I rarely mention where I go for Mind-reader’s ideas. Obviously the sources are eclectic. Now that I’m teaching Western Civilization part-time I’ll probably add the occasional historical tidbit to the philosophical ones that have crept in over the past year as I started teaching philosophy.

But there is a core source. I’m an evolutionary epistemologist, really. Epistemology is the philosophy of knowledge-where it comes from, what it is and how do we know when we’ve really got it. Evolutionary epistemologists work with philosophy of knowledge in the context of evolution. We look at how the mind evolved, but also how the mind employs processes similar to evolution’s. We attempt an accurate assessment of parallels and contrasts between how evolution accumulates adaptations and how people accumulate knowledge. We also address one of the most challenging remaining questions in evolutionary theory, which is how evolution got started.

Mind Readers Dictionary: The Podfast : Play in Popup

Mind Readers Dictionary : Play in Popup


I got my Ph.D. late, and since the big universities don’t hire late bloomers, I knew I’d need an alternative niche. My circumstances supplied one. See, it wasn’t intellectual curiosity that got me into my field. Nor was it a career move. It was a mid-life crisis, and a sense that the ideas that had carried me so far in life weren’t going to be enough to carry me through the rest. At a time when my marriage was falling apart, I was losing my eldest son to drugs, and my career had lost its credibility, I was hurting pretty bad. I stumbled on some evolutionary literature and took it very much to heart. I dug deeper. I was spending enough time researching that I decided to go for a Ph.D. My dissertation was on parallels and contrasts between how nature and humans deal with tough judgment calls. I’ve become a dilemmacist-a tough judgment call specialist whose core source is evolutionary theory but who takes academic ideas very personally. I love my field as both a very fertile row to hoe but also as a very supple and reliable personal coping strategy.

How evolution got started has deep and persistent personal implications. At core, they’re about purpose. We humans are all about purpose, grand ones, personal ones, even the purposes implied by our biological adaptations (your liver has purposes, for example). Life and purpose go together. Now that we know how much of the universe is lifeless (the universe was about 9 billion years old before our little patch came alive) we debate whether purpose was here before life.

Religious people say there was purpose before life. Scientists say there wasn’t. If the scientists are right, then the big question is how life and purpose come out of a purposeless universe. Because scientists haven’t had a solid answer to that question, a remarkable number of them bend over backwards to explain away life’s purpose, as if, since we can’t explain how purpose came about then maybe we should assume it never did.

From the religion/science debate then, the two main public offerings are your Grand Purpose writ right into the universe, and no purpose at all, both of which taken personally have strange implications. But soon there will be an alternative. Science is finally beginning to solve the mystery of how evolution began. As it does, it can shed the intuitively preposterous notion that there is no purpose and can finally provide an alternative to religious determinism that makes real personal sense.

This week I wrote the following op-ed in response to the latest science and religion skirmish.

Moving the science religion debate beyond trench warfare.

Again, the Catholics and Darwinians — adherents of two of our era’s greatest traditions — are talking past each other. Cardinal Shönborn writes that “evolution in the sense of common ancestors might be true, but evolution in the neo-Darwinian sense — an unguided, unplanned process of random variation and natural selection — is not.”

Darwinians bristle, arguing that the church’s backpedaling is just more conservative retrenchment under the new pope and countering that neo- Darwinism never said evolution is random.

It’s still a newsworthy debate, though if the public loses interest, it’s understandable. As with World War I trench warfare, neither side gains much ground.

The church is one of the few world institutions whose traditions have endured for millennia. Its adherence to ancient doctrines is admirable. Perhaps, however, it’s just this adherence that leads the church to assume Darwinians are equally wedded to theirs.

The church makes a straw man — or, rather, an intransigent brick man — out of Darwinism. It fails to see that evolutionary theory has evolved. Darwin provided evolutionary scientists with brilliant hunches and questions that they have been working with for 146 years, deepening, expanding and sometimes refuting his original insights.

The church and science are in this respect opposite traditions. The church is designed for adherence; science is designed for evolution.

Of course, scientists, like all humans, are loath to relinquish cherished beliefs, but, by design, the tradition of scientific method wrests inaccuracies from the hands of clingy scientists. The method isn’t perfect. It’s just the best yet for evolving belief to track accumulating evidence.

Whether Cardinal Shönborn misinterprets Darwinism on purpose, what’s really at stake in the debate is purpose itself. The church sees purpose or goal directedness in life. Darwinists, when asked directly, claim there is none.

Here, the Darwinians would do well to listen to the cardinal. He speaks what is intuitive to all of us. Though human nature may not be godly, it’s closer to God than it is to purposeless physics.

“Purpose” is a troubling word in science. In the hard sciences, it is never relied on. Gravity, for example, has no purpose. In the softest sciences — psychology, sociology, economics — purpose is a fundamental driver. Biology, stuck between a soft place and a hard place, is ambivalent but publicly identifies with the hard. On the question of purpose, the most biologists concede is something they call teleonomy: purpose or end directedness in name alone — the mere appearance of purpose.

Regardless of biologists’ outward denials of purpose, their research proves that life is rich in it. It’s not the sort Catholics invoke when they envision a God guiding life toward grand goals, but it’s the stuff of a more intelligent debate than whether it’s all a Divine Plan, or purposeless matter.

Purpose is largely about absences, the pursuit of something missing, a goal not yet achieved. Even if biologists deny it, in practice, biology is largely about such absences. Drive, appetite, desire — all states biologists readily acknowledge are evident in life — are purpose-driven pursuits of what’s absent. Evolution itself is a process dependent on absences. It is a trial-and-error filtration process whereby a few traits pass to future generations, while the rest become absent through extinction. Extinction’s absences may seem unrelated to purpose, but they aren’t. The traits that filtered through natural selection’s sieve in the distant past did so precisely because they served purposes in the more recent past and therefore, given the way past is prologue, are best bets at what will continue to do so into the future. Ever evolving, Darwinism — in practice, if not in public — is beginning to make sense of purpose in nature.

And what of randomness? The big news this century in Darwinian science is that the randomness in evolution isn’t piecemeal. A genome is like a large, integrated control panel. Genetic variations are comparable to minor adjustments to the dials. It’s roughly the same control panel throughout animal life — and even, to some extent, plant life — which just goes to show how much variety you can get out of minor tweaks to the controls.

With humans, just a few subtle tweaks of the controls affecting brain organization have brought a whole new realm of thinking and communicating into being. Symbolic thought and communication, mostly in the form of language, provides an unparalleled capacity to create purposes that are not merely concrete and local but also abstract and universal. It finds us here today, for example, debating among ourselves the role of purpose in life.

Conflict with outsiders is often a welcome distraction from internal troubles. Both Darwinists and Catholics my find in each other just such a welcome distraction.

One of science’s most important remaining internal challenges is how purposeless physics could have resulted in purposeful creatures like us. Though research is progressing toward a solution to this challenge, Darwinism’s defenders may find it easier to dispute the Catholic deity’s master plan than to acknowledge that the challenge persists.

One of Catholicism’s most important remaining internal challenges is how God could be both perfect and interventionist. Cardinal Shönborn represents the church in its commitment to a God who responds to prayer, and yet, consistent with Darwinism, the church believes the creative source of our universe is so perfect that it need not make house calls to tweak its creation. It’s easier to defend against Darwinism’s antipurpose popularizers than to admit the difficulty in reconciling the church’s two expectations of God.

For those who have grown weary of the oversimplifications, help is on the way. Research biology’s growing understanding of purpose consistent with our intuitive sense of it, arising from processes more subtle than piecemeal randomness but more tangible than divine fiat, may force both science and religion out of their rhetorical ruts and into a richer, more evolved discussion of the meaning of life, and of life science.