Monday, September 05, 2005

Religion and Politics Again

"The issue for both sides is not so much what Roberts believes is right or wrong. Rather, it is the degree to which he believes religious morality may be permitted to influence public policy." The Washington Post, September 5, 2005. Here we go again -- confusion about religion and politics in relation to separation of church and state. The quote concerns the likely questioning of John Roberts in his confirmation hearings to be a justice and now Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. If John Roberts believes as a Catholic that abortion is wrong, that is fine. But as public policy he must support that view on the basis of the laws, traditions, and values of American history and culture, especially those enshrined in its founding documents. This means that while it is perfectly legitimate to espouse values that are rooted in religion, in terms of law and public policy he must articulate those values in the language common to all Americans.

The most profound understanding of the relation of religion and politics I know of -- except, of course in my own writings! -- is found in a speech by Gov. Mario Cuomo of New York in an address at the University of Notre Dame September 13, 1984. He was dealing with the question as to whether he as a Catholic was bound to adopt a position against abortion in accordance with the teachings of the church. His answer was that he was not necessarily bound to do so. Here is what he says:

"Our public morality, then, -- the moral standards we maintain for everyone, not just the ones we insist on in our private lives-- depends on a consensus view of right and wrong. The values derived from religious belief will not --and should not -- be accepted as part of the public morality unless they are shared by the pluralistic community at large, by consensus. That those values happen to be religious values does not deny them acceptability as a part of this consensus. But it does not require their acceptability, either. . . . the question whether to engage the political system in a struggle to have it adopt certain articles of our belief as part of public morality is not a matter of doctrine: it is a matter of prudential political judgment.

Yes, we create our public morality through consensus and in this country that consensus reflects to some extent religious values of a great majority of Americans. But. no, all religiously based values don't have an a priori place in our public morality. The community must decide if what is being proposed would be better left to private discretion than public policy; whether it restricts freedom, and if so to what end, to whose benefit; whether it will produce a good or bad result; whether overall it will help the community or merely divide it."

I could not have said it better myself. However, I would stress that any prevailing consensus of values among the American people itself must finally be judged by the founding documents, especially the Constitution.

1. Cuomo clearly recognizes that church and state is not the same problem as religion and politics.

2. He recognizes that religiously-based values have a legitimate place in public political discourse, but they have no privileged status since we have to find a moral consensus in a pluralistic society that includes a variety of religious belief and unbelief.

3. Political policies must be judged by whether they are best for the society as a whole, whether they promote peace, justice, freedom, and equality for all, not by whether they have religious sanction in some specific religion or denomination.

4. Christians as citizens and as public officials have to make an attempt to balance the moral truths they hold against political realities. Pragmatic judgments must be made which may require a compromise of the personal morality they espouse as persons of faith.

If a person running for office believes, e. g., that abortion is wrong because the Bible of the church says so, it is perfectly legitimate for her or him to try to persuade other Americans to oppose abortion. However, --and here is the crucial point -- the persuasion must, or should be, be in terms of values, principles, and beliefs embodied in the secular history of the country, not because the Bible or the Church says so. Religiously-based values should be translated into the language of American history in terms of whether it will further the common good. Appeal to the Bible or the Pope as such is not valid or pragmatically advisable. The Bible and the Pope as such are not authoritative for American political philosophy. If there is a correspondence between what the Bible and the Pope teach, on the one hand, and the laws, traditions, culture, the Constitution, and a consensus of Americans in general based on whatever authorities they follow,on the other hand, fine. But the support in the public realm must be based on the latter not on the former. And a consensus of contemporary values must finally be tested by the Constitution. Segregation was supported -- by some on allegedly religious grounds -- by large numbers of people in 1950, but the Supreme Court ruled in 1954 that segregation in public schools was unconstitutional.

In short, it doesn't matter what a political proposal is based on, whether the Bible, the Koran, Hindu or Buddhist sources, or an atheistic moral philosophy. The only thing that matters is whether it is acceptable to a majority of voting citizens and can pass the Constitutional test as judged by the courts. Clear thinking may get lost in the heat of battle and succumb to slogans, deep-rooted religious or secular bias, or false premises that ignore vital distinctions. Let us hope, however, that we can at least avoid simplistic generalizations that say we should adopt a policy because the Bible or the Pope or the Koran supports it or reject it for the same reason.

Sunday, September 04, 2005

Intelligent Design and Darwinian Evolution

Should Intelligent Design be taught alongside Darwinian evolution in science classes? The issue will finally likely be settled not on philosophical or educational grounds but politically by local school boards, state legislatures, and Congress and then tested in the courts. Cliches, slogans, half-truths, misunderstandings, and a general shallowness will rule the day, generating more heat than light. Nevertheless, an analysis to sort out the issues is worth the attempt.

Many arguments for Intelligent Design that I have seen rely heavily on statistical analyses of probability rather than on detailed empirical refutations of the specifics of Darwinian theory, although this can be found too. The general notion is that random mutation and natural selection cannot account for the "irreducible" (Michael Behe) or "specific" (William Demski) complexity seen in organisms. The chance, for example, that Darwinian mechanisms can explain the marvelous complexity of the eye are such that this infinitesimal possibility cannot be rationally entertained. From the design seen in living things, we can infer an Intelligent Designer. This is the best explanation of what we actually find in organisms and their organs. The theory is objective, rational, based on observation, and is, in fact, scientific, proponents insist.

For a brief introduction see:

The Darwinists are quick to offer refutations, contending that given the billions of years involved, it is possible to show how minute random mutations could be organized incrementally over time to produce the complexity illustrated in the eye. Likewise, biologists already have elaborated in detail how the intricate processes that produced organisms as a whole can come about along with all the checks, balances, and bio-feedback mechanisms needed to keep them functioning properly . Moreover, Intelligent Design theory yields no empirically testable hypotheses by the usual and ordinary methods of science. Also, not all features seem "intelligent." The retina is backward, necessitating a hole in the back for the transmitting nerves to get through on their way to the brain. The result is the "blind spot." I would also like to know how Katrina qualifies as intelligent if the Designer is also thought to be good.

It interests me that both the Intelligent Design theorists and Darwinians who refute them seem to think of purpose and design in engineering terms. An intelligent agent decides to makes something and figures out how to do it so that the resulting product works. Parts are created and coordinated so that they cooperate in producing the desired ends. In this way they embody the the purposes built in by the designer. This is then applied to the world as a whole resulting in a view of God as the Cosmic Designer, an external, supernatural Agent. I will suggest that a biological rather than a technological model is superior both to the intelligent design scheme or to the biblical political model of God as Creator-King.

The prototype of the intelligent design God can be found in the 18th century philosopher William Paley. He maintains that if you found a watch lying in the sand, you would conclude that the intricate and interworking parts required a clever creator who build the mechanism for a purpose. A watch requires a watchmaker. Likewise, the world with its complex and cooperating parts and laws requires a World Maker, i. e., an Intelligent Designer we commonly call God. David Hume, of course, offered at the time a devastating critique.

Contemporary Intelligent Design proponents think Paley was right, and the strict Darwinists think this is nonsense. Science can account for everything in worldly terms without reference to a Supernatural External Agent, for whom there is no evidence or necessity. More recently the mathematicians have provided new versions of Intelligent Design using theories of probability to show the absurdity of a process operating by law and chance alone producing the complexity we see in organisms, organs,and cells. Lecomte du Nouy, Human Destiny, 1947, is a classic example..

My conclusion is that Intelligent Design is right in seeing purpose in the process but wrong about how it works. The Darwinians are right in suggesting that they can account for the apparent purpose and amazing complexity exhibited by organisms within a scientific framework but wrong in thinking that science tells us the the whole truth about the matter. Science provides a perspective on the objects it studies but within the limits of what can be known by its methods. Hence, it gives us partial but essential knowledge of the evolutionary process. It abstracts from the concrete whole of entities what its observations can discern. This means we need a more comprehensive outlook that specifies what the concrete whole is from which science abstracts what yields itself to its methods. I argue this in the immediately preceding blog and will not repeat it here.

I am convinced by a form of Whiteheadian panpsychism in which the disastrous separation of body and mind in modern science and philosophy is overcome and replaced by a notion of organisms as unitary beings with both physical (body) and mental capacities (mind). The internal mental (but mainly not consciousness) processes operate. at every level of nature from subatomic particles to human beings. Purpose is to be found, therefore, in all nature in ways commensurate with the complexity of the subjects involved. Chance and law are involved in the efforts of primitive organisms at the simplest levels all the way up to human beings in the effort to "live, to live well, and to live better" (Whitehead). The world is made up its entirety of "experiencing subjects" whose internal mental operations exhibit purpose.

Science can discern only that part of the whole that its methods permit and that excludes perception of the internal purposes of these living subjects. Life is the primary philosophical category and is found at every level of nature, and life processes everywhere exhibit purpose guided by an internal mentality that is pervasive. (Note: rocks, computers, oceans, and planets, etc. as such are not subjects but pure objects composed of smaller life-like, purposive subjects. Life may in a narroweer sense be resricted to organisms that require food.) At the base of it all is God -- the All-Inclusive Life whose purposes are universally exhibited throughout the universe. This Universal Life is not omnipotent but limited in power and works in all things persuasively and by law to create life and to increase the enjoyment of life.

I entertain belief in a God unlike the External Designer of the Intelligent Design school but not permitted among atheistic scientists who find no evidence for the traditional God within or beyond science (Steven Weinberg, Richard Dawkins, and Carl Sagan, e. g.). This fragmentary introduction will have to suffice here but is elaborated in my books and in articles on my website.

Should Intelligent Design be taught in public schools as a scientific alternative to Darwinism. No, because its credentials as science are too minimal to qualify. Science is what the community of scientists currently believe. Today the consensus in favor of Darwinian theory in its main outlines is overwhelming. Only a tiny population of credentialed scientists at the fringe think otherwise. But what is wrong in simply acknowledging briefly in science classes that a large number of Americans do not accept Darwinian reductionism and prefer alternatives, including creationism and Intelligent Design theory, that are outside the current understanding of the biological sciences, except for a small number of dissenters too insignificant to be taken seriously within science itself? The purpose of the public schools is not only to teach contemporary scientific understandings but also to introduce students to their culture. It may be sad, even tragic, but evolutionary theory is held in bad odor by numbers approaching if not exceeding a majority of citizens. A majority want Darwinian alternatives recognized and taught as well. Those numbers are too large to be ignored. In the last analysis what the public schools teach is a matter for the people who pay the taxes to decide, not a scientific elite.

See the following for a summary of numerous recent polls on the subject.

In short, the public schools should teach the truth. The truth is that the contemporary community of scientists, without significant exception, hold to a broadly Darwinian view of evolution. That is what contemporary science is. The truth also is that huge numbers of Americans want alternatives presented as well. The schools do not have to settle the question of whether Intelligent Design or Darwinian evolution is true. They just need to teach the truth about these contemporary ways of understanding. By the way, those cartoons that suggest teaching creationism or Intelligent Design alongside Darwinian evolution is like teaching phrenology, flat earth theory, astrology, etc. alongside neurology, round earth, and astronomy are misleading. All these latter theories are now generally discredited but in their time were held by learned scholars as well as by the population as a whole. When only an insignificant number of the population hold to creationism or Intelligent Design, then the cartoon will be relevant but no longer funny.