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23 January 2006

symposium report

Posted by at 9:51 PM Read our previous post

I walked the kilometer or so to the ASU music building wearing my red suede shoes.

I arrived in time and seated myself second row, far stage right. The theatre has some steep-sloped stadium seating. Oldish but nice. It wasn't long after I nestled into my seat that , somewhere over my right shoulder, a cackling old lady began to audibly complain in anticipation, I think, of what she thought the lecturers were about to say. Apparently, she thinks debates about evolution and creation are a waste of time and money and she wants everyone within earshot to know she feels this way (I guess that it wasn't waste of time enough to keep her from attending, though). I turned to see who this weird creature might be and it didn't surprise me that she was dressed like a peacock, in an ornate multi-colored corsetted kind of dainty dress. The very picture of southwestern matriarchal plasticine chic. I wondered, almost audibly, if all fundamentalist madame fatales have this predilection for coquettishness in dress hair and makeup. I looked at her and I smiled (it's easy) and winked at her. I don't know what she might have read into my brief gesture, but she became quieter after that. Go figure.

The symposium was titled: Evolution and Intelligent Design: Science, Religion and American Culture. It was, to my surprise, very well attended. I'd estimate that between 1,500 and 2,000 people were there, ranging in age from about twenty to about eighty, the average being a rather mature fifty years old or so.

Linell E. Cady (Director, Center for the Studies of Religion and Conflict, explicit in her disdain for "intelligent design".) introduced William J. Grassie (Executive Director Metanexus Institute, chill scholar dude who might have at one time maybe surfed frequently or might have even grown some exotic hydroponic breed of something something in his closet at one time, laughs), who in turn introduced the moderator, Barry Ritchie (chair of the department of physics and astronomy, white haired scientist; though he wasn't wearing a lab coat, it is very easy to envisage one on him). Neither a debate nor a lecture, he established the simple form the night's program would take (30 min @, after which the moderator would ask some questions, followed by a brief period in which the audience would be permitted to ask a few questions) and then introduced the three panelists.

First at bat was Jon H Roberts (professor of history at Boston University, a cross between a bald Ned Flanders and my old english teacher). He prefaced with a brief history of the movement we now know as "intelligent design", touching on a few milestones.

In 1802, Foley published Natural Theology. Then in 1859, Darwin happened. Then there was a good quiet century for it to all sink in, with no one compelled to refute it or to want to. In the 1980s Michael Denton published Evolution: A Theory in Crisis. Prof. Roberts pointed out that while a few sympathetic (apologist) writers at the time hailed this work as a milestone in scientific thought, on par with those of Galileo and Newton -- [this is funny] -- the vast majority of the scientific community was quite underwhelmed by Denton's book, and in fact, when it was received at all, it was received hostilely. A few years later, in the 90s, Phillip Johnson rejected the methodological naturalism which Darwin established as the norm which has been followed as the standard in the sciences ever since his day. Michael Behe wrote Darwin's Black Box, which explores irreducible complexity using biochemistry as its focus.
After this cursory preface he cut to the chase, enumerating three telling things that are relevant to the discussion:
1- Despite the fact that there is a virtual unanimity within the scholarly community (a consensus by any standard but an evangelical one) that the claims made by the proponents of "intelligent design" are specious, they persist in insisting that "equal time" be spent on their models in the curriculums of our schools.
2- These same people indirectly suggest that the scientific community is resistant to them for reasons other than academic ones, that the scientific stance is a closed one, impervious to any approach that is not naturalistic and thus predisposed to be "anti-god". This implies guile or even conspiracy.
3- If this be so, the handful of leaders of "intelligent design" propose, then the norms should be changed to accommodate other approaches. This is clearly an attempt to slip God in through the back door, to found some kind of empirical theology.

By pointing to these things, Prof Roberts categorically dismisses the concept of "intelligent design" as just one irrelevant squeaky wheel in the annals of science, a pesky mouse that will not stop roaring, but, in the end, a mere footnote.

The bottom line for him: In short, "intelligent design" is a philosophical claim, not a scientific position. Prof Roberts' position, though I don't think he was the best speaker, is the one closet to my own. I think that, when it comes to matters dealing with the origins of the cosmos and of life, the scientist must prefer confessions of ignorance to invocations of the supernatural, or necessarily fall outside of the scientific paradigm.


Next up was Holmes Rolston III (university distinguised professor of philosophy [my de-emphasis] Colorado State University, this guy is really old and laid back in a detached kind of way, appears to be lucid despite his advanced age and its accompanying slowness of speech and breath.) His presentation consisted of listing of what he considers the five unanswered questions in the Darwiwian evolutionary framework:

i- Regarding information: genetics deals with the transfer of information. Transmission implies a transmitter. Such encoding cannot be easily explained in the Darwinian models. This is essentially a derivative of the watchmaker argument.
ii- The contingent versus the inevitable: I think he was trying to say that sciences too readily accept contingency without a tangible reason for doing so. I have to add that this gentleman was very difficult to understand, not only due to the slow monotone laborious characteristics of his speech, but also due to the level of abstraction of the ideas he was trying to convey within the limited time period permitted. Sorry to say, but I would really hate to be enrolled in his lectures.
iii- Regarding possibilities: (I can only assume that he means in terms of natural selection here) He more or less asked: are all our possibilities always present? are they infinite? Are new ones possible?
iv- Cooption versus serendipity: can an organ evolve for a purpose other than that which it initially had? Is this a matter of luck or trial and error? Of design?
v- Anthropic biology: Is the universe "fine-tuned" for life? This is basically a rephrasing of the concept of irreducible complexity to me.
His bottom line, then, is: all of these questions remain unanswered by the Darwinian model. (These "unanswered" questions of such ontological scope need not be as much of an obstacle to the acceptance of the merits of the Darwinian model as he implies. For instance, in earlier times, when we had no way of knowing about the minute details of the subatomic mechanics involved in chemical processes, the simple Lewis Electron Dot Diagram was still a useful tool for the scientist. Just because the best model we had didn't explain all of the "behavior" we observed in the chemical laboratory didn't necessitate the discarding of the model as a whole. It was simply the best model we had at the time. Or consider the usefulness of Newtonian mechanics (to this day) despite our revised relativistic and quantum models. )



The third and by far best speaker of the evening was John F. Haught (distinguished professor of theology at Georgetown University, a jolly fellow). He posed his position as a question: in matters regarding evolution versus faith, what is at stake?

His answer: . . . in short, providence and ethics.

He argues that the universe is a purposeful one, that it is hierachical (i.e. in ascending order: matter, life, man, the Divine), that nature reflects goodness, that it is discontinuous by design (prone to accident in a good way). That it seem to be leading to some sort of capitulation (red flag! - eschatology, anyone? This kind of reversing the direction of causal relationships is what I like to call "making feet for the children's shoe industry"; which is no major sin, I guess, but neither is it scientific discourse).

To this end, he projected an image resembling a row of books on the overhead projector. A timetable of the history of the cosmos. Imagine writing the history of the universe in a thirty volume encyclopedic set in which each volume contains four hundred pages and each page represents one million years in the evolution of the universe. Here's an analogue diagram:

123456789101112131415lifeless
matter
1617181920
21222324252627282930
       ^ life begins  ^ cambrian
period


The dinosaurs finally appear somewhere around the middle of volume 30 and are suddenly extinct somewhere around the middle page 385. The course of human evolution takes place, in its entirety (so far), in the final brief paragraph or so of the very last page of that last volume (his model is very useful in bringing the enormous timeframe into perspective). This kind of chart, Prof. Haught proposes, implies that life in general, and human life in particular, seems to be headed toward some clear goal, which we, of course, cannot know but which seems to favor humanity somehow. Providence?

Is this a good basis for values? He prefers this as the foundation for ethics to the idea proposed by Stephen Jay Gould, who suggested that we now must base our ethics on our own dignity. I think Gould is right, which makes me think about the cooption that Prof Rolston had mentioned earlier. The highly developed ethical standards that developed out of our religious traditions can (and should) now be adapted and be put to use outside of their initial functions, in my opinion.

Prof Haught recognizes three common trends in the people's responses when asked about their acceptance of the Darwinian model of our origins:

1- Tepid tolerance - People who accept the basic fundamentals of evolution and think it is only troubling in places because of human ignorance. He doesn't like this position, because it does not "celebrate" evolution, but merely accepts it (this perplexes me; why is this so objectionable? Do fundamental laws of nature require tribute of some kind? What exactly does he mean by "celebrate"?).
2- Evolution as divine pedagogy - in which the more brutish aspects of the processes of selection are seen as a kind of "soul school" intended by the Divine to test our mettle, so to speak, a kind of "tough love" position. This, of course, is an attempt to solve the ancient problem of evil by positing that there is no problem after all, that evil is for our own good, to put it in simplest terms - it doesn't resonate well with me, so revolting do I find Augustine's concepts of inherited original sin.
3 - Biblical approach (I was wondering when he would come around to bringing it up) - which sees the processes as a continuing "promise" rather than a "design". This is a position in which the universe is seen as called into the future to become itself. Making feet for children's shoes again, all well and good from an apolalyctic paradigm, but, as such, a philosophical claim and not a scientific position.

After his presentation, there was a very minute two minute pause for folks to stretch their legs if they wanted to and then the question and answer period. The most memorable questions were one asking why no biologists were on the panel from a delightfully feisty woman, and one asking why no other religious traditions were explored other than the Christian one in the discussion. One young man asked the panel about the backwards looking possibilities of providence. Prof Rolston answered that an acorn is a backwards tree (my phrasing). Making feet! I found the analogy to be such a simplistic and disingenuously bad one (especially when stated in such an authoritavive almost haughty way) that I was tempted to stand up and mischievously ask a rhetorical question just then, "What came first, the acorn or the tree?" I'm glad I didn't, though. I mean, yeah, he was being patronizing and a bit obtuse, but maybe the old geezer has a right to be a little uppity after making it to such a ripe old age (who knows). I try to defer to older folks that way.

3 comments:

  1. www.plvsvltra.blogspot.com

    ReplyDelete
  2. yes it's long...but I'm still reading it.

    ReplyDelete
  3. The above writing was a self-assigned experiment to see how much I could remember of the talk.

    ReplyDelete

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