Re: Answer to Eugenie Scott's views

William B. Provine (
Sun, 15 Mar 1998 18:21:13 +0000

Dear Eugenie,

Many thanks for your long email.

> Sorry to be late replying: I've been out of town since Feb. 21st.

I hope you had a great time in the Galapagos. My trip there wasdeeply
memorable. The animals and plants were so beautiful and
interesting. It is easy to see why Darwin left there still a

> I drive crazy my husband and other people who enjoy arguing by insisting
> that there is no sense fighting over empirically-determinable issues! When
> Will's essay is posted on Massimo's "Darwin Day" web page, people can
> decide for themselves if I caricaturized his address or not.

I hope they get my comments transcribed soon. My lectures are prettyhard
translate even though my speech is clear.

> Will, I don't quite know where you got the idea that I "believe in a divine
> birth of Jesus Christ" (????) I am both a philosophical as well as a
> methodological naturalist.

Ah, you are at least an agnostic or perhaps a small step further, an
of course you would not believe in the divine birth of Jesus Christ or
the resurrection or things like that. When I asked you about the birth
Jesus Christ in Tennessee, you said in return that you don't think about
it. I did not hear you say something like, "Of course, Will, I don't
it either."

> But I believe that the two are logically as
> well as practically noncontingent. If one is a philosophical
> naturalist/materialist, it is expectable that one is also a methodological
> materialist, but not necessarily the converse -- but therein hinges a basic
> disagreement between us.

Yes, of course we disagree on "methodological naturalism"
and"philosophical or
ontological naturalism." A methodological naturalist
believes that any deities or Intelligences not visible in nature (which
can be approached by methodological naturalism) are unharmed.
I agree. But a methodological naturalist would analyse the birth of
Jesus Christ the same way as a philosophical naturalist.
The methodological naturalist would want to know what was the
chromosome complement of Jesus, would want to conduct some
paternity testing, etc. The methodological naturalist is just as great
a menace to miracles that happen in the natural world. Or you would
have to call it, "methodological naturalism" plus as many exceptions
as your religion might require for miracles that occur in the natural

> I was unable using both logical as well as
> empirical evidence to convince you in Knoxville that being a methdological
> materialist does not rule out theism, but you remain unconvinced. I don't
> recall your presenting either logical or empirical refutations of my
> position, but let's just agree to disagree on this. Life is too short. If
> any of the readers of this letter are interested in my views on
> methodological and philosophical naturalism, they can check out NCSE's web
> site at

> A point you made in your Darwin Day talk was that there are "no Gods
> worthhaving" because of Darwinism.

Well, the issue is important so it deserves our attention. I agree with
aboutmethodological naturalism not refuting any gods or intelligences
that do
have a detectable effect in the natural world. If they do, then
naturalism and philosophical naturalism are both equally applicable. The
that start things off in the beginning or work though the laws of nature
preserved by methodological naturalism, but I still argue that these
deities or

forces are worthless to anyone wishing the usual things from gods:
prayers, giving life after death, an ultimate foundation for morality,
meaning in life or the gift of free will.

I am sure you must have seen Steven D. Schafersman's comments upon your
beliefs in distinguishing clearly between methodological and
naturalism at
I recommend his essay to any who would consult your views.

> I find this puzzling. Wouldn't that question better be answered by believers
> than by non-believers like us?

> Certainly the large number of scientists who are Christians or of other
> faiths, including conservative Christians, who accept evolution but who
> remain theists consider their God worth having. You are certainly entitled
> to your opinion that these people "leave their brains on the church steps",
> but I see no evidence of such brainlessness.

Eugenie, methodological naturalism reaches the same conclusions aboutall
miracles of the Bible as philosophical naturalism. If you tell me
that large numbers of folks will try their best to have their cake and
it too, I agree. If you tell me they are your greatest allies in
promoting the
teaching of evolution in the schools, I agree. I understand the wish to
maintain one's religious beliefs in the wake of modern science. Do I
that those who maintain this compatibilism are the only ones who should
think seriously about this issue, surely not. I want to know
how "methodological naturalism" is compatible with supernaturalism
that affects the natural world.

> The conservative Christian scientists to whom I refer to seem to be
> perfectly logical, rational, sane individuals who happen to have a
> different metaphysics than I have. Fine. It's their science I care about,
> and practically, it's no different from mine. There are plenty of
> conservative Christians who like me, are strict methodological
> materialists. Until I spent some time on their listserves, and meeting and
> talking with them, I was unaware of this. I don't know what your exposure
> has been to modern day conservative Christians, but I hope you do not err
> in considering them monolithic in their beliefs. Trust me: they have hard
> arguments about some of these same issues.

I wasn't calling anyone, certainly not my many friends in the ASA,
illogical,irrational and insane. Sure we disagree on a wide range of
issues. I
about a lot more than their science, which is a lot like yours or mine.
I have noticed that these folks sometimes disagree with each other
(can't write for a while because I am laughing so hard). I have not come
across a more caring group of folks anywhere. Many have given signs
of caring about me, even praying for me. You know that my basic
belief is that my views will convince very, very few, and if we care
about social good, all of us will cooperate and work together for a

> You mention that the teachers group that I addressed in Knoxville included
> some "creationists." I assume these were "special creationists" as I
> defined them in that talk. I make a clear distinction between criticizing
> the ideas expressed in creation science as oppposed to criticizing those
> who hold them. Even when I make this crystal clear, I find that some
> individuals take offense, especially if they hold dearly to these ideas.
> If some teachers in the Knoxville audience felt I was attacking THEM, then
> this is just another reminder to me to be even clearer about separating the
> ideas held by some from the people themselves.

As I said before, I was not referring just to you. The comments came
the speakers. You did not give any indication that I heard indicating
the "special creationists" in the audience were great humans, it was
their religion and science that appalled you.

> I am puzzled that you doubt Phil J.'s prediction that teaching "both views"
> in high school would result in a gain for creationism. I assume you thus
> think that evolution properly presented would succeed in the "sifting and
> winnowing of ideas" of vigorous scholarly debate. But you also state that
> in your college-level class, "creationists always increase their numbers
> during the semester." Either something is going on in college-level
> classes that isn't going on in high school classes, or you fail to present
> evolution competently, or there is some other explanation. I have no
> reason to accept the first, I cannot possibly believe the second, which
> leaves the last possibility.

Oh, dear. I am sure that once the implications of methodological
naturalismapplied to evolution are clear, some students with deeply held
beliefs will become creationists. They are among the very deepest
in the class. I am proud of them, and do not consider them for a moment
to be failures. Surely you know that some students who understand
perfectly in college courses for majors do not accept it? You do not

this issue. You think that if evolution is understood, it is accepted.

> One alternative is that Phil is right, since this is what you find in at
> least your college classes. I am sure that neither of us would cede that
> such a putative increase in numbers of rejectors of evolution would be due
> to the "weaknesses in evolution." Perhaps your college classes are
> anomalous for some other reason than your ability to present evolution
> competently. We could go on, but I don't think we'd get anywhere.

In my evolution class, for non-majors, with about 400 students each
the students begin in about this proportion: YEC, 8-10%, TE, ca. 40%,
Believers in some other kind of purposive force guiding evolution (Tao,
etc) 15%, and methodological naturalists, most of the rest. During the
semester, about 15% of the TEs and other guiding forces in evolution,
change to become naturalists. The increase in YECs is very small but
always detectable. Some become metaphysical naturalists, but the
between metaphysical naturalists and methodological naturalists is
as I argue in class. Phil's book, Darwin on Trial, followed by Darwin's
On the Origin of Species, is the usual reason given by those who changed
into naturalists during the term. Please don't worry--I teach a good

> At any rate, the most important area of our disagreement I believe is your
> insistance that "both views" should be presented in high school classes.
> You argue that this is a wonderful, critical thinking exercise that will
> motivate students to think and learn more. Having spoken to many K-12
> teachers, I doubt that this will be the case: most teachers don't
> understand evolution well enough, nor, frankly, do they understand the
> theological issues required to competently present creationism in all its
> variety, or even the narrower "creation science", which I suspect you have
> in mind. I recall at least one teacher telling you this in Knoxville.

One thing I have noticed over and over in your talks is your
thoughtsabout the
incompetency of high school teachers. As I have told you,
I work with many high school teachers here in upstate NY. Only one
seemed at all incompetent to me in the teaching of evolution, the rest
were eager and interested. The high school teachers are way better
than you seem to think. They are perfectly capable of conducting
lively discussions in their classes. Indeed, they search for ways the
students can participate more in biology classes. My advice for them
is to let all students in the class to speak their views clearly. No
whatsoever should be made trying to keep the creationists quiet,
the specialty of your NCSE. Teachers do not have to "teach" any
creationist views. The only views other than methodological naturalism
from the teacher can come from the students.

> Some
> of the same arguments I have raised elsewhere against debating are also
> relevant here, but I won't go into them. An important argument against
> "equal time" though, is that we shouldn't be pretending to students that
> the idea that everything in the universe came into being all at one time
> has any scientific credibility, regardless of students' enthusiasm to
> believe and/or debate it.

All these views need to be out on the table for critical discussion. I
disagreewith you that students views can be changed by merely inundating
with methodological naturalist evolution, which they know is false from
their church or whereever. Nor will they "ruin" the discussion, as you
suggest. They help make the discussion. I deeply disagree with your
hope to disinfranchise all YECs from the discussion of evolution in
the biology classroom. They are half of all USA high school students.
Keeping them quiet in the science classroom is a moral outrage.

> In truth, though, in my experience, many educated, scientifically-trained
> conservative Christians are more concerned with the promotion of
> philosophical materialism in the guise of science than they are with
> whether evolution took place. An issue that lurks around the corners of
> our discussion was the dropping of two words ("impersonal" and
> "{unsupervised}") from the NABT statement. Whether these words are or are not
> scientifically valid (I do not believe they are) they are *unnecessary* to
> the definition of science or evolution. My friend Bill Thwaites noted in a
> post to me that if we are going to put "impersonal" and "undirected" as
> ideas relevant to evolution, they should also be included whenever we talk
> about any science. So we would now say, "The shortest distance between two
> points in Euclidean space is a straight line, if there is a god or not." In
> physics it might be said that "for every action there is an equal, opposite
> and *impersonal* reaction." And "two objects can not occupy the same space
> at the same time, with or without the help of God, if he/she exists or
> not." In chemistry it could be said that "the number of electrons gained
> and lost on each side of a chemical equation is, with no help from God,
> equal."
> See what I mean by "unnecessary"?!

Sure I do. I also think these two words were scientifically inadequate
convey the sense of the process of evolution. What we need to have in
NABT statement is an accurate statement about evolution that leaves
religious folks the opportunity to leaf in their favorite deity. The
majority of modern evolutionary biologists (Keith Miller, you know this
is true from Society for the Study of Evolution annual meetings)
are philosophical naturalists. But I think evolutionists are truly
to say this in public. By the way, I think the entire NABT statement
about evolution is poor. The statement pretends to know a lot more
about evolution than we actually do. Sometimes even scientists are
prone to exaggeration.

> Nothing inherently wrong with a definition containing unnecessary words,
> except that it would be less elegant. But *these* unnecessary words caused
> a strong reaction in many parts of the public, including conservative
> Christians. It made things more difficult for teachers, when the purpose
> of the statement was to make it *easier* for them! Sounds like a good
> reason to me to drop unnecessary words.
> But then my goal is to see that evolution is taught in school, and with
> luck, even accepted as good science. The antievolutionists's goals are to
> increase doubt about evolution as science, and the original NABT statement,
> by being interpreted as making a metaphysical as well as a scientific
> statement, gives them a wonderful stick with which to beat scientists and
> teachers. Personally, I'm glad that stick was taken away. I have seen
> harrumphing comments to the effect that "well, they took the words out, but
> they didn't really mean it! They're still a bunch of materialist bad
> guys!" but it is hard to take these sour grapes seriously. I don't know why
> anyone would want to hand them back that stick.

I would like to see understanding of organic evolution to grow anddeepen
our citizenry, especially young people, so we agree
on that. As I said before, however, understanding evolution is not
the same as accepting it. Perhaps sadly, I do see the revised
paragraph as a kind of deception, though not to the evolutionists,
who seem the most concerned. It is specifically designed to make
evolution more palatable, though evolutionists and you and I have
not changed our minds. Methodological naturalism applied to
evolution yields the same picture as philosophical naturalism.
Letting people think differently is perhaps politically wise
but it is still a deception.

Warm wishes, Will