Thursday, November 8, 2007

Chuck D

That is, Charles Darwin, not the guy from Public Enemy. It's amazing how little respect the former gets in America these days. Marty Klein has a few pointed observations (emphasis added):

Say what you will about the Brits (the food isn’t their only fault), they gave the world parliamentary democracy. Not to deny their imperialism and funny hats, but they have often been an island of sanity (literally) in a world gone mad. And every day of my visit last week, I had some of that sanity in my hand.

Their 10-pound ($20) bill features a picture of Charles Darwin on the back.

Can you imagine that in the U.S.?

I call these [antiscientific] opinions lies because when confronted with the evidence that they’re wrong, these people almost always say, “I don’t care about your so-called facts. I know what I know.” Worse, they spread these lies via government websites, “decency” campaigns, and TV shows.

One of the most tragic accomplishments of the Bush Administration is the cultural devaluation of knowledge. Facts are no longer seen as special. In a single decade, the scientific enterprise—the thought process that lifted human beings out of caves, cannibalism, and the fear of fire—has been nakedly politicized, reduced to the level of just another opinion.

As teacher Bob Riggins says, “Do you believe in evolution?” is the wrong question. It suggests that there is a choice. It implies that “believing” and “not believing” are, on some intellectual level, equivalent. But they aren’t.

Evolution’s history and contemporary processes have long been established as knowledge. In fact, you can see evolution easier than you can see intercourse causing pregnancy or the moon causing tides. The next time you get a drug-resistant flu or infection, you’re seeing evolution in action. And when you drop your pen, does it fall because of “gravity,” or the floor god Calvin? Does not believing in gravity make it any less real?

In England, people don’t discuss whether or not they “believe” in Darwin or Evolution. Millions of them are good Christians.

But in today’s America, more people believe in the reality of the Rapture than in the reality of Evolution. As Richard Kliman says in Philip Roth’s new novel, Exit Ghost, “these are people who don’t believe in knowledge.”

Defend Science.
Defend Science.

By the way, though I am no fan of strict dichotomies, I must accede to the claim that the battle lines have been drawn. Materialism, science, humanism, call it what you will: a worldview that relies on observation rather than revelation is incompatible with religion in any true sense of the word. Here is a fantastic critique of the often-espoused pseudo-moderate apologia of those who believe otherwise. (This is a clear case of pandering, as Brownback almost certainly does not believe in their compatibility; he just doesn't want to admit that he is a fundamentalist to those who don't already know it.) Such arguments are big on heart, to give them the benefit of the doubt, but undeniably small on brain. An excerpt:
To say that there is no conflict between faith and reason, therefore, is to say that the propositions one holds to be divinely revealed do not contradict the propositions knowable according to the standards of science or philosophy. Whether this is really the case depends, obviously, on just which propositions one thinks were divinely revealed and which are knowable in science or philosophy. If it turns out that a proposition one holds in faith is contradicted by a proposition known by reason, then one must either rework one’s theology, giving up on the idea that God revealed the proposition in question, or else show that the scientific or philosophical arguments that contradict that proposition are in fact inconclusive by scientific or philosophical standards.
Although the author offers a half-hearted defense of theism, it is notable that by his own logic this argument is scientific (or whatever we should call human-derived knowledge), and is thus no defense of religion as conventionally practiced. In fact, like all arguments that turn on the convenient convergence of rational belief with religious practice, it is a near deathblow to the rationale for religion, depriving it of its saving grace: What can it show us that we can't figure out ourselves? He says so himself:
To relegate normative questions to the realm of faith would be to deny the existence of an objective morality knowable by human reason—and in this way the virtues, natural law, and human rights become indistinguishable from whatever putative divine commands any crackpot may say he has lately received. This is not a view that anyone, especially someone involved in public life, should want to defend.
Matt Taibi also has a great piece in Rolling Stone that talks about the fairly recent Dover trial: our generation's Scopes trial. He makes an interesting an often-overlooked point in that while some of the more conciliatory intellectuals may pretend or even believe that the faith vs. reason conflict need not end in epistemological Armageddon, true believers are astute in realizing that it must. And they are equally right to fear that they will lose. Cognoscenti have no credibility in claiming that secular knowledge will not obviate and obliterate the current alternatives, as well they shouldn't:
"Dr. Alters," he said, "were you aware that Professor Steven Weinberg once said that 'I personally feel that the teaching of modern science is corrosive to religious belief, and I'm all for that!'"

"An unfortunate remark," said Alters, shaking his head and squirming. The look on his face said, "Can we move on?"

But Muise didn't: He rattled off more quotes from prominent scientists, including one from Gould ("Before Darwin, we thought that a benevolent God had created us") -- who, Muise noted with obvious pleasure, had once written a foreword to one of Alters' books. Alters shrugged it off, calmly sticking to his contention that evolution was not an indictment of religion.

As Alters gave his denials, Muise turned to the gallery and, for the first time that afternoon, evinced a small smile. That smile spoke volumes. It said, "At least my clients know when they're full of shit. But these eggheads . . ."

Muise had a point. His defendants and their ID theory had come under attack for an obvious reason: Just because you say in a court of law that you're not creationists doesn't make it true.

Now Muise got to say the same thing to those superior-sounding intellectuals who flew into God's country and insisted, under oath, that they weren't enemies of religion. You can yell it at us till you're blue in the face, the lawyer seemed to be saying, but we who really believe know better.

To blue-state intellectuals like Alters, Kitzmiller v. Dover was just another clash with religious loonies of the same primitive sort found in the original Scopes trial, die-hards determined for some incomprehensible reason to drag us back to the Stone Age.

But to the defendants in this case, Kitzmiller was a chance to turn Scopes on its head. If what Scopes' defense attorney Clarence Darrow accomplished eighty years ago was to expose the narrow-mindedness and anti-intellectualism of the Bible Belt, lawyers like Muise were out to show the opposite in Kitzmiller -- that most scientists secretly hate God, laugh at his followers and would like to stamp out both for all eternity, only they don't take Christians seriously enough to be straight with them about this.

Both sides were right[.]

But the real victory of the defense was in forcing men like Alters to insist with a straight face that Darwinism is not incompatible with religion. Technically this was true, of course, but it was striking that it was exactly the same kind of feeble technicality as the contention that ID has no literal connection to God or the Bible. A technicality like Clinton not sleeping with Monica Lewinsky, like John Kerry owning a rifle. Technically true -- but fooling no one.

Intelligent design may very well have been conceived as an end run around the Supreme Court, and in a matter of weeks, it will likely be exposed as such, when the Honorable Judge John E. Jones III rules in favor of Kitzmiller et al. in the Dover case. [Note: Judge Jones, who had close ties to Republican politicians sympathetic to ID, was suspected to be as favorable to the ID cause as anyone you could find on a federal bench. Nonetheless, his ruling was brutal. While he needed only rule on the impropriety of the particular case, which was obvious and could have been accomplished on a technicality rather than the heart of the legal issue, he chose instead to rule broadly and harshly on the impropriety of ID itself, essentially closing the door to similar cases in the future. He also lauded the ACLU prosecutor's devastating cross examination of the key expert ID witness, Michael Behe, as "textbook."]

But ID is also revealing itself here in Pennsylvania in another form. It's having a coming-out party as a deliberate satirical echo of the great liberal lie of the modern age: the idea that progressive science and religion can coexist.

For a century or so since Nietzsche, popular culture in the West has operated according to an uneasy truce, in which God both is and is not dead. We teach our children the evidence-based materialism of science and tell them they can believe in God and a faith-based morality in their spare time if they like.

And in some parts of the country, we celebrate Scopes as a victory over ignorance, while still insisting that we do not also celebrate it as a victory over religion. What these endless Scopes sequels tell us is that somewhere many years from now we're going to hit a fork in the road, beyond which this have-it-both-ways philosophy isn't going to fly anymore. Is God dead, or isn't he? Are we believers, or not? They know what we think. They just want us to come out and say it.

Almost anywhere else in the developed world, the notion if True Belief is quaint. But in the US, God is not dead quite yet. But make no mistake about it, it's Nietzsche or the Bible. I know who I'm pulling for.