Re: [asa] Because of us - Steve Fuller's anthropic principle - Darwin's original sin

From: Cameron Wybrow <>
Date: Wed Apr 29 2009 - 00:54:22 EDT

Dear Murray:

Over the last few months I've enjoyed many of your posts, which are generally clear and informative.

You've misunderstood my post here, though. In fact, in accusing me of accepting a priori assumptions, and not being empirical enough, you've made statements that show that you (or perhaps Conway Morris) are accepting a priori assumptions yourself, which are not empirically grounded but represent metaphysical choices regarding the interpretation of nature.

I'll show this momentarily, but first, let me give a preamble regarding my language:

I was not trying to make any a priori statements about chance and necessity, but was seeking to establish the vocabulary I was using. And I was trying to show people where I was getting it from. I get my usage of "chance" and "necessity" from two places: (1) 30-odd years of undergraduate, graduate and post-graduate study of the Western philosophical tradition: Plato, Aristotle, Lucretius, Aquinas, Hobbes, Bacon, Spinoza, Kant, Hegel, Bergson, Russell, etc.; (2) the usage of the classic neo-Darwinists themselves, which more or less follows, albeit in popular form, the main stream of the usage of the terms in the classical tradition.

So, unlike some people here, who tend to be science-trained rather than philosophy-trained, and seem to want to use more modern definitions of "chance" (chance as "randomness" in some special sense from modern statistics, or chance in relation to quantum theory or chaos theory or the like), I am accepting the language of my opponents (the neo-Darwinists, Coyne, Dawkins, Sagan, Gould, etc.) and arguing that *given their use of these terms*, neo-Darwinian evolution cannot be made compatible with orthodox Christian thought about Creation. Now if one wants to alter the meaning of "chance" and "necessity", on the grounds that modern science has shown that "nature" is different from what these men conceived, that's fine with me; but I didn't undertake to argue with such an altered conception, because that wouldn't be neo-Darwinian evolution any more (unless we are going to equivocate). I was arguing against Christians who think you can take the classical neo-Darwinian view of nature, and layer Christian theology on top of it, without any conflict.

End of preamble. Now, in your answer, you state:


"My response to the below is to simply point out that your allowing a priori assumptions about chance and determinacy to determine your entire position.

"THAT, in a nutshell, was Simon Conway Morris' beef with Stephen Jay Gould and, as SCM has strongly argued in 'Life's Solution' when we actually LOOK at the history of life on earth what we observe is the operation of chance AND the repeated emergence of uncannily similar forms.

"The a posteriori conclusion - based on observed data rather than abstract theoretical speculation - is that evolution, although governed as far as we know by chance, nevertheless is not contingent as Stephen Jay Gould argued.

"This might be a startling, even paradoxical claim, but it is what we actually observe. As John Polkinghorne is fond of pointing out, the universe has a funny way of surprising us by refusing to conform to what we thing should be the case. We might like to think that a process guided by chance MUST be contingent in its outcome, but the fact is that what we actually observe suggests otherwise."


Here there are plenty of a priori notions which don't come from me. Let's start with "what we observe is the operation of chance and the repeated emergence of uncannily similar forms." The first a priori assumption, hidden in the word "emergence" (rather than "creation") is that macroevolution has occurred. I don't actually contest that, but it is an assumption of both Conway Morris and Gould's thought. But let's come to one that I would contest. The second a priori assumption is that "chance" has some sort of certified role in evolution. We see this in CM's assertion that we "observe" the operation of chance. I beg your pardon? We *observe* only empirical events and things (fossils, etc.), and some people *infer* that these things are due to the operation of "chance" (when they might be due to a variety of things: miracles, immanent design, front-loaded necessity, etc.). Third, when you say, at the end, "we might like to think that a process guided by chance MUST be contingent in its outcome, but the fact is that what we actually observe suggests otherwise", the syntax and logic of your sentence imply that evolution is "a process guided by chance", and silently rules out the possibility that "chance" is an erroneous interpretation of what has happened, and that convergence is better explained by necessity and/or design. Whether this assumption of yours reflects a bias of Conway Morris toward "chance" (a bias not shared by Michael Denton, by the way), I cannot say, because I haven't read Conway Morris. But your argument as stated contains a priori assumptions aplenty.

My assumptions are minimal. I make a working assumption (not a dogmatic claim) that macroevolution has occurred. Then I ask myself, what might be the cause of this process? I do *not* assume, as most people here seem to, that random mutations, drift, natural selection, etc., are adequate to explain the process. I do *not* assume that these mechanisms -- all of them (as conceived by the classical neo-Darwinists) either chance mechanisms or chance mechanisms combined with necessity (natural laws, etc.) -- are adequate to produce the living forms that we see. I assume that it is at least *possible* that some non-chance factor may be involved (call it design, immanent intelligence, inbuilt telos, front-loading, whatever you like). I do not hold to the metaphysically biased exclusion of final causation from nature that appears to be sacrosanct among at least the older scientists on this list. So I am actually *less* a priori in my approach than Conway Morris, Gould, or many people here in this group.

Now, if I've cleared this up, take a look again at my post to Mike Gene, and consider it on its own terms. And tell me (not in the language of statistical thermodynamics or chaos theory, but in the language of Augustine, Aquinas, Calvin, which you should know since you're studying theology) how the God of the orthodox Christian tradition could have *guaranteed* our creation, and the creation of the rest of the living things on our world (which he *must* be able to guarantee, or Providence is out the window), through a process of pure neo-Darwinian evolution, when that process is of such a nature (ex hypothesi) that it is not capable of guaranteeing *anything*. How can God guarantee the unguaranteeable? How can God make a square circle? Do you see the difficulty of combining neo-Darwinism (in its original formulation, not in the TE rewrite of it) with the orthodox Christian understandings of creation, omnipotence, and providence? I maintain that it can't be done, and I will stick to my guns until someone gives me an argument, couched in the terms of the philosophical and theological tradition, to show otherwise.




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Received on Wed Apr 29 00:55:48 2009

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