Teaching Religion in the Name of Evolution

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Abednego linked to what people have been calling Alvin Plantinga's press release on evolution and Christianity. I'm particularly interested in the following quote, which I thank Dick Cleary for noticing first:

[The claim that] human beings and other living creatures have come about by chance, rather than by God's design, is also not a proper part of empirical science. How could science show that God has not intentionally designed and created human beings and other creatures? How could it show that they have arisen merely by chance. That's not empirical science. That's metaphysics, or maybe theology. It's a theological add-on, not part of science itself. And, since it is a theological add-on, it shouldn't, of course, be taught in public schools.

His interesting conclusion is that those who oppose teaching ID in schools on the grounds that it's religion are themselves teaching something that's explicitly a religious view by their own criteria. If they just wanted to teach the theory and what it's supposed to explain in terms of efficient causes, that would be ok, but that's not what you get in most high school biology classes. Evolutionary theory is often presented as an explanation in contrast to creationist accounts (where I mean 'creationist' broadly to refer to any view with God as any sort of explanation). Any account that means by 'chance' something that precludes a designer is offering a view that is at least as religious as any of the Intelligent Design arguments are. Just to be clear, I don't think any of this is religious. It's a philosophical conclusion, one very similar to other philosophical conclusions that scientists consdider part of scientific argumentation. I'm just pointing out that the standards of the political hacks who think ID is religion require applying the same conclusion here. Both claims are about things that they themselves consider to be outside the realm of science. Yet they do it themselves.

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is by teaching philosophy of science. Metaphysics and philosophy of science, no matter what anyone says, are "ontically prior" to experimental science. What that means is that you must have at least a working philosophy of science (with some difficult ... Read More

4 Comments

yep thats right! I reckon 2+2=4 is only a theory too like the world being at the centre of the universe, and being flat of course!

Next time you decide to comment on a post that you either haven't come close to reading or simply aren't smart enough to understand, it would be in your best interest to keep in mind that you look like a complete idiot when you pretend the person writing the post said something not even close to what the post really says.

I never said anything like the common catchphrase that evolution is just a theory. All three authors of this blog think that pseudo-argument comes from ignorance of what scientific laws and theories amount to. See Wink's post for that issue.

This post isn't about evolutionary theory at all, at least if you mean the thesis that natural selection is a process that largely accounts for the origins of humanity on the level of efficient causes. This post is about the people who inconsistently call it religion when you talk about God playing any sort of explanatory role but don't admit that denying such a role is part of the same area of discourse as affirming such a role.

It seems to me that if I say that such and such a process does not itself have any purpose, this is different from saying that this token process was not put to any purpose. We might say that if the essential components of a process do not involve intentional elements, it is a process that allows for this distinction: some tokens of this very type might be put to a purpose without thereby being purposive.

Assuming this sort of distinction makes sense, I think we can agree with Plantinga's claim that to say that the token processes that explain certain presently observable biological facts have been put to no purpose is not within the purview of science. However, if we are careful and take the claim that the processes are purposeless because qua types, these very processes could occur without the guidance of any intentional agent, it seems we are no longer doing theology. If this is what careful biologists say, then I don't think that the mere presence of purposelessness talk ventures into theology.

Is this agreeable?

Clayton,

I think your argument hinges on what exactly is meant by "purpose". It seems to me that, given the way most Americans talk, if I say X was purposeless, I mean both (a) X was not intended to accomplish a certain goal (your latter statement, I think), and (b) X itself was not the goal (which I think you describe as "a process does not itself have any purpose". I think to talk about "purposelessness" without straying into religion means one has to restrict the definition of purpose to include only (b); that is, X might have happened for a particular reason, but X itself was not the goal. And I'm still not sure that it works even in that case, because you're still talking about some sort of purpose.

Perhaps I'm not understanding you properly, because I'm not 100% on how a process in itself can either be purposeful or not purposeful. It seems this depends on the intent behind the process, which is not an attribute of the process, but an attribute of the cause of the process.

There are, of course, biologists who recognize that claiming that life is purposeless (and evolution is a purposeless process) is making a theological claim, and thus refrain from making such statements.

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