Pharyngula

Sam Brownback has an op-ed in the NY Times today, in which he explains with much straining at gnats why he was one of the Republicans who did not believe in evolution. Short summary: he reveals his own misconceptions about the biology, and mainly pounds the drum on how important Faith and Religion and God are. It will be persuasive to people who are already convinced that God is the most important thing in the universe, right down to what they do in the privacy of their bedrooms, but it underscores my conviction that faith is the enemy, the source of many of our problems…such as the promotion of incompetent politicians to positions of power on the fuel of the ethereal Spirit.

Get ready. It’s a whole succession of reiterated platitudes about how important faith is, with no evidence that it actually is — we are, apparently, supposed to take that on faith.

The heart of the issue is that we cannot drive a wedge between faith and reason. I believe wholeheartedly that there cannot be any contradiction between the two. The scientific method, based on reason, seeks to discover truths about the nature of the created order and how it operates, whereas faith deals with spiritual truths. The truths of science and faith are complementary: they deal with very different questions, but they do not contradict each other because the spiritual order and the material order were created by the same God.

There is a fundamental contradiction. Faith says that the way to get answers is by revelation, accepting authority, and dogma. Science says that the way to get answers is by examining the evidence critically, testing hypotheses with experiment in the natural world, and by constantly reevaluating and revising our ideas to make them more accurate. It isn’t just that the two arrive at different, conflicting answers—for instance, that the earth is 6000 years old vs. 4.5 billion years old—but that their methods conflict. Scientists will not accept a random idea because someone contemplated and decided a deep “Truth” appealed to him: a kernel of observation and evidence is required.

It is disingenuous for Brownback to claim that science and religion do not contradict each other, given that religion contradicts itself. Which “same god” created the material order? Allah, Jehovah, Vishnu, Thunderbird, Jesus, Ymir? Which sect’s interpretation will we accept: Catholic, Protestant, Sunni, Shi’a, Scientologist, Mormon? There are even two accounts of the creation in the book of Genesis that differ from each other greatly—which one is the “spiritual truth”? Most importantly, how will you objectively evaluate these explanations?

People of faith should be rational, using the gift of reason that God has given us. At the same time, reason itself cannot answer every question. Faith seeks to purify reason so that we might be able to see more clearly, not less. Faith supplements the scientific method by providing an understanding of values, meaning and purpose. More than that, faith — not science — can help us understand the breadth of human suffering or the depth of human love. Faith and science should go together, not be driven apart.

Please, Senator Brownback, define “faith”. You keep throwing that word around as if it actually has some substantial meaning, but it seems to me that all you’re doing is inserting an emotionally-loaded buzzword that has its import dunned into your voters from birth to death, while avoiding saying anything of significance about it.

I know the scientific method. Faith isn’t in it, or anywhere near it, although you could make a good case that doubt and suspicion are everywhere in it. The scientific method is a tool to counter faith and intuition and other such misleading biases that investigators bring to their research.

There is also some confusion about what faith can accomplish. I reject faith, yet somehow I have value and meaning in my life, I feel empathy for those who suffer, and I love. I do not need your dogma to understand those matters. I do so by observing my own life, the lives of others, the consequences of actions on people—by considering just the material world, not assuming an irrelevant supernatural one.

Brownback is intentionally, I suspect, muddling his words. He is replacing “compassion” with the nonsense word, “faith”. Compassion is a human value possessed by scientists and by citizens, atheists and the devout; we do not need faith, that bamboozling misleading sacred delusion, to live as good human beings.

The question of evolution goes to the heart of this issue. If belief in evolution means simply assenting to microevolution, small changes over time within a species, I am happy to say, as I have in the past, that I believe it to be true. If, on the other hand, it means assenting to an exclusively materialistic, deterministic vision of the world that holds no place for a guiding intelligence, then I reject it.

If I had a nickel for every creationist who says “I believe in microevolution, but…”, I’d be rich enough to run for president. This is a false dichotomy between micro- and macroevolution, as used by creationists (it has technical meanings beyond what people like Brownback argue, though); it’s really simply an admission that a large part of modern science has been driven home enough to them that they can’t argue against it anymore (progress!), so they’ve invented this other category of things they don’t understand, called it “macroevolution”, and used that as an excuse to avoid accepting any more conclusions. It’s rather funny, actually. It’s like they’ve wrapped up their ignorance with a pretty bow and named it “macroevolution”, unaware that there is a large and growing body of scientific evidence for macroevolutionary processes.

As for his blanket rejection of one explanation for the world, that’s part of the conflict between faith and science. He is unaware of the evidence, but because he dislikes the idea, he categorically rejects it. That is anti-science. Show me evidence for a god that adequately accounts for the evidence that contradicts his existence, and I’ll accept it; I’m not going to pre-announce that I am going to ignore anything science might tell me.

And I’m sorry, but the evidence from science is a testament to the overwhelming power of natural processes. No external, supernatural intervention is needed, and no evidence for such an event has been discovered. There is no place revealed for a guiding intelligence in the story so far. If someone wants to claim that there is, they have to do more than say that they fervently wish it were so.

There is no one single theory of evolution, as proponents of punctuated equilibrium and classical Darwinism continue to feud today. Many questions raised by evolutionary theory — like whether man has a unique place in the world or is merely the chance product of random mutations — go beyond empirical science and are better addressed in the realm of philosophy or theology.

He is correct that there is no one single theory of evolution. It’s a complex process with many contributory mechanisms and the even greater complicating factor of historical contingency. There is also ongoing debate about the relative importance of various mechanisms, which is the sign of a healthy science. But there is no significant debate about the observed facts of evolution — that the earth is very old, there has been continuous and ongoing change in populations of organisms, that we see a succession of different ecologies over the history of the earth, and that all life on earth is united by common descent — and it is precisely this solid core of well-documented, thoroughly tested, and confirmed beyond reasonable doubt conclusions that the anti-evolutionists contest.

The man is so uninformed that he can’t even recognize a legitimate debate. There are no “classical Darwinists” anymore — pangenesis is refuted, we know of many places where Darwin is wrong, and we’ve moved on. Punctuated equilibrium as a description of the pattern of change in populations over geological time is also almost completely beyond argument at this time (some of Gould’s interpretations of the meaning of that pattern are still fun to argue about, though). And please, Mr Brownback, which is it: is evolution an “exclusively materialistic, deterministic vision of the world” or is it “merely the chance product of random mutations”?

Biologists will have their debates about man’s origins, but people of faith can also bring a great deal to the table. For this reason, I oppose the exclusion of either faith or reason from the discussion. An attempt by either to seek a monopoly on these questions would be wrong-headed. As science continues to explore the details of man’s origin, faith can do its part as well. The fundamental question for me is how these theories affect our understanding of the human person.

Name one thing of value that “people of faith” bring to the table. One thing. Make sure it’s something that people of reason do not bring.

I oppose the inclusion of faith in the interpretation of scientific evidence, and Brownback might be surprised … even many of those “people of faith” he thinks he is courting do not want his sectarian, idiosyncratic faith coloring our understanding of the material nature of how the world works. Scientists — a term that includes anthropologists and psychologists — are well able to work towards an honest “understanding of the human person” without some priestly biased sort leaning over and urging them to twist the results to better fit the flawed and ancient rationalizations of primitive Middle Eastern holy books.

I am also interested in how science can help us better understand humanity. I don’t think distorting the evidence with faith and wishful thinking helps, though, since I’m more interested in the honest truth.

While no stone should be left unturned in seeking to discover the nature of man’s origins, we can say with conviction that we know with certainty at least part of the outcome. Man was not an accident and reflects an image and likeness unique in the created order. Those aspects of evolutionary theory compatible with this truth are a welcome addition to human knowledge. Aspects of these theories that undermine this truth, however, should be firmly rejected as an atheistic theology posing as science.

Whoa. The first clause claims he’s open to looking for the evidence, but then the rest is a positive assertion of a false claim that is contradicted by the evidence. The evidence from molecular biology says that much of what we are is the product of many completely random changes and a smaller number of changes that were subject to slow selection over millions of years that gradually shaped us away from a more generalized ape-like form. That is the truth, as revealed in the rocks and the genes; it is not compatible with his truth, which is derived from his ignorance of science and his quirky interpretations of an old book that summarizes a flimsy mythological account in a scant few pages. What Brownback is doing here under that reassuring mask of piety is demanding that science must be in accord with his interpretation of Genesis 1 and 2, no dissent allowed.

His are the words of an ignorant theocrat. I will let the evidence take science where it must go, unconstrained by religious preconceptions. I’m not going to worry that it might discomfit Christians; as far as I’m concerned, those narrow fundamentalist/evangelical views have already been demolished.

Comments

  1. #1 Andrés Diplotti
    May 31, 2007

    If I were an elector in the U.S, I’d feel compelled to ask:

    “Senator Silverb– er, Brownback, why is it against the ‘truths’ of Christian faith specifically that we must measure science? Why not against the ‘truths’ of Muslim, Hindu or Budhist faith?”

    And I can imagine his answer would be as typical as everything else he says:

    “This a Christian nation.”

    An that’s how you know that universal truths change across international borders.

    We’re on the verge of having a fundamentalist theocracy with nuclear weapons, and it ain’t Iran.

  2. #2 David Marjanovi?
    May 31, 2007

    It’s a whole succession of reiterated platitudes about how important faith is, with no evidence that it actually is — we are, apparently, supposed to take that on faith.

    Hey, at least he’s consistent.

    (This time.)

  3. #3 David Marjanovi?
    May 31, 2007

    Reason can’t answer some questions such as

    I completely agree with your point, but you picked a few bad examples:

    why are we here,

    Looks like this question is wrong.

    how did life get started,

    Research on the origin of life is science.

    what’s the purpose to existence

    As I just said: this looks like a wrong question. You’re assuming there is a purpose to start with. Why did Napoleon cross the Mississippi?

  4. #4 David Marjanovi?
    May 31, 2007

    In response to Steve_C (#61) and others, I would submit that the fact that the universe had a beginning, that it obeys orderly laws that can be expressed precisely with mathematics, and the existence of a remarkable series of “coincidences” that allows the laws of nature to support life in the iniverse can also lend strong support for the God hypothesis.

    Why shouldn’t it obey “orderly laws that can be expressed precisely with mathematics”?

    On the other two arguments, I disagree. We don’t have a reason to consider ourselves so important.

    and the early Church bet their lives on the truth of the claim of the resurrection.

    Come on. Even the PKK — the Stalinist “Workers’ Party of Kurdistan” — had suicide bombers. I repeat: Stalinist. People who were fully convinced that death is The End ™ killed themselves for an ideology. Once convinced of a “higher cause”, lots of people will gladly die for anything.

  5. #5 David Marjanovi?
    May 31, 2007

    The tools made for exploring God is theology, philosophy and mysticism. The tool for exploring Nature is Science.

    Fine.

    Now, is there a tool to explore the question whether God exists at all? Because, you see, if he doesn’t, trying to explore him would be a waste of time and effort, so we should find that out first, instead of assuming our premises.

  6. #6 David Marjanovi?
    May 31, 2007

    but it is certainly compatible with such a belief.

    Eh, of course. Anything is compatible with a belief in anything sufficiently ineffable.

  7. #7 David Marjanovi?
    June 2, 2007

    (and dare I assume you are of Balkan origins as well?)

    Well, my dad is. To say that I am wouldn’t make much sense: I’ve never been there, and after I was 2 years old I forgot the language.

    or where God merely gave shape and order to a preexisting universe. (A professor of Jewish philosophy told me that Genesis suggests the latter view, in the original Hebrew.)

    If you remove the first sentence, it certainly looks like it: there already was an Earth and water, and then a mere demiurge came and brought order into the chaos (and then had help in creating humans — “let us make Man”). Accordingly, it seems to be a very widespread view that Genesis 1:1 is a later addition, meant to change the demiurge into the creator.

  8. #8 tom chastain
    January 28, 2009

    sam brownback is going to run for governor of kansas. his book is power to purpose it would make a great gift idea for a friend or family member please letmothers know about his book