Wednesday, July 3, 2013

A question of the Campagna? The poignant side of 'Intelligent design'

This post is triggered by the exchanges on Holly's recent and typically excellent and clear post on evolution and how we know it.  One commenter was pushing his Intelligent Design (ID) book, and s/he generated some very effective replies with links to extensive analysis that showed quite strongly how far off the factual mark was the book--and ID generally.  Unfortunately, the exchange revealed the deep cleft in our society, which for nearly a century has played havoc with the idea of teaching and accepting what science tells us about the nature of the world, and our life in it.

It is so easy to criticize the blatant errors, falsities, and essentially willful ignorance of proper science repeatedly proffered by  proponents of views like Intelligent Design (ID).  But while real scientists easily have a field day showing the superficialities, errors, and calumnies of ID advocates, perhaps one should pause a moment and try to understand the latters' presumed motivation.

In Bertolt Brecht's play Galileo, a monk questions the great scientist on why he insists on advocating his views.  "My parents are peasants in the Campagna [countryside]," the monk notes.  Life is unrelentingly hard for them.  There is no relief from living on the margins.  "How could they take it, were I to tell them that they are on a lump of stone ceaselessly spinning in empty space, circling around a second-rate star?  What then would be the use of their patience, their acceptance of misery?"  The monk goes on to elaborate that for so many in this world, there is so little that if it were not for the belief that their suffering is for something, they would have nothing.  If "there is no eye watching over us, after meaning in our misery.  Hunger is just not having eaten."

Galileo, a well-fed man of ease himself (indeed, a professor!), replies "Hm, well at least you have found out that it is not a question of the satellites of Jupiter, but of the peasants of the Campagna!"  The cold truths are enough for him.  Let others worry about morality and human well-being.

Room for poignancy?
Indeed, for many IDers today, life is lived on a cushion of middle-class privilege, and it is hard for us as scientists to find any sympathy for their deceptions and dissembling.  But at their root, IDism and other struggles to rescue a loving, purposeful, rewarding personal God should evoke at least some empathy.  It is all too easy for us as scientists, privileged to muse (with tenure, over a nice meal) about the nature of the world, to denigrate the often intentional ignorance of advocates of religious fundamentalism.

Somehow, many or most of us have been able to get over, or avoid, or ignore, the fear of death and oblivion, even if we know from the world we study that that is what awaits us.  Our comfortable lives, and the industrial approach to science provide technical (rather than spiritual) cures or fixes for whatever we want, with the associated therapists and pharmaceutical aids in the process.  But, obviously life is not like that for a great many people, even in our comfortable 'developed' world.

Isaac Newton, himself a religious fundamentalist, used science to try to understand the laws by which God had created the universe.  God had clearly created a lawful cosmos (though He may have to intervene from time to time when complexities arose), and the job of scientists was to divine, so to speak, the orderliness of His work.

But despite his religion Newton was a scientist, and he believed in accepting the realities he found, and tried to understand, in the world.  In his Principia Mathematica, he wrote "Certainly idle fancies ought not to be fabricated recklessly against the evidence of experiments, nor should we depart from analogy of nature, since nature is always simple and ever consonant with itself."  We have to believe what we see in the world.  Just because some facts are close at hand, and others elusive or missing, does not entitle us to dismiss the latter by inventing theological interpretations: No, nature is law-like, and what we can see reflects what we don't see.  Gravity makes things drop on earth, so we must assume that's why planets orbit stars. 

Not condescention
The endless debate with IDers is somewhat poignantly sad.  There is no sympathy for the intentional or even exploitative advocates of unsupportable religious arguments for the nature of the world.  They know--or should know--better than to say the things they say, unless they are playing a very un-Godlike selfish game, exploiting for sales or ego the very fear that drives so many to ache for religious solace.

This is not a matter of being condescending to benighted believers by those of us who see from a higher mountaintop.  It's a matter of understanding the way the world looks from the Campagna.  Of course, scientists might be so blinded by our own faith in materialism that we simply can't see otherwise.  But basically every material boundary where IDers et al have said this is where God enters the picture, has been addressed successfully by science.

Indeed, any scientist would be exceedingly thrilled to be the one who proved the existence and nature of a benign comforting God who would look after all our griefs.  Think of the accolades and rewards that would be heaped upon him or her!  No, the reason that this isn't the main Grail of our work is that there is no trail to follow.  (Of course, such a discovery might ironically be heavily punished as interference, as when the Grand Inquisitor condemned the returning Jesus, in The Brother's Karamazov).

If there is some religious theological and non-material truth, it is not to be found in science as we know it, and from a science point of view it is difficult to see where or how it could be found, if it exists.  That is perhaps a struggle for anyone who is unsure about how or whether science's purely materialistic approach to existence might be misleading us.

But for those who sincerely don't know or for reasons of their circumstances can't know what the truth is telling us, one should try to understand with a bit of sympathy why they find it so difficult to accept that they are just "on a lump of stone ceaselessly spinning in empty space, circling around a second-rate star."


Holly Dunsworth said...

The New Yorker reviewer agrees...
Link to article

Holly Dunsworth said...

This isn't for everyone: My view.

David Evans said...

They can go to any church they like and worship any god they like. My sympathy stops when they try to compromise the teaching of the established fact of evolution in our schools.

Jim Wood said...

I confess that I sympathize with the peasants of Campagna, even as I agree with Galileo and Darwin (for the most part). I have a professional interest in the material conditions of preindustrial farmers, including European peasants, and they led hard, short lives filled with frequent food shortages and recurring outbreaks of infectious disease. Under the circumstances, I'd probably believe in a better life to come. And while it's true (as you say) that modern ID'ers lead lives of plenty and security, the modern creationist (indeed, fundamentalist) movement was born of the South and Mid-West during the agricultural depression, the Great Depression, and the Dust Bowl. I grew up in the Ozarks in the fifties, and most of the rural people I knew were both true believers and desperately poor. I find it hard to begrudge them their beliefs, and I salute you, Ken, for acknowledging their hard lives (I would have thought that Brecht would have been more sympathetic). But, needless to say, trying to understand the psychology of belief is not the same thing as accepting the beliefs themselves.