Friday, June 03, 2005

The Postmodern Assault on Science

Paul Nelson wades in to pen an Inadvertent Homage to George Orwell (times two):
At the end of Animal Farm, it turned out that “some animals are more equal than others.” In the magical wonderland of the design debate, circa 2005, it turns out that some ideas are more equal than others.

So we begin by attacking the notion that (shock!) some ideas are superior to others.

Then we discuss the fact that "“materialism is the default position for any rational being." These are the words of the former editor of the Encyclopedia Brittanica, an organ known to many rational beings. Why would he say such a thing? Nelson doesn't tell us, he just observes that the negation of a distantly related statement is religious, while the distantly related statement is not.

Why should a rational being be materialistic? Because the supernatural is unpredictable, and we need to be able to predict things. Think of clogged pipes, or a broken car. We look for material explanations because that's useful and predictive. It's not an exclusive materialism, just a practical, common sense idea.

Now, is "the universe was designed by an intelligence" a religious statement simply because its negation (however than negation is to be written) is not religious? Note how hard it is to write a negation; should we negate the intelligence, the design, or the certainty of the statement?

  • "The universe was designed by unintelligent but supernatural forces (an unintelligence)" is religious.
  • "The universe was not designed but there is still a supernatural intelligence" is religious.
  • "The universe may or may not have been designed by an intelligence" is probably not religious (context matters).
  • "The universe was not designed by an intelligence" may be religious (context matters).
The important demarkation here is not the negation, but the fact that certain statements about a supernatural intelligence are probably religious.

Plus he's upset that the Washington Post's aggressive editorial about the Smithsonian states that the movie doesn't mention God, but is still religious, but the Post would never call Cosmos (DVD) religious.

Nelson seems to think it's hypocritical to call something religious even though it doesn't mention God.

Here's a religious statement:
Someone died for your sins.
Why is it religious? No one mentioned God, or even Jesus! Ponder that.

How about this:
Christians believe Jesus died for your sins.
Not religious. It's about religion, but the content of the claim is a verifiable and material statement about the world (Christians), rather than an unverifiable statement about the metaphysical ("Some guy" aka Jesus).

All this he goes through to defend the idea that all ideas are equal. Yep, Paul Nelson is saying that there's no way to distinguish good and bad, religious and secular. It's all one big heap of steaming equality of ideas.

You know, science is about picking the good idea and rejecting the bad. Some ideas suck. Phrenology didn't work out. Newtonian physics was perfectly excellent, but it turns out that Einstein was better, so Newton goes away. Paley gave design a good run, but it didn't work out.

Claiming that not transitional fossils existed for whales was a great plan, and Behe got some good mileage out of the claim, but then we found a bunch of fossil transitional whales, and that idea went to the "suck" column. When Seventh Day Adventists reinvented creationism in the early 20th century, that idea went to the "suck" column pretty fast, too, along with Lamarckism, eugenics, the four-humour theory of disease, electromagnetic transmission through the ether, and spontaneous generation of mice, flies and bacteria.

Those ideas are all bad. They aren't equal to relativity (special and general), evolution, genetics, germ theory, cellular theory, atomic theory, etc. The Shaker religion might be said to have fallen by the wayside in favor of less celibate religious views. "Left Behind" style dispensationalism will probably fall by the wayside, too (as it has done before). But Christianity, like Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, etc. have not fallen away, and remain in the "not suck" column.

So the suck/not suck dichotomy is not religious. The religious dichotomy is not a value judgement either. There have been lots of bad scientific ideas, and lots of bad religious ideas, and both have some ideas which do not seem to suck.

But Nelson wants to insert religion into science, and to do that requires rendering any distinction irrelevant. So he is demanding that all ideas be treated equally, even ideas that suck.

Always Crashing in the Same Car” by David Bowie from the album Low (1977, 3:33).