~ 8 May 2008 ~

Darwinism and good

Pulitzer Prize–winning author Marilynne Robinson captures well a dilemma that occurs within Darwinism:

Surely we must assume that a biosphere generated out of any circumstances able to sustain life is as good as any other, that if we make a desert, for example, and the god of survival turns his countenance upon the lurkers and scuttlers who emerge as fittest, under the new regime, we can have no grounds for saying that things have changed for the worse or for the better, in Darwinist terms. In other words, absent teleology, there are no grounds for saying that survival means anything more or other than survival. Darwinists praise complexity and variety as consequences of evolution, though the success of single-celled animals would seem to raise questions. I am sure we all admire ostriches, but to call a Darwinist creation good because it is credited with providing them is simply another version of the old argument from design, proving in this use of it not the existence of God but the appropriateness of making a judgment of value: that natural selection, whose existence is to be assumed, is splendid and beneficent, and therefore to be embraced.

The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought, “Darwinism,” p.44

It doesn’t prove theism (or creationism, for that matter), but the Darwinist inability to adequately explain why something is or isn’t good would itself seem to undermine its usefulness as an explanation for the natural world.

Sure, a Darwinist might argue that they’re only performing empirical analysts of what things are — not the why. But I submit that we can’t truly know the what without knowing the why.

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4 Comments:

  1. KDIsom » 8 May 2008:

    “But I submit that we can’t truly know the what without knowing the why.”

    I disagree.

    Aerodynamic theory explains flight adequately. Why is purpose a requirement?

  2. Jared Bridges » 9 May 2008:

    KDIsom: Thanks for stopping by — you pose a good question.

    Perhaps I could have said it better by saying, “we can’t fully know the what without knowing the why.” The fact that the air pressure difference between the bottom of a wing and the top creates lift does nothing to explain why the air that creates the lift is there in the first place. True, one could follow a pragmatic trail; “the air is there because it is trapped within the earth’s atmosphere,” etc., but this would still only lead to, and not answer ultimate questions.

    So, in short, I would disagree with you that aerodynamic theory explains flight adequately. If all you’re wanting to know is the immediate cause of the airplane’s ascent, it will probably suffice, but a mere description of what’s happening gives only a partial picture.

  3. RonH » 13 May 2008:

    Hi Jared, KDlsom, other commenters,
    First: this use of “Darwinism” is vague. It mashes a lot o things together. These things are sometimes not specified. Or, if they are their inclusion is asserted but not justified. All of which makes the term contentious. It’s a conversation killer. (I promise to ask somewhere for someone “on my side” to put away their conversation killer. Care to nominate one?)

    Having said that I have a question for Jared: What can adequately explain why something is or isn’t good? Equivalently: What is good?

    Ron

  4. Jared Bridges » 13 May 2008:

    Ron: You’re right, it is vague — out of context. I should have noted that Robinson’s essay (and this particular passage) deals primarily with the social implications of Darwinism. Given that all Darwinists do not apply in practice the theory to social interactions, I should have made that more clear.

    My point in commenting on this particular quote was to highlight the dilemma that rises when Darwinists (there’s that word again!) explain things in terms that can only exist outside their worldview.

    Having said that I have a question for Jared: What can adequately explain why something is or isn’t good? Equivalently: What is good?

    Yet another good question — perhaps one that deserves its own post. Stay tuned for a treatment.

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