Monthly Archives: April 2011

Creation or Evolution: An Epistemological Contrast

There are several topics which surround “hot” cultural issues such as the conflict between the views of creation and evolution. One issue within this debate which is rarely talked about in much depth, if at all, are the epistemological foundations of the two views. The purpose of this paper is to first dispel some of the confusion as to the relationship between science and philosophy. Then the epistemological foundations for both creation and evolution will be explained and evaluated. Finally, an analysis will be made as to which of these two positions has the merit, or the amount of warrant, to make it the most logically tenable position.
One of the most common misconceptions about science today is that scientists themselves don’t have worldviews and are able to somehow transcend their own biases and conduct their research and experiments with complete objectivity. This is simply not the case, and if you happen to be a theistic scientist or an atheistic scientist or anything in between, these views can shape how you interpret the data you are viewing and how you conduct your experiments or which experiments you conduct in the first place. It is often suggested when reading any sort of academic material that the reader “put aside his beliefs” and let the author present his position, and while this is a very admirable and useful thing for the reader to do, it is also true that it would be admirable and useful for the author/researcher to do the exact same thing when looking at the data. On the face of it, this seems like a contradiction after just explaining that there is no possible way that anyone can be completely objective. However, the distinction that needs to be made is between complete objectivity and functional objectivity. While the former is impossible, the latter is quite possible and most useful. The easiest approach toward functional objectivity is to simply be as forthcoming as possible about your biases. This sounds easy enough, but for most people this is actually quite difficult. It is always easier to point a finger at the “other guy” and tell him that he’s biased. Functional objectivity by means of admission is helpful on a couple different levels. First of all it helps people in the same field to be able to more accurately create a sort of checks and balances environment. The second way this is useful is to the people who end up reading/listening to the findings presented because they will get a much clearer image for where the author/scientist is coming from and what his/her thought process is. If this is accomplished, it is then acceptable to move into the philosophical systems which undergird these worldviews.
Another common misunderstanding, particularly in this debate, is that creationists espouse a view that is, at worst, simply religion in disguise and at best, nothing but philosophy whereas science is somehow outside the bounds of philosophy entirely. This idea, of course, harkens back to the misunderstanding mentioned above, but it is more pointed by the fact that it specifically attacks two separate entities, that is, religion and philosophy. This idea seems to find its way into many scientific circles outside of this debate as well,such as well-known physicist Stephen Hawking claiming that “Philosophy is dead” in his newest book “The Grand Design”. (1) Ironically, this is itself a philosophical statement, and it has been argued that all Hawking meant was that while philosophers were able to make contributions about the natural world simply by thinking about it, now this role is occupied solely by scientists. But is this statement accurate? Can scientists contribute to the knowledge bank of the natural world without using philosophy? The question is an epistemological one, that is, how do you know what you know? Most scientists and laypeople alike who fall on the evolution side of this debate will claim that they only believe things that they can see, smell, touch, taste, hear or feel. This is repeated almost to the level of mantra; however this betrays something which contradicts the claim that science is somehow wholly other to the enterprise of philosophy because by claiming that you can only believe in things which you can see, smell, touch, taste, hear or feel, what you are really doing is ascribing to the philosophical system known as empiricism. Classically, empiricism has been defended by such great minds as John Locke, David Hume, Thomas Hobbes and John Stewart Mill. The definition of empiricism is almost precisely what was described above, that is that knowledge can only be attained through using the senses.
Even within the empiricist camp itself, there is disagreement as to how “hard” a standard the empirical senses criteria needs to be. Traditionally, arguably since Aristotle (2), this criteria was taken to its logical conclusion and its proponents suggested that the mind is basically a blank state at birth and everything is formed via experiences, also known as “tabula rasa”; this view was most fully fleshed into its current form by John Locke (3). Interestingly, Locke himself, among others proposed a slightly weaker form of this assertion which might be aptly described as semi-empiricism, in stating that there are some views which can be arrived at by intuition or reason alone, and one of the things he placed in this category was, ironically, God’s existence. Within the scientific community, empiricism is taken as the “industry standard” as it were, and there is rarely much look into the system itself. Philosophically, this concept has been debated hotly since its inception, but before exploring the more complex philosophical issues, it would be helpful at this point to bring up some more layperson questions and objections which naturally arise when considering this position. First of all, it seems that the concept of tabula rasa appears to be untestable in the sense that it would be impossible to test newborn infants to see if they know anything, and there appears to be a vague time period for which that concept could remain true yet that time-frame would also be untestable. Secondly, how is it that anyone came to the conclusion that empiricism was the only means to knowledge or “believability”? Certainly the system itself couldn’t be used to test the hypothesis because you would have to get outside of sense perception to test the totality of the system, which is both impossible on this view, and outside the knowledge spectrum of what they claim is attainable! There appears to be some sort of presuppositions taken for granted before you can even begin to use the system of empiricism to consider reality, and the very notion of presuppositions seems to fly directly in the face of the entire concept of tabula rasa, at least in its strong, and most prevailing, form. Lastly, it would seem that people believe in things which they cannot prove exist solely empirically every day. These things include the belief in the existence of other minds as well as, more generally, parts of the world or space which individuals have not themselves experienced.
More technically, Willard Van Orman Quine has eloquently argued against what he calls the two dogmas of empiricism (4). The first of these dogmas he calls a cleavage between truths which are analytic and truths which are synthetic. The second is the dogma of reductionism, that is that any meaningful statement must be equivalent to a logical construct based on terms which refer to immediate experience. In abandoning these two dogmas, Quine lists one effect being the blurring of the presupposed division between speculative metaphysics and natural science, and another being a shift toward pragmatism. The first dogma has its roots in David Hume and Gottfried Leibniz. Hume made a distinction between what he called relations of ideas and matters of fact while Leibniz referred to a very probabilistic set of truths of reason which are true within all possible worlds. Immanuel Kant presented the argument in its fullest expression with the same cleavage that exists today between analytic and synthetic statements or truth claims. The first dogma comes with its own set of problems in the sense that we are in need of a definition of both analytic and synthetic. Dealing first with the problem of analyticity, Quine presents Kant’s definition of what an analytic statement is; that is, a statement that “attributes to its subject no more than is already conceptually contained in the subject.” There are a couple issues with this definition in that it’s very limiting, both in the types of statements to which it applies (subject-predicate) that it leaves the statement in a sort of metaphysical containment. In other words, a statement is true (analytic) by virtue of its meaning(s) without any reference to fact. Unfortunately for Kant, this simply pushes the question back a little bit in the sense that now we have to discuss the concept of meaning. Aristotle proposed the notion of what he called “essence” (as opposed to accidents), and this certainly is where most modern understanding of meaning comes from. Quine uses the example that for Aristotle, man being rational was essential while being two-legged was accidental. There is a difference here between the Aristotelian notion and the modern conception of meaning because rationality may be accurately wedded to the term “man” but it certainly does not then mean that the concept of “two-legged” is essential to the term “man”. Also, “two-legged” is somehow involved in the meaning of “biped” but rationality is not. Basically, for Aristotle, things certainly had essences, but they did not have meanings; linguistic forms on the other hand, had meanings. Essentially, according to Aristotle, “Meaning is what essence becomes when it is divorced from the object of reference and wedded to the word.” Further still, there is a question of what sort of objects are meanings? Usually what are appealed to are either the Platonic forms or mental ideas, but this answers nothing at all because it simply runs into the earlier problems of analyticity. At this point, one can make a decent argument by claiming that statements can be analytic by general philosophical acclaim. These statements come in the form of being logically true; an example Quine uses is “No married man is unmarried”. In this situation, the statement is true regardless of how you define “man” and “married”, however the statement becomes more complicated if you were to change the phrase to “No bachelor is married” because while you can safely substitute “bachelor” for “unmarried man” you have not necessarily defined either one so much as called them synonymous, which means that there now needs to be a definition of synonymy. The natural progression is to attempt to define definition, but as Quine points out “how did we come to define “bachelor” for “unmarried man”?” There seems to be some sort of inherent meaning inseparable from the things being defined because certainly the people who write dictionaries don’t actually invent meanings so much as participate in the field of lexicography. This dogma in a way gives rise to the second dogma of reductionism.
The basic idea of reductionism, and therefore that of the verification theory of meaning, is that the meaning something has is basically synonymous with the method of verifying it, that is, the empirical method. The simpler objection which was described above applies here in the sense that one would have to explain how anyone managed to come to the idea that the verification theory of meaning was the correct way to view things by using the theory itself, which of course can’t be done. However, in this situation, an analytic statement would be one “which is confirmed no matter what.” so that statements are only analytic if they are alike in point method of empirical verification. This seems to be quite circular in stating that statements are true if they are like their empirical verification, and the empirical verification is the only means to lead to true statements. In this case, Quine mentions that this is an account of cognitive synonymy not of linguistic forms generally, but of statements. However, this brings you right back to the problem of synonymy mentioned earlier, only this time dealing with statements instead of forms. However, if we accept the verification theory of meaning then the problem of synonymy seems to be solved. But what exactly does the verification theory of meaning say, beneath the circular reasoning? According to the theory, statement synonymy is supposed to be likeness of method of empirical confirmation. The question is, what exactly are those methods? Or put another way, what is the relationship between the statements and the experiences which give them meaning? There are those who would follow a very strict, or radical reductionism and state that there is only truth found where the statements follow from direct and immediate sensory experience. Unfortunately, this doesn’t erase ambiguity from the original question, so much as rephrase it. One could also claim that reductionism need be translated by phrases instead of singular terms. In this case, it gives the appearance of having a more broadened meaning and therefore a more wide application. However, this is in appearance only because Rudolf Carnap, in trying to define precisely the question we are trying to discuss, comes up with a very lengthy discussion which manages to formulate only a fraction of a whole, by his own admission, of what is needed to construct an entire framework by which to answer this question. Interestingly the only thing the second dogma seems to do is rephrase the first dogma and run into exactly the same problems. Thus far, the critique of empiricism follows largely from Quine, but there are certainly others, most notably Descartes, Spinoza, and Kant from the Rationalist camp that assail empiricism for entirely different reasons. These reasons are certainly important, but are a bit outside of the purview of this paper because they do not directly correlate to the opposing side of the argument. A brief endnote of references to their critiques and views is included as well as an expansion of much which was discussed in brevity here (5). It is apparent, then, that these two dogmas which empiricists hold are not based on empirical verification (as their theory insists) or on logical argumentation, but simply held by faith because they must be true in order for their system to work.
Creationism is a very broad term which describes a number of different positions, however it will have to do as a singular term if for no other reason than to be able to serve as a term of contrast between it and empiricism. The difference, of course, is quite obvious on the surface as that between one system (empiricism/evolutionism) which does not accept the metaphysical and one system (creationism) which does. At the outset, the term metaphysical could mean a number of things but broadly speaking it is simply the study which answers the questions of “what is there?” and “what is it like?”. Therefore, metaphysics deals with both the natural and extra-natural or supernatural elements of reality. There is a decent amount of debate surrounding whether or not metaphysics can be considered while doing any of the natural sciences, but again, this largely depends on the two dogmas listed above. Within a paradigm which allows for more than empiricism you are free to study what Aristotle referred to as “being qua being”, that is being understood as being. This also allows any study of the divine as well as abstractions such as other minds and sets etc. A common view is to maintain a sort of division between these sorts of physical/metaphysical categories. Plato referred to this divide as imagining life on two stories where the first story contained the physical and the second story contained abstractions and the metaphysical. However, if the bottom story is something like what empiricists claim, then it doesn’t appear possible for that story to exist, especially in relation to the other. So far, all that has been established is a broad working definition and a range of things which are acceptable to study as a scientist if you are to reject empiricism and embrace creationism. This has not answered the question of what epistemological basis creation stands on. The very term “creation” implies that there was a “creator” of some sort, and while this creator doesn’t need to be defined very specifically in this broad term (much to the liking of the Intelligent Design camp) there are a few qualities which are essential. That is, this creator must have created at least humans as beings who could acquire knowledge as well as create a knowable universe for those beings to reside in. However, this definition does very little to describe much of anything as there would still be logical possibilities (like Kant’s demon) through which the creator could have created a world and beings in which it was impossible to know that he/she/it had done so. A wonderful sci-fi example of this would be the film series The Matrix, and if you were to take a strictly empiricist view, there would be no possible way to find out whether or not you were within the matrix itself. The typical philosophical question here would be whether we know that we are not simply brains in a vat being stimulated by some sort of mad scientist. Obviously, as an empiricist, there is no way in which this could be answered, and some might simply claim that the question is meaningless. To avoid this, it would be more pertinent to narrow down the definition of a metaphysical deity/being to discuss. Broadly, the realm of theism is the most often appealed to for both its usefulness as well as the simple fact that it is the form most people are familiar with. However, it is better still to narrow even that field down into Christian Theism, and that is the definition which will be discussed. Speaking in epistemological terms, there is much ground to cover, and thankfully due to the nature of the subject matter, Christianity avoids the problems encountered by empiricism discussed above; however, this does not mean that issues are not or have not been raised. One of these issues is the existence of God because since, at base, God provides the answer to the “how do you know?” question (not in a simple, “God did it” way, discussed later). The first objection to the existence to God is known as the evidentialist objection. This objection can be formed syllogistically as follows:
1. It is irrational or unacceptable to accept theistic belief as sufficient or appropriate evidence or reason.
2. There is not sufficient or appropriate evidence or reason for theistic belief.
3. Belief in God is irrational.
It is to this objection that Alvin Plantinga and others developed what they call Reformed Epistemology(RE) (6), which is seen as an extension on the concept of the sensus divinitatis first put forth by John Calvin (7). The idea is that belief in God can accurately be described as a belief which is properly basic. In philosophy, properly basic beliefs are those which are foundational and are the axioms of a belief system. These beliefs do not depend on other beliefs for their justification, and therefore are not needed to be justified by argumentation. In RE, beliefs are properly basic when they are reasonable and consistent with a sensible worldview. While placing belief in God in that category is somewhat controversial, people have no problem placing other things in that category such as the belief in other minds, the belief in the reality of the past, as well as the reliability and reality of our memory.
Plantinga takes this a step further by introducing the concept of warrant (8). Essentially, warrant is the property of true beliefs which turn them into knowledge. This property is the property of being “produced by cognitive faculties functioning properly (subject to no malfunctioning) in a cognitive environment congenial for those faculties, according to a design plan successfully aimed at truth.” The conclusion is that since there is an epistemological model through which the belief in God is properly basic, it is then justifiably held without argumentation. This does not mean, however, that Plantinga sees no use in the enterprise of Natural Theology and the classical arguments for the existence of God. In fact, Plantinga feels they are useful to add even more warrant to the belief in God as he discusses in his article “Two Dozen (or so) Theistic Arguments” (9). It is thought that David Hume entirely destroyed the enterprise of Natural Theology in his master works of “An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding” (10) and “Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion.” (11) And while these have posed the most serious intellectual challenges to natural theology to date (especially when compared to modern works) that does not mean that it is as impenetrable as is usually thought (12). There is another issue with these arguments which are more pertinent to the current epistemological discussion (for resources discussing the classical arguments, see endnote 13) and that is the issue of meaning and language. These issues are problems for empiricism as well and, as we have seen, empiricism does not have adequate answers to them. Questions which need to be answered are as follows: “How is language a bearer of meaning?” , “How is communication possible?” , “What is the relation of logic to language?” and “How can language refer to things?”. Gordon Clark, in his work “Language and Theology” (14) devotes a great amount of time and care in answering just these questions. In order for the arguments for the existence of God to be evaluated, it has to be decided if, and how, language can carry meaning. In response to this question, Clark writes that “Language is a bearer of meaning because words are arbitrary signs the mind uses to tag thoughts.” And this answer leads to the second question of how language can refer to things by means of communication, and therefore be an adequate bearer/transferer of meaning between things and minds. To this point, Clark answers that “Communication is possible because all minds have at least some thoughts in common. This is so because God created man a rational spirit, a mind capable of thinking, worshiping and talking to God. God operates through His Logos, the wisdom that enlightens every man in the world.” This coheres well within the confines of communicating between one mind and another, however there still has to be a means through which meaning is transferred between an object and a mind in the first place. Essentially, this is the question of the relationship between logic and language and Clark responds by writing “Language is logical because it expresses logical thoughts. Not to deny the noetic effects of sin (examples of which are incorrect addition and various fallacies in reasoning), man is still a rational or logical creature and hence he cannot think 3 is 4 or that two contradictories can both be true. Language, therefore is built upon the laws of logic.” Implicit within this answer is an assumption about the laws of logic. Aristotle fleshed out the three laws of logic: the Law of Identity, the Law of Noncontradiction and the Law of Excluded Middle. The Law of Identity states that any object is itself, or A=A. Aristotle defined in “Metaphysics II” (15) the law this way “Now ‘why a thing is itself” is a meaningless inquiry (for—to give meaning to the question ‘why’—the fact or the existence of the thing must already be evident—e.g., that the moon is eclipsed—but the fact that a thing is itself is the single reason and the single cause to be given in answer to all such questions as why the man is man, or the musician musical, unless one were to answer, ‘because each thing is inseparable from itself, and its being one just meant this.’ This, however, is common to all things and is a short and easy way with the question.)”. The Law of Noncontradiction states that an object cannot be both itself and not itself at the same time and in the same way, or A ≠ not A. The Law of Excluded Middle states that for any proposition, it is either true or its negation is, or P ∨ ¬P. The laws of logic are such that they cannot be violated, especially with the belief of the existence of other minds being properly basic held by all but the most skeptical philosophers (and even they end up being self-defeating when trying to prove their position). Now that meaning and language have been epistemologically established, it is acceptable to move on to the existence of God, as referenced extensively in the endnote. An endeavor which parallels the discussion of the existence of God is that of, if God exists, did He communicate, and if so, how? Historic, protestant Christians maintain that the primary means through which God has communicated with His creation is through the Bible, and this is referenced extensively in the endnote section (16) as well because as important a topic as it is, it is a secondary or tertiary one when dealing with the topic currently discussed. If it has been established that God does exist, and He has communicated through the Bible, then what bearing does that have on the question of epistemological foundations, or more broadly to the debate between creation and evolution? On the grounds of epistemology, God is the basis upon which everything is built and as such there is sufficient reason for believing that creation is the most tenable and logical position.
Both epistemological foundations for the creation and evolution views need to be rigorously defined and defended, and this is a concept which is often ignored by all sides of the debate. It is impossible to hold either of those positions, indeed to even operate within a chosen field, without relying on a philosophical system as a starting point for your work. This is why critiques levied against either side of the sort that they accuse the other side of using “mere philosophy” instead of “actual science” and the like can be thrown out. The stance of empiricism may be one of significantly less controversy in the grand scheme of things but as it has been shown, it has significant problems that leave it as a system which is untenable and cannot be rationally held. The stance of the creationist is one which requires significantly more work to be done epistemologically to understand its tenants and to prove the truth therein. However, once this is established, it becomes the dominant, and indeed the only rational position to hold as a system and worldview, particularly when it comes to the debate of creation or evolution.

1. Stephen Hawking, The Grand Design, (Bantam, 2010)
2. Aristotle, De Anima, (Cosimo Classics, 2008)
3. John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, (WLC, 2009)
4. Willard Van Orman Quine, Two Dogmas of Empiricism, (February 15, 2002).
5. René Descartes, Discourse on Method, (Penguin Classics, 2000)
Baruch Spinoza, Ethics, (Penguin Classics, 2005)
Immanuel Kant, The Critique of Pure Reason, (Cambridge University Press, 1999)
6. Alvin Plantinga, God and Other Minds, (Cornell University Press, 1990)
7. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, (Hendrickson Publishers, 2008)
8.Alvin Plantinga, Warrant: The Current Debate, (Oxford University Press, 1993)
Alvin Plantinga, Warrant and Proper Function, (Oxford University Press, 1993)
Alvin Plantinga, Warranted Christian Belief, (Oxford University Press, 2000)
9. Alvin Plantinga, Two Dozen (Or So) Theistic Arguments,
10. David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, (General Books LLC, 2010)
11. David Hume, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, (Forgotten Books, 2010)
12.James F. Sennett, Douglas Groothuis, In Defense of Natural Theology, (Illinois, InterVarsity Press, 2005)
13. William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith, (Moody Press, 1984)
Francis Schaeffer, The God Who Is There, (InterVarsity Press, 1998)
Francis Schaeffer, Escape From Reason, (InterVarsity Press, 2006)
Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, (Sophia Institute Press, 2001)
Cornelius Van Til, Christian-theistic Evidences, (Presbyterian and Reformed Pub. Co, 1976)
R.C. Sproul, Classical Aplogetics, (Zondervan, 1984)
14. Gordon Clark, Language and Theology, (Trinity Foundation, 1993)
15. Aristotle, Metaphysics II, (Oxford University Press, 1924)
16. Francis Schaeffer, He Is There and He Is Not Silent, (Tyndale House Publishers Inc, 1972)
Francis Schaeffer, No Final Conflict, (InterVarsity Press, 1979)
Francis Schaeffer, Genesis in Space and Time, (InterVarsity Press, 1972)
Gleason Archer, New International Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties, (Zondervan, 2001)
R.C. Sproul, Can I Trust the Bible?, (Reformation Trust Publishing, 2009)