Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Fear and Knowledge

Over at Empirical International, Matt has a couple of excellent posts answering ten "challenges" to evolutionary biology posed by Jonathan Wells, a prominent intelligent-design advocate. The challenges are part of an old chain email that tries to convince high-school students to confront their unsuspecting biology teachers with ammunition against the supposed fraud of evolution. Ever the gentleman, Matt writes, "Wells holds PhDs in Molecular and Cell Biology from Berkeley and Religious Studies from Yale, so he's obviously no slouch and I do not believe he is deliberately trying to deceive people." Well, speak for yourself, Matt. I've been blogging for over a year now, so my ability to assume good faith was lost long ago.

Kidding aside, let's assume, for the sake of argument, that Dr. Wells is honestly questioning widely-accepted science (instead of cynically selling out to hacks and pseudoscientific organizations like the Discovery Institute, where he is a fellow). Matt already addressed the numerous scientific errors Wells makes in his criticisms, a task for which he is manifestly more qualified than I am, so we'll put aside those concerns for the time being. For my part, I'd like to explore why seemingly-intelligent people cling so desperately to junk science like intelligent design in defiance of all logic and scientific consensus. I think the phenomenon raises some interesting issues.

There's no small amount of fuss about a supposed showdown between science and religion in our age, and among highly-educated people, I imagine the consensus is that science is "winning." Until 9/11, there was a rough agreement that religious faith was waning, at least in the developed world, and it's not hard to imagine why some people - and I'd place Wells and his ilk among them - feel threatened. There's something very scary about the prospect of one's world seemingly fading away, an unsettling feeling that your cherished, familiar traditions are being replaced by an indifferent empiricism whose evangelists are openly hostile to your heritage. Or at least that's how they see it. For others of us, the picture is considerably less bleak: the advancement of human knowledge is exciting and potentially world-changing, and regardless of our religious beliefs, it should be considered a good thing.

Fundamentally, that's why ID advocates are off-base. Religion - or at least Christianity - is not about making empirical claims. It's not about explaining, in any scientifically meaningful sense, how the universe came to be, and when it addresses its subject matter appropriately, its claims are beyond the realm of scientific testing. The temptation to scientifically explain the world using God is misguided and counterproductive.

It didn't start with intelligent design, though. We can look back at least as far as 1613, when the Flemish Jesuit Leonardus Lessius published De Providentia Numinis, an argument about God and Christianity which proceeded by venturing into explanations of the physical universe. It was, to say the least, a troubling sign of things to come. As the philosopher Michael Buckley writes:
De providentia numinis occupies a position from which the Church will seldom depart in its apologetic response to the gradual rise of atheism in the Western world. Lessius’ problematic methodology separates the question of god from the cognitive claims of Christology in the classic distinction between revelation and reason. The centrality of Christ is relegated to revelation – Christ does not evoke faith in the Father; his intelligibility is consequent upon faith. What Lessius presents is not the person and message of Jesus, but those cosmological and historical experiences which are open to any human being.
When you think about it, this is a pretty remarkable shift, one which basically amounts to a tacit admission that personal experience of the sublime is intellectually insufficient as grounds for belief. Born of this sentiment is the fundamentalist tendency to look for "answers in Genesis," which will always be a fool's errand. Religion should not appeal to science for coherence, not only because it doesn't need to, but also because science doesn't need religion. Science is perfectly coherent without religion.

But that's not the only reason why the ID-style approach is misguided - or why ID advocates are scared. There is another significant concern behind their way of thinking, one that has to do with the way people imagine nature. The Christian idea of a world created ex nihilo is not a world that precludes contingency, but it is a world where the contingent embodies (in some way) a divine idea or image, if not divine intent. It is a world in which, as Louis Dupré writes, "nature retains an intrinsically normative character," a "further stage in the process of revelation." For Christian thinkers of centuries past, nature was filled with meaning, if not intentional structure. Again, as Dupré puts it, "the epistemic apriori imposed no categorical structure upon the real, but a perspective for reading what was directly, but never simply or exhaustively, given." Most Christians, I imagine, are intent to continue viewing nature in this way, but the rise of evolutionary theory exploded forever the idea of a manifestly-ordered creation. Right?

People like Dr. Wells are afraid of the question - so they continue to insist, against all evidence, that evolution cannot possibly account for the world we see. They are, of course, wrong. Their work perniciously undermines real science to support pseudoscience. And on theological grounds, their efforts are completely unnecessary: contingency, however we imagine it to work in the universe, does not make the world devoid of meaning or beauty. God does not exist as some sort of heavenly puppetmaster, and it was always theologically childish to imagine God that way. However we may conceive of creation and of the nature that developed after the origins of the universe, we can at least admit the possibility of a pervasive divine grace, free from the temporal limitations of humanity, able to see what was, is, and will be; imbuing the world with meaning even as it unfolds in ways that are unpredictable to us. Vain attempts to fit science and the world into our preconceived notions of providence are doomed to fail. But the honest and unbiased pursuit of knowledge - whether scientific or spiritual - has the potential to unlock not just information, but understanding.

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