Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Evolution, Philosophy, and Science

An interesting article by Jim Manzi on National Review Online on the relationship between science and conservatism. Manzi is anxious to distinguish between the facts discovered by science and the ethical and political conclusions drawn from them. Conservatives, he thinks, make the mistake of attacking science when their real target should be the philosophical conclusions drawn from science. He argues this way:

"Science has replaced religion as the pinnacle of serious knowledge in the Western world. In response, many educated people have invested scientists — and more often, popularizers of science — with the right to be taken seriously as they pontificate about morality and public policy. The argument tends to take this form: Scientific finding X implies liberal political or moral conclusion Y. Important contemporary examples include the assertions that evolution implies atheism, and the fact that CO2 is a greenhouse gas implies that we must reduce carbon emissions rapidly and aggressively."

Manzi is not quite right that science has replaced religion as the "pinnacle of serious knowledge." In the first place, there is no such thing as "serious" knowledge, anymore than there is "unserious" knowledge. There is just knowledge and its opposite, ignorance. In the second place, what science has replaced is not so much religion as philosophy. The fact that we tend to see the conflict as one between "science and religion" rather than as a disruption in the relationship between empirical science and philosophy is an indication of how unphilosophical we have become. But things are what they are, and philosophy has priority with respect to empirical science, whatever the opinions of scientists and biblical scholars.

Empirical science is not a self-defining enterprise. What makes an endeavor "scientific" is a question that is not itself scientific but rather philosophical. The possibility of the philosophical question "What makes something genuinely scientific?" is enough to establish the priority of philosophy with respect to science. It is amazing how many otherwise intelligent people fail to understand this point or fail to see its significance. Science cannot be the one source of true knowledge because science is not capable of answering the question of its own constitution. Either there is some other source of knowledge beyond (or better, prior to) science or we have no knowledge in the true sense at all.

Furthermore, if "serious knowledge" is only scientific knowledge, then we have no culturally significant answer to the question of what is science and what is not, since the question is by nature philosophical rather than scientific. Yet the question of what is truly scientific is one of the most important we face, since whatever carries the blessing of "science" carries tremendous cultural clout as "true knowledge." A question of overriding significance that has no legitimate mode of answer can only be answered one way: Politically. This is the real source of the increasing entanglement of science and politics. We have eliminated any cultural space or weight to the true judge of science, philosophy, and so the task of judging science has devolved to politics.

It is interesting that Europe does not have the same sort of creation/evolution controversy that we do. Part of the reason is that they are further down the road of secularism than we are, and so are not as disturbed by the atheistic conclusions sometimes drawn from evolution. But it is also true that philosophy carries much more cultural weight in Europe than it does here. Europeans tend to judge science by philosophy rather than philosophy by science. The writings of recent Popes on the subject reflects this. JPII wrote a famous encyclical dealing with evolution in which he acknowledged the legitimacy of evolution as an explanation for the material origin of man, but firmly cautioned that it could never of itself become a total explanation of man. Man has aspects to his being that cannot possibly be explained by a material theory of evolution. Americans tended to read JPII's last point as a "religious hedge." The Pope is Catholic, after all, and so he must, for religious reasons, leave a place for God in the explanation of man. Restricted to reading the Pope's writing under either the lens of "science" or the lens of "religion", Americans of both secular and religious bent missed his point entirely. American atheists, reading it under the "science" lens, saw a half-hearted concession to science followed by an irrational appeal to faith. American religionists, reading it under the "religious" lens, saw a fatal compromise with atheist materialism followed by a half-hearted appeal to faith. But the Pope was writing neither scientifically nor religiously; he was writing philosophically. And certain philosophical facts about man are obvious and stand in judgment of science. Among these facts is the fact of science itself. Man, the creator and judge of evolutionary science, by that very fact will never have his being entirely captured by evolutionary science. This is a philosophical point that is both true and impervious to scientific criticism. Europeans, still retaining a respect for philosophy, get it; Americans usually don't.

Manzi goes on to argue that we should accept the scientific conclusions of evolution but balk at philosophical conclusions:

"I have argued at length that the philosophical claims Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and others make on behalf of evolution are unsupported by any science. This was hardly an original observation. As early as the 19th century, Anglican theologian Aubrey Moore made the same basic point in a different way, and many, many others have made it since. Most major religious denominations in the Western world accept evolution as a scientific finding.

Evolution is a scientific paradigm of immense beauty, power, and practical significance, but it doesn’t really tell us much about the existence of God. The theory of evolution assumes pre-existing building blocks — everything evolves from something else — and therefore leaves the First Cause problem unaddressed. As far as we can tell, all scientific findings will have this problem."

Notice that Manzi starts out talking about philosophical claims, then refers to their scientific support, and finally ends by saying that many religious denominations accept evolution. This is a natural way of expressing the American view that we must judge philosophy by science rather than vice versa, and that religion and philosophy name the same rather than different intellectual modes. We must use science to judge philosophy because it is only science that gives us true knowledge. Since neither religion nor philosophy are science, both are sources of opinion rather than knowledge, and as opinion they are indistinguishable. So Americans tend to use the words philosophy and religion interchangeably, and judge both by science.

Evolution doesn't tell us much about God because it is not about God, but about man. The point of thinkers like Dawkins and Dennett is that evolution can give us a complete explanation of man, in the fullness of his being, within the confines of material causation. God may or may not be necessary as a remote first cause, but he is an utter irrelevance when it comes to understanding man, his nature, and his destiny. This is just the point disputed by JPII that Manzi seems happy to concede. And if we are ultimately concerned about ethics and politics, it is man in his nature and destiny that we need to know, whatever the final nature of the First Cause. If that nature and destiny are fully explained by evolution, then Dawkins and Dennett are right that evolution must be the ground of all ethical and political thought.

There is an ambiguity in Manzi's second paragraph that is typical of those not sure of the relationship between science and philosophy. He writes that the theory of evolution leaves the "First Cause problem unaddressed." And so it does. But he does not ask the natural follow-on questions: What does address the First Cause problem? What sort of answers does it give? The First Cause problem is a metaphysical problem; that is, it is a pure question of philosophy. And philosophically, we know more than merely that "as far as we can tell, all scientific findings will have this problem." We know that all scientific findings must have this problem, by their very nature. The "as far as we can tell" is a hedge by someone afraid to judge science by philosophy.

The ambiguity continues in the next paragraph where Manzi writes "Just as science can’t answer moral questions, it’s of limited use in the field of politics." This is a strange way to begin the paragraph in any case, since the First Cause problem just referred to is not a moral question but a metaphysical one. In any case, Manzi avoids the natural question: If science can't answer moral questions, just what can answer moral questions? Traditionally, the answer to that question was "philosophy", including philosophy as occasionally enlightened by religion. But that answer is not available to those who think that only science gives true knowledge. Manzi does not ask the question because the answer is unpalatable: If science can't answer moral questions, then nothing can truly answer moral questions.

Manzi winds up with the following:

"Conservatives would feel a lot less threatened by science if they were more engaged with it. De-mystification of science would be a good thing for all concerned. Science is a very practical discipline. It enables the development of reliable rules that we can employ to do things like build airplanes and develop medicine. In the end, we grant science authority because airplanes generally stay up. Pretension and prestige aside, science is a first cousin to engineering, but a very distant relation to philosophy."

I heartily agree that demystification of science would be a good thing. The first thing to demystify is the unfounded belief that science is the one and only source of knowledge. It is a measure of how far we have come (or gone) that Manzi finds philosophy only a very distant relation to science. At one time, knowledge was holistic and empirical science was considered to be a part of philosophy, "natural philosophy." No one felt "threatened" by science because everyone understood the place of science in the vision of human knowing as understood by philosophy. And science was granted authority for the only reason that any intellectual endeavor should be granted authority, because it is true. Now philosophy and science have split, being only distant relations barely speaking to each other. And since science is no longer led by its rightful guide, philosophy, it is led by a less understanding master - politics.


Anonymous said...


Thanks for the extremely thoughtful commentary.

I suspect we agree a lot more than it seems like. It would have been more precise for me to say explicitly that science "has come to be seen" as the pinnacle of serious knowledge. I also agree that "what make something scientific" is a philosophical question - in fact it is one in which I have an obsessive interest.

I have a related article coming out in NRO tomorrow that may make some of my views on that a little clearer.

Best regards,
Jim Manzi

David said...


I appreciate your kind words and your visit to my obscure corner of the web. I look forward to reading your next article.

I'm in the middle of writing a commentary on your June 2 article in the hardcopy NR, which I will post shortly.