Thursday, August 11, 2005

Ruse vs. Weisberg

While Jacob Weisberg was dutifully bashing scientists for suggesting that evolution and Christianity were reconcilable, Michael Ruse was bashing them, in this interview for Salon, for being too overt about their atheism. After a long career of being one of the most passionate defenders of evolution over creationism, Ruse has now decided that actually they are merely two different religious views. His basis for this view, it seems, is that a handful of popularizers, most notably Richard Dawkins, have strayed too far into the realm of theology.

In his introduction to the interview, Andrew O'Hehir, writes the following:


Ruse is drawing a crucial distinction between evolutionary science, narrowly considered -- which need not have any religious or spiritual consequences -- and evolutionism, the secular, atheistic religion he says often accompanies and enfolds Darwinism. Leading evolutionists like Dawkins, Ruse believes, have failed to draw clear distinctions between the two, and have led many to believe that Darwinian science is fatally allied to an arrogant atheism and a hostile caricature of religious belief. In essence, Ruse believes that fundamentalist evolutionists like Dawkins and W.D. Hamilton hold similar beliefs to fundamentalist creationists -- both sides would agree that Darwinism is a “dark theology” that removes ultimate meaning and purpose from the universe and augurs the death of God. (Emphasis in original)


The distinction made in the first sentence in this paragraph is fatal to any claim of an equal footing, in any sense, between evolution and creationism. If Ruse disagrees with the theological conclusions drawn by this or that popularizer he is welcome to make his argument. But the fact remains that evolutionists are basing their pronouncements on the best available scientific evidence, while the creationists are basing theirs on delusion and fantasy.

But the bigger problem is that you can count on one hand the number of people who preach evolutionism in Ruse's sense. In the interview Ruse focuses especially on Richard Dawkins. Dawkins is certainly an outspoken atheist, but he is not guilty of evolutionism. In fact, Dawkins routinely talks about how understanding evolution tells us nothing about proper behavior. He talks about humans being able to overcome the nastiness of the evolutionary process. As far as I know, he has never said that evolution implies atheism. He simply says that evolution makes it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist.

Let's consider some specifics:


You raise this argument that creationism and evolutionism are essentially two competing religions. That's exactly what creationists say, or at least the sharper ones: “We have two competing belief systems. All we ask is to have our case considered.” One could look at this and say, “Wow, Ruse is saying the creationists are right.”

I am saying that. I think they are right. I want to qualify that immediately by saying that the creationists play fast and loose. Like a lot of us, creationists slide from one position to another according to the kind of argument they want to make. A major theme of the intelligent design people is that theirs is in fact a scientific position, and I think that's a double whammy.

Inasmuch as the creationists want to say openly that both sides are making religious commitments, I have to agree with them on that. I don't think that modern evolutionary theory is necessarily religious. Evolutionary theory was religious, and there's still a large odor of that over and above the professional science. The quasi-religious stuff is still what gets out into the public domain, whether it's Richard Dawkins or Edward O. Wilson or popularizers like Robert Wright. Certainly Stephen Jay Gould. Whether you call it religious or philosophical, I would say these people are presenting a weltanschauung


Ruse isn't making any sense here. On the one hand he says that evolutionists are making religious commitments. But then he immediately turns around and says that evolutionary theory isn't necessarily religious.

Really he is only saying that he objects to some of the things that certain popularizers write. He should simply say that, instead of chumming the waters by saying that creationists are right about anything.


Well, and the rhetoric of both sides is subject to slippage, as you've said. The evolutionists reject creation science by saying it's not science -- but they're just resorting to a dictionary definition of science that, in effect, they wrote. As you say in the book, it's a bit too slick.

What I find particularly troublesome is the extent to which evolutionists and Darwinians say, oh no, we're doing science, and if you do this you have to be an agnostic at minimum, and preferably an atheist. I want to say, “Hang on, if the position implies this, then aren't you taking what I would want to argue is a religious stand -- namely, there ain't no God?” My position is that there isn't a necessary connection between Darwinism and atheism.


Someone explain to me what Ruse is talking about here. First, as I've already said, virtually everyone agrees that there is no necessary connection between Darwinism and atheism. In their professional work, evolutionists never even hint at such a connection. Second, it sounds like Ruse is attacking methodological naturalism here. But that can't be right, since Ruse wrote an essay defending methodological naturalism for Robert Pennock's book Intelligent Design Creationism and its Critics. So what does Ruse have in mind when he says that evolutionists require agnosticism at minimum? So much for philosophers bringing clarity to difficult issues.

The interview goes on in this vein, but there's only one more portion that merits further discussion:


Are the creationists genuine in their belief?

I really, truly think so. I think sometimes they have worries about how it all fits together. I know the philosopher Paul Nelson, who has said that theologically he's drawn very strongly to a young-earth creationism. Scientifically, he realizes there's a lot to be said for a much older earth. Paul is genuinely puzzled. In the end he votes for theology over science because, you know, that's his paradigm. That's not to say they don't have motivations. Phillip Johnson, after a brilliant beginning to his legal career, had become best known as the author of textbooks. It's pretty clear that he has found it very satisfying to lead a movement like this, just at a personal level.

I see the sacrifices they make. William Dembski [the mathematician and philosopher who is among the I.D. movement's intellectual stars] is a very bright guy who should have been able to get a very good job, and he's reduced to going off to some theological tinpot college in Tennessee or something [actually, the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky.]. Paul Nelson hasn't got a regular job. They're making sacrifices for their faith. While I think their position is terrible, I don't see them as evil people. I don't see them as Hitlers. They're caught up in an appalling, idiosyncratic American religion. So they're not the first.


This is really too much. As an academic philosopher, Ruse can't imagine any fate worse than not having a job at a reputable university. Sure, people like Nelson and Dembski have closed off certain career paths by the choices they have made. But many other doors are open to them as a result of those same choices.

I have often commented that it is much easier to make a living as a crank than it is as a legitimate scientist, as long as there is a market for your particular brand of crankery. For example, I would love to write a book about evolutionary biology. But were I to propose the project to any university press, they would take one look at the fact that I am an assistant professor of mathematics and laugh in my face. But if I were to propose an anti-evolution book to an outfit like Regnery or InterVarsity Press, they would see that I have a PhD in something and tell me to have at it. The fact is that Dembski is making a good living peddling lies and ignorance to a gullible public. That doesn't make me sympathetic towards him.

As for Dembski being “a very bright guy who should have been able to get a very good job,” has Ruse overlooked the fact that universities expect their mathematicians to carry out research in the subject? If Dembski had produced a decent research record in the decade since receiving his PhD, he would indeed be able to get a decent job. It's not his creationism that is keeping him out of the academy, it's the fact that he has not lived up to the standards professional mathematicians are expected to live up to.

Perhaps describing people like Dembski and Johnson as evil is too much. How about “very, very bad” instead? The fact is that their scientific assertions are totally false, and they routinely use sleazy, dishonest rhetorical tricks to make their case. Ruse knows that better than anyone. So why is he defending them?

Incidentally, for a taste of how prominent ID folks react to Ruse's largesse, have a look at this account (PDF format) of an ID conference I attended a few years ago. Read the third section, in which I recount a talk given by J. P. Moreland. Moreland attacked Ruse, viciously and dishonestly, and Ruse was kind enough to provide me with a reply for my write-up.

9 Comments:

At 2:46 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'd like to add something from Tom Dizikes's review of Ruse's new book, posted at Boston.com News, 1 May 2005:
"In 2000, for instance, Tom Willis, president of the Creation Science Association for mid-America, claimed that 'Micheal Ruse...recently stated that evolution is a religion and always has been.'
"'What am I supposed to do?' [Ruse] asks in response."

How about a public response explaining that you did not say that, and what you did in fact say? How about contacting Mr. Willis and asking for a formal retraction? How about doing something to counteract the obvious appeal that your writing has for creationists?

VKW

 
At 5:14 PM, Blogger Robert O'Brien said...

"The fact is that Dembski is making a good living peddling lies..."

Bill is not "peddling lies."

"...has Ruse overlooked the fact that universities expect their mathematicians to carry out research in the subject?"

Have you overlooked the fact that there are such things as teaching institutions?

 
At 10:58 PM, Blogger JM O'Donnell said...

So it's not 'peddling lies' is it just being creative with the truth then instead?

Jason:

I think that Ruse is accusing 'darwinists' of saying that you can't hold a theological position and still do evolutionary science. At least that is the impression I get from what he is written. He's not saying, per say, that you need to be agnostic/atheistic, he's complaining that some scientists are 'claiming' you must be agnostic/atheistic to do the research.

I think. It's hard to tell what's happened to him after the Hitler Zombie got a hold of him recently.

 
At 7:26 AM, Blogger Robert O'Brien said...

"So it's not 'peddling lies' is it just being creative with the truth then instead?"

Whether he is right or wrong about ID, I do not believe Bill is deceitful.

 
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At 12:12 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Scientists aren't supposed to be atheists? I thought they were expected to follow the evidence and understand reality. Coming with a preconcieved notion that you alrady know everything sort of makes that impossible. Why should they take one theory on faith and not others. If they don't believe in reality and evidence they really shouldn't be scientists in the first place.

 

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