Thursday, February 12, 2009

Happy Birthday, Charles

Forget terrorism. Forget the economic crisis. Forget the Chinese and the Russians who still want to bury us. Forget Dick Cheney and George Bush. The Gallup people have uncovered the greatest threat to America's future in a new poll, the results of which have just been released: Less than 40% of Americans say they believe in "the theory of evolution."

For those who think that belief in evolution is the linchpin to achieving secular nirvana this must come as dispiriting news, and on the 200th birthday of Charles Darwin, no less.

Twenty five percent of respondents do not believe in the theory and 36% had no opinion. To be sure, the more education the respondent had the more likely they were to accept evolution, but, in fact, the results of the survey strike me as meaningless unless the pollsters actually defined the word evolution. If they didn't, how could the question be answered meaningfully?

Evolution could mean the descent of all life from a single simple primitive cell. Or it could refer to mere variation around a genetic mean. Or it could mean nothing more than that things change. Without explaining what is to be understood by the word "evolution" pretty much any results must be taken with a healthy dose of skepticism.

Even so, the fact that only four in ten Americans accept the theory, however it is defined, suggests that we're likely to hear a lot more invective along the lines of Richard Dawkins' infamous imprecation that anyone who doesn't believe in Darwinian evolution is either "ignorant, stupid or insane."



There are a couple of thoughtful letters on our Feedback Page which you might wish to check out.


Factually Inaccurate

Ed Morrissey makes a case that President Obama told two brazen lies to the American people at his press conference Monday night and displayed on top of that a distressing lack of historical understanding. I didn't see the conference, but I did hear about his statements and as much as I'd like to think that he was just misinformed or mistaken, it's hard to avoid the conclusion that he deliberately misrepresented the Republican position on the stimulus package. There's simply no excuse for anyone to claim that the Republican position is one of "just doing nothing" about our economic crisis.

I'm less certain that I agree with Morrissey on Obama's second "lie,"which, I think, can be more charitably chalked up to the President's characteristic lack of precision.

Morrissey may well be correct, however, that Obama really doesn't seem to know much history. I thought this in listening to him talk about Roosevelt's response to the Great Depression, and Morrissey points out that President Obama got the economic circumstances in Japan in the 1990s exactly backward - a mistake that has important implications for his "stimulus" package.

Anyway, you should read his column for yourself. It gives insight into the man who will be at the helm for at least the next four years.


Science Vs. Religion (Pt. II)

We begin Part II (See here for Part I) of our consideration of biologist Jerry Coyne's essay in The New Republic on the incompatibility of science and religion with this passage by Coyne:

True, there are religious scientists and Darwinian churchgoers. But this does not mean that faith and science are compatible, except in the trivial sense that both attitudes can be simultaneously embraced by a single human mind. (It is like saying that marriage and adultery are compatible because some married people are adulterers. )....The real question is whether there is a philosophical incompatibility between religion and science. Does the empirical nature of science contradict the revelatory nature of faith? Are the gaps between them so great that the two institutions must be considered essentially antagonistic?

Science and religion are incompatible, implies Coyne, because science accepts only what can be empirically demonstrated whereas religion admits of truths that are not testable and thus not subject to empirical confirmation. Would that this were true. If it were then there might not be any real conflict since naturalistic scientists would recognize the limits to their domain. As it is, there's conflict for precisely the reason that many scientists wish to extend the realm of science beyond the empirical to encompass all reality and thought, including the metaphysical, while at the same time criticizing religion for making metaphysical claims and being insufficiently scientific. Science serves for many scientists as a kind of Trojan horse that enables them to smuggle into their work and writing a materialistic, atheistic worldview that has no empirical warrant.

A few examples of this overreach may suffice. Scientists, either some or most, hold fast to the following things, none of which are supported by any empirical evidence:

1. The Many Worlds Hypothesis: The idea that ours is just one of a nearly infinite number of universes, all of which are closed off from each other thus defying detection.

2. The Oscillating Universe Hypothesis: The theory that our universe has expanded and collapsed an infinite number of times.

3. String theory: The idea that the fundamental units of material substance are unimaginably tiny vibrating filaments of energy.

4. The existence of other dimensions: The theory that the four dimensions of space-time are only part of physical reality.

5. The Principle of Uniformity: The assumption that the laws and properties of the universe are homogenous and constant everywhere throughout the cosmos.

6. The Assumption of Uniformitarianism: The idea that the same processes and forces at work in the world today have always been at work at essentially the same rates.

7. The Scientific Method: The idea that there is a particular methodology that defines the scientific process and which ought to be followed.

8. The Law of Parsimony: The principle that assumes that the simplest explanation which fits all the facts is the best.

9. The assumption that human reason is trustworthy: The notion that a faculty which has evolved because it made us better fit to survive is also coincidentally a dependable guide to something else, truth, which has no necessary connection to human survival.

10. The assumption that we should value truth: The idea that truth should be esteemed more highly than competing values, like, for instance, personal comfort or group advancement.

11. The assumption that there is objective truth: This is the assumption that there is truth about the world that is independent of our own subjective biases, perceptions, etc.

12. The preference in science for naturalistic explanations: This is a preference based upon an untestable assumption that all knowable truth is found only in the natural realm.

13. Naturalistic abiogenesis: The belief that natural forces are sufficient in themselves to have produced life.

14. The assumption that if something is physically possible and mathematically elegant then, given the age of the universe, it probably happened.

15. The assumption that the cosmos is atelic: I.e. that it has no purpose.

16. The assumption that there's a world external to our own minds.

17. Materialistic reductionism: The conviction that all phenomena, including mental phenomena, can be ultimately explained solely in terms of physics and chemistry.

18. Assumption that the universe arose out of a "vacuum matrix" rather than out of nothing.

19. The appropriateness of making ethical claims regarding the environment, climate change, nuclear power, cloning, or genetic engineering. Ethical judgments lie beyond the scope of science but that doesn't stop scientists, qua scientists, from making them.

20. The Concept of the Meme: According to biologist Richard Dawkins memes are the cultural analog to genes. They are ideas or customs that are believed by Dawkins and others to get passed along according to their survival value rather than their truth value (see #9, above). An example of this, unfortunately, is the concept of the meme itself.

21. The criteria by which we distinguish science from non-science.

All of these transcend the realm of empirical science yet scientists like Coyne doubtless accept most of them. There's nothing wrong with this, of course, it's just that it's a bit disingenuous to claim that scientists confine themselves only to what is testable and empirical, as though scientists were concerned merely with accumulating and compiling facts about nature and not in trying to interpret what those facts mean. As soon as they do try to decipher the meaning of their data, however, they're doing the same thing that religion does, and that's why there's conflict.

There are two competing metanarratives vying for people's allegiance. One claims that nature is all there is and the other claims that nature, by itself, is inadequate to explain all we know about ourselves and the cosmos. Neither metanarrative is scientific, they're both metaphysical. The former seeks to infiltrate the culture under the guise of science, but it goes well beyond the pursuit of empirical knowledge. The naturalist, or materialist, believes that he alone should have the right to determine the meaning of scientific data, but why should he be granted that privilege? Why should an atheistic worldview be awarded supremacy over all competitors?

The role of science is to discover the data, and the role of philosophy is to determine which explanation best conforms to the data we have. Thus the conflict is not between science and religion, but between two disparate philosophical approaches to the data: atheism and theism, naturalism and supernaturalism. In that conflict science, properly understood, is neutral.