Evolving Thoughts

Asks MSNBC’s Chris Matthews of the GOP’s Mike Pence. The latter dances around it, trying to avoid asserting what science knows to be true, but this raises an interesting problem: does one have to “believe” in evolution? I mean it’s a physical process (the “fact” side) which has a number of explanatory models (the “theory” side). I don’t believe in facts; I deal with them. And I don’t believe in explanations; I am satisfied with them (or not, as the case may be). This is not about belief, which implies that acceptance of the satisfactory nature of evolutionary explanations is somehow equivalent to any other religion, at which point the argument becomes “you have your faith, and I have mine”. A couple of older quotes from my now dated Introduction to Evolution and Philosophy*:

“When we discuss creation/evolution, we are talking about beliefs: i.e. religion. The controversy is not religion versus science, it is religion versus religion, and the science of one religion versus the science of another.” [Ham, K: 1983. The relevance of creation. Casebook II, Ex Nihilo 6(2):2, cited in Selkirk and Burrows 1987:3]

“It is crucial for creationists that they convince their audience that evolution is not scientific, because both sides agree that creationism is not.” [Miller 1982: 4, cited in Selkirk and Burrows 1987: 103]

Science is not about faith. We can rely upon all kinds of ideas and results we have not personally tested, because they have either been tested by others, or because at any moment they can be subjected to testing; this is not faith. Not even in the scholastic sense of fiducia.

* I wrote this as a third year undergraduate. I didn’t suck at it for an undergraduate, but one day it will have a major rewrite.

Comments

  1. #1 Lassi Hippeläinen
    May 6, 2009

    I don’t believe in evolution. I don’t want to use the word believe when talking about science, because it opens a can of religious worms. I prefer to recognize the facts, and agree with the conclusions. Evolution is one of them.

  2. #2 Flaky
    May 6, 2009

    I think that it’s inappropriate to tie perfectly good words ‘faith’ and ‘belief’ to religion. Believing simply means holding something to be true, while faith carries an additional element of trust.

    If one accepts the facts of evolution and acknowledges the theory as the best explanation, the word for that is belief. And for the average person, even that is asking too much. Most people believe in evolution because they are told to, not because they have independently evaluated any of the evidence.

    What differentiates science from religion is the nature of those beliefs, not the act of believing.

  3. #3 Sigmund
    May 6, 2009

    While I think I know what you are saying John I do wonder if you are simply splitting hairs over the semantics of the matter. Of course scientists accept theories based on the weight of evidence and as such never ‘believe’ things as absolutes. We must, however, when communicating with the general population speak in a way that is understandable to them. To say that most scientists don’t believe in evolution, anthropogenic global warming, gravity or that the earth is spherical, while technically correct (we simply accept the facts overwhelmingly point towards the truth of these theories) approaches obscurantism when used as part of a discourse for the general public.
    My own way of answering these sorts of questions is to say I believe in evolution in the same way I believe in gravity and the idea that the Earth orbits the Sun – and then explain that technically ‘belief’ in any of these points to a scientist is simply a way of saying I accept that the evidence firmly backs up all of these points.
    However, with the time constraints that modern media imposes on interviews with scientists its difficult to know the best way to address this matter.
    I suspect the biggest reason why Intelligent Design/Creationism gets the sort of support for teaching it in the classroom from the general public is due, not to religious reasons but due to the fact that people think its only fair that ‘both sides’ are taught. Some critical aspects of evolution don’t seem like common sense to many in the public – for instance the idea that complexity can be generated out of non complexity.
    To battle religion is difficult for scientists but to battle fair play and common sense?
    Luckily for us the scientific method is all about fair play and common sense (well common sense in the terms of choosing the most plausible option when you have all the facts at hand).
    It’s this factor that we need to bring to the table.

  4. #4 Stephen Moore
    May 6, 2009

    I fear that talk of the appropriateness of using the word believe with respect to evolution in particular and science in general can sound like like a bunch of philosophical and linguistic twaddle to the average person, and creationists (inc. ID proponents). And such twaddle can, to such people, seem like the wriggling and dancing that we may accuse persons such as Mike Pence of.

    Talk of recognising and dealing with facts, and of being satisfied with and agreeing to explanations and conclusions is fine. It is an accurate way describing what one believes. And there’s the rub: believe has a common usage that I don’t think is wholly inappropriate. To wit, I believe the Theory of Evolution to be an accurate and reliable explanation of the evidence.

    There needs, I think, to be a shorthand phrase that gets the point across that one recognises and deals with the facts of the physical world and of one being satisfied with and agreeing to explanations and conclusions. Most people, in ordinary day to day conversation just don’t speak like that.

    So if we want to avoid using the word believe, what word do we use? Accept? As in, “I accept the Theory of Evolution,” “I accept the Germ Theory,” “I accept the Laws of Thermodynamics,”etc.

  5. #5 Language Police
    May 6, 2009

    This is not about belief, which implies that acceptance of the satisfactory nature of evolutionary explanations is somehow equivalent to any other religion, at which point the argument becomes “you have your faith, and I have mine”.
    When I’m told by reliable people that something I have not observed occurred and I accept that the unobserved did occur, then I believe what they said. When scientists tell me that experiments show that light has properties of waves and particles, I believe what they say. It’s not faith in the sense of something that lacks evidence. It’s not religious, but there’s nothing wrong with believing that the theory of evolution explains the physical facts of biology.
    Or as dictionary.com has it belief is confidence in the truth or existence of something not immediately susceptible to rigorous proof

  6. #6 John S. Wilkins
    May 6, 2009

    Stephen, I would say, and do, that I am satisfied with evolutionary biological theory.

    LP, I believe evolution. I just don’t believe in it. There’s a more philosophical sense of “believe” in play in that case, as in “a view accepted by the thinker”; this works. But it fails bigly in ordinary discourse.

  7. #7 Lorax
    May 6, 2009

    Im perfectly ok with people “believing in” scientific concepts. I do think this has become a semantic argument that is more divisive than helpful. I believe the flu vaccine I got this year has a much better chance of protecting me and my family (herd immunity) from influenza than it does in causing some horrible side effect. I do not have the numbers to back up this claim so it was a decision not based on facts. There are dozens (hundreds?) of small decisions we make everyday based on our beliefs (its just that many if not most of these beliefs are backed up by the scientific method and can change based on new information).

  8. #8 Richard Simons
    May 6, 2009

    There is a big difference between believing the Theory of Evolution and believing in the TOE. One is acceptance of a fact, the other is a guide to living or a philosophy. To illustrate, I believe there are people who murder to get their way. I do not believe in people murdering others to get their way.

    The question about evolution is always phrased ‘do you believe in evolution’, to which I reply that it is not a religion so I do not believe in it, but I accept it as the best explanation for the diversity of life.

  9. #9 Russell
    May 7, 2009

    Many of the posters here know enough about evolution to evaluate it. That is not the case for many people, perhaps many. Which highlights the issue that Lassi raises.

    What does it mean when someone says they believe in evolution, but when asked to explain what evolution is, cannot do so? What is it exactly that they believe in? Those who don’t understand evolution or have familiarity with the data related to it may “believe in” it, in much the same way they believe in Jesus or believe in their nation or believe in the issues for which they vote. Or they can reject evolution, which is just the polar image of the previous belief. Or they can simply say, with honesty, “I don’t know much about biology.” What they can’t do is hold the attitude toward evolution that a biologist does, for the simple reason that they don’t have the prerequisite knowledge that a biologist does.

    How many of y’all believe in Godel’s incompleteness theorem? What about his completeness theorem? How many of y’all can explain what the difference is between those?

  10. #10 Sigmund
    May 7, 2009

    Richard, I wonder it that is not treating evolution as something in science that is of a much more tentative nature compared to other disciplines. For instance if someone asks you “do you believe the earth is flat or spherical? would you answer this question the same way you answered the question about evolution.
    Likewise for gravity or heliocentrism.

  11. #11 Eamon Knight
    May 7, 2009

    Meh, the ambiguities of everyday language. “I believe in heliocentrism” — that phrase works for me as a shorthand for my understanding and acceptance of the facts of cosmology, despite the fact that it is grammatically identical to “I believe in Jesus”, which generally means something beyond a mere “I believe there was such a person”.

  12. #12 Lisa A. Shiel
    May 7, 2009

    To believe simply means to be convinced by the available evidence. If the evidence for evolution convinces you, then you do in fact believe in evolution— whether you want to admit it or not. The desperate need to separate evolution from religion via semantic circumlocutions does nothing to convince the rest of us about the “reality” of evolution. The evidence rallied in favor of evolution has failed to convince me, therefore I do not believe in evolution. If I want to get nitpicky about it, I could clarify by saying that I do not believe evolution can account for the origins and diversification of life on Earth.

    When people say they don’t believe in evolution because they know it’s true, they reveal their own misunderstanding of and prejudice concerning the word believe.

    Lisa A. Shiel
    author of The Evolution Conspiracy
    http://EvolutionConspiracy.com/

  13. #13 Jim Thomerson
    May 7, 2009

    I cringe when I hear the phrase, “Scientists believe. . . ” on TV. I think believe has been so contaminated with faith that it should never be used in reference to science. Why can it not be said, “Scientists think . . .”? I think the fusion of belief and faith is very prevelant in the popular mind, and “I believe in evolution.” is understood as a statement of religious faith. By religious faith, I mean irrational faith not shakable by facticity or logic. A colleague put it very well, “I do not believe in evolution. I have considered the matter, and I am convinced of it.”

  14. #14 Brandon
    May 7, 2009

    Not even in the scholastic sense of fiducia.

    I think I know what you mean here, and I hate to be pedantic, but strictly speaking fiducia is exactly what it is: fiducia is simply reliance on someone other than oneself. Perhaps you meant to say fides? (Fides, of course, is faith, belief for the reason that you’ve judged that it is good to believe it; fiducia, except in late Protestant scholasticism, is a matter of hope rather than faith, and thus has to do not with assent but with a confidence for practical purposes. Fiducia was thought always to be a result of some kind of fides–hence the similarity of the terms–and to presuppose it; but until Protestants started equating them, they were different terms.)

  15. #15 Michael
    May 7, 2009

    Being a nitpicker myself, I especially like Jim’s comment, that he would prefer to hear the phrase, “Scientists think …” rather than, “Scientists believe…” and Stephen’s “I believe the Theory of Evolution to be an accurate and reliable explanation of the evidence [of origins]”. These ways of answering the question focus the discussion on such things as assumptions, facts, conclusions, and analysis – which ought to be the foundation of a belief anyway. I think there is far too much “feeling” and “believing” and far to little “thinking” being reported in today’s media.
    When one is asked the question, “Do you believe in evolution/creation [as the explanation for our origin]?” the media questioner typically is trying to get some controversy going. S/he wants you to rail against the other side, so s/he gets good copy.
    Those who are questioned don’t have to respond in that manner. Something simple, such as this, might suffice: “Evolutionists and creationists all use the same facts. They just use different assumptions when dealing with these facts, they weigh the importance of different facts differently, and they view the facts through different lenses, or worldviews. Therefore, they have different conclusions. Based on …, I think ….”

  16. #16 Susan Silberstein
    May 7, 2009

    The most important thing I learned from reading Deborah Tannen is that you can’t be sure that two people are talking about the same thing until you say something like, “I think I heard you say blah blah blah.” Part of what that means is that well meaning people have different definitions of what *believe* means. That being said, I use the term “accept the evidence for” or some such.

  17. #17 John S. Wilkins
    May 7, 2009

    Brandon, no I meant that I have no fiducia in evolution; why should I? I do not have trust in it. I do not have trust in any brute fact. I may trust those who tell me of these brute facts, so I have fiducia in the scientific enterprise and its reportage and education, but not in evolution. That is quite distinct. Nor do I have fides in it, in the sense of propositional assent (assensus). I do not assent to some list of doctrines or theses – I am interested in evolution enough to learn what those theses are, but I argue, even with specialists, about adaptation, fitness, species concepts, speciation processes, developmental influences and the like. And interestingly, these specialists, when they notice me at all, argue happily, not fearing that I have become unorthodox or apostate (this is not necessarily true outside the biological community – some philosophers do take people to task about this, which says something about how evolution has been used in non-scientific contexts).

    In the epistemological sense of “believe”, yes, I believe in evolution; which is to say I have beliefs that include evolution occurring, which are based on reports of natural history. But in the religious sense I do not believe in evolution any more than I believe in immunology. I just get vaccinated.

  18. #18 Brandon
    May 7, 2009

    Ah, sorry; I read “We can rely upon all kinds of ideas and results we have not personally tested, because they have either been tested by others, or because at any moment they can be subjected to testing; this is not faith” and this through me off: relying on things you have not personally tested because they have been tested by others is nothing other than fiducia (in this case, it is fiducia in the others who are doing the testing, e.g., that they are doing so in a reasonably competent and ethical way). The scientific enterprise as we know it would be impossible without fiduciary expectations and standards. But you were talking solely about the conclusions reached from testing. That makes much more sense.

    (Strictly speaking, by the way, fides doesn’t require propositions; it just requires “thinking with assent”, where the assent can be to anything — it’s the nature of the assent, based on what is judged to be good, more than opinion, less than demonstrative knowledge, that makes something faith, not the nature of its object. But I think some of the reasons you’ve given still apply, with some adaptation, which is why I had thought you might have meant it in the first place.)

  19. #19 Argon
    May 7, 2009

    Matthews pinned another GOPer this evening: Tom Tancredo. Tom thinks ID is a good alternative because, he claims, we’ve never found any of the millions of transitional forms that Darwin predicted (among other things).

    http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/22425001/vp/30607082#30607082

  20. #20 Argon
    May 7, 2009

    Matthews pinned another GOPer this evening: Tom Tancredo. Tom thinks ID is a good alternative because, he claims, we’ve never found any of the millions of transitional forms that Darwin predicted (among other things).

    http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/22425001/vp/30607082#30607082

  21. #21 Richard Simons
    May 7, 2009

    Sigmund said

    I wonder it that is not treating evolution as something in science that is of a much more tentative nature compared to other disciplines. For instance if someone asks you “do you believe the earth is flat or spherical? would you answer this question the same way you answered the question about evolution.

    My point is that this is a different form of question. People ask if you believe in evolution. They might ask if you believe the Earth to be spherical, but they do not ask if you believe in the Earth being spherical.

    Lisa A. Shiel says

    To believe simply means to be convinced by the available evidence. If the evidence for evolution convinces you, then you do in fact believe in evolution— whether you want to admit it or not.

    No. Believing something takes place and believing in it are two different things. The evidence convinces me that people murder others for self gain, but I do not believe in murdering others for self gain.

  22. #22 Sigmund
    May 7, 2009

    Richard, I see what you mean now.
    I think cultural context is the critical point here. I live in Sweden, a country with a very high acceptance of consensus scientific theories, including evolutionary theory. In my local context ‘evolution’ is not a world view or philosophy any more than gravity or heliocentrism. I guess in locations where ‘evolution’ is shorthand for non-theistic naturalism then ‘believing in’ the concept takes on a very different meaning.

  23. #23 Angel
    May 8, 2009

    Believe? Not in the least. I THINK that evolution is the best explanation for the evidence (data) that years and years of people (including a very very small bit myself) with the best technology of their time have uncovered. It continues to provide predictive power and is expanded and refined with each new bit of information. Belief is irrelevant to this concept. Relevent perhaps to other concepts but not to this one.

  24. #24 Flaky
    May 8, 2009

    Richard, the distinction between ‘believe’ and ‘believe in’ isn’t what you make it out to be. The latter form is used with concepts and ideas, which evolution is. In my opinion, the phrase that Wilkins used above ‘I believe evolution’ simply isn’t well-formed.

    See dictionary.com for what it has to say, specifically 6a. I presume it reports common usage. http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/believe

  25. #25 Keanus
    May 8, 2009

    We’re talking about how language is perceived by the general—meaning mostly ignorant—public. To them “believe,” its cognates, and “faith” describe one’s attitude to a religion. While their use with respect to scientific theories may be lexically correct, that use is publicly misleading. The anti-intellectuals of American society, who are almost always anti-science as well, have long maintained a false equivalence, a kind of caricature, when it suits their purposes, between religion and science, that science is a theology to which scientists and atheists subscribe. A more careful use of language by people like Matthews, other journalists, and scientist when speaking publicly will help undercut that caricature.

    As for me, I prefer to speak of accepting scientific theories, both the theory and the evidence from which it arises.

  26. #26 Raymond Minton
    May 8, 2009

    No, I don’t “believe” in evolution; I adhere to it because it explains the known facts better than any other hypothesis, and has 150 years of various scientific disciplines and experimentation behind it. Science isn’t like faith, it rests on facts and information arrived at through vigorous testing, not in believing something merely because it’s always been believed. The problem, as some of your other commentators have pointed out, is the use of language thet suggests that creationism and evolution are equally plausible, and “belief” is necessary in the case of each. This is demonstrably not the case.

  27. #27 Flaky
    May 8, 2009

    Avoiding a particular expression because of potential for false associations is a doomed strategy when the other side does its best to create such associations. E.g, you could say you ‘accept evolution’, but then people also ‘accept Jesus’.

    What ever word you use, the creationists will find a way to turn it upside down. The only way to fight this is to point out what a dishonest tactic it is.

  28. #28 JuliaL
    May 10, 2009

    A good post and an interesting discussion.

    The believe vs. think issue seems to me to have something positive to be said on both sides. “Scientists believe that X causes Y” is for many people pretty much the same as “Scientists think that X causes Y.” Others may prefer “think” as a precaution against being being misunderstood by certain listeners.

    But there is certainly a basic distinction in meaning between “believe” and “believe in.” Though many Christian groups make a point of emphasizing the difference (with sayings like “Even the Devil believes God; Christians believe in God”), the distinction is not confined to religious speech.

    The addition of “in” implies an attitude that goes beyond evidence and represents a decision that may, for a time at least, be determinedly maintained in the face of considerable evidence to the contrary. It’s a little like the difference between “love” and “in love.”

    If I ask my adult son how he’s feeling a few days after a bout with flu and he says “just fine” while coughing, I may well not believe him. But I believe in him, and that faith would remain unshaken in the face of enormous evidence to the contrary. If he has lied to me, I am convinced without the need for evidence that he must have an excellent reason to do so (in this case, probably to spare me concern over his health). I always believe in him without regard for whether at any particular time I believe him or not.

    The dictionary examples Flaky offered point up this difference (despite his/her claim to the contrary): “to believe in Zoroastrianism; to believe in ghosts.” These are acts of faith that go beyond the available evidence. A person who believes X has been convinced and would be expected to give up that belief readily should new and convincing evidence to the contrary present itself. A person who believes in X has made a decision in which loyalty, not objective analysis of evidence, becomes the primary factor.

  29. #29 Sigmund
    May 11, 2009

    JuliaL, you seem to be taken as given that the term ‘believe in’ is universally understood as an act of faith. I certainly doubt that this is the case. I would read “I believe in my son” as being in a different class of statements to the expression “I believe in heliocentrism”. Scientists, being technical pedantics, should not use ‘believe in’ while being involved in a formal discourse yet they should not forget the cultural context, where failure to engage in the popular understanding of expressions may have important negative consequences.
    As an example, how about the following statement:
    ‘The vast majority of scientists don’t believe in anthropogenic global warming.’
    This is true in a technical sense but it is a massive failure of communication when we ignore the fact that most of the general public don’t appreciate the meaning of terms like ‘theory’ or ‘accept the evidence supporting’.

  30. #30 Larry Fafarman
    May 11, 2009

    If, as the saying goes, “seeing is believing,” then why can’t accepting something that one has not directly seen — e.g., macroevolution — also be called “believing”?

    Lisa A. Shiel said (May 7, 2009 1:44 AM) —

    The desperate need to separate evolution from religion via semantic circumlocutions does nothing to convince the rest of us about the “reality” of evolution.

    Right on, Lisa. The Darwinists are always mangling the English language by playing silly word games. Instead of being honest enough to just put words in people’s mouths, the Darwinists try to change the meanings of words in order to change the meanings of what people say. For example, the Darwinists object to the labeling of evolution as a “theory” because the colloquial meaning of the word “theory” — a hunch or a guess — is different from the scientific meaning. But then the new Florida science education standards redefined the scientific meaning of the word “theory” to be something that is “well-supported” and “widely accepted.” No standard dictionary defines “scientific theory” in that way — there are strong scientific theories and weak scientific theories. Then there is the oxymoronic term “intelligent design creationism” — intelligent design is based on scientific evidence and reasoning whereas creationism is based on religious sources. Also, Darwinists say that the terms “strengths and weaknesses,” “analyze and evaluate,” “critical thinking,” etc. are “code words” for teaching creationism. To some Darwinists, even saying that scientists “think” expresses too much uncertainty and skepticism — scientists don’t “think,” they only “know.”

    Ever hear the story of the Darwinist who hired a process server to serve process on a school board to initiate a lawsuit charging that the board’s labeling of evolution as a “theory” was improper because the scientific meaning of “theory” is different from the everyday meaning?

    ‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean, neither more nor less.’
    ‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’
    ‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master –- that’s all.’

    — from Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll

  31. #31 Alexandra Lynch
    May 13, 2009

    On behalf of the rational and sensible people of Indiana’s Sixth Congressional District, I apologize for Mike Pence. I’m sorry to have to admit that he’s my representative. If we can convince the guy who ran in 2008 to run again and get the Democratic party to actually fund the race a bit, he can go back to private practice and shut up.

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