An Equivocation of Biblical Proportions

I guess we really can’t accuse Bill Nye of mincing words…

A recent Bill Nye video has gone viral, in which he sharply criticizes those who “deny evolution” and charges them with holding society back.

Nye obviously possesses a great amount of expertise in his field. When he talks about mechanical engineering, for example, or how the body works, its probably best to simply take it all in.

However, as it often happens in science, the content of the “Big Think” video referred to above crosses into the domains of philosophy and theology. While the domains don’t totally overlap and not everything in science is of philosophical/theological import—it is hard to see how experiments involving the atomic mass of certain elements carries theological implications, for instance—there is considerable overlap and interaction across disciplines.

The “Big Think” video most certainly does have such import; he makes very broad, sweeping claims about evolution and those that deny (or doubt), and evolution deals with the question of origins. When these disciplines intersect, since they are all legitimate sources of knowledge (I have no reason to think Scientism to be even remotely accurate to the real world), it is appropriate for philosophers and theologians to have their say. Gould’s NOMA notwithstanding, both can speak to the scientist, just as the scientist can speak to both of them.

While I don’t want to just assume Nye is lacking in philosophical or theological training—that would be bad—I often find that scientists are lacking in those areas and hence are unaware of how their views raise problems outside of the limited confines of their expertise.  Whether it be on what qualifies as science in the first place, whether postulating a multiverse makes sense, or questions on the nature of time, philosophy helps immensely.  Neglect it at your own peril.

For example, in his most recent book, Stephen Hawking steps outside his ken and hence opens himself to trenchant philosophical critique. In his explication of a form of anti-realism he shows no awareness of any of the many critiques that have been brought against such a view. Furthermore, he embraces a hard determinism and hence undercuts the rationality of anything written on the page. Quite a few have pointed this out.

Hawking is second to none when it comes to knowledge in his field, but when one’s views within a limited area of expertise raises internal and external conceptual problems, it is time to proceed more cautiously or at least give evidence that you’ve thoughtfully interacted with the other side.

In Nye’s case, underlying his points are two very big philosophical questions: 1) what is science? and 2) what is evolution? Question 1), known as the “demarcation problem,” isn’t a scientific issue per se, as no experiment or observation will tell you the answer to that question (using an experiment or observation actually presumes an answer to the question). It is a second order philosophical question about the nature of a first order discipline.  Even when a scientist herself ventures an answer to the question, she is doing philosophy.

You might think its simple, but it is actually a pretty tough question to answer with any sort of finality, as any set of necessary and sufficient conditions for what counts as science either a) excludes examples that clearly do qualify as science, b) are imprecise qualifications, or c) includes examples that clearly are not scientific.  Most definitions I’ve seen offered, to paraphrase Steven Meyer, die the death of a thousand counter-examples.  Even concepts like falsifiability or observation have problems with them.

That is not to say that anything goes in science and that there are no practices and procedures that are associated with the discipline, nor does it mean that we can’t tell clear-cut instances of science (acid titration experiments) or non-science (palm reading) when we see them without a definition of science. It simply means that dogmatic and certain, yet intellectually satisfying statements about what does and does not qualify as scientific are hard to come by, and these notions ought not be used to arbitrarily disqualify certain controversial cases.

As to question 2), my biggest issue is that he is incredibly imprecise. To repeat, that is an area in which philosophy can be of incredible use to science; it can analytically clarify key concepts and terms. I want to ask Nye: what do you mean by “evolution”? It can be a very slippery term. It can have several different meanings, and the veracity of pretty much everything he says in the video depends upon which definition of evolution he is employing.

There are at least six different definitions, some of them uncontroversial, some not:

1. Change over time; history of nature; any sequence of events in nature

2. Changes in the frequencies of alleles in the gene pool of a population

3. Limited common descent: the idea that particular groups of organisms have descended from a common ancestor.

4. The mechanism responsible for the change required to produce limited descent with modification is chiefly natural selection acting on random variations or mutations

5. Universal common descent: all organisms have descended from a single common ancestor (or a select few ancestors).

6. The Blind watchmaker thesis: the idea that all organisms have descended from common ancestors through unguided, unintelligent, purposeless, material processes such as natural selection acting on random variations or mutations; the idea that the Darwinian mechanism of natural selection acting on random variation, and other similarly naturalistic mechanisms, completely suffice to explain the origin of novel biological forms and the appearance of design in complex organisms.

You’ll find all of these definitions in play when it comes to evolution at one time or another. But Nye never nails down which one he’s talking about, and this allows him to equivocate back and forth. When anyone does this with evolution, it allows them (illegitimately) to use examples from evolution 1-4 (such as the peppered moth experiment, which is featured in many science textbooks) to substantiate evolution 5 and 6. This is exactly what Nye does in the video. The scientific veracity of each definition above is not equal. Some definitely are factual. Seems to me that 1-4 are pretty solid, and even the most ardent fundamentalist Christian shouldn’t have a problem with them on scientific or theological grounds. However, not only are 5 and 6 arguably theologically and philosophically debatable, but they are debatable scientifically as well. Those are not settled by any means.

Scientists have brought well-thought-out doubts about those two kinds of evolution, and their critiques deserve to be heard, not dismissed as religion or straw manned as literal six-day creationist views. Scientists like Nye also should consider the critiques of philosophers as well, as many have pointed out logical and conceptual problems with the materialist program. Since logic maps onto reality, if these guys have a point, their critiques represent serious challenges to the truth of the view and should not be waved away as subjective opinionizing.

How this equivocation can muddy the waters can be seen in the reaction of many in the media. I’ve read a few reports of the Nye video , and in every instance I’ve seen, the reporter labels Nye’s video as critiquing literal six-day creationism (one from the Huffington Post claimed in the headline that he “debunked” creationism in the video…good grief!). Nye never once, however, mentions that view. He simply mentions those who “deny evolution,” which would no doubt include six-day creationists, but includes many outside of that camp as well, including non-theistic critiques. When it comes to evolution, many just uncritically assume that literal six-day creationism is the only game in town when it comes to views that deny evolution and that therefore any doubt of evolution has to be religiously based.

If someone finds out you doubt evolution, the most common reaction is to first scoff, then ask, incredulously, “so, you believe the universe was created in six days only 6,000 years ago?” Like: “how could you live with yourself?”  Typically they can’t fathom any other view out there.

So really, though I have my suspicions—most of the time, when scientists like Nye make the sort of dogmatic denunciations the he made in the video, they have the latter two definitions of evolution in mind—I don’t know what kind of evolution he’s talking about. If he is talking about #5 and 6 above, then the most egregious error is when he says that those who deny evolution somehow “hold everybody back” and if they spread that to their children, they will not grow up to be scientifically literate and knowledgeable citizens. This implies some sort of scientific deficiency on their part.

What the heck is up with that?

Seems to me that this is just demonstrably false. The world is littered with evolution doubters and deniers who are first rate scholars and experts in every field, scientific or otherwise, and who have doubts precisely because of their expertise. I am familiar with the work of some of them, and their appreciation and knowledge of science is not hampered by their doubts.

Perhaps, for some reason, you reject the views of the Michael Behes, Steven Meyers, Alvin Plantingas, and Thomas Nagels (which is fair), but can you seriously look them in the face and say their scholarship and contribution to humanity is somehow second rate and its “holding everyone back”? There are others—engineers, physicists, teachers of the year, educators, doctors, phds, etc—who might not be in the public eye, but they doubt the Neo-Darwinian synthesis, and they still possess some of the top minds in their field.  Some doubt because of theological reasons, some doubt because of philosophical reasons, some doubt because of scientific reasons, and many aren’t necessarily proponents of intelligent design or creationism.

If he is simply ranting or venting in the video, that is fine and understandable. We all from time to time go on rants, and we need not clearly explicate everything, nor does every hint of hyperbole need to be nixed. Sometimes a generalization is just a generalization and its not meant to be picked apart.

I wonder if Nye would characterize his statements that way, though, and I wonder if we gave him more time, would he qualify his statements considerably (like they need to be if he wants them to be taken as anything other than a venting) or would he continue to defend them in their dogmatic form?

If he wants this video to contribute to the discussion on evolution in a meaningful way and be anything more than a “rah-rah” cheer for his side or a cursory summary of what he believes, he should clarify and deal fairly with his ideological opponents.

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3 responses to “An Equivocation of Biblical Proportions

  1. When you say that questions such as the demarcation problem are philosophical questions and not scientific, you demonstrate a misunderstanding of philosophy. The working definition of philosophy is academic work that falls outside of other disciplines (e.g. physics, bioloy, etc). This definition came about because initially all intellectual exercise was categorised as philosophy, and the field of philosophy shrank as the other formal disciplines budded off. The most recent field to break free of philosophy is psychology. So now the working definition of philosophy is all the stuff that scientists aren’t interested in. When a physicist like Hawking proposes a theory explaining features of the universe, it ceases to be philosophy and becomes physics.
    Of course model-dependent realism has been a feature of physics and not philosophy for decades now. Ever since Einstein showed that there were scales at which Newtonian physics broke down, physicists have used different models to describe reality in different contexts (relativity, quantum mechanics etc.).So when philosophers like WLC mistake model-dependent realism for philosophical viewpoints like ontological pleuralism (which has no role in interpreting data or making testable predictions), it shows that they don’t have a clue what they’re talking about. Of course WLC can supply as much criticism of model-dependent realism as he likes, no theory is above criticism. But he doesn’t. Neither do most philosophers. Instead of bravely marching onto the field of physics to discuss cutting edge physics theories, they cravenly search for some vaguely similar philosophical theory that they can strawman.
    I agree with Stephen Hawking that philosophy is dead. But my reasons for thinking that aren’t to do with it’s negligible contribution in return for public dollars. It’s not due to poor citation record of published articles, lack of professional consensus on issues, inability to produce testable predictions, failure to produce new discoveries or failing to make any meaningful contribution to public discourse. All of those factors are disappointing, but I could overlook them.
    Instead it’s the hyperbolic response when their value is questioned that leaves me shaking my head. First, they broaden the definition of philosophy so that any and all though falls under the term. Scientific method, human interactions, governments, even the invention of fire are all suddenly philosophical triumphs. The fact that professional philosophers don’t actually do any of that stuff themselves is swept under the carpet. Second, they claim that philosophical training is necessary to produce better thinkers. Umm….citation please? Many philosophers seem to prefer to waste time with pointless syllogisms than solve problems. Last, they take contemporary theories in other fields, restate them using philosophical terms so that they can pass themselves off as experts (like what WLC does, only he mangles it so badly that the philosophical theory bares no relation to the scientific theory).

  2. mark123456654321

    Regarding the definition of evolution, it’s not hard: evolution is change in allele frequency in a population over successive generations. The reason Nye doesn’t spell it out is because most of us learnt it in high school and don’t need reminding.

    Of the 6 definitions you supplied, definition is the closest to being right (although it missed the point that changes have to occur over successive generations.). The problems with the other definitions are:
    Definition 1 – This is a non-scientific, colloquial use of the word evolution, e.g.” my political views have evolved”.
    Definition 3 – This is plain wrong. Common descent of all life from a single ancestor is a conclusion that can be explained by the process of evolution, but is not evolution itself. Nor is it a necessary conclusion from evolution alone, as it is conceivable (but extremely unlikely) that multiple instances of abiogenesis could have occurred simultaneously. Common ancestry is supported by a wealth of other scientific findings.
    Definition 4 – Incorrect. Evolution is the process of descent with modification (shorthand for definition 2) , but the mechanisms responsible for change are distinct from evolution itself. Said mechanisms include natural selection, genetic drift, biased mutations, etc.
    Definition 5 – Incorrect. See my explanation for definition 2.
    Definition 6 – This sort of a fusion of the definition of evolution with the mechanisms that drive evolution. The strict definition is change in allele frequency in a population over generations, but if one wants to go further and help people understand by explaining the mechanisms as well, then why not? They could also go on to describe the evidence, genetics, biochemistry, medicine and all other associated science. Some people even write textbooks about it.

    I can’t see any point in Nye’s video when he would have been using a definition of evolution different from definition 2.

  3. The question as to WHY we should believe the creation account in Genesis remains to be answered in light of scientific discoveries. Why do Christians shudder at the possibility that the Genesis account, complete with talking snake, might not have to be taken literally? Are there not greater moral lessons to be learned from the Bible stories that can be gleaned metaphorically?

    Heliocentrism was struggled with, and finally accepted, even though nowhere in the Bible is the theory so spelled out. It had to be discovered. So, if Genesis turns out to not be literally true after all, can Christians accept that?

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