Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Unintelligently Designing the Intelligent Design Debate

The recent comments by President Bush supporting intelligent design have not only elicited the ire of the scientistic community (No, that is not a typo), but also some unfortunate comments from prominent conservatives. Ostensibly, the idea of these conservatives is to make the debate over intelligent design “more intelligent,” In fact, however, their proposal asks us to buy into an approach to the debate that is only slightly less disadvantageous than actually giving up.

In Suzanne Field’s recent column, “Designing an Intelligent Debate,” she advocates a philosophical error dating back to the Arab philosopher Averroes. “Intelligent design and the theory of evolution belong to separate spheres of theoretical thought: one is substantiated by faith, the other by scientific evidence.”

Her proposal received a faint echo in Tony Snow’s column on the same issue: “Why Can’t We Have a Rational Debate?” In Snow’s column, which was admittedly much more sober than Field’s, he remarks: “If God exists, He reveals himself through faith, not science.”

First of all, this is in direct contradiction to Apostle Paul (not an unimportant authority on the issue of faith and reason), who says that “that which may be known of God...the invisible things of him from the creation of the world" are “clearly seen” through the “things that are made.” Romans I: 19-20. Check it out.

Second, it is a philosophical view with a pedigree. The philosopher Etienne Gilson calls it view the “Doctrine of Twofold Truth.” The idea is to carve out two separate spheres of knowledge; one untouched by evidence, the other untouched by faith. Gilson’s account of this view—and the refutation if it by St. Thomas Aquinas at the University of Paris in 13th century, is the story of one of the great demolition jobs in the history of ideas. It is a story people like Fields and Snow ought to know.

The origin of the idea lies with Averroes, a medieval Muslim thinker, but was taken up by Sigar of Brabant, a Master of Arts at the University of Paris. As is the case so often, G. K. Chesterton describes it best:

Siger of Brabant said this: the Church must be right theologically, but she can be wrong scientifically. There are two truths; the truth of the supernatural world, and the truth of the natural world, which contradicts the supernatural world. While we are being naturalists, we can suppose that Christianity is all nonsense; but then, when we remember that we are Christians, we must admit that Christianity is true even if it is nonsense. In other words, Siger of Brabant split the human head in two, like the blow in an old legend of battle; and declared that a man has two minds, with one of which he must entirely believe and with the other may utterly disbelieve… It was not two ways of finding the same truth; it was an untruthful way of pretending that there are two truths.

Field’s proposal is undoubtedly motivated by the desire to take some of the heat out of the debate, but such proposals rarely work. As Chesterton said elsewhere, “The full potentialities of human fury cannot be reached until a friend of both parties tactfully intervenes.”

Sunday, April 24, 2005

Cause of Death: Bad Reasoning

The debate over ending Terry Shiavo’s life was totally off point while she was actually alive. It is possible that it can be pulled back to the point now that she’s dead?

One of the reasons offered by proponents of her death for starving her was that she had expressed a desire while she was of sound mind “not to live that way.” But the fact that she expressed this wish is completely irrelevant to the decision about whether to pull her feeding tube.

In what other circumstance do we allow a person to have their life taken by someone else because the other person said at some previous time that they wouldn’t want to “live that way”? Suppose someone said to her husband, after driving through a poor part of town, “I sure wouldn’t want to live that way”? Does that mean that at some later point, when the family falls on hard financial times, and, say, has to move to a less luxurious home, the husband is justified in taking her life because he can establish that his wife had expressed this wish?

Of course not.

I have known my wife for 30 years now. When we were in high school, my musical taste tended toward the music of the more head-banging variety—the kind, in fact, that is popular today. Since then, my tastes have changed (I would say, “matured”). I used to make fun of the more civilized music my wife listened to. Now, every once it an while, I’ll make a remark about some song she used to like, and I’ll say, “You know, that’s a pretty good song.” Having noticed this trend, she now makes fun of me. She’ll say, “Pretty soon you’ll be saying you like Lawrence Welk.” And every time she says this, I say, “If I ever start liking Lawrence Welk, shoot me.”

Now let’s say that at some future date, I’m flipping the channels around on the television, and I see an old rerun of the Lawrence Welk Show, and I say, “You know, that’s pretty good stuff.” What if, upon hearing the remark, she calmly walked upstairs, got the gun, and took me out? Would the people who have been defending the starvation of Terri Shiavo say that was okay too?

One would hope not. They would say that is a different case because taking out feeding tube is not the same thing as actively killing someone. But that’s the whole point—what the whole debate is about: whether taking out someone’s feeding tube is actively killing someone.That’s what the discussions should have discussed, not extraneous arguments like whether she said she “wouldn’t want to live that way.

Monday, March 21, 2005

Human Nature Makes the News

The chief obstacle encountered by the conservative cultural critic in modern times is the fact that many of his listeners are not entirely certain that they exist, or, if they have found the intellectual fortitude required to believe that they do, they are not completely convinced that this fact is very important.

People are still discussing Harvard President Larry Summers remarks several months ago at an academic conference that one of the reasons there are not more women scientists at the best universities was because of innate differences between the intellectual orientations of men and women. Most recently, he was the target of a no confidence vote of the Harvard faculty—the first in school history.

The responses to Summers remarks have generally taken two forms. The first was from outraged postmodernist liberals who asked how someone could even say such a thing. The second was from curious modernist conservatives who wanted to ponder whether Summers was, in fact, correct in his assertion.

The postmodern response is exactly what you would expect from people who have long since ceased believing in human nature. If you don’t believe in a permanent and enduring human nature, then making any statement about innate differences between men and women is simply preposterous, since nothing is innate (except homosexuality, which, if it were innate, would mean that homosexuality has moral implications, which is unacceptable to postmodernists).

The response of the modernists is also entirely consonant with their lack of interest in the topic. George Will, for example, mentions the relevance of human nature only briefly and in passing (, while the otherwise level-headed people at the New Criterion just blew by it altogether (

That all things have a nature or essence is a belief that goes back. Way back: before the postmodernists, before the modernists, and back to the premodernists, starting with Plato. Whether humans have a real nature unique to them that is shared by all men was a belief that was simply axiomatic—which is just another way of saying that it went without question. The only debate was where the essence of a thing resided: in each thing itself (Aristotle) or in some heavenly realm (Plato). The modern rejection of essences derives from William of Ockham, who questioned the reality of essences themselves. His view is called “nominalism”: the idea that words do not refer to natures, but are only convenient labels referring to groups of things with similar characteristics.

Larry Summers is not in trouble for what he said; he is in trouble for what he assumed. His remark that women may be inferior in one respect to men is not what got him in trouble. What got him into hot water was taking it for granted that men and women are different in any way at all.

Modernist thinking is almost unanimous in accepting (implicitly or explicitly) the nominalist view. Richard Weaver was right when he wrote in Ideas Have Consequences that the decline of the West began when William of Ockham questioned the existence of universals (natures or essences).