In the last week, I’ve had two conversations with friends and colleagues about the explanatory power of evolution (particularly evolutionary psychology) and the potential explanatory reach of the scientific method. So, a few thoughts on the subject:
Evolutionary “Explanation” and the Limits of Science
It is disturbing to me how quickly modern thinkers feel comfortable making explanatory moves that are in tension with our actual experiences of the phenomena being allegedly explained. That is to say, the explanation of a phenomenon is not related to our intuitive sense of what is going on. Rather, our intuitive sense is really a smokescreen for something completely different. Take morality, for instance. Human beings have always or for the most part connected morality to ontology. The reason right is right and wrong is wrong has everything to do with actual structures and moral norms woven into the fabric of the universe. And indeed, we intuitively experience morality this way. Wrong is just wrong because it is wrong, etc. It’s ontological. Even if it were not “inefficient” to rape a dying woman in the desert, you still shouldn’t and that is obvious. And then along comes evolutionary explanations to say that the real reason we relate our moral impulses to an ontology is because it is beneficial, given the evolutionary search for survival, for human beings to relate their moral feelings to something grand and great. It would take more “energy” for evolution to “explain” to its subjects what’s really going on. And, indeed, the tendency of humans to relate their morality to an ontology is very useful for making secure the actual behavior that contributes to individual and societal preservation. If we were in on the joke, so it is argued, the survival benefits of our deception would cease to exist.
Now, let’s imagine that this is all actually possible or plausible. I don’t think that it is, but that’s not my main point here. Even if this were an option on the table, how does this become an “explanation” for the actual features of a phenomenon? Explanations which require such counter-intuitive moves require a huge burden of proof. So in this case, for instance, even if evolution could explain the origin of moral feelings, does it really explain the human tendency to relate these moral impulses to a metaphysical notion of “the Good?” This seems superfluous. If the evolutionary process is competent to make metaphysics, isn’t it competent to make creatures who are deeply motivated by simple socially pragmatic ends? Indeed, we operate in the realm of pragmatics (with no conscious metaphysical convictions) all the time. Why add “the Good” into the picture? It is not that, given a certain perspective, evolution could not produce notions of “the Good,” but (even if it could!) this does not mean that the evolutionary process actually persuasively accounts for such a notion in any unique manner. That is to say, even if evolution did produce our notion of “the Good,” the latter seems superfluous – something like a spandrel in our otherwise useful ethical impulses. Evolution more “allows for” the notion rather than “accounting” for it.
And that gets me to my main point. Why do such explanations satisfy us? If we presume metaphysical and methodological naturalism, we’re likely to find this the only available explanation. But, the irony is that such naturalism is usually said to be warranted by precisely the explanatory power of the evolutionary process. In case my verbosity causes the reader to miss the point here, that is circular, especially if there are options on the table which explain the various features of morality precisely as they are intuitively experienced. If we do not assume metaphysical naturalism (and we should not), there are possible resources available to account for our notions of “the Good” in a manner that does not require this somewhat Freudian appeal to what’s “really” going on (Dennett’s alleged “universal acid”).
Of course, this does not mean that evolution or evolutionary psychology is wrong. It just means that it is not as obviously a “sufficient” explanation as it confidently proclaims itself to be. The recent debate over the explanatory power of natural selection and evolutionary psychology between atheists Jerry Fodor and Elliott Sober suggests that this is being increasingly recognized, even in the atheist community. The speed with which modern thinkers cling to such explanations suggests to me that metaphysical naturalism is often less of a critical conclusion than an assumed victor which, consequently, must explain all phenomenon. Of course, given such a method, it only takes a little bit of creativity, an imagined environment of evolutionary selection, and a dash of skill in abstraction, to come up with an explanation for pretty much everything. Can these sorts of explanations even be falsified (a la Karl Popper)? Interestingly, another recent conversation between Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga and atheist Thomas Nagel suggest that at least some atheists sense the problem in these sorts of explanations and are re-exploring older “naturalisms” which allow a larger place for “mind.” I can imagine two reactions to this overall point:
Objection 1: “Science has produced counter-intuitive results in the past, so what wrong with that here?” First, I suspect that this is overplayed. There are many results of science which are unexpected but which do not necessarily violate what we would expect. The observations of particle physicists, for instance, can be genuinely surprising, but since we don’t experience “particles” in any conscious manner, our intuitions are not overtly violated. As well, it is worth remembering that the ancients anticipated (at least in principle) many of these modern observations. The “micro-world” was always seen to be mysterious. Many things were theorized concerning it, but it was probably always known that we knew very little and that the “small stuff” might be surprising. Probably a better example is that of heliocentrism or Newton’s laws of motion. The earth seems “central” and “stable” from our perspective, but our observations demonstrate to us that it is neither. Even here, I could imagine an argument distinguishing our phenomenological experiences from cosmic inferences. After all, even some ancients thought the earth moved! Still, I won’t try to argue that there is nothing counter-intuitive here. But even if there is, our persuasion that these counter-intuitive propositions are correct has required an extraordinary amount of evidence (and falsifiable evidence) concerning objects which are immediately or easily accessible to us.
Objection 2: “Maybe evolution does not have unique explanatory power in relation to all the features of morality, but because it has explained so many other things very well, it has been shown to be a powerful causal force in the world and so we should be disposed to accept an evolutionary explanation, even if it is not equally illuminating in all circumstances.” And now the rubber meets the road and we get to the limitations of science. In my judgment, what is almost entirely overlooked in debates over the “new atheism” is the inability of science to actually prove metaphysical propositions. And unlike evolutionary analyses of basic physical traits, human consciousness, morality, joy, aesthetics (etc) – are all perceived by said humans to have qualitative and metaphysical properties. Let us imagine, for instance, that there was an evolutionary explanation (of the “efficient causality” sort) of all observable phenomenon. I don’t find such a claim persuasive, but even if I did, it would not mitigate any notion of “final causality” in the whole process. And there is no way to get around the fact that final causality has everything to do with the particular features that various phenomenon take. See Cunningham’s delightful “Darwin’s Pious Idea” on these matters. Let’s go back to morality so that we can make this concrete. What if every moral event had a corresponding and predictable mental equation/brain-event? Would we have “mapped” morality? Would moral impulses then be reducible to the equation. Many people assume so, but this is actually very far from obvious. In most of history, notions of “quality” (justice, good, right, wrong, evil, beauty, etc) were seen as just “there.” And why should we think otherwise? Because they are always attended by predictable physical or neural correlates? Why should we expect otherwise? Perhaps we would not have guessed it, but it’s certainly not surprising. Now, this is conceding a lot, but only to make a point. Even in the “worst case scenario” for the non-naturalist – indeed, even if naturalism were right (!) – there would be no reason to be persuaded that naturalism was true. Science can only traffic in measurements and observations. It can make inferences (and ideally!) predictions. But it cannot move beyond the realm of quantity to the realm of quality – which, from a purely phenomenological perspective, is an irreducible feature of our consciousness. So to argue that science can move from that realm to explain morality, justice, goodness, God (etc), is to already assume that these things are reducible to quantities rather than being irreducibly qualitative realities. And this, my friends, is a philosophical move, and a bad one at that. If you don’t make that move, then even if naturalism were right, you could never use science to show it to be right. Indeed, to go back to the above metaphor, if naturalism is true, then it is necessarily far more clever than many atheists assume it to be. Why? Because even atheists can’t really be in on the joke and remain rational, given the phenomena that blind nature has built. If it’s true, even atheists shouldn’t be persuaded.
As an antidote to this reasoning, see Herman Bavinck’s reflections on the foundational epistemic role of “self-consciousness” in his “The Philosophy of Revelation.”