Friday, October 28, 2005

Faith and Science

I posted this elsewhere today, but it got pretty long and this may be a better place for it. Plus, the response to the animatronic chimp bust was distinctly underwhelming.

For the most part, scientists don't think they have all the answers. They do have faith in the scientific method, but the point of that method is to keep asking questions. Religious people do think that their faith provides all the answers they need - and they're right, in the proper sphere. If you want to know how to live well with others and participate in a community of faith, religion does have all the answers - but the purpose of religion is to help us understand existence in an anthropocentric way: what is our place in the world, and how should we live? It's not a good choice for explaining how, physically, things come to be and go away; it is a good choice for understanding what that means for the people of that faith. Another way of expressing this is to say that religion is concerned with ontology, the fundamental question of being, in a quasi-philosophical way; while science is concerned with process, how things happen. Science will never be able to answer why we're here at all; religion addresses precisely this question.

And but so we have to ask ourselves: why do so many people not believe in scientific explanations for the process of life? A lot of people, for example, reject the notion that the Big Bang explains the way the universe came into being. This is taken by some as proof that Americans are rejecting science in favor of religion. They may be right, but I have some thoughts about this that I think we should sort of keep in mind.

First, I think the Big Bang example is kind of dumb, because my impression has been for some time that there's a lack of consensus about it among scientists. And it doesn't explain where all the stuff comes from. I don't think that the Big Bang is incompatible with belief in a deity because the Big Bang isn't really addressing the problem of Creation; it's more looking at process.

Second, I think that a lot of people aren't really geared up for, or interested in, scientific process. They just want to know How Things Are so they can stop thinking about it and get on with their lives. From their perspective, it just doesn't matter much whether Darwin or William Jennings Bryan was right - they're still going to be engineers or cops or shop foremen or whatever. But if you ask them what they think, they're going to tell you something strange, because really they don't think about it. They accept a story and move on to what's important to them.

Third, I think that most people have a kind of blinkered view of "science" - partly because, as I said, they just don't have the time, energy, or interest to engage with the scientific method, and partly because we do a poor job of teaching kids what science is. We present it as though science has all the answers to things. That's not really true. I understand how, for the purposes of a high-school chemistry class, we just want kids to understand the periodic table, how it works, how basic atomic theory explains the structure of things, and so on. And that's all verifiable by experiment. But it teaches people to think of science as, in some ways, another kind of "religion" in that it Explains How Stuff Happens and it's not really important how or why it does so in the way it does. But really, the how and why are the point, not the periodic table and learning not to mix acids and bases indiscriminately.

Fourth, I think the whole Fundamentalist/Literalist reading of the Bible it totally bats. Almost nothing in the Bible, IMO, should be read literally - it's virtually all symbology, and metaphor, and allegory. Because we're no longer able to access the thinking of the people who wrote the Bible, it's very hard for us to understand it. It appears that religious education is as bad as scientific education in the article of teaching people how to think about the subject matter of their field. I don't mean to say that you need to read the Bible in some freaky-deaky postmodernist deconstructionist way; but if you don't understand that it's not about literal fact I don't think you get it at all.

So, fifth, I think that the combination of (1) people misunderstanding what science is really about, and how that is fundamentally different from religion or practical knowledge proper, and (2) people just not wanting to think about stuff that doesn't actually matter to them in their daily lives; and (3) poor instruction about how science works and what it does; and (4) poor instruction about what religion is and specifically how to read sacred texts results in (5) a false dichotomy between faith and science that causes people to reject a scientific explanation of how the world works despite ample evidence that the scientific explanation (though subject to revision) is correct AND ALSO causes other people to underestimate or reject religion entirely because they misunderstand the point of it.

In my view, science and religion aren't even addressing the same issues, and we'd all be a lot better off if more people understood that faith and science aren't "competing narratives" of how the world Really Is. They're explaining different things.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Animatronic Chimp Bust


Well, short of my own personal monkey rodeo, anyhow.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Harriet Miers Is A Bad Choice For The Supreme Court

Hey there, kids! Long time, no post, and all that!

Anyhow. I posted the substance of this somewhere else earlier today, where it got absolutely no play whatsoever. On the off chance that someone else might be interested in what an undermployed California lawyer thinks of the goings-on at the Supreme Court these days, I offer the following critique:

I think we all ought to have some serious reservations about this particular nominee. Obviously she's a competent attorney with decent political instincts, or she wouldn't have been elected president of those bar associations or held a seat on the Dallas city council. And it's not necessary, as her defenders remind us, to have been a judge before becoming a justice, nor is it necessary to have clerked at the Supreme Court or to have graduated from Harvard or Stanford or Yale to get a seat. Objections based on those "requirements" are specious. But those aren't the compelling objections to her appointment, which her defenders really do need to address.

First, and most serious, is the fact that she owes her national political career and her appointment to the Supreme Court from near-total obscurity solely to her personal friendship with George W. Bush. The last justice with that kind of relationship to a President was Abe Fortas, who was not confirmed as Chief Justice and eventually resigned in disgrace despite a distinguished legal career. Miers, assuming she were to be confirmed, would necessarily have to address cases where the executive branch is a litigant, or offers an amicus brief. How can we be sure of her impartiality when she has a close friendship with one of the parties to the case? It violates a fundamental principle of jurispridence for a friend of one of the parties to be the judge in his friend's case. If she recuses herself from those cases, as would be proper, she leaves the court with only eight justices on a significant number of cases each term. Whether she would, in fact, be impartial is irrelevant - the court cannot seem to have a stake in the outcome of a case. This objection has nothing to do with her legal qualifications and everything to do with her ability to be an effective justice.

Second, although she probably is a competent attorney, she does not have any significant experience in the practice of Constitutional law. Since virtually all the cases that come to the Supreme Court are Con Law cases, that's a serious failing. It's not that she's not smart, or went to a bad school; it's that she's largely been a corporate lawyer and has never addressed kind of law the Court deals in. The Supreme Court is a bad place for on-the-job training because its decisions have wide-ranging effects.

Third, she doesn't bring any other govermental experience to the job that it would be valuable for the Court to have. It's true that you don't need to be a judge to become a justice, but if a candidate doesn't have that background, it's perfectly legitimate to question what other relevant experience she does have that might be valuable. And the answer here is "very little." Aside from a brief stint on the Dallas city council, she's never served in an executive or legislative capacity. Nor has she run for election - I think that she was appointed to the city council position and declined to run for reelection (if I'm wrong, please let me know). Contrast that with someone like, well, Sandra Day O'Connor, who had to run for office, was elected, and served in the Arizona legislature with distinction - aside from her experience as a judge. So Miers lacks some special background that would excuse or compensate for her inexperience as a judge.

Fourth, but related to the second objection, we know nothing about her judicial philosophy. People who focus on her political or religious temperament are, IMO, focusing on the wrong thing. It's irrelevant to the question of her competence as a member of the Supreme Court what her political or religious opinions are. What is important is how she thinks she's going to do her job. What theories of Constitutional interpretation does she follow? Why? What authorities does she see as legitimate sources for understanding the text of the Constitution? What's her opinion of the use of legislative history in interpreting law? Does she prefer to work with other people to form a consensus before delivering an opinion, or does she decide to do what she thinks is right regardless of who agrees with her? Does she regard previous decisions of the Court as binding on today's Court? We don't know; she doesn't have any record of deciding cases, or arguing Con Law cases, that would tell us; and it's highly unlikely that we'll find anything of the kind out at the confirmation hearings.

Fifth, it's not merely a question of "Is she competent to handle the job?" Probably, she is. But there are only nine seats on the Supreme Court. We ought to be putting people on the Court who, like John Roberts, are more than merely competent; we should be trying to put our finest legal minds - whatever their politics - on the court. Harriet Miers may be a wonderful person and a skilled attorney, but she hasn't demonstrated in any way that she's one of the very finest legal minds our country has. Bush can do better.