Wednesday, March 24, 2004

Montana on My Mind The Ravalli Republic, a small newspaper serving Western Montana, recently published a pair of editorials on the subject of evolution and ID.

Representing truth and light is Dr. Christopher Cluff, who stepped into the fray with this March 16, article. Here are two excerpts:

Using the same scientific method that allowed these great discoveries and inventions, investigators from the same diverse range of disciplines, often with no idea that their findings might support the concept of evolution, have provided overwhelming evidence that the universe started from a single point in a "big bang" approximately 15 billion years ago, that the earth formed approximately 4.5 billion years ago, that life arose as single-celled organisms approximately 3.5 billion years ago, and that the extremely slow process of natural selection, driven by the ability of DNA to mutate and thereby promote adaptation of organisms to new environments, led to the evolution of a constantly changing variety of highly-specialized species, including humans.

The evidence for these conclusions is not tucked away in some great vault, accessible only to scientists with a secret code; it's available to anyone who is curious and knows how to read. I urge people who think like Andrew Larson, who has expressed his views in this newspaper several times and falsely claims no evidence for evolution exists, to open both books and their minds. The transitional forms they seek have been found in the fossil record in spades and are described in enough books to fill a substantial library.

I would only add that transitional forms in the fossil record are only one of many lines of evidence supporting evolution. It is an especially important line of evidence, given that creationists go to extravagant lengths to deny it.

Regardless of what you believe, public school science class is a place where students should only learn about the scientific method and the information generated by it. The idea that God created the universe is not currently amenable to hypothesis testing, so it remains a belief. Beliefs with no data to support them are religion, not science. Religion, for reasons well understood by our brilliant founding fathers, must remain separate from government (and, hence, the public school system).

That's about as succinct an explanation of what's at stake as I can think of.

Representing darkness and malevolance is Curtis Brickley, who countered Cluff's article with this reply, published on March 18. A typical excerpt:

Recently, Linda McCulloch, our state schools superintendent, was quoted as saying she "criticized the effort" to have "philosophies put into our (Montana's) curriculum."

The question must be asked, "is it philosophy in general that she opposes or is it an opposing philosophy, other than naturalism?"

For example, a local paper quoted Fred Allendorf, University of Montana Professor of Biological Sciences, to say, "As soon as you posit a supernatural move outside the realm of science".

This statement is clearly not based in science but rather in philosophy. Mr. Allendorf is basing his definition of what is or is not science, not on observable data, objectively interpreted, but on a metaphysical assumption that cannot be falsified, tested or observed.

His narrow definition of science is influenced by a philosophical presupposition that "natural" or "material" causes are all that exist. This is the naturalistic approach to science that was criticized by our founding fathers.

If a scientist's observations are subject to his bias and evidence is filtered through the same philosophically biased lens then the conclusions drawn must inevitably reflect the same bias. Therefore, all conclusions drawn must logically be void of any possibility of the supernatural.

As a result we are left not with a "true" search for the truth, but with a modified search, limited within the context of the scientist's definition of truth or within his system of beliefs or philosophy.

Brickley's comments reflect a common misundertsanding of what science is. Like many non-scientists, he pictures science as part of a grand search for truth. Since religious people view the supernatural as an essential part of that truth, any science restricting itself to naturalistic explanations will necessarily be blinkered and incomplete.

People who actually do science for a living have far more practical concerns. Scientists are not paid to promote world views. They are paid to solve problems. Theories that help scientists solve problems survive, while theories that don't help are discarded.

Thus, Mr. Allendorf, quoted in the article, was not making a philosophical presupposition when he said that positing the existence of a supernatural creator is outside science. He was merely observing that it has never once happened that theories based on the supernatural have been helpful in solving actual problems. It is for this reason, and no other, that the supernatural is considered out of bounds among scientists. As soon as someone tells us how invocations of the supernatural will help us solve a problem, they will be embraced immediately.

Science is not primarily about truth. It is about predictability and control. The word ``truth'' has a purely operational definition. A theory is said to be true when it successfully explains so much data and is seen to be so useful that is impossible to deny it. Of course, the simplest explanation for the consonance of theory and data is that the theory is telling us something about the way things really are. That, in itself, is a metaphysical leap, though not one that anyone really feels uncomfortable about making.

Since Mr. Brickley is not a scientist, no one is expecting him to enter a laboratory and come out with the solution to an actual problem. That is why he has the luxury of pontificating about God and philosophy. Let him do some actual research, and then see how long his fondness for the supernatural survives.


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