Thursday, May 31, 2007

Brownback on faith and reason

During the Republican presidential debate a few weeks ago, Senator Brownback was one of three candidates who raised their hands when asked whether they did not believe in evolution. In this NYTimes Op-ed piece he attempts to redeem himself.

He starts off reasonably well, asserting that science and faith focus on different aspects of conceptualization.
The scientific method, based on reason, seeks to discover truths about the nature of the created order and how it operates, whereas faith deals with spiritual truths. The truths of science and faith are complementary: they deal with very different questions … .
But when it comes to applying that perspective to evolution, he loses it.
If [evolution] means assenting to an exclusively materialistic, deterministic vision of the world that holds no place for a guiding intelligence, then I reject it.
If anything evolution is not deterministic. At its heart it is a stochastic process. But I doubt that saying that will make Brownback happy. He would probably also reject a materialistic, random vision of the world.

Furthermore, it's not clear what Brownback is rejecting when he rejects a materialistic vision of the world. Science is all about the material (i.e., natural, observable) world. If by calling the version of evolution that he rejects materialistic, Brownback is characterizing it as a scientific theory, then he is apparently rejecting evolution simply because it is a scientific theory. So if Brownback is rejecting evolution because it is a scientific theory, he has not at all redeemed himself with respect to his denial of evolution.

Furthermore, what does Brownback have in mind when he speaks of a guiding intelligence? Is this something that is observable as an empirical fact? If so, then it is the subject matter of science. But I doubt that Brownback has that in mind. If he instead is talking about something beyond empirical verification, i.e., the subject matter of faith, then it has nothing to do with either science or evolution. So again, if Brownback rejects evolution if it has no place for faith, then he again fails to redeem himself with respect to his denial of evolution.

The bottom line seems to be that Brownback says he rejects evolution unless it includes an element of faith. If by writing this op-ed piece he was attempting to make his position acceptable to people who respect science, he has failed.

Like all the rest of science, evolution is a theory of how the natural (i.e., material, observable) world works. The question is whether Brownback rejects a scientific theory if that theory doesn't include an element of faith.

The problem for Brownback is that science doesn't consider faith when making its theories. Science is quite simple. It observes the world and attempts to understand and explain what it sees. Of course it's not easy to do that. As Richard Feynman said, "Science is what we have learned about how not to fool ourselves about the way the world is." But science is not about faith one way or the other. There is no such thing as faith-based science, much as Brownback would like there to be. (Similarly there is no such thing as ideology-based science, much as Bush would like there to be.)

If Brownback attempts to impose criteria on which scientific theories he will accept or reject based on something beyond the science itself — e.g., on whether or not it has room for a guiding intelligence — he will continue to get himself into intellectual trouble. Yet in attempting to sound like he accepts science without at the same time alienating his base of non-thinking faithful, that's just what he seems to be doing. It doesn't work.

Brownback failed live up to the separation of science and faith that he defined early in his essay. As he wrote
[Science] seeks to discover truths about [nature] and how it operates, whereas faith deals with spiritual truths. The truths of science and faith are complementary: they deal with very different questions.
Science keeps its end of this bargain; it doesn't attempt to talk about spiritual truths. Brownback's version of faith fails to keep its end. According to Brownback, science is not acceptable unless it conforms to rules that his faith imposes. If Brownback were more vigilant in keeping his faith from interfering in the truths of science, we would all be much better off.

1 comment:

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