The Big Darwin Bicentennial

By now you have surely heard that Charles Darwin turns 200 today. Happy Birthday! In honor of that fact, Darwin articles in various media outlets are currently a dime a dozen. Some good, some pretty bad, many just standard boilerplate.

Here’s one that caught my eye, from The Times of London. It was written by Cormac Murphy-O’Connor and extols the virtues of blending faith with science. Let’s have a look.

Towards the end of his life Darwin wrote: “It seems to me absurd to doubt that a man may be an ardent Theist and an evolutionist.” The science opens me not only to puzzles and to questions about the world I live in; it leads me to marvel at its complexity. Here, I find science is a good friend to my faith. It also calls me to a journey of learning and understanding. One of the things that mars our culture is the fracture between faith and science. It impoverishes our inquiry into the realities that make up our life and world. This is a false opposition.

Common sentiments to be sure, but I wish people who raise this issue would spell out precisely how our culture is marred by the fracture between faith and science. How does faith enrich our inquiries into the realities of our world beyond what the methods of science already provide? It is nice that Murphy-O’Connor’s faith calls him on a journey of learning and understanding. All too often. however, faith is used as an excuse for pretending that answers are known before the investigation begins.

If we see the two as fundamentally opposed — science endangering and undermining faith, or faith obstructing knowledge — then distortions are produced on both sides. For example, some Christians argue for “Young Earth Creationism” or Intelligent Design as an alternative to evolutionary theory. Creationism is the belief that the biblical stories of Creation as described in the Book of Genesis are literally true.

Well, I certainly like the tacit admission that faith and knowledge are perfectly distinct. As for distortions, that only follows if you believe that religious faith is not a viable way of learning about the natural world. I certainly have no problem with that, but many people are not satisfied with so circumspect a view of religion.

Is genuine Christianity obliged to adopt any of these positions? No, it is not. Belief in creation is not equivalent to any one of them. It is a mistake to treat the theology of creation in the Book of Genesis as a scientific textbook. It does unfold a profound and valid truth about the world in which we live, its order and purpose. The Book of Genesis speaks about the relationship between God and creation and especially about the place of humanity in that relationship. That wonderful narrative of creation offers us a first vision of an “ecology of holiness” in which every material and living thing has a place and its creativity is consecrated in goodness by God. The account of creation in Genesis is pointing us beyond the question “how?” to the question “why?” Ultimately, science as well as faith must come to that most fundamental of all questions: the question of meaning and purpose.

Oh dear. That’s a really bad paragraph.

First off, this canard about treating Genesis as a science textbook really must go. The young-Earthers do not claim that it is. They claim simply that it is inerrant on any topic it treats, and that includes the occasional statement relevant to science.

Next, Murphy-O’Connor has no basis for describing it as a mistake to interpret Genesis as the young-Earthers do. He is welcome to say that he does not like their interpretation or that one can be a good Christiian while accepting a different view of Genesis, but calling it a mistake implies there is an unambiguous fact of the matter regarding the proper interpretation of Genesis. There is not. Furthermore, the young-Earth interpretation has a long and honored tradition within the church, both Catholic and Protestant. It is not some twentieth-century aberration of American Protestantism, contrary to what is often reported.

Murphy-O’Connor then tells us that Genesis is a wonderful narrative that tells us much about the relationship between God and His creation. It describes a profound and valid truth, he says. But surely the relationship between God and creation could have been illuminated without describing an utterly fictitious sequence of events. Profound and valid truths are more easily gleaned when they are not embedded within a story that could hardly be more wrong when viewed from a modern scientific standpoint.

As for where Genesis points us, it seems clear that it pointed a great many smart people into some very wrong ideas. Augustine may have been willing to countenance a non-literal interpretation of certain parts of Genesis, but he was quite adamant that the Earth was on the order of 6,000 years old. Likewise for St. Basil, James Ussher, Martin Luther and John Calvin, to name just a few of the top of my head. The Genesis narrative only has the effect of pointing towards “why” if the story is true. Since the events it describes did not, in fact, occur, I’d say we take our directions from more reliable sources.

Skipping ahead a bit:

Are humans only to be comprehended in purely materialist ways? Is there not something that exceeds this and makes it an inadequate description of human life? Is there not something in us that speaks of transcendence, that hints at being not only matter but also spirit? We are part of an evolutionary process; but we are also free agents; able to influence its future direction. Science gives us immense power, but we need to use all our material and spiritual resources to use that power for the good of all creation.

My answers to those first three questions are Yes, No and No. I answer that way because my understanding of the relevant science make those the most plausible answers. But even if I am wrong, I would like to know how Murphy-O’Connor presumes to seek better answers. How does he recommend we investigate that hypothetical something or other exceeds materialistic understandings of humanity? I’m not optimistic he has a compelling answer.

The anniversary of Darwin’s birth is an invitation to renew the conversation between science and faith. Christianity can contribute to the progress of science, not only by encouraging scientists in the search for truth, but by inviting them to consider these wider questions that go to the heart of our common and necessary search for understanding.

Permit me to demur. Christianity has nothing to contribute to the progress of science. Scientists are doing just fine in their search for truth without the encourgements and invitations of those committed to an outmoded and antiquated view of the world. I would note, further, that the many conflicts between science and Christianity in the past argue against the cozy view Murphy-O’Connor is promoting. A great many Christians are not as ready as Murphy-O’Connor to cede to scientists the right to make pronouncements about how nature works.

There is a bit more to Murphy-O’Connor’s essay so go have a look. Mostly, though, I really do not understand people who think this way. If faith is willing to abandon entirely the right to hold forth on matter of fact about the natural world, then perhaps we can speak of reconciling faith and science. And if it is willing to make so great a concession, then I fail to see what scientists have to learn from it.

Comments

  1. #1 Ben
    February 12, 2009

    My answers to those first three questions are Yes, No and No. I answer that way because my understanding of the relevant science make those the most plausible answers.

    These aren’t scientific questions, so why look to science for the answers?

  2. #2 Crandaddy
    February 12, 2009

    My answers to those first three questions are Yes, No and No. I answer that way because my understanding of the relevant science make those the most plausible answers. But even if I am wrong, I would like to know how Murphy-O’Connorpresumes to seek better answers. How does Murphy recommend we investigate that hypothetical something or other exceeds materialistic understandings of humanity? I’m not optimistic he has a compelling answer.

    I don’t know how O’Connor would respond to this, but I say the answers to these questions lie outside the scope of materialistic investigation. If we confine our focus to the material world, then of course, we’ll never get anything but materialist answers, and we’ll never expand our understanding beyond them. But why should the only legitimate answers be materialist answers?

  3. #3 GAZZA
    February 12, 2009

    But why should the only legitimate answers be materialist answers?

    They’re the only answers we know how to find. If idealism or Cartesian dualism had any way of experimental verification, and if they had managed to exhibit themselves via this verification, then fair enough – but so far, the only objectively verifiable answers we’ve managed to find have been materialist answers.

    Now certainly you can argue that we’re not looking hard enough. But I wonder why it is so hard to find objectively verifiable non-materialist answers and yet so easy to find materialist answers?

    Or perhaps there are no objective answers outside materialism – only subjective ones. In which case, if materialism is an equally valid subjective view, is it not?

  4. #4 tomh
    February 12, 2009

    If we confine our focus to the material world, then of course, we’ll never get anything but materialist answers, and we’ll never expand our understanding beyond them. But why should the only legitimate answers be materialist answers?

    I see this kind of gibberish all the time but no one ever explains how you do it. Just how do you propose to look for non-materialistic answers? Read the Bible? I’m afraid that’s material. Take hallucinogenic drugs? Please specify how you go beyond the “material world” to find these answers you speak of.

  5. #5 Me
    February 12, 2009

    Where Darwin Went Wrong:

  6. #6 AL
    February 12, 2009

    More importantly, can someone even define what it means for a thing to be non-material? Preferably using a substantial definition that isn’t trivial like “non-material is that which is not material.”

    I mean all this talk about science being limited because it restricts itself to the material and how we need spirituality to expand ourselves into that which transcends the material is all one big non-starter if no one can even give a coherent working definition of non-material. Non-material is either undefined or poorly defined thus far, and so this idea of science being limited reduces to science limiting itself to things which are well-defined. But is there really a big mystery why science is *ahem*, “limited” in this way?

    *In some cases, non-material can be well-defined but still be poorly defined in the sense that the manner in which it is defined doesn’t quite fit with what proponents of the “spiritual” make it out to be. An example is when abstract categories are reified into Platonic forms and then proffered as examples of non-material.

  7. #7 tomh
    February 12, 2009

    More importantly, can someone even define what it means for a thing to be non-material?

    The answer is no. I defy anyone to explain the difference between nonmaterial and nonexistent.

  8. #8 pough
    February 13, 2009

    Where Darwin Went Wrong:

    Geology!? Hands up who knew Darwin even had an interest in geology. (Okay, not fair at this website.) I watched a bit of the video (Stone Cold never showed up!) and I noticed that if you listen very carefully you can hear the sound of a barrel being scraped.

  9. #9 Crandaddy
    February 13, 2009

    More importantly, can someone even define what it means for a thing to be non-material?

    Having a first-person ontology–being the subject of an indexical “I” statement. I exist. I am thinking about the mathematical proposition 2+2=4, and I believe it is true.

    Physical (material) objects are defined by their objective third-person ontology–being conceivable and definable in terms of the properties they exemplify: shape, size, mass, color, smell, etc.

    If I am a material object, then the entire story of me (i.e. a complete and exhaustive explanation of what I am) can, in principle, be given in entirely physical terms (e.g. shape, size…). If this is true, then a complete and exhaustive account of my thinking about 2+2=4 in terms of the physical properties of my brain states is possible. But this seems nonsensical. Physical states may be described in terms of numerical properties, but how could they have such properties in a semantic context such as I entertain in my mind? To try to describe (or even understand) such a thought in communicable terms is to presuppose the very cognition that gives rise to the thought in the first place.

    This is a problem I don’t think materialism can overcome.

  10. #10 Tony
    February 13, 2009

    You say, “Next, Murphy-O’Connor has no basis for describing it as a mistake to interpret Genesis as the young-Earthers do. He is welcome to say that he does not like their interpretation or that one can be a good Christiian while accepting a different view of Genesis, but calling it a mistake implies there is an unambiguous fact of the matter regarding the proper interpretation of Genesis. There is not.”

    But then you seem to contradict this statement later when you say, “Since the events [Genesis] describes did not, in fact, occur, I’d say we take our directions from more reliable sources.”

    So, it seems you are agreeing with the essayist who calls the literal interpretation of Genesis a “mistake.”

  11. #11 Richard Wein
    February 13, 2009

    There is nothing in the biblical creation account to indicate that it is not to be taken literally. People like Cormac Murphy-O’Connor take it as metaphor because, with the benefit of scientific knowledge, they know it is false. Readers of the Bible in ancient times did not have that knowledge, and so would mostly have believed it. A great many people still believe it today. We have to conclude that either the author of the account was unaware it was false or that he did not care that his readers would be deceived. Neither possibility is conducive to the idea that the Bible is the word of an honest God or that it is reliable about anything.

  12. #12 valhar2000
    February 13, 2009

    Crandaddy wrote:

    [...]But this seems nonsensical.[...]

    Why is it non-sensical? I don’t see why a “complete and exhaustive account of my thinking about 2+2=4 in terms of the physical properties of my brain states” is not possible (in principle, not in practice).

    Research in neuroscience shrinks the arguable leibensraum for the soul every day, and the more the workings of the brain are understood, the clearer it becomes that the mind is a product of them, and that they are chemical and physical processes.

  13. #13 SLC
    February 13, 2009

    Re Me

    Mr. Me spouts the moronic canards of the evolution deniers, namely that if Darwin was wrong about a particular hypothesis, then he must have been wrong about everything. This is total horsepucky. Just to quote Enrico Fermi, a scientist who have never been wrong is a scientist who has never accomplished anything. For example:

    1. Issac Newton, arguably the most important scientist who ever lived was wrong about his hypothesis that diffraction and interference could be explained by a particulate theory of light.

    2. Charles Darwin was wrong about inheritance being an analog process when in fact it is a digital process.

    3. Albert Einstein was wrong about his hypothesis that black holes did not exist.

    Yet, by the overwhelming consensus of historians of science, these three men were the most important scientists who have ever lived, at least in the common era.

  14. #14 windy
    February 13, 2009

    This is a problem I don’t think materialism can overcome.

    Your personal incredulity?

  15. #15 Crandaddy
    February 13, 2009

    valhar2000,

    Research in neuroscience shrinks the arguable leibensraum for the soul every day, and the more the workings of the brain are understood, the clearer it becomes that the mind is a product of them, and that they are chemical and physical processes.

    But how does one understand understanding, itself? Science is limited to the observable, the communicable, the categorizable in terms of objects of understanding. First-personhood stands beneath all these things and serves as their foundation. To assume an understanding of something in order to communicate it is necessarily to adopt a stance of first-person subjectivity in order to do so. There’s no getting beneath first-personhood, hence there’s no materialistic reduction of it.

    windy,

    Your personal incredulity?

    Perhaps. And perhaps I just haven’t looked hard enough to find a square circle.

  16. #16 Alex, FCD
    February 13, 2009

    Issac Newton, arguably the most important scientist who ever lived was wrong about his hypothesis that diffraction and interference could be explained by a particulate theory of light.

    Not to mention the whole “turning lead into gold” thing.

    To try to describe (or even understand) such a thought in communicable terms is to presuppose the very cognition that gives rise to the thought in the first place.

    If I’m understanding you correctly, you’re trying to argue that it is paradoxical to try and understand cognition using cognitive processes. Were this really a paradox, it would be impossible to take an English literature class in English or to describe how a computer works with the aid of a computer. It is perfectly possible to understand cognition by using one’s mind, which is what prevents the entire field of cognitive psychology from vanishing in a puff of logic.

  17. #17 Lofcaudio
    February 13, 2009

    There is nothing in the biblical creation account to indicate that it is not to be taken literally.

    Statements like this just show your ignorance in ancient religious texts. There is actually quite a bit in the Bible which is NOT to be interpreted literally. Your stance (which is Jason’s as well) insists that the Bible should be taken literally, when in fact that is not the purpose nor was it ever the purpose for much of what is contained in the Bible.

    People like Cormac Murphy-O’Connor take it as metaphor because, with the benefit of scientific knowledge, they know it is false.

    This argument fails since there have been so many theologians throughout history who have not held that the first 11 chapters of Genesis must be interpreted literally, who did not benefit from our current understanding of the age of the universe.

    Readers of the Bible in ancient times did not have that knowledge, and so would mostly have believed it.

    And your basis for this is…pure conjecture perhaps? Or have you researched this and know what the majority of the Judeo-Christian cultures thought about the age of the earth and what-not? There is absolutely no indication from the Bible that the Israelites (or the New Testament Christians) had any clue as to the age of the earth and/or the universe.

    What I find ironic is that your insistence that the creation account in Genesis be interpreted literally is not any different from a Creationist insisting that evolution not be taken seriously until it loses its “theory” label. In both cases, each party is arguing from a position of ignorance.

  18. #18 SLC
    February 13, 2009

    Re Alex FCD

    It is quite true that Newton believed that base metals, such as lead, might be chemically turned into gold. However, this was a universal notion at the time and it was only the discovery of the atomic theory of matter that put paid to this hypothesis. However, the explanation for diffraction and interference was quite another matter. Newton was well aware of the work of Christian Huygens who proposed the wave theory of light and explained both interference and diffraction using the theory of secondary wavelets (known as Huygens’ principle). In fact, at one time Newton briefly considered the possibility that light was both a particle and a wave (this more then 200 years before Einsteins’ 1905 Nobel Prize winning paper), but soon rejected the idea.

  19. #19 JimV
    February 13, 2009

    I enjoyed this post. Firstly, because I had similar reactions to the cited article and was glad to see my side presented (well), and secondly because it provoked some interesting commentary.

    Further to Alex’s reply to Crandaddy, see Douglas Hofstadter’s I Am A Strange Loop, which posits that a self-referential nature is the very basis of consciousness, and draws a distinction between those self-references which are paradoxical (self-contradictory ones, e.g. square circles), and those which are not (with numerous examples).

    The Christians I know personally (mostly nice people), including most of my relatives, do take the Genesis account literally, but perhaps that is a biased sample. For those whose acquaintance is broader, I am curious as to how the Egyptian exodus account is perceived among more sophisticated Christians (allegorical and if so to what purpose?). To my mind that story is just as empirically inconsistent as the Genesis story.

  20. #20 Blake Stacey
    February 13, 2009

    Lofcaudio:

    You seem to be arguing that Jason believes the only possible interpretation of Genesis (or any other biblical text) is a literal one. This is not what Jason has been arguing:

    Murphy-O’Connor has no basis for describing it as a mistake to interpret Genesis as the young-Earthers do. He is welcome to say that he does not like their interpretation or that one can be a good Christian while accepting a different view of Genesis, but calling it a mistake implies there is an unambiguous fact of the matter regarding the proper interpretation of Genesis. There is not.

    It is not the case that all those who “believe in Genesis” must take it “literally”, but rather that we have no a priori grounds to favour one interpretation over another, because each faction bases its interpretation on unverifiable and non-empirical postulates — interpretation begins with a leap of faith. Theologians A, B and C insist that the text must be read “literally”, while X, Y and Z insist that an allegorical reading is more spiritually uplifting. Neither claim can be tested through experiment or rigorous observation. None can be demonstrated to have the pipeline to God.

  21. #21 Raymond Minton
    February 13, 2009

    The reference to the creator at the end of “Origin of Species” was allegedly inserted for political reasons (a plausible claim, since Darwin was an agnostic.) I’m both an evolutionist and an atheist (the former before the latter) but each individual has to decide for themselves if one can be an evolutionist and a theist, though my personal opinion is no.

  22. #22 Lofcaudio
    February 13, 2009

    Blake Stacey:

    because each faction bases its interpretation on unverifiable and non-empirical postulates — interpretation begins with a leap of faith

    I completely disagree in that the interpretation of the Bible should be based upon as much verifiable and empirically-derived information as possible. For people who insist on only taking a “leap of faith” approach to the study of the Bible, I have no problem with critiquing such a viewpoint.

    The Bible is an ancient text. Yet, the first eleven chapters of Genesis represent a period of history that occurs thousands of years before the book of Genesis was ever written. The best information available to us indicates that the culture of the Hebrew people was one with a rich tradition of orally passing down historical stories from one generation to the next. Sometime during or soon after the life of Moses, these stories were put together in their current form (with some of the stories no doubt existing in some form of writing prior to that). Knowing this, it is silly to insist on reading the creation account (and even the flood and tower of Babel accounts) as providing any real factual historical information about the world and civilization when it is the sole purpose of the writers of Genesis to pass on information about God.

    Theologians A, B and C insist that the text must be read “literally”, while X, Y and Z insist that an allegorical reading is more spiritually uplifting. Neither claim can be tested through experiment or rigorous observation.

    Hogwash. If a literal interpretation directly contradicts what is observable through other experimental means, then obviously a literal interpretation is not valid. Here is where Jason (et al.) say that the case is closed. Others would take the new information and apply it to the text to see if there might be some other explanation/interpretation. Oftentimes, with the addition of the new information (what theologians like to call “general revelation”), the text is better understood and despite what religious critics say, it doesn’t take “mental gymnastics” to fit the text into what we know through scientific observation.

  23. #23 tomh
    February 13, 2009

    Lofcaudio wrote: …the sole purpose of the writers of Genesis to pass on information about God.

    Finally, something truly funny. Information about God? I might accept stories, fables, or fairy tales, but information? The word information implies some sort of halfway reliable source – care to specify what the source is? Have it literal or allegorical, who cares, but to claim it is information is ludicrous.

  24. #24 Charles Toney, Plano, texas
    February 14, 2009

    Answer to question by Robert Lanza, Advanced Cell Technology, chief scientific officer.
    One of first researchers to work on human cloning.

    Second choice for mystery of life? – GOD.

    Golly!

    Q: Are there points of contact between what you’re doing on this subject and the topics that you’ll be addressing in “Biocentrism”?
    A: No, they’re separate. But I think biocentrism does have something to say about evolution as well. From a biocentric perspective, Darwinian evolution is an enormous simplification. While a lot of the components are right, it’s still far from the complete picture. Darwin’s theory of evolution is helpful if you want to connect the dots and understand the interrelatedness of life in the past. For instance, we can follow the changes that occurred in our genome even before we were human. We can even map some of the mutations and blind alleys that life took to get us here. But it fails to capture the driving force that’s really going on.
    If you consider the universe, there’s a long list of traits that make it appear as if everything the universe contains – from atoms to stars – were tailor-made just for us. If the big bang had been just one part in a million more powerful, the cosmos would have blown outward too fast for stars and worlds to form. The result, of course, would be no us. Even more coincidentally, the universe’s four forces and all the constants seem to be perfectly set up for atomic interactions, the existence of atoms, elements, planets, liquid water and life. You tweak any of them, and we never existed.
    At the moment, there are only four explanations for this mystery. One is that it’s just an incredible coincidence. Another is to say, God did it, and that explains nothing, even if it is true. The third is to invoke the anthropic principle, meaning that we’d have to find these conditions if we’re alive, because what else could we find? And then there’s the final option, biocentrism, which is what I’m supporting. It says the universe is actually created by life, and no universe that doesn’t allow life could possibly exist.
    The same thing would apply to our own human existence. Probability-wise, there are millions of things that could have gone wrong in the history of life on Earth. We could have been snuffed out at almost any turn. For instance, the meteor that wiped out the dinosaurs could have missed the earth, and then we would have never evolved. The list goes on and on. Evolution might suggest that it’s just dumb luck, that there’s a 1-in-a-gazillion chance that we’re here. But surely science can do better than the dumb-luck theory.

  25. #25 Crandaddy
    February 14, 2009

    Alex,

    Were this really a paradox, it would be impossible to take an English literature class in English or to describe how a computer works with the aid of a computer.

    My argument is that it is incoherent to understand mental entities in terms of non-mental entities (in terms of the properties we take to be constituent of physical objects) because to understand anything is for a subjective self to entertain an object of thought, which is, itself, a mental entity.

    This doesn’t mean that we can’t think about cognition or understand its properties; it just means that we can’t reconstitute it in terms of non-cognitive properties. This is the fundamental distinction. The English language or a computer is a communicative device through which semantic content about English literature or a computer is transmitted, but the semantic content, itself, stands distinct from any physical properties it may describe.

  26. #26 JimV
    February 15, 2009

    Re: Charles Toney, Plano, texas | February 14, 2009 7:26

    Without any proposed, plausible mechanism for how life creates universes, biocentrism adds nothing to the party for me – sounds just like the second option (“God did it – which explains nothing”).

    Instead of looking at the long string of lucky flukes that enabled humans to exist, why not look at it from the other point of view, and simply say that it is possible for humans to exist because they are a natural part of this universe, something possible had to happen, and this is it (rather than saying the universe exists to make humans). After all, any pebble in the street could make the same claim, as far as universal fine-tuning is concerned. Or just deal out 52 cards into four Bridge hands, and reflect on the unlikely fluke by which you got those specific hands on that order. Does that mean the universe was created to produce that set of Bridge hands?

    I like the dumb-luck theory myself, because it is the one I understand best so far. There was a plane crash near me yesterday, and today I heard the familiar story of how two woman were on stand-by for that flight, one got on it and one didn’t, and the woman who got left behind is now wondering why she was spared instead of the other woman. To me this is like flipping a coin, getting heads, and wondering why heads? Why not tails?

  27. #27 RBH
    February 15, 2009

    Crandaddy wrote

    But how does one understand understanding, itself? Science is limited to the observable, the communicable, the categorizable in terms of objects of understanding. First-personhood stands beneath all these things and serves as their foundation. To assume an understanding of something in order to communicate it is necessarily to adopt a stance of first-person subjectivity in order to do so. There’s no getting beneath first-personhood, hence there’s no materialistic reduction of it.

    Except that none of that establishes that “first-personhood” is immaterial. Show me a disembodied persona — that is, demonstrate that “first-personhood” is disembodies and not merely a fast-time self-simulator running in brain wetware — and I’ll take you seriously.

  28. #28 notedscholar
    February 15, 2009
  29. #29 chaz
    February 15, 2009

    Re: JimV | February 15, 2009 12:02 AM

    If Someone out there created you but hasn’t given you the ability to know He created you, how would you know He created you?

  30. #30 AL
    February 15, 2009

    Crandaddy,

    If you think the conscious mind is an intractable problem for materialism, then you need to show how non-materialism does a better job of explaining it. If you can’t, then the mind problem, to the extent that it really is a problem, is not a problem specific to the materialist paradigm. It is a problem, period, and there is no reason to single out materialism for its shortcomings in this regard when non-materialist paradigms fall just as short if not shorter.

    Sorry, but non-materialism is not some sort of default retreat. This, unfortunately, is a tactic used too often by IDers (of which I’m guessing you’re one, since your URL links to UD? Feel free to correct me if I’m wrong). Instead of showing how ID explains something, they argue that evolution fails to explain it and retreat to ID as a default. Now it’s being done in this mind-body dualism vs. monism debate, and it’s becoming quite noticeable that the opponents of materialism seem to think it is sufficient to present a problem with absolutely no explanation as to why non-materialist views fare better. We were on to this game in the ID vs. evolution debate, we’re on to it now in this one.

  31. #31 JimV
    February 15, 2009

    Re: chaz | February 15, 2009 12:31 PM

    There may be either a point or a humorous allusion in your question, but sorry, I didn’t get it. When one doesn’t know something, I think one should just say, “I don’t know,” rather than make something up, so that’s your answer.

    (RBH and AL – great responses to Crandaddy!)

  32. #32 chaz
    February 15, 2009

    Re: JimV | February 15, 2009 5:48 PM

    Thanks. No point, no allusion. I don’t know either.

  33. #33 Richard Wein
    February 16, 2009

    Well put, AL. This is just another God-of-the-gaps or argument from ignorance.

    “We were on to this game in the ID vs. evolution debate, we’re on to it now in this one.”

    At least in the case of “first-personhood” (or “subjective experience” as I would call it) there is IMO a significant gap in our understanding. In the case of evolution, ID advocates often end up insisting that we must accept ID if there is any gap at all in the evolutionary explanation, no matter who small.

  34. #34 Crandaddy
    February 16, 2009

    To answer AL’s question, it is true that I am favorably disposed to some ID positions–particularly with regard to philosophy of science. I believe ID makes some very important insights into epistemology of other minds as causes of events.

    Indeed, though non-physicalism (i.e. non-materialism) in philosophy of mind should not be mistaken for ID, they do have a significant common ground, namely that the mental is irreducible to the non-mental. For the IDist, this is epistemological and based on observation of existing states of affairs as they are related to their causes. It is from this that ID derives its claim to scientific status. For the non-physicalist of mind, on the other hand, the irreducibility is ontological. Philosophy of mind is more closely aligned with metaphysics than science, which is why attempts to resolve its problems with neuroscience are laughable.

    The cardinal difficulty of the physicalist (or materialist), as I see it may be summed up in the famous Descartes dictum “I think therefore I am.” If I know nothing else, I can at least know that there exists at least one mind–namely myself. Even if solipsism is true, surely I can at least know this much. This subjective ‘I’ is the immaterial entity I refer to; its immateriality derives from its intrinsic ontological irreducibility to anything non-identical to itself–including physical entities, which are categorizable only in terms of objects of subjective understanding. In fact, the strength of the non-physicalist position is that the subjective self is the absolute rock bottom of one’s noetic structure. There is the thinking self, and then there are the thoughts and perceptions of that self. If there is some set of non-psychological entities that constitutes me, then I could have no way of understanding it because I, as a thinking self, am a coherent object of thought only in terms of my subjective self-hood.

    I therefore think that the subjective self, immaterial insofar as it cannot be further reduced, is the ultimate default retreat.

  35. #35 AL
    February 16, 2009

    This subjective ‘I’ is the immaterial entity I refer to; its immateriality derives from its intrinsic ontological irreducibility to anything non-identical to itself–including physical entities, which are categorizable only in terms of objects of subjective understanding. In fact, the strength of the non-physicalist position is that the subjective self is the absolute rock bottom of one’s noetic structure. There is the thinking self, and then there are the thoughts and perceptions of that self.

    OK, but where is the actual argument for why you believe the subjective “I” is immaterial? Moreover, define immaterial, so that we know what it means for something to be immaterial, and why the subjective “I” has the properties or meets the requisite criteria for it to be classified as immaterial. All you’ve really done here is state the substance dualist position that first-person consciousness is too mysterious and therefore impossible for materialism to explain, which is both a) begging the question, and b) redundant, since we pretty much already know what substance dualists believe on this matter. What we need to know is why they feel this belief is justified, and not simply weakly from the fact that materialism currently has no complete answer, because as mentioned above, it doesn’t appear non-materialist paradigms have an answer either.

    And while I don’t believe in “default” positions, if it were really necessary to default, then as far as I’m concerned, materialism is default because it’s advantaged by two things: 1) It is the more parsimonious view. If materialism and non-materialism both equally explain or fail to explain some matter, materialism at least doesn’t bring up any ontologically dubious categories and metaphysical baggage that require additional explanations and entail further implications, all of which being entirely unnecessary. 2) Materialism has investigative leads. While materialism currently has no complete answer to consciousness, it is at least looking, and we now know a lot more than we did before we started the search. With non-materialism, there doesn’t appear to be anywhere to look. And unless it’s defined, non-materialist views really come off as elaborate, overly-wordy ways of adopting a defeatist position without having to admit a defeat.

    Philosophy of mind is more closely aligned with metaphysics than science, which is why attempts to resolve its problems with neuroscience are laughable.

    I really think that this right here is a HUGE part of your problem. Aside from the fact that it is begging the question to presume philosophical problems of mind can’t be resolved by science, I’d say furthermore that what is laughable is for philosophy of mind to ignore what science has unraveled about this topic. Neuroscience, cognitive science, and psychology have shown time and again that the classical Cartesian “intuitive” notion of mind is simply not true.

    Just one example out of many, but Descartes believed (and arguably 99% of most dualists today still believe) that conscious experience is the result of a single point of convergence — that sensory inputs from eyes, ears, nose, mouth, etc. all converge on a single point where “you” (or the “I”) reside, and that this point integrates all these inputs to produce the conscious experience, then outputs the behavioral response. Descartes believed this central processing point was the pineal gland. Now, while modern dualists no longer believe the pineal gland has this role, they still retain the general idea that inputs converge to some singular place, and behavior emerges from said same singular place. This place might be the seat of “you,” or the soul.

    In Descartes’ day, this view was already a priori problematic, because if inputs converged to a point, and there was some input integration and then outputting, there must be a mechanism, and where there is a mechanism, you are ipso facto engaging in materialism, and not the immaterial dualism being professed.

    But now in our day, it is even worse. It isn’t just a priori problematic, it is now a posteriori problematic with the empirical evidence we have at hand. We have overwhelming evidence from the various brain sciences that consciousness does not arise from a singular region of the brain, and that the brain, and even more specifically the neo-cortex, is modular in its functioning. You can actually separate the modules of someone’s brain in such a way that leads to things like split-brain disorders (which arises from removing the corpus callosum), in which patients appear behaviorally to have two separate consciousnesses, each of which is not aware of what the other is doing. Even something simple like amnesia is problematic to a dualist, as many amnesiacs lose their sense of self and identity, which ostensibly to a dualist has nothing to do with neurons or brain parts.

    These are just a few examples out of many that seriously undermine many dualist presumptions. I’m not even getting into sensory illusions, drug hallucinations, Phineas Gage, and other examples that seriously undermine dualist notions of an immaterial soul or mind being responsible for our identities, personalities and subjective experience. Philosophy of mind should NOT ignore the findings of science, contrary to your question begging view that this is a metaphysical matter. Thankfully, there are a great deal of philosophers of mind that recognize the importance of science to their work and have integrated science’s findings into a more sensible view of what consciousness and subjective first-person experience is.

  36. #36 Crandaddy
    February 18, 2009

    OK, but where is the actual argument for why you believe the subjective “I” is immaterial? Moreover, define immaterial, so that we know what it means for something to be immaterial, and why the subjective “I” has the properties or meets the requisite criteria for it to be classified as immaterial.

    I’ve already given a definition. Here it is again:

    Having a first-person ontology–being the subject of an indexical “I” statement. I exist. I am thinking about the mathematical proposition 2+2=4, and I believe it is true.

    And I contrasted it with essential properties of physical objects:

    Physical (material) objects are defined by their objective third-person ontology–being conceivable and definable in terms of the properties they exemplify: shape, size, mass, color, smell, etc.

    The idea behind my position is intuitive in much the same way that the proposition ‘a circle cannot also be a square’ is intuitive. Similarly, the two ontological categories are mutually incompatible. The self is essentially subjective, and the physical object is essentially objective. To remove from either its very mode of existence is to render it nonexistent, or at the very least, it is to render it incoherent. If we predicate properties of objects that are incompatible with their essential natures, we can’t even get so far as a syllogism, which proves by showing relations between true propositions.

    If you want to show that persons are material objects, then it seems you’ll need to demonstrate that at least one of my categories of being is illicit (inapplicable, contradictory, incoherent, or nonessential) or that the two are not mutually incompatible. I disaffirm both; under my definitions, persons and physical objects exist in fundamentally different and mutually incompatible ways.

    [Materialism] is the more parsimonious view. If materialism and non-materialism both equally explain or fail to explain some matter, materialism at least doesn’t bring up any ontologically dubious categories and metaphysical baggage that require additional explanations and entail further implications, all of which being entirely unnecessary.

    But if materialism were inadequate or even false, how would we ever know? And why should immaterial categories be more problematic than material ones? At least it’s not obvious to me that they should be.

    For one thing, if solipsism is possible (as it seems to be), then what that shows is that while I can be fooled into believing that there is a material world, I cannot be fooled into believing I exist. This makes me (a subjective person) a much more solidly-grounded epistemological postulate than anything material.

    We have overwhelming evidence from the various brain sciences that consciousness does not arise from a singular region of the brain, and that the brain, and even more specifically the neo-cortex, is modular in its functioning. You can actually separate the modules of someone’s brain in such a way that leads to things like split-brain disorders (which arises from removing the corpus callosum), in which patients appear behaviorally to have two separate consciousnesses, each of which is not aware of what the other is doing. Even something simple like amnesia is problematic to a dualist, as many amnesiacs lose their sense of self and identity, which ostensibly to a dualist has nothing to do with neurons or brain parts.

    All this means is that different regions of the brain are causally efficacious on different aspects of conscious experience, which is no surprise to me. Neuroscience is all the time giving us more and more detailed descriptions of how mind and brain interact, but this is all it can tell us. I don’t need to know anything at all about my brain to know that I exist or that I am having a particular experience, although I can discover what sort of causal role it plays in the production of my experiences. Of course, there are very intricate causal relations between a person’s brain and his experiences, and it is the proper domain of neuroscience to study them. But science, in general, is limited to studying observed causal relations. It cannot give us an explanation of what something is that goes beyond telling us what is observed to cause it, and this lands us right back in the midst of our problem, since both to observe and to understand in causal terms (or in any terms) are experiences of an individual subjective self.

    Furthermore, my brain may change and cause my experiences to change along with it, but whether or not I am numerically the same individual person is irrelevant to both. If I have some accident in which my brain is damaged so that some set of my experiences is altered or deleted, the fact that I am the selfsame individual who has a different set of experiences than I had before the accident does not change the fact that it was I who had both sets of experiences. What this tells me is that the being that I call myself is ontologically independent both of its experiences and of the physical brain that is causally efficacious thereto. Just as my experiences are ontologically irreducible to my brain states, so I am ontologically irreducible to any set of my experiences, which, I maintain, are accidental (nonessential) properties of an ontologically subjective substance–namely me.

    In fact, Richard Swinburne has proposed a much more radical splitting of the brain than simply dividing the corpus callosum in a thought experiment to argue in favor of substance dualism. His purpose is to show that a particular part of the brain and a particular set of experiences associated with it are insufficient to show that those experiences are the experiences of the same individual person who existed when the brain was intact and, therefore, that individual persons are not divisible entities like physical brains.

  37. #37 Crandaddy
    February 18, 2009

    Just in case anyone cares to have a look, the last comment was supposed to have a link to this address: http://users.ox.ac.uk/~orie0087/framesetpdfs.shtml

    For whatever reason, the hyperlink didn’t work. Click on “Mind-Body Dualism.”

  38. #38 mantolama
    February 20, 2009

    Thanks. No point, no allusion. I don’t know either.

  39. #39 AL
    February 24, 2009

    I’ve already given a definition.

    Yes, I saw your definition. As I already pointed out, it doesn’t tell us what immaterial is, it only gives us a question-begging example of what you think immaterial is. So what exactly makes something immaterial, and why does your first person experience fit this criteria? Now, yes, I did read the next part where you state the following:

    Physical (material) objects are defined by their objective third-person ontology–being conceivable and definable in terms of the properties they exemplify: shape, size, mass, color, smell, etc.

    This is a pretty poor definition of material. “…being conceivable and definable in terms of the properties they exemplify” is a tautology. It should be as true for immaterial things as well that they have whatever properties they have. This doesn’t tell us much, only that you know how to state the concept of identity — that a thing is itself.

    Moreover, there is nothing to suggest that your subjective self can’t be material, that material has to be “third person.” This is a question-begging naked assertion. If material things are simply those things that are conceivable in terms of the properties they exemplify (your definition), then everything is material, and your definition of immaterial is still underdetermined. It cannot be used to make any distinction between material and immaterial.

    So now I ask once again, what is the distinction between the two? I really wasn’t exaggerating at all in my first post here when I stated I have never heard a coherent sensible distinction between material and immaterial that wasn’t severely underdetermined, poorly-defined, or doesn’t have implications dualists don’t actually intend.

    The idea behind my position is intuitive in much the same way that the proposition ‘a circle cannot also be a square’ is intuitive.

    Not so. Circle and square are unambiguously defined, such that we know they are dissimilar. I have yet to see anyone unambiguously define immaterial. Your attempts here are no exception.

    The self is essentially subjective, and the physical object is essentially objective. To remove from either its very mode of existence is to render it nonexistent, or at the very least, it is to render it incoherent. If we predicate properties of objects that are incompatible with their essential natures, we can’t even get so far as a syllogism, which proves by showing relations between true propositions.

    Once again, there is no reason materialism is incompatible with the notion of subjectivity. We still don’t unambiguously know what immaterial means, so how can we even begin to suggest otherwise? It’s a complete and utter non-starter.

    Moreover, there is no sharp distinction between subjective and objective as you make it out. There is overlap between the two. Your experiences are subjective to you, but you are an object to me, just as my experiences are subjective to me, but I am an object to you. You are basing much of your position on what you perceive to be a sharp distinction when such is not the case.

    As a slightly off-topic aside, this overlap of subjective and objective is the gist of Euthyphro’s dilemma, which a lot of theists don’t get, and I’m starting to wonder if perhaps what you’ve presented here is the reason why. If morality is objective because it comes from God, it is also subjective — subject to God’s whims. There is no escape because the distinction between objective and subjective is not complementary. They overlap.

    Neuroscience is all the time giving us more and more detailed descriptions of how mind and brain interact, but this is all it can tell us. I don’t need to know anything at all about my brain to know that I exist or that I am having a particular experience, although I can discover what sort of causal role it plays in the production of my experiences. Of course, there are very intricate causal relations between a person’s brain and his experiences, and it is the proper domain of neuroscience to study them. But science, in general, is limited to studying observed causal relations. It cannot give us an explanation of what something is that goes beyond telling us what is observed to cause it, and this lands us right back in the midst of our problem, since both to observe and to understand in causal terms (or in any terms) are experiences of an individual subjective self.

    First of all, mind and brain shouldn’t interact for you unless you are one of the few materialist dualists — those who believe that mind and brain interact through some previously unknown substance and mechanism. Any consistent view of materialism treats the material world as “closed” in the sense of anything which interacts with the material is itself material. This is why physicists who discover new particles are materialists who don’t declare that the new substances they discovered are immaterial (no, not even “god particle” labels for the Higgs boson). Any other conception of materialism is going to be completely willy-nilly in terms of what it declares to be material or immaterial (e.g. try this: The apple on my table is immaterial, it just happens to be one of those special immaterial entities that interacts with the material world just like the other material things do), this is why I must stress that it really is important that materialism be “closed” in this way, and why I stated above that any discovered mechanism between mind and brain (assuming the two are distinct) will ipso facto be materialist.

    However, given that you’ve been arguing against materialism, I will go ahead and assume that you are not a materialist dualist. Most supernatural dualists advocate some kind of non-interactionist parallelism (e.g. “synchronized twin clocks”).

    That said, all this talk about causality between mind and brain is confusing to me. I do not understand your brand of dualism at all.

    If I have some accident in which my brain is damaged so that some set of my experiences is altered or deleted, the fact that I am the selfsame individual who has a different set of experiences than I had before the accident does not change the fact that it was I who had both sets of experiences.

    This makes no sense at all. This is brute force question-begging. In what sense could you possibly be the same person if you’ve been so altered that you no longer have the same memories or personality you did prior? And please, give me something substantive and not trivial such as “well look, you used the pronoun “you” in both instances, so clearly even you must think it’s the same person!” or any other argument equivalent to such.

    How can you have an identity without memories and a personality? How can the identity be the same if the memories and personalities have changed? You have completely abstracted and detached the pronoun “I” (or “you”…do note that the distinction between “I” and “you” is one of subject versus object, hmmm…) from just about every context in which it could remotely make sense, and reified it into this category that “exists”, but in a special magical vague sort of way unlike ordinary existence. Plato did this long ago. It wasn’t quite sensible even then, but at least he was consistent enough to apply it to every abstract category, and not just nitpick one remote area (the mind) of philosophy.

  40. #40 Crandaddy
    February 28, 2009

    “…being conceivable and definable in terms of the properties they exemplify” is a tautology. It should be as true for immaterial things as well that they have whatever properties they have. This doesn’t tell us much, only that you know how to state the concept of identity — that a thing is itself.

    No, persons have natures that determine what they are, but these are not properties in the sense that I use the term here. By “properties” I mean something like universals or Platonic forms that can be instantiated in substances (i.e. subsistent, existing things).

    The redness of the apple sitting on your table; its rounded shape; its being composed of certain types of molecules, atoms, subatomic particles, etc.–whatever being an apple entails (what is called its essence) is a set of properties that is instantiated (or exemplified) in a substance–namely the existing apple sitting on your table.

    What makes an apple an apple (or gives any material thing its material nature) is just that it is existentially dependent on such properties being instantiated in a substance. There is no actual, existing apple sitting on your table without there being the essential properties of a particular apple inhering to an existing substance.

    A person, on the other hand, is likewise a substance, but not one that is existentially dependent on properties as I’ve presented them. I can look at my computer screen, hear the rain falling outside my window, and think about what I did today all at the same time if I choose, yet it is I who do all three, even though different parts of my brain are responsible for the different mental phenomena (and hence non-identical to me, the individual subjective experiencer). Similarly, I seem to be the same person whose experiences I can recall from what I take to be my past, and tomorrow, I (numerically the same individual person as I am right now) expect to have an altogether different set of experiences. My experiences may change, but I remain their subject.

    What this tells me is that I am a substance, though not one that is dependent on exemplifiable properties in the same way that the objects I perceive are. I can see an apple sitting on a table. I can think about what it’s made of–its molecular, atomic, and subatomic composition. But while these things determine the existence of the thing sitting before my eyes, they do not seem to determine my existence. Subjective existence and objective existence seem to sit on opposite sides of this divide of exemplifiable properties. Whereas it is the nature of material substances to exemplify properties, the nature of a subjective person is to countenance such properties as non-essential objects of sense or intellect.

    Moreover, there is no sharp distinction between subjective and objective as you make it out. There is overlap between the two. Your experiences are subjective to you, but you are an object to me, just as my experiences are subjective to me, but I am an object to you. You are basing much of your position on what you perceive to be a sharp distinction when such is not the case.

    Your physical body is an object, just as my physical body is an object. I can’t see the subjective person that is you. Even if I knew everything there is to know about your brain, everything I would know would be an object of my own subjective understanding. I have to rely on less direct evidence to justify my belief that you exist and, moreover, that you’re communicating with me, although I do believe I am so justified. Otherwise, I wouldn’t bother typing these responses.

    Furthermore, I agree that our subjective experiences are different insofar as we are different subjects having them, but subjective and objective ontologies are not mere perceptual differences. They apply to real substances. (See my commentary above.)

    [M]ind and brain shouldn’t interact for you unless you are one of the few materialist dualists — those who believe that mind and brain interact through some previously unknown substance and mechanism. Any consistent view of materialism treats the material world as “closed” in the sense of anything which interacts with the material is itself material. This is why physicists who discover new particles are materialists who don’t declare that the new substances they discovered are immaterial (no, not even “god particle” labels for the Higgs boson).

    I think you’re right that mind/body substance dualism doesn’t require that the two interact, in which case any “causal” relation between mind and brain is not really causal, but merely perceived correlation. (Of course, surely modern neuroscience commits us to at least parallelist correlation!) However, I’m not one to dismiss real causal interaction. Causation is not entirely an unproblematic concept even in the physical world. To say that only material substances can be real causes doesn’t seem justifiable. I might just as easily say that only immaterial substances are real causes; this is what occasionalists think. In fact, if an immaterial substance can’t be a cause, then we can officially rule out the existence of the God of classical Western theism.

    To be sure, we treat the physical world as causally closed for much of our scientific practice (and rightly so), but we also treat people as causal agents. If we reduce our understanding of the world to physical substances interacting, I don’t see this as leaving any place for the beliefs and desires of personal agents which we rely upon continuously to explain what we see around us.

    In what sense could you possibly be the same person if you’ve been so altered that you no longer have the same memories or personality you did prior? And please, give me something substantive and not trivial such as “well look, you used the pronoun “you” in both instances, so clearly even you must think it’s the same person!” or any other argument equivalent to such.

    How can you have an identity without memories and a personality? How can the identity be the same if the memories and personalities have changed?

    I wouldn’t have been altered. My brain would have been altered. My experiences would have been drastically changed. But whatever my experiences may be, I would still be their subject. I don’t think that the concept of an experience even makes sense unless we have a subject of experience, and given that there are still experiences associated with my brain (however altered it may be), it seems to make sense that I would still be their subject.

    You seem to think that I’m somehow equivocating on the first person pronoun, but I wouldn’t even know how. When I refer to myself, there is only one me to which I can refer, and likewise when you type “you” when addressing me. The being we refer to here might be called an “object” of thought, in a manner of speaking (in that we can consider it in thought), but “object” in this sense is different from having an objective ontology (a third-person ontology). Its coherence as an object of thought is only by virtue of its nature as an ontologically subjective being.

    To get back to what I was saying, you might say that the person after the accident is not really me, but someone different entirely. And you might base this conclusion on radically altered personality, memories, etc. But if there are still experiences of any kind associated with my brain after whatever changes it may have had, then either there is some set of those experiences that is mine, or there is not. And whether or not they are really my experiences (whatever they may be) is a real fact about the world and not just some semantic hand-waving.

    Say a mad scientist is going to do an experiment on you. He explains to you that he’s going to wipe your memory clean and afterward torture you. Surely it very much concerns you whether or not you will be the subject of torture, albeit without your memories. Or to use an example more similar to Swinburne’s, if he decides to divide your brain completely into two separate halves and torture only one of those halves, your interests very much lie in whether or not your experiences will be associated with the half he decides to torture.

    If you haven’t already read the Swinburne article, you might want to. He’d probably do a better job explaining these things than me.

  41. #41 Gerry Vogel
    March 7, 2009

    Evolution doesn’t make sense. If it did, then that means all gay men should lose their penis, because they don’t need them to procreate.

  42. #42 JT99
    March 15, 2009

    According to TheDarwinDelusion.com, evolution cannot explain the creation of compatible sperm and ovum, penis and uterus, testicles and ovaries, etc. in separate independent organisms, from man and woman, to male and female mouse, dog, cat, bird, elephant, etc. How do you explain it, without recourse to vague verbs, such as developed, acquired, evolved, etc.?

  43. #43 film izle
    May 20, 2009

    The reference to the creator at the end of “Origin of Species” was allegedly inserted for political reasons (a plausible claim, since Darwin was an agnostic.) I’m both an evolutionist and an atheist (the former before the latter) film izle but each individual has to decide for themselves if one can be an evolutionist and a theist, though my personal opinion is no.