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The Third Party in the Debate

In my last entry, I made a preliminary statement about what science is and why ID does not qualify. This is not the end of the story. There is a third party who is just as unscientific as the ID theorist. This person uses scientific evolution as the cornerstone of a naturalistic philosophy known as scientism or evolutionism. This is the position that what science discovers is all there is. The "evolutionist" argues, in varying degrees of sophistication or explicitness, that evolutionary theory tells us something "deep" about life's origins.

Stephen Jay Gould is a good example. In 1994, Gould wrote,

History includes too much chaos...Humans arose...as a fortuitous and contingent outcome of thousands of linked events, any one of which could have occurred differently and sent history on an alternative pathway...
There is a subtle transition that Gould undertakes in the quotation above - from the science of randomness to the metaphysics of indetermination. Chaos is a concept that implies, as Gould rightly notes, that certain phenomena, like the weather, are unpredictable at a certain level of precision because of small initial variations. It is related to "random" -- there is "random error" in your scientific theory when there are observations your theory fails to predict.

What Gould concludes however, goes beyond chaos. Chaos is not "replay the same event and you can yield a different result." It is, "replay a seemingly same event and you can yield a different result." The former position is indeterminism, which is what Gould implies at the end of the passage, and more explicitly in the following:

The pedestal (on which human hubris rests) is not smashed until we abandon progress or complexification as a central principle and come to entertain the strong possibility that H. sapiens is but a tiny, late-arising twig on life's enormously arborescent bush (H. sapiens) would almost surely not appear a second time if we could replant the bush from seed and let it grow again.
The force of this moral argument is predicated upon the misuse of the word "replant." To say that something is chaotic or random is not to say that the same cause will yield a different result, but that we cannot recreate the causes with a sufficient level of precision to recreate the result. This is far different than saying that a perfect repetition of the experiment would yield a different result - which is what Gould must imply if he wishes to assert that we are not meant to be or that progress is an illusion. In other words, Gould is advocating a position of indeterminism and not chaos or randomness. Indeterminism is objective -- things literally could have gone in any direction. Chaos and randomness are subjective -- we cannot get things to go in a certain direction.

Indeterminism on this scale cannot be arrived at scientifically. Hypothesize, with Gould, that resetting the evolutionary clock will yield an entirely different result. That is an intuitively plausible hypothesis - especially since we know from quantum physics that indeterminism exists on the sub-atomic level. How might this hypothesis be tested? One could do what physicists do to study electron indetermination when they run a series of electrons through a test, holding all variables constant, to see how they vary in their motion. A possible test of Gould's indetermination hypothesis would be to repeat evolution on Earth, holding perfectly constant all variables, and see how (if at all) life develops differently.

That is an experiment that we cannot perform. Accordingly, we have no way to test the validity of Gould's hypothesis. That Gould held it nevertheless indicates that the grounds of his acceptance were non-scientific - and therefore he was, in the course of deploying this argument, acting as a philosopher and not a scientist.

Gould's transition from science to metaphysics is quite subtle and it is easy to appreciate how this would inspire strong feelings in those who disagree with his metaphysical conclusions. He uses scientific packaging to make an argument about the meaning of human life. I appreciate the desire to make science “matter” to humanity. However, science cannot be made to "matter" in the way that Gould wishes. This is because science does not have the capacity to answer the big questions. Science is the process of making descriptive and causal inferences - identifying the existence of that which is not initially known or identifying the cause of that which initially seems uncaused. Scientists do this by manipulating variables that can be brought under our control. If we cannot possibly control a variable, and control of that variable is necessary for testing a theory, we cannot test that theory. Thus, the most important moral and ontological questions - what should I do, why are we here, where are we going, is there a God, is there life after death - cannot be answered scientifically. We cannot control the variables to test our answers.

In conclusion, it is important to make the following clear. One can disagree with evolutionary biology's argument about the origin of life being "random," but one cannot claim that this randomness in any way contradicts Judeo-Christianity's religious narrative about life's origins. Random does not mean uncaused. It means unpredictable. When evolutionary biologists say that life is random, they mean the cause of life has never been known to cause life any other time. In other words, life is unique and it is not the product of a general, pro-life “law” in the universe, as gravity is. An apple falling from a tree is not random, but life developing from non-life is. This does not mean that the former is caused and the latter not caused. All it means it that the cause of the former is a general law that causes apples to fall all the time, while the cause of the latter is not general and therefore life's development is unique. That is all random means to the scientist.

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