Saturday, December 30, 2017

Evolutionary Science and the Existence of God

Arguments of the “evolution, therefore not-God” sort (pace E.O. Wilson, Robert Wright1 and 2, et. al.) are prevalent. Though these authors write at the popular level on the topic of theistic belief (among other things), what they advance are variations of Evolutionary Debunking Arguments (EDAs). There are many versions of EDAs across the spectrum of philosophy. These arguments typically impugn justification for affirming the truth of certain propositions, such as “there is such a being as God” or “objective moral values and duties exist,” and so forth.

EDAs seem to run hot and cold in the academic literature, and they are quite controversial. Alvin Plantinga delves deeply into this subject in his well-known book Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism. Plantinga's primary focus is against naturalism, finding that it ultimately undermines what its proponent wants to show. I believe it is from Plantinga's work (even prior to the book cited above) that EDAs have become more prominent. Or, at least the question of evolutionary influence on beliefs has become a more widespread topic of discussion.

I find many problems with certain types of EDAs, some of which I will try to briefly sketch in this post. Here I will just cover EDAs as they relate to the question of God’s existence. In the future, I will try to address EDAs in ethics. My focus here is not on the science/theism discussion, as Plantinga and others have addressed.

To see some of the problems, we might break down the “EDA contra God,” as follows:
  1. All human beliefs are genetically/evolutionarily caused.
  2. Many humans believe in God.
  3. That many humans believe in God is genetically/evolutionarily caused (from 1 & 2).
  4. Any genetic/evolutionary factors causing human beliefs are (or can be in principle) ultimately explainable by evolutionary science.
  5. That many humans believe in God is ultimately explainable by evolutionary science (from 3 & 4).

[Note that I am not attributing this exact argument to any particular person or work. This represents a synopsis and synthesis of the EDA contra the existence of God.]

The main implication, or outright obviousness, proponents find in the conclusion of this argument is that “there is such a being as God or something like God” or “God exists” is false. And by "God" I mean that as conceived and understood under the general guise of monotheism. Such propositions about God cannot be an expression of something “real” (or "extramental reality") because evolutionary forces explain the entirety of why we think it/say it. We do not think it because it is true in any sense of the term “true,” but because, for lack of a better term, our genes tell us to think or utter it. Since it is evolutionary influences on our biology that cause us to think God exists, God must not really exist, or so the argument seems to go. For, it is possible - or even likely - that in the future evolution will have rendered belief in God unnecessary or the genes that now cause us to think that God exists will no longer have such an effect, or the current evolutionary by-product that causes us to think God exists might be eliminated by selective pressures. 

Something interesting to consider is that this type of EDA centers on belief. In a philosophical sense, the most such an epistemologically centered argument can legitimately hope for is to undermine justification or warrant for holding a certain belief. But only the theist holding to certain epistemologies will face challenges on this front. This issue gets further tangled up in questions germane to the internalist/externalist debate. Unless a question-begging premise is inserted, it does not seem the theist is necessarily faced with an intractable problem, depending upon how they cash out justification or warrant. Further, one opting for a Thomistic direct-realism, as I do, would not necessarily have any epistemological problems to overcome (again, unless there was a question-begging premise).

It is also worth noting the challenge in moving from an epistemological claim to an ontological claim. Even if the theist concedes the argument without rebuttal, it could still be the case that God exists. “God exists” or “there is such a being as God” could well be true, but one might not be rational in holding that belief if the argument is successful. So, the argument does not ‘disprove God’ or anything of the sort. Rather, it casts aspersions on such belief at best.And the extent one thinks it possible to undermine or defeat belief or justifications for belief by such measures will largely be driven by the epistemology they hold.

What was presented above is a general formulation of the EDA, but I think it is representative. As of late, the EDA contra God has worked itself into popular literature, hence the authors I referenced above. I have found this line of thinking represented in many personal interactions, as well as online/social media. I think philosophers like Daniel Dennett and Alex Rosenberg espouse similar arguments in higher level writings, aimed at more interested laypersons and even some academics.

Looking at the argument as formulated, an obvious tension exists between (1) and (5). For, if (1) is true, then belief in evolutionary science is also genetically driven. (1) puts all beliefs on the same genetically/evolutionarily determined plane. Recall that the EDA contra God is that “God exists” or “there is such a being as God” is false (or probably false, etc.) because the utterance of the very sentence itself is an output of evolutionary genetics. Yet, the EDA proponent is probably unwilling to subject the proposition “evolutionary theory is true” to the same evolutionary caused belief 'defeater'. If all beliefs are genetic outputs from natural and environmental inputs, then so is the belief in evolution. Plantinga and others have made this (or a very similar) point at length. The only way out for the EDA proponent seems to be special pleading, whereby evolutionary science, and maybe some other scientific disciplines as well, is excluded from evolutionarily caused beliefs.

The EDA contra God presents itself as a meta issue in many respects. It dismisses any arguments for God by calling into question the very offering of argument. In so doing, the EDA proponent operates from a privileged place. By this, I mean the EDA proponent assumes a vantage point by which they can make their argument with impunity. They assume the high ground and become the sole gatekeeper of truth. They set the very framework and rules by which any belief or proposition should be accepted. If it comports with evolutionary science, then accept it; if it does not comport, reject it. But why should anyone accept this? Such a view seems quite unscientific.  In any case, I am unconvinced that we have any good reasons to make evolutionary science the absolute yardstick, and a malleable yardstick it would be. Note I am not necessarily calling into question evolutionary science itself. Instead, I am questioning what appears to be an abuse of it.

There is another major problem with the EDA contra God. The argument implies that other scientific fields, especially physics and cosmology, are lesser than evolutionary science. Evolutionary science must govern any beliefs whatsoever resulting from scientific inquiry. But evolution itself seems to rest upon at least sciences like physics, geology, and chemistry, for without these, evolutionary theory could not well get off the ground. Further, the cosmologist studying the early universe might consider the anthropic principle and conclude that something outside the universe brought the universe (or multiverse, etc.) into existence or to have arranged the universe in such a specific way. Such a scientist perhaps originally begins research from a state of theistic agnosticism or even atheism and then, after many years of study concludes that the best explanation for the fine-tuning of the universe is that God (or something very much like God) exists. Now, in this case, the EDA proponent would be required to inform the cosmologist that his/her conclusion was not in fact based on their scientific research, but instead is the output of a genetic trait. Bubbling under the subconscious surface the entire time was this belief in God, ready to spring forth given enough intellectual rationalization or other (genetically/evolutionarily explainable) event. 

Per the EDA contra God, even the cosmologist in our example cannot in principle give a rational conclusion at the end of a reasoning chain. Instead, he/she must be told that, while his/her research might be good in all other facets, his/her conclusion was hardwired by billions of years of evolutionary history. Note that the cosmologist’s conclusions about the anthropic principle itself, and non-theistic inferences drawn therefrom, are not genetically predisposed to pop out. Just the “God exists” inference cannot at all be based on rigorous scientific inquiry, but reducibly based on factors that were either evolutionarily advantageous or by-products of the evolutionary process. The reasonable cosmologist would likely be quite indignant at such claims against their research and inference mechanisms. I would also submit that if the cosmologist in this example made the conclusion "God does not exist" after his long and labored study, the EDA proponent would no doubt applaud him for such a good and sound scientific conclusion. 

Another major problem with the EDA contra God is that it seems to commit a classic genetic fallacy. At least in terms of the ontological conclusion typically advanced. But why should we think that “God exists” is false because evolutionary forces brought this belief about? Unless the EDA proponent wishes to throw the truth value of all evolutionarily driven beliefs under the bus, the possibility must remain open that “God exists” is true. We should observe that EDAs tending toward skepticism instead will provide no safe quarter for the EDA proponent. This is because the belief disposition delivered by evolution must be applied universally to all beliefs on pain of special pleading/arbitrariness.

My conjecture on these arguments is that EDA proponents start with a metaphysical conclusion and then seek to justify it by other means. I cannot see any other reason one would pursue this line of argumentation. It is either this or an a priori commitment to scientism. The EDA proponent seems to ask themselves, “given that God does not exist, why do so many people believe in God?” Or, perhaps more likely, "given that I and many others do not believe in God, why is it that so many other people do?" From here, they naturally look to the sciences for an explanation. And within evolutionary science/genetics, they find solace in a wholesale explanatory mechanism. Since, on their view, there is really nothing about human existence that is not explainable by evolutionary science, then belief in God must fall exclusively into this bucket.

Much more could be said on this subject, and I intend to write more in the future. It should suffice for now to say that EDAs contra God suffer from many debilitating problems. But they should be taken seriously if for no other reason than the influence they have in popular and (occasionally) academic culture.   

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Old Earth vs. Young Earth Creationism and Apologetic Method with Ken Ham and Richard Howe

There's been a little dust-up recently between Answers in Genesis (AIG) president Ken Ham and Southern Evangelical Seminary (SES). At the most recent National Conference on Christian Apologetics (NCCA), Ken Ham and SES emeritus Professor of Philosophy Richard Howe engaged in dialogue about apologetic method vis-a-vis young-earth creationism. You can watch the exchange here. The interesting twist is that Dr. Howe is a young-earth creationist. That is, he agrees in principle with the biblical exegesis of Genesis 1 that is advocated by AIG. AIG believes that the creation account given in Genesis 1 is properly understood as six consecutive 24-hour solar days. 

The stated purpose of the NCCA dialogue was for each side to explicate and defend apologetic method, not hermeneutics or the age of the earth. Since the "age of the earth" debate continues unabated within (at least) western evangelical Christianity, it seems relevant that those who spend time in this space should subject their method to scrutiny. Ken Ham advocates for what has been termed "young-earth presuppositionalism," which is essentially a type of presuppositional apologetics fused with young-earth creationism. Dr. Howe argues for a classical approach to apologetics, which focuses on meeting the interlocutor on common ground without presupposing the Bible for purposes of argumentation. 

I watched this dialogue in person and thought it went well. The intensity did seem to ratchet up toward the end, but no animosity was observed. Both men stayed afterward, standing outside the hall to answer questions and interact with conference attendees. 

All seemed well...until Ken Ham sent out a communication on November 24. In this letter, Ham implied that he had been misled about the nature of the dialogue beforehand. Ham also reduced the issue to biblical authority, though this was not the premise at all. Essentially, Ham is accusing SES and the NCCA of compromising on Scripture because both do not make the age of the earth a litmus test for evangelical orthodoxy, and the NCCA has old-earth exhibitors and speakers (such as Hugh Ross and Reasons to Believe). 

SES cordially responded to Ham's letter, inviting him to a formal debate at the 2018 NCCA to clear things up. Ham then replied, to which SES responded again. In both letters, Ham seems to be missing the point about methodology, proving Dr. Howe's argument to a large degree by dogmatically asserting the conclusion he is trying to prove. Ham continues to talk past the real issue at hand while simultaneously creating a separate one. 

The evangelical dialogue on the age of the earth and Genesis interpretation has moved into Titus 3:9 territory in many respects. But Ken Ham seems to have pushed things further by making it an issue of authority. That is, Ham thinks any view not in keeping with AIG is effectively denying the authority of Scripture. How things have gotten to this point is interesting, and possibly the topic of a nice research paper (that I would like to read!). 

What I lament is the lack of charity from Ham in this matter. And he has opted for more for rhetoric than substance thus far. If Dr. Howe is wrong about the pitfalls of young-earth presuppositionalism, then it would be great to see why this is the case. Young-earth creationists should (I think) be happy to have such a strong philosophical mind trying to help their case. Dr. Howe is a perennially congenial person, with a razor-sharp mind and wit. 

I think this issue can be viewed in two ways. The first is that, from an outsider standpoint, evangelical Christianity seems divided over so many things, such as the doctrine of election, eschatology, spiritual gifts, the age of the earth, etc. To the genuine truth seeker, this might be a turn-off. On the other hand, it is because of the robust truth of the Christian faith and God's ever-present grace and mercy that the Gospel goes forth unabated and the Kingdom of God grows in-spite of what might seem like a dysfunctional family at times. 

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Thoughts on Feser vs. Ahmed Dialogue on Unbelievable? with Justin Brierley

Last week Dr. Edward Feser was a guest on the Unbelievable? With Justin Brierley. This radio show is a staple in Christian/non-Christian dialogue and I have always found it to be high quality. Opposite Dr. Feser was Dr. Arif Ahmed, a philosopher from Cambridge. Dr. Ahmed was a great choice for the dialogue. He seems to have a keen interesting philosophy of religion and takes theistic arguments seriously. Dr. Ahmed has debated the likes of Dr. William Lane Craig and Dr. Gary Habermas in the past, so he has shown a willingness to interact with some of the best in the theistic tradition.

The show was billed as a debate, but it was more of a discussion and interactive dialogue. A ‘mini-debate’ is perhaps a more accurate term. The discussion focused on two arguments from Dr. Feser’s latest book Five Proofs of the Existence of God. The two proofs discussed were the Aristotelian proof and the Rationalist proof. Overall, I thought it was an interesting exchange throughout. Each side made substantive points in their own favor and against the other. Both men were cordial and professional. This should be expected but is unfortunately too rare in our society.

I think the clear winner was the listening audience. Mostly because the stark contrast in philosophical approaches was so evident. Aristotelian-Thomism vs. Analytic philosophy was on full display. This is important because analytic philosophy is so radically different than Aristotelian-Thomism.  Many listeners to this dialogue will probably not be aware of how far apart these two systems are. It was regrettable that Feser did not have the time to make this point explicit. If one starts from the analytic model, it is unlikely that any of the proofs from Feser’s book, besides perhaps the Rationalist proof, will be convincing at all. The background conception of reality on each side is just too irreconcilable. Ahmed’s objections to the Aristotelian proof are some of the same that theistic philosophers offer in their critique. For example, Ahmed pressed on what he thought was a circular definition of causality (actualization of a potency, etc.). When Feser replied, he dove into some analytic type jargon (e.g. “counterfactuals”) to bridge the gap, which I think was helpful.

Ahmed seemed to operate from, and gave examples for, a Humean view of causality and disagreed in principle with the notion of essentially ordered causes. Ahmed argued that science can provide all that is really necessary for causes which we can (or potentially might know about) and that there is no need to posit the act/potency division of being to address Parmenides’ being/non-being dilemma. I think Feser could have perhaps pressed harder on the underlying principles of nature that result in one having to make a fundamental choice about being, act, and potency. The ancient Greeks are not so easily hurdled. But Feser did a fine job sticking to the argument and keeping the jargon digestible for the listening audience.

In analytic fashion, Ahmed argued that the non-contradictory nature of a proposition or event is sufficient to leave off positing anything like the Aristotelian causal regress. I think, at one point, Ahmed argued that the paradigmatic simultaneous causal notion of the hand moving the stick moving the stone was fallacious to the extent that the stick was posited as having no causal power. Brierley did a good job moderating, which in this dialogue meant helping to clarify concepts and spacing out time and response. It seemed like Feser got a bit more airtime than Ahmed, which was perhaps due to the brevity of Ahmed’s responses and questions aimed at critique with Feser defending.

The rationalist proof received less time that the Aristotelian proof. I think this was because it does not require as much in the way of background metaphysics. The rationalist proof is based on the principle of sufficient reason (PSR) and is quite close to Leibniz’ cosmological argument. Brierley pointed out that both proofs in the discussion turn upon the notion of the impossibility of an infinite causal regress, though this is inescapable when discussing causes or explanation. Ahmed essentially argued for limiting the PSR and seemed (at least to me) to come down on the side of brute facts like the universe. Feser did a great job showing the weakness and problems in limiting the PSR. I thought Ahmed’s objections against the Aristotelian proof were more substantive than those against the rationalist proof, and the Aristotelian objections demonstrated more of an outright rejection of Aristotelian-Thomist metaphysics.

I encourage the interested reader to listen to the Feser vs. Ahmed dialogue. It will be enriching and a good example of how two people can respectfully disagree about something so important.