A few years ago, I spent an afternoon browsing in Kuwait’s largest bookshop. It was interesting to find out what was available – and what wasn’t available. Although Kuwaitis share the usual Arab hostility to “the Zionist entity” – they cannot bring themselves even to utter its name – I did not see any more obvious signs of anti-Semitism. I did not see copies of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, for example, or anything much like it. There were quite a lot of books by or about Einstein and Freud. Several “feminist” books were available, including at least one by militant lesbian philosopher Judith Butler.
The one topic of which there seemed to be not the merest hint of a whiff was the theory of evolution. There was nothing by or about Darwin – or by or about Richard Dawkins, or any other well-known evolutionary thinker.
To many Muslims, Darwin’s theory comes directly into conflict with their religion. Their reaction is to try to prevent any expression of it. Their “justification” is that the theory is false, and falsehoods are bad, and so should not be expressed, and so their expression should be forbidden.
Exactly the same reaction can be seen, in mirror-image, in many people who claim to be “pro-science”. (I will call them “pro-scientists”, although of course they are anything but pro-science.) Creationism comes directly into conflict with their science, so their reaction is to try to prevent any expression of it. Their “justification” is that the theory is false, and falsehoods are bad, and so should not be expressed, and so their expression should be forbidden.
But wait. Everyone thinks their own opinion is true, and therefore that any opposed opinions must be false. Are all opposed opinions therefore to be be silenced? Can human disagreement amount to nothing more than a bunch of ignorant morons slapping each other around like Mo of The Three Stooges?
When pressed with this suggestion, both religionists and “pro-scientists” tend to retreat to a more defensive position by saying that Creationism and Darwinism don’t really come into direct conflict at all. Religionists will say that Darwinism is impious, or in other words not worthy of being considered a real rival to religion, and so it can be safely left out of the discussion. And for their part, in a tiresomely predictable mirror-image, “pro-scientists” will say that Creationism is unscientific, or in other words not worthy of being considered a real rival to science, and so it can be safely left out of the discussion.
That is not good enough. I repeat: that is not good enough!
Genuine science is guided by broadly sceptical and open-minded attitudes. These attitudes make no attempt to silence opposed views. Genuine scepticism accepts that nothing is certain – I repeat, nothing – so the opposed view might conceivably be right. To silence an opposed view is to assume infallibility, as JS Mill saw, and any assumption of infallibility is just inconsistent with a sceptical attitude.
Genuine science welcomes the proliferation of opposed views, because new ideas are often an amalgam or synthesis of such views. For example, even such stark opposites as Darwinism and “Intelligent Design” theory can meet in a productive way. There is some “intelligent design” in nature in the limited sense that some creatures exercise their intelligence in sexual selection, say, or in their choice of food. These choices are made by more or less intelligent minds, and they have the effect of shaping future generations. To explain the shapes and colours of flowers, for example, we have to consider the intelligence – such as it is – of insects. To explain some of the differences between human races, we have to consider human aesthetics.
Genuine science seeks reasons for belief. For that, rival theories need to be compared to each other, to see which fares better. And for that, rival theories need to be available so that they can be so compared. Silencing one of them makes any such comparison impossible.
I hope this is all familiar territory. If it isn’t, dear reader, you urgently need to read one of the most important books of recent centuries: JS Mill’s On Liberty.
To stifle an opinion on the grounds that it is “unscientific” is backward, parochial, illiterate and illiberal. It is backward, because it is to do exactly what religionists do. It is a profoundly anti-scientific, authoritarian move to protect orthodoxy. Darwinism is too good to be treated with that sort of intellectual contempt.
It is parochial, because it fails to acknowledge the fact that most of the world’s population still believe some version of Creationism. We in the West prefer Darwinism, of course, but to override what “outsiders” think because it conflicts with our own Western values is shabby and inward-looking. Creationism and Darwinism may not be serious contenders within science, but they are rivals in a wider, “philosophical” sense, simply by virtue of being widely considered to be rivals. A properly scientific attitude extends beyond science proper to this wider realm of “philosophical” dispute.
To stifle an opinion on the grounds that it is “unscientific” is scientifically illiterate, because it fails to grasp what makes for good reasons for belief, and it fails to grasp how science is informed by sceptical attitudes.
Finally, it is illiberal, because it fails to respect individual freedom. If someone has religious beliefs, by all means let us reason with him and try to persuade him of his error. But by silencing the mere expression of those beliefs, we trample on his individual freedom to express them, and to hear them expressed. That is to trample on the individual himself. Absolute freedom of thought and sentiment – including religious thought and religious sentiment – is essential for human happiness and human life.
By silencing opinions we disagree with – instead of engaging with them in open and rational debate – we condemn ourselves to Matthew Arnold’s “darkling plain”,
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.