Eunomia · science

You are currently browsing the category archive for the 'science' category.

Ross commented on Noah Feldman’s article on Mormonism recently, which reminded me that I had also wanted to respond to one part of it and arguments like the following:

Still, even among those who respect Mormons personally, it is still common to hear Mormonism’s tenets dismissed as ridiculous. This attitude is logically indefensible insofar as Mormonism is being compared with other world religions. There is nothing inherently less plausible about God’s revealing himself to an upstate New York farmer in the early years of the Republic than to the pharaoh’s changeling grandson in ancient Egypt.

Put that way, Feldman might have a point, except that the claim of new revelation is actually the least “ridiculous” part of the story.  It is, and always has been, the content of that revelation that has drawn the most criticism, and so for the most part the majority dutifully ignores or downplays how the content of this or that religion is theologically untenable.  To do otherwise would begin us down the road to taking one set of theological claims more seriously than another, which might even (gasp!) lead us to assign different significance and measures of truth to different sets of claims.  The problem with this argument is that, for the sake of promoting toleration for minority religions, it essentially grants that every religion is just as inherently plausible as any other, which not only makes discussion of doctrine pointless, but actually impedes the possibility of religious dialogue and persuasion.  Granting this equality of religions paves the way for exactly the kind of arational sectarianism that skeptics believe is unavoidable with religion in public life.    

There is this very strange attitude about religion out there, and it is held by more than a few observant Christians as well as secular skeptics, that says that no revelation is more plausible than any other, which implies that revelation is entirely outside the realm of rational discouse and demonstration.  This is essentially fideism or a kind of neo-Barlaamism, which holds that believers should hold to their traditional faiths primarily because they are ancient–there is nothing that we can actually say rationally about a doctrine of God.  One of the reasons why this bizarre idea can gain such currency is the lack of respect people have for theology and dogma.  In our culture, if you want to dismiss someone’s position, you say that he is being dogmatic, and if you want to discredit an argument you refer to his worldview as a “theology,” preferably preceded by adjectives such as arcane. 

Such is the depth of our divorce from Christian intellectual tradition that many people do not recognise the substantive difference between an elaborately reasoned theological view and the ramblings of a science-fiction author.  Simply put, we lack discernment.  Militant atheists are at least consistent in the implications of holding such a disparaging view of revelation–for them, it is all made-up and undeserving of any respect.  Out of some misplaced sense of solidarity with other religious people against the Christopher Hitchenses and Dawkinses of the world, Christians seem to feel obliged to make general defenses of generic theism or the even more amorphous category of Religion, and woe betide the bishop who attempts, as Pope Benedict did, to illustrate the implications of radically different doctrines of God.  This then forces these Christians to argue that all these things are purely a matter of faith, where faith is defined not only as something inspired and the result of God’s grace (which it is), but also as something arational, rather than understanding that it is faith rightly understood that is the highest form of rationality.  Having conceded the high ground and having bought into a functionally extreme apophaticism, the Christian finds himself at a loss to make any argument from revelation, because he has already effectively granted that speaking kataphatically is impossible.  Trying to include everyone in a big tent of ecumenical anti-secularism eventually leads to being unable to say something about God and maintain that it is actually true, when there is nothing more fundamental to preaching and evangelising than speaking the truth about God in prayer and homilies. 

This brings me, oddly enough, to the question of evolution.  Fideistic understandings of religion and materialistic philosophies that seek to exploit evolutionary biology to their advantage enjoy a symbiotic relationship, since they both thrive on promoting mutual antagonism between reason and faith.  Tell the Christian that he must either endorse evolutionary theory or accept the Bible, and he will typically take the Bible, especially if he is not grounded in an authoritative teaching tradition that tells him that this choice is a false one.  Tell the average educated secular person that revealed religion is incompatible with scientific theory, and he may very well conclude that those who continue to adhere to revealed religion must be either ignorant, insane or up to no good.  Huckabee is someone who falls into the former category, of course, and declares himself agnostic on ”how” God works in creation, which is actually a far more honest view–and one that a majority of Americans would share–than affirming evolutionary theory because you know that it is socially unacceptable in certain circles to admit that you don’t understand or accept the theory.  As Rod has said before, evolution serves as a “cultural marker,” and it is deployed as a litmus test to see whether you belong to a certain kind of educated elite.  Ironically, the cultural bias against dogmatism and theology in religion has come around and struck science by making it permissible, even admirable, to doubt statements made with certainty.  Were it not for the tendency of many religious and secular Americans to oppose reason and faith, there would be no difficulty in affirming the truth of revelation and recognising the reasonable, albeit always provisional, nature of scientific inquiry.  Obviously, approaches to faith that prize doubt and uncertainty simply reinforce the tendency towards extreme apophaticism and fideism that make it impossible for believers and non-believers  to speak intelligibly to one another (to the extent that people working in two significantly different traditions can speak to one another). 

Via Ross and Franke-Ruta, here is a CBN profile of Mike Huckabee.  According to the report, he does support the teaching of creationism (not ID) “alongside evolution,” which came as something of a surprise to me.  Intelligent Design is custom-made as the pseudo-scientific alternative that a pol can invoke without bringing down quite the same measure of criticism on himself.  Even McCain (whose campaign is apparently now going to have “faith” as its theme!) has hied himself to the Discovery Institute to pay homage to the latest fad.  ID is, of course, quite different from “creationism” and “creation science,” in that ID assumes that much of evolutionary theory and cosmology is correct, but holds that modern theory fails to account for the presence of orderliness and intelligence in the universe.  (ID does not so much account for these things as it asserts them and waves its hands melodramatically as it asks, ”Why, oh, why will the oppressive scientific community not heed our arguments?”) 

“Creationism,” on the other hand, holds that more or less literal accounts of Biblical creation are entirely, “factually” true and creation science is founded on the notion that the claims are empirically verifiable.  The thinking here seems to be that if archaeology can verify many historical references in the Old Testament, ”creation science” should be able to do the same for prehistoric times.  If there is geological evidence of the event that the Bible (and the Epic of Gilgamesh, stories about Manu, etc.) records as the Flood (at the end of the last ice age), that is apparently not supposed to be taken as evidence that modern geology and paleontology are reasonably reliable and accurate fields of science, but rather as proof that 95% of what geologists and paleontologists say about the age of the earth and the history of life on earth is wrong or badly distorted.  Hence you have such travesties as the Creation Museum.   

As you may remember, the governor was one of three candidates who raised his hand in response to the question about who didn’t believe in evolution.  In the following debate, given a chance to elaborate on this, Huckabee gave his somewhat famous “I’m not running to write eighth grade science textbooks” line.  In the past, however, he has made this sort of statement:

But I think schools also ought to be fair to all views. Because, frankly, Darwinism is not an established scientific fact. It is a theory of evolution, that’s why it’s called the theory of evolution. And I think that what I’d be concerned with is that it should be taught as one of the views that’s held by people. But it’s not the only view that’s held. And any time you teach one thing as that it’s the only thing, then I think that has a real problem to it.  

Indeed!  The kids have been deprived without having a proper education in the four humours and epicycles in addition to modern biology and heliocentrism.  After all, who can really say how, or even whether, the planets orbit the sun?  How unfair to privilege one view over another!  That is effectively what the governor was saying.  This is ridiculous. 

You have to enjoy Huckabee’s standard refrain of ”it’s a theory, not a fact!”  As I have said before regarding ID:

That theories are constantly revised does not make theoretical knowledge less certain or less reliable than the “factual”–there is, or should be, the awareness that no theory ever has the final word, but that it is the best word available to us to date. Indeed, without theoretical frameworks to structure it, factual “knowledge” is often just a jumble of unrelated information. What ID proposes to do is to say, “The theory of evolution has not, as of yet, accounted for all of the complexities of biological phenomena, and therefore we declare it simply insufficient and propose to fill in the ‘gaps’ with a non-empirical, non-scientific explanation.”   

Our knowledge of the world, like the knowledge of the past or any other subject of study, is always limited and provisional, but clearly some answers and some theories are more valid than others.  Huckabee’s view on teaching both creationism and evolution is effectively a rejection of the idea that it is possible for reasoning people to discern between theories that are more consistent with empirical evidence and those that are less so or entirely inconsistent.  Instead, Huckabee thinks we should be “fair” to all of the views “held by the people.”  This is taking the right’s flirting with an anti-diversity love of “intellectual diversity” a bit far, wouldn’t you say?* 

I take Huckabee’s point that such cultural fights over education policy really are not relevant to being President, or at least they shouldn’t be since education ought to remain a strictly local and state matter, but the argument that Huckabee is making in the statement above is actually a very strange one for a conservative to make.  What he is saying is that there are many equally valid truths, truth is not one, and to privilege the best or most coherent explanations of phenomena is to stifle or shut out a free and fair exchange of ideas.  Presumably Huckabee does not believe this when it comes to moral and spiritual truths about the obligations men owe each other or about the nature of man or the existence of God.  Cultural conservatives do not think we should actually be “fair” to all views “held by the people” on matters of abortion and marriage when it comes to setting public policy and passing laws, but rather insist quite strongly (and, to my mind, rightly) that there are right answers that rule out the alternatives as unacceptable and false. 

I suppose the complaint Huckabee is making here is that science, or any kind of scholarly research, is not democratic.  By democratic here, I mean not only that anyone can have his own ideas about science, which is less worrisome, but that everyone’s views are entitled to equal respect and public affirmation.  Obviously, everyone’s views are not so entitled, and certainly not when it comes to specialised fields of study. 

Having said all that, I think the Genesis account of creation ought to be taught in those schools where the parents want it taught, along with an education in the cultural inheritance of the Christian civilisation to whose last remnants they belong, but not in science class.  The establishment clause has nothing to do with this, and this is not a First Amendment issue.  It is a matter of good education and common sense.  The fundamental objection that so many Christians have to the teaching of evolution is the significance that is attached to the theory in the name of evolutionism, which secularists push to deny the existence of God and reject the authority of the Bible.  If there were not the notion that their religion and everything they are teaching their children to believe were being openly derided and denied through the teaching of evolution, there would be a great deal less resistance.  Encouraging that resistance to the teaching of evolution, rather than mobilising the same people against the courts’ hostility to religion in the public square and public schools, is self-defeating.       

The secular West has already done away with any hierarchy of religious truth some time ago.  More’s the pity.  Indeed, religious truth as something real and binding is not taken very seriously in our culture, though there are many individuals who accept that it is.  Christians have to plead for some minimal acknowledgement of their own beliefs in schools that they fund with their taxes, and even here they are usually unsuccessful.  In effect, religious claims have been reduced to the level of “private” opinion, and every effort to drag them out of this prison is met with powerful hostility. 

We allow for pluralism regarding ideas and things that our culture already acknowledges to be irrelevant to the organisation and running of social and political life.  You can always tell what a culture values most highly by how much control those in authority attempt to exercise over its particular sphere.  People generally permit the widest scope of “freedom” in those things that do not concern them and do not really matter to them.        

Now Huckabee would ironically have us abandon standards of truth in at least one area of secular study in the name of religion, or rather in the name of “representing” the views of religious citizens in the classroom.  “Let’s be fair!” the man says.  As I thought conservatives used to argue whenever the latest multiculti fad was sweeping through the schools, schools do not exist for the purpose of “representing” the diversity of society (and attempts to make them do this are generally a waste of time, when they are not efforts at ideological indoctrination).  Schools exist for educating children in those fundamental subjects and abilities of analysis and reasoning that will make them more humane and more capable to take up their duties as citizens.  (Yes, I know how old-fashioned that sounds given the state of things, but there it is.)  It seems blindingly obvious to me that instructing children in the religious heritage of their own country and civilisation is an essential part of a proper education, if only to make them culturally literate human beings who are not cut off from the riches of Western art and literature.  Both are incomprehensible without a grounding in the history and teachings of Christianity, and it is no coincidence that I learned virtually nothing of those things in my formative education, receiving cant about diversity instead.  A proper education in Western culture and religion, however, has nothing to do with talking about Genesis in biology class.  Without the former, creationist school boards might triumph everywhere and achieve nothing of lasting significance. 

*Having been subjected to idiotic propagandising in middle and high school about the glories of Diversity and multiculturalism, I recognised the shallowness and vapidity of both a long, long time ago.  I also noticed early on that a diversity of ideas and particularly political ideas was not welcomed.  I am very familiar with and in favour of this kind of criticism of the diversity cult.  However, an enthusiasm for intellectual diversity (which, I would add, many on the right do not have when it comes to certain intramural policy debates) is not a license for dressing up willful ignorance or anti-intellectualism as a legitimate alternative to a prevailing view. 

Ross points to Prof. Coyne’s response to Brownback’s evolution op-ed:

What happens if scientific truth conflicts with a politician’s “spiritual truth”? This is not a theoretical problem, but a real one, as we see in debates about stem-cell research, abortion, genetic engineering, and global warming.

Like Ross, I am unimpressed by this dilemma.  This is the sort of dilemma that one is supposed to solve by chucking out “spiritual truths” all together, if at all possible, or at least by reducing them to wan insignificance.  To take a different tack, what exactly is the “spiritual truth” about global warming?  Brownback himself, like Huckabee, actually takes an interest in climate change and conservation, so this laundry list of science-related policy questions on which conservatives are supposed to be buffoons seems particularly inappropriate in a response to Brownback.  There are evangelicals who believe climate change alarmists, and there are evangelicals, non-evangelicals and secular people who don’t buy into the alarmism at all and a whole range of people spread in between.  I missed the passage in the Book of Genesis where it said:

And, lo, God said unto Abraham, “Thy children shall cause a great emission of chloroflourocarbons and shall cause the atmosphere to trap heat and gradually warm the entire planet.  And I, the Lord thy God, shall be angry with the children of Abraham for their refusal to pass a meaningful carbon tax.”

The point is that religious beliefs will usually have little to do with attitudes towards the truths discovered through scientific inquiry.  No religious teaching is offended or violated by the existence of climate change, regardless of its causes or severity.  Where religious convictions and ethics derived from religious tradition may well come into the debate concern the applications of scientific knowledge and medical research.  The “scientific truth” about an embryo is, at least in part, that it is a human being in the very early stages of development.  The ethical and moral arguments against killing humans in very early stages of development do not reject any “scientific truths.”  The opponents of abortion have come to significantly different conclusions about the significance and value of humans in very early stages of development.  Science does not necessarily settle the matter one way or the other.  The same might be said of stem-cell research or genetic engineering.  Science describes and studies empirical reality, but it does not normally provide prescriptions for how men use that understanding of reality.

There are strict literalists who will insist that evolutionary biology and Scripture cannot both be right.  This is, happily, not the view endorsed by the teaching authorities of most Christians.  Christianity affirms the unity of truth.  Indeed, belief in a Creator demands that we acknowledge that the study of the natural world cannot disclose anything that contradicts revelation.  If people believe they have discovered obvious contradictions, they have either not worked on the problem long enough or they have been interpreting either the scientific evidence or revealed truths or both in a mistaken way.  Most non-literalist Christians, which would be most Christians in this country, have whatever problems with evolution that they do because of the impression they receive, whether through relatively poor scientific education, the preaching of dogmatic evolutionists or popular culture, that if a theory of evolution describes how life on earth probably developed and changed everything their religion teaches eventually falls apart.  This isn’t true, but it is repeated often enough by polemicists on both sides that those with relatively poor scientific education are either going to fall back on their prior beliefs and reject evolution or accept evolution and reject their religious upbringing.  It does not help matters when you have prominent religious conservatives, such as Brownback, construct unsatisfying fideistic halfway houses that are not really faithful to either science or faith. 

To make matters worse, Intelligent Design just makes a mess of things by pretending that you can solve scientific problems by saying, effectively, “And here we can see that God is working.”  Indeed, ID-as-science seems to owe much of its momentum to visceral opposition to randomness: things can’t simply be randomly evolved, but must have a certain structure.  Even if, as Christians believe, the structure and orderliness in the natural world points towards a Creator, acknowledging this will not add any new insights to the research.  Even if everyone granted the ID activists’ point, our scientific understanding of the world would not have actually gone forward.  This acknowledgement may very well lend new meaning to the study of the natural world, but it does not change anything in the understanding of the natural world.  In its pretense to be science-plus-religion, rather than religious philosophy attempting to lecture natural science on its deficiencies, ID convinces no one who is not already a believer and manages to get itself lumped in, bizarrely, with creation science with which it has virtually nothing in common.

Ross is right to locate conservative anxiety about these questions in the “political and moral implications” of them.  However, this may be where conservatives have been going wrong for a very long time.  If I accept, say, Hitchens’ or Dawkins’ explanation of what the political and moral implications of evolutionary theory (or cosmology or whatever) are, I have already conceded that these implications, which I don’t like at all, must follow from this or that scientific theory.  This leads me to want to question the reliability of that theory and to propose quasi-theories that seem to subvert the authority of that theory, but in the end I have still yielded the crucial ground, which is to accept the hostile materialist’s most tendentious interpretation of the meaning of an empirical observation.  Obviously, by playing their game their way, you are bound to lose.  The simplest way around this, and the one with the most intellectual coherence and integrity, would be to accept the truths of evolutionary biology as the most reasonable understanding thus far of how life changes and develops on this planet, but to categorically refuse to grant that evolutionary biology must somehow jeopardise the truth that man is created or that Scripture is true and the revealed Word of God.  There is actually no good reason why it should, and a proper appreciation for science would teach us the humility about what we can and cannot know. 

This is the strangest thing I have seen in a long time (via Crooked Timber and Yglesias):

A case in point is the following. The GSS folk actually made the mistake of asking the following question as part of their science module:

Now, does the Earth go around the Sun, or does the Sun go around the Earth?

Here we go. Now what follows is real social science data folks. No joking around:

Earth around sun 73.6%
Sun around earth 18.3%
Don’t Know 8.0%
Refused 0.1%


Among those who were up to date with seventeenth-century Galilean basic science, they actually dared to ask the follow-up question: 

How long does it take for the Earth to go around the Sun: one day, one month, or one year?

One day 19.0%
One month 1.1%
One year 71.2%
Other time period 0.1%
Don’t Know 8.5%
Refused 0.1%

I suppose the ignorance here shouldn’t really surprise me.  The historical ignorance of the average American is proverbial, so why should anyone be shocked that a fifth of the population displays such ignorance here?  I would agree that this is the kind of basic knowledge that one learns in, oh, elementary school, but, if high school graduates don’t necessarily know when the Civil War happened or where America is on a map, why should 25% being clueless about heliocentrism strike us as being all that remarkable? 

But where does this come from?  Where do these people live?  Have they never seen a diorama of the solar system?  Have they never read about the formation of planets?  Did no one ever tell them about Kepler and elliptical orbits?