Thursday, 6 August 2015

ANT2 - Theistic Evolution and Selves

Hi ANT (I hope this acronym doesn’t offend),

I was going to respond to this comment in comment format, but it got a bit long and involved, so I’ll respond in article format.  I’m more than happy to continue to tic-tac back and forth this way and perhaps you might want to do the same at your blog.

For the benefit of other readers, here is A Naive Thinker’s comment to this earlier response:

Hi neopolitan,

Thanks for the long term follow up, you brought up interesting issues to explore.

You said, “When we compare the wealth of hints against two hypotheses, we are either emergent beings from an entirely natural process or designed constructs, it simply seems to me that emergence is far more coherent (if less comprehensible) than design.”

My criticism for this thought is I don’t think it reaches far enough back. Natural processes themselves could be designed. For example, the view of Theistic Evolution is that the conditions and laws were created such that the universe would produce intelligent, free creatures. So, I wonder how do you rule out the view of Theistic Evolution?  You would probably ask me the same in reverse, so I’ll give it a go in a minute.

You said, “To know if our selves actually exist, we’d have to slow down and painstakingly make the effort to actually observe ourselves – and when we do that, as in meditative practices, the experts queue up to tell us that the self doesn’t actually exist.”

I reject this criterion for knowledge of self-existence because I think observing oneself is logically impossible. This is because observing is by definition taking in data external to oneself. I submit to you Descartes’ criterion: “I think, therefore I am.” Or, we could conjure up other criteria such as experience. To have experience necessarily entails that one exists.

It’s not just that nonexistence of self is contrary to common sense, it is flat out absurd. Learning that, say, taking showers causes cancer would fly against common sense, but learning that I don’t exist dissolves everything into absurdity. I mean who is reading this? Who is typing this? That’s the reason I think we can only talk about this as an abstract theory and no one truly believes it. The naturalist denying self-existence is conveniently avoiding a very difficult feature of reality. And at the high cost of nihilism which is probably why orthodox naturalism cannot tolerate denial of self.

So, I said I would take a swing, I’ll make it fast. I think self-existence, the desire for good outcomes, conscience, freedom, love, beauty, hate of evil, are among features of reality and experience that are better explained by us existing and living for a purpose. The purpose seems to be a gift to us from a creator deity who has in mind to save those who love life. Add this with scientific theory of evolution and you get Theistic Evolution.

My response:

I don't rule out Theistic Evolution in entirety, by which I don't mean to be so flippant as to simply dismiss the word "Theistic" from the concept without any justification.  I believe we have good reason to dismiss the theism.  As I said before, I am willing to grant (for the purposes of the argument) a deist god, and such a god might well have either designed the universe such that the natural processes we observe would manifest or designed the natural processes themselves - it's a subtle difference, but I consider the natural processes of the universe to be the universe, rather than to be something running on a separate substrate that you might call "the universe".  We also have to be careful when talking about "laws", since all we really have are observations from which we intuit consistencies within the universe - again it's a subtle difference, this time between one situation in which someone says "this is the way things shall work" and another in which someone else says "this is way things appear to work".  Laws are "created" in a theist paradigm but not in mine.  If you wanted to posit a god that set up the conditions for the universe, got the requisite processes running and left no later than a few fractions of a second into the commencement of the Big Bang, then I have to grant that to you as a possibility with the proviso that, as an explanation for how the universe commenced, I consider it entirely equivalent to a hearty refrain of "we just don't know".

But the "Theistic" version of this is more problematical, because the god of the theists is an interventionist and we don't seem to have any convincing evidence of the interventions that would reveal the presence of a theistic god.  Everything seems to work just fine on the basis of natural processes (which we could put down to a deistic god, if we were so inclined).  So far as I know, no-one is pointing to any event in natural history and saying "Look here, this event is not just unlikely or unexplained, it's known to be utterly impossible, therefore god".  (Even if they did, it's still possible for some objections, such as "No, that's not proof of god, that's evidence of a software glitch and is a strong indication that we are operating within a computer simulation.")

Think about that possibility for a moment (the god proof version).  If it did happen, what would it mean?  It would mean that this god, which is purported to be perfect, made a mistake, or was restricted in its design efforts thus necessitating the miracle to achieve its inscrutable objectives.  I doubt that any theists are seriously looking for errors committed by their god, but are there?

(I'm aware that some claim to have "evidence" of intervention in the form of their bible.  But then again, there are plenty of holy books around which they likely consider to be works of fiction while I include the bible in that corpus.)

The question I would really ask is not "why do you credit the theory of Theistic Evolution?" but "how do you rule out the Theory of (natural) Evolution?" (if indeed you do).

And then selves.  This all comes down to what we mean by "self" and what we mean by "existence" in respect to "self".  When I say that the self is an illusion (and I think this is what the contemplation experts mean by “self” in a similar context) I am referring to some sort of independent, discrete unit that is “me”, perhaps akin to a “soul”.  Is this pretty much what you mean by “self” or do you have another idea of it?

There’s a problem with experience, you say that experiencing necessarily entails that one exists - which I read as meaning that there is no experience if there is no self.  But what is this experiencing? And how, from our viewpoint, is this distinguished from existing?  It seems to me that they are basically the same thing, which makes your claim that "(t)o have experience necessarily entails that one exists" true, but only trivially so.  Do you have a way to eke out the difference between "existing" and "experiencing", as it is known to us?  I’m fully aware that we ourselves can observe other things to exist, while being aware that they don’t experience anything at all – such as rocks – I am trying to limit this to consideration of the existence of self and self-dependent experience.

That in mind, I am not suggesting total non-existence which is, as you point out, absurd.  Clearly we exist, in at least some sense.  But in what sense is that claim to existence unassailably true?  For example, I don’t think that asking the question "who is writing this?" necessarily mandates that there really is a "who" in the sense that I suspect that you might be considering it – that is that some form of homunculus or soul might be thought to be sitting inside my head guiding the actions of my body (and indeed my brain).  Instead, I think that it is possible that there are a whole bunch of processes going on (natural processes), two ramifications of which are that some words are being typed out on this computer and that I have an (emergent) sense that I exist as a "self" – excusing the inevitable confusion brought about by referring to myself as "I" (and as "myself").

I do think that naturalism is denying "self" as "soul", but not "self" as "process" (or emergent feature).  Would you not agree, or do you have a different perspective?



  1. Neopolitan,

    With very minimal qualification, I agree with your assessment of deism and theism. (BTW I really enjoyed the software glitch objection to miracles).

    You said, “The question I would really ask is not ‘why do you credit the theory of Theistic Evolution?’ but ‘how do you rule out the Theory of (natural) Evolution?’”
    This depends on how compatible the Theory of Evolution is with theism. An important question is, what features of evolution would be incompatible with theism? If any, it would be indeterminism. The opposite, determinism, would allow a deity to set the universe in motion with the intention to produce humans. It is not easy to prove that evolution is indeterministic. Some features of earth-like life are highly conserved which argues against indeterminism, and there’s also the phenomenon of convergent evolution which does the same. However, other features of earth-like life push the other way. In my last blog post, I showcased research which argues the complexity of human genome (and other multicellular animals) was predominantly generated by chance which favors indeterminism.

    A fair assessment recognizes that chance mutations are constrained by varying degrees of natural selection, sometimes very highly, other times less so. Applying this to the question of theism, whether or not the Theory of Evolution is compatible with (Christian) theism depends on whether the conditions which produced humans were highly constrained (i.e., by predetermined environmental conditions) or left up to chance. Honestly, we cannot say either way without importing generalizations that, funny enough, both sides can supply.

    You asked, “Is this pretty much what you mean by ‘self’ or do you have another idea of it?”
    Like you, I would want to steer clear of mind-body dualism as proposed by Descartes that leads one to talk of an immaterial soul. Honestly, I’m not sure what can be said about the self beyond its existence. And now I can see we basically agree on this when you said “Clearly we exist, in at least some sense.” However, there still seems to be a problem for naturalism regarding the self.

    Let me attempt to elaborate on this. Naturalism supposes the universe is composed of matter with well-defined properties moving around in space and generating fields and so on. Considering the sorts of structures that could arise, the self is strange. Counterfactuals can be used to highlight naturalism’s difficulty with the self. Why am I in this body rather than, say, Brad Pitt’s body? Or, why does this particular neural pattern correspond to me and not someone else? That is a question that emergentism is not equipped to address. Emergentism might explain how natural processes produce a novel complex structure, probably even whatever is “self”, but not these counterfactuals. Naturalism is great at handling counterfactuals such as why do dogs have lungs instead of gills? Or, why is Europe not in the Southern hemisphere? But, it is inadequate for answering counterfactuals of self. At the very least, unanswerable counterfactuals are a weakness, and at the most a sign of incoherence.

    I’ll cut myself off here.


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