On the clarification of terms (was Re: [asa] Response to Baylor meeting)

From: Murray Hogg <muzhogg@netspace.net.au>
Date: Mon Aug 31 2009 - 15:37:26 EDT

Gregory Arago wrote:
> Alongside this question, there is one for Murray: what is the difference
> or sameness in your view between 'neo-Darwinian evolution' and
> 'Christian evolutionist'? I see you challenging Cameron by suggesting
> that neo-Darwinian evolution (or 'the modern synthesis') is 'good
> science' (I am assuming this is how you would label it - i.e. best
> explanation of the evidence to date) and that there is nothing
> contradictory about being both an 'evolutionist' and a 'Christian' (or
> Muslim or Jew, etc.). But Cameron has made repeated points that the term
> 'Christian Darwinist' is a contradiction in terms. Do you disagree with
> him about this or is it a matter of clarifying our terms 'Christian
> evolutionist' and 'Christian Darwinist', along with what the differences
> between Darwinian and Darwinism, and evolution and evolutionism,
> actually mean?

Hi Greg,

Personally I take it that "Christian [neo-]Darwinist" entails no contradiction in terms if it means simply that one holds to (1) the basic tenets of the Christian faith; and (2) the basic tenets of Darwinian or neo-Darwinian theory.

Here I take "Christian" to mean roughly somebody who affirms, in sincerity, the creedal formulations of the Christian faith.

And I take "Darwinist" to mean roughly somebody who affirms descent with modification under the influence of natural selection and "neo-Darwinist" as one who adds to this the insights of genetics.

These are crude descriptions, but a moments' reflection will, I hope, serve to illustrate that to formulate a contradiction requires importing some other assumptions which are in no way a necessary part of Christian belief or [neo-]Darwinist theory.

One can, if one wishes, "clarify" ones' terms such that one constructs a contradiction - but I find such efforts more than a little dependent upon those assumptions which one brings to the discussion, and which ultimately determine its outcome. Should one wish to question those assumptions, or dismiss them altogether, then the conclusion that Christian belief and [neo-]Darwinian theory are inherently contradictory is not compelling.

But, let me say that those who speak of "clarifying terms" often seem to me to be attempting to arrive at a level of linguistic precision which is merited neither by the science nor by common linguistic usage. Evolutionary theory is arrived at by inductive inference - often from incomplete data - under the influence of varying philosophical presuppositions. As a result the concept of "[neo-]Darwinism" is somewhat amorphous and escapes precise delineation. Even [neo-]Darwinists argue amongst themselves over how the data is to be best understood and what it infers. There is certainly no "official" version of evolutionary theory.

Now, I can understand the desire to seek clarity here. But the reality is that such desire will (repeat "will") loose out to the simple fact that "[neo-]Darwinism" (like many other "meta-theories" in the sciences) is a highly complex and heterogeneous concept group. And if evolutionary theorists are unable to cut through this complexity to derive "the" [neo-]Darwinian model, then I think those outside the life sciences should recognize that their efforts to seek "clarity" will be met with no small reserve.

I think I might here put a question of the sort you yourself have often raised: if one is going to ask if "[neo-]Darwinism" is compatible with "Christianity" then surely we need to be asking "whose [neo-]Darwinism?" and "whose Christianity?" It may be that for some *their* Christianity may be at odds with *their* [neo-]Darwinism. I can only say that *my* Christianity is not at odds with *my* [neo-]Darwinism (not that I claim to *be* a neo-Darwinist - only that neo-Darwinism seems to me a justifiable inference from the available data - there is a difference between a claim about a belief, and the affirmation of a belief).

To which I will only add that I consider my grasp of Christian theology and [neo-]Darwinian theory to be, shall we say, "adequate." I have at least considered this particular issue at sufficient length that I think I can consider myself to have some handle on the issues. And it's in part because agreement on the "clarification" of terms is next to impossible that I cannot be convinced that Christian faith and neo-Darwinian theory - both of which are very broad tents - stand in any irreconcilable conflict.

Finally, without wishing to be the least bit snide, I do not understand why claims that Christian theology and neo-Darwinian theory are in inherent conflict should bring *my* interpretations of these fields into question. If there are those who think there IS an inherent contradiction, then my suggestion would be that it is perhaps *they* who need to rethink *their* understanding of the issues at hand.


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Received on Mon Aug 31 15:38:26 2009

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