Not good enough!

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.

 

 

 

9 thoughts on “Not good enough!

  1. “To stifle an opinion on the grounds that it is “unscientific” is backward, parochial, illiterate and illiberal.”

    Not all matters are matters of opinion.

    One needs to be careful that accusations of “stifling” are not used to try to make ideas immune to criticism. Otherwise, any critical comment can be shut off by saying, “You’re stifling my opinion.”

    For instance, “The sky is green with yellow polka dots.” “It looks blue to me.” “STOP STIFLING ME!”

    “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.”

    That’s not intelligent design, in the way the term is normally used by both its advocates and critics. You’re describing some preference of an animal with a nervous system providing selective pressure on another organism. This is well known and is completely within the standard evolutionary framework.

    • Of course I’m not using the term ‘intelligent design’ as it is used by its proponents. I’m trying to illustrate how opposed ideas can meet in a productive way, although at least one of them will be changed utterly in the process. I think it is only in the past few decades that sexual selection has been properly appreciated (as, for example, in costly signalling, in the origins of art and morality).

      Personally, I think there are very bad vestiges of “intelligent design” in mainstream biology. For example, the idea that ecosystems are in delicate, unstable equilibrium owes a lot to the idea that there is “a way things were meant to be”, or a sort of cosmic design in nature. The sooner we flush that idea out of our belief system, the better. But first we have to acknowledge that it’s in our belief system in the first place. Only by comparing and contrasting traditional (and wrong) religious assumptions with newer evolutionary theory can we see how the error creeps in under the radar.

  2. Eh I get your general point but I mostly disagree. Your argument works for ‘Is there a God or not’. We don’t know either way and taking one side unequivocally is dismissive. But with evolution there IS unequivocal existence for one side. Sure ‘God’ might have set this in motion, but that doesn’t mean we should just ignore the evidence because it doesn’t vibe with our imagined beliefs. Belief in God and belief in evolution are NOT mutually exclusive, making creationism something for unnecessarily stubborn zealots.

  3. I see your point, and I agree that as a culture we should promote listening and open mindedness. But, there is also a difference between what is “stifled” in our society and what it taught in schools. I don’t hear people talking about banning Creationist books or bibles in general, like you reference in Kuwait in your opening example. The discussion I hear is about what is taught in science class in public schools – evolution is within the realm of science, and while evolution and intelligent design are not necessarily mutually exclusive, Creation by itself is not within the realm of science. What we allow in bookstores or libraries should be more broad than what we promote to our children by way of science classes in public schools.

    • +1. By all means, let the debate between adults continue: but the Giant’s Causeway exhibit is a publically tax-funded exhibit which will be seen by thousands of local and international visiting schoolchildren every year. I can live with the embarassment of other countries thinking we’re all idiots, but kids are impressionable. Luckily, in this particular case, I reckon that your average 8 year old will be able to see it as bogus already.

      • In my opinion, the teaching of science is currently done rather badly in secondary schools, because teachers still treat it as if it were “scripture”, sucking all the doubt and daring out of it. And they turn a blind eye to the “Whig history” (as Kuhn called it) that text-books tell.

        But science is a really exciting journey, riven with disagreement — and doubt and daring. Let children see it for what it is. For example, let them see the tortuous passage away from Ptolemaic astronomy (with the Sun at the center of the solar system) through Copernicus and Kepler to Newton and then — gasp! — the rejection of Newton with Einstein. And then the problems Einstein faced with quantum theory.

        This is an electrifying journey, and we’re nowhere near the end of it yet. We (rightly) teach Newtonian mechanics in schools even though we know Newtonian mechanics is false. (We know it, because relativistic mechanics is demonstrably better.) In fact we teach Newtonian mechanics before we teach them relativistic mechanics, because the math is simpler.

        We still teach children the sort of thermodynamics that (mathematically) treats heat as a subtle fluid like “caloric”, even though we know statistical thermodynamics is a better theory. For much the same reasons as above.

        I agree with you that “your average 8 year old will be able to see it as bogus already”. Many of those that don’t will grow older and learn later. Maybe a few will never see it, but that’s life. Let’s do the best we can. To expose children to opposed views improves their critical faculties. We should stop thinking children are empty receptacles that we can pour our orthodoxies into.

  4. “Genuine science seeks reasons for belief”

    balderdash

    utter total balderdash

    true science does not even consider the issue of belief

    it is “scientists” who exhibit belief

    and lay people who adopt scientific theory with nothing much more than faith – how many lay people truly understand evolutionary theory/ies?

    bugger all

    as for your sycophantic attack on Muslims – sheesh, when are you Americans going to stop (reminds me of the “Bury my Heart at Wounded Knee” thing – we’d call native Americans terrorists is we took back today’s behaviour to yesterdays’ reality)

    grow up

    pop

    • ‘“Genuine science seeks reasons for belief”’

      ‘balderdash’

      ‘utter total balderdash’

      What do you think testing is about, if not to establish with greater or lesser confidence whether a hypothesis is true?

      In general, we believe or accept what we take to be true. That is what ‘belief’ is: commitment to a theory’s truth. Truth is the central concern of science.

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