Sunday, November 2, 2008

423)Part 3, Peter McKnight: Hitting a brick wall; Scientists forsake science when they use Darwin for ideological ends

The following article is the third in a series of four articles on Science and Religion by journalist Peter McKnight:

Hitting a brick wall
Scientists forsake science when they use Darwin for ideological ends

Peter McKnight
Vancouver Sun columnist
Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Religion is something left over from the infancy of our intelligence, it will fade away as we adopt reason andscience as our guidelines.- Bertrand Russell

In the Creation-Evolution Struggle, historian and philosopher of biology Michael Ruse writes, "in both evolution and creation, we have rival religious responses to a crisis of faith - rival judgments about the meaning of life [and] rival sets of moral dictates . . . ."

This is a startling statement, for several reasons. First, while we often hear creationists equate Darwinism with religion, Ruse, an agnostic, has spent much of his career defending evolutionary theory against creationist attacks.

Second, as we discussed in Part II, science is a method for understanding, explaining and controlling the natural world. Nowhere does this method provide us with the basis for making moral judgments or discerning the meaning of life. In other words, science is a descriptive, rather than prescriptive, enterprise - it concerns itself with what is the case, not what ought to be the case, or how we ought to behave.

For example, the science of evolutionary biology describes the world by telling us that all living things are descended with modification from a common ancestor, and that this produces a branching tree-like pattern of life. This tells us nothing about how to live or about the meaning of life.

Those matters are the province of religion and ethics, which are at least partly prescriptive disciplines. Yet if evolution does concern itself with these matters, then it would seem that it is a religion, just as Ruse and the creationists have charged.

To see how Ruse makes his case, let us consider his presentation of the history of evolution from before publication of On the Origin of Species to the present day.

Evolutionary thinking was quite common prior to the Origin, although evolutionary theories tended to be pseudoscientific rather than scientific, replete with ethical prescriptions about how individuals and societies should conduct themselves. In particular, pre-Darwinian theorists, including Charles's grandfather Erasmus Darwin, having been influenced by the Industrial Revolution in Britain, promoted evolutionary ideas in order to support a theory of progress. "Progress was the backbone of it all," Ruse writes.

Now we should note here that progress is an irreducibly ethical concept, in contrast to change. Change - the transformation of something from one state to another - says nothing about whether the transformation is positive or negative, while progress refers to change that one considers positive. And change is only positive if it accords with one's values.

So while the scientific theory of evolution speaks of how organisms change, it says nothing at all about progress. Yet in promoting evolution as a theory of progress, pre-Darwinian theorists were promulgating an ethical, rather than a scientific theory.

Darwin set out to change all that, to supply scientific evidence for a theory of evolution uninfected with ethical prescriptions. And in that, he was highly successful, as he provided abundant evidence for the reality of evolution.

But he was less successful in establishing evolutionary biology as a "professional" science - while the 19th century saw the development of professional science in Britain, where the sciences became well-funded and people could, for the first time, choose science as a career, evolutionary biology remained an orphan as universities failed to see why they should fund research in the subject.

As with most orphans, evolutionary biology eventually found a home. The X Club, a small group of scientists led by biologist Thomas Henry Huxley, took it upon itself to fill the gap left by universities, and began to promote and popularize Darwin's theory in the late 19th century.

But Huxley wasn't merely a scientist. Widely known as "Darwin's bulldog," Huxley was a committed social reformer, convinced that Britain must continue to progress from a rural culture to an urban, industrialized society.

Naturally, certain groups, such as landowners and military brass, opposed Huxley's notion of progress. And since the Church of England was the strongest supporter of such groups, Huxley knew that he would have to develop a new religion to challenge the authority of the Anglican Church.

As it happened, evolution, used ideologically as a theory of progress, proved to be the perfect vehicle to challenge the church. Indeed, if one reads progress into evolution, one can say that the goal of this multibillion-year-old process was the development of human beings, which puts humans at the centre of the universe, something that the Christian churches had always maintained.

Huxley therefore sought to use a scientific theory for political ends, and for this he turned to Oxford philosopher Herbert Spencer. The only non-scientist member of the X Club and the man who coined the phrase "survival of the fittest," Spencer used evolution to undergird his laissez-faire socioeconomic philosophy.

Evolution as social theory

Specifically, just as competition in nature leads to progress (the Huxley/Spencer idea of progress), Spencer thought it important to create similar conditions in society. He therefore argued in favour of social competition in the hope that it would lead to social progress.

Interestingly, Spencer wasn't the only social theorist who used evolution to buttress his world view. Karl Marx, whose politics couldn't have been more different from Spencer's, but who thought of his theory as "scientific socialism," was also a great admirer of Darwin, and thought that Darwinism supported his theory.

This just goes to show that you can fit evolution into just about any world view you want. But it's important to recognize that these theorists were using evolution to justify their social, political and moral programs rather than engaging in what Ruse calls the "straight science" of evolution.

And into the 20th century, after the demise of the X Club, theorists continued to use the science of evolution ideologically. While many scientists argued against Nazi eugenics in the 1930s, many others did support some form of eugenics - which literally means "good origin" - as a result of their belief in progress.

One of those scientists was R.A. Fisher, the great statistician whose work, along with that of geneticists J.B.S. Haldane and Sewell Wright, provided the foundation for the science of population genetics.

This work proved incalculably important as it led, some three-quarters of a century after publication of the Origin, to the development of a professional science of evolutionary biology in the 1930s and '40s. Yet scientists continued to use evolution to promote their pet political and social theories, and even managed to mix their work in the straight science of evolution with their ideological theories about how human beings and societies ought to behave.

So Julian Huxley, who as his name suggests was the grandson of Thomas Henry, promoted his own secular religion of "evolutionary humanism," while Cold War American scientists used evolution to argue for the supremacy of the American way of life.

Ruse's history confirms that science has been used to advance whatever political, social and moral ideas were in fashion at the time. And since metaphysical materialism - the theory that matter is all there is - and the atheism that follows from it are all the rage today, it should come as no surprise that the science of evolution is now being called on to justify materialist world views and destroy religion.

This brings us to the scientist who has launched the most thorough assault on religion: Harvard entomologist Edward O. Wilson, the founder of sociobiology.

Wilson, who was raised a Southern Baptist in Alabama, has been most diplomatic in his public statements about religion, and has sought to establish an alliance between scientific and religious leaders. But in his written works, especially his On Human Nature, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1979, one finds a very different attitude.

Towards the end of On Human Nature, Wilson declares that scientific materialism "presents the human mind with an alternative mythology that until now has always, point for point in zones of conflict, defeated traditional religion." Wilson's use of the term "mythology" to describe materialism is telling, and it's clear from the quote that Wilson wishes to replace traditional religion with a religion of materialism.

The most straightforward way to do so is to show that religious belief is a material phenomenon, a product of our genes. Extending his sociobiological speculations from the insects to humans, Wilson argues that religious belief confers a survival advantage upon those who possess it, since people who hold such beliefs are likely to band together and defend each other (there is abundant evidence of this in the world today.)

Consequently, Wilson argues that nature is likely to select for those genes that produce in their possessors religious belief, and he concludes: "If this interpretation is correct, the final decisive edge enjoyed by scientific naturalism will come from a capacity to explain traditional religion, its chief competitor, as a wholly material phenomenon. Theology is not likely to survive as an independent intellectual discipline."

Given Wilson's last words here, it's interesting to note that Richard Dawkins has described theology as a "non-subject" (though he told me that theologians have a lot to contribute - just not when they're talking about God.) In any case, while there is probably some truth to Wilson's argument, it doesn't prove that religion is a wholly material phenomenon.

In a clever rejoinder, Roman Catholic Brown University biologist Ken Miller argues that the same analysis could apply to Wilson's skepticism. After all, genes that lead one to be skeptical also confer a survival advantage, since animals that are not skeptical in nature are likely to get eaten by a predator. This effectively explains away skepticism, and hence atheism, just as it explains away religious belief.

I'm not sure that Wilson would be particularly bothered by this rejoinder, given his materialist world view. But that's precisely the problem: Wilson's arguments don't prove metaphysical materialism; on the contrary, they depend on an a priori commitment to it. After all, since science is guided by methodological materialism - the rule that says scientists can't invoke supernatural causes in explaining the world - scientists can't then turn around and say science proves such causes don't exist.

Indeed, even if belief in the supernatural can be explained by evolutionary biology, this doesn't mean that the supernatural doesn't exist. Virtually all beliefs can be explained by evolutionary biology, at least in Wilson's view, but that doesn't necessarily render the objects of those beliefs illusory.

Scientific verification limiting

Wilson's commitment to metaphysical materialism is further in evidence in his book Consilience: The Unity of All Knowledge, in which he declares that all knowledge can be transformed into scientific knowledge. But this is only true if the only things that exist are things science can investigate - that is, material things.

There is more than a whiff here of logical positivism, the stridently "scientistic" philosophy promulgated in the early 20th century by the Vienna Circle (der Wiener Kries), a remarkable group of physicists, philosophers and mathematicians.

Under the spell of Anglo-Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein's first masterpiece, the Tractatus-Logico Philosophicus, the Vienna Circle argued that the only propositions with "cognitive" meaning - the only ones that concern knowledge - are those that can, in principle, be scientifically verified (the verification principle of meaning.)

Hence all theological, metaphysical and ethical propositions are meaningless because there is no way to verify them. This effectively does away with metaphysics, theology and ethics as forms of knowledge, and makes science the only way to truth.

Although logical positivism dominated the philosophy of science in the early and mid 20th century, it ultimately failed because the core idea of the movement, the verification principle, is itself not scientifically verifiable, which means that it, much like talk of God, must be meaningless.

Even before the Vienna Circle got rolling, Wittgenstein was clever enough to see this, writing at the end of the Tractatus that anyone who understands him will recognize his propositions as nonsensical. But the positivists went with the verification principle anyway, and they did enjoy a good run.

And now we hear many scientists echo the thoughts of the positivists. In Consilience, for example, Wilson asserts his support for positivism and claims it failed only because people didn't know how the brain works. Yet positivism failed because it was self-refuting, and no amount of neuroscience will change that.

In contrast to the thoroughgoing positivism of Wilson, Richard Dawkins is a veritable moderate. Indeed, when I met with him earlier this year, he was quick to acknowledge that there are other ways of knowing aside from science - specifically, while saying that "science tells us nothing about ethics," he noted that there are ethical ways of knowing.

Furthermore, in contrast to the X Club, Dawkins has always dismissed attempts to draw ethical prescriptions from the theory of evolution, and he has written more than once that he is a "passionate anti-Darwinian when it comes to politics and how we should conduct our human affairs."

Given these comments, one would assume that Dawkins eschews metaphysical materialism. And he certainly seems to at certain points: For example, in the last chapter of The God Delusion he grapples with evidence from modern physics, and quotes artificial intelligence expert Steve Grand, who says "Matter flows from place to place and momentarily comes together to be you. Whatever you are, therefore, you are not the stuff of which you are made."

This seems an anti-materialist statement, and Dawkins quotes it without argument. Yet when I asked him about the notion that the supernatural, if it exists, lies outside nature and is therefore not amenable to scientific investigation, he labelled such thinking "a semantic trick." So it's not entirely clear where he stands.

What is clear is his opinion of religion. Religion is a virus of the mind, "comparable to the smallpox virus but harder to eradicate," he informs us, and the religious instruction of children amounts to mental child abuse.

It is these comments, together with Dawkins' compelling writing, that have propelled him to superstardom. But since Dawkins is a scientist, these comments have also led many religious people to view science, and in particular, evolutionary biology, as the enemy.

Similarly, scientists who embrace metaphysical materialism send the message that science precludes belief in God. And scientists who draw ethical prescriptions from science have provided fodder for those who argue that evolution is a religion.

Indeed, as we saw in Part II, creationists' primary objection to evolution concerns what they believe to be the consequences of the theory. And if those consequences are that matter is all that exists and hence there is no God, and that religion is not merely illusory but an enormous source of evil, and that we must therefore follow an alternative mythology with an alternative ethical program, then it is little wonder religious people are motivated to reject the theory.

But of course those are not the consequences of evolutionary biology or any scientific theory. They are, rather, the result of a specific metaphysical theory, and various moral theories. And these theories simply don't follow from a theory that describes how life changes over time.
But people wish to know more than that - specifically, they want to know what life means and how they ought to behave. And it is to religion and ethics that they, and we, must turn, to see how religion can complement the work of science.

Video of Part 3:

Easy Nash

The Qur'an itself repeatedly recommends Muslims to become better educated in order better to understand God's creation: Aga Khan IV(2007)
The Quran tells us that signs of Allah's Sovereignty are found in the contemplation of His Creation: Aga Khan IV(2007)
This notion of the capacity of the human intellect to understand and to admire the creation of Allah will bring you happiness in your everyday lives: Aga Khan IV(2007)
Islam, eminently logical, placing the greatest emphasis on knowledge, purports to understand God's creation: Aga Khan IV(2006)
The first and only thing created by God was the Intellect(Aql): Prophet Muhammad(circa 632CE)