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October 03, 2005

Psychology and evolution

Abhay Parekh at 3Quarks asks a very interesting question: Why don't more people believe in evolution?

Abhay argues that the real sticking point is not religious dogma, per se, but rather a more general reluctance to acknowledge the degree to which life is shaped by chance.

Abhay emphasizes people's discomfort with uncertainty, contingency, and unpredictability. Evolution does have these implications, and no doubt some people are bothered by them. As Abhay notes, human beings tend to struggle with probabalistic reasoning at the best of times.

However, I think what people are really resisting is not so much chance as disenchantment.

Mostly, evolution makes people uncomfortable because it explains how life could have emerged without any external purpose or design. Evolutionary explanations are threatening to people who assume that naturalistic explanations undercut meaning in life. If we assume that we were designed by some creator, it follows that our existence has at least some built-in purpose. At the very least, we could say that we were designed by someone for some reason. It wouldn't necessarily follow that we were designed for any good reason, of course.

As a matter of public relations, it's probably wise to stress that evolution and religion don't usually conflict. That's true, at least on a very superficial level. Many world religions endorse the modern scientific account of the origin of species, and most others give adherents the option of believing in evolution without committing heresy. However, at a deeper level, there is residual tension. For example, the argument from design begins to seem superfluous once you accept evolution. So, while literal conflicts between religious faith and biology are relatively rare, there's also a sense in which evolutionary thinking is a "universal solvent" that threatens some aspects of of a religious outlook.

Evolution will continue to be controversial as long as people believe that naturalism threatens meaning. I don't know how proponents of evolution can begin to make people feel more comfortable with the naturalistic worldview.


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» Why are people against evolution? from Pharyngula
This is an interesting point of view, but I have to say Im not convinced. Its an explanation for why many people reject evolution. My explanation is simply this: Human beings have a strong visceral reaction to disbelieve any theory which in... [Read More]


Really? I always thought it was a particularly clumsy manifestation of the will to power residing in the sort of people who boast about their humility.

>>Evolution will continue to be controversial as long as people believe that naturalism threatens meaning.
You need to clarify how you're using the term "meaning". If what you mean is "teleological", then I think naturalism is a threat. You also assume evolution = naturalism and I don't agree. Naturalism is a much broader claim about how the world operates, whereas evolution only explains how life begins and develops within an already-existing world.

I do need to clarify. In this case, I'm using "meaning" as label for whatever nebulous constellation of existential ideas people think of when they talk about "the meaning of life."

I don't mean to equate evolution and naturalism. As you say, naturalism is a much broader thesis about how things operate in general. However, evolution is emotionally threatening because it is a plausible naturalistic account of the origins and development of life on earth.

Accepting evolution doesn't force someone to accept a naturalistic worldview, logically or psychologically. However, if you're uncomfortable with naturalism, you're also likely to be uncomfortable with evolution.

The 3Quarks essayist was arguing that people don't like evolution because they don't like the idea of chance or unpredictability. I'm arguing that what really unnerves people is not so much the realization that life is unpredictable, but rather the idea that it's undirected.

I imagine that the stress these folks feel is similar to the stress I felt when, as a young person, I learned about the eventual heat death of the universe. Long story short, the universe will some day run out of juice, and all life will stop. This is a painful idea if you think that in order for life to have meaning and purpose, you have to create something that lasts forever.

It took a long time to realize that meaning and purpose are in the eyes of the beholder. One can create purpose in anything --- for me, the goal of making the people around me happier is sufficient, I no longer need the grandiose goals I needed when I was younger.

I suspect that a lot of the people who have trouble accepting evolution are people for whom life is not satisfying. If your life is aimless and wandering, it's reassuring to think that there's somebody up there who has a plan for you. It's stressful to be told, "find your own purpose, or you'll never have one." It's particularly stressful if you doubt your own ability to ever find a purpose on your own.

Another theologically threatening aspect of modern evolutionary theory and cosmology for Christian fundamentalists is the vast time scales involved. If you accept that the earth is 4.5 billion years old vs. 10,000 years old, the immediacy and imminence of their eschatology evaporates. The quick tempered angry God of fundamentalists just doesn't square with the God of the modern cosmos. It isn't God's cleverness that troubles them, it's the enormity of His patience they can't abide.

I've been participating in a long conversation about this at (see comments to Hale Stewart's self-described rant of Oct 2). Briefly, if you believe that God created the world for humanity, if you believe that the meaning of existence is the relationship of the soul with God, then you're going to have difficulty with evolution. Evolution says that we exist by accident. Religion says God intended us to exist. Evolution is contingent; religion is teleological. You can paper this over but you can't get rid of the contradiction.

I have more to say about this and will try something later.

Another factor is that we need to feel "special" - blessed by a seperate entity, a god figure if you want, such that we are above other lifeforms. It is uncomfortable to be reminded, by evolution, that we realy are no more than the current lottery winners of some vast cosmic game taking place on a time scale that is staggering in its breadth. As you suggest, this goes against the safety and comfort of the cloud sitting dude, main stream religion malarky.

I don't think believers have a hard time imagining God creating Man through some multi-gazillion rail bank-shot evolutionary process. They just don't believe scientists who insist the shot couldn't have been made.

Someone has yet to adequately explain to me how evolution somehow equals a QED for the non-existence of God...

Even more frustrating than Christian fundamentalists telling me that I can't believe in evolution if I am a Christian, have been some in the scientific/philosophical community telling me I can't really believe in evolution (or science as a whole for that fact) if I am really a Christian.

Sorry, I simply can't accept that these two things are mutually exclusive. And as I said, I have yet to be presented with a compelling reason from either side as to why this should be...

mojo sends

There is no more inherent conflict between evolution and religion than between religion and any other biological science.

Evolution does not and cannot state whether we exist by "accident" or by "purpose" - that is nowhere near its scope of authority.

Evolution does not have any opinion with regard to our consciousness, our soul, our relationship to a non-physical world. It is simply an imperfect, verifiable method that describes biological change over time.

Those that wish to force consistency between faith and knowledge have a hard time with evolution - that is a political problem, not one inherent to religion.

Why disasters and personal tragedies can be attributed to "tests of our faith" and "God's mysteries" by the religious, but evolution cannot astounds me.

I don't think the truth of evolution by natural selection bears directly on the existence or non-existence of a supreme being. Obviously, if modern science is right about the history of life on earth, then the Old Testament can't be literally accurate. But then, we all knew that.

If Deists want to argue that God created life by manipulating initial conditions to ensure that a random but law-driven process would probably yield results like the actual world, I can't argue with that. That fits as well with observations as any totally naturalistic account.

However, once you accept the idea that evolution is driven by random mutations, it becomes a little less parsimonious to argue that there is a creator who more or less stacked the deck in favor of a creation like us. That's a little weird, theologically speaking.

But if you want to believe in evolution and a creator you've got to just suck that weirdness up, because otherwise evolution wouldn't be driven by random mutation, just apparently random mutations.

Sure, if someone wants to say that a creator controls every single nanoparticle and arranges them all in four-dimensional space so that they serve Her purpose while appearing exactly as if the whole show were random, I can't argue with that either, except to say that the whole story is starting to sound a little convoluted to me.

One of the best arguments for the existence of God is the appearance of design. I'm not saying the argument was ever airtight, even pre-Darwin. However, as Dennett argues, the real power of Darwin's theory of the origin of species revolutionized not only biology, but also philosophy. Suddenly there was a cogent naturalistic explanation for the appearance of design that didn't appeal to a creator with intentions.

Once you accept evolutionarily informed account of natural history at the descriptive level, the metaphysical appeals to divine intelligence begin to seem superfluous.

Hmm. For some reason, TypePad won't remember me today.

One of the best books I've read recently was Marx's Ecology by John Bellamy Foster. A great deal of it is a discussion of the history of materialism. I think one way to define materialism is a rejection of metaphysics and teleology. For the most part, this resembles modern natural science -- you don't explain phenomena in terms of metaphysics. That's not quite identical, but it's very similar.

And as Lindsay said, evolutionary theory meant that you no longer had to throw up your hands in the air when confronted with the complexity and robustness of living things and ecosystems. You've got a means to explain how the world has developed over time.

One thing this book pointed out, that I hadn't realized, was that until Darwin's theories were published, the field of biology was dominated by "parson naturalists" -- Protestant clergy who explicitly used the complexity of life as evidence of the existence of God, and his all-encompassing plans. These arguments were also used to justify the existing social order as natural, and therefore divinely ordained. Thomas Malthus was the most infamous of the parson naturalists.

Foster argued that Darwin delayed publishing his theories because he feared damaging his reputation (and threatening his class position) by being identified with the atheism of radicals and Chartists of the day. When his theories were published, those radicals (including Marx) were very enthusiastic endorsers of Darwin's theories, which they saw as a decisive victory over conservative ideologies based on teleogy and metaphysics.

About naturalism. Its opposite is supernaturalism. When you start believing in miracles and magic, you can believe anything.

About the argument from design. Did any serious philosopher ever believe that one? I just rememebr everyone like Augustine and Aquinas considering it with respect and finally rejecting it. After all, it really is just an argument from ignorance.

Anyway, I think opponents of natural selection theory care mostly for their anthropocentrism. Telling a proud anthropocentrist that he is related to other species is like telling a racist that he is related to other races. They hate hearing it and don't want to believe it because it casts doubt on a source of their pride.

ID compromises on this point, since it does consider us related to other species, but it still paints us as a kind of pinnacle of creation and at least allows the possiblity that we are made "in God's image," whatever that means.

Along another anthropocentric front, scientists have only recently started to allow the possibility that other animals have minds or souls or whatever you call it. Some are now suggesting that plants feel. There's a long way to go on that front.

I'm arguing that what really unnerves people is not so much the realization that life is unpredictable, but rather the idea that it's undirected.

I think that's probably true. People who believe this are the same ones who try to comfort you in some loss or other by saying that "everything happens for a reason." Some people realize the horror of this statement when a real tragedy occurs in their life -- if everything happens for a reason, then somebody or something did this to them. Thus the questioning of faith that many people seem to go through in times of crisis.

I must be in the minority in finding the idea of a directed universe disturbing before I underwent any real grief or adversity. I remember, years ago, being struck by a passage in a biographical sketch of the science fiction writer James Tiptree, Jr. (aka Alice B. Sheldon). She was depressed on and off throughout her life, and the sketch describes how, as a young woman, she would comfort herself by looking at the stars and telling herself how huge they were, how far away, and how uncaring. She found it comforting to contemplate how little she mattered. That's the way I prefer to view the universe, too: it has no need for me, no concern for me, no personality, no purpose. Whatever meaning there is to my life, I make it for myself -- with a little help from my friends.

In matters of irrational fear, there is a lot of ambiguity and slippage between motivations. 3Quarks suggested that creationism was motivated by fear of chance. Lindsay says it's fear of purposelessness. Others suggest fear that we aren't the center of the world. All three ideas blur together outside of the realm of analytic philosophy. Purpose is good because it removes chance. Chance bad because it speaks against purpose.

I find it easiest to think in terms of the classic theological debates: evolution by natural selection undercuts the argument from design, while amplifying the problem of evil. The argument from design was never very good to begin with (Hume showed that), but it always had a grip on the people. No further argumentation was needed to bring it down, but a powerful image of the alternative was wanting.

The problem of evil, similarly, was always intractable. Free will could only handle the evil we brought on ourselves. It could never cope with the fact that the universe itself conspired in our unhappiness. But with evolution by natural selection, we really do see what Hume called blind nature "pouring forth from her lap, without discernment or parental care, her maimed and abortive children"

I'm arguing that what really unnerves people is not so much the realization that life is unpredictable, but rather the idea that it's undirected.

I would take that to the next existential step - it's only directed by us, by ourselves, we need to take personal responsibility for our human direction.

This is what throws fear into the "religious", or more accurately those that use religion to influence others. As long as their flock believe in an overall structure, an overall plan, with enlightened humans as leaders, then true personal responsibility can be safely ignored.

Re "I would take that to the next existential step - it's only directed by us, by ourselves, we need to take personal responsibility for our human direction.
This is what throws fear into the "religious", or more accurately those that use religion to influence others"-
Amen to that... Leigh Hunt, (who died the year that Darwin published "Origin of the Species") wrote a much anthologized poem which makes the case for taking that "next existential step", ie "Abou ben Adhem". The insidious power of an amoral patriarchy, which "finds sheep where before there were only humans", has much to answer for, in matters of "applied religion"...
Re "her maimed and abortive children"...
OK, I give. Where's the universal conspiracy that provides (&/or provokes) evil, in this model? I'm old; but I'm slow... ^..^

I am afraid that the analysis here us all at the wrong level... do any of you folks actually go out and talk to religious conservatives on a frequent basis?

Evolution is a profound threat to traditional and anti-modern christianity because it directly refutes central dogmas of christianity:
--If people are not designed, but arose in their present form from the accretion random mutations, then people are can not be "created in the image of God."
--This dogma in turn is necessary to accept the fall of mankind from a created state of perfection.
--If there is thus no original sin, then what is the point of the new covenant?

Liberal christians worked their way out of this conceptual box decades ago. Even the Catholic Church tacitly accepts an essentially deistic interpretation of human origins.

For a protestant conservative to accept evolution is tantamount to their accepting that they are wrong and that the Episcopalians and the Papists are right, not just about evolution, but regarding a number critical doctrines. That will not happen any time soon.

Here is a listing of various reasons why people have a need to reject evolution.

Evolution doesn't require belief. There is evidence, and pleanty of it, for evolution.

Remember that extreme evolution-denial is very much an American thing in the developed world.

I think that localised scepticism is because it doesn't jibe well with manifest destiny; on the other hand, mani-desti fits well into a mindset that embraces the Rapture and all sorts of teleology.

Elsewhere, I think, it's more a case of shrugging one's shoulders and accepting it as science, just as you tacitly accept all sorts of odd science when you turn on the television set and see pictures of something happening thousands of miles away.


Herbert Browne:

I was overstating things when I used the word "Conspiracy." My basic point was that the fundemental mechanism that generates and sustains life is based on suffering. When Hume wrote that line, he was thinking merely about predation. Now it turns out that life not only depends on predation, but that the variety of life we see comes from the fact that the weak, the poorly adapted, the bad mutants, suffer and die. Nature, in the form of random generation, "impregnated by a great vivifying principle" spits out every kind of life it can think of. Then Nature, in the form of selection, simply kills those that aren't adapted, "without care or parental discernment."

Personality test.
Choose the answers that are most accurate.

You are:
a)The crown of creation.
b)An accident.

You would like to be:
a)The crown of creation.
b)An accident.

As a child, I grew up in an atmosphere of extreme evolution-denial. My religion informed every facet of my life and was a source of both comfort and frustration to me. Comfort because I felt protected in knowing that a Father-in-the-sky was looking out for me, making it less necessary to worry about only having one chance to do what I want in life. Frustration because I had to accept beliefs I knew were patriarchal and inethical, just because they were Received Wisdom.

In time, I began questioning my beliefs and slowly realized that I lacked any reason I could hold to for why I believed. Nontheless, I drifted along due to cultural inertia for about three years before I could truly admit to myself I accepted that the weight of the evidence supported the theory of evolution. The next thought that immediately sprang into my mind was, "What's left for God to do?" In accepting evolution, I lost the last basis for my faith.

This loss of faith was heart-breaking for me and threw me into depression, because it jerked away from me the foundation for how I viewed pretty much everything. Suddenly, what was once a clear life's plan was no longer. I had no purpose.

After struggling for a few years, I slowly began realizing that some things made me happy and other things sad, and from these experiences, I could form a purpose for my own life, without a deity or outside structure giving my life meaning. I began to accept my loss of faith and become comfortable with my new reality.

Nontheless, I still on occasion have flashbacks to the simple faith of my youth, flashbacks which provoke a sense of wistfulness for that sense of security I once had. Having a Heavenly Parent can give one a sense of security in much the same way that a natural parent gives a child a sense of security. Losing my Heavenly Parent made me come to terms with living as a spiritual adult, facing the world on my own with no Heavenly Parent to offer a bubble of protection.

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