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December 21, 2005

Judge Jones' decision: some thoughts

** On December 20, Judge John E. Jones, a Republican, ruled that the requirement instituted by the school board in Dover, Pennsylvania, that teachers read a statement presenting "intelligent design" as an alternative to evolution was unconstitutional and characterized by "breathtaking inanity." Secularist might indeed find evidence here that the great, centuries-long process of accepting science, not faith, as the arbiter of truth about the natural world has not halted. After all, it wasn't so long ago that such decisions were going the other way: In the famous "Monkey Trial" in 1925, John Scopes was convicted of violating a Tennessee law against teaching evolution in public schools. (The case was later thrown out on a technicality.) That law was not repealed until 1967.

** However, might there also have been evidence that fundamentalism, superstition, mumbo jumbo (choose your term of abuse) or (more kindly) faith are once again on the rise in the fact that a school board in the United States in the twenty-first century could even consider instituting such a requirement?

** In his decision, Judge Jones declared that "the theory of evolution…in no way conflicts with, nor does it deny, the existence of a divine creator." Those of us who are interested in the history of tussles between the secular and the spiritual might want to chew over this remark a little. It certainly has a nice, genteel, pluralistic sound, but is it true?

When the theory of evolution was first promulgated, a century and a half ago, many of its supporters, as well as its opponents, did see it as a significant challenge to the foundations of religion: The problem was not so much that natural selection and a "divine creator" couldn't cohabit. It's a big universe. And we're dealing, apparently, with an endlessly mutable Deity. The problem was that Darwin's explanation of how natural selection, a mere biological process, could account for the complexity of the natural world seemed to leave little or no need for said "divine creator." Natural selection, like Newton's theory of planetary motions, seemed to make God redundant.

Newton remained a believer. Darwin didn't. And he lost his faith in those years when he was, cautiously, working out his theory. "Disbelief crept over me at a very slow rate," he reports in a short memoir, "but was at last complete."

One of the quotes shuffled at this top of this blog is from the poet Shelley and a college buddy: "If ignorance of nature gave birth to gods, knowledge of nature is made for their destruction." For Shelley, unlike Judge Jones, science and religion do indeed conflict. In 1811, Shelley was kicked out of Oxford University - then an even more conservative institution than the Dover school board - for saying so.

Posted by Mitchell Stephens at December 21, 2005 11:30 PM


I believe the ruling shows that when the issue is deliberated upon by informed participants ID simply cannot standup to scrutiny. The ruling itself will do nothing to stop the movement, and it's push to act through the ballot box. Individuals with no expertise in a given subject should not be trusted to set guidelines for that subject. Should we also leave other educational decisions to people who have zero expertise on the subjects. If so, what is the point of education?

Posted by: Joe at December 22, 2005 4:54 PM

I don't know what Judge Jones had in mind, but there does seem to be one strain of the religion/science debate that's determined to reconcile the two. I fail to understand how that can be possible. I won't go so far as to say that scientists and the scientifically literate who are also believers are simply compartmentalizing, but they may certainly be unaware of the contradictions in holding both views.

I look forward to your posts and the discussions.

Posted by: Catana at December 22, 2005 7:14 PM

I'm not so sure that evolution itself is incompatible with belief in god(s), although it does tend to limit that god. Be it deism, theistic evolution, or finding ever more narrow gaps in which your god can hide, there's room for religious belief there.

Speaking only for myself, my personal studies and reading on evolution (and philosophy, cosmology, etc) did contribute to my atheism (raised Roman Catholic), if only because my thoughts became "Wow, if they got that whole creation of man thing wrong, I wonder what else they screwed up or lied about."

It took me almost four years to let go of my faith, so I'd not be surprised if other theists found ways to contort their god into the box with which evolution leaves us.

Posted by: andy at December 22, 2005 10:00 PM

If you haven't found it already, this recent article by E. O. Wilson might interest you. He remarks passingly towards the end that while working on evolution may have hastened Darwin's loss of faith, his scientific progress was also conversely accelerated by his growing abandonment of "blind faith".

I liked your historical comment about Newton as to me and many others the mathematical beauty and simplicity of Newtonian physics are a much better argument for intelligent design of the universe than any system in biology anyway. It's easy (although not necessarily accurate) to imagine biologists growing sick of all the redundancy and inefficiency in biological systems ("nipples for men?!?" as a Terry Gilliam film once put it) while Newton could look at the simple first- and second-order equations that described his universe and see the will of a divine creator.

It wouldn't surprise me if sooner or later Einstein's protestation that god should "not play dice" will sink in and the IDers will give up on fighting the imperturbable common sense of Darwinism and start trying to tear down spooky quantum physics instead.

Posted by: Peter at December 22, 2005 10:02 PM

thanks Peter, Wilson article on Darwin very interesting and useful. He clearly would not agree with Judge Jones that there is no conflict between evolution and religion:

"So, will science and religion find common ground, or at least agree to divide the fundamentals into mutually exclusive domains? A great many well-meaning scholars believe that such rapprochement is both possible and desirable. A few disagree, and I am one of them. I think Darwin would have held to the same position. The battle line is, as it has ever been, in biology. The inexorable growth of this science continues to widen, not to close, the tectonic gap between science and faith-based religion."

Posted by: mitch at December 22, 2005 10:37 PM

Minor point: my reading of Judge Jones was that not only does he see no inherent conflict between evolution and religion, but more importantly that this was essentially the consensus of the expert witnesses called by the plaintiffs (the anti-ID side for anyone not closely following the case).

Personally, I think it depends on your meaning of religion. I can't imagine reconciling any Abrahamic, organized religion with modern science, but I don't necessarily see a conflict between science and more freethinking spirituality. Of course, there is a general tension between empiricism and faith-based or spiritual approaches to problems, but I would suppose I am in the good company of Einstein and others in thinking that there do exist questions in life that do not require or benefit from scientific scrutiny.

While I'm at it, I'll retract my above musing about future attacks on quantum physics; although it's a much easier target than evolution for politicized psuedo-scientific criticism, it'll probably stay off the fundamentalist radar until they start teaching quantum physics in primary schools, which judging from the current state of public science education will arrive a few years after (a strictly proverbial) hell freezes over. ; )

Hmmm, now that I'm really in musing mode, I'll further suppose that for now the fallout from the Sokal fiasco probably insulates quantum physics from psuedo-scientific criticism to some extent. Of course, Sokal's goal was to discredit postmodern psuedo-science. But now that creationism has taken on this disingenuously psuedo-scientific air, one might consider modern ID theory alongside historical postmodernism/socialist realism and be impressed with the similiarities. Maybe. I'd love to see someone research that.

Posted by: Peter at December 22, 2005 11:44 PM

"I think it depends on your meaning of religion"
Yes, but it is interesting -- and that is what I mean by "mutable" in the above post -- that the gods keep getting hazier as the science grows more powerful. (Freud decries the "dishonesty" of putting forward such a "shadow" to suggest belief in "the mighty personality of religious doctrines.")

Posted by: mitch at December 23, 2005 9:16 AM

In his decision, Judge Jones declared that "the theory of evolution…in no way conflicts with, nor does it deny, the existence of a divine creator." Those of us who are interested in the history of tussles between the secular and the spiritual might want to chew over this remark a little. It certainly has a nice, genteel, pluralistic sound, but is it true?

The theory of evolution affects the debate over the existence of God in no way because it says nothing about spirituality, metaphysics, or the origins of the universe. However, the theory of evolution strongly contradicts the dogmas of many existing religions. Faced with this conflict, the members of these religions can (collectively or individually) choose to treat their doctrine as allegory, to ignore scientific progress and let the world pass them by, or to insist that their doctrine is literally accurate. In choosing the last of these options, people come into direct conflict with the scientific establishment, and thus bring us all to the point where we actually have to waste time proving that "Intelligent Design" isn't science at all, let alone meritable and relevant science.

Posted by: Dayv at December 23, 2005 11:13 AM

Again, you picked a really interesting anecdote; Freud's wording, "the mighty personality of religious doctrines", recalls Einstein's "we should take care not to make the intellect our God. It has, of course, powerful muscles, but no personality". I never thought of this quote as "personality == doctrine" before (I had a less dogmatically spiritual reading), but now I think it's quite likely this is what Einstein meant.

Posted by: Peter at December 24, 2005 7:28 PM

"In his decision, Judge Jones declared that "the theory of evolution…in no way conflicts with, nor does it deny, the existence of a divine creator." Those of us who are interested in the history of tussles between the secular and the spiritual might want to chew over this remark a little. It certainly has a nice, genteel, pluralistic sound, but is it true?"

Yes. There certainly can be a divine creator that oversaw evolution or planted the seeds or something.

However, it does really blatantly conflict with the story of Adam and Eve, as does just about everything else involving the history of the earth.

Posted by: NoahSD at December 26, 2005 11:11 PM

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