Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Does Evolution Support Atheism?

After a long time away from my blog over the holidays (and beyond), I have been inspired (or provoked) to take up my pen (keyboard) again in response to a blog post I read by a fellow member of my faith. The author, Dave, cautioned that evolution contributes to atheism because of its materialism and “mechanistic underpinnings.” (Materialism is the philosophy that all that exists is matter, and mechanistic means explaining phenomena in purely physical terms). While he acknowledged that “There are no inherent problems with interpreting natural world events using a mechanistic-laden theory like evolution, as long as people recognize the limitations,” he maintained that danger arises when they accept mechanism as reflecting the way the world really is, as a sort of ontological reality.” (Ontology, by the way, is a branch of metaphysics that deals with the nature and kinds of things that have existence.) While I think I agreed with the basic idea Dave was getting at, I was bothered by his claim that “the underpinnings” of evolution contribute to atheism. It struck me that the discussion could be aided by an understanding that science is based on one particular kind of naturalism (explaining things in terms of only natural causes and laws), and that philosophers recognize different types of naturalism: methodological naturalism and metaphysical naturalism. The first is a method or tool; the second is a philosophy. Let’s look at these more closely (bear with me through the philosophical lingo-- it will pay off!):

Methodological naturalism is methodical study of the natural or physical world that limits itself to natural explanations that can be empirically tested, observed and quantified. Here’s a lengthy quote about that, if you wish to read it (or you can skip it and still get the drift):

“Expert testimony reveals that since the scientific revolution of the 16th and 17th centuries, science has been limited to the search for natural causes to explain natural phenomena.... Since that time period, science has been a discipline in which testability, rather than any ecclesiastical authority or philosophical coherence, has been the measure of a scientific idea's worth. In deliberately omitting theological or "ultimate" explanations for the existence or characteristics of the natural world, science does not consider issues of "meaning" and "purpose" in the world. While supernatural explanations may be important and have merit, they are not part of science. This self-imposed convention of science, which limits inquiry to testable, natural explanations about the natural world, is referred to by philosophers as ‘methodological naturalism’ and is sometimes known as the scientific method. Methodological naturalism is a ‘ground rule’ of science today which requires scientists to seek explanations in the world around us based upon what we can observe, test, replicate, and verify.”-Kitzmiller vs Dover (2005:64-65)

In other words, methodological naturalism is what the scientific method is based on. The naturalistic “underpinnings of evolution" Dave refers to in his blog are exactly the same as the naturalistic underpinnings-- the scientific method-- that all of science is based on. We cannot conduct science in any other way. The Theory of Evolution is no different (or any more conducive to atheism) than any of the rest of science in this way.

Metaphysical or philosophical naturalism, on the other hand, claims that nature is all there is—that nothing exists beyond the natural world we observe. Metaphysical naturalism denies the existence of the spiritual and is therefore distinctly different than the methodological naturalism necessary for scientific inquiry, which must remain mute about whether anything lies beyond the physical world. And here is the key point: metaphysical naturalism is not part of science; it is a philosophy (taken on faith, ironically) entirely outside the power of science to confirm or deny. Hence, a religious scientist can be perfectly comfortable employing methodological naturalism in his science while firmly rejecting metaphysical naturalism. The problem is when people (and often scientists themselves) fail to draw the distinction. Others also recognize this problem:

“Methodological naturalism is distinguished from metaphysical (or ontological or philosophical) naturalism, the view that nature is all there is and that supernatural entities such as spirit and God do not exist. The former is a statement about the limits of science, while the latter is a statement about the whole of reality, but some philosophers argue that the distinction fails in practice because scientists tend to act as though the whole of reality is accessible to their methods.” –New World Encyclopedia (my italics. Quote found here)

Note that last line, to which I added italics. And now I’m sure you are saying, “Alisse, you are harping on the same subject again! We know, we know: science is a method limited to only some portions of reality, and problems happen when we try to take it beyond its bounds and turn it into a philosophy about all of reality. We get it, okay!” Good. I’m glad you understand this point, because I continue to find it at the root of most conflict involving science. In fact, this is the very thing that has led to the backlash against science in the U.S. For example, William Dembski, a prominent leader in the Intelligent Design (ID) movement, declares, “Intelligent Design entails that naturalism in all forms be rejected” (1998). He further states:

“So long as methodological naturalism sets the ground rules for how the game of science is to be played, IDT [Intelligent Design Thesis] has no chance… The ground rules of science have to be changed. We need to realize that methodological naturalism is the functional equivalent of a full blown metaphysical naturalism. Metaphysical naturalism asserts that the material world is all there is. …Methodological naturalism asks us for the sake of science to pretend that the material world is all there is. But once science comes to be taken as the only universally valid form of knowledge within a culture, it follows at once that methodological and metaphysical naturalism become for all intents and purposes indistinguishable. They are functionally equivalent. What needs to be done, therefore, is to break the grip of naturalism in both guises, methodological and metaphysical.” –William Dembski (1996). 

Wait. Did I hear that last line right? Because some people think the scientific method is the only valid way to knowledge, we should overthrow the scientific method? We should ignore the valid distinction, recognized by philosophers, between the two kinds of naturalism and throw the baby out with the bath water? That's certainly what he seems to be saying. Although I obviously sympathize with Dembski's concerns about people placing science on too high a throne, I find his solution baffling. He doesn't just want to dethrone science; he wants to dismember it.

As summarized in the court decision of Kitzmiller vs Dover, “ID violates the centuries-old ground rules of science by invoking and permitting supernatural causation" (2005:64). Let’s think about what would happen if we overthrew the ground rules of science-- of the scientific method that must leave questions about God alone-- and allowed all fields of science to address the “supernatural.” Everybody has different ideas about what is in that realm. Various untestable and unfalsifiable proposals of the supernatural would have to be entertained not just in biology and geology (the fields especially objectionable to ID), but in physics, astronomy, electronic theory, medicine, chemistry, engineering, etc., etc. Can you imagine the implications, here?  People could legitimately propose that invisible water fairies are responsible for hydraulic lift. In other words, attacking the theory of evolution by changing its “underpinnings” (scientific naturalism) has vast implications for how all of science—not just biology—would then be done. It would cease to be science as we know it and would resemble the more speculative versions of science known in previous centuries, before the formalization of the scientific method. You think I’m exaggerating, and yes, it all sounds ridiculous, but this is indeed the logical conclusion of rejecting methodological naturalism as Dembski suggests. It undoes science.

It seems abundantly clear that the real solution, which Dembski alludes to but does not pursue, is to emphasize that science is not “the only universally valid form of knowledge.” Instead, ID jumps on board the idea that science does provide the answers and sets about to disguise itself as a new scientific enterprise, all the while seeking to undermine the scientific method. I fail to see the logic in this approach, well-intended toward the "intelligent designer" though it may be.

Thank goodness, I say, for the naturalistic “underpinnings of evolution” and of science in general. Let’s just keep straight what kind of naturalism we are talking about. The Theory of Evolution is more likely to facilitate atheism (and a subsequent backlash against science) when its grounding in scientific naturalism is fundamentally misunderstood or ignored.

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