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A New Foundation for Positive Cultural Change

Science and God in the Public Square Published at Human Events

Moral conservatives were shocked to read a thinly veiled defense of infanticide in the New York Times a few years ago by MIT professor Steven Pinker. But they would be even more disturbed if they saw Pinker’s justification for his views in a book that appeared about the same time.

In How the Mind Works, Pinker argues that the fundamental premise of ethics has been disproved by science. “Ethical theory,” he writes, “requires idealizations like free, sentient, rational, equivalent agents whose behavior is uncaused.” Yet, “the world, as seen by science, does not really have uncaused events.”

In other words, moral reasoning assumes the existence of things that science tells us are unreal. Still, Pinker tries to retain some validity for ethics by offering a “double truth” theory: “A human being,” he says, “is simultaneously a machine and a sentient agent, depending on the purposes of the discussion.”

It’s astonishing that anyone, especially an MIT professor, would be capable of sustaining two such contradictory ideas. But in fact, it is quite common, says Phillip Johnson in The Wedge of Truth. Since the Enlightenment, knowledge has split into two separate and often contradictory spheres: “facts” (science) versus “values” (ethics, religion, the humanities).

The trouble with this division is that eventually one side comes to dominate. This is the key to understanding why America is embroiled in a culture clash today, Johnson argues — and why moral and religious conservatives are losing. The direction in intellectual history since the Enlightenment has been to grant science the authority to pronounce what is real, true, objective, and rational, while relegating ethics and religion to the realm of subjective opinion and nonrational experience.

Once this definition of knowledge is conceded, then any position that appears to be backed by science will ultimately triumph in the public square over any position that appears based on ethics or religion. The details of the particular debate do not matter. For, in principle, we do not enact into public policy and we do not teach in the public schools views based private opinion or tribal prejudice.

Johnson gives a rich description of how the fact/value dichotomy operates. Its origin is generally traced to Descartes, who proposed a sharp dualism between matter and mind. It was not long before the realm of matter came to be seen as more certain, more objective, than the realm of mind. The subject matter of physics is indeed much simpler than metaphysics, and hence yields far wider agreement. This was mistakenly taken to mean that physics is objective while metaphysics is subjective. The result was the rise of scientism and positivism–philosophies that accord naturalistic science a monopoly on knowledge and consign all else to mere private belief and fantasy.

Today, Johnson writes, “the dominance of the scientific naturalist definition of knowledge eventually ensures that no independent source of knowledge will be recognized.”

Darwin, Buddha, Jesus, Fairies

Yet, depending on how scientists judge the public’s mood, they are more or less blunt about this epistemological imperialism. When feeling secure in their role as the cultural priesthood, they insist that naturalistic science has completely discredited the claims of religion. Tufts philosopher Daniel Dennett, in Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, says Darwinian evolution is “a universal acid” that dissolves all traditional religious and moral beliefs. He suggests that traditional churches be relegated to “cultural zoos” for the amusement of onlookers.

I witnessed the same attitude at a conference last April at Baylor University: Nobel prize-winner Steven Weinberg lumped together all spiritual teachings, whether of Buddha or Jesus, as talk about “fairies.” A few months earlier he had told the Freedom From Religion Association, “I personally feel that the teaching of modern science is corrosive to religious belief, and I’m all for that.” If science helps bring about the end of religion, he concluded, “it would be the most important contribution science could make.”

Using an apt sports metaphor, Johnson calls these outspoken scientists “the offensive platoon,” brought out as needed to “invok[e] the authority of science to silence any theistic protest.” At other times, however, when the public shows signs of restlessness at this imposition of naturalistic philosophy under the guise of science, “the defensive platoon takes the field. That is when we read spin-doctored reassurances that many scientists are religious (in some sense) … and that science and religion are separate realms which should never be mixed.”

But separate-but-equal in principle invariably means unequal in practice. For example, a report by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) says, “whether God exists or not is a question about which science is neutral.” Yet a survey of NAS members by Larry Witham and Edward Larson in Scientific American found that 90% of scientists don’t believe in a supernatural God. Witham and Larson conclude: “The irony is remarkable: a group of specialists who are nearly all unbelievers–and who believe that science compels such a conclusion — told the public that ‘science is neutral’ on the God question.”

Or perhaps worse than an irony, Johnson comments; it may be a “noble lie” that the intellectual priesthood tells to the common people to conceal their own nihilism.

Keep the Public In the Dark

Similarly, Harvard’s Stephen J. Gould proposes a peacemaking formula he calls NOMA (“non-overlapping magisteria”), granting science and religion each its own distinct authority. This sounds fair enough–but it all depends on where one draws the line. Consider Gould’s assessment of the 1996 statement by John Paul II, in which the pope tentatively supported evolution while emphatically rejecting any theories that “consider the spirit as emerging from the forces of living matter or as a mere epiphenomenon of this matter.”

How did Gould treat this affirmation of the reality of the spiritual realm? He condescendingly granted that such a quaint notion might have some “metaphorical value,” but added that he privately suspected it to be “no more than a sop to our fears, a device for maintaining a belief in human superiority within an evolutionary world offering no privileged position to any creature.”

In other words, Gould reduced religion to mere emotion at best — at worst, to the sin of speciesism. This was a bit much even for John Haught of Georgetown University, himself an ardent evolutionist: He complained that Gould “never concedes the slightest cognitive status to religion” — that for Gould religion merely “paints a coat of ‘value’ over the otherwise valueless ‘facts’ described by science.”

Precisely. For the modern Darwinist, Johnson explains, the only role left for the theologian “is to put a theistic spin on the story provided by materialism.” Theology does not provide an independent source of knowledge; all it can do is “borrow knowledge to put a subjective interpretation on it.”

Clearly, the function of the defensive platoon is merely to keep religious folk content with their subordinate status. Darwinists understand that it is sometimes more effective not to press the logic of the fact/value split to its unpalatable conclusions too adamantly, lest the public catch on and raise a protest. Instead of arguing that religion is false, by relegating it to the “value” realm, they keep the question of true and false off the table altogether. As Johnson says, religion is consigned “to the private sphere, where illusory beliefs are acceptable ‘if they work for you.’ “

Thus the fact/value split “allows the metaphysical naturalists to mollify the potentially troublesome religious people by assuring them that science does not rule out ‘religious belief’ (so long as it does not pretend to be knowledge).”

Once this division is accepted in principle however, Johnson warns, the philosophical naturalists have won. “Whenever the ‘separate realms’ logic surfaces, you can be sure that the wording implies that there is a ruling realm (founded on reality) and a subordinate realm (founded on illusions which must be retained for the time being).” Hence, “the formula allows the ruling realm to expand its territory at will.”

Epistemological Imperialism

The expansion of the “fact” realm into theology can be traced in the work of scientists such as Harvard’s E.O. Wilson, who seeks to explain religion itself as a product of evolution. Religion is merely an idea that appears in the human mind when the nervous system has evolved to a certain level of complexity.

In Consilience, Wilson says religion evolved because belief in God gave early humans an edge in the struggle for survival. Today, he says, we must abandon traditional religions and develop a new unifying myth based squarely on evolution–a religion that deifies the process itself, where no teaching, no doctrine, is true in any final sense because all ideas evolve over time.

A similar expansion can be traced in ethics, where sociobiology and evolutionary psychology now presume to answer moral questions. In the notorious New York Times article mentioned above, Pinker argues that since infanticide is widespread in human cultures, it must be a product of evolution. As he puts it, the “emotional circuitry of mothers has evolved” to include a “capacity for neonaticide.” It is simply part of our “biological design.”

Accept this logic, Johnson warns, and you will be pressed to the conclusion that killing off babies is not a moral horror but a morally neutral act, a genetically encoded evolutionary adaptation, like wings or claws.

Pinker does not draw this conclusion — yet. But when the time seems ripe to overthrow the traditional moral view, Johnson predicts, doctrinaire naturalists “will complete the logic by observing that the moral sphere is as empty as the religious realm,” and therefore has no power to stand against the conclusions of “science.”

Shortly after Johnson finished his book, his forewarnings were confirmed by the appearance of a book titled The Natural History of Rape, which argued that, biologically speaking, rape is not a pathology; instead, it is an evolutionary strategy for maximizing reproductive success: In other words, if candy and flowers don’t do the trick, some men may resort to coercion to fulfill the reproductive imperative. The book calls rape “a natural, biological phenomenon that is a product of the human evolutionary heritage,” akin to “the leopard’s spots and the giraffe’s elongated neck.”

The book roused sharp controversy, but as one of the authors, Randy Thornhill, said on National Public Radio, the logic is inescapable: Since evolution is true, it must be true, he said, that “every feature of every living thing, including human beings, has an underlying evolutionary background. That’s not a debatable matter.” Every behavior that exists today must confer some evolutionary advantage; otherwise, it would not have been preserved by natural selection.

The “fact” realm has even expanded into the philosophy of mind, where consistent Darwinists tell us there is no single, central “self,” residing somehow within the body, that makes decisions, holds opinions, loves and hates. Instead, in the currently popular “computational” theory, the mind is a set of computers that solve specific problems forwarded by the senses. The notion of a unified self is an illusion, Pinker says — an illusion selected by evolution only because our body needs to be able to go one direction at a time.

Of course, computers operate without consciousness, so the question arises why we are conscious beings. Some neuroscientists conclude that we aren’t — that consciousness is likewise an illusion. Philosopher Paul Churchland says mental states do not exist, and suggests that we replace language about beliefs and desires with statements about the nervous system’s physical mechanisms — the activation of neurons and so on.

Piling example upon example, Johnson illustrates the epistemological imperialism of the “fact” sphere. This explains why moral and religious conservatives seem to have little effect in the public square: Their message is filtered through a fact/value grid that reduces it to an expression of mere emotional attachment and tribal prejudice. To turn the tide of the culture war, conservatives must challenge this definition of knowledge, and make the case that religion and morality are genuine sources of knowledge. We must “assert the existence of such a cognitive territory,” Johnson writes, “and be prepared to defend it.”

Of course, others have offered philosophical arguments to undercut the fact/value dichotomy, notably Michael Polanyi and Leo Strauss. What makes Johnson’s approach unique is that he takes the battle into science itself. He proposes that Darwinian evolution itself can and should be critiqued, since it functions as the crucial scientific support for philosophical naturalism. For if nature alone can produce everything that exists, then we must accept the reductionist conclusions described above. If, to take the last example, the mind is a product of material processes at its origin, then we must concede that it consists of nothing more than material processes–that our thoughts are reducible to the firing of neurons.

How Information Changes Everything

In science itself, the cutting-edge issue is information, Johnson says. Any text, whether a book or the DNA code, requires a complex, nonrepeating arrangement of letters. Can this kind of order be produced by chance or law? The answer, he argues, is no. Chance produces randomness, while physical law produces simple, repetitive order (like using a macro on your computer to print a phrase over and over). The only cause of complex, nonrepeating, specified order is an intelligent agent.

Ordinary laboratory research implicitly assumes the reality of intelligent design, Johnson notes. Biologists talk of “molecular machines” and evaluate their “engineering design.” They conduct experiments that are described as “reverse engineering” to determine what functions biological structures perform. They talk about “libraries” of genetic information stored in DNA, and about how RNA “translates” the four-letter language of the nucleotides into the 20-letter language of proteins.

All this implies that information is real — and information in turn implies the existence of a mind, a personal agent, capable of intention and choice. Thus purposes and ends are real and objective, and the “value” realm is restored to the status of genuine knowledge.

Johnson only hints at what this would imply for a revival of traditional theology and ethics. But he suggests that it would begin with the many-layered verse in John 1:1, “In the beginning was the Word,” the Logos — reason, intelligence, information. “These simple words make a fundamental statement that is directly contradictory to the corresponding starting point of scientific materialism,” Johnson writes, and they open the door to a much richer definition of knowledge and of reason itself.

This conclusion is certainly suggestive, though not well developed. Johnson’s greatest accomplishment is to give a deft analysis of the imperialism of the “fact” sphere. Unfortunately, he barely touches on the opposite dynamic–the incursion of the “value” sphere into the “fact” realm — which is well advanced in many fields. It is called postmodernism, and it reduces all knowledge claims to social constructions at best, to power plays at worst. Johnson devotes a chapter to the impact of postmodernism on the humanities, but it is the thinnest chapter in the book, and it is clear that his greatest concern is with the scientific fields where the older Enlightenment rationalism still reigns.

For the rationalist, Johnson is no doubt correct that the only approach that carries weight is a scientific one. Only a demonstration that the scientific data itself has theistic implications bridges the sphere of objective, public, verifiable knowledge. Johnson includes clear and readable discussions of standard anti-Darwinian arguments. (There has long been skepticism within the scientific community about the enormous extrapolation from minor variations within living things to explain the origin of living things.) He also gives a deliciously witty account of the Kansas controversy.

The strength of the book, however, is to show the wide-ranging implications of intelligent design theory in other fields, and to trace its relevance for nonscientists — indeed, for all who are concerned about preserving a free and humane society.