"I would we were all of one mind, and one mind good." --Cymbeline, V.iv.209-210. An English teacher's log. Slow down: Check it once in a while.

Friday, July 15, 2005

Science and Intelligent Design, Part II

Responding to some of the ideas in Part I, a friend wrote,“I wish I were wrong, but I think that we will never know if the universe has real spiritual meaning, if there is a God, and if there really are absolute values. So . . . if there is only the material (and I admit we cannot know this, but it is either true or not true), what would that imply about the things we know and how we know them?”

There are various kinds of knowing. We can never know scientifically or mathematically that the universe has spiritual meaning. This is because nothing spiritual can be corralled into the kind of knowledge that science is, the kind that depends on our sensory experience interpreted through pre-existing categories of measurement. As Wendell Berry says, “we cannot comprehend what comprehends us.”

However, there are other kinds of knowledge, based on non-sensory experience, on reason, imagination, aesthetic and moral insights, on the existence of questions like that posed above. If we give these any validity in human life, we do know that there is spiritual meaning, even though that kind of knowledge will never submit to being tested in the arenas of the other kind.

To demand scientific kinds of proof for spiritual meaning would be like trying to prove to my dog that the USA exists (see “Seeker, Snooper, Teacher, Tale” posted here on Sunday, May 22, 2005). She can’t know with her physical senses that the USA does exist. But she certainly is subject to its reality. Similarly, we live within a spiritual reality that we cannot perceive using only those senses useful for perceiving the physical world. But those are not our only senses.

Here is how I think reason, even in the absence of personal revelation, justifies belief in spiritual meaning.

If, as a philosophical experiment, you posit (with the radical philosophical materialists, like the sweet-tempered Lucretius or the bitter-tempered Richard Dawkins) that there is no reality except the physical--matter and forces with no spiritual dimension--then the only possible conclusion is that there is no meaning to anything. Meaning itself being what we call a spiritual phenomenon, under this hypothesis it can be nothing but an illusion thrown onto our illusory minds by the illusion-producing physical world. If that is the case, then all conversation about what things mean is itself meaningless. We may continue such conversation because we want to, but we must not pretend that it really means anything.

Even the phrase “I wish I were wrong,” which I take to be deeply meaningful, we would have to call meaningless, since under the hypothesis wishes too are an illusion of the merely physical world. Similarly, any conversation about why scientific education ought not to be compromised by religious fundamentalism would be pointless. In a solely material universe, science too, compromised or not, would be meaningless.

Since we do not experience such conversations or wishes to be meaningless, since we do want our science to be true because we value truth, since we do crave and experience meaning—in fact simply cannot and will not live without it—it makes no rational sense to assume that material reality is all there is. All the empirical evidence of our mental activity testifies otherwise.

Furthermore, if the material is all and there is no spiritual meaning, then believing in spiritual meaning can’t be wrong, since right and wrong can have no meaning. In a materialist universe the very concept of truth would be a meaningless spiritual illusion thrown up by a meaningless material reality. Thus, a thorough belief in materialism negates its own meaning.

If, on the other hand, there is spiritual meaning (and only if there is), then right and wrong do matter and the error of disbelieving in them may have dire consequences. Only if the physical isn't everything is it meaningful to think about whether it is everything or not. Only if we assume the reality of spirit is it meaningful not to want to believe a falsehood, not to want to believe in a fictional Creator, for example. In fact, to believe that truth is better than lies is to believe in spiritual meaning.

This consideration carries us, as it did Pascal, to the limits of thought, where either our thinking must become absurd or reason demands that we adopt a version of Pascal’s wager: There is nothing to lose and may be everything to gain in betting on the reality of spirit, and there is nothing to gain and may be much to lose in betting on the non-reality of spirit.

In short, if there is only matter, nothing matters. If anything matters, there is more than matter.

To believe that material phenomena are all there is is not only to turn against religion. It is also to remove all reason for studying science. It is to deny significance to all those things that we empirically experience to matter most--truth, goodness, love. Such a denial would make belief in ether, spontaneous generation, or the geocentric universe seem eminently sensible by comparison.

All things, including the rational understanding of materialism, testify to the glory of God!

Thursday, July 07, 2005

Science and Intelligent Design: Part I

A colleague of mine wrote a paper on intelligent design and asked for my opinion of it. The paper treated the concept as the enemy of science, and I raised some objections. Accused then of holding a variety of irrational opinions that I don’t hold, I decided to try to articulate what I do think is true on the subject.

Some Christian groups want to substitute the teaching of intelligent design for the teaching of evolution in schools. Many scientists respond by protesting all reference to intelligent design in discussions of science because it is “not science.”

The Christian groups fear that philosophical materialism disguised as science threatens the biblical teaching of creation. Scientists fear that ascribing causation to an intelligent designer threatens the rational exploration of natural phenomena. Each group fears that the other will bring on a new dark age of ignorance.

Neither fear is groundless. But where scientists and traditional believers live in fear of one another, no one is well served with truth.

Intelligent Design Is Not a New Idea

The concept of intelligent design is not new. Almost every scientific discovery before the early twentieth century took place within the context of belief in a divine creator of the order of things. Science itself presupposes an order of things—it must, or the empirical method could not operate—though many contemporary scientists reject the idea of a creator of that order. Yet belief in a creator did not prevent Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, Newton, Darwin, or Einstein from making their discoveries, for they all shared it.

It is true that particular scientific discoveries and kinds of research have been obstructed by religious institutions at various times, but it was not the concept of a creating intelligence that got in the way of scientific discovery. Likewise, some contemporary scientists maintain an ongoing attack on religion, but it is not science itself that threatens religious faith.

Intelligent Design Is Not Unscientific; Materialism Is Not Science

Materialism, the idea that everything that exists—whether particle or force—has a material (as opposed to non-material or spiritual) cause, is a theory. That the origin of the physical universe lies in material reality cannot be proven or disproven empirically. Scientists who believe in materialism with complete conviction do so out of faith.

Intelligent design is also a theory. Unlike materialism, which offers no original cause for the existence of physical things and forces, intelligent design posits an original divine cause for all that is. But like the theory of materialism, the theory of intelligent design cannot be either proven or disproven empirically.

Rational arguments for both theories have been debated by the greatest minds of Western thought: The Bible, Plato, and Aristotle began the conversation, followed by Epicurus, Lucretius, Hobbes, Hume, Freud, and others on the materialism side and Augustine, Maimonides, Aquinas, Locke, Newton, Kant, C.S. Lewis, and others on the design side. The arguments are about postulates—givens based on insight and faith—not about propositions susceptible of proof.

None of the claims of evolutionary theory constitutes proof of either materialism or intelligent design. Whatever material causes for evolution may be identified, there may or may not be behind them an intelligent designer. And however active the intelligent designer may be, there may or may not always be physical phenomena at work in the functioning of the design that we have not comprehended.

Confused scientists claim that the theory of intelligent design threatens the scientific method. It does not. What it threatens is the theory that material causes account for everything, which, being a form of faith, has no more scientific authority than belief in intelligent design or in God. Literalist interpreters of the Bible claim that science threatens belief in God. It does not. It is materialism, not scientific knowledge, that from the religious viewpoint is the idol of false worship.

In other words, neither materialism nor intelligent design should be equated with science. And since either theory—or a combination of both—might be true, neither should be banished from discussions of the foundations of science. If intelligent design is forbidden from the classroom, so must materialism be forbidden. If a science teacher believes in materialism, he or she ought to make clear that the credentials of intelligent design are just as valid.

The Limits of Materialism

Believing, with Lucretius, that everything has a basis in matter or natural forces and that there is no such thing as spirit, materialists will say that it is only because of lack of sufficient experimental evidence that such things as love, hate, and free will cannot be materially explained. Ideally, given enough time and permitted the right experiments, science will “explain” every mystery in physical terms.

There are two problems with this assertion: one logical, one moral.

The Logical Limit of Materialism

Let’s say I toss a rose up into the hand of my beloved on a balcony above. Or let’s say I hurl a brick from a balcony onto the head of my enemy below. Measuring weights, trajectories, air resistance, etc., scientists can describe what is physically happening with great—actually awe-inspiring—accuracy. If they add in physiology, meteorology, astronomy, and relativity, they can know even more about what is going on in either of these gestures, whether the chosen context is the atom or the human body or the earth or the galaxy or space-time.

But the moment that, based on these observations, the council of scientists assert that they have “explained” the tossed rose or the hurled brick, they have stepped beyond their realm. Even if they attach electrodes to the brains of my beloved, my enemy, and me, they cannot possibly know the whole cause of the phenomena, for some of that cause lies in my unmeasurable mind and will, and beyond too—for even I cannot know everything that has gone into my own motivation.

Since they take place in the context of mystery (the origin of things, the ultimate limits of human comprehension), to assume that all the physical science in the world brought to bear upon these gestures will completely explain them is to pretend to a knowledge that science does not and cannot have.

For data cannot by itself explain anything. All scientific evidence is significant only within an underlying system or organizing theory that gives it meaning. To “explain” means to translate from one system of description to another, to render one kind of evidence significant in terms of another—muscularity in terms of weight lifted, quantity of knowledge in terms of letter grades, the flight of my rose or brick in terms of velocity.

It would be foolish to pretend that by having interpreted the movement of my hand and the motion of the rose or brick and the electrochemical activity of my brain in physical terms we have entirely explained the phenomenon. Just as it would be foolish to pretend that the rose landed in my beloved’s hand or the brick on my enemy’s head only because I willed it to do so, without reference to gravity, weight, air, my nervous and muscular systems, and so on.

That we are empirically aware of non-material realities—love and hate and free will—does not mean that the physical world is not governed by physical laws whose operation may be better and better understood. At the same time, that science “works” in explaining physical phenomena does not mean that there is nothing but the material world at work in the material world. Just as the material is real, and knowledge of it matters, so the spiritual—the realm of belief—is real, and knowledge of it matters.

Beliefs therefore are not the enemy of science. In fact, science itself is based on spiritual beliefs. Here are some of them:

· Pursuit of truth is good; pursuit of truth about the material world and its operations is good;
· Reality is orderly and consistent; the physical laws that govern the universe are orderly and consistent; (I am told that even chaos scientists cannot find empirical evidence of chaos);
· Our sensory experience corresponds to reality; the more that empirical evidence is consistent, orderly, and reproducible, the more it may be trusted;
· Helping our fellow man is good; discovering cures for human disease and easing human suffering are good.

Take away these beliefs, and the reasons for scientific study—to know; to help—disappear. Yet none of them can be proven by scientific experiment. Our trust in their truth is simply fundamental to our being human. They are self-evident.

Thus, while denial or falsification of data based on prejudice is the enemy of science, belief is not. Prejudice may corrupt conclusions based on any belief, materialism as well as intelligent design.

When a scientist tells me that a rainbow is the refraction of light by water droplets, I believe it on good authority. When the same scientist tells me that a rainbow is only the refraction of light through water droplets and therefore not a sign of God’s promise to refrain from flooding the world, the scientist is overstepping the bounds of science, just as it would be misuse of the Bible to claim that the refraction theory is false because Genesis calls the rainbow a sign of God’s covenant.

To assert that there can be no influence of a non-material will on evolution or the formation of the universe is to claim what science, given the terms of its language, cannot know. Similarly, to assert that God could not, if he willed, use evolution as his mode of creation is to claim that the Bible is the author of God and not God the author of the Bible.

The Moral Limit of Materialism

The moral problem with the materialist dogma is that, carried to its logical conclusion, in the name of scientific knowledge it would destroy every other human value, including, eventually, the love of truth, upon which its own validity rests.

Let’s say that materialist science can learn a great deal about the mind by measuring exactly what happens physiologically when a bolt is driven into the head of a monkey, causing severe agony. Can materialist science also measure what is happening in the soul of the scientist who is doing the experiment? Would it if it could? Allowed to continue in the name of gaining knowledge, such experimentation would have two inevitable results:

First, the scientist would find that the mind is nothing more than the brain and its physical functions. This is inevitable because he can admit into his body of knowledge only that kind of information which he set out to look for in the first place. Non-material information is excluded from the start by his underlying materialist assumption.

Second, he will have broken the universal moral law against unnecessary cruelty and put his own soul, if he has one, into jeopardy while abolishing all grounds for thinking that he might have done so.

Such a scientist has departed from the human community and betrayed the very values that make human life, including the study of science, meaningful.

As I pointed out above, science is not responsible for our knowing that love of truth, on which science is based, is a value. That value is an axiom, a fundamental assumption, a self-evident truth, an absolute given—like justice, like kindness. If the one is a value, so are the others. If the others have no absolute authority, neither has that. (For the best discussion of this, see C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man).

Because of this equality in fundamental authority, just as people can go astray believing scientific nonsense in the name of religion, so people can go astray believing moral and spiritual nonsense in the name of science.

Practically speaking, science can tell us how dogs behave when we tear their legs off, as Descartes (whose mind-body split laid the foundations for modern materialism) had no objection to doing. But it can’t tell us whether we ought to do so. Questions of significance and rightness can be answered only by philosophy or religion, not by science. When scientific materialism threatens to decide such questions by ignoring them, the human community must either correct it or risk being destroyed by it.

Truth Shall Spring out of the Earth and Righteousness Shall Look Down from Heaven

Even for those who are as certain of the evolution of species as they are of heliocentrism or the germ theory of disease, the theory of evolution does not and cannot explain its own existence. Science can show that molecules and organisms behave thus and thus, but it cannot explain why they do, or why they exist to do so. Whether or not God’s hand is in any or every molecular event of the universe can never be known by science.

Those who fear that the scientific investigation of evolution threatens biblical truth forget that no amount of human knowledge can reduce the great mystery of creation or the Bible’s importance in our relating to it. And those who attack every discussion of intelligent design as a threat to the scientific enterprise are materialist proselytizers practicing exactly the kind of dogmatism they disapprove of in popes who silence Galileos.

True faith is not threatened by knowledge of the physical world, nor honest science by the recognition of its foundation on faith. Being fully human means acknowledging the authority of both kinds of knowing.

It remains an open question whether in the long run science without religion does more damage than religion without science. But our ideal must remain the right practice of both material and spiritual knowledge and discernment of their right relations. To run from either in blind fear is to run toward the darkness.