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posted by n1 on Wednesday October 01 2014, @02:24AM   Printer-friendly
from the mental-gymnatiscs-championship dept.

David P. Barash, an evolutionary biologist and professor of psychology at the University of Washington, writes in the NYT that every year he gives his students The Talk, not as you might expect, about sex, but about evolution and religion. According to Barash many students worry about reconciling their beliefs with evolutionary science and just as many Americans don’t grasp the fact that evolution is not merely a “theory,” but the underpinning of all biological science, a substantial minority of his students are troubled to discover that their beliefs conflict with the course material. "There are a couple of ways to talk about evolution and religion," says Barash. "The least controversial is to suggest that they are in fact compatible." Stephen Jay Gould called them "nonoverlapping magisteria," noma for short, with the former concerned with facts and the latter with values." But Barash says magisteria are not nearly as nonoverlapping as some of them might wish. "As evolutionary science has progressed, the available space for religious faith has narrowed: It has demolished two previously potent pillars of religious faith and undermined belief in an omnipotent and omni-benevolent God."

The twofold demolition begins by defeating what modern creationists call the argument from complexity - that just as the existence of a complex structure like a watch demands the existence of a watchmaker, the existence of complex organisms requires a supernatural creator. "Since Darwin, however, we have come to understand that an entirely natural and undirected process, namely random variation plus natural selection, contains all that is needed to generate extraordinary levels of non-randomness. Living things are indeed wonderfully complex, but altogether within the range of a statistically powerful, entirely mechanical phenomenon." Next to go is the illusion of centrality. "The most potent take-home message of evolution is the not-so-simple fact that, even though species are identifiable (just as individuals generally are), there is an underlying linkage among them — literally and phylogenetically, via traceable historical connectedness. Moreover, no literally supernatural trait has ever been found in Homo sapiens; we are perfectly good animals, natural as can be and indistinguishable from the rest of the living world at the level of structure as well as physiological mechanism." Finally there is a third consequence of evolutionary insights: a powerful critique of theodicy, the effort to reconcile belief in an omnipresent, omni-benevolent God with the fact of unmerited suffering. "But just a smidgen of biological insight makes it clear that, although the natural world can be marvelous, it is also filled with ethical horrors: predation, parasitism, fratricide, infanticide, disease, pain, old age and death — and that suffering (like joy) is built into the nature of things. The more we know of evolution, the more unavoidable is the conclusion that living things, including human beings, are produced by a natural, totally amoral process, with no indication of a benevolent, controlling creator."

Barash concludes The Talk by saying that, although they don’t have to discard their religion in order to inform themselves about biology (or even to pass his course), if they insist on retaining and respecting both, they will have to undertake some challenging mental gymnastic routines. "And while I respect their beliefs, the entire point of The Talk is to make clear that, at least for this biologist, it is no longer acceptable for science to be the one doing those routines."

 
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  • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday October 01 2014, @04:19AM

    by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday October 01 2014, @04:19AM (#100289)

    Science doesn't exist in a vacuum. Science already relates with the field of ethics; there's a whole list of experiments your department will not sign off on for you to "form models", because the scientific method must be subordinated to the wider values of society.

    Are you objecting to my claim that creationism is not relevant to this? I don't see how that makes creationism relevant: its not an ethical or legal issue. Also forming models has never been an issue. I can make any theory I want: its the testing of them that traditionally has challenges. Yes, biology is hard: some things are hard or impossible to test, and there are often financial, temporal and ethical issues. So? That does't change what science is, it simple makes it harder. I have no idea what point you are trying to make here.

    Creationism doesn't make any predictions: the difference is not in how hard (or ethical) it is to test, but rather that there is nothing that creationism predicts: even if you tested it (you can't), the result wouldn't matter because creationism is useless (it predicts nothing). It is not a model that makes useful predictions.

    Similarly, while science may have utility, it's perfectly reasonable for people to weigh findings of science against other values like their religious beliefs.

    If you want to make a religion based on science, and compare it to creationism, sure, that's fine, but it is not relevant to the issue of teaching about evolution. If you want to use science for engineering that's fine. If you want to use it for farming, parenting or art, thats fine. Science is useful: it makes predictions better than chance. Use it for things: that's the point. It's not an ideological value, its a practical one. Yes, you can use it's conclusions in your ideology, but that is not science, that is one use of it that is likely beyond the scope of a science class.

    Don't scope science bigger than it is, just because it's useful. All your statements apply to math just as much as they apply to science. There is math in ethics and religion, but math class isn't distracted by the number of gods problem. You can cause massive ethical violations testing theories in math too (ex: use all your department money, CPU time and electricity and cause global warming trying to empirically find a non trivial 0 on the critical line of the Riemann zeta function). This does not mean one should consider teaching creationism in math.

  • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday October 01 2014, @04:41AM

    by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday October 01 2014, @04:41AM (#100294)

    Use it for things: that's the point. It's not an ideological value, its a practical one.

    Of course it's an ideological value. The choice of whether to "use it" or not involves beliefs and values outside of science itself. It may well be that if a scientific finding conflicts with a deeply held belief, so in spite of its apparent utility, pursuing it is not desirable.

    You can cause massive ethical violations testing theories in math too (ex: use all your department money, CPU time and electricity and cause global warming trying to empirically find a non trivial 0 on the critical line of the Riemann zeta function). This does not mean one should consider teaching creationism in math.

    That these things can happen is a reason to teach ethics alongside math, and indeed, at many universities, doing a degree in a math or science requires taking an ethics course as part of general requirements. And for many people, ethics is deeply intertwined with their religious beliefs. It's utterly understandable how a lecturer might want to explain to his new students what he is teaching in his particular class and how it may relate to themes outside the classroom.