Notes From Babel

A Bully Is a Bully, Even If He’s Wearing a Labcoat

with 4 comments

I was disappointed to discover that E.D. Kain had joined the ranks of the intelligent design bashers.  I wrote this comment imploring him to reconsider.  I don’t think of E.D. as one of the Darwin-answers-all-life’s-mysteries intellectual bullies on the order of Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens or Daniel Dennett.  In fact, E.D. is a religious person.  But many religious people these days have trouble understanding how far their allegiance to science must go.  There’s a “you’re either with us or against us” mentality when it comes to modern science, with scienceists like Dawkins and Hitchens and Dennet telling us all if we hold to any religiosity or metaphysics, we are something like intellectual terrorists. This, of course, is dangerous nonsense—as dangerous even as any cult teaching.  Even moreso as science proves a larger and larger part of modern life.

I would urge anyone concerned about this debate to consider the arguments in my letter to E.D., below:

E.D.,

I read one of your posts earlier this week talking about how you can be changed on issues (a rare quality).  I believe you should seriously consider changing your view that evolution is “real science” and that intelligent design is “fake science.”  After  I was chastised by atheists for publishing an article on the subject while editor-in-chief of the Chapman Law Review, I spent a long time thinking and re-thinking this controversy. The conclusion that now seems inescapable to me is this:  Natural selection and intelligent design rise or fall on the same principle—they are both metaphysics, an attempt to explain things that can only be explained by positing a theory of the our entire reality.  Intelligent design is a metaphysics that purports to address the necessary network of precommitments needed to engage in scientific inquiry. To attack such a metaphysics on the erroneous assumption that it intrudes on science’s territory is not to think too little of the metaphysics, but to think too much of science.  While natural selection posits there is nothing guiding evolution, intelligent design posits there might be something.  Whether you choose nothing or something is immaterial, because simply by asking the question you have stepped out of the realm of science and into the realm of metaphysics.  And all of a sudden we find we all have our pick axes swinging at the wall of separation.

Science cannot account for the metaphysical ideas that justify and sustain it, including those contained in natural selection—i.e., the idea that we were directed not by God but instead by nothing. When scienceists insist that they and they alone should be permitted to fill in the gaps of this metaphysical construct with the ideas that they deem appropriate, they run smack into the very problem they started with: the positing of “truth” by arbitrary fiat. And when a critical mass of such folks, particularly when organized around a set of metaphysical principles handed down by a leader given special reverence (e.g., Ayn Rand), get together in an effort to proselytize their views, there is a word for that: religion.

Does this mean that science itself is a religion? No. Not anymore than language is a religion. But like language, science requires its practitioners to bring a metaphysics to the table. That is because science does not provide its own justification for concepts necessary to make it work, like induction, causation, and order.  To even the religious among us these days, science is the gold standard of truth. Labcoats are preferred to armchairs. No one wants to hear about metaphysics—the physics part sounds good, but this “meta” must mean less good, no?—like “semi” or “pseudo”?

To the contrary, the prefix means “more comprehensive; transcending,” as in, physics presupposes metaphysics. Without metaphysics, there can be no physics. Metaphysics gives us the tools we need to do science. Scientific method?  Metaphysics. Induction?  Metaphysics.  Causation?  Metaphysics. Unified theory of everything? You get the idea. Strictly speaking, natural selection is not a scientific theory.  It is a metaphysical theory presupposed by scientists in order to do evolutionary biology.  Evolutionary biology is great.  We have profited tremendously from it.  But we cannot fail to recognize the boundaries this brand of science, or try to re-label its metaphysical origin as science simply because we have grown so fond of it.

This leads to the question of why knowledge got to be so cloistered.  Why did metaphysics become branded as “religious,” and thus become such an unsavory—indeed, illegal—topic in our schools?  Does one think of Plato and Aristotle as “religious” instructors?  Certainly not.  There was a time when metaphysics could be freely discussed without so-called scientists ginning up insults about flying spaghetti monsters and Hegelian moon-monkeys and slimy custard men.  But I get it.  Scientists like power and control as much as anyone.  You don’t get those Ph.D’s by correspondence, after all.  So if you can reduce the scope of all respectable inquiry into the bounds under the jurisdiction of your Ph.D, then you’ve made the one-eyed man’s journey to the land of the blind.

In this light, Ben Stein’s references to images of totalitarianism are not hard to explain.  Once a group uses bullying tactics and governmental force to win one debate, it’s hard to anticipate whether or why they’d ever stop.  And as government grows larger and larger, it becomes no alternative to say “exercise metaphysics in your own private sphere.”  What private sphere?  Where the average person’s wage comes from public employment, health care from government insurance, and schooling from government instructors, one is going to need a map and some goggles to find much of anything private.

This all gets to what folks such as those at the Discovery Institute have their alarm bells ringing about. Whatever you think about intelligent design, it is right to be bothered that science now thinks it can start injecting into classrooms such non-scientific fields as teleology and metaphysics. The notion that teachers could indoctrinate students about a “purposeless” universe guided by nothing is just as objectionable as if they were teaching a purposeful universe guided by something.  They are two sides of the same coin. The problem is we are dealing with a metaphysical “coin”: either way, preference is given to one side or the other in a science classroom when science proper has nothing to say about it. Present both sides in a confined discussion about metaphysics, or, if that makes scienceniks too nervous, forget the whole thing.  (Incidentally, I don’t see why more than a single lecture at the beginning of a biology class would be needed to give the basic contours of the debate.  It certainly doesn’t need to occupy an entire semester.  My high school class spent most of its time learning about cell innards and how plants eat sunshine and occasionally poking around inside some dead thing.  Not a lot of time left for zany discussions about how a purely naturalistic view of reality requires positing a “multiverse” with an infinite number of daughter universes of which ours is but one.  Science fiction and Star Trek were for after school.)

God should not be injected into science classrooms, but neither should science teachers extend the proper borders of their field. Science has moved beyond focusing on method and has traced its way back up to where it splits off from the rest of philosophy at the juncture of metaphysics and epistemology. Ironically, the intelligent design proponents who are holding ground at that crossroads defend not only metaphysics and religion, but science as well, refusing to let method- and certainty-oriented science trod upon the more nuanced and transcendental branches of the knowledge tree.

So, I urge you, E.D., do reconsider whether folks like Ben Stein truly deserve your ire.

E.D.,

I read one of your posts earlier this week talking about how you can be changed on issues (a rare quality).  I believe you should seriously consider changing your view that evolution is “real science” and that intelligent design is “fake science.”  After  <a href= https://notesfrombabel.wordpress.com/2008/11/15/empiricists-can-be-fanatical-too/>I was chastised</a> by atheists for publishing an article on the subject while editor-in-chief of the Chapman Law Review, I spent a long time thinking and re-thinking this controversy.  <a href= https://notesfrombabel.wordpress.com/2009/04/30/beneath-what-is-seen-is-that-which-is-unseen/>The conclusion that now seems inescapable to me</a> is this:  Natural selection and intelligent design rise or fall on the same principle—they are both <i>metaphysics</i>, an attempt to explain things that can only be explained by positing a theory of the our entire reality.  Intelligent design is a metaphysics that purports to address the necessary network of precommitments needed to engage in scientific inquiry. To attack such a metaphysics on the erroneous assumption that it intrudes on science’s territory is not to think too little of the metaphysics, but to think too much of science.  While natural selection posits there is <i>nothing</i> guiding evolution, intelligent design posits there might be <i>something</i>.  Whether you choose nothing or something is immaterial, because simply by asking the question you have stepped out of the realm of science and into the realm of metaphysics.  And all of a sudden we find we all have our pick axes swinging at the wall of separation.

Science cannot account for the metaphysical ideas that justify and sustain it, including those contained in natural selection—i.e., the idea that we were directed <i>not</i> by God but instead by <i>nothing</i>. When scienceists insist that they and they alone should be permitted to fill in the gaps of this metaphysical construct with the ideas that they deem appropriate, they run smack into the very problem they started with: the positing of “truth” by arbitrary fiat. And when a critical mass of such folks, particularly when organized around a set of metaphysical principles handed down by a leader given special reverence (e.g., Ayn Rand), get together in an effort to proselytize their views, there is a word for that: <i>religion</i>.

Does this mean that science itself is a religion? No. Not anymore than language is a religion. But like language, science requires its practitioners to bring a metaphysics to the table. That is because science does not provide its own justification for concepts necessary to make it work, like induction, causation, and order.  To even the religious among us these days, science is the gold standard of truth. Labcoats are preferred to armchairs. No one wants to hear about metaphysics—the physics part sounds good, but this “meta” must mean less good, no?—like “semi” or “pseudo”?

To the contrary, the prefix means “more comprehensive; transcending,” as in, physics presupposes metaphysics. Without metaphysics, there can be no physics. Metaphysics gives us the tools we need to do science. Scientific method?  Metaphysics. Induction?  Metaphysics.  Causation?  Metaphysics. Unified theory of everything? You get the idea. Strictly speaking, natural selection is not a scientific theory.  It is a metaphysical theory presupposed by scientists in order to do evolutionary biology.  Evolutionary biology is great.  We have profited tremendously from it.  But we cannot fail to recognize the boundaries this brand of science, or try to re-label its metaphysical origin as science simply because we have grown so fond of it.

This leads to the question of why knowledge got to be so cloistered.  Why did metaphysics become branded as “religious,” and thus become such an unsavory—indeed, illegal—topic in our schools?  Does one think of Plato and Aristotle as “religious” instructors?  Certainly not.  There was a time when metaphysics could be freely discussed without so-called scientists ginning up insults about flying spaghetti monsters and Hegelian moon-monkeys and <a href= https://notesfrombabel.wordpress.com/2010/01/09/the-dawkins-delusion/>slimy custard men</a>.  But I get it.  Scientists like power and control as much as anyone.  You don’t get those Ph.D’s by correspondence, after all.  So if you can reduce the scope of all respectable inquiry into the bounds under the jurisdiction of your Ph.D, then you’ve made the one-eyed man’s journey to the land of the blind.

In this light, Ben Stein’s references to images of totalitarianism are not hard to explain.  Once a group uses bullying tactics and governmental force to win one debate, it’s hard to anticipate whether or why they’d ever stop.  And as government grows larger and larger, it becomes no alternative to say “exercise metaphysics in your own private sphere.”  What private sphere?  Where the average person’s wage comes from public employment, health care from government insurance, and schooling from government instructors, one is going to need a map and some goggles to find much of anything private.

This all gets to what folks such as those at the Discovery Institute have their alarm bells ringing about. Whatever you think about intelligent design, it is right to be bothered that science now thinks it can start injecting into classrooms such non-scientific fields as teleology and metaphysics. The notion that teachers could indoctrinate students about a “purposeless” universe guided by nothing is just as objectionable as if they were teaching a purposeful universe guided by something.  They are two sides of the same coin. The problem is we are dealing with a metaphysical “coin”: either way, preference is given to one side or the other in a science classroom when science proper has nothing to say about it. Present both sides in a confined discussion about metaphysics, or, if that makes scienceniks too nervous, forget the whole thing.  (Incidentally, I don’t see why more than a single lecture at the beginning of a biology class would be needed to give the basic contours of the debate.  It certainly doesn’t need to occupy an entire semester.  My high school class spent most of its time learning about cell innards and how plants eat sunshine and occasionally poking around inside some dead thing.  Not a lot of time left for zany discussions about how a purely naturalistic view of reality requires positing a “multiverse” with an infinite number of daughter universes of which ours is but one.  Science fiction and Star Trek were for after school.)

God should not be injected into science classrooms, but neither should science teachers extend the proper borders of their field. Science has moved beyond focusing on method and has traced its way back up to where it splits off from the rest of philosophy at the juncture of metaphysics and epistemology. Ironically, the intelligent design proponents who are holding ground at that crossroads defend not only metaphysics and religion, but science as well, refusing to let method- and certainty-oriented science trod upon the more nuanced and transcendental branches of the knowledge tree.

So, I urge you, E.D., do reconsider whether folks like Ben Stein truly deserve your ire.

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Written by Tim Kowal

January 9, 2010 at 11:21 am

4 Responses

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  1. […] appreciate Tim Kowal’s long, thoughtful response to my post on Ben Stein and intelligent design, but after reading and re-reading it I’m […]

  2. […] appreciate Tim Kowal’s long, thoughtful response to my post on Ben Stein and intelligent design, but after reading and re-reading it I’m afraid […]

  3. […] a comment » E.D. Kain responded to my last post regarding science, natural selection, and intelligent design.  Here was my reply: Lest I get too […]

  4. […] demanding philosophical rigor from atheists.  As I’ve explained before (see, e.g., here and here), the problem with atheism is that does not replace what it purports to tear down.  Theistic […]


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