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.


At 8:41 PM, Blogger StandingOutInTheCold said...

I've voiced my argument about the idiocy of the evangelical response to evolution before, so I won't go into it now. However, I will add that I agree that we ought to adopt a more pragmatic and less dogmatic approach to beliefs. Of course, this is just my belief right now and I may one day change my mind. But that is why I feel that such an approach is the only reasonable way to live. I believe that there is absolute truth, but I do not believe that it is defined nor encompassed by my beliefs. Everyone's beliefs change during their lives as they learn and become more wise -- or sometimes more jaded and bitter. We see a definite example of Peter's beliefs changing in the Bible, and it can be inferred that some of Paul's beliefs changed post-coversion. To hold fast to your beliefs and never consider anything else is to almost certainly doom yourself to incomplete beliefs or beliefs in something false. The lesson we should learn from history is that even those who seem closest to God and those we look up to most have changes in their beliefs during their lives. If we don't then it probably means something is wrong, not that we are better than them. All this to say that it is my observation that it is good and healthy for our beliefs to evolve as we grow and move through life and to want anything different is foolish.

At 10:32 AM, Blogger Hans-Georg Gadamer said...

Charles - I think this is an excellent post laying things out very well. Your first two points are fine and I agree with them as much as is possible to agree with something. I also agree that we should reject both A1 and A2 (A1 because it is incoherent and A2 because it is so vague I can't even make sense of it).
Here's my only thought - I think this pragmatic response with tools and whatnot is fine if we buy into 'seperate but equal' spheres of knowledge. Letting evoultionary biology do its thing and whatnot. It is a good pragmatic solution, but I think to really solve the problem we need to look at the stories all these tell.
I think John Milbank (Theology and Social Theory) and RO in general (especially Conor Cunningham) have done a really good job in pointing out that without a theological framework nothing makes any sense. Everything that is not rooted in God is bankrupt and therefore naturally leads to nihilism. Nietzsche both say and embraced this and should be commended because of it, but most people don't. NT Wright is good on this as well.
So to go with (2) about fuzziness I think we need to recognize that behind all the data and information is a story and we need to deal with that story if it is not the orthodox story. If you were writing this piece to a secular audience as far as a pragmatic solution goes I think it is right on. But if you intended it to be good for Christians as well I think we need to go a step further.
Since there are no such things as objective or neutral facts we need to find out what story is behind any findings and whether that is correct. So if evolutionary biologists are telling a story at odds with the Christian story of creation, fall, redemption and eschaton then we need to reject their alternative story.
This is not to bring back theology as 'queen of the sciences' because nothing is subjected to her, rather she is the ground of all knowledge, 'scientific' or otherwise. I think RO (and Smith's into to it?) does a great job of showing this. There are no autonomous disciplines. Suprisingly enough you sound incredibly Barthian in this post, which is good in bringing it back to Christ, but also brings along his incredible suspicion of 'natural' science and revelation.
So great as a pragmatic solution for the secular world, but as Christians we should probably check out what the story behind all this is. Is it about Christ and God? Or is it about something else?

At 11:07 AM, Blogger CharlesPeirce said...

Ha--I'm surprised you thought I sounded Barthian, because I was thinking that myself as I wrote it ("well, it's 1919 and your liberal-ness is all well and good...but CHRIST!") but didn't know if anyone would say anything. I grant that without God the world is meaningless; I also grant that theology is the ground of the sciences. But, to press the point I made in the post, I'd say that those two facts (no God = nihilism, theology = ground of science) aren't points that should just be asserted without context.

I'd also say that evolutionary biology CAN'T contradict the Christian story of creation, fall, redemption and eschaton, because that story starts out as a metanarrative (liberals 1, james w. sire 0) and finds its historical fulfillment in Christ. I really don't want to start an argument about Genesis, but I don't want any disagreements about it between you and me to lurk between the surface and prevent us from getting anywhere. To play my hand, again: I think Genesis 1-11 is a non-historical story about who we are, and not what happened. The gospels are about what happened, and who we can be.

Can a historical version of the fall be made compatible with evolutionary biology? Absolutely--see point 1 from the post. I just don't think that's the case.

At 12:32 PM, Blogger Hans-Georg Gadamer said...

Just a few points:
1. James W. Sire might think Christianity is a metanarrative, but surely it is not. A metanarrative is an overarching story which stands outside of everything whereas Christianity is 'the story' about all things wrapped up in...Christ (?). David Bentley Hart is really good on showing why Incarnation removes any way of calling Christianity (creation, etc.) a metanarrative without looking stupid (DBH 1, liberals 0, james w. sire -1).

2. I am not sure why evolutionary biology 'can't' contradict the Christian story. I think eveolutionary biology has different presuppositions than the Christian story does, like the universe as a closed system and such. Not to debate the finery of evolutionary biology (because I am no expert on it) but just to do a more philosophical run at it. I think it assumes things that Christians can not assume, like closed system.

3. Now I have been wrestling with (1) a bit since it seems to solve everything, but I am not sure I have it down yet. My version of it is: beliefs are merely tools which can be reappropriated whenever the dialogue or context changes. So for instance to say 'God created the earth' and 'evolution created populations' have nothing to do with each other because they inhabit different linguistic space. The question to me is are we so sure that beliefs are just tools? That seems to mean that no beliefs can be 'wrong', just not correct for the given context.

Example: We are sitting in a field watching clouds and I say "That one looks like a castle." You respond "That cloud is made of graham crackers." Both those statements seem to convey more than just a marker for future action (whether I could know it or not), and one of them is surely incorrect. But pragmatism seems to say it is merely 'the wrong tool.' I guess it would be the right tool if I showed you my graham cracker cloud, but then we have this notion that beliefs are somhow universal in time since this one can be later (or earlier) applied to an entirely different context, which is a strange way of saying they are only tools.

So regardless of how you view Genesis 1-11 on the historical front, the question is "Is the point the story is trying to make (if we can discern this) at odds with the what evolutionary biology is saying." All beliefs are interconnected so what I say in biology class will have an effect on what is said in religion class, as well as home and economics.

So I think beliefs can contradict each other, although this gets into the whole 'truth' debate which we want to avoid, I suppose. I am not sure if I made any sense.

At 12:00 AM, Blogger RedHurt said...

Sorry I'm hitting this so late. I feel like this is a sophomoric question to ask, but I can't help but wondering: 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?

At 12:26 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you so much Charles Pierce, for being such a clear voice for those of us who understand the issues but don't have the words, vocabulary, education, or patience to state it so well.
Reading the things you write reminds me of trying to learn a new language---even when one gets pretty good at it, he is able to take in a lot more than he can put out. Just like a baby---understanding comes way before fluency. But I thank you from the bottom of my heart.,
Also, being new to blogging, I so appreciate the kindness and restraint most people use, even when disagreeing with one another. How refreshing.


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