Some tiny creature, mad with wrath,

Is coming nearer on the path.

--Edward Gorey

Location: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, U.S. Outlying Islands

Writer, lawyer, cyclist, rock climber, wanderer of dark residential streets, friend.

Saturday, February 12, 2005

Science v. Religion, cont'd

This is a lively discussion, so I'd like to keep it on the front page. Joe Kearns, in response to my initial post on this topic, writes in part:

To teach science as if it were Truth is a violation of the spirit of science, which is always aware of its unanswered questions. The teaching of the "time plus chance" paradigm of Darwinism as "received fact" leads the young non-scientist to believe what ain't so...that "scientists believe" this answers all the origin questions. They do not. There is a real problem with the paradigm, and that problem raises a real question whether we live in a "closed system" (the a-theistic view) or an "open system" (the someone/something else is out there messin with us view.) You might find it interesting to note that Francis Crick, along with several other atheistic scientists, believe in "panspermia", the idea that life evolved outside our planet and was planted here, precisely because of problems with the paradigm like those pointed out by Behe. To say with the authority of a teacher or a textbook, "science has found no need for a creator in its explanations of the world" is a religious statement, and simply untrue to boot.

Can we really interpret the 1st Amendment to disallow the discussion whether a creator exists? Especially when our scientists are haveing precisely that debate?

First, I want to reemphasize that while in the abstract, I am hard-pressed to mount a compelling argument for denying children in public school access to this debate, if not for purposes of hinting at some metaphysical truth than perhaps as an object lesson in the nature of scientific inquiry, I am still troubled by the evidence I see of what actually happens when such an endeavor comes to be. I also should acknowledge my limitations in this discussion, insofar as my knowledge of what various school systems have been doing is restricted to what I read in newspapers and the blogosphere. I wouldn't bet my whole stack of chips on either of their myriad recommendations. Furthermore, I have to object gently to Kearns' implicitly instrumentalist approach to the First Amendment. I have worked for a number of judges, at the state and federal level. I submit that most judges, notwithstanding their leanings, would express grave concern about couching the interpretation of the Bill of Rights strictly in terms of what result a given interpretation may or may not have, the Right's empirically incoherent alarums about an "activist judiciary" notwithstanding. None of which means there isn't a legitimate question there; it's merely an objection to loose terminology in a tight area of law: to frame it circularly and yet I think accurately, we will interpret the First Amendment precisely as we should, based not on whether the Framers' short-sightedness engendered an amendment ill-equipped to accommodate the teleological debates of future centuries, but on what the amendment says (about the discovery of which, debate will ever rage, but should never reduce to "because this interpretation would cause this, it simply must be the wrong interpretation," such normative judgments having only a modest role in American jurisprudence), mindful that if it proves problematic enough it can be changed through the democratic process (although I wouldn't hold my breath until that happens). Of course, this hardly means that the First Amendment's implications for public education are clear or settled; neither is true, as evidenced by the ongoing debate.

Kearns and I agree that problems with, or limitations of Darwinian theory ought to be openly acknowledged. Legitimate alternatives warrant exploration. I feel the same way about the teaching of history. That I may have arrived at certain conclusions about the reasons for this or that event, or the intrinsic worth of this or that decision and outcome, I wouldn't deny our children access to as much historical data as possible so that they might form their own opinions. This is the nature of critical inquiry, and it ought to be the essence of our children's education. Sadly, it is not; the ability to think critically is being sundered to various ideogically loaded sacred cows and market imperatives. This bodes poorly for all sides of the debate: neither will Darwin nor ID be viewed with the sort of jaundiced skepticism that I think all claims to Fundamental Truth ought to be.

It's misleading, however, to claim that scientists simply do not believe Darwin works as a theory -- though I will readily grant that an assertion that a given theoretical framework obviates the explanatory need for a designer qua deity is, in some limited sense, a religous claim and ought to be evaluated on the same terms as any other religious claims. Natural selection as a complete theory retains its accomplished, articulate bevy of advocates. The late Stephen Gould comes to mind. That Hawking continues to struggle against the idea of a theological explanation does not discredit him per se -- most would agree he is among the most brilliant scientists the world has known. It's unfair to ascribe to him a truculence, as though even were his explorations to lead him ineluctably to a deistic explanation he would reject it as part of some conspiracy-of-one to mislead the world. Furthermore, we find more than just ID or Frick's "panspermia" proffered up as theoretical constructs to help us get from there to here. Robert Wright's Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny, while focusing on the past few tens of thousands of years of human development, posits various constructs for understanding a sort of directedness to evolution that requires no designer or creator. Granted, Wright does not attempt to account for the early leaps of complexity that Behe identifies as the biggest problems for NS, but it still might inform the debate. Kurzweil's work on machine intelligence and perhaps spirituality (his word) also might bear on the topic. And I'm confident that there are others.

The problem -- and the source of my reflexive concern vis-a-vis education -- is that it's wrongheaded to treat NS and ID (taking two dominant examples and letting them stand in for the larger spectrum of accounts) as mutually inconsistent. As I understand Behe's ID, it wouldn't supplant NS. Rather, it takes the fossil record and the evidence of widespread and sweeping natural adaptation as granted. The principle issue is that there is a gap in the NS account, and ID offers an explanation at least as credible as any other. As I began to note earlier, I don't thnk this is how the situation is seen among those teachers, administrators, and parents who are most outspoken in their determination to see ID in the classroom. For those NS-is-just-a-theory types, ID does or ought to supplant Darwin's account as the superior account -- not for its ability to address small problems in an exhaustively documented, verified, and predictive theory but for its suggestion of something wholly outside that theory. That's not Behe's ID, and it's not one that I think is defensible in public education.

The idea of truth is, of course, problematic in the sciences. But as far as theories go, NS has tremendous evidentiary support in its broad strokes -- indeed, I question whether many biological theories are more irrefutable at the general level. Whether some designer interceded early in the process, or whether the initial building blocks came from some extraterrestrial source (which to my mind is the same thing, because if this stuff was too complicated to occur here as posited by NS, it also would have been too complicated to occur spontaneously elsewhere, thus, no matter how long the consequent regress, even Frick's account ultimately requires some first step in establishing complexity somewhere -- in a word, a designer), is irrelevant to whether NS is just another theory when its explanatory power is so robust and its empirical underpinnings so widespread and well understood. If there's a gap somewhere along the way, students should know about it. But that's very different than saying students should be taught that NS theory is merely on a par with others that are less thoroughly validated by such voluminous evidence. That is why I previously said I believed NS is the Alpha and the Omega: should any of these alternative theories go so far as, or be presented as going so far as, to cast into doubt the basic principles of NS, I think they have left the realm of science and broken decisively toward religion (or metaphysics, if you prefer). And it's there that the First Amendment as it has been consistently interpreted comes into play.

Which leads me to qualify an overstatement I made earlier: perhaps it is not impossible to present ID as one possible solution to a fairly fine-grained problem with NS. Maybe that particular (Behe-ian) presentation of ID is entirely acceptable under the First Amendment. I still hold that we would have to be ever vigilant with regard to the individual treatments of the issue by the many educators who have indicated their willingness to use the chalkboard as a pulpit.

And now if you'll excuse me, my brain hurts.

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Blogger brian said...

Whilst work is too pressing to think about this too much at the moment, one pop culture moment comes to mind, via Friends...Ross is expounding on the perfect nature of evolutionary theory when Phoebe reminds him that once scientists thought the atom to be the smallest unit of matter until one day, oops, they broke it and out spilled all sorts of other independent bits and pieces.

9:16 AM  

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