Intelligent Design and Faith Schools

by Harry on December 23, 2005

The Christmas issue of the Times Higher Education Supplement carries a piece by Steve Fuller defending Intelligent Design, though in a very roundabout way, and a piece by me which is very unkind about Intelligent Design but not about faith schools. (Both free content, accessible without registration). If anyone gets the paper edition, by the way, I’m curious how the photos turned out — I went through 2 45-minute photoshoots, which convinced me not to make a career change to become a model.



duane 12.23.05 at 8:29 am

The link to your piece goes to Steve Fuller’s piece too.


Harry 12.23.05 at 8:40 am

Thanks duane, should have checked. Fixed now.


Daniel 12.23.05 at 9:05 am

Is this the same Steve Fuller who wrote “Kuhn Vs Popper”?


Kieran Healy 12.23.05 at 9:06 am



Brendan 12.23.05 at 9:07 am

Steve Fuller really is a hopeless idiot isn’t he? Considering he posits himself as an expert on ‘science’ I find it interesting that his ‘standard’ view of how Darwinism was accepted is total bollocks (i.e. the story of how Darwinism was on the brink of ‘extinction’ until it was ‘saved’ by Mendel. The correct story (which is too boring to go into here) is in John Waller’s Fabulous Science)).

Oh and incidentally: ‘Newton remains unquestionably the greater scientist’. (emphasis added). Oh yeah? Says who?


Daniel 12.23.05 at 9:08 am

no, he isn’t a hopeless idiot; his book on Kuhn was really quite good and certainly convinced me that there was a lot more to Popper than the kind of cargo cult falsificationism on finds on the internet. I must confess I don’t understand what he’s going on about in the article linked though.


Daniel 12.23.05 at 9:10 am

I also think that Newton being a greater scientist than Darwin is pretty much unquestionable. Almost everything in the Principia is original to Newton but lots and lots of Darwin’s key concepts have very ambiguous authorship. He’s been built up into a scientific demigod mainly for reasons of US politics IMO.


a 12.23.05 at 9:43 am

I’d second Daniel. Newton by far.


duane 12.23.05 at 9:43 am

I found Steve Fuller’s piece to be rather missing the point. Sure, Newton may have been motivated by an attempt to understand the glory of God’s creation. He was also searching for the Philosopher’s Stone, but I don’t hear anyone calling for teaching alchemy alongside modern chemistry.

His argument doesn’t seem to have much to do with “Intelligent Design” as its proponents would have it taught. They see it as an rival theory to evolution through natural selection, not as a philosophical context for scientific inquiry. If ID was just a way to motivate religious students to study science then I’d be all for it. However it isn’t being taught as a rival to Darwin’s secular investigation from first-principles, it is being taught as a rival to the theory that resulted from it.


duane 12.23.05 at 9:46 am

Oh, and I agree with Daniel too. Newton was the greater scientist. Doesn’t mean he didn’t believe some crazy shit, though.


John Emerson 12.23.05 at 10:00 am

Fuller showed up on Berube and wasn’t given a very friendly reception there, especially not by me. I was very unimpressed. I really had the feeling that he believes that “philosophy, history, and sociology of science” is this tremendously powerful discourse which has some kind of override over the common sense of ordinary working scientists. I just don’t think that it does. And he seems to deal with science only as already processed by these disciplines, in detachment from working science, as though science were an armchair discussion-group activity.

This is one of my several pet peeves about contemporary academia, which is the elaboration of elaborate hypothetical arguments with scarcely any concern, ever, for whether the argument checks out in actuality. Of course, I am a nihilistic populist know-nothing who wants destroy civilization as you know it.

Several posters, including myself, suspected that there was some kind of publicity-hound opportunism going on when he agreed to testify in that ridiculous case. Good people do go bad sometimes.


Matt McGrattan 12.23.05 at 10:35 am

Fuller engaged in a fairly lengthy justification of his decision to testify on the HOPOS-L list (the History and Philosophy of Science list).


Hektor Bim 12.23.05 at 10:47 am

Taking a different tack, I have to disagree with a lot of what Harry wrote in his primer.

(1) Yes, Muslim science in the Middle Ages was very advanced, but there has always been a strain of Muslim thought that is very hostile to science and rationality, and that strain has been dominant since the fall of Al-Andalus. In fact, the ending of ijtihad and the periodic fundamentalist Muslim “invasions” of Spain to “rescue” the Muslims there did a lot of destroy Muslim traditions in science, not to mention the Mongols and the Turks. So I don’t think you can claim that there isn’t a strain of Muslim thought hostile to science and rationality, and that strain is dominant right now in Muslim thought.

(2) The assumption seems to be that the creation of state-funded religious schools will slowly suffocate the hard edges of those religions, as happened to the Anglicans. That might be true, but is there any evidence either way for this? After all, Anglicanism was the official faith of the state, while the religions we are generally talking about are minority religions that have no identification with the state. State-funding of Catholic schools hasn’t ended the sectarian divide in Northern Ireland, for example.

I’m not sure what the real solution should be in a country with an established church, but I am not convinced of the assertions you make in this article.


roger 12.23.05 at 10:48 am

The newton thing is such a red herring. If Newton were a poet, it might be relevant to point to his belief in God. But the whole point of Newton’s work is that it can be translated into any society’s scientific context: ie, it doesn’t matter if you are an atheist or a Buddhist or even a leftist Christian like Fuller, Newton’s science retains the same truth value for you. The same can’t be said for any of Newton’s overtly Christian writings, the value of which depends on your Christian beliefs. I mean, is this obvious or what?
The genetic fallacy is such a stupid fallacy to fall into, here, that it does make me wonder whether Fuller isn’t a silly git.


Bro. Bartleby 12.23.05 at 11:10 am

I have always been puzzled by this debate, even puzzled by how folks apply Darwinism to but half the equation, yet leave the other half undealt with. The undealt with? The evolution of elemental partices? How did quarks and leptons evolve? Where did fundamental particles and forces come from? Did the natural laws governoring them evolve before them, or evolve after them. Or are we to ‘begin’ with the assumption that gravity and such forces were part of the forever stew that was forever brewing? Okay, you get the drift. We at the monastery are forever debating over the dining table, it is these elemental matters that we debate. Yet in public debate and scientific journals, we read only about the debate ‘after the fact’ … it seems to me that this arguing of matters of life and evolution of organic entities is somewhat like building an automobile body, beautiful and with the latest paint job, yet under the hood is … nothing. The engine hasn’t been designed yet. So too Darwinism, a lovely theory, many parts proven, yet under the hood, all elemental matters and natural laws are ignored. They are simply assumed …
Bro. Bartleby


constablesavage 12.23.05 at 11:27 am

Fuller seems to be trying to promote the idea that it is Darwin’s own atheism which is responsible for the prevalance of our belief in the theory of evolution.

Soemone should remind him of Alfred Russell Wallace’s spiritualism


harry b 12.23.05 at 11:28 am

Thanks hektor,

those are both very reasonable points. Can I just address the second (but tentatively)? I agree that the evidence is all over the place, and my main aim is to dissuade secularists from simply thinking that the American road is the one to take, as if somehow that road reduces the lamentable influences of religion on education. It hasn’t int he US, and there’s no reason to think it would in the UK. Any policy has to be based on conjectures for which we do not have compelling evidence. But it does seem to me that the DfES has been wisely using the policy of funding faith schools to bolster the more integrationist parts of the Muslim community, and that inviting them into the system is just the best bet, that’s all. I argue elsewhere, btw, for regulation of these schools, including regulation of admissions so that they cannot discriminate on grounds of faith. I’m not directly involved, of course, but people I know and trust who have been involved in these issues on the ground are convinced that it is feasible to use funding to strengthen the tendency to integration. Of course, in a limited way — school policy cannot bear the whole weight of any integrationist policy, as experience tells us only too well.

NI is a bit of a red herring I think. It’s a case where sectarian division was already so sharp that it would have been silly to expect much of the schools. The mainland might yet get that bad re Islam, but its not yet (in my opinion). Interestingly, by the way, religious schools in NI are prohibited by law from discriminating on grounds of faith in admissions, the only place in Britain where they are.

(Another point I might make is that most of Europe including the UK is going to live with state-funded Islamic schools whether they like it or not; better they be funded by the states in question than by the Saudi Arabian state. But that’s another story).

More about this at

if you have nothing better to do on the day before Christmas Eve!!


Dæn 12.23.05 at 12:00 pm

Along similar lines, don’t know if this has been widely linked (I had a tough time finding it), but here’s the fulltext of John E. Jones III’s Tuesday decision in the Dover, PA case.

It’s a captivating read even for legal outsiders like myself, and can be wickedly funny at times.


roger 12.23.05 at 12:10 pm

Actually, the best response to Fuller’s follies is contained in the famous anecdote about Laplace. On giving a copy of his completion of the Newtonian system, the Celestial Mechanics, to Napoleon, Napoleon supossedly remarked that he had noticed that there was no mention of God in the work. Laplace supposedly answered, “Sir, I have no need for that hypothesis.” An apocryphal story, but it contains a lot more truth about the history of science than you will find in Fuller’s ravings.


Ginger Yellow 12.23.05 at 12:13 pm

To the extent that Fuller had a semi-coherent argument, it was that ID (as a philosophical position) would inspire different directions of research than “materialistic” science, therefore ID (as a pseudo-scientific assertion) should be taught to schoolchildren. He failed to explain why, if ID is so research generative, the ID movement hasn’t generated any research.


John Emerson 12.23.05 at 12:18 pm

I’m not sure whether Bartleby is a parody or not, but the answer to his question is that evolution gives specific answer to a specific question, not a panacea answer to every question.


John Emerson 12.23.05 at 12:24 pm

“He was also searching for the Philosopher’s Stone, but I don’t hear anyone calling for teaching alchemy alongside modern chemistry.”



Jo Wolff 12.23.05 at 12:32 pm

On the real issue, the picture is a bit of a shock. It is very big – half the page high, and I’m not sure I would have recognised you. But an unbuttoned cardigan, denim shirt and some sort of loosely-tied tie with a repeated pattern of a College crest? Does this mean that you respect tradition but thumb your nose at convention? Steve Fuller, on the other hand, looks like he has walked out of an episode of Star Trek. Very nicely written and interesting article, though – congratulations!


Kieran Healy 12.23.05 at 12:43 pm

an unbuttoned cardigan, denim shirt and some sort of loosely-tied tie with a repeated pattern of a College crest

Talk about evidence against intelligent design.


Bro. Bartleby 12.23.05 at 12:52 pm

Bro. John,

Exactly! Yes, a specific answer to a specific question, so how did ID get tangled up into this minuscule, yet interesting (for after all, we are a bit of this miniscule affair of organic evolution), bit of the totality? The real problem with this debate is that the issue has never been defined, or more likely, each side has defined the issue in their own terms. So without fundamental understanding of the issue at hand, all argument turns to muddle. I suppose we of faith are a bit wexed when normally bright scientist seriously present religion in terms I last heard in my childhood Sunday school class. And so too, we are wexed with persons of faith also adding to the muddle with their inarticulate arguments and lack of understanding of science.
Bro. Bartleby


fifi 12.23.05 at 12:54 pm

The problem with ID is not it can’t be science — anything can be science if scientists do it — it’s that it’s bad science, just terrible, which you don’t need a philosopher to tell: it does not control or predict nature (Dembski’s math can’t do anything useful that old-fashioned statistics and information theory doesn’t already do better, more convincingly), and it generates no research (because it’s such a boring timid idea; IMO either it is designed to mystify with common sense and colloquial meanings of ‘intelligence’ and ‘design’ or its philosophers really are bush-league rhetoricians.) I don’t know if it ever could be good science but reading General Dembski’s blog convinced me he is not the man that’ll make it so.


djw 12.23.05 at 1:20 pm

No one’s talking about our host’s article! I thought it was excellent, particularly on the real victories of ID, which aren’t in courtrooms but in the minds of teachers. I was just talking to a HS teacher about this problem. Most science teachers see through the bullshit, but some have cultivated a sense of respect and open-mindedness that’s getting abused and exploited by conmen.

Unfortunately, the online formatting makes it appear as though you start the article by referring to yourself in the third person at the very start of the article. George is getting angry!


Jack 12.23.05 at 3:23 pm

Brother B.,

I think ID proponents chose Darwinism as their battleground so it is not a challenge for darwinists. My feeling is that it was chosen because applying ID to physics, chemistry or maths would make approximately no difference (unless we are to take biblical values of pi and so on), applying it to cosmology and astonomy would be difficult because ID would have to give away too much to even have something to talk about, applying it to evolution is attractive because it is in fact quite vague in its impact on everyday life and much of its appeal to scientists is based on such rarified scientific virtues as parsimony.

Since many of the scientists who made science what it is have had belief in some transcendental truth that could reasonably be called Intelligent Design, I don’t think that it is obvious that ID hould make any difference at all to science. That is the task of finding out what the intelligent designer was up to remains and you might as well call that science.

I think that what upsets scientists about Inteligent design is a combination of distaste for the philistinism that seems to characterise it and the feeling that it isn’t Intelligent design itself that its propoents are really after but the undermining of objective sources of authority — leaving decisions about whether Hurricae Katrina has more to do with New Orleans morals or carbon emissions and wetland erosion to Pat Robertson instead of open debate.


Tom 12.23.05 at 3:38 pm

What is this “ambiguous authorship” business?


roger 12.23.05 at 4:08 pm

Actually, the amazing thing about Intelligent design talk is how it avoids talking about intelligent design. We do have examples. In fact, Darwin’s Origin begins with examples of “intelligent design” — breeding pigeons and stuff — and points out that this design is only possible because the intelligence is operating on something it didn’t design. Since then, there have been thousands of books about design, design history, diffusion of design, etc., and in none of those books is there a case of intelligent design that leaves no circumambient evidences: no tools, no blueprints, no plans of any sort, no way of measuring the influence of one design upon another, etc. Every intelligent design that we know of leaves quite a trail of who, what, how, and where. So if Intelligent design hopes to be scientific at all, it should tell us something about who, what, how, and where. Or, to put it in Paley-esque terms — if you find a watch somewhere, you can be certain you will find a watch factory somewhere else.

Which is why ID should certainly be renamed “I dream of Jeanie” Design. The theory is, if you find a watch somewhere, a genie blinked. There is also the theory that the stars are the candles of little angels.


ogmb 12.23.05 at 4:37 pm

I don’t hear anyone calling for teaching alchemy alongside modern chemistry.

Not yet.


Unrepentant C++ programmer 12.23.05 at 4:43 pm

Harry, totally agree. Separation of church and state as practiced here leads to all sorts of irritations such as holiday trees (anyone remember the ‘Jahresendzeitfigur’ in East Germany) and more corrosive issues such as the interminable ID debate. Growing up in (West) Germany I sat through 13 years of religious instruction in school. I’ve considered myself an atheist for all but the first of those years but religion was always one of my favorite subjects.

Whether one system or the other is better on balance is hard to say but there’s no doubt in my mind that the separation policy feeds extremism.

There are other factors, though, that make the situation here different. In Germany your friends and coworkers would simply come out and call you an idiot for believing in ID or taking the bible literally. Here in the US people are just a) too polite and b) believe in individual rights too much to talk some sense into the misguided minorities.



Simstim 12.23.05 at 5:27 pm

When someone mentions that alchemy will get you lead turned into gold, THEN we’ll see the cirriculum changed!


Steve LaBonne 12.23.05 at 6:43 pm

What is this “ambiguous authorship” business?
I’d also like to see some explication of that comment.


Barry 12.23.05 at 6:56 pm

Jack: “….and much of its appeal to scientists is based on such rarified scientific virtues as parsimony.”

How so? ‘And then a miracle occured’ is exactly the sort of ‘parsimony’ that science has rejected. Also, parsimony isn’t a rarefied scientific virtue, it’s a practical rule of thumb.


Neil 12.23.05 at 7:42 pm

‘Darwinism’ is an ID term. They want to portray science as somehow equivalent to religion: you’ve got your holy books, we’ve got ours. Ask an evolutionary biologist whether they’ve even read *Origin*.

Duane got this right. Fuller can’t coherently argue that ID is a legitimate rival to natural selection, so he defends an alternative claim – that scientists who are religious might be driven to do good work – and pretends that it is the claim that has actually been at issue.


Jack 12.23.05 at 8:07 pm

the immediate costs of denying the theory of evolution are small and indirect in comparison with other parts of science. The real damage is behind the scenes to the normal business of science, but like an endangered species of slug, and this is my point, that doesn’t really make the ID crowd look bad the way not being able to build a car or computer would. If anything it makes them look anti-elitist.


Tracy W 12.23.05 at 9:36 pm

I have no idea what Steve Fuller is trying to argue here.

Are we junior creators or senior creatures? Junior creators reason from hypothetical causes to sensible effects, while senior creatures try to infer causes from effects.

The former promises an argument from design, the latter to design. The former fuels ambition, while the latter encourages a humility verging on mystery.
I can’t understand what this means. Why is he calling philosophers and scientists creators? Why does it matter which way they reason? Why should I give a stuff if a creator is a junior or senior or is ambitious or humble?

God appears more as a gap-filler shrouded in mystery than a principled architect whose example we might follow. But it is the latter vision that poses a serious challenge to Darwin’s apostasy.

Huh? Is he calling for extensive genetic engineering here?

We are told that Steve Fuller was an expert witness in the recent IDT trial – I feel dead sorry for the audience if they were faced with this sort of random rhetoric.


Matt McGrattan 12.23.05 at 9:37 pm

My understanding of the ‘ambiguous authorship’ point is that many of the key ideas appealed to by Darwin in the ‘Origin’ aren’t unique to Darwin and instead the ‘origin’ of those ideas can’t be clearly located with Darwin himself.

If I understand Daniel correctly he’s making the point that Newton is much more clearly the originator of the ideas appealed to in the Principia than Darwin is the originator of the ideas in the ‘Origin’.

The ‘Origin’ is more transparently a (wonderful) synthesis of a number of existing ideas. Ideas that have their origin with the Greeks, with Erasmus Darwin, with Lamarck, and bits of Hume, and so on.


rollo 12.23.05 at 11:04 pm

Tracy W- “Why should I give a stuff if a creator is a junior or senior or is ambitious or humble?”
You’re not inhabiting the question you ask. Probably you find the idea of a superior being – not parallel to terrestrial biology but outside it, above, bigger than, connected to its constituent substance in ways that might as well be called source – absurd. So absurd that you can’t explore the possibility with a straight face.
The hypocritical buffoonery and sham reason of the ID proponents probably help confirm that.

“leaving decisions about whether Hurricane Katrina has more to do with New Orleans morals or carbon emissions and wetland erosion to Pat Robertson instead of open debate.”
The converse isn’t simply Pat Robertson – it isn’t a binary set.
These polarities too often mask the other terms. The choice seems to between self-deluding nitwits and cynical solipsists but there’s more, lots more.
Obviously earthly living takes place within a context that’s infinitely greater than our capabilities to map it. Obviously the two ends of linear time aren’t going to be accessible to our measuring, and the context in which that line runs is beyond our rational grasp as well.
These are things positivist cartesian explication can’t touch, but they’re as real as earth air water and fire and they should confer a little humility and compassionate regard on more able minds confronted with the irrational and illogical.
One of the taboo subjects on the other side of the nasty debate of which Dover is only the latest iteration is the disturbing news that the world does seem to be actually sort of in a way what you might be able to possibly describe as “on fire”. In the sense that it’s getting dangerously warm all too quickly.
This gives the fundamentalists tremendous juice. Their prophecies call for exactly this scenario. That it also puts the hypothetical possibility of clairvoyance forward is lost in the brouhaha.
The choice is locked into the two polarities. Most of the readers and writers here are firmly and resolutely in the one camp, attacked by nonsense and profoundly irritated at having to refute it. Like any combat it rigidifies the positions of the disputants.
The trouble is many cultures with longstanding traditional lines of communication have threads of prophecy – and more than a few of them are provably accurate. The trance visions of Plains Indian holy men not least among them.
These aspects of human comprehending have been displaced by the immediately gratifying results of scientific technology like the Hubble and Cassini images, though a lot of less public research has been done on inducible clairvoyant states, and not all of it as benign as Rupert Sheldrake’s either.
Science gives us medicines and machines as byproducts of its unbiased looking into the structure of the universe, but it doesn’t give us anything but an empty void when we ask it for meaning, for an anchor, or guidance.
Harry’s right to argue that religion should be given a legitimate place in public education, that doing so “has more probability of softening the edges of religious extremism and preventing the divisions in schooling to translating into further social divisions”.
Even more importantly though is the possibility of establishing a more humble and less anthropocentrically uprooted regard among the young – toward their own lives, and toward life itself.


Bro. Bartleby 12.24.05 at 12:57 am

Bro. Jack,

Okay, I think I now understand why this ID debate is taking place — for the minds of our children. I can see no other reason for the debate as it is now being ‘debated’. The scientist is interested in the material world, the world sensed by the senses, while the theologian is interested in the metaphysical world, or all that which the senses cannot sense. So I suppose a scientist would think of a God as being within or part of the cosmos, whereas a theologian would think of a God outside or apart from the cosmos. A supra-watchmaker, if you will, the maker of the watch, yet the watchmaker is not subject to the laws that the watch is subject to. For the laws are part and parcel of the watch creation; without the laws the watch doesn’t exist, without the watch the laws are meaningless. Because the theologian can only ponder the big unknowns, for they certainly cannot replicate the cosmos in the lab, so should this idle pondering be dismissed? I think even Charlie Darwin would concede that what makes humans unique is this very act of pondering the unknowable. And the scientist? They the ones searching for the universe in a grain of sand, for afterall, the material world provides the stuff in which they work with. Yes, this wall separating church/state, science/religion, scientist/theologian, has made us less human, make us one-dimensional, and in the end we are attempting to make our children one-dimensional as well.

BTW, couldn’t DNA be thought of as a sort of blueprint?

Bro. Bartleby


Steve LaBonne 12.24.05 at 9:24 am

Matt, the trouble with that position is that despite all the ideas that in retrospect would seem to have been floating around as possible precursors of Darwin’s and Wallace’s insights, and the seeming obviousness using 20/20 hindsight of putting them together as Darwin and Wallace did, nobody else actually did so. Hence Huxley’s famous remark, “How extremely stupid of me not to have thought of that!” Darwin was quite modest about his mental powers and would (correctly)have shrunk from any comparison with Newton’s, but the fact is that Darwin and Wallace made a discovery that was so far from being inevitable that it was not even fully and widely accepted among biologists until a couple of generations after their time.

Now, if anybody wants to argue that Wallace doesn’t get enough credit, I’m 100% with them. In addition to being co-discoverer of the theory of natural selection (though he modestly gave the title “Darwinism” to his major book on the theory!), he was a very great naturalist who essentially founded the discipline of biogeography (Google “Wallace Line” for details.)


Steve LaBonne 12.24.05 at 9:25 am

DNA is more like a recipe than a blueprint. But that’s merely a slightly less bad analogy.


Steve LaBonne 12.24.05 at 9:38 am

bro bartelby’s dimestore mysticism is typical of people who know just enough about science to miss the whole point- the universe (hell, speaking as a biologist, even just the biosphere) is not only vastly more fasinating but vastly more bizarre ( “Now my own suspicion is that the Universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we CAN suppose.” -J.B.S. Haldane) than the tame imaginary constructions of theologians (or of the UFO aficionados, their neighbors in the intellectual slums) have ever been.


Bro. Bartleby 12.24.05 at 9:44 am

DNA a recipe? Oh yes, my grandmother once created a recipe for spicy apple pie … hmmm, didn’t Eve have an encounter with an apple … and how about Newton … and Steve Jobs? Which reminds me, on my Mac is the apple with a bite out of it, symbolizing Eve’s bite? Oh yes, the bite of knowledge of good and evil. (Sorry, the theologian in me is forever connecting the dots)


Bro. Bartleby 12.24.05 at 9:55 am

Bro. Steve,

I very much agree with your statement about the infinite complexity (and simply mind-blowingness) of all that our senses can take in, and I’m simply added the musings of all that which our senses (and by extension, our tools that amplify our senses) cannot sense. I don’t seek to dismiss your enthusiasm in your exploration of the material world, I suppose our only difference is my belief in an origination.



Daniel 12.24.05 at 10:29 am

Darwin’s and Wallace’s

exactly; there is no comparable figure to Wallace in the development of Newtonian mechanics. Also Herbert Spencer – it’s a curiosum of the field that “Social Darwinism” actually has an older pedigree than “Darwinism”.


abb1 12.24.05 at 11:06 am

In the movies people who went to Catholic schools are usually the least religious.


roger 12.24.05 at 12:17 pm

Well, I would have to put in a word for Robert Hooke, who felt himself quite ill used by Newton’s first major discovery, the real nature of color. And of course, hmm, that little dispute with Leibniz — Newton was perhaps the greatest of all scientists, but he was not what you’d call a generous man. Leibniz was no schmuck. And Newton kept to his particulate theory of color, in the face of the evidence of interference patterns that strongly implied waves, partly cause it was propounded by Huygens, a continental who was one of the group of virtuosi Newton disdained.

As for Kepler and the way he is incorporated into the Principia, well, it seems he played a role not unlike the role Malthus played for Darwin — a suggestion looking for a wider application.

Newton was great, but don’t make the man into a false god.


John Emerson 12.24.05 at 12:48 pm

Haldane has been mentioned, so here’s his answer as to what natural history tells us about the Mind of God: “The creator, if He exists, must have an inordinate fondness for beetles”.

Here’s Robert Frost on Intelligent design:

by Robert Frost

I found a dimpled spider, fat and white,
On a white heal-all, holding up a moth
Like a white piece of rigid satin cloth–
Assorted characters of death and blight
Mixed ready to begin the morning right,
Like the ingredients of a witches’ broth–
A snow-drop spider, a flower like a froth,
And dead wings carried like a paper kite.

What had that flower to do with being white,
The wayside blue and innocent heal-all?
What brought the kindred spider to that height,
Then steered the white moth thither in the night?
What but design of darkness to appall?–
If design govern in a thing so small.

And then there’s Voltaire in Candide, and I’m sure Mark Twain had a thing or two to say.


jd 12.24.05 at 1:02 pm

Not to be obtuse, but doesn’t ID simply sidestep the issue of “creation” by adding a layer of complexity? IE- who created the creator’s creator? or am I missing something important?


Peter 12.24.05 at 1:42 pm

Scientists have myths and believe demonstrable falsehoods, too. One of these is that Isaac Newton was a scientist in the sense we understand (and the Pennsylvania courts understand) today. Fuller is quite correct to point out that Newton’s motivations were different to those of any modern scientist, and were deeply religious. His alchemical experiments were not something aberrant or different from his mathematical physics; he undertook both activities in order to elucidate the laws of God. That his theories of gravitation and the motion of planets found practical application would have been taken by him as strong evidence for, not as evidence against, the existence of God and for his theology.

In the first decade of the 18th century, London was overwhelmed by a religious movement predicting the imminent end of the world (the so-called French Prophets, or Camisards). Newton followed this movement closely, having friends among its leaders, and may even have been a believer in the prophecies. Strange behaviour for someone modern scientists think of as a colleague.


roger 12.24.05 at 2:22 pm

Peter, not so strange as all that. Priestly was a minister, but nobody so far has called the discovery of oxygen proof of the Unitarianian creed.

Newton was pretty explicit about separating his work from questions of cause. Look, for instance, at his responses to Bentley, who is looking for causal claims in the notion of action at a distance: “Gravity must be caused by an agent acting constantly according to certain laws, but whether this agent be material or immaterial is a question I have left to the consideration of my readers.” In fact, Newton’s explicit reference to God in the Principia shows exactly the opposite of what Fuller thinks it shows — it shows Newton’s anxiety and his recognition that the natural philosophy can, indeed, be separated from ultimate theological questions. The Enlightenment thinkers didn’t misinterpret Newton’s work, here — we do, by our greater knowledge of work he never published, and the ahistorical idea that the work that was published was ‘misunderstood’ by thinkers like D’Alembert or Laplace. The Newton that was fascinated by the apocalypse is one thing; the Newton who refused to make hypotheses from philosophical principles — like assuming some intelligent designer — is another.


nik 12.24.05 at 2:25 pm


(1) Do you think state faith schools should be allowed to discriminate on the grounds of religion in employment?

(2) Do you think state faith schools should be allowed to mandate the headscarf as part of uniform?

I trying to suggest that in order to get faith schools that function in practice, you’re going to have to do things which go against a “liberal theory of educational justice”. We’re already seeing this with admissions (in which the exact opposite to your ideas is happening), your “support” for some hypothetical system of faith schools is rapidly going to collide with faith schools as they exist in reality.


Bro. Bartleby 12.24.05 at 3:01 pm

I suppose the religious among us see the exclusion of religious studies in schools as a double-edged sword. For those with religious families, then all such faith matters are taught at home and in church/mosque/synagogue and that is all well and dandy, but what about families that simply ignore matters of religion? Then those children usually learn about religious matters from the streets, somewhat how sex education was learned in the good old days. (BTW, I mean by religious matters: religious texts, myths, doctrines, rituals, ethics.) So the question is, should religious matters be offered or taught by parents and teachers, or left to the lowest-common denominator of hearsay. Why not have mandatory ‘religions of the world’ classes in all grades, with the option that a student could opt out if they were attending private religious studies. That way kids could at least make an informed choice. And who knows, maybe they would finally begin to understand all the religious references in literature, starting with “Call me Ishmael …”


John Emerson 12.24.05 at 3:06 pm

Lowest-common denominator of hearsay!

Note: while alchemy was a mix of scientific elements and what we’d now call religious beliefs, as far as I know the ambient religions always regarded full-blown alchemy as an esoteric heresy. Orthodox religious persons might accept scraps of alchemy, but that didn’t make it part of their religion.


Bro. Bartleby 12.24.05 at 4:20 pm

Bro. John,

Your vote recorded. Yes, I too learned much from the streets, but that is exactly why some of us attempt to steer our children on a less crooked and more fruitful path. But perhaps more telling (or interesting) would be for you to record here the votes (and comments) of your children.

Well, that’s enough for today, I have a ton of fruit cakes that need to be delivered.

Bro. Bartleby


John Emerson 12.24.05 at 6:50 pm

My 31 year old son has no complaints. We’ve talked about it.


rollo 12.25.05 at 5:04 am

Steve Labonne – When you say “tame imaginary constructions of theologians”, I’m thinking you’re a lot more familiar with the pantheon of science than with the archives of mysticism.
It’s understandable because science reveres its iconoclasts when they’ve been proved right, while organized religions lack the flexibility of science generally, and tend to exterminate their iconoclasts as heretics.
It is a chief virtue of science that it welcomes disagreement. Though the same can’t be said for all scientists, and some have been persecuted for being right too early. Ignatz Semmelweiss comes to mind.
The insistence on there being only two possible sides in the evolution/ID debate – which I’d like to say here I think is not at all about evolution or divine creation, for all the noise being generated, but our place in the universe, and the moral exigencies of our being in that place – with clear memberships and traditional team positions lined up across clearly-drawn divisions, means there’s no place for unsponsored participants. Non-academic theoretical physicists are I’m sure you’ll agree a very rare breed, while non-denominational theologians are so plentiful their noise is a virtual silence.
Still it’s easy to imagine from the persistence of this rabid anti-Darwinian hysteria an extrapolated future that sees the rise and rule of another rigid theocracy, where the suppression of science and the persecution and demonization of scientists is the norm.
It shouldn’t be too hard to imagine a past where there was a continuous suppression of challenges to a ruling theocracy that came from the far more threatening flank of the truly numinous.
Which is a long-winded way of saying that your knowledge of theologians and their work is likely to have been constricted, not just by the limits of your own reading, but by the relatively small number of ecclesiastically sanctioned and published theologians whose works have survived.
I’m also thinking you’ve never read Rilke.


Peter 12.25.05 at 7:50 am

Roger (post 53) —

A key reason why Newton was keen to separate questions of cause from his work was because his theory of gravity was not an explanatory theory, but only a predictive theory. He provided no causal mechanism for the working of gravity, and he knew this was a weakness of the theory.

I disagree with you that there were two Isaac Newtons, one a modern scientist and the other closely annotating ancient theological texts and conducting alchemical experiments. This strikes me as trying to save the mythic Newton beloved by scientists from the overwhelming evidence of modern historical scholarship of a very different man.

Rather than imagining schizophrenia, a simpler explanaton was that there was only one Isaac Newton, but one who was writing at a time when disagreement with the official state theology could lead to loss of one’s job, social position or even life. Newton held heretic (unitarian) views, and so was therefore wisely careful in his public statements and his published writings. This explains his ambiguous statements on God in his scientific writings. These published writings don’t tell us what he really thought about religion.


roger 12.25.05 at 10:43 am

Peter, sorry, I don’t think it is schizophrenic to compartmentalize various views one has about the world. Nor do I think Newton was some ‘secret dissenter.’ What you interpret as weakness was interpreted by Newton as strength. In fact, it is just the reason that he is to be viewed as a scientist rather than Harry Potter avant la lettre. He was very proud of not making conjectures when he had no evidence to make them, and took that limit to separate what he did from what the virtuosi did on the continent. This is a common thread from his first published work on the true theory of colors, his remarks in the controversy with Father Pardies, his remarks in the Principia and the Opticks, and his correspondence. To think of this as a weakness is just where philosophy and science split. Science doesn’t view as a weakness the fact that there are problems to be solved for the future, whereas metaphysics has an irresistable tendency towards totality and reduces material structures to a scholarstic logic of causes. He came up against the metaphysical objection again and again — and in fact in our time it is still the commonest thing to read that Newton explained gravity, or gave a causal account of it — and again and again he shot it down.

As for the reason he kept his works of bible interpretation secret — who knows? He kept secret many, many things — for instance, the work that went into the Principia, or the invention of calculus. He was a secretive and extremely bizarre man. On the other hand, he was also a very public figure who never deduced a natural philosophic truth from the Bible. When Newton thought about the age of the earth, for instance, he thought about a metal globe the size of the earth and how long it would take to cool –he did not add up the ages of the giants in Genesis.


Steve LaBonne 12.25.05 at 3:57 pm


1) Science welcomes disagreement- but you have to bring data to the table. Not any old disagreement will do.

2) You lose your bet- I love Rilke, especially (given the extemely rudimentary state of my German) in the wonderful translations of Edward Snow. But I do not confuse works of art with contributions to knowledge.

Merry Christmas!


rollo 12.26.05 at 5:06 am

Steve-And a Merry Christmas to you, sir!
I guess now the point would hinge on whether Rilke was writing about lived experience or simply making nice images.
Your having read him and still being able to dismiss all “tame imaginary constructions of theologians (or of the UFO aficionados, their neighbors in the intellectual slums)” and (there I go again) I’m assuming anything else that doesn’t submit to the scientific process as well, means lots of cosmic babies are being thrown out with that bathwater.
My apprehension of the Duino Elegies was he was transcribing what were to him real events – metaphor maybe, but not empty metaphor. Not real in the way opium visions are real, but real in the way perception of the world recast in language is real. Metaphor as a poetic reflection of his lived experience – not just trippy imagery.
Strictly speaking theologians are sanctioned by religious institutions. And “knowledge” the way you’re using it I think means (there I go again, again) the kind of verifiable positivist data that’s come to dominate human knowing.
Knowing things that can’t be proved can have no validity in that schema, because it isn’t “knowledge”.
Rilke’s a theologian to me, though technically the word itself means what I set against his kind of knowing. “God discourse” having been so thoroughly owned as Intellectual Property for so long it’s ceased to have meaning without an ecclesiastical hallmark.
What I’m advocating is a recognition of the much quieter, and more readily dismissed, and far more loosely collected body of work that gets labeled mysticism. That’s where Rilke came in.
Dismissing his confident assertions of the presence in our lives of higher things, and our presence in a more profoundly grand, living cosmos, because it’s catalogued with the drivel and petulance of the opposing side, is the danger.
Calling that kind of assertion art, and then placing art outside and inferior to something called “knowledge” confirms a pragmatic human-centered moral position whose valence can only be the self. Eventually it will erode something we need to remain human, a kind of cohesion that’s more than just a compromise of self-interests.
If the real goal in the ID/evolution debate was to swing a majority of accedence and credulity onto the side of the “nothing here but us and the things we can see and touch” rationalists, the creationists couldn’t have done a better job. This has wider ramifications than just the teaching of accurate science in the classroom.
Like I said above, I think the real debate’s about the moral exigencies of the positions. When it’s reduced to the two official teams the victory of anthropocentrism is assured, because both sides are championing exactly that. The fundamentalists get their validation from a deity that puts them above all else, the other less-easily named side get theirs from a stance that places solipsistic humanity in a morally neutral territory where anything goes, because there is no greater moral valence, nothing outside, nothing greater, nothing but us and all this stuff.
Science starts from the Cartesian platform of the self in the mind. If that’s the only context we have then we’re like Europeans entering the New World – the temptation to arrogance is great, and greed makes it easy to ignore what’s there already, and rationalize its harm.
This way of being doesn’t converse with what’s out there, because until it’s been proved beyond a doubt that there is, there isn’t anything out there to converse with.
Rilke was describing that kind of conversation.
I’m saying it’s a practical mistake to dismiss the possibility of that discourse, a grave one.
The hubris of a creature that has set its only world on fire refusing to ask for guidance because there’s been no verifiable proof of anything like a guide available – and because the only visible advocates of that possibility are incoherent boobs – would seem ludicrous, and it probably does, but only to something that doesn’t love human things, and humanity.
Technically we haven’t set the world on fire, it’s true – there’s no oxidization, the actual combustion’s still confined to our engines – yet I have a hard time seeing the 380 million gallons of gasoline we’re burning every day in the US as anything but a very large fire.
The odd coincidence of provably mistaken and delusional religionists having a belief system that includes the prophetic description of just such an eventuality I’ll have to leave to another discussion.Happy New Year!


raj 12.26.05 at 8:38 am

A key reason why Newton was keen to separate questions of cause from his work was because his theory of gravity was not an explanatory theory, but only a predictive theory.

Not exactly. It was a descriptive theory. It purported to describe how “gravity” operated, but did not purport to describe the “source” of gravity. Einstein’s general relativity purports to do that, and it does it quite well, but the fact that it appears to be fundamentally inconsistent with quantum theory suggests that it is incomplete.

NB: Newton’s three laws of motion are not dissimilar. They work, therefore they are used. Anyone who uses Lagrangian dynamics knows the same. They cannot be derived from first principles, but they are incredibly useful.


Steve LaBonne 12.26.05 at 9:41 am

Rollo, I’m afraid it seems to me that your aquaintance with science is very limited and based almost entirely on caricatures. I will let Einstein explain why the scientific worldview is the very opposite of solipsism: “It is quite clear to me that the religious paradise of youth, which was thus lost, was a first attempt to free myself from the chains of the ‘merely personal,’ from an existence dominated by wishes, hopes, and primitive feelings. Out yonder there was this huge world, which exists independently of us human beings and which stands before us like a great, eternal riddle, at least partially accessible to our inspection and thinking. The contemplation of this world beckoned as a liberation, and I soon noticed that many a man whom I had learned to esteem and to admire had found inner freedom and security in its pursuit. The mental grasp of this extra-personal world within the frame of our capabilities presented itself to my mind, half consciously, half unconsciously, as a supreme goal. Similarly motivated men of the present and of the past, as well as the insights they had achieved, were the friends who could not be lost. The road to this paradise was not as comfortable and alluring as the road to the religious paradise; but it has shown itself reliable, and I have never regretted having chosen it.”


Peter 12.26.05 at 11:24 am

Roger —

The historical evidence by now is very clear — Newton was a secret dissenter. He was a Unitarian, which in those Trinitarian times, was considered strong heresy.

Also, you say: “He was very proud of not making conjectures when he had no evidence to make them, and took that limit to separate what he did from what the virtuosi did on the continent.”

Well, I suppose you mean, apart from his assumption of a universal gravitational force in his work on gravity? Assuming the existence of such a force meant that he could study the motion of the planets by means of observations undertaken here on earth, eg on pendulums. He certainly had no evidence (and no way of gaining any, given the level of technology of the time) for this assumption.

This is a very strong assumption indeed, and one which most of us would also find strange if we came to it afresh (instead of having had it taught to us all through our education). Newton’s justification for the assumption was not based on any evidence, but was post-hoc: that the resulting mathematical models seemed to predict the motion of the planets well.


rollo 12.26.05 at 10:21 pm

Fear not, my friend!
While my acquaintance with science has been entirely outside the academy and mostly outside the laboratory, one of my best friends was a scientist! A herpetologist! Snakes, lizards, amphibians!
I think Dennett’s theory of consciousness, as far as he’s gotten it, is great and very close to the mark.
I’ve poked around in E. O Wilson’s more popular work – and, of course, I have an affinity for guys like Tesla and Velikovsky.
I do despise those inhuman creatures who under the guise of scientific discovery have committed ghastly crimes against our animal relatives – I could show you pictures! Aaagh!
This does color my view of science, yes, just as the idiocies of creationists color yours of religion.
Not all science is okay. Not all religion is okay.
You cherry-pick your theologians to dismiss theology generally, then you cherry-pick your scientists to trumpet the magnificence of science generally.
I’ll give you Torquemada and Pat Robertson, but you’ll have to give me Joseph Mengele and a clot of anonymous behaviorists who have put their knowledge and its gain above any moral restraint; and if we’re both going to be honest about it I’m afraid we’ll have to follow the tree of outcomes in both cases to a flawed and somewhat shameful present.
Einstein’s talking about the philosophy of science more than its application, and both he and you elide the necessity for ethical governance of some kind on the near infinite possibilities of scientific exploration.
Where does that governance originate? What moral principles can withstand thorough analysis? Reduced to the subjective, it all disappears into mammalian touchy-feely illusion.
We think things are wrong because they bother us. Solipsism, no?
You know and I know that the behaviorists were straining against their traces, champing at the bit to get their theoretical hands on human subjects as soon as the discipline opened up enough to make that possible.
Which, as obscured by this excessive and indulgent prose as it might be, is my main point.
There is no ethical boundary in the rational-positivist prove-it-first world. Mengele’s “work” can be defined down into meaningless subjectivity. A strategy for advancement no different than any other. Our revulsion to it comes from a morality we got from religion.
The moral stance that condemns it erodes without something more than individual conscience and its inherited mishmash of religiously-based moral dicta and a vague and insubstantial sense of right and wrong we learn as children. There probably isn’t a genetic basis for specific moral distinctions – so where do we get them?
Dennett’s theory as I understand it is that there is no center to the self in the brain, that out of the electro-magnetic cloud of neural activity the process of personality grows a self-consciousness that “we” are.
What I’m saying is that personality is likely mirrored in the larger thing we make together, that thing this debate is a struggle toward directing the course of – humans, being.
And like that personality we need guidance, instruction, example. As individuals we get that from our parents and the social culture around us; where does that culture get it?
A picture of where we are that places us in the center of a vast uncaring void, a morally neutral environment, puts the onus of direction entirely on what we are already, our resource only the very limited understanding we already have.
Science, even as Einstein has it in your quote, is a movement forward, from the self, to a “mental grasp of this extra-personal world”.
Religion is the attempt to converse with the extra-personal world, with the hope, and faith, that there’s something there to hear us.
They aren’t in conflict in the abstract, but their applications are and have been flawed by the selfishness and arrogance that underly all moral failing.
Forced to choose between the two I’d have to go with science, but we got here by doing both, and it’s to that I’m pointing, not to one or the other. The honesty of science, the humility of religion – that kind of balance is how we walk.

Rilke, Duino Elegies, First Elegy, Robert Hunter’s translation:

The very stars, row on row,
sparkled for your attention.
From bygone days a wave rolled
or a violin yielded itself as you
wandered by some open window.
These were your instructions.
But what could you do-
distracted, as you were,
by all of that significance?-
as though each signpost
pointed on beyond itself
towards something higher yet…


Walt Pohl 12.26.05 at 11:15 pm

Rollo, you seem interested in having a different argument than what’s on offer here. Scientists are not moral examplars — for all I know, they’re worse than average. I’m sure scientists have murdered their spouses, abused their children, exploited their positions of authority for personal gain. If there was a movement to make scientists world dictators, I would oppose it.

The peak of influence and admiration of scientists passed long ago. No one is advocating that they be considered our moral exemplars, or that they become a substitute for our consciences.


Bro. Bartleby 12.26.05 at 11:38 pm

If I recall, the Paladin self propelled howitzer system will go into production next year, I’m sure some in the military are anxious to field test it in Iraq … before the war is over. Nothing like the thrill of firing a Paladin howitzer at some terrorist hiding in some spiderhole over the horizon. And funny, the last I’ve checked I found not one theologian on the list of patent holders for the new weapon system. In fact, I’ve checked many of the weapons and systems and again, not one theologian on the list that is replete with scientists. But then again, most theologians are most likely spending all their time thinking of paradise and … perhaps pondering the morality of inventing ever newer weapon systems.


Steve LaBonne 12.27.05 at 8:30 am

No one is advocating that they be considered our moral exemplars, or that they become a substitute for our consciences. Good God, I sure hope not, considering some of the cutthroat competitors I was aware of when I was in academic science. And in turn, I would hope that nobody who has even a nodding acquaintance with church history would propose setting up theologians as moral exemplars either. ;)


Bro. Bartleby 12.27.05 at 8:59 am

Bro. Steve,

In the words of Rodney King, “Can’t we all just get along?”

Maybe I could start a new church, instead of pews, we could have long, narrow lab tables and stools, and each church goer would have a microscope and various scientific instruments to work with as the sermon is given. And who knows, if the church really grows, we could have a thousand laity doing labwork for a thousand Sunday mornings, and perhaps we could come up with not a Shakespeare sonnet, but something of scientific equivalent … say some stemcell research that would bolster the research of … of say Dr. Hwang’s lab in South Korea.

Bro. Bartleby


rollo 12.27.05 at 5:57 pm

Walt – Gee, that’s a tough one to disagree with. I take it you mean the creationist/evolution-somethingist debate. Or possibly you mean the original post which wasn’t as I took it so much an argument as Harry’s advocacy of religion as subject in public school curricula, and his throwing that question out for general discussion and opinionating.
Or maybe the argument you mean is the Newton-was-an-alchemist-yes-but… sub-thread?
My specific reference above to Steve Labonne’s smug dismissal of all theologians with the pithy phrase I’ve already quoted twice and won’t again should have indicated a tangent, a narrower target, and the clear intent to nitpick. Maybe it wasn’t so clear.
Also I did say I thought the overall context for all this – which I’m sure you’ll agree is the rising intensity of pressures, social and political, around the worldviews behind the massed armies of disagreement viz. Darwin v. Bible and the “clash of civilizations” trope that pits Judeo-Christian militancies against those of Islam – was structured so that whichever side emerged victorious the real victor would be anthropocentric, as there were no other officially-sanctioned teams on the field without that attribute.
A point I haven’t managed to make to my own satisfaction here is the apotheosis of selfishness inherent in virtually everything that’s held up as superior by the culture’s preponderant voices.
Ungoverned selfishness being pretty easily revealed as the base-metal of all iniquity, great and small.
What the ID/evolution contest is really about isn’t being made plain I think, therefore a lot of the participants and most of the spectators aren’t resolving anything so much as confirming something that isn’t being overtly acknowledged.
So in the sense that that is to me crucially important, much more than the silly wasting of energy and time the authorized debate’s been organized around – yeah I’m interested in a different argument.
But you know, this thing where one individual sort of represents the “group” – as in “on offer here” – in pointing out the lack of cogency of another disputant? Kind of a refuge for the lacking-in-sufficient-rebuttal, but-wanting-to-push-back, type of thing, no?
Plus a comments thread that’s moved from contemporary education to the alchemical endeavors of Isaac Newton can’t really be said to be all that tightly focused, I mean, can it? I mean you know, as far as specific arguments being “on offer” or not.
Returning to the immediate discussion – if scientists aren’t to be our moral exemplars, and theologians aren’t either, well then who the hell is? Paris Hilton? Dr. Phil? Rupert Murdoch’s minions?
Scientists, the exciting ones anyway, are operating at the absolute edge of the real, out where things get manifested, plucking what we encounter next out of the well of the possible. Maybe they shouldn’t be exemplars, but they damn sure better be as moral as it’s possible to get. Or are we jettisoning morality entirely now?
And you know that was kind of the point for me all along. In fact I said that. Already. Twice, at least, in so many words.


Steve LaBonne 12.27.05 at 7:41 pm

Why do you want to seek moral exemplars only among the practitioners of a particular profession? Why not seek models of good behavior, if such you require, wherever you can find them?


Bro. Bartleby 12.27.05 at 8:36 pm

“Good behavior” is such a “lowest-common denominator” generalization that I would think that the parties thrown in Nazi Germany were filled with folks behaving goodly … while thinking thoughts bereft of morality.


rollo 12.27.05 at 9:55 pm

Steve- The back and forth has deteriorated some, but before it dies out completely I’d like to make it as clear as I can that I think this issue is paramount – central politically socially and materially,let alone spiritually.
Proceeding directly out of the sense of first cause – whichever p.o.v. you come to, primordial soup, alien jetsam, or divine forge – are the exigencies of moral consequence.
A purely scientific, rational-positivist view will be of necessity partial and incomplete, even as it’s added to daily and carried out to the muon/string boundaries of theoretical physics. Nothing there but the building blocks of matter means no moral p.o.v. but the subjective.
And as bartleby points out there are some pretty nasty subjectivities around.
Not to mention the lack of external obligation meaning that, as the only visible and articulate actors on the stage the human, or anthropocentric, version of cause-and-effect and right-and-wrong etc. is going to be all that matters.
It’s a kind of cosmic sociopathy.
The converse, coming from traditional religious sources, is proprietary and rigid with dogmatic addenda that bring it perilously in line with the aforementioned coldly arrogant moral – if not solipsism – egotism.
I may be flattering myself but I like to think what I’m suggesting is a lot closer to what Einstein was getting at – humble diligence and imperative factual honesty toward all phenomena. That would include the unknown is the point. The unknown not as part of the to-do list, not deferred until known, but as presence now, here, with us.
I’ve watched over the years since Asimov and Heinlein and those guys first clued me in to the limitless nature of the stellar universe the steady advancement of the known contiguous and increasingly fantastic boundary layers of the physical cosmos. And right behind that the Eureka! boys with their constantly-adapted litany of “Here it is!” – the ultimate bit, the last particle, the final outer edge, the stop sign at the end of the universe.
Past that nothing.
So here we are, the only sentient creature in our corner of the void. So anything goes.
That attitude comes right out of that point of view.
And it gets its credence and viability from the nonsense and superstition of the other side – as long as there’s only two sides.
We’re making massive alterations in everything around us, to a degree some think is now inalterably terminal.
I’m holding out for the possibility of the unseen chance – with a rider, that even if it’s too late, going out trying to get it right is more loyal to the best of what we are than despair and cynicism will ever be.


Walt Pohl 12.27.05 at 11:24 pm

The quote of Steve’s that so incensed you is not a comment about the moral implications of science, but its mystical implications. General relativity and quantum mechanics are stranger than anything imagined by theologians. This is not even a particularly anti-religious viewpoint: if you are religious, theology is the handiwork of humans, while physics is the handiwork of God.

The fight over intelligent design is not some final apocalyptic battle for total victory between logical positivism and religious fundamentalism for the hearts of men. Such a battle is a long way away. This is a purely defensive fight, to defend the principle that scientists should decide what’s taught in science classes. Scientists here are not trying to advance into the realms of poetry or theology, but preserve the integrity of science classes.

Science does not purport to be anything like a complete theory of knowledge. That’s the key to science’s success: it answers the questions it can, and leaves the others to another day. Science can’t tell you who to vote for, what the purpose of life is, what right and wrong is, what makes a poem good, and doesn’t pretend to. Scientists have opinions on all of those things, but science does not. What more can you possibly ask?


rollo 12.28.05 at 4:28 am

Walt- I’ve pretty much run my string on this, but I’ll try to answer a couple of things you’re saying.
“Incensed” is inaccurate. There isn’t anything in what I wrote to Steve about that quote that makes it apt. The way you reframe it puts the emphasis on his boosting the superior cosmology of science, but the way it’s written it finishes actively dismissive of theology. I stepped into the line of fire to speak in defense of something that isn’t protected by the heavy armor of the two warring parties. That’s clear enough I think.
Also clear is that I’m broadening the collective to its etymological root, “God discourse” isn’t Intellectual Property no matter who says it is. You guys are fighting a particular subset of theological champions, and they’re fighting back.
My consistent and very much repeated point is that this serves to confirm both sides, while disenfranchising any other position.
The battle for the hearts and minds of men, as you call it, is a constant, ongoing thing. Seneca engaged in it, Marcus Aurelius, Swift, Vico, and about a million, or at least a hundred, other brilliant humane thinkers fought for that very thing.
The one indisputable point of agreement we have is the validity of the struggle to keep science classes scientific, with curricula freely chosen by scientists.
One of the reasons it’s a defensive position is the intolerant and hypocritical rigidity of institutional religion, especially the Judeo-Christian fundamentalism that’s been given so much political power and encouragement lately by cynical and manipulative operators.
Another reason is the saturation of the human landscape, which is now virtually identical to the globe itself, with the cornucopian bounty of a scientific progress that has had its head for centuries. Ungoverned, its only principle utility – anything with immediate gain and no provable immediate harm is considered progress and must not be obstructed.
That cornucopia’s looking more like Pandora’s Box every day.
Inasmuch as science examines everything, it certainly does stick its nose into poetry and religion, it’s supposed to, that’s what it does, examine everything.
And there’s one of the more obscure things I’m trying to get at – too much knowledge at the wrong time and in the wrong place can be a bad thing, without a core integrity to process it. Too much self-consciousness on that first date can dampen even teenage ardor; too much awareness of how far down it is, and what would happen, is not conducive to successful free-climbing. Etcetera.
The fact that science is building a knowledge base that by its nature is going to be incomplete has some corollaries that place us squarely in the middle of a gloriously infinite unknown, no matter how much we learn. That has practical implications. And they only get greater and more serious the more we learn how to apply what we learn.
A factory in China, with thousands of identical human automata processing millions of identical battery-raised genetically-modified chickens is one fairly benign example of the application of scientific knowledge stripped of any human moderating influence.
Efficiency without soul – it’s what we used to use insect hives as a metaphor to describe. Soul being a distinctly non-scientific term.
It’s by a failure of both science and religion, not one or the other, that the world has become so dangerous. Even as we’ve gotten so adept at protecting ourselves that every large predator that ever threatened us is now either threatened with or a victim of extinction by our doing.
We’re shaping the human heart right now, and the world itself, so of course the battle’s engaged.
The possibility that anything capable of producing something like us, however it happened, could be already superior to us in ways we don’t have the instrumentation to measure or analyze – I’m asking that scorn for the dishonest arguments of these latest theocratic wannabes not cloud that possibility, and the mandate of care and caution that should accompany it.


John Quiggin 12.28.05 at 4:58 am

Reading Steve Fuller, it’s quite clear that he agrees ID is creationism. In fact, he’s arguing specifically for Christian creationism and therefore against (the ostensible version of) ID. So why does he keep referring to ID?

I’d also be interested to know whether he took this line, with explicit Biblical references in the Dover trial where he testified.


Bro. Bartleby 12.28.05 at 8:02 am

Bro. Rollo,

I second that! Now, what’s for breakfast!


Walt Pohl 12.28.05 at 11:00 am

Rollo, I’m not sure what you want. Science shouldn’t study certain subjects until a committee headed by you deems the human race “ready”?


Steve LaBonne 12.28.05 at 7:12 pm

Just to aggravate the mysterians a bit more: ;)

“… The view implicit in this book, which I now want to make explicit, is that science does not name an ontological domain; rather it names a set of methods for finding out anything at all that admits of systematic investigation. The fact that hydrogen atoms have one electron, for example, was discovered by something called the “scientific method”, but that fact, once discovered, is not the property of science; it is entirely public property. It is a fact like any other. So if we are interested in reality and truth, there is really no such thing as “scientific reality” or “scientific truth”. There are just the facts that we know. … The fact that hydrogen atoms have one electron is a fact like the fact that I have one nose. The only difference is that for quite accidental reasons of evolution, I do not need any professional assistance to discover that I only have one nose, whereas given our structure and given the structure of hydrogen atoms, it takes a good deal of professional expertise to discover how many electrons are in a hydrogen atom.

There is no such thing as the scientific world. There is, rather, just the world, and what we are trying to do is describe how it works and describe our situation in it. As far as we know, its most fundamental principles are given by atomic physics, and, for that little corner of it that most concerns us, evolutionary biology.”

-John R. Searle

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