Monday, August 29, 2005

Buckley Weighs In

William Buckley offers some thoughts on science, religion, church and state in this recent column. As with most things Buckley writes, it is thoughtful and interesting, but ultimately not very convincing. Let's consider some excerpts:

A recent survey in the New York Times spoke of the eminent C.S. Lewis. He grew up a skeptic. But in his twenties, he gradually admitted the evidence in favor first of the existence of God, then of the divinity of Christ. In his book Mere Christianity, Lewis argues that the idea of right and wrong is universal, a moral law that human beings “did not make and cannot quite forget even when they try.”

With the encouragement of some Christian friends, I read Lewis' book some years ago. He opens with the argument Buckley describes. It's a ridiculous argument, I"m afraid. Lewis has no basis for his assertion that human beings did not make the moral laws civilizations agree to live by. Indeed, the need for some code of morality becomes obvious as soon as people start organizing themselves into societies.

Biologically, the ability to understand the distinction between right and wrong seems to be hard-wired in the brain, just as Lewis suggests. But which things are considered right and which are wrong changes a great deal from culture to culture. And the handful of things that can be said to be universal (prohibitions against murder, for example) are precisely the things that would spell the end of any society that did not adhere to them.

In other words, evolution by natural selection and scoial necessity are far more plausible than divine warrant as an explanation for humanity's sense of morality.

Buckley continues:

Such an epiphany won't get you too far in Christian taxonomy, but it is a step in that direction. The crowning reservation of the man seeking to believe wholly in science may be that, in the scrawny hands of the evolutionists, too much is left unexplained.

This is weird. First, he's pretty clearly implying that evolutionists are people (men, in fact) seeking to believe wholly in science. Since earlier in his essay he held up Ken Miller as an example of a religious evolutionist, this characterization does not hold up. Second, I'm not sure what it means to believe wholly in science. Presumably this is some sort of euphemism for atheist, but if that is the case then he should simply have said so. Finally, it is certainly true that science leaves a great deal unexplained. But the implication is that there must be something else that is capable of explaining that which is beyond scientific investigation. Usually religion is nominated for the position of “something else.” I find this tendency very puzzling.

What formerly mysterious phenomenon becomes clear by invoking divine action? It seems to me such arguments simply replace one mystery with a far greater mystery. The problem of imagining a being with the capabilities Christians attribute to God is far more vexing to me than any unanswered question of nature. I find it far less confusing to confess ignorance than to invent, out of whole cloth, a being of unimaginable power and inscrutable motives.

The Christian religion depends very heavily on revelation for its acceptance, and revelation acknowledges the interventionist finger of God, on which we cannot rely, but which we cannot dismiss.

Very eloquent, but what does it mean? If Buckley can provide some basis for distinguishing the true revelations from the false ones then I will take this seriously. Otherwise, “revelation” sounds an awful lot like “making stuff up”

Skeptics who incline away from any belief in divine intervention can nevertheless find themselves pondering questions of right and wrong which issue from moral divisions in which science plays no part. One such is cited in the New York Times essay. Dr. Joseph Murray, who won the Nobel Prize in medicine in 1990 for his work in organ transplantation, once divulged that when he was preparing for the first-ever human organ transplant, a kidney that a young man was donating to his identical twin, he and his colleagues consulted a number of religious leaders to inquire whether they were doing the right thing. “When you are searching for truth you should use every possible avenue, including revelation,” Murray said. He has described the influence of his faith on his work in a memoir, Surgery of the Soul.

Buckley is being too glib in the first part of this paragraph. It is true that science, by itself, tells us nothing about right and wrong. But science still has a major role to play in a resolving many moral dilemmas. Science can bring to light facts that are relevant to informed moral judgement. Anyone incpabale of giving a coherent description of what happens when an animal is cloned has no business commenting on the morality of the process. And anyone who says something as stupid as “It's a scientific fact that life begins at conception!” should be dismissed from all serious consideration.

And, as I suggested before, revelation is an avenue to the truth only if you can distinguish the true revelations from the false ones. I doubt Dr. Murray has any reliable method for making that distinction. Consequently, I don't see how justifying a moral stance on the basis of revelation is different from providing no justification at all.

More to the point, Buckley's clear implication here is that religious leaders have some special insight into moral questions that lay people do not have. I do not accept this. If I have a question about physics I will seek out a physicist. But if I have a question about morality, I see no reason for valuing the opinion of my rabbi over the opinion of a trusted friend.

Buckley's silliest moment, however, comes in the next paragraph:

In the United States, the battlefront is in the schools, on the question of evolution and creationism. If a 14-year-old student is introduced to the contingent possibility that life evolved as it did because its creator so willed it, which of the following risks, from the hard-line evolutionists’ point of view, is that student taking? 1) His intellectual disqualification by admitting creationism, for which there is no scientific no warrant, into his thinking? 2) A lifelong intellectual confusion, perhaps disabling in its consequences, which will keep him from prevailing as a responsible thinker and actor? Or perhaps, 3) a lifetime as an agent of teleological confusion, with the result that he will not only mislead himself, but also mislead others?

First of all, no 14-year-old needs to be “introduced” to the idea that God had a role to play in creation. That's pretty much the default position in our society. On the other hand, the idea that religious faith is superfluous to an understanding of nature is something that many kids do not get exposed to. Somehow I don't think Buckley would be so sanguine about using the science classroom as an introduction to atheism.

The reason the contingent possibility of God's role in evolution should not be discussed is that it goes well beyond anything that science can justify. Buckley could as easily have asked, “What harm would come to a 14-year-old who is introduced to the contingent possibility that America triumphed over the British because of divine intervention?” Such intervention is possible, but historical scholarship provides no reason for believing it happened. So why would you even raise the subject in a history class?

Buckley closes his essay with a change of gears:

In Iraq, the national assembly that has met to devise a new constitution appears to be stalled on several points, one of them being the nature of the new Supreme Court. Should it be a secular body, or should four of the nines seats be reserved for clerics? Will civil law prevail, or will the court be charged with ruling on whether any proposed measure conforms to the sharia? Thus the question of women's rights would become not a question of positive law, but a question of Koranic fidelity.

There are factions, Kurdish, Sunni, and even Shiite, which argue against such distribution of power, but there is no denying the strength of those who argue that only adjudications traceable to divine warrant have the authority to prevail. There has never been a neo-society so desperately in need of the idea of a division of church and state.

Well said, but it hardly fits with the rest of the essay. If the revelations of Islamic clerics are not a sound basis for deciding legal questions in Iraq, why should the revelations of Christians be considered a sound basis for deciding questions in America? That's the problem with revelations. They are only a source of evidence to those who choose, arbitrarily, to believe them.


At 9:12 AM, Blogger LiberPaul said...

Great closing statement there Jason!

At 7:04 PM, Blogger chimica said...

Has scientist shot self in foot?

Scientists sometime argue both ways but can be accused of shooting themselves in the foot - or head; see for example this blog quote:;read=39812


Post a Comment

<< Home