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.   

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