an atrocious philosopher; that doesn’t mean he can’t be a good scientist.

14 comments:

Ahab said...

Wells is attacking the scientific theory for being atheistic. This is, to put it bluntly, hogwash. Right up there with the other popular misconceptions of evolution that Lewis himself criticized.
PZ Meyers put it succintly in a recent comment over on his blog Pharyngula :
"Evolution is not atheism, OK? Nor is evolution Darwinism. You can believe in a god and practice good science; biology is a secular discipline that ignores deities and says nothing one way or the other about their existence, other than that they are not a component of good hypotheses about the material world. In the same way, we do not criticize auto repair because it involves good solid material objects like grease and oil and bolts and pistons and drive trains-mechanics are free to believe in god or not, and all that matters to us is that they don't pretend that prayer is a substitute for an oil change. Equating biology with atheism is a red herring, an attempt to take a cheap and unjustified shot at sliming a scientific discipline with that odious atheism stuff that the writer knows his superstitious audience will find repugnant."
If Wells were simply attacking the the cultural or popular misuse of that scientific theory you'd have a point. His misunderstanding of the actual theory is what leads me to conclude his support of ID is worthless. Personally I think he is so committed to his own theology that he interprets anything that contradicts it as being atheistic. I wouldn't trust his judgement on anything.

And on a related topic, what is going on with Dembski's blog UncommonDescent? Here's a nice little summary over at Evolutionblog. Considering the important role he has in the developement of ID, Dembski certainly doesn't seem to be doing his part in trying to maintain the discussion on a serious level.????

Victor Reppert said...

Re Dembski, apparently he isn't putting any of his serious work on there. I don't know why he doesn't take blogging seriously.

As I indicated in the post, evolutionism is atheistic only if you assume that the initial conditions are not the result of design. However, people in evolutionary biology have used evolution to defend atheism; consider the subtitle of the Blind Watchmaker. Somehow, according to Dawkins, the evidence of evolution reveals a WORLD without design; this contradict what you quote Myers as saying.

If either atheists or theists draw the illegitimate conclusing that evolution entails atheism, this does not invalidate their scientific work. If it did, then the work of both Dawkins and Wells would be invalidated. Wells' motivations do not undermine his claims, any more than Dawkins' do.

Steven Carr said...

Evolution is atheistic in so much as evolving an immune system by letting illness loose upon a population and breeding from the survivors is something that only Joseph Mengele would have dreamed up. (I think he even tried to do it)

Whole branches of humanity have gone extinct. This hardly indicates a universe designed for humanity.

Ahab said...

"Initial conditions"? Are you talking about the origin of the universe? The theory of evolution is concerned with explaining the variety of life on this planet. If you want to deal with issues relating to the initial conditions of the universe, seems to me you'd be better off spending time on theories like the Big Bang.

Dawkins does not say evolution entails atheism.
Wells does say that. And again, it tells me that for some strange reason he is unable to understand what the theory is really about. And therfore I see no reason in placing confidence in his scientific judgements. If he doesn't understand the basic theory, why should I take seriously his critique of it?

Dawkins does say, in the book you cited, that evolution does entail discarding the notion that life was designed.

Are you saying one is an atheist if they believe that God decided to create a world in which life would only develop in accordance with natural laws?

Victor Reppert said...

Certainly not. I was not arguing aginst your idea that evolution is not atheistic. Quite the contrary. I was arguing that the theory is not atheistic as it stands.

Some people like to talk about cosmic evolution before life emerged on earth (and these are sometimes naturalistic scientists) but I am perfectly happy leaving evolution as a biological theory, and therefore it does not entail athiesm at all.

Victor Reppert said...

I'm not convinced that he is really saying that evolution entails naturalism. What he seems to be implying is that when instead of the case for evolution being based on the strength of the evidence, the reawl reason why evolution is accepted is because it is the only naturalistic, non-theistic account available, and so it has to be true, regardless of how much evidence there is for or against it. This is a frequent ID-er point, but it doesn't follow from this that evolution entails atheism.

Ahab said...

Again:

Wells wrote:
As a theology graduate student in the late 1970s and early 1980s, I learned that the anti-religious implications of Darwinism have profoundly influenced modern theologians. Even with only an undergraduate background in science, however, I knew that the evidence for Darwinism was not as solid as the theologians seemed to think. If Darwinism were solid science, its anti-religious implications would (in my opinion) be inescapable.


It seems quite clear from the first and last sentence of the above quote that Wells believes the current scientific theory of evolution (which he misleadingly refers to as 'Darwinism) is itself anti-religious.
In the last sentence he seems worried by the fact that if evolution were as true as the theologians think it is, that its anti-religious implications would be inescapable.!!

Seemingly his only hope of avoiding that result is to try and undermine the theory.


Then he goes on to say:
The more I learned, however, the more it seemed to me that Darwinism was just old-fashioned materialistic philosophy masquerading as modern empirical science. Because of its profound and harmful consequences for religion, science and culture, I decided to devote my life to criticizing this philosophy and destroying its domination of our educational system.

There is little doubt from the above that he is equating the current scientific theory with 'old-fashioned materialistic philosophy'.

I think you're trying to have it both ways here. Either the current scientific theory of evoluton does not entail atheism or it does. If it doesn't entail atheism, then the motives of its supporters is irrelevant. If these materialistic philosophers are trying to use evolution to 'destroy' our culture, then the thing to do is not attack the theory of evolution itself, but to try and educate people of the fact that evolution does not entail atheism. Tell people that all these athistic materialists are abusing the theory and make sure it is understood properly.

Of course, it is also quit insulting to all those good theistic scientists who accept evolution. Theyv'e been studying it for years, shuoudn't they realize its anti-religious implications? Are they stupid dolts who can't see that evolution is being used by the atheists to destroy our way of life?

Ahab said...

By the way, just because I think so little of Mr. Wells' scientific opinions, I don't mean to imply that that fact alone entitles me or anyone to discard the ID theory. The merits of that theory have to be treated the same as for any theory trying explain the natural world.
Any theory can attract its cranks and kooks.

mattghg said...

4. Darwinism or the Grand Evolutionary Story: The claim that speciation occurred exclusively through naturalistic processes like random variation and natural selection.

I think much hangs on what we mean by "random". If it means "with no rhyme or reason to it whatsoever" then it's difficult to see how this can be reconciled with theism. However, if it just means "completely unpredictable" or "following no discernable pattern" then the theory remains theologically neutral.

stunney said...

This seems like a debate-worthy new article:

God and Evolution

by Avery Cardinal Dulles

Copyright (c) 2007 First Things (October 2007)
.

stunney said...

Here we go again:

Is ‘Do Unto Others’ Written Into Our Genes?

Where do moral rules come from? From reason, some philosophers say. From God, say believers. Seldom considered is a source now being advocated by some biologists, that of evolution....

And, er, again:

Lost in a Million-Year Gap, Solid Clues to Human Origins.

Sometimes the maturity of a field of science can be measured by the heft of its ambition in the face of the next daunting unknown, the mystery yet to be cracked.

Neurobiology probes the circuitry of the brain for the secrets of behaviors and thoughts that make humans human. High-energy physics seeks and may be on the verge of finding the so-called God particle, the Higgs boson thought to endow elementary particles with their mass. Cosmology is confounded by dark matter and dark energy, the pervasive but unidentified stuff that shapes the universe and accelerates its expansion.

In the study of human origins, paleoanthropology stares in frustration back to a dark age from three million to less than two million years ago. The missing mass in this case is the unfound fossils to document just when and under what circumstances our own genus Homo emerged.

The origin of Homo is one of the most intriguing and intractable mysteries in human evolution. New findings only remind scientists that answers to so many of their questions about early Homo probably lie buried in the million-year dark age....

Anonymous said...

regarding Wells: he IS referring specifically to "darwinism" (for what Wells in getting at, it might be helpful to read something like Cornerlius' book "Darwins Proof: The Triumph of Religion over Science" , not "evolution" as an "empirical" scientific theory. In my experiences, whenever someone starts attacking an ID proponent's ideas, they almost never get those ideas right because they haven't read what they're saying.


Regarding Dembski and his blog, he said he was stopping serious blogging much a long time ago. . .the only reason the blog is still up is because others took up the task of posting news and other stories. Also, why should Dembski put technical work, which he has available on the internet elsewhere e.g., http://www.designinference.com/, and his papers with Marks, on the blog where people from the public will visit and have no clue what's even being said?

-Ben Z

Sturgeon's Lawyer said...

Victor,

That's a darned good one-minute presentation of the fundamentals of evolution.

Jim Lippard said...

Isn't the answer to the title question the same as the answer to the question, "Can stopped clocks display accurate time?"

I.e., yes, but you don't want to make a habit of relying on them.