Monday, February 10, 2014

Complications of creationism and anti-pseudoscience skepticism

The recent Bill Nye/Ken Ham debate over Young Earth Creationism highlighted for me a couple of wrinkles in the decades-long debate over creationism and its variants.

There are actually several variants of creationism. There are excellent descriptions available. I found Tower of Babel: The Evidence against the New Creationism (1999) by Robert Pennock helpful. If creationism were science, I might worry that a 15-year-old book could be seriously out of date. But that's only partially true. Tower of Babel discusses the Intelligent Design (ID) scam, which does represent the, uh, evolution of the creationist theory.

The creationists have as a major goal to have creationism taught in science classes in public schools as science. And to do so, they have adapted their approach to get around successive court decisions that have ruled against public schools teaching a religious theory as science. Intelligent Design has been the major variant aiming at that goal for years now.

One of the best descriptions of how ID fits into the fundamentalist Christian creationist pictures is that of Judge John E. Jones III of the Pennsylvania federal district court in the key 2005 Kitzmiller vs Dover Area School District case, a challenge to the required teaching of ID as science, Memorandum Opinion 12/20/05, US District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania:

The history of the intelligent design movement (hereinafter "IDM") and the development of the strategy to weaken education of evolution by focusing students on alleged gaps in the theory of evolution is the historical and cultural background against which the Dover School Board acted in adopting the challenged ID Policy. ...

The concept of intelligent design (hereinafter “ID”), in its current form, came into existence after the Edwards case was decided in 1987. For the reasons that follow, we conclude that the religious nature of ID would be readily apparent to an objective observer, adult or child.

We initially note that John Haught, a theologian who testified as an expert witness for Plaintiffs and who has written extensively on the subject of evolution and religion, succinctly explained to the Court that the argument for ID is not a new scientific argument, but is rather an old religious argument for the existence of God. He traced this argument back to at least Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century, who framed the argument as a syllogism: Wherever complex design exists, there must have been a designer; nature is complex; therefore nature must have had an intelligent designer. (Trial Tr. vol. 9, Haught Test., 7-8, Sept. 30, 2005). Dr. Haught testified that Aquinas was explicit that this intelligent designer "everyone understands to be God." Id. The syllogism described by Dr. Haught is essentially the same argument for ID as presented by defense expert witnesses Professors Behe and Minnich who employ the phrase "purposeful arrangement of parts."

Although proponents of the IDM occasionally suggest that the designer could be a space alien or a time-traveling cell biologist, no serious alternative to God as the designer has been proposed by members of the IDM, including Defendants’ expert witnesses. (20:102-03 (Behe)). In fact, an explicit concession that the intelligent designer works outside the laws of nature and science and a direct reference to religion is Pandas' rhetorical statement, "what kind of intelligent agent was it [the designer]" and answer: "On its own science cannot answer this question. It must leave it to religion and philosophy." (P-11 at 7; 9:13-14 (Haught)).
Conservative Protestantism is particularly subject to schismatic differences. And the intertwining of fundamentalist Christian anti-science attitudes and arguments with the politics of the present-day Republican Party have likely increased the temptation for people to construct variants of the theory that may seem small to those outside the creationist social environment of Christian fundamentalism.

Massimo Pigliucci in "The Hopeless War against Intelligent Design" Skeptical Inquirer 35:6 (Nov/Dec 2011) finds something to praise about the ID version of creationism. He cites an article by Jeremy Shearmur, "Why the ‘Hopeless War’?: Approaching Intelligent Design" 12/04/2010 (Sophia 49, 2010):

The question [posed by Shearmur] is then, what would ID proponents have to do in order to be taken seriously and avoid being dismissed as simply a bunch of conservative Christian ideologues looking
for any excuse to impose their theistic views on the rest of us?

I realize that it is hard to let go of the latter-tempting, and somewhat empirically justified-assumption. But let us try for a moment and see where Shearmur manages to go. First off, Shearmur
gives ID proponents credit over their main intellectual rival within the Christian tradition, theological modernism - and rightly so, I think. Shearmur argues that the theological modernist position, which somewhat lackadaisically reconciles science and faith, fails in two major ways: first, because it keeps remaking God into whatever image happens to be compatible with the latest science, i.e., it succeeds through a theological copout; second, because it does so without the intellectual courage to acknowledge its marked retreat from the historical Christian tradition. In other words, [ID advocates] Dembski and Co. are theologically braver than their almost-anything-goes mainstream colleagues within Christian apologetics. [my emphasis]
It's ironic, and a little disturbing, to see a pro-science, anti-creationist skeptic take the side of Christian fundamentalists against what the fundis call theological liberals, "the theological modernist position" in Pigliucci's formulation.

He eventually gets around to explaining that he understands even ID as a "theologically inspired scientific research program" and that he regards it as an oxymoron. So Pigliucci doesn't wind up playing the creationist game of treating their claims as purely scientific claims that can be understood without reference to their religious basis.

But I also want to unpack his comment that mainstream (non-fundamentalist) Christians that have no problem with evolution as indulging in "a theological copout" and more cowardly (less brave) than the ID scamsters.

He doesn't elaborate on the point. But as a long-time reader of Skeptical Inquirer, my reading of it is that he's looking at this from a philosophically materialistic viewpoint that seems to be common among scientific debunkers of pseudoscience, and in particular has generally been reflected in Skeptical Inquirer. This attitude sometimes manifests itself in atheism or strong agnosticism in religious matters. And sometimes in a "vulgar materialism" that regards religion in general as opposed to science. And that's how I read that particular passage of Pigliucci's essay.

The late Stephen Jay Gould regarded religion and science as custodians of "non-overlapping magisteria," a concept he elaborated in his book Rocks of Ages (1999). To summarize and inevitably oversimplify, he argued that science and religion don't have to conflict. Because the Deity (dieties) assumed by religion can be taken as spiritual being outside the material realm and religious teachings used in real life without requiring the believer to reject physical science. And since science can neither prove not disprove the existence of God as such, the two don't have to conflict.

And in his book, Gould explains that the model of what I would call vulgar materialism that presents religion as the great barrier to scientific progress in European history owes much to rationalist polemics during the Enlightenment and since, particularly polemics against the Catholic Church, whichin many cases greatly exaggerated that alleged conflict.

What Pigliucci seems to be saying here is that any Christian who being logically consistent in his faith must take something like a creationist view.

In practice, most Christians take something like the view Gould described in his "overlapping magisteria" argument. And the modern creationist argument is largely a product of the 19th century conservative freakouts over Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection. St. Augustine is credited with the reminder that the Scriptures are meant to teach us how to go to Heaven, not how the heavens go. And that has generally been the position of the Catholic Church, despite the occasional wobbly statement on the subject by Popes or other senior Church officials. The empirical fact that the largest and oldest Christian body, the Catholic Church, has not regarded evolution or natural selection as a threat to the Christian faith or Christian theology should serve to temper Pigliucci's criticism quoted above.

He's suggesting there the fundamentalist "literalism" as interpreted by creationists is the only legitimate reading of Christian Scripture, at least as it applies to evolution. And therefore those who don't read it that way are practicing bad Christian theology. Even the theologians that for centuries managed to regard the Bible as something other than what we would consider a modern science text. Maybe it's Pigliucci who doesn't understand theology so well as he seems to imagine.

Jason Rosenhouse, who fights the good fight against creationism at Evolution Blog, posts in The DI In Damage Control Mode 02/06/2014:

... I devote a chapter of Among the Creationists to comparing YEC [Young Earth Creationism] to ID. On the one hand, the cultural differences between them are real. The people I met at ID conferences were nearly always hostile towards YEC. The YEC's, for their part, were generally ambivalent toward ID. They liked the anti-evolution part, but didn’t like the part where they refused to identify the designer.

But for all of that, Klinghoffer is full of it when he says it’s a dishonest tactic to compare ID to creationism. The proper analogy is that they are different dialects of the same language. As much as they try to be relentlessly on message in their public forums, their isn’t enough slick rhetoric in the world to disguise their religious motivations. This was also manifestly obvious at the ID conferences I attended.

In short, wherever you find anti-evolutionism, you can be sure that religion is not far behind. The main difference between YEC and ID is the honesty of its practitioners in acknowledging that.
However, in It’s Not Just Fundamentalist Religion That Has A Problem With Evolution 02/07/2014, he makes a comment about the IDists that I find more questionable, "Nearly all of the people I met at ID conferences were quite religious, but they were also contemptuous of YEC. They were not fundamentalists, and on many occasions they lamented the fact that YEC makes Christianity look foolish. Plainly, there is a large contingent of people who are not fundamentalists, but who also have a problem with evolution." I doubt this. He doesn't expand on it there. But I suspect he's identifying Christian fundamentalists a bit too closely with crass Bible-bangers. Some fundamentalists can come off pretty slick in brief conversations. But I doubt you'll find many people who claim to be committed to ID creationism who aren't actually fundamentalists. The very fact that they're running a scam like ID indicates they are willing to be mealy-mouthed about their beliefs. The antiabortion movement has long since accustomed US Christian fundamentalists of the virtue of lying for Jesus.

Judge Jones cites a number of statements from leading ID advocates displaying their religious considerations for ID in terms that confirm Rosenhouse's "different dialects of the same language" comparison between Young Earth Creationism and Intelligent Design:

Phillip Johnson, considered to be the father of the IDM, developer of ID’s “Wedge Strategy,” which will be discussed below, and author of the 1991 book entitled Darwin on Trial, has written that “theistic realism” or “mere creation” are defining concepts of the IDM. This means “that God is objectively real as Creator and recorded in the biological evidence . . .” (Trial Tr. vol. 10, Forrest Test., 80-81, Oct. 5, 2005; P-328). In addition, Phillip Johnson states that the “Darwinian theory of evolution contradicts not just the Book of Genesis, but every word in the Bible from beginning to end. It contradicts the idea that we are here because a creator brought about our existence for a purpose.” (11:16-17 (Forrest); P-524 at 1). ID proponents Johnson, William Dembski, and Charles Thaxton, one of the editors of Pandas, situate ID in the Book of John in the New Testament of the Bible, which begins, “In the Beginning was the Word, and the Word was God.” (11:18-20, 54-55 (Forrest); P-524; P-355; P-357). Dembski has written that ID is a “ground clearing operation” to allow Christianity to receive serious consideration, and “Christ is never an addendum to a scientific theory but always a completion.” (11:50-53 (Forrest); P-386; P-390). Moreover, in turning to Defendants’ lead expert, Professor Behe, his testimony at trial indicated that ID is only a scientific, as opposed to a religious, project for him; however, considerable evidence was introduced to refute this claim. Consider, to illustrate, that Professor Behe remarkably and unmistakably claims that the plausibility of the argument for ID depends upon the extent to which one believes in the existence of God. (P-718 at 705) (emphasis added). As no evidence in the record indicates that any other scientific proposition’s validity rests on belief in God, nor is the Court aware of any such scientific propositions, Professor Behe’s assertion constitutes substantial evidence that in his view, as is commensurate with other prominent ID leaders, ID is a religious and not a scientific proposition.

Dramatic evidence of ID’s religious nature and aspirations is found in what is referred to as the “Wedge Document.” The Wedge Document, developed by the Discovery Institute’s Center for Renewal of Science and Culture (hereinafter “CRSC”), represents from an institutional standpoint, the IDM’s goals and objectives, much as writings from the Institute for Creation Research did for the earlier creation-science movement, as discussed in McLean. (11:26-28 (Forrest)); McLean, 529 F. Supp. at 1255. The Wedge Document states in its “Five Year Strategic Plan Summary” that the IDM’s goal is to replace science as currently practiced with “theistic and Christian science.” (P-140 at 6). As posited in the Wedge Document, the IDM’s “Governing Goals” are to “defeat scientific materialism and its destructive moral, cultural, and political legacies” and “to replace materialistic explanations with the theistic understanding that nature and human beings are created by God.” Id. at 4. The CSRC expressly announces, in the Wedge Document, a program of Christian apologetics to promote ID. A careful review of the Wedge Document’s goals and language throughout the document reveals cultural and religious goals, as opposed to scientific ones. (11:26-48 (Forrest); P-140). ID aspires to change the ground rules of science to make room for religion, specifically, beliefs consonant with a particular version of Christianity. [my emphasis in bold]
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