Monday, June 25, 2007

Sunday, June 3, 2007

Senator Brownback's Opinions about Evolution: We're Special

On 5/31/07 Senator Brownback from Kansas made some interesting statements about evolution in his article entitled "What I Think About Evolution". While Mr. Brownback has every right to tell us all what he thinks, a lot of what he stated needs to be analyzed for further discussion.

He introduces the concepts of Faith, Science, and Reason while suggesting that some people are trying to drive a "wedge" between religion and reason. (And these people, I suppose, are the Atheists and Secularists.) Brownbeck states: "There cannot be a contradiction between the two", meaning Religion and Reason. Which brings me to the question of "How is religious faith reasonable, rational or logical?". He takes a moment to distinguish the "spiritual order" from the "material order" yet says they aren't contradictions. This is certainly a philosophical argument. Maybe Pope Benedict supports the case for theology as "the rationality of faith" but I'm still not convinced.

I would argue that they are contrary to each other...there is theology and there is empiricism. Empirical science will cover the realm of the material world while theology can take care of the supernatural, spiritual, demon-haunted arena. Those two worlds collide...they don't mix. There is dissonance and discord between them. There always has been. Science is the candle in the dark, as Carl Sagan so beautifully put it. And by using reason, we can question the word around us, our origins and our behaviors. To discover, formulate and conclude.

While Mr. Brownback believes in a creator and states that God gave humans the "gift of reason", why should we hold this to be true. We could just as easily state that we are naturally reasonable creatures. It is in our wiring to be curious. And Browback goes on to mention "divine causality" without quite defining what he means by that term: his belief in a "guiding intelligence" is up for debate. There is no evidence yet to prove the "guiding intelligence" theory. I would venture to guess that he means the well known, controversial "Intelligent Design" theory. Mr. Brownbeck rejects what he calls "an exclusively materialistic, deterministic vision of the world" and favors "divine causality", I presume. I will take a stab at defining the term as "God made us and the Universe"...end of subject and an airtight case for creationism. It is so tidy as explanations go. He has his convictions and his faith and they are unshakeable. That is fine and dandy. But is it reasonable?

What I was most troubled by was his use of the term "feud" to describe the various scientists that, as he calls it, "believe" in Darwinian Evolution. Those pesky darwinists or evolutionists, depending on who you talk to...up to no good. He tries to allude to how much disagreement there is in the scientific community. And I'm sure this is true, to a point. But this is certainly not the case to the degree that exists in the religious faith communities. If you want to use "feud", maybe it would be a better description of the Jewish/Christian/Hindu/Muslim communities, within and between each other. Even Pope Benedict would agree that the bridges across the religious faithful are rather fragile and thin. Genuine dialogue? Not by a long shot. Yet Reason is the ruler of human life, as the Age Of Enlightenment taught us, and through reason we gain knowledge and liberation, so we need to talk about this and make sense of it all the best we can.

To argue or debate a scientific hypothesis is certainly not the same as "feuding". And the research studies in biology, medical research, genetics, and all interrelated scientific fields depend on open dialogue and the critical review of findings by peers, not on "personal beliefs" or "firmly held convictions" or pouting because nobody is taking your ideas seriously. This commonly misunderstood issue goes back to the usage of the word "theory", I suppose. (Or it is Brownback's intention to make his opponents appear weak and uncertain in "battle".)

Often, a theory is mistaken for "guess-work" in our common use of the term. A mere guess, rather than an educated guess. This comes out in Brownbeck's use of the term "determinism" also. He must not have realized that this is the view that all events and actions are predetermined. Which I would argue is more common in religious debates! Free will and choice and unintended consequences would not exist from such a viewpoint . And it would be deadly to a scientific mindset...why bother, it's all predetermined, let's all go home and watch tv.

Using the term "materialistic" when we mean to convey material substance or "matter" is often another common mistake. Instead it is becomes a loaded term with almost psychological overtones. To be materialistic in our society is to be concerned with ownership and commodities. And to commodify means to define by determining use-value or utility , rather than worthwhile in and of itself, independent of "gain". In the scientific community, however, materialism is a term used for gaining empirical knowledge, the type of knowledge we gain when we experiment and observe the natural world. To put it another way, we're not in it for individual gain or profit motive.

And this brings up the scientific method which depends on experimental reliability. That is, it depends on replication and finding common results over time, rather than variation every time the experiment takes place. So scientists should be able to reach common, universal findings: IF A then B. There are no absolutes here. More like tendencies. We are referring to real, finite, actual facts under conditions A, not other conditions. Because we have no fixed absolutes under the logical equations of the scientific method. Therefore we have no absolute knowledge, in the end it is speculation until patterns emerge. But if the theory holds true over time and independent testing, it is held to be a sound theory. Relativism not Absolutism.

This is where the theory of Natural Selection fits nicely into the discussion. It is the genius of Charles Darwin that marks the very foundation of Biological Science. And the theory holds true and level with only minor adjustments over time. But the debate is not a feud about the soundness of the theory, it is the application of the theory where there may be disagreement or debate. I think when Brownback makes the assertion that any questions raised by evolutionary theory belong in the realm of philosophy, he misses the point and dismisses the work being done. And when he uses the term "atheistic theology", he's just plain wrong-minded. A theology needs religious knowlege to exist and is purely philosophical cannot define an atheist as a theologist. An atheist is the negation of the term. It is like an annulment of a marriage. Atheism is the annulment of a god in favor of human and natural causes.

The existence of a god or gods has not been proved using scientific methods. Pure and simple. All we have are artifacts showing how universal religion is on this planet...human social institution. Moveover, a creator is not necessary to determine the origins of our planet or life as we experience it. We humans are still trying to figure that all out. And we have not succeeded yet. We have pieces of the puzzle. But that does not mean we won't find the answers someday.

Perhaps using the term "creative agent" would muddy the waters even more, but when we speak about cosmology and the beginning of the Universe, humans can only speculate about such areas at this point in time and therefore these areas remain philosophical and perhaps even theological for many people. Yet areas that are worthwhile to investigate as best we can with the tools we have. The origin of actual life on this planet, on the other hand, is a different story. And the Noah's ark story just won't cut it like it used to. We have gathered information from historical evidence to reach the point where more of the puzzle is complete. Where does life come from? How did we get here? Our technological progress has certainly helped us answer some of these questions about the human condition and the natural world around us.

Brownback and others will always try to see us as "exceptional" beings. The chosen ones. We're special. He even makes an interesting statement saying "every person is a fundamental truth that must be safeguarded". Talk about an abstraction! I would rather take that to mean that we exist in the material world, here and now. Take care of yourself and others while you have the chance! And what needs to be safeguarded is our ability to be freethinkers. So I give credit to Mr. Brownback for adding to the discussion and making his views more available to the rest of us out here. That is the vital ingredient of open, global dialogue. Freedom to express thoughts and feelings as a creative outlet and satisfying act.

Saturday, June 2, 2007

Dawkins, My hero

"We are all athiests about most gods humanity has believed in..some of us just go one god further." Richard Dawkins

I was happy to be able to view a discussion by Richard Dawkins on a webcast from a few years back called "Design of Life" held in California in 2002/TEDtalks. Hearing him speak is just as enjoyable as reading his scholarly material. A British accent always helps too. And his lectures would certainly be both entertaining and enlightening to attend....much like Ricky Gervais, another great speaker against Creationism, though not from academia like Dawkins.

Dawkin's statement about atheism being "corrosive to religious faith" has stuck with me. How difficult it remains to understand how science and religion can ever mix well. Personally, I don't think they should be expected to blend. They are separate realms of knowledge. As an evolutionary biologist, Dawkins can see the connection between human progress and lack of religious dogma in the lives of individuals. The enlightenment could not have taken place without freethinkers. And society is better off because of secular humanism.

Favoring the simple explanation over the complex...the beauty of simplicity even. Like Darwin, Dawkins explains natural selection like a ramp...a gradual, slow moving, step-by-step process. No fancy tricks or sleight of hand techniques. He counters the IDers and their complex explanations for a creator agent and their unquestioning faith. God is not necessary to explain the cosmos or our moral behavior on this earth. God is a human construct and we will be moral with or without religious guidelines. As I heard it put once, we are born to be moral. We are instinctually social creatures.

We are entering in the secular realm of universal law and of moral philosophy ...a humanist path, not a religious one. A path where we are raised from childhood to build bridges instead of walls. To have dialogue rather than monologue...debate is a legitmate form of communication, even about taboo subjects like religion.