Science: September 2008 Archives

Commenter Mafarmerga couldn't understand why I think the decision in the Dover, PA trial in Pennsylvania was grossly incompetent, so I thought I'd catalogue my reasons in a separate post.

I should note for the record that I'm not questioning whether the result of the decision was right, and I'm not commenting at all on some matters in the case (such as the ridiculous disclaimer they wanted to put on the textbooks). I'm merely pointing out that many of the arguments the opinion presents are not just bad but complete howlers. They're not the sort of thing that reasonable people can disagree about, and there are plenty of arguments that I do put in that category, including some on issues I have a very firm view on (such as abortion). To be in that category, you have to begin from different moral premises or different views of rights or justice. Many of the views defended in this opinion are simply unreasonable. Only an irrational or ignorant person could defend them. They involve misstatements, misrepresentations, ignorance of the history of philosophy, and simply fallacious inferences. I wouldn't give them a passing grade on a philosophy exam. I'll number my points to keep them separate in my mind as I go.

1. Jones says a reasonable student would see teaching ID as an endorsement of religion because religious people have said similar things. But this argument is pretty insufficient. It's true that so-called scientific creationists have talked about gaps in evolution, and one version of ID can be thought of as explaining things unexplained by evolution. But that doesn't mean ID is the same thing as scientific creationism, and it doesn't mean ID is religion. That's just a non sequitur.Saying there are unexplained things in a scientific theory isn't endorsement of religion just because one religion-derived view with scientific language uses a similar argument. You could never arrive at creation science unless you started with the assumptions of certain way of reading Genesis, a particular religion. ID requires neither a particular way of reading a particular religious text or any particular religious views at all. There's a huge difference.

2. Jones accepts John Haught's claim that design arguments are religious, citing Thomas Aquinas as someone who held the view. Yet Aquinas would be the first to insist that his design argument is not remotely based on religious revelation. He distinguishes between general revelation and special revelation, and he says you can't know special revelation is true apart from faith. You can know general revelation is true just by using reason. His design argument is the Fifth Way, and the Five Ways are five of his arguments for the existence of God starting from general revelation, using reason as available to anyone without the use of faith. The argument is much older than Aquinas anyway. It goes back to Plato at least, who does not use it to support any religious beliefs, and Xenophon puts it in the mouth of Socrates, who was put on trial for rejecting the religion of his time. Whatever Socrates was up to was more properly philosophical.

3. He makes much of the fact that Aquinas notes that the designer is the same being most people call God. Aquinas doesn't say that step of the argument can be known by reason, at least if that means concluding that this being has all the characteristics of God as revealed in scripture. Each argument he gives offers one or a few divine attributes as demonstrable, and then he concludes that you can know by reason that a being with many of the divine attributes exists. He doesn't think you can show that God is a Trinity or that God is of one essence with the human being we call Jesus. He does think you can show a necessarily existent, omnipotent, omniscient, perfectly good being who explains all the contingent things found within the universe, who designed things at some level in order to explain the purposed appearance of things. That happens to be true of the being he believes in by faith, and he thinks they're the same being, but he doesn't argue for this based on religion. His arguments aren't religious arguments. It's simple historical ignorance on Haught's part to claim that they're religious, assuming Jones represents Haught fairly to begin with.

I know this is one of my pet peeves, but it's a good pet peeve to have, since far too many people misrepresent the abortion debate as being about when life begins. When life begins is a scientific matter, and anyone who recognizes that should have a hard time seeing the plain meaning of Joe Biden's statement as follows as outright endorsement of relativism about science:

MR. BROKAW: If Senator Obama comes to you and says, "When does life begin? Help me out here, Joe," as a Roman Catholic, what would you say to him

SEN. BIDEN: I'd say, "Look, I know when it begins for me." It's a personal and private issue. For me, as a Roman Catholic, I'm prepared to accept the teachings of my church. But let me tell you. There are an awful lot of people of great confessional faiths--Protestants, Jews, Muslims and others--who have a different view. They believe in God as strongly as I do. They're intensely as religious as I am religious. They believe in their faith and they believe in human life, and they have differing views as to when life--I'm prepared as a matter of faith to accept that life begins at the moment of conception. But that is my judgment. For me to impose that judgment on everyone else who is equally and maybe even more devout than I am seems to me is inappropriate in a pluralistic society. And I know you get the push back, "Well, what about fascism?" Everybody, you know, you going to say fascism's all right? Fascism isn't a matter of faith. No decent religious person thinks fascism is a good idea.

I'm very sure that Biden didn't mean what he said. He surely doesn't think scientific truth is all a matter of what you happen to believe any more than Nancy Pelosi thinks life doesn't really begin at conception when she quotes church fathers against the current Roman Catholic view (thus in effect quoting religion against science, ironic as that is from the highest-ranked (in one measure, anyway) Democrat in the United States. Both of them mean to be talking about moral status and perhaps personhood. But it's not at all clear what exactly he intended to say about it. He obviously couldn't have meant some kind of thoroughgoing moral relativism because of his last statement. What generates the relativist-sounding move is not that it's about moral views, where a moral relativism of some sort then kicks in once you enter moral territory. He both has some notion of what a decent religious person is (which sounds objective, even though it uses a value-laden term 'decent') and some notion that a view has to be held by a decent religious person to count as appropriate in a pluralistic society, which he takes to rule out Hitler's fascism.

What I'm least sure of is what he really thinks about all those religiously held beliefs. When he says he knows when it begins for him, does he want to say that any deeply-held religious belief is true for the person who holds it, in which case there's really no religious truth, just religious feelings? Or does "I know when it begins for me" function as an equivalent expression to "I know when I think it begins". It's a bit awkward to take it that way, but it would be something like "As for me, I know when it begins, but I'm not going to expect others to understand that because it involves faith, and I respect their conflicting religious traditions.

Is that overly charitable? Keep in mind that this is Joe Biden.

Palin and Evolution

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In the media feeding frenzy on Sarah Palin in the last six days, some completely inappropriate and ridiculous questions have dominated the coverage I've paid attention to (which has consisted mostly of NPR, as it happens). Many of the questions getting major play would never be asked of a man, and some are actually illegal to ask at job interviews. But there have been a few genuine issues in the mix. I want to look at one that almost everyone reporting on it has gotten wrong, both in the mainstream media and on blogs (and it's taken me a lot of work to keep inaccuracies and misrepresentations out of her Wikipedia article).

It stems from a brief answer in a political debate when she was running for governor, which she was able to follow up on in an interview the next day. I have found exactly one source that details her response, although it doesn't actually include the exact wording of the question, exact wording that might actually be very important. Here is the exchange during the gubernatorial debate:

The volatile issue of teaching creation science in public schools popped up in the Alaska governor's race this week when Republican Sarah Palin said she thinks creationism should be taught alongside evolution in the state's public classrooms. Palin was answering a question from the moderator near the conclusion of Wednesday night's televised debate on KAKM Channel 7 when she said, "Teach both. You know, don't be afraid of information. Healthy debate is so important, and it's so valuable in our schools. I am a proponent of teaching both."

I'd love to know what the question was, because I don't know what her answer means otherwise. Debate between both is a good thing. Both of what? The author of the article says creation science and evolution, but I don't trust a newspaper writer to be careful with important distinctions. Some people call intelligent design arguments creation science, despite there being a world of difference between the two categories. One is science done very badly. The other is a long-standing philosophical argument form that goes back to Plato and Xenophon whose current versions include a premise based on scientific fact but whose conclusion might be questioned, because it's an inference to the best explanation, and that sort of argument is by its very nature only probabilistic, and these particular arguments (depending on the version) can admit of alternative explanations that others will argue are the actual best explanation. So I'd like to know what they were discussing before I can interpret even her first sentence.

There's also an issue of what she means by teaching it. Does she mean (a) requiring it in the curriculum, (b) allowing teachers to include it in the curriculum, or (c) allowing teachers to discuss it if students happen to bring up the issue in class? The same article, which as I said is the only one a serious search could turn up from the time, goes on to describe her interview the next day, giving some much-needed clarification on the second issue. In short, she holds (c). (Unfortunately, it doesn't help very much on the first issue.)

In an interview Thursday, Palin said she meant only to say that discussion of alternative views should be allowed to arise in Alaska classrooms: "I don't think there should be a prohibition against debate if it comes up in class. It doesn't have to be part of the curriculum." She added that, if elected, she would not push the state Board of Education to add such creation-based alternatives to the state's required curriculum. Members of the state school board, which sets minimum requirements, are appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Legislature. "I won't have religion as a litmus test, or anybody's personal opinion on evolution or creationism," Palin said. Palin has occasionally discussed her lifelong Christian faith during the governor's race but said teaching creationism is nothing she has campaigned about or even given much thought to.

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