Evolution as meta-programming

I have said in a previous post that if evolution is true, it is the greatest empirical proof for the existence of God. I’d like to go unpack that a little bit.

I bring the perspective of being a software developer to bear on this issue. I understand code, I understand complex functional systems, I understand how hard it is to get them to change without breaking, and so on. This is why, from even from my first post on this issue a year ago, I actually find the “iterative” nature of evolution compelling, because that’s how software (and frankly any engineering product) is made: you start out simple, and bit by bit increase the complexity, making sure at the end of each cycle that what you have works and is what you want. What all of this implies, though, is that you can’t do it accidentally.

Furthermore, all of these posts ultimately serve the purpose for me to work out my own thoughts on this issue. I want to be able to clearly put my finger on the things about it that make sense and the things about it that I reject.

But today I want to explore evolution in a slightly more positive way through an idea in programming, namely, the idea of meta-programming.

Now meta-programming is really hard. It is basically where you write code which is able to manipulate other code. For example, I could write a program which, when run, will actually re-organize itself and run backwards (well actually, I couldn’t write that program. But some people out there can).

This is super-hard because you are dealing with two things: First, you have the “naive” or non-meta program, which is just whatever program you actually want. Then you have your “meta” program, which is the code you actually write that creates the naive program (maybe by generating code from a template). What’s crazy about this is that they are the same program; you write the program at the meta-level, embedding the naive program in the structure of the meta one, and understand that as it runs, it will get transformed into something else which will ultimately do what you want.

Understanding the implications of the changes made to that “naive” program is extremely difficult and complicated. Hence, developers almost always just write the program they want to run rather than writing a different one which will make the one they actually want.

It ultimately involves having “meta” knowledge about the thing you are trying to produce. You have to understand what you want and how to make it so well that you essentially get bored and create a new programming problem for yourself: how to write a program that will write the program that you want. This is like making a factory that makes different kinds of factories. It’s insanely hard.

Now consider evolution: Originally, people thought that when God sat down to form the world, he made it all at once. All the animals and plants just showed up, fully formed and ready to go. But it seems that what might have happened is actually quite a bit more sophisticated. Instead of sitting down and writing all the “code” for every single kind of animal directly, for millions of kinds of animals, God actually sat down and wrote a bunch, but ultimately fewer, meta-programs.

Evolution would say that God, instead of writing millions of apps, wrote several dozen apps whose function is to make a bunch of different kinds of apps. Oh, and those apps have the ability to fix their own bugs. All of this is to say that when I said that evolution is the greatest empirical proof for God, what I meant is that we appear to have, not just a collection of different kinds of organisms, but a kind of meta-system that is capable of generating new kinds of organisms. And this goes way beyond the basic intelligent design arguments because while I can related to the idea of writing code, it simply boggles my mind to imagine someone writing code that writes code that fixes its own bugs.

Imagine you saw me playing a beautiful song on the piano. Initially, you are impressed by the piano playing. But you realize, after a closer look, that it’s not me, it’s a robot. Then I (the real me) walk up and say, “I built this robot and taught it to play piano like me.” My point in this post is that not being impressed because it wasn’t me playing the piano is the wrong response.

Similarly, if you aren’t impressed because God didn’t create animals, the process of evolution did, then I suggest you are missing the forest for the trees. The thing which needs explaining is no longer merely the existence of a huge array of different creatures and ecosystems, but rather a mechanism which seems capable of generating all kinds of fully functional creatures and ecosystems. This strikes me as offering a view of the world that greatly amplifies God’s creative genius and involvement rather than diminishing it.

My current position on evolution

This post was edited after its initial post; an example for clarification was added.

I was re-reading my post “A lengthy response: more on evolution,” which was a response to some comments on an earlier post. Something has been rolling around in my head lately, and I when I re-read that post it seemed a bit more obvious to me. Namely, it seems pretty clear that I at least heavily imply that evolution could be true, but that if it is, it couldn’t possibly be undirected. I think this means that I’ve become comfortable with a distinction about evolutionary theory, which I will try to set out.

Sometimes the debate over evolution is just a debate over the “plot” of the scientific record. Many people read it and see a basic story: in the beginning, living things were very very simple. Over millions of years, they became much more complex, with man arriving at the end. There are two main elements to this story: 1) living things changing from simple to sophisticated, and 2) lots and lots of time.

6-day creationists argue against this story, because it contradicts the plot of a literal, straightforward reading of Genesis 1. Because the 6-day creationist story is 1) fully formed organisms and 2) relatively little time, the 6-day creationist must reject the evolution story purely on historical grounds. He looks at this debate and says, “Whose book am I going to believe, the atheist scientist’s or God’s?”

While I am occasionally sympathetic to the 6-day view, I mostly find myself unconvinced. I just do not think that the 6-day view is the only reasonable way to understand Genesis 1. Genesis 1 seems to describe God’s week at the office, so to speak. He worked for six days and rested, so too man works for six days and ought to rest on the seventh. But these could be “divine days,” where the focus is not so much the amount of time elapsing as it is the orderly process by which God forms an orderly world out of formless chaos–just as a man might come upon fallow land and subdue it, plow it, shape it, and make it fruitful. This is not to say there is no merit to interpreting the days as literal–“there was evening and there was morning” being the strongest reason. There are benefits to this reading. I just don’t think it’s strictly necessary, and I disagree that interpreting the “days” to be something else is an open door to rejecting the historicity of the Gospels like Answers in Genesis tries to argue.

This is not to say Genesis 1 makes no historical claims whatsoever. I’ve said in many other posts that it seems like the plot of Genesis 1 follows the plot of a science book: First, everything was formless and void. Then light and dark became distinct. Then the earth formed, then oceans, then the sky, then stars in the sky (yes this is out of order), then life in the oceans, then life in the air (yes this is out of order), then life on land, then man in God’s image. The stars being created after the sky can plausibly be explained as the stars coming into focus through the atmosphere as it clarified over time. The only real step that’s out of place is flying animals coming after land animals according to science but before them according to Genesis. But otherwise things seem to line up so well that I can comfortably hand-wave this issue as scientific ignorance or some other such thing that could be resolved later.

But there’s a deeper point here, which is that the world was formed in an orderly process, and that God’s interaction with the world pushed it from “without form and void” in verse 2 to “God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good” in verse 31. The whole of creation went from simple to sophisticated. It may very well be that the creation of life is written as a kind of “gloss,” where Scripture is simply saying “God made all the living things,” but the expanded story is that he also made living things in a simple-to-sophisticated way.

I think of it this way: if you removed the word “day” from Genesis 1, would we lose the basic structure of the story? Furthermore, if we removed the word “day”, would we lose any of the implications of the creation story, as Answers in Genesis tries to argue? I don’t think so. That God made the world, that it is good, that we bear God’s image, etc etc, none of these things are dependent on the amount of clock-on-the-wall time that God took to make everything. Our understanding of the word “day,” while certainly important, is not the part that determines the theological significance of the story.

This leads me to accept that evolution as a historical story could be true. I think it could totally be the case that the universe is billions of years old, that life arose on earth hundreds of millions of years ago as something very simple, and that life grew into something more sophisticated over time. But if this happened, it happened in the same way that a seed becomes a flower, or a child becomes an adult: it is the result of a process which is aimed at producing just those kinds of results and not as a result of something undirected and purposeless.

This is where my disagreement with evolution kicks in: whether evolution happened historically, it could not have happened by accident. A stronger way of saying this is that if evolution is true, it represents the single greatest empirical proof for the existence of God. In this way, evolution represents a competing creation story, not as a historical narrative, but as a theological one, one that tries to explain how the world could come into existence without reference to God. The evolution story becomes a way of rehearsing the modern philosophical view of the world, which is materialism embraced as a rejection of Platonic/Aristotelian/Thomistic realism.

Evolution is presented as empirical proof that lower-level order can come about without any ultimate or final purpose. So-called micro-evolution can lead to macro-evolution, it is thought, because the notion of there being some uniting purpose underlying all those changes would imply a kind of ultimate purpose for which all things happen. It would create a sense of directed-ness, and this is the thing which modern thinking tries to avoid. It tries to show that things happen by accident of circumstances and the laws of nature, and not because of some unifying underlying cause orchestrating all these diverse activities.

The best example I can think of for this kind of thing is the free market: lots of micro-exchanges, each made by independent people acting for their own independent reasons, and each with their own little set of rules, accumulate and create a kind of meta-system with meta-rules and generalized outcomes that cannot be directly attributed to any single interaction. As far as I understand, this was the insight of Adam Smith: it looks as if some “invisible hand” is directing the market, as if the king is directing all the farmers to raise or lower the price of apples. But there is no such intentional orchestration of apple prices; it just looks that way.

Unless, of course, you are a Christian who believes that God rules over the world and exercises his providence. Because the Christian believes that God is actively involved in sustaining and directing the world, the emergent order of these systems is simply the observation of God’s orderly rule over the world and of his direction of those tiny micro-events into some final purpose that he controls.

This is not to mention the simple fact that if mutations occur “randomly,” this really means that those mutations arise from God’s spontaneous and circumstantial judgment about how he wants that particular organism to evolve at that time. A particular mutation could begin appearing more regularly in a population at a certain point in history, coinciding with environmental changes. This would appear to us as if there is a complex feedback loop between genetics and environment, but the Christian would readily understand it as God’s rule over the natural world in order to guide that organism to its next evolutionary phase.

This is all to say that while the natural world does of course “run” on its own terms, this is at the direction of God. He has spoken (“Let there be light”), and it is so. And it remains so until it pleases him to order his creation to be different (“Let that water now be wine”). Creation is ultimately responsive and receptive to God. This receptivity to divine interaction is one of the principle ideas that is attacked by scientific materialism and different versions of determinism: God can’t intervene in the natural world because it would disrupt the elaborate machinations that make it all work; its deterministic rules would actually constrain him, because he’d have to follow them to keep everything from falling apart.

But a business owner can hire and fire employees without intricately intervening in the business, despite the fact that a business is a complex, goal-oriented, functional element in an elaborate system. The important fact is not whether the system gets disrupted but whether the employees continue to do their jobs. In the Christian view, the entire universe is God’s kingdom, God’s business. Every part of creation, from atoms to proteins to cells to organs to animals, is doing its job faithfully–except for us. And it can all be organized differently should God direct it to do so.

Anyway, all of this is the main thing that Christians are getting at when they attack evolution. The historical story that evolution presents is, in my opinion, a very mild threat to the Christian worldview because the basic principles of Genesis 1 are still affirmed, and evolution make no sense without intelligent design. The real threat is that the Darwinian mechanism that’s used to explain evolution smuggles in the “everything is an accident and there is no grand design or purpose” idea, which is obviously fundamentally opposed to Christianity and theistic belief in general.

This is what is so nice about evolution from an atheistic point of view: it explains why there is the appearance of design without leading us to conclude that we have some obligation to order our lives according to that purpose. Because the outcomes of evolution are not the product of some intelligent design, we aren’t really violating that design by using our bodies and minds in ways that violate it. It allows us to maintain our internal sense of intellectual credibility without any of the moral obligations. And this is exactly what Romans 1:22-25 is all about when it says that man, by professing himself to be wise, becomes a fool and engages in all kinds of immorality.

This distinction between evolution as history vs evolution as creation story best explains the strengths of both sides: evolution seems to be strongest in terms of the scientific evidence (historically speaking), but when taken as a creation story causes us to embrace absurdity.

Arguments for evolution are unintelligent

A fellow on the internet has been arguing with me lately in an attempt to convince me that atheistic evolution is true. The primary argument he has made is that doubting evolution is irrational (“there is no reason *not* to believe”), and that therefore I’m a poo-poo head for taking the time to think about it and rationally question certain parts of it. It may appear as if living things are the product of intelligent design, but that is merely an illusion, an accidental by-product of Darwinistic natural selection operating on random genetic mutations.

There is only one problem with his argument: there is just no proof that his comments are the product of intelligent design.

You see, we live in a world where appearances can be deceiving. All living things, which bear marks of design such that any reasonable person would recognize them as being designed, are in fact nothing more than the accidental by-products of some undirected process. Every form of life you see was the result of a process without a goal, which is not an oxymoron but rather is the kind of process Rational People believe in. Not only am I a Rational Person for believing that a process which produces an outcome so reliably that it can be studied by scientists can with a straight face be called “undirected,” I would be an Irrational Person if I doubted this, because the evidence is so strong.

I feel foolish now that I think about it. There is just no evidence that the comments I was interacting with were the product of some intelligent process. It very well may be that they all came from bugs in the blogging platform that caused those comments to appear. Perhaps a cat was walking across a keyboard in just the right way. The odds are excruciatingly low, of course, but given enough time, this kind of thing is bound to happen now and then. The important part here is that it is totally rational for me to doubt that those comments were written by a person.

I mean really, I would just love to be able to interact with those comments as if they were something produced by a rational intellect. But I just don’t have any reason to believe that this was the case; after all, we live in a universe where living things just accidentally appeared despite the statistical impossibility that this could happen. And not only did this apparent impossibility happen, it is so certain that it is irrational to doubt it. And I don’t want to be an irrational person. Why can’t the same thing be happening in the comment section on my blog?

I feel bad because what if there is someone out there trying to interact with me, trying to make an intelligent comment? But I can’t just believe something because I want it to be true, because it makes me feel bad not to believe. I need evidence. And the fact of the matter is, there is no proof that there is an intellect behind those comments. Those could just be accidents.

Worse yet, there is actually nothing that could be done to convince me otherwise. There is no action he could take that couldn’t be explained away as an accident of some other process. What’s he going to do, leave another comment explaining that yes he is a real person? There would be no way to prove to me that such a comment is not just another accident. And I’m a rational person. I need proof. I need evidence. I’m not just going to take it on faith that those comments were the conscious product of a living person with a an intellect who is capable of rational self-expression.

It’s a bleak world I live in, but I’d rather be a stone-cold rational thinker than a sentimental person clinging to the idea of intelligence on the internet.

A lengthy response: more on evolution

A very friendly person commented on my previous post, An evolution slight-of-hand. He gave me some very positive and encouraging feedback while also asking me for some clarification in a calm, polite way. Because he was such a model of rational gentlemanly discourse, I could not resist but to provide him with a thoughtful response. Here is it:

You entire case against me rests on your assertion that I am ignorant of evolution and am therefore attacking a straw man (actually, your case is that I refuse to overcome my ignorance; I’m not sure how you came to know my inner psychological state, but ok). But you did not offer anything that convinced me that my understanding of evolution is so wrong that you could classify my as “ignorant,” much less willfully so. Your best point was that we live in an orderly universe and that evolution was not random. Much of it is you pointing out that I “refuse” to accept that small changes can lead to big ones, although you don’t seem to understand why I believe this.

To your original question, What does evolutionary theory say?

My understanding of evolution is the same as your explanation: “An organism interacts with its environment. If it has attributes that allow it to survive in the environment, then those attributes will be passed to offspring. These attributes come from how genes are expressed. These genes can change too, thanks to the environment, etc.” A quick internet search yields a variety of summaries which provide no new information to me.

I will begin my response by adding a clarification as to what it means to speak of evolution as being “random.” As you said, natural selection is not random. But what is random about evolution are “…the mutations that cause one animal to be more fit than another.” In other words, the mutations are thought to occur randomly. This seems to be a prevalent distinction. A quick search easily confirms this:

I think this is what the guy I quoted meant when he said “millions of years of randomly tossing genes together,” and this seems to be the general meaning that people have in mind when they speak of evolution as being “random.” So yes, the selection mechanism is non-random. But what generates the mutations is thought to be random. If this contradicts the formal view of evolution as understood by scientists in their fields, then pretty much every resource I have ever read on evolution is wrong and needs to be updated. If I am ignorant, it is not for a lack of trying.

This notion of “random” is then extrapolated to refer to the outcome of evolution: it is “random” in that it has no ultimate goal or purpose beyond the survival and reproduction of currently existing living things. There is therefore no reason why things are the way they are today. Humans did not “have to” exist. We were not inevitable; evolution is not, nor has it ever been, “aimed at” producing anything. You yourself note this when you say I am “…assuming an intention that is not there.” So we can quibble about the extent to which evolution is “random,” but the point is obviously that it is an unintelligent, blind process which is capable of producing outcomes which are highly ordered and complex, so much so that people naturally (but wrongly) attribute the existence of those outcomes to a transcendent super-intelligence.

The basic assertion is that you can consistently and reliably obtain outcomes from a set of processes which are not aimed at generating those outcomes. Water can carve canyons out of rock, but it is a stretch to guess that the same hydraulic forces that made the Grand Canyon also made Cliff Palace:

cliff palace

What I am getting at in most of what I write about evolution is the same underlying principle. Processes which are not by their nature directed at producing some outcome simply do not consistently produce that outcome. That is completely contrary to what it means to live in a universe governed by laws. If evolution is an observed phenomenon occurring with law-like regularity and consistently generates a specific kind of result (e.g. more complex creatures), then there is a law-like process which is directed at producing it. Tiny mutations and natural selection do not produce human beings from prehistoric mammals any more than waves lapping at the seashore produce sandcastles. Enough mutations, like enough water, simply destroys everything. If you don’t do it on purpose, it doesn’t happen.

This seems to be why evolution is so important to atheists. By being able to conceive of things which appear to be designed as being nothing more than an illusion, atheists are able to dismiss living things as proof of an intelligent transcendent consciousness (God). This is why the “small changes lead to large changes” issue is so important: it is the hinge on which maintaining the illusion turns. For atheists, evolution must simultaneously be “undirected” and yet consistently able to produce a particular result so that unintelligent, undirected processes can consistently imitate and create the illusion of the work of an intelligence. Evolution is necessary to the atheist in order to reject belief in God while still maintaining the feeling of intellectual integrity. That is why atheists are the nastiest, most virulent defenders of evolution and always find it necessary to resort to insults (as you have done with me). But taking a flow chart of the fossil record showing creatures growing from simple to complex and then labeling it “undirected” is doublespeak. The entire point is to jam into your head a contradiction.

We simply do not know on a concrete level how things evolved the way they did. I am not aware of any attempt to map the genome of some animal from 100 MYA onto its supposed descendant today (or to reverse-engineer that genome), showing change-by-change how that animal could have incrementally changed, and then also showing that the environment of that time would have supported these changes, and with every change being small enough that it could be the result of some accidental mutation (as opposed to some as yet undiscovered process whereby organisms radically reorganize their genome in a purposeful way). Instead, every proof for evolution I see is someone taking a piece of tissue, changing it in some slight way, and then holding it up next to the fossil record and saying, “this is how dinosaurs turned into chickens.” It is question-begging. The entire debate is not whether some of the variation we see in the fossil record is due to natural selection of “random” mutations, but whether all of it is.

This is why I mentioned “walls”: To answer your question about ordered systems (like organisms) having limits: humans can’t get much taller than 7 feet before having complications in their legs from the weight. Dogs can’t be bred to have snouts shorter than bulldogs because they can barely breathe. Evolution asks me to set aside the common-sense observation that changing a dog until it can barely function as a dog actually hurts the dog and instead imagine that I could selectively breed a squirrel until it becomes a bear. The number of changes that would need to occur to the squirrel genome to turn it into a bear genome are highly complicated and are for that reason cannot plausibly be said to “just happen” as the result of a process which is in no way directed at producing such a result. If you can’t appreciate just how complex of a problem that is, I don’t know what to tell you.

I come at this as a software engineer. My job is to deal with changing complex functional systems that are represented in code. I understand just how complicated code is and how even small changes can have huge unintended consequences. It’s just not as easy as saying “change it a teeny bit at at time.” Yes, you can make small improvements incrementally. But sometimes you have to gut and re-design a component to make it work with other, newer features, and there is no equivalent to this in the “tiny changes over long time.” People who think this is possible are like clients who say, “Can’t you just add a button to make it do that?” You have no idea what you are asking for.

For all your talk of me denying reality, I do not see from you an appreciation for just how complicated such a process would actually be. You are like a communist insisting that central planning can actually work if you do it just right. It capitalizes on the success of a simplistic demonstration to create the illusion that changing an organism as complicated as a dinosaur is just as simple and straightforward as changing tissue. Why you deny that a host of coordinated changes would be necessary, I’m not sure. Why you deny that changing complicated systems has no side effects, I’m not sure. Try fiddling with the genes that code for insulin production and see whether there are no side effects. Turning light-sensitive tissue into an eye is useless if the organism does not have the many other corresponding changes necessary to make use of it as an eye.

So yes, I accept small changes, because they happen all the time. But unless the mechanism for producing those small changes is also aimed at producing the large cumulative ones in questions, I have no reason to expect those large cumulative changes to occur as a result of mutations and natural selection. Either natural selection is a process that is ultimately directed at large-scale changes, or there is some other mechanism which explains why such large changes have occurred. If we evolved, we surely did not do so as a result of a process never aimed at producing us in the first place. You cannot have it both ways.

An evolution slight-of-hand

On a blog where people were arguing about evolution, I saw the following comment:

For instance, the human eye is often suggested as being an object so complex it could not arise by happenstance. A few months back there was a paper by a biologist which started from a simple light-sensitive patch of tissue (which even some single-celled organisms have) and showed how a series of seven simple changes, each one a clear improvement on the previous structures, could result in the essentially modern form of the eye. No leaps involving structures with no clear purpose until the end are required; each development improves the effectiveness of the organ without any crippling impairment. In millions of years of randomly tossing genes together, sooner or later each improvement is bound to happen.

This is a really good example of the kind of slight-of-hand that is going on in the evolution debate. The overall question in the debate, at least from a philosophical concern (as opposed to theological or moral) is whether there are truly random processes which are capable of producing results which in any other case we would attribute to intelligence.

First, the paper he mentioned is about how a biologist (i.e., an intelligence) was able to reason about the structure of light-sensitive tissue in such a way as to create a strategy to lead it toward the “modern form of the eye”. This is, essentially, question-begging, since the entire question is not whether a sufficiently intelligent designer is capable of modifying a simple life form in such a way to make it more complex. The question is whether there exists some completely random, undirected process that is capable of accurately imitating an intelligent designer such that the results are indistinguishable.

Second, it does not address the issue that the potential to become an eye must be inherent in the light-sensitive tissue to begin with–we notice that the biologist did not imagine he could turn the same tissue into a stomach. The slight-of-hand happening here is that he is really saying that such tissue has the potential to become an eye, such that it can fulfill its potential given the right circumstances (millions of years of gene tossing, apparently). But evolution (or at least Darwinism) is about how things just happen to change randomly such that they become different things by accident of those circumstances. Once we introduce the idea of “potential” and “fulfillment,” the tissue developing into an eye sounds more like a seed developing into a flower: the completion of a goal-oriented process and hence not something that is driven by randomness and is therefore not “undirected”. The idea that there is something inherent to the tissue that lends it to easily become an eye suggests, not an accident, but an inevitability.

Third, we are talking about fairly small, localized improvements. Many such evidences for evolution are of this kind: a change in how useful an appendage is. A change in how delicate some fiber is. What Darwinism requires, if it is invoked as the origin of species (e.g. macro- instead of micro-evolution), is a host of coordinated changes which all happen in tandem, and as the result of some undirected process. The more complicated the organism becomes, the more likely it is that some change will have side-effects. Making changes to a single, isolated piece of tissue is relatively simple. But it is always asserted, brute force, that if such little changes can happen, then “eventually” the bigger changes will happen, too. But this is the entire thesis that needs to be demonstrated. The suspicion of those that oppose evolution is that there is a natural limit to the kinds of arbitrary changes that an organism can undergo before hitting some kind of wall, beyond which any changes just result in meltdown. It is simply a property of ordered systems that they have limits.

Finally, notice that this again begs the question about evolution in another way: we don’t require a mechanism to justify the assertion that relatively small changes occur because we all agree (and observe) that such changes do occur. But for large, sweeping changes, what we need is an actual mechanism that is random/undirected and which can be shown to reliably produce these changes. “Millions of years of randomly tossing genes together” is not a mechanism. Natural selection is not such a mechanism, either; it is a form of error-checking. But I think the lack of a mechanism is a feature, not a bug, of Darwinism: If there were some process which seemed to efficiently and reliably produce useful adaptations, then we would not have a random, undirected process but rather another system that’s baked into the organism and which requires an explanation.

What I would like to see is whether there have been simulations run where a genome is repeatedly modified in ways that resemble mutations that occur in nature (e.g., certain areas of the genome may be mis-copied more frequently than others), with each result being checked for viability somehow, and each set of changes “compounding,” and see where the results go. It seems like this kind of thing could be done. This would be much better than the above speculation and just-so stories that we see from Darwinists.

Moral relativism and social justice

I have been searching very hard to find a reliable framework for analyzing the social justice movement. It’s easy to dismantle arguments on a case-by-case basis, but I wanted a set of premises, an enumerated list I could point to and say, “this is what I disagree with.” I wanted to see a clearly demarcated boundary between me and “them.” I have gone through a few iterations; for a while, it’s been that the social justice mentality functions on a denial of metaphysical realism. Because everything is a social construct, and the existing social order does not reflect any deeper or higher realities (like a fundamental human nature, real distinctions between the sexes, etc), then the inequalities we see today must be a result of injustices.

This seems to explain a good deal of what bothered me, but there were some pieces missing. I then picked up on the “hermeneutics of suspicion”. This is more a rhetorical tactic, seen when people continuously question the motives and sincerity of others. Skepticism and suspicion are applied rigorously. If you say, “I’m not racist!” then that shows that you’re being defensive, which means you must really be guilty. There is no taking people at their word, there is no face-value reality, there is no trust.

The final piece hit me in the past week or two: while modern skepticism and post-modern suspicion do a good job of capturing a lot of what’s going on in the social justice mindset, I think there is a lot going here that owes to moral relativism, which is today’s prevailing moral paradigm. This makes sense, too, because moral relativism is just skepticism applied to morality: maybe there are absolutes, but how could we possibly know them? Any absolute truth claim someone makes is probably a result of their experiences or biases. How can any of us possibly grasp at absolutes? Moral relativism is, at the end of the day, a deep suspicion toward absolute truth/morality claims grounded on the skepticism of modern epistemology, which is made plausible by the nominalism of modern metaphysics.

While skepticism and suspicion are acceptable frames of reference for discussing the social justice mentality, I think relativism and its categories are much nearer to what’s actually going on in the mind of a social justice adherent. This is good, because it’s hard to make a persuasive argument that the pay gap is a fiction by talking about Aristotelian metaphysics. But people are much more likely to openly identify as moral relativists, and it’s easy enough to lay out a bullet-point list of the tenets of that philosophy. This makes it much easy to “agree to disagree,” which is really import in reaching a mutual understanding in a dispute like this.

So, moral relativism explains a lot, such as:

  • It explains why so much passes for “racism”: relativism says you can’t criticize other cultures, religions, and so on. Statements are evaluated on how offensive they are to people rather than on how true they are.
  • It explains why “equality” is so important: if no one is better than anyone else according to some absolute standard, then we are all “equal”.
  • It explains why “inequality” is interchangeable with “injustice”: if we are all equal, then the inequalities we experience must mean something has gone wrong.
  • It explains why the non-discrimination principle is so important: you aren’t allowed to discriminate because that would enforce a standard. Put the other way, if you have an absolute standard, then you will end up discriminating in favor of that standard and against things that violate it.
  • It explains why the oppressor/oppressed dynamic is emphasized. This dynamic is an alternative to good guys vs bad guys or to righteousness vs evil. Oppressed vs oppressor locates wrong-doing not in the acts themselves (theft, murder, etc) but in the identities of the participants and how much “power” they have.
  • It explains why “privilege” is a term of contempt. Privilege is bad because it means that things are not equal. Privilege is something that distorts equality.
  • It explains why “diversity” and being open to different “experiences” and “perspectives” is important: we should act as if no one voice is authoritative. What’s important is that the perspective is different, not that it’s true.
  • It explains why there is a constant attempt to draw (false) moral equivalencies between different groups: “we are all equally guilty,” “both sides do it,” and so on.
  • Finally, it explains why there is such a strong push to recount historical sins of western civilization and Christendom: a history that focuses on the wrongs committed by Christianity diminishes our sense of moral authority.

The important thing to understand is how the social justice mindset is really just an expression of the idea that you shouldn’t “judge” others. It’s easy to see how most of what is labeled as “hate” and “bigotry” is actually just people insisting that there are moral absolutes. With all this in mind, I think “social justice” can be defined as follows:

Social Justice is a movement that advocates for social and political changes that enforce moral relativistism.

What is racism, really?

With accusations of racism being flung around in the news constantly, I’ve been doing a great deal of thinking about what racism actually is and why it is wrong. What is important for me is to provide a definition of “racism” that allows me to simultaneously diagnose sin and dismiss bad accusations of racism. Today I’d like to try to define several different kinds of so-called “racism,” including one that may actually be useful.

Before I begin, I want to observe that much of the difficulty around this issue is that racism is essentially an inward disposition or motive. This means that to accuse someone of being a racist is to make a projection about that person’s inner psychological state. Therefore one of the main issues I have with the way the word “racism” is used today is that it is used to label anything that could be motivated by racial prejudice, not things that actually are.

There are a lot of different terms for this; sometimes you’ll hear the term “hermeneutics of suspicion.” Sometimes you’ll hear about “unmasking.” The basic idea is that you second-guess a person’s stated rationale for something and impute a more cynical motive to them. I’ll clarify this observation with the specific examples below, but this is the basic issue I want to fight against.

Here are at least four different kinds that I can think of:

  1. Preference racism
  2. Cultural relativism racism
  3. Generalization racism
  4. Prejudicial racism

Preference racism is when you don’t like something from another racial group. For example, if you think Indian food is stinky or that black people play their music too loud, then you’re engaging in preference racism. This is interpreted as racist because you are making a negative statement about another culture or racial group. But because these are just preferences, it is possible to engage in “preference racism” without actually being racist; it is possible to genuinely dislike certain foods, and it is possible to have a threshold for volume.

Underlying the accusation is a suspicion that a person has the preferences they have because they disdain a different group. If they heard the same music or smelled the same food, but thought that those things were produced by their own racial group, then perhaps they would perceive them as good instead. This is certainly possible, but it is also possible to genuinely prefer something. The question becomes one of distinguishing the motivations for having certain preferences, and it seems that the distinguishing principles that are used by the PC/SJW crowd are the principles of suspicion and skepticism.

Cultural relativism racism is when you make a value judgment about another racial group. For example, it taken as racist to point out that the population of chronically under-performing blacks in America (those in the “ghetto”) possess many anti-social tendencies which actually serve to generate and reinforce poverty and crime; this is considered racist despite the fact that those same behaviors are universally condemned when performed by “white trailer trash.” The only difference is whether the value judgment crosses racial lines. It’s fine for white people to point out the antisocial tendencies of white trailer trash, but when it’s pointed out that those same tendencies are displayed among a different racial group (black people in the ghetto), it’s racist.

The worldview underlying this accusation of racism is cultural relativism. You can only criticize people inside your group, because you don’t understand other groups enough to be able to criticize them. You do not have enough “context”. Or, you are a part of a group that has a history of mistreating that other group, so you do not have the moral authority to speak about their failings. Add to this the general air of skepticism and suspicion of the PC/SJW crowd, and what you get is a preference for understanding absolute value judgments as manifestations of an otherwise hidden prejudice instead of as a sincere attempt at moral knowledge.

If you believe that there are moral absolutes, then you believe that it is possible to legitimately call something wrong; say, if that thing were sinful in some way (like gangsta rap or sharia law). But the suspicion is that even our perception is colored by prejudice, so we only believe something to be sinful, when in reality it is merely our hatred for the group associated with it that makes us think that way. If we didn’t hate them, then we would see clearly that the thing we take as sinful might actually be good.

To me, this line of reasoning seems to end in the eradication of any notion of absolute morality; if we are always suspicious that our preferences, all the way down to our value judgments, are nothing more than a mask for our prejudices, then it seems that the only way to prove to ourselves that we aren’t prejudiced is to eliminate all preferences and value judgments.

Generalization racism is when any generalization at all is considered racist, even if it’s a good generalization. This would be like pointing out that black athletes are the top performers in various sports, and it would also include observing that blacks commit a disproportionate amount of violent crime. The point here is that any kind of generalization can count as racist. The problem here is that you have to attack the idea of generalizations in general, which is self-refuting, both in principle and as applied by the PC/SJW crowd.

You cannot complain about white people being racist without having the ability to generalize about white people. But if there is no way to generalize about a racial group in an intellectually serious way (say, because there are too many outliers or counter-examples), then you cannot make a complaint about white people being racist. As with the other forms, suspicion plays a role in how generalizations are understood. Nobody is really saying that we can’t actually make generalizations about people, but rather that our perception of different groups are too distorted by our biases and prejudices. But, again, as with the other forms, this is merely suspicion, which is different than an actual demonstration that the generalization in question is actually invalid.

Generalization racism is often associated with ignorance. This is actually a valid point to make, because it corresponds to the way we learn. When we first encounter something, such as a different people group, we only notice the most obviously different things about them (like skin color, clothing, and speech patterns). This causes us to lump all people in the group together without distinction. But as we gain greater knowledge about that group, we begin to discern differences between individuals, between sub-groups, and whether the group is homogeneous or heterogeneous.

This knowledge plays an important role in alleviating the fear that is commonly associated with strangers. It is common not to trust strangers as intimately as we trust people that we know well. Similarly, we tend not to trust “strange” people groups as much as we trust people that are like us (or are part of the “us” group). This fear is normal and, to a certain extent, healthy. But the way to overcome it is not to condemn it or criticize it but to simply encourage exposure and trust-building.

Of course, the encouragement to “learn” about different people groups is often code for cultural relativism, because the underlying sentiment is that absolute value judgments are both impossible and divisive, and therefore can only arise from willful ignorance and prejudice. Sometimes people are ignorant and need to learn. But sometimes their judgments are right. The point isn’t that all value judgments are right; the point is that it is wrong to say that all value judgments arise from prejudice.

On the other hand, unwillingness to learn about and trust those different from us is the basis of the next form of racism.

Prejudicial racism, which you could refer to as classic or common-sense racism, is when you have a prejudice against an individual because they belong to a certain racial group. This is characterized by actual prejudice held against a group. Prejudice here means an inward condition of the heart where a person stubbornly resists having their mind or heart changed about someone because of their race.

I have also noticed that this kind of racism often interacts with racial groups as a kind of hardened abstraction, almost like racial groups are institutions or corporations. This allows anti-Semites, for example, to talk about “the Jews” as if they were a single, monolithic entity. I see this same thing from SJWs when they talk about white people, too. For the SJW, “whiteness” is just an abstraction that covers all kinds of things like certain conceptions of legal procedure and property rights to bourgeois values to music–but it rarely applies directly to individual people.

There are a few important things to notice about this. First, it is actually normal for people to possess a combination of preference and generalization racism and then appear as if they were guilty of prejudicial racism. Most people have concerns about immigration on the basis of this combination: for example, I may not like it when Mexican immigrants loudly play their music. I may then be unhappy to find out that Mexicans are moving into the neighborhood because my preference regarding music combines with the generalization that Mexicans listen to a certain kind of music.

Of course, this may be a bad attitude to have about new neighbors, and certain something that ought to be encouraged toward charity and hospitality. But it hardly constitutes racism. It is the same as if white trash moved in, or if hipsters moved in, or if liberals moved in. These are all different kinds of white people, and the feeling would be the same for each. Because this kind of reaction can happen totally independent of whether the racial groups are the same, it seems inappropriate to label it as “racism”.

I have set out these distinctions because I think that secular progressives are often engaged in an aggressive attempt to guilt people into changing their minds, which is manipulative. On the one hand, it is important as a Christian not to overly defensive or refuse to acknowledge your sin. On the other hand, there is ample Biblical precedent against confessing a sin for which you are not guilty, and for two reasons. The first is that if you are genuinely convinced you are innocent, you should be honest and not lie by falsely confessing. Being open to the possibility that you sinned isn’t the same thing as going along with the accusation even if you aren’t convinced. The second is that this is precisely the tactic used consistently against the men of faith in the Bible, from Joseph to Daniel to Paul to Jesus himself. While Jesus did not defend himself when he was being interrogated before his crucifixion, he certainly defended himself in many confrontations beforehand. Paul, too, was not shy about defending himself against false accusations; consider that much of 2 Corinthians is Paul doing just this.

While I am not sinless, I simply do not agree that much of what I think and feel, which some would label as racism, is actually racist. I have made these distinctions largely to help clarify for myself why I feel the way I do.