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.
Copyright 2000. Human Events. All rights reserved. International copyright secured. File Date: 10.23.00
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(: I love you so much!
"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."
It would also vary in degree depending on the subject matter.When the subject matter is origins it seems (at least to me) to be in full tilt mode.
I've followed most of the crevo threads for as long as there's been crevo threads.99% of the time in lurker mode.To be honest I'm not up to arguing the topic and I would hazard a guess and say that neither are 99.9% of people.
In the end it boils right down to 'trust me'.
Great article bb.
That's a bias. Usually criticism are the kind that says you're wrong, show me the evidence, give me proof, and so on. But this is a bias that isolates the subject matter in a privileged way so that it bars evidence and frames the debate.
It's a bias, apologist, but not inherent or intrinsic to all theories of evolution. Dimensio never forgets to bait his hook.
I do not believe it an unreasonable conclusion that you were presenting what you believe to be my position as a means of mocking it, as evidenced by your comparison to Wolf Blitzer.
If the shoe don't fit, Dimensio, don't wear it.
You have yet to provide any evidence to show that my statement that the theory of evolution has no inherent bias is incorrect. Comparing me to Wolf Blitzer is not a substitute for providing actual evidence.
Indeed. In Dimensio's case, it appears to be a methodological bias (i.e., "methodological naturalism" or even "metaphysical naturalism"). But the one so biased rarely questions the adequacy or suitability of the method to the given question at hand. It is simply assumed the method is competent; that is, the method is simply taken on faith. Oftentimes it ends up being a filter that, as you say cornelis, "bars evidence and frames the debate."
Again, if the shoe doesn't fit, don't wear it.
The the motive for a "methodological naturalism" is in some instances warranted. There is an analogous method taught in literature classes, which the famous poet John Keats called "negative capability." It has something to do with suspending judgment for the sake of being open to observation. I guess the problem is that scholars get stuck in their method being so happy with their success. This is not particular to scientists. This is a habit of the mind, a particularly nasty one.
You wrote: "When the subject matter is origins it [prejudice] seems (at least to me) to be in full tilt mode." Oh, to me, too. But that stands to reason: On the question of origins, no one can say they really know anything, because no one was "there" to observe the origin.
Now the scientific method is based on direct observation and replicable experiments. Thus it would appear it really has no way to deal with origin events in the first place.
Neils Bohr suggested that the origin of life, for instance, is either "undecidable" or just flat-out "unknowable" on the basis of the scientific method.
But people constructing world views need to have an origin. Otherwise they do not have a comprehensive account of the world they view. So yes, they have to go into "full-tilt mode" to come up with an origin "theory" (which really would be simply a conjecture). The point is science is no help to them on that score, so ultimately they must have recourse to a "faith statement."
I'm not terribly willing to accept the "trust me" formula. Not for the benefit of people who play fast and loose with the limits of science.
God bless you too, Mitch!
I readily grant your point, and agree that "it has something to do with suspending judgment for the sake of being open to observation." IOW, to suppress "subjective" elements, so to enable a purely "objective" assessment of the data.
I have a funny story that sheds light on this issue. Albert Einstein and Neils Bohr were very close friends. Einstein as you probably know never accepted quantum theory, even though we was one of the earliest contributors to its development (i.e., his work on light). He used to tease his friend Bohr, who insisted that it is the business of science to make descriptions of observations, and you can't describe what you haven't actually observed.
On that basis, Einstein would say, "If Niels does not observe the moon in the sky, then for him the moon does not exist." Therefore, Einstein argued, Bohr was relentlessly subjective in his approach to science.
But this is to misunderstand Bohr, I believe. Bohr was amazingly epistemologically zealous -- presumably in the attempt to keep things as objective as possible. He emphasized direct observation as the sine qua non of scientific investigation. He knows the moon is up there in the sky. His point was he couldn't say anything about it as a scientist until he had observed it for himself. Only on that basis could a scientific description be made.
Bohr (and Einstein) offered some of the earliest descriptions of the so-called observer problem. It is evidently manifest in both relativity and quantum theory. However it seems clear to me that the observer problem is "alive and well" in science dealing with the Newtonian "macroworld" (our four-dimensional spacetime world) as well, by simple analogy.
If Bohr is right -- epistemologically speaking -- then it needs to be recognized (IMHO) that even such a widely-accepted theory as Darwinist evolution is to some degree compromised as science, because it rests so much on things that no one has ever directly observed. The accretion of subjective elements is bound to occur over time if that is the case. Thus philosophy inevitably gets smuggled in through the back door, in the end....
It seems in the long standing crevo wars, we have often written a benediction to a thread that ended with the conclusion that the two sides were hopelessly divided on universals. One side of combatants often take the Aristotle position looking down and giving a hand wave to "threeness" "redness" "treeness" as you say, pointing only to a particular tree or group of trees. The other side takes the Plato position, looking up to the forms themselves.
It is particularly disturbing to me (and fortunately, fairly rare) when mathematicians take the position that universals do not exist. After all, when they name a variable in a formula, they have declared the universality of the formula itself. The radius is the same thing or form regardless of what, where, how or when a particular circle might exist or not. Thus the formula for calculating the area of a circle is portable across every domain.
The same is true with physicists whose concern is the universal theory itself which of course must be portable across every domain as well.
Often lost in the railing back and forth is the simple observation that mathematics is unreasonably effective in the natural sciences (Eugene Wigner) and vice versa (Cumrum Vafa) S dualities, mirror symmetries, the Mandelbrot set.
The prime example of this phenomenon was that Einstein was able to pull Reimannian geometry off the shelf to describe general relativity. Reiman could not have known the physical universality of the math he discovered!
If a metaphysical naturalist were reasonable in the matter (as compared to ideological or political motived) he would admit that the phenomenon squarely attests that universals exist and leaves the door wide open to theology and philosophy - in particular, Logos as betty boop has mentioned here.
IMHO, when the biologists invited the mathematicians and physicists to the table, it was a death wish.
Excellent insight/example of a (non-material) universal, Alamo-Girl! Kudos!!!
Hi Dimensio! Do you mind if we turn this question around, so that I might ask you: What part of evolution theory have you directly observed?
Am I to take it, then, that you agree with my statement that the theory of evolution has no political bias?
That's plain English. But not the whole story. The "facts" are never enough.