8/30/2007

THAT 'DARWINIST' LABEL

I had an exchange early in the comments of a previous thread that, when reread, seems relevant to my ‘debate’ with Vox.* A reader, evidently one with an ax to grind, wrote:

With the expectation of true rational discourse, I look forward to your posting of the true objective scientific delineation of the full scope of the Darwinian theory, vis a vis, the present ideological naturalist philosophy of Darwinism that presently filters and strangles life sciences.

I replied, in part:

While my thought is Darwinian, I don't really think that there is such a thing as 'the Darwinian theory'. As for 'Darwinism', this term appears in the writings of UK scientists as a gloss for 'evolution through natural selection', but that's usually not the sense that it's used in the USA, where it seems to be perceived as part and parcel of a belief system. I sense this is how you are using it, since you couple it with 'ideological naturalist philosophy', in the manner of Philip Johnson.

I'll interject here and remark that one of the reasons I've adopted the gloss ‘TENS’ as a shorthand for the modern theory is an attempt to avoid that source of confusion. My companion, however, seems to be still puzzled by my approach, replying:

You spoke of being Darwinian, implying agreement with Darwin's Theory, the rest is semantics. I encourage you to define it succintly to remove any confusion, especially the differentiation from the belief system that has perjoratively become known as Darwinism: Just the science, no ideology.

Sounds good to me, so I sent him a post meant to clarify exactly what my enthusiasm for Darwin actually implied:

To me, 'Darwinian' means that I look at life from the perspective of Charles Darwin: I think in terms of populations, interacting with their environment. I tend to interpret all changes to be, if not necessarily optimal, as a product of many forces, chief among them natural selection. I don't rule out the possibility of some other agency at work, but as a scientist I confine myself to natural causes as a formal matter.

This is not the same thing, however, as a metaphysical commitment. There is a difference between methodological naturalism and metaphysical naturalism. The former is the way that most things (not just science) are routinely accomplished. Plumbing, for example: the plumber does not typically invoke supernatural causes for the moisture on the floor or in the walls, but busies him or her self with the task for determining which pipe is amiss. We all routinely assume natural causes for almost all sorts of activity or phenomena; science merely codifies this assumption as a boundary condition for doing science.

That effectively ended the conversation, which leads me to believe my interlocutor was indeed of the Philip Johnson mode, routinely conflating the collective practice of science with a personal metaphysics. Which, as my example should make clear, makes as much sense as berating plumbers for their metaphysical blinders in choosing a spanner over a prayer book.

*It’s been so civil and we’ve agreed on so many points that it seems odd to refer to it as ‘debate’—but perhaps the fur will yet fly.

2 comments:

DaveC said...

I think you are right
there are not many of us who when we see an issue arise in real life seek a supernatural explanation. If the lights don't work then I look to the fuse or the bulb. Imagine if I thought it was a product of some woo, why would I even bother checking the fuse box or bulb?

Scott Hatfield . . . said...

davec, thanks for leaving a comment! Welcome!