February 22, 2012
Adventures at the Bellingham Lectures in Philosophy and Religion
As my dad pointed out, the acronym for the Bellingham Lectures in Philosophy and Religion, BLPR, might be misread as “blooper.” However, it is no such thing. This is a high quality, highly relevant university lecture series in our fair city which has become a yearly staple.
This year I showed off my WWU grounds prowess by leading my friend Abe and my dad through a rather adventuresome ”back alley” wet and rainy shortcut to the lecture hall. Skepticism was running high among my companions, but in the end I delivered as we emerged from from an unlikely looking path right in front of location of the event. Only, I had made a major philosophical blunder. I had assumed the lecture was at the same venue as last year. Actually, though, it was in the opposite direction on the other side of campus. Nothing worse than unwarranted belief. I argued that, logically speaking, I had still demonstrated my university grounds prowess even if it just so happened that the event had decided to move on us, but my fellow travelers seemed to prefer to remain agnostic about the question. We did take the main university thoroughfare back to the actual event.
Since I’ve already embarked on a somewhat narcissistic note in this post I think I’ll continue along these lines and make it be all about the question I asked after the lecture.
But first, the background. The lecture itself was half “evolutionary biology” (the “quotes” will become clear later) and half philosophy. In the first half biologist Dr. Jeffrey Schloss presented an overview of recent studies on the evolutionary origins of religion. This is not about how religion(s) might have evolved historically, but rather about how evolution might explain the existence of the human proclivity to religion. It turns out there are many of these proposals out there and in the last 35 years this has become a really big deal. You have probably seen a Time magazine cover about the “religious gene” or some other similarly provocative popular treatment. Basically people are wondering, given evolution, why or how the religious aspect of humanity evolved. Some scholars say that religion is arguably a survival mechanism because it helps people to cooperate. Others say it’s a kind of evolutionary accident that spills over from our other cognitive predispositions. For example, it’s more advantageous to assume that there is a predator rustling in the bushes than that there is not one, and because of this we are more predisposed to assume “something is there” given some sort of indication to that effect. Thus we are more apt to say “God is there.” Those are the types of arguments.
In the second half of the lecture, philosopher Dr. Michael Murray took over and offered an interpretation of these arguments as they pertain to the legitimacy of belief in God. His main point was that even though people often think these types of evolutionary explanations “kill God” in fact they don’t. Just because there may be evolutionary reasons for religion it does not mean that religion is invalid or God does not exist. In fact, he noted, a believer may legitimately assume that God himself is behind the human predisposition to religion. There is nothing contradictory or illogical about that, and there is no scientific reason to discount this either. It is a coherent explanation.
Let me point out as an aside that the vast majority of arguments against belief in God can be answered along those lines: “Just because (some valid observation) is true it does not necessarily mean that God does not exist.”
Now to my question, which was the main event of the night (at least for me). This is something I have been pondering for some time so I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to present it to an actual evolutionary biologist to see what kind of response I got. I placed my question rather provocatively and I hope in good humor by wondering whether evolutionary biology is not actually more akin to metaphysics than science. As a case in point I offered tonight’s lecture, where no actual biology was discussed. Rather, what we had was a discussion of various theoretical constructs, possible solutions and conundrums that flowed from a general evolutionary assumption. Then, these theories were “proven” by appeal to various experiments and tests which were not strictly speaking biology, but rather psychology or behavioral science. Where were the cells and neural pathways, I wanted to know? Where was the discussion of biological organisms and their scientificaly discerned properties?
Dr. Schloss took my question in good humor, I thought, considering I had probably just called into question his entire discipline. He agreed with me that there were many unwarranted “non-biological” conclusions and affirmations floating about. However, he did want to affirm that evolution was a legitimate biological theory. Here I think I might have been misinterpreted along the lines I feared I might be misinterpreted. Namely, that I was denying evolution and objecting to its use in the question at hand. But that wasn’t really my point. Assume, if you like, that evolution is a legitimate biological theory. I still question the enormous amount of non-scientific freight that is trucked into the discussion through this freeway. If evolution is true this does not necessarily mean that every aspect of what it means to be human may be accounted for in an evolutionary scheme. Where did that assumption come from? What is its basis?
My point about evolutionary biology being akin to metaphysics is that “evolution” has been granted the status of an overarching principle from which we may reason and theorize in a non-scientific fashion. Then, once a theory has been formed the proof comes from some rather circumstantial and soft-science quarters. Like, when pictures of eyes are placed above a can for coffee tips at the office, people are more likely to give. This is taken to support the notion that belief in an all seeing God promotes adherence to community strengthening norms and is beneficial for survival. But what if the eyes just amused people and served as a reminder? This is hardly the stuff of scientific research, let alone biology.
Evolution can and must account for all things human. It holds the explanatory key for everything that we do or think. This feels and functions a lot more like a philosophical premise than a scientific theory and I think its function as a philosophical premise accounts for such intensely theoretical non-biological (strictly speaking) cogitation about the evolution of religion.
In a subsequent meeting I was able to clarify my question for Dr. Schloss and his response was mostly agreement. But he didn’t seem to think it was a very important point. He said, sure there are people doing lots of different things in this field. There is some philosophy and some science and some psychology, to be sure. Implied seemed to be: “So what?” We were pressed for time so I didn’t engage further. However, here’s why I thought and still think this is important. It is because all the conclusions that are being drawn in the field of evolutionary biology and psychology are being presented to the public as the sure results of science, and science still holds a special authority in our culture. Philosophy generally doesn’t. But if you philosophize under the rubric of “evolutionary biology” people are happy to run with it as though it were science. This is particularly the case when it comes to deterministic types of conclusions such that “I am the way I am and I can’t do anything about it – so say the scientists.”
So my complaint is, I suppose, not about the work of scientists and philosophers, who probably understand the methods and limits of what they are doing. It’s more about a the interface between their work and the public. Though, I suppose I still have some qualms about the overall approach, as mentioned above.