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Ch. 4 - Before Darwin to the Twentieth Century 
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Post Ch. 4 - Before Darwin to the Twentieth Century
This thread is for discussing Chapter 4: Before Darwin to the Twentieth Century. ::223




Sun Oct 01, 2006 9:48 pm
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Post Re: Ch. 4 - Before Darwin to the Twentieth Century
A lot of the information in this chapter and the two that follow it are, for me, rehash of information that I've read in the last year or so. There are a few points I thought I'd raise, though.

First, I wonder what Scott's sources were for her characterization of the nature of religious belief in the Medieval period. That section only lists three sources. Of those, one is in specific reference to Platonic -- that is to say, pre-Christian -- thought; one is to a book about perceptions of race in America; and the third is about an 18th century geological survey. I'm not suggesting that Scott is mistaken or misleading on any particular point, but as she's laying the background for modern Creationist attitudes, I'd feel better about her summation if I had a better sense of how she decided that medieval Christian attitudes were this rather than that.

This is actually a point that I think is worth dwelling on: most people seem too willing to rely on perceptions about those crucial middle centuries without ever questioning whether or not that perceptions are accurate -- or even based on accurate evidence. In particular, I'm suspicious of the idea that modern Creationism reflects a continuity with ancient or medieval attitudes.

One factoid that gave me a satisfying little mental click was the definition of "Neo-Darwinism" as the synthesis of Darwinian theory with Mendelian genetics. I've heard the term "Neo-Darwinian" bandied about ever since I read Richard Wright's "The Ethical Animal" ten years ago, but somehow I had always thought that it referred to the group of scientists/philosophers like Wright and Dawkins who were attempting to explain all morality in evolutionary terms.




Sun Oct 15, 2006 10:01 pm
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Post Re: Ch. 4 - Before Darwin to the Twentieth Century
I, too, like how Scott outlined what Neo-Darwinism is. Too many people, especially creationists, seem to be ignorant about how well Mendelian genetics fit in with Darwinism. This is yet another reason to suppose evolution is true, in fact. (When different theories in different fields cohere with each other, that's always a very, very good sign. Just as it was a good sign when continental drift helped explain the distribution of fossils across distant continents with similar homologies and ancestry.)

For the most part, Scott emphasizes the correct changes in thinking that led to modern science. Once people started seeing the Earth as a changing, non-static place that could be understood in natural terms, science began to take off. I also like her emphasis on the type of science exemplified by Darwin's reasoning for evolution. Darwin certainly wasn't a Baconian, using pure induction to arrive at a conclusion. He practiced the hypothetico-deductive method of modern science by looking for observations that would be entailed by a postulated theory.

And while her explanation of why Creationists take issue with evolution may be overly simplistic, I think it is for the most part right. The thing about evolution that makes it controversial is the fact that it deals with human origins and seems to imply a purposelessness in our lives, like we are the products of some accidental process of elimination.

But does evolution deny purpose to our lives? It certainly denies us any transcendant purpose. We do not have a "purpose" in the way that a TV or a car has a purpose. Cars are designed FOR something--namely to transport us around. But if humans are produced through a mindless winnowing of random mutations then we were not created "for" anything at all. At best, we can only create purpose for ourselves. We can decide to devote our lives to charity, or our family, or so on. And what is wrong with this type of purpose? To me, it seems this personal type of purpose is better than the objective purpose that would be given to a couch or a car. So what if God did not design us "for" something? What is so honorable about a car's being designed for driving us around? Isn't devoting one's life to something personal a lot greater than being told from above what we were designed for? What if we were designed for God's amusement, or as punching bags to receive God's wrath? Suddenly, objective purpose doesn't seem so great anymore!




Fri Oct 20, 2006 10:56 pm
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Post Re: Ch. 4 - Before Darwin to the Twentieth Century
Saint Gasoline: Too many people, especially creationists, seem to be ignorant about how well Mendelian genetics fit in with Darwinism. This is yet another reason to suppose evolution is true, in fact.

I'd say that, in practice, it's even better as a reason to stop wondering whether or not it's true -- to put the entire question of its truth value aside. That Darwinian theory and Mendelian practice fit so well together provided a strong practical model, and it didn't matter so much whether they represented any sort of underlying truth so long as they provided us with a practicable mode of behavior.

He practiced the hypothetico-deductive method of modern science by looking for observations that would be entailed by a postulated theory.

That, in fact, is one of the triumphs of Darwinian theory. He was strongly opposed in the beginning, not by religionists but by other scientists, on the grounds that his theory wasn't testable in the conventional sense. His argument -- and he ultimately won it -- was that science could be practived by using theory as a model of encompassing explanation. The more a theory explained, the better a theory it was. In order to counter Darwinian theory, it was necessary not to test against it, but rather to demonstrate that it didn't explain what it was held to explain.

The thing about evolution that makes it controversial is the fact that it deals with human origins and seems to imply a purposelessness in our lives, like we are the products of some accidental process of elimination.

I think that explanation is on the right track, but veers a little wide of the topic. Evolution doesn't imply anything of the sort, unless you couple it with a few other metaphysical assumption. To a very large degree, those assumptions have remained implicit, and that's made it very difficult to really address them. Evolution startled and confounded a lot of people not because it implied anything on its own about the purposefulness of life, but because it complicated -- and has continued to complicate -- attempts to formulate meaning and morality. One illustration of this is the struggle to reconcile Darwinian biology with Christian Creation narratives, but that isn't the only front on which these complications have manifested themselves.

It certainly denies us any transcendant purpose.

That's worth questioning. How does evolution theory deny us transcendent purpose?

At best, we can only create purpose for ourselves.

It strikes me that one agenda for rehabilitating (and not altogether rejecting) religion is to emphasize the point that the above sentence is -- for most people, at least -- true of religious as well as secular perspectives. Most religious believers don't receive an unquestionable revelation from God; with the aide of religion, they are literally creating purpose and meaning for themselves, and they hope that it in large part accords with an actual purpose and meaning outside themselves. That meaning or purpose shouldn't be any less valid than that created by the metaphysical naturalist just because the religious believers has, in part, relied on a cultural institution that precedes them. But emphasizing that the vast majority of us are involved in creating meaning in our lives should at least contribute towards the goal of making us all a little more honest.




Sat Oct 21, 2006 3:41 pm
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Post Re: Ch. 4 - Before Darwin to the Twentieth Century
Quote:
I think that explanation is on the right track, but veers a little wide of the topic. Evolution doesn't imply anything of the sort, unless you couple it with a few other metaphysical assumption.


I actually agree, which is why I said that evolution seems to imply this. I think that science on the whole, from its successes to its methodology, give strong support to the philosophical position of metaphysical naturalism, though.

Quote:
That's worth questioning. How does evolution theory deny us transcendent purpose?


Well, I'm not exactly sure how one would reconcile having transcendant purpose with our "accidental" existence. If evolution and other scientific theories regarding the origin of life and the universe are true, then it would be very difficult to argue that humans have any objective purpose. If there is a God and he used this set up of chance and selection pressures to produce us, even though we weren't a necessary outcome at all, then it would seem we were not created for any purpose. Humanity in specific is not special given evolution. Perhaps one could argue that God had a purpose in planning the naturalistic universe in the way he did, but I don't see how one could argue that humans in particular had a purpose.

But like I said, I don't see why people consider this something negative. I find it more negative to think of us as created for some sort of cosmic purpose, to be sure, as if we were inanimate objects like hammers.




Mon Oct 23, 2006 10:29 pm
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Post Re: Ch. 4 - Before Darwin to the Twentieth Century
Saint Gasoline: Well, I'm not exactly sure how one would reconcile having transcendant purpose with our "accidental" existence.

I can think of a couple of ways offhand. One, the way that's been co-opted by ID Creationists, is to suppose that the terms of our existence were "front-loaded" into the starting conditions of the universe, such that an existence which is, from the viewpoint of phenomenon, accidental, would have transcendental meaning in a historically progressive view of things. I don't necessarily agree with that way of reconciling the two, but it does seem, to me, to do the trick of reconciling it.

The other way, and the way that makes much more sense to me, is to look at transcendence not as something built into the human condition -- like a trap door that only needs to be triggered -- but as something which we have to struggle towards, even in trying to determine what transcendence is and whether or not it can be attained. And I think that's an idea that has filtered into secular humanism, but which most humanists would be loathe to call transcendence. In that sense, transcendence wouldn't be a matter of what objective purpose we were born into, but rather, what sort of purpose we can find for ourselves that will, in some way, make us objectively more than we currently are.

I think that's one think that distinguishes my breed of theistic thinking from that of Creationists. At best, they try to re-situate evolution into a scheme that denies the more radical implications of the theory -- "front-loading" functions, after all, to minimize the randomness of the theory. I think that it's possible, and perhaps desireable, to look at religion as working along evolutionary lines, at least metaphorically speaking.

But like I said, I don't see why people consider this something negative. I find it more negative to think of us as created for some sort of cosmic purpose, to be sure, as if we were inanimate objects like hammers.

Well, in the Judeo-Christian scheme, at least, I would say that it is always implicit, and often explicit, that the human purpose is equivalent to choice. That's not such a bad purpose, although the Christian scheme kind of minimizes the plus side of that choice by making one of the major choices about as unappetizing as any choice can be.




Mon Oct 23, 2006 11:43 pm
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