December 30, 2008

Christmas, Evolution, and Narnia

APOLOGIA
By Hendrik van der Breggen
(The Carillon, January 1, 2009; published December 30, 2008)

Christmas, Evolution, and Narnia

One of this season’s popular gift DVDs may be Prince Caspian, part of C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia.

Lewis (1898-1963) is famous as a writer of children’s fantasy. What many Narnia fans might not know, however, is that Lewis, an Oxford and Cambridge University professor, was persuaded by J.R.R. Tolkien and others to believe that, in the Christmas story, the ancient myth of a dying and rising God became fact.

According to the Christmas story, God came to earth as a human being named Jesus. But, Lewis learned, the Christmas story isn’t complete without Easter. About thirty years after Jesus’ birth, Jesus revealed God’s radical love for us by suffering and dying on a cross, thereby taking the punishment for our sins onto Himself and granting us a pardon. Two days after the crucifixion, Jesus rose from the grave—a glorious sign to help us accept God’s gift of grace, by faith.

Lewis presented arguments for the literal truth of the Christmas-Easter story in his book Miracles.

Intriguingly, one of Lewis’s arguments in Miracles is relevant to contemporary discussions of evolution and intelligent design, when “evolution” is understood atheistically.

Here’s the argument (modified by University of Notre Dame philosopher Alvin Plantinga). Evolutionary theory on the assumption of an unguided, unplanned process of genetic mutation and natural selection guarantees at most that we behave in ways conducive to immediate survival.

Significantly, immediate survival only requires immediately useful skills in foraging, fighting, fleeing, and reproducing.

This means that the reliability of our belief formation very probably does not extend to deep theories about nature, especially if they’re not related to immediate survival. Therefore, if atheistic evolutionary theory is true, then our beliefs about logic (beyond rudimentary logic) and mathematics and science—especially deep scientific theories—should be, very probably, dubious.

But now an epistemological (knowledge) problem arises for atheistic evolution: It is a deep scientific theory, which, if true, very probably shouldn’t be believed to be true.

Go figure.

But another problem also arises. We know much, much more than what’s required for mere immediate survival (think of particle physics, lasers, etc.).

So?

Well, it turns out that our knowledge of physics, lasers and the like is suggestive evidence for thinking that our brains and senses are intelligently designed (for truth seeking). This means that when we discuss evolution and its philosophical implications, the apparent evidence of intelligent design which arises from our ability to reason and do science in the first place should be considered.

It also means that we should ponder what Lewis called “deeper magic,” that is, God’s redemption plan for humanity, established before time and space began, but revealed in history, paradoxically, by a baby in a manger.

(Hendrik van der Breggen, PhD, is assistant professor of philosophy at Providence College, Otterburne, Manitoba.)

13 comments:

Dan +†+ said...

Evolutionary theory on the assumption of an unguided, unplanned process of genetic mutation and natural selection guarantees at most that we behave in ways conducive to immediate survival.

Brilliant observation and brilliant post Doctor!

I couldn't think of a better place to offer this website called NarniaStory.com

Nice Job and Blessings,
Dan

Froggie said...

Sir,
I am not sure why you try to link the theory of evolution to atheistic thinking when so many Christians recognize the ToE as a valid scientific theory that can be falsified.

I believe I have seen you refer to the "theory" of intelligent design and my question is are you using the word theory there in the context of a "scientific Theory" or the vernacular word theory?

Dr. V said...

Hello, and thanks for your comments.

Regarding your first comment, I’m not trying to link the theory of evolution to atheistic thinking. Rather, I argue that when/if evolution is coupled with atheism philosophically, then there is an epistemological problem. A theistic evolutionary position (whether Christian or not) wouldn’t have that problem. So I’m basically trying to clarify the philosophical implications. (I apologize if I wasn’t as clear as I should have been; I find it difficult to maintain clarity while keeping under my column’s 400 word limit.)

Regarding your second comment, I’m not sure which of my writings you’re referring to when you use the word “there,” so I won’t comment directly on this. Nevertheless, I will say that it seems that intelligent design could be used philosophically (as, say, in a teleological/design argument for God’s existence) or scientifically (as, say, in SETI or archeology or forensic science).

I hope that these comments are helpful.

Best regards,
Hendrik

Dr. V said...

Dan,

Thanks for your kind comments. I must point out, however, that I am merely restating the work of C. S. Lewis (from chapter 3 of his book Miracles) and Alvin Plantinga (from his essay "An Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism"). Thanks, too, for the link.

Best regards,
Hendrik

Froggie said...

Sir,

If I have this wrong, please advise.

I read an article by you at one point which I now cannot find, but you made a very important statement that I saved:

"Criticism 1: Intelligent design is not falsifiable or testable.

Reply: This is patently untrue. The intelligent design hypothesis predicts (retrodicts) that life’s origin is due to an intelligent cause, be it God or whomever. The hypothesis is falsifiable/testable because, in principle, evidence can be mustered to show that an intelligent cause was at work or not."

My question is then, what would be an example of some evidence that an intelligent cause was at work?

There are countless ways in which the ToE could be fralsified, I was wondering if you would provide an example for the hypothesis of ID.

Also, if you would be so kind, please give me a link to the article I am referring to if you are able.

Thank you,
Dale

get_education said...

Hi Hendrik,

First happy new year.

I find it a bit odd that Platinga and Lewis used this line of argument, and that only those who want to oppose atheism fail to find the philosophical and logical problems in such argumentation.

Evolutionary theory on the assumption of an unguided, unplanned process of genetic mutation and natural selection guarantees at most that we behave in ways conducive to immediate survival.

Well, as good as this might sound, it is false. You are required much more than immediate survival if you are to reproduce and be successful as a species. Specially as generations and competition for resources add up. I would correct that statement to read "guarantees at least that we behave in ways conducive to immediate survival." This makes much better sense.

Significantly, immediate survival only requires immediately useful skills in foraging, fighting, fleeing, and reproducing.

Well, I already noted that the first and basic part of Platinga's argument is false. So, no need for any additions here. Just a reminder that species do not evolve in isolation, and that success can and will require further and further complexities in behavior as competition increases.

This means that the reliability of our belief formation very probably does not extend to deep theories about nature, especially if they’re not related to immediate survival.

Only if we were born with our beliefs already put. Which is not the case except perhaps for very basic expectations and instincts. Other than that, both immediate AND long term survival have required us to be able to learn. Such ability is what has lead us to further and less immediate understanding.

Therefore, if atheistic evolutionary theory is true, then our beliefs about logic (beyond rudimentary logic) and mathematics and science—especially deep scientific theories—should be, very probably, dubious.

Actually, all scientific theories are "dubious" in the sense that further data might contradict the current theories, and thus we would have to come to different conclusions. Yet, that is not due to the false premises used by Platinga, but to the nature of scientific endeavor itself which is based on observations. Further observation will change our perceptions, but that is not Platinga's point. His point, as presented by you, is that whatever is not for immediate survival should be completely unreliable IF evolution is true. But that is not so. Whatever scientific knowledge we have is the result of a scientific process, which, ironically enough, is devised to try and keep us safe from the unreliability of our imperfectly evolved brain processes.

But now an epistemological (knowledge) problem arises for atheistic evolution: It is a deep scientific theory, which, if true, very probably shouldn’t be believed to be true.

False premises lead to false conclusions. This argument is well constructed, but only works on very polarized minds. The whole thing fails to note that our knowledge depends on our environment. Our evolution lead to thinking and learning as a means of survival. Since evolution is not perfect, a side effect has been that the learning and thnking can be used for things beyond mere survival. That is actually a good point to sustain that evolution, unaided by any Gods, is perfectly compatible with what we see.

Now, I have to note that an imperfect brain does not equate to a completely unreliable brain. It just means we have to be careful.

I hope I was clear.

G.E.

Dr. V said...

Hi Dale [“Froggie”],

Thanks for your additional question about my previous writings. The article to which you refer can be found on the first page in my old blog (click at the bottom of my terribly self-centered links on the right of the present blog). On the first page of the old blog scroll down to my entry, “An Intelligent Reply to Intelligent Design Critics” (September 21, 2005). There you can find a discussion of your question in the extended reply to Criticism 1 (only part of which you have quoted) and in my 4th response to Jonathan’s 1st comment. Also helpful would be my reply to my friend Kelly’s insightful criticism of my earlier article “There’s an Intelligent Defence of Intelligent Design.” In the discussions I make references to some relevant literature that probably answer your question better than I do.

A very short answer to your question can be found at the Discovery Institute’s Center for Science & Culture: www.discovery.org/a/2812 (The CSC, to its credit, is aware of the philosophical problems with Karl Popper’s criterion of “falsifiability.”) Probably it would be helpful to look at this short answer plus what I’ve written plus the literature to which I refer.

For readers new to the concept of falsifiability, the following quote from philosopher Trudy Govier [plus some comments inserted by me] may be helpful (Govier describes a weakened but useful version of Popper’s criterion):

“If a hypothesis is to make a genuine assertion about the world, what it states must be compatible with some data and incompatible with other data. That’s what is meant by falsifiability. A hypothesis that is unfalsifiable is compatible with anything and everything. When this happens, the hypothesis makes no claim about the world and for that reason cannot provide an empirical explanation. [In principle, then, empirical evidence must be able to count in favour of the hypothesis and empirical evidence must be able to count against the hypothesis.]

“You might think that falsifiability is a negative thing—that if you are going to accept some hypothesis, it is good if there can be no evidence against it. The reason that claim is not true is that content in a hypothesis depends on the possibility that evidence could count against a claim. [We don’t want hypotheses that are immune from counterevidence. Astrologists’ claims are usually immune from counterevidence—that’s why we don’t believe them. They fit with too much, and therefore say nothing.]”

(Trudy Govier, A Practical Study of Argument, 6th edition [Belmont, CA: Thomson/Wadsworth, 2005], p. 338. Govier’s book is a highly respected Critical Thinking textbook, used in many universities and colleges.)

With best wishes for 2009,
Hendrik

P.S. I have taken a look at the first entry of your blog “The Bushy Tree.” I had to chuckle—and wince—when I read about Duppa and his accident. Landing rear-end-first on the pointy remains of a freshly cut down sapling: Ouch! The original Bushy Tree sounds like it was an awesome place.

Dr. V said...

Hello G.E. ,

Thanks for your comments – and a happy 2009 to you too! I will set out your comments (including quotes from me) and I will reply to your comments in piecemeal fashion. Hopefully, this will help us achieve some clarity on our disagreement.


G.E. wrote:

I find it a bit odd that Platinga and Lewis used this line of argument, and that only those who want to oppose atheism fail to find the philosophical and logical problems in such argumentation.

Hendrik’s reply:

I haven’t done a survey of “only those who want to oppose atheism,” and I am not aware such a survey, so I won’t comment on what you find odd. I will say, though, that the real issue at hand (as I’m sure you will agree) is whether there are the philosophical and logical problems in the Lewis-Plantinga line of argument as you claim there are.


G.E. wrote:

Evolutionary theory on the assumption of an unguided, unplanned process of genetic mutation and natural selection guarantees at most that we behave in ways conducive to immediate survival.

Well, as good as this might sound, it is false. You are required much more than immediate survival if you are to reproduce and be successful as a species. Specially as generations and competition for resources add up. I would correct that statement to read "guarantees at least that we behave in ways conducive to immediate survival." This makes much better sense.

Hendrik’s reply:

I think that we can meet halfway here (sort of). I would be willing to change the statement to read as follows: “Evolutionary theory on the assumption of an unguided, unplanned process of genetic mutation and natural selection guarantees merely that we behave in ways conducive to immediate survival.” In other words, it “guarantees at least and at most that we behave in ways conducive to immediate survival.” This revised claim is more accurate. But the truth of this claim logically implies the truth of my original claim. So the Lewis-Plantinga argument remains intact.

You write: “You are required much more than immediate survival if you are to reproduce and be successful as a species.” I think that this claim, if true, would count against your position. Your claim would seem to require the neo-Darwinian mechanism of genetic mutation and natural selection to take some very large and very lucky steps—i.e., some very big creative leaps. But if this is so, then this would seem to make the theory of evolution (on atheist assumptions) more improbable, not less improbable. My understanding of neo-Darwinian evolution is that progress is made by little steps and that bigger steps are more improbable the bigger they are.


G.E. wrote:

Significantly, immediate survival only requires immediately useful skills in foraging, fighting, fleeing, and reproducing.

Well, I already noted that the first and basic part of Platinga's argument is false. So, no need for any additions here. Just a reminder that species do not evolve in isolation, and that success can and will require further and further complexities in behavior as competition increases.

Hendrik’s reply:

We obviously are in disagreement here. It seems to me (as I’ve argued above) that the Lewis-Plantinga argument still stands. At the very least, the Lewis-Plantinga argument shouldn’t be dismissed too quickly. I think that at least a few theistic evolutionists tend to think it has some merit. That’s why, I suppose, they’re theistic rather than atheistic evolutionists.

Also, philosopher Victor Reppert has some interesting things to say on the Lewis-side of the Lewis-Plantinga argument: see Victor Reppert, C. S. Lewis’s Dangerous Idea: In Defense of the Argument from Reason (InterVarsity Press, 2003). See too the symposium on Reppert’s book in the journal Philosophia Christi 5:1 (Summer 2003).


G.E. wrote:

This means that the reliability of our belief formation very probably does not extend to deep theories about nature, especially if they’re not related to immediate survival.

Only if we were born with our beliefs already put. Which is not the case except perhaps for very basic expectations and instincts. Other than that, both immediate AND long term survival have required us to be able to learn. Such ability is what has lead us to further and less immediate understanding.

Hendrik’s reply:

The Lewis-Plantinga argument remains intact, it seems to me. Again: the Lewis-Plantinga argument holds that evolutionary theory on the assumption of an unguided, unplanned process of genetic mutation and natural selection guarantees merely (i.e., at most and at least) that we behave in ways conducive to immediate survival. This means that our belief formation isn’t geared to learning nature’s deep truths. Yes, of course, we are able to do deep learning. But this shouldn’t be expected on evolutionary theory based on the assumption of an unguided, unplanned process of genetic mutation and natural selection. (Of course, it would be expected if you already assume that God doesn’t exist; but this would be to incur a fallacious question-begging assumption if God’s existence is at issue.)

Albert Einstein is reported to have said this: “The only incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible.” The Cambridge University scientist-turned-theologian (and theistic evolutionist) John Polkinghorne interprets Einstein’s comment into an observation that is helpful to our present discussion. Polkinghorne writes: “our ability to understand the physical world [e.g., particle physics, lasers, etc.] immensely exceeds anything that is required for the relatively banal purpose of survival” (Polkinghorne, Beyond Science, p. 79). Polkinghorne adds (echoing Einstein): “it seems that our minds are so finely tuned to the structure of the universe that they are capable of penetrating its deepest secrets” (Polkinghorne, p. 80). The question that immediately arises is this: What accounts for the fact that DNA’s language/code directs the development of the human brains into this amazing coincidence? Polkinghorne appeals, reasonably I think, to the God hypothesis (as a part of a larger cumulative case argument that includes the big bang beginning of the universe, the universe’s fine-tuning, etc.).

Sure, it might be argued against Lewis-Plantinga and Polkinghorne that correct physical theories have long-term survival value for the human race because those theories help us control ecology and explore space to defeat overpopulation problems on earth, and so in this way the human mind has evolved with all of its finely-tuned capacities for penetrating nature’s deepest secrets. In reply, it should be acknowledged that it is true that correct physical theories have long-term survival value for humans. However, it should also be noted that, according to evolutionary theory, mere immediate survival value is the engine that drives the evolutionary process (especially the neo-Darwinian evolutionary process). In addition, it should be noted that the huge leap in brain development, from functioning well in terms of mere immediate survival at the cockroach/ape-level to functioning well with an IQ of a David Zuzuki or an Albert Einstein, would have occurred much, much earlier than needed by the environmental selection pressures which arise much, much later – which is very odd on the evolutionary/ survivalist view.

G.E. wrote:

Therefore, if atheistic evolutionary theory is true, then our beliefs about logic (beyond rudimentary logic) and mathematics and science—especially deep scientific theories—should be, very probably, dubious.

Actually, all scientific theories are "dubious" in the sense that further data might contradict the current theories, and thus we would have to come to different conclusions. Yet, that is not due to the false premises used by Platinga, but to the nature of scientific endeavor itself which is based on observations. Further observation will change our perceptions, but that is not Platinga's point. His point, as presented by you, is that whatever is not for immediate survival should be completely unreliable IF evolution is true. But that is not so. Whatever scientific knowledge we have is the result of a scientific process, which, ironically enough, is devised to try and keep us safe from the unreliability of our imperfectly evolved brain processes.

Hendrik’s reply:

I agree that all scientific theories are “dubious” in the sense that further data might contradict the current theories and thus that we would have to make some serious revisions or outright abandon a theory. Even though there is, say, the problem of theory underdetermination by evidence, on this sense of “dubious” we are able to know many of the world’s deep secrets fairly well and new discoveries can add to our knowledge and refine that knowledge. This is not the sense of “dubious” that’s under discussion, however. On the Lewis-Plantinga argument, all of our theories should be dubious in the sense that our belief formation equipment isn’t developed for this sort of work at all. We should very probably not have any reasonable to believe theories in the first place.


G.E. wrote:

But now an epistemological (knowledge) problem arises for atheistic evolution: It is a deep scientific theory, which, if true, very probably shouldn’t be believed to be true.

False premises lead to false conclusions. This argument is well constructed, but only works on very polarized minds. The whole thing fails to note that our knowledge depends on our environment. Our evolution lead to thinking and learning as a means of survival. Since evolution is not perfect, a side effect has been that the learning and thnking can be used for things beyond mere survival. That is actually a good point to sustain that evolution, unaided by any Gods, is perfectly compatible with what we see.

Now, I have to note that an imperfect brain does not equate to a completely unreliable brain. It just means we have to be careful.

I hope I was clear.

G.E.

Hendrik’s reply:

Yes, you’ve been clear – thanks. And, yes, we have to be careful in our thinking, whether we evolved atheistically, evolved theistically, were created abruptly by God—or however we came to be. And, yes, false premises can lead to false conclusions (especially if one is using deductively valid logic). But I’m not sure about the “polarized minds” bit. Surely, the fact that I live closer to the North Pole than you do is not relevant. (A wee bit of humor…)

G.E., it looks like we have some deep disagreement over the creative capacities that unguided material stuff actually has. I can live with such disagreement (as long as neither of us puts on an explosive vest and blows both of us up). In spite of our deep disagreement, I think that we can find some common ground. I think that we can agree that we should let a scientific investigation of the evidence of the world arbitrate our disagreement and that we should let the investigation do so unfettered by either an atheistic or theistic philosophy which might unfairly force our conclusions one way or the other. Such an unfettered science, it seems to me, should at least allow the intelligent design hypothesis into the scientific explanatory toolkit in case it’s needed.

You probably won’t agree with the last bit. But at least our disagreement gives us an opportunity to model to others how reasonable people can differ in a civilized way.

With best regards only,
Hendrik

P.S. Where do you live? Maybe I’m not closer to the North Pole. (Another attempt at humor.)

get_education said...

Hi Hendrik,

Thanks for the kind words and the answers. You are truthfully closer to the north pole than me.

The polarization, I was not meaning you, just preparing for a typical answer I get when I say our thinking is not that reliable (I get a "this is self-refuting blah blah blah"), but obviously you are much more serious, and I thank you for this.

Anyway, the main point in our disagreement is that idea of exactly, merely, enough for immediate survival. Nowhere in the neo-darwinian evolutionary model it is stated nor implied that evolutionary processes will only produce the exact point of immediate survival. That is just logically impossible. Let me see if this helps:

If we see water flowing out of a hose we never imply that the pressure is just barely exactly enough for the water to flow out of the hose. The pressure is at least enough for it, but we cannot say for sure that it is exactly enough. It could be anywhere from exactly enough to just no more than would make the hose jump like crazy. Would you agree?

Now we are not hoses, and survival is not water flow. But mere immediate survival is not enough. Not only that, but we do expect a range of variability given that the evolving populations have different genetic backgrounds (otherwise we would all be identical). Just as you use Einstein and other great minds as examples of impossibilities for evolutionary processes, I could claim idiocy as examples of he contrary. I would have to ask you to think whether everybody is an Einstein, or, if we are rather variable.

Now that I got your attention, here is the point. Since we are variable, it means that a round of selection will let survive let us say, to concede a little on Platinga's point (though I do not see why), that just your merely enough for survival people. OK, so far you have no complain, right? Now, there is another source for disagreement. You seem to think that improvements in anything have very small probabilities, and thus big jumps should be plainly impossible. But what we have found is that phenotypes can be associated to different genetic backgrounds, and I can safely conclude that those merely survivors, have different genetic backgrounds, and thus the reasons they have such intelligences for mere survival can be different. Since selection has eliminated the less intelligent ones, the next offspring has the potential of recombining these different genetic backgrounds. Some recombinants will not be that smart, but will be erased by each round of selection (purifying selection), while some recombinants will have several sources for improved intelligence, and so on. The potential for improvement increases enormously per generation and round of selection Hendrik. And we expect that the intelligences will not be exactly the same, but variable, as it is.

Why would the same intelligence that allowed us to survive more natural conditions also allow us to learn, store the learning, and improve with time? Well, because learning is a process we can use in many many ways. That is why. Not in order to conquer the world, that is a side effect. If you do not agree, just look at the world around you, at the idiocy which with we insist in wasting energy and denying the environmental problems. And so much more. If our intelligence was that incredibly better than expected by evolutionary processes alone, we would be much better off.

Anyway, I think your main problem is the assumption of improbability. I would say that this puts you into a position of incredulity fallacy. But maybe it is just what you do not know about evolutionary processes. Remember that it is populations that evolve, and that evolution builds upon already evolved creatures, highly potentiating the probability of success (but not always, it is a blind process. The potentiation is historical, not purposeful).

Sorry not to comment on the rest. I rather concentrate on the main problem.

G.E.

get_education said...

PS I enter these debates to clarify ideas and get to an understanding. I do not pretend to change your beliefs in God or otherwise.

I can also live with our disagreement. :-)

Best regards,
G.E.

get_education said...

Is it late to say I do not mean that there is no God, but rather that evolution, and science in general, offers powerful explanatory power that does not require any Gods in the soup?

Also thanks for the patience. I think this blog will be worth it.

G.E.

Dr. V said...

Hi G.E.,

Thanks for your additional comments and criticisms (here and in response to my previous Apologia column). I will consider your comments and criticisms carefully. I may not, however, respond to them in the immediate future. A new semester begins tomorrow, so I must attend to my students and my lecture preparations. Also, I must get my next installment of Apologia ready. Also, I must tend to some family matters. Also, I must shovel some snow….

I’ve really been enjoying our discussion thus far. Clearly, a blog takes up much precious time, especially if one wants to provide thoughtful responses. I may have to resign myself to not having the last word on all the discussions. (Note: My not having the last word is not to be understood as me saying that I can’t muster anymore good arguments; I think I can - at least a couple. It’s a time issue that I’m presently facing.)

If you’re ever in the Providence College area (near Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada), be sure to stop by. Of course, the visit would probably be nicer when it’s warmer.

Best regards,
Hendrik

get_education said...

Hi Hendrik,

I may not, however, respond to them in the immediate future. A new semester begins tomorrow, so I must attend to my students and my lecture preparations. Also, I must get my next installment of Apologia ready. Also, I must tend to some family matters. Also, I must shovel some snow….

Same here! Happy new term!

G.E.