Sunday, July 2, 2006

Smart People, Dumb Remarks

A couple of the signers of the letter to Congress featured at The Edge (and discussed on Viewpoint here) are quoted below the letter at the Edge. For bright people they sure say some dumb things. Here, for example, is Stuart Kauffman:

[T]he energy behind Intelligent Design is deeper than a debate about evolution. It is, in part, a profound fear among its advocates that without God, values and ethical conduct will find no basis. Even if we inhabit a "nice" universe only by virtue of the Weak Antrhopic principle, the wonders of this, our universe, and co-evolving biosphere invite reverence and stewardship. I hope this will come, some day, to be the received view of many, and serve to quiet the distress of the religious fundamentalists....

Ah, yes. Reverence for the earth and a sense of stewardship. That'll fill the enormous existential vacuum that atheism creates. That'll inspire people to stop killing, raping and stealing from each other. A sense of stewardship of the earth is just what we need to satisfy our hunger for justice, dignity and meaning. All we need do is ponder the wonders of natural selection and all of our deepest yearnings will be fulfilled. God will become supererogatory and man will live in peace and harmony ever after.

Then Scott Atran delivers himself of this profundity:

[T]here is such a long way to go [to disabuse the masses of religiously inspired creationist sympathies]. I'm just out of Azad Kashmir where there are beheadings galore at the moment (unreported in the press) for political reasons (carried out with the connivance of the Pakistani intelligence services, ISI) but in religion's name (jihadi groups, though officially banned, drive around in vehicles provided by the army).

By the way, here in Pakistan there is no teaching of evolution allowed. And this is America's great ally.

Let's see. Muslims behead in the name of religion and forbid the teaching of evolution. So what follows from that? Apparently Mr. Atran wishes to imply that these premises entail that any opponent of evolution is a cultural primitive such as populate the Pakistan countryside, ready to lop off the heads (metaphorically, of course)of the Darwinists. I can't see any other way to interpret what he writes, but unless there is another rendering, what he's saying has to be one of the dumbest remarks ever made in the contemporary debate over Darwinism.

His implicit argument, if one can call it that, is that since religious extremists forbid evolution, therefore those who want ID taught alongside Darwinism in public schools are also religious extremists cut from the same bolt of cloth.

I know. It's a hopelessly muddled piece of thinking - like insisting that since dogs and horses both have four legs that therefore dogs are just like horses - but what else can the man mean?

By the way, where does he get the idea that Pakistan is seriously regarded by anyone as a "great ally" of the United States?

Empowering the Ignorant

Bill Dembski at Uncommon Descent has a post on "evolutionary logic". Anyone who has ever listened to a Darwinian true-believer will get a few chuckles from this essay as Dembski catalogs several of their favorite and all-too-familiar fallacies. His essay is preceded by a short but amusing piece on how evolution empowers the ignorant and enhances their self-esteem.

Check them out.

Francis Collins on Genetics and Religion

Here are some excerpts from a PBS interview with Francis Collins, head of the Human Genome Project. Dr. Collins is the director of the National Human Genome Research Institute and is both a medical doctor and a leading gene scientist who was part of the team which discovered the genes for cystic fibrosis and Huntington's disease.

QUESTION: What is your own faith and religious background?

DR. COLLINS: I was not raised in a particularly religious household. I went to church, but it was mostly to learn music, which was a good place to learn music. But I didn't learn a whole lot about theology. And for quite a while, in my early 20s, I was a pretty obnoxious atheist. Then at the age of 27, after a good deal of intellectual debating with myself about the plausibility of faith, and particularly with strong influence from C.S. Lewis, I became convinced that this was a decision I wanted to make. And I became, by choice, a Christian, a serious Christian, who believes that faith is not something that you just do on Sunday, but that if it makes any sense at all, it's part of your whole life. It's the most important organizing principle in my life.

QUESTION: As a scientist, have you ever found that your faith has conflicted with your scientific work?

DR. COLLINS: I actually do not believe that there are any collisions between what I believe as a Christian, and what I know and have learned about as a scientist. I think there's a broad perception that that's the case, and that's what scares many scientists away from a serious consideration of faith. But, unless one chooses to make an absolutely literal interpretation of the book of Genesis and the story of creation -- which I believe is not a choice that people made even before science came along in the last century to cast some doubt upon the timing of the creation events -- other than that I am not aware of any reasons why one cannot be a completely dedicated person of faith who believes that God inspired the writings in the Bible, and also be a rigorous, intellectually completely honest scientist, who does not accept things about the natural world until they're proven.

QUESTION: As someone who does combine religious faith and scientific reason in your life, why do you think that so many people do have a problem with that?

DR. COLLINS: I believe that people mix up the natural and the spiritual. Science's domain is the natural. If you want to understand the natural world and be sure you're not misleading yourself, science is the way to do it. You accumulate data, you make hypotheses, you draw conclusions, you expose them to other people's critical views, and you eventually decide whether it's right.

The spiritual world is not where science operates. The spiritual world is another part of human existence. I would argue a very critical one, and just as you would not expect necessarily theology to always get it right when it comes to arguments about the structure of molecules, you should [not] expect science to get it right when it comes to the spiritual aspects of human existence.

QUESTION: How then, as a Christian, do you respond to people who object to genetic engineering?

DR. COLLINS: I think genetic engineering ought to be put in context of medical research in general. It's interesting when you read of the life of Christ how much of his time he spent here healing the sick. There must have been a reason for that. e was modeling for us what it is that we are intended to do by following in his path. So, I think the mandate for us as human beings to reach out to those who are suffering and try to heal their illnesses is a very strong one, and it's entirely consistent with strong faith. In fact, it's one of the strongest mandates we have.

To say that genetic engineering is unacceptable across the board because of its potential for creating some ethical dilemmas is the most unethical stance of all. It's to basically say, here is a powerful approach which could alleviate human suffering, but we're not going to do it because we're worried about the misuses that might occur, I find that completely unacceptable from every possible point of view. Most profoundly, the theological one.

What it does do is to require us to assume some responsibility for deciding which kinds of genetic engineering are, in fact, consistent with that mandate to heal the sick, and which kinds are putting us in a troubling direction where we'd best not go. And that is obviously where the debates begin to get underway.

QUESTION: Do you feel then that when religious people voice concern about things like gene patenting or, say, genetic screening of fetuses, that they are being overly hysterical?

DR. COLLINS: I think there are very serious issues about some applications of genetics that should be a cause for religious people to express concerns - and to do so continuously and articulately and effectively. When it comes to the use of genetics, for instance, to determine traits, not to avoid diseases, in future generations, there's a very serious issue there. When it comes to patenting, I think the dialogue has been somewhat less useful. But that's improved a lot. Patenting as a moral issue gets you into sort of deep waters very quickly. I'd prefer to argue that patenting is really a legal issue.

QUESTION: It's my impression that at least some in the scientific community have been fairly hostile to the concept of religious people having any kind of involvement. How do you see that we could get over that barrier?

DR. COLLINS: I think there are probably a lot more scientists whose faith is important to them than you know about. This recent survey that was done and published in Nature Magazine indicates that over the course of the last 70 years, there's been very little retreat in scientific ranks from a personal faith in a personal God. And yet that sort of surprised everybody. I think scientists could do a better job about expressing their own sense that these areas are not in conflict.

I think for those people who are religious, who have a serious faith in a personal God, and I count myself in those ranks, we should be more vocal about that. We should make a better effort to explain that faith does not require you to check your brains at the door. It doesn't require you to say something isn't true that you have all this data telling you is true.

QUESTION: Are there any instances where you could say that being a person of faith has in some sense helped you, or provided inspiration for your scientific research?

DR. COLLINS: .... at those wonderful moments where [discovery occurs], the opportunity to see that not only as a scientist, but also as a person of faith, and to feel that kind of blessing, that kind of connection with the creator who knew all of this ahead of time, is one of those aspects of my existence that I wouldn't trade for anything.

QUESTION: Richard Dawkins has raised the question that if God created the universe, then how come he seems to have disappeared from the universe?

DR. COLLINS: I'm sorry that God has disappeared for Richard Dawkins. He's not disappeared for me. I think you can make an argument that if God made himself so obvious, so known, so easily interpretable in daily events, then the whole concept of faith and of making a personal decision about where you stand would be pretty meaningless. You can look at many examples down through the history of faith where this lack of certainty is a critical part of how the whole enterprise operates.

QUESTION: Physicist Steven Weinberg has made a famous statement that the more we know about the universe, the more it seems pointless. As a final question, how would you, as a person of faith, respond to Weinberg's statement?

DR. COLLINS: I think it is difficult for anybody to argue pointlessness based upon scientific data. The facts are the facts. I don't think science is ever going to answer the question, why are we here? Why is there a universe? It will answer questions of a more derivative sort. So, whether you're talking about cosmology or molecular biology, I don't think that science is the place to look to get those answers.

There's much more of this interview at the link.