Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Some Thoughts on the Creationist Movement

I saw the Maryland Intelligent Design trial reenactment on PBS the other night, curious to see what I might glean from hearing the testimony of all the participants, both laymen and experts.

What happened was very interesting. I have always been puzzled about why in the world the Creationists would attack Darwin directly when they have always had, from their point of view, the perfect capping argument: “Darwin? Evolution? Yes, isn’t it amazing how God set up that whole process for Darwin to find?” Of course, to get there you would have to get by the fact that God wrote the Bible himself, word for word – apparently in English – just for King James I… and included some handy genealogical tables that conclude that the Earth was created some 6,007 years ago, on October 23rd at 9:00AM. But this should be an easy task for any capable preacher – perhaps God was writing in ‘angel time’, I think that’s 1,000 years to the ‘day’ quoted in the Bible, that should get them within the ballpark. That actually works out to 2,192,555,000 regular years – close enough for evolution.

But as the program wore on, listening to ignoramuses and pet ‘experts’ on the side of the angels and to earnest and exasperated scientists on the reality side, I began to think I was seeing something deeper.
This isn’t just about self-righteous religious outrage that intellectuals are denying the word of God – this is outright hatred of science and, by proxy, hatred of thought itself. They have a blind assumption that they can babble on and on and eventually, because of the number of words they have spoken, win the argument.

They are not interested in placing Creationism or Intelligent Design alongside Evolution theory – they want to replace Evolution altogether. And, in fact, they want to end all scientific inquiry, they are no different from the Taleban.

Mitt Romney tries to brand secularism as just another religious sect (like Mormonism, one supposes). Huckabee immediately starts trotting his anti-christ rhetoric. They cannot see the world in any other way than that of endless war of (their) one true faith against all the apostates, heretics and pagans everywhere.

This all brings up the very legitimate questions: “So, what makes Darwin and by extension, all of science, different from creationism and by extension, all of religion?” and “Why do you think science is better?”

To answer this I’m going to refer a few times to a remarkable book by Dr. Len Smolin, a theoretical physicist, called “The Trouble with Physics”. In his book Dr. Smolin undertakes to explain the major theories and schisms in the post-Einsteinian world of physics. Along the way he discovered that he had to explore beyond the boundaries of his discipline and ask very broad questions, like: “What is science?” “How do we ‘do’ science?”. The answers he found are illuminating and somewhat unexpected, chief among them is this statement: “Science is a collection of crafts and practices that serve to uncover truth.”

I really like this statement for what it does not say and for what it implies. What it does not say is that: science is the formalized, intellectual tower of learning, populated with lofty beings of surpassing intelligence looking down upon the feeble-minded masses and, from time to time, bestowing the fruits of their knowledge upon us - as the demagogues would have us believe.

No, science is still pretty much what it was when it developed into its present form during the Enlightenment. And what Dr. Smolin’s statement implies is that science is done by people, very smart people, but people nonetheless, who are subject to the same frailties as the rest of us: passion, vanity, jealousy, altruism, honesty, dishonesty – but all engaged in a transparent enterprise that seeks to uncover truth.

The second great statement that Dr. Smolin makes is that scientists are part of an ethical community that comes to its decisions by cooperation and consensus. Ostensibly, religions are ethical communities as well but are ordered in hierarchical fashion, that is, decisions are made at the top and applied downward by fiat.

This illustrates what I think is the difference between science and its antagonists:
Science seeks to reveal truth, through questioning, testing and proving.

Religion seeks to gain submission to already revealed ‘truth’ which admits of no questioning, no testing and offers no proof.
The difference is profound, unbridgeable and final. No religionist can ever admit to the validity of science and no one of science can ever submit to the tyranny of religion.

This is not to say that religion has no place in the world, although that is an argument which can (and I would) make, what I do say is that religion has no place in science. The religious imperative to enforce orthodoxy and crush dissent is antithetical to the existence of science at its core.

More benignly, I would say the leap of faith religion requires of its adherents changes the believer’s a prioris so that they are incapable of critical thought on the subject. As it stands, I have no quarrel with anyone’s religious opinion – so long as they do not try to impose it on me.

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