Friday, November 02, 2007

Evolution as God?

In a lot of ways, evolution is like unto theology. "Gods are ontologically distinct from creatures," said Damien Broderick, "or they're not worth the paper they're written on." And indeed, the Shaper of Life is not itself a creature. Evolution is bodiless, like the Judeo-Christian deity. Omnipresent in Nature, immanent in the fall of every leaf. Vast as a planet's surface. Billions of years old. Itself unmade, arising naturally from the structure of physics. Doesn't that all sound like something that might have been said about God? (Eliezer Yudkowsky, "An Alien God," Overcoming Bias)
Whence the stuff of which evolution was made, and the structure (i.e., laws) of physics that enabled it to be made? Answer that, Mr. Yudkowsky, before you get too invested in the claim that "Science has already discovered the sort-of-godlike maker of humans - but it wasn't what the religionists wanted to hear."

Yudkowsky wants to believe in only the first of four logical possibilities about the Universe:
1. Everything just is -- without an outside cause or overarching design. Scientists claim to find "laws" governing the behavior of matter, energy, time, and space. But such laws only partly explain the universe; there is no grand unifying theory of everything. And those laws are subject to change as science unveils new aspects of matter, energy, time, and space -- as it does continuously.
He ought to consider the other possibilities, including this one:
4. There is an external force or consciousness that brought everything into being. That force or consciousness may merely have set things in motion, or it may play a continuing role in some or all aspects of existence. The intentions of the external force or consciousness are known to religionists, by revelation and/or faith; science is inadequate to fathom those intentions or to prove that the universe conforms to an underlying "design." Those who reject this fourth possibility as "unscientific" -- that is, most scientists as well as the typical libertarian/Objectivist -- can do so only by accepting one of the equally unscientific (i.e., untestable) possibilities outlined above.
In a sequel ("The Wonder of Evolution") Yudkowsky reveals (in so many words) his fear of considering that fourth possibility. He does us a service, however, by adverting to a sentence from Thomas Henry Huxley's "Ethics and Evolution" (The Romanes Lecture, Oxford University 1893). Here is the sentence in full:
Let us understand, once for all, that the ethical progress of society depends, not on imitating the cosmic process, still less in running away from it, but in combating it.
Elsewhere, we find this commentary on Huxley's observation:
As his critics were not slow to point out, however, Huxley’s supposition that man can combat cosmic processes comes strangely from a Darwinian. For Darwin’s principal thesis is that man is part of Nature and subject, therefore, to its “cosmic forces,” in no sense standing outside or above them.
The subsequent explanation -- that ethical progress is part and parcel of evolution -- leads to this question: How do we "know" that we should move in a certain direction, ethically, in order to be more nearly perfect? Assigning evolution the role of judge is tantamount to assuming the answer, namely, "evolution is all." But that cannot be the answer (except in the mind of an obdurate atheist), because there remains this scientifically unanswerable question: Whence the stuff of which evolution was made, and the laws (structure) of physics that enabled it to be made?

If you want to disbelieve in the fourth possibility, just say so. But don't cloak your disbelief in the language of science, for science can neither prove nor disprove any of the possibilities.

Related posts:
Atheism, Religion, and Science
The Limits of Science
Beware of Irrational Atheism
Religion and Personal Responsibility
Science, Evolution, Religion, and Liberty
Science, Logic, and God
Capitalism, Liberty, and Christianity
Debunking "Scientific Objectivity"
The Big Bang and Atheism
The Universe . . . Four Possibilities
Einstein, Science, and God
Atheism, Religion, and Science Redux
Religion as Beneficial Evolutionary Adaptation
A Reminder
Collegiate Crap-ola
A Non-Believer Defends Religion