Home > Uncategorized > Creation and Evolution, Part 1: introduction and definitions

Creation and Evolution, Part 1: introduction and definitions

For some time now, I’ve been wanting to embark on an ambitious reading and writing project regarding the whole “creation and evolution debate.” So, now that I’m writing this blog, I figured I’d begin doing this with a series of posts on the subject. My idea, as of now, is to start off by framing the issue as I see it. From there, I’d like to then specifically begin reading and reviewing books from the various different viewpoints on this debate. I’m hoping that it will be fruitful to look at these books from the framework that I set up initially. I have a lot of general philosophical thoughts on this issue, but I have not delved very deeply into the specifics.

The first thing to do, I think, is to define some of the language that I’ll be using. Since this terminology will be important, I’ll be linking back to this first post in future posts, and I encourage readers to refer back to it if they need to remember what I mean by something. I may even modify this post, if I feel something needs to be added. I would also like readers to tell me if I what I am saying makes sense; I want to make everything clear, but I don’t always know if the philosophical manner of writing I am inclined to fall into is readable to everyone, and I want this series to be something that everyone can read. Also feel free to tell me if you find my overt attempts to “dumb things down” patronizing :).

By reality I mean all that exists.

By a worldview, I mean a dynamic and interactive collection of basic ideas about what reality is like. These include assumptions about what sorts of things exist, and how we should classify them. It also includes assumptions about how we learn, obtain knowledge, and discover truth. It also includes moral assumptions, and assumptions about what is of ultimate value.

By epistemology, I mean the study of the knowledge and knowing. More precisely, epistemology studies the nature, extent, and justification of human knowledge (I think one of my philosophy professors wrote that definition on the chalkboard at some point–I feel like I’m stealing it from somewhere). It deals with questions of what it means to know things, and how or if we can come to know things, and what sorts of things we can come to know. When I talk about the epistemology that a person subscribes to, or say that a particular person has a certain epistemology, I am referring to the beliefs that they hold about knowledge and knowing, regardless of whether they are actually conscious of those beliefs.  A person’s epistemology is is heavily tied into that person’s person’s worldview–I think it is best to think of it as an integral part of their worldview. It is the part of a person’s worldview that determines what they consider to be fruitful sources for knowledge, and also how to go about using those sources.

We can, at the risk of some generalization (since every individual is different), talk about the epistemologies of wider belief systems. For example, a Christian epistemology considers the bible to be a fundamental and extremely reliable source of many different types of knowledge; a Jewish epistemology does this as well, but with a different collection of books, omitting the New Testament. One could even talk about Catholic epistemologies and Protestant epistemologies. A Muslim epistemology considers the Quaran to fill a similar role to the bible in Christianity, and gives a lesser weight to the bible itself. An Atheist epistemology, on the other hand, would not give any more weight to these documents than it would to any other historical texts, and may give them considerably less weight, given their bias. So people with differing epistemologies differ on what they will consider to be valid sources of knowledge. They also may agree on something as a source of knowledge, but differ on how to use it as source of knowledge, or on what sort of knowledge can be obtained from it.

But things obviously go deeper than this, and can become much more complicated, when one considers all that is at play. Epistemology is a complicated subject! Obviously I can’t get into all of the complications. For our purposes it is enough to know that people don’t simply different on what they believe, but also on how they think of the nature of belief itself, of and of truth itself. I think it is good to be aware of this, and aware of the tendency we all have to caricature the epistemology of those we disagree with. I think this happens a lot in the creation vs. evolution debate, and I’ll be saying more about this later. For now, let’s get back to our definitions.

A supernatural agent is a personal, intelligent being with a will, consciousness, and some ability to affect reality with that will. For those who believe in them, the basic examples of supernatural agents are God, angels, and human beings. Supernaturalism is then the worldview that supernatural agents exist as part of reality. They are, by definition, other than “nature,” though they interact with it and may even depend on it (as is the case with human beings). It is important to understand that, for the supernaturalist, supernatural agents are, in a fundamental sense, real–however much they interact with and even depend on the material realm, there is something about them that is prior to impersonal reality, something that cannot be reduced to natural or material causation.

Materialism
, on the other hand, is the worldview that the physical universe is the only reality, that all occurring phenomena can ultimately be reduced to material causes. Closely related to materialism is naturalism, which one might say is the belief that nature is all that exists. For all practical purposes, I consider these two to be the same, but I know there are philosophers who would insist on a distinction, so I will try to make it. Very roughly, the difference I perceive is that naturalism is more specifically a philosophy about how to explain phenomena, and in seeking to explain the phenomena, is less committed to the idea of matter. About matter it takes no strong stance, but naturalism believes that we can always find a “natural” explanation for things.

Naturalism can be understood perhaps more clearly as the denial of supernaturalism, as the belief that there are no supernatural agents. All of the things that people have ever thought of as being caused by supernatural agents are, in actuality, either imaginary or somehow explainable as resulting from purely natural causes. Thus, in its fundamental reality, the universe is impersonal. And thus, in explaining why something has occurred, it is a mistake to ever invoke the actions of a supernatural agent such as God, gods, or angels; it is a mistake, in fact, to believe that such things have any influence over reality whatsoever, since they simply do not exist in any fundamental sense. They may, like human beings, exist in a “derived sense,” in that they are identifiable consequences of the physical universe. But, for the naturalist, the basic and only thing that ultimately exists is an impersonal reality.

It is, in my view, extremely important to understand how fundamentally different these worldviews are–I have already said what the difference is, but let me stress it again. For the naturalist, a basic goal of obtaining knowledge is to discover explanations that do not invoke “agency.” The attempt to remove supernatural agents from the picture, to not take recourse to them, is fundamental to his epistemology. Supernatural agents, in the mind of the naturalist, are a “cop out.” In constructing explanations, he is to eliminate all reference to them. The supernaturalist, on the other hand, takes for granted the existence of such agents, and their action. When he looks at reality, he must always consider the possibility that they are at work. If he does not consider this, then he cannot properly be considered a supernaturalist. Of course, a great many different worldviews could be considered supernaturalist: Christians, Muslims, Jews, and Hindus, for example, all have a supernaturalist worldview of some sort.

By science I mean the application of reason, mathematics, and experimentation towards the construction of theories that describe observed patterns in the natural world.

By evolution, I mean first and foremost the broad naturalistic theory for the origin of all life on earth subscribed to by the majority of biologists today. This is, of course, very general. To get more specific is part of the aim of this series. I would, however, like to point out that there are more restricted uses of the word than the one I have just given. Sometimes evolution refers simply to the local process by which organisms change. Sometimes it deliberately excludes the origin of single celled organisms, and focuses on the history of macroscopic organisms. Sometimes it is used interchangeably with the idea of Darwinian natural selection. Sometimes it is used in vague and imprecise ways. Much confusion has resulted from this.

Finally, by creation, I mean the deliberate act of the will of the supernatural being God to bring into being, either out of nothingness or out of pre-existing substance, life forms (including man) or their environment.

In my next post, I’ll be looking at what I consider to be a fundamental error that is often made in regards to the relationship between science and materialism (or naturalism).

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