Gideon's Blog

In direct contravention of my wife's explicit instructions, herewith I inaugurate my first blog. Long may it prosper.

For some reason, I think I have something to say to you. You think you have something to say to me? Email me at: gideonsblogger -at- yahoo -dot- com

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Tuesday, July 12, 2005
Okay, I'll take the Ben Adler test.

Do I believe in evolution? Yes, but people tend to confuse the meanings of both "believe" and "evolution" so I'll be clear. I "believe" in evolution because I find it the only scientific theory with substantial evidence - the best explanation by far we have of how complex life came to be. I do not "believe" it in the sense that I "believe" in God or even in the sense that I "believe" in empiricism and the scientific method; rather, I am persuaded by the evidence that the theory of evolution is true.

By "evolution" one might mean simply that complex life evolved from simpler forms, and that forms generally have proliferated, by an unspecified mechanism. Such a theory preceded Darwin and is accepted by anyone not a biblical literalist. If you don't believe in evolution in this sense, then you must believe in some version of miraculous creation of all the diversity of life ex nihilo. I wish someone would ask an intelligent design "theorist" whether he or she believes that, and why such a thing should be taught in science classrooms.

But there are non-Darwinian theories that accept the idea of evolution. Lamarck believed in evolution - he thought traits could be acquired by experience and passed down to subsequent generations, thereby producing change. Erwin Schroedinger among others speculated that evolution was guided by some kind of vitalism. The notion that there must be some force pulling things up the evolutionary ladder is very appealing because it is easy to reconcile with religious doctrines of an active, involved God, and with the idea that humans are special, placed at the "top" of an evolutionary pyramid. When Cardinal Christoph Schonborn says that belief in evolution is compatible with Catholic doctrine, but not belief in "random" or "unguided" evolution, he is drawing a distinction between these other evolutionary theories and Darwinian evolution. Religious people who say they believe in evolution usually mean something like this: a version of evolution that is not Darwinian.

No such theory has scientific support. Darwin's unique insight was to come up with a plausible mechanism whereby random mutation could lead to relatively rapid change in an organism. The mechanism is natural selection: those mutations that increase an organism's likelihood of survival in a given environment will become more prevalent in subsequent generations simply because proportionally more organisms with that mutation will survive. No other forces are needed. There is no evidence of any kind for such other forces - none for Lamarckian evolution, but also none for vitalism or other "guided" forms of evolution. Occam's Razor therefore demands that the hypothesis that such forces exist be rejected. So I reject them. When I say I believe in evolution, I mean I believe not only in common ancestry but that natural selection is the only known mechanism driving evolution, and that other hypothesized forces are without current empirical support.

Do I believe evolution should be taught in public schools, and if so, how? I believe that the schools should teach science in science class. Darwinian evolution is the only theory with empirical support today. I have no problem with classes pointing out "unsolved problems" in evolutionary theory. I have no problem with classes pointing out that evolutionary theory says nothing about the origins of life itself, much less the origin of the universe as such. I have no problem with classes teaching some history of science - how scientists can get it wrong (geocentrism, phlogiston, phrenology, etc.) and how science self-corrects over long periods of time. I think it's salutary for science classes to explain the difference between science and scientism, to explain what kinds of questions science is and is not competant to answer, and to explain that all scientific theories are tentative, subject to disconfirmation and supercession by more powerful theories. But that doesn't change the fact that Darwinian evolution has scientific support, and no other theory does. The theory of evolution should be thoroughly integrated into the biology curriculum, not treated as something especially suspect or questionable.

What do I think of intelligent design? I think it's fundamentally dishonest in that it poses as a scientific theory whereas at best it is a critique of a scientific theory. I have no problem with critiques of scientific theories - I welcome them. If a biology teacher chose to teach a paper by David Berlinski critiquing Darwinian evolution, and then a rebuttal by an evolutionary biologist, I think that would be salutary. But a "theory" that amounts to a belief in miracles has no place whatsoever in a science class. As such "intelligent design" does not belong in schools.

Should schools leave open the possibility that man was created by God in his present form, and if so, in what class should they do so? Not as such, no. Or, let me put it this way: a science teacher could say something like this. Science proceeds on the assumption that every effect in nature has a cause in nature. Causes that come from outside of nature cannot be assessed scientifically. That doesn't mean they are wrong; if a God exists, and has the attributes usually ascribed to the Christian God, that God can do anything at all, certainly including creating man in his current form. But that's not something science can assess. If you want to do science, you have to do it according to the scientific method. And if you want to know how to reconcile that method and its conclusions with your religious beliefs, do not ask me; ask your pastor, or whomever you turn to for guidance on your religious beliefs. I can't help you there - in fact, it would be wrong of me to try to.

I don't think any class in a public school should teach religion. I don't have any problem with public schools allowing their space to be used for voluntary religious classes or other meetings after school hours. If a pastor or other religious leader wants to teach on this question in such a setting, be my guest. You could certainly talk about such beliefs in a class about religion, or teaching the Bible as literature, but I don't think that is really what people mean when they ask this question.

Is there anything one can say, beyond saying that science can't explain where nature itself comes from, or that there are problems science hasn't yet solved - and may, perhaps, never solve? Well, you could say that there are plenty of scientists who believe that "God" is the only possible answer to the question of where nature itself comes from. There's a famous piece by, I think, Fred Hoyle about how he came to entertain the idea that there was a God when he realized just how finely callibrated the universal constants are, how matter itself as we know it wouldn't exist if those constants were ever so slightly altered, to say nothing of the possibility of life. I wouldn't have a problem with a teacher - including a science teacher - teaching such a piece of material. But again, that there are, indeed, many scientists who believe this doesn't make it so, of course, and a teacher would be going too far to say, "and therefore it can be proved that there is a God who created the universe" or something like that. Nor does even that statement answer any of the obvious questions of how a scientific worldview may be reconciled with the notion of a personal God. But I don't think a public school has the competancy nor the authority to help students find that reconciliation, if one can be found at all.

Taking a different tack, I think that in a class on moral philosophy it would not be inappropriate to point out the degree to which the core assumptions of a liberal order are historically derived and arguably dependent on the belief that man is of divine origin. See, for example, the Declaration of Independence. That would be salutary on many levels, because there will surely be students who hold to conventional assumptions about, say, human rights without thinking why there should be such things as rights, and why humans should have them. But again, that's a rather different thing from teaching that man was created by God in his present form, or even that such a thing is "possible" in the sense that scientists use the word.

I'm afraid that there's no easy way to accommodate the feelings of those whose religious beliefs are traduced by Darwinian evolution. And virtually every real believer's beliefs are so traduced. Darwin is very, very hard to square with any kind of theism, because all theisms I'm aware of "privilege" man as a being of special divine concern, and a good scientist would have to say, honestly, that if God was concerned with man, He certainly went about bringing him into being in a rather round-about fashion. But, more to the point, science as such is hard to square with theism, because theists posit a God who is involved in the universe, and science posits a universe whose workings can be explained in their own terms, without reference outside other than with respect to the origin of the system itself. It's worthwhile remembering that, well before Darwin, mechanical theories of the human mind (as, for example, Thomas Hobbes articulated) ran profoundly counter to any sort of religious sensibility, and more modern versions of such theories continue to do so. Darwin is threatening to the religious sensibility because his theory actually has explanatory power - it actually reduces the zone of mystery. The hostility to Darwin's theory (and that hostility is not confined to the political right - rather, left-leaning individuals are happy to say they believe in evolution, but resolutely unwilling to accept what that implies in terms of how the world works) is not due to the theory's weaknesses, but to its strengths.

For myself, I'm a theist of sorts. I believe that there is a God, that He created the heavens and the earth, and that He is mindful of me. Beyond that, everything I believe religiously is a matter of accepting or quarrelling with my tradition. When I say I believe, with perfect faith, in the coming of the Messiah, and even though he tarry (and he does seem to tarry, doesn't he?) even so I expect him every day that he should come - when I say this (and I can say this), I mean something different from saying that "I believe in God" and something different again from "I believe the sun will rise tomorrow." I may need to bring William James into the conversation to help me out here. I believe, pragmatically, in science, because science works, and I recognize that science is a discipline with integrity that cannot be violated if it is to continue to work. As such, I'm not willing to make exceptions when science comes up with results that are unappealing. I believe, pragmatically, in God, and His mindfulness, because I do not know how to be otherwise. I believe, pragmatically, in the coming of the Messiah, etc., etc., because I recognize that this believe is woven through the fabric of the Jewish faith, not to be rooted out, and I accept that faith and try to work within it, which sometimes I am able to do and sometimes not. But I keep trying. Fortunately for my own religious sensibility, Judaism does not treat faith as a discipline; that is the job of practice, and I'm bad enough at accepting that discipline and practicing as a Jew is supposed to; heaven knows how I would chafe under the other.