Sunday, August 21, 2005

The Spectrum of Worldviews: How We Approach the Evidence

Why is there such a big fight over the sufficiency of the evidence for macroevolution? Much can be explained by looking at the a priori philosophical frameworks or worldviews that are the inevitable starting point from which people evaluate the scientific evidence. Unless we understand our own worldview, and respectfully try to understand those of the people with whom we disagree, there will not likely be constructive and healthy civil discourse on the various issues surrounding the theory of macroevolution and how it should be taught in school. The following spectrum is only meant to be a very simple summary of the various worldviews for a popular audience. I do not mean to imply that every person fits neatly into any one category. However, I do believe that these categories help us to understand how an individual person approaches the evidence, and what bias may be involved in that approach.

1. Rigid Theism
2. Open-minded Theism
3. Open-minded Agnosticism
4. Open-minded Materialism
5. Rigid Materialism

Rigid Theism describes a theistic worldview that constrains the way the person views the empirical evidence. Creation Science advocates generally believe that Genesis chapters one and two in the Bible must be understood as a literal six twenty-four hour day history of the creation of the earth and life on it. Because of this understanding of what the writer of Genesis intended, the Bible gives controlling guidance as to how the scientific evidence must be understood.

Open-minded Theism describes a theistic worldview that does not constrain the way the person views the empirical evidence. The person believes that there is a God who is ultimately responsible for creating the world and life on it, but that God could have used macroevolutionary processes and mechanisms to do it and could have done it over millions of years. The person might have a very conservative view of Biblical authority, but does not believe that the Bible necessarily intends to convey that God created the world in six 24 hour days.

Open-minded Agnosticism describes a worldview in which the person is has no position on whether there is a God or not, and this worldview does not constrain the way the person views the empirical evidence.

Open-minded Materialism describes a materialistic/naturalistic worldview that does not constrain the way the person views the empirical evidence. Such a person will look for an explanation that comports with a materialistic framework, but will not assume that there necessarily must be a materialistic explanation. Such a person recognizes that science has not proven that there is no God or that there is no supernatural realm, so that it is presumptuous to assume that there must be a naturalistic explanation for all phenomena.

Rigid Materialism describes a materialistic/naturalistic worldview that constrains the way the person views the empirical evidence. If such a person encounters evidence that does not fit a materialistic explanation of nature, he will develop an explanation to make the evidence fit that framework. Only a naturalistic answer is acceptable, and all evidence must fit within these starting assumptions.

* * *

What is noteworthy about the current challenge to Darwinian theory, is that most of the new challengers are Open-Minded Theists or Open-Minded Agnostics, not Rigid Theists as in the 1980's when there was a push to teach Creation Science alongside macroevolution in schools. Phillip Johnson and Michael Behe are good examples of this. Johnson stated in his book Darwin On Trial:

I believe that a God exists who could create out of nothing if He wanted to do so, but who might have chosen to work through a natural evolutionary process instead. I am not a defender of creation-science, and in fact I am not concerned in this book with addressing any conflicts between the Biblical accounts and the scientific evidence.

My purpose is to examine the scientific evidence on its own terms, being careful to distinguish the evidence itself from any religious or philosophical bias that might distort our interpretation of that evidence. I assume that the creation-scientists are biased by their precommitment to Biblical fundamentalism, and I will have very little to say about their position. The question I want to investigate is whether Darwinism is based upon a fair assessment of the scientific evidence, or whether it is another kind of fundamentalism. (p.14)

Later he stated:

I am not interested in any claims that are based upon a literal reading of the Bible, nor do I understand the concept of creation as narrowly as Duane Gish does. If an omnipotent Creator exists He might have created things instantaneously in a single week or employed means wholly inaccessible to science, or mechanisms that are at least in part understandable through scientific investigation. (p. 115)

You can read Behe's views here. Neither Johnson nor Behe are challenging Darwinian theory because their religion requires them to do so. Their religion requires only that they acknowledge God as the ultimate creator of whatever natural phenomena they observe. They are challenging macroevolutionary theory because the evidence demands it.

Many of the current proponents of macroevolutionary theory are Rigid Materialists. Richard Dawkins and Richard Lewontin are good examples of this. Lewontin has provided a very good statement of the Rigid Materialist perspective:

We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs, in spite of its failure to fulfill many of its extravagant promises of health and life, in spite of the tolerance of the scientific community for unsubstantiated just-so stories, because we have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism. It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counter-intuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, that materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door.

I provide a longer quotation, with citation, in this post. Richard Dawkins has indicated that evolution is the only possible explanation. He is very public in his commitment to promoting atheism, and his faith demands that Darwinism be true. Rigid Materialists simply cannot fathom any explanation for life on earth other than macroevolution, regardless of the evidence. How much stock should we therefore put in their evaluation of the evidence?

What should be clear from all this is that we need to look beyond who is religious and who is not. If we are going to look at anyone's worldview, we need to look at everyone’s worldview and, more importantly, how much that worldview constrains the person’s ability to evaluate the evidence objectively. It is becoming clear to the general public that the scientific establishment is not made up of neutral truth seekers, but rather individuals with their own strong biases and agendas.

I note as well that the mainstream media almost never asks proponents of macroevolution about their worldview, but very frequently comments on the worldview of its critics. This is especially ironic given the public admission by many proponents that, to a large extent, their worldview dictates how they will construe the evidence.

Many scientists would presumably insist that they are Open-Minded Materialists, Agnostics or Theists. But are they really open to doubting macroevolutionary theory? Are there other philosophical, psychological, professional, cultural or political biases that may affect their neutrality in evaluating the evidence? Looking deeper into these questions will require another post.

* * * *

Postscript: My comments are not meant to endorse any one position on the spectrum or to suggest that any one position is "better" than the others. My simple point is that many of the current leaders in questioning Darwinian theory are more neutral in approaching the evidence, and therefore more credible to the general public, than many of the prominent defenders of the theory.

Postscript 2: This post focuses on big picture worldviews, or how the person views the ultimate nature of reality. I do not discuss in this blog how "methodological naturalism" fits in, but I plan to discuss this in a future post.


At August 22, 2005 10:54 AM, Blogger Hari Narayan Singh said...

I think you overestimate the neutrality of the ID crowd. I have heard posters on more than one ID blog say that a God that doesn't intervene supernaturally, especially in the creation of life, would be a pointless God that they cannot accept.

At August 22, 2005 10:56 AM, Blogger Hari Narayan Singh said...

These aren't just commentators, by the way, but thread-starting primary posters permanently installed on the blog. Sometimes they are even the stellar intellectuals who work for the Discovery Institute.

At August 26, 2005 3:56 PM, Blogger D.Daddio Al-Ozarka said...

Great blog! Thanks for sharing this stuff!
Lawrence, your "about me" section describes my view almost exactly.

I guess I'm in the "Rigid Theism" category. I admit my faith influences my perception.

To tell you the truth, until Bush gave tribute to "ID", I had never heard much about it. Since I have learned a little about its approach, I'm a little fearful. Although it allows for a higher intelligence, it doesn't name one. That's a can of worms we don't need to open up.
If we're going to teach kids a counter to macroevolution, it may as well be in the form of a creationist point of view.
The Christian faith has been watered down enough, don't you think?

I've linked your blog, and again, thanks for sharing these great ideas!


At September 26, 2005 11:41 PM, Anonymous John said...

Very well written...

It is not clear to me why the Atheism of Dawkins and Lewontin is not considered to be a Faith (not very much different, at worst, to other kinds of Faiths -- such as Theistic Faiths)...


At November 11, 2005 5:34 PM, Blogger stewie said...

Quid pro quo - Dawkins on Behe:

SPOCK: "He's intelligent, but not experienced. His pattern indicates two-dimensional thinking..."
Kirk looks at him, smiles. [ Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan ]

First, let's be clear about something. Michael Behe has not created a "Theory of Intelligent Design" (ID). He offers no general laws, models, or explanations for how design happens, no testable predictions, and no possible way to falsify his hybrid evolution/ID hypothesis. He is simply claiming that design is a fact that is easily detectable in biochemical systems. The real science of ID is yet to come, and Behe just wants to wedge the door open a bit. So what does this magic Intelligent Design Detection Kit look like? Basically open the box and all it contains is a tweezer. Use it to pluck out any part of a system, and if the system stops functioning properly, it must be the product of design. Why? Because it proves that the system was "Irreducibly Complex" (IC) "

... But, this is real science.

At August 19, 2006 9:46 AM, Blogger Doctor Logic said...

How do you define the term "explanation"?

Isn't each candidate explanation required to predict the observed phenomena? If so, then explanations are rules of causality, making them materialistic.

This is the point of materialism, and hence your spectrum is missing the most important category. The "philosophical materialist" admits that not all things are necessarily explicable, but those things that are not explicable with laws are utterly inexplicable.

Indeed, the supernatural is just a synonym for inexplicable. As soon as the supernatural becomes explicable, it becomes natural. Therefore, the supernatural must mean inexplicable in principle, otherwise it would just be a word for as-yet-undiscovered laws (which it isn't). The supernatural explanation is a contradiction in terms. Saying that "X caused phenomenon Y where X is mysterious" is just restating the question "what is X where X causes Y?"

At November 27, 2006 9:41 PM, Anonymous Alex Altorfer said...

I am a Christian theistic evolutionist and a darwinist. Really, ID is either very bad science or no science at all. ID's "open mindedness" is closed to Karl Poppers demarcation between science and non-science. Thumbs down for Michael Behe and his empty box!

At January 08, 2007 9:06 AM, Blogger captain howdy said...

Re: Your claim that "What is noteworthy about the current challenge to Darwinian theory, is that most of the new challengers are Open-Minded Theists or Open-Minded Agnostics, not Rigid Theists as in the 1980's..."

Just so you know, these same "open-minded" theists wrote the now infamous 'Wedge Document' which says in part:

"Discovery Institute's Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture seeks nothing less than the overthrow of materialism and its damning cultural legacies"

Yeah. That sounds really open-minded to me.


Post a Comment

<< Home