Friday, October 16, 2009

Kenneth Miller on Why Evolutionary Theory Does Not Explain All of Reality

Recently someone told me, in a discussion we were having about evolutionary theory, that "the theory of evolution explains all of reality." I disagreed with this. Here are some thoughts.

First, some do claim this. Those who do are, usually, evolutionary naturalists. That is, they espouse a form of philosophical naturalism, or physicalism, that states that matter is all there is; there are no non-material realities.

Second, theistic evolutionary theorists such as, e.g., Brown University biologist Kenneth Miller, affirm evolutionary theory but not as explanatory of all reality. Here, e.g., is Miller, in his debate with atheist Christopher Hitchens. After Hitchens sets up a caricature of "faith" and demolishes his straw man, Miller responds:

"In the end you have no answer to why science works, why the physical logic of natural law makes life possible, or why the human mind is able to explore and understand nature. And I agree that there is no scientific answer to such questions. That is precisely the point of faith–to order and rationalize our encounters with the world around us. Faith is human, and therefore imperfect. But faith expresses, however poorly, a reality that includes the scientific experience in every sense, and therefore has become more relevant than ever in our scientific age." (Emphasis mine.)

Here Miller expresses a point that is often made and hugely discussed by philosophers and scientists who ask the meta-questions like "Why does science work at all?" Miller understands that science, qua science, cannot answer this kind of question. Miller the theist admits of realities that evolutionary theory, as wonderful as it is in explaining aspects of physical reality, cannot explain because these realities are not of the kind to be scientically explained.

Here is Miller in his NOVA interview:

Q: Does science have limits to what it can tell us?
Miller: If science is competent at anything, it's in investigating the natural and material world around us. What science isn't very good at is answering questions that also matter to us in a big way, such as the meaning, value, and purpose of things. Science is silent on those issues. There are a whole host of philosophical and moral questions that are important to us as human beings for which we have to make up our minds using a method outside of science. (Emphasis mine.)

So Miller the theist evolutionary theorist agrees there are limits to what science can tell us. I think he is correct. So evolutionary theory does not explain "all of reality."
If one here objects and claims there are no other realities that cannot be explained by evolutionary theory or science in general, then one is a philosophical naturalist, and with this come a number of problems that, for people such as Miller and myself, seem intractable.