August 5, 2009

Why Darwin Matters

I picked up a copy of Why Darwin Matters: The Case Against Intelligent Design (Owl Books, 2006) by Michael Shermer, to see what arguments he uses against Intelligent Design theorists. Shermer’s position is that ID involves bad science and flawed theology, and that conservatives as well as people of faith should accept evolution. I can agree with that statement, at least on its surface. That is, I wondered whether Shermer provides convincing arguments to support his position. Does he offer good science? What are Shermer’s philosophical views? Overall, what I found is that many of Shermer’s arguments are reasonable while perhaps an even greater number are seriously flawed. I will provide my take on select arguments and show in the process Why Darwin Matters is, in its own way, no less weird of a book than the absurd creationist text Of Pandas and People.

Shermer’s personal views migrated during his life from one extreme to its opposite, from an active evangelical Christian creationist to a devoted materialist Darwinian. Now there is a transmutation radical enough to make one’s head spin. Shermer is publisher of Skeptic magazine and author of several books including Why People Believe Weird Things. I have not read the best-seller, Why People Believe Weird Things, but I thought it mildly ironic that Shermer believes some weird things himself such as that complexly organized matter can think. This is a common Darwinian position, and a commonly held error throughout modern secularized cultures. Its significance in Why Darwin Matters is that while Shermer often brings to the reader attention the distinction between theology and science he fails to distinguish his own Darwinian ideology from Darwinian evolutionary science.

Shermer claims that religion and science can coexist and that people of faith should accept evolution, which provides scientific support for religious beliefs. However, Shermer’s materialist brand of evolution is at fundamental odds with theistic religion. Asserting that people of faith should accept a materialist version of evolution as being supportive of their religious beliefs is a weird sales pitch by any reasonable standard.

In Why Darwin Matters Shermer begins the chapter “Why People Do Not Accept Evolution” with a quote from William Jennings Bryan’s closing statement in the Scopes trial of 1925:

“The real attack of evolution, it will be seen, is not upon orthodox Christianity or even upon Christianity, but upon religion—the most basic fact in man’s existence and the most practical thing in life. If taken seriously and made the basis of a philosophy of life, it would eliminate love and carry man back to a struggle of tooth and claw.”

Shermer tries to show that criticisms of the type expressed by Bryan in the Scopes trial are unwarranted. Oddly enough, Shermer makes statements about the Darwinian revolution that legitimate Bryan’s argument against Darwinian evolution. About the Darwinian revolution, Shermer says,

“The theory of top-down intelligent design of all life by or through a supernatural power was replaced with the theory of bottom-up natural design through natural forces. The anthropocentric view of humans as special creations placed by a divine hand above all others was replaced with the view of humans as just another animal species. The view of life and the cosmos as having direction and purpose from above was replaced with the view of the world as the product of the necessitating laws of nature and the contingent events of history. The view that human nature is infinitely malleable and primarily good was replaced with a view of human nature in which we are finitely restricted by our genes and are both good and evil (Prologue p. xxii).”

The quote paraphrases Ernst Mayr, the leading Darwinian of our time, in The Growth of Biological Thought. The view of humans as “just another animal species” assumes a strict phylogenetic continuity of Homo sapiens with the anthropoid apes. It is a view of human nature that fails to recognize that about man which makes him different in kind, and not just in degree, from the rest of the animal kingdom. It treats of man’s body but not his intellect. To include man within the animal kingdom is irreconcilable with the Judeo-Christian understanding of human nature. The pre-Darwinian classifications that placed man in a separate kingdom is scientifically and philosophically more accurate than the current classification that includes man within the animal kingdom, the continuity of the human body with lower animal forms notwithstanding. That man alone is capable of propositional speech requires recognizing him as radically different in kind from the other animals. And it is not clear whom Shermer and Mayr think holds the view that “human nature is infinitely malleable.”

Nonetheless, Shermer emphatically denies that evolution implies there is no God or that it undermines the basis of morality (p. 24). Is this Darwinian doublespeak? There are mixed issues here that I will try to unravel for the purpose of clarification. First, evolutionary science, when it remains within the province and limits of natural science, has nothing to say about God’s existence. Neither does it provide a threat to the basis of morality. Sound evolutionary science (fundamentalist/creationist counter-arguments notwithstanding) is consistent with Revelation. In this sense, Shermer’s statement is true. The truths of science, including evolutionary science, cannot contradict the truths of Revelation or belief in God.

On the other hand, Darwinians show a lack of scientific discipline whenever they assert positions that go beyond what science can prove. For example, Darwinians assume the mind of man does not differ radically in kind from that of anthropoid apes and higher animals; and the human “moral sense” (a flawed concept in itself), is a chance by-product of evolution.

Shermer’s denial that evolution implies there is no God or that it undermines the basis of morality rings hollow since the materialist version of evolution he is proffering necessarily implies a denial of God’s existence and undermines traditional moral values. This is not to say that evolution itself is false. It is to argue, rather, that the materialist interpretation of evolution is false. This means there is not just one theory of evolution. There are various theories of evolution. Darwin’s Descent notwithstanding, evolution cannot completely account for the origin of man. While the human body undoubtedly has a history in the natural processes of nature, evolution cannot explain that which makes man unique, his non-material intellect. That is a subject for theology and philosophy.

On the other hand, ID is in no sense (I almost said ID is nonsense) the answer to Darwinian ideology. The natural or positive sciences do not deal with causality at the level of intelligent design. The province of science remains restricted to the phenomenal or sensible level of reality in its operations and changes. The phenomenal order is the changing, diverse surface of physical reality, which science classifies, correlates, measures, and systematizes.

We discern or infer intelligent design at the deeper level of intelligible or noumenal reality, not at the phenomenal surface of accidents, where our knowledge of things in their sensory qualities begins. The intelligible or noumenal constitution of natural beings includes, in part, substance (that which stands under and supports accidental being). Philosophic discernment grasps sensible beings in their principles and causes.

To discern intelligent design or purpose in nature is a philosophic or intuitive capacity possessed by the common person. This knowledge remains outside the scope and competence of the special sciences that study phenomenal reality only. To be sure, to maintain that nature reflects intelligent design is not to affirm the creationist version of intelligent design advocated by Intelligent Design theorists, i.e. Behe, Dembski, et al. This is where we see how confused Intelligent Design theorists are about the proper role of the special sciences, philosophy, and theology; and also as to what constitutes good science and sound philosophical principles. "Irreducible complexity" remains a failed hypothesis.

Science Under Attack

In the chapter, “Science under Attack” Shermer discusses a few different court cases involving “creation science” and evolution. Concerning the 2005 Kitzmiller case (Dover Area School District), reading Why Darwin Matters reminded me of how embarrassed I felt at the time by the actions of the otherwise respectable Thomas More Law Center (TMLC). TMLC incited the case by recommending that biology teachers supplement their standard textbook with that ridiculous creationist text Of Pandas and People. It is no answer to the materialism of Darwinian evolution to promote a sectarian view of creation in the science class. We should challenge errors only with truth, not with a different set of errors. TMLC was beyond its competence and expertise in the Kitzmiller case.

Shermer says, “If Iders eschew all attempts to provide a naturalistic explanation for life, they abandon science altogether (p.53).” I can agree with Shermer’s statement, which he presents in the context of explaining methodological naturalism. Oddly, Shermer’s next statement is, “There is no such thing as the supernatural or the paranormal. There is only the natural, the normal, and mysteries we have yet to explain.” To deny, as opposed to ignoring, the existence of the supernatural entails philosophical naturalism or metaphysical materialism—so much for Shermer’s spiel about methodological naturalism. Shermer seriously errs if he thinks methodological naturalism requires philosophical naturalism.

Shermer’s philosophical statement quoted above implies the non-existence of God. Darwinians are no more content to keep their ideology distinct from science than IDers are content to keep their ideology out of the science curriculum. Darwinians, creationists and ID theorists will lock horns for as long as Darwinians insist on their materialist interpretation of evolution, and creationists and ID theorists insist on denying scientific facts.

Why Science Cannot Contradict Religion

In the chapter “Why Science Cannot Contradict Religion”, Shermer quotes from the 1996 encyclical Truth Cannot Contradict Truth by Pope John Paul II. Shermer is trying to make a case for Christians to accept evolution by showing that the Church accepts evolution. Shermer says,

“Evolution provides a scientific foundation for the core values shared by most Christians and conservatives, and by accepting—and embracing—the theory of evolution, Christians and conservatives strengthen their religion, their politics, and science itself (p. 138).”

The main problem with Why Darwin Matters is that Shermer presents a type of evolutionary theory that contradicts the truths of the Catholic faith and sound philosophy. The Darwinian belief that the human moral sense is a product of evolution gives a pseudo-scientific basis for moral relativism. It denies the objective foundation of moral values, the natural moral law, taught by the Stoics and the Judeo-Christian tradition.

Shermer says,

“[M]oral sentiments evolved in our Paleolithic ancestors living in small communities. Subsequently, religion identified these sentiments, labeled them, and codified rules about them.”

That quote is ripe for some serious historical and philosophical criticism. I will address by itself the Darwinian’s relativist view of moral values in a subsequent post.

Shermer then makes the shameless claim: “Evolution also explains evil, original sin, and the Christian model of human nature (p.131)”

Shermer is actually advocating a pseudo-scientific reduction of evil and original sin to the chance activities of natural selection and genetics, a physicalist and soulless view of human nature, and a Christianity in which God does not truly exist. Shermer is right when he said science cannot contradict religion, but what he is promoting is not science. Shermer is selling an atheistic worldview decked out in the pseudo-scientific garb of materialist evolutionary theory.

The Church accepts evolution, but Shermer is being disingenuous by refusing to point out that the Vatican has specifically rejects the kind of views that he advocates in Why Darwin Matters, that is, a materialist version of evolution and a cosmology of nothing but irreducible chance and randomness, which gave rise to the laws of nature. Shermer is well aware of the following statement by Pope John Paul II: "It is clear that the truth of faith about creation is radically opposed to the theories of materialistic philosophy. These view the cosmos as the result of an evolution of matter reducible to pure chance and necessity."

On another note, Shermer wrongly states that Cardinal Schönborn, in a July 2005 NYT opinion editorial, “told Catholics that the Church does not accept evolution (p. 113).” Many people as well as Shermer have carelessly taken Cardinal Schönborn’s use of the phrase “intelligent design” as his approval of Intelligent Design theory and rejection of evolution. Cardinal Schönborn was merely rejecting any philosophy of evolution that denies purpose and design. Schönborn explains his views further in
Chance or Purpose: Creation, Evolution and a Rational Faith.

The Anthropic Principle

Shermer considers the best scientific argument that creationists and Intelligent Design theorists have in their arsenal to be the following:

“The universe is finely tuned and delicately balanced to support life. Change any number of physical parameters or initial conditions of the universe by even the tiniest amount, and life would not be possible. Fine tuning implies that there is a fine tuner, an Intelligent Designer, a God (p. 54).”

Shermer’s rebuttal, briefly stated is that the universe

(1) is not so finely tuned for life because most of the universe is empty space, and what little matter exists is inhospitable to life;

(2) we are finely tuned for the universe rather than conversely; and it is possible a different form of life could have evolved based on another physics (Sagan);

(3) our universe may not be exceptional because string theory allows for 10500 possible worlds;

(4) that until we have a unified theory of physics connecting the quantum world to the cosmic world of general relativity, “we cannot conclude that there is something beyond nature to explain the anthropic principle"; and

(5) we may live in a multiverse, in which our universe is just one of many bubble universes.

First, it is misguided to consider the anthropic principle to be a scientific argument for the existence of an Intelligent Designer. That is, astronomy and physics provide a theory about the age, constitution and expansion of the universe, but to argue that the specificity of the universe is evidence for God involves a philosophical inference from scientific evidence.

Furthermore, the specificity of the universe, which made human life possible, is not scientific proof or evidence that God created the universe for man. It is, rather, scientific evidence that is consistent with or supportive of an existing theological belief. Our scientific knowledge of cosmic origin terminates where the laws of physics and time as quantifiable break down. Thus, the Big Bang theory, as a scientific theory, cannot prove a theological viewpoint. The Big Bang is merely consistent with or supportive of the Judeo-Christian belief that the universe was created in time. In addition, many Christians, such as ID theorist Stephen C. Meyer, mistakenly equate the initial singularity with creatio ex nihilo itself.

The theological belief that God created the universe for man is part of the truth. Theologically, it is more accurate to say that creation is primarily for the glory of God, and for man's use.

Concerning Shermer’s first listed objection to the anthropic principle, I think the vast and inhospitable character of the universe is what it has to be in order for conditions to arise that are amenable to carbon-based life. Change any factor of the universe, such as its size, gravity, and so on, and life will not be possible.

Also, Shermer's objection is disingenuous. Even if the entire universe was carbon-based life friendly, Shermer would not accept the anthropic principle. He would merely dodge the issue by referring to the hypothetical possibility of numerous universes that are inhospitable to life, and claim we just happened to be the one universe that got lucky.

Christians, when considering what may be the Creator's reason for creating such a vast universe, should keep in mind that there is a purpose for the universe at the end of time, when God transforms the cosmos. This currently hidden purpose will be revealed at the end of time. The greatest cosmological transmutation or evolutionary event is yet to come. Unfortunately, this is not a subject important enough to capture the interest of materialist Shermer and his ilk. My discussion has clearly ventured out of the scientific realm and into theological speculation.

Shermer’s remaining four reasons are far too speculative and lack any supporting evidence to be considered counter-arguments to the anthropic principle. For instance, there is no evidence whatsoever for the existence of multiple universes or multi-verses, as if there could be more than one uni-verse.

As with any scientific theory, we must make the best judgement on how nature appears to us at the time. String theory, for now at least, is too theoretical. Shermer also objects to the anthropic principle by citing Hawking’s idea of spontaneous creation of tiny universes out of nothing. However, Hawking’s idea of little pop-up universes belongs in the round basket along with other metaphysical impossibilities such as the Heisenberg uncertainty principle.

One should consider whether a speculative theory about the universe is the result of genuine scientific curiosity, or is it rather the product of a desire to put one’s faith in an imaginary universe in which there is no place for God or a First Cause. (Imagine there’s no religion...)

Closing remarks

In summary, Shermer does not present any serious counter-arguments to the anthropic principle. I will continue this post with a discussion of the Darwinian error that claims the human “moral sense” is a product of evolution. This error merits extended pummeling before I lay it to rest

Recommended reading:
Creation and Evolution: A Conference With Pope Benedict XVI in Castel Gandolfo

Chance or Purpose: Creation, Evolution and a Rational Faith

last edited 08/23/09

Share This