Beware the “consensus”

NOTE: This is an edited version of a previous post.

The debate between science and religion and whether one disproves the other usually butts heads hardest in the area of evolution.  The evidence is in, says science, man and apes descended from a common ancestor, or so the theory goes.  After all, who can argue with lab coats and clipboards?  The evidence comes in many forms; the fossil record, for example, illustrating the strong similarity of skeletal features, which is overwhelmingly incomplete; homologous structures such as the forelimbs of vertebrates, the “design” of which can be attributed to either intelligence or common descent depending upon whom you ask.  But suppose we ask a skeptic of Intelligent Design, usually a scientist of some fashion. Surely a scientist can be objective when evaluating the evidence, or one would hope.  I am not arguing for or against the Darwinian theory or Intelligent Design here, but rather the ability to evaluate evidence objectively.

No one is ideologically neutral…about anything.  Except, perhaps on subjects of which you have no prior knowledge.  But once arguments and ideas for or against a position are offered, immediately we start to filter what we have heard or seen through the lens of our worldview.  Our worldview about how reality is best explained dictates the weight we give an argument’s merits.  Some people believe they can put aside all biases in order to reach an objective conclusion, although difficult, is possible.  However, simply having a bias does not automatically disqualify the conclusions one makes, unless those biases dictate what types of conclusions the investigation must yield.

Consider this famous statement by Richard Lewontin, a highly respected evolutionary biologist and geneticist:

Our willingness to accept scientific claims that are against common sense is the key to an understanding of the real struggle between science and the supernatural. We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs, in spite of its failure to fulfill many of its extravagant promises of health and life, in spite of the tolerance of the scientific community for unsubstantiated just-so stories, because we have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism. It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counter-intuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, that materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door. The eminent Kant scholar Lewis Beck used to say that anyone who could believe in God could believe in anything. To appeal to an omnipotent deity is to allow that at any moment the regularities of nature may be ruptured, that miracles may happen.

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Billions and Billions of Demons Jan 9, 1997, review of Carl Sagan’s book, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark.  The New York Review of Books

This candid admission by Lewontin exposes not only his bias, but that he and scientists in general consciously impose their bias on their work.  It is the prior commitment to philosophical naturalism which drives scientific conclusions rather than the evidence itself.  Lewontin and others rule out certain types of conclusions before ever examining any evidence.  Scientists (generally speaking) filter evidence through the lens of scientific naturalism, which means only conclusions which affirm purely natural processes and explanations is acceptable.  It presumes the supernatural is non-existent and that the natural is all there is.  The evidence itself does not dictate this filter, the philosophical worldview does.

Consider this illustration.  Two police homicide detectives arrive upon homicide crime scene.  Pictures are taken, bullet casings are logged in.  They measure the landscape of the room, and whatever else crime scene detectives would do before beginning their consideration of the evidence.  As they are about to leave, their Captain arrives giving his full confidence in his detective’s abilities.  Before sending them off, he says to them, “Good job collecting all the evidence, you seemed to be pretty thorough and I’m confident you will find the killer.  Just one thing, you cannot implicate a woman as a suspect.”  The detectives puzzledly reply, “But what if the evidence leads to a woman?”  Says the Captain, “Women do not commit murders, so you cannot implicate a woman.”

This is exactly what Lewontin is admitting to.  It matters not where the evidence leads, a naturalistic explanation must be reached no matter how absurd.  Here again I am not arguing the merits of ID or evolution in any of its forms, but some scientists have gone to great lengths and postulated many absurd, wholly un-validated explanations of phenomena.  The beginning of the universe for example, at times even claiming something can bring itself into existence, that something can come from nothing.  A phenomenon entirely unsubstantiated even by science.

This admission from one in the field is disturbing on its own, but what about an educator?  Professor  Richard Rorty, a notable philosopher who taught at such schools as Princeton, the University of Virginia, and Stanford University, is just as candid with his admission on what his job as an educator really is, and what the function of higher academia is in general.

“It seems to me that the regulative idea that we heirs of the Enlightenment, we Socratists, most frequently use to criticize the conduct of various conversational partners is that of ‘needing education in order to outgrow their primitive fear, hatreds, and superstitions’ … It is a concept which I, like most Americans who teach humanities or social science in colleges and universities, invoke when we try to arrange things so that students who enter as bigoted, homophobic, religious fundamentalists will leave college with views more like our own … The fundamentalist parents of our fundamentalist students think that the entire ‘American liberal establishment’ is engaged in a conspiracy. The parents have a point. Their point is that we liberal teachers no more feel in a symmetrical communication situation when we talk with bigots than do kindergarten teachers talking with their students … When we American college teachers encounter religious fundamentalists, we do not consider the possibility of reformulating our own practices of justification so as to give more weight to the authority of the Christian scriptures. Instead, we do our best to convince these students of the benefits of secularization. We assign first-person accounts of growing up homosexual to our homophobic students for the same reasons that German schoolteachers in the postwar period assigned The Diary of Anne Frank… You have to be educated in order to be … a participant in our conversation … So we are going to go right on trying to discredit you in the eyes of your children, trying to strip your fundamentalist religious community of dignity, trying to make your views seem silly rather than discussable. We are not so inclusivist as to tolerate intolerance such as yours … I don’t see anything herrschaftsfrei [domination free] about my handling of my fundamentalist students. Rather, I think those students are lucky to find themselves under the benevolent Herrschaft [domination] of people like me, and to have escaped the grip of their frightening, vicious, dangerous parents … I am just as provincial and contextualist as the Nazi teachers who made their students read Der Stürmer; the only difference is that I serve a better cause.”

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Universality and Truth,’ in Robert B. Brandom (ed.), Rorty and his Critics (Oxford: Blackwell, 2000), pp. 21-22.

Rorty and Lewontin are not considered fringe extremists in their fields, they are respected and well-known in the scientific and academic communities.  Rorty goes so far as to claim that it is a practice “most Americans who teach humanities…in universities” engage.  Rather than teaching from a point of neutral ground, putting all the facts on the table and examining differing points of view and forming conclusions based on the evidence, Rorty has no qualms about intentionally indoctrinating students to be hostile towards any faith.  His persistent use of the term “we” is particularly troubling.  It is apparently a common practice of American educators to invoke this method of teaching.  His justification for such “teaching” is that he is correct.  There is no room for dialog or debate in our universities, and it would not surprise me to learn grades have suffered for dissention.  Rather than argue his point of view on its merits, he finds it acceptable to coerce his worldview.  I believe if you think you have the truth, let your ideas be cross-examined.  The truth need not fear criticism.

Now consider the recent comments made by Melissa Harris-Perry.  She seemed quite taken aback to find that so many people were a little unnerved to hear her say that parents need to get over the feeling that their children are their own and instead belong to “the collective”.  It was almost as if she thought this was a reasonable notion.

The next time you hear there is a “consensus” as a defense of a point of view held among professors and scientists, it would suit you well to start asking questions, immediately.  I find it suspicious that an appeal to consensus be made to convince someone of your view.  Truth is not determined by taking a vote, rather it is by an open evaluation of all the evidence in an effort to reach the conclusion which best fits the evidence, not which best fits your philosophy.  A practice which Rorty and Lewontin admit academia does not partake.  The scientific and academic communities have been indoctrinating youth for a certain worldview, forcing conclusions based not on evidence, but ideology.

Comments

  1. John,

    When I hear the consensus as a defense of a point of view is when the attackers are using a freak one precisely because it “fits their philosofy” and they want truth determined by it.

    I can tell apart science and materialism, so I cannot be indoctinatred in materialism. Some materialist have meshed up their philosophy and science, confusing people.

    I go for theory of evolution because is the one “which best fits the evidence”. Creationism doesn’t.

  2. Good stuff. For a thorough philosophical review on the relationship between theism, science, and naturalism I recommend Alvin Plantinga’s book “Where the Real Conflict Lies” Also, it’s probably poor etiquette to do this but I wrote a post a while back called “Future Astronomers and the Problem of an Incomplete Data Set” which is another illustration of the error of a purely materialistic worldview.

  3. Got the title of Planting’s book wrong. It’s “Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism”

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