Wednesday, March 11, 2015

PZ Myers & Fazale Rana Debate - Darwinian Evolution and Knowing Truth

Last month on February 12 at the Ramada Inn in Fargo, N. Dakota, Drs. PZ Myers (atheist) and Fazale "Fuz" Rana (Christian theist) held a debate on whether there is evidence for God's existence, based upon the notion of whether there is design at the microbiological level.  Myers (Ph.D., Biology, University of Oregon) is a professor of biology at the University of Minnesota, Morris, and Rana (Ph.D., Chemistry, Ohio University) is a biochemist by training, who works in research at Reasons to Believe, an old-earth Christian thinktank and apologetics ministry.  

The debate is almost two-and-a-half hours long.  I'm only commenting on one question Fuz asked PZ during the ten-minute cross-examining portion of the debate just before the 1:30:00 mark.  Fuz's question had to do with epistemology (the theory of knowledge), as it relates to the evolutionary process (by "evolutionary process," I mean the undirected, strictly material process of evolving life-forms wrought by means of random, genetic mutations acted upon by natural selection.  In short, I mean materialism as a metaphysical worldview, or, the notion that only matter exists).  Earlier in the debate, PZ also said much of the debate regarding the existence of a Creator based upon observation of biological processes is epistemological in nature.  Hence, Fuz's question about truth-identifying capacity given the evolutionary paradigm is very much in accord with the thrust of the debate.

To Myers comes essentially the question from Darwin himself with an echo from Patricia Churchland, a non-theist philosopher (Churchland's quote will appear subsequently).  The question - or doubt - about the truth-knowing capability of the human species given materialism and hence, naturalistic evolutionary processes, is documented in a letter from Darwin to William Graham:
With me the horrid doubt always arises whether the convictions of man's mind, which has been developed from the mind of the lower animals, are of any value or at all trustworthy.  Would any one trust in the convictions of a monkey's mind, if there are any convictions in such a mind? [1] 

In other words, if the human mind has developed over gradual eons of vast amounts of time from the primordial slime, emerging into more complex life forms, and morphing into the common ancestor from which all humans come, then this means that the human brain (or, mind - an oxymoron given materialism), has, as its genesis, a pool of slime.  Not much better for Darwin is the human "mind's" near relative, the monkey.  

Alvin Plantinga notes a number of "doubters" from the non-theist world of philosophy with respect to a naturalized epistemology wrought via materialist evolution: Nietzsche, Nagel, Stroud, Churchland, and of course, Darwin.  Churchland's quote is as humorous as it is famous:
Boiled down to essentials, a nervous system enables the organism to succeed in the four F's: feeding, fleeing, fighting and reproducing.  The principle chore of nervous systems is to get the body parts where they should be in order that the organism may survive.....Improvement in sensorimotor control confer an evolutionary advantage: a fancier style of representing is advantageous so long as it is geared to the organism's way of life and enhances the organisms chances of survival. Truth, whatever that is, definitely takes the hindmost. [2]

For Churchland and others committed to a naturalistic epistemology, the notion of truth qua truth "takes the hindmost." That is, truth is relegated to the unimportant back seat in the vehicle of existence where the driver is Four F, on his way to do a survivalist's party.  Truth, according to Churchland, is a non-essential in the propagation of the human species.  Truth doesn't matter, and neither should it.  In fact, evolutionary advantages have nothing whatever to say about truth.  Rather, they have everything to say about survival.  If truth happens, it happens not on purpose, by chance, and not with truth for truthfulness' sake. 

Myers' answer to Rana (again, at the 1:28:50 mark and following) is rather simple (or, simplistic). While Myers agrees with Rana that the human mind - or brain, more accurately, given his materialist position - is subject to error such as logical fallacies, poor memory, and the like, his answer for the reliability of the truth-identifying capability of the human knower is Science.  Science, says Myers, is a coherent mechanism that exists outside of the human mind with the purpose of collecting and interpreting data, albeit on a provisional basis.  On the surface, this makes good sense.  Science is, after all, a coherent system whereby human knowers can build an edifice of knowledge by means of quantification of the individual species or things of the world, and also by noting their qualities as well.  Quantification and qualification are indeed part and parcel of the scientific enterprise.

However, we have to ask if Myers actually answered the question of Darwin's doubt.  The question, basically, is, "How do we know truth, given materialism?"  The answer is, "Science."  The answer may as well have been, "We know truth given materialism because we have a system (Science) whereby we know truth."  But how do we know that the system is giving us truth?  Well, Richard Dawkins answers the question by saying, "Because it works."  He pauses for a moment and richly adds, "Bitches," in a near murmur, as if that settled the question.  But an appeal to pragmatism just doesn't work (heh: a pun) in a question of truth given an naturalistic epistemology. We could play the child's game and ask, "Well, how do we know it works?"  And of course, the appeal would be to observe the results, and we're back to square one again.

Fuz's question remains unanswered because he is asking not only an epistemological question, but also a metaphysical one.  From the vantage of metaphysics (study of the nature, essence, and existence of things as they truly are), Fuz is asking how truth can be known given the ever-changing material world of which we are a part.  If the material world is constantly changing, and only the material world exists, then also the human knower's brain is a part of that every-changing world.  As such, knowledge remains not fixed, but unfixed and ever-changing along with the material world external to itself.  (I'm surprised Myers even accepted the term "mind" when debating with Fuz, due to its immaterial implications).

What Myers, Dawkins and others espouse is called Scientism. Scientism is an epistemic paradigm which states that only Science gives humans true knowledge of the world.  Of course, this "system" cannot prove itself without arguing in a circle: Science, and Science alone gives us knowledge about the world, and we know this because when we do Science, it helps us (by working) in order to thrive, survive, and flourish.  Stated differently:

1) Science (quantification and qualification) gives us knowledge2) Science alone gives us knowledge3) This knowledge gives us desirable results (It works...bitches)4) Therefore, Science alone gives us knowledge (see #2).This is a circular argument.  Theologian David Bently Hart also sees the circularity of the materialist worldview:
Physics explains everything, which we know because anything physics cannot explain does not exist, which we know because whatever exists must be explicable by physics, which we know because physics explains everything. [3]

This is pretty much the answer that Myers offers to Rana.  Just insert "Science" for "Physics" and you have the skinny.  Now, ditching materialism for immaterialism (whereby a universal mind or intelligent agent exists as the primary cause of all that came into existence) is a constructive task for a different venue.  However, it should stand to reason that Scientism and its pretensions feign a superiority over "superstitious" non-naturalized epistemologies (ones that include a deity).  After all, Scientism cannot even prove its own tenet that Science and Science alone gives humans knowledge about the external world.  In doing so, it would have to submit to a source outside of itself.  Indeed it does and must, and that is where an immaterial world of universals (essences) of things come into play.  On that very playing field of course, come arguments from pure reason as to the existence of God from Aristotle to Aquinas, and it is this playing field where Myers' dog will not hunt.  In fact, it can't, but it isn't allowed in that neighborhood.

[1] Qtd. in Alvin Plantinga, Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism                   (Oxford: Oxford University Press), 2011, p.316.[2] Ibid., p. 316.
[3] Qtd in Edward T. Oakes, S.J. "God Against Materialism," National Review, September 24, 2013, 4:00am.  Accessed on March 11, 2015.

For the Myers/Rana debate, visit YouTube:

No comments: