By J. Thomas Bridges,
My goal for this article was to summarize a helpful analogy that I utilized in my doctoral research regarding the Neo-Darwinism/Intelligent Design
debate. Before unpacking that analogy, however, I would like to prepare the reader with another. There occasionally arises an academic tension between those who are professionally trained in philosophy and those professionally trained in science. This first analogy gives a context for this tension.
Imagine a well-educated layperson who wants to do a scientific experiment using only his rudimentary knowledge of nature and the tools in his
kitchen and garage. Doubtless it would be an interesting experience, but the ‘experiment’ would be almost wholly useless. A professional scientist would understand that to manipulate and measure natural
phenomena with any degree of precision requires highly sophisticated equipment and highly controlled environments; not to mention the technical proficiency to understand and interpret both.
Something similar happens when a scientist ventures into areas of research that fall most naturally in the realm of philosophy. Two recent examples are: 1) Laurence Krauss’ attempt to translate the term “nothing” from its philosophically relevant definition of “absolute non-being” to one derived from contemporary physics (a zero average energy state, or the like); and 2) Stephen Hawkings’ bold denial that “philosophy” is dead in a book meant to discuss the nature of ultimate reality (a traditionally philosophical pursuit).
The journal articles and books written by professional philosophers are every bit as technical as many science articles (if less quantitative). The vast array of literature dealing with the issues and sub-issues in metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, political philosophy, aesthetics, etc. speaks directly to fundamental issues in these areas. Just at the professional scientist looks at the layperson doing “science” in his garage and kitchen as something of a joke, so too the professional philosopher tends to see these scientists’ philosophical efforts as sophomoric and unworthy of serious consideration. It could be left at this level of professional disdain if the science writers didn’t command an air of authority and a serious following.
Only a commitment to scientism, the belief that “science is the only means for securing truth about reality” could motivate these thinkers and their followers to traipse into philosophical domains untrained and illiterate and make such bold demands and assertions. It seems clear, however, that scientists do not have a monopoly on research that involves significant levels of training and academic rigor. As an aside, a discussion of the pros and cons of scientism would be a philosophical one over competing epistemologies (theories of knowledge) and if the scientists want to defend this particular epistemology, they better ask a philosopher buddy to help. The point to be made here is that philosophy has a genuine and unique academic role to play in our study of the world at its most fundamental level. I say all this with the vested interest of justifying my philosophical analysis of the neo-Darwinian reconstruction of natural history that the following analogy is meant to clarify.
Atheist philosopher Thomas Nagel has recently written in his Mind and Cosmos, “My skepticism [re: Neo-Darwinian theory] is not based on religious belief, or on a belief in any definite alternative. It is just a belief that the available scientific evidence…does not in this matter rationally require us to subordinate the incredulity of common sense.”¹ The following analogy elucidates this “common sense incredulity” regarding the neo-Darwinian reconstruction of natural history.
Imagine standing in a wide-open field on a crystal clear winter night far out in the country, away from any light pollution. From one hemisphere of the earth a person could see around
3,000 individual points of light. Now imagine trying to have a conversation with someone about just a handful of those stars. This is where our constellations come in.
In the ancient world nearly every culture had a set of constellations that would enable them to mark seasons and to navigate. Greeks, Chinese, Native Americans, Egyptians, Sumerians, Babylonians all created pictures out of the brightest stars in the sky. This means that constellation creation is common across many diverse cultures. This gives us insight in to a fundamental phenomenon of human thought: When presented a qualitative body of data that is practically unintelligible, we will pick out discernible patterns that enable us to refer to the data in some intelligible way. That is, we impose some intelligible framework on the data.
The constellations can reveal more about our thinking. Modern astronomy is able to tell us the precise relationships that the stars within a given constellation have with one another. For example, one science writer explains, “With one exception, all of the main stars in Orion are bright young blue giants or supergiants, ranging in distance from Bellatrix (243 light-years) to Alnilam (1,359 light-years). The Orion Nebula is farther away than any of the naked eye stars at a distance of about 1,600 light-years. One light-year is the distance light travels in a single year, about 6 trillion miles (10 trillion kilometers).” This means that Bellatrix and Alnilam are more than 6.0 x 1012 miles away from one another. It could be stated that these two stars do not have any causal relationship between them, though they are grouped together because of their “line-of-sight” position in the sky as seen from the face of the earth. So, not only do we, in creating constellations, impose an intelligible framework on the night sky, but in doing so we group individual objects together that have no real connection to one another.
What does this discussion about constellations have to do with neo-Darwinian natural history? A lot actually. Arguably, when trying to reconstruct a narrative of the history of life, we are in a similar position to the ancients looking up at the night sky. That is, we are surveying a data set that, of itself, is practically unintelligible. Michael J. Benton and David A.T. Harper, in their book Introduction to Paleobiology and the Fossil Record write, “On a bad day, it is easy to despair of ever really understanding the history of life because the fossils we have to hand are such a small remnant of what once existed.”
It is like having an ancient mosaic that spans a city block where only, say, 10-15% of the tiles remain. There may be certain sections that are better preserved than others, but reconstructing the mosaic in its entirety would take a fair amount of guesswork. This is the position of neo-Darwinian theory as it surveys what has been chance preserved by geologic time.
So what does the neo-Darwinist do? The same thing the ancient astronomers did, he picks out some discernible patterns and imposes a conceptual framework on the data that makes it intelligible. In conferring intelligibility on the data set, he inevitably groups individuals together that have no real connection with one another (e.g. Bellatrix and Alnilam), and this is the story that emerges from the Darwinian reconstruction: from one ultimate common ancestor all biodiversity comes and the fossil record can be reconstructed sufficiently to display this genealogical relationship of lower to higher species.
The question remains: But is the story true? I don’t think so, and neither, apparently does Thomas Nagel. Looking down into the earth to reconstruct natural history we have individual objects placed in ancestor-descendant relationships with one another that are really separated from one another by millions of years of organic growth and change, along with a shifting environment. To say that one particular object is the ancestor to another particular object who is its descendent is akin to placing two stars in a causal relationship that are actually spatially removed from one another by trillions of miles. The neo-Darwinian reconstruction takes this geologic “line-of-sight” as an indication of genealogical relationship, but it only indicates this once the Darwinian conceptual framework is in place. Sounds like a lot of guesswork to me; too much for me to be overly impressed with scientific standing of such a theory.
And so with these two analogies in place I have made a case for: 1) philosophy’s legitimate contribution to the way we think about the world, and 2) Nagel’s “common sense incredulity” regarding neo-Darwinian theory. It is obvious that those enamored with the neo-Darwinian narrative are unaware that they are conferring intelligibility on the data set or that this entails illicit causal relationships. This is the blindness of looking at the data through the lens of a given paradigm. The next time you are feeling overwhelmed with anti-religious neo-Darwinian rhetoric, remember the analogy with the constellations, look to the heavens, and say to yourself, “Father forgive them, they know not what they do.”
1Thomas Nagel, Mind and Cosmos (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2012).
2Michael J. Benton and David A.T. Harper, Introduction to Paleobiology and the Fossil Record, (Oxford, Wiley-Blackwell, 2009).