Cheating the Millennium: The Mounting Explanatory Debts of Scientific Naturalism

ã 2003 Christopher Michael Langan

Introduction: Thesis + Antithesis = Synthesis

In agreeing to write this essay, I have promised to explain why I find Darwinism unconvincing. In order to keep this promise, I will be compelled to acknowledge the apparently paradoxical fact that I find it convincing as well. I find it convincing because it is in certain respects correct, and in fact tautologically so in the logical sense; I find it unconvincing because it is based on a weak and superficial understanding of causality and is therefore incomplete. Explaining why this is so will require a rather deep investigation of the nature of causality. It will also require not only that a direction of progress be indicated, but that a new synthesis embracing the seemingly antithetical notions of teleology and natural selection be outlined. But first, some essential background.

It would be hard to imagine philosophical issues bearing more strongly on the human condition than the nature of life and the meaning of human existence, and it would be hard to imagine a scientific issue bearing more strongly on the nature and meaning of life than biological origins. Our view of evolutionary biology, whatever it happens to be at any particular juncture, tells us much of what we believe about who and what we are and why we are here, unavoidably affecting how we view (and ultimately, treat) ourselves and each other. Unfortunately, the prevailing theory of biological origins seems to be telling us that at least one of these questions, why are we here?, is meaningless…or at least this is the message that many of us, whether or not we are directly aware of it, seem to have received. As a result, the brightest hope of the new millennium, that we would see the dawn of a New Enlightenment in which the Meaning of it All would at last be revealed, already seems to have gone the way of an extravagant campaign promise at an inauguration ceremony.

The field of evolutionary biology is currently dominated by neo-Darwinism, a troubled marriage of convenience between post-Mendelian genetics and natural selection, a concept propounded by the naturalist Charles Darwin in his influential treatise On the Origin of Species. It has often been noted that the field and the theory appear to be inseparable; in many respects, it seems that evolutionary biology and Darwinism originated and evolve together, leading some to conclude that the field properly contains nothing that is not already accommodated by the theory.

Those attempting to justify this view frequently assert that the limitations of the theory are just the general limitations imposed on all scientific theories by standard scientific methodology, and that to exceed the expressive limitations of the theory is thus to transgress the boundaries of science. Others have noted that this seems to assume a prior justification of scientific methodology that does not in fact exist – merely that it works for certain purposes does not imply that it is optimal, particularly when it is evidently useless for others - and that in any case, the putative falsifiability of neo-Darwinism distinguishes it from any definition of science according to which the truth or falsity of such theories can be scientifically determined. Nevertheless, neo-Darwinism continues to claim exclusive dominion over the "science" of evolutionary biology.

Until the latter part of the 18th century, the story was quite different. People tended to regard the matter of biological origins in a religious light. The universe was widely considered to have been freely and purposively designed and created by God as described in the Book of Genesis, and divine purpose was thought to be immanent in nature and open to observation and study. This doctrine, called teleology, drew rational support from traditional theological "arguments from design" holding that nature could only have been designed and created by a supreme intelligence. But teleology began to wane with the rise of British empiricism, and by the time Darwin published his theory in 1859, the winds of change were howling his anthem. Since then, the decline of teleology has accelerated to a point at which every supposedly universal law of nature is confidently presented as "irrefutable evidence" that natural events unfold independently of intent, and that purpose, divine or otherwise, is irrelevant to natural causation.

The concept of teleology remains alive nonetheless, having recently been granted a scientific reprieve in the form of Intelligent Design theory. "ID theory" holds that the complexity of biological systems implies the involvement of empirically detectable intelligent causes in nature. Although the roots of ID theory can be traced back to theological arguments from design, it is explicitly scientific rather than theological in character, and has thus been presented on the same basis as any other scientific hypothesis awaiting scientific confirmation.

Rather than confining itself to theological or teleological causation, ID theory technically allows for any kind of intelligent designer – a human being, an artificial intelligence, even sentient aliens. This reflects the idea that intelligence is a generic quality which leaves a signature identifiable by techniques already heavily employed in such fields as cryptography, anthropology, forensics and computer science. It remains only to note that while explaining the inherent complexity of such a material designer would launch an explanatory regress that could end only with some sort of Prime Mover, thus coming down to something very much like teleology after all, ID theory has thus far committed itself only to design inference. That is, it currently proposes only to explain complex biological phenomena in terms of design, not to explain the designer itself. With regard to deeper levels of explanation, the field remains open.

Because neo-Darwinism is held forth as a "synthesis" of Darwinian natural selection and post-Mendelian genetics, it is sometimes referred to as the "Modern Synthesis". However, it appears to fall somewhat short of this title, for not only is its basic approach to evolutionary biology no longer especially modern, but despite the fact that it is a minority viewpoint counterbalanced by cogent and far more popular alternatives including theistic evolution and ID theory, it actively resists meaningful extension. Many of its most influential proponents have dismissed ID theory virtually on sight, declaring themselves needless of justification or remedial dialectic despite the many points raised against them, and this is not something that the proponents of a "modern synthesis" would ordinarily have the privilege of doing. A synthesis is ordinarily expected to accommodate both sides of a controversy regarding its subject matter, not just the side favored by the synthesist.

Given the dissonance of the neo-Darwinist and teleological viewpoints, it is hardly surprising that many modern authors and scientists regard the neo-Darwinian and teleological theories of biological evolution as mutually irreconcilable, dwelling on their differences and ignoring their commonalities. Each side of the debate seems intent on pointing out the real or imagined deficiencies of the other while resting its case on its own real or imagined virtues. This paper will take a road less traveled, treating the opposition of these views as a problem of reconciliation and seeking a consistent, comprehensive framework in which to combine their strengths, decide their differences, and unite them in synergy. To the extent that both theories can be interpreted in such a framework, any apparent points of contradiction would be separated by context, and irreconcilable differences thereby avoided.

The ideal reconciliatory framework would be self-contained but comprehensive, meaning that both theories could be truthfully interpreted within it to the maximum possible extent, and consistent, meaning that irreconcilable differences between the theories could not survive the interpretation process. It would also reveal any biconditionality between the two theories; were they in any way to imply each other, this would be made explicit. For example, were a logical extension of neo-Darwinism to somehow yield ID-related concepts such as teleological agency and teleological causation, these would be seen to emerge from neo-Darwinist premises; conversely, were ID-theoretic concepts to yield ingredients of neo-Darwinism, this too would be explicated. In any case, the result would wear the title of "synthesis" far more credibly than neo-Darwinism alone.

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Excerpted from chapter 13 of Uncommon Dissent: Intellectuals who find Darwinism Unconvincing.