Monday, October 03, 2005

Woodward on ID

The New York Times ran this op-ed, by Kenneth Woodward, in Saturday's edition. Woodward arrives in the right place; that ID is a lot of nonsense and evolution poses no threat for a serious religious believer. But mostly it's the usual condescending, creationists-are-just-responding-to-those-mean-old-atheists, silliness. Woodward writes:


For some religious fundamentalists, this may indeed be a way of making room for God in science classes. But for many parents, who are legitimately concerned about what their children are being taught, I suspect that it is a way of countering those proponents of evolution - and particularly of evolutionary biology - who go well beyond science to claim that evolution both manifests and requires a materialistic philosophy that leaves no room for God, the soul or the presence of divine grace in human life.


Woodward suspects wrong. His argument is a common one, but it is never backed up by any evidence. It is amazingly condescending. Those poor fundamentalists hear someone like Richard Dawkins defend atheism, and are so discommoded by the experience that they try to seize the reins of government to promote their religion in science classes. Makes perfect sense.

Heaven forbid we should expect people to actually learn a bit of biology and form their own conclusions about evolution's metaphysical significance.

People like Woodward make these sorts of dopey, facile arguments because the reality of the situation is far too terrible to accept. Opposition to evolution stems almost entirely from ignorance. Almost without exception the people fightng to change the science standards can not give a coherent explanation of what the theory of evolution actually says. The only thing they know about the subject is that someone told them once that evolution contradicts the Bible.

I base this conclusion on several years of attending creationist conferences, talking with the attendees at those conferences, and reading large quantities of creationist literature.

Woodward seems to acknowledge this fact later on, but he quickly lapses back into simple-mindedness:


It is unlikely that parents who want intelligent design taught on equal footing with evolution read books by Drs. Wilson, Rose or Dawkins. Chances are they are among the Americans who are more likely to believe in the Virgin Birth than in evolution. That tendency appalls some people but should surprise no one.

Most Americans, as they go about constructing lives and building families, making choices and exercising free will, do not think of themselves as gene survival machines or as random products of an impersonal process that whispers, in effect, “I am all that is.” And most Christians do accept the Virgin Birth as part of a larger religious narrative that tells them there is a God who created the world - one who cares so passionately about humankind that his only son took human form.


Translation: Most people can't be troubled to learn about the copious evidence for evolution when it's so much easier to believe in comforting fairy tales.

I'm glad Woodward sees through the sham that ID really is. I suspect, though, that if he spent more time actually interacting with hard-core creationists he would be less sanguine about finding rational explanations for their behavior.

2 Comments:

At 7:50 PM, Anonymous Stephen Stralka said...

Most Americans, as they go about constructing lives and building families, making choices and exercising free will, do not think of themselves as gene survival machines or as random products of an impersonal process that whispers, in effect, “I am all that is.”

I wanted to jump on this sentence in particular, because it's an example of a kind of thinking that's always bugged me. What it comes down to, I think, is a failure to understand the whole concept of levels of description. On one level, we can indeed be described in terms of randomness and impersonal processes and genetic survival, but this is absolutely not the same thing as saying we're "just" the product of some random, impersonal process. This is because at a higher level we are conscious beings who have feelings, who create and respond to great works of art, who make moral decisions, who philosophize and theorize, and so on and so on.

That is, reductionism really isn't anything to be afraid of, because understanding how things work at more basic levels of description doesn't change anything about what we experience at higher levels of description. For some reason a pitcher throwing a curveball is the analogy I always think of. At the most basic level, the baseball is "just" an arrangement of subatomic particles, but this knowledge isn't terribly useful if you're trying to understand what makes a curveball curve -- or if you're trying to learn how to throw one. Understanding what the baseball is ultimately made of doesn't change its behavior, and understanding what human beings are ultimately made of doesn't change anything about us.

Or to put it another way, I don't think of myself as a gene survival machine or a random product of impersonal processes as I go about my daily life either -- such considerations just aren't relevant when I'm deciding what kind of beer to get at the supermarket, or looking for a birthday present for my wife. It's only when I want to understand how the human species came to be the way it is that I start thinking in those terms.

 
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