More Evolution and Intelligent Design

The last post was getting long, so I wanted to break out my own observations in another screed to make it easier on you.

Some people see no problem with punching religion into schools and say, hey, what’s the harm. Well, as the Discovery Institute is well aware, there are broad scientific and cultural implications to tinkering with education and what that means for society.

Ultimately, schools serve a variety of functions. But there are a couple of functions that need specific attention. They socialize children to baseline cultural norms, and they prepare kids for their adult lives through practical and vocational education. In many ways, schools establish the bodies of knowledge that will inform decision making into adulthood.

Because of the wide variety of races, cultures, languages and religions in our country, schools have been a battleground. Each group of people wants their heritage, culture, language and religion preserved and respected in education, and they don’t those items marginalized or attacked in government run institutions. Therefore, schools have to minimize and to a certain extent, homogenize the educational environment to appeal to the widest possible distribution of people and beliefs, while at the same time providing valid, useful information that all kinds of people will be able to apply throughout their lives. Tough job.

But this is where science comes in. Science is a body of knowledge built on understanding natural phenomena through repeatable testing and peer review. It is not perfect by any means, but generally provides an excellent baseline body of knowledge about our world that is equally true for all people. People from any race, creed or religion can conduct the same tests and arrive at the same conclusions.

As far as developing a body of knowledge about the world and the universe, it’s probably about the best place to start. Thus its position of prominence in schools and in our culture.

But science is in essence more than just a body of knowledge, it’s an approach to understanding the world. It’s an approach that depends on natural causes for the things around us, or at least causes that can be repeatedly observed or measured by our technology, which by all accounts is pretty advanced at this point. True scientific method is incredibly rigorous, and demands a skeptical world-view driven by a need for proof.

Science by its nature precludes many avenues of thought and pursuit which rely on subjective observation or belief. This is not a condemnation, as many would view it, but does cast doubt on the applicability of that information to the rest of the world or universe. It’s certainly possible that there is a great deal of information that remains outside the reach of our awareness or technology and therefore outside the reach of science.

What disturbs many people with beliefs that extend outside of science’s reach is the widening view that information not currently validated by science is irrelevant. This has important cultural implications. Strict, widespread adherence to commonly accepted truth, whether scientifically proven or not leads to a sort of flattening in variety. Some would call this progress towards a common understanding of our world and one global culture. Others would call this the inevitable end to the variety that makes human kind so great, a way to grind away the things that make us different.

Lets focus this down the the Intelligent Design debate and the Discovery institute’s agenda in specific. What has risen from science is a baseline body of knowledge about the world, and a new more skeptical way of interacting with the world that demands proof. Many modern christians have no problem layering their beliefs atop a foundation of scientific knowledge. Their beliefs are usually not terribly dogmatic and are flexible.

The kind of christians behind the Discovery Institute however advocate a literal interpretation of the bible that depends on a world-view dominated by supernatural causes for the things around us, and faith that the supernatural forces are benevolent and purpose driven. Not very compatible with a culture that increasingly asks for proof, and looks first to natural causes instead of God. What the Discovery Institute strives to do is remove the scientific influence on culture that encourages this world-view and replace it with their own. They would then only encourage science when it conforms to their beliefs. You could see how this might be a problem for anyone who does not share those beliefs.

You can also see how it would become an even larger problem when the campaign moves out of churches and into legislation and schools. The Dover case is an excellent example of this machine in action. The disclaimer that was read before teaching evolution specifically attacked evolution without calling into question a greater understanding of the scientific method, while referring children to a book that has no basis in fact, but was being given equal weight to a scientific text. By couching their beliefs in scientific language, they are seeking to equate themselves to science in the minds of the public and establish science as a “belief”.

At the center of this movement is the belief that a “godless” scientific culture is not how humans were meant to live, and they try to support that assertion with random bits of history that are often poorly understood or just outright misstated for the purpose of confusion. It is itself a belief unsupported by research, critical thought, testing, or peer review.

And there is the heart of it. Some people believe that the best way for humanity to move forward is with a common understanding of our world brought about though a disciplined process of learning which others can verify. Others like the Discovery Institute think it is better to enforce religious belief systems which they feel are the only way to ensure a moral future, which they equate to a successful one.

One of the big problems that many christian theologians have with a scientific world view is that it is seen to encourage “moral relativism”, the idea that there are is no absolute right or wrong. It’s so big a topic that the new pope named it one of the biggest evils facing the church. Not to take an easy shot here, but it’s pretty rich given the catholic church’s history and recent child abuse scandals. More about moral relativism here.

obligatory great quote:

Moral absolutism leads conservatives to oppose the murder of innocent fetuses, but moral relativism led them to support the potential murder of millions of innocent Russians in a nuclear defense of America.

Science is very bad at dealing with absolutes, as the universe simply loves dealing out exceptions. Just as nature abhors a vacuum so does it abhor absolutes. Even the speed of light, the gold standard of absolutes, has been proved pretty flexible recently. So it’s widely seen that science contributes heavily to a world view without absolutes, which is very bad for religious dogma which depends on infallibility and unchanging rules.

Well, I’m running out of time for this, so I’m going to sign off. Maybe I’ll put together some conclusions later.

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