Belief and evolution

One of my favourite songs is “I don’t believe in the sun” by the Magnetic Fields, in which the protagonist declares that there can’t be a sun because it would shine on other guys, not me, when his woman love has left him. Imagine if there were people who thought belief was what made the sun real or not, literally…

A bellwether question asked of political candidates in the US is whether they believe in evolution. Evolution is a shibboleth (for those who didn’t get taught the Old Testament/Tanakh, in the book of Judges, 12:5-6, the men of Gilead use the pronunciation of “shibboleth” as a test of whether or not refugees are from the enemy city of Ephraim, and kill those who mispronounce it). It marks you as either in one sociopolitical camp or another.

So whether or not you “believe” in evolution tests your loyalties and views. But that poor English word “believe” has some heavy baggage to carry here. It means many things, and if you say you “believe” in evolution, one rhetorical trick is to then treat evolution as if it were a dogma or quasireligious sort of belief, which one is free to accept or reject based upon one’s choice of faith.

A common reply is “I don’t ‘believe’ in evolution, I accept it as true [or correct]”, which avoids that trick, but only verbally. One could say “I believe in evolution like I believe in the Sun, or electricity, or infectious disease”, but that only works on those who are charitable enough to listen carefully, which is, I guess, true of all discourse.

In philosophy, “believe” has a number of meanings too. It can mean to take a leap of faith (a phrase that I think originated with the Danish philosopher Kierkegaard). It can mean to have one of the prior conditions for knowledge (which is, whatever else it may be, to have a belief that is likely or certainly true). Or it can mean to take what we call a doxastic attitude or stance, from the Greek word “doxa”, expectation.

Then there is the subject of one’s attitude. It can be the observations of evolution, the factual nature of evolution (that evolution has occurred), or the theoretical explanations of evolution (the “theory”, another word that has all kinds of false and misleading popular implications).

When you ask a philosopher do they believe in evolution, be prepared for a short discussion of the sense in which you mean that, or ask them exactly the question; e.g., “What is your doxastic stance towards the factuality of evolution?”

Why does this matter? Well it matters for the same reason it matters to philosophers, to avoid ambiguity and rhetorical tricks, and by so doing, to get the questioner to think about what they mean with the question. If it’s just a shibboleth, then the question matters no more than asking if you think there should be a gold standard for the dollar – it has no intellectual content beyond marking you out as a member or not of the in-group.

So I can’t give you an easy answer how to deal with this problem; choose what works with your interrogator. Me, I have a doxastic stance of acceptance towards the observations, the factuality and most modern theories, I believe. Make of that what you were already going to…

To finish, I give you Stephin Merritt and the Magnetic Fields:

I don’t believe in the sun

Late note: Language Log also discusses this, philologically…

15 thoughts on “Belief and evolution

  1. “…in which the protagonist declares that there can’t be a sun because it would shine on other guys, not me, when his woman has left him.”

    Errr, “woman”?


  2. I think believe is so contaminated by association with immutable faith that it should not be used in reference to scientific thought. I like a colleague’s answer, “No, I do not believe in evolution. I have studied the matter, and I am convinced of it.”


  3. Good luck using the word “doxastic” with a question to a politician. They likely a) won’t know what the word means. b) even if they do know, if they are an American politician they’ll probably act like they don’t because it sounds very high falootin’ c) none of the public will care d) most humans don’t distinguish between different notions of belief anyhow when thinking about what they believe.


    1. I don’t expect anyone will use words of more than two syllables to all but a small minority of politicians. But we can do to public “intellectuals” (i.e., pundits).


  4. A “belief” in evolution doesn’t say much of anything except express adherence to a general principle in biological science (a narrow band of inquiry). But then some people take it further…


  5. To be fair to John’s initial comment about the gender of Stephin Merritt’s protagonist’s paramour, it should be noted that Merritt has the habit of using gendered pronouns interchangably in his songs, so it’s not inconceivable that the protagonist’s love is a woman. Or a man. Or neither. It’s certainly not the case that Merritt feels an obligation as a gay man to write particularly “gay” love songs, and he eviscerated some poor kid from The New Gay in a video interview for suggesting just that. (I’d post a link but I’m making this comment from my phone; search YouTube for it.)


  6. Evolution is a fact… and I accept the Theory of Evolution as the best current explanation of that fact.

    No b-word required.


  7. evolution has occurred

    Wouldn’t it be better to say “evolution occurs”? It always occurs when there is life, not just one time in the past.


  8. “I don’t ‘believe’ in evolution, I accept it as true [or correct]“

    I have a problem with “accept” as well, as in “I accept Jesus as my saviour” (not). So many tricksy words in English.

    Of course the question is a shibboleth, no goes around asking if you believe in gravity.


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