There’s that word again

Another schism has broken out in the Church of Evolution

Like other scientists commenting on this “tit-for-tat” dispute between Wilson and Dawkins, Koentges also detects the old struggle between those who focus purely on the gene and those who see it as “an anthropological insult to our own feeling of self-belief”.

Nobody talks about “belief” in the existence of oxygen, or E=MC2, or hydraulics. But in two very specific areas–evolution and climate change–the language of faith (and heresy) is routinely deployed.

I wonder why.

  • quasimodo

    “Nobody talks about “belief” in the existence of oxygen, or E=MC2, or hydraulics.”

    True, but fugacity is inscrutable and unknowable. It is the soul of obfuscation. Yet it is settled science.

    Luddite.

    • Harpy

      Wow. Where to start? First – ending with a personal insult is seldom a great way to leave people with the idea that you know what you are talking about.

      Second – “…fugacity is inscrutable and unknowable. It is the soul of obfuscation.” I find it interesting that you use the word “soul” here, and then accuse someone else of being a Luddite. But that is really an aside.

      In many fields it is common to use a simplified model when it is “good enough”, and to leave out complex behavior, or mechanisms that we don’t know *presently*. For you to assume that we will never have an “ab initio” calculation that will account for the discrepancy is, at a minimum, short-sighted. Even a simple Google search will result in many papers that describe mechanisms that contribute to the difference between the chemical potential in an ideal vs. real gas. This has nothing to do with using the “language of belief”. Your comparison is nearly a non-sequitur.

      What Mark is getting at (I think), is that there are few areas of scientific endeavor where scientists on one side of the isle are *so invested* in their theory that they try to shut down their opponents by using the “language of belief” as opposed to data. The problem with a number of fields (climate & evolution in this case) is the simple fact that correlation does not imply causation. This is not to say that we can’t know something about these areas – but some of the sweeping “grand theories” are simply don’t have the kind of data necessary to infer causality – at least to a level that precludes competing theories.

      Now people sometimes will abuse that by dismissing a theory as “just a theory” which is silly, but there are legitimate competing theories regarding long-term climate impact and long-term evolution. For scientists to resort to defending their work by trying to bully lay people into excoriating those scientists who are putting forward competing theories with the “language of belief” is just as crazy as the lay people who try to leverage casual uncertainty in the long-term theories to put forward unsupported extrapolations into the currently accepted theories that apply to shorter time frames.

      I’ll end by mangling a quote attributed to Pascal – If I had more time, I would have written a shorter comment.

  • Will

    I do not see any problem. They are generally in agreement, but disagree about some of the details. This is about piecing together a puzzle.

    • ivan_the_mad

      Oh my no. This is much larger than “some of the details”. It must be remembered that evolution isn’t a theory so much as a synthesis of theories, and this argument substantially impacts several of these theories. And that’s fine – that’s how science works. The “problem” isn’t that these theories aren’t immutable, it is (from this blog’s perspective) the language of faith used to discuss them.

      • Will

        Oh my get over it. Someone deals with different scientists (perhaps different science?) that the rest of us.

        • ivan_the_mad

          I’m sorry you had so little to start with that you’ve resorted to an ad hominem already.

  • Cinlef

    Nobody talks about “belief” in the existence of oxygen, or E=MC2, or hydraulics. But in two very specific areas–evolution and climate change–the language of faith (and heresy) is routinely deployed.
    ___________________________________________________________

    Surely the fact that in both cases there are vocal minorities of scientists and laypeople who dispute the truth of the latter two is the primary reason one talks about belief in climate change or evolution. Was there a “oxygen is non-existent” movement of equivalent size we’d soon find ourselves talking about whether one believes in oxygen

    • Mark Shea

      So then, you are saying that science *should* cede the ground to faith whenever an ignorant person starts talking loudly? I thought science was about demonstrating documentable facts, not about shouting down ignorami with decretals.

      • Irenist

        Can’t speak for Cinlef, but it seems to me that although it is obviously inadvisable as a prescriptivist to think that scientific speakers of English *should* cede ground, it is an unfortunate matter of descriptive linguistic fact that scientists, when speaking to the public, often *do* use the misleading shorthand of “belief” when talking about otherwise largely settled science disputed by what Cinleaf correctly calls “vocal minorities.” It’s like the more pleasant case of heliocentric astronomer still speaking of “sunrise”: even PhD’s are creature of habit.

        • Cinlef

          Thank you for clarifying my point in what is almost certainly a more eloquent fashion than I’d have been capable of

  • Will

    Sorry that some scientists disagree about the details of the puzzle. Perhaps some of those here, who have all of the answers, could help.

    • Mark Shea

      It’s not about scientists hashing out detail. I get that science is a deliberative process. I have no particular problem with evolution. I’m not a fundamentalist. I’m simply struck by how often the language of faith is used in discussions of evolution and climate change.

      • Hezekiah Garret

        I’m struck by how several read your post, completely ignored anything you were actually trying to communicate, and then rushed in to assure you that some point you hadn’t even implied was, at best, dead wrong.

        Most scientists I know are careful fellows. I guess these are fanboys of the real thing?

      • http://austrolibertariancatholic.wordpress.com Martial Artist

        Mark,

        I think a part of your being

        struck by how often the language of faith is used in discussions of evolution and climate change…</blockquote) is attributable to the fact that neither the "science of evolution" nor the "science of climate change" have advanced to the degree that they are deterministic. This is due, at least in part to the fact that both are currently descriptive, very thoroughly so, and climate change largely so.

        What I mean by this is that no investigator can specifiy a quantitative relationship (stated alternatively, a forecast) of how either will progress. Climatology comes closer to being quantitative, but the number and types of interactions and the lack of proven deterministic relations (i.e., numerical equations specifying the degree to which a change in the quantity of any component will affect the behavior of the system as a whole), is not precisely known. This is complicated by the fact that the spatial extent of the variables is immense compared to the number of measurement points where the valuables of all variable can be precisely specified. Climatology is a statistical science and one which involves simultaneous solutions to a system of many partial differential equations, for many of which there is no known mathematical solution—in other words, given values for all the variables, we still don’t know what the solution to the equation is. All of the solutions are computer approximations to how the weather and the climate actually “work.”

        Therefore, any particular climatologist either believes, or does not believe, the prediction (as uncertain as it is). Think about the accuracy of simple weather predictions for a specific area (Seattle or Puget Sound). Now, tell me when (day:hour:min) the weather (at my street address) is going to change from its current state to a different state and what that different state will be (with reasonable exactitude). If you are precisely correct, you will have been extremely fortunate. So fortunate that I would suggest you start following any hunches you have on a winning lottery number.

        Now consider that the level of uncertainty in the climate change models is greater than that in the weather forecasting models, for a number of reasons.

        Pax et bonum,
        Keith Töpfer

      • Will

        I guess I do not understand what you are saying. A true scientist collects and studies data. Most scientists will admit they have limited knowledge of what they study, but form what they understand to be the most reasonable conclusions. They will admit that their conclusions are fair game for someone who has studied the date. The problem is that people who have not spent one minute studying an area of science, let alone years, can proclaim anything they want.

        • Mark Shea

          You’re right. You don’t.

          • Will

            I guess you do not care.

            • Mark Shea

              No. I’m just extremely busy and hope my delphic replies will prompt you to re-read previous remarks rather than me re-writing things I’ve already said.

  • Irenist

    People talk about “belief” in theories that are *socially* controversial. Evolution by natural selection is not controversial among biologists; it is considered fact. Anthropogenic climate change is not so settled–there are a few dissenters–but the consensus of nearly all climatologists find it uncontroversial as well. However, both of these theories are controversial among laypeople in a way that the equation e=mc^2 is not. If a group of people happened to believe in a flat Earth, and were culturally prominent in some region of the U.S., people would be more likely to fall into the shorthand of “belief” when discussing the roundness of the Earth.

    As for the article itself, I agree with Will that it describes only a disagreement about details between two biologists who agree on the essentials of evolution by natural selection. As for Dawkins in particular, although his bloviations about theology are sophomoric, I understand that the theoretical contribution he made with his concept of the “selfish gene” is as real and praiseworthy as his sociological concept of the “meme” is shallow and unhelpful.

    A final point of possible interest: admirable Aquinas admirers like Mike Flynn and Edward Feser often remind us of how modern science gets into trouble sometimes by failing to recognize formal and final causality alongside efficient and material causality. The linked article states that “the central problem is the impossibility of defining “fitness”,” and later that “[t]here is no such thing as a good or bad gene.” I fear I know scarcely more biology than Dawkins knows theology, but I have a hunch that perhaps the lack of a more robust conception of final causality is what has made this particular theoretical dispute over details so intractable.

    • The Deuce

      I understand that the theoretical contribution he made with his concept of the “selfish gene” is as real and praiseworthy as his sociological concept of the “meme” is shallow and unhelpful.

      Actually, his “selfish gene” concept is incoherent too, even if it doesn’t as obviously and directly make the same mess of the philosophy of mind that the “meme” concept does. Witness his confusion when asked whether the “selfishness” of genes is supposed to be literal or a metaphor for something that can be cashed out into purely mechanistic terms (his answer was that it might as well be literal, which is a head-scratcher if there ever was one).

      The linked article states that “the central problem is the impossibility of defining “fitness”,” and later that “[t]here is no such thing as a good or bad gene.” I fear I know scarcely more biology than Dawkins knows theology, but I have a hunch that perhaps the lack of a more robust conception of final causality is what has made this particular theoretical dispute over details so intractable.

      Bingo. And that’s also what makes the “selfish gene” talk vague. Concepts like fitness, selfishness, and even selection are all irreducibly teleological in nature. Scientists use them because they are intuitive when talking about life, but none of them can be attributed to a mechanistic, non-intentional process in any coherent, meaningful way. At best, they might serve as metaphorical shorthand for something mechanistic, but then you’ d have to spell out exactly what that thing is and stick to it. When you try to use these concepts to describe things, while simultaneously trying to eschew any notion of final cause, you end up with vagueness and incoherence if you try to actually define them.

      It’s also why arguments over what are supposedly only about “minor scientific details” sound so much like religious disputes that somehow involve, of all things, “an anthropological insult to our own feeling of self-belief”. It sounds like a religious dispute because it is, at least in part. What these scientists are ultimately trying to account for is not the genetic relationships and ancestry of living things, but rather the appearance of teleology or purpose that living things exhibit. This is an intrinsically philosophical/religious subject rather than a scientific one. Because of this, teleological concepts of purpose lie behind the aforementioned terms that are being bandied about here, even if they’re “officially” supposed to be purely scientific and mechanistic, and any dispute about purpose is always going to be heated.

      And since both the parties involved are dedicated to the idea that the teleological concepts in question (fitness, selection, selfishness, etc) somehow reduce to mechanism, with no trace of final or formal causes, their positions both imply the same absurd eliminative reductionism that Dawkins’ “meme” concept does if teased out sufficiently, which explains why we find them making accusations at each other regarding insults to “our feeling of self-belief” in what was supposedly a scientific dispute of minor import.

      Btw, note that the purported impossibility of defining “fitness” (in a non-teleological way) is no small matter. Natural selection itself is defined in terms of fitness. By definition, natural selection “selects” the most “fit”. If “fitness” can’t be defined, neither can natural selection!

      (Mike Flynn and Ed Feser are great recommendations on the topic of teleology, btw)

      • Deadstop

        I suspect that you can still describe natural selection without defining “fitness” as a distinct trait of an organism.

        As it was finally explained to me without teleological language in a college class, natural selection is simply the result of three phenomena that are pretty uncontroversially true:
        1) Organisms pass on some of their traits to their offspring;
        2) Different combinations of traits are passed on to different offspring;
        3) Some combinations of traits make an organism more likely to survive to reproductive age than others.

        As I understand it, at least from my mere undergraduate-level grounding in the subject (though, as noted, it took that long before I stopped hearing teleological language applied to evolution or even to chemical bonds), “fitness” is just a measure of how many offspring survive to have their own offspring. It’s not a quality an organism has that makes it survive, but the simple fact that some organisms survive in greater numbers than others. And yes, that does mean that the common phrase “survival of the fittest” is a tautology.

        That’s it. Now, obviously, whether that mechanism alone (or primarily) is responsible for all the genetic diversity on Earth is not so easily demonstrable, though the evidence we do have is pretty good (in that all terrestrial organisms certainly appear to be genetically related to each other — no Galactica or Twilight Zone-style “humans are actually from another planet and not genetically related to anything else on Earth” situations have been found — and we can even trace what seem to be lines of descent and points of divergence between similar organisms).

        • Deadstop

          Wow, that’s weird. The next-to-last and last paragraphs in my post above are supposed to be swapped. I have no idea how that happened.

    • http://www.likelierthings.com Jon W

      People talk about “belief” in theories that are *socially* controversial.

      This.

      Also, how would you describe the epistemic state of some mid-18th century scientist’s brain regarding, say, the caloric theory of heat or the universal application of Newton’s theory of gravity, both of which, if I am not mistaken, were pretty settled science back then? Would we say he “believed” those theories?

  • Ted Seeber

    I recently argued on slashdot that faith and belief were just other words for Axiomatic Definition. And that *every science or philosophy* must depend on some Authority making Axiomatic Definitions. Without axioms that we believe in, divining the existence of O2 or the science of hydraulics would not be possible. Stating with that great Western Philosophical Axiom: Nature exists and has laws that we can figure out and those laws will be followed regardless of subjective input. Without belief in that axiom, everything else falls down.

    Which is why it took WESTERN religion, not Eastern mysticism, to create science- because Eastern Mysticism lacks the basic faith that what you observe today, will be there tomorrow.

  • John R

    Mark:

    Two comments:

    1) I believe you’ve misunderstood the text you’re quoting on belief. None of these scientists — Wilson, Dawkins, or Koentges — are applying the word “belief” to evolution here. In the quote in question:
    “Like other scientists commenting on this “tit-for-tat” dispute between Wilson and Dawkins, Koentges also detects the old struggle between those who focus purely on the gene and those who see it as “an anthropological insult to our own feeling of self-belief”.”
    Koentges is saying that some people find it awkward to imagine that evolution might apply to human societies (Wilson’s position). “Self-belief” in this context means something more like “free will” than “a scientific theory I am assuming is true in my work”.

    2) You should think carefully about your positions on evolution and climate change. For a smart person, you’ve been producing a surprising number of very snarky viewpoints on these issues lately. Are you trying to suggest that the fundamentalist position on evolution is reasonable? Because: it just isn’t. Not because evolution as we understand it now is “right”. Almost the opposite: because evolution as we understand it now is a scientific theory that has proven useful in thinking about the world, and that can be shown to be false in the future, as more data and more analysis are done. The fundamentalist alternative (“intelligent design”) is a perfectly reasonable world view — but it’s not useful for making predictions, and it’s not falsifiable, so it’s not interesting scientifically. You should make this clear, so your readers aren’t led astray.
    Global warming, of course, is a murkier issue, since the evidence truly is complicated and confusing. Nevertheless, most of the people who look at the problem deeply are pretty confident that (a) we humans have put a lot of CO2 into the air; and (b) that CO2 concentration is going to change things in ways we don’t understand. You should make your position clear: is your snark intended to suggest that these serious scholars are all part of a conspiracy? Or are you just having fun? These confusions are making me very uncomfortable with your blog, and I’d like to understand whether you see them as entertainment or as serious commentary.

    John

    • Will

      Thank you John.

    • Ted Seeber

      Here’s the sad part- Catholicism seems, at least on the surface, to believe in the evolution of human society; that is why and quite often HOW doctrine develops. When we guess wrong in our interpretation of dogma, sometimes even apparent reversals happen- and if they didn’t I am quaite certain the Church would have long ago become irrelevant.


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