Tuesday, September 7, 2004

Points of Light in a World of Darkness

Thankfully, Muslim voices are beginning to be heard condemning terrorism in general and the Beslan atrocity in particular. MEMRI has a good summary of the Arab reaction to Beslan including a few impassioned pleas by Muslims to disavow terror. Perhaps the best is this one:

Bater Wardam, a columnist for the Jordanian daily Al-Dustour, wrote: "It is always easy to flee to illusions and to place responsibility for the crimes of Arabic and Muslim terrorist organizations on the Mossad, the Zionists, and on American intelligence, but we all know that this is not the case and that those who murder innocent civilians in Iraq after having kidnapped them, those who turned civilian airplanes into destructive bombs, those who exploded trains crowded with innocent civilians and those who fired on children in a school in Ossetia - they came from our midst. They are Arabs and Muslims who pray, fast, grow beards, demand the wearing of veils, and call for the defense of Islamic causes. Therefore we all must raise our voices, disown them and oppose all of these crimes... Whoever remains silent when faced with the murder of children, he is an accomplice to the crime. Even worse, we are employing the same moral double standard regarding people's lives that the West uses."

The last sentence is a little mysterious, but at least the overall sense of the paragraph is on the right track. This one from an Iraqi newspaper man is also on the mark:

"The Arabs and the Muslims today contribute nothing to civilization and progress except for blood, severed heads, scorched bodies, and the abduction and murder of children. The Jihad for religion and Arab chivalry have turned into the art of exploding, booby-trapping, and spilling blood. What an innovation and what a social contribution the Arabs have made in the 21st century!!"

On the other hand, there are still those so blind that they will not see. For instance, several writers, like this one, blame the Russian military, incredibly enough, who are said to be as guilty as the abductors:

Columnist Fawwaz Al-Ajami wrote in the Qatari daily Al-Sharq: "It is impossible to correct a mistake with another mistake and it is impossible to treat terrorism with terrorism. There are many ways and methods with which it would have been possible to save these innocent children's lives. The barbaric Russian storming of this school was no less ugly and no less terrorist than the terrorism of these child-abductors. In this way state terrorism becomes the equivalent of individual terrorism with the victim being innocent civilians..."

Apparently there's no difference, in this man's mind, between soldiers trying to rescue children and terrorists who arrange to murder them. And, of course, no round-up of Islamic opinion on terrorism would be complete without somebody blaming the Jews:

In the Jordanian government daily Al-Dustour, columnist George Haddad wrote: "More than one Russian commentator and a number of journalists on the satellite channels pointed out that Russian intelligence had information concerning 'contributions' that some of the Chechen factions received from Jewish oligarchs from the fields of finance, communications, and oil... [These are] the owners of the corporations and billions which were stolen from the Russian people, that after Putin's rise to power and the establishment of his rule became wanted on charges of deceit, fraud, and tax evasion.

"The most important goal of the wanted Jewish gang was to distort Putin's [public] image and to present him as someone who is not in charge of the situation, [and who is incapable] of reining in the anarchy, and who is leading the country and its residents back to the days of repression, dictatorship, and state control."

Of course. Why didn't we think of that. After all, we know the Jews were behind 9/11 because no Jews showed up for work in the Trade Towers that day. How plain can it be?

So there are some rational minds sprinkled throughout the Islamic world, but evidently they have an awful lot of work to do to overcome the darkness that clouds the minds and hearts of so many of their brethren.

Chance or Intention

Our local Sunday paper had an extensive piece on the controversy over whether Intelligent Design is an appropriate topic for science classroom instruction in public schools. The article itself was well-done, but some of the individuals who were quoted in it made what I thought were somewhat misleading statements. The article can be found here and my response to it, which has been submitted to the paper for publication, follows:

The York Sunday News and Laurie Lebo are to be commended for compiling such a thorough and fair treatment of the controversy surrounding Intelligent Design and Darwinian evolution (9/5/04). I would like to say just a couple of things in response to the thoughts expressed by two of the gentlemen who were quoted in the article.

John Staver of Kansas State University argues that ID "requires faith which contradicts the critical thought demanded in science". This statement is very misleading. It implies, first of all, that there is no faith involved in science, which is completely untrue, as will be shown below, and it also implies that ID is based primarily upon faith with no critical thought or empirical component, which is also untrue.

Karl Kleiner of York College is quoted as saying that ID violates the scientific method because no experiment can prove or disprove God's existence. The implication here is that only ideas which can be confirmed by experiment are permissible in science classrooms. This, however, is a pretty stringent rule that no science teacher could possibly follow. If, for example, we wish to limit science to just what can be confirmed by experiment then we need to exclude any discussions of the existence of other universes, string theory, and much of quantum mechanics. If we cannot introduce non-empirical metaphysical assumptions into the science class then we cannot talk about a Grand Unified Theory in physics, the pursuit of which is motivated by an aesthetic preference for "elegance" or simplicity in our explanations. Nor can we examine the superiority of Copernicus' system over Ptolemy's which is based not upon different facts but upon the same preference for simplicity. Likewise, little could be said about cosmology since much about the subject relies upon the metaphysical assumption of uniformity, i.e. that the laws of physics are the same throughout the universe. Nor could we justify the commonplace assumption that every effect has a cause. Indeed, we cannot even talk about the material reality of an external world since our belief in one is an exercise of faith in the reliability of our senses. There appears to be a world independent of our minds, so we believe there is, but it's awfully difficult to demonstrate its existence. Moreover, the scientist's confidence in reason itself is empirically unjustifiable. Any attempt to demonstrate that reason is a reliable guide to knowledge founders on the inherent circularity of trying to reason our way to the reliability of reason. Yet no one objects to any of these metaphysical assumptions and hypotheses being employed in science classes. For some reason it is only when the metaphysics turns toward the possibility of intelligent agency that the defenders of Darwinian orthodoxy become aroused and agitated.

Furthermore, if we are not allowed to affirm the possibility that intelligence is behind the biological phenomena we see under our microscopes then neither should we be able to deny that it is. Yet that is what we tacitly do when we instruct students that natural processes are entirely adequate to explain life's complex and specified patterns, a claim which many students find counterintuitive and at least superficially implausible. We teach our students to assume that there is no need to posit intelligence, but this assumption itself displays another philosophical preference, in this case a preference for materialism.

It's true that no scientific experiment can prove God's existence, but it's also irrelevant. ID theorists aren't trying to prove God's existence. They're trying to show that the biosphere is a highly complex organization of information systems and to investigate whether such information systems could be the product of natural mechanisms alone or whether the best explanation for them must not include intelligence. As even materialists like Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett affirm, biological machines bear the impress of design. The question that arises, then, is what is the nature of the designer? Is the designer blind, purposeless, mechanical nature or is the designer an intelligent, intentional mind? To allow the first answer in our classrooms, but not the second, is an unwarranted and inexcusable act of philosophical prejudice. To suppress the question altogether because it leads us into the realm of metaphysics is hard to justify since so many other metaphysical notions are admitted into science. It is also a repudiation of the fundamental principle of scientific investigation that we should follow the evidence wherever it leads, even if it upsets our most cherished theories.

Professor Kleiner states that science tests theories by trying to prove them false but that advocates of ID are unable to do that. This is not quite correct. First, there are many hypotheses which scientists hold which they do not try to falsify because there is no way to do so. Scientists believe, for example, that life arose from non-life, some scientists believe that there has been, is, or will be, life existing elsewhere in the universe, some believe that life began in a primordial sea, some believe that there is a multitude of other universes, or that our universe somehow brought itself into being, or that mass/energy is infinitely old. None of these theories is even in principle falsifiable, but we don't therefore banish them from science classrooms.

Nevertheless, the claim that ID is not falsifiable is not correct anyway. If scientists ever manage to show how molecular machines like the much celebrated bacterial flagellum could have been produced in a non-teleological (i.e. purposeless) way, through the action of purely non-intelligent processes, then ID would be, if not technically falsified, at least deeply discredited. So far as I know, no one has done this satisfactorily. If it turns out that it can't be done then that would show that the Darwinian's conviction that natural mechanisms are adequate to generate biological complexity is not based on empirical evidence, but is, in fact, an act of faith. Indeed, the fact that many scientists believe that natural processes gave rise to the myriad of bio-molecular machines in any living cell, even though they have no idea how it happened, pretty much refutes Mr. Staver's suggestion above that faith has no place in science.

Professor Kleiner asserts that "evolution doesn't deny the existence of a God. It just doesn't require one". The implication is that Darwinism is neutral with respect to the question of God, but this is misleading. By insisting that the evolutionary process is impersonal, undirected, random, and mechanistic, and by insisting that this process prevails not only in the production of biological diversity but also in the biochemical origins of life, and by insisting that only materialistic processes be permitted in science, Darwinism eliminates any role for God in the universe and makes him irrelevant. For most people there's not much practical difference between an irrelevant God and one which doesn't exist.

Professor Kleiner also expresses the concern that ID could potentially curtail critical thinking and quash scientific curiosity. ID, however, is actually the result of critical thinking and curiosity. What stifles curiosity is institutional and philosophical dogmatism, revealing only one side of a story as though that side were the only side, or declaring to our children that certain kinds of explanations in the pursuit of truth are taboo because they might have religious implications. As William James wrote: "Any rule of thinking that would prevent me from finding a truth, if that truth were really there, is an irrational rule." Any rule which demands that our children not be permitted to hear the case for listing intelligence as among the causes of biological diversity while insisting, as the Darwinian paradigm does, that nature can do the job all by herself, is itself curtailing critical thinking and quashing curiosity.

Finally, Mr. Staver is quoted as saying that ID theorists "want to recast the paradigm of science to include God within it". It would be more precise to say that they want to admit intelligent agency as a possible causal factor in our accounts of the structure of the universe and of living things. Whether that intelligence is the God of traditional monotheism or not is not a question with which ID needs to deal.

Even so, why, if there is evidence to suggest that purely natural processes may not be up to the task of providing an adequate explanation for the phenomena we see in the world around us, should we nevertheless insist that those explanations be the only ones we be permitted to entertain in our science classes? It may be that the evidence that ID theorists cite is not best explained by intelligent agency, but let's at least have that debate. Let's let our children hear the arguments on both sides. To prevent them from seeing and considering the evidence for both sides of the issue is perhaps the surest, most effective way to curtail critical thinking and quash scientific curiosity.