An Atheistic Evolutionary Metaphysics

by Eric Steinhart

Here’s an argument for an evolutionary metaphysics: (1) Our universe is very complex and congenial (it is lawful; it starts in a low entropy state; its laws are finely tuned for the planetary evolution of life, etc.). (2) Anything that is very complex and congenial requires an explanation. (3) The best explanations for the existence of complex congenial things are evolutionary. (4) So, by inference to the best explanation, our universe is the result of an evolutionary process which tends to increase complexity and congeniality.

According to this argument, our universe is generated by a process of super-cosmic evolution. Super-cosmic evolution starts with some initial universe. This universe exists necessarily and does not depend on anything else for its existence. The initial universe produces some more complex and congenial versions of itself. Once started, this process of universe-evolution is self-sustaining and self-amplifying. Each universe in any generation produces some more complex and more congenial successor universes. These successor universes populate the next generation of universes. The result is a series of generations of universes. Here’s the rule: for every universe, for every way to make that universe more complex and congenial, there exists a successor universe that is more complex and congenial in that way. From generation to generation, the successor relation defines a growing tree of universes. As the tree grows, the universes in the tree become more complex and congenial. Eventually, our universe appears.

To avoid misunderstandings, it’s worth pointing out that this evolutionary metaphysics is not Darwinian. Universes are not organisms that make babies either asexually or sexually. There is no struggle for survival, no survival of the fittest. And, given the long pre-Darwinian history of the term “evolution”, it’s fair to use that term.

This evolutionary metaphysics posits lots of universes (lots of “cosmoi”) that come both before and after our universe. So, if this evolutionary story is true, and if the term “Cosmos” refers to our universe, then Sagan’s statement that “The Cosmos is all that is and ever was and ever will be” is false. But that’s not very relevant.

This evolutionary metaphysics is obviously highly speculative. But a Dictionary Atheist shouldn’t have a problem with that. All the Dictionary Atheist cares about is that the story doesn’t involve God. And this evolutionary metaphysics is utterly God-free. You can easily raise lots of objections to this evolutionary metaphysics. But none of those objections will flow from atheism. For atheists who don’t like this evolutionary metaphysics, the challenge is to come up with a better story (which, obviously, must explain the complexity and congeniality of our universe). Go for it.

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About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • Loree Thomas

    Why do I need to come up with ANY story? Is there some overarching necessity that I am missing somewhere?

    Unless you have some way to test your story, it is as valid as saying “god did it”.

    Which is to say not valid at all.

    By Occam’s razor, your story fails. If an initial universe necessarily exists, wouldn’t it be most parsimonious to assume THIS universe is that initial universe? And then we have no need of postulating further unknown and unknowable processes that arbitrarily spawn additional universes.

  • Eric Steinhart

    You don’t need to come up with any story. You can remain as ignorant as you please. What’s your argument that all untestable stories are equally valid, or that they are as valid as “god did it”? And what’s your argument that “god did it” is invalid? Ockham’s Razor has no relevance here.

  • Loree Thomas

    I take it you don’t like it when people don’t agree with you?

    Am I lucky that “ignorant” is the only epithet you hurled?

    I’m sorry, but making up a story isn’t gaining knowledge, unless you have a truly idiosyncratic definition of “knowledge”. So declining to accept a made up story that has no evidence and declining to invent one myself without evidence is the opposite of ignorance.

    I suppose it could be argued that thinking you’ve somehow gained knowledge when you invent a cosmology from whole cloth is a form of ignorance.

    It could boil down to nothing more than personal preference… I happen to prefer my speculations be grounded in some factual basis and you don’t.

    Maybe you feel actual facts and evidence are over rated in the pursuit of knowledge? I feel that they are essential. Without them there is no knowledge… and your musings were entirely fact and evidence free.

  • Eric Steinhart

    My apologies, I tend to be literal-minded, and I merely use the word “ignorant” as “lacking knowledge”. I have no intention of hurling epithets. Or anything else.

    Of course, I didn’t just “make up a story” — I gave an argument, which is there for you to criticize as much as you like.

  • Loree Thomas

    Now I am nonplussed.

    I don’t see how calling me ignorant is excused by you being literal minded. That seems to make it worse.

    I thought it was pretty clear from what I wrote that I also consider “ignorant” to be “lacking knowledge”. So I don’t understand why you said that at all.

    You haven’t shown that any knowledge can be gained from such baseless speculation.

    Now I don’t know you at all, but I’m beginning to get the feeling that you have a problem with people who lack a belief in any god… so before we go further, where do you stand on the existence of a god?

  • plover

    Eric and Daniel, I have found your exchange over the past several posts quite fascinating — though for each of your arguments, I find a portion compelling and another portion quite frustrating. (Hm, that’s the same response I remember having to Daniel’s argument in his bout of — as he put it in an earlier thread — shameless self-promotion at John Wilkins’s site, which, in a roundabout fashion, is why I’m here now. So, um, yay shameless self-promotion?)

    I may have to write a longer response to some other parts of this discussion, but for now I just want to make a few remarks on the cosmological argument above.

    First, the physics. Is this intended to be a generalized description of Lee Smolin’s argument? If so it seems to be missing a crucial piece. As I understand it, his argument depends on the idea that parameter values that make a universe more congenial to life also make it more likely to spawn new universes. Without this, the rule “for every universe, for every way to make that universe more complex and congenial, there exists a successor universe that is more complex and congenial in that way,” seems to come out of nowhere. Do you have a way to motivate that rule other than Smolin’s?

    Now, the metaphysics.

    (3) The best explanations for the existence of complex congenial things are evolutionary.

    All things? Even things that “[do] not depend on anything else for … existence”? Evolutionary explanations explain complexity in a context of causation, something we do not possess for our cosmos as a whole. What kind of thing is the universe? Does it depend on anything else for existence? And if it does, does it need an evolutionary process to supply complexity? Or is complexity inevitable in any actually creatable universe?

    Without knowing what the universe is — as opposed to knowing what it looks like from inside — how do we know if it is the sort of complex thing that requires an evolutionary explanation? (Note that I’m not saying it’s inconceivable that we might someday have knowledge that would count as being about what the universe “is”, just that we don’t seem to at the moment.)

    Presuming some way of knowing the relevant parameters, a random mechanism of universe generation and a sufficient quantity of universes is enough to make any degree of congeniality plausible.

    There is, apparently, an argument that our universe is actually minimally congenial, which if sustainable, would lend, at best, equal support to a random explanation and an evolutionary one. (At least, I can think of conditions where it might support the random explanation more, but not vice versa.)

    As you said above, Ockham’s razor is not necessarily relevant. But in order to favor a particular speculation — as the overarching argument that an evolutionary metaphysics is a good replacement for God seems to require — it is necessary to have some method of choosing among speculations. Do you have a way of choosing between a random mechanism and an evolutionary mechanism that does not require adding more structure to the universe than is required by the metaphysical speculations on their own? (And this is, of course, leaving aside all the other possible speculations.)

    In any case, I have no objection to an evolutionary cosmology as speculation. I suppose the fact there exists such a speculation even supports the literal notion that (emphasis added) “Every question that used to be answered by appealing to God can be answered by appealing to some form of evolution.” (source) But, as it stands, I see no reason why the argument here supports the notion that (emphasis added) “at the present time the very strongest arguments are arguments for evolutionary metaphysics.” (source)

    In general, I think such metaphysical speculation is a useful tool for clarifying the space of possibilities that remains when the more traditional notions of creator gods are jettisoned.

  • George W.

    I have no issue (other than personal abject ignorance)with metaphysics. I think ultimately it is a useful tool for forming useful (and hopefully testable) hypotheses about our cosmic origins.

    The issue I think many of us are having, Eric, is the attitude of your posts that in the absence of alternative theories one must capitulate to any logical alternative offered. Though I agree that your theory as stated does not contradict any part of my atheist worldview- I am equally cognizant of the fact that it isn’t established in my worldview either.

    Let’s consider a fictional conversation between three philosophers 600 years ago concerning the formation of stars in the heavens.
    The first philosopher, postulates that stars were created by God some 6000 years prior. (yes, I understand this would be pre-Ussher)
    The second claims with equal certainty that stars were formed by a once giant Mega-star, a giant ball of burning charcoal that exploded many years prior.

    Our third philosopher claims that there are fundamental particles, or elements, in our universe that are drawn together by natural forces that govern their interaction- and these large masses of elements burn in a chemical reaction- thus creating stars.

    Neither philosopher #2 or #3 would seem to contradict a fictional (and historically, highly unlikely) atheist observer listening to the three cases. Given the knowledge available at the time- one would be tempted to throw more weight behind philosopher #2- given that his explanation seems more parsimonious and in line with all available facts.
    Realistically though, most contemporary observers would lean strongly toward the first philosophers explanation- given that God seems the still more parsimonious in lieu of any information that might back up each of the competing theories. My example could just as easily postulated three philosophers with equally far fetched explanations that all-we now know-are false instead of the last one being generally true.

    This is the problem with your assertions for the atheist are twofold. First, as atheists are generally skeptics, the idea of holding to any view without evidence seems contrary to our skeptical constitution. Second, the idea that we ought to assume any logically contingent explanation ought to suffice in lieu of evidence to the contrary seems suspiciously like apologetics.

    I am always fascinated by metaphysical conjecture, but I am also well aware that it elegantly lays bare just how much we still do not know. By insisting that someone ought to accept conjecture merely on ignorance, you are asking me to do exactly what it is you accuse Sagan of, that I ought to have faith.

  • George W.

    Sorry, I needed to proof-read that before posting, but I think you get the idea…

  • James Sweet

    The need to put an overarching thematic story onto everything is a human one; the universe doesn’t give a shit. The lamentation that “history is merely one damn thing after another” is not so far from the truth. We can and do find themes, but they do not apply universally, and there’s no reason there has to be theme — whether we’re talking about the history of civilization, or the history of the universe.

    That said, it does seem that evolution via some sort of selection plays quite a dominant role in making things the way they are. In a sense that’s almost a tautology: The things that tend to stick around, there’s more of ‘em, you see. That’s true whether we are talking about E. coli or planets with stable orbits (though of course life’s ability to engage in descent with modification allows far more complexity than any other type of evolution allows). It’s a powerful mode of thinking, and seems to have great explanatory power.

    What I don’t get is why you are tying this to metaphysics. As near as I can tell, you’re basically describing some variant of multiverse theory here… which may be true, but why invoke metaphysics? It’s a possible prediction of testable physical theories, and while it may turn out to be untestable itself, that doesn’t make it some weird faith-creed thing.

    At some point in the distant future, the universe will be expanding so rapidly tat the galaxies will be moving away from each other faster than the speed of light. Hypothetical future astronomers in some far flung civilization will see only stars in their own galaxy. Some very smart people might posit that there are actually many galaxies, even if they cannot ever be observed, and even if the prediction turns out to be ultimately untestable.

    Does that make the existence of other galaxies a metaphysical philosophy?! I dunno, that’s just weird to me.

    I guess I don’t have much of a problem with the literal words of your post here, but there are two things that bother me: One is the continuing undertone of “why do popular atheists have a problem with this metaphysics”? It’s weird that you are doing that, and I don’t get it. The second is that you are basically pitching multiverse theory via argument by analogy, when there are sound reasons rooted in modern physics to posit it anyway. You simply can’t justify the multiverse idea by saying, “Hey there, all the complexity we see around us, whether it be life, solar systems, galaxies, superclusters, etc., it all comes about by some form of evolution. So it must be our inverse got there by some type of evolution too!” That kind of reasoning can generate hypotheses, and hell, you can even choose to believe that sort of thing if it makes you happy, but it’s a pretty weak argument (much weaker than the arguments from popular atheists you are attacking, I think!)

  • Eric Steinhart

    I’ve never advertised evolutionary metaphysics as a faith-creed thing. But Dan is worried that it is a faith-creed thing. I’m not.

    The hypotheses people have developed to explain our universe (and its complexity, etc.) are not testable — none of them. They aren’t scientific theories, and it’s traditional to say that they are metaphysical theories.

    You’re right that evolutionary metaphysics is based on an analogy. The only question is whether its superior to the theistic designer analogy.

    And there are plenty of atheists who will say: “Oh no, there aren’t any other universes! That goes against my naturalism. Our universe is all that exists.” Of course, multiverse theories are becoming more widely known and more widely accepted by atheists.

    • Daniel Fincke

      I’ve never advertised evolutionary metaphysics as a faith-creed thing. But Dan is worried that it is a faith-creed thing. I’m not.

      No, I’ve not said that. I said that it would be absolutely inevitably be perceived as a faith-creed thing if you went ahead and presented it as an identity marker (as you said in suggesting you want to be called an “evolver” or “evolutionist” instead of atheist) and if you forefronted the idea that evolution is an all-purpose God replacement concept. The theists would have every incentive to reduce your hypothesis to “new faith” status and a general public which treats all speculation as mere arbitrary faith-assertion would consider your ideas exactly that. Effectively it would neutralize any higher ground of rigorous science and rigorous epistemological standards for assent in the public mind and make atheists people who clinged over-strongly to one highly speculative and dubious metaphysics rather than the standard ones.

      Thirdly if you want to base your identity around a metaphysical concept that is highly speculative, that involves committing yourself to a possibility with greater strength than its certainty warrants. That puts you in faith-creed territory. Holding and exploring speculative notions is fine as long as you don’t go all-in on them when they’re merely speculative. That’s the mistake of faith.

    • Daniel Fincke

      And there are plenty of atheists who will say: “Oh no, there aren’t any other universes! That goes against my naturalism. Our universe is all that exists.” Of course, multiverse theories are becoming more widely known and more widely accepted by atheists.

      And this is why I object so strongly to the false equivalence between atheists and people of faith. Regardless of whether some atheists make some given false assumption or overestimate the certainty of a position, there is no principled, volitional reason that they would not change their mind if given the evidence. So they err on the side of too much skepticism. That might lead to mistakes of thought that are attributable to over-caution, but certainly not ones attributable to faith. And it is really unfair to give credence to the notion that the are.

  • James Sweet

    You’re right that evolutionary metaphysics is based on an analogy. The only question is whether its superior to the theistic designer analogy.

    Heh, that’s setting the bar awfully low, isn’t it? :p

    I guess I see your point. I think that the way you are arguing for it is not particularly defensible, but I think there are much more defensible arguments.

    We actually don’t know 100% for sure that multiverse theory is not testable. Certainly it is a prediction that stems from testable hypotheses, and that’s a lot better than just some made up thing or a mere argument by analogy. It may be untestable; it may not be. It is too soon to say, I think. I think it’s a mistake to just throw up ones arms and say, “Untestable! I will believe whatever I want!”

  • Wazaghun

    Frankly i see no sense in your argument above.
    No need to speculate if that speculation doesn’t provide us with a good hypophesis or theory.
    Any theory or hypophesis that can’t possibly be falsified (or even verified) doesn’t deserve the name theory.
    Which leaves us with “blind” speculation. No need for that.

    Here a small argument in 30 seconds time. (Yes i am sure one can find errors in it ;-) )

    1) Something nessessarily exists (base premise of most philosophers today)
    2) This something “predates” this universe as we see it today including the big bang (lets not discuss the “when did time come into being for a moment).
    3) At the time of the big bang all currently valid physical laws break down.
    4) Thus (with 3) being beings of this continuum we can’t possibly go back to the “something” that existed “before” the natural laws that we have now. We can’t so to speak falsify or verify the nature of any prime “cause”.
    5) Ergo:
    5a) something exists
    5b) we can’t ever make any definitive statement about that something apart of the aspect we currently inhabit.

    Your turn.

  • Adam

    What do you mean by ‘universe’ anyway?