PM5393: Some arguments against evolution

In this essay, I would like to present some reasons to disbelieve in the theory of evolution. Now, I don't necessarily subscribe to these positions myself -- I am sympathetic to the views I present below, but my own views include some further complexities I am not going to go into. But I thought it would be interesting to present them. Most people are familiar with arguments against evolution based on contradictions with sacred texts ("The Bible says the earth was made in six days!") and alleged internal deficiencies of evolutionary theory. However, I would like to present some radically different arguments against evolution. I should note, that these arguments are not really about evolution in particular, but about scientific theories about the distant past in general -- so they would apply equally well to other such theories, like Big Bang cosmology. They are actually not arguments that evolution definitely did not happen - they are more arguments that, either it neither happened nor did not happen, or else it both happened and did not happen. The theories rely on certain assumptions, which I consider to be neither proven or disproven. My point is, that although there are some forms of rejection of evolution which are clearly bogus, there are some forms of evolution-rejection which are intellectually respectable in my judgement.

Argument from idealism

Idealism is the theory which proposes that mind, not matter, is the fundamental stuff of reality. Its two competitors are materialism (matter not mind is the fundamental stuff of reality) and dualism (both matter and mind are equally fundamental.) So, this argument will assume the truth of idealism. I think we are free to do so -- there is no argument I am aware of against idealism -- the most common views seem to be materialism and dualism, and while materialism exerts significant effort in attacking dualism (something in which I think it largely succeeds), there is little attack on idealism. There are I think some good reasons to adopt idealism; but, if those are rejected, I would then say there is no evidence either way, so we are free to believe whichever we wish. But, to someone who rejects idealism, this argument will admittedly carry no weight.

Now, if idealism is true, material things and the events which befall them are patterns in the experiences of minds. The universe exists because minds exist to observe it. What then about those parts of the universe which minds do not observe? One could say they do not exist, since they are lacking what they depend upon for their existence (observation).

One way this viewpoint gets presented is in the form "Things don't exist when no one is looking at them". One imagines the contents of a room disappearing into blackness when the last person leaves the room, and magically re-materialising when someone walks back in. However, that is a mistaken perspective -- it is actually trying to understand idealism from a materialist viewpoint. To an idealist, when things are not being observed, it is not that they do not exist -- it is more accurate to say that they neither exist nor do not exist. It is not that they are or are not; they are in a state of limbo, indeterminacy.

This viewpoint is similar to certain interpretations of quantum mechanics -- without an observer, things exist in a superposition of every possible state -- it takes an observer to collapse that superposition into a particular state of affairs. When the observer is withdrawn, when the observation is finished, it returns to a superposition, until and unless an observer is introduced again. (Now, some will object to this reading of quantum mechanics -- actually, that is not my point, this may well be a misinterpretation -- my point is, whether or not it is correct as quantum physics, it is a good analogy for the idealist view of reality.)

One issue for idealists is deciding what constitutes a mind. A whole range of views are possible here: at one extreme, there is the insistence that only humans have minds, and animals don't. At the other extreme, there is panpsychism, which supposes that even inanimate objects like rocks have minds. My own position is in the middle -- humans have minds, and some but not all animals. I am going to assume my own position is correct in the remainder of the discussion.

If only humans and some other animals have minds, any time before those species existed there would have been no minds in the universe. (To simplify the discussion, let us assume for the moment there is no extraterrestrial life.) Prior to those species coming into existence, there were no minds in the universe to observe it, so the universe cannot be said to exist -- or it was in a superposition of existence and non-existence. So, the evolution of those species cannot be said to have occurred -- prior to their existence, there was no objective reality in which evolution could have occurred or not.

An analogy -- you read a novel which you like. You get to the end. It is natural to ask "What happened next?" "What happened before the novel started?". But those questions are unanswerable, in the sense that there is no correct answer -- every answer is as correct as any other. The author might write a prequel or sequel, or make some pronouncement on matters not addressed in the text -- but let us assume they have not done so, and have since passed away and hence won't be able to do so either. Then, the question of what happens next or happened earlier is truly unanswerable. And, from an idealist perspective, this is the same as asking "What happened before the first mind existed in the universe?" There is no answer. You could say, "Evolution! Big Bang!" You could say, "Creation in six 24 hour days!" From an idealist perspective, both are equally valid.

Now, there are some ways in which evolution might nonetheless be valid from an idealist perspective:

  • if there is alien life who could have observed the process of evolution on earth. In that case, our evolution would have occurred, since their minds would have existed. However, although we would then have evolved, they would not have evolved, since there would be no mind to observe their evolution (or, even if some other aliens had observed theirs, we would eventually reach some alien civilization which evolved unobserved and hence did not evolve.) And, even if there exist aliens who were around then, if they didn't actually observe our evolution, that does not save our evolution from the indeterminacy of neither happening nor not happening.
  • if time travel is invented, and scientists could travel back in time in order to confirm firsthand the truth of the theory of evolution. In this case, there would be minds to observe evolution happening, the minds of the time-travelling scientists, so evolution could be said to have happened rather than neither happening nor not happening. (More generally, complete time travel is not necessary; some kind of read-only time travel, like a time-telescope that lets one observe the past but not change it, would do equally well.)
  • if there is some God or other deity who is a mind and who chooses to observe the process of evolution. (Personally, I believe in a deity, but think the deity has better things to do than observe evolution, so I don't think this occurs.)

The above considerations suggest to me that evolution neither happened nor did not happen. Of the various ways it might have nonetheless happened, I think the time-travelling scientist scenario is the most likely.

Argument from computer simulations

My next argument takes a rather different tack. Suppose we are living in a computer simulation. If our universe is a computer simulation, then our universe did not exist before the simulation started. Now, maybe our simulators decided to simulate us all the way from the Big Bang to the present. However, depending on their reasons for the simulation, they may have no interest in those matters, hence there is no point in simulating back that far. They'd start the simulation sometime far more recent. I would venture many simulators would have similar motivations to people who today play The Sims -- they want to play with human beings as if they were a god. They'd have no interest therefore in simulating the Big Bang or the theory of evolution; they'd start their simulation with human beings already existing. Maybe some people would be more interested in simulating the Big Bang or the theory of evolution than just simulating humans, but I'd venture given human nature they'd be in the minority. Furthermore, the computational cost of simulating the Big Bang and the theory of evolution is likely vastly higher than just simulating a human-like world; it seems likely that we may have the technology to simulate worlds containing human beings without having the technology or economics to undertake grander simulations including the Big Bang and the theory of evolution. Or even if we undertake a few, since simulations starting with humans are vastly cheaper, we would expect there to be vastly more such simulations than those including evolution or the Big Bang, and thus it is vastly more likely we'd be in a simulation without evolution or the Big Bang occurring. So, there is a fair chance evolution or the Big Bang never happened in our (simulated) universe, since the simulation started later.

But, it will be argued, even if evolution never happened in this universe, it must have occurred in the universe we are being simulated in, in order to evolve our simulators. However, there are two other possibilities:

  1. Maybe the universe we are simulated on has radically different laws of physics from our own. Maybe those radically different laws of physics support life that came into being by radically different means. Maybe the theory of evolution doesn't make any sense in their universe.
  2. Maybe there is an infinite hierarchy of simulated universes, and no "actual" universe exists. It is possible that the simulated universe is in turn simulated in another universe, which is in turn simulated in another universe, and so on. This recursion may end somewhere in an actual universe, in which evolution may have occurred. But maybe there is an infinite regress of universe simulations, and there never is an actual universe. Then evolution might never actually occur anywhere. (Note I don't actually believe in this option -- I don't believe in infinity, so I don't believe in infinite regresses of universes either.)
  3. Maybe rather than an infinite regress of nested simulations, there is a circular regress of universe simulations.

If any of the above possibilities are true, evolution may have never happened anywhere.

Argument from multiple pasts

The above are arguments that evolution is neither true nor false. This, by contrast, is an argument that evolution may be both true and false simultaneously.

There are a number of theories that suppose there are parrallel universes. One of them is the many worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics. This in particular has branching universes, two universes being identical up to a certain point and distinct after that. Another is the theory of computer simulation -- if this universe is a computer simulation, there may be other parrallel simulations. Computer simulation may also provide for branching universes -- a simulation can be cloned at a particular point in its execution, and then the clone and the original can be left to develop in different directions. (For example, suppose the simulation is non-deterministic, and relies on a random number generator; then different random sequences could be fed to the clone and the original. Or the clone or original could be edited in some minor way, by operator intervention, and then left to see how the change would develop.)

This then implies there may be, not a single future, but multiple simultaneous futures, in the different branches from here descending.

But, if there may have multiple futures, may there not also be multiple pasts? If there could be multiple divergent futures, might there not be multiple convergent pasts? For example, two simulations could be set up with vastly different initial conditions, but something could be done to 'nudge' their evolution in the same direction, so they eventually become identical. Likewise, if a universe can split in two in the many-worlds interpretation, might two universes not merge together? Two almost identical universes, then some quantum choice is taken which results in them being identical. We could have two universes which began in radically different initial conditions; then, by a certain sequence of quantum choices, they become nearer and nearer to each other, at a certain point becoming identical. (In other words: the evolution of a quantum system is time-asymmetric.)

Yet if there are multiple pasts, it may well be that in one of our pasts evolution was true, and in another of our pasts creationism was true instead. Maybe two simulations have been set up, one to simulate the theory of evolution being true, one to simulate it being false, but both are programmed to converge together and eventually become identical simulations around the present time. Having become identical, they are no longer two different simulations, but now one and the same simulation; one single simulation having multiple pasts.

Evolution as a useful myth

To me, evolution is a myth. To call it a myth is not to say it is false - some myths may be true. I would say, evolution might be false, it might be true, it might be neither true or false, it might be both true and false. But, as a myth, its actually truth isn't important, so long as we find it useful. So I can play the game of evolution, I can talk about it as if it was true, reason about it as if it was true; all the while, keeping in the back of my mind, the idea that its truth is unknown (could be any of the above four). Likewise, I can play the game of Christian theology -- I can talk about it as if it were true, regardless of whether I actually believe in it or not. However, I would say evolution has proven itself a far more profitable game to play.

Comments