Thursday, March 19, 2009

Science and Religion

In an article in March 8, 2009 edition of the Austin American Statesman, “Primed to Challenge Evolution in Schools: Official Believes Theory Has Holes, Wants that Taught”, Bryan dentist Don McLeroy, chairman of the Texas State Board of Education, is quoted as saying, “Everything that had a beginning we can say had a cause. And now science definitely says that the universes had a beginning. Therefore the universe had had a cause. And that cause is God.” The paper reports that he is a young earth creationist that believes that God created the earth between 6,000 and 10,000 years ago. McLeroy points to the sudden, in geologic terms, appearance of complexity as a reason to not accept evolution as the best explanation we have for the way life changes in the world.

This is a complex issue, no pun intended, and I do not expect my brief criticism of his actions to change his beliefs, nor do I want to. And, that’s the point. We have a right in America to have whatever religious beliefs we want. But our practice of those beliefs can’t impinge on the rights of others.

What no one has the right to do is, as an official or instrument of governance, to teach all children in public schools a specific religious belief or system of religious beliefs. The struggle between religion and government is an old one going back in history thousands of years.

History informs us that any attempt by any nation to either define a state religion or prohibit any form of religion is eventually doomed to failure. As a result, almost all formal religious groups support the principle of the separation of church and state.

The phrase “separation of church and state” is derived from a letter written by Thomas Jefferson in 1802 to a group identifying themselves as the Danbury Baptists. In that letter, referencing the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, Jefferson writes:

“Believing with you that religion is a matter which relies solely between Man and his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of the government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between Church and State.”

The founders of the United States valued this principle so strongly that it became the first amendment to the constitution.

In his book, The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism (2002), Michael Novak, a theologian, deeply steeped in the Catholic tradition, a historian, philosopher and an economist, identifies three principles of the American democratic system – free market capitalism, an involved polity in a representative democracy and a pluralistic cultural/moral system. These three principles have to be strong, vital and separate from each other. (See Our Cultural Moral Institutions Have Failed Us )

Alexis de Tocqueville, after studying the American form of democracy for the French government, wrote Democracy in America (1835). One of his findings was Americans’ love of organizing into groups. “Americans of all ages, all stations of life, and all types of disposition are forever forming associations...In democratic countries knowledge of how to combine is the mother of all other forms of knowledge; on its progress depends that of all the others.” A pluralistic moral/cultural system is a great strength. Out of our differences of values and knowledge can come wisdom if we learn how to have conversations. Conversation, which from the roots of the word means turning around together, is not dialog, compromise or debate. Conversation is not a zero sum process. It can result in thoughts that transcend the thoughts of the individuals engaged in it. No one loses and everyone gains.

Modern science, an essential part of democratic capitalism, is not about absolutes, although some science is taught that way. The scientific method is a great contribution to the development of knowledge of our physical world. Some of the first written thoughts about this method go back to Ibn al-Haytham or Alhazen, (965–1039) in Basra, Persia. The scientific method refers to techniques for investigating phenomena, acquiring new knowledge, or correcting and integrating previous knowledge. To be termed scientific, a method of inquiry must be based on gathering observable, empirical and measurable evidence subject to specific principles of reasoning. A scientific method consists of the collection of data through observation and experimentation, prediction, and the formulation and testing of hypotheses.

Thomas Kuhn in the Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962) teaches us how scientific knowledge advances. When the scientific community is reasonably satisfied with a body of knowledge (i.e. it explains the world sufficiently well for the times), it is collected together into a paradigm. This paradigm is then used over and over to puzzle out solutions to problems. As time goes by, problems are indentified that seem resistant to the accepted paradigm. These are set aside for the time being awaiting better knowledge or equipment. When enough of these anomalies have accumulated, unrest drives deeper thought and experimentation. Eventually a breakthrough occurs and the new paradigm is created that now solves the old and new problems. And, the process begins again. This process occurs in all knowledge, not just scientific knowledge. Kurt Godel (1906 – 1978) proved mathematically that all closed systems have inherent residual errors. Every time the search for knowledge is enclosed within a system and paradigm created, we know that we will find errors.

Evolution is the best paradigm we have for explaining how life on earth developed in the past, is developing now, and will develop in the future. Are there anomalies? Yes. But it is not science to ascribe those anomalies to a supernatural being. Should we teach about those anomalies? Yes. But they should be taught at the stage of development of a child’s mind where the anomalies become a challenge to solve, not the end of knowledge. Besides, why would a child want to learn something difficult if you start with all the things that what your teaching doesn’t do. We start children with simple Newtonian mechanics not quantum mechanics. Why? Because the concepts are easier to grasp and they work for almost all problems they will have to solve.

There are mysteries at the edge of our knowledge and we want children to be excited by those mysteries, to own the thought that they can resolve some of those mysteries. There should be no fear of this process. There will always be mysteries at the edge of our knowledge.

"As we acquire more knowledge, things do not become more comprehensible but more mysterious."
Albert Einstein

Aristotle (384 – 322 bc) posited that there were four causes of reality – a material cause, a formal cause, a productive cause and a final cause. In his view all of reality was driven by this linear process. In 1992, Marshal McLuhan posited the tetrad, or four laws. He saw these as four simultaneous processes governing change – enhancing, reversing, retrieving and obsolescencing. In complexity theory, we now understand that for a wide range of physical phenomena, the cause – effect relationship is broken. For these complex systems one time a small cause will have little or no effect and the next time that same small cause will result in a large effect. The amazing part of this story is that this phenomena is ubiquitous and it lay hidden in our full view until the 1960s. We also now know that complex organization can emerge from what appears to be randomness very quickly. And, even more amazing is the fact that these complex systems exist exists where life exists, at the boundary between order and chaos.

So Mr. McLeroy teach science in science classes and textbooks, and teach your religion within your religion. That is your right, and it is my right not to have your religious views taught to my grandchildren in an educational system I pay for and is an instrument of government.

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