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Tuesday, May 17, 2005


the coexistence of fact and faith

another debate regarding evolutionary theory and its place in the public curriculum has opened in (where else?) kansas, and is particularly insightful comment on the advancement of and reaction against scientism in postmodern society.

rambunctious theocrats in the east prussia that is mittelamerika, influential of kansas' board of education, are seeking to deny the reality of overwhelming evidence supporting some number of evolutionary methods at work, including darwinian natural selection. that evolution as an effect exists is as much a fact as gravity; how precisely is works is still theoretical (as is gravity) and is therefore called as much. to pretend that the transformation of species over time is somehow subject to speculation, however, is a (very unchristian) lie -- an intentional mischaracterization of the facts as we know them to exist for the purpose of defrauding the uneducated faithful.

i don't see a way to reconcile such ignorance or (worse) willful deception with civility or faith -- where there is truth, there is god. it is up to us to try to understand how revelation and reality overlap, not deny one or the other or lie to our fellow man in an effort to gain their authority in proxy. but that, though the main thrust of what is going on in kansas, isn't my point.

the kansas ideological conservatives have danced around their greatest fundamental underlying strength in making this ridiculous argument.

(Advocates of "intelligent design") want to define it as "a systematic method of continuing investigation," without specifying what kind of answer is being sought. The definition would appear in the introduction to the state's science standards.

The proposed definition has outraged many scientists, who are frustrated that students could be discussing supernatural explanations for natural phenomena in their science classes.

"It's a completely unscientific way of looking at the world," said Keith Miller, a Kansas State University geologist.
au contraire
, dr. miller. science is precisely what they would call it. the counterpoint provided by the american association for the advancement of science, a respected public advocacy group which has undertaken the difficult task of countering the rise of mysticism in the hinterlands, suggests an equally acceptable alternative of "a human activity of systematically seeking natural explanations for what we observe in the world around us."

the difference, of course, is in the limiter "seeking natural explanations". scientific method begins with observation; what is observable is what is natural, that is, external, sensible phenomena and real in the empirical sense. the definition presented by the aaas, then, is a more rigorous one -- but that being forwarded against it is not "unscientific".

to be fair, i doubt dr. miller was addressing this point with his comment. "intelligent design" and creationism are, in fact, unscientific explanations for the origin of species. but why they have currency at all in postmodern society is interesting.

the conception of science has developed over time into an abstraction, not at all the four-point method employed by bacon but rather a philosophy of externality. this philosophy dictates that all phenomena in the world have physical mechanisms which causally precipitate them; that these mechanisms are rationally deductible with sufficiently close observation and ingenious discovery; and that mechanisms can be proven by the demonstration repeated experiment which are observably consistent with the prediction of the model mechanism.

this, it must be said, is an article of faith every bit as baseless and dogmatic as any religion. indeed, hume showed irrefutably that causality cannot be demonstrated on the smallest scale -- even as the existence of quarks and other subatomic particles are postulated and observations are collected relating to them, their makeup and the nature of the forces which make them manifest are utterly inexplicable. we know that particles act on one another; why they do will forever be mysterious. science, after all, never reaches a conclusion -- only a theory waiting to be disproven by the next observation.

moreover, the universe is not predictable. indeed, as quantum theory advances, we are beginning to conceive that physicality on the smallest scale may be random, not orderly, and guided only by states of probability. it is perfectly consistent with such speculation that, if one strikes a board with a hammer enough times, the probability that the hammer will pass through the board without interacting with it will eventually become manifest. such as this is, it puts great force behind hume's assertion that induction by enumeration -- repeated experiment -- is not a valid means of argument. repeat the experiment often enough, and the mechanism will inevitably be demonstrably violated.

the basis of science, then, is false. every mechanism will eventually be disproven by observation because any mechanism is only a probable path of events, and any actual event can at any time -- for reasons we not only don't understand but fundamentally cannot -- vary from the expected outcome. perfect predictability is an impossibility.

this realization is compounded by the difficulties which science increasingly faces in constructing meaningful experiments in problems of irreducible complexity, such as global warming -- where the system is so vast and chaotic and with so many variables as to defy any model that can be humanly constructed or comprehended, by our inability to both conceive of the variables and their codependencies and predict with any certainty in the face of the compiled randomness of each variable, which makes the system inherently chaotic to a great degree. scientists can model the planet to the best of their ability to make global warming "predictions" -- but the models in use are far, far closer to a tennis ball than any reality. if their predictions are shown to be approximately correct, it is necessarily a function of luck and not the closeness of the abstract model to external reality.

so should observation then be abandoned? obviously not. but the achievements of scientific method should be understood by people as a narrowly limited subset of solutions to the vastly, indeed infinitely greater number possible questions that can be posed.

"In order to live in this science-dominated world, you have to be able to discriminate between science and non-science," said Alan Leshner of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. "They want to rewrite the rules of science."
and therein lies the difficulty for dr. leshner and his fellow advocates of science. we do not now nor shall we ever live in a "science-dominated world". we do, however, live in a particular human age which has been disproportionately obsessed by the new, the technological and the scientific as a result of the questions answered by pursuing scientific method and real benefits derived of those answers. this obsession with scientism -- science as an abstract concept -- has led many in the modern and postmodern period to reject even the possibility of solutions to human questions that are not "scientific" or "naturalistic" -- that is, empirically derived, abstract and analytic -- even though we know as philosophers that the vast majority of questions which can be posed fundamentally cannot be answered by the application of scientific method.

this is an exclusionary, basically unhealthy approach for human beings to use in making sense of the world, and it's unsurprising perhaps for the doctrine of scientism to experience a backlash of irrationalism -- just as the age of western civility experienced such damning backlashes as beset it in 18th c france and 19th-20th c germany. indeed, this decline into mysticism in america can be seen as a continuation (evolution, if you will) of the romanticism, german idealism and particularism that first saw light in rousseau, goethe, herder and schiller and have advanced powerfully against rationalism and civilization ever since. this increasing awareness of the weakness and limitation of scientific method emboldens those who would aver a different view.

what can be done to counter this, from the viewpoint of one who advocates rationalism? i think first and foremost is the need of leading scientists to explicitly and without fear acknowledge the limitations of science and its fundamental inability to explain the world. this would, one hopes, subdue the fear that many have of scientism as a overreaching force of philosophical militancy and destruction.

secondly, and at least as importantly, educators need to return at least partly to a classical pattern of education that arms students with at least a rudimentary understanding of western philosophy, including theology. without it, people are without the faculty to understand the nature of either science or faith, much less the interaction between the two. the technical education offered in american schools today is abysmal in conveying this knowledge, which is so important to healthy human development. dr. leshner calls for fact and faith to coexist only outside schools; indeed, that they do is exactly the problem.

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