Monday, March 02, 2015

Scott Walker and evolution

Some British reporters asked our governor whether he believed in evolution, and he punted the question. Since this isn’t, as far as I know, relevant to British politics, it must be part of their suite of tribal-identification questions for Americans.

The problem is that the term “evolution” is overloaded--it includes several meanings, only one of which is ever talked about. Everybody knows the young earth vs old earth faceoff, but the other divide is the important one. (A claim which will no doubt catch me the usual flak from the “don’t undermine the Bible’s accuracy” crew)

That divide is between those who believe things like love, justice, beauty, and so on are built into the nature of the universe, and those who think they are “emergent” qualities. The first camp holds a motley crew: Christians, Muslims, Confucians, Hindus (think of karma), and so on.

The second camp holds figures like Kant (Always act according to that maxim whose universality as a law you can at the same time will) and Bentham (greatest aggregate happiness principle) who appeared well before Darwin (“I have so lately endeavoured to shew that the social instincts,--the prime principle of man’s moral constitution-with the aid of active intellectual powers and the effects of habit, naturally lead to the golden rule”) and the Just-So stories of evolutionary sociology. The problem is the arbitrariness in these formulations—justice could have been something different, love is a chemical illusion, and so on. It isn’t easy to live that way consistently, and it is odd to read someone claiming that his argument is a transcendent truth and an emergent effect at the same time. (Not in so many words, of course)

Trying to explain with as few principles as possible has been extremely fruitful in natural philosophy, with things that can be measured. Thales tried to make water the origin of everything--a bit too simple, but you can see that the drive to have a single equation for it all is old. But there’s that caveat: “things that can be measured.” When a field of ripe wheat and a battered branch of driftwood are both beautiful, we’re not talking about something measured in terms of utility.

Granted, you can go too far the other direction and inshallah everything. Some say Muslim science went to dust after the victory of the philosophers who held that nothing, not even reason, constrained God. Probably an oversimplification, but probably contributing.

The reporter’s question was really “Are you a member of a tribe we despise?” What they said confused the two questions “Do you believe species changed over time?” and “Do you believe in a moral universe?” I wonder how those reporters would have answered. Probably punted the question—they’re busy people, with deadlines to meet, and no time to talk with Socrates.

1 comment:

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Well, you know I will have agreement, because I have written things like this about tribalism myself. I like the extension into the deeper question of whether morality is emergent, and thus arbitrary, or something real and permanent. That question usually gets dodged into some version of "Oh, so you're saying I can't be a moral person unless I'm a believer, then," which is only a derivative issue. Believing in evolution does lead eventually to the same dilemma, however we disguise it.

It might be amusing to turn that puzzle back on those who try to trap others.