Wednesday, June 06, 2007

What Brownback Thinks About Evolution... almost entirely based on ignorance of what evolution actually is. In a recent NY Times Op-Ed column, Brownback says some amazingly nutty things and displays a shocking ignorance of the basic difference between faith and reason, science and making shit up. He also starts from some reasonable premises then comes up with utterly illogical conclusions. Take this, for instance:

The heart of the issue is that we cannot drive a wedge between faith and reason.

Fair enough. Since faith and reason are in direct opposition to each other, as I have argued many times on this blog, it isn't really possible to drive a wedge between them. There's not enough liking them together. It would be like trying to drive a wedge between the US and the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War.

I believe wholeheartedly that there cannot be any contradiction between the two.

W-Wha?? That's the stupidest thing I ever heard. Reason forbids jumping to conclusions that satisfy one's emotional needs in disregard of available evidence. Faith is jumping to conclusions that satisfy one's emotional needs in disregard of available evidence. There is nothing but contradiction between the two. They are two separate, mutually exclusive methods for learning about the world. What Brownback is saying is kind of like saying there is no contradiction between passive resistance and suicide bombing.

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.

Brownback is confused, I think. If faith dealt only with "spiritual" truths, in contrast to material or natural truths, then there would be no conflict between science and faith.* After all, since "spiritual", in this context, pretty much means immaterial, and, as noted by Thomas Jefferson, to talk about immaterial things is to talk about nothings. That is to say, if faith only dealt with spiritual, or nonexistent, things, then it would not conflict with science. However, since the faithful often use faith to justify belief in facts or events that happened in the material world, such as, for instance, that Jesus literally resurrected Lazarus or literally rose from the dead, it manifestly is not concerned only with the spiritual world, but in the material world and the interaction between the two worlds. And Brownback knows it, as we will see.

The truths of science and faith are complementary: they deal with very different questions, but they do not contradict each other because the spiritual order and the material order were created by the same God.

Let's hope Senator Brownback never took a logic class in college, because he obviously didn't learn anything in it if he did.

A: "Faith and science are complementary and do not contradict each other."
B: "How did you determine that this is so?"
A: "The spiritual order and the material order were both created by the same God."
B: "How do you know this? And why does this mean they can't be contradictory?"
A: "I know God created them both through faith. I know they can't be contradictory through faith."
B: "So, you're using faith as the evidence for your claims about faith, and you also used something you believe on faith to justify something else you also believe on faith?"
A: "Yes."

Awesome. That's just as good as the 'ole, "The Bible is the inerrant Word of God. How do I know? The Bible says so."

In essence, Brownback's argument is, "Science and shit I make up can't conflict because I don't think they do."

People of faith should be rational, using the gift of reason that God has given us.

Well, about everything but faith, of course, because if people of faith were rational about faith, they wouldn't be people of faith now, would they?

At the same time, reason itself cannot answer every question.

This is true. Some questions can't be answered, for instance, nonsensical ones like, "What color does the sky taste like?" But I'm not sure how this is relevant to the discussion, because, while faith can provide an answer to any question, it is only because faith can be used to justify any answer to any question. Faith can give us countless, often contradictory, answers to any given question, but almost all of them will be either meaningless or wrong, and, through faith, there is no way to discriminate between wrong or meaningless answers and true ones.

Faith seeks to purify reason so that we might be able to see more clearly, not less.
Ah, yes. Of course. Faith purifies reason of its foolish insistence upon using a logical process, based on evidence, to draw conclusions, by adding the elements of jumping to conclusions without evidence and making shit up that reason lacks.

That is to say, "[f]aith seeks to purify reason" of its vulgar reasonableness. Sort of like how a bullet to the heart purifies one's life of its vulgar living, so that we might live better. Makes sense, right?

Faith supplements the scientific method by providing an understanding of values,
meaning and purpose.
What a common unfounded, and untrue assertion, Sam! Faith can lead us to accept any set of values, any sort of meaning, and any purpose, and therefore gives us understanding of none.

More than that, faith — not science — can help us understand the breadth of human suffering or the depth of human love.
Another unfounded assertion, and gibberish at that. Why can't science help us understand the breadth of human suffering or the depth of human love, exactly? For instance, scientific studies on poverty often do, in fact, help us understand the breadth of human suffering. But I'm not really sure how faith helps us do either of these things, since faith supports all claims equally. For instance, through faith I could arrive at the conclusion that humans are actually incapable of love, but I could just as easily arrive at the conclusion that human love is so important that I should kill if I am denied it. How does that help us understand "the depth of human love," exactly?

The question of evolution goes to the heart of this issue. If belief in evolution means simply assenting to microevolution, small changes over time within a species, I am happy to say, as I have in the past, that I believe it to be true. If, on the other hand, it means assenting to an exclusively materialistic, deterministic vision of the world that holds no place for a guiding intelligence, then I reject it.
The heart of what issue? Since evolution is not just a theory involving small changes over time within a species, but much more, and also does not necessarily exclude a "guiding intelligence," Brownback isn't just presenting a false dichotomy, but is asserting that the choice is between one strawman or another. And, because of the way he couched this assertion, it is clear that he knows that he is presenting strawmen as well.

There is no one single theory of evolution, as proponents of punctuated equilibrium and classical Darwinism continue to feud today.
This is just stupid. For one thing, almost no biologist working in the field today accepts what Brownback calls "classical Darwinism." As all theories do, the theory of evolution has changed as new evidence has been collected, and the basic structure of the modern theory of evolution is accepted by virtually all those working in the field. Punctuated equilibrium is not a whole separate theory of evolution, but a modification to the modern theory that some accept and some don't, but what those "feuding" over punctuated equilibrium agree on is much more vast than what they disagree on.

As such, Brownback presents a false dichotomy. The theory of evolution, at its core, is the theory that natural selection coupled with random mutations is the process through which all extant life on Earth evolved from a common ancestor. This is held to be true by virtually all evolutionary biologists and is not controversial nor is it in dispute, and, as such, it is, for all intents and purposes, the "single theory of evolution" Brownback denies exists.

Many questions raised by evolutionary theory — like whether man has a unique place in the world or is merely the chance product of random mutations — go beyond empirical science and are better addressed in the realm of philosophy or theology.
Evolutionary theory does not raise the question of "whether man has a unique place in the world." Some, like Brownback, feel that, if evolutionary theory is true, man will lose his "unique place on the world," but that is their interpretation, not a prediction of evolutionary theory itself. Evolutionary theory is not necessarily inconsistent with any particular view of man's place in the world, only with Brownback's interpretation of it.

And, of course, evolutionary theory specifically denies that man is "merely the chance product of random mutations." Random mutations, in and of themselves, would not likely have produced humans. Random mutation plus natural selection, however...

The most passionate advocates of evolutionary theory offer a vision of man as a kind of historical accident. That being the case, many believers — myself included — reject arguments for evolution that dismiss the possibility of divine causality.
No, no, no! Evolution tells us that humans are the result of random mutations and selection pressures, not a "historical accident." Humans were not a necessary outcome of evolution, but they could also not come about by "accident" either. Natural selection, as its name implies, is not a random process, but a process by which those organisms best able to adapt to their environments pass on their adaptations to their descendants. Natural selection is not the process of randomly picking which organisms fail and which succeed, but rather selecting for those specific traits that better allow organisms to survive. There is an element of chance involved in evolution, but it is not "random" and does not require "historical accidents."

Further, the theory of evolution does not dismiss the possibility of divine causality. It also does not require divine causality. In fact, it is mute on the whole topic of divine causality.

Ultimately, on the question of the origins of the universe, I am happy to let the facts speak for themselves.
That's fantastic, Sam. Since the theory of evolution has absolutely nothing to do with the origins of the universe, I'm not sure what this has to do with anything, but...

There are aspects of evolutionary biology that reveal a great deal about the nature of the world, like the small changes that take place within a species. Yet I believe, as do many biologists and people of faith, that the process of creation — and indeed life today — is sustained by the hand of God in a manner known fully only to him.
So, Sam, according to you, a being about whose motivations we cannot know ("God works in mysterious ways"), about whose nature we cannot know ("Who knows the mind of God?"), and about whose existence you can provide no evidence ("One must come to God through faith") sustains "creation -- and indeed life" in a manner which, you admit, you don't really know, and that's the reason you dismiss the evidence for evolution? Because a being you don't really know much about who you think exists did something somehow that you don't know much about through a process you don't really understand, evolution must not be true? Wow. What a convincing argument. Awesome.

It does not strike me as anti-science or anti-reason to question the philosophical presuppositions behind theories offered by scientists who, in excluding the possibility of design or purpose, venture far beyond their realm of empirical science.
First off, in proposing and supporting the theory of evolution, scientists did not "venture far beyond [the] realm of empirical science." Evolution is empirical science, as empirical and evidence based as physics or chemistry, and the fact that you draw philosophical conclusions from it, Sam, which are not in theory itself, does not change the fact that it is still empirical science.

Secondly, while some scientists may have some "philosophical presuppositions," the theory of evolution doesn't. It is simply an explanation of speciation that is consistent with the available evidence. Once again, the philosophical conclusions you draw from evolution are yours, not the evolution's, and it is not based on them nor does it presuppose them.

As such, questioning a valid scientific theory backed by copious evidence because you have "philosophical" issues with what the theory indicates is as anti-science as it is possible to be! Science is the process of learning about the world by gathering and interpreting evidence. To discard the results not based on better evidence but "philosophical" worries is to destroy the very purpose and usefulness of science.

Biologists will have their debates about man’s origins, but people of faith can also bring a great deal to the table.
Sure, people of faith can bring a great deal to the table, but, unlike Brownback implies, not because of faith, but rather in spite of it. Faith itself, however, can bring nothing to the table, which is what Brownback means to argue, as I have argued above.

For this reason, I oppose the exclusion of either faith or reason from the discussion. An attempt by either to seek a monopoly on these questions would be wrong-headed. As science continues to explore the details of man’s origin, faith can do its part as well. The fundamental question for me is how these theories affect our understanding of the human person.
What discussion? If he means a discussion of things people want to be true, fine. But if it's a discussion about what actually is true, faith is necessarily excluded, since, as I have noted, it gives us no tools to discriminate bullshit from reality. As such, how, exactly, can "faith... do its part"? What can faith add to the discussion other than irrelevant claims with no evidence to back them up?

And, of course, Brownback is being disingenuous in the final sentence of that paragraph. Scientists are interested in how scientific theories affect our understand of humankind. But Brownback isn't talking about taking knowledge gained through science and using it to refine our understanding... he's talking about rejecting scientific theories and the evidence upon which they are based if he doesn't like the implications. Not, note, based on whether the theories are true or not.

The unique and special place of each and every person in creation is a fundamental truth that must be safeguarded.
What fundamental truth? That each person has a unique and special place in creation, I'm guessing? And, if that's what he means, what the hell does that mean? And how, exactly, does the theory of evolution or science undermine it? (Hint: It doesn't). And what does this "truth" need to be safeguarded from? Certainly not other things that are true, like those discovered by science...

I am wary of any theory that seeks to undermine man’s essential dignity and unique and intended place in the cosmos.
What theory does he mean? Not any scientific theory, certainly, or evolutionary theory in particular, since they don't "seek to undermine man's essential dignity" or our "unique and intended place in the cosmos" at all. They're just explanations that best fit the available evidence. That's all.

I firmly believe that each human person, regardless of circumstance, was willed into being and made for a purpose.
Well, hooray for you, Sam, but until you have some evidence for these beliefs, evidence that conflicts with scientific theory, and can present it, then I really don't care and they are irrelevant to whether or not evolutionary theory is true.

While no stone should be left unturned in seeking to discover the nature of man’s origins, we can say with conviction that we know with certainty at least part of the outcome.

Do tell!**
Man was not an accident and reflects an image and likeness unique in the created order.

Hmm. We know this "with certainty?" How do we even know there is a "created order," let alone know humankind's place in it? Oh, right, we know it through the certainty of faith, that is to say, we know it with certainty because we wish it to be true. And, of course, since Brownback believes so badly that humans were "not an accident," they must reflect a unique "image and likeness." How does Brownback know this? Because he believes it. Why does he believe it? Because he wants it to be true.

Case closed! Of course, since evolution neither claims humankind is the result of an accident nor that humans do not have a "unique" "image and likeness," this is yet another irrelevant non sequitir.

Those aspects of evolutionary theory compatible with this truth are a welcome addition to human knowledge.

That is to say, no matter the evidence, any scientific fact that Brownback likes is a "welcome addition to human knowledge," but if Brownback doesn't like it, then it isn't. That is to say, if scientific facts and the available evidence point to a conclusion Brownback doesn't like, he thinks we shouldn't consider whether it is true or not, but rather should discard it in favor of Brownback's "truth." And, since Brownback's "truth" is just things he wants to be true, we should essentially let Brownback decide what is true and what isn't by fiat.

Yeah, that sounds great. Sign me up for that.

Aspects of these theories that undermine this truth, however, should be firmly rejected as an atheistic theology posing as science.
Anything that conflicts with my belief in the magic sky fairy should be rejected as anti-sky fairy propoganda, and therefore not science. Why is it not science? Because it is anti-sky fairy propaganda. How do we know what is anti-sky fairy propoganda? Anything that conflicts with my belief in the magic sky fairy.

Facts aren't just facts and either true or not based on whether evidence supports them. No. Any fact that Brownback doesn't like, no matter what underlies it, is, by definition, anti-sky fairy propaganda. What is and isn't science isn't determined by observation of the observable world and empirical evidence, but what Brownback declares it.


And this guy gets to be part of making laws???

* Notice how he suddenly switched from talking about "reason and faith" to "science and faith," as if they are interchangable? Guess what. They're not.

** I'm pretty sure he is willing to leave "no stone unturned" because he plans to carve the Ten Commandments into each and every one of them.


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