Thursday, May 31, 2007

Sam Brownback should not be president

Sam Brownback, Republican senator from Kansas and a presidential hopeful, gets some free publicity with the publication of his op-ed piece “What I think about evolution” in today’s New York Times. Brownback was one of the three Republican presidential candidates who didn’t raise his hand when asked at a debate if he believed in evolution.

The short summary of Brownback’s op-ed seems to be: science and faith are complementary as long as scientists come up with answers that my reading of the Bible supports.

First, Brownback on the complementarity of science and faith:

“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.”

This sounds a bit like Stephen J. Gould’s non-overlapping magisteria (NOMA). The merits of this are strongly debated. Personally, I waffle. The bigger problem with Brownback’s statement is that science and faith absolutely do contradict each other. If faith is telling you that the planet is 6000 years old, then you have a very real conflict with science. Moreover, this seems to represent an over-reaching of faith into the magisterium of science. If you want to know how the natural world (the ‘material order’ according to Brownback) works, ask a scientist, not a priest.

Brownback continues:

“People of faith should be rational, using the gift of reason that God has given us. At the same time, reason itself cannot answer every question. Faith seeks to purify reason so that we might be able to see more clearly, not less. Faith supplements the scientific method by providing an understanding of values, meaning and purpose. More than that, faith — not science — can help us understand the breadth of human suffering or the depth of human love.”

At the risk of sounding uncharitable, what is rational about faith? And what does it mean to say that “faith seeks to purify reason”? Look, I’ll allow that values play a role in making all kinds of decisions – we’re not robots after all. But I’m not so sure I like the notion that reason has to be passed through a purifying filter of faith.

So much for the marriage of faith and reason. Now Brownback gets to what science is OK in his mind:

“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.”

Is this how faith purifies science: if science contradicts my faith, then the science is wrong? (Didn’t St. Augustine say the exact opposite?)

“Biologists will have their debates about man’s origins, but people of faith can also bring a great deal to the table. 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.”

Just what, exactly, is faith’s part in exploring human origins? This just sounds like the equal time argument to me. Go play in your own magisterium.

“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. Man was not an accident and reflects an image and likeness unique in the created order. Those aspects of evolutionary theory compatible with this truth are a welcome addition to human knowledge. Aspects of these theories that undermine this truth, however, should be firmly rejected as an atheistic theology posing as science.”

The first couple of sentences remind me of something in Daniel Quinn’s book Ishmael. It’s essentially a retelling of the history of life (as told by a jellyfish) except that it ends, “and then jellyfish appeared.” (I’m paraphrasing…I don’t have the book in front of me.) Obviously, if you look back on a path that you’ve traveled, it will look like that path leads to you. But the notion that the path was preordained is ridiculous. There is no basis for saying that humans are not an accident. This underscores why faith is so detrimental to knowledge: Brownback begins with an untried proposition and he rejects any evidence that puts his proposition in doubt. Knowledge stagnates in such an environment. And read the last two sentences by Brownback again. Can you get more anti-intellectual than that? Have people learned nothing from the colossal missteps of George Bush caused by his lack of respect for actual information about the real world? Believing something to be true in the face of evidence to the contrary is not a laudable position to take.

For other views on Brownback's comments: try Forms most beautiful , Thoughts from Kansas, and Pharyngula

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