Evolving Thoughts

Evolution, culture, philosophy and chocolate! John Wilkins' continuing struggle to come to terms with impermanence... "Humanus sum, nihil humanum a me alienum puto" - Terence

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Aid and comfort and credit where none is due

Recently there has been a bit of a kerfuffle about Michael Ruse, the author of many books on Darwinism and design, releasing to William Dembski the private email of Daniel Dennett. Now there is a very bad Op-Ed piece in the Grauniad. Pharyngula, Evolution Blog, and Pulp Adair dispose of this, so I won't, here.

But I wonder what it is that Ruse and Dennett are doing, exactly? Ruse appears to be giving the Intelligent Design movement way more credit than it is due, intellectually. Is it just that there's nothing much else about that interests him and he's bored? Or is it that he is being funded to do so? Or what? I mean, the ID movement isn't even as intellectually significant as the execrable Kalam Cosmological Argument and that gets precious little coverage. So why?

Dennett on the other hand appears to be arguing some potentially reasonable views that I think are just unsupported by simple appeals to evolutionary biology. And here is where the rubber meets the road, so to speak. [Disclaimer: I haven't read his book or Dawkins' yet, and may not for some time.] Biology may explain religious belief, or it may not completely explain it and leave some of the explanatory work to be done by the social sciences. But no matter what, so far as I can tell evolution doesn't require atheism. In fact, I would argue that it cannot. There are no conclusive arguments either for or against the existence of any or all gods. At best we have rational bets based on priors and personal preferences.

Why do people insist on making an ideology out of a scientific theory? I mean, I can understand that ID is an ideology - it is precious little else (there is certainly no explanatory power in the Designer). And I know that ID is opposed to a scientific theory. That doesn't mean we have to go out of our way to accept the way in which ID and religious claims in general frame the debate. That would be like allowing the defendant to set the rules of the trial.

Ruse's project is unclear to me, even after reading a number of his recent books. If he's arguing that evolution is sometimes used as a religion, sure. That much was obvious in the 1860s. If he's arguing that religion can coexist with evolution, fine. Some obviously can't, but rational religions revise their views in the light of facts. What else?

Ruse appears to think that there is an ideological movement called "Darwinism". I'm not sure why, apart from the tendency of historians and philosophers to reify abstract positions with labels that have capital letters. There have been any number of people who have called their views "Darwinism" - I'm thinking of the despicable views in the early 20thC of Benjamin Kidd and John B. Haycraft - but calling it "Darwinism" doesn't make it so. The term has also been employed in many contexts within science, usually to mean just an emphasis on natural selection. But there are people in the evolutionary field whose views differ enough from other people I would call Darwinian that we need a more differentiating name than "Darwinism". Gould and Eldredge tried to revive some terms of Darwin's student George Romanes used against Weismann and Wallace: "ultra Darwinian" and "neo Darwinian". Dennett and Dawkins appear to enjoy being so tarred. Fine. Even this phrasing is insufficient to bring out the actual nuances in the debates.

What is not the case is that the evolutionary theories of biology have much to do with the metaphysical theories of ID or the Double Ds. Dawkins and Dennett generalise the theory to give analogies outside its biological domain, and interpret it to give support to their own metaphysics. At best, though, evolution removes one or a few of the prior objections to being atheist. It doesn't in any way give a positive reason to be atheist. And to argue with the IDevotees is to give them credit they haven't earned. Philosophically, everything they offer was demolished over a century ago. Politically, they need to be opposed, because they would introduce into science a failed epistemology. But there's no philosophical meat there.

Ruse is on track to end up like Steve Fuller - although unlike Fuller he doesn't think ID is science, by giving it the credence he does, he is perilously close to the sort of epistemic nihilism that Fuller espouses. Either science is the best way of knowing about the natural world, in which case ID is bankrupt and not worth dignifying, or it isn't, and Ruse's entire corpus is based on a mistake.

The third way is to say that a scientific theory, like evolution, must be assessed in its own right, and not in terms of how it affects the religious or irreligious (or the artistic community, or political thinkers, or...). Let Dennett be an atheist - I'm not bound to follow because I accept the validity of evolutionary biology. Let Ruse engage the religious objections to science; it's a field of its own intrinsic interest. But let's not think that the science actually supports either viewpoint. That way lies Dancing Wu Li Masters, Deepak Chopra and other such new agey nonsense.

I have met both of these guys, briefly. Dennett and Ruse both seem to be nice people (and so are they all honourable men), although they are as opinionated as the territory requires of its alpha males (but rarely, have you noticed, the alpha females?). And both are significant figures. But neither define this debate for all the press coverage. And what on earth was Ruse thinking in giving that master of prevarication and obfuscation, William Dembski, private emails?