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Posts Tagged ‘knowledge’

Evolution as symbol of the clash between Faith and Science

Posted by Skeptigator on August 25, 2008

The New York Times ran an article, A Teacher on the Front Line as Faith and Science Clash, last Saturday. The article follows a teacher in the Florida education system and one of his Christian students. The teacher was instrumental in the adoption of the new Florida education standard that now requires all Florida public schools to teach evolution as the “organizing principle of life science”.

For the longest time I really couldn’t articulate even to myself why there is so much contention about evolution. If it were simply that evolution contradicts a literal interpretation of Genesis then why isn’t modern geology also vehemently opposed. Sure there are critics from the same Creationist camp that doubt any dating of geological activity, sediments or rocks beyond 6,000 years old but by and large most people could care less about such an obscure academic debate. Or at least it doesn’t raise any hackles when someone says the Earth is 4 billion years old, give or take a couple hundred million years.

So what is it about Evolution that creates such controversy. Evolution as a scientific theory is less a theory(with reams of supporting evidence) and more a symbol of the clash between scientifc knowledge and religious knowledge. In a very discreet way evolution illustrates the amoral (notice I didn’t say, immoral) nature of science and inherent value judgments that religion make.

Science, which is simply a body of knowledge*, inherently makes no value judgments about the knowledge it acquires or contains. Science doesn’t discover the mathematical formulas that govern the motions of planets and determine that it is good. The rightness and wrongness of 2 + 2 = 4 is an irrelevance.

Scientific knowledge is what it is, subject to revision. And there we’ve discovered something about scientific knowledge that is it’s greatest objective strength. Science is constantly discovering new things and discarding or revising old knowledge. It’s this “nothing sacred” nature of science that makes it so powerful. Without that self-correcting mechanism mankind would still think it was the center of the universe.

At the same time we can make statements as to the nature of Nature but it must always be provisional (“as far as we know”). And here is where Science gets itself into trouble particularly with believers. The believer is privvy to a body of unchanging, absolute knowledge. There is no equivocation in, “God is great”, he simply is. The knowledge that man acquires, via the scientific method, is constantly changing whereas religious/God’s knowledge is timeless and absolute, you can bank on it.

While Science makes no moral judgments as to the rightness or wrongness of gravity, religious knowledge has an inherent moral value to it. There is no amoral body of religious knowledge. To clarify what I mean, the purpose of the stories of the Old Testament, for example, are meant to convey some moral instruction as to the nature of good and evil, God or some other moral purpose. The Old Testament tells us that we should put no gods before the one true god but (historical) Science wants a catalog with corresponding belief systems of those other gods. Science assigns no moral value to those other belief systems, it simply wants know about them.

So what does all of this have to do with evolution or the article mentioned above. When you take the provisional nature of scientific knowledge and it’s inherently amoral stance and put it up against a shystem of knowledge that assigns moral value to all of its knowledge, you will inevitably have conflict. Evolution illustrates this disconnect very clearly because at the very outset evolution makes statements as to the nature and origins of mankind that bring it directly in conflict with the moral value of mankind as put forth by Christianity.

To a believer because evolution describes the origin of human life and our relative place among the other animals on this planet it is therefore automatically making a statement of morality or assignment of value. This is a legitimate statement to the believer because their body of knowledge makes statements of morality and/or assignments of value based on the origin of mankind.

From the article mentioned, the science teacher made the following statement that I think sums things up nicely,

“Science explores nature by testing and gathering data,” he said. “It can’t tell you what’s right and wrong. It doesn’t address ethics. But it is not anti-religion. Science and religion just ask different questions.”

This discussion could devolve (pun intended) into the legitimacy of the “non-overlapping magisteria” argument, that “no such conflict should exist (e.g. between Science and Religon) because each subject has a legitimate magisterium, or domain of teaching authority”. That is certainly a valid argument to have but not one that is relevant to the point I’m trying to make.

The question is does my idea/understanding about the character/nature of Science vs. Religious knowledge make sense or at least does it bring a little better understanding as to why the 2 types of knowledge do come into conflict (at least in my head).


* I use this sense of the word since it’s the most relevant however Science could just as easily be described as the process or method for discovering knowledge of the natural world. I’m making the distinction clear here so the “hyper-definitionists” (you know who you are) don’t spontaneously give birth to a cow because I didn’t spend 14 paragraphs defining the word Science.

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Posted in Science | Tagged: , , | 3 Comments »

Odds and Ends

Posted by neuralgourmet on July 26, 2008

Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to prepare a proper post this week so in lieu of actually thinking and writing I’d like to instead offer up a pot-pourri of articles elsewhere on the web that have, in one way or the other, caught my interest in the past week or so.

However, before I do that I just want to do a little shameless self-promotion and mention my interview with the Phoenix Mars Lander. No, you didn’t read that wrong. I didn’t interview any of the scientists or technicians involved with the Phoenix project, but went direct to the robot herself. Phoenix and I have been pals on Facebook for a while now and I thought it would only be natural to interview her about her thoughts and experiences as well as the important science she is doing some 170 million miles from home.

So, with that out of the way, let’s move on to some of the more headier and serious stuff. First up, Philosophy professor Priscilla Sakezles writing in eSkeptic claims that “the famous words most often attributed to Socrates, “All I know is that I know nothing,” are in fact a misquote. Today’s skeptical movement likes to trace its roots all the way back to Socrates so it’s perhaps a good idea if we get our quotes right.

Speaking of what we know, most skeptics know that determining whether or not our knowledge accurately reflects the real world is problematic at best. While the scientific method is often considered the best tool we have for understanding how the world works, our brains tend to place more value on anecdotal evidence. Michael Shermer explains How Anecdotal Evidence Can Undermine Scientific Results.

And while the way our brains evolved means we’re not naturally very good scientists, nevertheless science continues to inform our understanding of our minds. Carl Zimmer has a particulary interesting article talking about the three ways our brains affect our perception of the passage of time.

One of the reasons, I think, that it’s important to read and understand science, even if one isn’t a scientist, is because how we understand our world has implications for the kind of society we live in. An article in the May/June 2008 New Humanist talks about how a fundamental ignorance of evolution has led to a rise in creationist beliefs in Europe, including a disturbing new phenomenom — Muslim creationism.

And lastly, it would be remiss of me not to at least mention the case of Barbara Nash. Nash is a quack nutritionist who advised 52 year old Dawn Page to go on a special “detox diet”. Nash’s diet led to Page suffering sodium deficiency so servere that she suffered seizures that left her with permanent brain damage. It is easy to call Nash a quack and wallow in outrage at her advice to Page that the uncontrollable vomiting she was experiencing was simply part of the “detoxification process”. However, Ben Goldacre reminds us that the Barbara Nashes of the world do not exist independently of the society and culture that allows them to thrive.

Posted in Religion, Science, Skepticism | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »