Saturday, September 20, 2008
Right. I have controlled my anger sufficiently after my encounter with Professor Chris Higgins on the Radio 4 Today show this morning. The subject of our discussion was the resignation of Michael Reiss from the Royal Society, he was driven out because of some remarks he made about creationism. I commented on this briefly in an earlier post, deliberately refraining from going into the depths of this issue. After talking to Higgins, however, I cannot continue to be so restrained. First, a thought experiment for Prof Higgins. You are a biology teacher in an average, multicultural British classroom. Say 30 per cent have been brought up in and continue to adhere to one of the monotheistic religions. You are teaching Darwin and you begin by saying all their creation stories are 'complete nonsense' - not outside the realm of science, not even complete scientific nonsense, but complete nonsense. This is what you said about creationism in response to Reiss. At this point you have lost a third of your students. All Reiss did was suggest a sensible and humane way around this problem. Furthermore, how are you going to teach Darwinism to even the remaining 70 per cent without explaining what preceded it? It is one of the most grotesque and vulgar superstitions of contemporary scientism that science renders all previous forms of human wisdom meaningless.
In fact, since Prof Higgins kept doggedly repeating the same category error in our debate, I have a feeling he didn't believe a word of what he was saying.
Okay let's move to to Anonymous's comment on my previous post - 'The simple point you evaded is this: Do we believe it is possible to seek truth from observed facts?' Oi vei! Yes, Anon, I have read Popper and Kuhn. I could write a book about this - oh I have. Well, Anon, it all depends on what you mean by a)truth b)observed and c)facts; I'll let you have 'evaded' even though I didn't. Are my thought processes and imagination 'observed facts'? If no, then observed facts are clearly not the road to Truth, though they may provide access to subsidiary truths. If yes - they are certainly observed facts to me - then we can seek but there's no prospect of us ever finding. Can we seriously expect science to explain the how and the why of my current desire to fry a tomato? Not now and probably not ever. And don't give me any contemporary neuroscience. I know what it says and there's nothing there about me and tomatoes.
This leads on to the central point. I am perfectly happy to say that creationism has nothing to do with science and can be excluded from science lessons, subject to my condition that it is a necessary tool in the understanding of Darwinism and to Reiss's point that it may help in the teaching biology if it is accepted as a world view rather than simply something that is wrong. What I am not perfectly happy with is supporters and members of the Royal Society - the greatest and oldest body of its type in the world - stomping around saying creation myths are 'complete nonsense'. This is vulgar, philistine, inhumane, intolerant, wrong-headed and vicious. We live and die by metaphor - as the genius I write about tomorrow in The Sunday Times knows better than anybody - and these myths tell us deep truth about the human condition that are accessible in no other way. When we stop thinking like that we shall cease to be human which is, perhaps, what the Royal Society wants.
But it doesn't. The RS is a great and glorious product of the Enlightenment, which is why this should never have happened. At the heart of the matter is the delusion of certain scientists that they, uniquely, are the heirs of the Enlightenment and that this great cultural moment was primarily about the extirpation of religion. Tell that to two of the Enlightment's greatest figures, Isaac Newton and Samuel Johnson, I dare you. The Enlightenment was primarily about the spread of tolerance, of liberal human acceptance. Newton and Johnson would have poured such wondrous - and, of course, beautifully written - scorn on the hounding of Reiss that he would, by now, be RS president.
It has been said before, but it needs saying again. Scientific fundamentalism is no different from Islamist and Christianist fundamentalism. It is equally intolerant and an equal betrayal of the great institution from which it springs. We are, therefore, in the midst of The Endarkenment, an assault on reason by those who claim to be its greatest defenders. Good science has no need to fear creationism and it has certainly no need to fear Reiss's humane and thoughtful paper, which is what, incredible as it may seem, has led the Royal Society to disgrace itself in this extraordinary way.
Posted by Bryan Appleyard at 12:11 pm