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

From: Murray Hogg <>
Date: Mon May 11 2009 - 18:55:38 EDT

Hi Cameron,

Apologies for the delay on getting back to you on the below but it merited some consideration in order to precisely put my finger on the point of objection.

I think I'd like to make three remarks;

First, you can take the distinction between inference and observation as a given in this context. My usage of "observed" is, you see, typical of the usage that one becomes accustomed to when working in the sciences. So when I write something like "we observe the operation of chance" OF COURSE I mean "we INFER the operation of chance FROM the OBSERVED data" - it could mean nothing else IN THIS CONTEXT. So whilst I thank you for the elementary lesson in semantics I am, frankly, almost insulted that you think it necessary.

Second, reading your clarification on "a priori assumptions" I again take it as almost an insult that you think me obtuse enough to be of the view that scientists don't have assumptions. I am, however, not claiming that scientists don't have assumptions, I am objecting to the idea that scientific questions might be settled appeal to philosophical rather than scientific criteria. This is what I mean when I contrast your own approach ("I will stick to my guns until someone gives me an argument, couched in the terms of the philosophical and theological tradition...") with that of the sciences. I have no problem when philosophers speak qua philosopher and point out the hidden assumptions and internal contradictions of an argument grounded in empirical observation. Indeed, the philosophical critique of scientific claims is often enormously helpful AND thankfully appropriated by scientists themselves. BUT to insist that a certain philosophical or theological tradition ought to dic
tate what may or may not be found in nature is, despite you protestations, precisely the sort of a priori method that constrains scientific discovery and is, for that reason, to be quite vigorously opposed (and, yes, I'm aware that all in vestigation proceeds within the context of a paradigm).

This, actually, returns us to the maxim "ontology determined epistemology" of another thread. And it's here that the problem for philosophers becomes acute. Whereas philosophy deals (essentially) with the realm of ideas, the natural sciences deal with the realm of nature. So to argue philosophically about what is scientifically possible is to embroil oneself in an ontological confusion. Science requires us ultimately to take account of what is given in nature. And we have had enough experience of that to know that the world continually confounds philosophical expectations - even such a well grounded philosophical rule as that of the excluded middle can, under certain circumstances, lead us astray if we insist on a rigorous application in a scientific context.

Which returns us to the question of "chance" and "probability" on which my third remark;

You quite rightly say that we don't "observe" chance but rather "infer it" - but as I said above, you can take it as given that "infer from observation" is precisely what I meant when I said we "observe" chance in action in evolution. Similar remarks apply for "emergence" of the sort propounded by Simon Conway Morris. And my ultimate objection to your position is this...

As I understand it, you wish to argue that IF the mechanisms of evolution are probabilistic (as per the neo-Darwinian claim) THEN the outcomes of evolution must be contingent.

My response is that such issues aren't resolved by pointing out the obvious philosophical difficulty which this raises for Christian theology and then simply abandoning the philosophically least desirable element(s). They are resolved by asking FIRSTLY whether the claim in question is a well-grounded inference from the data and, if so, THEN asking "what are we missing that gives rise to our inability to correctly reconcile these claims?"

All of which leads to my bottom line: Regardless of what Plato, Aristotle, Lucretius, Aquinas, Hobbes, Bacon, Spinoza, Kant, Hegel, Bergson, Russell, etc said about chance and randomness, what matters is how they came to those views and whether WE have good reason to privilege them over our own [inferences from] observations. My argument would be that;

1) to claim that the mechanisms of evolution are probabilistic is inferentially well-grounded

2) the claim that the outcomes of evolution are NOT contingent is inferentially strongly plausible

And, given that I hold 1) and 2) then it follows that I consider that it is the case that we observe [or "infer from observation"] that the mechanisms of evolution are probabilistic whilst the outcomes are non-contingent.

If this stands in conflict with the philosophical tradition, then - in my view - this demonstrates a flaw in the philosophical tradition NOT in contemporary science.

And the way to meet my objection is NOT to simply assert the authority of the tradition over the inferential musings of contemporary science (and I allow that they ARE "inferential musings" rather than deductive certainties). Rather the way to meet it AS A SCIENTIFIC ARGUMENT is to give some reason WHY I should accept that the classical view is a better inference from data than is the contemporary neo-Darwinian view.

It is, in the end analysis, all about "inference to the best explanation" and, frankly, I believe that the neo-Darwinian synthesis has greater claim to THAT title than any proposed alternative.


Cameron Wybrow wrote:
> 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.
> Cameron.

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Received on Mon May 11 18:56:11 2009

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