Towards A Good Samaritan World

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

So I'm half-convinced...

Half-convinced, that is, that evolution passes the test for being a genuine scientific theory, in Popperian terms. Not that evolution is true. One problem for evolution's truth is that it seems to be connected to physicalism. I believe for reasons that are the topic for another post that physicalism is a false ontology. The falsity of physicalism and the truth of evolution are perhaps not mutually exclusive, but a fusion of the two of them tends to be odd. For example, I think the Catholics now hold that man evolved, but that there was an "ontological discontinuity" sometime in the past 100,000 years or so, when the soul appeared. I won't say that's absurd, and I don't think anyone has anything better to offer. But its oddity seems to count against it.

(If you're just joining us, this is a continuation of a discussion that has gone on for several recent posts-- scroll down, and be sure to check the comments. The most recent development is that I challenged my readers to offer a potential disconfirmation of the Darwinian theory of evolution. The existence of a conceivable, well-defined refuting counter-example to a theory-- or infinitely many of them-- is the criterion that characterizes all genuine scientific theories, according to philosopher Karl Popper. Eventually, reader/commenter Nato came up with one: anachronistic fossils. I'm impressed, since people have failed this challenge before...)

I'm only half-convinced that evolution is a scientific theory for reasons related to the "possible worlds" theme that I mentioned in the last post, and about which Nato requested elucidation. Unfortunately, it's quite difficult to elucidate, and it's very late at night right now... *yawn*...

But I might give a further hint of my meaning by using the coin-flip analogy again.

A Popperian scientist is one who is willing to say: "Heads I lose, tails we flip again." One refuting counter-example and he abandons his theory. Aside from the slight falsification that is involved in any abstraction I think that's actually an accurate description of most scientists, particularly in the fields of physics, chemistry, and non-evolutionary biology.

For many purposes, evolutionists are in the habit of saying, as it were, the opposite, i.e. "Heads I win, tails we flip again." For example, if a mutation occurs which increases a specimen's useful complexity, that's evidence in favor of Darwinism. But if no mutations occur, or if damaging mutations occur, that's not taken as evidence against Darwinism.

I was starting to lean towards the view that Darwinists always play this game. Now Nato has convinced me that they don't. But they may be playing the following game: "Heads I win, tails we flip again, unless you flip 1,600 tails in a row, in that case, you win." There are possibilities that could prove Darwinism false (anachronistic fossils) but they are an infinitesimal share of all possible worlds, whereas with other theories it is the confirmations which are an infinitesimal share of all possible worlds.

But once you start talking about possible worlds the mind begins to boggle, and I realize that this post falls far short of demonstrating point, and probably fails even to clarify it; it's only an intuition, in any case, and I'm unsure of my ground.

One thing that this debate has made clearer to me, though, is that the move I suggested of proposing a "Darwinian theory of imperfect ecosystemic homeostasis," with the Darwinian theory of the origin of all life as an extension of this theory, to some extent marginal/optional. Why separate the theories like this? Because the part of the Darwinian theory that can be isolated as a Darwinian theory of imperfect ecosystemic homeostasis is far more epistemologically robust than the theory-of-the-origins-of-life extension. Moreover, I think this truncated Darwinism could do most or all of the actual practical work that Darwinism does in the biological sciences, while being much less controversial. It will be hard to arrange this shift because Darwinian evolution is such a riveting story, and so many people believe in it for that reason alone without really understanding it, or the problems with it.

Finally, I must make this point pre-emptively: Accepting Darwinism as a genuine scientific theory, if I make that concession, and even if I were to concede (which I'm not at all sure I would) that there is extensive confirmation for it, that would not be a ground for accepting physicalism. The philosophical debate about physicalism is more fundamental than the scientific debate about evolution, and really can't be affected by it. Again, Karl Popper's description of science is useful: scientific knowledge is conjectural only, capable of a certain kind of asymptotic confirmation but always in a sense fragile. Knowledge of the thought-realm is not conjectural, it is introspective/experiential, and thus far stronger. To reject the reality of basic subjective experiences like free will, right and wrong, or ideas on the basis of any kind of induction-from-sensation type evidence would be a bit like a detective who, after hearing 20 witnesses report the same rock-solid alibi for Smith at the time that Jones was killed, hears a rumor that Smith had a grudge against Jones, and immediately decides that Smith was the murderer.


  • I see no special tension between Darwinian thinking and non-physicalisms such as dualism. It is Darwinian thinking and essentialism that are ineluctably antagonistic. I never really understood the importance of this until I read Darwin's Dangerous Idea within the context of all of Dennett's other work. For a long time, I had resisted reading the book because I thought it would be another dreary discussion of evolution and its detractors that wasn't germane to cognitive philosophy or free will. Boy was I wrong.

    I new realize that through evolutionary processes, real souls can develop from less real souls, going all the way back to things that are clearly not souls*. Whether the "soul" in question is composed of non-physical stuff or is a category of logical relations examples of which matter sometimes instantiates, one can (frequently) use Darwinian processes to get there from here.

    On the other hand, since this obviates the infinite regresses that we once truncated with appeals to an ultimate God (or something similar), Darwinian processes *do* chip away at the justifications for some types of deity appeals. Of course, even this seems less dire to me than at first it seems, since most of those appeals seem to assume the most unsophisticated concepts of theological creation. It seems bizarre to claim that an omniscient, omnipotent God that created the Universe would be bound to create everything at the same slice of the temporal dimension. Surely this makes as much sense as requiring that all creatures created by a God be situated along a certain spatial plane. It seems that all of Creation - including its history and future - would be created "simultaneously" from the perspective of an entity outside time.

    That's just the armchair theology of an atheist, though, so maybe there's some reason to expect all creatures to have been created at once. The Bible, I suppose, but if we're in Biblical Literalist mode, then there's very little common ground on which to conduct any sort of discussion, much less an ontological one.

    *The general idea being that one can replace "soul" in that narrative with a wide variety of wonderful things that seem qualitatively different from everything else.

    By Blogger Nato, at 1:57 AM  

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