Sunday, October 21, 2007

Science and Religion

"Couldn't evolution be the answer to how and not the answer to why?"

Were it not for the occasional glimpse of intelligent commentary strewn about the average episode of South Park, it would be a real disconcertion that such an astute, insightful question must be attributed to a show so generally foul. But the wit that the show's creators manage to display at least once per episode make it easier to admit that I first heard that line from the character Stan Marsh, and that I immediately understood the evolution/creation debate much more clearly at that moment.

In a recent article ("The Origin of Species, and Everything Else", National Review, 10/8/07), Jim Manzi points out, "Scientific atheists put forward two propositions as logically deducible from science: that evolution eliminates the need for a Creator, and that evolution has no ultimate goal or purpose." The mistake that such atheists make is to consider evolution an end in and of itself. On the contrary, evolution is a mere tool of Creation.

The first of the atheists' propositions is easily disproven by applying Aristotle's realization that "any chain of cause-and-effect must ultimately begin with an Uncaused Cause," as Manzi puts it. Ironically, it was my college philosophy professor, Daniel Dennett, a world-famous proponent of atheism, who first got me thinking about this topic when, on the first day of lecture, he dismissed the class with the question, "Why is there something instead of nothing?" Every time that we come up with an answer of what caused something to come about, we would be remiss not to then wonder what, in turn, was the cause of that cause. Even if we identify a chain of events going back to the Big Bang, we have to consider: Who put that ball of mass there, and what caused it to adhere to what we recognize as the laws of physics? And even if scientists could discern the exact force that created the mass that "Banged Big", so to speak, the question would remain: Whence came that exact force? I am convinced, therefore, that there must necessarily be an Immortal Power that has always been and will always be, and from which the rest of Creation comes about. That is G-d.

Whatever the case, the question of ultimate origins is not one that science is meant to answer, as per the very definition of the scientific method itself. (Manzi says it well: "A scientific theory is a falsifiable rule that relates cause to effect.") A scientist would therefore be out of order in claiming that any scientific theory, including evolution, "eliminates the need for a Creator".

The second proposition that Manzi identifies is not disproven quite as easily as the first, but it is necessary to address the point. Manzi himself refers to a very keen but very complex and fairly boring analogy involving computer software known as Genetic Algorithms in order to make his point. Those who are interested in reading his explanation in full are encouraged to do so, but I would rather speak more generally here.

In short, evolution must have a goal in the same way that any applied algorithm must have a goal: it takes a large number of possible genetic combinations and, even as new combinations join the mix, weeds out less fit combinations so that over time, the collective gene pool becomes fitter and fitter. It would be astoundingly difficult for us to determine what the genetic goal of evolution is, but that does not mean that the goal does not exist, or even that figuring it out is literally impossible. It just means that as human beings, we do not have the lifespan or brainpower to do it on our own, and we have not come up with the correct technology to accomplish that goal for us.

The way to determine evolution's genetic goal would be to take all possible gene combinations (in other words, all possible organisms), compare their abilities to survive and reproduce over time, and see which one has the most fitness. Of course, as I said, we humans rather lack the ability to do that, but the fact that we cannot figure it out does not mean that the conclusion does not exist. After all, the algorithm known as evolution is literally performing that task for us as we speak. If, rather than waiting until the end of time, we would like to know the answer a bit quicker, then perhaps we might collect the genetic information of every species on Earth and re-create the world in a computer model that we can "fast-forward", so to speak.

Here, I am going to hear some protests that say something to the effect of: "But you are not taking into account the fact that the physical environment of Earth is always randomly changing, so the evolution of species, far from being the tool of some ultimate goal of Creation, is really just a reflection of the fact that some species do better in certain environments than others." But that argument does not hold water.

First of all, that argument does not take into account the evolution of species that takes place within a constant environment. Once a new species comes onto the scene in a certain environment, if it is more fit than the species that were there before it, then the older species might become much fewer in number, or perhaps die out altogether. Within a few years, the exact same spot on Earth – without a changing landscape or climate – may have a very different gene pool that can only be altered if a new species, fitter still, comes onto the scene. Evolution really does imply a gene pool that is destined to approach (in the mathematical sense of the word) ultimate fitness over time.

Second of all, and more substantially, the changes that take place in the Earth's environment are not necessarily random. People tend to forget that the Earth, and all of its natural phenomena, are just another small part of the workings of the universe as a whole. The natural environment changes according to physical forces that have been present in the universe since long before the first life form appeared on Earth. Here, I cannot help but defer to Jim Manzi, who explains that "the [changing] fitness landscape, after all, is only the product of the interaction of other physical processes". He continues:

The scientific atheists sweep a lot of philosophical baggage into the term "random": It is often used loosely to imply a senselessness, a basic lack of understandability, in natural occurrences. But in fact, even the "random" elements of evolution that influence the path it takes toward its goal — for example, mutation and crossover — are really pseudo-random. For example, if a specific mutation is caused by radiation hitting a nucleotide, both the radiation and its effect on the nucleotide are governed by normal physical laws. Human uncertainty in describing evolution, which as a practical matter we refer to as randomness, is reducible entirely to the impracticality of building a model that comprehensively considers things such as the idiosyncratic path of every photon in the universe compounded by the quantum-mechanistic uncertainty present in fundamental physical laws that govern the motion of such particles. As a practical matter, we lack the capability to compute either the goal or the path of evolution, but that is a comment about our limitations as observers, not about the process itself.
In other words, if I may apply that concept back to the world's changing environment, meteorologists may have a difficult job with a poor track record, but it is technically possible to predict those patterns for all time because they are the result of interactions of finite amounts of matter and energy that are as old as the universe and that continue to follow set laws of physics.

As a side note: Perhaps one day, humans will have perfected that technology, and we will be able to predict environmental changes of all sorts for the rest of time. We would then, of course, adjust our behavior accordingly in order to better survive and reproduce. The fact that the brainpower that would enable us to do that would be an evolutionary advantage in and of itself is further proof that the changing environment is not random according to the evolutionary process.

Here, my dear reader will kindly note that nothing that I have said above challenges the general veracity of the theory of evolution; indeed, I accepted it as true from the very beginning of this post. I bring this up because it is of interest, given that I am a political conservative and a believing Jew. Most Americans would be surprised to learn that the clash that we see in our political arena between proponents of evolution and proponents of religion is rather unique to our society. Nothing illustrates this better, in my opinion, than the following excerpt from Stephen Jay Gould's wonderful 1997 essay "Nonoverlapping Magisteria":

In early 1984, I spent several nights at the Vatican housed in a hotel built for itinerant priests. ... Our crowd (present in Rome for a meeting on nuclear winter sponsored by the Pontifical Academy of Sciences) shared the hotel with a group of French and Italian Jesuit priests who were also professional scientists.

At lunch, the priests called me over to their table to pose a problem that had been troubling them. What, they wanted to know, was going on in America with all this talk about "scientific creationism"? One asked me: "Is evolution really in some kind of trouble, and if so, what could such trouble be? I have always been taught that no doctrinal conflict exists between evolution and Catholic faith, and the evidence for evolution seems both entirely satisfactory and utterly overwhelming. Have I missed something?"

A lively pastiche of French, Italian, and English conversation then ensued for half an hour or so, but the priests all seemed reassured by my general answer: Evolution has encountered no intellectual trouble; no new arguments have been offered. Creationism is a homegrown phenomenon of American sociocultural history - a splinter movement (unfortunately rather more of a beam these days) of Protestant fundamentalists who believe that every word of the Bible must be literally true, whatever such a claim might mean. We all left satisfied, but I certainly felt bemused by the anomaly of my role as a Jewish agnostic, trying to reassure a group of Catholic priests that evolution remained both true and entirely consistent with religious belief.
The thesis, and, indeed, the very title of Gould's essay express what in my own humble opinion is the correct approach to the two disciplines of science and religion. A magisterium is a "domain of teaching authority", as Gould explains it, and indeed, the domains of science and religion, properly understood, do not overlap and can in fact be complimentary.

Science's domain is that of the physical realm. It is meant to perfect techniques of observation and analysis. What is here? How does it work? How long has it been here? What was here ten billion years ago? How did that work? How can we even know that? What can we create to be here in the future in order to make our lives better? How will that work? These are questions that science is meant to answer.

Proponents of scientism need to learn the natural limits of mankind's capacity for comprehension and the existence of questions upon which no physical force has any bearing. So you have proven evolution to be a fact; how could that possibly mean that G-d does not exist? How could any aspect of science prove what is right and what is wrong? Those are, at the very least, opinion questions. Most people treat them as religious or philosophical questions. Only someone who has the debased notion of science as a "side" to be "taken" against anything that is not science (i.e. another category for identity politics to corrupt) would consider them scientific questions.

Religion's domain is the spirit, the soul, and the supernatural – including arguments against the existence of such things. It is philosophical in nature, and it is meant to guide human beings as they wander through life. What is Good, and what is Bad? What makes Right, and what makes Wrong? Why am I here? What is the meaning of life? Why should I care about what happens to others? What happens to my consciousness when I die? Why is there something instead of nothing? These are questions for religion.

Religionists need to learn the purposes of religion itself. Religion teaches many wonderful, priceless things, but history, for example, is not one of them. In other words, if sound science proves that a literal reading of the first chapters of Genesis is incorrect, then it is misguided to presume that science is wrong. Our faith is best reserved for more worthy notions, such as the existence of G-d and the truth of His morality. Theologists, just like scientists, need to be wary of the temptation to disgrace their magisterium by failing to recogize its proper boundaries and making it an object of identity politics.

Perhaps if we accept the genius of science to explain "how", and encourage it to continue, we will have an easier time understanding "why".


Leo Pusateri said...

Heckuva essay, Mr. Menchner..

Wonderful and provocative read!

Deathlok said...

I was just having the same discussion. . .God Creating Everything By Means of Evolution . . .with a fellow CCD student.

It just wasn't written as well as yours.

Thought Provoking.