Sex, Bias, and the Design of Life

I’ve been reading the competition, so to speak — not that there really is any competition with Ed Feser. I don’t agree with everything he says, naturally, but still he’s untouchable as a top-notch thinker/blogger.

Anyway, I want to pick up and run with something he wrote on sex and teleology just before Thanksgiving. His point overall was that sex and sexuality have clearly discernible purposes. In other words they’re teleological, meaning that it is of their essence that they are directed toward ends or goals. Alex Byrne, a secular philosopher whose article on the two sexes Feser analyzes, admits as much without admitting it.

Feser concentrates mostly on the metaphysics of the matter, yet he gets down to motivation as well, which is what interests me here today:

So, the skittishness of some progressives about acknowledging that sex is binary is understandable. The messier sex can be made naturally to seem, the easier it will be to resist natural law conclusions. But again, Byrne holds that to acknowledge that sex is binary should give the progressive nothing to worry about. Is he right?

and near the end,

If sex is not binary, then the teleology is messier, and if the teleology is messier, then the dreaded conservative moral conclusions are easier to resist.

These “natural law conclusions” include (a) the essential nature of marriage: a man with a woman, (b) the purpose of sex being (not exclusively, but most uniquely and characteristically) procreation; (c) the intrinsic wrongness of non-marital sex; and of course (d) the natural existence of exactly two sexes.

Progressives pretty much line up with (e) none of the above.

Teleology or Not?

Now, the question of teleology in nature runs parallel to the question of design: Were we made for a purpose or not? Feser rejects capital-I, capital-D Intelligent Design in the form promulgated primarily by Discovery Institute. It’s a process issue for Feser (roughly and very simplistically — but sufficient for present purposes — the metaphysical starting point, and the manner by which DI tends to reach its design conclusions). Still he absolutely agrees with this much, at least: the world exhibits true design, and life in particular is the product of a designing intelligence.

I line up with Discovery Institute on this; in fact I’ve been editing ID the Future for several months now, so this is one point on which Feser and I disagree. Nevertheless we stand together in common disagreement with those who say there is no design in nature; that is, those who preach that life arose through mindless natural processes; that it’s the product of just time, chance (random genetic variation), and necessity (the fully determined outworking of natural law), plus nothing else.

Natural selection enters the picture as a shorthand term for the multiple massively interacting, necessary, natural-law processes and conditions that determine which individuals and populations will survive and leave offspring. For all its complexity, still there’s nothing intentional or purposeful in it, any more than there is in time or chance. This naturalistic take on evolution is therefore completely a-teleological.

A Stake in Sex, Not Just Science

Meanwhile I’ve also been involved in Edgar Andrews’ excellent What Is Man? Adam, Alien or Ape?. Andrews notes how thoroughly subject to interpretation the science of origins is, and how untestable many of those interpretations are. Thus, “Different experts offer different interpretations. … Debates often grow heated. Personal reputations are at stake.”

He’s absolutely right. Following Feser here, though, there’s more at stake than personal reputations. There’s an entire world of moral belief and disbelief.

Now, I want to be careful not to over-generalize here. Not everyone who denies teleology in nature believes in or practices progressive (im)morality. Or in Christian terms, not every one of them thinks rejecting biblical/traditional morality is a good idea. Still, with biology being one of the most atheistic fields in academia, and with the generally progressive stance found among university faculty, it stands to reason that a goodly number of biologists do hold to progressive beliefs in moral matters. If so, then they have a stake in a-teleology, and it’s not for strictly scientific reasons. It’s at least partly for moral reasons. Okay, enough pussy-footing around: For a lot of them, it’s that they want sex the way they want it.

Richard Dawkins wrote, “Even if it were true that evolution, or the teaching of evolution, encouraged immorality that would not imply that the theory of evolution was false.” He’s right, of course. What he fails to see, though, is that person’s bent toward immorality could bias them quite irrationally against belief in design.

Bias and Belief: An Asymmetrical Situation

Of course it’s us design-oriented people who take all the accusations: “You’re only trying to prove the Bible!” “You’re only trying to proselytize!” “You won’t look far enough past your Bible to see the world the way it really is!” But if bias counts against our credibility, why should bias count against theirs, too?

But we have an asymmetrical situation here. How many naturalistic evolutionists are there like Lawrence Krauss (who has now been exposed), hiding a nasty lifestyle of sexual immorality? The best answer I can offer is, I don’t know, though for sociological reasons already mentioned, it’s safe to say it’s no small number. How might that be biasing them? You and I both know it’s got to have an influence.

Still that “I don’t know” remains, and it’s a real sticking point. Believers have a bias, no doubt about it. It’s out in the open for all to see. A-teleologists have biases, too, but they’re hidden. It’s easy for them to make rhetorical points against believers’ bias, and nearly impossible to make a similar charge stick on them in return — even though, the charge has got to be true, to at least some extent.

Not Just Scientific or Philosophical — It’s a Spiritual Battle

What to do about that? The first, best advice I can offer may not seem like much, but it’s essential: Stay the course. We won’t score points in debate by saying some people on the other side are likely to be biased so they can live immoral lives. It’s too vague, too indirect, too judgmental. It is what it is (however extensive that “is” may be), but there’s hardly anything we can do with it rhetorically.

My second piece of advice might seem to contradict the first, but not really: Realize that not all the cards are on the table. We who believe in a designed universe are showing pretty much all of ours, but don’t think for a moment the other side is showing all of theirs — especially the morally-related reasons they choose to believe what they believe.

So if it looks like the deck is stacked against us, you can count on it. It is. No whine, just fact.

Which leads to my third and final piece of advice: Never think this is merely a matter of science or philosophy. There’s spiritual battle going on here. If you’re in this fight, pray as if it mattered. It does.

Image Credit(s): Nick Youngson & Tom Gilson.

5 thoughts on “Sex, Bias, and the Design of Life

  1. “Still he absolutely agrees with this much, at least: the world exhibits true design, and life in particular is the product of a designing intelligence.”

    No, he doesn’t. That’s the key to the whole confidence operation neo-thomism is running.

    According to Feser, world just “analogically” exhibits design, by a being that is not only just metaphorically an intelligence, but is only metaphorically a “being” who can only metaphorically be said to “exist” at all.

    By that standard, Dennett and Dawkins also believe in real design.

    The trick is to always talk in ways where the scare-quotes are either included or omitted just enough to make the Christian audience think they’re being offered support for exactly as much supernaturalism as they want, while being protected by the scare quotes from any more outright denial of science than their education allows them to feel comfortable with in polite company.

  2. Your argument about the bias of biologists looks to me like a red herring. I suspect you’re right that most biologists have liberal attitudes towards sex. Rhetorically, you could use that association to convince intellectually lazy folks that there’s nothing more to Darwinian biology than that liberal bias. That would be a case of demagoguery.

    None of which would change the fact that the “natural laws” in Feser’s Aristotelian view of metaphysical purposes aren’t scientific concepts, because they’re intrinsically normative. A final cause is a design based on the designer’s intention to do some good. So if natural regularities were intelligently designed, those patterns would be something like moral restrictions, meaning that God would have made the universe to be good, as Gen.1:31 says. Thus, natural laws would be moral commandments and so the distinction between descriptions and prescriptions would collapse.

    Alas, science as it was shaped by the Scientific Revolution deals with descriptions of objective patterns in nature, not with evaluations of how things should be. For that reason, many scientists and philosophers have come to the realization that “natural law” is a euphemism and a hangover from early-modern deism. It makes more sense to speak of scientific models and probabilities than of natural laws which are easily confused with value-laden commandments.

    Objective, quantified normality isn’t the same as normativity. So attributing final causes or purposes to natural events isn’t scientific. On the contrary, science is in the business of circumventing all subjective value judgments, to show us how things objectively are. Arguably, the scientific worldview is therefore limited, since subjectivity and value may be real too. It’s just that scientific methods aren’t useful in telling us about them. That’s what art, religion, and the humanities are for.

  3. I don’t think Feser would be very much bothered to find out that natural law in his view isn’t a scientific concept. He knows better than to think it could be. It’s a philosophical concept, informed by broader experience and reflection than what we call science today. That’s a feature, not a flaw.

    You’re right to say that science doesn’t tell us what’s normative; that there are other disciplines that do that.

    I’m curious, though, whether you think there’s real knowledge in other disciplines, or whether it’s mere opinion, subjectivity, or some such thing.

  4. I agree that Feser would consider teleology a matter of metaphysics, not science. My point was that academic biologists aren’t biased against teleology; rather, they discount teleology because the concept of a “final cause” or of a built-in purpose in nature is value-laden and thus unscientific. Scientists only explain how things actually happen or predict what will likely happen. They’re not in the business of telling us what should happen or what’s good for all things, so they’ve no use for teleology (for scientific purposes). That’s the alternative to your allegations of bias and a culture war (or a spiritual battle).

    If by “real knowledge,” you mean absolute representations of facts that mystically agree with reality, I regard that concept of knowledge as confused and meaningless. I’m pragmatic about knowledge, so I have no trouble saying there’s nonscientific knowledge, that is, that there are useful models and maps that help us achieve various nonscientific goals. I’m even open to religious knowledge in that respect, although I combine pragmatism with an aesthetic respect for creativity, so I’d prefer novelty to conformity.

    I take it you think the Christian creed, though, counts as real knowledge in that the Christian propositions reflect the facts in some complete or absolutely adequate way (as far as humans on earth are capable of; the full account will arrive only in Heaven). But what exactly is meant by speaking of absolute adequacy? Take a step back and look at the concepts involved in any account of reality and you’ll find much that’s parochial. Our conceptions are all-too human, which means that comparing them to inhuman facts is like comparing xylophones to bicycles. Can a xylophone capture the reality of a bicycle? Or can a watermelon agree or correspond with a dinosaur? How, then, can a neural spasm or scribbled ink “represent” the truth of anything else?

    There’s natural meaning in the sense of information conveyed in effects about their causes, but that’s the stuff only of practical detective-work, not of mystical adequacy or Truth.

    Now you’ll want to say that Christianity isn’t mere human projection, along with all our other “representations,” since God revealed the Truth to us. God inspired the New Testament’s authors and so Christian propositions magically agree with reality. And that appeal to divine revelation would put the obscure miracle in the Christian’s version of the correspondence theory of truth.

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