Skip to comments.A New Foundation for Positive Cultural Change: Science and God in the Public Square
Posted on 10/28/2006 3:22:14 PM PDT by betty boop
Moral conservatives were shocked to read a thinly veiled defense of infanticide in the New York Times a few years ago by MIT [now of Harvard] professor Steven Pinker. But they would be even more disturbed if they saw Pinkers justification for his views in a book that appeared about the same time.
In How the Mind Works, Pinker argues that the fundamental premise of ethics has been disproved by science. Ethical theory, he writes, requires idealizations like free, sentient, rational, equivalent agents whose behavior is uncaused. Yet, the world, as seen by science, does not really have uncaused events.
In other words, moral reasoning assumes the existence of things that science tells us are unreal. Pinker tries to retain some validity for ethics nonetheless by offering a double truth theory: A human being, he says, is simultaneously a machine and a sentient agent, depending on the purposes of the discussion.
Its astonishing that anyone, especially an MIT professor, would be capable of sustaining two such contradictory ideas. But in fact, it is quite common, says Phillip Johnson in The Wedge of Truth. Since the Enlightenment, knowledge has split into two separate and often contradictory spheres: facts (science) versus values (ethics, religion, the humanities).
The trouble with this division is that eventually one side comes to dominate. This is the key to understanding why America is embroiled in a culture clash today, Johnson argues and why moral and religious conservatives are losing. The direction in intellectual history since the Enlightenment has been to grant science the authority to pronounce what is real, true, objective, and rational, while relegating ethics and religion to the realm of subjective opinion and nonrational experience.
Once this definition of knowledge is conceded, then any position that appears to be backed by science will ultimately triumph in the public square over any position that appears based on ethics or religion. The details of the particular debate do not matter. For, in principle, we do not enact into public policy and we do not teach in the public schools views based private opinion or tribal prejudice.
Johnson gives a rich description of how the fact/value dichotomy operates. Its origin is generally traced to Descartes, who proposed a sharp dualism between matter and mind. It was not long before the realm of matter came to be seen as more certain, more objective, than the realm of mind. The subject matter of physics is indeed much simpler than metaphysics, and hence yields far wider agreement. This was mistakenly taken to mean that physics is objective while metaphysics is subjective. The result was the rise of scientism and positivism philosophies that accord naturalistic science a monopoly on knowledge and consign all else to mere private belief and fantasy.
Today, Johnson writes, the dominance of the scientific naturalist definition of knowledge eventually ensures that no independent source of knowledge will be recognized.
Darwin, Buddha, Jesus, Fairies
Yet, depending on how scientists judge the publics mood, they are more or less blunt about this epistemological imperialism. When feeling secure in their role as the cultural priesthood, they insist that naturalistic science has completely discredited the claims of religion. Tufts philosopher Daniel Dennett, in Darwins Dangerous Idea, says Darwinian evolution is a universal acid that dissolves all traditional religious and moral beliefs. He suggests that traditional churches be relegated to cultural zoos for the amusement of onlookers.
I witnessed the same attitude at a conference last April at Baylor University: Nobel prize-winner Steven Weinberg lumped together all spiritual teachings, whether of Buddha or Jesus, as talk about fairies. A few months earlier he had told the Freedom From Religion Association, I personally feel that the teaching of modern science is corrosive to religious belief, and Im all for that. If science helps bring about the end of religion, he concluded, it would be the most important contribution science could make.
Using a sports metaphor, Johnson calls these outspoken scientists the offensive platoon, brought out as needed to invok[e] the authority of science to silence any theistic protest. At other times, however, when the public shows signs of restlessness at this imposition of naturalistic philosophy under the guise of science, the defensive platoon takes the field. That is when we read spin-doctored reassurances that many scientists are religious (in some sense) . . . and that science and religion are separate realms which should never be mixed.
But separate-but-equal in principle invariably means unequal in practice. For example, a report by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) says, whether God exists or not is a question about which science is neutral. But a survey of NAS members by Larry Witham and Edward Larson in Scientific American found that 90% of scientists dont believe in a supernatural God. Witham and Larson conclude: The irony is remarkable: a group of specialists who are nearly all unbelievers and who believe that science compels such a conclusion told the public that science is neutral on the God question.
Or perhaps worse than an irony, Johnson comments; it may be a noble lie that the intellectual priesthood tells to the common people to conceal their own nihilism.
Keep the Public In the Dark
Similarly, Harvards Stephen J. Gould proposes a peacemaking formula he calls NOMA (non-overlapping magisteria), granting science and religion each its own distinct authority. This sounds fair enough but it all depends on where one draws the line. Consider Goulds assessment of the 1996 statement by John Paul II, in which the pope tentatively supported evolution while emphatically rejecting any theories that consider the spirit as emerging from the forces of living matter or as a mere epiphenomenon of this matter.
How did Gould treat this affirmation of the reality of the spiritual realm? He condescendingly granted that such a quaint notion might have some metaphorical value, but added that he privately suspected it to be no more than a sop to our fears, a device for maintaining a belief in human superiority within an evolutionary world offering no privileged position to any creature.
In other words, Gould reduced religion to mere emotion at best at worst, to the sin of speciesism. This was a bit much even for John Haught of Georgetown University, himself an ardent evolutionist: He complained that Gould never concedes the slightest cognitive status to religion that for Gould religion merely paints a coat of value over the otherwise valueless facts described by science.
Precisely. For the modern Darwinist, Johnson explains, the only role left for the theologian is to put a theistic spin on the story provided by materialism. Theology does not provide an independent source of knowledge; all it can do is borrow knowledge to put a subjective interpretation on it.
Clearly, the function of the defensive platoon is merely to keep religious folk content with their subordinate status. Darwinists understand that it is sometimes more effective not to press the logic of the fact/value split to its unpalatable conclusions too adamantly, lest the public catch on and raise a protest. Instead of arguing that religion is false, by relegating it to the value realm, they keep the question of true and false off the table altogether. As Johnson says, religion is consigned to the private sphere, where illusory beliefs are acceptable if they work for you.
Thus the fact/value split allows the metaphysical naturalists to mollify the potentially troublesome religious people by assuring them that science does not rule out religious belief (so long as it does not pretend to be knowledge).
Once this division is accepted in principle however, Johnson warns, the philosophical naturalists have won. Whenever the separate realms logic surfaces, you can be sure that the wording implies that there is a ruling realm (founded on reality) and a subordinate realm (founded on illusions which must be retained for the time being). Hence, the formula allows the ruling realm to expand its territory at will.
The expansion of the fact realm into theology can be traced in the work of scientists such as Harvards E.O. Wilson, who seeks to explain religion itself as a product of evolution. Religion is merely an idea that appears in the human mind when the nervous system has evolved to a certain level of complexity.
In Consilience, Wilson says religion evolved because belief in God gave early humans an edge in the struggle for survival. Today, he says, we must abandon traditional religions and develop a new unifying myth based squarely on evolution a religion that deifies the process itself, where no teaching, no doctrine, is true in any final sense because all ideas evolve over time.
A similar expansion can be traced in ethics, where sociobiology and evolutionary psychology now presume to answer moral questions. In the notorious New York Times article mentioned above, Pinker argues that since infanticide is widespread in human cultures, it must be a product of evolution. As he puts it, the emotional circuitry of mothers has evolved to include a capacity for neonaticide. It is simply part of our biological design.
Accept this logic, Johnson warns, and you will be pressed to the conclusion that killing off babies is not a moral horror but a morally neutral act, a genetically encoded evolutionary adaptation, like wings or claws.
Pinker does not draw this conclusion yet. But when the time seems ripe to overthrow the traditional moral view, Johnson predicts, doctrinaire naturalists will complete the logic by observing that the moral sphere is as empty as the religious realm, and therefore has no power to stand against the conclusions of science.
Shortly after Johnson finished his book, his forewarnings were confirmed by the appearance of a book titled The Natural History of Rape, which argued that, biologically speaking, rape is not a pathology; instead, it is an evolutionary strategy for maximizing reproductive success: In other words, if candy and flowers dont do the trick, some men may resort to coercion to fulfill the reproductive imperative. The book calls rape a natural, biological phenomenon that is a product of the human evolutionary heritage, akin to the leopards spots and the giraffes elongated neck.
The book roused sharp controversy, but as one of the authors, Randy Thornhill, said on National Public Radio, the logic is inescapable: Since evolution is true, it must be true, he said, that every feature of every living thing, including human beings, has an underlying evolutionary background. Thats not a debatable matter. Every behavior that exists today must confer some evolutionary advantage; otherwise, it would not have been preserved by natural selection.
The fact realm has even expanded into the philosophy of mind, where consistent Darwinists tell us there is no single, central self, residing somehow within the body, that makes decisions, holds opinions, loves and hates. Instead, in the currently popular computational theory, the mind is a set of computers that solve specific problems forwarded by the senses. The notion of a unified self is an illusion, Pinker says an illusion selected by evolution only because our body needs to be able to go one direction at a time.
Of course, computers operate without consciousness, so the question arises why we are conscious beings. Some neuroscientists conclude that we arent that consciousness too is an illusion. Philosopher Paul Churchland says mental states do not exist, and suggests that we replace language about beliefs and desires with statements about the nervous systems physical mechanisms the activation of neurons and so on.
Piling example upon example, Johnson illustrates the epistemological imperialism of the fact sphere. This explains why moral and religious conservatives seem to have little effect in the public square: Their message is filtered through a fact/value grid that reduces it to an expression of mere emotional attachment and tribal prejudice. To turn the tide of the culture war, conservatives must challenge this definition of knowledge, and make the case that religion and morality are genuine sources of knowledge. We must assert the existence of such a cognitive territory, Johnson writes, and be prepared to defend it. [Emphasis added.]
Of course, others have offered philosophical arguments to undercut the fact/value dichotomy, notably Michael Polanyi and Leo Strauss. What makes Johnsons approach unique is that he takes the battle into science itself. He proposes that Darwinian evolution itself can and should be critiqued, since it functions as the crucial scientific support for philosophical naturalism. For if nature alone can produce everything that exists, then we must accept the reductionist conclusions described above. If, to take the last example, the mind is a product of material processes at its origin, then we must concede that it consists of nothing more than material processes that our thoughts are reducible to the firing of neurons.
How Information Changes Everything
In science itself, the cutting-edge issue is information, Johnson says. Any text, whether a book or the DNA code, requires a complex, nonrepeating arrangement of letters. Can this kind of order be produced by chance or law? The answer, he argues, is no. Chance produces randomness, while physical law produces simple, repetitive order (like using a macro on your computer to print a phrase over and over). The only cause of complex, nonrepeating, specified order is an intelligent agent. [Emphasis added.]
Ordinary laboratory research implicitly assumes the reality of intelligent design, Johnson notes. Biologists talk of molecular machines and evaluate their engineering design. They conduct experiments that are described as reverse engineering to determine what functions biological structures perform. They talk about libraries of genetic information stored in DNA, and about how RNA translates the four-letter language of the nucleotides into the 20-letter language of proteins.
All this implies that information is real and information in turn implies the existence of a mind, a personal agent, capable of intention and choice. Thus purposes and ends [e.g., formal and final causes, to use the Aristotelian language] are real and objective, and the value realm is restored to the status of genuine knowledge.
Johnson only hints at what this would imply for a revival of traditional theology and ethics. But he suggests that it would begin with the many-layered verse in John 1:1, In the beginning was the Word, the Logos reason, intelligence, information. These simple words make a fundamental statement that is directly contradictory to the corresponding starting point of scientific materialism, Johnson writes, and they open the door to a much richer definition of knowledge and of reason itself.
This conclusion is certainly suggestive, though not well developed. Johnsons greatest accomplishment is to give a deft analysis of the imperialism of the fact sphere. Unfortunately, he barely touches on the opposite dynamic the incursion of the value sphere into the fact realm which is well advanced in many fields. It is called postmodernism, and it reduces all knowledge claims to social constructions at best, to power plays at worst. Johnson devotes a chapter to the impact of postmodernism on the humanities, but it is the thinnest chapter in the book, and it is clear that his greatest concern is with the scientific fields where the older Enlightenment rationalism still reigns.
For the rationalist, Johnson is no doubt correct that the only approach that carries weight is a scientific one. Only a demonstration that the scientific data itself has theistic implications bridges the sphere of objective, public, verifiable knowledge. Johnson includes clear and readable discussions of standard anti-Darwinian arguments. (There has long been skepticism within the scientific community about the enormous extrapolation from minor variations within living things to explain the origin of living things.) He also gives a deliciously witty account of the Kansas controversy.
The strength of the book, however, is to show the wide-ranging implications of intelligent design theory in other fields, and to trace its relevance for nonscientists indeed, for all who are concerned about preserving a free and humane society.
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Must leave now, but I look forward to making some further comments later this evening.
I think it's easy to lose sight of this. Neils Bohr's take on the issue is fascinating to me:
...We realize the simple fact that natural science is not nature itself but a part of the relation between man and nature, and therefore is dependent on man.Man, in his relation to nature, is "suspended in language" when he attempts to articulate that relation. And that gets complicated; for as Bohr noted,
"A word is such a complicated thing that we couldn't possibly hope to represent it by a mathematical symbol. A mathematical symbol [the language of natural science] can only represent that discrete aspect of the word which is at the center of our thoughts. However, I need hardly stress that the word itself raises something into the full light of consciousness, but at the same time, it raises many other things which are only in a shaded light. And all these things enter into our consciousness at the same time. What surrounds the word provides it with meaning. And so we are suspended in language in such a way that we cannot say what is "up" and what is "down."Which to me gives the lie to the idea of science as an independent "thing in itself." The reduction of science to doctrine -- as is evidently the case with, say, neo-Darwinism -- denies the irremedial contingency and indeterminacy that characterizes man's relation to nature. It seems to me "the observer problem" is alive and well here. Yet it seems to me there must be some Truth "beyond" nature that does not depend on man in order for the world to hold together, thus to make science possible in the first place.
To me, another name for that Truth is ... Logos -- in the sense of Saint John's Gospel. FWIW.
Thank you for your great posts, cornelis!
I'm afraid I don't recall any of these authors giving any detailed discussion of the soul or other such metaphysics.
Yes, I think Chesterton said, if people cease to believe in God, it doesn't mean they will then believe in nothing. Rather, they will believe in anything. Things move in to fill the void.
That may explain why rank superstition thrived more widely in the Renaissance (the witchcraft craze, practice of magic) than it did in the middle ages, and why superstition is so prevalent in the modern age, in the most highly developed countries, since religion was removed from the public square and the schools. Crystal gazing, channeling, Gaia, Wiccan, Satanism, you name it, and you'll find people who believe in it.
Welcome, dearest sister! May I refresh your glass? :^)
Dude, man. Why are you trying to haul me before the bench? I knows what I said. No ifs, ands, or buts. Especially non ifs. I said "and you know, Dimensio is right."
Great quote, betty boop. And as you say, there is an "irremedial contingency and indeterminacy that characterizes man's relation to nature."
This interaction between the knowing person and the objects of knowledge is a relation that demands honesty and humility.
Think about it. Our situation is one of limited knowledge. Don't we do a disservice in the education of the next generation to pretend otherwise?
Yes, cornelis, we absolutely do. Yet it seems today there are many people who do not extend their time horizon to include the next generation....
Thank you so much for your beautiful essay/post!
I'm in the medical field...
The more I know the more I discover how little we actually know.
With each layer peeled back there is another layer of complexity...
So I hear. With cell motility, what moves the cell? On any given level of observation, we are continually led on to another anterior cause.
Heisenburg.....The observer plays a role...
God is observing the universe into increasing levels of complexity.
Sure would have the last laugh...
I try to read this every year. It is very worth the effort.
Life on this planet almost requires a good deal of pretending..
i.e. pretending that we know what we know..
Maybe the pretense keeps us sane.. or saner...
"Suddenly I'm falling out of the sky
Don't let me go, or I will die.
Whose hands are these?
On my trapeze?
Take hold of me and rescue me
Or I will be a tragedy.
Thank you for the recommendation. I'll have get a copy.
Hugh Ross of Reasons to Believe often points out that science is the interpretation of the facts of nature, not the facts themselves (analogous to how theology is the interpretation of the facts of God's word. Just as there can be good and bad theology, there can be good and bad science. But facts are facts, regardless of the interpretation).
I don't believe an interpretation is possible without being affected by some sort of bias of the worldview of the interpreter. An example might be whether or not a person holds to a dualistic view (body and soul) of human nature - the study of the mind, of ethics (is sociology a science?), etc., are all impacted by how the one doing the studying views the roots of human nature.
In such a view, it doesn't seem (as you point out) that science can be some sort of standalone endeavour, untainted or unaffected by human prejudices.
The unilateral discarding of metaphysics would seem, in a number of areas, to greatly impact how successful science can be at providing satisfactory and/or complete answers.
If you believe that the theory of evolution actually has inherent bias, then it is your responsibility to demonstrate as much.
The inherent bias is that metaphysical considerations are not allowed. Evolution must explain all human behaviors and the outcomes of those behaviors. Human free will is not an acceptable factor for consideration, since in a system where, ultimately, ALL behaviors are the product of, and allegedly explainable by, physical processes, there is no such thing as true free will. We are all, as Pearcey states in her book Total Truth, machines made out of meat.
And Pearcey illustrates the logical conclusion of such thinking, by evolutionists, with the examples brought out in the article at the beginning of this thread (e.g., Pinker).
Oh, I do agree with you, apologist! FWIW I doubt sociology is a science.
I also strongly agree with this:
The unilateral discarding of metaphysics would seem, in a number of areas, to greatly impact how successful science can be at providing satisfactory and/or complete answers.Well said! Thank you so much for writing!