10 August 2006

book review: "Evolution, Monism, Atheism and the Naturalist World-View" by Greg Graffin

Greg Graffin (that's right, the guy from punk band Bad Religion) has written an excellent book on the beliefs of the world's top evolutionary scientists. To clear things up, one must point out that he is very much in his element here; in fact his academic/scientific career was cut short to deal with the unexpected success of his equally excellent endeavors in music through Bad Religion, but he has returned to pursue his academics as well in recent years, & this is the result. Basically he sent out a questionnaire to recognised, preeminent scientists in the most "directly" evolutionary fields (such as biology, etc) about their views on evolution & how evolution has influenced their worldview in general. The book contains the questionnaire, the results, an analysis of what the results mean, & several in-depth interviews with individuals (incl. such heavyweights as Dick Lewontin, Richard Dawkins, Ernst Mayr, & more).

To start off I'll just put the questionnaire itself here, with my answers to it. Now I'm not a top evolutionary scientist, to be clear, but I have learned quite a bit about evolution & religion. When questions arise about "teaching of evolution" or similar scenarios, I will answer them in the sense of "if I was a science professor" or "when I tell others about evolution", etc. The questionnaire is in normal text, my answers in bold italics.  My criticisms of some of the choices & wording in the questionnaire is under the comments section (number 18).

SECTION ONE: Statement of Belief

1) Do you consider yourself a religious person?
    * YES
    * NO

2) [If "yes" to Q1,] Which best describes your religion?
    * Christian
    * Islamic
    * Judaism
    * Buddhism
    * Other

3) [If "no" to Q1,]Which best describes your belief system?
    * Atheist
    * Agnostic
    * Naturalist
    * Other

4) Do you believe in God, or an entity that exists beyond the scope of our observations that is responsible for designing and maintaining life on earth?
    * I believe in God as described in this question.
    * I believe in God, but my God merely started the processes of the universe, and of life on earth, and does not intervene on a day-to-day basis.
    * I don't believe in God in any traditional sense of the word.
    * I don't believe in God, but I do believe that there are entities in the universe that are beyond the scope of science and are forever going to remain so.

5) What role does evidence play for you in determining your belief in God?
    * I believe that there is a God no matter how insubstantial the evidence.
    * I believe that there is not enough evidence to justify a belief in God.
    * I don't apply scientific methodology or principles to my beliefs.

6) I believe that there is something, not known to science, in human beings that lives on after the body dies.
    * Agree with this statement
    * Disagree with this statement

7) Please choose only one of the following:
    * All biological organisms are locally determined by heredity and environment but humans still possess free will.
    * All biological organisms are locally determined by heredity and environment and humans have no free will.

SECTION TWO: What Evolution Studies, What It Ignores

8) Organisms, including humans, consist of the following:
    * Material properties [Properties are here defined as determining factors.]
    * Spiritual/Non-material properties
    * BOTH material and spiritual/non-material properties

9) I believe that the findings of evolutionary biology can influence and alter morality.
    * Agree with this statement
    * Disagree with this statement

10) Do you believe that evolution teaches us something about the objective reality of life on earth or is such a topic better left for philosophers to debate?
    * I am committed to teaching about the objective reality of life on earth.
    * I am content to let philosophers debate about objective reality, without addressing it in my teaching.
    * I don't believe that there is such a thing as objective reality, we all create our own reality.

11) What is your view of purpose and progress in evolution?
    * Neither purpose nor progress plays any ultimate role in evolution. ["Ultimate" refers to any of the following concepts: intelligent design, teleology, or determining factors that science does not study.]
    * Evolution exhibits no ultimate purpose, but progress does occur in evolution.
    * Ultimate purpose plays a role in evolution and progress is a part of that purpose.
    * Ultimate purpose plays a role in evolution, but it doesn't entail progress.

12) What is your opinion on the relationship between evolution and religion?
    * They are non-overlapping magisteria [teaching bodies] whose tenets are not in conflict.
    * Religion is a social phenomenon that has developed with the biological evolution of Homo sapiens. Therefore religion should be considered as a part of our biological heritage and its tenets should be seen as a labile social adaptation, subject to change and reinterpretation.
    * They are mutually exclusive magisteria whose tenets indicate mutually exclusive conclusions.
    * They are totally harmonious. Evolution is one of many ways to elucidate the evidences of God's designs.

SECTION THREE: Religious Belief and Practice of Evolution

13) I keep my beliefs about morality and ethics separate from my practice and teaching of evolution.
    * Agree with this statement
    * Disagree with this statement

14) Look at the following diagram. Choose the letter that corresponds to your philosophical preference. For instance, if you are a naturalist* choose "A" if you are a Deist*, choose "I" and so on. If your philosophical position is intermediate between the end points, there are lettered fields you can choose. For instance "C" corresponds to a philosophy that is predominantly naturalist but includes some leanings toward deism. "H" is a deistic philosophy with some leanings toward theism*. "J", "K", and "L" are neutral positions along their respective axes. "M" is a totally neutral position, a philosophy without any leanings toward naturalism, deism, or theism.

- Naturalism, the philosophical position that matter, energy, and natural laws make up the total composition of the universe, and that no God created or designed it, truth is found through the empirical procedure of exploration and verification.

- Deism, the philosophical position that God exists and created the universe and its forces and matter but does not intervene in daily events; he is an uncaring God who started the evolutionary process but plays no role in its outcome; truth is revealed by design.

- Theism, the philosophical position that God exists and cares for humans, and intervenes in daily events and processes to affect outcomes for the good of mankind, and that truth is revealed by such goodness.

Choose on the letter of your choice:

    * A
    * B
    * C
    * D
    * E
    * F
    * G
    * H
    * I
    * J
    * K
    * L
    * M

15) Do you think that your body of work in evolutionary biology reflects your position on the diagram of Q14?
    * Yes
    * No

16) Do you consider yourself a naturalist in the metaphysical sense?  [One who subscribes to metaphysical naturalism, the notion that the only reliable method of discovering truth comes from empirical investigation.]
    * YES
    * NO

17) What kind of belief system would you advocate, if pressed, as being the most consonant with a lifelong practice of evolution?
    * One of the traditional religions (i.e. Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism etc.)
    * A naturalistic one that is based on materialism, and incorporates advances in scientific knowledge
    * One that incorporates some aspects of traditional religion and some aspects of modern science
    * Other

SECTION FOUR: Comments (optional)

18) If you would like to qualify any of your answers, or comment on any of the questions, please use this page to do so.

Q4: There should also be a choice for "I don't believe in God at all", whether in a "traditional sense of the word" or not.

Q7: I agree with parts of both these choices.  I chose the second one to highlight that humans are no more specially gifted with "free will" than any other organisms.  We are able to see freedom & choices more easily, & act on them more consciously, because of our better mental abilities.  However there is freedom & necessity for everything.  There are always constraints of some kind on every overall freedom.  Many organisms rely more on instinct than conscious analysis in making choices, but if you define "free will" as the ability to make choices using consciousness (even regardless of consequences), then humans are also not unique in that.  Also humans do have some instincts & automatic processes.  The main thing is what is "free will", obviously if it means absolute freedom then there are no organisms that have that, e.g. humans can't fly no matter how much one "wills" it.  I feel that the main thrust of the question is whether humans are special & "above" other organisms -- other than the various things which make us a separate species after all -- & that "free will" is too vague.  Therefore it should be two separate questions: one, multiple choice on what is your definition of free will; & two, do humans have this exclusively, does every organism have it, or does nothing have it.

Q12: I wanted to choose both B & C for this question.  Religion is mutually exclusive to science, but one can & should use scientific methods to study religion. One of the conclusions of such study being that religion is a social phenomenon which developed as part of our evolutionary process -- but this doesn't mean that we are "hardwired", born, or stuck with religion permanently.  Rather, in my opinion, humans are born with ability & tendency to create a world outlook, to answer "big questions", & so on: tens of thousands of years ago guesswork & chance combined to make our answer religion, but with the development of science we now are able to have more accurate answers.

Q16: "Philosophical" would be a much better choice of word than "metaphysical".  "Metaphysical" means "beyond the physical" or "non-material" & this usage suggests that ideas have no root in reality.  This term "naturalism" that you are promoting is actually in opposition to metaphysics, which is idealism & belief in existence of supernatural forces & so on.

GENERAL COMMENTS: Please don't make up new words because you're scared to talk about the old ones.  (I mean you're a punk rocker, for crying out loud!  But mainly it's not an identity thing, but the principle of the matter.)  "Atheism" & "materialism" are perfectly good words.  If you don't believe in God or gods then you are an atheist; there are different kinds of atheists with different overall worldviews, different styles ("militant" or not etc), but atheism is atheism & not something else.  Similarly if you think that there is only one objective reality & that there is no such thing as "supernatural" forces or beings, then you are a materialist.  Just as "intelligent design" is nothing but creationism, your "naturalism" is just atheism & your "monism" is just materialism.  (Though I will concede that "monism" is a good term when contrasting it to "dualism".  Also intelligent design is a specific kind of creationism & naturalism is a specific kind of atheism -- but the problem is when you offer atheism & naturalism as two separate choices & you can't choose both.)

SECTION FIVE: Biographical Information (optional)

19) Your Name:
Institution of highest academic degree: some university
Area of research concentration and classes taught: languages
Age: 25
Country of citizenship: U.S.
Country of primary education: Malaysia
Were you formally introduced to any religion in a ceremony or rite of passage?
    * Yes
    * No
    * N/A
If yes, which? Christianity, & then Islam
Are you practicing in that religion now?
    * Yes
    * No (neither one)
    * N/A
For those who answered NO: Did the study and teaching of Evolution have an ideological impact on your decision to discontinue practicing that religion?
    * Yes
    * No
    * N/A
Are you practicing in any religion now?
    * Yes
    * No
    * N/A
Explain: I had already become an atheist for other reasons before I learned anything deep about evolution.  However, knowledge of evolution has solidified & reaffirmed my being an atheist.

One last note of the top of my head, I wanted to respond to some discussion (especially in the interviews) on "first cause" & notions of some kind of amorphous supernatural force which one may call "God" though not in the traditional sense.  That is, the deist rather than theist position.  (Or in popular terms, being "spiritual" rather than "religious".)  And I don't have expertise/knowledge to say whether the Big Bang Theory in particular is correct or not.  But look this whole "first cause" thing, or the idea that something "must" be behind it all, at least kick-starting everything, one "creation" act & then it all takes place according to evolutionary laws etc -- it's just bullshit.  If you can't believe that the universe "just happened", then how the hell could you believe that a god/creator "just happened"?  I mean where did God come from then?  Or is there some other "first cause" for that too, did "God2" create "God" who then created the universe?  Come on it's all too stupid.  At some point, something just happened!  I doubt we'll ever find out the answer to the how & why of that (I mean even if you figure out how "something" comes out of "nothing", well where does the "nothing" with such potential come from?, etc)  So obviously there will always be wonder, awe, & mystery -- but it's no reason to make up new "God"s, "Easter Bunny"s, & the rest under the cover of bogus "scientific" & "scholarly" jargon.

Now that I've put all these criticisms up, let me make clear that the main thing of this book is extremely positive, & I strongly recommend it.  Especially, it not only puts the lie to the story that evolution is up for debate, but shows that evolutionists are overwhelming not religious at all.  Even those who are "religious" are mainly deists, i.e. they believe in spiritual/supernatural things in a general sense, but don't believe in traditional organised religion & certainly don't mix such things with their science.

GO TO CORNELLEVOLUTIONPROJECT.ORG to read the results of the survey, view a video, & get info for ordering a copy for yourself.

Finally, as long as we're on the subject of evolution books, I'd like to promote the upcoming book The Science of Evolution and The Myth of Creationism: Knowing What's Real and Why It Matters by Ardea Skybreak.  CHECK IT OUT HERE!  (Click on the "download the series" link to read it online for free; but please support & buy a copy, hardcover available now & paperback in mid-August.)  Richard Leakey, the fucking legendary anthropologist, recommends it by saying it is " of tremendous benefit to many, especially those in the teaching profession where there are frequent opportunities to defend science against the ridiculous assertions by religious zealots and fundamentalists."

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