Evolution and the Pope

| | Comments (27)

There often seems to be some confusion about what the Roman Catholic church thinks about evolution, so it was with some interest that I read yesterday's editorial in the New York Times by Christoph Schönborn, a Roman Catholic cardinal and the archbishop of Vienna. Here's the introduction:

Ever since 1996, when Pope John Paul II said that evolution (a term he did not define) was "more than just a hypothesis," defenders of neo-Darwinian dogma have often invoked the supposed acceptance - or at least acquiescence - of the Roman Catholic Church when they defend their theory as somehow compatible with Christian faith.

But this is not true. The Catholic Church, while leaving to science many details about the history of life on earth, proclaims that by the light of reason the human intellect can readily and clearly discern purpose and design in the natural world, including the world of living things.

Schönborn goes on to quote Pope John Paul II fairly extensively, including this bit:

"All the observations concerning the development of life lead to a similar conclusion. The evolution of living beings, of which science seeks to determine the stages and to discern the mechanism, presents an internal finality which arouses admiration. This finality which directs beings in a direction for which they are not responsible or in charge, obliges one to suppose a Mind which is its inventor, its creator."

The editorial makes pretty clear that neither Pope John Paul II, nor the current Pope, see purely naturalistic evolution as a viable option. Apparently, in his famous "more than just a hypothesis" statement, John Paul II was pointing to evolution as a means (or mechanism) , not the cause. In other words, although evolution might have been how life got here in its present form, even if it was the "how", God was behind it as the "inventor".

This is an important distinction to make, because when one discusses evolution (or here, I really mean universal common ancestry), there are really at least two issues at hand which often get mixed together in such discussions. These are:
1) Is universal common ancestry really correct? (And, as an important sub-point, is Darwinian natural selection the mechanism?)
2) If universal common ancestry is correct, and Darwinian natural selection is the mechanism, is it also the fundamental cause?

Question #1 is a much more scientific question than #2. One can do science which pertains to the answer to #1. But #2? Some typical answers, if one accepts that universal common ancestry is right, might be: "Yes. Natural selection and random mutations themselves are the cause, so there is no real purpose." "No. God was involved guiding the process of natural selection, and he did so purposefully." "Yes and no. God set the process of natural selection in motion and established the physical laws governing it, so he was the ultimate cause, but did not intervene subsequently."

There are certainly other possible answers, but the point is, #2 is really a philosophical question. One can't prove scientifically that "there is no real purpose", or "God guided the process ... purposefully." One can argue that an appearance of design suggests purpose, or the appearance of bad design suggests a lack of purpose. But if universal common ancestry is correct, and Darwinian natural selection is the mechanism, you can't ultimately settle the issue of whether God was involved or not just by doing experiments in the lab.

But I digress. Really, I wanted to point out that recent Popes don't really subscribe to the purely naturalistic version of evolution, which says that God wasn't involved at all. I've heard people do what Schönborn mentions in his first paragraph: Invoke the Roman Catholic church as an example of how enlightened people recognize there's really no conflict between evolution and Christianity. The fact is, they can't get off quite so simply, because the Roman Catholic church isn't saying any such thing. If you want to assert that we're here with absolutely no intervention from God, you're really making a philosophical statement, and one that appears to be at odds with the Bible.

Well, I recommend reading the editorial. And if you're interested in finding out more about what the current Pope thinks, well, he actually wrote a relevant book: In
the Beginning: A Catholic Understanding of the Story of Creation and
the Fall
. I haven't read the whole thing, just some excerpts. But I've read enough to know that he doesn't think purely naturalistic evolution is the whole story, as Schönborn points out.

UPDATE 7/9: The New York Times has a news story about the editorial, and reactions to it, here. As far as I can tell, the headline writer (who wrote "Leading Cardinal Redefines Church's View on Evolution") must not have read the original editorial which essentially proved that neither the present pope, nor the last pope, thought purely naturalistic evolution is compatible with Roman Catholicism. Here are a couple of good quotes from the latest article:

Opponents of Darwinian evolution said they were gratified by Cardinal Schönborn's essay. But scientists and science teachers reacted with confusion, dismay and even anger. Some said they feared the cardinal's sentiments would cause religious scientists to question their faiths.

Cardinal Schönborn, who is on the Vatican's Congregation for Catholic Education, said the office had no plans to issue new guidance to teachers in Catholic schools on evolution. But he said he believed students in Catholic schools, and all schools, should be taught that evolution is just one of many theories. Many Catholic schools teach Darwinian evolution, in which accidental mutation and natural selection of the fittest organisms drive the history of life, as part of their science curriculum.

The article points out that the Discovery Institute (which promotes Intelligent Design) had encouraged the cardinal to write the essay, which he had also discussed with the Pope. Then it adds this:

But some biologists and others said they read the essay as abandoning longstanding church support for evolutionary biology.

"How did the Discovery Institute talking points wind up in Vienna?" wondered Glenn Branch, deputy director of the National Center for Science Education, which advocates the teaching of evolution. "It really did look quite a bit as if Cardinal Schönborn had been reading their Web pages."

Mr. Ryland [at the Discovery Institute] said the cardinal was well versed on these issues and had written the essay on his own.

I had to chuckle about the attempt to pin this on the Discovery Institute.

Anyway, it's worth reading the whole of this latest article. There are lots of quotes, some of which are fairly revealing. Apparently some people are pretty concerned about fallout from this editorial.


It's also worth thinking about what "more than just a hypothesis" doesn't say. It doesn't say that he even accepted it as true. All it says is that he believed it to have more going for it than a mere hypothesis does. That's pretty weak compared to the ringing endorsement so many people have claimed it to be.

That statement distanced himself, and therefore the Roman Catholic Church, from those who think science proves evolution to be false, and he explicitly endorsed the position that you don't have to think the creation days stand for actual 24-hour periods in history to accept the literal truth of the biblical creation accounts. I think both points are fully consistent with accepting the standard picture of common descent, as long as you deny the naturalism that it usually assumes. However, I think both statements are consistent with the view that animals' descent is much as the standard evolutionary picture has it, but human origins are more miraculous, and I further think both statements are fully consistent with denying common descent of any species at all and thinking natural selection and random chance are a mechanism only for explaining diversity within species, which were all created separate instantaneously.


I think you're exactly right. He's leaving room for a range of views, but denying naturalism. To put it in the terms I used in my post, he doesn't even go so far as saying that natural selection is DEFINITELY the answer to my issue #1, and much less does he say that evolution provides the sole answer to #2.

I find it interesting at the surface level that science in this case would look for acceptance from the Roman Catholic Church. To have it be such an issue that Schönborn would be drawn to comment is a curious statement on the desire to connect the two. Perhaps there is a hope that religious approval of Darwinian theory would ease the political friction of teaching evolution. I don’t know.

I think you're right and people who point out the Roman Catholic Church's views (mistakenly, it turns out) do so to try and silence the opposition to Darwinian evolution. Their argument is something like this: "You say Darwinian evolution has a philosophical side to it and is anti-religion. But that's not true! See, the Roman Catholic Church recognizes it's compatible with religion. So you should have no problem with it, like them."

"If universal common ancestry is correct, and Darwinian natural selection is the mechanism, is it also the fundamental cause?"

If you read what Darwinists write and engage in debate with them it seems to me that you'll come to the conclusion that they are using the terms "natural selection" to mean something more than some organisms living and others dying. "There were some moths with white wings and some with brown. When the environment changes and the moths with white wings are killed, then there are more moths with brown wings." They don't seem to mean that. Instead they seem to mean what Darwin meant as revealed by his conflation of intelligent selection through the work of breeders with "natural selection." His argument in The Origins should have been the opposite of what it was. I.e., if intelligent selection through breeding does not result in fundamentally different life forms then that is empirical evidence that "natural selection," being blind, probably will not, not that it will.

This will get too long, as writing about these things usually does. Suffice it to say that Darwinists often seem to forget that their Mother Nature making her "selections" that they seem to be working toward venerating is blind. It's an oxymoron, how does the inanimate and that which is blind make some sort of "selection"? Yet they'll argue that Nature is making selections in some Darwinian way, regardless the empirical evidence.

Neither of the two fundamental axioms of Darwin’s macroevolutionary theory—the concept of the continuity of nature. . . and the belief that all the adaptive design of life has resulted from a blind random process—have been validated by one single empirical discovery or scientific advance since 1859.
--Michael Denton cf. (Doubts About Darwin: A History of Intelligent Design By Thomas Woodward :48)

Most people working in evolutionary theory will point out regularly that the talk of selection, of goal-directedness in evolution is at best a misleading metaphor. They don't really believe it's like that literally. Many, e.g. Dennett, delight in the lack of real directedness. None of that minimizes the fact that processes do work in the natural world to favor certain things that make it seem directed. No one denies that.

"Most people working in evolutionary theory will point out regularly that the talk of selection, of goal-directedness in evolution is at best a misleading metaphor."

Then they are constantly misleading people with the language that they have chosen. They use a pollution of language like "natural selection" when they should be saying natural processing or natural predation.

They also sometimes use terms like design and so on as if evolution is a natural unfolding of events that is teological or has some sense of purpose. If they didn't mislead people then most likely more people would reject "evolution" because most consider it a natural unfolding of events that does not eliminate purpose. More Aristotle's unmoved Mover sending out ripples and less "random" mutation happening by "chance" which is then acted on by Nature and somehow "selected" by something that is said to be a Blind Watchmaker.

It's Darwinists who have mixed teleology in, even as they deny it. That's little wonder because if their own writings are an artifact of their brain events trailing off into "random" processes instead of an artifact of intelligent design tracing back to their own mind or another then there would seem to be no reason to read their text. You could make observations and analyze it but you couldn't read a meaning to it.


I have to agree with your gripe about misleading language to some extent. I hear a lot of research talks where people talk about how such-and-such a system is "designed" in nearly an optimal way. They mention, of course, that natural selection was the "designer". I find it very interesting that people find themselves using this language as a matter of convenience, when purely Darwinian natural selection has no goal in mind, and thus really isn't designing anything.

I've even heard people who believe in purely Darwinian natural selection talk about similarities between biological systems and well-engineered human-designed systems, but go on to add that of course the designer is "nature". But if there is no purpose behind it, it seems strange to talk about "design".

Jeremy has it completely right on this one, mynym, and it is completely unfair to accuse 'Darwinists' of constantly misleading people. The people who just refuse to read the passages that say that their talk of 'selection' and 'purpose' is metaphorical are being wilful and are simply misleading themselves.

I don't think the language is dishonest. A selection takes place, but it's not necessarily a goal-directed, intentional selection. The selection occurs through natural processes. Just because a system is doing the selecting in a way that in terms of teleology is blind doesn't mean it's not a selection.

I think those who are going to reject naturalism are going to reject it one way or the other. Those who believe in naturalistic natural selection don't believe in teleology, and it doesn't matter to those who aren't naturalists that there are people out there who don't believe in teleology. It isn't as if everyone will reject the idea of natural selection simply because many of the scientists who use the term don't believe in teleology. As long as they themselves believe in both, they'll still believe in both.

Your last paragraph doesn't follow. Standard evolutionary theory in the naturalistic vein claims that the causes of human development as a species are blind. It doesn't claim that no intelligence is involved now that we've reached our current development. It doesn't claim that we don't have teleology now that we can do things for purposes. It just says that there weren't purposes that caused us to be this way.

The people who just refuse to read the passages that say that their talk of 'selection' and 'purpose' is metaphorical are being wilful and are simply misleading themselves.

If you really want to be clear then you don't choose patterns of metaphors that communicate the exact opposite of what you say that you're "really" communicating...secretly. E.g. the notion of "natural selection" itself. If you are not saying that Nature really "selects" things then there are different ways you could have described the process of a "natural selection." Are there unnatural selections or does Nature always select correctly, naturally enough?

It reminds one of the psychologists and their notion of "mental illness." It is the same issue of blurring the categories of the inaminate and the animate together. If you don't want to do it, you don't have to. E.g. they could call it a brain illness and point to a brain lesion in a clinical and thoroughly scientific way. If something is all in your mind and mental, then it is not an bodily illness. If something is "selected" then that is not language used to describe "blind" natural processes.

But Jeremy argues:

I don't think the language is dishonest. A selection takes place, but it's not necessarily a goal-directed, intentional selection. The selection occurs through natural processes. Just because a system is doing the selecting in a way that in terms of teleology is blind doesn't mean it's not a selection.

It seems like you are just clinging to the word "selection." Can a selection be made when blind or can the inanimate "select" what will be animinate? If you have a system which is only processing data it is not actually making selections, it is processing and agency/selection is an illusion. A key Darwinian principle is misnamed as "selection" and the reader is to be blamed for supposed misunderstandings of the texts of Darwinists or their disclaimers about their own terms? Maybe the reader understands words better than the Darwinists do and perhaps misunderstanding words comes with thinking that Mother Nature has selected your thoughts for you, as Darwinists seem to. Try thinking without selecting words...perhaps that is how Darwinists feel.

There is language that those who believe in the current scientism of Darwinism could use to desribe physical reality, yet they do not because they want to blurr the distinction between the inanimate and the animate. This leads to dehumanizing results often enough. I would argue that it is one way to recognize scientism.

It doesn't claim that no intelligence is involved now that we've reached our current development. It doesn't claim that we don't have teleology now that we can do things for purposes. It just says that there weren't purposes that caused us to be this way.

It seems quite artificial to argue that now we understand intelligence and can leave artifacts of it but there could not have been any at work in the past.

I'm gonna have to take Jeremy's side on this one. I don't think that Darwinists are deliberately trying to mislead. While there may be terms that they could use that are less misleading, they have inherited these terms (in this case from Darwin--you might argue that Darwin was deliberately trying to mislead, but that is a different argument). Historically, the engine that drives the process of evolution has been called "natural selection". For better or worse, this is the term we are stuck with. While "selection" previously may have implied conscious intention, in this context, it no longer does. The meaning and implications of this word have changed over time. Especially in this context.

As for the "reader [being] blamed for supposed misunderstandings", I think that is appropriate in cases like this. Consider the parallel case of "inerrancy". Non-theologians frequently misunderstand "inerrancy" to mean "containing no error of any kind". When confronted with this kind of misunderstanding, we say, "Um, that's not what that word means." And while the person who misunderstood has some grounds to say that the word is misleading and that there are better words to say what we mean, it doesn't mean that we are deliberately misleading people by using the term. Nor should we at this point change the term since this is the term we have inherited.

The reason Darwin used the term 'selection' is because it's an excellent metaphor. Some of the biblical passages about God's wrath talk about how his nostrils flare up. It would be immature and pedantic to point out that talking about God as having nostrils is antropomorphic, thus reducing God to a mere physical being, whose anger can be escaped. No metaphor is literally true, or it wouldn't be a metaphor. The point is always that in some sense there's something in common between the two things, in that case between someone with flaming nostrils and the anger of God.

In our case, Darwin chose this particular metaphor because it's a helpful way to think about what's going on in his proposed explanation of descent. He says it's as if nature selects those who are more fit to survive. He doesn't talk of some conscious entity doing the selection, because he doesn't believe it's really like that. He does talk of it as if nature selects it, using metaphorical language in the same way we might say that Father Time has gotten the better of me if I'm aging or Mother Nature has stacked the odds against Florida with its susceptibility to hurricanes.

We speak in these metaphors all the time, and some of them become so common that they cease to be metaphors. They become idioms. Sometimes they even go so far as to become the literal meaning of one usage of a word. I believe that's what's happened with the word 'selection' in English. Merriam-Webster and the OED agree with me, as it happens. Both of their entries on 'selection' include the special sense of an impersonal selection as in the case of natural selection.

The unnatural selection point is worth noting, but it misunderstands the use of the term. It's always worth pointing out that most mutations are bad and that not only good ones will establish themselves, but that's random chance entering in, not natural selection. Natural selection is the tendency of advantageous traits to persist into the next generation. No one denies such a tendency.

Virtually everyone I know who works in the mental health field (and I've known quite a few, including immediate family members) considers mental illnesses to be largely caused by neurology. You know nothing of that field if you think they're making some sharp distinction between the things they're talking about as mental and what takes place in the brain, as if there's no connection whatsoever. It's a bodily illness, but one that affects a certain part of the body, the brain. This is the standard understanding.

As for the mechanism point, again you're ignoring how widespread talk like this is. We talk about thermostats as if they know when to turn on. We talk about computer programs as if they know what input they're being given. I do this all the time without meaning that I think there's genuine understanding in the mere carrying out of a program. I don't think you can have real knowledge without consciousness, and I don't think a computer program could ever generate that. That doesn't stop me from speaking metaphorically about my virus checker knowing that an email message has a virus, and I'm not being deceptive when I talk like that. It's become an extended sense of that sort of terminology.

There are those who want to think of things like consciousness, intentionality, and so on as existing on a continuum, with some creatures possessing lesser degrees of them. I think that's obvious with some things. For instance, lower animals are clearly less complex emotionally and less intelligent than we are. I won't say that every difference between humans and other animals is a difference of degree. Saying that they are doesn't amount to scientism, though. Scientism is the view that only science can give us truth, a view virtually no philosopher will admit to holding. Many philosophers believe the features that make us human come only in degrees. You might see that as reductionism, but it's certainly not scientism.

I'm not sure what you're supposed to be getting at with the second comment. The claim is that intelligence is a matter of degree as brain structure got more complex. The reason it wasn't around earlier is because there weren't as complex structures. Once they're there, they're there. If there weren't any there before, that wouldn't mean they're not there now any more than the existence of life now doesn't mean there was always life.

I tend to agree that they're not deliberately trying to mislead, and I think Jeremy is right that the reason they use "natural selection" as the term is because it's a good metaphor for what most people think is going on. The best mutations are "selected" by surviving to pass on genes to future generations, in this view.

Where I do think things get a bit more sticky is where Darwinists talk about how nature has "designed" things. Again, I still don't think they're deliberately trying to mislead people into thinking nature is "designing" things when it's not. On the contrary, I think they're admitting that, indeed, things appear to be designed much like an engineer would design them -- but then pointing to nature as the "designer". As Jeremy points out, though, it's fairly easy to start talking this way without intending to, as he points out in his thermostat example.

I do not agree that a widespread use of language can eventually define our verbal representations of things to be correct. You might say that if we all agree that in a special instance we are not using "selection" to mean an act of an agent/agency then that is correct. The problem is that we use the same term to mean an act of agency all the time. Merging selection and therefore responsibility in with Naturalism is just one element of what is currrently happening in a declining civilization because civilization begins and ends with language, which is law.

On the question of how widespread a pollution of language is, I agree with Karl Kraus that we ought to let language drive us on to be better than we are instead of polluting the well. E.g.

The rhetorician seeks to move men. It is reasonable, therefore, to judge his effectiveness by ascertaining whether he has moved any and, if so, how many. But it is precisely this seemingly incontrovertible logic that we must now scrutinize. The base rhetorician seeks to move men toward evil; since it seems to be the nature of man that he wants to go to hell as quickly as possible, it is not surprising that effective base rhetoricians can greatly accelerate this process for millions, and tens or even hundreds of millions of persons. Marx, Lenin, and Hitler were indeed successful in influencing great multitudes. This is precisely why we consider them eminent rhetoricians, base to be sure, but brilliant. After all, many individuals try to drive men into slavery, as if they were cattle; but only a few succeed. These we hail as “great historical figures.��? I submit that we cannot judge the noble rhetorician by this standard. Since he urges men to be better than they are, the noble rhetorician cannot possibly succeed in changing those who prefer to remain as they are or become evil. Indeed, because his task is to bring men to them selves, not to him, the noble rhetorician ought not to be judged by his manifest effect on others at all. Rather, he ought to be judged by the clarity and steadfastness with which he proclaims his counsel. Should not a single person heed his advice, the noble rhetorician would still have to be judged successful in proportion as he succeeds in per fecting his own soul by perfecting his own language. So judged, Kraus’s success is as imposing as that of his ad versaries whom he so “unsuccessfilly��? opposed. For, in the final analysis, what Karl Kraus sought was to purify himself by purifying his own language. He achieved his goal. He died a semantic saint in a semantically satanic society.
By Thomas Szasz :56-57)

"Progress will make purses of human skin."
--Karl Kraus, a prescient satirist as one of the earliest anti-Nazis

"I have drawn from the well of language many a thought which I do not have and which I could not put into words."
(Karl Kraus, Half-Truths
and One-and-a-Half-Truths :68)

If the well is polluted then people will more and more be wrong in their thinking. For example:

Our whole cultural life for decades has been more or less under the influence of biological thinking, as it was begun particularly around the middle of the last century, by the teachings of Darwin...
Though it took decades before the courage was found, on the basis of the initial findings of the natural sciences, to carry on a systematic study of heredity, the progress of the teaching and its application to man could not be delayed any more.
(Hitler's Professors: The Part of Scholarship in
Germany's Crimes Against the Jewish People
By Max Weinreich
(New York: The Yiddish Scientific Institute, 1946) :33)

The notion of "biological thinking" is itself the same type of pollution of language because we can think through biology instead of adhering to the Nazi notion that we should let our biology do are thinking for us. It is the same inversion of placing the inanimate before the animate. There are those who begin to treat humans as inanimate objects and inanimate objects as if they are sentient and they do so in their language first. A nation tends to think it among its intellecutals and then manifests it in the same way that an individual's thought goes before their deeds as lightening does thunder.

I tend to agree that they're not deliberately trying to mislead, and I think Jeremy is right that the reason they use "natural selection" as the term is because it's a good metaphor for what most people think is going on. The best mutations are "selected" by surviving to pass on genes to future generations, in this view.

They are misinformed at best and engaging in disinformation at worst. What most people think is going on is most likely wrong because natural selection would have to accomplish more than what most people seem to think it does. Example, it is not just that it would have to be capable of selecting for something but it would also have to select against a previously useful adaptation. E.g., the photo-receptive cells that a Darwinists wants to say lie on the evolutionary pathway to the eye. Not only would a random mutation have to move along that pathway but natural selection would have to select against organisms which maintain the old information, it is not as if the old genotype immediately vanishes. In the end there just is not time, not even in millions of years, nor does the empirical evidence indicate that organisms can go up and down such fitness peaks (I.e., having a visual system that works well, losing it through mutation or gaining a better one as natural selection has no guarantee of steady progress toward a goal, even if the language of Darwinists suggest it.) fast enough.

See: Haldane's Dilemma

Like most pollutions of language the notion of natural "selection" is wrong empirically just as it is conceptually.

Neither of the two fundamental axioms of Darwin’s macroevolutionary theory—the concept of the continuity of nature. . . and the belief that all the adaptive design of life has resulted from a blind random process—have been validated by one single empirical discovery or scientific advance since 1859.
--Michael Denton cf. (Doubts About Darwin: A History of Intelligent Design By Thomas Woodward :47-49)

Sorry for the mispellings...that's bad in a post about language. Oh well.

Scientism is the view that only science can give us truth, a view virtually no philosopher will admit to holding.

That's true, although the distinction between science and "truth" seems to becoming lost on the MTVeee generation. They seem to feel that science is the arbiter of all truth as that which gives them their X-Box and cell phones.

The latter assumption is actually incorrect as Richard Milton documents in Alternative Science: Challenging the Myths of the Scientific Establishment because creativity and invention is not safe and sometimes goes against established paradigms. So you can find examples in the history of science like the Wright brothers testing their heavier than air flying machine even as established scientists are writing papers that a heavier than air flying machine is impossible.

Words mean what they mean because of how they're used. That's simply how language works. The way we find out what they mean is to see how they work. Each term will have a semantic range in the different contexts that it can be used. One of the contexts of use of 'selection' is in the unit 'natural selection', which is a technical term in science to mean something that has the appearace of design but occurs through natural processes. This is no different from when we say the sun rises. It's literally false in the breakdown of the terms' meanings on their own, but the meaning of that expression is not the meaning of the component parts put together. Its meaning is from the unit and simply means when things have the appearance such that the sun is rising.

The fact that this is a technical term with a technical usage is not undermined by the fact that it's got a more original and less extended use with real intention and choice. The same sort of thing happens with any extended sense or technical meaning of any word. This is just a fact of language. Specialized senses of terms don't generally mean what most people mean by them. Most people use 'hedonism' to refer to a lifestyle of living for the moment, but the technical definition of that term in philosophy is very different, and hedonism in philosophy usually takes the popular notion of hedonism to be an immoral lifestyle.

The problem with Hitler's approach wasn't that he was letting biology do his thinking. It was that he approached biology with a certain assumption about the philosophical and moral results of what biology might tell him. It's the philosophical claim that he had in common with the Social Darwinists that is suspect. That's not letting biology think for you. It's importing into biology this notion that whatever things happen to survive ought to survive, and we ought to speed up evolution by ridding ourselves of the things we think are not as fit. Those are two assumptions not already there in biology, so it can't be simply letting biology do the thinking.

You're confusing two things. One is that we can influence people's views by saying false or misleading things that will get them to hold false beliefs. That's what Hitler did, and it's what most politicians do at least to some extent. As Wink acknowledged, it may be what Darwin was up to, though I doubt it. I think he was simply using a fairly obvious metaphor to explain his view. A complete separate phenomenon is that we can acknowledge that a language has changed or that words can be used in different ways, including metaphorically, in extended senses, and in new meanings in technical or other sorts of contexts of use. The fact that language can be used to deceive people does not change the fact that language changes, and words can have multiple meanings, some of which might confuse someone who doesn't read carefully. When someone states explitly that you shouldn't take their words a certain way, as those who write about evolutionary theory almost always insist on doing, it's simply not deception to use this originally metaphorical term in its now-accepted technical sense, one the dictionaries all accept as the meaning of that expression.

What you're complaining about is tantamount to complaining that butterflies aren't made of flies or butter. The term simply doesn't reduce to its component meanings. That's not how the term works in English. The term 'natural selection' is something like that. In these contexts, the term 'selection' by itself derives its meaning from the larger unit, even if the 'natural' is only implict and determined by context.

That's true, although the distinction between science and "truth" seems to becoming lost on the MTVeee generation. They seem to feel that science is the arbiter of all truth as that which gives them their X-Box and cell phones.

Huh? Us GenXers and Yers (which include the MTV generation) are the postmoderns. We're the ones who think that science doesn't have a monopoly on the truth. It's the ones still in the Modern era and wrapped up in the Enlightenment Project that think that science is the arbiter of all truth.

"Huh? Us GenXers and Yers (which include the MTV generation) are the postmoderns."

Only the South Park Conservatives seem to fit that notion. The progressives generally to be found among the MTVeee generation among the "bands against Bush" and so on treat science as about equivalent to truth. That has been my experience, anyway. Progressives have a long history of saying that virtually everything they say, advocate or do is scientific, from eugenics to global warming.

"Words mean what they mean because of how they're used. That's simply how language works."

I still do not agree with putting words together in ways that pollute language. It is true that many scientists may understand the term natural selection in a systematic way. But the average highschooler probably does not and as illustrated by some of their vast and elastic claims about what has been "selected" for by natural selection many scientists are not using the term in a clear way.

It seems by your first statement that you do not believe that a pollution of language can come about. That it can be used in correct and incorrect ways instead of being defined by whatever we mean. A Chinese sage of the distant past was once asked by his disciples what he would do first if he were given power to set right the affairs of the country. He answered: "I should certainly see to it that language is used correctly." The disciples looked perplexed. "Surely," they said, "this is a trivial matter Why should you deem it so important?" And the Master replied: "If language is not used correctly, then what is said is not what is meant; if what is said is not what is meant, then what ought to be done remains undone; if this remains undone, morals and art will be corrupted; if morals and art are corrupted, justice will go astray; if justice goes astray, the people will stand about in helpless confusion."

I would note that most of the examples you brought up, e.g. father time, scientists are not using. It is doubtful that they would create a notion of "time selection" and occasionally refer to father time. It would seem that they are subtley venerating Nature, not time.

"...language changes, and words can have multiple meanings..."

Some correct and some incorrect because language is like the stored wisdom of civilization and if its pattern of associations and connotations is evil or just plain factually incorrect, then it is incorrect no matter how many people say otherwise.

"As tens of millions of voices cannot make a circle a square, so the united voices of myriads cannot lend the smallest foundation to falsehood."
--Oliver Goldsmith

I would note that there tends too be a cognitive dissonance for a while and then everyone is thinking of circles as squares anyway. But a pollution of language can last for a long, long time and the reverberations of that cognitive dissonance seem to echo out. E.g., agency is removed and Nature is said to "select" everything, which makes crime just a sickness or a disease and criminals in need of treatment. It is not as if they have agency. They are the hapless victims of their environment and genetics. Yet becaus of self-evident truths that are evident in the Self the people tend to know that such a position is not true. They may begin to call evil a sickness though. Then perhaps they begin to treat the sick as if they are evil. Yet their conscience still knows and it will have its revenge. E.g., The Revenge of Conscience

If you cannot agree that words can get at a spirit/meaning to things that we do not define but which we know, then there is little use in writing here. There is little use in thinking either.

It seems apposite that some scientists believe that Nature as a system selects all things, including their own thoughts. As in their case, perhaps it does. There are mathematical proofs that indicate they are wrong in that epistemology. But they seem to tend to believe what they believe because it suits their psychological dynamics with respect to Mother Nature, the sociology of modern science, etc., and not because of evidence. (Mathmatical or empirical.)

"What you're complaining about is tantamount to complaining that butterflies aren't made of flies or butter."

I like the way you put that. But the term natural selection has been used by many scientists in both its special definition as a scientific theory and a philosophy of Naturalism in which the belief is that Nature selects all things. These two different definitions are blurred together in the term "evolution" which is then said to have the component parts of natural selection and random mutation. It's worth pointing this out because it is fairly common for Darwinists to blur their Naturalism and "evolution" together.

Mynym, I have never encountered anyone who equates science with truth. Science is a method for discovering truth. It's not the same thing as the true propositions to be discovered, and it's not the same thing as the truth that is a property of those propositions to be discovered. There are some who think empirical discovery is the only way to discover truth, but that's simply not the same thing as equating science with truth. In my experience, naturalists in my generation do not accept scientism. They do accept naturalism. There's a big difference in methodology. Scientism doesn't allow any discipline that isn't a science to count for anything. Naturalists allow other disciplines to inform us but think everything ultimately is based on things we could in principle learn about in science.

On the language issue, what you're failing to distinguish between is the moral evaluation of the origins of the use of a term and the moral evaluation of the continuing use of the term. It's clear that we disagree about the origins. I think it's a fair use of a metaphor. You think it's deceptive. But whatever you think of that, you can't deny that it's what the term now means, and we're stuck with that. It's the very same issue that Wink has been discussing in this post on translation. You can't just decide to stop calling the Sea of Galilee by that name just because you wish it had all along been called the Lake of Galilee. That's it's name. What scientists are now calling cloning is not what scifi authors proposed in the 1950s as cloning, but that procedure is now what the technical term 'cloning' describes in science. It doesn't do to claim that these scientists are deceiving people by using the term. It's fine to say that this isn't what scifi cloning was but something else. It's not right to call it deception.

There cannot be a square circle, but the term 'square circle' could take on a technical meaning and be fine. If Sony decided to market a product called the square circle and then name caught on, then that Sony product (and other things like it) would be correctly described as square circles. That doesn't make them geometrically square and circular at the same time and in the same way. It means that term has taken on a legitimate meaning that doesn't correspond to its component parts. This happens all the time, and there's nothing deceptive about it unless people use it deceptively. Red hair is not strictly speaking red. It's orange. That doesn't mean calling a redhead by that term is deceptive. That's what the word means in that context. This is just a fact about language. People can misuse language, but that's when they're using words in ways out of accord with what the terms mean. That's consistent with saying that there are terms whose meanings aren't fully analyzable in terms of their components, so don't try painting this fact about language as an attempt to say that there are no incorrect uses of language. That's not at all what I'm saying.

There are philosophical issues about naturalism, determinism, and things like free agency. That's not my point. I'm talking about what the term 'natural selection' means and what the term 'selection' means in its extended sense in these contexts. The philosophical issues are worth looking into. I don't think naturalism and determinism are parallel on this issue myself, but some people think both threaten our sense of ourselves, free choices, and meaning in life. Those are real issues. This language one you're raising is not.

If language has meanings completely independent of how we use terms, how would we know what those meanings are? How do I know that the previous sentence doesn't mean something about some play on Broadway or some mathematical theorem? I know what words mean because I know how people use them. If people used them differently, they would mean different things. Over time languages change, and words take on new meanings. How does that happen? It happens because people start using words differently. Maybe it's morally wrong to be the first ones to do that. Maybe it makes a factual error. That doesn't change the fact that these new meanings develop, and it's the standard meaning of 'natural selection' (and 'selection' by itself in evolutionary contexts) to refer to a blind process at the end of which something has survived because it has more survival-effective properties. It just means that the origin of that term is unfortunate.


Thought you might be interested in this link: http://telicthoughts.com/?p=160. The post seems to be arguing that one can still have purpose ("intrinsic purpose") with pure naturalism. I don't think I buy it, but it seems to pertain to the discussion here.

Abednego, have you checked the anti-ID blogs? First, you have Reed Cartwright at Panda's Thumb trying to play this out as the cardinal's attack on the Discovery Institute. This is his evidence:

The Catholic Church, while leaving to science many details about the history of life on earth, proclaims that by the light of reason the human intellect can readily and clearly discern purpose and design in the natural world, including the world of living things.

Any intelligent reader would recognize that as a simple affirmation of Intelligent Design. Cartwright, on the other hand, says the following:

"Intelligent design" creationists do not make the distinction between science and the discerning of "design." (They consider such distinctions "confused".) Instead they argue that science can discern that the universe is designed; in fact that is the central tenant of "intelligent design" creationism and what distinguishes it from theistic views of evolution

Aside from the almost-invisible rhetoric of the misuse of scare quotes (they considers the distictions confused, not pseudo-confused, so he's lying about them by putting it in scare quotes), this statement is nothing short of hilarious. I'm struggling to find a distinction in the statement he quoted that distinguishes between science and observing design in creation. There's something about the light of reason. There's something about the human intellect. There's something about clearly discerning. There's nothing about whether that is science or not science. So how is it a clear distancing from the Discovery Institute's claim that ID arguments are within the scope of science?

Then he goes on to show his true colors by claiming that Intelligent Design is in opposition to theistic evolution, which anyone who knows anything about the ID movement knows to be false. This is a standard falsehood that crops up on that site of course, but I'm convinced they know it's not true. It's merely political rhetoric. There are theistic evolutionists who are part of the Intelligent Design movement, who are greatly respected and welcomed as part of it by people like Philip Johnson. Consider Walter Bradley, for instance, who has pieces in most of the major ID anthologies.

I can't help but mention the use of the awful term 'creationism', which has ceased to mean anything because of people like those at Panda's Thumb. It once referred to the belief in a creator, but now it means someone who wants the Genesis creation accounts taught as science in public schools, and there's no way you can honestly pretend in the face of the diversity among ID supporters that they have some monolithic goal along those lines. This is as immoral as political rhetoric gets.

Meanwhile, PZ Myers at Pharyngula claims that the cardinal's piece is "dogmatically bad science" (hey, at least he's not pretending ID is religion). In what seems to me to be a surprising move, Myers does not accept what virtually all scientists and philosophers of science accept. The universe does have some appearance of design. No, he claims that there isn't even the appearance of design. There's no evidence whatsoever for design. The standard response is to explain away the evidence by giving an alternative account of how the evidence could have come about the way it is. For instance, the complexity of life is explained in terms of natural selection and random chance operating over very long periods of time. Myers instead thinks there's no such evidence to be explained, which actually undermines the very motivation and primary evidential argument for standard evolutionary theory. If we don't need to explain the complexity of life, then there's no need for such a theory of origins. The point of the theory is to explain the evidence that would otherwise seem to reflect design.

His biggest complaint is simply sad. Good reading comprehension skills would lead someone to the conclusion that this cardinal is doing what Abednego said. This cardinal is leaving options open for those within the Catholic church but ruling out one option. You can't be a naturalist and be a Catholic. Duh! Naturalism rules out the possibility of God, so of course you can't be a naturalist. You have to believe that God is somehow guiding things along, whatever else you believe. That's the point of the piece. It's not to state that science tells us anything. It's not to state that science doesn't tell us anything. There's one side comment about reason telling us that the world is designed, which is a reference to a philosophical argument that any good Catholic who knows the tradition will know goes way back in the history of philosophy as a philosophical argument (not a piece of revealed religion, but the anti-ID people haven't grasped that basic fact yet).

Myers complains that the cardinal gives no scientific support for his claims. Well, surprise, surprise, might that not be because he isn't offering a scientific claim? He's simply stating what Pope John Paul II had said, making it clear what that means, putting it in context, thinking through how that relates to the interpretation of scripture, and making it clear that there's lots of room for differing views within the structure that remains once you rule out naturalism. Why would he need scientific support for that? This piece makes a very small point, and pretending that it needs some complex argument based on scientific principles just to find something bad to say about it is simply stupid.

This is why I rarely bother to go to these two sites. They seem to throw their reading skills and ability to make careful distinctions out the window whenever they go there to write posts and interact with comments.


Since you ask, I haven't looked lately at either of those sites. And indeed, the reason I haven't is the same reason you rarely bother to visit them. They really seem unwilling to address the real issues raised by ID, and seem intent on considering anyone who supports it to be more or less stupid, and those promoting it to be worse. I've interacted with some of the commenters before and they generally don't seem willing to actually engage my points; most seem to recite tired points about how ID is "not science", etc., and just ignore anything I say.

I think there ARE some reasonable people who disagree with ID and are nevertheless willing to talk about it reasonably and engage the real issues. But they seem fairly difficult to find in the blogosphere.

So I generally avoid those sites because they mostly just make me mad by distorting the ID position so much. The fellow who runs Pharyngula must be intelligent. Surely he's capable of understanding what the ID people are saying and dealing with the real issues.

I guess I'm always surprised by how contentious this issue is, and how difficult it seems to get people (people on both sides, even!) to be reasonable and civil about it.

I watched a brief debate recently between Michael Ruse and William Dembski. Ruse is generally fairly reasonable, but much to my surprise, he accused Dembski and the whole ID movement of just being pawns of the religious right, acting as tools to promote a religous agenda (getting prayer back in the schools, etc.). He told Dembski that he'll be discarded by the religious right after they're done with him.

So I think you're right, for some people in this issue, it really is political rhetoric.

As an aside, people who oppose ID argue that if we start teaching alternatives to evolution in schools, American science education will go down the tubes. Honestly, I think the politicizing of science is a lot more harmful. People quit listening to science, and it loses its appeal as a way to find out about the universe. Instead, it's just another way to wield power. And, unfortunately, it has become increasingly politicized in the last several decades.

Leave a comment


    The Parablemen are: , , and .



Books I'm Reading

Fiction I've Finished Recently

Non-Fiction I've Finished Recently

Books I've Been Referring To

I've Been Listening To

Games I've Been Playing

Other Stuff


    thinking blogger
    thinking blogger

    Dr. Seuss Pro

    Search or read the Bible

    Example: John 1 or love one another (ESV)

  • Link Policy
Powered by Movable Type 5.04