Monday, July 30, 2007

Creation, Evolution, and the Definition of "Truth"

Re: Creation/Evolution in Schools

An example, I think, of two fundamentally different ways of viewing the world. One sees "truth" as something contingent, provisional, observation- and fact-based, and multifaceted. The other sees "truth" as something unidimensional, fixed, unchanging, and revealed from some authority. Because the assumptions are different, so are the conclusions.

Thus one side argues that "evolution is really another religion," refers to "DarwinISM," etc. The other wonders how otherwise-intelligent people could possibly believe such irrational nonsense. Both end up talking past each other. But the religionists try to see "Darwinism" as a religion, because to them, truth is a matter of revelation. Therefore, someone who believes in the "wrong" truth must have been duped by a false prophet. The possibility that they're using a different reasoning process is very difficult one to grasp.

I see some of this in my freshman courses, and more in the junior-level ethics course I teach. Some of our students are deeply religious, and feel, quite correctly, that the academy is hostile to that. Not because of any supposed "We Hate Christians" mentality; most of the things that get the "Persecuted Christians" rhetoric going are simply people of other religions (or no religion) speaking up and having the temerity to think they have the same rights as Christians do. Which often leads to a class discussion of privilege, but that's another subject for another day.

But the academy is hostile to religion in general, and rightly so. The foundations that religion uses for credibility--revelation, intuition, revealed wisdom that is to be accepted and not questioned, individual insights based on meditation not subject to skeptical inquiry--are outside the academic framework. Not only are the "truths" of religion not accepted, but such methods are not even recognized as a valid means of knowing. No wonder, then, that religionists sometimes feel under siege.

The solution is not, however, to compromise the goals and purpose of the academy for the sake of sparing their feelings. The argument made in the court brief, that students have some sort of "right" not to be exposed to arguments they disagree with, is ludicrous. Such exposure is precisely the point of academia, to present multiple arguments, to hash them out, confident that in the end the "truth" will emerge, as best we can see it at the time. And yes, "the academy" includes public schools, the purpose of which is to prepare educated citizens. Such citizens will have to deal with situations and conditions we can't predict now. Therefore, they will have to know how to think, how to evaluate evidence, how to reason about that evidence.

Yes, the academy is firmly on the contingent-provisional side of the question. (Or should be; certain Marxist & deconstructionist faculty may be excluded from that. Again, that's another rant for another day.)

The intellectual poison of creationism isn't that it disagrees with evolution, or that it's mostly associated one particular brand of one religion. It's that it's not only irrational, it's antirational. And schools that teach children not to think are doing a disservice to everyone.

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