Friday, February 24, 2006

Prior Commitments and the Evidence

As a follow up to my last post, I wanted to provide some relevant quotes to compare and contrast. I encourage you to read both quotes and decide which person is more influenced by his a priori philosophical or religious commitments, and which is more willing to let the scientific evidence speak for itself.

Here is one from Phillip Johnson's book Darwin On Trial that I linked to yesterday:
I believe that a God exists who could create out of nothing if He wanted to do so, but who might have chosen to work through a natural evolutionary process instead. I am not a defender of creation-science, and in fact I am not concerned in this book with addressing any conflicts between the Biblical accounts and the scientific evidence.

My purpose is to examine the scientific evidence on its own terms, being careful to distinguish the evidence itself from any religious or philosophical bias that might distort our interpretation of that evidence. I assume that the creation-scientists are biased by their precommitment to Biblical fundamentalism, and I will have very little to say about their position. The question I want to investigate is whether Darwinism is based upon a fair assessment of the scientific evidence, or whether it is another kind of fundamentalism. (p.14)

Here is one from Richard Lewontin, discussed more fully here and here:
Our willingness to accept scientific claims that are against common sense is the key to an understanding of the real struggle between science and the supernatural. We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs, in spite of its failure to fulfill many of its extravagant promises of health and life, in spite of the tolerance of the scientific community for unsubstantiated just-so stories, because we have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism. It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counter-intuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, that materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door. The eminent Kant scholar Lewis Beck used to say that anyone who could believe in God could believe in anything. To appeal to an omnipotent deity is to allow that at any moment the regularities of nature may be ruptured, that miracles may happen.

So whose prior philosophical or religious commitment is more likely to influence how the person evaluates the evidence for and against macroevolutionary theory? I think the answer is obvious, and that is the big story that is completely lost on Kenneth Chang, the writer of the Times article. As I said earlier:
What is noteworthy about the current challenge to Darwinian theory, is that most of the new challengers are Open-Minded Theists or Open-Minded Agnostics, not Rigid Theists as in the 1980's when there was a push to teach Creation Science alongside macroevolution in schools.

For more, you may want to check out my previous posts on the spectrum of worldviews that affect how a person approaches the scientific evidence and why it is difficult for atheists to evaluate the evidence for evolution and intelligent design objectively.

Another post from Uncommon Descent on the religious convictions and bias of scientists is here.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

"They Deserve To Be Prodded, As It Were"

Further to my post yesterday about this article in the Times, I have some additional observations.

Did you notice the headline? "Few Biologists but Many Evangelicals Sign Anti-Evolution Petition." Now look in the article for the support of this headline. How many is "few biologists"? 154, or 30%, of the scientists signing. Biologists, including biochemists, are the single largest group of scientists. You can find more discussion of this here.

How many constitute "many Evangelicals"? The article does not tell us. Here is the support in the article: "But random interviews with 20 people who signed the petition and a review of the public statements of more than a dozen others suggest that many are evangelical Christians, whose doubts about evolution grew out of their religious beliefs." So the writer did some limited research and made some conclusions about what it "suggested." And this makes the headline. If you want to see how faith impacts the positions of two leaders of the intelligent design movement, go here and here. Here is how Michael Behe (who is Catholic) puts it:
Sure, it's possible to believe in both God and evolution. . . . Catholics have always understood that God could make life any way he wanted to. If he wanted to make it by the playing out of natural law, then who were we to object? We were taught in parochial school that Darwin's theory was the best guess at how God could have made life.

I'm still not against Darwinian evolution on theological grounds. I'm against it on scientific grounds. I think God could have made life using apparently random mutation and natural selection. But my reading of the scientific evidence is that he did not do it that way, that there was a more active guiding. . . .

John West called it "stunning hypocrisy" to ask signers about their religion "while treating the religious beliefs of the proponents of Darwin as irrelevant." For some other possible adjectives, go here.

One issue the Times does not explore is how many more scientists would sign if they did not fear retribution from colleagues or fear that it would jeopardize their careers. More posts on this are here.

The discussion of "Project Steve" ignores the fact that the two statements are apples and oranges, since they address different issues. For more on Project Steve, read here.

The Evo News blog has some other good points about this article here.

The headline for this post comes from a quote from my previous post:
He said evolutionary biologists were unfairly suppressing any competing ideas. "They deserve to be prodded, as it were," Dr. Salthe said. "It was my way of thumbing my nose at them."

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Dissent From Darwin in NY Times

The New York Times reports on the Dissent from Darwin list here. Here is an excerpt:
Discovery officials said that they did not ask the religious beliefs of the signers and that such beliefs were not relevant. John G. West, a senior fellow at Discovery, said it was "stunning hypocrisy" to ask signers about their religion "while treating the religious beliefs of the proponents of Darwin as irrelevant."

Discovery officials did point to two scientists, David Berlinski, a philosopher and mathematician and a senior fellow at the institute, and Stanley N. Salthe, a visiting scientist at Binghamton University, State University of New York, who signed but do not hold conservative religious beliefs.

Dr. Salthe, who describes himself as an atheist, said that when he signed the petition he had no idea what the Discovery Institute was. Rather, he said, "I signed it in irritation."

He said evolutionary biologists were unfairly suppressing any competing ideas. "They deserve to be prodded, as it were," Dr. Salthe said. "It was my way of thumbing my nose at them."

Dr. Salthe said he did not find intelligent design to be a compelling theory, either. "From my point of view," he said, "it's a plague on both your houses."

The timing is interesting. John West's comments quoted here get support from this book review published in the Times on Sunday.

More on Daniel Dennett

Don't miss this enlightening email exchange between Michael Ruse and Daniel Dennett, posted by William Dembski. I hope to comment later.

The phrase "Dawkins's Lapdog" to describe Daniel Dennett was coined by Stephen Jay Gould:
If history, as often noted, replays grandeurs as farces, and if T.H. Huxley truly acted as "Darwin's bulldog," then it is hard to resist thinking of Dennett, in this book, as "Dawkins's lapdog."

Dawkins's Lapdog Gets Kicked

A pretty scathing review of Daniel Dennett's new book was in Sunday's New York Times. The reviewer argues that Dennett's scientism is another form of superstition. I especially enjoyed this since Dennett is one of the poster boys (see also here and here) of Darwinian Fundamentalism:

THE question of the place of science in human life is not a scientific question. It is a philosophical question. Scientism, the view that science can explain all human conditions and expressions, mental as well as physical, is a superstition, one of the dominant superstitions of our day; and it is not an insult to science to say so. For a sorry instance of present-day scientism, it would be hard to improve on Daniel C. Dennett's book. "Breaking the Spell" is a work of considerable historical interest, because it is a merry anthology of contemporary superstitions.

The orthodoxies of evolutionary psychology are all here, its tiresome way of roaming widely but never leaving its house, its legendary curiosity that somehow always discovers the same thing. The excited materialism of American society — I refer not to the American creed of shopping, according to which a person's qualities may be known by a person's brands, but more ominously to the adoption by American culture of biological, economic and technological ways of describing the purposes of human existence — abounds in Dennett's usefully uninhibited pages. And Dennett's book is also a document of the intellectual havoc of our infamous polarization, with its widespread and deeply damaging assumption that the most extreme statement of an idea is its most genuine statement. Dennett lives in a world in which you must believe in the grossest biologism or in the grossest theism, in a purely naturalistic understanding of religion or in intelligent design, in the omniscience of a white man with a long beard in 19th-century England or in the omniscience of a white man with a long beard in the sky.

. . .

There are a number of things that must be said about this story. The first is that it is only a story. It is not based, in any strict sense, on empirical research. Dennett is "extrapolating back to human prehistory with the aid of biological thinking," nothing more. "Breaking the Spell" is a fairy tale told by evolutionary biology. There is no scientific foundation for its scientistic narrative. Even Dennett admits as much: "I am not at all claiming that this is what science has established about religion. . . . We don't yet know." So all of Dennett's splashy allegiance to evidence and experiment and "generating further testable hypotheses" notwithstanding, what he has written is just an extravagant speculation based upon his hope for what is the case, a pious account of his own atheistic longing.

. . .

In the end, his repudiation of religion is a repudiation of philosophy, which is also an affair of belief in belief. What this shallow and self-congratulatory book establishes most conclusively is that there are many spells that need to be broken.