Friday, June 1, 2007

A Dissection of Senator Sam Brownback's Argument Against Evolution

To see what the hubub is about, check out: Senator Sam Brownback's op-ed against evolution.

Even though Senator Brownback's argument against evolution may make us chuckle, it actually has a genuine argument in there. The question is: what's so terribly wrong about it?

Brownback's argument boils down to this: our understanding of the world comes from two sources, science and faith. Science answers questions about observable reality. Those questions which science cannot answer - moral and cosmological questions fall into this category - are answered by faith. The problem comes when science or faith overstep their bounds and try to answer the questions that belong to the other domain. For instance, science should not answer questions about origins of the universe because human perception cannot simply reach that far, and it is a question best answered by our faith - which can reach that far, because it is inspired by God.

There are two fatal problems with this argument. The first is that the argument is essentially a gerrymandered one, one that comes up with an acceptable outcome (for Senator Brownback) only in this current time and place. The lines of the two domains of science and faith are simply not as clear-cut as Senator Brownback makes them out to be. Galileo was persecuted as a heretic in the 17th century for daring to use the scientific method to deny the scriptural truth of the cosmological order. Back then, in Senator Brownback's thinking, Galileo would indeed be attempting to answer questions beyond his ken. But I don't see Senator Brownback writing any op-eds about NASA now, do you? The argument simply allows Senator Brownback to believe in the many fruits of the scientific method like refrigeration, airplanes, modern medicine, computers and the like, while tossing out those scientific insights which might force him to uncomfortably revise his beliefs in an anthropomorphic Judeo-Christian higher power.

The second fatal problem is that scientific truth and the truth of faith come to their truths in essentially different ways. The staying power of the scientific canon of belief is that, while we laymen accept the verdict of The Scientists with a certain faith, the canon is constantly shifting. The individual truths of science are always subject to revision should they turn out wrong. A hundred and fifty years ago, the scientific consensus considered burning the result of objects losing a flammable substance called phlogiston - the more phlogiston a thing had, the more flammable it was. These days, we understand burning to be the result of oxidation. And nobody (or very few people) shed a tear for phlogiston. Scientific truth, so claimed, is never held immune to revision. We may, in a hundred and fifty more years, find that our views of reality have been similarly revised - our great-grandchildren will laugh: "Oh, the Theory Of Gravity. What hokum!"

Religious truth - faith - is immune to such revision. Senator Brownback states quite clearly that he refuses to revise this particular truth: that "man was not an accident and reflects an image and likeness unique in the created order." But the selection of such privileged,unrevisable faith-based truths seems completely arbitrary. To say that 'faith' should constrain science in its' particular domain seems to be about the same as when a little kid, tired of being beaten up by his older brother on a long car ride, draws an imaginary line down the middle of the back seat and says, with conviction: You cannot cross this line. If the scientific method does, indeed, come up with insights into moral or cosmological questions, it is not hubris to accept those insights.

I do not think that spirituality should be divorced from the American conversation, only that this particular argument for spirituality's centrality to our understanding of the world is unconvincing. It is my belief that spirituality does not help us answer any question about reality at all. Rather it can, when properly conceived, allow us to take a step outside of our worldly discourse. And that this may help us deal with more fine-grained questions. I hold a radically anti-religious and anti-anthropomorphic spirituality which, since this my damned blog, I can explain in more depth later.

It is refreshing, of course, to hear a reasoned argument from a politician, and for that, I commend Senator Brownback. Only, the man needs to get over his damned dogma if he's ever going to start thinking straight.

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