Why I am not a theistic evolutionist and why I do not ‘believe in’ evolution (part 1)

BioLogos has listed what it calls “Core Tenets or Assumptions of Theistic Evolution.” I mostly agree with them, but I am not a theistic evolutionist and I do not “believe in” evolution.

Well, actually, let me qualify that a bit: I do not accept the label of “theistic evolutionist.” I cannot really say, with certainty, that I am not one because I cannot be certain what that phrase means. I understand each of those words, separately, but squish them together like that and I can’t make sense of what it is that is being said.

From just a cursory glance, it might seem that this label describes me perfectly. Here are two true statements about me:

1. I believe in God.

2. I acknowledge and affirm the reality of evolution.

If that is all this label meant — if a “theistic evolutionist” is defined as “a person for whom both of those things are true” — then it would certainly seem to apply to me.

But that cannot be what this phrase means. Both of these words mean things, and neither one can mean that.

Let’s start with the latter: I am not an evolutionist.

I am not a scientist and it would be inappropriate for me to appropriate for myself a label that designates me as one. I acknowledge and affirm the reality of science, but that does not make me a “scientist.” I acknowledge and affirm the reality of quantum physics, but that does not make me a quantum physicist. Nor am I a chemist or a virologist, even though I acknowledge and affirm the truth of both of those disciplines.

So why, then, should my identical layperson’s appreciation and acknowledgement of evolution make me an “evolutionist”?

It shouldn’t. It doesn’t.

The idea that it does is based on the premise that evolution is a special case. But evolution is not a special case.

We’re asked to treat it as special by the pretense of classifying anyone who “believes” in evolution as an “evolutionist.” There are two things askew there. First, again, we don’t speak this way when discussing any other process or phenomena. We don’t pretend that anyone who believes in chemistry is a chemist or that anyone who believes in astrophysics is an astrophysicist.

And, secondly, we do not speak of people “believing” in chemistry or astrophysics. That word — “believe” — gets applied to evolution because, again, we’re pretending that evolution is a special case.

And, again, evolution is not a special case.

We do not say that someone “believes in” photosynthesis, or in the magnetosphere, or in entropy or gravity or cell division or condensation. We do not say that because it would sound strange and because it would be misleading, suggesting that somehow the reality of photosynthesis was contingent on our acceptance or rejection of it, or that photosynthesis is somehow true for some people but not for others. We do not speak of “believing in” photosynthesis because belief is beside the point. Photosynthesis is an actual, observable, measurable process that we can and have actually observed and measured.

And so is evolution. Evolution is not a special case.

So I do not “believe in” evolution, I simply acknowledge and affirm its actuality.

Now let’s look at that other word, “theistic.”

I believe that God exists. “Believe” is an appropriate word in this context because whether or not God is actually actual is not something that can be directly observed and measured. It’s possible that God exists. It’s possible that God does not exist. I believe that God does, actually, exist. I believe this with utter certitude, but I cannot claim to have certainty.

My belief in the existence of God makes me a theist. This noun, “theist,” means exactly this: a person who believes in the existence of a God or Gods. “Fred is a theist” is, therefore, a correct statement. I generally prefer a more specific statement, such as “Fred is a Christian,” which conveys a bit more about the identity and character of the God I believe exists. But while it’s less specific than I’d like, “Fred is a theist” is accurate and correct.

We can also say, accurately, that “Fred’s religion is theistic.” Or we can say, somewhat awkwardly, but technically accurately, that “Fred is theistic.” That’s awkward because it’s not quite how we usually apply that adjective, about which more later.

Given that — given that I am, explicitly, a theist — can we at least concede that the first part of the label “theistic evolutionist” might be appropriate to apply to me?

I don’t think so, because in that label the word “theistic” is not being applied to the person, but to evolution itself. A “theistic evolutionist” is not a theist who “believes in” evolution, but rather a person who “believes in” theistic evolution. The adjective does not apply to the person — to the believer in God and in evolution — but to the natural phenomenon itself.

Or, rather, not to evolution itself, but to some qualified form of it. Not evolution, but “theistic evolution.”

And, again, I don’t know what that means.

We might guess that “theistic evolution” refers to the perspective of Christians and many other theists that God is ever-present and that nothing is separate from God’s over-arching providence — that by God “all things consist,” as the Apostle Paul wrote. Perhaps this is all this adjective signifies here.

But I’m afraid that won’t do. If the word is simply meant to express something that all Christians believe to be true of every process and phenomenon, then we must somehow account for the fact that we do not use it in reference to any other such process or phenomenon.

We may believe that there is a certain providence in the fall of a sparrow, but we do not speak of theistic sparrows. Nor do we speak of theistic photosynthesis, theistic fusion, theistic chemistry or theistic algebra. We believe that God cares for the lilies of the field, but we never therefore refer to them as theistic lilies or speak of theistic botany.

Sir Isaac Newton earnestly believed in God’s active, pervasive providence, but he never saw fit to christen his theory as “theistic gravity.”

The exceptional use of this term — the application of this adjective to this particular noun but not to any of the myriad other similar nouns — suggests again that we must treat evolution as some kind of special case.

But evolution is not a special case.

This is getting long, so let’s pick this up in part 2, to discuss some other possible things that “theistic evolution” might mean, and why it cannot (or should not) mean them either.

 

  • The Ridger

    Bora says “theistic evolution is the belief that God created the universe and
    installed the evolutionary rules, leaving life to evolve on its own
    following those rules.” Which seems quite inoffensive, but as Fred says, when people go on about Earth being perfect for life, we don’t say we believe in “theistic astrophysics” or something. Evolution IS being treated as something different here, and it’s different from the theological/religious viewpoint.

  • Carstonio

    Why is it different? Put aside the common misconception that “evolution” is an atheistic mishmash of pseudo-natural selection and pseudo-abiogenesis. I suspect the difference is that natural selection undermines the idea of human exceptionalism. 

  • Jay

     Some Christians seem to take handily enough to using doctrinal aspects of Christianity to back up Social Darwinism.

    I agree that some people think that way, but I consider it to be a cartoonishly oversimplified version of evolution married to an unrecognizably distorted version of Christianity.

  • Misterbrown9

    I believe the Divine Purpose was that from the matrix of the material universe a creatures(s) would appear to reflect the image of the Creator and comprehend the invisible worlds of the spirit.  Apart from that ‘the flesh profiteth nothing’.
    But there is spiritual evolution as well, in which the Creator plays an active role.
    ‘Whose goings forth have been from old, from everlasting’.
    ‘The law was the schoolmaster that led us to Christ’
    ‘Now we see through a glass; darkly
    (I am paraphrasing these scriptures, of course)
    If necessary I could provide chapter and verse.
    There are many examples of a slow and steady civilizing or spiritualizing of the human race towards a similarly determined outcome.

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino
  • arcseconds

    But when you have concrete proof that the world is older than 6,000
    years and that life forms do evolve, it IS ridiculous to insist, in the
    face of those facts, that Genesis is actual history throughout.

    Yes, but it’s not self-contradictory to assert that.  Initially I thought that it was something like that Fred’s preferred language was taking us, where a creationist couldn’t articulate their belief without saying something contradictory.

    Now I think it’s actually more that Fred’s preferred language  is protecting him from engaging with a creationist by setting things up so a creationist can only discuss the matter with him by asserting the truth of evolution.   (Which would still force them to start sounding self-contradictory if they tried to assert creationism at the same time, of course. )

    (I also suspect it’s protecting him from athiests)

    We shouldn’t be prepared to stack the game like this, but even if we were, there’s simply no need. 

  • arcseconds

    Yes, but omniscience is also very, very strong.

    Just to give a much simpler case to reason about, lets say there’s a society that uses a quantum coin-tosser (stolen from Schrödinger’s box, maybe) to make decisions.

    Even if God decides to limit herself to just using this coin-tosser, and even if she limits herself to sequences that look random to us, that still gives her an enormous amount of control over the society.
     
    Being omniscient, she can see all outcomes of every possible sequence, so all she has to do is examine every (history, coin-toss sequence) pair to find the pair which maximises whatever outcomes she’s interested in subject to the restriction that the coin-toss sequence looks random (a long substring of a non-computable number, maybe, and there are plenty of them), and then produce that sequence.

    I suppose we might get suspicious if we see this society constantly making good decisions, but I think we’d end up settling on other explanations, like the members of this society unconsciously phrasing the questions in a particular manner, or interpreting the direction in beneficial ways.   After all, we can examine the set-up and see it really is a quantum RNG, and we can look at the output and see that it is, as far as we can tell, random.

    And if God wants to hide, she just needs to include us not getting suspicious enough as an outcome she’s interested in.

    Now, given that God has not just one random generator to play with, but myriads upon myriads that interact with one another in stupendously complex ways, that’s actually a vast amount of control that can be had, even when keeping rigorously to QM probability behaviour for each individual particle. 

    (Or, if you want to get really clever about it, God has a lot of options with the continuing partial collapse of the wavefunction of the entire universe even when sticking to the high-expectation eigenstates of the ‘humanity observes stuff’ operator)

  • erikagillian

     I don’t understand why you seem to think Fred is trying to do something manipulative.  I’ve never seen him to do so before, and I’ve been reading here quite a while (and back at the old place).  He said it was a two-parter, so why not wait till he finishes. 

    Terry Pratchett talks about the differences between belief and knowing all the time.  Witches don’t believe in gods, the same way you don’t believe in a table.  They know they exist, why bother to believe?  That’s a paraphrase, no idea what book it’s from, it’s so common.

    And why wouldn’t Fred not engage with a creationist?  He’s talked about it before.

    In fact, mostly I have to say what are you talking about?  That’s just ridiculous.

  • http://twitter.com/mattmcirvin Matt McIrvin

    “And if God wants to hide, she just needs to include us not getting suspicious enough as an outcome she’s interested in.”

    It’s true, an omniscient interventionist diety who really wanted to hide could simulate the workings of QM alone to some great desired degree of accuracy without making us terribly suspicious. I was mostly raising the technical point that this would *still* be a deviation from pure QM, rather than the Born rule providing us with a clear boundary between the stuff that physics gets to decide and the stuff that God gets to decide.

    I get the impression that people sometimes try to take a compatibilist viewpoint in which this kind of thing works without the God really trying to hide at all. But it’s really a very sophisticated form of God-of-the-gaps argument.

  • arcseconds

    I don’t understand why you think it’s a deviation from QM?  It’s a ‘deviation’ in the sense that there’s something else going on, sure.  But in the example I’ve provided, we can’t tell that the coin-tosser isn’t actually random.  The proportion of heads to tails is as close to 50% as we’d expect given the number of tosses, and there’s no pattern we can ascertain.

    It’s even (or could be, if necessary) random in a well-defined mathematical sense – there is no Turing-computable algorithm that describes the sequence.

    So what could we even look for in principle in the sequence that would tell us that there’s something other than QM going on? It seems to me it would be exactly in keeping with QM’s predictions.

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    There is an interesting Asimov short story in which the deity involved “inserts” things like quantum mechanics and chaos theory into the universe, and finds to its surprise that the universe evolves in ways which it did not expect.

    So if someone wants to take a “God controls stuff” POV compatible with modern science, who’s to say said God didn’t invent a universe with quantum mechanical behavior woven into its very fabric?

  • arcseconds

    My comments aren’t dependent in any strong sense of what Fred thinks he’s doing.  I did try to express myself in a way that wasn’t commiting me to Fred actually having manipulative intent, although I wasn’t all that careful about it so there may be places where it sounds like that.

    It’s not all that uncommon for clever people to set up a framework that effectively insulates their viewpoint from criticism, and I think they often do this without realising it.  I’m not even sure that that’s what’s going on here, but it is a possiblity.

    I’ve already agreed that there are useful distinctions to be made in different uses of ‘believe’, including the one you’re citing Terry Prachett on. 

    But once we’ve established that we don’t mean we believe in evolution in the same sense as we believe in Democracy, and we believe it because it’s an incredibly well supported theory which makes vastly more sense of biology (and other subjects) than could be made without it, there’s nothing much to be gained by insisting on not using the word ‘believe’ to describe our attitude towards the theory. 

    Doing so turns the debate into a semantic debate.  You can see this because if someone were to insist on refusing to use the word ‘belief’ but rather ‘accept and affirm’, you can just do a search-and-replace and have exactly the same argument, just expressed more clumsily.

    Also, there’s no reason why a creationist couldn’t also insist that they don’t ‘believe’ in a young earth, because they take themselves to know it.   Then you just get into an argument, likely to be fruitless, as to who is entitled to which word.

    And if you were consistent in refusing to use ‘belief’ when you take yourself to know, you’d be risking getting into the same semantic debate with everyone you disagree with.

    That’s a specific remark on saying “I don’t believe in evolution: I affirm and accept it’s actuality”.   I can’t see any reason to wait until part II until making this remark, and I can see plenty of reasons not to (he might not say this in part II,  part II might not be forthcoming).

    I’m basically repeating myself here, however, and I would have thought it was obvious these remarks stand whether or not Fred realises it’s just a semantic game.   If you didn’t know what I was talking about earlier, you probably are still in the dark now.  If you’re still confused, you’ll have to ask more specific questions than ‘what are you talking about?’.

    Fred’s totally at liberty to not engage creationists, but he doesn’t need a sophisticated rhetorical strategy to do that.  He can just say “I’m not going to bother talking to you, creationist”.  

    However, he is defending both evolution and theism, so it is worth thinking about what people who hold opposing views would say in return.  And as such it’s implicitly engaging them anyway.

  • arcseconds

    I’m not sure I follow.  What do you mean by ‘a universe with quantum mechanical behaviour woven into its very fabric’?  Isn’t that what mainstream physics would have us believe?

  • Jay

    I think Fred is misunderstanding the resistance evolution gets from more conservative Christians.

    What they’re trying to preserve is the doctrine of original sin.  That’s essential to their version of Christianity (as I understand it, of course).  That doctrine says that suffering and death are man’s fault, not God’s, and that God’s grace can overcome the Fall.  That version of the faith goes like this: Act I: the Fall, and paradise gets messed up.  Act II: Easter, and the promise of salvation.  Act III: Judgement Day, and the promise is fulfilled.

    But it just doesn’t work without the talking snake and the magic fruit.  If death and suffering existed before moral choice, then we never had an unfallen state to which we could be redeemed.   If man didn’t break the world, what did?  Because one thing almost every human in every culture agrees on is that the world isn’t what it should be.

    I just think that if Fred approached the topic from along these lines, and with attention to these issues, maybe the argument would move forward instead of staying stuck in the same rut.

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    I think you missed the part where I don’t believe in God.

  • erikagillian

     As far as I can tell you’re just making semantic arguments.  What Fred seems to be doing is setting his terms and is going to now discuss whatever it was that he set them for.  There are (at least) two things that can be called belief.  He’s made clear what he’s going to use to mean ‘belief in what’s scientifically provable’ and ‘belief in what’s not provable but he believes nonetheless.’    So you basically are saying that you don’t like that?  Or his dislike of the phrase theistic evolutionist is wrong?  I have a hard time figuring out what you’re talking about in most of the conversations you’re engaging in.

    You seem to be accusing people of being disingenuous, and I wish you’d stop.

  • arcseconds

    I’m even more confused now. 

  • arcseconds

    I’m suggesting that Fred is coming close to making semantic arguments
     
    Now you’re accusing me of making semantic arguments.

     Please tell me this isn’t some kind of a sophisticated version of the playground “no you’re the dummy! no backsies! nyah! :-P”  !

    (I guess diagnosing a semantic argument is in a sense itself a semantic argument, because you’re still discussing semantics.  However, you appear to be comfortable with suggesting I’m making semantic arguments, so presumably you can’t have a problem with me suggesting Fred’s making a semantic argument?)

    Fred has certainly decided to uphold a distinction between ‘belief’ and
    ‘accept and affirm as actuality’, which is a semantic distinction as the
    second can as well be (and is, by decision theorists, psychologists,
    and philosophers, amongst others) called a belief.

    I don’t have a problem with this distinction as such, as I have already said several times.  If you ask me again about this, I don’t know what I’ll do, I’ll probably have to print it all in caps.

    Now, if that was all, perhaps I’d just accept that he’s trying to make a conceptual distinction clear by using different language for two cases (although it’d be nice if he explained this). 

    But as he also seems to be denying that his position needs a name.  It’s not that he’d prefer a different term to ‘theistic evolution’ — he almost appears to be suggesting that there’s no real distinction between what he believes and what an atheist evolutionary biologist believes. 

    But Fred tells us he does believe that something worth calling God is in some sense at work through evolution, because he tells us he agrees with the tenants of ‘theistic evolutionism’.  So his overall take on evolution is different from that of a creationist on the one hand, and an atheist on the other.   And it would seem to have a lot in common with the other people who are calling themselves ‘theistic evolution’.   If we’re ever to discuss the three distinct takes here, we need three distinct terms.   While i take the point that Fred thinks all natural phenomena are like this, it’s still useful to label this perspective about evolution in particular.  

    So at the very least, he’s being a trifle obfuscating on this point by refusing a label.

    And the two things combined seem to me to have considerable potential for rhetorical trickery, as I have illustrated with my little example.

    Is this helping?  I kind of feel I’m mostly repeating myself here again.  Again, i’d encourage specific questions. 

  • Anton_Mates

    But once we’ve established that we don’t mean we believe in evolution in the same sense as we believe in Democracy, and we believe it because
    it’s an incredibly well supported theory which makes vastly more sense of biology (and other subjects) than could be made without it, there’s nothing much to be gained by insisting on not using the word ‘believe’ to describe our attitude towards the theory.

    The problem is that if you’re talking to a creationist, “we” includes the creationist.  And creationists do not in general accept that belief in evolution is a different sort of thing from belief in Democracy.  This is a pillar of creationist rhetoric: evolution is a religion.  Belief in evolution is a faith-based, emotional and moral commitment.  It follows that “evolutionists” can’t be trusted to argue the facts fairly, because they’re psychologically driven to defend evolution at all costs.  It follows that “evolutionists” are morally defective, because they follow the precepts of “randomness” and “survival of the fittest” instead of the Ten Commandments and the Beatitudes.  And it follows that “evolutionists” cannot be proper Christians, because their loyalties are divided.  Instead of honoring and venerating Christ and his word, they idolize “human reason,” or “blind chance,” or even Charles Darwin himself. 

    (Which is why creationists spend so much time arguing that Darwin was stupid/crazy/racist/evil.  From their point of view, faith in the theory is much the same thing as faith in the man, so if they can show that Darwin is unworthy of veneration, it follows that his theory is unworthy of belief.)

    So we’re not going to be able to establish that the word “believe” is meant in your desired sense here.  You can argue that it should be read that way, and the creationist will argue that it shouldn’t, and then we’ll have exactly the sort of semantic debate you’re trying to avoid.

    Fred’s alternative approach is the one taken by a lot of veteran creationist-debaters and other science advocates.  He goes with a longer but more precise and unambiguous formulation, like “accept and affirm the factual reality of.”  The creationist may still insist that you really do “believe in” evolution in the religious sense, but now it’s crystal clear from the start that you don’t agree with them, and they have to make the explicit argument that you’re outright lying about your own beliefs.  That’s harder for them, especially if they’re not a jerk –or don’t want to appear jerky in front of their audience.

    Also, there’s no reason why a creationist couldn’t also insist that they don’t ‘believe’ in a young earth, because they take themselves to know it.  

    But of course there’s a reason.  Creationists usually want to say that they ‘believe’ in a young earth, because it’s a faith commitment for them.  They do take themselves to know it, certainly, but they also want to communicate that they trust in it, because they trust God and they trust the Bible.  Some prominent creationists even argue that belief in a young earth requires such trust: “evolutionists” cannot interpret the evidence correctly until they convert, because their thinking is skewed by Satan’s influence and their own fallen nature.

    So when you say:

    However, he is defending both evolution and theism, so it is worth
    thinking about what people who hold opposing views would say in return. 

    That’s precisely what Fred’s doing.  I would be very surprised if he doesn’t have a fair amount of experience with people who hold such views.

  • Anton_Mates

    First of all, saying that the evidence is consistent with something is the same thing as saying that there’s evidence for it.

    No, it’s not. If the evidence is consistent with something, that merely means that there isn’t strong evidence against it.

    The evidence is consistent with the claim, “There is an almost perfectly cubical rock floating in space in the Alpha Centauri system.”  It’s also consistent with the negation of this claim.  There’s no evidence for or against (unless someone’s come up with a theoretical statistical distribution of rock shapes in the Alpha Centauri system, in which case I need a new example.)

    Second, if you have certainty in something but you acknowledge that the evidence doesn’t demonstrate certainty in it, then you ARE contradicting
    the evidence!

    No, you’re not, unless you claim that your certainty is evidence-based.  By your standard, no reasoning is valid–any argument starts from premises/axioms which are not themselves proven by the evidence.

    I build a machine that randomly hides a ball under one of two cups, and turn it on.  The chance of either cup being chosen is 50%.  Joe decides that he is certain the ball is under cup 1, even though he knows the chance is 50/50. 

    The analogy to theism is already broken, since no one knows how to compute the a priori probability of God’s existence.  Unless you’ve got a universe-making machine and we can see what proportion of its products contain a deity.

    Bob decides that he is certain the ball is under cup 1, even though he knows the chance is 50/50.  We can’t check though, because the machine undid our only evidence.

    If the machine truly undoes all your evidence, then Bob doesn’t know the chance is 50/50, because there’s no way to check the machine’s performance.  If you observed its performance earlier to come up with the 50/50 ratio, then the machine must have been subsequently altered to add the evidence-removal bit, and Bob may believe that this alteration changed the machine’s output pattern.  So it’s neither rational nor irrational for him to be certain that the ball was under cup 1.

  • Carstonio

     Based on the Duane Gish children’s book and the Creation Museum slideshows that I’ve seen, you’re probably correct. It may be human nature to want to blame one’s self or blame others for suffering that appears to have no human cause, and natural selection strongly implies that death and suffering are part of the nature of existence. But I doubt that Fred or anyone else could approach the topic along those lines, at least without sounding like an Asian philosopher, and that wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing.

  • http://criada.livejournal.com/ Liz Coleman

    The TL;DR version (as I see it, anyway): The term “theistic evolutionist” only makes sense in the context of The Culture Wars (wherein society divides itself based around the rallying points of certain causes like evolution, abortion, homosexuality) and Fred is, in this post, implicitly rejecting The Culture Wars.

  • Jay

    I agree that this is a challenging way to approach the issues for someone who believes in both Christianity and evolution.  I also think that, if someone wants to engage with creationists on this subject, it’s important to see where their emotional commitment to young-earth creationism is coming from.

    When a grown adult claims to literally believe in a talking snake with magic fruit, there’s something close to a psychotic break going on.  In that situation, hammering on the evidence isn’t going to convince anyone.  Figuring out where the emotional sticking points are and addressing them is a better strategy.  Of course, leaving the crazies alone may be an even better strategy.

  • Carstonio

     I’m tempted to just tell them, “Shit happens. Deal with it.” Do they tend to come from the same theological background as the gospel song Farther Along, which laments that the wicked often prosper and the virtuous often suffer, and just assumes that there’s some reason that we’ll learn after we die? Maybe these people are unable or unwilling to grasp the possibility that life has no purpose other than what we make of our lives as individuals.

  • alias Ernest Major

    I think you’ll find that American Social Darwinists more often than not reject the factuality of common descent. Social Darwinism is the belief that society red in tooth and claw is a desirable state, which can be held regardless of one’s opinion on the various theories of evolution.

  • Carstonio

    http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/The-Last-Page-Darwin-for-Dads.html

    In this column, the author’s biochemist daughter tries explaining to dad that natural selection is not a judgment, either on the species that survive or on those that don’t. Perhaps since natural selection goes against the idea of human exceptionalism, people who believe that “everything happens for a reason” have the most trouble with it, even when they’re not creationists.

  • swbarnes2

    I believe that God does, actually, exist. I believe this with utter certitude, but I cannot claim to have certainty.

    As far as I can tell, certitude and certainty mean the same thing.  What on earth is Fred trying to communicate here? He believes with certitude, but isn’t certain?  That his feelings are far stronger than the evidence warrants?  It sounds like he’s trying to adopt contradictory stances of being rationally cautious and faithfully sure at the same time about the same claim.

  • http://dpolicar.livejournal.com/ Dave

     

    What on earth is Fred trying to communicate here?

    Judging from the paragraph the quote is embedded in, I understood “certainty” to refer to confidence one can have about things directly observed and measured, which do not require belief and where the possibility of error is negligible, and understood “certitude” to refer to confidence one can have about things not directly observed but rather inferred or intuited, which do require belief and the possibility of error is non-negligible.

    Personally, I don’t find this a helpful distinction. I find it’s more helpful to treat everything I experience as an inference from something else, whether I experience it as a belief or a perception or an intuition or a suspicion or an expectation or a faith or a doubt or an obsession or whatever, and to accept that the amount of confidence I have in those experienced things actually existing can vary based on other experiences.

    That said, I accept that these terms have lots of connotations, and the connotations matter to people… that when someone says they believe X, they are trying to express something different than when they say they suspect X, or they find X likely, or that X is true, or if they refer to X in passing as a known fact while talking about something else, or various other speech acts.

    I find, in general, that I do better to concentrate on what they are trying to express with those speech acts, and not worry too much about the cognitive taxonomy implied by their terms.

  • EllieMurasaki

    The evidence is consistent with the claim, “There is an almost perfectly
    cubical rock floating in space in the Alpha Centauri system.”  It’s
    also consistent with the negation of this claim.  There’s no evidence
    for or against (unless someone’s come up with a theoretical statistical
    distribution of rock shapes in the Alpha Centauri system, in which case I
    need a new example.)

    I’m neither a geologist nor an astrophysicist but I don’t think rock works like that. I mean, one could probably get a cubical piece of obsidian or flint, if one worked at it right? But obsidian is volcanic and flint is sedimentary and those simply don’t occur off a planetary surface. Rocks that are likely to be found floating in space are either big enough to reshape themselves via gravity, in which case they’re roughly spherical, or they’re not, in which case they’re whatever shape they ended up in when they stopped accreting, probably best described as ‘lumpy potato’ and certainly not ‘cube’.

  • Jay

     Maybe these people are unable or unwilling to grasp the possibility that
    life has no purpose other than what we make of our lives as
    individuals.

    That’s exactly it.  It’s the idea that life is without purpose that scares some people to the point that they just can’t deal with it.  When we say “evolution is true” they hear “you cannot be redeemed from original sin”, which to them means “you were hopelessly screwed from the moment of your birth”.

  • AnonymousSam

    For whatever it’s worth, there are still deeply conservative religious people who believe that even basic tenets of science are a form of atheism. “Rain occurs because God wills it to. End of story. Evaporation? Condensation? Rising vapors? That’s all nonsense. God did it and that’s all that matters. Teaching more than that is leading people away from what matters.”

    So in some cases, one really could say they “believe” in this, that and the other, because according to various authorities, they really are spouting nonsense.

  • The_L1985

     Why accept that humans are special in having souls in the first place?  Far more logical to believe that either all animals have souls, or none do.

  • http://dpolicar.livejournal.com/ Dave

     Welllllll…. hrm.

    So, I’m more or less a materialist when it comes to behavior. For example, I expect that there’s an answer to the question “Why is Dave writing this comment?” that can be given in terms of the dynamics of my brain, in just the same way that “Why is it raining?” can be given in terms of the dynamics of the atmosphere.

    But if someone waves away such an answer in favor of “This comment got written because Dave willed it to, end of story.” they are not spouting nonsense. They are simply insisting on an answer at a much coarser level of description than what is available.

    This is not entirely analogous to your example, of course, since the available evidence for the existence of Dave as a relevant entity at the level of comment-writing is different than the available evidence for the existence of God as a relevant entity at the level of raining. But to dismiss evaporation, condensation, and rising vapors as irrelevant to what really matters when discussing rain is not necessarily to make that error.

    “When gods spit fire in bright angry streams
    To burn their names into the hapless ground
    Then pause for breath and bellow thunderclaps
    That crack the sky and call down sheets of rain
    To carve new canyons into ancient rock
    It’s hard to recognize in their grand sweep
    The stately flow of warm and humid air
    That rises dumbly into cooler skies.”

  • AnonymousSam

    How about to ensure that evaporation, condensation and rising vapors aren’t even considered relevant, and to try and remove them from being taught in schools? (Unfortunately, the example I got this sort of thinking from is a man with political power somewhere in the east — although I can’t find the article where I first read it.)

  • The_L1985

    “Because one thing almost every human in every culture agrees on is that the world isn’t what it should be.”

    Are you kidding me?  The world is awesome, even when you take the suffering part into account.

  • The_L1985

    …But the deaths of animals DO happen for a reason.  Animals die because:

    - They contracted a deadly disease;
    - The environment changed before they could adapt;
    - They became prey to other animals;
    - They couldn’t obtain enough food or water;
    - They drowned in something;
    - They were struck by lightning and burned;
    - They were buried alive in an earthquake;
    - They suffered some sort of physical malady not caused by pathogens;
    - They were tortured to death by a malicious human;
    - They were struck by a rock, car, or other large blunt object;
    - They ingested something poisonous;
    - They grew old and their bodies wore out;
    Etc.

    Granted, some of those things are just the result of bad luck, but they’re still reasons.

  • http://dpolicar.livejournal.com/ Dave

    I oppose that, in part simply because it’s a power move by an opposing faction, and in part because it’s important that some people understand the internal dynamics of both atmospheres and minds, and teaching it in schools seems like the best way to do that.

  • Anton_Mates

    Perhaps I have an overly-loose definition of “almost perfectly,” but I wasn’t really thinking of a perfect cubic crystal or anything.  More a rock that was about as cubical as, um, a lightly-weathered cardboard box.  The smaller space rocks didn’t form by accretion, but by fracturing off larger bodies in collisions and such, and it seems to me that one in ten billion of them might come off looking pretty cubical.  I suppose it’s even possible that a cubic pyrite crystal might form in some small planetoid, then survive the subsequent smashup.  But I also am not a geologist.

    I was just trying to think of a more plausible version of the “teapot orbiting Jupiter scenario.

  • AnonymousSam

    We both would oppose it since we lean secular when it comes to education. I’m saying there are people who consider even meteorology even this basic to be misleading at best, heresy at worst. Rain? God did it and any attempts to explain to the contrary are looking for mundane explanations for the miraculous, which is blasphemy.

    Granted, you have to go into extremely conservative territory to find these attitudes, but I wish I could say I was exaggerating when I say they still exist and there are people who want to enforce them on others here in the present day.

    Heh, then again, I’ve had some fun debates with a person who considered any speculation about the physical world to be an act of self-harm. I don’t remember what religion he had, but it sounded like an extreme version of Hinduism. He argued that in making any ties to the physical world, we bind ourselves to the cycle of death and rebirth, never progressing into oneness with the world beyond. Therefore, merely acknowledging the physical world was a kind of sin, albeit one which was almost impossible for a human to avoid doing. He probably would have had interesting things to say about meteorology…

    “Rain? I would prefer not to.”

  • http://dpolicar.livejournal.com/ Dave

     Sure, I’m aware of the existence of the people you describe in your first couple of paragraphs. Indeed, some of them were responsible for much of my early education. If I gave the impression I didn’t believe in their existence, I apologize for the confusion.

  • Termudgeon

    Indeed. But why stop at animals? At the single-cell-level, not much distinguishes an animal from a plant. The same problem crops up (no pun intended).

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    How about to ensure that evaporation, condensation and rising vapors aren’t even considered relevant,

    A rather inaccurate understanding of this led to “the rain follows the plow”. (-_-)

  • Carstonio

    I would classify most of those as causes, since “for a reason” usually implies that an intelligence was behind it. It’s theology lite.

  • Jay

    The world is awesome, even when you take the suffering part into account.

    There’s no accounting for taste.

  • hf

     If the evidence is consistent with something, that merely means that there isn’t strong evidence against it.

    If, at some point, it would have seemed possible for the evidence to not be consistent with the theory, then the fact this didn’t happen should count as evidence in the theory’s favor. It may be extremely weak evidence, though. I started to apply this to the cubical rock but decided that the necessary degree of pedantry would accomplish nothing.

    Now, this claim that “Bob doesn’t know the chance is 50/50″ seems like a bigger problem. If he knows that only two options exist (practically speaking) and he has no evidence for preferring one to the other, he most definitely does have a state of knowledge that acts like a 50% probability for each outcome. Or say you know a coin is fixed to land on one side almost every time, but you don’t know which one. Until you learn the results of the first flip, if you have no way to infer the preferred side, then you should have about as much confidence in seeing ‘heads’ as you would with a normal ‘fair’ coin flip. (And you should expect to guess right in about half of similar situations.) Some people would refuse to call this a probability, but I don’t think I care.

    Likewise, you have the right to invent an academic definition of ‘rationality’ such that, before the first flip, absolute confidence in seeing ‘heads’ would be “neither rational nor irrational”. And I have the right to laugh at you.

  • http://twitter.com/BoraZ Bora Zivkovic

    If you want a precise definition, here it is in both words and graphics, at NCSE site:
    http://ncse.com/creationism/general/creationevolution-continuum

  • The_L1985

     True, but animals are generally mobile, and plants are generally sessile.

    Once again, “all animals have souls,” “all organisms have souls,” and “souls don’t exist” are equally consistent positions to have.  “Humans have souls, but chimps don’t” makes a lot less sense.

  • Anton_Mates

    If, at some point, it would have seemed possible for the evidence to not be consistent with the theory, then the fact this didn’t happen should count as evidence in the theory’s favor. It may be extremely weak evidence, though.

    True enough.

    Or say you know a coin is fixed to land on one side almost every time, but you don’t know which one. Until you learn the results of the first flip, if you have no way to infer the preferred side, then you should have about as much confidence in seeing ‘heads’ as you would with a normal ‘fair’ coin flip. 

    If you’re a Bayesian.  If you’re a frequentist you have no justification for any particular level of confidence, unless you know something about what proportion of fixed coins favor heads vs. tails.

    (And you should expect to guess right in about half of similar situations.)

    By the nature of this scenario, you can expect whatever success rate you want; you’re never going to find out whether your expectations were correct.

    Some people would refuse to call this a probability, but I don’t think I care.

    Which is to say, Bayesianism is an axiom for you.  That’s fine, but it’s not rational (or irrational).

  • arcseconds

    Fred’s alternative approach is the one taken by a lot of veteran
    creationist-debaters and other science advocates.  He goes with a longer
    but more precise and unambiguous formulation, like “accept and affirm
    the factual reality of.”  The creationist may still insist that you
    really do “believe in” evolution in the religious sense, but now it’s
    crystal clear from the start that you don’t agree with them, and they
    have to make the explicit argument that you’re outright lying about your
    own beliefs.  That’s harder for them, especially if they’re not a jerk
    –or don’t want to appear jerky in front of their audience.

    Well, OK, sure, if he’s debating actual creationists he may need to give ‘believe’ to them and use a different formulation.   If that’s why he’s doing this, though, it would be nice if he explained it, particularly as his regular readership aren’t creationists and don’t necessarily spend ages arguing with creationists.

    Does this have the desired effect in a debate with actual creationists though?  I would expect it wouldn’t, because they still won’t understand the distinction.  I really get the impression that not only do creationists typically think that the scientifically literate have the same relationship to the evolutionary account as they do to Genesis, they simply don’t understand that there’s any other possible relationship to have, or what it’d be like to have it.

    My thought was that they’d just take it to mean ‘absolutely certain’, perhaps in a similar way to Fred’s attitude to the existence of God, which was one reason I thought that a creationist could take the step of just parroting Fred’s language.

    You may be right that they’d want to retain the language of belief/faith.  I had thought about that myself.  But I don’t really know what to make of that – it sometimes sounds like they agree it’s not really provable, you just have to believe it, but then they continue to argue as though they think it’s the only rational position.

    Would that really prevent them using Fred’s language, though? I mean, I’m sure they also say they “affirm” things all the time, and “accept” things too (like Jesus into their heart). 

    When I said:

    “However, he is defending both evolution and theism, so it is worth
    thinking about what people who hold opposing views would say in return. ”

    That was directed at erikagillian, who seemed to be saying that Fred wasn’t addressing creationists.  My point was that needn’t stop me considering what creationists might say in reply.

  • arcseconds

     

    Heh, then again, I’ve had some fun debates with a person who considered
    any speculation about the physical world to be an act of self-harm. I
    don’t remember what religion he had, but it sounded like an extreme
    version of Hinduism. He argued that in making any ties to the physical
    world, we bind ourselves to the cycle of death and rebirth, never
    progressing into oneness with the world beyond. Therefore, merely
    acknowledging the physical world was a kind of sin, albeit one which was
    almost impossible for a human to avoid doing

    that’s awesome.   that’s totally the line i’m taking with physicists from now on.

    (I used to go with Zeno, but they start to mutter stuff about the continuum, limits, and the calculus…)


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X