Saturday, February 24, 2007

Swimming Upstream -- Again

Revised Feb 25, 2007

So I'm just doing my usual Saturday morning blog post last week. I was busy and didn't really have anything I was burning to say. I imported an interesting article I had seen on WorldNetDaily, tinkered with it, added a few off-hand comments, and posted it here, thinking all the time, "Nobody reads this anyway."

Wrong.

How a computer programmer in Germany stumbled onto my post in the first place is an intriguing question, but even more interesting was his response to my post on his blog. If you take the time to check out the comments following each of our posts, you will find an interesting discussion that runs the gamut on the evolution debate.

I don't know about other bloggers, but I generally enjoy comments. One problem, though, is that you never know -- especially when it is from someone anonymous -- whether their remark is just a drive-by comment or a serious intent to engage. Consequently, when discussion does ensue, it often evolves like a live conversation, not like a formal debate that proceeds in some kind of logical order. Time also becomes a limiting factor as one tries to read, think, and compose while also trying to work or be a family guy. So trying to carry on a serious discussion on two blogs in two widely divergent time zones makes it easy for the conversation to start going in circles.

Difficulty arises during discussions on evolution because they can encompass science, philosophy, religion, and politics. My original post was really intended as a political statement more than a scientific or even a religious one. Apparently that was not clear, and I was confronted both on the scientific and religious fronts by Ben and Teresa (her blog here). So in case Ben (aka blc303 and bc_news@gmx.net) makes it back, I want to try to clear up some of the confusion by consolidating my position with an example.

I don't know many people who are really interested in the minutiae of the controversy, such as whether or not there are errors in logic on either side, gaps in the fossil record, or if there really is such a thing as "irreducible complexity". Going into all that causes most of their eyes to glaze over. Instead, most people seem to want a simple answer to the question, "How did we get here?"

Is this a scientific question, or is it a philosophical one? Well, both.

The fact that the question spans disciplines was not a problem before the current era because the arbitrary lines between them did not exist. In fact, the pioneers of modern science thought that science revealed divine truth about the nature of our world. For example:

The Holy bible and the phenomena of nature proceed alike from the Divine Word... God is known ... by Nature in His works and by doctrine in His revealed word. (Galileo Galilei 1594-1642)

The Book of Revelation exhibits to us the same peculiarities as that of Nature ... But though the system of revealed truth which this Book contains is, like that of the universe, concealed from common observation, yet the labors of the centuries have established its Divine origin, and developed in all its order and beauty the great plan of human restoration. (Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727)
Other great pioneers of science who were devout believers include Robert Boyle (born 1627, chemistry), Michael Faraday (1791-1867, physics), Johannes Kepler (1571-1630, astronomy). There are prominent scientists alive today with great faith, such as Francis Collins, director of the Human Genome Project, and Terry Hamblin, Professor of Immunohaematology Southampton and occasional contributor to this blog.

In any case, over time it became evident that the scientific method -- which has been such a productive tool for getting us where we are today -- is inadequate for answering questions that transcend the natural world. As a result, philosophy and science diverged. Such splitting did not mean that being a good scientist required abandonment of one's faith, but it became "improper" to attempt to use philosophy to advance a scientific idea (though not as much vice versa).

Science became king and the arbiter of what is "true" in the minds of many, primarily because scientific truth claims can be tested by physical experiments, whereas in philosophy, truth claims cannot be subjected to the same kind of analysis. Therefore, science became thought of as the producer of "facts" while products of philosophy (which includes religious thought) were relegated to "opinion", the two never again supposed to mix.

So a problem occurs when people start doing just that -- crossing the line from one approach to the other, mixing science and philosophy, fact and opinion. And with the sheer volume of knowledge being produced in every discipline in the world, it is not always easy to sort out which is which, or even to know all there is to know to make an informed decision. It is extremely complicated, but the job of teachers is to try to simplify things in a way that students can begin to understand.

So how do people cross the line? Well, take this hypothetical, yet representative example.

A student in a biology class asks, "What about this apparently irreducibly complex system? How did that happen?" The teacher, following the evolution text, will answer, "Time. It just took a very, very, very long time." But then another student asks, "Gee, but it almost looks like somebody designed this. Do ya think?"

Whoops! Can't ask that question. This is science class. Gotta go to philosophy class to tackle that one.

It might be okay if it stopped there. But it doesn't. There are ideologues who will answer the philosophical question in science class by saying, "Yes, Johnny, our god made it." And there are other ideologues who will say, "Oh, Sarah, there is no god. I know it seems complex, but the world we live in is the product of random events and natural selection."

Bad. Very bad. In this country, with its plethora of lawyers and easily-offended populace, such remarks get reported, and what was first a question about science and philosophy easily and quickly becomes a legal issue.

Some judge or some jury issues an opinion, but the losing side doesn't like it. So now it becomes a political issue because Johnny and Sarah's parents don't want ideologues forcing some pro-God or anti-God claim upon their kids. They start lobbying for their world view to predominate in the school and society. So instead of having a calm discussion, people argue, and they sue each other, and then they forget what the question was in the first place.

"Evolution" -- whatever that means -- is dogma now. It is everywhere. It is assumed. It is legal. It is politically correct. It is sacrosanct. Like it or not, and admit it or not, it has become a powerful tool some use to remove the need for god from conversation, from contemplation, from explanation, for moral grounding. While some resist, most just go on living out their lives, hoping it doesn't really matter.

But in the end, did anyone really give us the best answer to the simple question, "How did we get here?" Is it enough to respond, "Evolution"?

Most products of government schools will answer, "yes." But I wouldn't.

When society drew the line between science class and philosophy class, dictating what could be taught in each, it inadvertently created a problem, and it is this problem which makes this whole subject so difficult to discuss.

Debates go on within science class about various aspects of the natural world. Debates also occur in philosophy class about the nature of man, the nature of god, etc. But what happens when a student asks the same question in each class and is given a different answer?

This is what the current Great Debate is about. When the science class and the philosophy class disagree, who decides which is right? It would be helpful if the two classes could talk to each other to see whether the differences can be reconciled. Personally, I feel this is what the Intelligent Design movement is attempting to do. But as long as we insist upon keeping the two disciplines separate, claiming that any mixing would contaminate the other, then we'll simply keep fighting until someone gives up or until one side conquers by force, never really knowing if we were right.