iSoul In the beginning is reality

From Newton to Darwin

Ancient Greek astronomy distinguished the ordered cosmos of the superlunary world from the disordered chaos of the sublunary world [see Remi Brague’s book The Wisdom of the World, English translation 2003, University of Chicago Press]. Isaac Newton undermined this distinction with his laws of physics published in 1687 by showing that universal gravitation accounted for both superlunary and sublunary movements.

His followers “proclaimed Newton’s intellectual achievements as a model and justification for social order, political harmony, and liberal but orthodox Christianity.” [Margaret C. Jacob, Newtonianism and the Origins of the Enlightenment: A Reassessment. Eighteenth-Century Studies, Vol. 11, No. 1 (Autumn, 1977), p. 1] The Enlightenment had begun.

The result was people looked on the universe as an ordered place and came to expect order, not chaos, disruption, and catastrophe. This led to the adoption of Steno’s principles of geology, which looked on the earth as an ordered place and expected an orderly progression to account for its features. This in turn undermined the commonly accepted ancient accounts of a great deluge that would have had a large impact on the earth’s features.

Charles Darwin built on this a progression of generations to account for all the diversity of life. The ancient principle of Natura non facit saltum (Latin for “nature does not make a jump”) had triumphed.

But the human desire for order, the Enlightenment confidence that order has been found, and the 19th century belief in progress all depend on culture, not on nature. If a culture comes to disbelieve in progress, if worldwide catastrophe comes to be expected, if confidence in order is lost, then a different science would result. We live in such a time.


Evolutionary theology

The problem with evolutionary theology — theology that accepts universal evolution — is not that it denies the creation of the universe (it doesn’t) but that it minimizes the role of the creator. From the evolutionist’s position that’s exactly the point: explain as much as possible without reference to God, the supernatural, or the miraculous.

The result of evolutionary theology is that other doctrines must be sneaked in later and kept as undetectable as possible. Human beings, for example, must have a soul. Christian theologians must affirm the resurrection of Christ at a minimum, and other cases of the miraculous or supernatural are hard for a theologian to avoid without sliding into deism or gnosticism.

The transcendence of God and the separation of God from creation are safe with all but the most extreme evolutionists. So that is not the issue, despite what so many keep saying. The issue is whether “the difference of man and the difference it makes” (to use Mortimer J. Adler’s phrase) is detectable at all.

Adler makes a philosophical case that mankind is detectably different from other animals in his book. There is a simple scientific case as well. From the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on negation:

Negation is a sine qua non of every human language, yet is absent from otherwise complex systems of animal communication.[1] While animal “languages” are essentially analog systems, it is the digital nature of the natural language negative operator … that allows for denial, contradiction, and other key properties of human linguistic systems.

Footnote 1. Some research suggests that apes and even non-primates can be trained to understand the functions of rejection, refusal, and even non-existence, corresponding to stages attested in children’s acquisition of negation, but not those of denial or truth-conditional negation (Heine and Kuteva 2007: 141–2). [Heine, B. and T. Kuteva, 2007, The Genesis of Grammar, Oxford: Oxford University Press.]

Other than apophatic (negative) theology I haven’t seen the theologians take up this difference but they should. It’s unnecessary to use the sledgehammer of Revelation when the mallet of science will do.

There are alternatives to evolutionism in which types or kinds take a leading role. Where do these types or kinds come from? The same question could be asked of chemical elements or fundamental particles: they must have been created. There is no other answer for how the structure of the universe came about.

There is no need for theologians to retreat when the scientific consensus turns against theology. Scientists have been wrong before, even for decades and more. There is no magic in consensus.


The origin of species terminology

Creationism in a philosophical/scientific context was first propounded by Socrates (David Sedley, Creationism and its Critics in Antiquity, 2007). Socrates did not provide specifics but it is often said that Plato and Aristotle did: biological species were like logical species and so did not change — species were fixed — and purportedly this is what creationists have said ever since. But that is an over-simplification which requires a two-part response: (1) what are species, and (2) what does species fixity mean?

The place to begin is with the book Species: A History of the Idea by John S. Wilkins. The author starts by rejecting what he calls “the Received View” which runs like this:

“Plato defined Form (eidos) as something that had an essence, and Aristotle set up a way of dividing genera (gene) into species (eide) so that each species shared the essence of the genus, and each individual in the species shared the essence of the species. Linnaeus took this idea and made species into constant and essentialistic types. Darwin overcame this essentialism.” p.4

Wilkins shows that the Received View is mistaken. Species have come down to us via a neo-Platonic, not an Aristotelian, route. Typology and essentialism were not bound together. Instead, what he calls the generative conception of species runs through pre-Darwinian thought.

Wilkins distinguishes two kinds of taxonomy: universal, which is classification in general by division, and biological, which is classification by generation. Plato classified things by diairesis (division) and synogage (grouping) according to their differences and similarities. The purpose was to “carve nature at its joints”.

Aristotle broadened Plato into a method that was later called per genus et differentiam — by the general type and the particular difference. For him “a species is a group that is formed by differentiating a prior group formed by a generic concept.” Aristotle accepts only the possibility (not the necessity) that species might be eternal. Similarly, the Epicureans held that “species are forms generated by the natures of their substances.”

In the modern era John Ray in the 17th century was the first to describe biological species. In his 1686 History of plants Ray was the first to produce a biological definition of species:

“… no surer criterion for determining species has occurred to me than the distinguishing features that perpetuate themselves in propagation from seed. Thus, no matter what variations occur in the individuals or the species, if they spring from the seed of one and the same plant, they are accidental variations and not such as to distinguish a species… Animals likewise that differ specifically preserve their distinct species permanently; one species never springs from the seed of another nor vice versa”. (Ernst Mayr, Growth of biological thought, p.256).

Carl Linnaeus ran with this in his Systema Naturae (“The System of Nature”) and other writings. While he later realized the species concept had its limits, it has provided a basis for natural history ever since.

The concept of permanent species came to be known as fixity of species and was the foil for Darwin, who focused on its lack of changeability. For Ray and Linnaeus change was variation that was not part of the species (the type or kind). For Darwin change is evolution which includes each species and more. It’s a question of which came first or is primary: change or type? For evolutionists, change is primary; for Darwin’s predecessors and opponents type is primary.

If type is primary, then the type or kind (which is what the word species means in Latin) is invariant. Science generally looks for and studies invariants such as conservation principles. But biologists after Darwin look for variance instead. That allows them to explain anything and everything as change. It’s a gain in explanatory ability at the cost of invariant principles. There are no laws of evolutionary biology, unless you want to make the non-law “everything is change” a law.

Fact, value, and science

The modern distinction between fact and value goes back to David Hume who argued that “is” does not imply “ought” — there is no way to get from facts to values. This contrasts with the Aristotelian philosophy in which everything has a nature so that what something is and what it ought to be is defined by its nature. For example, the nature of an acorn is to become an oak tree; if allowed to, that is what will happen — and that is what ought to happen because that is its nature.

It is commonly said today that science discovers facts whereas values come from ethics, politics or religion. This is the basis for Stephen Jay Gould’s concept of non-overlapping magesteria dividing science and religion. But do scientists and leading scientific organizations actually respect this divide?

It is often forgotten (or purposely suppressed) that leading scientists and scientific organizations promoted euthanasia before World War II. During the Cold War the Union of Concerned Scientists, founded in 1969, advocated for disarmament and other policies while promoting its scientific status. Climate scientists have been openly political, shrouding their policy advocacy with the mantle of science. The social sciences and psychology have openly thrown their lot in with the political Left.

Scientists are entitled to their personal views but the fact is that scientists and scientific organizations do not respect a fact-value distinction and avoid policy matters in their science.


Politics Left and Right

The political Left and Right began with the French National Constituent Assembly of 1789. The Left supported the revolution and democracy, the Right opposed the revolution and supported the aristocracy, and the Democratic Royalists supported a constitutional monarchy. Today there is no aristocratic Right to speak of, at least not in countries such as America. In Britain a constitutional monarchy holds sway in tradition but is politically irrelevant to their democracy. In effect only the Left and democracy remain in the Western world.

The terms Left and Right have evolved over time. The Left came to be identified with socialism, Marxism and organized labor, supported by the social gospel. The Right came to be identified with free enterprise and patriotism, supported by traditional religion. The New Left that arose in the 1960s and 1970s emphasized libertinism, pacifism, and egalitarianism. Non-Left political positions are more varied today: from libertarian to “minitarian” (anti-big business/government) to “corporatarian” (pro-business of any size) to traditionalism.

The basic Left-Right political axis is between egalitarian and libertarian. Political equality cannot be achieved without some loss of liberty, and liberty leads to unequal distributions of wealth and income. So they tend to be trade-offs. The Left is also pushing for extreme equality in which differences such as sex are socially denied. The Right has yet to mount a counter to this extreme egalitarianism.

There are cultural differences between Left and Right, too. The Left is more open to a feeling, people-oriented view while the Right is comfortable with principles and precepts. This works in a negative way, too: the Left attacks people who hold “politically incorrect” views whereas the Right attacks principles that are unrealistic or antitraditional.

Articles about creationism

Articles about creationism (and to a less extent intelligent design) almost always misrepresent them for one or more of the following reasons:

(1) Articles about creationism don’t quote or reference documents by creationists. Instead they explain what the author thinks creationism is. However, the author is wrong about what creationism is and ends up arguing against a position that is not that of creationists, particularly of contemporary creationists. Articles about creationism typically represent creationists by a position that is two centuries out-of-date from contemporary creationism.

(2) Articles about creationism focus on legal matters and state or imply that this is the main thrust of contemporary creationism. That is false. Leading creationists and creationist organizations have never been focused on legal matters, which are in any case irrelevant to scientific and historical arguments. Furthermore, the curiosities of U.S. legal history have no bearing on an international movement. Articles that focus on legal matters are committing the red herring fallacy.

(3) Articles about creationism misrepresent the hermeneutics of creationists. Since creationists include the Bible as a key historical source of information about the nature and history of creation, hermeneutics is relevant to the discussion. However, articles about creationism almost always state that creationists interpret the Bible literally. This is false. No one interprets the Bible literally. No one interprets the first chapter of Genesis literally. Everyone agrees there are metaphors in the Bible. Creationists have written much about the proper interpretation of Genesis. This is completely ignored by articles about creationism, even many articles written for Christians.

Some belligerent articles against creationism actually are better than many general articles about creationism because belligerent articles may engage an actual creationist argument. In general there is little two-way communication about creationism (ID is better at getting some dialogue). Commentators that attempt to describe creationism have a long way to go.

Authorizing legislation

Congress passes a bill to authorize a government program and expenditure of funds before passing an appropriations bill to approve the expenditure of funds. Authorization bills cover multiple years (such as 3 or 6) whereas appropriations are usually annual. Some programs such as so-called entitlements do not follow this process.

One advantage of periodic authorizations is that they allow Congress to make changes to programs. While they can always do so, the difficulty in passing legislation makes it unlikely to happen unless a bill must be passed because an authorization is about to expire. I wrote about a similar situation with the difficulty of repealing legislation here.

I suggest a Constitutional amendment to require authorization bills at least every 12 years. This would ensure that Congress revisits every program at least that often. Without this requirement it is difficult to end programs that no longer are needed; they continue because the process of repealing them is too difficult. But if an authorization expires, there is nothing for Congress to do but to let it expire.

Discerning design

Indeed, the commonplace distinction between the fact of evolution and the mechanism of evolution may apply equally well to design—recognition of a fact of design need not be anchored to an understanding of the mechanisms by which design is introduced into natural phenomena. Incidentally, that point was already made by Paley. (And in fact Dembski’s Design Inference can be read as an attempt to construct an empirical approach to identifying facts of design independent of identifying design mechanisms.)

–Del Ratzsch, “Design Theory and its Critics”

Aristotle argued that a full explanation required four kinds of “causes” (more like “becauses” or explanatory factors): final, formal, efficient, and material. Francis Bacon argued that science should focus on efficient and material causes and leave the rest to the metaphysicians. Intelligent design (ID) theorists are in effect saying that formal causes (designs, plans) should be considered in science, even if final causes are left for others to sort out.

It is unquestionable that we cannot speak much about biology without using some teleological and design language. Naturalistic scientists see this as mere window-dressing that could be eliminated in principle. As for bringing design (back) into science, the scientific community is still Baconian. Some say, Show us the designer and the purpose of the design before we consider it.

Is it possible to discern design without specifying a designer and a purpose or intention? Yes, it is. That is because design, any design, must have one key feature: it must address multiple constraints. Now constraints are not intentions. They just limit the solution space in a certain way.

Consider explanations of law and/or chance. If something happens by law, say a planet moves in a fixed orbit, it doesn’t happen by chance, which would mean unpredictable movement. If something happens by chance, say the shapes of clouds, it isn’t predictable by law except in a general way that leaves open many possibilities. These are opposite explanations and so opposite kinds of phenomena.

But consider then phenomena that is partially law-like and partially chance-like, say the varieties of languages. There are patterns that repeat but there are so many variations we cannot really predict what a newly discovered language will be like. We conclude that language is neither a product of law nor of chance. This means language is designed.

Design is a mean between the extremes of law and chance. If there is only one option, there is no design. If there is effectively no limit on options, there is no design. It is only when there are multiple options and multiple limits on options that design exists. There must be a choice, but not an arbitrary choice, for design to exist.

Are there methods for detecting design? Yes. Entropy is one. When entropy is neither a minimum or a maximum but something in-between, there is evidence of design. Dembski’s explanatory filter is another method. Applied to life forms, there is clear evidence of design in the biological realm. If we follow the evidence and don’t exclude design, we will conclude that design is very much part of biology.

One response of evolutionists is that a mean between the extremes of law and chance may just happen to turn out that way because of evolutionary mechanisms. I would say, first, a mechanism is a kind of design. So-called genetic algorithms show how we can use this method to design things. Second, that does not answer the second-order question: how did this mechanism arise? By law or by chance? An evolutionist would likely answer Chance. But then this is only a first-order design, a single design method that cannot be expected to work in general. A universal design method must be designed itself. Design must be all the way down to explain the myriad of life forms that exist.

Truth and science

Mathematicians have built axiomatic systems since Euclid that have become more and more extensive and sophisticated. But Kurt Gödel performed a great service when he showed that there is much more truth to mathematics than could ever be formalized in an axiomatic system. Mathematicians gave up looking for a complete theory, except within limited domains such as first order logic.

Scientists still have the illusion that a complete theory is possible. It is common to think not only that science is true but that all truth about a subject can and should come through science. This is despite the awareness that science as generally practiced is limited to “natural” sources and methods. Let’s step back and look at this.

Consider a subject, say biology, and ask, What is the truth about this subject? If we ask most people that question, they will likely point to the science of biology as the answer to the question. But there is a difference between the science of biology and the truth about biology, even if we grant that the science of biology is true as far as it goes.

The point is that a science, any science, is limited by its sources and methods. In effect, scientists are saying, Let’s look within this box for the truth about biology, and that box contains only natural sources and methods. So before an investigation gets underway, inquiry is limited to a subdomain. Science doesn’t study biology but the subdomain of natural sources and methods in biology.

This has been pointed out by others but then what should we do about it? Some try to expand science to include other sources and methods. This may help but it will still be limited in some way. Better to acknowledge that science is incomplete and its conclusions are partial. Sciences need to be placed within a larger search for truth that does not limit sources and methods. The conclusions of science need to be input into a wider process of vetting and feedback.

But this is heresy to scientific organizations, which boost the status of science and the definitiveness of scientific conclusions. Scientists today lecture others; they are not open to input by others. After all, they are experts and are considered to have the pinnacle of knowledge.

So we go around in circles: science is incomplete but the public status of science precludes acknowledging this and doing something about it. What is lost is a genuine search for truth wherever and however it may be found. At least the mathematicians have it right.

The real literalists

There is a kind of scholarship that starts with a very literalistic reading of a source text, finds contradictions in it, and concludes either that it is a combination of contradictory texts or that a very non-literal reading is justified. This is a method that seeks to justify one extreme by criticizing another extreme. No serious thought is given to the many options between these extremes, that the text is meant neither as a literal extreme nor a figurative extreme.

For example, Genesis 1:1 to 2:2 contrasted with Genesis 2:3 to 2:22 has differences that are asserted to be in conflict and hence represent contradictory traditions. The Documentary (Wellhausen) Hypothesis explains perceived inconsistencies in the Pentateuch by asserting it was written independently by four different authors and subsequently woven together by redactors. While the presence of various sources in the Bible is not a concern, the assertion that these contradict one another is.

This line of scholarship leads in two directions: (1) discerning every contradictory thread and inferring various factions, and (2) interpreting the whole text by inferring poetic license. So a whole panoply of figurative devices is promoted for hermeneutics and a playwright’s brew of characters is encouraged for historical studies.

There is an alternative to this game: reading the text not too literally and not too metaphorically. That is how people normally speak and it works rather well. People who are called biblical literalists usually do this and are able to reconcile supposed contradictions through a natural but close reading of the text. Those who are most opposed to literalism are the ones who follow the kind of scholarship I have outlined and end up with a one-two punch of a very literal reading (rejected) followed by an excessively metaphorical reading that knocks out the intended meaning.