MandM header image 2

Darwinian Evolution, God and Ockham’s Razor

September 11th, 2009 by Matt

In a previous post, Darwinian Evolution, Chance and Design, I argued that the contention that Darwinian evolution occurs by chance does not entail that it shows the world was not designed. Once one sees how the concept of chance is defined in evolutionary theory one can see that it does not rule out design.

It is possible at this stage to argue that evolutionary theory rules out design by appeal to Ockham’s razor. Suppose one grants that chance is used in a limited sense to refer to the fact that, following Sober, “there is no physical mechanism (either inside organisms or outside of them) that detects which mutations would be beneficial and causes those mutations to occur.”[1] Or following Mayr, it means, “that there is no correlation between the production of new genotypes and the adaptation needs of an organism in a given environment.”[2] Suppose that evolution occurring by chance in this sense is well supported by the evidence. One could go on to interpret this theory in at least two ways; one might argue that evolution was in some sense guided by God or that it occurred by chance in a stronger sense that precludes design. Both arguments would be compatible with the empirical evidence. However, the sceptic could argue that the latter is preferable in virtue of the principle of Ockham’s razor, “entities should not be multiplied unnecessarily.”

The idea is that that the hypothesis of unguided evolution is simpler, more in accord with Ockham’s razor, than the hypothesis that God guided evolution. The former theory explains everything in terms of natural causes without appeal to a supernatural being such as God; hence, to claim God did it is to add an extra entity and is superfluous. Something like this argument is sometimes given by scientists writing in the field. George Gaylord Simpson writes,

Although many details remain to be worked out, it is already evident that all the objective phenomena of the history of life can be explained by purely naturalistic or, in a proper sense of the sometimes abused word, materialistic factors.[3]

Similarly, Douglas Futuyma states,

By coupling undirected, purposeless variation to the blind, uncaring process of natural selection Darwin made theological or spiritual explanations of the life processes superfluous.[4]

In this post I will respond to this appeal to Ockham’s razor and identify two problems with this line of argument. The first is that Ockham’s razor is only one criteria used to adjudicate rival hypotheses; the fact that one hypothesis is preferable on grounds of simplicity does not entail that it is preferable all things considered. There are at least couple of other considerations to take into account.[5]

One other consideration to bear in mind is which hypothesis is more probable? To answer this question one would need to assess whether the probability that the history of life coming to be by a process of guided evolution is significantly higher than the probability of life coming to be by an evolution of blind chance and it seems to me, on the face of it at least, quite plausible to suggest that the chances of life evolving by chance is significantly lower than its coming about by divine guidance. If this is correct, then while atheistic evolution gives a simpler or more economical explanation of the origin of species it is considerably less probable.

A further consideration is that Ockham’s razor tells us that if two theories can explain the phenomena equally well then the one that postulates the least entities is the preferred one. For naturalistic evolution to be preferable to theistic evolution it would need to be argued that it explains all the data equally as well.[6] The person who proposes the above line of argument, however, does not do this; all he or she does is show that both theories equally explain the history of life on earth. However, the history of life is only one feature of the world that scientists seek to explain. Showing that your theory explains one feature as well as a rival theory is a long way from showing that it explains all features as well.

This is important because one of the arguments theists offer is that God can explain numerous features of the world better, better than theism’s rivals. It has been argued that theism explains the origin of the universe, the continued existence of the contingent universe, the existence of laws of nature, the existence of cosmic fine-tuning, the existence and nature of objective moral duties  and so on. To show that unguided evolution is a better theory then, one would need to show that unguided evolution provides a better explanation of all these phenomena together than theistic evolution does. If it does not then theism explains the history of life equally as well as atheistic naturalism but it also provides a better explanation of various other features of the world, thus it is a better overall theory.

So even if we grant that unguided evolution conforms to Ockham’s razor better than theistic evolution, it is not at all clear or obvious that this means it is a better theory, all things considered. Theistic evolution may be a significantly more probable theory and have significantly greater explanatory scope and comprehensiveness.

A second problem with the appeal to Ockham’s razor is that what constitutes a simpler hypothesis in a given context depends on the background information one has about what exists. Plantinga makes this point,

The theistic noetic structure already, of course, includes the existence of God.  Relative to that noetic structure, therefore, there is no additional Ockhamistic cost in the hypothesis of guided evolution.  As an analogy: suppose we land a space ship on a planet we know is inhabited by intelligent creatures.  We find something that looks exactly like a stone arrowhead, complete with grooves and indentations made in the process of shaping and sharpening it.  Two possibilities suggest themselves: one, that it acquired these characteristics by way of erosion, let’s say, and the other, that it was intentionally designed and fashioned by the inhabitants.  Someone with a couple of courses in philosophy might suggest that the former hypothesis is to be preferred because it posits fewer entities than the latter.  He’d be wrong, of course; since we already know that the planet contains intelligent creatures, there is no Ockhamistic cost involved in thinking those structures designed. The same would go for evolution; theists already accept divine design, and do not incur additional Ockhamistic cost by way of thinking of evolution as guided.[7]

Plantinga’s insight is correct. He goes on to note that if we did not know the planet was inhabited by intelligent beings and the erosion hypothesis was not significantly less probable then an appeal to Ockham’s razor in favour of the erosion hypothesis would have “teeth.”  If this argument works at all, it only works if one begins with an agnostic perspective and then postulates “the existence of a divine designer in order to explain the course of evolution.” If, however, one already knows that God exists and rationally believes God and has created the world on other grounds then we do not violate Ockham’s razor by appealing to the existence of God to explain the evolutionary process.

Evolutionary theory then might mean that an agnostic has reason for accepting atheistic evolution over theistic evolution as an explanation of the origin of species (I say “might” because the problem of relative probabilities and explanatory comprehensiveness still would need addressing). However, it does not show that those who believe in God, are irrational in doing so, nor does it provide a theist with any rational reason to reject his or her belief.

Again then, it seems that evolution by itself does not make belief in God untenable. Before it could the objector would first need to show there were no other grounds for believing in God other than the evolution of life on earth. Then he or she would need to show that one could construct a theory that has as much explanatory power as theism and on which the evolution of life by blind chance was not significantly less probable than its occurrence by divine guidance. Only after both these things were done could evolution be used to defeat theism. It is evident, however, that evolutionary theory by itself establishes none of these claims. Whether they are defensible is a substantive philosophical question over and above anything established in contemporary evolutionary theory.

This post draws from parts of my paper “Does Evolution Make Belief in God Untenable?” given at the recent TANSA conference, Faithful Science? – Just How Well Do Science and Faith Get Along?


[1] Eliot Sober “Evolution Without Metaphysics” (unpublished).
[2]
Ernest Mayr Toward a New Philosophy of Biology; Observations of an Evolutionist (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998) 98.
[3] George Gaylord Simpson The Meaning of Evolution (Yale University Press, rev ed., 1967) 344-345.
[4]
Douglas Futuyma Evolutionary Biology (Sunderland, MA: Sinauer Associates Inc, 1986) 2.
[5]
Alvin Plantinga
“Science and Religion: Where Does  the Conflict Really Lie?” (unpublished).
[7]
Ibid.

RELATED POSTS:
Darwinian Evolution, Chance and Design
God, Darwinian Evolution and The Teleological Argument
TANSA Faith and Science Conference
Faith and Science Conference Write-Up

Tags:   · · · · · · 31 Comments

Leave a Comment


31 responses so far ↓

  • Given the billion faces of God, is there any particular one that you have a preference for in terms of guiding evolution?

  • See Matt’s previous post where he makes this very point from Sober that evolution is not blind chance, Darwinian Evolution, Chance and Design. The point in this post is that if evolution is blind chance then the question of probabilities would arise.
    .-= My last blog-post ..Goff on Labour’s Mistakes: What about Fixing a Few Phil? =-.

  • “whether the probability that the history of life coming to be by a process of guided evolution is significantly higher than the probability of life coming to be by an evolution of blind chance”

    I once attended a talk by Sober where he deals with this question. In essence, evolution is not blind chance. It is not a random process. There are specific physical mechanisms that underlie natural selection, and it is not a matter of random chance that we are here and the Neanderthals are not.

    So the Paley argument, blind chance vs. design, doesn’t really threaten evolution.

  • L There are specific physical mechanisms that underlie natural selection, and it is not a matter of random chance that we are here and the Neanderthals are not.

    There are physical mechanisms that lead to data being written to my hard drive. But the content of such data is completely independent of the mechanism.

  • Madeleine – why – if we know that evolution does not occur by blind chance – does Matt even get into considering that as a mechanism? No one else does.

    Seems to me that he is trying to justify the unjustifiable by setting up a dead horse stuffed with straw!
    .-= My last blog-post ..Science communication in New Zealand =-.

  • Ken, you seem to misunderstand my argument in both this post and the previous one on the same topic. In the previous post. I distinguished two separate sense to the word chance.

    The first was the more technical sense used by Mayr and Sober Mayr states “When it is said that mutation or variation is random, the statement simply means that there is no correlation between the production of new genotypes and the adaptation needs of an organism in a given environment.” Sober suggests it means “there is no physical mechanism (either inside organisms or outside of them) that detects which mutations would be beneficial and causes those mutations to occur.”

    The second was the sense that “the event was not caused, intended or planned by God.” this second sense is what I meant by “blind chance” in the citation L refers to in his comments.

    Now to your comments,

    – if we know that evolution does not occur by blind chance – does Matt even get into considering that as a mechanism? No one else does.

    Given how I defined the word “blind chance” this claim is false. Many scientists and philosophers do argue that evolution occurs by “blind chance” that is they claim natural selection, genetic drift etc were not caused or planned by God.

    Seems to me that he is trying to justify the unjustifiable by setting up a dead horse stuffed with straw

    Again, if you pay attention to how I defined terms this claim is also mistaken. Its simply not a straw man to attack the argument that evolutionary theory plus ockhams razor entails that evolution occurred by “blind chance” ( as I defined that term) . In fact I cited people in the above post who make precisely this claim and someone raised it in the comments thread of my previous post on this topic.
    .-= My last blog-post ..September 11 =-.

  • Well – Matt, you are putting your own definitions in here:

    “Blind chance” to you means “natural selection, genetic drift etc were not caused or planned by God.”

    By definition of course they weren’t caused or planned by a god (otherwise we would call it “divine selection,” “divine drift”. But that doesn’t, by any means, mean “blind chance.” Selection surely implies something beyond chance.

    Why not use the more accurate terms and compare “divine selection” with “natural selection.”

    And really – Okham’s razor is a red herring. Just compare the concepts with the objective evidence from the real world. That’s how we normally do it in science.

    You have really only dragged in this extra concept to avoid dealing with real evidence and to argue for your own preconceived preferred view.
    .-= My last blog-post ..Science communication in New Zealand =-.

  • “The point in this post is that if evolution is blind chance then the question of probabilities would arise.”

    The point is moot, because evolution is not blind chance.

  • L, I defined blind in terms of a chance event (in Mayr sobers sense) that was not caused, intended or planned by God.

    The point is moot, because evolution is not blind chance.

    Ok then case closed, evolution does not involve events which were not caused, or intended, or planned by God. In which case evolutionary theory entails God exists.
    .-= My last blog-post ..Sunday Study: Interpreting the Sixth Commandment Part II =-.

  • As I said – you are doing your own defining – which of course will lead to misunderstanding.

    However, we could play with the words, anyway. Instead of talking about “natural selection”, “divine guidance”, and “blind chance.” – we could talk about “divine chance”, “natural guidance” (actually more in line with how Darwin described his theory) and “divine selection.”
    .-= My last blog-post ..Evolution of human morality =-.

  • l – Matt, you are putting your own definitions in here:

    Actually if you read the post above you’ll see this is false. First, the definition of chance or random I used comes from Mayr and Sober hence its not my own.
    The attaching the word “blind” to the name of a process to designate the idea its not caused, intended or planned by God is also fairly standard. Take Futuyma’s quote in the text to where he refers to the “blind uncaring process of natural selection” Dawkin’s reference to the “ blind forces of physics” In his book The Blind Watchmaker.

    But suppose I was using terms differently to the way they were normally used. So What, the point is that I was clear to define what I meant in the text, any confusion therefore is simply the result of failing to take note of what I said

    by definition of course they weren’t caused or planned by a god (otherwise we would call it “divine selection,” “divine drift”.

    This seems to be a bad argument, I understand you correctly your suggesting that if something is caused by laws of anture or laws of genetics then that precludes it being caused by God. That is simply a false dichotomy. On most forms of theism God created nature, sustains nature in existence and any laws of nature that govern it are laid down and sustained by God. Hence if the laws of nature cause it then ultimately God brings it about. So calling something, natural selection or genetic drift does not rule out divine causation or divine purpose.

    But second, even if the use of the word “natural selection” or “genetic drift” does mean its not caused by God. (I am sure Mendel would be surprised that the laws of genetics were not caused by God) . This proves nothing at all.

    The fact that some people choose to give a process a name that signifies it was not caused by God does not entail it was not caused by God You don’t establish anything substantive about a process simply by calling it something. Whats needed is some evidence or argument that God did not cause it.

    ” Selection surely implies something beyond chance.

    Again, if you read the definition of the terms I used there is no oddity here. Again, by chance I mean what Mayr and Sober mean. By blind chance, I mean “chance” ( as they define it) that was not caused, intended, or planned by by God.

    If people choose to read meanings into the word other than the one explictly gave that is there problem not mine.

    And really – Okham’s razor is a red herring. Just compare the concepts with the objective evidence from the real world. That’s how we normally do it in science. You have really only dragged in this extra concept to avoid dealing with real evidence and to argue for your own preconceived preferred view.

    Actually it was opponents of theism who brough ockhams razor up. I am simply responding to their argument.

    But before we start on this, can you clarify are you saying that normally science simply follows the evidence and does not make use of concepts like Ockham’s razor?
    .-= My last blog-post ..Sunday Study: Interpreting the Sixth Commandment Part II =-.

  • Ken, So you agree that ockhams razor comes into play when we have two theories which both fit the evidence equally well. That is actually what I said in the post above Ockham’s razor tells us that if two theories can explain the phenomena equally well then the one that postulates the least entities is the preferred one.
    If you read the opening paragraph I suggested that something like this is argued to be at play here. The skeptic alleges that we have one theory (a) theistic evolution and another (b) atheistic evolution, the empirical evidence supports both equally well so the sceptic appeals to Ockham’s razor, I think mistakenly so for the reasons I cited.

    But what do we compare “natural selection” with using Ockams razor? We just don’t, these days, have a theory to place alongside it and apply Ockams razor…iNow I know theists will defend ideas of “divine guidance” of evolution, etc. But the fact remains they do not have a well structured theory, supported by loads of evidence and validated against reality, which they can put alongside “natural selection” and other developed evolutionary theories. So there is no way to make a comparison

    Again you seem to misunderstand my argument, I am not contenting that theistic evolution is an alternative to natural selection and arguing for theistic evolution on the grounds of Ockham’s razor. The sceptic (whom I am critiquing) is putting forward two alternatives (a) evolution with natural selection + atheism (b) evolution with natural selection + theism. Obviously any empirical evidence for Darwinian evolution will support both these theories as both entail that Darwinian evolution is true. Hence the empirical evidence for evolution you refer to will not provide reasons for one position over another. The two positions have to be decided then on other grounds.
    .-= My last blog-post ..Auckland Bloggers Drinks Feat. David Farrar – This Thursday! =-.

  • “Actually it was opponents of theism who brough ockhams razor up. I am simply responding to their argument. ” – Oh, you didn’t attribute the argument?

    “can you clarify are you saying that normally science simply follows the evidence and does not make use of concepts like Ockham’s razor?” – Sure.

    In science we develop hypotheses, theories and speculations by starting with the evidence. We validate our ideas, theories, against reality. There is this constant dialectical interplay between ideas and reality.

    Now, I think the concept of Ockams razor would only be used if we had two theories which equally explained the evidence and were equally validated against reality. The more complex theory, (especially if it contained superfluous parts) would be provisionally decided against. (provisional because as more evidence comes in we might find the more complex theory explains reality better). Obviously it is better to use the simpler theory in practice (and we are always interested in practice) because it makes life easier. We often do that even though we know and accept that our theory may only apply to a limiting case. We use Newtonian mechanics, accepting it works in everyday situations, but knowing it is not complete and needs modification at high velocities and gravitational forces. We would be extremely silly to try to apply the equations of Einsteinan mechanics where they just couldn’t produce different answers.

    Personally, I can’t ever remember using Ockams razor in my research career (although I concede I may well have done so intuitively). However, a requirement of its use would be to have two well developed theories. Theories which had structure, evidence, explanatory power, etc. How else could theories be compared if one of them wasn’t a theory, say just an “out of left field” speculation.

    In the case of evolution we have some well developed theories which explain the facts. Darwin’s “natural selection” or (“natural preservation” as he sometimes called it) is one theory which, especially in its modern form, has tremendous support. There is just so much converging evidence to support it. Of course this gets supplemented by other mechanisms which we have developed theories about.

    But what do we compare “natural selection” with using Ockams razor? We just don’t, these days, have a theory to place alongside it and apply Ockams razor.

    The only way I can interpret ideas like “theistic evolution’ is a description of someone who accepts modern evolutionary science and also believes in a god. Because I have yet to see any proper theory which actually includes gods as part of the mechanism.

    Now I know theists will defend ideas of “divine guidance” of evolution, etc. But the fact remains they do not have a well structured theory, supported by loads of evidence and validated against reality, which they can put alongside “natural selection” and other developed evolutionary theories. So there is no way to make a comparison. No way to apply Ockams razor.
    .-= My last blog-post ..Evolution of human morality =-.

  • Good interaction here – that is all from me 😉
    .-= My last blog-post ..is nature ‘natural’? =-.

  • Matt, I know you know this, but you’re seeing yet again that responding to objections is consisted largely of pleading with people to actually read what they are objecting to before offering a response to it. Reading the replies here is enough to make me pull my hair out!

  • Of course, evolutionary science doesn’t consider either – it discusses “natural selection” – period. And evolutionary scientists may be atheists, theists, Buddhists, Hindus, etc., etc.

    I agree that was my point, evolutionary science does not refute theism.

    Why are people so unconfident about their religious beliefs that they must attach them to a scientific theory/mechanism to make it acceptable? And why then go on about “Ockam’s razor,” “divine guidance,” and “blind chance” when the theories are, you now say, one and the same?

    Because some people, have tried to use evolution to argue for atheism and when they do one has to respond by showing these arguments are unsound and or that evolutionary theory if true is compatible with theism.
    .-= My last blog-post ..Auckland Bloggers Drinks Feat. David Farrar – This Thursday! =-.

  • Strange sort of description of evolutionary mechanisms:
    “(a) evolution with natural selection + atheism (b) evolution with natural selection + theism.”

    Of course, evolutionary science doesn’t consider either – it discusses “natural selection” – period. And evolutionary scientists may be atheists, theists, Buddhists, Hindus, etc., etc. (Those religious beliefs usually occupy a different mental compartments.).

    It’s silly to attach an adjective and call oneself a “theistic evolutionist”, “atheistic evolutionist,” “Buddhist evolutionist,” etc. You would have to apply that adjective to any scientific mechanism or theory. What about “atheistic quantum mechanics,” “theistic heliocentrism,” etc.

    It would be more sensible (although inaccurate in the modern world) to call oneself a “Darwinian evolutionist.” After all, as you say “both entail that Darwinian evolution is true. ” (Funny sort of word – true – to use, though).

    Why are people so unconfident about their religious beliefs that they must attach them to a scientific theory/mechanism to make it acceptable? And why then go on about “Ockam’s razor,” “divine guidance,” and “blind chance” when the theories are, you now say, one and the same?
    .-= My last blog-post ..Look out! =-.

  • Matt “Because some people, have tried to use evolution to argue for atheism and when they do one has to respond by showing these arguments are unsound and or that evolutionary theory if true is compatible with theism.”

    Strange. I thought the whole point of your article was to use evolutionary science to argue for the existence of a god. That according to what’s his names razor “theistic evolution” was better than “atheistic evolution.”?

    Of course, there is no difference between astronomy, physics, quantum mechanics, chemistry and evolutionary science here. Scientists get on and do there job and gods never come into it – and won’t until (or if) some evidence requires it.

    Of course some people will use scientific knowledge to justify the religious positions (theism and atheism) as you were doing here, but that’s beside the point.

    The real problem here is that there has been an organised attempt to suppress evolutionary science in the public sphere, and particularly in education. And the motivation for this has been religious. You surely can’t doubt that? (Although I think you have argued for the same suppression yourself).

    And this has been resisted by scientists of a religious persuasion as well as scientists of a non-religious persuasion. We are interested in opposing the suppression of modern science which is outlined in the Wedge strategy. We consider religious belief has nothing to do with this – We keep it out of science and will continue to do so until (or if) there is objective evidence which requires including it.
    .-= My last blog-post ..Look out! =-.


  • Because some people, have tried to use evolution to argue for atheism and when they do one has to respond by showing these arguments are unsound and or that evolutionary theory if true is compatible with theism.

    Actually, I think it’s more like a large number of theists have used the apparent design in biology to argue for a designer.

    If you accept the arguments of Paley and Dembski, if true, increase the probability of their being a creator god then it follows that a very well supported theory that explains that apparent design without recourse to gods decreases the probability of their being a god.

    That’s certainly how Darwin saw it:

    “The old argument of design in nature, as given by Paley, which formerly seemed to me so conclusive, fails, now that the law of natural selection has been discovered.”

    It doesn’t ‘refute’ the existence of a god, what scientific observation could?, but the presence of wide-scale resistance to evolutionary theory by the more fundamentalist branches of Christianity makes it clear that it poses a problem for a lot theists.
    .-= My last blog-post ..I TOLD you you’re all mutants =-.

  • […] a recent discussion a local supporter (I think) of theistic evolution put it this way: Both “theistic […]

  • Nicely argued Ken I must say! Glad to see someone on here dealing with the misconceptions and sloppy dogmatic thinking.

  • Simon, care to refer to one specific example of dogmatism and sloppy thinking that Ken’s post addressed? As a matter of fact, if I’mr eading his last post at all well, he didn’t even engage the subject, but instead saying that the point that the blog article set out to make was “beside the point.” Well, maybe it was beside the point that Ken would personally like to have seen made, but it’s not like it’s up to him now, is it?

    So to see your wee cheerleading comment does raise the question of just what the heck you’re talking about.

    Thanks

    BTW – the commentluv installed here just isn’t able to read my feed for some reason.

  • Strange. I thought the whole point of your article was to use evolutionary science to argue for the existence of a god. That according to what’s his names razor “theistic evolution” was better than “atheistic evolution.”?
    Actually no, if you read the above post you’ll see I was not using evolutionary science to argue for the existence of God, and a certainly did not say that according to Ockhams razor theistic evolution was better than atheist evolution, neither claim is in the above post.
    What I do was critique an argument for the non existence of God that appealed to evolution and Ockham’s razor. Rebutting an argument against a position is different to offering an argument for the position.

    Of course, there is no difference between astronomy, physics, quantum mechanics, chemistry and evolutionary science here. Scientists get on and do there job and gods never come into it – and won’t until (or if) some evidence requires it.

    Well according to a large number of scientists and philosophers of science this is false. Many in fact have stated that science rules out God aprori. Given the large number who have said this your comment requires substantive argument not assertion.

    Of course some people will use scientific knowledge to justify the religious positions (theism and atheism) as you were doing here, but that’s beside the point.
    The real problem here is that there has been an organised attempt to suppress evolutionary science in the public sphere, and particularly in education. And the motivation for this has been religious. You surely can’t doubt that?

    I agree there has been this ( the Scopes trial for example, though it needs to be noted that much of what is said about the Scopes trial is false)

    However you are being a bit selective here. Since the time of Huxley there has also been attempts to use evolutionary theory to attack and criticize theism and many leading scientists (Gould, Futyama, Dawkins and various others) have stated both that evolution is certain and it proves that God does not exist. If Scientists are going to use science to make theological and philosophical claims and then they cannot complain when theologians and philosophers criticize them for doing so.

    Its a little disengenous for a scientist who runs a blog on religion and philosophy to complain when theologians and philosophers criticise scientific pronouncements in this area don;t you think?

    Moreover many members of the scientific community have used the courts to out law any discussion of theological criticisms of evolutionary theory from the public schools and have been much more successful in doing so. Hence I think its fair to say that much of the antagonism is from your side.

    (Although I think you have argued for the same suppression yourself).
    Well this is really a separate subject, but as you are aware I have refuted this charge on more than one occasion. I will simply repeat myself. I argued that , in a pluralistic society, its often unjust to teach evolutionary theory as true in public schools, I defended the idea that it should be taught as the best scientific hypothesis. Now if merely refusing to teach something as true in a pluralistic context is suppression then the widely accepted view that we should not teach that Christianity or Islam is true in public schools would constitute the suppression of these religions.

    I would here simply ask you a question. As you well know the contention that scientific theories provide approximately true descriptions of the world is actually a controversial philosophical position, the position of scientific realism. While this is a popular view there is are significant rival interpretations of what science does various forms of anti-realism. In light of this why should any scientific theory be taught as true in public schools?
    Wouldn’t honesty require the theory be taught and then students be informed that whether the theories function to provide us with approximate truth or do something else is a matter of debate amongst the relevant experts, and why not also teach them something of the issues involved in the debate. To teach theories as true seem to me to actually teach a controversial view of philosophy of science. What’s the justification for this?
    We consider religious belief has nothing to do with this – We keep it out of science and will continue to do so until (or if) there is objective evidence which requires including it.

    That seems a question begging response, after all some people who argue for the inclusion of theological propositions in science argue they should be included in as part of the background evidence against which theories are tested. To exclude it from being so included on the grounds that the evidence you test theories against does not justify such claims is obviously circular.

    Moreover the claim that there is no empirical evidence for Gods existence is a controversial claim. Those who study the arguments for Gods existence disagree over this issue. Some argue the evidence is sufficient, some argue it’s not. If thislack of consensus is the reason why theological claims are excluded then I would ask why science does not also exclude all scientific claims over which there is significant debate and lack of consensus.
    Why not exclude punctuated equilibrium or steady state theories ? Or differing interpretations of quantum mechanics? It’s funny how scientists have no trouble including these things even though there is dispute over whether the evidence supports them, there fairly obviously is some special pleading going on here.
    .-= My last blog-post ..Published – Three Strikes: Proportion and Protection =-.

  • Theistic evolution?

    […] a recent dis­cus­sion a local sup­porter (I think) of the­is­tic evo­lu­tion put it this way: Both “the­is­tic […]

  • I see a lot of strange thinking here, Matt. But I guess discussions like this do often degenerate into ego contests so perhaps that’s not surprising.

    Rally there is nothing much of substance to reply to that hasn’t already been covered. Just a few points though.

    1: You assert: “Its a little disengenous for a scientist who runs a blog on religion and philosophy to complain when theologians and philosophers criticise scientific pronouncements in this area don;t you think?”

    I guess that’s always the trouble with asserting the motives of others. To reiterate:

    I come from the perspective of a scientist, with some philosophical interest and background. My motivation for starting Open Parachute was to argue the emotional and philosophical case for science – and in particular to defend it against attacks of those who oppose and misrepresent science. This of course brings one into conflict with things like ID/creationism and other religiously motivated propaganda. I naturally argue against them. Similarly I argue against the misrepresentation of, and attacks on, scientific epistemology and other aspects of scientific philosophy. It’s a passion of mine. Again these attacks are very often religiously motivated.

    Otherwise my only political interest in religion is a human rights one – my concern over the exclusion of a third of NZ’s population from the National Religious Diversity Discussion and Statement was one of the initiating factors for my blog.

    Apart from that – I of course have a scientific fascination for the evolution of human self awareness (consciousness) and the role of ideas. Religion, (its origins, evolution and current social role) is one of those that interests me from a scientific viewpoint.

    You seem to want to ban me from discussing, commenting on, people who use philosophical/religious arguments to attack humanity’s scientific achievements (let alone distorting empirical facts in their attacks). What’s the matter? Don’t you like, or aren’t you used to this sort of challenge? Just because I engage with the ideas you present should not be interpreted as me complaining about your right to present your own ideas – come off it! That is paranoid.

    Personally I enjoy challenging these ideas. I say – bring them on. Better out than in. The light of day is the best disinfectant. And I will continue applying light to ideas I consider mistaken or malicious.

    So don’t go away with the idea I am complaining – just because I desire to correct you when I think you are wrong in your comments on science or engage with you in your other assertions.

    2: A specific question from you: “I would here simply ask you a question. As you well know the contention that scientific theories provide approximately true descriptions of the world is actually a controversial philosophical position, the position of scientific realism. While this is a popular view there is are significant rival interpretations of what science does various forms of anti-realism. In light of this why should any scientific theory be taught as true in public schools?”

    A lot of things are controversial “philosophically.” You should be aware of that. You should be aware that there are a whole range of philosophical views – some of them quite out of touch with reality – some would even say mad. The important things is that there is not that controversy in the real philosophy of science or within science itself. We do have our controversies and they of course can involve philosophical details – but nothing that crude.

    I should warn that there are plenty of people out there claiming to specialise in the “philosophy”, “sociology” or “history” of science who we would consider academic charlatans – quite divorced from the reality of science. They might of course appeal to you (in fact, I know that one of them Plantinga, does appeal to you). They have no credibility with me. That is why I am not impressed by your arguments which appeal to the vague authority of academic philosophy and theology. (I always find such arguments from authority a sign of weakness).

    Similarly vague arguments for “empirical evidence for Gods existence ” don’t impress me either. After all, it’s not as if you don’t have an ideological barrow to push. As always, I am far more impressed by the actual evidence, the presentation and discussion of that evidence, rather than continual assertions that there is evidence. I can engage with the former. The later is not worth engaging with.
    .-= My last blog-post ..Saving the planet with condoms =-.

  • I have never been clear – and am not now – as to How one may observe the ‘vast and incomprehensible’ and write a hymn of awe and reverence (“O Lord, my God, when I….”) while another may infer that the universe is characterized by “blind, pitiliess, indifferance”. It seems to me that both are statements of faith, as Van Frassen would say neither really ‘explain’ they only ‘describe’…the language of science begging an ‘explanation’ (but not really).

  • Ken does not care about the argument. He just wants to defend evolution.

  • “Whats needed is some evidence or argument that God did not cause it.”
    it’s the other way around: we need some evidence or argument that God DID cause it. If you’ve got none, Matt, just sit down and keep your speculations to yourself. How dishonest can a faith-head get?

  • “Plantinga’s insight is correct. He goes on to note that if we did not know the planet was inhabited by intelligent beings and the erosion hypothesis was not significantly less probable then an appeal to Ockham’s razor in favour of the erosion hypothesis would have “teeth.” ”

    I’m sorry, this is just not true. Imagine, you and I go on a space exploration, land on a planet and you point out a rock that looks for all the world like an arrowhead.

    Here’s what I’m thinking would and would not happen. 1) We look at each other with ‘surprise’ on our faces! 2) The word ‘Ockham’ does not spring to your theistic or my atheistic mind.

    Adding the knowledge that there is ANY kind of life noticable on the planet would make the possibility of it being an arrowhead even more intriguing.

    Finally the knowledge that there is intelligent life there, makes it more likely that the arrowhead is, in fact, an artifact and not simply chance weathering.

    Seems to me that Plantinga is bending over backwards to create, in our mind, not just an analogous situation, but an analogous situation where God is a ‘given’. We’re being led by Plantinga, and you, since you agree, to consider the possiblity that intelligence is behind evolving DNA, by imagining a similar(?) situation where we KNOW already that there is intelligence which may be involved.(or not)

    Seems to me that since you and Plantinga are determined to believe that there IS intelligence involved in the processes of the universe, of course Ockham’s razor WOULD suggest God’s involvement.

    Anyone daring to suggest Ockham’s Razor as an alternative to your God hypothesis is simply not looking at the problem from your perspective, and it seems to me that Plantinga’s thought experiment is designed to change our perspective, to twist our perspective from neutral towards a Godly perspective.

    Is this philosophizing, or is it just sermonizing?

  • Pfloyd

    Plantinga is not changing from the neutral to the Christian perspective and even if he was calling this sermonising is not really a response.

    Plantinga was not addressing the question was not wether evolution, taken by itself in isolation from any other facts provides good reason for an agnostic to accept theism. He in fact concedes that, the answer to this question might be no.

    The question was whether a person who believes in God, who is appraised of current evolutionary theory is rationally compelled to give up belief in God. In other words wether evolutionary theory discredits or disproves belief in God.

    The question of wether X proves Y is a different question to the question of wether Y disproves X.

  • “Plantinga is not changing from the neutral to the Christian perspective..”

    Now I didn’t say that Matt. I said that the thought experiment, couched in the terms it is, purports to give us a way to consider Ockham’s Razor vs. God’s guidance, yes?

    It is the terms themselves that I have trouble with. There are many such stories, some thought experiments like this, some just jokes.

    They kind of irk me when they involve ‘how God making things’ as compared to ‘some other intelligent being’ making things, because God isn’t supposed to have made the universe anything at all like we or some other intelligent beings make stuff.

    Me getting some wood and sawing and measuring and screwing together and coming up with a chair is not a good analogy to God making the universe at all now.

    Me thinking of a chair and a chair ‘poofing’ into existence IS.

    Nevertheless, I was pointing out the the Ockham’s Razor weathered vs.’tooled by a being’ thing didn’t work, and it doesn’t.

    Fine by me if Plantinga was pointing out to theists, and ONLY to theists, how God might ‘work’ through evolution. Hey, that’s perfect.