What is science?

(I will be traveling for a few weeks and rather than put this blog on hiatus, thought that I would continue with my weekday posting schedule by reposting some of the very early items, for those who might have missed them the first time around.)

Because of my interest in the history and philosophy of science I am sometimes called upon to answer the question “what is science?” Most people think that the answer should be fairly straightforward. This is because science is such an integral part of our lives that everyone feels that they intuitively know what it is and think that the problem of defining science is purely one of finding the right combination of words that captures their intuitive sense.

But as I said in my previous posting, strictly defining things means having demarcation criteria, which involves developing a set of necessary and sufficient conditions, and this is extremely hard to do even for seemingly simple things like (say) defining what a dog is. So I should not be surprising that it may be harder to do for an abstract idea like science.

But just as a small child is able, based on its experience with pets, to distinguish between a dog and a cat without any need for formal demarcation criteria, so can scientists intuitively sense what is science and what is not science, based on the practice of their profession, without any need for a formal definition. So scientists do not, in the normal course of their work, pay much attention to whether they have a formal definition of science or not. If forced to define science (say for the purpose of writing textbooks) they tend to make up some kind of definition that sort of fits with their experience, but such ad-hoc formulations lack the kind of formal rigor that is strictly required of a philosophically sound demarcation criterion.

The absence of an agreed-upon formal definition of science has not hindered science from progressing rapidly and efficiently. Science marches on, blithely unconcerned about its lack of self-definition. People start worrying about definitions of science mainly in the context of political battles, such as those involving so-called intelligent design creationism (or IDC), because advocates of IDC have been using this lack of a formal definition to try to define science in such a way that their pet idea be included as science, and thus taught in schools as part of the science curriculum and as an alternative to evolution.

Having a clear-cut demarcation criterion that defines science and is accepted by all would settle this question once and for all. But finding this demarcation criterion for science has proven to be remarkably difficult.

To set about trying to find such criteria, we do what we usually do in all such cases, we look at all the knowledge that is commonly accepted as science by everyone, and see if we can see similarities among these areas. For example, I think everyone would agree that the subjects that come under the headings of astronomy, geology, physics, chemistry, and biology, and which are studied by university departments in reputable universities, all come under the heading of science. So any definition of science that excluded any of these areas would be clearly inadequate, just as any definition of ‘dog’ that excluded a commonly accepted breed would be dismissed as inadequate.

This is the kind of thing we do when trying to define other things, like art (say). Any definition of art that excluded (say) paintings hanging in reputable museums would be considered an inadequate definition.

When we look back at the history of the topics studied by people in those named disciplines and which are commonly accepted as science, two characteristics stand out. The first thing that we realize is that for a theory to be considered scientific it does not have to be true. Newtonian physics is commonly accepted to be scientific, although it is not considered to be universally true anymore. The phlogiston theory of combustion is considered to be scientific though it has long since been overthrown by the oxygen theory. And so on. In fact, since all knowledge is considered to be fallible and liable to change, truth is, in some sense, irrelevant to the question of whether something is scientific or not, because absolute truth cannot be established.

(A caveat: Not all scientists will agree with me on this last point. Some scientists feel that once a theory is shown to be incorrect, it ceases to be part of science, although it remains a part of science history. Some physicists also feel that many of the current theories of (say) sub-atomic particles are unlikely to be ever overthrown and are thus true in some absolute sense. I am not convinced of this. The history of science teaches us that even theories that were considered rock-solid and lasted millennia (such as the geocentric universe) eventually were overthrown.)

But there is a clear pattern that emerges about scientific theories. All the theories that are considered to be science are (1) naturalistic and (2) predictive.

By naturalistic I mean methodological naturalism and not philosophical naturalism. The latter, I argued in an earlier posting where these terms were defined, is irrelevant to science.

By predictive, I mean that all theories that are considered part of science have the quality of having some explicit mechanism or structure that enable the users of these theories to make predictions, of saying what one should see if one did some experiment or looked in some place under certain conditions.

Note that these two conditions are just necessary conditions and by themselves are not sufficient. (See the previous posting for what those conditions mean.) As such they can only classify things into “may be science” (if something meets both conditions) or “not science” (if something does not meet either one of the conditions.) As such, these two conditions together do not make up a satisfactory demarcation criterion. For example, the theory that if a football quarterback throws a lot of interceptions his team is likely to lose, meets both naturalistic and predictive conditions, but it is not considered part of science.

But even though we do not have a rigorous demarcation criterion for science, the existence of just necessary conditions still has interesting implications, which we shall explore in later postings.

What do creationist/ID advocates want-III?

(I will be traveling for a few weeks and rather than put this blog on hiatus, thought that I would continue with my weekday posting schedule by reposting some of the very early items, for those who might have missed them the first time around.)

It is time to tackle head-on the notion of what is meant by the ‘materialism’ that the creationist/ID camp find so distasteful. (See part I and part II for the background.)

The word materialism is used synonymously with ‘naturalism’ and perhaps the clearest formulation of what it means can be found in the writings of paleontologist George Gaylord Simpson who said in Tempo and Mode in Evolution (p. 76.):

“The progress of knowledge rigidly requires that no non-physical postulate ever be admitted in connection with the study of physical phenomena. We do not know what is and what is not explicable in physical terms, and the researcher who is seeking explanations must seek physical explanations only.” (Emphasis added)

Simpson was by no means an atheist (as far as I can tell) but he is saying something that all scientists take for granted, that when you seek a scientific explanation for something, you look for something that has natural causes, and you do not countenance the miraculous or the inscrutable. This process is properly called ‘methodological naturalism’, to be contrasted with ‘philosophical naturalism.’

Despite the polysyllabic terminology, the ideas are easy to understand. For example, if you hear a strange noise in the next room, you might wonder if it is a radiator or the wind or a mouse or an intruder and you investigate each possible cause, looking for evidence. For each question that you pose, the answer is sought in natural causes. You would be unlikely to say “The noise in the next room is caused by God knocking over stuff.” In general, people don’t invoke God to explain the everyday phenomena of our lives, even though they might be quite religious.

Methodological naturalism is just that same idea. Scientists look for natural explanations to the phenomena they encounter because that is the way science works. Such an approach allows you to systematically investigate open questions and not shut off avenues of research. Any scientist who said that an experimental result was due to God intervening in the lab would be looked at askance, because that scientist would be violating one of the fundamental rules of operation. There is no question in science that is closed to further investigation of deeper natural causes.

Non-scientists sometimes do not understand how hard and frustrating much of scientific research is. People work for years and even decades banging their heads against brick walls, trying to solve some tough problem. What keeps them going? What makes them persevere? It is the practice of methodological naturalism, the belief that a discoverable explanation must exist and that it is only their ingenuity and skill that is preventing them from finding the solution. Unsolved problems are seen as challenges to the skills of the individual scientist and the scientific community, not as manifestations of God’s workings.

This is what, for example, causes medical researchers to work for years to find causes (and thus possibly cures) for rare and obscure diseases. Part of the reason is the desire to be helpful, part of it is due to personal ambition and career advancement, but an important part is also the belief that a solution exists that lies within their grasp.

It is because of this willingness to persevere in the face of enormous difficulty that science has been able to make the breakthroughs it has. If, at the early signs of difficulty in solving a problem scientists threw up their hands and said “Well, looks like God is behind this one. Let’s give up and move on to something else” then the great discoveries of science that we associate with Newton, Darwin, Einstein, Planck, Heisenberg, etc. would never have occurred.

For example, the motion of the perigee of the moon was a well-known unsolved problem for over sixty years after the introduction of Newtonian physics. It constituted a serious problem that resisted solution for a longer time than the problems in evolution pointed to by creationist/ID advocates. Yet no supernatural explanation was invoked, eventually the problem was solved, and the result was seen as a triumph for Newtonian theory.

So when creationist/ID advocates advocate the abandonment of methodological naturalism, they are not trying to ease just Darwin out of the picture. They are throwing out the operational basis of the entire scientific enterprise.

Philosophical naturalism, as contrasted with methodological naturalism, is the belief that the natural world is all there is, that there is nothing more. Some scientists undoubtedly choose to be philosophical naturalists (and thus atheists) because they see no need to have God in their philosophical framework, but as I said in an earlier posting, others reject that option and stay religious. But this is purely a personal choice made by individual scientists and it has no impact on how they do science, which only involves using methodological naturalism. There is no requirement in science that one must be a philosophical naturalist, and as I alluded to earlier, Gaylord Simpson was not a philosophical naturalist although he was a methodological naturalist.

The question of philosophical naturalism is, frankly, irrelevant to working scientists. Scientists don’t really care if their colleagues are religious or not. I have been around scientists all my life. But apart from my close friends, I have no idea what their religious beliefs are, and even then I have only a vague idea of what they actually believe. I know that some are religious and others are not. It just does not matter to us. Whether a scientist is a philosophical naturalist or not does not affect how his or her work is received by the community.

But what the creationist/ID advocates want, according to their stated goal of “If things are to improve, materialism needs to be defeated and God has to be accepted as the creator of nature and human beings” is to enforce the requirement that scientists reject both philosophical and methodological naturalism. They are essentially forcing two things on everyone:

  • Requiring people to adopt the creationist/ID religious worldview as their own.
  • Requiring scientists to reject methodological naturalism as a rule of operation for science.

In other words, creationist/ID advocates are not asking us to reject only Darwin or to turn the clock back to the time just prior to Darwin, they want us to go all the way back to before Copernicus, and reject the very methods of science that has enabled it to be so successful. They want us to go back to a time of rampant and unchecked superstition.

This is probably not a good idea…

What do creationist/ID advocates want-II?

(I will be traveling for a few weeks and rather than put this blog on hiatus, thought that I would continue with my weekday posting schedule by reposting some of the very early items, for those who might have missed them the first time around.)

We saw in an earlier posting that a key idea of the creationists is that it was with the arrival of Darwin, Marx, and Freud that has led to the undermining of Western civilization.

The basis for this extraordinary charge is the claim that it was these three that ushered in the age of materialism. These three people make convenient targets because, although they were all serious scientific and social scholars, they have all been successfully tarred as purveyors of ideas that have been portrayed as unpleasant or even evil (Darwin for saying that we share a common ancestor with apes, Marx with communism, Freud with sexuality).

But if you want to blame materialism for society’s ills, you have to go farther back than that, at least as far as Copernicus, and possibly earlier. For example, as stated by Thomas S. Kuhn in his book The Copernican Revolution (p.2)

“[Copernicus’] planetary theory and his associated conception of a sun-centered universe were instrumental in the transition from medieval to modern Western society, because they seemed to affect man’s relation to the universe and God…Men who believed that their terrestrial home was only a planet circulating blindly about one of an infinity of stars evaluated their place in the cosmic scheme quite differently than had their predecessors who saw the earth as the unique and focal center of God’s creation. The Copernican Revolution was therefore also part of the transition in Western man’s sense of values.”

Copernicus was central to the development of Western civilization, as were Galileo, Kepler, and Newton after him. All of them sought to explain how the world works in materialistic ways. So if you want to pin the blame for society’s ills on those who were influential in promoting materialistic ways of understanding the world, then you cannot pin the blame on Johnny-come-latelies like Darwin, Marx, and Freud.

But creationist/ID advocates do not go after these earlier giants of scientific materialism who justifiably occupy honored places in our history. To do so would be to be immediately labeled as crack-pots, on a par with flat-Earthers, UFO believers, and spoon benders. So they try to peel Darwin, Marx and Freud away from this distinguished line of scientists and treat them as if they started a parallel line of dubious thought, distinct from that of mainstream science.

But that argument just does not make sense. One may argue whether Marxism or Freudian psychoanalysis is scientific, but there is no controversy at all within the scientific community as to whether Darwin’s ideas belong firmly in the scientific tradition. Darwin rightly takes his place among the giants of science and drew his materialist inspiration from the scientists who came before him.

The fact that all these scientists sought to explain the world in materialistic ways does not mean that they did not believe in God. For example, it is well known that Newton did believe in a God. He believed that the working of the solar system had a beauty that indicated the existence of God. But that did not stop him from pursuing the laws of motion and gravity that provided a completely material explanation for planetary motions. The residual features that his theories did not explain (such as the stability of the system) and which he ascribed to God were explained later by materialistic means using his own laws, after his death.

The same is true now. What creationist/ID advocates don’t seem to grasp is that pursuing materialistic explanations for phenomena does not pose a problem for scientists who are also religious. Surveys conducted in 1996 and 1998 found that about 40% of scientists believe in a personal God as defined by the statement “a God in intellectual and affirmative communication with man … to whom one may pray in expectation of receiving an answer.” Despite the explosive growth in science this century, this figure of 40% has remained stable since previous surveys done in 1914 and 1933. (Source: Edward J.Larson and Larry Witham, Scientists are still keeping the faith, Nature, vol. 386, April 1997, page 435.) The figure would undoubtedly be much higher if belief in a non-personal God (some sort of prime mover who acted only through natural laws) were included as well.

So why is it that scientists who are also religious have no trouble with materialism? Stay tuned…

What do ID advocates want?

(I will be traveling for a few weeks and rather than put this blog on hiatus, thought that I would continue with my weekday posting schedule by reposting some of the very early items, for those who might have missed them the first time around.)

In an earlier posting, I spoke about how those who view Darwin’s ideas as evil see it as the source of the alleged decline in morality. But on the surface, so-called ‘intelligent design’ (or ID) seems to accept much of evolutionary ideas, reserving the actions of a ‘designer’ for just a very few (five, actually) instances of alleged ‘irreducible complexity’ that occur at the microbiological level.

This hardly seems like a major attack on Darwin since, on the surface, it seems to leave unchallenged almost all of the major ideas of the Darwinian structure such as the non-constancy of species (the basic theory of evolution), the descent of all organisms from common ancestors (branching evolution), the gradualness of evolution (no discontinuities), the multiplication of species, and natural selection.

So where does ID fit into this attack on evolution? It’s role is explicitly outlined in the document that has been labeled the ‘Wedge Strategy’ or the ‘Wedge Document’ put out in 1999 by the Center for the Renewal of Science & Culture (now called the Center for Science and Culture) of the Seattle-based Discovery Institute, which is the well-funded ‘think-tank’ that funds and supports the work of creationists.

In the document it becomes clear that intelligent design is seen as kind of the shock troops that establish the beachhead on the fields of science, prior to the rest of the creationist army coming behind and occupying the entire landscape.

Here is an extended passage from the introduction of the document that outlines the issues as seen by them:

The proposition that human beings are created in the image of God is one of the bedrock principles on which Western civilization was built. Its influence can be detected in most, if not all, of the West’s greatest achievements, including representative democracy, human rights, free enterprise, and progress in the arts and sciences.

Yet a little over a century ago, this cardinal idea came under wholesale attack by intellectuals drawing on the discoveries of modern science. Debunking the traditional conceptions of both God and man, thinkers such as Charles Darwin, Karl Marx, and Sigmund Freud portrayed humans not as moral and spiritual beings, but as animals or machines who inhabited a universe ruled by purely impersonal forces and whose behavior and very thoughts were dictated by the unbending forces of biology, chemistry, and environment. This materialistic conception of reality eventually infected virtually every area of our culture, from politics and economics to literature and art.

The cultural consequences of this triumph of materialism were devastating. Materialists denied the existence of objective moral standards, claiming that environment dictates our behavior and beliefs. Such moral relativism was uncritically adopted by much of the social sciences, and it still undergirds much of modern economics, political science, psychology and sociology.

Materialists also undermined personal responsibility by asserting that human thoughts and behaviors are dictated by our biology and environment. The results can be seen in modern approaches to criminal justice, product liability, and welfare. In the materialist scheme of things, everyone is a victim and no one can be held accountable for his or her actions.

Finally, materialism spawned a virulent strain of utopianism. Thinking they could engineer the perfect society through the application of scientific knowledge, materialist reformers advocated coercive government programs that falsely promised to create heaven on earth.

Discovery Institute’s Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture seeks nothing less than the overthrow of materialism and its cultural legacies.

A little later in the document one comes across the “Governing Goals” of the movement, which are:

  • To defeat scientific materialism and its destructive moral, cultural and political legacies.
  • To replace materialistic explanations with the theistic understanding that nature and human beings are created by God.

So there you have it. In a nutshell, the argument is:

  1. The greatest achievements of Western civilization are largely due to the idea that human beings were created in God’s image.
  2. Things were just peachy until a little over one hundred years ago.
  3. Then Darwin, Marx, and Freud dethroned this idea and instead introduced materialist ideas that spread into all areas of science and culture.
  4. Everything pretty much fell apart after that.
  5. If things are to improve, materialism needs to be defeated and God has to be accepted as the creator of nature and human beings.

This is a pretty sweeping line of reasoning. Such broad-brush analyses of society are inherently suspect since the way societies function and form is highly complex and claiming all the good for one belief structure and all the bad for the opposing side is to oversimplify on a massive scale.

I discussed in the previous posting some of the problems with this kind of reasoning.

But what is clear is that the ultimate goal of this movement is to eliminate ‘scientific materialism’ and bring back God into all areas of life. Getting ID into the science curriculum is just the first step, hence the name ‘wedge’ strategy.

This is the first of a series on this topic. I will look more closely into what ‘scientific materialism’ is and the implications of this strategy in future postings.

Evolutionary theory and falsificationism

(I will be traveling for a few weeks and rather than put this blog on hiatus, thought that I would continue with my weekday posting schedule by reposting some of the very early items, for those who might have missed them the first time around.)

In response to a previous posting, commenter Sarah Taylor made several important points. She clearly articulated the view that evolutionary theory is a complex edifice that is built on many observations that fit into a general pattern that is largely chronologically consistent.

She also notes that one distinguishing feature of science is that there are no questions that it shirks from, that there are no beliefs that it is not willing to put to the test. She says that “What makes scientific theories different from other human proposals about the nature of the universe are their courage. They proclaim their vulnerabilities as their strengths, inviting attack.”

I would mostly agree with this. Science does not shy away from probing its weaknesses, although I would not go so far as to claim that the vulnerabilities are seen as strengths. What is true is that the ‘weaknesses’ of theories are not ignored or covered up but are seen as opportunities for further research. Since there is no such thing in science as infallible knowledge, there is no inherent desire to preserve any theory at all costs, and the history of science is full of once dominant theories that are no longer considered credible.

But having said all that, it is not necessarily true that finding just one contradiction with a theory is sufficient to overthrow the theory. In the context of the challenge to Darwinian theory by intelligent design (ID) advocates, Sarah’s statement that “All that any ID devotee has to do is to show ONE fossil ‘out of place’, to prove the theory doesn’t work. Just one horse shoulder blade in a Cambrian deposit somewhere in the world, and we can say goodbye to Darwin” is a little too strong.

Sarah’s view seems to be derived from the model of falsificationism developed by the philosopher of science Karl Popper (see his book Conjectures and Refutations: The Growth of Scientific Knowledge, 1963) who was trying to explain how science progresses. Afer showing that trying to prove theories to be true was not possible, Popper argued that what scientists should instead do is try to prove theories false by finding a single counter-instance to the theory’s predictions. If that happens, the theory is falsified and has to be rejected and replaced by a better one. Hence the only status of a scientific theory is either ‘false’ or ‘not yet shown to be false.’

But historians of science have shown that this model, although appealing to our sense of bravado, does not describe how science actually works. Scientists are loath to throw away perfectly productive theories on the basis of a few anomalies. If they did so, then no non-trivial theory would survive. For example, the motion of the perigee of the moon’s orbit disagreed with Newton’s theory for nearly sixty years. Similarly the stability of the planetary orbits was an unsolved problem for nearly 200 years.

Good theories are hard to come by and we cannot afford to throw them away at the first signs of a problem. This is why scientists are quite agreeable to treating such seeming counter-instances as research problems to be worked on, rather than as falsifying events. As Barry Barnes says in his T.S. Kuhn and Social Science (1982):
“In agreeing upon a paradigm scientists do not accept a finished product: rather they agree to accept a basis for future work, and to treat as illusory or eliminable all its apparent inadequacies and defects.”

Dethroning a useful theory requires an accumulation of evidence and problems, and the simultaneous existence of a viable alternative. It is like a box spring mattress. One broken spring is not sufficient to make the mattress useless, since the other springs can make up for it and retain the mattress’s functionality. It takes several broken springs to make the mattress a candidate for replacement. And you only throw out the old mattress if you have a better one to replace it with, because having no mattress at all is even worse. The more powerful and venerable the theory, the more breakdowns that must occur to make scientists skeptical of its value and open to having another theory replace it.

After a theory is dethroned due to a confluence of many events, later historians might point to a single event as starting the decline or providing the tipping point that convinced scientists to abandon the theory. But this is something that happens long after the fact, and is largely a rewriting of history.

So I do not think that finding one fossil out of place will dethrone Darwin. And ID does not meet the necessary criteria for being a viable alternative anyway, since it appeals to an unavoidable inscrutability as a factor in its explanatory structure, and that is an immediate disqualification for any scientific theory.

Where was God during the tsunami?

(I will be traveling for a few weeks and rather than put this blog on hiatus, thought that I would continue with my weekday posting schedule by reposting some of the very early items, for those who might have missed them the first time around.)

Last Thursday I moderated a panel discussion (sponsored by the Hindu Students Association and the Religion Department at Case) on the topic of theodicy (theories to justify the ways of God to people, aka “why bad things happen to good people”) in light of the devastation wreaked by the tsunami, which killed an estimated quarter million people.

The panel comprised six scholars representing Judaism, Islam, Jainism, Christianity, Hinduism, and Buddhism and the discussion was thoughtful with a good sharing of ideas and concerns.

As the lay moderator not affiliated with any religious tradition, I opened by saying that it seemed to me that events like the tsunami posed a difficult problem for believers in a God because none of the three immediate explanations that come to mind about the role of God are very satisfying. The explanations are:

1. It was an act of commission. In other words, everything that happens is God’s will including the tsunami. This implies that God caused it to happen and hence can be viewed as cruel.
2. It was an act of omission. God did not cause the tsunami but did nothing to save people from its effects. This implies that God does not care about suffering.
3. It is a sign of impotence. God does care but is incapable of preventing such events. This implies that God is not all-powerful.

These questions can well be asked even for an isolated tragic event like the death of a child. But in those cases, it is only the immediate relatives and friends of the bereaved who ask such things. The tsunami caused even those not directly affected to be deeply troubled and it is interesting to ask why this is so.

Some possible reasons for this widespread questioning of religion are that the tsunami had a very rare combination of four features:

1. It was a purely natural calamity with no blame attached to humans. Other ‘natural’ disasters such as droughts and famines can sometimes be linked indirectly to human actions and blame shifted from God.
2. The massive scale of death and suffering.
3. The rapidity of the events, the large number of deaths on such a short time-scale
4. The innocence of so many victims, evidenced by the fact that a staggering one-third of the deaths were of children.

Of course, although rare, such combinations of factors have occurred in the past and all the major religions are old enough to have experienced such events before and grappled with the theological implications. It was interesting to see the different ways in which the four theistic religions (Judaism, Hinduism, Christianity, and Islam) and the two non-theistic religions (Buddhism and Jainism) responded. But whatever the religion, it was clear that something has to give somewhere in the image of an all-knowing, all-powerful, benevolent God, whose actions we can comprehend.

As one panelist pointed out, the last feature (of the ability to comprehend the meaning of such events) is dealt with in all religions with an MWC (“mysterious ways clause”) that can be invoked to say that the actions of God are inscrutable and that we simply have to accept the fact that a good explanation exists, though we may not know it.

Each panelist also pointed out that each religious tradition is in actuality an umbrella of many strands and that there is no single unified response that can be given for such an event. Many of the explanations given by each tradition were shared by the others as well. In some ways, this diversity of explanations within each tradition is necessary because it is what enables them to hold on to a diverse base of adherents, each of whom will have a personal explanation that they favor and who will look to their religion for approval of that particular belief.

The possible explanations range over the following: that things like the tsunami are God’s punishment for either individual or collective iniquity; that they are sent to test the faith of believers (as in the Biblical story of Job); that God created natural laws and lets those laws work their way without interference; that God is “playing” with the world to remind us that this life is transitory and not important; that the tsunami was sent as a sign that the “end times” (when the apocalypse arrives) are near and hence should actually be seen as a joyous event; that it was a sign and reminder of God’s power and meant to inspire devotion; it was to remind us that all things are an illusion and that the events did not “really” happen.

All of these explanations posit a higher purpose for the tsunami, and some definitely relinquish the notion of God’s benevolence.

The non-theistic religions have as their explanatory core for events the notion of karma. Karma is often loosely thought of as fate but the speakers pointed out that karma means action and carries the implication that we are responsible for our actions and that our actions create consequences. Thus there is the belief in the existence of cause-and-effect laws but there is no requirement for the existence of a law-giver (or God). The karma itself is the cause of events like the tsunami and we do not need an external cause or agent to explain it. The MWC is invoked even in this case to say that there is no reason to think that the ways the karmic laws work are knowable by humans.

The non-theistic karma traditions do not believe in the existence of evil or an evil one. But there is a concept of moral law or justice (“dharma”) and the absence of justice (“adharma”), and events like the tsunami may be an indication that totality of dharma in the world is declining. These traditions also posit that the universe is impermanent and that the real problem is our ignorance of its nature and of our transitory role in it.

The problem for the karma-based religions with things like the tsunami is understanding how the karma of so many diverse individuals could coincide so that they all perished in the same way within the space of minutes. But again, the MWC can be invoked to say that there is no requirement that we should be able to understand how the karmic laws work

(One question that struck me during the discussion was that in Hinduism, a belief in God coexisted with a belief in karma and I was not sure how that could work. After all, if God can intervene in the world, then can the karmic laws be over-ridden? Perhaps someone who knows more about this can enlighten me.)

Are any of these explanations satisfying? Or do events like the tsunami seriously undermine people’s beliefs in religion? That is something that each person has to decide for himself or herself.

Creationism and moral decay

(I will be traveling for a few weeks and rather than put this blog on hiatus, thought that I would continue with my weekday posting schedule by reposting some of the very early items, for those who might have missed them the first time around.)

In the previous posting, I said that the reason that there is such hostility to the teaching of evolutionary theory by ID advocates and young-Earth creationists is that they feel that it implies a lack off special status for human beings, which leads to atheism, which has led to the current state of moral decay in the US from a more wholesome past. They feel that eliminating the teaching of evolution is the first step on the road to moral redemption.

There are many flaws in this line of reasoning but for the moment I want to look at one feature and pose the question as to why such people think that the moral state of America is in worse shape now than it was in the past.

It becomes clear that the reason is that the word ‘morality’ as used almost exclusively in relation to sex and nudity. Those who see us as currently living in a moral swamp use sex and nudity as the yardsticks for measurement.

Even taking this narrow view of morality, it is not clear that America is any less moral now than it was, say, fifty or more years ago. On the one hand, there is clearly a lot of public discussion now of sex-related issues and more nudity and sex in films and on television. But all that this might indicate is that things that were done and spoken in private in the past are now more in the open. In other words, we don’t have more sex. We simply have less secrecy and hypocrisy.

It is not that public piety and hypocrisy about sex and nudity has disappeared, as can be seen by the ridiculous flap over the Janet Jackson Super Bowl incident, which was portrayed as if it had irreparably damaged the nation’s psyche. In fact, America is a curious mass of contradictions when it comes to sex and nudity, publicly deploring it while relishing titillating stories in the media.

But it is hard for me to accept that we are in a worse state of morals than we were in the past when that word is used in a more meaningful and broader sense.

For example, it was only fifty years ago or less that civil rights legislation was enacted giving blacks the legal rights that white people had. Lynchings, beatings, fire hosing of peaceful marchers, Jim Crow laws, open discrimination in all areas of life, are all in the living memory of people. Was that a more moral time to live in?

Similarly, the status of women just one hundred years ago was no picnic either. Women had no vote, few career choices, and little hope for advancement or being taken seriously in the scientific, business, and professional worlds. They were seen as primarily homemakers and mothers and little else. Was that a more moral time to live in?

And one has to only go back to about two hundred years to get to the era of slavery and genocide against Native Americans. Was that a more moral time to live in?

While equality has still not been attained, it is only those who are looking at the past with blinkers who could see golden ages then and wish to return to them.

I think that there is a strong case to be made that in some ways morality has increased over time so that even if one were inclined to make this kind of correlation between morals in a broad sense and the passage of time since the publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species in 1859, one would have to conclude that morals have actually improved with the advent of evolutionary theory.

Natural selection and moral decay

(I will be traveling for a few weeks and rather than put this blog on hiatus, thought that I would continue with my weekday posting schedule by reposting some of the very early items, for those who might have missed them the first time around.)

In a previous posting, I discussed why some religious people found evolutionary theory so upsetting. It was because natural selection implies that human beings were not destined or chosen to be what they are.

While I can understand why this is upsetting to religious fundamentalists who believe they were created specially in God’s image and are thus part of a grand cosmic plan, there is still a remaining puzzle and that is why they are so militant in trying to have evolution not taught in schools or its teaching to be undermined by inserting fake cautions about its credibility. After all, if a person dislikes evolutionary theory for whatever reason, all they have to do is not believe it.

I have had students who, after taking my physics courses, say that they cannot believe the theories of the origins of the universe that I taught them because those theories conflict with their religious beliefs, specifically their belief about a young Earth. I don’t try to get them to change their views. I tell them that they are perfectly free to believe what they want and that it is not my duty to try and force them to agree with me. I believe that the purpose of science courses is to teach students the scientific paradigms that scientists use so that they will be able to use them in their own work. All I ask of my students is that they demonstrate to me that they understand how the scientific paradigms work and know how to use them within the scientific contexts in which they apply. I do not require them to swear allegiance to the theories themselves.

So it was initially puzzling to me why some people were objecting to the teaching of evolution. Why not let students learn it as best as they can so that they can function effectively in the world of science? After all, evolutionary theory is one of the cornerstones of modern science and to reject it as a framework for research is, frankly, to declare oneself to be a non-scientist.

It is true that some students will like the theory and accept it. Other won’t. But that would be their individual choices. What would be the harm in that?

But my conversations with the ID people revealed that they have a much darker view of the consequences of teaching evolution. Let me try and summarize as best as I can their line of reasoning.

Their position is that America is currently in a state of deep moral decay. They look back on the past and see a time when the country was much more morally wholesome and they see the cause of the degeneration as due to people moving away from religious doctrines and towards a more secular outlook. And they see this shift as coinciding with the introduction of widespread teaching of evolution in schools.

They believe that you cannot have a moral sense unless it is rooted in the Bible. Not having the Bible as a basis for absolute moral standards results in the slippery slope of moral relativism and situational ethics, where there are no absolutes and what is a right or wrong choice is determined by the context.

They pin the blame for this shift in morals directly on evolutionary theory. They argue that teaching evolution means teaching that human beings are not God’s special creation. This leads to atheism and hence to moral decay.

So the fight against the teaching of evolution is seen by them as a fight for America’s very soul and this explains the passion which is expended by them on what, to the rest of us, might seem just another aspect of the science curriculum. It also means that the ultimate goal of the movement is the complete elimination of any teaching of evolution, and that the current push to introduce ID as merely an “alternative theory” is just the first step in a longer-term strategy.

While this line of reasoning can be criticized on very many different levels (and I will do so in a later posting), I was impressed with the sincerity of many of the people at the ID meeting who made it. They are doing what they do because they care about the souls of all of us, and are trying to save us from ourselves. But some of the leaders and spokespersons of the ID movement are not as straightforward as their followers. They hide this broader argument and try to portray what they are doing as purely an issue of science and that they would be satisfied if ID was accepted as an alternative to evolution. (I will discuss this so-called ‘wedge strategy’ later.)

This is why ID advocates feel they cannot allow the teaching of evolution. For them it is not just a scientific theory they have problems with. They see this as a battle for the soul of America, and the world.

What makes us good at learning some things and not others?

(I will be traveling for a few weeks and rather than put this blog on hiatus, thought that I would continue with my weekday posting schedule by reposting some of the very early items, for those who might have missed them the first time around.)

One of the questions that students ask me is why it is that they find some subjects easy and others hard to learn. Students often tell me that they “are good” at one subject (say writing) and “are not good” at another (say physics), with the clear implication that they feel that there is something intrinsic and immutable about them that determines what they are good at. It is as if they see their learning abilities as being mapped onto a multi-dimensional grid in which each axis represents a subject, with their own abilities lying along a continuous scale ranging from ‘awful’ at one extreme to ‘excellent’ at the other. Is this how it is?

This is a really tough question and I don’t think there is a definitive answer at this time. Those interested in this topic should register for the free public lecture by Steven Pinker on March 14.

Why are some people drawn to some areas of study and not to others? Why do they find some things difficult and others easy? Is it due to the kind of teaching that one receives or parental influence or some innate quality like genes?

The easiest answer is to blame it on genes or at least on the hard-wiring of the brain. In other words, we are born the way we are, with gifts in some areas and deficiencies in others. It seems almost impossible to open the newspapers these days without reading that scientists have found the genes that ’cause’ this or that human characteristic so it is excusable to jump to genes as the cause of most inexplicable things.

But that is too simple. After all, although the brain comes at birth with some hard-wired structures, it is also quite plastic and the direction in which it grows is also strongly influenced by the experiences it encounters. But it seems that most of the rapid growth and development occurs fairly early in life and so early childhood and adolescent experiences are important in determining future directions.

But what kinds of experiences are the crucial ones for determining future academic success? Now things get more murky and it is hard to say which ones are dominant. We cannot even say that the same factors play the same role for everyone. So for one person, a single teacher’s influence could be pivotal. For another, it could be the parent’s influence. The influences could also be positive or negative.

So there is no simple answer. But I think that although this is an interesting question, the answer has little practical significance for a particular individual at this stage of their lives in college. You are now what you are. The best strategy is to not dwell on why you are not something else, but to identify your strengths and use them to your advantage.

It is only when you get really deep into a subject (any subject) and start to explore its foundations and learn about its underlying knowledge structure that you start to develop higher-level cognitive skills that will last you all your life. But this only happens if you like the subject because only then will you willingly expend the intellectual effort to study it in depth. With things that we do not care much about, we tend to skim on the surface, doing just the bare minimum to get by. This is why it is important to identify what you really like to do and go for it.

You should also identify your weaknesses and dislikes and contain them. By “contain” I mean that there is really no reason why at this stage you should force yourself to try and like (say) mathematics or physics or Latin or Shakespeare or whatever and try to excel in them, if you do not absolutely need to. What’s the point? What are you trying to prove and to whom? If there was a really good reason that you needed to know something about those areas now or later in life, the higher-level learning skills you develop by charging ahead in the things you like now could be used to learn something that you really need to know later.

I don’t think that people have an innate “limit”, in the sense that there is some insurmountable barrier that prevents them from achieving more in any area. I am perfectly confident that some day if you needed or wanted to know something in those areas, you would be able to learn it. The plateau or barrier that students think they have reached is largely determined by their inner sense of “what’s the point?”

I think that by the time they reach college, most students have reached the “need to know” stage in life, where they need a good reason to learn something. In earlier K-12 grades, they were in the “just in case” stage where they did not know where they would be going and needed to prepare themselves for any eventuality.

This has important implications for teaching practice. As teachers, we should make it our goal to teach in such a way that students see the deep beauty that lies in our discipline, so that they will like it for its own sake and thus be willing to make the effort. It is not enough to tell them that it is “useful” or “good for them.”

In my own life, I now happily learn about things that I would never have conceived that I would be interested in when I was younger. The time and circumstances have to be right for learning to have its fullest effect. As Edgar says in King Lear: “Ripeness is all.”

(The quote from Shakespeare is a good example of what I mean. If you had told me when I was an undergraduate that I would some day be familiar enough with Shakespeare to quote him comfortably, I would have said you were crazy because I hated his plays at that time. But much later in life, I discovered the pleasures of reading his works.)

So to combine the words from the song by Bobby McFerrin, and the prison camp commander in the film The Bridge on the River Kwai, my own advice is “Don’t worry. Be happy in your work.”

Sources:

John D. Bransford, Ann L. Brown, and Rodney R. Cocking, eds., How People Learn, National Academy Press, Washington D.C.,1999.

James E. Zull, The Art of Changing the Brain, Stylus Publishing, Sterling, VA, 2002.

Why is evolutionary theory so upsetting to some?

(I will be traveling for a few weeks and rather than put this blog on hiatus, thought that I would continue with my weekday posting schedule by reposting some of the very early items, for those who might have missed them the first time around.)

One of the questions that sometimes occur to observers of the intelligent design (ID) controversy is why there is such hostility to evolutionary theory in particular. After all, if you are a Biblical literalist, you are pretty much guaranteed to find that the theories of any scientific discipline (physics, chemistry, geology, astronomy, in addition to biology) contradict many of the things taught in the Bible.

So what is it about evolution in particular that gets some people’s goat?

I had occasion to attend the annual program held by the ID advocates in Kansas a couple of years back, having been invited to be on a panel that was to debate the question of whether ID was a science. I took the opportunity to speak with a lot of the people who were attendees of the program about why they found evolution so offensive. The people I spoke to seemed to be almost all Biblical literalists.

It became clear very quickly that their main concern was that evolution by natural selection implied that human beings had no special status among living things. Natural selection implies that while human beings are quite impressive in the way they are put together, we did not have to be the way we are. Indeed, we did not have to be here at all.

To understand this concern better, here is a somewhat imperfect analogy to understand how natural selection works.

Think of starting out on a journey by car. At each intersection, we toss a coin and if it is heads, we turn left and if it is tails we turn right. After millions of tosses, we will have ended up somewhere, but it could have been anywhere. It might be San Francisco or it might be in the middle of a cornfield in Kansas. There is no special meaning that can be attached to the end point. We can try and reconstruct our journey starting from the end and working backwards to the beginning (which is what evolutionary biologists do) but the end point of our journey was not predetermined when we began.

The important point is that, according to natural selection we were not destined to end up as we did. The many small random genetic mutations that occurred over the years are the analog of the coin tosses, and the end point could have been something quite different.

For people who believe that humans are created in God’s image, this is pretty tough to take because it is a steep drop in one’s self-image. One day you are the apple of God’s eye, the next you are the byproduct of random genetic mutations with no underlying plan at all. One can understand why this is so upsetting to those who want to feel that they are special and that their lives have a divine purpose.

Those who adhere to a belief structure labeled ‘theistic evolution’ strike a middle ground and argue that God created the laws of natural selection but guided the process by working within those laws. This is analogous to intervening only during some or all of the coin tosses to influence the way the coin landed. So what may appear to be random to us may not have been truly so.

Depending on how far one wants to take this, one can argue that God intervened at every coin toss or intervened only sparingly, say to prevent us doing something really stupid like driving off a cliff.

Yet other religious believers say that they are comfortable with God just creating the world and its randomly acting laws and then letting the chips fall where they may, by taking a completely hands off attitude and not intervening in any of the coin tosses.

Where one falls in this spectrum of beliefs depends on what one feels comfortable with. But it is clear that the fact that evolution by natural selection is not goal-directed is what bothers many religious people the most. They dislike the fact that according to the theory of evolution, all we can say is what we have evolved from, and that we cannot say that we are evolving towards anything.

POST SCRIPT: Lisa Simpson defends evolution

When the city of Springfield decrees that only creationism will be taught in schools, Lisa springs into action and gets arrested.