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Evolution and Falsification

The following essay was originally Antony Flew’s “Theology and Falsification” that Flew read before the Socratic Club in 1950 in Oxford. C.S. Lewis was the president of the Socratic Club at that time. I replaced all of the “theological” language with “evolutionary” language. It seems very relevant in modern discussions of evolution. By the way, Flew is now a theist, and what convinced him was the intelligent design argument.

Let us begin with a parable. It is a parable developed from a tale told by Charles Darwin in his haunting and revolutionary treatise The Origin of Species. Once upon a time two biologists came upon a clearing in the jungle. In the clearing were growing many flowers and many weeds. One explorer says, “Evolution must be responsible for this plot.” The other disagrees, “There is no such thing as abiogenesis or macro-evolution.” So they pitch their tents and set a watch. No evolution is ever seen. “But perhaps it is an invisible evolution.” So they set up a micro-biology lab. They do the tests. (For they remember how Stephen Jay Gould’s book Punctuated Equilibrium evolution could be both gradual and punctuated.) But no new species ever suggest that some new kinds of plants have arisen. No movements of the sort ever betray an invisible evolution. Yet still the Believer is not convinced. “But there is evolution, invisible, intangible, insensible to technology, an evolution which has no trace and makes no sound, an evolution that comes secretly to bring about the garden which it is indifferent to.” At last the Skeptic despairs, “But what remains of your original assertion? Just how does what you call an invisible, intangible, eternally elusive evolution differ from an imaginary evolution or even from no evolution at all?”

In this parable we can see how what starts as an assertion, that something exist or that there is some analogy between certain complexes of phenomena, may be reduced step by step to an altogether different status, to an expression perhaps of a “picture preference.” The Skeptic says there is no evolution. The Believer says there is evolution (but invisible, or needs more time, etc.). One man talks about sexual behavior. Another man prefers to talk of Aphrodite (but knows that there is not really a superhuman person additional to, and somehow responsible for, all sexual phenomena). The process of qualification may be checked at any point before the original assertion is completely withdrawn and something of that first assertion will remain (Tautology). Mr. Gould’s punctuated equilibrium could not, admittedly, be seen. But though the process of qualification may be and of course usually is, checked in time, it is not always judicially so halted. Someone may dissipate his assertion completely without noticing that he has done so. A fine brash hypothesis may thus be killed by inches, the death by a thousand qualifications.

And in this, it seems to me, lies the peculiar danger, the endemic evil, of evolutionary utterance. Take such utterances as “Evolution is responsible for all of life,” “Evolution created the world,” “Evolution taught us to love as a father loves his children.” They look at first sight very much like assertions, vast cosmological assertions. Of course, this is no sure sign that they either are, or are intended to be, assertions. But let us confine ourselves to the cases where those who utter such sentences intended them to express assertions. (Merely remarking parenthetically that those who intend or interpret such utterances as crypto-commands, expressions of wishes, disguised ejaculations, concealed ethics, or as anything else but assertions, are unlikely to succeed in making them either properly orthodox or practically effective).

Now to assert that such and such is the case is necessarily equivalent to denying that such and such is not the case. Suppose then that we are in doubt as to what someone who gives vent to an utterance is asserting, or suppose that, more radically, we are skeptical as to whether he is really asserting anything at all, one way of trying to understand (or perhaps to expose) his utterance is to attempt to find what he would regard as counting against, or as being incompatible with, its truth. For if the utterance is indeed an assertion, it will necessarily be equivalent to a denial of the negation of the assertion. And anything which would count against the assertion, or which would induce the speaker to withdraw it and to admit that it had been mistaken, must be part of (or the whole of) the meaning of the negation of that assertion. And to know the meaning of the negation of an assertion, is as near as makes no matter, to know the meaning of that assertion. And if there is nothing which a putative assertion denies then there is nothing which it asserts either: and so it is not really an assertion. When the Skeptic in the parable asked the Believer, “Just how does what you call an invisible, intangible, eternally elusive evolution differ from an imaginary evolution or even from no evolution at all?” he was suggesting that the Believer’s earlier statement had been so eroded by qualification that it was no longer an assertion at all.

Now it often seems to people who are not evolutionists as if there was no conceivable event or series of events the occurrence of which would be admitted by sophisticated evolutionists to be a sufficient reason for conceding “there wasn’t Evolution after all” or “Evolution does not really teach us love then.” Someone tells us that Evolution teaches us to love as a father loves his children. We are reassured. But then we see a father murder his child. His earthly father is driven to kill the child, but Evolution reveals no obvious sign of concern. Some qualification is made — Evolution’s version of love is “not merely human love” or it is “an inscrutable love,” perhaps — and we realize that such sufferings are quite compatible with the truth of the assertion that “Evolution teaches us to loves as a father (but of course…).” We are reassured again. But then perhaps we ask: what is this assurance of Evolution (appropriately qualified) love worth, what is this apparent guarantee really a guarantee against? Just what would have to happen not merely (morally and wrongly) to tempt but also (logically and rightly) to entitle us to say “Evolution does not teach us to love” or even “Evolution does not exist”? I therefore put to the succeeding symposiasts the simple central questions, “What would have to occur or to have occurred to constitute for you a disproof of Evolutionary love, or the existence of, Evolution?”

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8 Responses to Evolution and Falsification

  1. As someone with an undergraduate philosophy degree, I salute you. Wonderful.

  2. Great! Wonder why no one there thought to shine the same light on Darwin?

    As for the Popperian emphasis on refutation—remember how John Horgan asked Popper, “Can your theory of refutation be refuted?”—is over rated because it’s not everywhere relevant. In historical linguistics, for example, we can only prove that languages are related—not that they are not related. Refutability is just one tool available to all (not just “scientists”)—Popper was wrong to think that it could define “science”.

  3. Rude

    I don’t think Popper defined science solely as falsfication. He formally extended science to include hypotheses and theories that could not be verified but that could be falsified.

    We can have a hypothesis that black swans exist. Observing a black swan turns the hypothesis into a fact.

    Similarly, we can have a hypothesis that black swans do not exist. Observing a black swan turns the hypothesis into a falsehood.

    Verification is preferable to falsification of course but without falsification we’d have to abandon a lot of working theories and laws that can’t ever be proven but have never had an observed exception in a great many observations and/or a perfect record of prediction.

  4. Rude,

    I think you’re closing the box too soon. It sounds like from what you say, if you can prove that a Language L is related to Language M, that there are three aspects to this system.

    Most language begin with unproven relationships to each other. The proof is made that languages are related by reference to distinct details. And finally, there is a value to the statement “X and Y are related languages” in the system, otherwise there is little value in proving it.

    I’m guessing that there is some error in saying Chinese and English are related when they aren’t. Thus separating conclusively related languages from languages where the relationship is inconclusive seems to be the whole point. The opposite of conclusively related is not necessarily wholly unrelated, but likely not conclusively related.

    Also by the idea of proof if we have an array of statements that prove that languages are related, is there any value in listing statements that cannot be ascertained in the list? Thus, there is at least the suggestion that each one of these statements can be falsified, and if enough are, the languages can be reclassified to be “not conclusively related.”

    That’s a form of falsification.

  5. By the way, Flew is now a theist, and what convinced him was the intelligent design argument.

    Flew is not a theist, he is a deist! This should be corrected.

  6. Clive, Flew also does not solely state in his book (There is A God) that the intelligent design argument was what convinced him to his deism. There were many other factors as well for his decision, e.g. Einstein’s belief. He also says in his book that “Theology and Falsification” has been outdated, or something along the lines. It’s still a great read with the darwinian implications as presented above.

  7. sxussd13 (5 and 6),

    Whether Flew is a theist or deist depends on their respective definitions. A standard definition of deist is one who believes that there is a God, but that this God did not interfere with the creation after it got started. A theist, on the other hand, believes in a God Who has in fact intervened in nature after it was started. (Belief in a God Who “front-loaded” things so that immensely improbable events happened at pre-ordained times but without violating any laws of physics is in a gray zone, theoretically deist but practically theist.)

    If one accepts those definitions, Flew is at least practically a theist. For in addition to believing that the universe itself requires an intelligent Designer, Flew believes that life requires an intelligent Designer. That means intervention, at least practically, within the universe. While it is true that Flew is reluctant to identify this God with the God of any religious tradition, he still believes in a practically interventionist God, and can accurately be said to be a theist.

  8. Maybe should clarify myself in 2 above—refutation is a handier tool in highly theoretical fields like physics than in more observational ones like biology. The point is that “science” cannot be defined such that it includes what the materialists want and excludes what they do not want.

    As for demonstrating a “genetic” (as we say) relationship between languages, theory and refutation are not in the forefront. It’s more of an investigative procedure. It generally begins by noticing a few potential cognates. If sound correspondences are also observed, i.e., such as where English has f word initially Greek tends to have p, the case is strengthened. Grammatical correspondences are the clincher because sound correspondences might relate a section of borrowed vocabulary whereas grammar is the most conservative part of a language.

    The point is that such investigations can demonstrate a genetic relationship between languages—they cannot prove that languages are not related. Now it’s quite likely that English and Chinese are not related, but we could have missed some subtle sound correspondeneces. The correspondences worked out for Indo-European allow us, for example, to derive English “wheel” and Sanskrit “chakra”—which do not share a single sound—from the same Proto-Indo-European source: *kwékwlos.

    Historical linguistics is a methodical and exacting discipline, and though one cannot say that theory and refutation never enter into any aspect of it, Popper’s criteria would disqualify it from being a “science”.

    In some sense historical linguistics is like design detection. There are no false positives, though there can be false negatives. Language change has often been likened to Darwinian evolution—there is innovation and selection. But the innovation and selection are purposeful, though not always consciously so, as demonstrated in the pioneering studies of William Labov.

    Cries of “but is it science?” and appeals to some universal “scientific method” that differs from other intellectual endeavors are just nonsense. Their purpose is, and always has been, to stifle enquiry into areas that we want to declare off limits.

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