Evolutionary Metaphysics is not Faith

by Eric Steinhart

I’ve advanced this thesis in some previous posts: every question that used to be answered by appealing to God can be answered better by appealing to some form of evolution.

It’s hard for me to understand why that slogan would be a matter of faith. The fact that some thesis is speculative or metaphysical doesn’t entail that it’s a matter of faith. I affirm the existence of the entire iterative hierarchy of pure sets – the entire system of purely abstract Platonic mathematical objects. I believe that system exists because of arguments based on evidence, such as the Indispensability Argument, as well as a variety of other arguments. Those arguments are not without controversy. They may well be wrong. But surely my belief in the system of mathematical objects is not faith.

The best that any of us can do is to go with the stronger arguments. Those arguments are often inductive and thus highly speculative. Science is speculative. It would be hard to find any theories more speculative than our very best current physical theories. Does that mean that physics is based on faith? Surely not. Science goes with the stronger arguments. And it goes with the stronger arguments even when those arguments lead to contradictions – like the contradictions between quantum mechanics and the relativity theories.

An evolutionary metaphysics, justified by arguments grounded in evidence, is not faith. It’s going with the stronger argument. Of course, it isn’t certain, and it may well be wrong. But that hardly makes it a matter of faith. I’ll stand by my claim: every question that used to be answered by appealing to God can be answered better by appealing to some form of evolution. And I’ll also stand by the claim that at the present time the very strongest arguments are arguments for evolutionary metaphysics.

To be sure, evolutionary metaphysics need not be Darwinian. It need not be some sort of blind random struggle for survival. Evolutionary metaphysics is not a branch of biology. Darwinian evolution is merely one rather local form of evolution. It’s just plain silly to equate all forms of evolution with Darwinism. There are many varieties of evolution. At the deepest levels, evolution might be entirely purposive and progressive.

And why would an evolutionary metaphysics have any trouble at all with an ultimate original object? One can easily run a modal cosmological argument (that is, the Third Way) to the following conclusion: there necessarily exists an ultimate independent utterly simple object from which all other objects evolved. The only problem with the modal cosmological argument is the conclusion that the ultimate object is God. It isn’t. But what is it? Perhaps it’s the empty universe – the mereological zero.

But perhaps the deeper worry is that, even if evolutionary metaphysics is a matter of rigorous abstruse logic for analytic philosophers like me, it will just look like another dumb-ass religion to the average person. Especially to those Crazy Christian Conservatives. And then we atheists will have lost the epistemic high ground. Alas, it’s hard to take that worry seriously.

Popular atheism in America celebrates versions of naturalism, materialism, empiricism, and so on, that are often based on weak arguments or even on no arguments at all. Popular atheism in America is already faith – and I’m sympathetic to the Christians who refer to it as such. Unfortunately, popular atheism is often just as scientifically illiterate and closed-minded as the worst Christianity. I love it when an atheist tells me that our universe is all that exists. I like to ask: How do you know? What’s your argument? And I have yet to meet a single atheist who can answer those questions.

Culturally, atheism is a way station on the way from one religion to another. Atheism in the West is a sign that Christianity is being replaced by other religions. It isn’t a sign that religion is ending. It’s perfectly fine with me if new religions emerge (or if older Western religions come back to life). Atheism means I don’t believe in the theistic deity, which means that I’m not a Christian theist. It doesn’t mean that I’m not religious or even that I’m not Christian. I often identify as a Christian atheist – that is, as an especially intense type of protest-ant against American Christianity. It is an identity I highly recommend, precisely because its paradoxicality forces people to think.

One of the new religious movements is known as religious naturalism. Perhaps it’s just another earth-centered spirituality. Or, in its more metaphysical forms, it’s a type of religiosity focused on the glory of the cosmos. Most religious naturalists adherents are highly scientific. Many religious naturalists are non-theists. But they are also value the social, emotional, and aesthetic aspects of life. I note that even Dawkins, in the opening chapters of The God Delusion, endorses something like religious naturalism.

Some sort of neo-paganism is probably the religious future of the West. It certainly won’t be Christian, it may not even be theistic. And, someday, the religious belief in personal gods will probably be replaced by other religious beliefs. Maybe the future of American religion is already unfolding at Burning Man. Maybe the future of religion will be centered around playing The Glass Bead Game. Or giving tiny ornate gifts to strangers. Or factoring numbers into their primes. Religious intuitions change. The future of religion is probably as incomprehensible to us as a computer would be to a Medieval peasant. And I’ll be happy if future religion is more ethically and cognitively positive. If it’s indeed true that most people need religion, then I’d prefer that they have some non-theistic religion. I’d prefer that they have a religion in which there is no supreme fascist.

This guy Michael Dowd is an evangelist for evolution. One of the things he does is show kids how to make necklaces with “evolution beads”. If anything surpasses and replaces Christianity, I’ll bet it’ll be something like his evolutionary spirituality. And it’ll probably be non-theistic. Would that be bad? Why? Should atheists oppose it? Why?

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.

  • Daniel Fincke

    I will have a pair of posts addressing new issues, primarily from one paragraph, but just two make abundantly clear for the record where I stood in my recent challenge which you are at least in part rebutting above:

    Whatever the metaphysical correctness and/or practical potential of an evolutionary metaphysics, my chief objection is to framing it as a replacement for God and treating it as an identity marker. Evolutionary thinking may serve both these roles but there are drawbacks you seem to underestimate. I already conceded that doing speculative metaphysics is not the same thing as adopting faith positions. But that distinction is utterly lost on the public and we need to deal with that reality rather than pretend it does not exist.

    The public already thinks of God stuff as entirely wishy washy and subjective. If you contrast evolution as a competitor metaphysical principle to replace God as a metaphysical principle you will get evolution associated with “the entirely wishy washy and subjective”. The struggle to get even the hard facts of evolution by natural selection accepted by the public as not a matter of contestable opinion is enormous. You would hurt that struggle by then mixing speculative metaphysical evolutionary theories, which are connected to an identity/religious movement, into the public consciousness.

    Look at the real landscape and the existing enemies of evolution and the existing state of ignorance and scientific illiteracy of the general public, and tell me how they won’t seize on opportunity and win that propaganda war?

    To your point about wanting religions that are ethically and cognitively positive—I couldn’t agree more. But even if evolution is the route to go in substance, it would make terrible PR to make it the slogan and to let the speculative dimension threaten to water down the hard science dimension of evolutionary thinking in the public mind.

    I don’t think that taking a hard line epistemological stance as our basic principle and identifier is at all incompatible with also promoting the growth of religious practices. It’s risking letting metaphysical speculation that, however interesting and worth exploring, is not knowable with any high degree of probability turn into religious beliefs. That’s not only bad for atheism, it’s bad for metaphysics, and bad for religion. (For precedent, see Christianity’s misfortunate history of dogmatizing previously good metaphysical speculations into impediments to advancing knowledge).

  • Daniel Fincke

    I think most of my anxieties would be allayed if you went with the other word most commonly used for this kind of metaphysics rather than “evolution”. Just call it “Process Atheism” or something to that effect.


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