Thursday, October 14, 2010

Evolution Debate at BYU

Got to go to the evolutionary debate and it was what I expected actually. It was in a small auditorium type classroom and was maybe half full, so maybe 100 people showed up, which was what I was expecting, but I had hoped for a full room. It really wasn't even a debate, but I had thought it might not really be. Also, it was about evolutionary psychology, rather than the workings of evolution. Before I go on though I must give some background.

Evolutionary psychology is a rough field. Psychology itself is a very young science, and neuroscience is even younger. Evolutionary psychology is also a new field, and being new it has many holes to fill, theories to make and build upon, and lot's of work ahead of itself. However, in evolutionary psychology there is the issue that it is hard to empirically study the 'facts' or to try to prove the theories. Some use this against the field to say it isn't even scientific, and on some levels I agree. We cannot go back 100,000 years and try to study our human ancestors in the environments they lived in back then. Even present day primitive humans do not truly compare to what our history as a species is. Being that we can only mainly infer things through the studies and evidences, the field is pretty sketchy.

Now this isn't to say that the theories are bad though. Some theories brought to us by evolutionary psychologists have real-life application, such as the evolution of sex in the social sense with us. Some psychologists like to theorize that humans probably were not monogamous, or at least not for their whole lives. One thing brought up in the 'debate' was that some theorize that our ancestors lived together for about 5 years, bringing a couple children into the world, before they moved on to other mates. This is used as an explanation for why humans socially and neurologically change after about 5 years in a relationship and where divorces often take place. The theory has many good points, and evidences for it, but we can't go back and test this.

Ergo the problem with evolutionary psychology.

Validating the claims can be difficult. Supporting the theories can be difficult. Testing the theories can be near impossible for some. These problems throw doubt on the whole field, but I for one think that it has some worth and that we can at least use the field to throw out some good theories on human behavior, origins of social culture, and the evolution of our minds.

An interesting point was made by Jared Diamond in an older presentation he made in California. He pointed out that the human brain has been roughly the same for over 100,000 years. No bigger or smaller or notable differences. He theorized that our technology advanced only as language advanced. That once we began communicating with a complex system of language it opened doors to coming up with more ideas, better ideas, and to begin us on the path of technological advancement at an immense rate. We cannot prove this theory, but the theory, if looked into, is very good and makes a lot of sense.

In this way we can see what evolutionary psychology has to offer. So, now on to the 'debate.'

Luckily for me I showed up late and probably missed the opening prayer. Also Saint Pickle and a friend showed up, as well as a fellow BYU agnostic and then another person who found me through my blog. I had many reasons to go. I must point out though, that I had thought yesterday that the debate was on evolution and not evolutionary psychology. In preparation though I looked a little up about it and listened to a podcast episode on it from Rationally Speaking. Massimo is an intelligent guy.

Only about a minute or two into it I knew it would be a slightly painful presentation. Both of the speakers, awesome intelligent guys, were very churchy and trying to push for LDS beliefs, which was slightly difficult if you took what they were saying from a slightly more outside view. LDS doctrine runs into problems with evolution. General Authorities still write books, such as The Infinite Atonement, that teach doctrines that do not allow for evolution, such as saying there was no death before the fall. Some things said really made me shake my head, but the two presenters, professors at BYU from different departments, did an excellent job and I was annoyed when people would get up and leave. To be completely honest.

Vehement as I was (winkwink) I actually enjoyed the whole thing and noted the many good things they brought up. One presenter talked about the 'warrior' gene which is more than common in people who commit violent crimes or are in gangs. He related studies from the primate families to human behavior, and he used the Mountain Meadows Massacre as an example for human behavior several times. He is not afraid of the taboo.

Even the other guy was really good, his focus being on religious implications. He said science is dogmatic with empiricism, and I tend to agree, but he also would point out things such as "science can prove things where God is not needed in the equation," and he was clear in pointing out that in psychology a God is not needed to make sense of anything. Some people questioned this and the only point where he allowed God was with free will and the soul or consciousness. But both professors presented good cases for their views.

Yet, being that I don't really believe in free will or consciousness anymore those arguments don't hold much weight for me. Which came up in conversation after between me and a couple friends. I am being swayed to the idea that we simply react to our bodies, our current brain chemistry, our memories, and environmental influences and that is where our 'choices' come from. Every action we take has a precursory action or cause. I don't like the idea of not having free will, but I really don't see how free will actually makes any sense anymore. It's my understanding that many philosophers take both sides, so I feel okay not being so sure for one side, and disliking the other but thinking it's correct.

On the 'debate' though, there really wasn't a debate. Nor was there really any questions from the box, but there was about an hour long question session from the audience, a couple atheistic people included. One being a friend. The other being a guy who seemed a little angry, lol. The two profs played off each other well, but stumbled a little when it came to naturalism and theism. Both had to admit that God is not necessary in the empirical sciences. However, one said that science uses metaphysical aspects so science should be open to a metaphysical God. Honestly I am unsure where he is coming from.

Ultimately it was a good experience and I'm happy I went. The people in the religion/psychology department seem to be trying to push for the idea that science shouldn't be studying religion because it can't. I am more new to this debate, having only joined in during winter in my psychology of religion class, and most of my knowledge on the topic is from the LDS perspective, so I feel a little skewed as of right now. BYU has some decently liberal professors and many of them are admitting that evolution in any aspect needs to be looked into and on many levels it needs to be accepted. Many students do not feel this way when they come to BYU, unless of course I just happen to only meet people who have little to no understanding of it or don't accept it.

This could just be ignorance on their part, parents or schools trying to keep evolution away from them, or simply the church not treating the topic fully.

On another note, at one point one of the professors rhetorically stated that there could be people in the room who thought God was made up by humans, or by the human brain, to which a couple friends raised there hands. I laughed, but was also slightly embarrassed since I was sitting right next to them. I mean, I'm still going to BYU! I have this blog! I'm a heathen! I don't want to be expelled! Either way it was funny and totally worth it. I now wish I had raised my hand as well (no one would know who I was anyway).

On a final note, there was a blond girl who was annoyed with us. A couple people were whispering a couple times, and one friend was making noise with his empty peaches cup, but since it was apparent that most of us were not believers, two known for a fact, and one started his question by stating he was an agnostic atheist who had some sincere questions and was looking for a civil debate, I have to wonder if she just didn't like us and thought we were Satanic. Even the couple bouts of whispering were related to statements JUST made by the professors. If so, then I say 'fu** you blond girl.' I just had to say that cause I don't feel there has been enough ranting in this post. Night.


  1. "I don't really believe in free will or consciousness anymore". This deserves a post of its own. My initial reaction, which is admittedly rather meta, is that you are behaving as though you have consciously chosen this philosophical position. Neither of which is possible if your above statement is correct. It's not that you "don't like the idea of not having free will", it's that the idea contradicts your experience of living and you are trying to intellectualize away your experience. Wasn't this one of the main reasons you left Mormonism? Why trade one worldview that clearly contradicts your reality for another? It seems to me that the entire existence of determinist philosophy is an admittance that without God consciousness and choice don't make sense. Since the denial of God's existence is more important than the universal experience of moral freedom, clarity subordinates to ideology. One more instance where agenda trumps truth.

  2. ^But what *is* "truth?"

    Hi j-dog! Just wanted to give you a big up for being able to stay sane as a non-believer at BYU. I don't know how you do it; i certainly wouldn't be able to. I woke up from the "dream" about a year ago and can barely stand living in my town in AZ surrounded by judgmental hive members.

  3. Yeah, I'll be doing one on consciousness pretty soon (translates to - in the next few weeks most likely). I don't plan on doing one on free will cause I'm just not that interested in the topic and have a hard time accepting any stance on it.

    It's not so much that it contradicts my view, but that I just have a hard time grasping the ideas and I like the idea of having free will. I'm still open to consciousness being something, but I just don't believe in a soul or spirit, which I've told you personally that I believe some part of me could exists after death without a god. Free will, though, probably is connected to my materialistic views.

    Thanks kitty, I just had a dream about a kitten. It became a mouse when my dream became a new one and it had been put in a jar with a snake so it got eaten unfortunately. Weird dream. I make it cause I have a wide range of non-believing friend, and I've told several 'theist' friends but mainly only the ones who I think can handle it and accept me. I've only had a couple people stop talking to me so far.

  4. Interesting blog. I'm another agnostic-atheist BYU student. Although I never explicitly proclaim my lack of belief, I do enjoy stirring the pot. I had a lot of fun in my Philosophy of Religion class. It was pretty entertaining refuting all of the religious/apologetic arguments.

    @Demosthenes Just because a person changes their mind about what they believe, does not, even in the slightest, indicate there was a voluntary choice. I don't choose to belief the Earth is round or the Sun is bright in the sky; these are conclusions forced upon me by the overwhelming evidence. Likewise, the same could be said of Freewill.

    We are like machines - we accept an enormous array of inputs from our environment, and given our internal biological conditions, we will produce a specific output. Notice that because an action is voluntary doesn't necessitate it being Free. All it means is that our 'Will' itself that produced that decision was itself determined by external causes. I don't see how this is so difficult to understand.

  5. A BYU professor here, LDS, religious, conservative. My background is in theoretical and philosophical psychology, my dissertation is on theism and naturalism in moral psychology/education. Email me if you want a non-judgmental chat/discussion.

    I'd really like to chat in person if any of you are on campus, and not to get you in trouble or even to try to "save" you, but just because it might be a more efficient way to converse and see if you've covered all your bases.

    Send me an email if you're interested and we can set up a meeting. Or we can stick with email. You don't have to give me your name, so even if we meet face to face I won't know who you are (unless you've taken a class from me, in which case I probably love you unconditionally :). If you're wondering, BYU didn't put me up to this. I just like these sorts of conversations.

  6. I'm a devoted LDS member, and ultra-conservative. I didn't go to BYU, but just graduated from BYU-I in Rexburg. I can't fault anyone for asking sincere questions. I admit that one of the great puzzles is how different people can sincerely arrive at different answers to the same question.

    As far as evolution and theology, I honestly don't feel threatened by the theory of evolution. I've had all the biology classes, including a class called "evolutionary biology". The science makes sense. It is a beautiful theory, even. But what I don't understand is how the assumption is that, if evolution is more than just a theory, then God must not exist. I don't see them as being mutually exclusive. Could not God have used evolution as His method of creation?

    And, in regard to being judgmental, I suppose that is a human tendency. I've made my fair share of judgments. While it is nearly impossible to go through life without making certain judgments, it is reasonable to expect that others refrain from trying to pass *eternal* judgments against us.

    Regardless of our differences, I wish you the best in your life and in your philosophical journey.

  7. Anony from May 2nd - So many people named Anonymous! Lol.

    Okay, I don't think the theory of evolution has anything to say on gods in particular. But it does say a lot if your version of God and theology don't allow for evolution.

    It should be noted again, that the Theory of Evolution is just that, a set of principles that offer an explanation and have been tested and proven to be the case. A theory in science isn't like saying, "ohhh, i have a theory on that....", no, that would be a Hypothesis, like any grade school graduate should know from learning the Scientific Method. Theories are not to be 'believed' in, they are to be denied or accepted.

    With that out of the way, as you seem to understand the theory of evolution is more concrete than even the theory of gravity, and is always becoming more concrete as evidence piles in from the theories predictions, etc.... In the case of Mormonism there is a long history of church leaders, Brigham and Joseph F. Smith are good starters, who stated it is a false theory.

    You can't really argue that they just didn't know better because the theory hasn't changed in any monumental ways since it was made over a century ago. Besides this the church still stands by it's official declaration stating that evolution is false, that Adam and Eve were placed here and did not evolve, and that there was no death before the Fall. With these statements and beliefs, still held by church authority, the LDS church not only denies evolution but says it wasn't even possible.

    Now, this is the church I speak of, and there are many members who accept evolution and old-earth creationism, which is admirable.