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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I deduce Bohr and Einstein are BOTH right.. in attitude..
That is, faith, should be an operator in any formula.. as, by the way, it is in the presence of infinity.. For what is infinity except faith in that beyond your conceptual grasp..
I observe, My personal situation like that.. I look at my body that is obvious and wonder about my spirit which seems to be.. Can't prove my spirit is infinite but I can prove my body isn't infinite(to myself).. by the very seemingly real subject of death.. That I observe(things that die)..
"The Observer" is indeed the prime requisite of any conversation.. For the observation post drives any deductions.. And how can any two humans occupy the same exact observation post?.. i.e. Einstien and Bohr's views of physics and other things....
Relativity and Quantum Theory are tails wagging "the GoD"..
The Bible might be the best "science book" of ALL...
I know, I know, I'm taking my meds..
Alamo-Girl, I didn't know you were into these areas. I agree entirely with what you say.
Worth reading for the situation we find ourselves in are the later books of Alastair MacIntyre, written after his conversion from Marxism, especially his two key books, "After Virtue," and "Whose Justice? Which Rationality?" He plausibly suggests that we have three camps or communities in the contemporary western world: traditionalists, modernists, and postmodernists, and that they all talk past each other because their fundamental premises or axioms are from entirely different worlds and do not overlap.
We have certainly witnessed that phenomenon on numerous Darwin threads in the forum, where the Darwinists simply repeat the same mantras again and again, rather than respond to their opposition's arguments. I think that was because they simply couldn't SEE the arguments. Their world view (Weltanschauung) doesn't permit them to. Their answer is pure and simple: Darwin is science; if you disagree with Darwinism you are hopelessly ignorant; so we will turn to the activist courts to prevent you from passing your superstitious ignorance on to the next American generation.
Another book I'd recommend is by Thomas Nagel, who is said to be one of the three or four top living philosophers.
He is an agnostic, but he is also a truth seeker, as few philosophers are in today's academia. His book "The Last Word" is an effort to understand how, in a purely material world without God, there can be such a thing as universal knowledge. And why does the order of the universe seem to correspond to the order of our thinking? He comes very close to admitting what he cannot, as an agnostic philosopher, admit: that the only way to account for universal knowledge that can be communicated in objective language is religious. Indeed, that something like the Logos is necessary. He does not make that jump, but his book has been much discussed in religious circles by Christian philosophers, for example in a Catholic academic journal I get called, coincidentally, Logos.
Although somewhat off the immediate subject, two other books I have found extremely valuable in thinking about the nature of reality are Lynch's "Christ and Apollo," and Ralph McInerny's "Aquinas and Analogy." The latter is highly specialized but I think more important than most academic books. Incidentally, McInerny also writes detective novels.
Much of this boils down to the meaning of the word realism. In classical philosophy, the real is what lies behind the phenomena. In modernist philosopy, the real is the material. But modernist philosophy is incapable of sustaining that argument, and degenerates into scholastic specialization that has made most academic philosophy departments completely irrelevant to the real world.
I should add that postmodernist philosophy is even more hopeless. It posits that there is no objective reality; everything is relative; "truth" is meaningless; and therefore that the purpose of academic argument is to change the language so that everyone is forced to agree with what you say.
That's basically what Heidegger, who lies behind the more popular Derrida and outweighs him, did. It has been said that if you spend enough time trying to understand Heidegger, it will drive you mad, which was evidently his intention. At least, to drive you out of the real world and into his world.
We have shaken down this very misunderstanding of the term "realism" on a previous thread. And it is an important one, because if the correspondent can get Plato off the table, he can fabricate his own "reality" to justify himself (at least in his own mind LOL!)
Thank you too for all the great reading suggestions - which I'm sure betty boop will also be interesting in reading.
You might be interested in knowing that she and I have just completed a book of our own addressing these very issues.
Thanks, Alamo-Girl. I should have addressed my earlier posts to all of you.
I'm fascinated to learn about the projected book. I happen to be in the field of English literature, and have touched on these matters in some of my books, but have not had formal training in philosophy, which is probably just as well, all things considered. There aren't too many places that teach it properly.
But I was fortunate enough to have had a course at Harvard that let Plato and Aristotle speak for themselves, and another course that let the medieval philosophers speak for themselves. The latter was taught by Henry Osborne Taylor, a proper New England WASP who nevertheless had a real sympathy for Catholic medieval thought and civilization, and recognized that civilization was transmitted and rebuilt by heroes like Gregory the Great, Boniface, and Thomas Aquinas. That put me onto further reading on my own.
Thank you for your reply, Dimensio. Seems like impressive evidence!
Still, it seems to me that each of the items on your list is open to question, or other interpretation. For instance, the fossil record. I understand it still has "gaps," but people are working to "fill them in" by searching for more fossils, especially from those time periods when the fossil record seems scant (e.g., the pre-Cambrian). But it seems to me that you can pile up all the fossils you want to; but that wouldn't SHOW a transition of one species into an entirely different species. Such a transition would have to be observed before we can say that it really occurred -- at least if we are going to be as "epistemologically rigorous" as Niels Bohr says a scientist must be. Because something seems intuitive enough -- and granted, macroevolution seems "intuitive" -- is not enough to establish scientific rigor.
I'm not aware Bohr directly spoke to macroevolution theory; but then I'm still studying him. (If you know something about any statements he's made on that subject, I'd be grateful if you'd fill me in.) However, based on what I do know so far, he was famous for saying that valid science is all about making descriptions of the natural world, and you can't describe what you haven't actually seen.
But maybe this is what constitutes a difference between physics and biology. Still, they are both branches of science, and both are informed by the scientific method.
As for DNA relics across species, here's a "what if" for you: What if all living species share a single, I almost want to say (but won't) universal common genome as the basic stuff of life? And that there is another, as yet undetected principle at work here (e.g., successful communication of information) that "customizes" the expression of the genome for each individual species? -- undetected because not looked for? It seems that could explain why humans and the higher apes express the genome almost identically; and it could obviate the necessity of saying that apes gave rise to humans.
That's just a conjecture, of course. It's occurred to other people as well. Are Darwinian theorists interested in looking into a proposition like that?
Ditto for the population studies. I don't know what light such truly shed on the problem of one species arising from an entirely different predecessor species. The studies may be perfectly valid for microevolution, yet not necessarily furnish evidence for macroevolution.
But then, I am a very skeptical person!
Thank you for writing, Dimensio!
Friedrich Hayek also calls the problem a prejudice. He says it is an abuse of reason. He wrote a whole book on it: The Counter-Revolution of Science. Studies in the Abuse of Reason.
It's been a while since I read it, but I should look at it again. Part deals with scientism. If you haven't run across that word here before you can read about it on this thread. It describes scientism as that bias or prejudice that insists that "that truth and knowledge of reality can be derived only as outcomes of the scientific method."
Hayek himself quotes Adam Smith on the abuse:
Systems which have universally owed their origin to the lucubrations of those who were acquainted with one art, but ignorant of the other; who therefore explained to themselves the phenomena, in that which was strange to them, by those in that which was familiar.
Those who only do biology and no philosophy would have difficulty getting through the book. But I'm sure that the philosophy of science should eventually become part of their studies and that students should not follow any teacher who would suppress that part of science as being irrelevant.
Hayek describes scientism as follows:
a mechanical and uncritical application of habits of thought to fields different from those in which they have been formed. The scientistic as distinguished from the scientific view is not an unprejudiced but a very prejudiced approach which, before it has considered its subject, claims to know what is the most appropriate way of investigating it.You'll that this lists at least two things involved: the omission of information and the unwarranted application of a method or principle.
Oh, is that ever a fact, Alamo-Girl! I simply loved this observation:
Much of this boils down to the meaning of the word realism. In classical philosophy, the real is what lies behind the phenomena. In modernist philosopy, the real is the material. But modernist philosophy is incapable of sustaining that argument, and degenerates into scholastic specialization that has made most academic philosophy departments completely irrelevant to the real world.Amen to that, Cicero!!! Kudos!
Plus I'm grateful to you Cicero for the book recommendations. I've read A. MacIntyre's After Virtue, an excellent work. Seems the others you name are "must-haves," as well!
Cicero, please keep me on your ping list for whenever you ping.
Thank you all, Alamo-Girl, Cicero, cornelis, for this fascinating discussion!
Although not so specific as Hayek, I think Alfred North Whitehead also had a sensible approach to the virtues and the failings of the scientific revolution and its aftermath.
Not sure if you saw my post #141, which I neglected to address to you and Betty Boop.
Jeepers, Dimensio, I didn't hear cornelis claim any such thing!
You know, apologist, the evolutionist's statement itself seems to be inherently "metaphysical" -- though of a bastardized sort, it seems.
Cogent and concise, hosepipe....
Yes, out of "First Reality" into a "preferred" alternative reality, or "Second Reality," as Robert Musil, Heimito von Doderer, Eric Voegelin, et al., have termed it. Second realities, in principle, are flights from first reality and usually boil down to "contempt for reason" -- aspernatio rationis as your namesake put it. In classical times, such flights were regarded (e.g., by Plato, Aristotle, Heraclitus, Cicero) as cases of pneumopathological disorder.
Heidegger, I gather, was just all hyped up on the disorder of the Weimar period, and actually helped set the stage for Hitler.... he "softened up" the German people for their future destruction with his irrational confusions.
I've put in a little time, at least, on people like Descartes, Gides, Camus, Sartre, and Derrida, but I draw the line at Heidegger. What he means by "being" is not what I mean by it, I'm quite sure. It's got to be "being toward death," or something of the sort, but I don't find that very helpful.
I've met Derrida, actually, but didn't quite know what to say to him. That St. Augustine had already answered his problems about absence and differance in The Confessions? Fortunately he was surrounded by young women eager to butter him up.
That's hardly surprising, Cicero. He lives in a second reality and (evidently) you don't. There is no common ground for discourse in such a situation.
Still, it might be fun to see how he would "deconstruct" one of the greatest philosopher/theologians who ever lived. I mean, by Derrida's rule, the text (Confessions) must stand completely on its own, without recourse to the author's motives in writing, or his intentions.... But if this is so, then why would anybody go to the trouble of writing a book in the first place????
Talk about irrational!
You wrote, "Fortunately [Derrida] was surrounded by young women eager to butter him up." Yes; and probably he was perfectly willing to return the favor! :^)
Ever seen a picture of Steven Pinker? (I saw him on late-night TV once.) Jeepers, the guy looks like Adonis, or an angel of God. I bet he doesn't have any problem "meeting girls" (that is, assuming he likes girls). Sometimes I wonder whether guys like these cultivate such outrageous public speech/public personae because it helps "to attract mates" in due Darwinian style....
So maybe "girls" are attracted to "irrational" men???? Yeah, that's what I call "fitness value!"
I'm sorry for saying such silly things; but to me, Derrida and Pinker are just plain "silly" themselves. And I wonder why some women can be so gullible.
Thanks for writing, Cicero!
But surely not "soul" mates, I would hardly think.
Actually, I hate to be crass, but I think they were probably more interested in getting a good job recommendation from a big name guru than anything else. Graduate students.
Actually for you to put the matter that way makes me the crass one! :^)