Saturday, September 20, 2008

The Endarkenment

Right. I have controlled my anger sufficiently after my encounter with Professor Chris Higgins on the Radio 4 Today show this morning. The subject of our discussion was the resignation of Michael Reiss from the Royal Society, he was driven out because of some remarks he made about creationism. I commented on this briefly in an earlier post, deliberately refraining from going into the depths of this issue. After talking to Higgins, however, I cannot continue to be so restrained. First, a thought experiment for Prof Higgins. You are a biology teacher in an average, multicultural British classroom. Say 30 per cent have been brought up in and continue to adhere to one of the monotheistic religions. You are teaching Darwin and you begin by saying all their creation stories are 'complete nonsense' - not outside the realm of science, not even complete scientific nonsense, but complete nonsense. This is what you said about creationism in response to Reiss. At this point you have lost a third of your students. All Reiss did was suggest a sensible and humane way around this problem. Furthermore, how are you going to teach Darwinism to even the remaining 70 per cent without explaining what preceded it? It is one of the most grotesque and vulgar superstitions of contemporary scientism that science renders all previous forms of human wisdom meaningless.
In fact, since Prof Higgins kept doggedly repeating the same category error in our debate, I have a feeling he didn't believe a word of what he was saying.
Okay let's move to to Anonymous's comment on my previous post - 'The simple point you evaded is this: Do we believe it is possible to seek truth from observed facts?' Oi vei! Yes, Anon, I have read Popper and Kuhn. I could write a book about this - oh I have.  Well, Anon, it all depends on what you mean by a)truth b)observed and c)facts; I'll let you have 'evaded' even though I didn't. Are my thought processes and imagination 'observed facts'? If no, then observed facts are clearly not the road to Truth, though they may provide access to subsidiary truths. If yes - they are certainly observed facts to me - then we can seek but there's no prospect of us ever finding. Can we seriously expect science to explain the how and the why of my current desire to fry a tomato? Not now and probably not ever. And don't give me any contemporary neuroscience. I know what it says and there's nothing there about me and tomatoes. 
This leads on to the central point. I am perfectly happy to say that creationism has nothing to do with science and can be excluded from science lessons, subject to my condition that it is a necessary tool in the understanding of Darwinism and to Reiss's point that it may help in the teaching biology if it is accepted as a world view rather than simply something that is wrong. What I am not perfectly happy with is supporters and members of the Royal Society - the greatest and oldest body of its type in the world - stomping around saying creation myths are 'complete nonsense'. This is vulgar, philistine, inhumane, intolerant, wrong-headed and vicious. We live and die by metaphor - as the genius I write about tomorrow in The Sunday Times knows better than anybody - and these myths tell us deep truth about the human condition that are accessible in no other way. When we stop thinking like that we shall cease to be human which is, perhaps, what the Royal Society wants.
But it doesn't. The RS is a great and glorious product of the Enlightenment, which is why this should never have happened. At the heart of the matter is the delusion of certain scientists that they, uniquely, are the heirs of the Enlightenment and that this great cultural moment was primarily about the extirpation of religion. Tell that to two of the Enlightment's greatest figures, Isaac Newton and Samuel Johnson, I dare you. The Enlightenment was primarily about the spread of tolerance, of liberal human acceptance. Newton and Johnson would have poured such wondrous - and, of course, beautifully written - scorn on the hounding of Reiss that he would, by now, be RS president.
It has been said before, but it needs saying again. Scientific fundamentalism is no different from Islamist and Christianist fundamentalism. It is equally intolerant and an equal betrayal of the great institution from which it springs. We are, therefore, in the midst of The Endarkenment, an assault on reason by those who claim to be its greatest defenders. Good science has no need to fear creationism and it has certainly no need to fear Reiss's humane and thoughtful paper, which is what, incredible as it may seem, has led the Royal Society to disgrace itself in this extraordinary way.


  1. I was amused by the way Professor Higgins audibly faltered towards the end of the discussion, yet persisted in using the term "nonsense" to describe creationsm. His failure to engage with the issue on any level beyond the scientific was typical of the materialist ideology that seems to be so common these days. It's a constant vexation to me that I'm forced to appear as an apologist for religious fundamentalism by the zealotry of supposedly rational Atheists.

  2. Oh well, these days scientists seem to hunt in packs. It seems that hardly anyone will stand up and say what they think, darn the consequences. From what you say it sounds as if the Royal Society has had its day and is now almost a club for those who are happy to drink deep of the PC Kool Aid, the makers of this brew being those who command the herd and hand out the grants, the positions on quangos and the like. Perhaps it would be best if the RS was quietly disbanded. This stuff about the Bible is epecially extraordinary since it is impossible to understand Western culture without it.

    I think you were spot-on on Radio 4 when you said that this affair reeks of terrific insecurity. All attempts to rope off science from the rest of life are doomed to failure. Human beings do not work this way. If they did, we would live in a world of perfect rationality and there would be no need for Genesis myths. One imagines the scientists know this deep down, and the knowledge freaks them out.

  3. The need some people feel to impose their dogma on others perforce is alternately frightening and ridiculous. Thanks to Bryan for getting some of our own back from the dogmatists.

  4. Modern science is so obsessed with ‘observable facts’ that it is unable to acknowledge the observable fact that human beings are creatures of language, symbol, metaphor, and myth. Yet so often, when you hear scientists speak, they will talk about the influences that took them into science; the novels of Verne, Wells, or Clarke. For some it was Patrick Moore talking about manned space flight. Children of the sixties and seventies watched the Apollo moon landings followed by Star Trek and many went on to work for NASA. My point is that it doesn’t seem to be a question of myths. It’s merely a question of which myths and science’s automatic response to anything that smacks of theism.

    And where is the role of imagination in all this? Isn’t science about more than seeing what’s observable? Doesn’t it imagine what lies beyond? Isn’t the point of the Large Hadron Collider to see what has only been thus far imagined? And isn’t it ironic that the pinnacle of modern scientific research has now been named after one of the modern myths which is achieving its own religious fanaticism.

  5. There are times when I believe that the US system of forcing a mix of electives for credit during the early years of Uni' is a bit of a waste. Then one meets something like this and realise that ramming a bit of the history of thought into the medicos and the boffins can only be a good thing.
    Sorry I missed you this morning, was out with the hound, I ended up listening to Oddie and some girl with a voice designed for a valve radio.

  6. Hmmm... creationism is nonsense you know.

  7. OK, let's agree that the Professor should certainly not have had to leave the RS, and that creation myths and religion are an important part of the human psyche which should be taught in schools. Religion has led to some of the glories of human civilisation and it absolutely must be studied as part of a decent education. The trouble is the place for it is in history and cultural studies and psychology, not in biology. In the context of describing the mechanisms of life, creationism is simply not true. That has to be recognised.

    I was disappointed in the interview because neither you nor your adversary mentioned what seems to me one of the real reasons why this subject becomes so emotive: in America and other parts of the world there is real pressure to return to the days when creationism (or any other myth) is taught as objective fact. Once we allow the fundamentalists that, how much further back will they try to drag us? Do you not feel that as a responsible commentator you should also recognise that danger?

  8. (Damn these common first names -- I'm sticking to my blog title from now on).

    The rise of creationists in the US certainly makes people nervous over here. Science should be able stand up for itself, confident enough to acknowledge the alternative opinion in order to affect change. Fundamentalisms of all kinds are equally balmy.

  9. Bryan, you are of course right. I would go much furtgher and say that ID provides an important critique of neo-Darwinism. (See especially Michael Behe's writings; his Amazon blog is excellent; I am a Buddhist and therefore a non-thesist, BTW.)

    In any case it should of course be discussed.

  10. This blog is getting too esoteric for me. Science afraid of the creationists? Hell yes and they should be.

    The fact that men has always had myths and metaphors doesn't make them any more true. Men has always had fairy tales. I can understand that you as a writer hold these things in higher value.

    Science is not a world view. Science isn't even a coherent group of people uttering some statements. Science is the attempt to understand the world solely by observation of the facts, no matter what the outcome is. Therefore the phrase 'fundamental scientist' bares no meaning, other then describing somenone who has no tolerance for myths in his practical life.

  11. "It is very clear from all the evidence that is around that creationism, as it's normally taught, is simply nonsense, evolution is supported by all the data and all the arguments over several hundred years."

    "But nothing that Professor Reiss said is incompatible with that, is it?"

    "What he did was resign so that the position of science about evolution and creation could be clarified, which I think was a very generous move on his part."

    It doesn't take much scepticism to guess Reiss didn't resign out of generosity so much as he was forced out.

    Higgins thinks he was right to be forced to resign in order to clarify 'the position of science'? Since 'science' cannot have a 'position' anymore than it can have a banana or haircut, what this fellow means as "he was right to resign to clarify the official creed of many scientists".

    Well, eppure si muove, pal, it still moves.

    Incidentally, i note this Higgins person is V-Chancellor of the University of Durham. A few years before i went there they sacked the greatest thinker, teacher, & writer i've met in the flesh, on more or less the same logic as the RS have fired Reiss. It doesn't surprise me, therefore, to hear the same Stalinist nonsense coming from Higgins.

  12. The shrillness and frothing hysteria of those representing the forces of 'reason' is for me the most wearisome yet also most intriguing aspect of the 'debate'. Why are they so insecure?

  13. One of the reasons these debates have such a hard time getting traction is the stereotypes associated with the word creationist, stereotypes the scientific establishment is doing everything to reinforce. The RS/Dawkins/Higgins et. al. are desperate to peg the word as describing the followers of American televangelists who earn good money running weird theme parks and treating the Bible as a guide to both natural history and U.S. foreign policy before meeting their just desserts with their pants down in some seedy motel. They either don't want to engage any other kinds of belief or dismiss them without a hearing as milquetoast hypocrisies (In fact, the only thing science has arguably "disproved" is Christian natural theology, which didn't even get going until about the 17th century). The scientific community has become so addicted to this bogeyman that it seems to have developed an unbreakable co-dependency relationship with it that would impress AA. But of course the word also describes one who just sees cause and meaning in existence and also many other beliefs that don't hinge on denying genetic evolution. It's a little like trying to discuss a comprehensive drug prevention and treatment policy using only the word dope.

    Of course, the other problem in gaining any traction is the rather sharp differences over the question of whether God exists.

  14. "stomping around saying creation myths are 'complete nonsense'. This is vulgar, philistine, inhumane, intolerant, wrong-headed and vicious"

    Much as i agree with you about that guy getting fired what is wrong with proving creation myths as nonsense?
    Not all scientist do it in a vulgar way; they just point out the facts which pretty much expose creationism as a fairytale.
    A lot of people, especially in America, fundamentally believe this and want it taught as "fact" not in context. The evangelical Christian groups that backed Bush would go one step further and ban Darwin from the timetable, among other things.
    There are no doubt shrewd messages in creation myths such as "Adam and Eve", but that doesn't mean we shouldn't be free to expose them as events that never occured.
    Fairytales themselves carry important messages and myths too but we wouldn't give a shit if someone called them nonsense.
    In Britin it's a small amount of Christians that fully believe in creationism so i don't think he's offending many people.
    Even Rod Liddle, a Chritian, admits creationism is a lot of bollocks but it doesn't stop him believing in God. Even Darwin and Einstein believed in God.

  15. Give me peace in my shelter from these warring factions. The missiles fly overhead, these fundamentalists disturb my peace!

  16. This morning I stood up and cheered while listening to Bryan’s eloquent discussion on radio 4.

    As a former PhD student of Michael, I have been pacing like a tiger up and down: annoyed, frustrated and wondering how to defend such an undeserved slur against a brilliant mind and kind soul. (at this point I’m often asked – ‘ah so you’re religious too?’ To which I answer ‘no - should I be?). The Royal Society were lucky to work with such an accomplished scientist and educationalist. Sadly what happened to Michael is no more than a modern day witch hunt. (as encapsulated in Bryan’s blog/radio interview).

    But the reaction against Michael does not represent the many diverse ideas within the scientific community. To assume that all scientists represent the misinformed views of Professor Higgins and Richard Dawkins is to misrepresent a rich and diverse community of thinkers, philosophers and educationalists. The measure of the Royal Society is how they will react to this challenge. So far the Society has been badly advised in how to deal with Professor Reiss: in essence sacking him (let’s not bandy words). But now they have the chance to show what they are not: a Victorian men’s club run by a bunch of ‘frightened schoolgirls’ (and my apologies to all the many schoolgirls who would have never been so churlish). I have faith, because I have to, that the Royal Society will show what they aim to be: the foundation of Enlightenment - tolerance and debate.

  17. I'm sure that Brian and others are right when they say that insecurity, if not fear, gives the Scientismists their energy - and with some cause, I would say. Several keystones of science as she is taught are not supported by observation. This is Eric Lerner on the Big Bang, for instance:

    "The Big Bang theory requires THREE hypothetical entities--the inflation field, non-baryonic (dark) matter and the dark energy field to overcome gross contradictions of theory and observation. Yet no evidence has ever confirmed the existence of any of these three hypothetical entities."

    He's right, isn't he?

    The Large Hadron Colider (currently broke) hopes to explain where mass comes from: meaning science currently doesn't know - a slight weakness in the 'observable evidence' department for physical science, I would have thought.

    Hawking in a Brief History... says quantum mechanics and relativity cannot both be true - yet both are taught through to post-grad level, are they not? Which one do we think should be dropped?

    Claims of observed speciation are very few and far between, some in bacteria, fruit flies maybe ... but of course Evolution doesn't claim that one or two species evolved from other species, it claims that all the buggers did - a large claim on so little observed evidence.

    It's not Christian, Muslim or Scientific fundamentalism that's the problem - it's fundamentalism. And non-fundamentalists can't seem to get together to address the problem. Why, I wonder?


  18. Great interview and post, Bryan. And some excellent comments. I suspect that science really has little to fear from religion. Surely, it is a category mistake to speak of them in opposition to each other at all (other than, perhaps, in a socio-political context). They are not comparable human activities. They exist in entirely different realms of human experience. In my view, science has proven itself on its own terms anyway. The fact that the words I type here will appear on your blog is one example of why science is here to stay. Quite simply, it has made itself indispensable by its enormous contribution to human progress. Religion, on the other hand, has not proven itself, in that sense, but nor does it need to. It performs another function altogether, and may or may not be indispensable (I've dispensed with it, but that's just me), we'll just have to wait and see.

    I don't wish to be obtuse, and perhaps it is unfair to pick out one sentence, but your contention that scientific fundamentalism is no different from Islamist or Christianist fundamentalism strikes me as being a little disingenuous. I know who I fear most, and right now it ain't the scientist.

  19. This entire debate fails because it has misunderstood the nature of science rather than that of religion or religious fundamentalism. One day the expansion of science will absorb it. Science holds the key to the greatest age of faith in the history of the world, even if we cannot define it. This consideration lies at the heart of everything.

  20. "Quite simply, it has made itself indispensable by its enormous contribution to human progress. Religion, on the other hand, has not proven itself, in that sense, but nor does it need to"

    Well you could argue that the Enlightenment was a direct product of Christianity and shares many of it's impulses. So, in a funny way, Humanist should be thanking Christianity.

  21. More food for thought.

    Within the context of rational inquiry, all the revealed creation stories are complete nonsense in that they have absolutely no basis in first order knowledge.

    Consequently, despite those creation stories being mutually exclusive, there is no way to distinguish between the truth value of any of them.

    Now, saying so may alienate a good third of the students, and may be a bad idea on that ground alone.

    However, that doesn't make the bases of creation stories sensible.

    This is a decent discussion on the different orders of knowledge underlying ID/Creationism and naturalistic evolution. From the article:

    In portraying Creationism as a science, its advocates invariably fall afoul of the Cargo Cult syndrome--assuming the outward trappings and language of rational inquiry does not produce the results of rational inquiry. Acquiring sufficient first hand knowledge to support a resilient second order knowledge requires an astonishing amount of work; no Creationist organization has anything even remotely approximating ongoing research to obtain first order knowledge. Merely adopting the science's formalisms will not close that gap.

    If the Bible is literally true, then first order knowledge, and theories based upon it, would clearly and continuously demonstrate that truth. However, first order knowledge has so far failed to be agreeable. This requires Creationists to create concepts but leave them undefined, conflate distinct concepts, misuse related scientific theories, create straw men, and, when all else fails, simply lie. Finally, Creationism, divorced from first order knowledge, promotes as scientific theories explanations upon which no conceivable combination of existing knowledge or future discovery could have any impact.

    This is why, within the context of rational inquiry, Creationism is nonsense.

    That said, if it comes up in a science class, by all means compare and contrast ID/Creationism and naturalistic evolution.

    For ID/Creationists, though, I would remind them of the cautionary "be careful what you ask for".

  22. Shorter Skipper: There is no material evidence to support the existence of the immaterial.

  23. The post and the radio interview made very good points. Clearly Michaal Reiss should not have resigned - and BA is right to say there is in some cases hysteria about creationism. He makes an excellent point that science should be confident enough not to overreact. I confess that I am rather bored by 'different kinds of knowledge' etc etc: what I think BA does not acknowledge is that in the US creationism IS taught as science - namely, ID. That IS a problem - and has provoked a frankly rather crass response from the Dawkins people, which has been broadened wrongly I think into a kind of atheist fundamentalism. In doing this, Dawkins and co muddy the waters. We SHOULD contest ID ie creationism as science - and not be too troubled by God or gods.

  24. Anon

    I'm troubled by God - as the only sane explanation for the phenomena of reality/experience I see about me. I'm not a Christian nor belong to any other brand of religious faith and I understand the scientific worldview and yet, and yet...

    There is a presence, a logic, an explanation, an aesthetic response, that puts God behind it all - in front of it even. This is not a God of the gaps for my knowledge of the world is filled (the world is a limited whole and science [experience?] has mapped it out) so what lies beyond it, what supports it?

    God is the only... (description? response?) one can have for it for it is unknowable and impenetrable; it permeates the present.

    I didn't ask for this. I was suprised. Yet it makes sense and if I dismissed it I would be lying to myself.


  25. Henry sent me here. As a practising scientist—molecular cell biologist to be precise—I just want to add my 'hurrah' to the crowd supporting Brian, and indeed Reiss.


  26. Reiss's suggestion is absolutely the best way for science teachers to handle particular questions from pupils with a creationist upbringing.

    Unfortunately, this debate does all too easily slide into demands for scientists to 'teach the controversy'. I note that ID raises its ugly head halfway up this thread. The disingenuous attempt to sneak religion into the scientific process really is Simply Nonsense - it's the mirror of Higgins's category error.

    I suspect that that is probably the source of what Bryan correctly identifies as science's 'touchiness' about creationism.

    One final thing: I think both sides underestimate the ability of pupils (and people) to simultaneously hold apparently quite contradictory views, and to get identical top (or bottom) marks in both science class and Sunday school.

  27. Sorry to comment so out of time, but I'm a newcomer to these admirable pages.

    I think part of the problem here - as well as narrow-mindedness and insecurity on the part of some in the Royal Society - is what we mean when we talk about 'Creationism'.

    Having had many conversations on the subject, I would make a distinction between the creation narratives and traditions (and Christianity in particular), and the teaching of Creationism in its modern form.

    That modern form is the product of a fundamentalist mindset whose aim is to try and prove, through the deployment of objective evidence, that the Creation narratives of the Bible are scientifically 'true', at the same time pointing out the gaps and uncertainties in the science of the Darwinian approach, as a justification for being given equal time in the biology classroom.

    It is this which I think has no place in biology or science lessons, and which raises the hackles of many scientists: insecure some may be, but there is no doubt that there is much more of a movement to teach this form of Creationism as scientifically valid than there was when I studied biology, 30years ago.

    From my experience, the mindset that espouses modern Creationism has no place for debate or metaphor, and is unashamedly pre-Enlightenment in its standpoint.

    The answer to all of this is good teaching - which I believe Reiss was trying to promote - but there's a distinction between telling pupils that the Creationist viewpoint and religious narratives exist, and teaching Creationism itself.