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.)