7/03/2008

PZ: EARNING OUR NOBILITY

PZ has a nuanced, but rather assertive smackdown here on this book, which I have yet to read. The title throws me off right from the get-go, though: properly speaking, one does not have to 'believe' in evolution any more than 'believe' in gravity. Evolution is an empirically-determined fact about the natural world, an essential fact which participates in biology's most powerful (and successful) model for the diversity and distribution of life over time and space.

Still, keeping in mind that I may or may not concur with Giberson's views in part, I was struck by this throwaway line of PZ's:

We are not princes of the earth, we are the descendants of worms, and any nobility must be earned.

PZ, as you might expect, I demur. But my reasons might surprise you. 'Worms' are wonderful things. The Creation, with all of its mystery, complexity and savagery is wonderful---so when you say 'the magic word is beauty', that resonates wonderfully with me, but not in a way that requires me to jettison my personal experience.

Similarly, theology is an intellectual tradition that attempts to infer things from the datum available, but it does not require me to deny the evidence of my senses from the world of Nature. Theology is not, as once described, 'the queen of the sciences'. It is manifestly unscientific, but that does not make its practice inherently deceitful. It simply makes a different set of assumptions about the starting points for drawing inferences. If these assumptions are incorrect, they may still prove useful.

In response to some of PZ's criticisms.....Yes, we Christians are talking through our hat whenever we think we can pull evidence for our particular tradition or understanding out of Nature. Yes, the brief of evolution as 'materialist religion' is often oversold by believers who tend to view all intellectual constructs as belief systems.

But that doesn't make materialism a conclusion that must be either rejected or affirmed, does it? Nor does it require Christians to be exclusivist in the sense of what datum/evidence/cultural experience we must affirm, which seems to be something that part of your critique affirms. Sure, the Ashanti tradition might be as valid as the Septuagint from a certain point of view, and as worthy (or unworthy) of either reverence or respect. I don't have a problem with that, and neither, I suspect, does Giberson.

Finally, what is this 'reconciliation'? I don't think science can be reconciled with faith as it is experienced, and neither do YEC, if you think about it. After all, they are all about denying the datum which seems to contradict their literal understanding of the text, which is tied to their particular faith experience. They don't want reconciliation, they want conformation to their experience. That is where I sympathize with them, but also happily part company with them. I don't desire conformation, because it distorts science and (carried to its logical conclusion) destroys the scientific enterprise and in a way denies the possibility of real faith. Rather, I seek engagement.

To that end, Pharyngula is at times similarly wonderful.

9 comments:

R. Moore said...


...Similarly, theology is an intellectual tradition that attempts to infer things from the datum available, but it does not require me to deny the evidence of my senses from the world of Nature. ...It simply makes a different set of assumptions about the starting points for drawing inferences. If these assumptions are incorrect, they may still prove useful....

I agree completely on this, but I suspect most Christians would not -- they seem quite happy denying most of reality when it conflicts with a book they think God wrote. But I also think this is an example of being correct without being helpful (Like Dr. Laura on the radio). When we look at the evolution of theological thought, we see a gradual accumulation of interpretation that leads to the Gordian knot of intelligent design. This knot was then unwound by the scientific rationalists. The lessoned learned from theology is is that its explanatory power is zero,zilch,nada. I think PZ's frustration lies in the continued interest in theology as it relates to the natural world, as though Aristotle's ideas on the origin of life should be moved to the lab for further study.

Scott Hatfield . . . . said...

But I also think this is an example of being correct without being helpful (Like Dr. Laura on the radio)

Owch. I'm being compared to a professional Pharisee! Though of course, you're right in a sense. Theology is of no help in doing science, and it has no (verifiable) explanatory power.

It may be of help in inspiring people to choose to study Nature, or in shaping the intuitive leaps that every now and then propel us along uncharted paths, often to no small profit. But one could say the same thing about any subjective experience...

When we look at the evolution of theological thought, we see a gradual accumulation of interpretation that leads to the Gordian knot of intelligent design. This knot was then unwound by the scientific rationalists.

I think you mean they simply cut through it, showing that their understanding of the knot was not required to break it. A cleaner, more direct and verifiable (if not simpler) way to explain the diversity of life existed: the 'unrolling of the scroll' championed by Darwin. But, if we were to truly say that rationalists have unravelled that knot, have (in Dawkins's metaphor) 'unwoven the rainbow', we would have to possess a more thorough account of how our capacity for belief and intuition evolved. I'm not saying that's impossible, merely that it seems like a distant prospect. It might be the kind of thing we could discover and demonstrate, yet never hold with conviction, due to the constraints of our own biology.

R. Moore said...


I think you mean they simply cut through it, showing that their understanding of the knot was not required to break it.


Well, we are working this metaphor to death. But I had a stronger statement in mind -- that the logic of theology was wrong -- even without scientific understanding of the natural world, the theological attempts to explain it were without a logical basis (basis in the sense of the first assumption required for a logical proof). Modern attempts to repair and reuse natural theology are not only wrong, they are killing us as a species.

It is very frustrating that theology schools grant advanced degrees in theology, and yet there is little acknowledgment by this scholarly community that the history of natural theological arguments are well known. How does one have a discussion with someone who refuses to accept the flaws behind Aristotle's reasoning? (I use Aristotle because all theological discussions of the natural world use his reasoning as their logical methodology).

Faith is the creator of theology, but I think the true nature of faith can only be understood when an honest examination of theology's failure to explain the natural world is undertaken. Hiding behind liturgies and ritual is comforting, but the paradox still sits in the corner of every church, to my mind making a mockery of the entire proceedings.

I found the media brouhaha this Spring over Barak Obama's embarrassment over the words of Reverend Wright quite ironic -- why is there not weekly embarrassment by every churchgoer about the intellectual dishonesty of every Sunday sermon? Why does no one stand up and say "If I have true faith, why do I not confront it head on, as Jesus did in the desert? Why do I instead construct an alternate reality of myths and tautologies in which to cocoon myself?"

PZ talks about "earning our nobility" -- by emerging from "the Matrix", where theist or atheist, and confronting the reality of our existence - one species on one planet, choking on our own excess, with no hope for outside help. This would truly separate us from all the other species.

Stan said...

r.moore said:
"The lessoned learned from theology is is that its explanatory power is zero,zilch,nada."

Perhaps you meant the ability to provide material proof? The explanatory power works just as well as the barrage of just-so stories produced daily by materialist scientists. If you think theology is a materialist enterprise, you are in the wrong ballcourt.

"why is there not weekly embarrassment by every churchgoer about the intellectual dishonesty of every Sunday sermon? "

Why are science devotees -specifically those who try to manipulate what they think science is into a philosophical force for their world-view - not embarrassed by their total inability to prove their cosmological, evolutionary -abiogenetic positions empirically, but have the faith that they, and not any first cause deity, are the be-all of the universe?

Your question betrays a hatred of that which you do not understand: an existence that is not material.

Moreover, the quantum Big Bang proposition by Hawking virtually demands a sentient first cause. If the universe is the result of the collapse of a quantum equation, then it requires an observer, just as the Vienna experiments show that particles require an observer in order to emerge from superposition. This observer infact would have caused the equation to collapse.

So, reality as the materialists wish to claim it, likely does not exist at the most fundamental level, and now, ever higher levels.

Philososphical Materialism has much to fear from science. It is not science. Science is methodological (functional, voluntary) materialism. Atheists confuse the two, I am starting to think, on purpose. If you take the state of Quantum Theory today, Philosophical Materialism fails. If you take logic today, Philosphical Materialism fails.

This is not addressed by Atheist Materialists who continue to rail at the human institution of ecclesiasticism, which they hate. When will they address the real issues they have?

RBH said...

Scott, this was a throw-away line, but it caught my eye:

A cleaner, more direct and verifiable (if not simpler) way to explain the diversity of life existed: the 'unrolling of the scroll' championed by Darwin.

That metaphor doesn't comport with my understanding of Darwin. While that was the meaning of "evolution" in Darwin's time and before, my understanding is that he did not use that word just for that reason. Can you point me to a contrary interpretation?

R. Moore said...


...just-so stories produced daily by materialist scientists


I suppose you comment here via metaphysical means, as I doubt just-so stories make the computers of the world function.


Your question betrays a hatred of that which you do not understand: an existence that is not material.


I never thought of it as hatred, but I admit I do get very annoyed by self-contradictory statements such as "existence that is not material"

Moreover, the quantum Big Bang proposition by Hawking virtually demands a sentient first cause. If the universe is the result of the collapse of a quantum equation, then it requires an observer, just as the Vienna experiments show that particles require an observer in order to emerge from superposition. This observer infact would have caused the equation to collapse.


You bring this up a lot Stan. Repeating something you misunderstand over and over does not make it less wrong. Your understanding of quantum mechanics make you a true literalist, I assume you apply similar logic to Scripture.


This is not addressed by Atheist Materialists who continue to rail at the human institution of ecclesiasticism, which they hate. When will they address the real issues they have?


I cannot help but notice you addressed none of issues with theology I brought up, which sort of proves my point. Lots of criticism, but no self-criticism.

R. Moore said...

An apology to Stan, now that I have visited his website, in that I implied in my last comment he had a religious agenda. Stan is a self-avowed atheist. He is also hopelessly confused about the difference between philosophical induction and scientific induction. No need to take my word for it, his site is here:
http://www.atheism-analyzed.net/

Madhu said...

An apology to Stan, now that I have visited his website, in that I implied in my last comment he had a religious agenda. Stan is a self-avowed atheist.

A self-avowed former atheist, actually! And note also that the Atheism Analyzed website you point out has the same "friend of A" graphic that Scott has adopted, not the red "A" alone.

I agree with your assessment that stan is confused about quantum physics and induction, but wouldn't rule out a theological agenda!

Scott Hatfield . . . . said...

Can you point me to a contrary interpretation?

Not sure that I need to. It was just a literary gloss.

Yes, it is true that Darwin used the term 'descent with modification' rather than that of evolution, and in the Origin he only uses the word 'evolved' once, in the final paragraphs.

It is interesting to note that they appear here precisely at the same point where Darwin, almost as an afterthought, throws a sop to religion by alluding to the Creator. Darwin's biographer James Moore has remarked that clues like this lead him to regard Darwin's vision of Nature as fundamentally religious. But, as Gould has emphasized, Darwin's thought was pluralist on a number of matters, which is just a nice way of saying that he didn't like to commit to any position that lacked clear evidence.

Did Darwin wish to avoid the metaphysical baggage of 'evolution' as the 'unfolding' of some (presumably pre-ordained) cosmic plan? Sure, and evolutionary biologists are correct to emphasize the wandering, seemingly aimless, non-progressive, 'tinkering' character of natural selection. But, both in his published works and his correspondence, Darwin routinely avoided committing himself to this or that metaphysical 'take' on the evolutionary drama as a whole. The wisdom of his strategy can be seen in the rare case where he departs from this practice, as in the lamentable (at least to me) decision to adopt Spencer's gloss ('survival of the fittest') in later additions of the Origin. As with the word 'evolution', this phrase can lead to mischievous interpretations, and so Dawkins must spend an entire chapter of 'The Extended Phenotype' defending the various ways in which the word 'fitness' has been interpreted.

In general, though, Darwin eschews metaphysics---but even that is a metaphysical choice, of sorts, which is to be at least initially all things to all readers as much as possible, in order to promote the dissemination of the idea. This was clearly a conscious choice on Darwin's point, as the structure of the Origin is clearly intended as 'one long argument' whose purpose is persuasion. The result is that Darwin, to the reader already attempting to sort through his or her commitments, is perceived as mirroring, complementary or at least not antagonistic to the reader's views. As with scripture, the committed tend to look into Darwin's published works and see what they want to see.