dinsdag 26 februari 2008

Looking for nuance between evolution and ID

I'm proud to say that I was a child dinosaur expert before it became fashionable - before what Stephen Jay Gould described as "the great dinosaur rip-off" with Spielberg films, colouring books, plushy animals, etc. I had to satisfy my curiosity with adult reading material and the fossil collection at the local zoo. It began when my father bought me a book about prehistoric animals when I was six or seven or so, and by the end of the year I knew the main facts of about 200 species by heart. I'm not sure what attracted me to it so. Perhaps the classificationary system for the sake of it - the geological timespans, the family tree of animals branching out, etc. I've always liked orderly systems like that. The sheer scariness of some prehistoric animals also contributed to it, no doubt. The lure of a different, primordial world where even the plants are all different, volcanoes going off in the background, etc. But also the beauty of all the different forms involved, such as lithe, graceful Coelophysis, with neck and tail almost too long for its body, built for speed:

I didn't end up a palaeontologist like I intended to when I was little. But I guess there is something of the similar fascination which made me interested in historical linguistics: we are dealing with fossils and layers of fossils of words, which may suggest past stages of language, and part of their social and cultural backgrounds, which we are to reconstruct.

I just came upon this nuanced piece on the evolution/creation struggle (HT: Quintessence of Dust. The article makes a number of points dear to my heart:

In a curious way, Dawkins and his fellow scientific atheists espouse the same notion of God that drives their sworn enemies, the creationists who oppose teaching evolution in public schools. For both camps, the only God who makes sense is one who designed all life with exquisite attention to detail. Scientific atheists disavow such a religion; creationists embrace it.

The point is stark, but it has merit. "Scientific creationism" and such ideas seem to me to a strong degree a relatively recent backlash against Enlightenment secular ideals of science, rooted in perhaps the natural theology of the 18th century but certainly not very much farther back in Christianity. Authors such as Augustine were well-known for being very leery of basing scientific conclusions on Scripture.

The article also mentions the alternative view on creation proposed by John Haught:

Don't think of God as a meticulous designer of life, Haught urges. A detailed design would have limited the paths that living things could take. Instead, he says, God's love led to a world that's always open to new directions for life, without the need for overpowering divine supervision. The chance-fueled nature of evolution doesn't disprove God's existence, Haught believes. It's what God wanted.

"Love persuades, it doesn't force," Haught says. "God doesn't compel the world to be a certain way, and that's because of how love works. God lets things be, and lets the weeds grow up with the wheat."

The Biblical foundation for Haught's view of evolution goes back to St. Paul's Epistle to the Philippians, which describes how Jesus "emptied himself" to become human. It's a crucial image, Haught believes. That idea of divine emptying--"kenosis" in Greek--offers a way of understanding all of creation. Instead of a mighty autocrat, it portrays God as a self-humbling servant, content to let the universe evolve and novelty emerge.

The notion is very similar to that of process theology, which proposes a panentheistic vision in which God is both primordial and eternal, the necessary being of classical theology, and at the same time unfolding and constantly developing within the unfolding universe. It's an enticing picture (though not without theological problems. Especially notions of sin, fallenness, etc may be difficult to account for within it).

I don't find the controversy between ID and Darwinian models of evolution particularly interesting. I suppose I accept evolution, if evolution is meant to signify that modern forms of life have over a long period of time evolved from one or a few very primitive ones. I guess I'd also assent to variation and natural selection playing a strong role in evolution. I would probably protest if random mutation and natural selection are raised as the only operative mechanisms in evolution, because I think that would be where we step from scientific hypothesis to metaphysical research program. The randomness basically being a negative concept (absence of teleology).

I suppose I am dead against "universal Darwinism": trying to generalize the models of random mutation/variation within a population and natural selection to domains where it is clearly not appropriate, i.e. cultural history or indeed linguistics. Dawkins carries some of the blame here.

As far as ID is concerned, the idea is fascinating, though potentially theologically troubling for the reasons mentioned in the article:

Intelligent design's shortcomings as science are immense, but its theological problems may be just as profound. The God of intelligent design is a master craftsman who leaves virtually nothing to chance. That's unsatisfying to Cambridge University paleontologist Simon Conway Morris, who says many of his objections to intelligent design stem from his Christian faith. "It's theology for control freaks, with God as an engineer."

The image of God as a micro-managing autocrat leads to some awkward paradoxes. For example, supporters of intelligent design often point to the flagellum, the complex molecular motor that allows bacteria to move, as an example of something that evolution could not have produced. Yet if God designed even the tiny flagellum, why stop there? Intelligent design implies that the creator's blueprint knows no limits. And if God designed every last element of life, that makes him minutely responsible for nature's cruelty and failures as well as its beauty.

If more subtle models than God-as-cosmic-tinkerer are proposed, the question arises as to what extent is design a scientifically useful concept. ID would move from science into philosophy, or metaphysics. That, as a matter of fact, may not be a bad place to be. However, ID would then merge into pre-existing theological and philosophical models concerning God's omnipresence and activity.

I have no reason to be committed to naturalism, methodological or otherwise. I'm not even sure whether the concept of naturalism makes sense. If it is defined as the striving to uncover natural (spatiotemporally isolable) causes for natural event operating under general laws, then naturalism (at least methodological n-) seems pretty much irrelevant to most of the human sciences. I guess one may even ask to what extent physics is really a naturalistic science, if indeed conscious observation is a causal factor in quantum physics.

I've grown gradually more sympathetic to Peirce's notion of matter (and the laws governing it) as "effete mind" or Sheldrake's closely related idea of natural laws as ingrained "habits". Which ends up turning on its head the conventional picture of the human sciences as somehow an exceptional subdomain of (and, perhaps, ultimately reducible to) a more general natural science. Instead, the naturalistic domain of matter is an exception to the much more general case of teleological, agentive mind. Which fits nicely with some kind of panentheism as mentioned above.

And I guess that the ID vs. evolution controversy ultimately comes down to whether a metascientific viewpoints borrowed from the natural sciences (covering-law model) or one borrowed from the human sciences (rational agency) is most appropriate to interpret the evidence concerning the evolution of life. Which, perhaps, is a philosophical rather than a scientific question.

But in terms of a cultural phenomenon or movement rather than a philosophical idea, what troubles me about ID is, I guess, that it seems to me to be a reactive phenomenon, at the same time trying to subvert naturalism and playing by its rules in attempting to provide a scientific case for a Designer. If indeed the designer is God, the attempt seems to be almost irreverent, turning a mystery (the continuous sustaining and creative presence of God) into a problem of science. In that sense, if ID is indeed non-science or anti-science as charged by its detractors, it's ironically not non-science or anti-science enough.

1 opmerking:

IlĂ­on zei

I'm not an IDist (I'm a creationist *gasp*). However, your sources are either uninformed ... or perhaps, seeking intentionally to misinform you ... about what ID is.

ID *is* evolutionistic. The main and irresolvable difference between ID and "Darwinism" is that "Darwinism" is committed to materialism, whereas ID is not.