Intelligent Design is Opposed to Creationism? Really?

Earlier today I was browsing P.Z. Myers’ blog Pharyngula, and there I read a post about Melanie Phillips of the UK’s The SpectatorPhillips was writing that she was angry at Ken Miller for saying that Intelligent Design is just Creationism in not-so-new clothing.  Specifically, in an interview with John Humphrey on the BBC’s Today program, Miller said ID was “nothing more than an attempt to repackage good old-fashioned Creationism and make it more palatable.”  This clearly upset Phillips who proceeded to go on and on about how ID was nothing like Creationism and how it is awful that there is this ongoing attempt to discredit ID by linking it to something as “ludicrous” as Creationism.  I won’t go into detail about how wrong she is on this issue, and I would strongly urge anyone interested to read Myers’ blog post on this very subject as it does a great job of summarizing the details that leave no doubt as to the connection between the “scientific” Intelligent Design and the “religious” Creationism.

My interest here has to do with the veracity of the claims that Phillips uses in her argument.  I am concerned about this because, as far as I can tell, every word she writes is either a lie or is the result of willful ignorance.  Her primary thesis is this:  “Intelligent Design not only does not come out of Creationism but stands against it.”  To bolster this position she claims that ID comes out of science, whereas Creationism clearly does not, that ID only claims that there is a creator, while Creationism claims that God is the Creator, and, perhaps most importantly, “both Creationists and many others of religious faith disdain Intelligent Design, just as ID proponents think Creationism is totally off the wall.”  The question now is whether there is any truth whatsoever to any of these claims.

First, it seems unclear how it could be that ID “stands against” Creationism.  Creationism encompasses a few different systems, each religion having a creation myth peculiar to it.  Perhaps the most well-known versions of Creationism, at least here in the West, are Young Earth Creationism (YEC) and Old Earth Creationism (OEC).  The primary difference between YEC and OEC have to do with interpretations of the Bible, the YEC’ers believing that the Bible claims the Earth is around 6000 years old.  They believe the Bible is literal and inerrant, and that much of the fossil record and geological formations which give the appearance of an old Earth are the result of the Noaich flood.  OEC allows for the Bible to be more metaphorical and, as such, has no problem with the Earth being billions of years old.  Many OEC’ers even allow for evolution of some sort.  The important point is that God is the Creator, He set everything in motion, and the world proceeds along according to His Plan.

So, does ID “stand against” either of these positions?  I can’t see how it does.  Here is one of the primary problems with ID:  it doesn’t say much of anything.  The only thing ID really says is that some things were designed.  There are various arguments used to get to that point, but that’s the whole of its position.  Life is still a set of special creations, of complex wholes that just pop into existence without any evolutionary forbearers.  ID says nothing about what was designed.  What is says is that there are limits to what isn’t designed.  For example, one of ID’s posterboys, Michael Behe, says that the bacterial flagellum is “irreducibly complex, and, hence, requires a designed.  Did the rest of the bacteria require a designer?  I’m guessing that Behe would reply in the affirmative to that, though it isn’t really important.  What is important is the recognition that ID in no way rules out modern bacteria being designed as-is.  While it says that a designer was required at some point, there is nothing within ID that provides a cut-off for when things were designed.  In light of that, there doesn’t seem to be any clear way in which ID is in some sort of conflict with YEC or OEC.  The “theory” itself has no means of making any such distinction.

Let’s look at the next issue, that “Intelligent Design comes out of science.”  While there may be a few scientists supporting the position, it isn’t clear at all that ID is in any significant sense “scientific.”  As far as coming out of science, the peer-reviewed scientific journals are mute on ID, so it didn’t come from there.  As for its even being considered scientific, it offers no explanations, and it offers no predictions, and, most importantly, it doesn’t appear to be falsifiable.  The first two in the list are the entire point of science, and the latter is generally taken to be something that is required of any position that is legitimately scientific.  The problem with ID is that it isn’t all that specific about what structures are supposed to be designed.  Those structures that were suggested by Behe to be irreducibly complex have repeatedly to be shown not to be so at all.  But all Behe has done is dance around waving his hands suggesting that people haven’t understood what irreducible complexity really is.  The more honest response would be that he hasn’t yet been able to produce a description that would allow his examples to maintain their irreducibly complex status, and that is exactly the problem.  No matter what evidence is produced to demonstrate that ID’ers are wrong, they continue to insist that ID is an appropriate position to hold, and their constant refusal to nail down specifics, to say exactly what would falsify ID, is what makes ID anything but a scientific theory.

Phillips also says that ID is distinct from Creationism in that the creator of ID need not be the God of Creationism.  While that may technically be true, it isn’t at all clear what else could serve as the kind of designer required to bridge the gap suggested by ID.  Some have wistfully supposed that it could be an alien species, but it doesn’t appear that anyone has taken that seriously.  Further, it isn’t at all clear that such a position is actually allowed within the ID camp.  One of the big defenders of ID, William Dembski, is well-known for his idea of specified complexity.  In a nutshell, this idea suggests that DNA is both specified and complex, and, as such, must be the product of some larger intelligence.  It is the complex specified information (Dembski’s term) within DNA that points to its design.  He is explicit that nothing like natural selection, nor any of the other natural mechanisms of physical law or chance, could have given rise to such specified complexity.  If this is the case, then it is difficult to see how any other intelligence could have arisen by purely naturalistic means as surely the information that is coded in whatever serves as the mechanism for their physical organization and reproduction must be both specified and complex as well.  It appears, then, that the only possible intelligence that could have been responsible for the design that is supposed in life must be of a non-natural origin.  Even if this is not the Christian God, it is not at all clear that it is different in kind from that entity.  It looks to be the same kind of thing, and, in that sense, the intelligence required in ID doesn’t seem opposed to the intelligence in traditional Creationism.

I’ll now look at the last issue Phillips raises, that “both Creationists and many others of religious faith disdain Intelligent Design, just as ID proponents think Creationism is totally off the wall.”  It seems I can quickly dismiss the last part of this assertion in that, looking above, it doesn’t appear that ID is significantly different from Creationism, so there is no room for ID proponents to suppose that Creationists are  “off the wall” in any sense that ID’ers themselves aren’t off the wall.  Moreover, doing a quick search I cannot find a single instance of any such assertion. (If someone else can find such a thing I will be happy to respond to that then).  In terms of Creationists disdaining ID, nothing could be further from the truth.  Popular Creationist websites, such as Answers in Genesis, frequently make use of ID arguments, while fundamentalist churches often invite proponents of ID to come speak.  Dembski’s and Behe’s books are suggested reading on many fundamentalist churches reading lists.  It just is not true that there is some sort of ill-will between proponents of Intelligent Design and Creationism.  To suggest otherwise is to attempt to deceive one’s audience.

There is no question that the position exhorted by Phillips is at odds with how things actually are, so the question now is this:  is Phillips willfully lying, or is she really that ignorant of the issue?  I don’t see that it makes a big difference for my concern.  Either way, she has failed to live up to her obligations to her readers.  The moral obligation as a reporter, even a columnist, to not lie to your audience should be obvious.  But, also, there is the obligation to not talk about things about which you know nothing.  By writing an article in a widely read paper you are putting yourself out there as an authority.  People believe you know about the subject on which you’re writing because that’s how you set yourself up.  To write on some subject, to state such an unequivocal opinion, when you are completely uninformed on the topic is wrong.  As such, whether because she is a liar or because she failed in her duty as a columnist, Phillips failed to live up to her obligation to her readers.

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Some Questions about Gun Control

Two recent columns from the New York Times editorial page have me thinking about the bad arguments that otherwise bright people use in defense of gun control. Before I explain why I find these arguments unconvincing, I want to make it clear that gun control is one issue about which I am politically and morally agnostic. I have spent most of my life in small towns and cities in neighborhoods where shootings rarely (if ever) occur, and nobody in my family hunts. For these reasons, I have never been interested in owning a gun, either for self-protection or for sport, nor have I been threatened by other people who have guns. Moreover, while I am inclined to have a laissez-faire attitude about the manufacture and sale of medium-sized objects, I don’t buy into natural rights, and I do not use ‘constitutionality’ as a short-hand for ‘justice’. I do not think the debate about guns starts or stops at the Second Amendment, but I do think that the burden of proof in any debate about regulation or restriction should fall on the more restrictive party.

This week, columnist Bob Herbert and former president Jimmy Carter both wrote op-ed pieces about the crisis of gun violence in the United States. Carter makes an explicit case that gun laws should be more restrictive, and he laments the disproportionate power of the National Rifle Association to lobby on behalf of gun manufacturers under the pretense of defending the Second Amendment. Herbert seems to be making a similar argument, but he does not explicitly mention the NRA or any gun law. Instead, Herbert focuses upon the United States’ violent, “culture soaked in blood,” and, at the end of the column, he chastens us for our blasé attitude toward “gun nuts” who are “committed to keeping the killing easy.”

I share Jimmy Carter’s disdain for the NRA, and I am inclined to think that Herbert is right that culture (though this begs the question, “which culture?”) is at the root of gun violence, but these are really peripheral points to the argument that Carter makes explicit and that Herbert suggests implicitly. Both men cite statistics about gun violence in the United States and then make the case that we need to do something about it. (Carter wants a ban on assault weapons that can penetrate police armor. I’m not exactly sure what Herbert wants, but I’ll infer that it is some type of stricter gun regulation because he worries about “gun nuts free to press their crazy case for more and more guns in more and more hands,” and he concludes that “we should be committed for not stopping them.”) The problem is that the statistical data about gun violence which they use is not a good justification for gun regulation because it tells us nothing about the relationship between gun laws and gun violence.

In order to understand why the justification for gun regulation is problematic, I want to take a brief detour into the world of drugs. As anyone who has ever been to a summer rock festival can attest, laws regulating ownership and use of controlled substances are imperfect deterrents. There are a number of reasons why people openly defy the law by using illegal drugs in public, but chief among them, in my opinion, is the fact that most people who use illegal drugs do not find drug laws to be morally compelling. This may seem like an obvious and redundant point (people who break the law don’t respect the law), but the fact that many people intentionally and unapologetically break a law is, in this case, relevant for the justification of the law itself. This is because legislators make the argument that drug laws are justified because they promote a public good, a desirable outcome in the world. Regulations aimed at producing a certain outcome are not the same as laws that protect moral rights over persons or property because those laws are generally taken to be intrinsically justified. So, the fact that people will break the law is not relevant if the law has some sort of intrinsic justification, but it is relevant if the only justification for having the law is that it will produce an expected outcome. The fact that drug laws have failed to prevent drug use and all of the undesirable consequences associated with drug use is relevant to whether drug laws are justified, and the fact that laws intended to protect the public good sometimes fail to produce the outcome which justifies them is relevant to the gun control debate.

With gun ownership, as with drugs, people break laws put in place to protect the public good, but the issue is clouded by the fact that those who break gun ownership laws (or, at least those who get caught breaking the laws) tend also to break rights laws by violating others’ persons or property. This makes it easy to conflate illegal gun ownership and illegal rights violations, but, as we have seen with drugs, there is a relevant distinction between laws justified because they protect a right* and laws justified because they produce a public good. The former requires a philosophical or legal argument to demonstrate that the right can be claimed. The latter requires an empirical argument based upon relevant data. This is because the justification for a law that produces a public good is an empirical prediction about the outcome of that law in the world.

Gun control advocates such as Carter and Herbert seem to be making exactly this type of empirical prediction when they admonish us to do something about gun violence. In his column, Bob Herbert cites approximately twenty different statistics about gun violence ranging from the number of guns owned privately in the U.S. (about 283 million) to the number of people murdered by guns every year (approximately 17,000) to the annual cost of treating gunshot-related injuries (estimated to be about $2 billion). The obvious inference from Herbert’s list of statistics is that stricter gun control regulations will help to reduce some of these tragically high numbers. This is the justification for gun control. It is supposed to be a public good. But, do the statistics about gun violence that persists under our current system of regulation really give us any reason to believe that gun violence will be reduced if regulations were to be tightened? I can think of at least three reasons to be skeptical about whether stricter gun regulations will produce a significant drop in gun violence, which is the outcome necessary to justify their existence. They are as follows:

First, the cited statistics do not distinguish between violence perpetrated by those who own guns legally and those who do not. If it turns out that most of the people who commit violent crimes do so with illegally purchased, unlicensed weapons (and there is some reason to think that this is the case), it is difficult to make the case that making it harder to get a gun license will have a significant effect on gun violence.

Second, people who are inclined to obey a weapons possession law are unlikely to break a person or property rights law. This is the inverse of the first reason. The people who would obey regulations are not, generally speaking, the people who need to be regulated.

Third, bans and restrictions create black markets, and black markets tend to create more violent crime, not less. There is no better evidence of this law of unintended consequences than the violence of the so-called “war on drugs,” which is at least partially responsible for our current rates of gun violence.

I am interested in other research pertaining to gun violence, and I think it is possible that a compelling empirical case could be made for why certain gun restrictions will reduce gun crime. But it is not enough to cite tragic statistics in order to justify restrictive laws. If we are going to admonish our legislators to work toward a solution to gun violence we must first seriously confront the question of whether that solution will work.

* Here, I completely ignore the question of whether the Second Amendment gives gun ownership its own special status as a right. If gun ownership is a right, then the calculation for weighing it against public welfare becomes trickier still. But, since my focus is on whether gun restrictions actually do serve the public welfare, I am bracketing the issue.

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“Creation Science” Fair?

Here is something interesting I came across this morning.  It looks like the Creation Museum will be having a science fair next year.  The Creation Museum’s blog posted this entry yesterday:  “Top 10 reasons why you should go to the Creation Museum Science Fair in 2010.” 

Here is the list:

10. You probably don’t have anything else planned for February 27, 2010. (Mark your calendar!)

9. It’s at the Creation Museum!

8. It’s open to homeschoolers, Christian school students, and public school students—as long as you agree with AiG’s Statement of Faith and will conduct a quality experiment, you can apply.

7. Science is fun!

6. It will be a fun day of learning with special programs just for you.

5. You can show off your scientific prowess.

4. You can meet other creationist science-minded students.

3. You can conduct an experiment on a topic of your choice in the life or physical sciences (within certain guidelines).

2. You can meet Answers in Genesis staff scientists.

And finally…

1. Many fabulous prizes will be awarded!


Now, here is what is interesting about this.  Point (8) says that to qualify the experiment performed by a student must coincide with AiG’s “Statement of Faith.”  You can check that out yourself, but the take take-home message is that all scientific research must agree literally with the Bible.  Any research that indicates a different conclusion that what is found in Scripture must necessarily be incorrect as Scripture is the final word (Word?) on everything. 

There are a couple of issues here.  The first one is a question as to why one would bother to do research at all if the answer is already known.  It seems that a large part of the reason people conduct research into some subject area is precisely because we don’t know how things are.  When you say you have not only the truth, but you have the Truth, the absolute and full answer, then it seems unclear why you would take the time to do research in the first place.  Now, it may be that someone would suggest that the Bible gives us the big answers, but we still need to work out the details.  That could be where science plays its role.  But that seems problematic from a conceptual standpoint.  Normally, studying the details gives you the big picture.  Suggesting that you have the big picture but not the details seems odd.  But, even worse, it seems just bizarre to think that one would use an independent method of studying the details than the one used to study the big picture.  Of course, if it turned out that this did, in fact, work, then it might just be that what is counter-intuitive here just turns out to be true.  Certainly it is the case elsewhere that what is counter-intuitive is true.  Just look at quantum mechanics.  But it would seem that we are only justified in thinking this is the case when the independent method of getting details (here, science) keeps delivering the same conclusion as the already-possessed Big Picture.  And that is exactly what we don’t see in the case of science vs. Scripture.  Instead, what we repeatedly see is science studying the details and delivering a radically different conclusion that the one found in the Bible.  So, if you believe that you already have the Truth, as the AiG crew certainly does, then it is baffling why you would be at all interested in pursuing a method of studying details that clearly arrives at false conclusions.  Since you already know you are Right, then the only reasonable position is that the scientific method must be fundamentally flawed.  So why hold a science fair?

There is a further issue, and it concerns the morality of holding a “science fair” that demands that the conclusions found must not contradict a position already held.  This is simply not science in any recognizable form.  Science does not presume an outcome and try to make the evidence fit that preconceived conclusion.  In fact, that is the epitome of bad science.  Yet, that is exactly what this supposed science fair is doing.  As such, the organizers and promoters of this event are explicitly lying to the children they’re roping into this sham.  This is because they are telling these kids that it is legitimate to do science in this fashion.  And the argument can’t be made that AiG might be unaware of their mistake.  They are very active in their attempt to push their “alternative” interpretation of science, and, in fact, this is the entire reason for the Creation Museum’s existence.  That awareness means that there can be no excuse in their bamboozling kids into believing they are participating in a genuine science fair and doing real science.  AiG is holding this function with full knowledge that the scientific community sees what they are doing as a perversion of science, something completely antithetical to actual science.  This means that there is no excuse for their labeling of the event as a “science” fair or willfully lying by telling the children participating that what they are doing is in any sense legitimate science.  This deception is clearly harmful in that it sets these children up for failure when they attempt to use the practices and skills that are supposed to be learned in science fairs in the real world.  That puts AiG and the Creation Museum in the unenviable position of not only being liars, but demonstrably being shown to be harming those they have a clear moral obligation to protect:  their own kids.

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About the Moral Obligations of Beliefs

It seems that a lot of people have the idea that everyone should be entitled to believe “whatever they want.” I think there’s a big problem here. There is, of course, the issue of whether or not it makes any sense whatsoever to talk about believing what we “want.” The process of belief formation is complicated and not fully understood. But, whatever it is, it doesn’t seem to be the case that we can simply choose our beliefs. If you disagree with this, I would offer a simple challenge: choose at this moment to believe that the entity writing this blog is, in fact, a hyper-intelligent chicken wearing a sophisticated human suit for the purposes of fooling actual humans. I think it’s safe to say that no one reading this can succeed in such a task. As such, it would appear, prima facie, that, however we form beliefs, it is not the product of mere choice.

But there is a different issue with the idea that we should be able to believe whatever we want, one that seems more important. While it might not be the case that we can explicitly choose our beliefs, it does appear that we have at least some control over what we accept as the foundation of our beliefs. That is, some of us require some level of evidence or good reason while others do not. At least, it looks like some people don’t require what would widely be considered reliable evidence. Finding some quote on the internet that flies in the face of current research and hard data doesn’t seem to be much in the way of “evidence,” so anyone using that as the basis for their belief must be doing something other than requiring such as the basis for their beliefs.

This issue raises an obvious question: are we under some sort of obligation to only allow a certain class of thing to serve as the foundation of our beliefs? I think we are. That is, I think we are morally obligated to only allow those things which have a good evidential basis or are based on good reason to serve as the grounding of our beliefs. Of course, like anything else, we need some reason to think this is the case, so here is my reasoning on this issue.

The things that we accept as groundings for our beliefs, at least in large part, determine the actual beliefs we hold. Beliefs inform our actions. That is, they serve, (again) at least in large part, as a determining factor in the actions we take. This can be demonstrated easily. One need only imagine a scenario where an action is taken. Then ask the question “Why this and not something else?” For example, why did I put my key in the ignition of my car? At least a part of the answer to this will involve my belief that such will result in my car starting. If I didn’t believe that my car would start by doing such, I likely wouldn’t put my key in the ignition (assuming there isn’t some other pressing reason for doing so). With the above in mind it seems reasonable to suggest that our beliefs are one of, if not the primary, determining factors of our actions.

Actions have consequences, and our awareness of those consequences make us morally obligated to act in the appropriate manner. This is not to endorse some version of consequentialism, deontolgy, or any other ethical system. A recognition that actions have consequences is a primary component of all ethical systems, so what I’m saying is relevant to all of them. Recognizing, then, the moral component of acting appropriately, the role beliefs play in determining actions, and the way in which what we accept as adequate grounding for beliefs determines how beliefs are formed, it seems clear that what we accept as reasons for believing things has a moral component. So, and here’s the big conclusion of this, we are morally obligated to only accept as grounding for beliefs those things which are justified by good reason. Shortened, but recognizing the steps taken to get there, we can say this: we are morally obligated to believe only those things for which we have good reason.

So, what are the consequences of this? Looking at some timely issues, we can see just how devastating it can be to believe things without evidence. Take for example the recent proclamation by the Pope that condoms actually contribute to the problem of AIDS in Africa. Taking him at his word that he genuinely believes this, it turns out that the Pope has no good reason for believing any such thing. In fact, the evidence is overwhelming that condoms dramatically decrease the risk of spreading very many STD’s, including AIDS. That means that those individuals looking to the Pope for guidance are much less likely to use condoms, and, hence, the spreading of AIDS is likely to increase because of the Pope’s actions. The Pope should have made sure he had good evidence for his beliefs before commenting on the issue. What he did was immoral in that there is a great amount of evidence on this issue, and none of it indicates that the Pope’s belief was in any way justified. Therefore, in this instance, we have a clear example of the Pope’s immorality, and it is the result of his not using evidence or good reason as the foundation of his beliefs.

The above example may seem extreme in its reach, and someone might think that it doesn’t really matter if they have good reason for their beliefs as they can’t have the same kind of widespread effect. However, it is not the scope of the consequences of the Pope’s actions that allow for them to have a moral component. Many of our actions have moral content, and, for most of us, we do not have the reach of the Pope. The point, then, is that for any action we take that has any moral content whatsoever the beliefs that inform that action should be grounded in good reason. If they are not, we are behaving immorally, and we should be judged accordingly.

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The Naturalistic Fallacy and a New Social Darwinism

About a century a century ago, a number of prominent and wealthy people began endorsing a political view sometimes referred to as “social Darwinism.” Their view, which is now widely refuted by philosophers and scientists alike, was that social programs aimed at helping the sick, feeble, and weak halted the progress of human evolution by intervening in the process of natural selection which favors the healthy, smart, and strong. This view has two serious flaws. First, it radically misunderstands the process of natural selection by mistakenly conflating strength with adaptability. Second, it commits what philosophers refer to as the naturalistic fallacy by interjecting the prescriptive idea of progress into what is purportedly a descriptive theory of biology.

Recently, Jim and I had a conversation about the frequency with which figures in both ethics and socio-biology seem to appeal to evolutionary imperatives to explain moral sentiment. Jim’s concern is that appeal to a biological phenomenon to EXPLAIN moral phenomenon seems to run perilously close to the naturalistic fallacy in which biological explanations are used as a JUSTIFICATION for moral sentiment. I won’t make the charge that any scholar at the forefront of socio-biology would confuse the observation that “our biology makes us everything that we are, including good” with the indefensible conclusion that “common moral sentiments are good because they developed naturally,” but my worry is that some of the people who are reading books on the biological foundation of moral psychology may be making exactly that flawed inference. Hence, I think there is some possibility of a new, softer, fluffier, but no less flawed version of social Darwinism making headway as a popular pseudo-scientific social theory.

One book which is a prime candidate for this type of misinterpretation is Mothers and Others: The Evolutionary Origins of Mutual Understanding by Sarah Hrdy. The thesis of the book is that human beings evolved as cooperative caretakers because of the relative helplessness of human babies. In an interview with the New York Times, Dr. Hrdy said:

“I’m not comfortable accepting this idea that the origins of hypersociality can be found in warfare, or that in-group amity arose in the interest of out-group enmity… Sure, humans have been notably violent and militaristic for the last 12,000 or so years… when hunter-gatherers started settling down and defending territories, and populations started getting seriously dense…. But before then? What would humans have been fighting over? They were too busy trying to keep themselves and their children alive.”

I want to say from the outset that I have no objection to Dr. Hrdy’s thesis, nor am I suggesting that she is guilty of conflating biological theory with moral prescription. Rather, I worry that other people in her field (Hrdy is an anthropologist) will appeal to the biological “adaptiveness” of the various traits that comprise our moral psychology (altruism, cooperation, empathy, a sense of fairness, etc.) in order to suggest that these traits are good.

This is problematic not only because the socio-biologist can make the case that opposing traits (selfishness, competition, contempt, a sense of disgust, etc.) were also adaptive (or at least not disadvantageous), but because adaptive qualities are in no way good or bad. They aren’t even consistently advantageous from a reproductive standpoint. All it means to say that a trait like altruism was adaptive was that it allowed those who possessed it to survive and reproduce more at some point in human evolution.

I see clear parallels between the fallacious inference that our moral psychology was adaptive and therefore good and the fallacious inference that the strong survive in nature and therefore the weak should be left to die off. Admittedly, it is difficult to see how this new version of social Darwinism could be used to rationalize morally abhorrent behavior or justify heinous public policy, but it still makes a totally unfounded leap from the world as it is to the world as it should be. For me, that’s reason enough to worry.

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On being close-minded

I post on a couple of message boards. There, I often find myself embroiled in some small debate, usually spiraling down to become little more than a flame war. These debates are on a variety of topics, but they generally share the similarity that some person posts a thread having to do with something for which there is little to no evidence. These debates have been about psychic powers, ghosts, vaccination, water fluoridation, and a host of other topics. I have even been in debates over the existence of fairies. I kid you not.

As might be expected (or maybe not, as I’ve discovered), when someone makes a claim along the lines of “fairies exist” or “water fluoridation is a conspiracy by the Rockefellers to make us stupid,” I ask for evidence. I never come into a thread and tell someone they’re foolish (at least not at first), and I try to be respectful. However, after one or two responses, I almost invariably find myself being accused of something very odd given the situation: being close-minded.

An important question might be, given the context, what is meant by “close-minded”? In the cases on the boards, it is an accusation that is tossed at someone who asks for evidence for something far-out and difficult to believe. You might be familiar with the kind of thing about which I’m speaking. Someone comes along and begins to talk about how quantum mechanics shows how crystals can help us center our spiritual energy (whatever that means). In response, you ask “Really? When? Where? Can you point me to the study?” There is typically some floundering about on the claimant’s part as to how this is common knowledge or how they can’t remember where they read it, but they are certain the source was reputable. You suggest that you’re skeptical of any such thing, and then you’re accused of just being close-minded. So, it looks like, when most people use the word, they mean that you’ve shut yourself off to believing in things without good justification.

But is this anything like what we might legitimately think of as being close-minded? If we consider what being close-minded would actually entail, it would seem that being guilty of this fault would be to shut oneself off to new ideas or the unfamiliar when such positions are justified. I think most of us would agree that such a mindset is to be avoided. But in what way is asking for evidence or justification being closed off to new ideas? I’ve asked this very question repeatedly, and I have as of yet to receive any good response.

Here, I would like to make a suggestion: I want to say that being willing to go the way that the evidence points is what open-mindedness is all about. While it might be the case that some individuals asking for evidence would refuse to change their positions even if the evidence was presented and was compelling, I don’t think that is the case for most people who ask for such evidence. On the contrary, I think that most people asking for evidence do so just because they want to make an informed decision, and they recognize that evidence is a good way of doing just that. In such a case, asking for evidence might be seen as the first step in being open-minded, and this stands in stark contrast to the way the case is most often presented.

With the above in mind, it seems that we can make a determination about who is, in fact, close-minded. If going where the evidence points regardless of your initial position is open-mindedness, then close-mindedness would be refusing to alter your position even if the evidence points someplace else. Being dogmatic, refusing to accept evidence, and believing on faith would all be examples of close-mindedness. And this makes the accusations of close-mindedness that we so often hear incredibly ironic. Rather than it being those who are asking for evidence or justification being close-minded, as is so often suggested, it is those individuals using this attack who are guilty of this specific error.

Some reading this might be wondering why this needs to be addressed. They might think that this is obvious, and, as such, it is an uninteresting topic. But it is clear from my discussions that this is just not the case. The people who accuse me of being close-minded don’t see their own error, and, perhaps more importantly, neither do other people! I know from personal experience that the accusation of close-mindedness finishes the argument in the minds of a lot of the people watching from the sidelines. Even though the accusation is itself without merit, it still has a bite. For that reason, it is important to point out who is the guilty party within a debate. I have discovered that by making it clear that close-mindedness is linked to believing something without good reason, and, as such, the person asking for evidence is not the one in error, others watching the debate are more likely to be convinced that believing baseless claims is not some sort of virtue to be prized. In fact, it is exactly the opposite.

This is a good thing. It isn’t really “winning” a debate that is important. At least for me, it is much more satisfying to get people to recognize that there is virtue in skepticism, that we should require justification for our beliefs. By recognizing the fallacious tactic of the charge of close-mindedness and pointing out that the reality of the situation is diametrically opposed to the initial charge, we can remove a vital tool from the proponent’s of woo toolbox, turning it around on them and showing those watching that there is no fault in being skeptical.

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Here are some general assumptions that I make about the world:

-I cannot choose my beliefs, and you can’t either.
This seems self-apparent to many people. If it is not apparent to you, try willing yourself to believe that “2+2=27” is true.
Most of the time, when people talk about “choosing to believe” they do so in the context of a theological debate. It is also a common retort among freshman philosophy students when they are faced with the problems of radical skepticism or determinism. I take it as uncontroversial that many people are capable of ignoring very compelling information so that they can maintain a position, but this is choosing to remain ignorant, not choosing to believe.

-Science is the best method we have for learning about the world, for predicting what will happen in the future, and for explaining why events occur.

It’s rather futile to give evidence in defense of this position. If you’re the type to be convinced by evidence, it is most likely that you hold this position already.

-There is a distinction between fact and value. (This is also known as the “is/ought gap”)

Natural facts help to explain why we believe that an object is beautiful or a person is morally righteous, but facts about the world do not make beauty or morality; we do. This means that we cannot resolve debates about value with appeal to empirical facts alone. I think any possible resolution to a debate about value rests upon appeal to beliefs about good and bad that are commonly held. Insofar as incompatible assertions about value cannot be resolved by appeal to stronger or “higher order” commonly held values, they cannot be resolved at all.

-Value is subjective.

This doesn’t mean we can’t make generalizations about what is good- quite to the contrary, moral justification generally requires that we do- but it does mean that appeals to absolutes of value are highly suspect. Any value that is universal is such because of a particular relationship between human beings and the world that is incidental. For example, it may be the case that all human beings believe that brutally killing healthy infant humans is wrong, but the universality of this value does not boost it from subjective to objective status. Rather, all human beings believe that killing infants is wrong because all human beings share remarkably similar biological traits, one of which is a strong nurture response to baby humans.

-Mere descriptions never yield prescriptions; justification is also required.

Though this point may seem obvious given the fact/value distinction, I hasten to make it explicit because many figures in contemporary social theory make obvious mistakes when moving to statements of description to prescriptively-loaded conclusions. It is my contention that social theories which abstract from a simplistic understanding of human nature to a prescriptive conclusion about a just political state, grossly distort the relationship between science and moral justification. These theories are problematic because they fallaciously conflate a description of the state of the world with a prescriptive statement about justice, morality, or some other value. This conflation is known as the naturalistic fallacy.

Side Note:
I expect Jim agrees with the positions stated above, however, there are some ways in which our views about value differ which may or may not be relevant for this blog. My view is that the foundation of morality consists of the rights claimed and the obligations held between two or more persons.* Thus, it makes very little sense in my view to speak of the moral obligations that an individual has to himself. Jim’s view of value is founded on the observation that each of us is the sole originator of value within our own lives. Thus, in Jim’s view it makes very little sense to talk about a person’s obligations outside of what he himself values.


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