Evolution and the acquisition of knowledge

This is sort of a piggyback on the last post in the sense that I’m posting again on evolution; it is actually a mere coincidence that I would write some musings on evolution and cognitive shortcuts (especially after a long break), only to be confronted by the idea of evolution yet again the following day in the last place I would generally hope to hear about it: my church.

I won’t go into great lengths as to how the topic of evolution came up, but suffice it to say, I wasn’t impressed with the way it was presented. Part of the message was on the human tendency to resist change, and whereas I can’t remember how evolution fit into that precisely, it was very clear that evolution was not a scientific theory that accurately describes and accounts for the diversity of life on earth but instead a theory that had been made up, presumably (from the implications) from thin air. It was all I could do to keep from walking out (I might have if I weren’t responsible for a major part of the worship service).

It made me think more about the way that I came to integrate evolution. Yes, my initial acceptance of evolution was primarily based on a cognitive shortcut (I had read enough on the matter and its defense to discern that its proponents were educated, articulate, and honest, while its opponents were at best educated, somewhat articulate, and dishonest), but there was certainly a way in which I came to move that belief into the theistic worldview I now hold.

In educational philosophy, there is a view that I favor known as constructivism; essentially, it is the idea that learning occurs in a generative manner, forming new conclusions based on the interaction of old knowledge and concepts with new data and sensory information. This philosophy of learning is incredibly versatile and applicable to virtually any learning that I can think of, not the least of which is my own area of specialty in education, English/language arts. (Think back to how you initially acquired language, for instance.)

This process of learning, as far as I am concerned, consists of three main stages: 1) stasis (when all of the information has been assimilated into one view; I suspect that this stage is the least frequent), 2) data acquisition, and 3) integration. Most of our conscious time is spent in the second stage, and it is only (edit: well, most generally) through reflective thinking that we engage in the third stage. In the integration stage, several things can happen:

  1. Affirmation – The new data aligns with the old views, reinforcing existing knowledge.
  2. Negation – The new data outright contradicts the old views, requiring the discarding of the previous knowledge for a new conceptualization. (Counterexamples in logic are an example of this sort of negation, like Popper’s swan analogy.)
  3. Reconstruction – The new data challenges the old views, requiring a re-examination of existing knowledge.

In my opinion, reconstruction is much more common or probable given any new data than pure negation; evolution fits into this third category for me. Before I came to accept evolution, my conception of God was as a powerful being who simply poofed life into existence, mostly as it is now (with some clear exceptions like dinosaurs); after, my view morphed into a view of God that is much more subtle, more willing to rely on physical laws to guide a plan out to its end. This is certainly not the view that everyone takes on evolution, but I think this approach comports well with the way that Christianity itself was born: Jesus was our new data, and lots of things changed when He came, but certainly the whole system was not abandoned entirely.

Again, this is somewhat subjective – what kind of data is needed in order to contradict something rather than simply challenging it? where is the threshold for abandoning previous knowledge with somewhat ambiguous data (which could either contradict or merely challenge knowledge, depending on the person)? – but that makes this approach no less accurate a way to go about learning things.

What happens with many Christians, however, is not learning at all; it is denial. I cannot find any good reason to deny evolution as an accurate way to see the world, and I am much more satisfied with my view on God as a result of accepting this truth.

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One Response to Evolution and the acquisition of knowledge

  1. Ed Darrell says:

    Once a Christian falls into denial in one area, it becomes easier to fall into denial in other areas, too. So evolution denialists become climate change denialists, and denialists of the efficacy of vaccines, and denialists of almost anything else that goes around.

    On one hand it makes it easier to find the nut cases — they cluster together on issues and in person. On the other hand, it’s no great recommendation for mental activity among those people.

    But you don’t need to be told that. You’ve seen through Neil Simpson. I appreciate the small island of sanity that your posts on my blog have become; I hope they are volcanic islands and will grow a lot.

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