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September 26, 2005


Here's a question I've long had about intelligent design.

Did they steal the idea directly from Descartes?

"For too long, we have paid too little attention to our local school boards, often an elected position with no one paying any attention to the makeup and views of whom we elect — until it's too late."

This is a very important point.

I would add that Dems should take an active roll in civic life in their communities; some would be great serving on boards of education.

Republicans have made a concerted effort over the years to win these seats, often by default.

We cannot leave "governance," or what passes for governance, to Republicans and others. We must begin at the grassroots level.

You might be surprised to learn how simple winning really is.

Brooks' column in the Sunday NYT is very accurate, from what I have observed in the Berkeley schools over my 5 years of volunteering. There is a huge gulf developing between the educated and the not so educated, and it has all sorts of ramifications. Taking part in decisions at the local level about what is taught in schools and making sure there is adequate funding for public schools is absolutely crucial. It is truly ironic that as we watch a flu virus mutate before our very eyes, threatening millions with death, we are having these debates about evolution and "intelligent design."

Meanwhile, in the human-made world, where we ought to hope to see some "intelligent design," we are all told to bow down before the market and its invisible hands, and central planning is considered a vestige of godless communism. Unbelievable. In this area we seem to have gone backward in the last 25 years.

Mimikatz, all being used as cover for robbing us blind.

Tamminly Hall, Abramoff style. No wonder there are dunderheads at FEMA.

How long before the official response to avian flu is cut down to just "pray?" Obviously, this virus is intelligently designed, and it's God's will that we all die. Just ask Fred Phelps.

Meanwhile, the time is finally right for combining the major tenets of the religious right agenda. Cut the budget for everything, and just pray for the stuff we need. We all become Welfare Queens, waiting for manna from Heaven instead of checks from the government.

Do you think all of this religious wackiness is just turn-of-the-millennium mania? In which case, I hope it fades soon. But on top of that, I seriously think that the Republicans are actively trying to destroy our educational system. It's pretty clear that an ignorant population is required to support their nonsensical policies.

David, it's not just ignorance. It's faith. People believe in God, in miracles, in angels. Far more than believe in evolution! (I have the numbers somewhere; I think it's roughly a quarter believe in evolution; half believe in God-guided evolution; quarter believe in straight creationism. Something like three-quarters, in different polling, believing in angels.)

This is obviously not the time nor place to declare war on religion. Even I can see we're not ready for that.

But the idea that a belief in unseen beings that interact with our daily lives (and I don't mean E. coli) is compatible with a rational, mechanical view of the universe is -- well, it's not untenable but it's tough. There is a prevailing wisdom that we can segregate our "rational thoughts" from our "faith." That we can believe in God on weekends and after 5, and have a practical view during working hours. That what we teach in science classes is different than what we really think -- because science classes are some kind of formal exercise, not a real reflection of the world and how we see it.

This is all bullshit. It is probably necessary bullshit, because in a country where most people believe in angels you're not going to get far saying science is right and religion is wrong. And so we end up treating this as a schools issue, when it should be something more like civil rights: it's not whether you let blacks sit at the counter, it's whether you see them as equals in your heart. It's not whether you stand for evolution in a science class, it's whether you see the world that way. Scientific thinking shouldn't stop after 12th grade.

It's not a children's issue. If adults went to some science activity instead of church -- if they knew half what their children will be learning in these classes they argue over -- and if scientists reached out to their communities a hell of a lot more than any of us do -- debates of global warming, flu, everything would make a whole lot more sense.

What am I trying to say? I don't know. I guess just that, it is silly to have to set up these debates as anything other than rational vs. magical thinking, which is what they really are. And that it's simply absurd to imagine that we may consider a ruling that upholds evolution in science class a victory for science -- it's like saying that a ruling that a black woman can walk unattended down the street would be a victory for civil rights. We have bigger fish to fry in the science vs. religion debate to be having to think twice about nonsense like this; but I guess in a religious country we've got to do what we've got to do.

Emptypockets: I know that it's not just ignorance. To clarify my earlier point, I think the upswing of faith-based nonsense may be a millennial end-times quirk, and when the world starts to end via global warming instead of by rapture, maybe it will fade away. I hope so. Regarding ignorance, I know it is another ball of wax. But faith is a willful ignorance, isn't it? "I don't care what the facts reveal, as I have this magical belief that XYZ is REALLY true." I don't think you can separate ignorance from faith. (Neither of these has anything to do with native intelligence.) The instilling of faith in the place of science undermines problem-solving skills, enhances ignorance, degrades the debate, and destroys the point and effectiveness of education, all of which plays directly into the hands of the right-wing mullahs, who exploit it for a wider range of evils than just "faith." I know, I know . . . blah blah blah.

David, yeah - I began replying to your comment & then went off on my own. Didn't mean to sound like I was disputing you. I don't think religion is really a Y2K bug in the human condition but who knows - as good an explanation as any I've heard. But faith is a willful ignorance, isn't it? Amen -- er, I mean, QED. Those of faith would argue that belief in the scientific method is just another form of faith. To which I guess I'd just have to say, No. No, it isn't.

I think we fall into a trap, though, when we insist too much on the either/or of science and faith. And it's a trap that serves the rapturists' purpose: their argument is that science is another kind of faith, or anti-faith, when it's got absolutely nothing to do with faith (do you favor a 55-mph speed limit or chicken for dinner?). Very likely a minority of scientists are believers, but there are plenty: Francis Crick was on Tucker Carlson's relatively respectable PBS show awhile back discussing his Christianity and his "belief" in evolution, the importance of both to him, and the absurdity of holding them in conflict. The fundamentalists (including Benedict's Vatican) are the ones with a stake in their incompatibility; to the extent that people realize it's truly apples and snowshoes, that can only help.

And on the political point, blue's comment is of course on the nose. In addition to the money Scaife and Co. have shoveled into right-wing think tanks and publications over the years, the right's concerted effort to take over public offices starting at the school-board level is a huge reason we find ourselves where we are today. Someone on some recent thread here wondered why he/she knew all of Bush's possible SCOTUS nomineees but wasn't sure about his/her own representative; that could apply to lots of us, I'm sure. And that's gotta change.

rj, I have to disagree with you there I'm afraid. I do very much see science and faith as mutually exclusive. I see the arguments you laid out as a political cover we use to defend science in a hyper-religious democracy. But I don't understand them as anything more than political cover -- how can one ascribe to the tenets of science, namely that we take as "real" those things which do a good job of explaining the past and predicting the future, and simultaneously believe in something like God which directly contradicts those tenets?

(er, "subscribe" not "ascribe.")

emptypockets, I think if you're talking about the fundies, who really believe that the guy with the beard crafted everything and everyone out of cosmic play-doh, you're right; but they are still in the minority, even among Christians and certainly in every other faith system I'm aware of. Most people I know who believe in God -- not all of whom are particularly well educated -- see no contradiction between their faith and their understanding that scientists can explain the material world in purely material ways; they just see the laws scientists discover as constituing God's guidebook. So Crick (and I always get confused; you know I'm talking about the human-genome-project scientist and not Mr. Double-Helix, right? Do they have the same name? Sheesh, I'm ignorant...but I digress)...So Crick said, as have other scientists I've read about, that he has no trouble viewing evolution as the mechanism God chose for his creation; he kicked it off (much longer ago than 10,000 years) and watches it go.

Obviously, it's certainly also true that it's to our political detriment to allow the faith-v-science "frame" (so sorry) to be the way this issue is perceived. So it's not only tactically smart, but substantively legitimate, to blow it up.

I've got a question: Are there any practical consequences (e.g., medical technology, economic development) that would result from teaching either evolution or intelligent design? I can't come up with any compelling examples. (Note that I'm only considering mild versions of intelligent design that say that even though evolution is a real phenomenon, it cannot explain the origin of life.)

If we could find some practical reason why intelligent design is bad for us, that would help a lot. Right now it's just a culture war, where people feel that they have a right to believe whatever the heck they want to. Once there are practical consequences, though, people usually sober up (I'm thinking of stem cells as an example).

BTW, ~pockets, the NYT's recent series on the "controversy" is still up in a special section; it includes a story about this very thing, scientists who believe; among those quoted is Francis (yes, I AM ignorant) Collins.

rj, same name: yes and no. They're both named Francis. :) But you're thinking of Francis Collins, the scientist (in many ways he's more of a business manager really) who led the public genome sequencing consortium. The double-helix guy is Francis Crick, and he passed away last year.

they just see the laws scientists discover as constituing God's guidebook

Well this is pretty close to intelligent design, as I see it. Let me ask it this way, because I think I'm not understanding this view of religion (I'm not from a religious family & don't have religious friends): in this view, what does God do? (Is God still alive?)

YK, my understanding of intelligent design -- which is minimal, and complicated by the fact that ID comes in so many flavors -- is that evolution happens but is "guided by a higher power." At one level, this would mean that mutations aren't random -- which is a testable hypothesis, actually. But I think they mean more that the level of science that all scientists agree can't be explained -- what we call "stochasiticity," the randomness of events -- the final twinge that makes tectonic pressure relieve itself in a seismic shudder, or that makes each of our immune cells recombine its genome to make a unique antibody -- that these events we explain as random are really guided by an intelligence. That's not testable because it has no consequences (and therefore no predictive value) -- and since it has no consequences, it has no impact on medical technology or anything else. So your point is apt, that it's very much a culture war -- whether we believe in explanations that can account for the past & predict the future, which is the basis of science, or just fairy stories that make us feel good (when we're not burning each other at the stake, stoning heretics or flying planes into buildings).

YK, I think they actually do challenge much of the substance of evolution itself. They go to great pains to sound "scientific" and reasonable, so they don't usually get too specific in the 12 seconds they're given on most news shows; but they spend lots of time (the ID people, not just the open "creationists") pointing to flaws in the theory as a way of undercutting it. Which means they're undercutting the basis for most of modern biology. Which I'd guess would have a pretty significant practical impact. Is that right, emptypockets?

rj, thanks much for that link! Makes me realize how institutionalized I've become -- I sound just like everyone quoted in it! Some iconoclast, me.

Belief in the supernatural, especially belief in God, is not only incompatible with good science, Dr. Hauptman declared, "this kind of belief is damaging to the well-being of the human race."

That is just what I was trying to say. To me, the Collins/Miller view quoted is nonsensical: "I don't care if you believe in the Krebs cycle... I just want you to know what it is and how it works. My feeling about evolution is the same thing." That's like if you took auto shop and they said, you don't need to believe in the transmission, as long as you know what it is and how it works. I mean, how can you know what it is and how it works if you don't believe in it?

Well, speaking as someone whose own relationship with faith is pretty tenuous (logical right brain knows it's bogus, five-year-old left brain finds itself involuntarily beseeching some invisible friend at times of stress), the non-fundie view of God (or whatever, if you're not talking the Big Monotheistic Three) is more like a First Moral Force, and decidedly not some supernatural Geppetto making sure your ancestors developed opposible thumbs. Now it seems to me that there could be a perfectly plausible evolutionary reason for the universal understanding of right and wrong (survival would appear to depend on our not killing each other, eg); but most people do seem to see -- to need -- higher purposes. Call it a human weakness, if you like.

rj, yes, that does seem to me also to be what religion is for: to give humans a sense of purpose. So I guess the question would be, if humanity had never come into existence would there still be a God?

As to a universal sense of right and wrong, maybe you haven't been reading the papers lately..? Seriously, you're dead on that morality has come to be equated with religious sense. But I see nothing religious about morality -- religion is one way in which morality gets encoded, to be passed from one generation to the next, but morality (for me) transcends religion. Not to say I've never talked to the Big Guy when times were tough, too (ever heard the song, "Tom Ames' Prayer"?)

And -- please don't think I'm picking on you -- but it's the LEFT brain that's the logical side!

Hmmm...on your last post, it depends on what the meaning of "believe" is. For one thing, I'm not sure Collins would sign on to that Miller quote (though I couldn't even remember his name, so I can hardly speak for him). This could probably lead us to a level of abstraction that would give new meaning to the term "hijack this thread" -- for my next number, I'll demonstrate that humanity's yearning for God and for art come from the same place...

Totally agree about morality transcending religion -- some of the most ethical people I've ever known are atheists.

Shoot, I KNEW I was screwing up the left-/right-brain thing; I'm always misdirecting cab drivers, too (hey, I'm left-handed...).

And btw, I distinguish "faith" from "religion" -- faith in God (or whatever) can be a beautiful and comforting thing; organized religion is one of the great evils ever foisted on man by man.

YK, my understanding of intelligent design ... is that evolution happens but is "guided by a higher power." At one level, this would mean that mutations aren't random -- which is a testable hypothesis, actually. But I think they mean more that the level of science that all scientists agree can't be explained -- what we call "stochasiticity," the randomness of events ... are really guided by an intelligence. That's not testable because it has no consequences (and therefore no predictive value) -- and since it has no consequences, it has no impact on medical technology or anything else.

Hmm... I've always thought of intelligent design as being the first idea you described (that mutations really aren't random). Advocates of ID are always pointing to complex organisms and saying that random mutations could not have produced them in the lifetime of the universe. If that's what they want to teach in schools, then it's dangerous, and it would have practical consequences.

If it's the second idea you described (stochastic processes are really controlled by God, and just look random to us), well, I wouldn't be thrilled, but I could live with that.

for my next number, I'll demonstrate that humanity's yearning for God and for art come from the same place

In the wee dark hours of my mind when I think, "What will I do with my career as a scientist? What is the most interesting question I can think to work on?" one of the answers that comes back to me, is to understand aesthetics (particularly music). What, at the neural level, is the nature of harmony and dissonance? Funny you'd bring it up in this context..!

Hey, God works in mysterious ways (sorry -- I really tried to keep from writing that). Pretty cool, actually: that's something I've actually thought on (from the artistic end); hope I get to see whatever you end up doing.

Okay, next topic: French cooking? Hang-gliding? The novels of Thomas Hardy?

aw, we weren't that far off... just because none of the folks with their names on the door chimed in doesn't make it a hijack! (It's called "community-building!")

Don't know much Hardy but how about the new TV season -- what the hell kind of sexist nonsense is going on with these ads in the NYTimes for the new "Geena Davis Is President" show, with caricatures of her smiling like a bashful bride while Uncle Sam proffers flowers on one knee, or a herd of "fat cat lobbyists" (actual fat cats in suits) crowd her in admiration? Can you imagine them doing that to Martin Sheen? (Now that's a thread hijack! Always stick with sex, race, or religion -- it's important to piss off as much of your audience as possible.)

Funny, that's the slogan on our family crest...Your description of those ads makes me glad I don't shell out for the newsprint edition any more; surely that's not an accurate reflection of the show! You'd think by the dawn of the 21st century we'd have (dragging the remnants of the thread topic back over the yellow line) evolved further than that. (Tho' it could be fun if when the prez kicks it they have her materialize out of a really pretty bottle.)

Just to wrap up this thing, I think it's worth remembering that, however illogical it seems, people can and do "believe in" both God and evolution. (Think "compartmentalization.") So it's not just political opportunism to argue for "peaceful coexistence" between faith and science. But it is important politically: there's no reason to play into the Christianists' hands in their perennial efforts to marginalize intellectuals by making them seem evil, or just alien. People (well, mainstream, sane people) need to know it's possible to accept the scientific method without having to deny their upbringing or their values. Remember, Einstein was a believer -- if he could hold both planes in his head at once, that says something. (Of course, how he'd deal with more recent developments in physics is an interesting question; but he certainly knew about Darwin.)

But back to important things: I can't wait to see the episode where Geena twitches her nose and zaps that nasty Osama guy into the monkey house at the National Zoo.

Well, I should give a Parthian shot at it too: For me, belief in the supernatural is incompatible with scientific thinking. Although, as YK points out, there is no practical consequence (since that would by definition generate a testable hypothesis) I think there is a tremendous consequence for society. As rj says, humans are great at "compartmentalization" -- holding conflicting thoughts simultaneously, in this case belief in evolution AND belief in God. Compartmentalization can also explain how a Democratic stalwart can vote to confirm Roberts; or (to be more inflammatory) how a closet racist can outwardly treat blacks as equals; or how entire states can oppose anti-gay discrimination yet not support gay marriage. Scientific thinking would not permit any of that -- rationalism demands a single set of principles applied uniformly. And that's really what's at issue here: it makes little difference in our daily life whether one believes in evolution; but whether we regard our world rationally and hold ourselves to intellectual rigor (and reject compartmentalization) -- that makes all the difference in the world.

Back to the prime-time netowrk line-up: tonight we have faith going head-to-head with science and politics as "Supernatural" (on the WB) squares off against "House" and the new "Mrs. President" show on the major networks. Someone will have to tell me how Geena is; I'll be choosing science (also I'm a bigger fan of Hugh Laurie's!). As to faith, if there really were a God I don't see how the Yankees could have just overtaken the AL East.

And finally, rj, I just wanted to tell you I really appreciated this discussion -- I can probably count on one hand the number of times I've disagreed with someone online and been able to have a real conversation about it - especially a light-hearted one! TNH is always a cut above in this regard, but even here this was especially refreshing. Thanks!

The NYTimes today encapsulates and reviews this thread, only they pretend it's a discussion between scholars at Oxford and Cambridge rather than a couple of blog commenters.

They hit on the idea of compartmentalization, as well as the notions I raised that the only place open in science for God is in stochasticity: "what appears to mortals as quantum indeterminacy is divine intervention in disguise," or "that God acts through nonlinear dynamics, in which microscopic fluctuations give rise to potentially earthshaking results - chaos theory's 'butterfly effect.'" Honestly, I have no problem invoking God there -- that hypothesis has about as much explanative & predictive power as anything else I've heard so far!

Recommended article, if only to see our conversation echoed on a more high-falutin' plane, although I personally began disagreeing with the panelists at paragraph no. 5!

Wow, there's that cosmic timing again...great article (tho' pretty sleazy of them not to quote us directly). As for our discussion, it may finally boil down to the pain of the rational idealist (you) versus the indulgence of the artsy-fartsy pragmatist (me). I think a strong case can be made that, in purely rational terms, an ethical atheist is superior to an ethical believer, insofar as your average believer apparently needs the threat of hell, or at least divine disapproval, to get him to behave. And the insertion of God into scientific exploration certainly would appear "gratuitous." But realistically, getting most people (certainly most Americans) to lose the security blanket and face the void alone is a tricky proposition. (It is happening in Europe, but their history as regards religion is very different -- a point, btw, you'd think our Christianists would take a lesson from...) So given the practical necessity of forging consensus in support of science, I have no problem working with the human capacity for contradiction rather than waging what is, for now at least, a futile fight against it. Actually, that brings us to Eastern philosophy...

I'll be missing all the shows, alas (the weirdest work schedule on the planet); and I LOVE Hugh Laurie...though if you think the Yanks at #1 disproves the existence of God you haven't met my family.

I've really enjoyed this, too, emptypockets (the closest I've been in awhile to sitting crosslegged in a dashiki on a dorm-room floor at three in the morning with interesting friends enveloped by smoke from assorted natural substances). This is actually the only blog I ever comment on, and an exchange like this makes me glad I do. So thanks to you, too!

Just because something seems illogical within the scope of our own HUMAN minds, don't rule it out. Life does have purpose because of God, and I'm not just saying that because I'd go jump off of a bridge if I couldn't cling to something like that. I believe it with all my heart. We're human. We're finite. I'm going to put my life in the hands of the One who knows no bounds.*

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