Science, Evolution, Religion, and Liberty

If a man will begin with certainties, he shall end in doubts, but if he will be content to begin with doubts, he shall end in certainties.

Francis Bacon (1561–1626),
British philosopher, essayist, statesman.
The Advancement of Learning, bk. 1, ch. 5, sct. 8 (1605).
(Source:
Bartleby.com)

Science begins with doubts — questions about the workings of the world around us — and moves bit by bit toward greater certainty, without ever reaching complete certainty. Philosophy and religion begin with certainties — a priori explanations about the workings of the world — and end in doubts because the world cannot be explained by pure faith or pure reason. But philosophy and religion can tell us how to live life morally, whereas science can only help us live life more comfortably, if that is what we wish to do.

Scientists — when they are being scientists — begin with questions (doubts), which lead them to make observations, and from those observations they derive theories about the workings of the universe or some aspect of it. Those theories can then be tested to see if they have predictive power, and revised when they are found wanting, that is, when new observations (facts) cast doubt on their validity. Scientific facts may sometimes be beyond doubt (e.g., the temperature at which water freezes under specified conditions), but scientific theories — which are generalizations from facts — are never beyond doubt. Or they never should be.

Consider Albert Einstein, arguably the greatest scientist who has yet lived. According to physicist Lee Smolin,

[a]lthough Einstein was . . . the discoverer of quantum phenomena, he became in time the main opponent of the theory of quantum mechanics. By his own account, he spent far more time thinking about quantum theory than he did about relativity. But he never found a theory of quantum physics that satisfied him. . . .

Quantum theory was not the only theory that bothered Einstein. Few people have appreciated how dissatisfied he was with his own theories of relativity. Special relativity grew out of Einstein’s insight that the laws of electromagnetism cannot depend on relative motion and that the speed of light therefore must be always the same, no matter how the source or the observer moves. . . . Special relativity was the result of 10 years of intellectual struggle, yet Einstein had convinced himself it was wrong within two years of publishing it. He rejected his theory, even before most physicists had come to accept it, for reasons that only he cared about. For another 10 years, as the world of physics slowly absorbed special relativity, Einstein pursued a lonely path away from it.

Why? The main reason was that he wanted to extend relativity to include all observers, whereas his special theory postulates only an equivalence among a limited class of observers—those who aren’t accelerating. A second reason was to incorporate gravity, making use of a new principle he called the equivalence principle. This postulates that observers can never distinguish the effects of gravity from those of acceleration so long as they observe phenomena only in their immediate neighborhood. By this principle [general relativity] he linked the problem of gravity with the problem of extending relativity to all observers. . . .

[I]n spite of the great triumph general relativity represented, Einstein did not linger long over it. For Einstein, quantum physics was the essential mystery, and nothing could be really fundamental that was not part of the solution to that problem. As general relativity didn’t explain quantum theory, it had to be provisional as well. It could only be a step towards Einstein’s goal, which was to find a theory of quantum phenomena that would agree with all the experiments, but satisfy his demand for clarity and completeness.

Einstein imagined for a time that such a theory could come from an extension of general relativity. Thus he entered into the final period of his scientific life, his search for a unified field theory. He sought an extension of general relativity that would incorporate electromagnetism, thereby wedding the large-scale world where gravity dominates with the small-scale world of quantum physics. . . .

[B]y the end of his life Einstein had to some extent abandoned his search for a unified field theory. He had failed to find a version of the theory that did what was most important to him, which is to explain quantum phenomena in a way that involved neither measurements nor statistics. In his last years he was moving on to something even more radical. He proposed to give up the idea that space and time are continuous. . . .

I think a sober assessment is that up until now, almost all of us who work in theoretical physics have failed to live up to Einstein’s legacy. His demand for a coherent theory of principle was uncompromising. It has not been reached—not by quantum theory, not by special or general relativity, not by anything invented since. Einstein’s moral clarity, his insistence that we should accept nothing less than a theory that gives a completely coherent account of individual phenomena, cannot be followed unless we reject almost all contemporary theoretical physics as insufficient. . . .

In my whole career as a theoretical physicist, I have known only a handful of colleagues of whom it can truly be said have followed Einstein’s path. They are driven, as Einstein was, by a moral need for clear understanding. In everything they do, these few strive continually to invent a new theory of principle that could satisfy the strictest demands of coherence and consistency without regard to fashion or the professional consequences. Most have paid for their independence in a harder career path than equally talented scientists who follow the research agendas of the big professors.

I have quoted Smolin at length because he reveals two key facets of Einstein, the scientist: a willingness to abandon a theory, and a stubbornness about challenging the conventional wisdom, even though its proponents were equally eminent scientists.

Einstein stands as a paragon among scientists: unwilling to run with the herd, unwilling to “follow any fad or popular direction,” as Smolin puts it elsewhere in the essay quoted above. Now we seem to have herds of so-called scientists who cling to certain theories because those theories are popular and dominant. They may be great scientists — or hacks — who have come to a certain worldview and are loathe to abandon it, or they may be followers of renowned scientists who lack the imagination to see alternative explanations of phenomena. Whatever the case, a “scientist” who insists on the truth of his worldview has abandoned science for something that might as well be called religion or philosophy.

In the case of global warming, we’ve seen the herd instinct at work for many years. It has become an article of faith among academic and government scientists not only that global warming is due mainly to human activity but also that it is “bad.” Dr. Roy Spencer, an atmospheric scientist, stands back from the fray in “Let’s Be Honest about the Real Consensus” (link added):

“Consensus” among scientists is not definitive, and some have even argued that in science it is meaningless or counterproductive. After all, even scientific “laws” have been disproved in the past (e.g. the Law of Parity in nuclear physics). Global warming is a process that can not be measured in controlled lab experiments, and so in many respects it can not be tested or falsified in the traditional scientific sense. Nevertheless, I’m willing to admit that in the policymakers’ realm, scientific consensus might have some limited value. But let’s be honest about what that consensus refers to: that “humans influence the climate”. Not that “global warming is a serious threat to mankind”.

Moreover, it’s certainly not clear that the scientific consensus about global warming is correct. (See, for example, this earlier post.)

Now we come to evolution. I have written elsewhere about the tendency of evolutionary biologists (and their hangers-on at places like The Panda’s Thumb) to act like priests of a secular religion. But just how firm is the ground on which their temple is built? Not all that firm, according to a recent report in ScienceDaily:

Contrary to inheritance laws the scientific world has accepted for more than 100 years, some plants revert to normal traits carried by their grandparents, bypassing genetic abnormalities carried by both parents.These mutant parent plants apparently have hidden templates containing genetic information from the preceding generation that can be transferred to their offspring, even though the traits aren’t evident in the parents, according to Purdue University researchers. This discovery flies in the face of the scientific laws of inheritance first described by Gregor Mendel in the mid-1800s and still taught in classrooms around the world today.

“This means that inheritance can happen more flexibly than we thought in the past,” said Robert Pruitt, a Purdue Department of Botany and Plant Pathology molecular geneticist. “While Mendel’s laws that we learned in high school still are fundamentally correct, they’re not absolute.

“If the inheritance mechanism we found in the research plant Arabidopsis exists in animals, too, it’s possible that it will be an avenue for gene therapy to treat or cure diseases in both plants and animals.”

The study is published in the March 24 issue of the journal Nature. . . .

Editor’s Note: The original news release can be found here.

Such findings don’t discredit evolutionary theory, but they do underscore two points:

  • Evolutionary theory is still very much in flux.
  • Prevailing scientific theories are never as secure as they seem to be — or as many of their adherents would like them to be.

Nevertheless, the scientific consensus seems to be that any scientist who even entertains intelligent design (ID) as a supplementary explanation of the development of life forms has somehow become a non-scientist. Consider the recent controversy surrounding Dr. Richard Sternberg, as described in The Washington Post of August 19:

Evolutionary biologist Richard Sternberg made a fateful decision a year ago.

As editor of the hitherto obscure Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington, Sternberg decided to publish a paper making the case for “intelligent design,” a controversial theory that holds that the machinery of life is so complex as to require the hand — subtle or not — of an intelligent creator.

Within hours of publication, senior scientists at the Smithsonian Institution — which has helped fund and run the journal — lashed out at Sternberg as a shoddy scientist and a closet Bible thumper.

“They were saying I accepted money under the table, that I was a crypto-priest, that I was a sleeper cell operative for the creationists,” said Steinberg, 42 , who is a Smithsonian research associate. “I was basically run out of there.”

An independent agency has come to the same conclusion, accusing top scientists at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History of retaliating against Sternberg by investigating his religion and smearing him as a “creationist.”

The U.S. Office of Special Counsel, which was established to protect federal employees from reprisals, examined e-mail traffic from these scientists and noted that “retaliation came in many forms . . . misinformation was disseminated through the Smithsonian Institution and to outside sources. The allegations against you were later determined to be false.”

“The rumor mill became so infected,” James McVay, the principal legal adviser in the Office of Special Counsel, wrote to Sternberg, “that one of your colleagues had to circulate [your résumé] simply to dispel the rumor that you were not a scientist.” . . .

A small band of scientists argue for intelligent design, saying evolutionary theory’s path is littered with too many gaps and mysteries, and cannot account for the origin of life.

Most evolutionary biologists, not to mention much of the broader scientific community, dismiss intelligent design as a sophisticated version of creationism. . . .

Sternberg’s case has sent ripples far beyond the Beltway. The special counsel accused the National Center for Science Education, an Oakland, Calif.-based think tank that defends the teaching of evolution, of orchestrating attacks on Sternberg.

“The NCSE worked closely with” the Smithsonian “in outlining a strategy to have you investigated and discredited,” McVay wrote to Sternberg. . . .

Sternberg is an unlikely revolutionary. He holds two PhDs in evolutionary biology, his graduate work draws praise from his former professors, and in 2000 he gained a coveted research associate appointment at the Smithsonian Institution.

Not long after that, Smithsonian scientists asked Sternberg to become the unpaid editor of Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington, a sleepy scientific journal affiliated with the Smithsonian. Three years later, Sternberg agreed to consider a paper by Stephen C. Meyer, a Cambridge University-educated philosopher of science who argues that evolutionary theory cannot account for the vast profusion of multicellular species and forms in what is known as the Cambrian “explosion,” which occurred about 530 million years ago.

Scientists still puzzle at this great proliferation of life. But Meyer’s paper went several long steps further, arguing that an intelligent agent — God, according to many who espouse intelligent design — was the best explanation for the rapid appearance of higher life-forms.

Sternberg harbored his own doubts about Darwinian theory. He also acknowledged that this journal had not published such papers in the past and that he wanted to stir the scientific pot.

“I am not convinced by intelligent design but they have brought a lot of difficult questions to the fore,” Sternberg said. “Science only moves forward on controversy.” . . .

When the article appeared, the reaction was near instantaneous and furious. Within days, detailed scientific critiques of Meyer’s article appeared on pro-evolution Web sites. “The origin of genetic information is thoroughly understood,” said Nick Matzke of the NCSE. “If the arguments were coherent this paper would have been revolutionary– but they were bogus.”

A senior Smithsonian scientist wrote in an e-mail: “We are evolutionary biologists and I am sorry to see us made into the laughing stock of the world, even if this kind of rubbish sells well in backwoods USA.”

An e-mail stated, falsely, that Sternberg had “training as an orthodox priest.” Another labeled him a “Young Earth Creationist,” meaning a person who believes God created the world in the past 10,000 years.

This latter accusation is a reference to Sternberg’s service on the board of the Baraminology Study Group, a “young Earth” group. Sternberg insists he does not believe in creationism. “I was rather strong in my criticism of them,” he said. “But I agreed to work as a friendly but critical outsider.” . . .

“I loathe careerism and the herd mentality,” [Sternberg says]. “I really think that objective truth can be discovered and that popular opinion and consensus thinking does more to obscure than to reveal.”

At the core of ID is the hypothesis of irreducible complexity, which is the subject of a Wikipedia article that also provides many links to various aspects of the controversy about irreducible complexity and ID. To quote from that article: “Irreducible complexity is not an argument that evolution does not occur, but rather an argument that it is incomplete.”

Is irreducible complexity an unscientific proposition (an unfalsifiable hypothesis), as many of its critics charge? And if it is a falsifiable hypothesis, where does it stand? The answers to those questions shift so rapidly that the best I can do here is quote from the Wikipedia article:

Some critics [of irreducible complexity], such as Jerry Coyne (professor of evolutionary biology at the University of Chicago) and Eugenie Scott (a physical anthropologist and executive director of the National Center for Science Education) have argued that the concept of irreducible complexity, and more generally, the theory of Intelligent Design is not falsifiable, and therefore, not scientific.

[Michael] Behe [a leading proponent of ID] argues that the theory that irreducibly complex systems could not have been evolved can be falsified by an experiment where such systems are evolved. For example, he posits taking bacteria with no flagella and imposing a selective pressure for mobility. If, after a few thousand generations, the bacteria evolved the bacterial flagellum, then Behe believes that this would refute his theory.

Other critics take a different approach, pointing to experimental evidence that they believe falsifies the argument for Intelligent Design from irreducible complexity. For example, Kenneth Miller cites the lab work of Barry Hall on E. coli, which he asserts is evidence that “Behe is wrong.”

The problem is that as every pro-ID hypothesis is falsified (assuming that it is, eventually), another pro-ID hypothesis can be produced. For, there must be a very large number of biological manifestations that have not yet been explained by documented facts. Until such documented facts are produced, a proper scientist would keep irreducible complexity on the table as a possible explanation of an unexplained manifestation. But I have noticed a tendency among die-hard evolutionists — those for whom evolution is a religion — to resort to the practice of extrapolating from documented facts to argue that evolution could explain such-and-such, if only the necessary facts weren’t inconveniently missing. In a word, they are cheaters. (For more, see this post.)

I think it really boils down to this: Anti-ID scientists cannot prove that ID is unscientific; pro-ID scientists cannot prove that ID is anything more than a convenient explantion for currently unexplained phenomena. It’s the scientific (or non-scientific) version of a Mexican standoff.

Where does that leave us? It leaves us here:

When you have eliminated all which is impossible, then whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth. (“Sherlock Holmes” in The Adventure of the Blanched Soldier)

What are the possibilities with which we must begin? In addition to the evolution of evolutionary biology, there are these alternatives, taken from the Wikipedia article on irreducible complexity:

  • Intelligent Design, the argument that irreducible complexity occurs through the input of some “intelligent designer”. One example of an Intelligent Design theory is Creationism (although it can be argued that this begs the question, as it does not say how or what created the Creator, and, if no creator was necessary to create the Creator, why creators should be needed for all other entities).
  • Francis Crick‘s suggestion that life on Earth may have been seeded by aliens (although it can be argued that this begs the question, as it does not say how the alien life arose).

You may have noticed that the list conflates two entirely different issues. There is the question of how life arose — which, I submit, can only be a matter of faith or conjecture — and there is the question of how life has developed, regardless of how it arose — which can be a matter for scientific investigation. Therein lies the crux of the problem. It is impossible to eliminate any explanation of the origin of life or the development of life forms, as long as that explanation doesn’t conflict with facts. Similarly, it is impossible to eliminate any explanation of the origin of the universe, as long as that explanation doesn’t conflict with facts. Staunch evolutionists — those who resist Creationism, intelligent design, or any other unfalsifiable or unfalsified explanation for the origin of the universe, the origin of life, or the development of life forms — are merely invoking their preferred worldview — not facts.

The best that science can do, under any foreseeable circumstances, is to investigate how life developed from the point in the known history of the universe at which there is evidence of life. But many (perhaps most) evolutionists and their hangers-on aren’t content to pursue that scientific agenda. As Frederick Turner puts it:

In many cases it is clear that the beautiful and hard-won theory of evolution, now proved beyond reasonable doubt, is being cynically used by some — who do not much care about it as such — to support an ulterior purpose: a program of atheist indoctrination, and an assault on the moral and spiritual goals of religion. A truth used for unworthy purposes is quite as bad as a lie used for ends believed to be worthy. If religion can be undermined in the hearts and minds of the people, then the only authority left will be the state, and, not coincidentally, the state’s well-paid academic, legal, therapeutic and caring professions. If creationists cannot be trusted to give a fair hearing to evidence and logic because of their prior commitment to religious doctrine, some evolutionary partisans cannot be trusted because they would use a general social acceptance of the truth of evolution as a way to set in place a system of helpless moral license in the population and an intellectual elite to take care of them.

“Mainstream” evolutionists might be willing to consider alien origins, complexity theory, and quantum evolution, given the provenance of those theories. But those same evolutionists are unlikely to back down from their resistence to intelligent design. Why? Because ID threatens their underlying agenda, which — as Turner suggests — is the ascendancy of scientism, scientific elites, and the strident atheists who support them. Another case in point is the strong vein of resistance to the Big Bang theory, because it’s consistent with a Creation. (Sample the results of this Google search, for example.) The irony of it all is that atheism is an unscientific belief in an unfalsifiable proposition, namely, that there is no God. Moreover, if there is a God, He doesn’t need to rely on Big Bangs or other such pyrotechnics to work His will.

Am I going too far when I join Frederick Turner in his distrust of “evolutionary partisans”? I think not. Peruse The Panda’s Thumb, where, for example, one contributor posted approvingly of an article arguing that the teaching of intelligent design should be ruled unconstitutional because it is unscientific. As I wrote at the time,

[t]hink of the fine mess we’d be in if the courts were to rule against the teaching of intelligent design not because it amounts to an establishment of religion but because it’s unscientific. That would open the door to all sorts of judicial mischief. The precedent could — and would — be pulled out of context and used in limitless ways to justify government interference in matters where government has no right to interfere.

It’s bad enough that government is in the business of funding science — though I can accept such funding wheere it actually aids our defense effort. But, aside from that, government has no business deciding for the rest of us what’s scientific or unscientific. When it gets into that business, you had better be ready for a rerun of the genetic policies of the Third Reich.

Scientific elites and their hangers-on, like paternalists of all kinds, would like to tell us how to live our lives — for our own good, of course — because they think they have the answers, or can find them. (They would be benign technocrats, of course, unlike their counterparts in the old USSR.) And when they are thwarted, they get in a snit and issue manifestos.

But, as I said at the outset, science isn’t about how to live morally, it’s about how to live life more comfortably, if that is what we wish to do. To know how to live life morally we must turn to a philosophy that promotes liberty, and we must not reject the moral code of the Judeo-Christian tradition, in which one finds much support for liberty.

I’m very much for science, properly understood, which is the increase of knowledge. I’m very much against the misuse of science by scientists (and others) who invoke it to advance an extra-scientific agenda. Science, properly done, begins with doubts and ends in certainties, but those certainties extend only to the realm of observable, documented facts. Science has no claim to superiority over philosophy or religion in the extra-factual realm of morality.

I close by paraphrasing my son’s comment about my post on “Religion and Liberty“:

The basis of liberty is extra-scientific; thus the need for non-scientific moral institutions.

Further reading:
Evolution (Wikipedia article)
Intelligent Design (Wikipedia article)
Intelligent Design: A Special Report from History Magazine
The Little Engine That Could…Undo Darwinism (The American Spectator article)
Faith-Based Evolution (Tech Central Station article)
Darwin and Design: The Evolution of a Flawed Debate (Tech Central Station article)
Intelligent Decline, Revisited (Tech Central Station article)
The Real Intelligent Designers (Tech Central Station article)
Divine Evolution (Tech Central Station article)
The Case Against Intelligent Design (The New Republic article)
Discovery Institute (the leading proponents of ID)
The Talk.Origins Archive (a collection of articles and essays that explore the creationism/evolution controversy from a mainstream scientific perspective)
Show Me the Science (anti-ID by noted philosopher Daniel C. Dennett)
Intelligent Design Has No Place in the Science Curriculum (The Chronicle of Higher Education article)

Related posts:

Hemibel Thinking
(07/16/04)
Climatology (07/16/04)
Global Warming: Realities and Benefits (07/18/04)
Words of Caution for the Cautious (07/21/04)
Scientists in a Snit (08/04/04)
Another Blow to Climatology? (08/21/04)
Bad News for Politically Correct Science (10/18/04)
Another Blow to Chicken-Little Science (10/27/04)
Bad News for Enviro-Nuts (11/27/04)
Going Too Far with the First Amendment (01/01/05)
Atheism, Religion, and Science (01/03/05)
The Limits of Science (01/05/05)
Three Perspectives on Life: A Parable (01/15/05)
Beware of Irrational Atheism (01/22/05)
The Hockey Stick Is Broken (01/31/05)
The Creation Model (02/23/05)
The Thing about Science (03/24/05)
Religion and Personal Responsibility (04/08/05)
Science in Politics, Politics in Science (05/11/05)
Global Warming and Life (07/18/05)
Evolution and Religion (07/25/05)
Speaking of Religion (07/26/05)
Words of Caution for Scientific Dogmatists (08/19/05)
Religion and Liberty (08/25/05)