Monday, June 22, 2015

Nancy Pearcey: Why Evolutionary Theory Cannot Survive Itself

Nancy Pearcey has a new book out titled Finding Truth: 5 Principles for Unmasking Atheism, Secularism, and Other God Substitutes. There is an extract from it on Evolution, News and Views here.  Here is her opening paragraph:
A major way to test a philosophy or worldview is to ask: Is it logically consistent? Internal contradictions are fatal to any worldview because contradictory statements are necessarily false. "This circle is square" is contradictory, so it has to be false. An especially damaging form of contradiction is self-referential absurdity -- which means a theory sets up a definition of truth that it itself fails to meet. Therefore it refutes itself....
One can see where this is going and it falls within a larger attempt by this arm of the Discovery Center to establish evolutionary theory not as a scientific theory but as a world-view. Let’s see how she gets there. She writes:
An example of self-referential absurdity is a theory called evolutionary epistemology, a naturalistic approach that applies evolution to the process of knowing. The theory proposes that the human mind is a product of natural selection. The implication is that the ideas in our minds were selected for their survival value, not for their truth-value.

But what if we apply that theory to itself? Then it, too, was selected for survival, not truth -- which discredits its own claim to truth. Evolutionary epistemology commits suicide.
What follows is a tug-of-war between those that support evolutionary epistemology and those that do not.  The central idea, though—and it is not a new one—is that if natural selection formed the modern consciousness and modern thought, then the theory, itself, is subject to those evolutionary processes and, therefore, cannot be trusted.  She quotes literary critic (!) Leon Wieseltier (without providing a link to the article, a maddening practice of this site), who writes:
But if reason is a product of natural selection, then how much confidence can we have in a rational argument for natural selection? The power of reason is owed to the independence of reason, and to nothing else. (In this respect, rationalism is closer to mysticism than it is to materialism.) Evolutionary biology cannot invoke the power of reason even as it destroys it.
Here is the problem with this argument.  Pearcey (and Wieseltier by extension) has applied it to natural selection/evolution but, in fact, it could be applied to any of our theoretical constructs.  If our reason has evolved and, thus, is suspect, then it is suspect in all endeavors.  In short, we can know nothing for sure about our universe, because we cannot trust our judgment.  We can know nothing about gravitation, atomic theory, cell theory, cosmology, or any other scientific discipline simply because of our flawed reason.  So what do we do?

We practice science.

We construct scientific tests to see if our understanding of the world is “logically consistent.” We test if things fall to the earth in support of gravitational theory, we test how molecules behave in support of cell theory, and so on. Funny, this sounds a lot like modern science, doesn't it? We know that we cannot always trust our eyes or our ears or our other senses, so we come up with an independent test of what we observe to see if our explanation for it is consistent with a model of some kind.

Evolutionary theory is no different.  We construct models to explain what we see, with the understanding that, in our flawed humanness, we might not understand how it works.  This is how we have built an understanding of how evolution has shaped the current and past biodiversity.  It is no different than any other scientific construct.  The only reason that Nancy Pearcey treats it differently is that she doesn't like evolution.  

If you turn this argument around then it sounds like this: if our intellect was not the product of evolution, then why do we have such a flawed understanding of our universe?  Why do we need to practice science at all?  Why don't we understand perfectly?  We don't because Christ said that we would not.  Paul wrote to the Corinthians “For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.” While he was certainly writing about the spiritual understanding of our relationship with Christ, the passage could equally be applied to any human understanding.

In short, her argument that we cannot know whether evolutionary theory is correct because we have evolved is no argument against evolutionary theory any more than it is against any other scientific endeavor.


  1. Anonymous1:17 PM


  2. Anonymous6:36 PM

    Could not one say; a person can know truth, because people as created in the image of God can think the thoughts of God?