Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Science has permanently supplanted religious sources of intellectual authority in the realm of public discourse, and there’s no going back.

I’ve had a look at both
http://creationontheweb.com/content/view/6237/ and http://creationontheweb.com/content/view/431
The (young earth creationist) article by Jonathan Sarfati is well-nigh unreadable. It’s full of discourteous and belligerent acrimony. I found myself unable to cope with an attempt to unravel the actual arguments, because it frothed like the mouth of a rabid animal, dangerously and unpredictably.
Predictably unpredictable. Consistent only in its apparent appeal to fundamentalism, which is the conviction that there’s ultimately only one way to read a ‘holy’ text, and that those who have that way should take the high ground by storm. Sad, and a reversal not only of Jesus’ values and attitudes, but of the textual liberty with which Jesus is attributed in the texts.

Now Carl Wieland, he’s not rabid or discourteous at all. I first met Carl in the early 80s, nearly 30 years ago. He was a GP about to move from Adelaide to Cairns with his family. On the way he had a terrible car accident and took years to recover. His wife Vicky endured unbelievable pain, hardly controlled by morphine. They had two lovely teenage daughters. One of them became a doctor in Cape York, a brilliant advocate for indigenous health. Carl is a softly spoken and gentle bloke who is no stranger to life’s difficulties, a man of great integrity and wisdom, who holds the gospel dear.

Two problems arose in my rather superficial non-scientist’s reading of Carl’s argument.
The first is minor. He frames his argument around a conversation he overheard in the 1970s, and then makes his argument about DNA, an argument not then available, since the science of DNA was in its infancy. He couldn’t then, (perhaps I’m mistaken here), have discerned from the evidence he now appeals to, the direction of the train as he now describes it.

The second is more important. The problem with his genetic loss argument is that his conclusion is not clearly forced by his premise. That is, even if everything he says in its support is true, his conclusion may still be false. If the world’s toddlers ate all the red lego blocks, it would not prevent the world’s lego nuts from building models of Margaret Thatcher. This is not a defence of evolutionary thinking, just a non-scientist’s critique of Carl’s argument, which is clearly pitched to non-scientists. If Carl were to attempt to make his argument about genetic information loss into a sound one, he would need to engage genetic scientists at a level which would lose his audience.

If the lego thing is simplistic, try this: Both sides of the debate must begin at the level of the non-rational. Each must begin with assumptions about the nature of reality, particularly about entities and relationships, wholes and parts. Only one side pretends to welcome the possibility of being mistaken.

The evolutionist has this going, that all theories and hypothises are openly provisional, and may become obsolete, or revised by the community of inquiry in the light of new evidence or a new hypothesis with greater explanatory power and coherence. All evidence must be therefore suspect, all data only as good as the hypothesis by which it was constructed. There is no such thing as a theory-free fact. That’s the weakness and the glory of the scientific project. It’s permanently supplanted religious sources of intellectual authority in the realm of public discourse, and there’s no going back.

The creationists might appear to appeal to evidence, but their ultimate appeal is to authority, the pre-rational pre-scientific method of knowledge which was general in the middle ages and now has its home in places like the Ayatolla’s Iran and Mugabe’s Zimbabwe. There’s plenty of the dark-age stuff on the other side too. It’s no good pretending that an audience of science teachers are scientists, they’re mostly evolutionary fundamentalists.

Both sides are dogged by the radical limitations of scientific method concerning the past, which is a fertile arena for points-scoring on both sides. What doesn’t work is the pretense that they belong to the same community of inquiry. That means that the categories, words and names they use are differently constructed and theorized, and therefore they talk past each other constantly. To engage with either you must use their vocab, their categories, their definitions, all theory-laden, and there’s the rub.
A pox on both their houses.

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