Posted by: dacalu | 6 October 2014

God, Darwin, and My College Philosophy Class

Professor David Barash likes bringing up uncomfortable subjects, like evolution and creationism. I commend him for it. I also commend him for many of his conclusions. Many college students have faith incompatible with science. Others might need some mental gymnastics to accommodate both science and religion. It is not the responsibility of biology teachers to do that work for them. Biology only makes sense in light of evolutionary theory and that can be tricky enough without trying to cover metaphysics at the same time.

Why then does David insist on starting his biology class with a “Talk” on metaphysics? In a recent essay for the New York Times, he speaks about how he comes to these conclusions and how he presents them to students. He speaks of “religion’s current intellectual instability” and states that students “who insist on retaining and respecting both [science and religion] will have to undertake some challenging mental gymnastic routines.”

I teach a course on the history of science and religion and want students thinking critically about both. David’s conclusions may be spot on, but his arguments need work. He conflates several major issues and oversimplifies theology. Epistemology – the philosophy of how we know what we know – can clear up several of them quite quickly. Best not to confuse mental gymnastics for the rudimentary stretches anyone should do before exercise.

David confuses the failure of a doctrine with the failure of science to support it. Apparently only science can back up religious beliefs and only science should. This is patently false. All of us regularly rely on knowledge generated by appeals to authority, majority opinion, personal experience, and pragmatism just to mention some of the more rational appeals. Science does not hold the monopoly on truth. We must have one more step. How else do we find truth and what do you do when scientific evidence and other forms of evidence collide?

Here again I agree with David, wholeheartedly. Unlike Stephen Jay Gould, I think science and faith collide on a regular basis. I think we have free will. I must if I am to get through the day, though science tells me it is far less free than I think. Similarly, both biology and Christian theology have a stake in what we mean by life, death, and humanity. Unlike Barash (and a surprising number of creationists) I don’t think science must justify my beliefs. I really am okay getting my knowledge elsewhere and, on a very rare occasion, allowing that knowledge to trump science. Luckily, in my brand of Christianity (Anglican) the problem almost never arises. Mostly I hold religious beliefs compatible with, but not dependent on, empirical evidence.

The problem comes from dependence, not rejecting independence. A few Christian apologists (over the last few centuries) made their beliefs dependent on science. Paley’s argument from design was only one of many attempts to hitch the theological wagon to a scientific horse. Most Christian theologians have made the much less radical claim that science and theology, when done properly, will not contradict one another. They’re happy for science to agree with them, but expect theological arguments – appeals to scripture, tradition, revelation, and reason – to do most of the work.

Human uniqueness provides a perfect example. Evolutionary biology demonstrates the continuity of humans, as animals, with other animals. Thomas Aquinas knew humans were animals in the 13th century. Origen knew it in the 3rd. This is not news to Christians, though I am grateful to Darwin and others for pointing out exactly how it works. Human uniqueness in need not be a scientific claim. It has nothing to do with being central or complex and everything to do with having God’s spirit moving within us. Some Christians need science to prove we have something extra; most do not. Most think the Bible is enough.

Theodicy provides a second example. Who could argue pampered Americans know more of suffering than rural Judean shepherds? Evolutionary biology rules out Romantic ideals about noble savages and God’s Providence in nature, but even Isaiah recognized the improbability of the wolf lying down with the lamb. We didn’t need science to understand the prevalence of unmerited suffering. A smidgeon of theological insight reveals that the author of Job actually struggled with this in the 6th century BCE. The book provides a complex reflection on unmerited suffering and fails to provide the simple answer that David suggests. Has he read Job?

Science falls apart when it tries to weigh in on these questions of value. It works so well precisely because value, intention, and preference are carefully bracketed out. It takes hard work to be a scientist, because you have to be ever so careful in how you put together your model of the truth. You have to know what you can and can’t include. In that way it is very much like in theology. I’m glad Dr. Barash teaches biology. I respect his science and his teaching. I just hope he’ll leave out the philosophy and theology until he’s properly warmed up.


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