Sunday, April 14, 2002
Reading two book simultaneously: Israel in Egypt : The Evidence for the Authenticity of the Exodus Tradition by James K. Hoffmeier and The Trial of Socrates by I. F. Stone. Book reviews forthcoming when I finish either or both. But the conjunction of the two books in my head, combined with too much sake last night, generated the following insight:
Israel in Egypt is a debunking of a recent trend of extreme skepticism of the biblical account of the Exodus. The contention of the author is that such skepticism is in fact ideologically determined - that the "historical minimalist" school begins with a radical skepticism about the historicity of the bible not because they are radically skeptical about everything but because they want to undermine the biblical account for ideological reasons. This impression is reinforced by the fact that these authors frequently indulge in wild speculations of their own in an attempt to make some sense of ancient Near Eastern history without the biblical account as a guide. Rather than rely on that account, they rely on highly suspect modern sociological or literary-critical theories and come to extremely unlikely conclusions - for example, that many of the bible's books were originally written later than the generally agreed-upon date for their first translation in the Septuagint! An apparent skepticism is thus a mask for a strong belief.
Stone's book is an attempt to make sense of the trial of Socrates in modern terms - to "debunk" Socrates and enable us to understand why Athens would execute the man generally considered to be the founder of the Western philosophical tradition. And what comes out immediately is the bizarre apparent contradiction between Socrates' epistemology and his political thought. Socrates famous declared that all he knew was that he knew nothing. He held to the principle that what was not absolutely true was meaningless, and therefore sought to establish truth by coming to clear definitions of abstractions that were generally held to be true - such as virtue, justice, holiness. By means of such absolute definitions he believed he would come to true knowledge of these philosophical fundamentals. But the conclusion of most of his dialogues is that such definitions cannot be found. His dialectic was relentlessly negative, breaking down the definitions and understandings advanced by other but offering no alternatives of his own. Hence his conclusion that he was the only wise man on earth because at least he knew that he knew nothing. And yet, Socrates' political program was to advance the rule of "those who know" - the experts with the necessary knowledge to rule correctly. The same man who was radically skeptical about the possibility of such knowledge was also in favor of a radically authoritarian politics centered around rule by the knowledgeable. Again, skepticism appears to be connected with strong belief.
In so many of our contemporary controversies that appear to have a theological dimension, skepticism and faith appear to be sword and shield held equally by both sides. A highly-charged example: the continued battle over the teaching of evolution. Evolution is properly understood as the only theory still standing that may explain the origins of complex life. It is not a scientific theory on the order of, say, the theory of relativity because it cannot, in the nature of the beast, make detailed and testable predictions about the future, and falsifiability is what makes a theory truly scientific. Precisely because it is not falsifiable, it has been elevated to a status of religious dogma by many of its adherents. Evolution is presented as evidence for a godless universe, where in fact it, like all science, is predicated on the assumption that the universe has inflexible laws that are never violated - a universe where there is no room for divine intervention. To use evolution as "evidence" against God's existence is merely to reassert evolution's premise, and the premise of all modern science. Evolution is pressed into service to explain phenomena far beyond the biological - sociological, psychological, spiritual - and, again, there is a recurrent pattern of asserting a conclusion, and then using the conclusion as "evidence" to prove the original premise. Sociobiology and evolutionary psychology have long since abandoned the rigors of science; rather, like Freudian psychoanalysis or Marxism (the last century's preeminent pseudo-scientific dogmas), these "disciplines" involve the contortion of "theory" treated as dogma to conform that theory to whatever pre-set conclusion the author has already in mind. The goal is not to understand phenomena more deeply, the better to predict the future (which is the purpose of a real scientific theory) but to advance the prestige and apparent explanatory power of the dogmatic theory. The theory of natural selection is founded on skepticism: on the assertion, consistent with Occam's razor, that if no other force but chance variation is required to explain the development of complex life then no such other force exists. But this proper skepticism has been married to a strong faith, a faith that has corrupted the teaching of evolution into a dogma that threatens to obscure our understanding of the world rather than enlighten it.
And yet, the most prominent of the opponents of the theory of evolution are themselves married to strong faiths: the old faith in an intelligent cosmic design. Critics like David Berlinski have reported on the existence of a small but growing number of scientists for whom science is now providing support for a belief in God. This is, to my mind - and I think to his as well - fully as pernicious as the notion that science has refuted the grounds for a belief in God. All scientific findings are, in principle, falsifiable. A belief in God, for it to be properly called belief, is in principle non-falsifiable. Science should properly be no threat to such a belief, nor should it provide any support for such belief. It is both reasonable and necessary for Darwin's "good idea" to come under the same kind of criticism that any other historical theory has. Darwin was not a prophet; he did not deliver us an eternal truth never to be questioned. He was not even Isaac Newton, in that the theory he propounded was not properly scientific. But if Darwin comes under successful criticism, that should offer no comfort at all to the bastard notion of creation science, for any notion of intelligent design necessarily fails more tests than Darwin would, because the essential postulate of such "theories" - that there is a God responsible for all things, and that this being is endowed with certain attributes understood through introspection rather than empirical investigation - is inescapably unscientific. If Darwin comes under successful assault, scientists should properly be humbled, and admit how little they know. They should be unafraid, however, to remain scientists, and to reject out of hand theories that are not prepared to stand or fall by the evidence.
More on this topic in the future.