26 January 2005

Show me a photo of Darwinism, please!

Glenn Reynolds has a photo of the Mars landscape, posted here, and stamped with a notice that: "Spherical planets and interstellar bodies are are [sic] theory, not a fact. Please view these picture with an open mind."

"I GUESS," says Reynolds, "THIS WILL BE NEXT, from various under-informed Boards of Education." His target, I'm sure, is the warning sticker in some science textbooks regarding evolution.

On one hand, he makes a good point: scepticism about something you can see, or see a picture of, is rather ridiculous.

On the other hand, his point would have been better made had he posted a photograph of Darwinism, with the same warning sticker on it. In other words, his attempt at a comparison fails; for the two things he wants to compare are not relevantly similar.

What he wants to assert, apparently, is that writing off evolution as a theory is as silly as writing off spherical plantets and interstellar bodies as theories, as well as that doing so is the work of the under-informed. In fact, what he actually does, as far as I am concerned, is point out the differences between the theories of (a) spherical planets and interstellar bodies and (b) Darwinism. You can at least photograph spherical planets and interstellar bodies. You cannot photograph evolution. (And saying that you can photograph the results of evolution is to beg the question.)

This all reminds me of a time in one of my earliest philosophy classes. One of the students expressed some doubt about the theory of evolution precisely because it was "only a theory." Our professor retorted, "Well gravity is only a theory, but you're not goint to jumping off a tall building because of that, now are you?"

Let's think about gravity for a moment. Isn't it true that gravity's being only a theory is not a sufficient reason for jumping from a tall building? One wants to say yes. But to do so is to fail to distinguish between: (1) the fact that objects fall to earth at an acceleration of 32 feet per second per second and (2) the theory that explains why this is so. When one says that gravity is only a theory, one is confusing things a bit. It is not only a theory that objects, including people jumping from buildings, fall to earth; it is an observable fact. One can say of the explanation for why this is so that it (i.e., the explanation) is only a theory, but that would not make it safe to jump from tall buildings.

The theory of evolution seeks to explain the unity and diversity of life. It is an observable fact that life exhibits both unity and diversity. And any theory about life must offer an explanation for this. Here, the unity and diversity of life compare with the fact that objects fall to earth. And the evolutionary explanation for why this is so compares with the explanation for why objects fall to earth.

And so, it is not as ludicrous to write off evolution as only a theory as it would be to write off planets as being such. An explanation for why there are planets is not the same thing as a planet, or a picture of one. An explanation for why there is unity and diversity to life is not the same as that unity and diversity.

Glenn Reynolds comparison just doesn't work. Nice try, though. (Yes, a nice try at a cheap shot.)

As long as I'm on the subject of evolution: It is difficult for me, even now, to understand evolutionists' sad devotion to a theory that really has nothing going for it. When I was an atheist I had trouble with the theory precisely because no experiments can be performed on origins. Yet I could not explain to myself how scientists could accept it if it were not true. It must be, I thought, that they are so very much smarter than me. I no longer think that. (Well, Steven Hawking is pretty smart.)

The other thing that bothered me was evolution's lack of predictability. Evolution relies on chance, making it rather difficult to make predictions from. Compare this with a theory like that of gravity, with a mathmatical formula allowing us to make fairly accurate predictions. Where is the mathmatical formula for Darwinism that would enable us to predict where evolution is going?

Evolution is a theory about the past, like theories about the fall of the Roman empire. However it fell, Rome is gone. Theories about its fall are ultimately speculative, and not subject to experimentation, to proof, or to probabilification. And neither are theories of origins.

On the other hand, the non-theist's devotion to evolutionary theory is highly understandable. For the first time ever, really, in human history, Darwinism made it intellectually respectable to be an atheist. But, more than that, being committed to non-theism, they have, as it were, no place else to go. No matter how flawed the theory may be with respect to experimentation, predictability, or even circular reasoning (e.g., "transitional forms"), they have, apart from conversion, no place else to go. In the end, it's all about the role that ultimate commitments play. Even an atheist must be granted his own creation myth.

Regarding Jonathan Rauch's article/Vox Blogoli

I just don't see the negative insinuation in the passage from Rauch:

"On balance it is probably healthier if religious conservatives are inside the political system than if they operate as insurgents and provocateurs on the outside. Better they should write anti-abortion planks into the Republican platform than bomb abortion clinics. The same is true of the left. The clashes over civil rights and Vietnam turned into street warfare partly because activists were locked out of their own party establishments and had to fight, literally, to be heard. When Michael Moore receives a hero’s welcome at the Democratic National Convention, we moderates grumble; but if the parties engage fierce activists while marginalizing tame centrists, that is probably better for the social peace than the other way around."
It is easy to see here an insinuation that religious conservatives are the kind of people who, if left out of the political system, will operate as "insurgents and provocateurs".

I admit that, on its face, the passage does seem to intimate that religious conservatives are the kind of people who--among other things--blow up abortion clinics.

On the other hand, let's exegete our culture a bit before leaving off at exegesis of this portion of Rauch's piece. Ever since I converted to faith in Jesus Christ in 1988 (from that brand of atheism called Nihilism), I have heard two assertions, from the Left regarding Christians and politics. First, that Christians' views are so far out of the mainstream that they ought not be accorded a place within the tent of either of the two major parties. The rationale if examined goes, I think, something like this: What religious conservatives (particularly Christians) seem to want is a theocracy. But our political system provides for a rigid separation between religion and government. So, by definition, religious conservatives, have, and can have, no place at the table. Second, I heard precisely that religious conservative are indeed the kind of people who would bomb abortion clinics, and have done. Indeed, so vehemently were these assertions argued at the university I attended that, for some time after my conversion, I did not--at school, anyway--let it be widely known that I was a Christian. Not because I was ashamed of Jesus Christ, but because I did not want to be erroneously associated with wackos who blow up abortion clinics. (I soon got over this.)

Rauch does not have to insinuate anything. There are people who will out and out assert what he supposedly insinuates. I see know reason, given a cultural exegesis that takes into account what many already believe, for understanding Rauch as saying anything other than that (to re-write him a bit): "On the hypothesis that religious conservatives are the kind of people who, if left out of the political system, will operate as insurgents and provocateurs and who, aslo, will bomb abortion clinics, then [o]n balance it is probably healthier if religious conservatives are inside the political system... ."

I am aware, of course, all of this argument relied on just the single paragraph that Hugh originally gave us. Now that we have the whole item, I am still fairly certain that Rauch was not intending to make the insinuation that it appears, at first glance, that he was.

What is telling, for me, is this bit right here: "The clashes over civil rights and Vietnam turned into street warfare partly because activists were locked out by their own party establishments and had to fight, literally, to be heard." Note the phrase, "turned into". Rauch seems fairly clearly not to be asserting that religious conservatives are the kind of people who bomb abortion clinics and so forth, but that, if locked out of the system, they can be turned into that kind. If it were already the case, why would he issue a warning? Otherwise, he would be asserting that religious conservatives are, presently, outside the system and need to be brought in. But what he actually has said, up to this point, is precisely that religious conservatives are inside the system. Indeed, before we get to this portion of his text, we have seen him say that religious conservatives are within the mainstream of the Republican Party. As he is drawing the lines, to be in the mainstream is precisely not to be engaging in insurgency and abortion clinic bombings.

It is clear to me that his argument is against those who bemoan the fact that religious conservatives are mainstream Republicans. His argument very cleary, at this point in his text, is simply this: It is better that they be part of the mainstream, part of the system, because if not, they could turn ugly.

We might take offense at the insinuation that we religious conservatives might, at some point down the road, ever resort to violence. But as religious conservatives, especially Christians, we cannot assert an inability to do evil. What man knows what he might do in circumstances he believes to be desperate?
18 January 2005

Truth not as important as "right" beliefs

Many in science claim to be unfettered by anything that could be called orthodoxy. This is a special consideration when "scientists" (i.e., scientists who believe in naturalism) confront either "creationist" or "intelligent design" theorists (i.e., scientists who do not believe in naturalism, a.k.a. non-scientists or anti-scientists).

The recent furor over remarks made by Harvard Professor Larry Sommers are quite revealing when one thinks about it, and then connects it with something else. Sommers is being criticized for suggesting that innate differences between the sexes may explain why fewer women than men succeed in science and math careers. He also expressed some scepticism of the view that role discrimination plays any part in keeping female scientists and engineers from advancing at elite universities. Nancy Hopkins, MIT biology professor and Harvard graduate, walked out on Sommers' talk.

Presumably, Sommers was talking about certain theories based on some body of scholarly work which he had assembled for the discussion. Ostensibly, he was not talking about his own views.

Note what Hopkins says about her reason for walking out: "It is so upsetting that all these brilliant young women are being led by a man who views them this way." What is telling about Hopkins's explanation is that there is no indication that any research the Sommers may have had in mind, or even in hand, is false. In other words, facts do not matter to Hopkins; what matters to Hopkins is beliefs, or attitudes. On Hopkins's view Sommers commits the sin of holding the unorthodox belief that (1) there are innate differences between males and females and (2) these differences could account for the prevalence of males in math and science better than social factors do. It seems to matter very little whether there are any facts that would support, or even defeat, the assertion. What we have here is orthodox belief (i.e., the prevalence of males is due to social factors) versus unorthodox belief (i.e., the prevalence of males is due to innate differences between males and females). The actual truth doesn't matter. Facts are irrelevant.

Hopkins's problem with Sommers is not about what the facts are. No, she told Katie Couric that her problem is Sommers's attitude, his belief.

So, it is not that Sommers's facts are not wrong. His belief is. He has apologizied three times for daring to assert that a belief (that he does not share) may need to be given some consideration. This belief--that perhaps innate differences between males and females may account for the prevalence of males over females in math and science--is not rejected because it has been proven false. It is rejected because it does not square with what can only be, for Hopkins and her ilk, an orthodox doctrine.

You see, in order for this belief to have been proven false one of two conditions must hold: first, it must be proven that there are no innate differences between males and females; second, even if there are innate differences between males and females, this set of differences is wholly unrelated to the prevalence of males over females in math and sciences. But, as far as Hopkins and her ilk are concerned, the questions are not even allowed to be asked. Merely inquiring into the possibility is heterodox, and therefore not to be tolerated.

Hopkins is a biology professor, a scientist. So what we have here is a scientist with her own brand of orthodox belief. Hmmmmmm. I wonder how she feels about Intelligent Design theory. In some school districts across the nation, there are ongoing attempts to include some mention of intelligent design theory in science textbooks. In these jurisdictions, the A.C.L.U. and others have asserted that the teaching of intelligent design theory conflicts with the Constitution's separation of church and state. Most responses have tried to remind us all that the Constitution contains no such provision. Indeed, it does not. But there is a more serious issue.

Think of what the A.C.L.U. and others are ultimately saying. Let's assume (1) that Intelligent Design just happens to be true and, just for present purposes, (2) that the truth of Intelligent Design necessarily implies the faslity of (macro-) evolution. On the A.C.L.U.'s view, the Constitution, in effect, requires the teaching of falsity, because the truth in this matter by lending support to religion, conflicts with the Constitution's required separation of church and state. In other words, (macro-) evolution could continue to be taught, even though (in accordance with our two assumptions above) it is false, because even though it is false it does not conflict with the Constitution. Intelligent Design, however, would be prohibited from being taught, even though it is true, because the teaching of it would conflict with the doctrine of the separation of church and state.

I have long suggested, in my little spere of influence, that evolution is merely the non-theist's creation orthodoxy. Many, in my little spere, have ridiculed the idea that scientists have any beliefs that are orthodox and for the sake of which they reject conflicting beliefs out of hand. Thank you, Nancy Hopkins, for making it more believable that scientists do, in fact, have certain beliefs that are orthodox.



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James Frank SolĂ­s
Former soldier (USA). Graduate-level educated. Married 26 years. Texas ex-patriate. Ruling elder in the Presbyterian Church in America.
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