"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.

Sunday, January 29, 2006

A Fundamental Either/Or

Here’s an either/or proposition that cannot be resolved by human reason:


Temporal nature is the foundation of all reality, the source of all experience, the cause of all being, which, through the phenomenon of complexity, takes the form of minds, their awareness of themselves as functions of nature, and their illusory ideas of meaning, purpose, and eternity;


Eternal mind is the foundation of all reality, the source and cause of nature, which it brings into being as the medium through which minds may come to discover their meaning and purpose, to know themselves as dependent on their own and nature’s source, and to imagine and long for the eternal.

All the evidence of the senses enhanced by all the means at the disposal of reason and science cannot decide between these two versions of the foundation of reality. Whether we embrace the one or the other view, or both alternately—as, for example, the “either” in the lab and the “or” in church, museum, or hospital—must itself be a function of either nature at its work or mind at its.

In other words, we believe what we believe about this either/or either because nature has caused us to do so or because mind has created us to do so. And there is no way to know which. The evidence of nature at work cannot disprove that mind is its source. The evidence of mind at work cannot disprove that nature is its source.

We live by faith: either faith that our faith itself is but a natural phenomenon or faith that our faith binds us to the supernatural source of all phenomena.

Look outside at the trees, hear the birds sing, notice the clouds and the sun moving in the blue sky. Which do you believe: that for no reason or purpose nature has caused you to exist, to become aware of and love nature, to contemplate nature’s and your own meaning, and to imagine and crave eternity? or that for some reason some eternal One has caused nature to exist and caused you through nature to exist, to become aware of and love nature and its source, to contemplate nature’s and your own meaning, and to imagine and crave eternity?

Some might ask, “what’s the difference, since we can’t know?” It’s a good question, and to this one I think careful observation of your own experience can supply an answer. If you truly believe the “either,” the answer is there is no difference. If you truly believe the “or,” the answer is all the difference in the world.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

Science vs. Intelligent Design III

Two Stealth Movements

I don’t know of a better political commentator than Charles Krauthammer. He might be the smartest man in Washington. But his latest formulation of the Intelligent Design controversy raises questions (“Phony Theory, False Conflict: ‘Intelligent Design’ Foolishly Pits Evolution against Faith,” Washington Post, Friday, November 18, 2005, Page A23).

Krauthammer is right: To the extent that Intelligent Design is a smokescreen for a fundamentalist agenda of biblical literalism, it has no business in science class. Built upon faith in universal laws of nature, natural science cannot admit capricious supernatural explanations of what in principle might be scientifically understood but is not understood yet. Among respectable thinkers, Intelligent Design may be more than “today’s tarted-up version of creationism,” but where it rushes to fill gaps in scientific knowledge with the “[not] empirically disprovable” theory that God is the explanation, it discredits itself.

God may be “behind every hydrogen atom in electrolysis,” writes Krauthammer, “but that discussion is the province of religion, not science. The relentless attempt to confuse the two by teaching warmed-over creationism as science can only bring ridicule to religion.”

Fine. But here’s my question: Why isn’t it equally ridiculous to make God the enemy of science? Shouldn’t the unquestioned assumption that atheist materialism is the only permissible religion for scientists and students of science bring exactly the same ridicule to its proponents? Yet for years our science classrooms have been bathed in this other religion, positivist materialism, masquerading as science. When will the ACLU go to court to prevent teachers from promoting that religion in science classes?

Evolutionary biologists like Richard Dawkins and the late Stephen Jay Gould, whose materialism is as strict and totalitarian a fundamentalism as that of the most committed creationist, can admit no place for religion in their version of the enterprise of human learning. Indeed, philosophically Dawkins has not progressed beyond the beliefs of Antoine Nicolas de Condorcet, the reason-worshipping philosophe who perished in the French Revolution believing that science, triumphing over religion (which he equated with superstition), would bring about heaven on earth.

Despite the cataclysmic villainies of the 20th-century atheist dogmas of National Socialism and Stalinist Communism, Dawkins and other evolutionary biologists write as if religion (which he too equates with superstition) were the greatest source of human ills and as if science founded on human reason alone were their cure.

Leaving aside the question of whether or not the more responsible promoters of I.D. have raised scientifically legitimate questions, is it not true that much of the energy of the I.D. movement has been evoked by the atheist materialism of scientists like Dawkins and stealth proselytizing by science teachers of their stamp? Are they not striving equally to convert the general culture to their brand of fundamentalist faith that matter itself is the cause of its own being and organization?

Can We Get Along?

The age we live in is one of conflict between different fundamental images of the nature of reality. There are fanatics and polemicists on both sides, and both sides have their stealth promoters. But just as between true and honest believers in materialism and true and honest believers in God there may be open debate without rancor or mutual threat, so dishonestly disguised proselytizing, whether from Christians or from materialists, leads to fear and thence to polarization, rancor, irrational polemics, and, eventually perhaps, violence.

Let’s pull back from that brink and try to reason together wisely. Let’s not assume that all uses of the term “intelligent design” imply the intent to pollute science with phony scientific theories, and let’s not assume that to be a good scientist requires one to embrace materialism as the ultimate reality.

Aristotle’s Four Causes

As Aristotle, the founder of Western science, would have pointed out, and as Dorothy Sayers reminds us in a very fine essay on education (“The Lost Tools of Learning”), both those who think of biblical creationism as a scientifically demonstrable theory and those who think science proves matter to be the sole ground of the nature of things are confusing material and efficient causes with first and final causes.

Let me try to explain with an example:

What is the cause of an omelet? Based on Aristotle, we can say that there are four causes: The formal cause is the plan for the omelet in your mind, the concept “omelet” and the knowledge of what omelets are, without which the omelet would not come to exist. The material cause is the eggs: The omelet can’t exist without them either; their nature allows omelets to exist and they are what the omelet is made of. The efficient cause is the mixing and the pouring of the eggs, the introduction of heat from the fire under the pan, the removal of the pan from the heat before the eggs skip being an omelet and become charcoal, and so on—what you are doing to the eggs that turns them into an omelet. The final cause is the omelet itself, the ultimate purpose for which you have brought the efficient cause to bear upon the material cause guided by the formal cause. We could debate whether breakfast or hunger or nutrition is the final cause of the omelet.

Material and efficient causes are the proper study of science. But science has no access to the discovery of formal or final causes. They are accessible, if at all, only to thought, not to experimentation; to reasoning but not to material proof.

The material and efficient causes of the phenomena described by the theory of evolution may be studied scientifically. But neither their formal and final causes, nor whether those causes may be material or spiritual, can be determined by science. This is why the question whether evolution is the result of the nature of matter or of intelligent design is a philosophical question, not a scientific one.

At the same time, this is why it is just as offensive to believers in God to use science to promote materialism as it is offensive to positivist-materialists to use science to promote Christian fundamentalism. In both cases, the study of material and efficient causes is being hijacked to teach a particular doctrine of final causes to which science has no access.

Let us agree that the right place for a discussion of the material and efficient causes of evolution is science class and that the right place for a discussion of the final causes of evolution is philosophy or religion class.

Where Can We Study Their Relation?

Where is the right classroom for a discussion of the relation between evolution’s material and efficient causes and its possible final causes? Where is the border crossing between the separate provinces of science and faith to which Krauthammer has respectively consigned discussions of matter and mind? Where can those who respect both science and religion hear a discussion between scientists and religious believers on the relative merits of non-phony ideas about intelligent design and atheist materialism?

Thanks to Descartes, we have inherited a view of reality according to which there is mind and there is body, and never the twain shall meet. Our universities have enshrined this split in the division of the arts and humanities from the sciences. At Stanford they used to call students of the former “fuzzies” and of the latter “techies.” Consideration of the formal and final causes of material facts is forbidden to science lest it contaminate the scientific method; consideration of the material and efficient causes within the Creator’s design is forbidden to religion lest it tyrannize over science.

Materialists deny the Cartesian split by arguing that the mind is just the body doing its thing. Fundamentalists deny the split by arguing that scripture records the only facts that signify. The rest of us are supposed (by modern education) to accept the split itself as dogma.

But greater minds than that of Descartes have found ways of transcending that split, of finding unity where he found division, without denying either matter or spirit. Where can we go to seek such a unity again? Where, oh where, may any conversation take place on the subject of the relation between the truth of matter and the truth of spirit? Apparently not in school.

Both science and religion are built on faith. Science is built on faith in the universality of the laws of nature, in the reality and consistency of cause and effect, in the validity of perception by the human senses and their instruments, in the disprovability of theory based upon experimentation, in the authority of the replication of experiments, etc. Religion is built on faith in the reality of more than meets the eye of the body, a reality that may claim some authority from experience but that is not subject to rational proofs because the rational human mind is in this respect the contained, not the container; because, as Wendell Berry puts it, “we cannot comprehend what comprehends us.”

Cannot we human beings, who are a union of matter and spirit, find a way to agree that since both human enterprises are founded on faiths of these two kinds, there is value in honest conversation between them unmarred by fundamentalist superstitions on either side? Why must I be labeled a threat to science because I want to consider how the facts of science might exhibit intelligent design, or a threat to religion because I want to consider how God’s plan might include evolution? Is there no common room in the university of the modern mind where science and faith may meet to discuss, without fear or rancor, the nature of things in general?


Further Reading:

Isaac Constantine, “Signs of Intelligence? What the neo-Darwinists don’t understand about theories of Intelligent Design,” Weekly Standard, 7/13/2005.

Mark Davis, "Find a Place for Intelligent Design in Public Schools," Real Clear Politics--Commentary, January 4, 2006.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

A sensible voice

For another sensible voice on the debate about Evolution and Intelligent Design in schools, check out this Mark Davis piece.

Monday, January 02, 2006

Dorothy Sayers, "The Lost Tools of Learning"

For anyone interested in education, from either the teacher's or the student's point of view, I highly recommend this essay called "The Lost Tools of Learning" by Dorothy Sayers, she of the great translation of Dante's Divine Comedy and of the Lord Peter Wimsy series of mystery novels. (Thanks to Mr. Kirk for forwarding the essay.)