Origin, ID and the God of the Gaps

Exactly 150 years ago a book that changed the world was published. Blasting onto the world stage it was destined to become one of the most influential books in human history. On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life is still relevant today and remains one of the best introductions to evolution by natural selection around.

Oddly, Mormon’s seem to be embracing things like the Creationist movement of “Intelligent Design.” ID as it is informally known. What? I mean really, What? Sure it has a name that sounds like it it ought to be something we believe, but is anyone actually looking at it? This is not something Mormon’s should be tempted by. Really.

As I’ve argued before, there is a far more nefarious subtly here, that might actually explain why there are so many atheists hanging around the evolution water cooler (an observation I don’t dispute). It started with Reverend Paley. A harmless enough chap who found God everywhere he looked. He asks us to consider a pocket watch found in the sand along the beach. He says you can’t look at it and imagine that the whole thing just fell together by itself and so you can infer a designer. Only he said it much more eloquently as only 18th century writers can.

But suppose I had found a watch upon the ground, and it should be inquired how the watch appened to be in that place ; I should hardly think of the answer which I had before given, that, for any thing I knew, the watch might have always been there. Yet why should not this answer serve for the watch as well as for the stone? why is it not as admissible in the second case, as in the first? For this reason, and for no other, viz. that, when we come to inspect the watch, we perceive (what we could not discover in the stone) that its several parts are framed and put together for a purpose, e.g. that they are so formed and adjusted as to produce motion, and that motion so regulated as to point out the hour of the day; that, if the different parts had been differently shaped from what they are, of a different size from what they are, or placed after any other manner, or in any other order, than that in which they are placed, either no motion at all would have been earned on in the machine, or none which would have answered the use that is now served by it.

Natural Theology was the name that got associated with this. Sounds like a good idea. Just like ID. In fact some people interpret this, from the Alma 30:44 in the Book of Mormon, as something right out of Natural Theology:

Show unto me a sign, when ye have the testimony of all these thy brethren, and also all the holy prophets? The scriptures are laid before thee, yea, and all things denote there is a God; yea, even the earth, and all things that are upon the face of it, yea, and its motion, yea, and also all the planets which move in their regular form do witness that there is a Supreme Creator.

I see this scripture as being about the relationship of creation to its creator rather than a statement about the kind of inferences we can make about God’s existence from the facts and laws of the universe.

In general, these kinds of arguments don’t work well and aren’t convening. Many people see the same things and don’t have a testimony of God. The facts of astronomy testify of a universe with law-like qualities, but the source of those laws can’t just be read from the existence of those laws. It takes some work–you have to get to Moroni 10 to get to the heart of what is actually convincing.

Darwin read Paley. In the mean time he also discovered how to explain complexity without intervention. And many of the religious who hung their hat on Natural Theology left the fold. That’s because they are trying to make inferences about God from missing data. There’s a hole here. God must fill it! But then an explanation comes along, and God has less role to play then He did before and their Faith in Him shrinks proportionally. This is formally called the “God of the Gaps.”

The problem with the kind of inferences can be illustrated with this thought experiment. Suppose science figures out how life started on the Earth? There has been some very interesting progress in this direction. All it needs is a chemical system that has the necessary ingredients for evolution (variation, inheritance and selection) and it’s off to the races. But for the sake of argument I’ll agree we don’t have an answer yet. But what if we get it? What if we can show exactly, repeatedly, and with very clear explanation how it got started? Suppose we can start it anytime we want in a test-tube? Further, in our thought experiment, suppose we find this story not only laid out in the geological history on Earth, but we find it on Mars. Maybe even Europa or Titan. Suppose science cracks this problem spectacularly? Do you quit believing in God? Is this current lack of explanation for the ‘hows’ of life starting on Earth somehow the basis of your faith? Why offer it as evidence then? This is the classic case of the God of the Gaps. That’s why these arguments are so harmful. They pit faith and science as enemies and ultimately they turn out to be as bad of theology as they are science. If evolution is true, then it’s a part of our faith, as chemist Henry Eyring said.

This is why the Intelligent Design movement fails so badly. It seeks to put God into explanatory gaps. We can’t explain it yet! Proof that God must be involved! It’s too complex! Too hard to explain! What’s that you say? Science just explained it? No matter here is something else that science can’t explain! Proof God must be involved! Wait, What’s that? . . . You can see where this leads. A God that inhabits a smaller and smaller place as the explanatory gap shrinks. This is why it seems we have so many atheists today, the believer’s world is badly conceived and articulated with these kinds of arguments. And Atheists have taken this as their representation of what Faith is. It’s a sickly kind of faith that can’t be maintained in the presence of a fully conceived scientific understanding of the physical universe.

God is too magnificent. Too important to let these kind of silly arguments be used in His defence. It diminishes Him. God is there whether evolution is true or not. To me it magnifies him to understand the universe and life more completely and more fully. Evolution is a wonderful thing. It explains so much. Underscores the beauty and rarity of the world and all the evidence points in that direction. Your God may be hiding under a rock in the gaps left by science. Mine stands in majesty in and through all things. Including the wondrous evolutionary history of our planet.

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Comments

  1. “This is why it seems we have so many atheists today, the believer’s world is badly conceived and articulated with these kinds of arguments. And Atheists have taken this as their representation of what Faith is.”

    Or maybe it’s because atheism is cool right now. In my experience, most atheists rely on soundbites and are as ignorant of the science behind them every bit as much as the fundamentalists and IDers you/they deride. It is not hard to find a reasonable defense for faith if you are genuinely interested in looking. But most are content to base their whole view of religion and people of faith on the polemics of Dawkins et al.

  2. Beautifully put, Steve; a wonderful tribute for today. I especially enjoyed your reading of Alma. And I echo your entire final paragraph.

  3. Sorry Steve, my comment in #1 may sound a little snarky. I agree with most everything you said and like Ben particularly liked you concluding paragraph. I just felt that the line I quoted in #1 went too far in absolving atheists of their responsibility to discover the best that faith has to offer in a post where you are encouraging religionists to discover the best that science has to offer.

  4. The whole “your God/my God” thing, especially when you’re talking to other Mormons, seems like an odd posture when you’re trying to win over fellow Mormons to accept human evolution as a fact.

    Great essay though. Rosalynde’s dad confronted the God of the Gap theory by quoting Bonhoeffer — it was a great comment. I’ll see if I can dig it up.

  5. John Mansfield says:

    So, when Spencer Kimball repeated the watchmaker story in a First Presidency message, he was demonstrating a kind faith as worthy of derision as that of the priests of Baal, and it is the fault of people like him that atheists have no faith? But what is holding back the atheists from latching onto SteveP’s magnificent God? It must be that the dumb stocks promoted by those like Kimball are confusing matters, blinding men from receiving a true witness.

  6. Russ Frandsen’s reference to Dietrich Bonhoeffer on the god of the gaps was at Times and Seasons:

    http://timesandseasons.org/index.php/2009/10/holland-and-the-gap-again/#comment-300693

    Bonhoeffer’s quote is persuasive in support of finding a different theory of how God fits in with science:

    [H]ow wrong it is to use God as a stop-gap for the incompleteness of our knowledge. If in fact the frontiers of knowledge are being pushed further and further back (and that is bound to be the case), then God is being pushed back with them, and is therefore continually in retreat. We are to find God in what we know, not in what we don’t know.

    It is preferable to conceive of God not being in retreat based on fewer gaps that need filling. Still, there are and will always be gaps because our knowledge and potential for obtaining and maintaining knowledge are faulty due to human fallibility and, of course, the Heisenberg Principle.

  7. (the blockquote was only supposed to be one paragraph in #6 and not two — my tag appears to have been broken.)

  8. Natural Theology was the name that got associated with this

    Ironically, the term “Natural Theology” pre-dates Paley by at least six hundred years, and is conventionally used in nearly the opposite sense. The basic idea is that God’s creation is reflected in the timeless laws of nature, and divine intervention is a rare exception, if any.

    Thomas Aquinas was really big on this, and the tradition goes back at least to Aristotle. In any case, Thomism tends to make for a scientifically respectable form of “Intelligent Design” – no divine intervention in evolution after the fact, i.e. separate from the initial creation of the universe ex nihilo.

  9. Mark D. There earliest argument from natural theology I could find was Xenophon on which I blogged a couple of weeks ago on the Mormon Organon.

  10. The problem, Steve, is that God is becoming too magnificent. A god that meddles incessently in your life must be dealt with, but as the role (or even possibility of detection) recedes, the pedestal becomes too high.

    Independent of whether God actually exists, psychologists are building an ever more increasing role for a “God gene”, naturally selected to favor ever more complex forms of human groupings. If God floats too high above this human need, something else will fill it (Scientology, anyone?)

    The landlord cannot be too long absent from his field, or the servants will sell it off to another. It is not enough for God to say “Bang” 14ish billion years ago, then stepped back to let nature take its course.

    It’s high time for another burning bush.

  11. I really don’t understand the divide between creationism and evolution. God didn’t just create – he organized matter. To me, that explains a whole lot of things.

  12. #10. An Eternal God who is timeless can simultaneously adjust the initial conditions of His creation and obtain the results He wants. The idea that God “created” the World, then stepped back might be a primitive view of what He did/is doing right now.

    And for me, the fact that my consciousness exists right now, with qualia, is a constant, moment-by-moment reminder that our existence is miraculous. A constant burning bush all the time, every day.

  13. Not to mention the fact that I can choose between equally good options every day.

  14. Re 13 – that is a really intriguing thought.

  15. Stephanie, you would be correct except for two things: (1) early twentieth century statements by Church leaders seem to be informed and persuaded by contemporary creedal Christian Fundamentalist views on young earth theory and incorrect nature of the theory of human evolution; and (2) an apparent increased willingness of lay Mormons to be persuaded by the creedal Christian Fundamentalist beliefs in creation ex nihilo, which seems to weigh against an earth billions of years old and an organic approach to physical creation.

    I’m with you though on wondering why in the world Mormons would see a contradiction or divide between God and evolution. Any field of faith or knowledge is game for further revelation, i.e. further light and knowledge.

    To me it boils down to politics: the left has identified itself as the “side” that accepts evolution and more broadly a scientific approach, which has meant that Mormons, wanting to be accepted by the creedal Christian Fundamentalist right, have gravitated toward the views on evolution of the Fundamentalist right (a group of people that otherwise despises Mormons) instead of just adopting their politics.

  16. john (16) I fear it is true. Scientific findings have been politicized.

  17. To continue on 16, many Mormons seek identification with the political right because of certain single-issue-voting social issues (granted, sometimes two or three of them bundled together) and by association, instead of just joining into the political camp of the Fundamentalist right, based on these social issues, Mormons are being influenced by these key themes that are hot topics for Fundamentalist creedal Christians.

    Let’s be Mormons, gracefully harmonizing and unifying science and faith — seeing faith enhanced and enlarged through science, and seeing advances in science (to the extent not further politicized by the left, as has been in the past) as evidence of the Spirit of God moving upon all of humanity to the benefit of all of us and bringing us all closer to ultimate truth.

  18. #16. Exactly. I have a story about the Evangelical Right… once upon a time, a man picked up a snake at the top of a cold, cold mountain…

  19. I think it’s the fall that does it for me. How does the fall fit in with evolution.

  20. Why does it have to conflict? (And I assume you’re talking about human evolution and not organic evolution generally.)

  21. I guess I have to echo comment 5. The “sickly” faith of the gaps is pretty debilitating, but rejecting it doesn’t alone make the case for the “magnificent God.”

    For example, as we start including more of the natural world, I have to dim my view of god and divinity…until I don’t feel like either “god” or “divinity” are good terms to describe what is available.

  22. britt (20) Part of the problem is that the LDS have become very used to having all the answers in our theology. We are not used to open questions. I don’t know how the Fall fits in. I know it does. I know evolution is the mode and method of creation. I know the Fall happened. How they fit? I don’t know. But I am comfortable with open questions. They are everywhere in science. I revise what I know when new data present themselves, sometimes I have to put claims of seeing how it all fits aside with hope I will one day see the whole picture. We need to get more comfortable with just not knowing certain things. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to find them, and use our best thought to explore them, but if during that process they remain open, I am comfortable with that.

  23. yes human evolution.

    My understanding of the fall (which is where the problem could be) is that Adam and Eve were people and their choice brought death into the world. That’s a rather simplistic, partial statement.

    My understanding of human evolution definitely involves death.

    How did we get to adam and eve without death?

    At what point were spirits involved?

  24. This is a really interesting post. I think the issue with Mormons and evolution is the definition of evolution. The ID textbook, Pandas and People reminds us that there are really three different evolutions:
    1. Change over time (the idea that species look different today than even a few hundred years ago)
    2. Common ancestry (life forms have all stemmed from a common ancestor)
    3. Random variation and natural selection (only the strong survive which makes species change relative to strengths–i.e., change is random)

    The last two, and particularly the second, are the evolutions which cause Mormons and Fundamentalist Christians the most alarm.

    The first, change over time, really is an idea that is not necessarily at odds with Mormon theology. As has been stated, we believe the earth was organized from matter already existent.

    As for the caution over the Mormon acceptance of ID, again this comes down to definition. Intelligent Design is not limited to just the deist “Watchmaker.” ID is simply defined, at least by the authors of P&P, as a belief that “life had an intelligent source” (161). Mormons believe this very thing. At least by this definition it seems that ID and Mormonism are not at odds.

    Finally, I am not sure about the argument that because man can duplicate what God has done must mean that God is “receding.” Science is constantly catching up with what God already knows and has applied in the creation of the universe. Just because science could someday duplicate life does not mean that God is somehow enervated. Intelligent design would in this regard actually be strengthened because science, duplicating the creation of life, would show that it can only be done with human intervention (i.e., intelligent design).

  25. Britt (#23) – there are a lot of them, but some of the comments in the following post may interest you:

    http://bycommonconsent.com/2009/11/10/when-do-you-change-your-beliefs/#more-13203

  26. Sorry Britt, ignore the last post. I was thinking of a post (another of SteveP’s, I think) where the comments were filled with ideas of how to reconcile evolution with the doctrine of the Fall. Anyone any idea what I’m talking about?

  27. #24: I never thought I would see Pandas and People quoted on BCC.

    I guess there is a first time for everything.

  28. Haha. Yup.

  29. Making fun of britt and Gerrit isn’t going to engender an environment of understanding.

  30. Gerrit, I’m fine with the last one there…I don’t see how you could NOT notice that. Obviously the strong survive to reproduce. That doesn’t change a gnat to a frog, but it does give you a better gnat for that environment-at least that is my understanding of natural selection-please correct me here.

    What I dislike is the implication that a creature could chose to evolve as happens in dinosaur books I read to my son. the book will say something to the effect of due the the dry conditions and worms being deeper in the earth the beak lengthened…um no. The creatures with the longer beaks survived to reproduce…BIG difference.

  31. Have I been made fun of and I didn’t even notice. I’m shocked and offended (or is that appalled and horrified-come on who else here reads ericdsnider, help) that it was so poorly done that I didn’t even notice.

  32. I would think natural selection is the most clearly demonstrated and obvious of the three in Gerrit’s list. Now, it is easy to understand why it would be troubling as a concept to Calvinist-leaning American creedal Christian Fundamentalists — but we Mormons don’t and should not fall into that category.

  33. re # 31, I guess it was just Gerrit referred to in # 27. Gerrit just laughed so it was no big deal.

  34. britt
    Exactly. The strong are the ones who survive. Fundamentalists dislike this not because it is not noticeable in nature so much as that it is used by atheists to ‘prove’ that life evolved randomly, and therefore must have started randomly, instead of by design.

    I agree, I didn’t think anyone was being made fun of. :)

  35. The problem with “intelligent design” is that it seeks to find parts of evolution that the “intelligent designer” must have done, through some sort of miracle or incredibly-advanced technology, because evolution has a hard time describing how it was done.
    Unfortunately for proponents of Intelligent Design, our knowledge about evolution is continually increasing, and those gaps in knowledge are being filled in, one by one.

    Those who ascribe to Theistic Evolution not only believe in God, but they actually call him God (and not “Intelligent Designer.”) They also have no problem accepting good science (including evolution).
    To the members of the church who are attracted to Intelligent Design, I would suggest Theistic Evolution would be a better option.

  36. Well I’ve never liked intelligent design anyway, so that’s not really an issue for me. I just see on one END of the spectrum science politicized and on the other science religiousized.

    I have just never been able to get the fall and evolution to fit so I’ve accepted the fall and said i don’t know where evolution fits or what to do with it. similar to steve P but different. I’m more likely to doubt my concept of evolution than I am to doubt my concept of the fall.

    clear as mud, but it covered the ground

  37. I’m not sure about the Fall. However, I’m completely willing to put it in a post-modern light, viewing Adam and Eve as symbols… or even metaphors for our own descent into mortality. It seems like the Temple and the Pearl of Great Price have already used Adam and Eve for these same purposes.

    It’s a lot like gravity really. Up until Einstein, the concept of “gravity” worked pretty darn well, and we used it to figure out how the Solar System moves and what holds the galaxies together. Einstein discovered that gravity isn’t really a force per se, it’s just that mass distorts and bends space and time. Earth doesn’t go around the Sun because of the force of gravity, it goes around because that’s the shortest path through space and time it can take. Adam and Eve might just be like gravity: not necessarily “true” but a good enough metaphor that works for all intents and purposes. Metaphors are Christ’s primary MO. The people couldn’t really grasp complex topics so Christ gave them metaphors to illustrate ideas.

    The only problem is when we get so caught up in the metaphors that we miss the purpose of the metaphors. It’s human nature- the Pharisees built their careers on this. But Christ’s followers weren’t all ticked off when they spent all night searching fields and never found any pearls. The key to truth is whether the symbology is useful or not.

    I’m not saying we should look at everything in life and deconstruct it and not believe anything really happened, but I do know that whether Adam was the son of a lesser being doesn’t change whether I have to go to work tomorrow or not.

  38. Then do we only need a metaphorical Christ? And a symbolic atonement?

  39. britt, I think there’s ways to accommodate both a literal Adam/Eve and organic evolution/human evolution. One way is simply to take the approach SteveP. has described of acknowledging that we just don’t know how they fit together at this point but that we look forward to further light and knowledge, whether that comes to us through further scientific discoveries/developments or through further revealed/scriptural truth.

    The short answer is that there’s no reason to deny the science or the method behind organic evolution or human evolution since the full picture is not yet in view. One can accept the full palet of truth available through the scientific method on the topic of evolution and through scripture on the topic of the Fall and Redemption of Man. They just don’t have to conflict unless someone wants them to — and usually that happens as a result of a desire to stick a finger in someone’s eye.

  40. I believe that Christ was “real” and the Atonement was “real.” That having been said, the way humans USE things like this is identical whether it’s real or not. To us, everything is symbolic. The simple fact that two people can’t agree on whether a movie is good or what it “means” shows us that humans just take what they see and create a complex myth system to live by based on their own presuppositions.

    Even taking a look at the Atonement. How many people say “we still don’t understand all aspects of the Atonement and humans can’t comprehend the length and breadth of it.” This shows us that even the Atonement is an abstraction based on something much, much bigger and more complex.

  41. I am not sure about how far we can go with the metaphor. Prophets have spoken of Adam and Eve as real people, having real trials and difficulties, with real life experiences even recorded in modern scripture.

    I respect your idea of a ‘post-modern’ view of the Fall is but I still believe Adam and Eve were real. Joseph F. Smith wrote that he saw them both in the great procession of the dead, along with his father and Joseph Smith (D7C 138: 38-39,53). If I believe Hyrum actually lived, it is hard to then say that Adam and Eve didn’t, in this context.

    #39 Totally agree…and laughed out loud over the last line (true and sad at the same time).

  42. #42. I also think Adam and Eve were real. Like I said, I don’t think we can pretend nothing in life is real, it leads to ridiculous solipsism. But it’s easy in my mind to say “Adam and Eve were the first people who made covenants with the Lord. They were blissfully ignorant of God’s Laws, but once God made the Law known to them, they transgressed the Law, bringing misery onto themselves worse than before. However, Enoch teaches us that this Fall was forgiven through Adam’s baptism, and Adam went abroad teaching his children the true Gospel of the Christ that would come.” None of this really contradicts scripture.

  43. What gets me is that most Mormons are motivated in their rejection of evolution because they have no idea what to do with Adam and the Fall. I agree that it is the most difficult question.

    The thing is that ID helps absolutely nothing in this area. ID does NOT deny common ancestry. Issue regarding irreducible complexity and information theory speak nothing, absolutely nothing again common ancestry. And let’s face it, the common ancestry of human is one of the stronger, not weaker point of Darwin’s theory.

    It’s for this reason that I appreciate NDBF Gary’s position more than any ID mumbo-jumbo.

  44. Arthur I similarly believe the fall is bigger than I can comprehend, but that Adam and Eve were real people. Just as we physically need to do things in ordinances, I believe the fall and the atonement required someone very real to physical DO them.

    oh my that’s simplistic.

  45. BTW, here is my basic attempt at harmonizing an evolution fully endorsed by science with a fall which goes slightly, but not too far beyond official teachings of the church:

    http://www.newcoolthang.com/index.php/2005/10/monkey-man/151/#comment-6140

  46. Jeff, so doesn’t it makes sense if Mormons cling to the fall and just kind of back burner evolution-keeping it somewhere in the back and vague?

    If I cant figure out how the go together I figure evolution must be wrong-or the more likely of the two to need tweaking.

  47. Britt,

    Sure, that’s all well and good, but again, the fall is denied by ID just as much as by real science. So, sure, deny real science in favor of the fall, but don’t do yourself the disservice of buying into any of that ID garbage.

  48. so doesn’t it makes sense if Mormons cling to the fall and just kind of back burner evolution-keeping it somewhere in the back and vague

    britt, that’s different than joining creedal Christian Fundamentalists in the ID or young earth crusades.

    As you noted above, it is not fundamentally different than the approach SteveP takes except that as a professor of biology with years of research and exposure to actual data and facts about evolution and what it actually is, he embraces it as an explanatory theory and puts the literal Fall somewhat on the back burner in the sense of claiming to know how it fits with the evidence for evolution that he finds so compelling.

    Both of those are completely reasonable and thoroughly Mormon approaches. Unfortunately, SteveP looks down so much on his fellow Mormons who in a pinch back-burner evolution that it seems he’s had a lot of frustrating conversations on the topic!

  49. Oh I don’t care about ID-

    So I can be perfectly rational, still “believe and understand science” (to some extent-but not to SteveP’s satisfaction). and just back burner evolution…. great.

  50. britt, you have to do what’s right for you — this isn’t about approval from me or SteveP or JeffG or NDBTF Gary. To me the approach you are taking sounds perfectly fine and is I think what many or most Mormons do. You are probably right that this is not sufficient for SteveP as he seems to want more Mormons to explicitly and formally embrace the theory of human evolution as a fact to the same extent that he does. Unfortunately, very few Mormons have PhDs in organic evolution or biology so we aren’t confronted with ultra-persuasive facts about missing links and human evolution on a daily basis the way he is.

    But I believe the two broad groups within Mormonism can be reconciled with each other. One way is to mutually acknowledge that the back burner does not equal off the stove.

  51. J. Nelson-Seawright says:

    It’s nice to have biologist friends. If you know the right ones, they will invite you into their labs and show you evolution happening live, in front of you. When you’ve had that experience, belief flows naturally because, as they say, faith is dead…

  52. J. Nelson-Seawright says:

    Britt, I don’t think you can believe and understand science and simultaneously “back burner” evolution. Evolution is extraordinarily central to gigantic swaths of science; even my work in political science is sometimes indirectly informed by evolutionary work on neurology. Somehow bracketing evolution is similar to bracketing the information conveyed by the periodic table or disregarding quantum mechanics; you can rationally do this if you don’t care about the scientific project of understanding, but you can’t do it and claim to be involved with science.

    Many Mormons have been sold a fraudulent load of goods by outsiders, originally Seventh-Day Adventist pseudo-scientists, but now primarily evangelicals, who claim (a) that evolution is reasonably vulnerable to intellectual rebuttal given current evidence and knowledge, and (b) that evolution necessarily implies atheism. Seeing that postulate (a) is definitely incorrect requires some work, but there are mass-market books that will do the job. Seeing that postulate (b) is false is easy: find a biologist who believes in God; I suggest Steve as a good example. It’s unfortunate that so many of our co-religionists have been sold these falsehoods in the name of God.

  53. JNS, I think your first paragraph in 53 comes on a little strong. If a Mormon like britt can’t see how to satisfactorily reconcile the Fall and human evolution within their own minds and choose therefore to put the role of human evolution in the whole picture on the back burner as a result, I don’t think that is rejecting all of science or even a significant portion thereof. It’s not even actually “rejecting” human evolution to put it on the back burner; rather, it’s just doing the same thing that SteveP does in acknowledging that britt doesn’t know where or how it fits in. SteveP said this is already what he does, even though as far as he is concerned, human evolution is undeniable by any rational person.

  54. J. Nelson-Seawright says:

    John, let’s distinguish between (a) putting the theological puzzle of evolution and the Fall on the back burner, and (b) putting evolution per se on the back burner. Doing (a) is obviously rational, reasonable, compatible with science, etc. But position (b) is not, as it disregards a central pillar of science supported by more evidence than a person can master in ten lifetimes on a whim. You can do that if you want, no problem, but if you do, you aren’t engaged with science — that’s just how it works.

  55. J. Nelson-Seawright says:

    In other words, I think a rational position might be as follows: “Evolution is as strongly supported as basically any human knowledge. So it’s very probably how life came about on Earth. I don’t understand how that conclusion fits with my theology, but I believe both my theology and that scientific proposition about the origins of life (although for different reasons and in different ways). I’m not sure this isn’t a paradox, but it’s one I’ll live with for now.”

  56. JNS, you’re being obtusely obstructive to dialogue on this issue. So be it.

  57. (with reference to 55; your 56, of course, says something similar to what I’ve been saying, minus the sort of superior air about knowledge about evolution, so it’s not obtuse.)

  58. J. Nelson-Seawright says:

    John, good grief — obstructing dialogue is your job in this thread, it seems… :)

  59. J. Nelson-Seawright says:

    Since #55 and 56 say the same thing, your distinction is odd to me, John. Why isn’t it useful to distinguish between the irrational move of “back burnering” evolution and the reasonable move of “back burnering” theological puzzles?

  60. How about this:

    “Organic evolution is strongly supported by many different kinds of testable and provable (i.e. scientific) evidence. So it is probable that organic life developed over eons through this process. The same evidence strongly supports the theory that homosapiens developed through an evolutionary process, even though certain key links have not yet been found. So it is also very possible that homosapiens developed through such processes. I don’t understand how that conclusion fits with my beliefs about human beings in the family of Adam and Eve, but I believe both my religious beliefs and such scientific propositions about the origins of life (although for different reasons and in different ways). Sometimes this seems like a paradox to me; other times it seems to fit together better. Either way, I am comfortable acknowledging that I don’t necessarily know how everything fits together but there’s no reason to think that both are correct and I believe that there is much more to learn on both fronts than is currently known.”

  61. “no reason to think that both are not correct”

  62. re # 59, why? What’s been obstructive?

  63. J. Nelson-Seawright says:

    John, that’s maybe a bit too weak on the evidence regarding human origins. It seems that you’re perhaps interjecting doubt that isn’t supported by the evidence, which would be a non-scientific move. (Again, fine if you don’t care about science; not if you do.) I’m confused by this: “there’s no reason to think that both are correct.” Here’s my proposed revision:

    “Organic evolution is strongly supported by many different kinds of testable and provable (i.e. scientific) evidence, and has successfully made more testable predictions than almost any other theory. So it essentially meets the current limits of human certainty that organic life developed over eons through this process. The same evidence equally strongly supports the theory that homosapiens developed through an evolutionary process. So it also essentially meets the current limits of human certainty that homosapiens developed through such processes. I don’t understand how that conclusion fits with my beliefs about human beings in the family of Adam and Eve, but I believe both my religious beliefs and such scientific propositions about the origins of life (although for different reasons and in different ways). Sometimes this seems like a paradox to me; other times it seems to fit together better. Either way, I am comfortable acknowledging that I don’t necessarily know how everything fits together. I’m not ready to throw out either proposition, or to disregard the best available information (either scientific or theological) because of the resulting tensions.”

    For what it’s worth, I think the fireworks over the Fall are a superficial distraction from the real, difficult issues of evolution and Mormon theology. For example, if humanity originates through evolution, then at least important aspects of the “end point,” i.e., us (although we aren’t really any kind of end point in evolutionary thought), are a priori unpredictable. This means that God can’t have known in any great detail what kinds of bodies he was creating for us. Which in turn raises serious questions about propositions that God and us have the same kinds of bodies, that spirits in some sense correspond to bodies, etc.

    Or another one. It seems to be possible to account for an increasing number of features of consciousness via evolutionary arguments in conjunction with comparative anatomy. This puts us in a position of being unable to answer the question: what is a spirit, and what role does it play in human life? It may well be the case that cognition, affect, etc., are all evolved biological capacities, which may leave little role for the spirit as a component of a person’s behavior or inner life.

    I think these are tougher issues than the Adam and Eve story, because that’s a singular story that comes from a textual tradition which we know to be filled with symbolism, complexity, invention, etc. All it takes is a different understanding of what the Fall entails and you’re through the maze, and different understandings of the Fall are sort of a dime a dozen in Mormonism through its history. These other issues are harder, because they don’t involve simple issues of interpreting a single event, but rather speak to basic conceptions of the theology of humanity…

  64. J. Nelson-Seawright says:

    John #63, how about your comment #57: instead of engaging my distinction between bracketing the science of evolution and bracketing theological puzzles, you simply call it obstruction! Oh, well. Good times. Reminds me of the days when you and your German House roommates put the anti-environmentalist poster on your door for irony… :)

  65. john,
    Did an evolutionist do something mean to you when you were a kid?

  66. Steve P.: There earliest argument from natural theology I could find was Xenophon on which I blogged a couple of weeks ago on the Mormon Organon.

    My complaint here is that the dominant tradition in natural theology is precisely the opposite of a typical argument from design. “Intelligent Design” traditionally refers to temporal intervention in the evolutionary process, if not special creation. The dominant tradition in natural theology going back thousands of years (and reaching its greatest expression Aquinas) is the opposite – all about God’s timeless creation of the laws of nature.

    It is like the difference between saying God designed the laws of electromagnetism to accomplish these purposes vs he intervened in history to tweak this cell or that organism. Scientists don’t and can’t care about the former from a scientific perspective – creatio ex nihilo is the ultimate violation of the laws of nature, but after that they stay the same. But intervention in evolutionary history is the sort of quasi-miraculous thing that science cannot possibly explain, because it tends to involve suspending the laws of nature here and there and everywhere. And if it really was a miracle, how or why it happened isn’t a scientific question either.

    Natural theology traditionally is all about trying to understand God and his purposes through the analysis of the laws of nature, not an analysis of some possible intervention here or there. And that is why it (the traditional, timeless perspective) is much more compatible with scientific inquiry than the latter.

  67. JNS, as noted in my # 62, that phrase that you said you didn’t understand was missing the “not”.

    Why did you delete this in your revision:

    “I believe that there is much more to learn on both fronts than is currently known.”

    This makes it seem like you are making the most absolute claim about human evolution that is possible — that nothing more can be learned about it through further discovery.

    I think the following is unnecessarily strong in its claims:

    “The same evidence equally strongly supports the theory that homosapiens developed through an evolutionary process. So it also essentially meets the current limits of human certainty that homosapiens developed through such processes.”

    To my knowledge it is not established to the point of “meeting the current limits of human certainty” — and what does it bring your definition to make such a strident claim?

    As to the problems that accepting human evolution as a probable method of the development of homosapiens, I don’t agree that those necessarily follow on the religious side of things. How could such issues possibly cast doubt on the origin and function of the human spirit that Mormons believe inhabit these physical bodies? That is entirely a matter of faith.

  68. Um, Ronan, I don’t get your question given that pretty much everything I’ve said on this thread and the other thread is supportive of evolution and is in the posture of reaching out to Mormons who are skeptical and reassuring them that, in my view, theories of human evolution and LDS religious belief neither are nor should be mutually exclusive, contradictory or even particularly troubling.

  69. You know I love you JF, so fret not. Note that I mused whether it was evolutionists (rather than evolution) that stole your lunch money.

  70. “Evolution is as strongly supported as basically any human knowledge”

    Strongly supported in some sense or another, absolutely. As strongly supported as a large number of other fields of human inquiry, hardly. Physics, mathematics, computer science, and engineering (to name a few) are all light years ahead of evolutionary biology in terms of precision, predictive power, and depth of understanding.

    That is not particularly surprising, however, because the latter is a much more complex problem. At the moment the computational power to accurately simulate a single cell in quantum mechanical terms is far beyond the capacity of present computer technology, even with football fields full of computers.

  71. J. Nelson-Seawright says:

    John, what are the current limits of human certainty? If spectacular scientific success crossing dozens of fields of inquiry doesn’t count, what does?

    Regarding the “much more to learn” clause, of course that’s true. I deleted it because it’s often misunderstood with respect to evolution. Of course there is much more — possibly infinitely more — to learn about how evolution works. But people often think that this lack of knowledge makes it plausible to imagine that evolution tout court will turn out to be wrong in light of future discoveries. This is of course possible, but not plausible.

    Regarding the theological puzzles that I think result from understanding evolution, I agree that the proposition that there’s a spirit in our bodies is a pure issue of faith. The proposition that the spirit acts in some sense to co-produce our thoughts and actions may not be — it might be an empirical question. That is to say, it’s now possible to account for an awful lot of human consciousness without invoking the existence of the spirit, and that may have implications. If it turns out to be demonstrable that the spirit isn’t necessary at all to account for our thoughts and feelings, that’s an oddity worth working through. These puzzles don’t disprove Mormonism, obviously. But they’re tricky for thinking about how we believe our beliefs; that’s the total substance of my claim.

  72. #61,

    I don’t understand how that conclusion fits with my beliefs about human beings in the family of Adam and Eve

    I think it would be more interesting to worry about where Adam and Eve went, not what car they drove in to get there.

    As I mentioned in another post comment, the easiest resolution of ID/creationism and evolution is to punt: Descartes mind-body dualism (Ghost in the Machine). Poof, problem solved. Various species evolved, and when one of them at random (a primate, as it happens) evolved a brain complex enough, God infused it with the Spirit of Adam and Eve, and off you go.

    This has the added benefit that when we die, the corpse rots (as even children notice) and we don’t have to worry about the spirit getting stuck in it.

    The angst in the comments above seems to me to arise where body and soul are put into a one-to-one correspondence. Instead of Adam materializing into any random suitable body, you require a specific creation. Why must such importance be placed on the vessel? When people go on vacation, they don’t take pictures of the rental car. Why should premortal/mortal/postmortal souls have not just a corresponding premortal/mortal/postmortal body but the same body. The soul goes where the body cannot follow.

    For me, the flaw even in this minimalist theory is the mentally retarded. Whereas perfect intelligence can be trapped in a frail body (after all, we’re just along for the ride), what to think about frail intelligence? How do premortal souls lose intelligence? How do they get it back? (answer here).

    This is the more interesting question for me, not the mechanics of how this temporary flesh shell I inhabit came to be complex enough to house me during my stay here on Earth.

  73. J. Nelson-Seawright says:

    Mark D., mathematics and computer science are actually sort of a different animal. Those are the study of human-made systems…

    Regarding comparisons in terms of predictive power, precision, and depth of understanding, these seem to me to be ill-defined to the point of meaninglessness. Certainly evolution doesn’t allow plots of simple orbits (although physics still runs into trouble when there are too many objects exerting gravity on each other), but this seems like the wrong sort of metric. How can “precision,” for example, be measured in a way that is relevant to the kinds of hypotheses advanced by both physics and evolution and that is comparable between them? I’m not sure you can solve this problem.

    My point is simply that evolution accounts for vastly more evidence, solves inordinately more problems, than any competing theory in biology. Physics does the same. How much better does it get than that?

  74. J. Nelson-Seawright says:

    Dan, please don’t equate the spirit with the mind in a Cartesian sense! There’s increasingly good evidence that the mind as usually understood, i.e. consciousness, is a biological function of the body. The spirit would have to be something else.

  75. J. Nelson-Seawright says:

    For that last comment, I’m obviously not an expert, but I’ve read some neat books by people who are. Here are three.

  76. J. Nelson-Seawright,

    Please don’t escape the topological problem with word games. :)

    If mind and spirit are connected in any way, they must connect somewhere. So, where? Whatever that somewhere is, it must be either in intimate contact with the mind, or else be action at a distance. The latter does essential damage to the concept of agency.

  77. Ugly Mahana says:

    I am really enjoying the conversation here and elsewhere on the topic of evolution.

    One question: Is it ok to not be engaged with science, or do all those not so engaged have the right (responsibility?) to look down their noses at their co-religionists for whom science is not their primary means of interpreting their lives?

  78. J. Nelson-Seawright says:

    Dan, that’s the problem! If mind is an evolved biological capacity, as scientists are increasingly arguing, then the role of the spirit in a human being is a puzzle! The spirit can’t reasonably be believed to be equal to the Cartesian mind, because we know that the Cartesian mind can be easily damaged or fundamentally changed through manipulation or lesion to the brain (or through amputation of limbs, spinal cord injuries, etc.). Our theology would seem to demand some relation between the apparently biological process that Descartes mysticized as mind and the spirit, but what that relation can be is hard to spell out. The spirit can’t reasonably be offered as the cause of synapses, hormone flows, etc., since those are biological, evolvable, and evolved. So the story has to be trickier than we usually think.

  79. J. Nelson-Seawright says:

    Mahana, if people want to ignore science altogether, that’s their choice in my view. It’s a hard choice for me to understand — but as long as it doesn’t turn into hostility or rejection, it’s all good with me.

  80. Rob Osborn says:

    Steve P,

    I do not agree that ID theory is a god of the gaps. Look at your own theory concerning the origins of life through mere natural processes. You state all of these “what-ifs” concerning if scientists were to find out how life could originate from random natural processes in nature. Scientists have been studying the phenomenon of biogenesis for hundreds of years investigating why life only comes from life sources. They have put up so much documented proof of the fact of the law of biogenesis that in it’s wake it destroys any fantastical approach to some non-scientific, law based theory of abiogenesis.

    What ID has found, or has perpetueated is just that- that life only comes from life and that because of this science- “natural” science has a lot of explaining to do- namely that either life has always existed in some form in the universe, or that known laws of biochemistry are really not known at all. Rather than throw out hundreds of years of research and study, ID scientists are left with the all to obvious- that intelligent life only comes from intelligent life. In fact, this is the very doctrine of the church- that the only reason we exist on this planet is because of the intervention of a previous life-form- yes, an “intelligent designer” interacted with matter and created us with both purpose, intellect, design capabilities, etc. The truth is that naturalistic science explanations and the revealed word of God do not coincide with each other. ID is thus not a god-of-the-gaps, but in reality the end result of noting the physical laws of biogenesis. Abiogenesis and biogenesis contradict each other. Its amusing to me that evolutionists will recognize the law of abiogenesis on one hand and then on the other admit that it is or can be wrong- at least at one point in the past, otherwise they have no way to explain how life origunated because they surely won’t point in the direction of where the truth is leading- that direction of life only coming from life, and- it is what our church firmly teaches.

    You posit that it must be possible for life to spontaneously arise on other planets as if there be no God, no creator involved. As of yet, we have shown over and over again that the enigma we call life is at a complete losss of words in a purely random naturalistsic setting.

    The signs are very clear that we have an intelligent designer who created all life and the galaxie we live in. It is not har to extrapolate after viewing the last ten years in genomic and DNA research that this phenomenon of “directions, designs, coded language” as found in cellular processes is not the act of anything short of genius! It says there is a God, there must be a God. Someday, it will be proven, will be shown as fact, that Jesus Christ orchestrated the creation- that he is the “enigma” that science has been so perplexed by. There will come a day when all known biological processes will be known to be the direct act of an intelligent agent acting upon matter. God is real, the creator is real, and ID is real. Why do LDS subscribe to ID theory? Because our very scriptures tell us so.

  81. Regarding #53 and follows, what Ugly Mahana said. JNS, your proposed statements are fine for scientists. But not everyone is a scientist. Why do we have to hate on britt and others who are trying to be on our side–to the extent they even think about the issue–but are just saying that this isn’t something they think about all that much. Jeesh.

  82. J. Nelson-Seawright says:

    Hey, Cynthia, see my #80! I agree with you in advance; I’ve pointed out several times in this thread that for people who don’t care about science, none of this need apply. My argument is simply for people who want to be engaged with science.

    No hating on britt from my corner, either. Britt’s got good questions, I think.

  83. Yeah I didn’t see your #80, sorry. Consider my #82 retracted.

  84. Wow, you guys do so well without me (I was at a dissertation defense)! Carry on! You know how I feel about this.

  85. Haha! You’re funny, Rob!

    “What ID has found….”
    “…ID scientists…”

    Ah, those are good ones.

  86. One example of how already Free Agency cannot stand up to scientific inquiry:

    fMRI Evidence Used in Murder Sentencing

    http://blogs.sciencemag.org/scienceinsider/2009/11/fmri-evidence-u.html

    The intersection of theology and science is politics. It should be quite a ride.

  87. Skipping all the comments, I just wanted to say SteveP, I really love your POV, and admire you as a man of faith AND science.

  88. mathematics and computer science are actually sort of a different animal. Those are the study of human-made systems

    Virtually everything about physics for at least four centuries running would be hand waving if it weren’t for the the precise and exquisitely empirically verified expression of the laws of physics in mathematical terms. So you can’t really go around claiming that mathematics is just something that people make up. It is instantiated in the real world to a greater degree than anything except matter itself – completely inescapable.

    Now with computer science and engineering are indeed synthetic fields – what other field supports the mass production of systems with hundreds of millions of custom designed components down to the level of handfuls of molecules. Molecular biology is (as yet) incapable of comparably constructing even a single cell.

    The multi-body problem is real for physics of loosely coupled systems, a problem largely avoided in the engineering of solid state devices, but biology is much closer to the latter than the former – too many things floating around.

    Calculating something like the way a protein will fold is a major computational challenge. So sure, biology is far more complex than the mechanics of microprocessors, but we understand far less about it. It is like studying an alien technology from thousands of years in the future. We can tweak it and morph it here and there, but we are (as yet) unable to duplicate it ourselves. And if we can’t duplicate it, we certainly do not really understand it.

  89. R. Osborn, I think there are two challenges here. The first is the challenge of hard reductionism of life as it exists, which claims that everything about human life is reducible in a hard, deterministic sense to pure mechanism and clockwork. Or in other words, that intelligence is epiphenomenal, not a fundamental property of existence at all. Clearly, if it is impossible to tell whether a third party is conscious, it isn’t really necessary to include consciousness in your model of the way the mind works. That is Daniel Dennett’s example.

    Of course a lot of people, including a number of well respected philosophers of biology, believe that degree of reduction is impossible for a variety of reasons. The two of the longest standing are the mind body problem and the question of (libertarian) free will, two fundamental questions that biology and cognitive science aren’t even close to resolving. And that is assuming that you have a fully formed human brain to start with.

    The other challenge is establishing the hard reductionism of the process that led to the development of the human brain. That is the proposition that the ID people are trying to attack, albeit with little in the way of mathematical rigor so far. Maybe that will change someday.

    The alternative, to prove (for example) that the origin of life occurred and can re-occur from neutral initial conditions without the free will of anyone or anything (including at some primitive level, the molecules themselves) would be tantamount to demonstrating that hard reductionism of the evolutionary process is correct. No one has done that yet, and no one is close.

  90. J. Nelson-Seawright says:

    Virtually everything about physics for at least four centuries running would be hand waving if it weren’t for the the precise and exquisitely empirically verified expression of the laws of physics in mathematical terms. So you can’t really go around claiming that mathematics is just something that people make up. It is instantiated in the real world to a greater degree than anything except matter itself – completely inescapable.

    Mark, this doesn’t really work for me as yet. I agree that humans have developed mathematics into a set of languages that do a great job of capturing ideas and demonstrating relationships among them. It’s also true that a tiny proportion of mathematically possible ideas correspond well with physical data. But it doesn’t follow that math wasn’t humanly made — just that it was made well. Math isn’t instantiated in the world; it’s a model of the world. Similar relation, but the causal flow is reversed.

    I might be wrong, though: persuade me.

  91. “Oddly, Mormon’s seem to be embracing things like the Creationist movement of ‘Intelligent Design.'”

    Where do you see this happening? I personally haven’t heard anyone say something like this; all the Mormons I know have no problem with evolution.

  92. Jon Ogden you are a doubly blessed man. May your perspective spread and grow to fill the world.

  93. Mark D., I am a mathematical modeler so tend to see mathematical models as holding less shine than you do, even for physics.

  94. Mark,

    You have misunderstood Dennett, reductionism and the relationship which exists between the two. I only bring this up as an illustration of a misunderstanding which I suspect you have of naturalism in general.

    Dennett is NOT a reductionist; a hard core naturalist, yes, but not a reductionist.

    Accordingly, he does NOT claim that “everything about human life is reducible in a hard, deterministic sense to pure mechanism and clockwork.” Nor does he believe “that intelligence is epiphenomenal.” He does, however, believe that intelligence exists in every non-extravagant sense of the word.

    Now, as for these respectable philosophers of biology who believe the reduction of biology to physics to be impossible, count Dennett as one of these philosophers. Similarly, he does NOT believe the mind to be reducible to the body.

    Now for the main point I am trying to make. Evolution, and naturalism in general, do not entail hardcore reductionism or epiphenomenalism. (At the very least, one can believe in naturalism AND freewill/intelligence without being transparently self-contradictory.) And secondly, the fact the reduction of biology to physics seems impossible to many of the well informed should give theist very, VERY little comfort. You can believe in evolution without believing in reductionism and you can disbelieve reductionism without believing in theism. Dennett is a shining example of both of these.

  95. JNS: Math isn’t instantiated in the world; it’s a model of the world

    If you said “Science isn’t instantiated in the world, it’s a model of the world”, I would fully agree. Math, on the other hand, is an entirely different animal. Science is a model of the world as it is. Mathematics, on the other hand, is more like logic – it necessarily applies to all logically possible worlds.

    Science can trivially go wrong due to epistemological limitations. Mathematics cannot – it can only go wrong due to errors in logic. Mathematics in the abstract cannot go wrong at all, any more than logic in the abstract can go wrong. Not in any logically possible world, at any rate.

    Any mathematics that can be dreamt of can be instantiated in some logically possible world. Most logically possible worlds can instantiate multiple forms of mathematics by composition or simulation. In some cases we may not know precisely which form of mathematics is instantiated in some physical system – that is a scientific question. But with regard to the proposition that some form of mathematics is instantiated in every logically possible system we can be absolutely certain.

    Either our world is logically possible, real, self-consistent, and governed by (or comprehensible in terms of) mathematics or it is logically impossible, unreal, inconsistent, subjective and incomprehensible. The latter is mysticism, subjectivism, and solipsism of the highest order.

  96. Jeff G, I don’t know where you get the idea that Dennett isn’t a reductionist. I believe he is rather well known for his defenses of reductionism, not what he calls “greedy reductionism” (explaining away higher level properties) to be sure, but a rather hard reductionism nonetheless.

    Take a look at this summary for example. Now if you have any references in support of the idea that Dennett is not a hard reductionist, I would very much like to see them.

  97. J. Nelson-Seawright says:

    Mark, heard of Godel lately? It’s impossible to mathematically prove that the basic axioms of a mathematical system are coherent — so a given system of math could in fact be at its root illogical and we wouldn’t necessarily be able to tell.

    But with regard to the proposition that some form of mathematics is instantiated in every logically possible system we can be absolutely certain.

    What does this even mean? I think it’s probably true that humans can invent a flavor of math to represent any observable regularity. But it isn’t necessarily true that all “logically possible systems” are in any sense regular.

    Your last paragraph begins to sound a bit Pythagorean — you’ve got a mysticism of your own here. Humans invent math, we just do, so math is not the essence of reality. Your worldview is backwards, I suspect, like someone trying to chase away a shadow.

  98. Jeff is right. Dennett is a determinist but not a reductionist (I’ve read three of his books). Few are these days. To see the destination think of traffic jams. They are not reducible to individual cars and drivers. You could study a particular car and driver until the world’s end and not learn anything about traffic jams. Traffic jams supervene on cars and can be explained by them, but they don’t reduce to them. They are an emergent property of car and drivers.

  99. Well, it’s difficult to think of a single Dennett book that DOESN’T mention in some way the distinction between the intentional and physical stances as well as the irreducibility of one to the other. As for your link, on the other hand, it isn’t a very good representation of Dennett or reductionism, but then Dennett is pretty tough to really get your head around at times.

    “In Consciousness Explained, Dennett argued that, without denying that human consciousness exists, we can understand it as coming about from the coordinated activity of many components in the brain that are themselves unconscious.”

    Dennett fully endorses this as a naturalist, BUT THIS ISN’T REDUCTIONISM. Well, maybe it’s ontological reductionism. The thing is, they have another name for ontological reductionism; it’s “naturalism”.

    The reductionism which Dennett, Sober and all those other reputable philosophers you mention are talking about is something else entirely. It’s better understood and being able to translate all mental talk into physical talk by way of equating mental (or biological) entities with physical entities. It’s quite common and uncontroversial for naturalists to reject this other, more important kind of reductionism.

    If you want to understand Dennett’s position on this, I suggest pages 65-68 of his The Intentional Stance, a section titled “The Prospects of Reduction” where he rejects both the reductions posited by both identity and functionalist theories. Ultimately he argues that mental talk is legitimizing by, not reduced to physical talk; if anything physical entities are defined in terms of the mental rather than the other way around.

    I might also recommend “Daniel Dennett: Reconciling Science and Our Self-Conception” by Matthew Elton, pg. 63-67 titled: “Dennett’s Argument Against Reduction”.

    Indeed, doesn’t the common charge, which isn’t very far off the mark I might add, that Dennett is an Instrumentalist about the mental suggest that he isn’t too keen on reductionism?

  100. JNS: heard of Godel lately? It’s impossible to mathematically prove that the basic axioms of a mathematical system are coherent

    So what? The fact that the world is real is all the evidence needed to establish that the mathematical axioms that are instantiated in the real world are in fact mathematically consistent. Do we really need a mathematician to prove that there is an objective reality out there?

    To look at it another way, has a mathematician ever established that a basic empirical fact was not actually the case? Should we worry that a mathematician is going to prove that President Obama doesn’t exist? Or that there are really 17 rather than 435 members of the House of Representatives?

    If indeed the mathematics instantiated in the real world was inconsistent, it is a well established fact that every binary proposition and is opposite would both be “true”. I.e. every proposition about the real world would be meaningless, or in other words, the world wouldn’t be real at all.

  101. Jeff G: BUT THIS ISN’T REDUCTIONISM. Well, maybe it’s ontological reductionism. The thing is, they have another name for ontological reductionism; it’s “naturalism”.

    Ontological reductionism is part and parcel of the reductionist position, and ontological reductionism one of the propositions that Mr. Sober has spent some considerable effort attempting to disprove. I quote:

    Reductionism is not just a claim about the explanatory capabilities of higher and lower level sciences, it is a claim that the higher level properties of a system are fully reducible to lower level properties of a system (Sober, MRAAR paper, second page)

    Sober claims that multiple realizability means that this proposition (ontological reductionism) is not true. I don’t think he means to imply that he is not a naturalist.

    Jeff G: Indeed, doesn’t the common charge, which isn’t very far off the mark I might add, that Dennett is an Instrumentalist about the mental suggest that he isn’t too keen on reductionism?

    Not quite – instrumentalism about any field implies that the advocate may be in some considerable doubt about whether the subject of his inquiry is real at all. Technically, you are right, that is not reductionism per se, it is worse. It this context it is the position that consciousness is imaginary.

    However, the position that X is imaginary does not imply the position that every real higher level property Y is not reducible to some set of real, lower level properties Z. One can maintain that consciousness is imaginary without denying reductionism with regard to everything one considers to be real.

  102. Mark,

    You still aren’t getting it. Sober is a naturalist. He believes that all there is in the world is matter in motion. And yet still, he rejects reductionism in exactly the same way that Dennett does and for roughly the same reasons that he does. Let me spell it out as clearly as I can:

    Reductionism, as it pertains to the mind, is the thesis that all mental entities can be fully defined in terms of physical entities and as such, we can just talk of physical entities without leaving anything out. The same goes for mental laws, such as the law of effect; they can, under reductionism, be translated into laws of physics.

    Sober and Dennett both reject these theses WITHOUT appealing to anything non-natural. Sure, they appeal to the non-physical, but not the non-natural. The multiple realizability argument that Sober describes is based in premises which a naturalist can fully accept and these premises lead to a conclusion which a naturalist can fully accept as well.

    There is no talk in that article of naturalism or “ontological reductionism”. The article is about explanatory reductionism. Put a little more technically, Dennett, Sober and the like at accept token physicalism, or the supervenience thesis if you will, but they reject any kind of type physicalism. Yes, all mental objects and mental phenomena can also be seen as mere matter in motion, but the former will never be EXPLAINED in terms of the latter.

    If you don’t believe it, then please summarize Sober’s argument in your own words. Show us why ontological reductionism is false rather than simply restating what you take to be someone else’s conclusion on the subject.

  103. Jeff G: The article is about explanatory reductionism.

    But not only about explanatory reductionism, or even primarily about explanatory reductionism. Do I really have to repeat what Sober said? It is clear as a bell to me. No need to make an argument. This is elementary English grammar.

    Reductionism is not just a claim about the explanatory capabilities of higher and lower level sciences, it is a claim that the higher level properties of a system are fully reducible to lower level properties of a system

    Not “just” a claim about “explanatory capabilities”. A claim that “higher level properties” are “fully” reducible to “lower level properties”. In a paper where he presents the multiple realizability argument against reductionism.

    By the way, have I said anything recently to indicate that I was not a reductionist? In fact, I find it rather amusing to find myself rather more reductionist than Sober is, in precisely the sense that he claims is false, namely the full reducibility of higher level properties to lower level properties.

  104. Here is a math analogy, since Mark seems to favor math.

    The emergent behavior is an algebra, the material building blocks are (merely) the carrier. All intelligence needs is enough stuff to form basic spatially and temporally recursive control structures. Then natural selection takes over, literally inventing (through massive pruning) a highly evolved attribute grammar. The carrier is unimportant.

    Without feedback, you need a very precise transistor. With feedback, any old junk will do, the real signal will be controlled by the interaction of junk. The circuit (constantly rewired by evolution) matters, not the circuit board.

    Reductionism is like taking a beautiful painting and scraping off the paint for analysis under a microscope, forgetting that any old paint would have done: it is the information that provides the function, information that feels selective pressure, information that sometimes hops from one carrier to another (as when faxing a letter, or when mitochondria went from independent organism to part of our cell).

    And NONE of this requires that you believe in anything more than the Equipartition Theorem and some source of imperfect self-replication.

  105. Mark, you say, “The fact that the world is real is all the evidence needed to establish that the mathematical axioms that are instantiated in the real world are in fact mathematically consistent.” This is nonsense, isn’t it? As I’ve pointed out above, mathematics is not instantiated in the real world.

  106. Mark,

    I know what Sober said. My point is that I don’t think you know what he meant when he said. “Reductionism” as Sober uses the word, does not mean what you think it means. This is why I ask you to do a little more than quote mine his paper for what you what. If you could just explain what his argument is, it should be clear to all, yourself included, that his reductionism says nothing about evolution, naturalism or anything of the sorts.

    Sober is a naturalist, an evolutionist and an anti-reductionist. So is Dennett. Doesn’t this make you think you might be missing something?

  107. Dudes. Go eat some turkey.

  108. Hahaha! An hour and counting!

  109. Jeff G, I completely agree that Sober is a “naturalist, an evolutionist and an anti-reductionist”. Not only that, but that he is an anti-reductionist in the sense that he doesn’t believe that higher level properties are fully reducible to lower level properties. He says as much in his own words.

    As far as I can tell the only meaningful dispute here is that you claim that Sober’s anti-reductionism doesn’t include opposition to one of the very things Sober claims reductionism does include. Well, that is a rather peculiar perspective, and there is nothing I can say to make you change you mind, if Sober’s own statement on the subject isn’t sufficient to convince you. I have no desire to belabor the point any further.

    JNS: This is nonsense, isn’t it? As I’ve pointed out above, mathematics is not instantiated in the real world.

    So you say. I seriously doubt you could find more than a tiny minority of scientists who would agree with you on that point. I have three apples in one basket and two apples in the other basket. Together, I have five apples. Sounds like mathematics is instantiated in the real world to me. Is there any risk that a mathematician is going to come along and prove that I actually have seven?

    Here again I do not have anything new to add to the subject, and if elementary arithmetic with regard to concrete objects doesn’t reliably obtain in the world as you see it, I can hardly say more.

  110. Mark, really no — scientists tend to understand their mathematical models as models, not reality. For one thing, scientists know that all our models are incomplete. Your arithmetic thing is irrelevant — counting was developed as an incredibly accurate model of exactly your example, but your view is a kind of mysticism which places the math in reality and therefore gets causation backwards. Apples existed before the natural numbers.

    In any case, the mathematics of integers has proven, in the hands of Godel, that it is impossible to know that arithmetic is logically coherent. So you claim to know that which cannot be known.

  111. Dan W. Reductionism is like taking a beautiful painting and scraping off the paint for analysis under a microscope, forgetting that any old paint would have done

    There is absolutely nothing about reductionism that implies that the structure (or information content) of the relationship between higher and lower level properties is somehow irrelevant, to say nothing of the structure or information content of the relationship between the lower level properties themselves.

    A molecular level model of a microprocessor has a rather high information content, does it not? And reducing an engineering level model of a microprocessor to a much more detailed molecular level model of the same is a classic example of the reductionist approach. Information isn’t going away, if anything it is being introduced – due to real world physical considerations. No one suggests that we can derive the properties of a modern computer by studying the properties of a single atom. That is absurd.

    The emergent behavior is an algebra, the material building blocks are (merely) the carrier. All intelligence needs is enough stuff to form basic spatially and temporally recursive control structures. Then natural selection takes over, literally inventing (through massive pruning) a highly evolved attribute grammar. The carrier is unimportant.

    This is an excellent analogy. The first problem is, no one has *ever* done it from neutral initial conditions and neutral transition rules, not even in computer simulation. Take the game of LIFE for example. If we turned a thousand supercomputers to simulating the structures that evolved from random initial configurations, do you think we would ever see something even plausibly described as intelligent, within a thousand lifetimes?

  112. Regarding the Sober argument, I can’t really understand Mark’s position. Sober argues, roughly, against the proposition that higher-level phenomena are not emergent in the sense that the system of physical entities and interactions that produce the phenomena has properties that do not belong to any of the individual elements of that system. OK. As far as I can tell, this is identically Dennett’s point of view regarding mental phenomena. Which makes Dennett a non-reductionist.

    Explaining consciousness, for example, in terms of evolution is not reductionism unless one assumes that consciousness is a higher-level phenomenon than evolution. That assumption, among others, seems uncertain. Mark, are you prepared to defend it? If not, your position is hard to decipher.

  113. If we turned a thousand supercomputers to simulating the structures that evolved from random initial configurations, do you think we would ever see something even plausibly described as intelligent, within a thousand lifetimes?

    Some problems. First, why require random initial configurations? That doesn’t seem to be part of evolutionary theory. Second, if the supercomputers are capable of accurately simulating the analogue of whole DNA strings and organisms, then there should be no problem. Just allow the simulated equivalent of a couple billion years to pass and all should be well.

    But you seem not to believe that — which is because you don’t believe consciousness evolved. So your comment doesn’t really get you anywhere; your skepticism is grounded in begging the question.

    I hereby declare Mark D. a troll and request that he not be fed.

  114. JNS: In any case, the mathematics of integers has proven, in the hands of Godel, that it is impossible to know that arithmetic is logically coherent. So you claim to know that which cannot be known.

    On the contrary, what Godel demonstrated was that it was impossible for a logical system to be used to construct a proof of its own self consistency. I am making a higher level argument, that the uncontroversial proposition that the world is real implies (by definition) that it is not inconsistent with itself, therefore any mathematical relationship that is consistent with the real world is consistent. The only way out is to claim that the world isn’t real, i.e. that there is no such thing as objectivity.

    Mark, really no — scientists tend to understand their mathematical models as models, not reality.

    I could hardly agree more (I majored in physics, by the way). However, there is a difference between a mathematical model of the natural world, fully limited by imprecision and epistemological considerations and the mathematics (and natural laws) that actually obtain. In other words, you are confusing epistemology and metaphysics.

    The existence of a single, time-independent natural law is adequate to establish the instantiation of some form of mathematics in the real world. It doesn’t matter if we know what that law is, or in what form it takes. All that matters is that there is at least one natural law. The reality of the number of apples in my basket is a trivial example, one that directly corresponds to the law of non-contradiction.

    You imply that the law of non-contradiction with regard to the properties and number of real world entities is a figment of the imagination, as if a tree fell in a forest and didn’t make a sound. If the tree inevitably makes some kind of sound, some kind of natural law applies, completely independent of whether we know about it, what we believe about it, or anything else.

    Either trees that fall in a forest reliably make some sort of sound, or there are no natural laws. Real natural laws, ones completely independent of what anyone thinks or knows about them. That is what “real” means. You claim that mathematics isn’t real in any and all conceivable forms. I beg to differ, and my position is hardly an uncommon one, even among those so commonly divorced from natural reality as mathematicians themselves.

    Kurt Godel was a mathematical realist, by the way, i.e. one who holds that mathematical entities (like numbers) exist independently of what we think or know about them. Paul Erdos is another.

  115. JNS (#113), Reductionism has a precise mathematical and logical definition, and it is not as you (roughly) describe it.

    Explaining consciousness, for example, in terms of evolution is not reductionism unless one assumes that consciousness is a higher-level phenomenon than evolution

    This whole thing about “explaining” is a bit of a distraction, in fact it is one of the weaker claims that reductionism entails. Reductionism from consciousness to evolution entails that knowing everything about the evolution of a system entails knowing everything about the consciousness of a system. A difference of level is not required. If consciousness and evolution are at the same level, it merely implies that the converse is also true, that knowing everything about the consciousness of a system entails knowing everything about the evolution of a system.

    Most people find the latter proposition dubious, hence the assertion that reductionism generally only works in the direction of consciousness to evolution, to the extent that they maintain that consciousness reduces to evolution at all.

  116. JNS, I am at least going to answer your direct questions.

    First, why require random initial configurations?

    Because it is conventional in science not to assume the Platonic existence of that which you are trying to prove. That means starting with anything other than a ball of gas is an unjustifiable assumption. After all, we could just assume the existence of human civilization and be done with it, right?

    Second, if the supercomputers are capable of accurately simulating the analogue of whole DNA strings and organisms

    They are not. In fact at present they are incapable of accurately simulating the operation of a single cell, even with football fields full of computers. How many years will have to pass before a computer can simulate the advent and propagation of the first cell from some proteanaceous ooze? Personally, I would be impressed with any physical theory of abiogenesis that did not rely on a cosmic accident.

  117. Mark,

    I guess I’m just really confused about what relevance the whole reductionism thing has to the conversation. I’ve traced it back to your comment in #90 directed at Rob, but I can’t for the life of me figure out where you are coming from and where you are going with it.

    I took you to be using Dennett as a kind of poster boy for bad evolution: Evolution entails reductionism, and reductionism entails a meaningless existence.

    Not let’s get a few questions in the open:

    1. How do you feel about evolution?
    2. How do you feel about reductionism?
    3. Do you think evolution entails reductionism?
    4. Do you think reductionism entails nihilism?

  118. Jeff G, To answer your questions:
    1. I believe in common descent, incrementalism, natural selection, and all that. However, I am a property dualist at the microscopic level, which (among other things) does not rule out anything vaguely teleological.
    2. I am a reductionist, albeit an unconventional one. I deny radical emergence. I deny that composite systems of arbitrary complexity have any properties whatsoever that cannot be fully reduced to an explanation in terms of the properties of the components and the manner in which they are arranged. I differ from the views of garden variety reductionists in the sense that I am a property dualist and they are not.
    3. No, I don’t think evolution entails reductionism, although it strongly implies it. I maintain that the idea that evolution is a baseline natural law, underivable from lower level laws (as they are in actual fact) is absurd.
    4. No, I don’t think reductionism entails nihilism, although the views of many garden variety reductionists (the non-property dualist type) tends to suggest it.

    I might add that I: (i) am not a determinist (ii) believe in libertarian free will (iii) deny the existence of intrinsic (non-statistical) randomness (iv) deny that evolution or abiogenesis can be adequately simulated on a machine designed to be deterministic. (v) claim that property dualism of some sort (including what might vaguely be described as micro-teleological or pan-experientialist) is necessary to make an adequate account of evolution (vi) think that the idea that human civilization can arise in a strictly deterministic or stochasto-deterministic fashion from a random ball of gas is absurd, notwithstanding that to an outside observer that may superficially appear to be precisely what happened.

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