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Creationism and Ability to Evaluate Scientific Evidence - Or, How I Caught Myself in a Contradiction:

Various commenters on my post arguing that belief in creationism shouldn't be held against candidates for political office note that belief in creationism might be dangerous because it reflects a flawed attitude to scientific evidence. After all, belief in creationism (at least in the more extreme versions thereof) requires one to reject a great deal of geological, biological, and other scientific data or argue that God deliberately placed it on Earth in order to deceive us or test our faith. Indeed, I myself partially endorsed this argument when I criticized Ron Paul's rejection of evolution earlier this year, and favorably cited this article by science writer Ron Bailey, who pointed out that:

A larger question is whether a candidate's belief about the validity of evolutionary biology has anything to say about his or her ability to evaluate evidence. A January 4, 2008, editorial by Science editor Donald Kennedy correctly argues, "The candidates should be asked hard questions about science policy, including questions about how those positions reflect belief. What is your view about stem cell research, and does it relate to a view of the time at which human life begins? Have you examined the scientific evidence regarding the age of Earth? Can the process of organic evolution lead to the production of new species, and how? Are you able to look at data on past climates in search of inferences about the future of climate change?" Kennedy concludes, "I don't need them to describe their faith; that's their business and not mine. But I do care about their scientific knowledge and how it will inform their leadership."

For what it's worth, I thought I should point out this potential contradiction between two of my own posts. Although I hate to admit it, it's possible that I was more willing to overlook Sarah Palin's possible belief in creationism than Ron Paul's because I have more sympathy with her other political views than I did with his. This is an example of the kind of biased evaluation of political information that I have written about in my scholarly work. Studies show that people are more likely to reject or minimize negative information about candidates they favor than those they oppose. Sadly, I can't say that I am entirely immune to this tendency. My only defense is that I detected the bias myself and have tried to correct it.

The question still remains: Which of my two posts is closer to the truth? After further reflection, I think that there is some merit to Bailey's argument quoted above. To that extent, the conclusion of my last post on creationism needs to be qualified. At the same time, I still think that the difference between creationism and other unscientific or irrational religious beliefs is more one of degree than kind. Belief in the Great Flood, the Devil, the virgin birth, or the resurrection of the dead also requires people to reject extensive empirical evidence and/or conclude that a scientifically impossible event occurred on the basis of extremely thin historical evidence that usually consists of testimony by biased commentators writing many years after the fact. Certainly, we would view with great skepticism a presidential candidate who professed his belief in "miracles" supposedly committed by pagan gods that are no less well-documented than the Jewish and Christian miracles discussed above. Ditto for one who believed in ghosts, witches, reincarnation, and astrology (all of which are endorsed by large minorities of the public).

In addition, I think that Bailey and others who make similar claims err in implicitly assuming that people who do a poor job of assessing evidence in one field will necessarily make similar mistakes with respect to others. For reasons I discussed at the end of the last post, I think that people are likely to be more rational in evaluating evidence in cases where they have a stronger incentive to get at the truth.

Nevertheless, I have to conclude that belief in creationism should be viewed as a negative in a candidate for high public office. It will often be outweighed by other considerations (especially in a case like Palin's, where it is not even clear whether she really does believe in creationism or not). But that doesn't mean we should ignore a candidate's commitment to creationism completely.

The bottom line: I was probably too complacent about creationism in my last post. On the other hand, I still think that creationism has more in common with a variety of other scientifically dubious religious beliefs than many of my critics are prepared to admit.

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. Creationism and Ability to Evaluate Scientific Evidence - Or, How I Caught Myself in a Contradiction:
  2. Should We Hold Belief in Creationism Against Candidates for Political Office?
  3. Palin on Creationism.
Suzy (mail):
You deserve tremendous props for being so honest, and continuing to offer a careful analysis. I really respect that. Kudos.
9.10.2008 5:17pm
John (mail):
Of course, there is creationism and there is creationism, ranging from "God created everything a few billion years ago and allowed everything to evolve as it has" to "the world was formed as is, a few thousand years ago." And various places in between.

I don't se the first as a negative at all, whereas the second probably would be. But we have to be careful in specifying what the beliefs are before saying they effect the candidacy negatively.
9.10.2008 5:31pm
armchairpunter:
I don't have a problem with evaluating the soundness of a candidate's views on matters susceptible to scientific examination. I do have a problem with those who seek to apply science to matters beyond its valid realm of application. By definition, science cannot "prove" or "disprove" the existence of a supernatural realm, never mind its characteristics. Further, science has a severely limited ability in establishing historical fact. There are no lingering sound waves one can analyze to determine whether received accounts are accurate as to what might have been said by Alexander the Great, Napoleon, Julius Caesar, George Washington, Jesus of Nazareth or Mohamed.
9.10.2008 5:36pm
David Schwartz (mail):
A belief in creationism a different in kind from many other religious beliefs because it is so fundamentally incompatible with areas of science that directly impact public policy. However, every viable candidate for significant public office in this country has to at least claim to have the belief that all life on this planet was created by a single, omnipotent deity.

I think the only think we can do, at least for the short to medium term, is credit those politicians who don't let their claimed religious beliefs lead them to bad policy decisions. To put it another way, we care what our elected officials do. We don't care what they have to say was the reason they did it. So long as they don't perform acts that cannot be justified, and consistently do perform acts that can be well-justified, that will have to be good enough for us.

We should largely ignore their stated beliefs and justifications, especially those that are politically self-serving. They may or may not be true, and unfortunately we really can't let it matter.
9.10.2008 5:37pm
Chris_t (mail):

You deserve tremendous props for being so honest, and continuing to offer a careful analysis. I really respect that. Kudos.



Amen.
9.10.2008 5:41pm
fortyninerdweet (mail):
'Props' from me, too, on your introspective self-analysis. I've known some folk with eminently scientific minds unable to make the most common sense "street" decisions imaginable. So blanket statements about one's qualifications to make certain choices one way or another are simply laziness, imo. Judging each individual's decision-making ability - to be honest and effective - must always be on a case-by-case basis. Bailey, I think, skirts this point to his detriment.
9.10.2008 5:42pm
SeaDrive:
I'm capable of being sarcastically dismissive of people of whose reasoning (or lack thereof) I disapprove, but I recognize that this is a very difficult area. In the political arena, framing the question often frames the answer. The general public is not very open to the notion that the question itself may be ill-formed, or not have a unique answer.

To illustrate with a question from the posting, Bailey proposed the question "What is your view about stem cell research, and does it relate to a view of the time at which human life begins?" This presupposes that "human life begins" but we all understand that life does not begin, it only continues. Fertilization is the joining of a living egg with a living sperm. The point at which "a human life begins" could well be different when considered for different purposes. In fact, it is different for different purposes under the law.
9.10.2008 5:46pm
Joe456 (mail):
I see this as the Objectivist/Libertarian fallacy, the benefit of a coherent logical consistent global mental framework, to evaluate the world in. Seems to be almost zero. Most people go their entire life without one and never miss it.

As long as a person is able to use the correct framework in the correct situation there is no problem. Palin seems to have done that with respect to Creationism.
9.10.2008 5:46pm
David Schwartz (mail):
By definition, science cannot "prove" or "disprove" the existence of a supernatural realm, never mind its characteristics.
Actually, it probably can, depending upon precisely what you mean (if anything) by "supernatural".

As I understand it, the natural world is "all that exists". And that which is "supernatural" is "that which is, other than the natural world". Combining these two is all that is needed to demonstrate that nothing supernatural exists. If it existed, it would be natural.

(If you mean something else, please explain.)
9.10.2008 5:47pm
Cornellian (mail):
Speaking of evaluating scientific evidence, anyone notice the editorial in the NYT a day or two ago decrying the decline in vaccinations due to bogus fears of autism? Interestingly, it mentions that the study behind many of those fears was later debunked.

I would have expected Bernstein to make some kind of Daubert post about it but failing that, I'll mention it here, with apologies for semi-thread jacking.
9.10.2008 5:52pm
DiversityHire:
A larger question is whether a candidate's belief about the validity of evolutionary biology has anything to say about his or her ability to evaluate evidence.

Very few people have the experience, interest, and time to evaluate the validity of the science underlying evolutionary biology. We accept or reject it on faith: either a religious &spiritual faith or a secular, academic faith.

I'm more interested in the candidate who seeks effective delegates and makes good use of them. However, doing so involves being able to understand the difference between a description and an explanation. That's where exposure to logic, mathematics, science, and engineering at some level should be important. All evidence indicates that it isn't, though.
9.10.2008 5:52pm
Shertaugh:
IS said:

it's possible that I was more willing to overlook Sarah Palin's possible belief in creationism than Ron Paul's because I have more sympathy with her other political views


Ilya,

Please set forth Palin's "political views" for which you have sympathy.

Despite following her nomination and aftermath closely, I can't seem to get a handle on her "political views" beyond: (i) life begins at conception and no abortions for anyone, including rape and incest victims; (ii) get as much in federal earmarks as possible from the taxpayers in the other 49 states so that Alaska can use those taxpayer dollars to subsidize the state's payment of oil-revenue taxes to its own citizens; (iii) using federal money earmarked for a bridge, after the earmark has been canceled, to build a road to where the bridge would have been is a good use of federal funds; (iv) she doesn't know what the VEEP does (which is remarkable, considering how much ink and trees has been wasted on Dick Cheney and David Addington); (v) hunting is good, so gun ownership is okay (no problem there, as long as the moose are not in short supply); (vi) has no objection to the teaching of creationism side by side with evolution; (vii) abstinence-sex education works better than how-to-prevent-pregnancy-using-birth-control sex education; (viii) hoping for an exist plan from Iraq in 2007.

Beyond that, I haven't a clue what her real views are. Tax cuts to increase jobs, raise federal revenues, and lower the national debt? Eliminating earmarks (except those for Alaska, perhaps)? Cutting spending to balance the budget, but which programs? Impose a tax on employees' health benefits to finance a $5000 tax credit for health insurance -- which clearly doesn't help the growing unemployed who lose their healthcare)? Not running a negative campaign to win an election?

Seriously, what exactly are her political views and where can I read or hear them?

Thanks.
9.10.2008 5:54pm
Franklin Drackman:
I had a Creationinst Highschool history teacher, in Northern California no less. One of his favorite non-sequitors was that the Moon was supposedly 4 Billion years old, and if you assume that Moon Dust only accumulates at a rate of 1 millimeter per million years, there should be some 12 feet of Moon Dust to greet Neil Armstrong, if you really believe that happened.
9.10.2008 5:55pm
smitty1e:
I totally cop out of the discussion.
I hold the Bible true, yet not in the literal context laid out
here.
I'm confident that there is not going to be a final answer in the form of a repeatable scientific experiment that shows a) universal creation, and b) life creation.
Which is not to knock scientific inquiry in the slightest.
It's just that discussions of Genesis, Revelation, and lipstick on pigs tend to be complete distractions from the secular law of the land, policy, and how best to shape a pluralistic society in the present tense.
9.10.2008 5:57pm
Rhonil (mail):
By definition, science cannot "prove" or "disprove" the existence of a supernatural realm, never mind its characteristics.
Actually, it probably can, depending upon precisely what you mean (if anything) by "supernatural".

As I understand it, the natural world is "all that exists". And that which is "supernatural" is "that which is, other than the natural world". Combining these two is all that is needed to demonstrate that nothing supernatural exists. If it existed, it would be natural.

(If you mean something else, please explain.)

That's a logical/mathematical argument, not a scientific argument. You are stating a logical tautology (given appropriate definitions) - to wit: 'natural world' =def 'all X such that X exists;' The supernatural is not the natural; thus the supernatural does not exist.

But SCIENCE cannot make this argument. Science is *ultimately* based on a system of induction (in the sense of probabilistic suppositions) rather than deductive reasoning in and of itself. In this case, that means that science cannot tell us whether the definition above definition is correct - all it can do is make probabilistic guesses based on observations. In the background of course are our own axioms; but the believer in the "supernatural" would simply argue that it is non-observable and thus not testable by science but that does not imply its non-existence.
9.10.2008 5:59pm
Dilan Esper (mail) (www):
Actually, it probably can, depending upon precisely what you mean (if anything) by "supernatural".

It seems to me that the current state of science cannot ultimately disprove the existence of some world that might exist but which we don't have the tools to detect. Maybe we will develop those tools in the future, though, so who knows?

However, various claims about the supernatural world certainly can be refuted. If, for instance, the causes of hurricane Katrina are perfectly explicable by current naturalistic models, that would tend to refute claims that the hurricane was some sort of "message from God" (e.g., because of alleged debauchery in New Orleans). One could make similar arguments about the Falwell / Robertson claim about the causes of 9/11.

Certainly science has debunked or replaced various claims about the world that have been made by religious authorities and texts in the past.

In other words, we actually can, sometimes, establish that God or the supernatural world does not have some particular characteristic that some people attribute to Her or it.
9.10.2008 6:03pm
Ken Arromdee:
Belief in the Great Flood, the Devil, the virgin birth, or the resurrection of the dead also requires people to reject extensive empirical evidence and/or conclude that a scientifically impossible event occurred on the basis of extremely thin historical evidence that usually consists of testimony by biased commentators writing many years after the fact.

Again... No, just no.

Most of those postulate that something scientifically impossible happened... but in such a way that this impossibility wouldn't be expected to make any visible change in the evidence. The reason that scientists can't detect the Devil is that the Devil acts in a way that wouldn't be expected to produce evidence. The reason that scientists can't detect the resurrection is that the resurrection happened in a place where there were no scientists around, and the bodies that scientists do get to watch aren't resurrected.

Creationists don't do that. You'd never see a creationist in the political arena say "God created man, but in such a way that any step we can study looks just like evolution". Some people do believe that, but they're not the creationists who are causing trouble.
9.10.2008 6:08pm
Pal2Pal (mail) (www):
No kudos from me. This idea that a personal faith-based belief in a Creator translates into being willing or able to dismiss science is the "flawed attitude." It is the ravings of an atheistic point of view, arrogant in the extreme and completely mocking the 80% of Americans who believe in God or a Higher Power. It mocks both the faithful and the many scientists who believes that scientific discovery is directed by the Hand of God.
9.10.2008 6:08pm
tcg:
And after less than one hour, I think it's fair to say that the thread-crapping award for this comment goes to.... ...drum roll...

Shertaugh!

Congratulations on your fine performance. Beautifully executed in taking a serious question about the PROCESS we should use to evaluate candidates and addressing only how you personally have assessed a single candidate. And to have done it in a patently partisan way? You might even deserve nomination for thread-crap of the week!

Can we all please agree to not respond further to Shertaugh's post and to not actually discuss Sarah Palin or any other specific candidate's individual merits? The thought process in evaluating candidates is a discussion I'm actually interested in.
9.10.2008 6:09pm
Larry Sheldon:
I have apparently a unique ability (although I see hints in other comments here) to differentiate between other people's beliefs about what constitutes "food", "music", and "sound economic policy.

In people occupying positions of power, I hold the last to be very important, the first two, not so much--as long as thet don't tell me that they will force me to eat raw bait, or pipe acid rock into every loudspeaker.
9.10.2008 6:09pm
Barbara Schneider (mail):
I first studied evolution at a Catholic School in 9th grade biology class. The Domenican nun that taught the class told us that God could create the world in any manner He wished, including by evolution. She also spoke about the relative and myterious nature of time and how that related to God's creation. Good school!

"Creationism" comes from the idea that the Bible is the sole authority for religion including God's creation, "sola scriptura." It was a basic theme of the Protestant Reformation and gives rise to a literal view of creation as described in Genesis.

"Intelligent design" tests the adequacy of Darwinian evolution theory based on scientific evidence and philosophical argument: black box arguments, an estimate of the numbers of mutations and time required for pond scum to become a human being, evolution of the eye which has interrelated systems without apparent individual marginal advantage and, philosophically, Darwinism as a foil for materialism. It does not argue that the Biblical account of creation is literally true. Unfortunately, the term "intelligent design" has been so misunderstood and mischaracterized that it is not useful.

My point? There are not two camps: Stupid people who believe in creationism and smart people who believe in evolution. One can question evolution, or aspects of it, without being a moron or a religious fanatic. Personally, I don't know enough about science or philosophy to have an informed opinion but I keep reading the arguments.
9.10.2008 6:10pm
OhReally?:
Anyone believing in the literal truth of the Bible has lacked the intellectual capacity to lead a nation, a state, or even a tiny town in Alaska, since, oh, about the year 1500, at the latest.
9.10.2008 6:12pm
Federal Dog:
Rhonil's account, which I know from Feynmann's work, is by far the most persuasive. It is profoundly illogical to pretend that science and religion somehow prove or disprove ultimate causes, or that science and religion somehow obviate each other.
9.10.2008 6:12pm
GV:
I suspect Palin, like Paul, hasn’t given the issue much thought. In other words, she’s rationally ignorant about the issue and just supports the position held by most other conservatives. I’d be more scared if Palin started spouting off arguments for Intelligent Design or trotted out arguments for the age of the earth based on the amount of dust on the moon. That would indicate she’s actually thought about arguments for different versions of creationism and thinks they’re valid.

As someone else noted, this is another -- in a long, long series -- of arguments about our candidates that have little or no bearing on the candidates actual ability to be a good president or vice-president. We’ll call these “Jim issues.” I wonder if one of the conspirators would actually have a series of threads on non-Jim issues. Health care. Iraq. Tax policy. General approaches to the war on terror (which Orin has covered, although not in the context of the presidential election). Global warming (which others have covered, but not in the context of the presidential election).
9.10.2008 6:13pm
microtherion (mail):
Kudos for examining your beliefs.

Like Shertaugh, I'm curious why you (and other conspirators) appear to consider Palin a more credible libertarian than Ron Paul.
9.10.2008 6:21pm
Wayne Jarvis:
What actual evidence exists that Palin is a "creationist"? Is it only the off-handed "teach both" comment? Is there more to this that I am missing?

There's a huge distance between that one comment and the notion that Palin thinks the world is 6,000 years old.
9.10.2008 6:21pm
NowMDJD (mail):
We will vote for the candidate on the basis of a great many things, such as what the candidate proposes to do, how effective we expect the candidate to be in furthering his proposed program, and how sound we regard the candiates judgment to be, as situations may arise calling for decisions outside the range of the candidate's professed positions.

In general, a candidates professed views on the origin of life will have (in my opinion) lettle bearing on any of the factors that will determine whether the president will lead the nation in the appropriate direction. Questions regarding the beginning and end of life are of secondary importance compared to energy policy, economic policy and security policy.

I regard this issue as a hot button issue that is used to divert the attention of potential voters away from the key factors that should determint ones vote, rather than as one of those factors. What is it about the candidate's professed views on evolution that strongly affects the candidate's ability to keep the nation strong, safe, free, and prosperous?
9.10.2008 6:25pm
CJColucci:
Very few people have the experience, interest, and time to evaluate the validity of the science underlying evolutionary biology.

Exactly. In that case, it makes sense to defer to the virtually unanimous view of those who do have the chops to evaluate the validity of the science. And there's something off about someone who has no basis for an opinion, feels the need to have one regardless, and then comes out on the other side.
9.10.2008 6:25pm
Lior:
@John:
Of course, there is creationism and there is creationism, ranging from "God created everything a few billion years ago and allowed everything to evolve as it has" to "the world was formed as is, a few thousand years ago." And various places in between.


In fact, these two points of view are identical, scientifically speaking. They are further indistinguishable from the belief that the world was created Last Tuesday.

Ken Arromdee has it right: Creationism is not these beliefs. It is the belief that the world is different from what it is (John's "as is").

Claiming that a divinely micro-managed flood deposited many layers of sediment in ways that millions of years of geology do but ordinary floods don't is consistent with the world around us. Claiming that sediment layers we see are more consisted with a recent global flood than with millions of of years of geology is not. Creationists are decidedly in the second camp. For example, they do not claim that "god commanded species to change in ways that are indistinguishable from what would have happened had he not acted". They say "new species do not arise at all".
9.10.2008 6:28pm
Randy R. (mail):
"Very few people have the experience, interest, and time to evaluate the validity of the science underlying evolutionary biology. We accept or reject it on faith: either a religious &spiritual faith or a secular, academic faith. "

If true, then all the more reason to teach it in school so that students have a sound grasp of the matter.

However, I dispute that it is true. Both the American Museum of Natural History (in NYC) and the National Museum of Natural History (In DC), both do an excellent job of explaining evolution and even show you actual evidence of it. I'm sure other regional natural history museum do as well.

In addition, there are numerous books, none terribly long, that can adequately explain evolution. And really, it's not a difficult concept, like say, theoritical physics. If 10th grade biology students can understand it, so can you.

If you are ignorant on the matter, first blame your schooling, and then blame yourself for not taking the time to understand even the basics of evolution.
9.10.2008 6:38pm
The Unbeliever:
This smells like a leadup to a religious test for public office, except that it's a negative test we're all demanding. In the name of Science.

Is nihilism now the only approved belief set for candidates?
9.10.2008 6:43pm
ShelbyC:

As I understand it, the natural world is "all that exists". And that which is "supernatural" is "that which is, other than the natural world". Combining these two is all that is needed to demonstrate that nothing supernatural exists. If it existed, it would be natural.



Is this the reverse of St Anselm's onthological proof?
9.10.2008 6:43pm
Order of the Coif:
Since "scientists" don't know, is it still permissible to ask who (or what) caused the "Big Bang" that started the evolutionary track (ignoring the gaps) that brought us here?

;-)
9.10.2008 6:44pm
Rhode Island Lawyer:
Let me join in those giving kudos for your examination of your beliefs and your willingness to acknowledge that subconscious bias influenced your recent post. You give me hope that the VC may once again become a place where thoughtful analysis and reasonable discussion of important issues take precedence over partisan efforts to score points by any means. Bravo.
9.10.2008 6:52pm
omatsca (mail):
What a refreshingly honest analysis. Why is that so rare in political discussion? We all have cognitive biases--the only way to counteract their effect on our reasoning is by making ourselves aware of them.
9.10.2008 6:53pm
W. J. J. Hoge:
There is a spectrum of beliefs about the origin of the universe and how we came to be here on this planet. At one extreme you will find folks who only consider their own interpretation of a particular religion and who ignore the evidence of the natural world. At the other extreme you will find "scientists" who only consider our limited knowledge of nature and exclude any possibility of a Creator.

Somewhere in the middle of that spectrum you'll find find people like me who believe in God and believe that we should take everything that He has said seriously--both the things explicitly revealed in Scripture and the things implicitly reveal by His handiwork in creation. Both the Bible and the natural world tell the truth, but neither tells the whole truth. Theistic Evolutionists look at the Bible and nature, take both at face value, and say, "God did it, and He appears to have done it this way." That seems to me to be both good theology and good science.

There are Flat-Earthers who can "prove" their point-of-view from the Bible.

There are Geocentrists who believe that the Inquisition was right and that Galileo was wrong.

There are Young Earth Creationists who try to alter scientific thought to fit their particular Biblical interpretation.

Augustine of Hippo was thinking of such people when he wrote:

"Now it is disgraceful and pernicious and greatly to be avoided that one should hear a Christian, presumably speaking according to our Scriptures, talking nonsense on these things; all should take notice of such errors and laugh them to scorn. The shame is not that the mistaken man is derided, but that some might believe our sacred writers said such things, to the great loss of the salvation to which we call them, while the writers of our Scripture are criticized and rejected as men without learning."
9.10.2008 6:57pm
Aleks:
Re: At the same time, I still think that the difference between creationism and other unscientific or irrational religious beliefs is more one of degree than kind. Belief in the Great Flood, the Devil, the virgin birth, or the resurrection of the dead also requires people to reject extensive empirical evidence and/or conclude that a scientifically impossible event occurred on the basis of extremely thin historical evidence that usually consists of testimony by biased commentators writing many years after the fact.

The Flood is something of an odd one out here, since an event of that scale should have left ample evidence of its occurance. For one-off anomalous events like the Resurrection or the Virgin Birth, there is no physical evidence one way or the other so believing in these events is no different from not believing in them: both positions rely on faith-grounded axioms about the world. Science by the way investigates regular and natural events. Science cannot by it very nature comment on supernatural or anomalous events since they do not fall under its jurisdiction.
9.10.2008 6:58pm
John Paul II:
The Bible itself speaks to us of the origin of the universe and its make-up, not in order to provide us with a scientific treatise, but in order to state the correct relationships of man with God and with the universe. Scared Scripture wishes simply to declare that the world was created by God, and in order to teach this truth it expresses itself in terms of the cosmology in use at the time of the writer. The Sacred Book likewise wishes to tell men that the world was not created as a seat of the gods, as was taught by other cosmogonies and cosmologies, but was rather created for the service of man and the glory of God. Any other teaching about the origin and make-up of the universe is alien to the intentions of the Bible, which does no wish to teach how heaven was made but how one goes to heaven.
9.10.2008 7:09pm
Oren:
JPII, that interpretation is lost on the 30%+ of Americans that think of the bible as literally inerrant. To pretend like such nuanced views are widely accepted is an act of self-deception.
9.10.2008 7:17pm
T Gracchus (mail):
"Scared Scripture wishes simply to declare" - a particularly fortuitous typo.
9.10.2008 7:20pm
David Schwartz (mail):
But SCIENCE cannot make this argument. Science is *ultimately* based on a system of induction (in the sense of probabilistic suppositions) rather than deductive reasoning in and of itself. In this case, that means that science cannot tell us whether the definition above definition is correct - all it can do is make probabilistic guesses based on observations. In the background of course are our own axioms; but the believer in the "supernatural" would simply argue that it is non-observable and thus not testable by science but that does not imply its non-existence.
Wow, so much nonsense in such a small space. Yes, science can make this argument. Science can use math and logic as tools to make scientific arguments. When I talk about "all that exists", that's a scientific concept.

As for all science can do being make probabilistic statements, this simply would lead to an argument that science is just as adept at handling the supernatural as anything else.

As for non-observable not implying non-existence, such a person is making meaningless claims. We understand existence claims to be causal claims. There is no such thing as "X exists but has no effect", that's simply an internal contradiction. The term "exist" is a single term for a collection of properties such as occupying space, reflecting light, and so on. Something "exists" if it does something and if it does nothing, it does not exist.

The term "exists" means "has a detectable effect". If you can comprehensibly define existence in some other way, please do so.
9.10.2008 7:26pm
Fub:
Dilan Esper wrote at 9.10.2008 5:03pm:
Certainly science has debunked or replaced various claims about the world that have been made by religious authorities and texts in the past.

In other words, we actually can, sometimes, establish that God or the supernatural world does not have some particular characteristic that some people attribute to Her or it.
This is limited to only some types of positive claims. Some positive claims are relatively straightforward to test, and some are not. Generally speaking the more specific the claim, the easier to test, but not always.

God causes all arrows to fly straight through the air until they fall straight down upon reaching the limit God has determined for their flight. Easy to disprove. Find one arrow which doesn't behave that way. Even then, the religious can argue (plausibly at least within their own religious view) that God is all powerful and made an exception.

God has placed a teapot in orbit around Neptune (or something like Russell's example). Very difficult to test. No feasible search for that teapot will be exhaustive. It's out there somewhere. Ask any believer.

Another claim that is difficult to test, even in a specific instance: the power of prayer to cause a specific event. A simple double blind controlled experiment might appear to test it, but it really doesn't. That is because no matter how you design the experiment, somebody somewhere outside the control of the experimenter, might be praying for the precise result that the experiment yields. There is no practical way to establish control groups.

The general problem is that science is limited to scientific method, but religious claims are limited only by the imaginations of the religious in raising objections that the scientific method must account for by its own rules.
9.10.2008 7:27pm
The Unbeliever:
Science can use math and logic as tools to make scientific arguments. When I talk about "all that exists", that's a scientific concept.
I think someone's confusing set theory with the physical sciences.
9.10.2008 7:29pm
Lior:
Unbeliever: the voters may consider anything about the candidate they want to. There can be no law banning the religious from running for office, but this does not mean that voters should actually vote for religious candidates.
9.10.2008 7:32pm
mariner (mail):
David Schwartz:
When I talk about "all that exists", that's a scientific concept.

Is your real name Humpty Dumpty? ;)

"All that exists" sounds more like a philosophical concept than a scientific one.

Some people believe that science can answer any questions about all that exists. Others believe that science gives us the tools to answer many of those questions, but not all of them.
9.10.2008 7:48pm
Colorado Steve (mail):
Donald Kennedy is quoted as asking

"The candidates should be asked hard questions about science policy, including questions about how those positions reflect belief. What is your view about stem cell research, and does it relate to a view of the time at which human life begins? Have you examined the scientific evidence regarding the age of Earth? Can the process of organic evolution lead to the production of new species, and how? Are you able to look at data on past climates in search of inferences about the future of climate change?"


My experience, not to mention the claims of scientists, indicates that it takes years of specialize training to be able to critically evaluate scientific data and draw the proper conclusions from it. Even scientists in other fields, even ones in related fields, are really not much better than the average ignoramus in judging the results of scientific experiments or theorizing. Now most people, including politicians, are not scientfic specialists. Donald Kennedy really seems to be asking if the politicians subscribe to his version of scientific orthodoxy.
9.10.2008 7:50pm
DiversityHire:
Randy R.:
In addition, there are numerous books, none terribly long, that can adequately explain evolution. And really, it's not a difficult concept, like say, theoritical physics. If 10th grade biology students can understand it, so can you.

If you are ignorant on the matter, first blame your schooling, and then blame yourself for not taking the time to understand even the basics of evolution.


I think you're making my point: one accepts the theory of evolution because a bunch of people who do have the time, interest, and experience to validate it as science have done so by teachning, creating exhibits, writing books, etc. In doing this, one places their faith in those authors, the institutions that employ them, the society that funds them, the culture of peer review, the validity of scientific induction, logical deduction, and the basic coherence of the senses.

Learning about and understanding, say evolutionary biology, is not the same thing as being in a position to validate the science underlying its claims.
9.10.2008 7:57pm
Lewis Maskell (mail):
Of course, the view of the scientific establishment in and of itself is also probably a very poor basis of evaluating the merits of a particular viewpoint. The history of science in the 20th century has numerous examples of theories and ideas debunked by an establishment that was more concerned with protected the status quo than the actual science. One feels that today's scientists, sharing the same human failings as their forebears, are likely to be seriously wrong on several issues that are today accept as scientific gospel.

In any event, if it is wrong for athiests to be denied office on the basis of their believes (which I understand to be the de facto situation in the US as a result of the preferences of American voters) then it is equally wrong that creationists - even strict creationists - be denied office.

Finally, your conceit that religious belief is irrational is probably just as bigoted as anything said against Sarah Palin. After all, from where I sit it is the unreligous who are irrational. Perspective can be a tricky thing, and what you claim to be facts are in fact often just opinins dressed up with some fancy words.
9.10.2008 8:00pm
Reinhold (mail):
Prof. Somin, you--and most commenters--seem certain of the theory of evolution and dismissive of creationism. This is a significant debate, however, among average citizens, though apparently not among many academics. Where would you suggest someone begin in trying to understand evolution?
9.10.2008 8:01pm
DiversityHire:
I think someone's confusing set theory with the physical sciences.


Those sick ZFC oranges, putting their faith in the Axiom of Choice so they can talk about "all that exists." Yuck.
9.10.2008 8:03pm
Obvious (mail):
Ilya,

It is one thing to say (and I agree) that Palin is the most libertarian-oriented of the 4 major candidates for P/VP this year.

It is quite another to suggest she is more libertarian than Ron Paul; if you don't like Paul's positions on foreign policy, please explain how you envision, knowing what you know about Public Choice, a limited government sufficiently powerful to police the entire world.

And do you seriously think that a man who graduated from medical school doesn't really understand or believe evolutionary theory?
9.10.2008 8:20pm
Kurmudge (mail):
Hmm. This is quite interesting- the new blacklist is openly proposed, and is diametrically opposed to the freedom-of-thought idea that Congress shall make no law that interferes with freedom of religious belief. The atheists among us now get to establish a standard that, regardless of how a political figure actually operates in office, it is irrelevant if she has the Wrong Thoughts (belief in God). She shall be ineligible for public office. I can't wait for that one to hit SCOTUS. Requires a couple of revisions to the Lemon Test- we will now effectively "convict" based on mens rea alone, actus reus is irrelevant. The Thought Police now rule, even at Volokh.

This topic is a lot like the Approved Global Warming Position (the debate is over, the only acceptable view is that warming is primarily caused by human emissions of CO2 leading to a greenhouse effect)- no dissenters may apply. Or, Bush hates science because he bans research on embryonic stem cells, denying humanity myriad imminent miracle cures for dread diseases (in reality Bush is the only US president to ever fund ESC research, and his anti-science administration actually subsidizes 90% of researcher expense to acquire embryonic stem cell lines, in addition to which there are more than enough ESC lines available to do the basic work necessary to make any kind of ESC treatment viable- control of development to eliminate teratoma and reduction/control of immune responses to prevent rejection).

The official position is apparently that, to be scientifically acceptable, one must swear to a belief in "evolution"- whatever that is.

I say that because the foremost evolutionists don't agree on what that is either. And they fight one another with the sort of vitriol and derision that is usually reserved here for the creationist absolutists who insist that, contrary to all evidence, the earth is 6,000 years old.

For the record, I fervently agree that under no circumstances should creationism, intelligent design, or any religious variant thereof should be taught in public school biology classes, period.

However, what is actually taught today? It is an internally inconsistent hodge-podge fusion of pure Darwinistic natural selection (a la Dawkins), with a little bit of punctuated equilibria (Gould and Eldridge), and an occasional visual reference (e.g. pictures of snowflakes or crystals) to self-organization (Kauffman), all illustrated by the coup de gras, the reference to Stanley Miller's Nobel Prize.

In no case are the purely naturalistic arguments against problematic elements or assumptions of each theory- absolutely non-religious, and made by fellow naturalism proponents, not religious people (I suspect that most religious people wouldn't understand much of the argument, it is irrelevant to their faith) addressed. However, in reality, the proponents of each theory have almost seemed ready to come to blows at times in pointing out the difficulties with the weaknesses of the others that has caused a need for the new alternative theory.

If any other area of science was handled this way (other than, these days, anthropogenic global warming as caused by CO2), there would be rampant criticism over the stifled debate. Instead, this stuff is simply ignored because of the fear that calling part of the conventional wisdom into question will give aid and comfort to some religious person or an ID proponent. That is indistinguishable from "global warming is too important to let inconvenient facts get in the way" and is a gross disservice to science education.
9.10.2008 8:23pm
Rhonil (mail):
David Schwartz:

Others have defended my interpretation and attacked your rebuttal, so I'll keep this short. But I think the other poster nailed it on the head when he said you're confusing logic/math with science. Apparently, Feynman believed something like what I suggested, and he was a physicist and so would know about such things. This is about ultimate foundations - science, logic, math - NONE of these can give us the content of these. Logic is about, given a set of formal rules, what follows from these givens. Science utilizes logic and extrapolates from observables.

You wrote :As for non-observable not implying non-existence, such a person is making meaningless claims. We understand existence claims to be causal claims. There is no such thing as "X exists but has no effect", that's simply an internal contradiction. The term "exist" is a single term for a collection of properties such as occupying space, reflecting light, and so on. Something "exists" if it does something and if it does nothing, it does not exist.

This is logically begging the question, because you are assuming a definition of "existence" that cannot be proven by anything. You are appealing to intuition, which is attractive, but is not in any way rigorous or proving it.
9.10.2008 8:23pm
ros:
I find the seeming importance of arguments about evolution, intelligent design and creationism to the body politic of the US very interesting, for many Australians symptomatic of the difference between American and Australian cultural beliefs.

Here to be an atheist does not preclude an individual from being selected and voted in as a politician, might even be a help. From what I have read all of your Congress members and Senators profess religious beliefs. It is the case that we do here have occasional stoushes about teaching of creationism in public schools and our current Prime Minister has recently stated that he thinks that there is a designer of life, he is a very committed Christian.

Also judgement of the importance of a politicians beliefs is influenced by the sympathy that our chattering classes amongst others have for the individuals other political views. Our previous PM is also a Christian, though never heard to argue for intelligent design. He was scorned for his Christianity, for Mr Rudd it is just an interesting element of his views. However we do seem to be much more of the view that the religious beliefs of our politicians are a private matter.

Hence I struggle to understand the public sphere judgements of Sarah Palin versus for example Obama Barrack.

While she says that she was lucky, she was brought up hearing both positions (her Dad being a science teacher, and the way she phrased it I concluded that he was an evolution adherent) the constant message is that she is a creationist, and for those who trumpet it a strong negative? How is what Sarah Palin says so different to Obama stating that he believes God has a master plan and the struggle is knowing what it is, and, that while he doesn’t believe in the 24 hour thing, he thinks that the Bible story about creation is fundamentally right. Correct? If so why have there not been claims that Obama is a creationist.

I can’t tell the difference, but then I am over in the camp that favours the argument that there may well not have been a historical figure called Jesus, let alone that he is the son of a god.
9.10.2008 8:26pm
David Schwartz (mail):
Some people believe that science can answer any questions about all that exists. Others believe that science gives us the tools to answer many of those questions, but not all of them.
And some people believe that they can use terms without meaning anything by them. "Existence" is a testable claim, or the word doesn't mean anything at all. Reason isn't a tool, it's the toolbox.
9.10.2008 8:33pm
musefree (www):
This might be relevant to some.
9.10.2008 8:40pm
ofidiofile:
@Obvious


"And do you seriously think that a man who graduated from medical school doesn't really understand or believe evolutionary theory?"



i think that. just because you're a doctor doesn't mean you understand evolution; you don't even really have to have a degree in biology to get into medical school... and when you get there, you learn anatomy and physiology, not evolutionary biology.

besides, i've met many biology students who don't get it. unless you go into graduate-level bio, you never get an in-depth view of scientific methodology (unless you choose to do it on your own). it's remarkably easy to get a bachelor's degree in biology, regurgitating the all appropriate information at all the right times, and have no understanding of any of the overarching ideas behind the science.
9.10.2008 8:43pm
Pat C (mail):
Since polls have shown that many Americans say they would not vote for an atheist even if they are otherwise qualified, perhaps the earlier paragraph should say:

The religious among us have already established a standard that, regardless of how a political figure actually operates in office, it is irrelevant if she has the Wrong Thoughts (disbelief in God). She shall be ineligible for public office.
9.10.2008 8:48pm
Thales (mail) (www):
"It is one thing to say (and I agree) that Palin is the most libertarian-oriented of the 4 major candidates for P/VP this year."

Is this a defensible statement? Sarah Palin's record on civil liberties so far seems to include blatant First Amendment violations in attempted book banning and a throwaway line about Democrats worrying about "reading terrorists their rights" in her VP acceptance speech. Combined with her support for the Bridge to Nowhere (and blatant, continued lies about the same) as well as her Alaska pork seeking record, it seems her alleged libertarianism consists primarily in denying that humans currently contribute to global warming and in insisting that "both [alleged] sides" of the evolution debate ought to be taught in schools, as facts for students to evaluate . . . both sets of facts are false and have nothing to do with an approach to government based on individual freedom. Oh, she also likes to shoot moose and isn't fond of polar bears . . . am I missing something?
9.10.2008 8:53pm
Michael Drake (mail) (www):
Belief in creationism betrays an epistemologically toxic attitude about expertise, and it also covaries with the other examples of pathological biblical literalism you cite. So I guess I just don't see a useful distinction between the two types of irrational beliefs.

Sure, I'm happy to vote for someone who's "Christian," as long as it's not the sort of unreconstructed Christian who thinks the earth was created in 4004 BC. That sort of Christian is bound to have a general policy orientation at loggerheads with my own.
9.10.2008 8:55pm
Ilya Somin:
Like Shertaugh, I'm curious why you (and other conspirators) appear to consider Palin a more credible libertarian than Ron Paul.

I discussed Paul's nonlibertarian views on immigration, trade, and school choice in this post, to say nothing of his his endorsement of ridiculous far-right conspiracy theories. Palin is much better on all these issues, with the possible exception of immigration (on which he has not, to my knowledge, taken a position).
9.10.2008 8:58pm
Ilya Somin:
do you seriously think that a man who graduated from medical school doesn't really understand or believe evolutionary theory

He himself said that he rejects it.
9.10.2008 9:00pm
Javert:

I see this as the Objectivist/Libertarian fallacy, the benefit of a coherent logical consistent global mental framework, to evaluate the world in. Seems to be almost zero.
This view is, of course, self refuting.
9.10.2008 9:16pm
David Schwartz (mail):
Rhonil: You are the one making the positive claim, that there is something science cannot do. I am simply demanding that you explain what it is that you think science cannot do, so that your claim can be sensibly evaluated. You refuse to do this. You assert that I'm making assumptions I can't justify, but so what? It's your claim. You have to defend it as meaningful.

We understand what it means to say a physical object exists. We understand what it means to say that light exists. You are contending that there is some other kind of existence -- so I ask you -- what is it? How would we know it if we saw it?

Your response is that we cannot see it. In fact, we cannot sense it in any way. This is equivalent to saying we can never know what it is, which was my point to begin with it.

You are essentially claiming that you are talking about something, but then turning around and saying that this something cannot be understood. How is this different from talking about nothing at all?

If your claim is meaningful, it is because you mean something comprehensible by "supernatural". So I ask you again -- what do you mean?

How would I know it if I saw it? Oh, wait, it's part of your argument that I can't see it. So how can I know what you mean? I can't, can I?

You are simply not communicating. You are putting letters into a sequence that appears meaningful but is not because what it purports to communicate is, admittedly, incomprehensible using all the cognitive tools that there are.
9.10.2008 9:41pm
Splunge:
Some of you should note that there is a profound difference between a plausible explanation for something and a true explanation.

Arguing that evolution is a plausible explanation for the origin of species (from other species) is perfectly plausible, logical, consistent. Does that mean it's true? Uh, no. Unlike the law, in science the logical consistency of your theory means exactly zip about its chances of being true. Indeed, plausible, logically-consistent, intuitively "obvious" explanations turn out to be wrong routinely, cf. phlogiston, luminiferous aether, Galilean relativity, the classical distinction between wave and particle, and on and on. As a physical scientist, and a theoretician at that, let me tell you from bitter personal experience that there are about five hundred million plausible, convincing theories for every one that's actually correct.

Is the evidence that species arise from natural selection sufficient to prove that explanation true? Without doubt, in the case of microbes (evolution of drug resistance, the modern origin of new diseases like AIDS, et cetera). What about higher species, e.g. humans from bacteria? Is there solid proof that natural selection accounts for that 100%? Well...that's a bit harder. Reasonable and thoroughly informed men would say probably yes, but it isn't flatly insane to think otherwise, any more than it flatly insane to think that the world would be a better place if the Soviet Union had not collapsed. Strange and hard to swallow, yes, but the case can be made without taking LSD.

Furthermore, there is a huge difference between asserting that natural selection explains the origin of species from other species, and arguing that it explains the origin of life from nothing at all, what is sometimes called "chemical" evolution. One difference is that, while we can sketch a plausible chain of circumstances for the differentiation of one species from another (birds from dinosaurs, or humans from apes), so far as I know it has so far proven impossible to do so for the evolution of a living cell from seawater, methane, dissolved gases, et cetera. About all we can do is wave our hands and speculate rather unconvincingly. Furthermore, while we can watch the differentiation of species in the lab with bacteria, we have been unable to duplicate any serious step along the way to a living cell starting from a non-living mixture of chemicals at least plausibly similar to the composition of the early Earth. (Don't give me Stanley Miller, puhleeze. Amino acids are easy to form, big proteins another story entirely.)

So believing that the origin of life itself requires some explanation other than chemical evolution is not flat crazy, nor inconsistent with the available evidence (which is basically none). Folks who think panspermia explains life on Earth are taken seriously -- that means folks who think deliberate creation by some other intelligent life deserve at least as much respect, at least if you want to be intellectually consistent.

As for Somins' main point: I think you're guilty of just as much of an essentially religious test as the zealots you condemn. That you don't use the word "God" and instead mess around with such ineffable undefinables as how "scientific" or "unscientific" one's beliefs are -- as if the concept of a "scientific belief" wasn't an oxymoron! -- doesn't change the fact that you propose to judge a person's general rationality by whether or not they come to the same comprehensive conclusions as an aristocratic priesthood using merely suggestive (not conclusive) evidence about a complex and subtle area of ongoing intellectual research (the origin of life) which, as it turns out, has zero relevance to the job of political leader. If that doesn't have the form of a religious test of adherence to dogma, whatever its content, I'm hard pressed to say what does.

Finally, I think the whole question is a giant red herring. Do we care whether a President can do algebra? We do not. He has people to do it for him if he needs it done. Do we care if he believes in dark matter, or instead thinks the observational evidence has been massively misinterpreted? We do not. Quite generally, the first-class President must be a good judge of men, and of political and social situations. That is far and away the key quality, and whether or not he can duplicate the reasoning of PhD professors in their area of expertise is rather irrelevant. He's got advisors if he needs to, and, if he is an astute judge of men and good political leader, he will know, from his reading of the electorate, whether he needs to.

That is, in short, if the good citizens of the United States rise up in clear majority to demand that evolution be taught in their schools, or stems cells be harvested from aborted fetuses for Federally-funded research, then an astute politician of a President (who wants to keep his job) will accomodate, whatever his private system of beliefs. And if the citizens do not want those things done, let's suppose arguendo because they're mired in Dark Ages ignorance, then it's not the President's job to jam enlightenment down their throats. He is not a philosopher king to lead all us dumb proles to utopia, not in a Jeffersonian Republic.
9.10.2008 9:49pm
David Schwartz (mail):
Splunge: If I don't know why the Sun appears to go around the Earth, am I justified in believing that a god carries it on a golden chariot? The issue is not whether they reach the same conclusions as we do but whether they know what a conclusion is and when and whether they've reached one. Your entire framing of the issue begins by assuming there are only two possibilities and then using the lack of evidence for one as supporting evidence for the other.
9.10.2008 9:59pm
Oren:

so far as I know it has so far proven impossible to do so for the evolution of a living cell from seawater, methane, dissolved gases, et cetera

There are many good theories on abiogenesis (just off the top of my head: clay, bubble, RNA-world, metabolism-first, lipid world) -- many of them even make testable predictions (although serious testing is admittedly a bit off).
9.10.2008 10:05pm
Deo Vindice:
Congratulations. You atheist bigots have managed to proclaim most of the Founding Fathers as well as most of the previous American Presidents as being unworthy of the office.

You ivory tower elites really need to listen to yourselves sometime. Your arrogance apparently is endless.
9.10.2008 10:33pm
David M. Nieporent (www):
I discussed Paul's nonlibertarian views on immigration, trade, and school choice in this post, to say nothing of his his endorsement of ridiculous far-right conspiracy theories. Palin is much better on all these issues, with the possible exception of immigration (on which he has not, to my knowledge, taken a position).
Paul is also not much of a libertarian on civil liberties; because he's a paleo, he essentially rejects incorporation, which means that while he opposes federal government intrusions on liberty, he's okay with infringement by state governments.
9.10.2008 10:36pm
some dude:

A larger question is whether a candidate's belief about the validity of evolutionary biology has anything to say about his or her ability to evaluate evidence.

From what I understand, biology doesn't even pretend to have any convincing evidence regarding the
earliest origins of life. So you will forgive me if I don't get too worked up about a candidate's alleged inability to evaluate creationism vs. whatever.
9.10.2008 10:46pm
Punkin (mail):
Evolution has many scientfic flaws. Over the years, the theory of evolution (I use this term in its most extreme sense)has evolved itself, yet society in general still seems confortable with teaching it as truth in our schools. At the very least, if truth is what we are all after, the scientific contradictions that have plagued evolution should be taught also. Ideally, as new "facts" of the universe and its orgin are revealed, those facts should be taught in schools and then it can be presented whether it contradicts or affirms different theories of how the world began, whether it be evolution, intelligent design, creationism, or any combination thereof.
After years of study of physics and biology (though admittedly in biology),I am convinved that, at the VERY LEAST no scientific findings contradict intelligent design and many support it. (EX: I believe that the Big Bang theory supports creationism and intelligent design. It supports evolutionism also, but not to the exclusion of other theories.)

For me, I am satisfied, both scientifically and spiritally, with intelligent design.

And for what its worth, I would suggest to everyone who has decided that evolution should be taught in schools because it is "scientific" should critically consider 1)whether they have any actual working knowledge of science and 2) if their arguments supporting the teaching of evolution in schools is as infused with emotion as the arguments of their opposents that they attack for being unscientific/emotional.
9.10.2008 10:46pm
Deo Vindice:
Splunge FTW
9.10.2008 10:46pm
DiversityHire:
Ditto Deo
9.10.2008 10:50pm
Michael B (mail):
"Belief in creationism betrays an epistemologically toxic attitude about expertise ..." Michael Drake

Belief in expertise betrays an epistemologically toxic attitude about some very fundamental scientific dictums.
9.10.2008 10:59pm
David Schwartz (mail):
Congratulations. You atheist bigots have managed to proclaim most of the Founding Fathers as well as most of the previous American Presidents as being unworthy of the office.
False on at least two grounds. First, nobody said that a belief in creationism made anyone unworthy of the office, just that it should be held against them. Second, if I to say that a belief that slavery should be illegal makes a person unworthy of holding a high office today it doesn't follow that I believe that that was so in the past as well.
9.10.2008 11:01pm
David Warner:
Witch hunts make bad science.
9.10.2008 11:01pm
FlimFlamSam:
Maybe this is a stupid question, but if science has something to say about the validity of creationism, why can't we talk about creationism in science class?
9.10.2008 11:35pm
CB55 (mail):
FlimFlamSam:

Since Creationism is not acknowledged as a proper physical science subject of study you will not find it as a subject in physics, astronomy but in the social sciences such as anthropology or sociology where you might learn about comparative religion, and mythology and other primitive beliefs. Some schools teach courses on astrology, witchcraft, magic and the occult. Note there is not just One creation theory but many. So by creation do you mean that of the Hindus, the ancient Greeks, Egyptians, the Sumerians, Aztecs, and there are many in the ancient Middle East, and the book of Genesis has two story lines but the Sumerian story is older than the book of Genesis and is almost a mirror of the the same story.
9.10.2008 11:54pm
Math_Mage (mail) (www):
Evolution has many scientfic flaws. Over the years, the theory of evolution (I use this term in its most extreme sense)has evolved itself, yet society in general still seems confortable with teaching it as truth in our schools.


What do you mean by "I use this term in its most extreme sense"? What term are you referring to, "theory", "evolution", or "the theory of evolution"? What sense are you referring to that term in and why do you regard it as extreme? It's hard to have a discussion when ambiguity obscures meaning.

At the very least, if truth is what we are all after, the scientific contradictions that have plagued evolution should be taught also.


Please identify some examples. I can think of about a dozen examples of supposed "contradictions" off the top of my head; yet often in scientific discussion only a few, if any, present even a cursory challenge to evolutionary theory.

Ideally, as new "facts" of the universe and its orgin are revealed, those facts should be taught in schools and then it can be presented whether it contradicts or affirms different theories of how the world began, whether it be evolution, intelligent design, creationism, or any combination thereof.
After years of study of physics and biology (though admittedly in biology),I am convinved that, at the VERY LEAST no scientific findings contradict intelligent design and many support it. (EX: I believe that the Big Bang theory supports creationism and intelligent design. It supports evolutionism also, but not to the exclusion of other theories.)


At the risk of using the wrong definition, I'll assume you mean by "intelligent design" that God designed or guided the diversification of life on earth, and I'll challenge you to provide any possible way for "scientific findings" to "contradict intelligent design." AFAIK, there's no way to do it; that's why ID is unfalsifiable and, ergo, not scientific. This has nothing to do with whether it's true, of course, but it has everything to do with whether or not it should be taught in the science classroom.

And for what its worth, I would suggest to everyone who has decided that evolution should be taught in schools because it is "scientific" should critically consider 1)whether they have any actual working knowledge of science and 2) if their arguments supporting the teaching of evolution in schools is as infused with emotion as the arguments of their opposents that they attack for being unscientific/emotional.


I have no illusions about my working knowledge of science. It's greatly limited by my lack of real-world experience with such. However, I do still have enough knowledge to determine the difference between science and non-science. ID, which predicts everything and therefore nothing, is not science; evolution, which makes many predictions and has significant evidence supporting many of its claims, is science. The emotion comes when I argue some of the specifics of evolutionary theory with creationists who too often simply ignore any evidence I present, present no evidence of their own, and claim that all the evidence points to ID/creationism because of the holes in evolution. Thankfully, I rarely meet that sort of commenter here; I refer more to my experience on blogs devoted exclusively to evolution-vs-creationism disputes.
9.10.2008 11:57pm
Rhonil (mail):
David Schwarz:

I can see how this is confusing to you, but I think you're not thinking about it correctly. I was talking about *formal* proofs etc - I don't think any mathematician/logician/scientist would disagree with anything I've said - that is, that there might be things *that exist* which we might not have any access to by any means (at least means relevant to science like physical data).

But as to your main point "In fact, we cannot sense it in any way. This is equivalent to saying we can never know what it is, which was my point to begin with it." You're asking me how is it that I am not talking nonsense when I say there might be things that exist and yet we have no access to them? Well, there are one main possibility (as I see it) here. I'm sure there are others, such as "faith" etc. but I don't know much about that.

The main logical possibility is that there are "ways of knowing" not meaningful for science because they consist of purely personal/subjective experience ("qualia" if you will) that are wholly inaccessible to others and yet do in fact exist for the subjective observer. Some religions believe that meditation can bring about such knowledge, for instance - yet this knowledge is wholly inaccessible to anybody but the observer. Logically, this makes perfect sense that it is possible this kind of knowledge could happen. I don't see how it can seriously be disputed that it is possible this could be the case. So you were asking a misleading question when you said "if we cannot sense it" - all that is required here is that there is a sensation of sorts just not accessible of verifiable to anybody else - hence not amenable to scientific study.
9.11.2008 12:08am
Eli Rabett (www):
People are remarkably good at compartmentalizing, its when they let stuff leak across barriers that it gets dumb. Creationism as a belief makes it impossible to understand biology (and astrophysics).
9.11.2008 12:09am
Waldensian (mail):
I love the idea that atheists are "arrogant." Talk about projection.

I'm an atheist. I have no idea what "caused" the Big Bang, life on earth, etc. I am an atheist in part because I see no evidence suggesting that it was an omnipotent benevolent supernatural being. I assure you, I'm ready to be convinced otherwise should such evidence surface. I could really, really use an omnipotent benevolent supernatural being on my side.

Theists, however, claim to KNOW -- to actually know, for certain -- that the earth was created by (insert name of deity) who created it in a specific manner (insert creation story) and who now cares about, and indeed is ready to punish us eternally in connection with, things like stem cell research, what women wear, sexual practices, circumcision, etc.

So we have an open profession of ignorance in the absence of evidence, on the one hand. On the other, we have the claim to certain knowledge of an elaborate supernatural regime that governs and controls everything from the creation of the universe right down to whether you can eat pork.

Which of these viewpoints is more "arrogant?"
9.11.2008 12:16am
CB55 (mail):
Eli Rabet:

ID and Creationism makes it impossible to understand how plant or meat matter can be made into food, how the human hand is like that of a chimp, how the human blood group is like that of other primates. You see for me Darwin connects me with everything in the universe - I am not apart, and I am not alone, and I am not excluded from the history of the known universe.
9.11.2008 12:17am
David Warner:
"Which of these viewpoints is more 'arrogant?'"

The one trying to marginalize not only anyone who disagrees, but even anyone advancing a complimentary understanding that makes room for both the creation narrative and the rigor of the scientific method, even one who allows that the creation narrative need not be included in science curricula and has taken no steps to do so despite having the power and popular support to advocate for it?

Just saying.

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."

The history both of atheistic regimes in destroying science and of those acknowledging a common Creator in advancing it suggests that the matter is not so simple here as many seem to imagine.

Tread lightly.
9.11.2008 12:33am
Harry Eagar (mail):
DiversityHire sez: 'Very few people have the experience, interest, and time to evaluate the validity of the science underlying evolutionary biology. We accept or reject it on faith: either a religious &spiritual faith or a secular, academic faith.'

All that shows is that DiversityHire doen't know anything about the evidence for evolution by natural selection.

Well, it shows more than that. It shows he doesn't understand the nature or evidence or -- crucially here -- the meaning of repeated events compared with one-offs.
9.11.2008 12:44am
Mike G in Corvallis (mail):
I would be mildly uneasy about a presidential candidate who believed in the tenets of Biological Creationism -- for example, that the Earth was created less than 10,000 years ago in six days, that individual "kinds" of animals were created separately by a Supreme Being, that all animals were herbivores until the fall of Adam and Eve, etc. Fortunately, those beliefs seldom play a role in the process of making decisions about how to govern the nation

I would be very uneasy about a presidential candidate who believed in the tenets of Economic Creationism -- for example, that centralized planning is the best way to organize national economic activity, that government enterprise is economically and morally superior to private enterprise, that history is exclusively governed by economic forces, that the people in charge of the government have the right to "nationalize" private property whenever they desire to do so, that human history progresses in a single direction and will culminate in pure socialism, etc. These beliefs would play a role in the process of making decisions about how to govern the nation.
9.11.2008 12:45am
CB55 (mail):
Jefferson was asserting a social belief not a scientific opinion. One can not prove or disprove God, or the existence of God or that God has endowed man with anything. The bottom line is that science and religion are not in the same ball park. Tom Jefferson was also a slave holder so we know he did not believe his own statement - maybe it was for White people because Blacks were not human beings or if humans not endowed by God. Good science is often tested and tested again and again and must be verifiable over time and space.
9.11.2008 12:46am
NickM (mail) (www):
Ron Paul's nonlibertarian view on school choice? You're kidding, right? He signed the Separation of School and State pledge. How much more libertarian could you get on education?

Nick
9.11.2008 12:59am
Obvious (mail):
Ofidiofile doesn't think a medical school degree implies anything about belief or lack thereof in evolution. But modification of antibiotics due to development of resistant bacterial strains is evolution in action.

Thales asks if my statement ""It is one thing to say (and I agree) that Palin is the most libertarian-oriented of the 4 major candidates for P/VP this year." is defensible. In disagreeing, Thales offered only evidence to the effect that Palin is not particularly libertarian. But my statement was a relative one. Thales would need to provide evidence that McCain, Obama, or Biden are more libertarian than Palin, and he offered none.

Ilya indicates that Ron Paul explicitly claimed he did not believe in evolution. Although I of course trust Ilya, I would appreciate a reference and a context.
9.11.2008 1:15am
ReaderY:
I think there's a difference between beliefs about the "how" of natural history (for example, the age of the earth) and beliefs about the "why". Human beings could just as easily be reduced to pure mechines as the universe as a whole, yet we don't consider it insane to attribute behavior to a conscious being that thinks as distinct from a epiphenomenon of various physical processes and chemical reactions, nor do we consider people who reify the self-perceptions inside their heads that are conscious and who describe their consciousness in animistic or spiritual terms. We don't insist that people are "really" simply mechanisms, or attribute the perception of non-mechanism differently.

I have never understood why scientists would want to, or even find it logically consistent to, perceive themselves differently in this respect from the way they perceive the universe as a whole. If it is sane to regard ones own actions as ultimately the product of a conscious being despite being mediated by mechanical processes, I have never understood why it is not sane to regard the universe as a whole this way as well. Similarly, if perceptions of a connection to a non-mechanical self are not mere illusion, perceptions of a connection to a non-mechanical universe or other non-mechanical beings are not necessarily mere illusion either.

After all, it is not possible to prove ones consciousness scientifically. Logically this ought to lead to a conclusion that ones consciousness doesn't actually exist, but people who otherwise claim to follow strict scientific processes just don't seem to be able to bring themselves to do this. I don't think this exception unimportant. The question is whether it is a flaw in human reasoning, or a source of insight.
9.11.2008 1:17am
Bob from Ohio (mail):
I think some looking at public opinion polls on religion might be useful. The polls I have seen over the years reflect a majority or near majority of the people in the US believe in what I would call "pure creationism", that humans were created by God in our present form without evolution. A further large percentage believe in evolution guided by God. The percentage that believes in "pure evolution" is in the decided minority.

So while the majority here may think that belief creationism is a big black mark, most people do not. In fact, rather than a negative, in much in the US, belief in creationism will be a positive.

I wager that people holding the extreme "creationism is bad" view expressed here could not get elected to city council in 65% or more of the US, let alone high public office.

There is one admitted atheist in Congress, from a very left wing district. None in the Senate. No governor.
9.11.2008 1:19am
Math_Mage (mail) (www):
FlimFlamSam:
Maybe this is a stupid question, but if science has something to say about the validity of creationism, why can't we talk about creationism in science class?


If you're talking about the "God-guided development" style of ID, which I mentioned above, science DOESN'T have anything to say about the validity of ID, and therefore that ID shouldn't be taught in the science classroom. That's exactly the point many here are making. As I've said before, ID would find a perfectly valid use in a Philosophy of Science class as an example of an unfalsifiable (and therefore unscientific) idea, but that's a completely different proposition.

Now, of course, science DOES have an opinion on the validity of the idea that the Earth is 6000 years old, that being that said idea does not correspond to the available evidence. At the same time, there's no reason why God couldn't have made the Earth 6000 years ago with rocks that appear a billion years old, so science still can't make any comment on the validity of the core tenet of YEC either.

Again, nobody's talking about the validity of creationism as an idea; we're discussing the validity of creationism as a scientific concept. So far, creationism is losing.
9.11.2008 1:42am
DiversityHire:
Geez, Harry Eagar, I'm saying that I'm not a qualified evolutionary biologist—not that I reject the scientific method or the theory of evolution by natural selection. I guess I'm saying a little bit more than that, that there are different degrees of certainty in the knowledge we acquire and that most of us rely on others to establish the rational basis for much of what we end up believing since we ourselves do not have the time or expertise to sift through the underlying science. If your biology professor tells you "one protein, one gene" you have a rational basis for believing it; but until you understand the subject matter and can sort through the evidence yourself, you do not have a scientific basis for believing it. If you then perform an experiment that does not falsify the claim, then you've done some science and you have a little bit more reason to believe the model. This kind of knowledge is imperfect and incomplete, but its the second best we've got.
9.11.2008 1:49am
Tom Shipley:
David Schwartz wrote at 7:33pm 9.10.2008:

"Existence" is a testable claim, or the word doesn't mean anything at all.

Please prove to me the "existence" of:

1) the fabric-of-space, what is the intergalactic vacuum "made of"; or,

2) "What" was before the Big Bang, or, what is "outside" the construct that we inhabit; or,

3) Prove the existence of "time". (Be careful here. Einstein and a bunch of other guys and gals have proven that "time" is an integral part of this construct that we inhabit. (Hint-to avoid wrong answer: clocks are devices only to help us decide if it is night or day)).
9.11.2008 1:55am
CB55 (mail):
Physics and astronomy is not concerned about Communism, Catholicism, Zeus, the best white wine, or if the Dallas Cowboys is America's team. Science is not concerned with human values in it self. IQ, LSAT and SAT tests and economics are are part of the soft-sciences because they address policy science issues and they are poor at making predictions/forecasts and are poor models for verification.
9.11.2008 2:13am
David Schwartz (mail):
The main logical possibility is that there are "ways of knowing" not meaningful for science because they consist of purely personal/subjective experience ("qualia" if you will) that are wholly inaccessible to others and yet do in fact exist for the subjective observer.
You seem to think an argument consists of a string of assertions. Sure, at one time color was a purely personal/subjective experience. There was no way to measure it and no idea what in reality it corresponded to. Did this show that color was permanently outside the realm of science? Of course not.

Please prove to me the "existence" of:

1) the fabric-of-space, what is the intergalactic vacuum "made of"; or,

2) "What" was before the Big Bang, or, what is "outside" the construct that we inhabit; or,

3) Prove the existence of "time". (Be careful here. Einstein and a bunch of other guys and gals have proven that "time" is an integral part of this construct that we inhabit. (Hint-to avoid wrong answer: clocks are devices only to help us decide if it is night or day)).


The proof is what these claims mean. For example, when we say time "exists", we understand that this means that things don't happen at once. There's an apparent separator that we call time. We understand that, though we use the same word, this is not the same kind of existence that rocks have.

In each of these scientific claims, when a person makes them, and you ask them "what do you mean by that?" they will tell you *precisely* what they mean. If they cannot do that, they are not scientific claims. In this case, the claims don't mean anything at all, because nobody can tell you anything about the supernatural. There isn't even a way to tell if two people are talking about the same thing.
9.11.2008 2:30am
Math_Mage (mail) (www):
Obvious:
Ilya indicates that Ron Paul explicitly claimed he did not believe in evolution. Although I of course trust Ilya, I would appreciate a reference and a context.


Ron Paul Rejects Evolution

Unfortunately, the video given is edited, but there are links to the full version in the comments and the essentials are unchanged.

ReaderY:
I have never understood why scientists would want to, or even find it logically consistent to, perceive themselves differently in this respect from the way they perceive the universe as a whole. If it is sane to regard ones own actions as ultimately the product of a conscious being despite being mediated by mechanical processes, I have never understood why it is not sane to regard the universe as a whole this way as well. Similarly, if perceptions of a connection to a non-mechanical self are not mere illusion, perceptions of a connection to a non-mechanical universe or other non-mechanical beings are not necessarily mere illusion either.


The point is not whether it's sane or not to believe that the universe might be conscious or the product of a conscious being; the point is whether or not it's useful and scientific to do so. What do scientists gain from viewing the universe as an entity or the product of such? What predictions can be made from such an idea? How would one go about showing that this idea is incorrect? Without answers to these questions, there's no point to hypothesizing intelligence from a scientific point of view, so scientists don't.

After all, it is not possible to prove ones consciousness scientifically. Logically this ought to lead to a conclusion that ones consciousness doesn't actually exist, but people who otherwise claim to follow strict scientific processes just don't seem to be able to bring themselves to do this. I don't think this exception unimportant. The question is whether it is a flaw in human reasoning, or a source of insight.


Wait, hold on. X is not provable through the scientific method, therefore X must not exist? That's some broken logic you're using there. I'm glad scientists don't actually use it. Furthermore, just because consciousness is an ill-understood phenomenon from a scientific standpoint doesn't mean that it's impossible to understand it scientifically, so why do you say that this is so?
9.11.2008 2:33am
David Warner:
Bob from Ohio:

"I wager that people holding the extreme "creationism is bad" view expressed here could not get elected to city council in 65% or more of the US, let alone high public office."

Yeah, I'm actually arguing from as much of a "what's good for science" perspective as a "defending freedom of conscience for politicians (especially Palin)" perspective.

This is not a fight that scientists need to pick. Any form of creationism in science class will never make it past the first judge who sees it, and certainly not past any of the 9 Supremes. Its a moot point.

If scientists want to worry about something, try this:

"Ayers’s influence on what is taught in the nation’s public schools is likely to grow in the future. Last month, he was elected vice president for curriculum of the 25,000-member American Educational Research Association (AERA), the nation’s largest organization of education-school professors and researchers. Ayers won the election handily, and there is no doubt that his fellow education professors knew whom they were voting for. In the short biographical statement distributed to prospective voters beforehand, Ayers listed among his scholarly books Fugitive Days, an unapologetic memoir about his ten years in the Weather Underground. The book includes dramatic accounts of how he bombed the Pentagon and other public buildings.

AERA already does a great deal to advance the social-justice teaching agenda in the nation’s schools and has established a Social Justice Division with its own executive director. With Bill Ayers now part of the organization’s national leadership, you can be sure that it will encourage even more funding and support for research on how teachers can promote left-wing ideology in the nation’s classrooms—and correspondingly less support for research on such mundane subjects as the best methods for teaching underprivileged children to read."

I don't worry about Obama letting Ayers anywhere near the White House. I worry about the influence Ayers already wields entirely outside Obama.
9.11.2008 3:17am
David Schwartz (mail):
Maybe this is a stupid question, but if science has something to say about the validity of creationism, why can't we talk about creationism in science class?
Not being able to talk about creationism in a science class is a political compromise, not a principled one. Ideally, you would be able to accurately discuss the scope and foundations of science. But we live in a pluralistic society where the majority of people hold unscientific beliefs. Pretending, at least in public schools, that science is silent on these subjects is about the best compromise one could hope for.

Certainly there's a tension between freedom from religion imposed by government and freedom to exercise one's own religion. That significant areas of legitimate science have to be off-limits in public schools is the cost of that tension.
9.11.2008 3:49am
CB55 (mail):
Some questions asked here are not good science or logical questions and some can not be answered at this because of the limits of science and technology. Some ask about what came before the Big Bang, or prove the 6th dimension etc. Unlike religion, physics does not say God did it or that it's the will of God when we can not answer a question. We are not scared to say we do not know and continue the good work of science. If you accept ID and Creation you must come to terms with the problem of God, divine justice and evil. If God is just we got a problem with HIV, polio, small pox, VD cancer etc, floods that wipe out bad guys as well as babies because made or caused them one and all. If he did not, God is finite or is like just sits back and look. Then it gets very mucky because humans are free, but if God knows all then one is not free and we get other problems
9.11.2008 3:55am
Quarterly Prophet (mail):
I was against creationism before I was for it.
9.11.2008 10:01am
Tom952 (mail):
A person who holds onto, and publically advocates, beliefs that contradict a great deal of factual evidence reveals a mental trait that voters should consider. Will the individual ignore available facts and good evidence that conflicts with their personal biases and beliefs, and make incorrect decisions while in office? Will they remain intransigent against all evidence and defend a bad decision they made, rather than keep an open mind to accept the best information and modify their policies accordingly? Perhaps candidates who profess to believe in Creationism do so to pander to a segment of voters. But, but if that is the case, is the candidate blind to the implications of professing such a doctrinal position?
9.11.2008 10:04am
Loophole1998 (mail):
We see the word "arrogance" being thrown around quite a bit in these discussions.

Who is more arrogant?

Is it the faithful believer who offers no evidence but nevertheless consigns nonbelievers (and believers in the "incorrect" faith) to eternal damnation? Or is it the skeptical nonbeliever who, going against the grain of society, has the gall to point out the perceived shortcomings in the believer's faith-based argument?
9.11.2008 10:20am
Ken Arromdee:
Folks who think panspermia explains life on Earth are taken seriously -- that means folks who think deliberate creation by some other intelligent life deserve at least as much respect, at least if you want to be intellectually consistent.

The kind of creation that we are questioning politicians about is not a belief that life was created by God and nothing else. It includes a young earth, a flood, "the laws of thermodynamics prevent evolution", "no transitional fossils", and a whole host of other things which are scientifically false in a much stronger sense than just that science doesn't have any evidence about this.

There's no reason to "respect" the beliefs of someone who believes the Earth is 6000 years old.
9.11.2008 11:38am
devil's advocate (mail):
From about 50 posts back
Ken Arromdee attempted to further Ilya's differentiation between belief in the resurrection, virgin birth and other new testament regalia from belief in creation. Ilya was honest enough to see that the value filter he was imposing on creationist beliefs with regard to fitness for office had to be reconciled with these other bits of dogma regularly professed by believers. (some later discussion puts other old testament testimonials such as the flood in some intellectual middle ground). I think Ilya punted on actually defending where he drew the line and I don't think Ken got it any better:


You'd never see a creationist in the political arena say "God created man, but in such a way that any step we can study looks just like evolution". Some people do believe that, but they're not the creationists who are causing trouble.

This is 180 degrees wrongheaded. I think driving creationists towards conforming their belief to evidence or vice versa, i.e. conforming evidence to their beliefs, is exactly the result of banning their more spiritually and less evidentially tethered observations from polite society, i.e. everywhere but church.

In my mind, the fight over teaching creationism is a flashpoint over the local control and values thought to be represented by public education. That actually puts me in Ron Paul's camp in thinking that separating church and state is far less important that separating education and state.

As long as the two are virtually synonomous we will experience the kind of parochial (pun intended) child's play of Kitzmiller where folks (speculating now) offended by the overall secular teachings of the schools and loss of what were thought to be community based ethical values in public education get upset that their childrens' schools are representing values antithetical to those of the childrens' families. So they get elected to the school board and rip a few pages out of biology texts as the instantiation of their discontent. And then, thanks not to the courts and hero scientists who came riding in on some white horse to save the world, but really thanks to the ballot box (the school committe had already been electorally chastisted by the time Kitzmiller was decided), Pandora is put away for once. (and likely again in similar circumstances)

This isn't such a big problem. I couldn't agree more with David Warner that the real problem is the capture of public education for equally spiritual/value oriented paradigms masquerading as truth, e.g. Bill Ayers and the social justice orientation he has imparted to the educational establishment, in which truth is only true if it contributes to the fight against evil capitalist oppression.

The thing that insulates a politician like Palin from disdain for her electoral qualifications based on lukewarm observations about evolution is that she does not conceal that her creationist points of view are religiously motivated. I worry much more about James Lovelock's view embraced by such messiahs of the secular community as Dennett and embodied by the politics of folks like Gore and 'scientists' like Jim Hansen, that the nihilist void should be filled by earth worship.(see "A Way of Life for Agnostics, Lovelock, James, The Skeptical Enquirer, Sept./Oct., 2001, ironic timing and unfortunately the text of Lovelock's piece explicitly advancing his Gaia metaphor as a religion for agnostics. and these are the magazines for thinking scientists! Sorry, the text of the article is not online anywhere, you'd have to buy the magazine.)

I often wonder why it is that these champions of science don't spend similar energies objecting to actual government religious establishments like banning rock climbing on humps thought to be sacred by native Americans. While people take such happenings as minor codecils or political action unlikely to spread throughout society, it seems to me that such actions are subconsicously countenanced by scientists and politicians who embrace the earth worship view and they are much more manifest and successful than any of the minor localized efforts to limit disrespect for christian beliefs in the public square.

Despite the statistics quoted regarding the vast extent believing citizens and politicians in this country, to suggest that some unenlightened anti-progressive force holds sway over our educational or political system because a couple towns in Kansas ripped a page from their biology texts or because there is a public fascination with high profile value debates epitomized by the two sides tugging at the plug that kept Teri Schiavo alive, or because Bush split the baby on stem cell research is absurd Mooney talk (Chris that is).

If any evidence were needed that this area is a poor guide of the scientific credential of politicians it is the similarity of rhetoric employed between those defending evolution against 'anti-science' forces and those claiming to be doing virtually identical work with regard to global warming. There is simply no litmus test in this for me.

Hope that I conform to Rhode Island Lawyers thought that:

You give me hope that the VC may once again become a place where thoughtful analysis and reasonable discussion of important issues take precedence over partisan efforts to score points by any means.


I think it has always been so, even if the evidence is occasionally to the contrary, so maybe that reveals a religious bent on my part. Meantime, Rhode Island Lawyer, e-mail me if you will since I didn't know anyone else in the state felt that way. (Conspirators, did you ever consider a PM feature for the conspirary?) There is a great forum at Brown next week featuring Richard Epstein in colloquy with Samuel Issacharoff on the question: Was the New Deal a Good Deal. slight hijack here but I hope on the topic but I hope hewing to a desire for thoughtful analysis and reasonable discussion

Brian
9.11.2008 12:00pm
NowMDJD (mail):

And do you seriously think that a man who graduated from medical school doesn't really understand or believe evolutionary theory?

I went to medical school and can tell you that:

1. They don't teach evolutionary theory-- you can treat human disease competently without understanding it, and

2. There ARE doctors who are flat out creationists (not me)

Evolution is assumed as an explanation for certain phenomena that are taught, but which are collateral to the tools that doctors need to practice their craft.

And if you are a theist, you must, perforce, believe that something has been created by God, and that God can somehow exert his will can be exerted in the universe to overcome natural law.
9.11.2008 12:02pm
CJColucci:
On what scientific question other than evolution do lay people even bother to have "beliefs"? Nobody "believes" in the Inverse Square Law or Boyle's Law. Astronomers and chemists know them to be true, insofar as astronomers and chemists may be said to "know" anything. (And, yes, what they "know" today may prove wrong tomorrow -- or, more usually, a special case of a more powerful theory, like classical physics and relativistic physics.) The rest of us, if we are aware of them at all, know only what those laws are and that the relevant scientific specialists have established those laws to the uniform satisfaction of the relevant disciplinary community. And unless we are insufferably arrogant, and think we have insights into these questions that trained specialists lack, we leave it at that, and rightly so. The creationist politician's flaw is not that he or she believes something silly -- we all do that -- it's that he or she is arrogant enough to think he or she has some basis for an opinion in the first place.
9.11.2008 12:11pm
Harry Eagar (mail):
Exactly, CJ. These people are not interested in science, they have a different interest, and that is why they should be excluded from the classroom.
9.11.2008 2:01pm
devil's advocate (mail):

that is why they should be excluded from the classroom.


the sense that the classroom is a place that anyone has the power of exclusion over is the very root of the problem, not the solution.
9.11.2008 2:15pm
Michael B (mail):
"On what scientific question other than evolution do lay people even bother to have "beliefs"?" CJColucci

There are plenty of them. As pertains to the subject matter at hand more broadly conceived, abiogenesis is one category, a monism applied to philosophy of mind problems is another and a metaphysical physicalism is another.
9.11.2008 2:24pm
Ken Arromdee:
I often wonder why it is that these champions of science don't spend similar energies objecting to actual government religious establishments like banning rock climbing on humps thought to be sacred by native Americans.

Because:

-- These are relatively small problems. Te movement to ban climbing on sacred rocks is nowhere near as widespread, well-funded, or influential as the one promoting creationism.

-- Creationism is still worse in the same way it's worse than belief in the devil: creationists do make verifiable claims... which fail verification. Sacred rock believers are getting in people's way, and we'd be better off not giving in to them, but like the devil believers, they don't claim to have evidence, and they don't say that scientists are discarding or misinterpreting the evidence they do have.

-- And of course, a lot of leftists hate Western religion but sympathize with everything else, so they give Indians, Muslims, etc. a break. I share your concern about this but you're mistaken if you think that all opposition to creationism comes from there.
9.11.2008 2:32pm
LarryA (mail) (www):
In any event, if it is wrong for atheists to be denied office on the basis of their believes (which I understand to be the de facto situation in the US as a result of the preferences of American voters) then it is equally wrong that creationists - even strict creationists - be denied office.
Actually, it’s unconstitutional. The end of Article VI: ...no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.

For a blog of lawyers...
9.11.2008 3:30pm
Grimmy (mail):
Most here seem blissfully unaware of the dangers of teaching evolutionism, and of the thoroughly Christian basis for modern science. I suggest you read one of the banned books, Dinesh D'Souza's "What's So Great About Christianity," for an introduction to the subject. To summarize,

Nazism and Communism, two rabidly anti-Church and anti-creationist movements, have killed, in modern times, orders of magnitude more people - around 120 million - in decades than have been killed by "creationists" of any stripe in all history.

Nazism was a direct application of Darwinism, as admitted by Sir Arthur Keith, an evolutionist (and anti-Nazi) who said of Hitler, ‘The German Führer, as I have consistently maintained, is an evolutionist; he has consciously sought to make the practice of Germany conform to the theory of evolution.’ More here.

In case some here still cling to the myth of Hitler's "Christian" belief, here is what he had to say about Christianity:

[It] was only between the sixth and eighth centuries that Christianity was imposed upon our peoples …. Our peoples had previously succeeded in living all right without this religion.

Some of you echo Martin Bormann:

National Socialism is based on scientific foundations. Christianity’s immutable principles, which were laid down almost two thousands years ago, have increasingly stiffened into life-alien dogmas. National Socialism, however, if it wants to fulfil its task further, must always guide itself according to the newest data of scientific researches.

Haeckel complains that Christianity

‘ … makes no distinction of race or of color; it seeks to break down all racial barriers. In this respect the hand of Christianity is against that of Nature, for are not the races of mankind the evolutionary harvest which Nature has toiled through long ages to produce? May we not say, then, that Christianity is anti-evolutionary in its aim?’

Stalin, the most prolific mass murderer, became an atheist after reading Darwin. And we're terrified of creationists?

As for the meme of "science vs creationism", one should consider the criticism these prominent scientists - some of them ex-evolutionists - have for Darwinism:

“Evolution is unproved and unprovable. We believe it because the only alternative is special creation, and that is unthinkable” Sir Arthur Keith. Criswell, W.A. (1972), Did Man Just Happen? p. 73, Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan).

Francis Crick, Nobel Prize winner, biochemist and codiscoverer of the structure of the DNA molecule:

"An honest man, armed with all the knowledge available to us now, could only state that in some sense, the origin of life appears at the moment to be almost a miracle, so many are the conditions which would have had to have been satisfied to get it going." (1981)

Sir Fred Hoyle, founder of the Cambridge Institute of Theoretical Astronomy:

The chance that higher life forms might have emerged in this way is comparable with the chance that "a tornado sweeping through a junk-yard might assemble a Boeing 747 from the material therein." (1981)

H. S. Lipson, University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology:

"I have therefore tried to see whether biological discoveries over the last thirty years or so fit in with Darwin's theory. I do not think that they do ... I think, however, that we must go further than this and admit that the only acceptable explanation is creation. I know that this is anathema to physicists, as indeed it is to me, but we must not reject a theory we do not like if the experimental evidence supports it." (1980)

Michael Denton, Australian medical doctor, molecular biologist:

Evolution "is still, as it was in Darwin's time, a highly speculative hypothesis entirely without direct factual support." (1986)

"Aside from any quantitative considerations, it seems intuitively impossible that such self-evident brilliance in the execution of design could ever have been the result of chance. For, even if we allow that chance might have occasionally hit on a relatively ingenious adaptive end, it seems inconceivable that it could have reached so many ends of such surpassing 'perfection.'"

P.S. I think D'Souza gives evolution too much credit, but his history lesson is invaluable.
9.11.2008 4:01pm
Franklin Drackman:
So How Come theres only 1/4 inch of dust on the Moon?
9.11.2008 4:40pm
L Nettles (mail):
As someone who thinks the theory of natural selection is a useful tool for understanding evolution and biology, I still must ask


Does a belief in Human Caused Global Climate Change show a flawed ability to evaluate scientific evidence
9.11.2008 4:56pm
Hoosier:
Grimmy

You associate those of us who disagree with you with the Nazis.
YOU WIN!!

YAY!


Now, let's be serious for a minute, sonny. Hitler was not advocating evolution. He was advocating eugenics. If he really thought that what he was doing on "racial hygiene" was following Darwin, then he was wrong. Which is really not much of surprise, is it?

No matter how many times creationists repeat this fable, in however many forms, and whether out of dishonesty or ignorance, let's stipulate right here: Darwin did not think that "evolution" means that species get better of they evolve. They simply change as a result of changes in the external world, or they don't make it. The idea that breeding can make things better is eugenics, not evolution. (What in God's name would make a crocodile "better"?)

Final point: If you want to point to the doctrines that(you claim) came from Darwinism, then one might ask why you don't condemn Christianity, since Darwin was a believer.
If 'Darwinism' is to blame for Hitler and Stalin, then Christianity must be held accountable for Darwinism.

Conundrums suck, don't they?
9.11.2008 6:07pm
David Schwartz (mail):
Nazism was a direct application of Darwinism, as admitted by Sir Arthur Keith, an evolutionist (and anti-Nazi) who said of Hitler, ‘The German Führer, as I have consistently maintained, is an evolutionist; he has consciously sought to make the practice of Germany conform to the theory of evolution.’
Evolution isn't a normative theory. It doesn't tell you what you should do, just what happens. The Nazis also used the theory of gravity to deliver devastating bombs on London. Should we condemn the teaching of that theory as well?
9.11.2008 6:30pm
CJColucci:
"On what scientific question other than evolution do lay people even bother to have "beliefs"?" CJColucci

There are plenty of them. As pertains to the subject matter at hand more broadly conceived, abiogenesis is one category, a monism applied to philosophy of mind problems is another and a metaphysical physicalism is another.


Fair enough. And if lay people do have "beliefs" about these issues, what basis do they have for thinking they think whatever they think they think about them? When we talk about creationism and schools, we're talking K-12 education. Anything that is a matter of legitimate scientific controversy, and, thus, a matter of competing "beliefs" among actual scientists, is beyond the understanding of most K-12 science teachers and all K-12 students -- not to mention nearly all lay adults. If some lay person asserts a "belief" on any of these issues, he or she is just as arrogant as the lay person who asserts a "belief" about evolution.
9.11.2008 6:51pm
james (mail):
Schools in the US have become a place where the establishment attempts to define morality and truth for the future generations. It is understandable that all the ideologies want to use the system to define what this truth is. There are many ideas other than creationism that are taught as truth in schools that are actually pure speculation. Social justice, relative morality, group rights trump individual rights, etc. Creationism is not the only place the left / right, conservative / liberal, or religious / atheist ideologies collide.

Throwing another stick on the fire. As other commentators have done, it is possible to argue against evolution by pointing out the inherent internal conflicts between different evolutionary theories. My favorite is the failure for all evolutionary theories to come to a common agreement on a scientific definition of 'species'. Alternatively one could point to the historic failures, frauds, and inaccuracies in accepted evolutionary evidences. Piltdown man is a good place to start. After all even the sceintific consensus by the experts can be wrong.
9.11.2008 7:57pm
ReaderY:


Wait, hold on. X is not provable through the scientific method, therefore X must not exist? That's some broken logic you're using there. I'm glad scientists don't actually use it.


That's basically Richard Dawkins' view.


Furthermore, just because consciousness is an ill-understood phenomenon from a scientific standpoint doesn't mean that it's impossible to understand it scientifically, so why do you say that this is so?


How could one observe a correlation between biological phenomena and subjective experience. But how could one prove which causes which? The question of consciousness remains the same as the question of God. One can observe a mechanism, but does the existence of mechanism make the perception of intelligence illusion? Richard Dawkins' view is precisely that it does with respect to the universe as a whole. The problem is, precisely the same problem pops up inside ones own head. It's not so easily shaken.
9.11.2008 8:06pm
David Schwartz (mail):
Wait, hold on. X is not provable through the scientific method, therefore X must not exist?
That is, in fact, what it means to "exist". When we say something "exists", we mean that it has detectable effects by which it can be inferred that there is some cause for those effects.

This is what cements together the various different comprehensible uses of "exists". This is why we can say that rocks exist, time exists, my love for computers exists, and so on.

The only subtle error is the use of "provable". So long as it understood that it means provable in principle, then the statement is correct. Some things that did exist may not be provable any more due to the passage of time or the lack of appropriate observations on the appropriate place. They may still have existed. But they were conceptually provable, had the right observations been made at the right time.

Other uses of "exists" are metaphorical and don't imply that anything actually exists in this sense.
9.11.2008 10:36pm
David Schwartz (mail):
The question of consciousness remains the same as the question of God. One can observe a mechanism, but does the existence of mechanism make the perception of intelligence illusion?
We had precisely the same problem with color at one point. We had no idea what it was or how to measure it other than "it looks red to me". I have no doubt that we will have a rigorous scientific understanding of consciousness at some point. (And I am not a hard materialist!)
9.11.2008 10:37pm
Michael B (mail):
"On what scientific question other than evolution do lay people even bother to have "beliefs"?"

As pertains to the subject matter at hand more broadly conceived, abiogenesis is one category, a monism applied to philosophy of mind problems is another and a metaphysical physicalism is another.

"... Anything that is a matter of legitimate scientific controversy, and, thus, a matter of competing "beliefs" among actual scientists, is beyond the understanding of most K-12 science teachers and all K-12 students -- not to mention nearly all lay adults. If some lay person asserts a "belief" on any of these issues, he or she is just as arrogant as the lay person who asserts a "belief" about evolution."

Your response reflects confused thinking and a set of assumptions (presumption) on different levels. Summarizing, in response to your initial question the following three items were noted:

1) abiogenesis
2) a monism applied to phil. of mind conundrums
3) a metaphysical materialism

#3, in fact, reflects a philosophical view or argument, not a discernible scientific view, properly conceived. The fact that many scientists and other purported experts hold this view reflects their own beliefs - not truth, not fact, not science, not anything other than a belief.

#2 is similar to #3 as described above. Whether the human mind (or consciousness, or spirit, or whatever it might be termed) reflects a dualism or a monism the very subject matter of philosophy of mind arguments and speculation, not truth, not fact, not science, not anything other than belief.

#1 can certainly be approached as strictly and solely a scientific concern (as can #2, if differently), but in the case of both #1 and #2 that approach carries with it a set of primary assumptions and speculations.

A great deal more could be said but will finally note that one tacit assumption within your statement is that we should submit to the formulations of so-called experts and scientists. That's a sticky wicket not least of all because, as noted above, scientists and "experts" have their own set of beliefs and assumptions and presumptions based upon those beliefs.

Science and scientists as such do not yield Truth and they do not yield normative, moral/ethical evaluations. If and when they presume to do so they are not acting as scientists properly understood.
9.11.2008 11:59pm
Math_Mage (mail) (www):
Grimmy:
Between your continual violation of Godwin's Law, your blatant mischaracterizations of both Social Darwinism and evolutionary theory, and your use of the "argument from authority" fallacy, I find it not worth the effort to debate and debunk your ridiculous claims.

ReaderY:
That's basically Richard Dawkins' view.


Dawkins is one end of a continuum. He is not representative of the viewpoints of scientists generally.

How could one observe a correlation between biological phenomena and subjective experience. But how could one prove which causes which? The question of consciousness remains the same as the question of God. One can observe a mechanism, but does the existence of mechanism make the perception of intelligence illusion? Richard Dawkins' view is precisely that it does with respect to the universe as a whole. The problem is, precisely the same problem pops up inside ones own head. It's not so easily shaken.


Once again you create unnecessary arguments. If a naturalistic mechanism exists, there is no need to postulate an unnecessary intelligence. This applies to the inside of your head as well as to the universe at large.

David Schwartz:
That is, in fact, what it means to "exist". When we say something "exists", we mean that it has detectable effects by which it can be inferred that there is some cause for those effects.

This is what cements together the various different comprehensible uses of "exists". This is why we can say that rocks exist, time exists, my love for computers exists, and so on.


The real subtle error here is your conclusion that undetectable existences are by definition nonexistent. There's no way to know whether or not undetectable objects exist, by their very nature; therefore, rather than determining that such objects do not exist, it is instead correct to state that the existence or non-existence of such objects is meaningless from our point of view.

For example, it's quite possible that all actions in the natural world are controlled by an omnipotent, omniscient being. Rather than asserting that since these natural mechanisms are self-contained and therefore that said being does not exist, one should conclude that said omnipotent being may exist, but in a way that is meaningless from the point of view of the natural world.

The only subtle error is the use of "provable". So long as it understood that it means provable in principle, then the statement is correct. Some things that did exist may not be provable any more due to the passage of time or the lack of appropriate observations on the appropriate place. They may still have existed. But they were conceptually provable, had the right observations been made at the right time.

Other uses of "exists" are metaphorical and don't imply that anything actually exists in this sense.


Oh, so you're excluding all other definitions in order to make a point? Doesn't seem like good logic...
9.12.2008 12:22am
David Schwartz (mail):
The real subtle error here is your conclusion that undetectable existences are by definition nonexistent. There's no way to know whether or not undetectable objects exist, by their very nature; therefore, rather than determining that such objects do not exist, it is instead correct to state that the existence or non-existence of such objects is meaningless from our point of view.
If the existence of such objects is "meaningless from our point of view", then they cannot exist. Our point of view is the only one we have. You cannot maintain that something is both possible and meaningless.

Oh, so you're excluding all other definitions in order to make a point? Doesn't seem like good logic...
I'm simply pointing out that I don't know what people could possibly mean by "exist" in that context, and if they do in fact mean something, they need to explain what it is.

But the burden is not on me. They are the ones making a claim. If they use a word in a context I cannot comprehend, I may suspect they are not making any coherent claim. All I can do is ask them to clarify.

I understand what it means for something to "exist" in the sense of being an explanation for an observable effect. (And this is why we are happy to say both that "time exists", "rocks exist" and "patience exists". If they mean something else, they need to explain what.
9.12.2008 12:37am
Math_Mage (mail) (www):
Michael B:
Are you saying that science is not The Truth (tm) and scientists not The Truthtellers (tm)? If so, why couch such a simple point in such complex language? If not, what point WERE you making and why did you feel the need to make it in such a confusing way as to make your point impossible to discern?
9.12.2008 12:43am
Math_Mage (mail) (www):
If the existence of such objects is "meaningless from our point of view", then they cannot exist. Our point of view is the only one we have. You cannot maintain that something is both possible and meaningless.


There's no reason to assume that our point of view encompasses everything that is (e.g. Flatland). However, there's also no reason to place any value in the possible existence of objects our point of view cannot perceive. Thus it is perfectly possible for an extant object to be meaningless from our perspective.

I understand what it means for something to "exist" in the sense of being an explanation for an observable effect. (And this is why we are happy to say both that "time exists", "rocks exist" and "patience exists". If they mean something else, they need to explain what.


This is a definition that assumes we can observe everything that happens in the universe. Science makes this assumption because it's scientifically meaningless to suppose unobservable phenomena, but that doesn't mean they don't exist, merely that they're scientifically meaningless.
9.12.2008 12:56am
Michael B (mail):
Math_Mage,

You sniff and sneer precisely because you discern.

Do you often attempt to passoff your flatulance and fraud as serious inquiry, or do you typically do so on a more selective basis?
9.12.2008 1:44am
Math_Mage (mail) (www):
Michael B:
You sniff and sneer precisely because you discern.

Do you often attempt to passoff your flatulance and fraud as serious inquiry, or do you typically do so on a more selective basis?


I am not sniffing and sneering. I put a lot of effort into parsing your post, and I honestly think you would express yourself better if you didn't take 5+ paragraphs to make a point that could be made in 3-4 sentences, and if you made it clear what the point of your post was. Between all your references to monism this and metaphysical physicalism that (at first I thought this a simple oxymoron), your point - which, as far as I could tell, was that scientists are not arbiters of truth and should not be - gets obscured.

Regarding that point, the answer is: of course science and scientists aren't arbiters of truth. They're not meant to be. However, science has an advantage over religion or philosophy: the scientific method. The beauty of science is that you don't HAVE to take scientists' word for it; you can go back and look at the papers that they present, the research they've done, their methodologies and simplifying assumptions and evidence, and make conclusions from there. It's not easy, of course, but it's how science and scientists operate and it's a darn sight better than what philosophy has to offer in terms of verification.
9.12.2008 2:31am
Michael B (mail):
Math_Mage,

The points were several (hence the three different examples), they do not reduce to the single point you're presuming. And no, science, properly understood, does not have an "advantage" over philosophy, properly understood - shorn of specific context. In making that statement it strongly indicates (and not merely suggests) you don't comprehend proper roles, contributions and limitations each affords, even in general terms.

You're much taken with this sense that you have something to teach and explain here and further that it's prima facie apparent that such is the case. Yet I find your commentary to be revealing of a fundamental ignorance, confusion and presumption - yet all of it declaimed with an absolute air of certitude.
9.12.2008 3:16am
David Schwartz (mail):
Math_Mage: So what does it mean for something to "exist" if it has no consequences that are observable, even in principle? What is the distinction between existing and not existing? I honestly don't know, and I suspect that you don't either. You are the one arguing that such things are possible.

"Thus it is perfectly possible for an extant object to be meaningless from our perspective." This is simply nonsensical double-speak. We cannot simultaneously both assert that something does or can exist and that the same sequence (of words, sounds, or concepts) that refers to that something is also meaningless.

If it were in some way possible for something to be both meaningless and exist, we would have literally no way to even claim that there was such a thing. To make the claim, we would have to refer to that thing (because the claim is about such a thing) and there is simply no way to refer to something meaningless.

I think you are throwing around concepts like "meaningless" without understanding what it is they mean.

To make a claim that something does or might exist, one must refer to that something in some way.
9.12.2008 4:14am
Math_Mage (mail) (www):
Michael B:
The points were several (hence the three different examples), they do not reduce to the single point you're presuming. And no, science, properly understood, does not have an "advantage" over philosophy, properly understood - shorn of specific context. In making that statement it strongly indicates (and not merely suggests) you don't comprehend proper roles, contributions and limitations each affords, even in general terms.


Two of those three examples weren't even "scientific questions," which was what the commenter you replied to was wondering about. You proceeded to spend multiple paragraphs on philosophy when the discussion was about science. So forgive me for not understanding when we left the "specific context" of "legitimate scientific controversies" behind, and for not getting the points that had to do with the beliefs scientists have about non-scientific dilemmas. I think you can see why science would have an advantage in determining truth in a scientific controversy, and that was the point I was thinking about - not the relative merits of science vs. religion vs. philosophy as general concepts.

As for your opinion of my knowledge of science, religion, and philosophy, I really don't care what you think on that front.

You're much taken with this sense that you have something to teach and explain here and further that it's prima facie apparent that such is the case. Yet I find your commentary to be revealing of a fundamental ignorance, confusion and presumption - yet all of it declaimed with an absolute air of certitude.


So, I was declaiming with an absolute air of certitude when I asked what you were saying in your post. That's a pretty funny way to maintain an illusion of certain knowledge, to admit that I had no idea what the h*ll you said or even the way you said it. All I did was attempt to identify the point of your post (as you say there are several, I suppose it's just A point) and, in the second post, to try to answer the point I saw from my perspective. Yes, I was snarky about the language of your post, and I apologize. But do you honestly think your post is so easy to understand that any snark must be the result of farts and lies, or of a sneering superiority complex? Maybe, before indulging in insults, you could have tried to put your post in simpler terms.
9.12.2008 4:35am
Math_Mage (mail) (www):
Math_Mage: So what does it mean for something to "exist" if it has no consequences that are observable, even in principle? What is the distinction between existing and not existing? I honestly don't know, and I suspect that you don't either. You are the one arguing that such things are possible.

"Thus it is perfectly possible for an extant object to be meaningless from our perspective." This is simply nonsensical double-speak. We cannot simultaneously both assert that something does or can exist and that the same sequence (of words, sounds, or concepts) that refers to that something is also meaningless.

If it were in some way possible for something to be both meaningless and exist, we would have literally no way to even claim that there was such a thing. To make the claim, we would have to refer to that thing (because the claim is about such a thing) and there is simply no way to refer to something meaningless.

I think you are throwing around concepts like "meaningless" without understanding what it is they mean.


By "scientifically meaningless" I simply mean that postulating the existence of such an object would have no merit from a scientific standpoint, because attempting to study it would not contribute to our knowledge of the world.

And postulating an omnipotent, omniscient being would certainly have no point from a scientific view; however, such a being could mask his existence however he wanted, e.g. by manipulating the "consequences" of his existence to make them indistinguishable from those consequences that already have adequate naturalistic causes. And then you would have an existence impossible to attempt to study or even discover because it is beyond the ken of humans, even in theory. Is there a reason to deny that such an entity could exist?
9.12.2008 4:49am
David Schwartz (mail):
And postulating an omnipotent, omniscient being would certainly have no point from a scientific view; however, such a being could mask his existence however he wanted, e.g. by manipulating the "consequences" of his existence to make them indistinguishable from those consequences that already have adequate naturalistic causes. And then you would have an existence impossible to attempt to study or even discover because it is beyond the ken of humans, even in theory. Is there a reason to deny that such an entity could exist?
You either mean something or you don't. You want to have it both ways. You are making the positive claim, and when I ask you to explain it, you say it is "scientifically meaningless" but present no other source of possible meaning for the claim.

Bluntly, I have no idea what it would mean for such at thing to "exist". And I suspect you don't either. That's why you conceded it is "scientifically meaningless" but still want to claim some other possible type of meaning it might have.

At this point, you've abandoned not just science but reason.

And the reason I say you've abandoned science (as opposed to simply not using it or declaring something outside of it) is because science is about determining whether claims are meaningful, testable, and false -- not just about determining that certain things are true.

If you can declare scientific meaninglessness okay for this claim, why not for some other claim? And when people insist that you defend this choice, what stops you from conceding scientific meaningless and refusing to communicate some other kind of meaning?

The principle you defend is that one may believe what one chooses, simply by declaring one's belief outside of the scope of science. There is no belief -- and hence no action -- that cannot be defended in this way. An argument for everything is a good argument for nothing.
9.12.2008 6:45am
David Schwartz (mail):
And, by the way, this is the crux of why this important in education and why it matters in a politician.

It's important in education because the scope of science is the issue. The scientific method is about how you determine whether a claiming is meaningful, the connection between testability and meaningfulness, and so on. The most important thing is at stake here -- fundamentally, how do humans go about systematically understanding the world they live in? What is a claim? How do you test it? What is the epistemological status of an arbitrary claim? And so on.

And it matters in a politician because if you concede the validity of faith and that it is right to act on it, you have no rational response to the person who wants to fly airplanes into buildings. If he has faith that god told him to do that, you have no good way to rationally rebut his claim. (This is why, sadly, in American politics today, the best politicians often at least appear to be hypocrites.)
9.12.2008 6:54am
devil's advocate (mail):

These are relatively small problems. Te movement to ban climbing on sacred rocks is nowhere near as widespread, well-funded, or influential as the one promoting creationism.


Ken,

If one looks at this from a results perspective mystically religious causes have outsized effect. While I appreciate the sense that demographics is on the side of creationism, the result on the ground is anything but.

And I don't much credit the screeching secularists whose skeptical energies are so devoted to fighting creationism that they have essentially thrown in the towel on global warming to the point of becoming proponents of various anti-carbon measures and attacking anyone who remains skeptical. Whiter Skepticism?

While criticism of creationism isn't the least bit inappropriate, I think critics have lost all perspective, both as to the received effects of creationist efforts and as to the actual detente sought by the vast majority of believers which is more on the lines of an intellectual render under to caesar, i.e. as long as the physical world isn't seen as commanding the metaphysical then arguments about belief and values can take place in their proper sphere.

Grimmy

I too was impressed by D'Sousa's treatment of Christianity (and his demurrer to the concept that geopolitical forces necessarily pit Christian Western Civilization against Islam -- painting the conflict as one arising more from secular political ambitions)

But neither vegetarians nor Darwinists deserve to be tarred as Nazis. Violent proselytes for these outlooks may indeed look like the Brownshirts but they are no more representative as the necessary conclusion of these ideas than Eric Rudolph is the necessary conclusion of pro-life concepts.

To ask whether social darwinism or eugenics might be inevitable attendants of marrying evolution and consciousness is not a way to impeach the theory. It questions where we derive our values and possibly alter our fates in the face of a certain extent of unconscious determinism.

I think that the resurgence of biblical literalism is a response to the rise of scientific literalism in which a secular progressive value text is grafted onto the physical sciences as if it had the same objective basis as the underlying physical evidence, e.g. demonstrating that carbon dioxide traps certain wavelengths reflected from the earth scientifically equals a case for carbon taxes (simplistic but I would argue defensible representation of the status quo argument advanced by 'scientists' like James Hansen, and not loudly decried by the scientific community as they ought to be.

This is what Hitler, Stalin and others did, looked to science as pretexts for their worldview (Hansen was a big supporter of global cooling, and railed against the internal combustion engine during that faux pas. But he just adheres his worldview to the next bit of science that might advance it when that petered out.) Let us not forget, as Michael Crichton aptly reminded the Skeptics in Pasadena a couple years back, that the progressives in America carried on eugenics in the purported public interest through the 1960s. This is a less sensational and more challenging problem for their contemporary intellecual inheritors than sensational attempts to equate them with Hitler and Stalin.

The more society seeks its values as applied to emerging physical understandings with reference to the cultural traditions that brung us to this dance, the less adherents of those traditions will feel it necessary to debate the physical understandings.

This is a chicken and egg game, and secularists have goaded sacredists into the battle as much as the opposite. I think when the depiction of traditional values as "outside the mainstream", essentially the culture war to lock in the 'gains' of the 60s and 70s, is set aside for an honest inquery in which both sides have something to loose but neither can claim the objective truth of their outlook, then arguments over physical science will become much more the backdrop than the battleground. This is the denouement I have long sought and I just can't get me knickers knotted over creationism.

Brian
9.12.2008 10:05am
CJColucci:
one tacit assumption within your statement is that we should submit to the formulations of so-called experts and scientists
Michael B

No, Michael, it wasn't a "tacit assumption." I said it right out. And I stand by it. On complicated questions involving specialized knowledge, only experts know enough about their subjects to have "beliefs" or "opinions" about unsettled matters. For the rest of us, all we are entitled to do is note what the experts consider established, and perhaps nod in passing at the existence of controversies to which we have nothing to contribute. In K-12 science, we learn "textbook" science, stuff everyone in the field agrees on. It is possible sometimes to allude briefly to unsettled questions,(For example, a primary school science book I remember referred to the then-competing Big Bang and Steady-State theories, but we weren't expected to be able to make reasonable arguments for one view or the other, or to take sides.), but anything that is a matter of genuine controversy within the relevant scientific community — and thus divides that community into camps with different opinions or beliefs —is something people outside that community have no basis to weigh in on. And any layperson who thinks he or she has an opinion lacks a sense of his or her own limitations. I recollect there being a Deadly Sin related to that sort of thing.
9.12.2008 11:35am
genotypical:
The problem isn't so much that Palin has religious beliefs requiring her to ignore much of modern science, it's that she has specifically advocated teaching religious creationism in science classes, which is blatantly unconstitutional. This calls her judgment into question on several levels, not just in terms of the original issue of whether she could evaluate scientific evidence rationally. The VP of the US should have more respect for the principles he or she swears to uphold.
9.12.2008 2:36pm
Michael B (mail):
"No, Michael, it wasn't a "tacit assumption." I said it right out." CJColucci

I was referring to the following, my emphasis now added:

"Anything that is a matter of legitimate scientific controversy, and, thus, a matter of competing "beliefs" among actual scientists, is beyond the understanding of most K-12 science teachers and all K-12 students -- not to mention nearly all lay adults."

Firstly, what constitutes legitimate scientific controversy is itself controversial. Philosophy of mind problems - as approached by neuroscientists cum ideologues of note - reflect one such prominent example.

Secondly, inherent within the first part of that statement is the strong suggestion that scientists or experts need to be granted a general gatekeeping role when it comes to epistemological and other (e.g., policy oriented) issues. If that's your view, we strongly disagree. Scientists and experts in general can have - dependent upon the specifics of the situation in question - very legitimate roles, no one seriously questions that. But that is not remotely the same thing as granting such "expert" a general gatekeeping role applied to policy oriented issues, epistemological issues, etc.
9.12.2008 3:10pm
CJColucci:
Michael B.
I have no idea what you think we disagree about. So let's get specific. I know very little about hockey. I am generally aware that people who do know about hockey think that Steve Yzerman was a very good player, probably a Hall of Famer. I am generally aware that people who know about hockey think that Wayne Gretzky is on a short list of all-time greats. From these two pieces of knowledge -- and these two things are things I know, not merely believe -- I can infer that people who know about hockey would say that Gretzky was a better player than Yzerman was, but being no judge of hockey, I have no independent basis for an opinion of my own. I could spend several hours watching film of them play, but I wouldn't have enough insight into what I was watching to have any basis for an opinion of my own. Given that, if I wandered into a bar-room discussion on the comparative merits of, say, Bobby Orr and Gordie Howe, I say I'd have to be a presumptuous asshole to think I had anything to contribute or to take sides. Are you saying that I would not be a presumptuous asshole?
9.12.2008 4:07pm
Michael B (mail):
CJ, I specifically stated: "Scientists and experts in general can have - dependent upon the specifics of the situation in question - very legitimate roles, no one seriously questions that."

But you've now moved the exchange from some very general and categorical statements to something that is not only more specific but additionally is trivial and inconsequential.

One of the points implicit in hi-lighting the three exceptions previously noted (abiogenesis, phil. of mind aporias, a metaphysical materialism) was the profoundly problematic qualities that inhere to those issues and debates.

E.g. and intended rhetorically only, what group of "experts" or scientists would you have us recourse to for purposes of arbitrating a monism vs. dualism debate within a phil. of mind discussion? Differently put, whom should we grant the role of epistemic gatekeepers for such problematic - and, in part, policy oriented - debates?
9.12.2008 5:20pm
CJColucci:
Is there some reason you don't want to answer my question? In the spirit of good sportsmanship, I'll try to answer yours. Ninety-seven people out of a hundred would have no idea what you're talking about. Ninety six out of those ninety seven would recognize that fact and would never dream of formulating or expressing an opinion. If they came upon a bunch of, say, philosophers discussing monism v. dualism in the philosphy of mind, they wouldn't say "Yeah Quine" or "Boo Ryle," they'd change the channel. Maybe they'd watch hockey, which, even with my limited understanding of the sport, is far from trivial to millions of people. I say they are acting appropriately. Do you say different?
9.12.2008 5:32pm
David Schwartz (mail):
CJColucci: That works fine for scientific principles that have no effect on our daily lives. But if you have to make a decision where the correct decision is affected by an unsettled scientific question, you have no choice but to (at least some extent) take a side.

If someone proposes a carbon tax, who gets to have an opinion on it? The set of people who are both expert economists and expert climatologists? How many people is that? And how can us non-experts determine who is an "expert economist"? Do we base it on how well they parrot those theories we (are able to) determine (somehow) are accepted?

If we need to find a valid opinion in the field of religion, how do we determine who is a religious expert? Is the Pope? Is Dawkins?
9.12.2008 7:12pm
Math_Mage (mail) (www):
The principle you defend is that one may believe what one chooses, simply by declaring one's belief outside of the scope of science. There is no belief -- and hence no action -- that cannot be defended in this way. An argument for everything is a good argument for nothing.


I see no problem with allowing people to believe what they choose, as long as they don't pretend that their belief is something it's not. Plenty of Christians believe a God exists. Scientifically meaningless, since you can't test for a God. But all that means is that science has nothing to say on the subject - it cannot determine if the claim is true or false. Why, then, do you automatically default to "the claim is false"?

Of course, one can say that the reasons Christians believe a God exists is because of the stuff they believe he did - Jesus' resurrection and so on. Fine, then take Deism, which claims the existence of a God who created, but does not intervene in, the physical universe. Or countless other examples that I'll omit here for the sake of brevity. Since science has nothing to say on the existence of a God, are you going to default to "those people are all wrong and God doesn't exist"? What is logical about that? Even as an atheist I don't see the connection.

Remember: Science is only an attempt to model reality using the scientific method. It is not reality, it is not an accurate description of reality, and it is not even a complete description of reality (nor can it be). Similarly, there's no guarantee that the human experience is a complete experience of reality - one of the central tenets of the supposed existence of the Christian God, for example, is that humans cannot even comprehend his existence. Therefore, your positive claim (yours, not mine) that nothing can exist and not be observable...well, as far as I can tell, it's simply false.
9.13.2008 2:54am
Math_Mage (mail) (www):
Michael B:
One of the points implicit in hi-lighting the three exceptions previously noted (abiogenesis, phil. of mind aporias, a metaphysical materialism) was the profoundly problematic qualities that inhere to those issues and debates.


Please explain how the debates over the philosophy of mind and metaphysical physicalism are "legitimate scientific controversies." As far as I can tell, they're entirely philosophical discussions. And while I suppose laymen could look at the foundations of the debate and puzzle out their own conclusions, I'd leave the actual debating of those issues to philosophers.

Looking at the discussion over scientists as "gatekeepers", my first reaction would be: No, and yes. No, in that the evidence is freely available for examination. Laymen can draw their own conclusions from said evidence, and establish a position without the intermediary gatekeepers. Yes, in that scientists are much more qualified in drawing conclusions from the given data than laymen, especially if the data is in their field of expertise. Scientists have the benefit of years and decades of studying relevant contextual evidence that the layman simply can't imitate.

So I guess my position would be that it's fine to take a position on scientific controversies, but that said position should at least be heavily influenced by the conclusions of peer-reviewed scientists just as taking a position on the monism vs. dualism debate should be heavily influenced by the positions of philosophers who are arguing the issue.

(By the way, Michael, I'm trying to keep in mind what you said about my posting style. Whether your criticism was legitimate or not, I don't wish to fall into those habits when posting.)
9.13.2008 3:08am
Math_Mage (mail) (www):
David Schwartz:
It's important in education because the scope of science is the issue. The scientific method is about how you determine whether a claiming is meaningful, the connection between testability and meaningfulness, and so on. The most important thing is at stake here -- fundamentally, how do humans go about systematically understanding the world they live in? What is a claim? How do you test it? What is the epistemological status of an arbitrary claim? And so on.

And it matters in a politician because if you concede the validity of faith and that it is right to act on it, you have no rational response to the person who wants to fly airplanes into buildings. If he has faith that god told him to do that, you have no good way to rationally rebut his claim. (This is why, sadly, in American politics today, the best politicians often at least appear to be hypocrites.)


Well, we agree that the existence or nonexistence of something that is scientifically unverifiable would not have any effect on how humans understand the world. But where you conclude that such things must not exist, I merely conclude that we should behave AS IF such things do not exist, since they would have no effect on us even if they existed and since they are scientifically unverifiable. A minor disagreement, to my mind - shall we agree to leave it as is?
9.13.2008 3:41am
David Schwartz (mail):
Why, then, do you automatically default to "the claim is false"?


and

But where you conclude that such things must not exist, I merely conclude that we should behave AS IF such things do not exist, since they would have no effect on us even if they existed and since they are scientifically unverifiable.


Every claim implicitly also claims that it is meaningful. A meaningless claim is false just by claiming to be a claim.

I do not default to the claim is false. I argue that it is false by showing that it has internal contradictions and that contradictions cannot be true. One such contradiction is the use of the term "exist" in a way that is merely analogical with the way other things exist but which simultaneously claims that absence of what makes the other uses meaningful.

I know what it means to claim that light exists because I know what the effects of such a light must be. I do not know what it would mean to have an effect that was undetectable in principle. Detectability is the essence of effect (some difference between an effect and no effect). Effect is the essence of existence.

You can certainly argue that any meaningful claim for which we don't or can't have evidence might be true. But you cannot argue that a meaningless claim might be true -- because it doesn't mean anything different for it to be true than for it to be false. It therefore is false because it implicitly claims to point to something that is true -- which is something it is incapable of doing.

This is why you'll see the concession that such claims are "meaningless, "scientifically meaningless", or "meaningless from our point of view". And no other way they could possibly be meaningful is every claimed.

You cannot make a free-floating meaningless claim and believe that perhaps there might be something in reality it "happens to refer to". You cannot Claim "Pluto exists" in 1010 AD (though what "Pluto" means is scientifically meaningless at the time) and be vindicated years later when a planet named Pluto is discovered. You could not have been referring to Pluto, because what you said was meaningless. It cannot later "acquire meaning".
9.13.2008 4:05am
CJColucci:
David:
To decide whether to have a carbon tax is to decide what to do with one's own money. If the experts are in doubt about whteher it is a good idea, you, the voter, have as much right to an opinion about whether to spend tax money under uncertainty as an expert. But you still don't have any basis for an opinion on the underlying uncertain question.
As for religious expertise, that presents two different questions. First, if you want to know what, say, the doctrines of Catholicism are, or how they came to be what they are, or what arguments have been presented for them, or why people believe them, there are recognized experts, like theologians and scholars. (The Pope, while in fact an actual expert, is also authoritative. What he says goes -- under certain conditions -- because he says it. But while Pope Benedict can make something into Catholic doctrine by saying so in the right circumstances, in his former life as Cardinal Ratzinger, one would have been hard-pressed to find someone more expert, even if he lacked papal authority.) Second, however, is the question of whether certain religious doctrines are true. There is no such expertise to which people need defer. There are, of course, people who have thought about it longer and harder and are more familiar than the average person with what has previously been said on the topic, so what they have to say may be more worth listening to than the musings of the average blogger or commenter. Or one can reasonably decide that there is no ascertainable truth of the matter and needn't bother. For example, experts can tell you whether transubstantiation or consubstantiation is the authentic teaching of one's religion, but no one has any method for deciding which is true. Your choices for resolving the dispute amount to submitting the question to an arbitrator, outvoting your opponents, coercing your opponents, or splitting off from them. Those methods can resolve a dispute. They can't establish reality.
9.13.2008 11:01am
Math_Mage (mail) (www):
I know what it means to claim that light exists because I know what the effects of such a light must be. I do not know what it would mean to have an effect that was undetectable in principle. Detectability is the essence of effect (some difference between an effect and no effect). Effect is the essence of existence.


Once again I wonder what makes you so certain that humans can detect everything that is. I refer you again to Flatland. A Sphere may enter the plane of the Flatlanders' realm, but all a Flatlander would be able to see is a Circle. That does not mean that the Sphere does not exist; rather, it means that the Flatlanders cannot detect the Sphere because it has no effect from their point of view.

Similarly, in our universe there may exist entities whose effects on our universe are indistinguishable from the effects we would see if that entity did not exist. I'm not arguing that the entity has no effect; I'm arguing that it has no effect ON US, because we don't have the ability to detect it. This implies that we cannot necessarily detect everything that exists, but I have no problem with that line of thought.

As for where the meaning comes from if not from our point of view, look no further than the effects of which I was speaking. From our point of view, it's meaningless, because we can't tell if those effects are caused by an entity we can't detect or not. But from a point of view that can detect that entity, if it exists, it is meaningful because it is causing those effects - and that point of view would be able to tell that this is the case. Furthermore, such an entity may have effects that we can't see. Returning to the Flatland analogy, if the Sphere pushes around some rocks in Sphereland while moving as a Circle in Flatland, not only would Flatlanders be unable to distinguish the Sphere from any other Circle, they wouldn't even be able to detect the rocks. Or, if they did, they would see the Circle pushing around some Flatland rocks, and there would be no comment from the Flatlanders.

Now, where are the internal contradictions in this idea?
9.13.2008 4:01pm
Michael B (mail):
Math-Mage, well and good, I'll attempt a fresh start as well. To be clear I assumed you were engaging in little or nothing more than snark (or some type of post-modern presumption) on the basis of your Truth™ comment along with a couple other indicators. Nonetheless, addressing the following:

"Please explain how the debates over the philosophy of mind and metaphysical physicalism are "legitimate scientific controversies." As far as I can tell, they're entirely philosophical discussions."

In general, there are two things.

Firstly, note that I responded to the original question by stating the folloing, emphasis now added:

"As pertains to the subject matter at hand more broadly conceived, abiogenesis is one category, a monism applied to philosophy of mind problems is another and a metaphysical physicalism is another."

Hence, from the beginning and forthrightly, I was addressing the subject matter more broadly conceived.

Secondly, the reason it makes (a great deal of) sense to do so is because of the ideological and philosophical presumptions, dispositions, polemics, agendas, etc. that too often inform - whether consciously or less consciously - various aspects of the debate, broadly conceived; the genuine science is too often confused with extra-scientific agendas and interests (on both sides).

There are a wide variety of reasons for that, ranging from issues that appertain to nettlesome philosophy of science problems on through to ideological related predispositions, so I won't presume to reduce it all to a formulaic good guy vs. bad guy divide.

A metaphysical materialsim most certainly is not a scientific question or view as such. The reason I placed it on my short list is because such a philosophical disposition and assumption does in fact inform a great deal of contemporary opinion, both lay opinion and the opinions of many professional scientists - (v. here) - but it remains an extra-scientific opinion or view, not a scientific view.

Likewise with the phil. of mind debates since it serves as a primary touchstone for those seeking to advance extra-scientific agendas under the banner of science. The role of neuroscientists cum philosophers cum advocates in this vein is notable.

Obviously, that's a general statement only, one that broadly alludes to a set of issues rather than delineating it all in greater and more subtle detail, but it's suggestive nonetheless of a huge and critical set of very real, and in some cases very nettlesome, problems.
9.13.2008 5:24pm