Friday, September 01, 2006

Truth and Tolerance at Work

The New York Times is reporting that Pope Benedict XVI will be holding one of his annual seminars with former students this weekend and that the topic will be--get this--evolution. Although some folks have speculated that this seminar will provide fodder for the Look How Out Of It The Church Is crowd by endorsing some form of intelligent design, it looks to me as though Fr. Joseph Fessio, S.J., has hit upon the real purpose of the seminar topic:
Father Fessio and others say the pope, based on his statements and writings, remains deeply concerned specifically about the contention among some supporters of modern evolution that the theory refutes any role of God in creation.
This was, at least in part, a concern that motivated the condemnation of Gallileo, though most critics of the Church are happy to forget that and zero in on the cosmological gaffe, as though the central concern in that case was astronomical and not theological. I suppose that if you don't happen to think that there are any such things as important theological principles to begin with you will always assume that every pronouncement of the Church must ultimately be about some more mundane matter.

The good news here is not the fact that the leaders of the Church "get it" regarding evolution, though that does happen to be a rather nice artifact of the situation. Much more important is the respect for reason and the giving of arguments throughout the sphere of human experience, a posteriori as well as a priori. Science is very much a part of the richness of human experience, and to simply write off one of the best-confirmed scientific theories in the history of human scientific endeavor as a mere ideological shibboleth of the godless left is not merely silly, it is both inhumane and contrary to the Church's own understanding of man's place in nature. Christendom has had a very long and salutary relationship with science--indeed, it was Christian culture that kept scientific inquiry alive up until relatively recently. It is only with the advent of bizarre forms of fundamentalism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries that we begin to see the very peculiar phenomenon of interpreting nature in accordance with a very strict and irrationally literal interpretation of the scriptures. This disturbing boil on the bum of Christianity is a peculiarly American phenomenon as well, since it is principally in America that you find people who ignore the whole phenomenon of professional expertise, preferring their own private interpretations, not only of scripture, but of biology and physics as well, to those of qualified experts. The very American "every opinion is sacred" principle arises from our love of free speech and free thinking, but it has blessed us with a plethora of useless Christian denominations, where every individual thinker is his or her own expert on literally everything but especially, it seems, religion and science.

As Americans we tolerate this intellectual circus. We don't stone Seventh Day Adventists or burn Mormons alive or do any of the other nasty things that sometimes get done to folks who make up their own religions and set them over against the dominant paradigm--America is not a Christian Mecca in spite of its capacity to attract kooks. Tolerance is a virtue--and a salutary one, since it is a manifestation of the impulse to grant our fellow humans their freedom to choose for themselves between good and evil. But Tolerance of this kind is not a denial of Truth: the Pope is right to demand a skeptical attitude towards evolution. As confident as we can be of the theory, it is, like all other scientific theories, falsifiable. It is a mistake to say, without qualification, as Lawrence Krauss has done, that "Like it or not, evolution happened." Perhaps it did, but it depends on what, precisely, one means by "evolution". Because like it or not we have no reason to suppose that evolution as described by any one particular theory "happened". Even if we were to grant that it certainly did happen, any proper scientific theory, if it is to count as "scientific" in any meaningful sense, will have to be open to modification on the basis of new observational evidence. In spite of all the evidence that has been gathered to date, there is nothing preventing further data from being gathered that will render our present formulation of the theory obsolete. Even the theory of universal gravitation is open to modification in this sense.

In other words, it is a mistake for any scientist to suppose--as some of them do--that the pursuit of Truth has come to an end in any given domain. Nothing in science can be regarded as settled with finality. In fact, creationism is rejected as science for precisely this reason: it is not open to falsification. Once you accept it, you must regard it as a settled fact, something that cannot be proven wrong even in principle. So it would be perverse for a scientist to reject creationism on the grounds that it is not science, only to then foist that same status upon the very theory that he wants to put in its place--evolutionary theory.

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