Monday, February 20, 2006

Life as Science

I don't usually repeat on my blog the posts I make elsewhere on the web. But earlier today I left the following comment at Phil Plait's Bad Astronomy site, responding to an analogy he was making -- and the comment I left there just seems to touch on everything that I tend to write about, so I'm pasting it here. I'm also putting it on both my blogs, which is also something I've never done; but as I said, it touches on everything I care about.

I just want to point out some problems I see with Phil's analogy.

"Those organisms that can handle the input from their environment survive, while those that cannot deal with it fail. Those that can adapt, even marginally, to outside influence are able to better cope with whatever comes next.....

"A scientist who is too stiff, too resistant to change, will find themselves extinct if the evidence from observation becomes overwhelmingly against them.

"Evolution is a fact, both in nature and in science. If more people realized this simple truth, and the beauty inherent in it, then a lot of nonsense would become extinct as well."

Phil is talking about adapting to an environment of ideas. This seems correct; as a layperson not studying evolution myself, the theory of evolution is not a thing that comes to me apart from the ideas of others; it reaches me not as a material fact, but as an idea from the environment of ideas.

But Phil slips into talking about how people should realize that evolution is a fact in nature as well as in science: how we should adapt to the input of nature itself as well as to the input of scientists. All this is true, of course; but the way it's put is problematic. It's the environment of ideas that we're adapting to. People adapt to the ideas that are prevalent in their culture. If I'm religious and I see friendly ideas out there, and other unfriendly ones out there, I live among the friendlies and fight, or take flight from, the unfriendlies. That's how our adaptation looks: it's not so much a rational focus on mere material facts in intellectual theories; what we're interested in is whether everything we care about (including nature, or science, or God, or family, or material facts and intellectual theories) can find a friendly environment in which to grow.

And so creationists and scientists take flight from, or fight, each other, while attaching themselves to friendlies. And both sides regard their opponents as not really paying attention to facts (or at least not to the important facts).

Anyway that's how our adaption to the environment works. We adapt to cultures. We also adapt to material facts, but those tend to be facts about our present material condition, not about whether the earth existed 10,000 years ago. Cultural evolution does not favor necessarily those who have the correct theory about the past. It favors those who can find friendlies, avoid or defeat unfriendlies, adopt life-enhancing ideas (a lot of people, myself included, find religion to be life-enhancing), and influence others.

I'm certain that Phil's analogy will strike a too-broad range of religionists as unfriendly. Religionists are, after all, essentially metaphysicists (like all of us, in a sense, since we all care about much more than intellectual theories concerning material facts). An analogy likes this tells them essentially that they're maladapted creatures. I fully accept evolution, and regard both creationism and ID as wrong, so I'm not particularly vexed by all this; I happen to love Phil's work against bad thinking. But even I feel as if I'm appearing in this analogy like a maladapted creature, just for being someone who thinks that we're responsible for adapting to much more than the theory of evolution.

Like all of us, I care about things other than intellectual theories about material matter; and like creationists, I care about God and about whether my religion has friendlies or unfriendlies. I care about things other than theories about material matter, which is, for me, a problem with an analogy in which the primary thing that makes us well-adapted and destined for prosperity is not anything metaphysical (and certainly not our belief in God), but our adherence to intellectual theories about matter, as brought to us by scientists. Those theories may be correct (and evolution certainly is), but as a non-scientist dealing with much more than matter, my prosperity rests on much more than these theories; and it certainly does not rest on what these scientists have to say about God and all the rest.

If it were the case that adapting to intellectual theories about matter were the most important factor in our prosperity, scientists should have a privileged place; and what they say about anything metaphysical should trump what any non-scientists has to say. I doubt that Phil, for one, believes this; but I see his analogy as having this consequence. A different analogy, in which we're all adapting to cultures and fighting for the things we care about, puts us all on a more equal plane; and it does not suggest that we have to listen to scientists or materialists when it comes to God or religion. That is the great fear of creationists -- that evolution (besides being wrong in their view, because they follow the Bible literally) will be used to promote a worldview in which everything they care about will be marked with labels such as "irrational," "maladapted," "headed for extinction."

A little more attention should go to the cultural war, and into models explaining how we take flight from it, or fight in it; or seek a truce. It seems to me that long lifespan can be expected for all of us if we find a way not just to avoid war (flight) or win it (fight), but to defuse it.


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