Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Evolutionary biology and truth?

redhurt asks:

"What does this do to the notion of truth? I've recently been thinking a lot more about how truth is important, and how Christianity is a religion of truth, and how that's one of its unique qualities. I'm in agreement with everything you've written here, but it seems it could quite easily fall into relativism to me. Any thoughts on that?"

I thought this would make a good post, and I'll address it by first continuing along the philosophical path I started below. One of the stark differences between William James and Richard Rorty is their conflicting notions of truth.

James wants to (1) hold on to a version of the good ol' correspondence theory, but he also (2) wants to update philosophy for the 20th century and tie it to science. That's why people who read a broad range of his works note the tension between his assertion of classic correspondence formulas in some places and his use of slogans ("the true is what is good for us to believe") in others. Rorty, in contrast, wants to EITHER (1) completely dismantle the notion of truth by convincing us that the correspondence notion is incoherent and unworkable, OR (2) accept the Platonic definition (true, justified belief), and then get us all to shut up about it and work on actual concrete problems like poverty, free speech, Howard Dean, etc.

What's most fascinating to me is that you can appropriate lots of Rorty's points without giving up any ground on the correspondence theory. While he treats beliefs solely as indexes (see previous post), we can treat beliefs both as assessments of factual statements about the world AND as indexes. Why be parsimonious about our appropriation of the insights of great philosophers?

With that in mind, I don't see any worry about evolutionary biology leading us into relativism. Just as our stomachs have evolved to digest food and our hands have evolved to grasp and make tools, so our minds have evolved to make, assess and revise accurate statements about the external world.

The books to read: Steven Pinker's The Blank Slate, for his take on evolutionary biology's impact on truth; and Hilary Putnam's Realism with a Human Face, which reconciles regular old objective truth with some of the insights of the post-modern philosophers.

redhurt, if you'd care to elaborate on specific concerns I'd be happy to address this issue further.

Friday, January 27, 2006

Evolutionary biology and faith

Science, especially evolutionary biology, and faith are often cast as separate domains, alternately seen in harmony and opposition. Mostly, this seems to be done to give magazines like Time and Newsweek headline articles--some weeks they tout some breakthrough in biology as undermining some tenet of religion; other weeks it's lending support. In this post I'm going to argue that if you approach this supposed tension from a neo-pragmatic perspective, no "reconciliation" is ever needed, and we can let biology be biology and faith be faith. What I mean by a neo-pragmatic perspective will become clear as we proceed.

Pragmatist philosophers like William James, John Dewey, Charles Peirce, Josiah Royce and Richard Rorty help us to sort out these matters by emphasizing two key points again and again. (Side note: the articles at the Stanford encylopedia are technical, thorough, and tough. For an easier introduction to any of the above hit wikipedia instead.)

(1) Beliefs are flexible. Dewey especially treats our mind and beliefs as a pure evolutionary biologist would treat our anatomy: as things that evolve over time in response to both external and internal pressure. From this perspective, beliefs are not only logical statements that we use our intellect to come up with: they are ways of coping with the world, just like an arm, antlers, a sentence, or a hammer. As our environment changes, so do our beliefs. Rorty, following Peirce, abandons the Cartesian notion of a true belief as a clear and distinct perception entirely and turns it into an index of our action. Thus, "I believe in God" turns into the sum total of the actions, both mental and physical, that humans who assent to this belief perform. Long quote from Rorty:

"...beliefs and desires are not pre-linguistic modes of consciousness, which may or may not be expressible in language, nor are they names of immaterial events. Rather, they are what in philosophical jargon are called "sentential attitudes" - that is to say, dispositions on the part of organisms (or of computers) to assert or deny certain sentences. Pragmatists complement this biologistic approach with CS Peirce's definition of a belief as a habit of action. On this definition, to ascribe a belief to someone is simply to say that he or she will tend to behave as I behave when I am willing to affirm the truth of a certain sentence....On this view, when we utter such sentences as "I am hungry," we are not making external what was previously internal, but are simply helping those around us to predict our future actions. Such sentences are not used to report events going on within the Cartesian Theater, which is a person's consciousness, they are simply tools for coordinating our behavior with those of others. This is not to say that one can reduce mental states such as beliefs and desires to physiological or behavioral states."

Note Rorty combining evolution, Dewey and Peirce to attack Descartes; note him also avoiding reductive materialism and determinism. Now, I'm not sure whether Rorty is completely right or not; but the point that he makes that he is definitely right about is that beliefs are not like puzzle pieces: they are much more flexible than that. Keep this in mind as we go along.

(2) Domains are fuzzy. In conversation we correctly refer to things like biology, religion, the church, faith, society, government, and raving fundamentalist as if they were neat, coherent concepts; there's no other way to talk without doing this. We all know, though, that if you put ten people in a room and asked them for a definition of any of the above you'd end up with ten unique definitions. We need to broaden this point when we speak of science and faith and make it clear that it's anything but clear where one area leaves off and another begins. For me, following the pragmatists, saying that there is sometimes tension between science and religion is really a way of asking the question, what tools should I bring to bear in my current situation? Stephen Jay Gould came up with a way of addressing this problem.

In this respect, I personally don't see science and religion, biology and religion, or evolutionary biology and religion in any more conflict than I see math and physics, sociology and philosophy, astronomy and robotics, political science and mechanical engineering, or any other combination of disciplines. There IS real tension, of course (how about relativity and quantum mechanics?), but when you appropriate point 1 above you don't need to run for the hills every time two of your beliefs conflict or every time a choice of disciplines needs to be made. (The caveat is that our society currently forces religion and biology to go at it. But that doesn't mean we have to.)


Here's the problem. People think there needs to be a dramatic reconciliation between evolutionary biology and faith, or at least a concession by one or both sides, because evangelicals have set up a series of Modus Ponens arguments like the following two examples:

A1: If evolution happened, God does not exist.
A2: If there are any errors or inconsistencies whatsoever in the Bible, then our entire faith collapses.

It's obvious why such a mindset sees biology, genetics, evolutionary psychology and related disciplines as a threat. But I don't (and we shouldn't) agree to such terms.


The reason no reconciliation is needed as science merrily proceeds is because Christ's coming is the defining event of our faith and of our existence, because it establishes our solidarity with God. Now, at first blush this sounds like an evangelical platitude, but it's one that's abandoned as soon as we leave church. What it means is that at the end of the day, it's not design, or general revelation, or some spiritual sense or feeling that we have, or the cosmological constant, or the chaos in the universe, or the beauty in the universe, or any generality about science's explanatory powers, or the inability of science to explain everything, that
establishes our solidarity with God--it's the fact that Christ actually was present with us two thousand years ago.

That's why we can be biologists in biology class, sociologists in sociology class, and evolutionary psychologists without the need for a dramatic reconciliation every time science explains something. It's in church that we try to put it all together. With fuzzy domains and flexible beliefs it's okay to wonder about why we have an appendix or cheat, five fingers on each hand, and blog. (Anaximander actually came up with the first version of the theory of evolution in 550 BC, but then everyone forgot, so that they could flip out when Darwin showed up.)

I'm done.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Nice white collar you have there

Barbara Ehrenreich is an author and journalist (wikipedia calls her a social critic and essayist, but we're all social critics here) who wrote a book about the effects of welfare reform and the experiences of the working poor called Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America. I read it and thought it was worthwhile, but didn't find it particularly galvanizing or insightful. She went "undercover" and became a member of the working poor for a while, seeing what it was like to live on minimum wage (and busting out for the occasional latte and visit to see her husband.) Then she wrote a book about it. Sweet.

Well, she did it again, and now has a book called Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream, this time about the crazy white-collar world, in which most of us here in the blogworld live and move and have our being. I have not yet read it, but will, soon. In the meantime, there's a strange mini-interview with her at the Amazon site for the book, which includes this preposterous statement:

"There's a lot of camaraderie in the blue-collar world I entered in Nickel and Dimed. People help each other and look out for each other; they laugh together--often at the managers. The white-collar world doesn't encourage camaraderie, far from it. There it's all about competition and fear--of losing one's job, for one thing. Other people are seen as sources of contacts or tips, at best; as competitors or rivals, at worst. And among the unemployed add shame and a sense of personal failure, the constant message that it's all your own fault. All this discourages any solidarity with others or real openness."

What do you all make of this? I think it's completely wrong and myopic. For her to say that in general, in the blue-collar world, coworkers laugh, help and look out for each other, and in the white-collar world they don't, is just ridiculous...and I don't think the blue-collar boys and girls at Chrysler or Ford are feeling the job security right now. This is a gross oversimplification up with which I will not put. I've had 9 blue collar jobs and 2 white collar in my 23 years, and the competition, fear, and camaraderie were about the same at each.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Students lack real-life skills.

Did anyone see this article?

Here's a summary of the findings:

"[The students surveyed] cannot interpret a table about exercise and blood pressure, understand the arguments of newspaper editorials, compare credit card offers with different interest rates and annual fees or summarize results of a survey about parental involvement in school."

Here's the bottom line:

"Do they do well enough for a highly educated population? For a knowledge-based economy? The answer is no," said Joni Finney, vice president of the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, an independent and nonpartisan group.

I understand that Ms. Finney had to issue a statement, and wasn't going to candidly and insightfully outline the consequences of the study and what we should do, but her conclusion was wonderfully vague--"They aren't doing well enough."

JOHNNY BIGSHOT: Jones, we've enjoyed having you work here, but...well, to be honest, you're just not doing well enough.
JONES: Well enough for what, sir?
JOHNNY BIGSHOT: For our knowledge-based economy, you cretin.

Any thoughts on what this means for America, for the 7 billion Chinese engineers that graduated last year who can build power plants out of Nancy Pelosi's integrity, or Ms. Finney and her opinion?

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Short post

I just saw a bumper sticker I'd never seen before--it said

"War never solved anything--except for fascism, Nazism and communism."

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Articles you should read.

Alien vs. predator.

The great debate.

Armando's take on the WP's "endorsement" of Alito.

Immigration info and discussion at the Corner.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Alito confirmation hearings

I blogged briefly about the John Roberts hearings here and got some great comments. redhurt wondered about the relevance of the procedure given how strong of a candidate Roberts was; standingout pointed out that since it's a given that presidents pick judges, you have to understand that when you're voting; inviolable asked about what qualifies senators to review justices; and jackscolon went to church with Bill Clinton.

Is anyone paying attention to the Alito confirmation hearings? I haven't watched them but I read some of the transcripts on the Washington Post. (Do a search for "Roe" in that document and see what you come up with.) I thought it was annoying how much Kennedy and others were focusing on the CAP stuff (which I won't explain here but you can easily google) until I read this on Slate. It helped me put things into focus:

"As trivial as the screaming over CAP may seem, it matters. Not because it proves the nominee hates women or minorities or criminal defendants or immigrants. That's a caricature of a conservative judge. It matters because CAP was code in 1985 for all the things Alito refused to write on his application and refuses to discuss before the committee now. Instead of being forthright about his convictions, Alito hides behind the fiction that there is only one way to decide cases."

Basically Lithwick is saying that (1) Alito refuses to be forthright about his views and (2) the Democrats refuse to be forthright in asking him about him. Obviously she thinks that this is unfair to the American people, but if I'm Alito and the Dems are being spineless pansies (which they have been since 1999), I'm going to avoid saying anything controversial and glide into confirmation. If there is anything controversial or bad about him, it's the Dems' job to tactfully find our or bring it up; if not, shut up and confirm him.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006


The labels that people use to refer to others in printed media are amusing, especially in America, where we have a two-party system. I found this on NRO's the Corner:

"In his Fred Thompson interview, Matt Lauer felt compelled to note that Alito is an ultraconservative. [But] You wouldn't catch Katie Couric telling C&B that Hillary's an old-fashioned liberal wing nut."

I don't know about the rest of you, but when I think "UltraConservative" I picture some sort of robot stomping around and vaporizing things with its laser eyes (while probably cutting our taxes.) Another fun adjective is "hard," as in the hard left or hard right; in a Bill O'Reilly column one time he used it three times. That's a pretty damn unyielding left!

Seriously, though, Alito's not all that conservative, and Hillary Clinton's not all that liberal. (Don't confuse "soulless" and "expedient" with liberal.) In America our politicians and public figures tend to fall on a pretty narrow spectrum, unlike in Europe, where you really could have, say, a radical environmentalist running against a Neo-Nazi. We all disagree about abortion, and capital punishment, and gay marriage, and a whole host of other issues, and so do our elected leaders, but I really don't think we have all that many maverick politicians in office right now. Right?