Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Sins of evolutionists and creationists

(Additional reading...)

Frederick Turner considers evolution to be proved. Nevertheless, he seems to wish "a pox on both your houses". He considers both sides of the debate to have sinned.

On the sins of the creationist contingent, he notes:

...the sin is intellectual dishonesty. It begins innocently as a wise recognition that faith must precede reason, even if the faith is only in reason itself. But under pressure from a contemptuous academic elite the appeal to faith rapidly becomes anti-intellectualism and what Socrates identified as a great sin, "misologic" or treason against the Logos, against reason itself – in religious terms, a sin against the Holy Spirit. Under further pressure it resorts to rhetorical dishonesty and hypocrisy, to an attempt to appropriate the garments of science and reason, and so we get "creation science", the misuse of the term "intelligent design", the whole grotesque solemn sham of pseudoscientific periodicals and conferences on creation science, and a lame parade of scientific titles and degrees. A lie repeated often enough convinces the liar, and many creationists may now have forgotten that they are lying at all.

...continued in full post...

Indeed, it seems as if creationists believe that science behaves like a religious order. The way to do battle with it is to adopt the trappings of the order, use the vocabulary, cite "proof texts" that support your point of view, and if you convince enough of the masses, the church will slowly move to align with the view you've been pushing. At the very least, you can provoke a schism, and your side of the schism can wage war against the infidels.

In a way, this argument seems to be that creationism has taken to lying about science, but it's an understandable reaction to the way academia has treated religion. I hope he's not making that argument – as I see it, this may explain, but it does not excuse, the falsehoods spread by creationists.

And indeed, he comes down more heavily against the evolutionists.

The polemical evolutionists are right about the truth of evolution. But the rightness of their cause has been deeply compromised by their own version of the creationists' sin. The evolutionists' sin, as I see it, is even greater, because it is three sins rolled into one.

Wow! A trinity!

The first is a profound failure of the imagination, which comes from a certain laziness and complacency. Somehow people, who should, because of their studies in biology, have been brought to a state of profound wonder and awe at the astonishing beauty and intricacy and generosity of nature, can think of nothing better to say than to gloomily pronounce it all meaningless and valueless.

It seems odd to claim that scientists have a "profound failure of the imagination". As I look at science, I see any number of ideas that are perfectly capable of turning a person's head inside out. The very notion of evolution, for example. I personally attribute the trouble so many have accepting it to a profound failure of imagination.

In any event, I'd love to see some examples of biologists pronouncing nature to be without value or meaning, gloomily or otherwise. I'm not at all sure what Mr. Tuner is talking about.

I suspect what Mr. Turner is complaining about is biologists who don't believe nature has the exact meaning he attributes it. It's possible he's been led astray by the statement that the processes that gave rise to everything in nature operated without any particular purpose. The only problem here is that nothing in science assumes any sort of purpose behind the workings of natural law. Science can observe that the gravitational constant is 6.67 X 10-11 N-m2/Kg2. Science can work out the effects of this fact on the rest of the universe. But it can't say, without a lot more evidence, that the gravitational constant has the value it does in order to bring about any particular result – that 6.67 X 10-11 is any better or worse a value than 6.66 X 10-11 or 6.68 X 10-11.

Value and meaning has to come from the minds that uncover the laws by which the universe works. A fact never speaks for itself, but has to be interpreted through the mind of a person and his or her values. A tool such as a knife can be used to save a life, or to take it. Both uses are made possible by the nature of the knife, but which prevails will depend on the values of the person using it.

Whatever we discover about the universe, none of it comes labeled with its meaning and value, like the price sticker on a can of beans in the store. Rather like the free market, the value we place on any fact about the universe is up to us to decide, not something imposed by a centralized authority. And just as cans of beans don't lose their value just because a Ministry of Pricing isn't around to set a price on them, the intricacies of the world around us don't become devoid of value just because there isn't a Ministry of Value around to specify a value for us.

Even if one is an atheist, nature surely has a meaning, that is, an abstract and volitional and mental implication: the human world and its ideas and arts and loves, including our appreciation for the beauty of nature itself.

And here, Mr. Turner makes my point for me. It is our appreciation for beauty. The meaning of nature is "an abstract and volitional and mental implication." All three bolded terms are attributes that are bestowed by human minds. They are not inherent in the object to which they refer. A sunset is beautiful because we find it so, and we find it beautiful because of the associations we draw between the phenomena and other elements in our lives. It is not beautiful because some designer stamped it with a "31.7 units of beauty" sticker.

As I see it, the first "sin" is the sin of failing to agree on a price list. Mr. Turner believes Nature has one, and only one, value. In fact, it's not as limited as his imagination appears to be.

Okay, sin number two:

The second sin is a profound moral failure – the failure of gratitude. If one found out that one had a billion dollars free and clear in one's bank account, whose source was unknown, one should want to find out who put it there, or if the donor were not a person but a thing or a system, what it was that has so benefited us. And one would want to thank whoever or whatever put it in our account. Our lives and experiences are surely worth more than a billion dollars to us, and yet we did not earn them and we owe it to someone or something to give thanks. And to despise and ridicule those who rightly or wrongly do want to give thanks and identify their benefactor as "God" is to compound the sin.

There is a point here, but let's look at it through another perspective.

Evolution is an example of spontaneous organization and emergent complexity. These are terms that refer to systems governed by simple rules, but where the rules can lead to very complicated results. In the free market, for example, an object as simple as a pencil requires at least four different parts, each of which must be constructed from component materials, using fairly sophisticated machinery. Goods flow through the web of the marketplace in such a way that pencils are readily available when you need them. Just walk into a store, and hand over a quarter, and you can have one of these devices for your very own.

The marketplace is a very complicated, very intricate, and very tightly coordinated system. Yet no one entity governs it. It is governed by the interaction of simple rules, and by millions of individuals looking out for their own best interest.

Most people who live in a free market are doing well (especially when compared with people who live in an unfree market), and some have achieved spectacular success. Everyone who has a place to live and food to eat should be grateful for this fact, and those who have more than the bare necessities should be even more so. But grateful to whom?

Bill Gates and Oprah Winfrey earned their billions by giving millions of people something they wanted enough to hand over money for it. Making their product available was a way to get that money. The people who handed over the money did so for selfish reasons – they wanted the product. How does that rate any sort of gratitude?

If there were any one person in charge of this whole market system, it might be worth while to express gratitude to him or her. But as I've mentioned, there is no one such person.

How about the creator of this system? Adam Smith gets a lot of credit, but credit is also due the likes of Ricardo, Hayek, Say, and many others. And what they laid out was general principles. Applying them was up to someone else – a whole lot of someones else.

Gratitude to the government? Mostly for staying out of the way, I suppose, though they may have had some contribution to building the sets of incentives that make this system work. On the other hand, how much of that set arose because of the actions of the millions of people working in the system, and trying to make their own tasks a little bit easier? The person who made a fortune in the marketplace might be obliged to thank every individual who has ever participated in the market.

Now, take a system that's been running for fifteen billion years. Adam Smith published in 1776. God published in 14,000,008,000 BC, or thereabouts. The universe has been around 65 million times longer than Adam Smith's ideas have. It's had sixty-five million times as much time for complex systems to arise.

If, as science believes, the complexity we see is the result of the interactions of natural laws, do we thank those laws? Do we send Newton's Laws of Motion a birthday card? Maybe we should bake the laws of thermodynamics a cake? Do we give Schroedinger's wave equation a surf board?

We can postulate that a single entity made the laws of nature single-handed. We can even postulate that these laws were made with a particular purpose in mind. In that case, it makes sense to feel grateful, but it is quite a chain of "ifs". We may believe in that chain of "ifs". We may believe very strongly. However, we have not come up with a single experiment that would have a different outcome depending on whether or not these "ifs" are true.

This leads us to "sin" number three:

The third sin is again dishonesty. In many cases it is clear that the beautiful and hard-won theory of evolution, now proved beyond reasonable doubt, is being cynically used by some -- who do not much care about it as such -- to support an ulterior purpose: a program of atheist indoctrination, and an assault on the moral and spiritual goals of religion. A truth used for unworthy purposes is quite as bad as a lie used for ends believed to be worthy. If religion can be undermined in the hearts and minds of the people, then the only authority left will be the state, and, not coincidentally, the state's well-paid academic, legal, therapeutic and caring professions. If creationists cannot be trusted to give a fair hearing to evidence and logic because of their prior commitment to religious doctrine, some evolutionary partisans cannot be trusted because they would use a general social acceptance of the truth of evolution as a way to set in place a system of helpless moral license in the population and an intellectual elite to take care of them.

First of all, let me note that, buried in this paragraph, is a very important admission:

...If creationists cannot be trusted to give a fair hearing to evidence and logic because of their prior commitment to religious doctrine, some evolutionary partisans cannot be trusted because they would use a general social acceptance of the truth of evolution as a way to set in place a system of helpless moral license in the population and an intellectual elite to take care of them.

(Emphasis added.)

We have here a tacit admission that some "evolutionary partisans" can't be trusted to give a fair hearing to truth. On the other hand, all creationists are untrustworthy. This is a big deal.

The problem of ulterior motives is one I addressed under the first "sin". The value of a fact does not lie in the fact itself, but in the use to which people put it. If people take some truth and use it to support an evil end, the cure is to shine the light on this use, not to insist that a lie be taught instead. We could as easily argue that since religious truths have been used to support evil ends, we should therefore suppress the teaching of religion and teach something else instead.

Indeed, many people make this very case, and will greatly appreciate Mr. Turner adding his voice to their cause.

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