The Principled Vs. the Practical

There is an issue that seems to get missed, or get in the way of, genuine dialogue both in the blogosphere and in real life.  This issue involves the distinction between principled points and practical points.  While practical concerns are certainly legitimate issues to be discussed, we must keep in mind that they are not the same thing as and do not affect the correctness and legitimacy of any particular position.

As a way of highlighting this concern, let’s look at the issue of accommodationism that has been repeatedly discussed here on this blog.  Accommodationism here refers to the attempt to reconcile scientific explanations with religious explanations, and it is a topic I have discussed at length.  One of the common arguments put forward by the accommodationists is that telling religious folk that there is a distinct tension between science and religion will only ostracize potential allies from those who are interested in pushing for greater scientific education and greater overall scientific literacy in our society in general.  That is, if it is the acknowledged position that science and religion are often in conflict, then, when push comes to shove, most people will choose their religion, and that leaves science out in the cold.

One clear case of such possible tension has to do with the teaching of evolutionary biology in public schools.  There is a very vocal group of religious fundamentalists, primarily Christians here in the U.S., who maintain that evolution is diametrically opposed to Scripture.  In such a case, as they take Scripture to be the Truth (note the capital ‘T’), evolution must clearly be false, and, as such, should not be taught.  Various means have been attempted by these groups to remove or diminish the teaching of evolution in the biology classroom, and all of these attempts put such people at odds with defenders of science who do not want religious concerns to corrupt the teaching of the best science available to us.

However, while this group of fundamentalists may be quite loud, they’re also a minority in most, though not all, areas of the country, and this prevents them from completely taking over school boards and other avenues of control in public education.  In order to be successful in such an attempt to wrest the power to decide what gets taught in the science classroom from genuine educators, they need the support of the majority of voters.  This majority also happens to be religious, though not of the fundamentalist persuasion.  That said, they do like to think of themselves as “people of faith.”  One way fundamentalists can build bridges to this majority is to show that the science is at odds with the religious teachings of even this religiously liberal majority.  A very easy way to achieve this would be to point out scientists and proponents of strong science education saying that there is, in fact, a definite tension between science and religion.  In this way it appears that the pro-science camp is saying religion is false, thus pushing the liberal majority into the waiting arms of the fundamentalist minority.  Science education comes out the loser, and it appears that a strong aspect of that loss is the result of the actions taken by those science advocates who suggested that religion and science are somehow at odds.

At least, that’s the story told by the accommodationists.  I think there is evidence that this just isn’t the problem we are often told it is, but that will have to wait for another post.  The important point to note here is that nothing in that story has anything to do with whether or not science and religion really are at opposed to each other in some way.  That is, the concern expressed by the accommodationist view in this story is entirely of a practical nature, and it has nothing to do with the principled concern of such a tension.  It is quite possible that it is true that such a tension exists while at the same time being true that the highlighting of such a tension would result in the advocates of science losing this battle.  So, from a practical standpoint it might well be a good idea to downplay or ignore a point that is, in principle, true.  But, again, that has absolutely nothing to do with the question of whether or not such is, in principle, true.

The kind of analysis given above, obviously, does not merely apply to the debate about accommodationism.  I only used that example as it so often seems that those with whom I disagree on the issue express concerns that completely miss the points that I and others make.  But there are issues that arise daily that result in exactly the same kind of error.  Anytime anyone points to the practical consequences of something, they are discussing something other than the principle issue, and such concerns have no bearing on the truth of that issue.  It is irrelevant to the accommodationist issue whether or not admitting such a tension would result in a net loss for science education.  It is irrelevant to the question of the existence of God whether or not life would be meaningless without God, whether or not morality would be possible without God, etc.  It is irrelevant to the issue of free will vs. determinism whether or not not having free will makes people sad.  It is irrelevant to the efficacy of homeopathy whether or not believing it to be efficacious makes someone happy.  And on and on. 

Principled concerns are not the same as practical concerns, and offering up the latter in a discussion about the former is as good as conceding the argument to your opponent.

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2 Responses to “The Principled Vs. the Practical”

  1. Rebecca Watson Gets It. Color Me Unsurprised. « Apple Eaters Says:

    […] this hits at the practical vs. the principled concern that I’ve noted here a few times, including a post dedicated just to that issue.  If you’re in an argument with someone about the truth of something, it is completely […]

  2. joshie818 Says:

    Seems that the concluding statement is a principled concern “A is not the same as B” with a need to make some (psuedo) practical point, “don’t bother with the argument.”

    Whereas, the last sentence of opening paragraph is a principled concern, “A is not same as B” and a principled axiom, “practical concerns do not affect legitimacy of principled positions.”

    We may not know (for sure) that practical concerns have no effect on legitimacy of principled positions, but our (overriding) principled concern, online and in real life, can be one that says such distinctions need not be viewed as destructive of particular (principled) positions.

    IOW, live and let live.


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