Stephen Barr’s Own Private Idaho
|February 28, 2012||Posted by Barry Arrington under Intelligent Design|
Back in the early 90’s a movie came out with the peculiar title “My Own Private Idaho.” The movie has nothing to do with my topic, but I’ve always been amused by the notion of a “private Idaho.” In a comment to my previous post (Barr v. Arrington), Deuce captures perfectly the problem with Stephen Barr’s Darwinism. Barr thinks he can have his “Own Private Darwinism” that means something completely different from the Darwinism universally accepted in the scientific community. Sorry Dr. Barr. As Deuce explains, language doesn’t work that way. What follows from here is all Deuce:
I’ve read Barr’s writings on the subject of evolution for a while, and my take is that 1) Nullusalus is right that what Barr means by “Darwinism” is indeed a different position than what most self-identified Darwinists mean by it, and 2) Barry is right that he’s playing the part of the useful idiot.
To start with, let’s repeat that statement of Barr’s about the soul.
And what happens to morality and natural-law ethics if neo-Darwinism is right? Nothing, if we recognize that man is not merely a product of evolution. Man is not reducible to matter, not only as Scripture and tradition attest, but also as human reason can discern by reflecting upon its own powers.
Barr is right that natural law is not affected if we recognize that man is not merely a product of evolution. But as Barry correctly notes, this is terribly confused. Neo-Darwinism isn’t simply the theory that there is such a thing as evolution by natural selection. Even YECs would be neo-Darwinists if that’s all it took. Neo-Darwinism holds that the appearance of purpose we see in biology, *up to and including human reason*, is in fact merely a product of evolution by natural selection. The *whole point* of the theory is to explain (away) the appearance of purpose. What Barr is saying here amounts to “Neo-Darwinism doesn’t contradict Christianity, as long as we suppose that neo-Darwinism isn’t actually true.” Exempting the soul from neo-Darwinism is no more compatible with it than exempting the flagellum or the eye.
On multiple occasions I’ve seen Barr argue that “random” doesn’t mean unguided or unintended in science, but that it simply means that we are unable to observe any correlations in some data. But just because that definition of “random” is the operative one in Barr’s own branch of science (physics) doesn’t mean it’s the operative one in Darwinian evolution by random variation and natural selection. First of all, it goes without saying that we can’t observe any correlations in the variations that have led up to our existence. We can’t observe those variations at all because they occurred in the deep past before we were here to see them, so *of course* we can’t observe correlations in them! If that’s what the “random” in “random variation” meant, Darwin’s idea would be too trivial to even be a theory.
Additionally, in physics and other practical-application sciences, randomness plays a merely descriptive role. That is, we’re simply describing how things appear to us. In Darwinian evolution, however, randomness plays an explanatory role. The whole point of Darwinian explanation is to explain how things that appear to be intended could actually have originated without really being intended. Again, the whole point of Darwinism is to explain the appearance of telos in biology without having to appeal to actual intent. If the randomness referred to by the theory were merely an appearance (which, again, is impossible since biology *appears* non-random, and the “random variations” have no appearance at all since we weren’t there to observe them), but were in fact directed and planned, then the explanation for the appearance of intent would be… actual intent, and the Darwinian explanation for that appearance would be no explanation at all.
And again, Barr shows extreme naivety when he says the following:
Moreover, the scientific community has sat by while certain scientists and philosophers, claiming the authority of science, have waged war against religion using the neo-Darwinian account of evolution as a metaphysical weapon.
The reason that the scientific community have “sat by” is because they correctly understand Darwinism to mean the exact same thing that those “certain scientists and philosophers” mean by it. Indeed, it’s the exact same thing that DARWIN HIMSELF meant by it! The claim that purpose is an illusion *IS* the theory. Barr’s bowdlerized version of Darwinism is particular to him. It’s not the “real” Darwinism.
I’ve had a couple combox debates with Barr on this issue myself, and his reasoning basically comes down to this:
1) Scientific theories cannot confirm or deny the existence of purpose. 2) Darwinism is a scientific theory. 3) Lots of scientists and philosophers claim that Darwinism is an explaination for the appearance of purpose in life that denies the reality of purpose, and hardly any adherents of Darwinism disagree with them. 4) But if Darwinism really said what they claim, it wouldn’t be a scientific theory. 5) So Darwinism couldn’t possibly say what nearly all its adherents say it does, because Darwinism is a scientific theory. c) Therefore, Darwinism is completely compatible with faith.
Of course, the error here is obvious: the content of an idea, and what is meant by that idea’s adherents, is not affected in any way by Barr’s definition of “science.” The correct conclusion is that Darwinism isn’t science by Barr’s definition, but he doesn’t want to go there.
It’s the exact same reasoning he uses to claim that “random” in RM&NS doesn’t mean unintended. If it meant unintended, you see, then it wouldn’t be science, so that’s not what it means! The possibility that lots of scientists in a particular field are dedicated to something Barr wouldn’t consider science, and that most others don’t really care, is something he just seems incapable of even considering.
So, in conclusion, I like Barr, I think he’s a sincere orthodox Christian and not a heretic, but I do think he matches the definition of “useful idiot”. In fact, I think he matches it better than most theistic evolutionists, because most theistic evolutionists are snakes in the grass who knowingly promote a “strong” view of evolution (the essentially atheistic idea that it’s unguided and that purpose is an illusion) while engaging in misdirection to obscure that fact, whereas Barr is a genuine Christian who isn’t trying to sell materialism in an underhanded way, but who is being a dupe.
But when he says that “neo-Darwinism” doesn’t conflict with the faith, most people are going to take that idea to mean the same thing that “Darwinism” means to most people, including Charles Darwin, even if Barr has managed to convince himself that his personal definition has any truck among scientists and philosophers beyond himself. Basically, he’s unknowingly encouraging laymen to let their guards down against naturalistic metaphysics.