About Rationally Speaking
Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.
Friday, June 08, 2007
Brownback and evolution
Mr. Brownback's article is indeed a welcome breath of fresh air, as he admits that science attempts to discover how nature works, while religion (and philosophy) are concerned with human meaning and morality. He also maintains that people of faith should be rational, and that he himself says that he is “happy to see the facts speak for themselves.”
It is odd, then, that Mr. Bronwback goes on to assert a “unique and special place” for humanity in the cosmos, a statement for which there is not a shred of factual evidence, and that has been challenged by scientific advances ranging from the Copernican revolution to modern cosmology. It is the task of theologians and philosophers to think about the implications of what science tells us concerning our origins and evolution, but it is not reasonable to deny the science in order to fit our preconceived notions of what “must be safeguarded”.
Mr. Brownback perpetuates common misconceptions about evolutionary biology and the very nature of science that simply do not help his stated goal of moving the discourse among rational people in this country. For example, he cites “feuds” among biologists who support what he perceives as separate theories of evolution. While evolutionary biology, like any other science, is always on the move and open to revision of its own conclusions, the theory of punctuated equilibria to which Mr. Brownback refers is in fact part of – not in opposition to – the modern theory of evolution, based on the fundamental insights of Darwin that all organisms share a common ancestry and that their adaptation to the environment is the result of natural selection.
Mr. Brownback also accuses scientists of excluding the possibility of design, thereby “venturing far beyond their realm”. This is a misunderstanding of what scientists actually do. In order for science to work, one has to examine natural phenomena on the supposition that they are, well, natural. The supernatural is excluded not in the sense that scientists know that it doesn't exist (indeed, many scientists are religious). It simply does not help to invoke the supernatural to explain natural phenomena, because such “explanations” are not empirically testable hypotheses – which is what science is all about.
Indeed, I maintain that Mr. Brownback himself makes the same reasonable assumption of excluding the supernatural (what philosophers call methodological naturalism) whenever he encounters a problem in everyday life. If his car breaks down, Mr. Brownback will likely not invoke God as an explanation, he will call a mechanic. Even if the mechanic is ultimately incapable of finding anything wrong with the car, my bet is that Mr. Brownback will assume that there must have been a non-supernatural explanation for the breakdown, but that the mechanic either had insufficient knowledge or insufficient abilities to find it. That is exactly the sense in which scientists “exclude” the supernatural: they are in the business of finding naturalistic explanations for natural phenomena.
What is disturbing about all this, despite the obvious good intentions of Mr. Brownback, is that at the beginning of the 21st century we still have serious candidates to the highest office in the nation debating scientific theories – of which they demonstrably do not have any technical understanding – as if there were real scientific controversies surrounding them. Evolutionary theory is no more controversial (among scientists) than Einstein's relativity, and the reason the latter is not a factor in electoral campaigns is because few people think they understand it, or see any moral implication in it. Yet, a country in which half the population persists in denying large aspects of reality cannot be expected to maintain leadership in a world where science plays an increasingly crucial role in solving problems and shaping our understanding of the world in which we live.