William Provine on Evolutionary Naturalism and Morality

William Provine on Evolutionary Naturalism and Morality October 27, 2014

Cornell University biologist William Provine debated UC Berkeley law professor in 1998. (Click here for a link to the transcript.) In his opening statement, Provine made the following provocative assertion.

Let me summarize my views on what modern evolutionary biology tells us loud and clear — and these are basically Darwin’s views. There are no gods, no purposes, and no goal-directed forces of any kind. There is no life after death. When I die, I am absolutely certain that I am going to be dead. That’s the end of me. There is no ultimate foundation for ethics, no ultimate meaning in life, and no free will for humans, either.

I don’t know if Darwin would agree with Provine’s list of consequences or not, but I want to comment on the alleged ethical consequences of evolutionary naturalism.
Many apologists (see, e.g., here) have made an argument from authority, using Provine’s statement, to support the claim that atheism entails nihilism. While some arguments from authority can be logically correct, this one is not. Let P be the statement “If naturalistic evolution is true, then there is no ultimate foundation for ethics,” and let S be metaethics. Using Wesley Salmon’s schema for inductive arguments from authority,[1] we can then formulate the argument from authority as follows.

(1) The vast majority of statements made by William Provine concerning subject S are true.
(2) P is a statement made by William Provine concerning subject S.
(3) Therefore, P is true.

This argument does not satisfy Salmon’s conditions for an inductively correct argument from authority, in two ways. First, even if we treat Provine as an expert on metaethics, the argument would still be evidentially worthless. As Salmon observed, an appeal to one group of authorities has no evidential value when another group of authorities who are equally competent disagree.[2] And there are many qualified experts on metaethics who believe P is false.[3] Second, with all due respect to Provine, he is not a reliable authority on subject S. He is an evolutionary biologist with a Ph.D. in the history of science, not a philosopher who specializes in metaethics. Therefore, premise (1) is dubious. The upshot is that this argument from authority provides literally zero evidence for statement p.

Even if we cannot accept P on the basis of Provine’s authority, however, it is still possible that Provine has a good argument for believing it. If he does, however, it’s not exactly clear how the argument is supposed to work. The only relevant statement I could find in the debate transcript is the quotation I provided at the beginning of this post. Here it is again.

Let me summarize my views on what modern evolutionary biology tells us loud and clear — and these are basically Darwin’s views. There are no gods, no purposes, and no goal-directed forces of any kind. There is no life after death. When I die, I am absolutely certain that I am going to be dead. That’s the end of me. There is no ultimate foundation for ethics, no ultimate meaning in life, and no free will for humans, either.

It’s far from obvious why Provine thinks that “modern evolutionary biology tells us loud and clear” that “There is no ultimate foundation for ethics.” At first glance, this seems very implausible because P lies within the domain of philosophy, not biology. One can’t help but wonder if Provine presupposes scientism and that his statement about the purported conclusions of “modern evolutionary biology” are really just a statement about the implications of scientism. That really doesn’t matter one way or the other, however. All that matters is whether Provine has given a good reason to think that evolutionary naturalism leads to nihilism, which he hasn’t. Provine has provided nothing more than a mere assertion of bias for moral nihilism.

The upshot is that Provine’s statements in his 1998 debate with Johnson provide no support whatsoever for the claim that atheism entails or implies moral nihilism.

Notes

[1] Wesley C. Salmon, Logic (third ed., Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1984), 100.

[2] Ibid.

[3] E.g., Adams; Hick; Moore; Morriston; Nielsen; Pojman; Post; Rottschaefer; Sagi and Statman; Shafer-Landau; Q. Smith; Swinburne; and Wielenberg.

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