Evolution and ID: Some categorical confusions

This little essay is a cross-post from Conservative Reformed Mafia.

Metaphysics and Epistemology

Folks who recognize these words will doubtless first think of academic philosophy rather than academic biology, but the big questions (as I see them) at play in this debate are in fact philosophical ones. To start in reverse order, the big epistemological question here is one that got its most famous articulations in the Continental philosophies of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In separate but related developments (horribly oversimplified here), Descartes began to maintain that all human knowledge begins with the knowledge of one’s own activity as thinker; Spinoza developed a pantheistic philosophy that named all things, visible and invisible, human and not-human, as part of God, thus collapsing the distinction between creator and creation and between perceiver and perceived; and Kant asserted that human knowledge is limited to the interactions between the mind and sensible objects, that human knowledge does not begin until manifold sensory data hit the mind’s categorizing machinery and cannot extend beyond what that machinery produced, thus cutting off knowledge both of material things-in-themselves and any entities not apprehensible by the five senses.

The common threads in all of these modes of knowing is the location of knowledge in the human mind, and Kant, the latest of the three, has the most influence on scientific epistemology in that the category “natural causes,” a subspecies of Kant’s “cause/effect” category of experience, largely fuels the rhetoric of those who would eliminate questions of a supersensible designer from the equation. But more on that later. For now the point to be made is that the critical philosophical tradition makes the axiomatic epistemological assertion (in other words, a claim that in its own terms cannot be challenged) that human knowledge has very definite and narrow borders and that any claims beyond those borders are necessarily nonsense claims.

Such claims naturally lead to questions of metaphysics. Again a bit of history is in order: the word metaphysics names that hard-to-name branch of philosophy that has to do with what exists and how different orders of existence relate to one another. Because Aristotle didn’t title his own books, and because his book on this topic comes right after his book on the nature of things (physike, scholars called it the after-physics, or the metaphysics.

The differences between neo-Platonic, Augustinian, and Thomist metaphysics are of little concern to this essay; what stands important is that the Kantian tradition effectively walled off metaphysical speculation from genuine human knowledge, making all claims about invisible entities (God, angels, the soul, etc.) are necessarily matters of “belief” or “faith” (note the departure from the Latin root, fides, faithfulness) rather than of knowledge.

Law and Theory

Thus we enter the question of teaching evolution as an exclusive theoretical option in science classrooms. Modern experimental science got its classical formulation in the essays of the English philosopher Francis Bacon (mmm… bacon), who held that the old ways of knowing about the world, rooted as they were in observing things passively, was no knowledge at all. Instead, Bacon suggested, true knowledge of creation comes from manipulating it, making it do what on its own it would not do. It was in this context that Bacon formulated his famous saying “Knowledge is power.”

Thus when Bacon wrote about the forms of reality, he wrote not about abstractions in which things participate but in terms of predictable effects that follow from reproducible and (most of the time) manipulable causes. On the other hand, he also wrote about speculating from those observable and repeatable forms. The former, over the course of modern science, came to be called scientific laws, the latter scientific theories.

The differences between “law” and “theory” in science are categorical differences, not matters of more or less certainty. When Big Bang and Darwinian evolution are called theories as opposed to laws of gravity or of thermodynamics, the differences have to do with repeatability rather than of certainty. Both have their places in scientific practice, but they just name different kinds of knowledge.

In the papers’ coverage of various evolution/ID, therefore, both the ID advocate who does a little endzone dance after saying, “Evolution is only a theory, not a law” and the evolution advocate who says, “Evolution is a theory just like gravity is” are both mistaken categorically.

Science in fact consists both of theories and laws, just as Christianity consists both of doctrine and practice. To give one of either pair priority over the other might sound pious but in fact distorts the reality on either side.

Science and Faith

To return to Kant for a moment, sometimes in these articles an evolution-only advocate will attempt to offer an olive branch by saying something along the lines of “We don’t want to deny anyone’s faith; we only want to keep science scientific.” What actually seems to be going on here is a discussion about allowable theories that leaves out a very important metaphysical/epistemological premise.

Now for the English translation. The aforementioned olive branch carries with it a heap of baggage, beginning with an implied concession that real human knowledge cannot, by definition, say anything about God or angels and thus must limit itself to observable causes and effects. That much is just Kant rehashed. But the next step that the olive branch requires is a dogma that any explanation of the (by definition) unobserved must play only by rules identical with what a laboratory can reproduce.

Now that sort of metaphysical claim still leaves holes, and the word for holes in a system that does not allow holes is “chance.” It’s the rough equivalent of X in algebra, and the ethical implication of this use of that word is that what is unknown now in terms of laboratory-derived rules will become known in precisely those terms as laboratory procedures become more precise. This is not an invalid metaphysic, philosophically speaking. But it is a speculation (again philosophically speaking) and thus belongs not in the category of experiment or law or even of theory but in the category of philosophical metaphysics.

Moreover, to say that another metaphysic, one that says that otherwise-inexplicable phenomena result from a designer’s design, is a matter of “faith” as opposed to “science” is to make a categorical error, a multiplication of categories without necessity. In fact both metaphysical claims have devices and vocabularies to account for the available phenomena, and the differences between the two cannot be settled in a laboratory but must be matters of persuasion on a rhetorical level.

(Tentative) Conclusion

As you might have guessed by this point, I do prefer pedagogies that present both the materialist/progressive metaphysic and the intelligent design metaphysic as alternatives for explaining the data generated by experiment and observation. To call one side evolution and the other intelligent design, in fact, seems itself to be an error in categories: what is really at stake in these things is a choice of metaphysical frameworks, one materialist all the way down and the other open to transcendence. As I wrap up this post, I’ll say explicitly what should be evident to even a casual reader: I am not a practicing biologist, but I am a student of the history of philosophy, and my claims here neither rely upon nor negate any biologist’s experiments or observations. Rather I am attempting to make sense of some of the ways that people frame those experiments and observations for the sake of teaching students, a practice to which I am no stranger at all. I hope to hear some feedback from critics and friends and friends who want to criticize.



Filed under Reflections, teaching

2 responses to “Evolution and ID: Some categorical confusions

  1. Um, I haven’t read this yet–it’s really long, and I’m enjoying Heaney’s Beowulf instead (good stuff!)–but I still have one question:


    You have no limits.

  2. Honestly, I needed some sort of outlet. And besides, since I passed written comps, I’m on a mad manic swing–I feel like I could take on a bus load of professors! 🙂

    BTW, Heaney’s Beowulf is a really fun translation. Now that I’ve translated it myself I’m obligated to sniff at it in public, but when I’m in the mood for an Anglo-Saxon fix, it’s the book I pick up.

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