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Confessions of an Atheist Darwin-Doubter

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Editor's note: Among the self-protective claims you hear from Darwin defenders is that there's no use engaging scientific Darwin doubters because evolutionary heretics are all motivated by religious conviction and the religiously faithful are impervious to reason. Strangely, this doesn't prevent Darwin's own faithful from tirelessly attacking Bible-based creationists. It only keeps them from marshaling genuine arguments against intelligent design. Anyway, in keeping with our mission here of gently encouraging Darwinists to confront and engage reality, we present this testimony from ENV contributor James Barham, a nearly lifelong atheist who tells an interesting story of how he came to question the adequacy of the mainstream neo-Darwinian account of life and evolution. We admire Barham's writing and think you will too.

I was born in Dallas, Texas, in 1952, and was raised primarily in the Southern Baptist faith. However, my parents were not particularly observant and I was seldom taken to church as a child. My acquaintance with my religious tradition was pretty much limited to the Bible stories I heard at my grandmother's knee.

I became an avid reader at an early age, and among my most vivid childhood memories are the simplified picture books I was given on various scientific subjects, from atomic physics to rocketry to dinosaurs. By the time I was eight, I used to say I wanted to be either an astronaut or a paleontologist when I grew up. So, my interest in science goes back practically as far as I can remember.

Sometime around the age of 11, if I remember correctly, Bertrand Russell's Why I Am Not a Christian fell into my hands. I recall spending some bad moments worrying that my belief in God was slipping away. I even went so far as to pray to Him to forgive me in advance if that were to happen. After a few months, I considered myself a confirmed atheist.

I'm ashamed to report that I remained a militant village-atheist for many years. It was only in my thirties that I began to read seriously in the philosophy of religion, and to understand the complexities of theological questions. Today, I have come to recognize the cogency of the inference from the contingency of the world to a necessary being. But in saying that, I am, at best, affirming "the God of the philosophers," as Pascal famously put it. I still cannot see my way to believing in "the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob." Nevertheless, I find myself in greater personal sympathy with many religious believers than with most atheists.

The reason is this. In addition to my early interest in science, as a teenager I developed a very strong interest in the humanities. For many years, I fancied I would eventually become a novelist or some other sort of writer. In the end, I took the easier academic route. I obtained a BA in Classics from the University of Texas at Austin in 1972, and went on to complete all of the coursework for a PhD in the History of Science at Harvard University. Unfortunately -- for personal reasons I won't go into here -- I never completed my dissertation, which consisted of translating and editing a late-Byzantine astronomical manuscript. By the time I officially dropped out in 1983, I was married and had a small son. For the next 20 years or so, I was essentially a househusband and faculty spouse, working at an array of minimum-wage jobs to help make ends meet. During this period, though, I continued reading and thinking about life, mind, and evolution.

By the 1980s, I had become conversant with the standard critiques of neo-Darwinism, such as Karl Popper's. Also, from my classical studies, I was familiar with Aristotle. So, I knew there were problems with Darwinism as a metaphysical system, and that alternatives existed. Gradually, too, I became conscious of a growing cognitive dissonance between my Darwin-inspired philosophical materialism and reductionism, and my first-person experience of the fundamental importance of purpose, value, and meaning for human existence. I was familiar with various schemes that had been proposed for explaining away the latter, such as Daniel Dennett's "intentional stance," but I could see they were just evading the issue. So, I was left with a contradiction between two aspects of my mental life that I had no idea how to resolve.

Then, one day while browsing in the stacks -- this was around 1988 -- I stumbled across an essay collection entitled Self-Organizing Systems: The Emergence of Order (ed. F. Eugene Yates; Plenum Press, 1987). This volume was devoted to efforts that were then underway to use dynamical systems theory as a means of modeling the operation of various physiological systems. I immediately had the experience of the scales falling from my eyes. I saw in a flash that the concept of a nonlinear oscillator -- and its associated "basin of attraction" -- might be a way to model the end-directed, or teleological, feature of biological functions. (A basin of attraction -- or "attractor," for short -- is a mathematical representation of dynamical behavior as a "trajectory" through an abstract multidimensional space.) And upon this foundation, I could already vaguely see that an emergentist metaphysics might be erected which might provide a robustly realist, yet rigorously scientific, account of the phenomena of purpose, value, and meaning.

I was aware of well-known criticisms of both of the then-current reductionist accounts of function: the "causal-role" theory and the Darwin-inspired "selected-effects" theory. In a nutshell, the problem is that neither theory can explain the normative character of biological processes in a coherent manner. (Biological processes are "normative" in the sense that they may either succeed or fail in fulfilling their functions.) With respect to the "causal-role" theory, there is no way to distinguish between functional and non-functional parts of a biological system without presupposing the normative character of the overall system as a whole -- which begs the question at issue.

With respect to the "selected-effects" theory, the problem is that selection history is conceptually irrelevant to the identification of function. True, it has a role to play in explaining how present-day functions have come to exist. But selection history cannot possibly explain what it is about a biological process that constitutes it as a function. This is a logical point that Darwinists simply miss. The reason is that our concept of function in no way depends on evolutionary history. If it did, then biologists like Aristotle, Galen, Harvey, and innumerable others who lived long before Darwin would not have had the means to identify the functions of organs, which they of course did. Sometimes, they got it wrong, as when Aristotle placed the seat of perception and thought in the heart, instead of the brain (though some of his predecessors got it right). But Aristotle's mistake was due to his inadequate knowledge of physiology, not to his ignorance of evolution.

What I realized that day in the stacks was that the mathematical concept of a high-dimensional, phase-space attractor gives us a way out of this dilemma. It does so by providing us with a mathematical representation of the end-directedness of physiological systems directly, without either begging the question of the normativity of the larger system of which the function is a part, or relying on irrelevant selection history. I wrote up my ideas, and published my first scholarly paper in 1990, at the ripe age of 38. I later discovered that I was not the first person to realize the value of dynamical systems theory for modeling the teleological character of biological functions, but I arrived at the idea independently, and I believe I can say that I have pursued it more doggedly than anyone else. I have now published some dozen papers on various aspects of this fundamental insight, and have recently completed a PhD dissertation at the University of Notre Dame on the topic.

To bring my story up to date, after graduating last year, I was fortunate enough to find employment with an education-oriented Internet startup called TheBestSchools.org, where I now work as General Editor. I also maintain a blog there, where I am able to comment on cultural matters, especially as they relate to education, philosophy, and the media. My special focus is the threat of scientism to morality and our commonsense understanding of the human person. It is very gratifying finally to have work that permits me to pursue my intellectual passions.

To return to my ideas on the conceptual foundations of biology, in recent years I have come to realize that the dynamical-systems approach, while helpful, cannot be the whole story. The reason is that a theory is still required in order to explain how physiological systems are capable of operating in an end-directed way, from the point of view of fundamental physics. Cybernetic control theory is useful as a description of such systems, of course, but considered as a master explanation, it too ends up begging the question of what causes a particular physical state of a living system to count as a goal state.

I now believe that living things are best understood as intelligent agents -- not machines -- and that we are missing something fundamental about the physical underpinnings of intelligent agency. Perhaps the way forward lies through an adequate quantum field theory of the living state of matter. But that is mere hand waving, at present.

What is certain is that the Darwinian explanatory framework is logically confused and scientifically superficial with respect to the phenomena of normativity, teleology, and agency. Darwinism is a gigantic obstacle obscuring these important problems from our view, and I doubt we will make much progress towards solving them so long as Darwinian dogma retains its death grip on the minds of so many.

James Barham has discussed his intellectual journey at greater length here.

Image credit: Gabriƫl Metsu, "Man Writing a Letter"/Wikicommons.