This little essay is a cross-post from Hardly the Last Word.

Metaphysics and Epistemology

Folks who recognize these words will doubtless first think of academic philosophy rather than academic biology, but the big questions (as I see them) at play in this debate are in fact philosophical ones. To start in reverse order, the big epistemological question here is one that got its most famous articulations in the Continental philosophies of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In separate but related developments (horribly oversimplified here), Descartes began to maintain that all human knowledge begins with the knowledge of one’s own activity as thinker; Spinoza developed a pantheistic philosophy that named all things, visible and invisible, human and not-human, as part of God, thus collapsing the distinction between creator and creation and between perceiver and perceived; and Kant asserted that human knowledge is limited to the interactions between the mind and sensory moments, that human knowledge does not begin until manifold sensory data hit the mind’s categorizing machinery and cannot extend beyond what that machinery produced, thus cutting off knowledge both of material things-in-themselves and any entities not apprehensible by the five senses.

The common threads in all of these modes of knowing is the location of knowledge in the human mind, and Kant, the latest of the three, has the most influence on scientific epistemology in that the category “natural causes,” a subspecies of Kant’s “cause/effect” category of experience, largely fuels the rhetoric of those who would eliminate questions of a supersensible designer from the equation. But more on that later. For now the point to be made is that the critical philosophical tradition makes the axiomatic epistemological assertion (in other words, a claim that in its own terms cannot be challenged) that human knowledge has very definite and narrow borders and that any claims beyond those borders are necessarily nonsense claims.

Such claims naturally lead to questions of metaphysics. Again a bit of history is in order: the word metaphysics names that hard-to-name branch of philosophy that has to do with what exists and how different orders of existence relate to one another. Because Aristotle didn’t title his own books, and because his book on this topic comes right after his book on the nature of things (physike, scholars called it the after-physics, or the metaphysics.

The differences between neo-Platonic, Augustinian, and Thomist metaphysics are of little concern to this essay; what stands important is that the Kantian tradition effectively walled off metaphysical speculation from genuine human knowledge, making all claims about invisible entities (God, angels, the soul, etc.) are necessarily matters of “belief” or “faith” (note the departure from the Latin root, fides, faithfulness) rather than of knowledge.

Law and Theory

Thus we enter the question of teaching evolution as an exclusive theoretical option in science classrooms. Modern experimental science got its classical formulation in the essays of the English philosopher Francis Bacon (mmm… bacon), who held that the old ways of knowing about the world, rooted as they were in observing things passively, was no knowledge at all. Instead, Bacon suggested, true knowledge of creation comes from manipulating it, making it do what on its own it would not do. It was in this context that Bacon formulated his famous saying “Knowledge is power.”

Thus when Bacon wrote about the forms of reality, he wrote not about abstractions in which things participate but in terms of predictable effects that follow from reproducible and (most of the time) manipulable causes. On the other hand, he also wrote about speculating from those observable and repeatable forms. The former, over the course of modern science, came to be called scientific laws, the latter scientific theories.

The differences between “law” and “theory” in science are categorical differences, not matters of more or less certainty. When Big Bang and Darwinian evolution are called theories as opposed to laws of gravity or of thermodynamics, the differences have to do with repeatability rather than of certainty. Both have their places in scientific practice, but they just name different kinds of knowledge.

In the papers’ coverage of various evolution/ID, therefore, both the ID advocate who does a little endzone dance after saying, “Evolution is only a theory, not a law” and the evolution advocate who says, “Evolution is a theory just like gravity is” are both mistaken categorically.

Science in fact consists both of theories and laws, just as Christianity consists both of doctrine and practice. To give one of either pair priority over the other might sound pious but in fact distorts the reality on either side.

Science and Faith

To return to Kant for a moment, sometimes in these articles an evolution-only advocate will attempt to offer an olive branch by saying something along the lines of “We don’t want to deny anyone’s faith; we only want to keep science scientific.” What actually seems to be going on here is a discussion about allowable theories that leaves out a very important metaphysical/epistemological premise.

Now for the English translation. The aforementioned olive branch carries with it a heap of baggage, beginning with an implied concession that real human knowledge cannot, by definition, say anything about God or angels and thus must limit itself to observable causes and effects. That much is just Kant rehashed. But the next step that the olive branch requires is a dogma that any explanation of the (by definition) unobserved must play only by rules identical with what a laboratory can reproduce.

Now that sort of metaphysical claim still leaves holes, and the word for holes in a system that does not allow holes is “chance.” It’s the rough equivalent of X in algebra, and the ethical implication of this use of that word is that what is unknown now in terms of laboratory-derived rules will become known in precisely those terms as laboratory procedures become more precise. This is not an invalid metaphysic, philosophically speaking. But it is a speculation (again philosophically speaking) and thus belongs not in the category of experiment or law or even of theory but in the category of philosophical metaphysics.

Moreover, to say that another metaphysic, one that says that otherwise-inexplicable phenomena result from a designer’s design, is a matter of “faith” as opposed to “science” is to make a categorical error, a multiplication of categories without necessity. In fact both metaphysical claims have devices and vocabularies to account for the available phenomena, and the differences between the two cannot be settled in a laboratory but must be matters of persuasion on a rhetorical level.

(Tentative) Conclusion

As you might have guessed by this point, I do prefer pedagogies that present both the materialist/progressive metaphysic and the intelligent design metaphysic as alternatives for explaining the data generated by experiment and observation. To call one side evolution and the other intelligent design, in fact, seems itself to be an error in categories: what is really at stake in these things is a choice of metaphysical frameworks, one materialist all the way down and the other open to transcendence. As I wrap up this post, I’ll say explicitly what should be evident to even a casual reader: I am not a practicing biologist, but I am a student of the history of philosophy, and my claims here neither rely upon nor negate any biologist’s experiments or observations. Rather I am attempting to make sense of some of the ways that people frame those experiments and observations for the sake of teaching students, a practice to which I am no stranger at all. I hope to hear some feedback from critics and friends and friends who want to criticize.

[addendum: I didn’t realize that I’d posted the essay twice.  I apologize to anyone who tried to read the rather disjointed double-essay.]


Tomorrow is it, and it looks like we’ll be meeting at 12:30 PM at Tween the Pages on the Main Library’s ground floor.  Everybody is welcome, and a person could purchase a sandwich there at TtP or bring some lunch to the meeting.  We look forward to seeing people.

October’s Meeting

Because we have a contingent of unknown size joining us this month, we’re still deliberating on the location for our next meeting, but we do know that it’s happening four days from now, Tuesday, Ocbober 21, at 12:30 PM, and we do know that we’ll be discussing chapters two and three of J.P. Moreland’s Love Your God with All Your Mind. Stay tuned for a definite location.

Edifying Theological Debate

Now I’m about 99% sure that some kind of graphics manipulation were involved here, so don’t bother commenting and telling me that professional rasslin’ is fixed, but it’s a great post nonetheless.

Tonight, I went to a rather enjoyable lecture by Dr. Schaeffer from the Chemistry Department on the above title. As an English major, I rather questioned going to anything with the word “science” in it, or, to be more specific, given by a prof in quantum mechanics. However, the Lewis aspect convinced me. Regardless, it was really quite interesting, as Schaeffer defined scientism (as far as I understood it) as the proclivity by some (many who are not actually scientists) to take science, and strip it of any traditional/objective values, or the things that many argue are the characteristics that make us uniquely human, and instead take as our supreme point the continued existence of the species, without any moral reason to do so.

I’m describing it badly. Schaeffer discussed that Lewis was concerned what might be done in the name of science if objective values were rejected. Schaeffer pointed to Carl Sagan as an example of this scientism, quoting Sagan: “The cosmos is all there is, or ever was, or ever will be.”

Schaeffer also quoted the illustrious Richard Dawkins defining love as: “…a product of highly complicated…nervous equipment or computing equipment of some sort.”

Pleasant, isn’t it? Schaeffer argued that many scientists have actually rejected scientism, but that it is still functioning in many academic disciplines, including biology, sociology, etc.

There is, for instance, the question of using human embryos for the continuation of the human species without questioning the moral aspect.

Regardless of anything else, I’d say this general outlook is remarkably stunted as it refuses to acknowledge very real aspects of humanity, simply so that a certain type of intellectual can keep the blinders firmly affixed to their mental eyes. As soon as you’ve defined love as a matter of computer mechanics, you’ve begun to sacrifice everything worth having to your fear of the existence of God.

At our last meeting, Juliana, just before she had to leave for class, she asked me (because I’ve been to seminary) about questions of Pauline authorship.  Specifically she said that someone claimed that Paul didn’t even write such epistles as 1 and 2 Timothy, Titus, and (if I remember right) Colossians.  Still fearing that text critics might be hovering in low-earth orbit ready to pounce on my rusty seminary lore, I proceed nonetheless.

The data in question have to do with the reception history of and a few features within those letters traditionally called Paul’s.  For one, the earliest extant post-Biblical Christian writing makes reference to some of Paul’s letters but not to others.  In addition to that, the vocabularies of the documents changes fairly radically somewhere between Romans and 1 Timothy–somewhere in the neighborhood of a third of the words in the pastoral epistles appear nowhere else in Paul’s letters.  Finally, people have detected fairly radical shifts in attitudes towards social divisions as one moves from Galatians, which say that “in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female” (3.28, NIV) towards 1 Timothy, which calls for slaves to obey their masters and women to be silent in the assembly.

Those are the data, and few people dispute them.  As far as how one reconciles them, it’s hard to separate out the political/ecclesial ramifications from the disputes about the authorship itself largely because of the third reason above, so here’s an attempt at two ways to take the radical differences in the Pauline epistles:

  1. Whoever wrote Galatians, somebody else must have written 1 Timothy.  The attribution of a work to a beloved master (cf. Plato and Socrates) is not uncommon in the ancient world, and whoever wrote 1 Timothy, though his politics and written style differ radically, wanted to honor Paul and claim his authority by writing in his name.
  2. Paul wrote all of the letters traditionally ascribed to him, and the vocabulary changes presumably come from the same processes that make most of us write somewhat differently when we’re 30 and when we’re 50.  The political changes have to do with the problems that occasion his writing rather than an entirely different author putting ink on scrolls (cf. Augustine vs. Pelagius and Augustine vs. Faustus the Manichean).
  3. It doesn’t really matter who wrote “Paul’s epistles”; what matters is that in the sweep of Church history, those documents and their context in the Paul-narrative has been normative for churches.

I tend to favor the second theory, partly because I know my own ways of writing (and my politics) have changed in the last ten years and partly because I do think that the letters make sense as one Christian’s written corpus.

Anyway, that’s a fast, dirty, and probably over-simplified version of the debate.  I encourage folks to pick up a volume or two from UGA library’s sixth floor (you should remember that place well, Michael and Eric) and read up for yourselves.

The Grandest Insult

Three Types of Student Roam Campus

What’s the worst thing you can say to the student body of a research university?

That they could stand to study a bit more.

The funny thing, of course, is that Wednesday’s Red and Black opinion column never goes anywhere near where I’ve gone in recent days, condoning as it does some good debauchery so long as one also reads some text for class every week:

The trooper goes out and parties, maybe not as often as the other types, but that’s because he actually is learning the exam material and not just regurgitating it for the exam. You see, the trooper has figured out the key to getting good grades: spreading out class work. Three to four hours a day of reading, outlining, researching or writing is all one needs to be prepared for class, tests and assignments. The result is a person with a social life, good grades without sleepless nights and a clean conscious.

Yes, it is funny that a column talking about study habits misfired on “conscience.” But the relatively moderate tone of the thing wasn’t enough to calm the rage of the Dawg. Thursday the wrath came down.

Now the comments section on this puppy is pure Internet idiocy, and I’m not pretending that Internet idiots are anything but what they are. But the R&B itself published (i.e. put in its daily printed-on-paper publication) two rather nasty rebuttals, one in Wednesday’s “Letters to the Editor” and the other as a column by the managing editor herself.  I’m not saying that I ever attributed much dedication to any sort of educational philosophy to the Red and Black, but the editor’s comparison of overcoming a wine hangover to reading Aristotle, learning cell biology, or doing the fieldwork associated with a teacher education degree tells me volumes about the publication and the constituency it serves. (And if, on the astronomically distant chance that Otto reads this, I should note that you have no idea what “real life” is, kid.) For what it’s worth, I agree with Miss Otto that people who consider studying a waste of one’s best years should avoid it. I’d just prefer that they stop sucking up the class slots, money, teacher time, and all the other resources that any decent college pours into an actual education. The hiring line at Hardee’s is open. Go get ’em, and enjoy that booze when you cash your paycheck.

For the folks at Dawg Cogitans, I think this illustrates that the supposed conflict between the life of the mind and the life of piety isn’t nearly as significant as that between the culture of anti-intellectualism and the alliance of scholarship and mission that Christian intellectuals bring to the table.  I’ve read in a number of places (Christian and anti-Christian) that our age is in need of a new monasticism to preserve intellectual traditions as consumerism declares them “mundane lectures” fit only for those not “enlightened” enough to blow them off and tie another one on.

Cross-posted and modified from Hardly the Last Word.