Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The Misguided Desire to Stifle Dawkins

This past Friday, Richard Dawkins came to Oklahoma and gave a talk at OU. I didn’t make it down. When I first heard of his impending visit I toyed with going, but then decided against driving the hour-and-a-half, fighting the crowds, and missing my children’s bedtime and one of the final episodes of Battlestar Galactica.

But events that unfolded in Oklahoma on the day of his talk led me to feel some regret at this decision. I’m speaking about the resolutions filed in the Oklahoma House of Representatives in advance of Dawkins’ arrival. The first, HR 1014, is a directive targeting OU and its Zoology Department for “indoctrinating students in the theory of evolution” and for inviting Dawkins to speak on campus. The second, HR 1015, is a spin on the first, with the focus being on chastising OU for inviting Dawkins and then urging OU to engage in an “open, dignified, and fair discussion of the Darwinian theory of evolution and all other scientific theories.”

Let me reflect on these resolutions with a couple of points in mind. The first is this: neo-Darwinian evolutionary theory is not just some speculative account of the development of life on earth. It is an explanatory model for the development of life on earth that beautifully synthesizes the best research in a diverse array of disciplines ranging from genetics and microbiology to paleontology and ecology and geology. It is, as one friend recently put it, “massively explanatory.” It fits so many diverse empirical observations together, creates such a cohesive account of the development of life, has such enormous predictive power in terms of what we should observe within nature, that it would be something of a miracle were the theory not substantially correct.

In short, this is not a controversial scientific theory. To pretend otherwise in the course of teaching relevant science to college students would be to seriously mislead those students. Since no reputable university should be in the business of seriously misleading students, no reputable university should present a theory as controversial when it is not.

None of this means there are no puzzles or problems to be wrestled with, or that these puzzles and problems should be obscured in the course of teaching evolutionary theory (they're not). But given the enormous explanatory power of neo-Darwinian evolutionary theory, the most reasonable thing to expect is that further research into these puzzles and problems will result at most in revisions and refinements, not in the abandonment of the theory. So, it would be a mistake to present these puzzles and problems as if they were more threatening to the overall plausibility of evolutionary theory than they are.

When I say all of this, it is not as an expert in neo-Darwinian evolutionary theory. Rather, it is as a reasonably educated lay-person who knows what the overwhelming majority of experts have concluded based on sustained, evidence-based research over many decades. A critic recently accused me of professing to be unqualified to assess the criticisms of evolution coming from the Intelligent Design community, and yet at the same time being perfectly willing to side with the evolutionary theorists whose ideas I profess to being unqualified to assess. In other words, he was accusing me of applying a double standard.

But here’s the thing. If you’re not an expert in a field, it seems that the most reasonable course is to defer to those who are. If there is an overwhelming consensus among those experts, and if the field is one in which reason and evidence govern research, in which new research is rigorously reviewed according to adherence to an objective methodology rather than conformity to established dogma—if all of this is the case, then the reasonable course for a non-expert is to defer to the consensus of the experts unless and until that consensus changes.

It isn’t to side with a challenger whose views are widely denounced as pseudoscientific by the consensus of experts. It isn’t to decide that until one has been able to assess the merits of the challenge for oneself, one should remain neutral in the debate. It isn’t to conclude that there’s a vast conspiracy going on in which the supposed experts are all in cahoots to silence the few brave voices who dare to challenge their dogma. The consensus of the experts may be wrong—but you’d darned well better have real expertise yourself if you’re going to try to make that case.

And so, as an educated lay reader when it comes to biology (I was a biology major for two years before switching to philosophy), I accept the consensus of experts when they explain in lay terms why evolutionary theory is massively explanatory, and why the most significant puzzles and challenges currently faced by biologists do not give us reason to think that there is anything substantially or fundamentally wrong with the theory.

But we need to be careful to distinguish between what the scientific theory of evolution actually holds and implies, and what amounts to controversial philosophical speculation in the light of the theory. And this is the second preliminary point I want to make.

Science studies the empirical world of matter and energy with an eye towards discovering the patterns or “natural laws” by which that world operates. But some of the things that happen in that world are not required to occur by some fixed natural law. When this is the case, scientists are inclined to say that these events happen “by chance,” although they might note that natural laws determine a framework of possible things that might happen, and affix probabilities to these various possibilities.

Genetic mutation is one of those areas in which specific occurrences aren’t determined by natural laws. And genetic mutation is a crucial element of evolutionary theory. From the standpoint of science, an event that occurs which is undetermined by natural laws will look the same whether it happens by chance or by the influence of some agency that lies outside the empirical world studied by science. In either case, no regular pattern observable in the empirical world determines what precisely occurred.

This means that a purely scientific examination of the world can never rule out the thesis that some intelligent agency is at work in the “chance gaps” left by natural laws. But such an examination can’t establish this thesis either. In brief, to infer intelligent agency at work in the “chance gaps,” we’d first need to know how such an intelligent agent would influence the course of events were there such an intelligent agent, and then we’d need to see whether events follow that course. In other words, we’d first need to have some serious insight into the MIND OF GOD. But science studies the empirical world, not the mind of God. So arguing for God’s existence in this way just isn’t science. “Intelligent Design Theory” therefore isn’t science, whatever other merits it might have as scientifically informed theology.

What all this means is that from a purely scientific standpoint, we need to be essentially agnostic with respect to the thesis that God is working in and through the processes of evolution. Science as such neither affirms nor denies this thesis. As such, it is a mistake to treat science in general or evolutionary theory in particular as the enemy of religion. And it is just as big a mistake to treat “Intelligent Design” theory as if it were science. I happen to embrace the theory that nature looks the way that it does because an intelligent agency lies behind it. But this is not a scientific theory.

There is, in short, a crucial difference between the scientific theory of evolution and the philosophical worldview--what we might call reductionistic metaphysical naturalism--which has so often been wedded to that theory. By “reductionistic metaphysical naturalism,” I mean a worldview according to which the empirical universe of matter and energy studied by science exhausts what is real, such that scientific explanation offers the ultimate explanation of every element of human experience--including morality, religious experience, aesthetics, consciousness, and the experience of being an agent who acts for reasons. All of these experiences, according to this philosophy, are ultimately caused by nothing but physical processes in our brains. They are mere by-products of events taking place in brain systems that have gradually evolved through natural selection because they advanced reproductive fitness.

To accept the scientific theory of evolution does not require one to accept reductionistic metaphysical naturalism (and by implication atheism). The conclusions of science may have bearing on the essentially philosophical arguments that address which fundamental worldviews fit best with the totality of human experience. But when scientists defend worldviews that limit reality to the scope of what science studies, they are doing philosophy, not science. And their arguments therefore need to be assessed in philosophical terms--something which I feel eminently qualified to do.

And so when Dawkins wades into philosophical waters, as he does in The God Delusion, I am more than ready to assess the quality of his efforts. I think they fall short…really far short. Put bluntly, whatever his merits as a scientist, he’s not a very good philosopher of religion.

But I would be the last person to want to silence him, even when he wanders into unfamiliar territory and wants to argue philosophy of religion. After all, as a friend of mine once said to me, even a blind squirrel sometimes finds a nut. And Dawkins is a very bright man. Even when he wanders outside his area of expertise, some of his thinking may be worth engaging with.

More significantly, Dawkins has done all of us in the philosophy of religion an enormous favor. For as long as I’ve been in the discipline, we philosophers have been debating such questions as the conditions under which it is legitimate to have beliefs that go beyond the evidence. And for as long as I’ve been in the discipline, the general public has been happily ignoring our conversations and debates.

That changed with the publication of The God Delusion and the other “new atheist” bestsellers. Suddenly, a wide swath of the general public became interested in the kinds of philosophical questions that people in my discipline have been wrestling with. Suddenly, I found myself with the opportunity to write a serious introduction to the philosophy of religion that had a good chance of being read by a wide readership. Our insular academic debate was suddenly taken up by a much broader audience than ever before. In this respect, Dawkins used his platform as a recognized public intellectual in the best possible way: to engage the general public in intellectual conversations which they had largely been ignoring.

I disagree with Richard Dawkins. I think he’s just wrong to think that evolutionary theory gives us compelling reasons to question religion. More broadly, I oppose his sweeping condemnation of religion, his insistence that beliefs about the transcendent are “pernicious delusions” and that “faith is an evil.” I think he is guilty here of making hasty generalizations on the basis of the worst that religion has to offer. And I find many of his arguments not only bad, but offensive in the sense that they amount to making fun of what he clearly doesn’t understand.

But none of this changes the fact that he is probably the best known living defender of neo-Darwinian evolutionary theory, that he is an expert in this theory, and that he ranks among the most renowned public intellectuals alive today--one who has used his notoriety to stimulate a broad public conversation. Scholars like this are precisely the kinds of people that we want college students to hear, even when they stray outside their areas of expertise, even when they’re wrong. We don’t, of course, want our students to listen without their critical faculties. But we want our students to hear them.

HR 1015, which of the two resolutions targets Dawkins most directly, chastises a major university for inviting a prominent public intellectual to speak on campus as part of a series on Darwin (a topic which no one would deny is an area in which Dawkins is expert). And why does this bill chastise OU for extending this invitation? Because Dawkins’ views are “contrary and offensive to the views and opinions of most citizens of Oklahoma” and because Dawkins demonstrates “an intolerance for cultural diversity and diversity of thinking.”

We may wonder about the absurdity of accusing Dawkins of not tolerating diversity in a document that effectively seeks to silence a minority viewpoint on the ground that it offends the majority. Where, exactly, is the tolerance of diversity when one thinks majority opinion ought to dictate whose views should be given a platform?

But let me focus a bit more deeply on this charge of intolerance. When you call a belief system “evil” and “dangerous” and “pernicious,” there is a sense in which this expresses intolerance. And there is no question that Dawkins is on the record calling religion all of these things. But I’m pretty sure that I am on the record calling Nazism evil and dangerous, and nobody has accused me of doing anything objectionable.

Why not? Because Nazism is evil and dangerous. Now I don’t think all religion is evil, and so I think Dawkins’ judgment here is way off base. But the point is this: the species of intolerance which Dawkins is guilty of here isn’t the sort that we condemn just because it’s intolerant. This kind of intolerance--this willingness to stand up and denounce something as dangerous and wrong--is a virtue when its target really is dangerous and wrong.

So the question is which belief systems are dangerous and wrong. How do you decide? You decide by having spirited debates on the matter. You decide by hearing the arguments for various viewpoints and critically assessing those arguments. This can’t happen if those who believe that some belief systems are dangerous aren’t free to make their case. It can’t happen because they are shunned or excluded on the grounds that their viewpoint is “intolerant.”

When we speak about “intolerance,” we need to distinguish between two very different things. On the one hand, there’s the use of coercive power, usually by someone in a position of authority, to censor certain beliefs or persecute those who adhere to certain beliefs. On the other hand, there is the act of passing a negative judgment on some belief--either the judgment that the belief is mistaken, or that it’s dangerous--on the basis of reasons that are publicly shared and can therefore be subjected to critical assessment.

It is the former kind of intolerance that we need to avoid. That kind of intolerance amounts to political oppression. And if we want to avoid the former kind of intolerance, we need to allow the latter kind. Doing the latter is essential not only to academic discourse but to participatory democracy. It is by permitting the free and open discussion of ideas--including the critical evaluation of those ideas in what may be starkly negative ways--that we are most likely to discern which belief systems are good ones and which are bad.

And history teaches, I think, that if there are ideas and belief systems which really are dangerous, it is not a good idea to deal with them by legislating their censorship or suppression. Instead, it is far better to foster a climate in which the harmfulness and irrationality of those ideas can be brought to light through reasoned argument. Let the social discourse expose harmful ideas for what they are, and allegiance to those ideas will begin to wane. In the meantime, what we should legislate against are the overtly harmful behaviors that dangerously irrational ideas might be prone to inspire.

And so when Dawkins argues that religious ideas are dangerously irrational, we should listen to what he says without seeking to suppress it, and critically assess the merits of what he says. And when someone argues that Dawkins’ ideas are dangerously irrational, we should do the same. What we should not do, in either case, is attempt to stifle the open and critical discourse upon which both academic progress and deliberative democracy depend.

Despite what the House Resolutions claim, the science departments at OU are not stifling open and critical discourse when they design their teaching around the judgment that evolutionary theory offers the best scientific account of the phenomena it’s intended to explain. Rather, they are designing their teaching around the consensus that has emerged as the current outcome of ongoing open and critical discourse. At the same time, they are teaching students why evolutionary theory has emerged as the dominant theory, and they are teaching students how to participate in open and critical scientific discourse. If, in the end, it should prove that evolutionary theory is seriously defective, this will be demonstrated by students who understand why scientists have for so long found the theory convincing and who are well-trained in the methods of critical scientific inquiry. It won't be demonstrated because ideologues have succeeded in bullying their way into science programs with theories that aren’t science.

In these recent events surrounding Dawkins' visit to OU, there is an instance of someone with an intolerant desire to stifle open and critical discourse. In filing HR’s 1014 and 1015, Representative Thomsen is expressing that desire. The good news is that even if these resolutions pass, they lack the power to make Thomsen’s intolerant wishes a reality.

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