Sunday, July 24, 2005

A Flawed Analysis of a Flawed Debate

Frederick Turner takes both sides of the evolution debate to task in Darwin and Design: The Evolution of a Flawed Debate:

Does the theory of evolution make God unnecessary to the very existence of the world? If there is no God, what authority, if any, guarantees the moral law of humankind? These questions are crucial in the current controversies that are dividing the nation. For just as our laws must be not for religious believers alone, they must also be not for unbelievers alone either. Here, though, I would like to deal not with the answers, which would require a much larger work than a brief essay, but with some aspects of the controversy over evolution itself.

The battle between the evolutionists and the creationists is a peculiarly tragic one, because it is amplifying the worst tendencies of both sides, and making it more and more difficult for most people to find a resolution.

On the polemical creationist side, the sin is intellectual dishonesty. It begins innocently as a wise recognition that faith must precede reason, even if the faith is only in reason itself (as Gödel showed, reason cannot prove its own validity). But under pressure from a contemptuous academic elite the appeal to faith rapidly becomes anti-intellectualism and what Socrates identified as a great sin, "misologic" or treason against the Logos, against reason itself -- in religious terms, a sin against the Holy Spirit. Under further pressure it resorts to rhetorical dishonesty and hypocrisy, to an attempt to appropriate the garments of science and reason, and so we get "creation science", the misuse of the term "intelligent design", the whole grotesque solemn sham of pseudoscientific periodicals and conferences on creation science, and a lame parade of scientific titles and degrees. A lie repeated often enough convinces the liar, and many creationists may now have forgotten that they are lying at all.
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So far I am in agreement. It is when Turner takes on the sins of the evolutionists that he shows the flaws of his own analysis:

The polemical evolutionists are right about the truth of evolution. But the rightness of their cause has been deeply compromised by their own version of the creationists' sin. The evolutionists' sin, as I see it, is even greater, because it is three sins rolled into one.

The first is a profound failure of the imagination, which comes from a certain laziness and complacency. Somehow people, who should, because of their studies in biology, have been brought to a state of profound wonder and awe at the astonishing beauty and intricacy and generosity of nature, can think of nothing better to say than to gloomily pronounce it all meaningless and valueless. Even if one is an atheist, nature surely has a meaning, that is, an abstract and volitional and mental implication: the human world and its ideas and arts and loves, including our appreciation for the beauty of nature itself.


Here I believe that Turner commits the sin of presumption. Is he saying that since evolution requires no purposeful intent or direction, no teleology, that evolutionists themselves are incapable of assigning their own values to nature and existence? As he states in the last sentence of the paragraph, values and meaning as attached to nature are volitional and mentally ascribed. It would be nice if Turner gave an example of an evolutionist who makes such gloomy pronouncements, but given that there is a biologist who has stated that evolution evinces no intrinsic meaning or direction, such is not a statement by him that he or other people cannot find their own extrinsic meaning or sense of wonder in the workings of nature.

The second sin is a profound moral failure -- the failure of gratitude. If one found out that one had a billion dollars free and clear in one's bank account, whose source was unknown, one should want to find out who put it there, or if the donor were not a person but a thing or a system, what it was that has so benefited us. And one would want to thank whoever or whatever put it in our account. Our lives and experiences are surely worth more than a billion dollars to us, and yet we did not earn them and we owe it to someone or something to give thanks. And to despise and ridicule those who rightly or wrongly do want to give thanks and identify their benefactor as "God" is to compound the sin.


This is presumption in overdrive. Does Turner have some form of x-ray vision that allows him to peer into the minds and hearts of evolutionists and see this sense of ingratitude at work? On what does he base this judgement? Again, it would be nice if Turner could point to an example of some evolutionist who has made such a statement of ingratitude, but apparently Turner feels no need to prove his case, as he sees it as an implicit quality of evolutionists who see no need to make a public display of gratitude in the same breath as they make their scientific pronouncements. Or is he making a blanket judgement of atheism here? Is it not possible for someone to feel gratitude for existence without knowing if there is a being to which one should direct that gratitude? As Turner states, the benefactor that made the deposit of money may not be a person, but an inamimate, thoughtless, purposeless, random computer program, but the sense of gratitude, or at least a feeling of being lucky and undeserving, is still possible. So who are these ungrateful evolutionists?

I think what gets Turner so ticked off is that some evolutionists commit the sin of separating their private spiritual feelings from their professional scientific pronouncements. Most scientists would consider that a good, prudent intellectual practice. Apparently Turner sees such unstated feelings as proof of their absence.

The third sin is again dishonesty. In many cases it is clear that the beautiful and hard-won theory of evolution, now proved beyond reasonable doubt, is being cynically used by some -- who do not much care about it as such -- to support an ulterior purpose: a program of atheist indoctrination, and an assault on the moral and spiritual goals of religion. A truth used for unworthy purposes is quite as bad as a lie used for ends believed to be worthy. If religion can be undermined in the hearts and minds of the people, then the only authority left will be the state, and, not coincidentally, the state's well-paid academic, legal, therapeutic and caring professions. If creationists cannot be trusted to give a fair hearing to evidence and logic because of their prior commitment to religious doctrine, some evolutionary partisans cannot be trusted because they would use a general social acceptance of the truth of evolution as a way to set in place a system of helpless moral license in the population and an intellectual elite to take care of them.


Tell me who these indoctrinaires are, and I will denounce them. Richard Dawkins fits this bill, and I have denounced him on other occasions for his bigoted anti-religious ravings. The TOE can neither confirm nor deny the existence of God, and any attempt to enlist it in either endeavor is intellectually dishonest.

Of course, Turner has no problem slandering athiests in the same breath that he accuses them of assaulting religion. In the last sentence he equates atheism with "a system of helpless moral license in the population and an intellectual elite to take care of them". This is not only a bigoted slur, it betrays Turner's stated objective to eliminate the extremist and intellectually dishonest elements from the evolution debate. It becomes clear that Turner's true agenda is to tip the evolution debate in favor of a religious agenda while defending its factual basis.

5 Comments:

Blogger island said...

It would be nice if Turner gave an example of an evolutionist who makes such gloomy pronouncements, but given that there is a biologist who has stated that evolution evinces no intrinsic meaning or direction, such is not a statement by him that he or other people cannot find their own extrinsic meaning or sense of wonder in the workings of nature.

So, we have a choice between some airheaded liberal flower-power form personal religion, or we can stare at the world like deer into headlights.

Great... just grate.

July 24, 2005 4:19 PM  
Anonymous Flint said...

Ultimately, this is more of the same. Turner see the world through religious eyes, and religious filters tend (as Turner exemplifies) to polarize what they view. Evolution is targeted here because it comes the closest of all scientific theories to addressing what Turner considers the meaning of life. Yet evolution makes no statements about meaning, only about mechanisms.

What disturbs Turner derives from the common religious position that was does not glorify God denies God. Indifference is denial; irrelevance is denial; failure to address religious doctrine in any way is denial.

And so by focusing solely on mechanisms, on proposed (and testable) hypotheses about how what we observe around us came to be, about suggested (and falsifiable) physical histories, evolutionists must be ungrateful, dishonest, lacking in vision. Vision, of course, by implication is belief in Turner's God, the meaning Turner feels his God imposes on life, the framework to which Turner's sense of morality is attached. If evolutionists don't direct their gratitude (implicit in the very fact that they devote their lives to their investigations) in the direction Turner directs his, they somehow become ungrateful.

I'm perfectly willing to grant that evolutionists commit every sin Turner alleges, but ONLY within the moral context Turner projects on their activities. Change Turner's religion (for example, make him a Buddhist) and without changing their activies whatsoever, suddenly evolutionists commit none of these sins. And so, the sins exist only in Turner's personal model of his moral universe. Fortunately for all of us, science does not become immoral because Turner doesn't understand it.

July 27, 2005 7:36 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

Well said, Flint. In his own way Turner commits the very sin he accuses the athiest/evolutionist of - lack of imagination. He can't imagine that an athiest can feel gratitude for his existence without having to necessarily believe in a supernatural being to address that gratitude to. He can't imagine that someone could find wonder in the universe without attributing that universe to a supernatural origin.

August 01, 2005 7:45 PM  
Anonymous Hey Skipper said...

Duck:

Nice analysis, to which Flint added considerable insight.

The sin Turner commits is mistaking a religion for God, thereby evidencing his lack of imagination. (Never mind leaving himself open to idolatry.)

To the extent any scientific theory correctly models the way the universe actually works, rational inquiry is showing the hand of God--presuming such a thing exists--as It is, not as we wish It to be.

That certain religionists find this upsetting indicates they are worshipping religion, not God.

As for Dawkins, he is quite strident. But he isn't a patch, in terms of vituperation or quantity, on any number of religious fundamentalists.

August 03, 2005 4:02 AM  
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November 22, 2005 10:05 PM  

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