Monday, May 05, 2008

My Own "Expelled" Experience (Intelligent Design and Profoundly Closed Minds)



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Last night my wife Judy and I saw the Ben Stein film, Expelled: a documentary that examined how the academic community has been utilizing any means necessary (including firing professors and denying tenure) to prevent any examination whatsoever of, and even passing references to, the idea of Intelligent Design. It was territory very familiar to me, as I have been writing about and debating evolution-creation issues and dogmatism in the scientific world and hostility of many in that world to Christianity and theism, for over 25 years now.

It occurred to me afterwards that I had had direct experience (on a lesser scale, but with the same dynamics and "shout down all opposition" mentality) of the same sort of "intellectual" fiasco that was documented in the film. The Internet "exchange" in November 2002 is preserved in my paper, Dialogue on Materialist Evolutionary Theory & Intelligent Design (including St. Augustine's & St. Thomas Aquinas's Views on Creation & Evolution).

I had visited (after receiving a letter from another participant, who was being savaged) the "Straight Dope" Message board: apparently some sort of agnostic or "rationalist" outlet. The name of the thread was "An open letter to the creationists." My expressed position was almost identical to that of most of the major figures in the ID movement, interviewed in the movie. I wasn't advocating creationism per se, let alone young earth, six-day creationism (which I have never held). I wasn't even opposing any and all forms of evolutionary theory. Even biochemist Michael Behe, author of Darwin's Black Box, and major ID proponent -- who was not, for some reason, however, in this movie -- casually assumes common descent at the beginning of that brilliant book. It is a ho-hum matter for him. My position was quite neutral on the evolutionary question, as I wrote at the time (starting in my second paragraph of my introduction):

To give a brief background on myself: I am basically an agnostic on the subject of macroevolution and the grand theory (and I am a Catholic). I fully accept microevolution, the old earth (of course), and uniformitarianism. If the current evolutionary theory as a whole (Darwinian or otherwise) is true, I believe it must involve design and God somewhere along the line. My principle objection, in other words, is to materialism or naturalism. I don't believe it has been scientifically demonstrated that matter alone has the inherent capability to organize itself into the existing universe, according to what we know of the laws of science, and observations and scientific experiments.

Skepticism used to be highly regarded amongst a certain strain of intellectuals, generally hostile to theism in general and Christianity in particular. But now that Darwinian evolution is the reigning orthodoxy and dogma, anyone who dares question it at all has to be "whipped" and burned at the stake of so-called "progress" and "scientific fact."

This is, of course, both nonsensical and hypocritical. No one can compel me to believe anything. I use my mind and my critical faculties to decide for myself, thank you. I don't believe things simply because someone tells me I have to believe them (whether a religious person in a frock or a scientist in a white coat). That's not how critical thinking works. So if you or anyone else has a hard time with me exercising my skepticism and critical faculties with regard to difficult questions of the origins of the universe and life, and currently fashionable theories about same, too bad. Learn to live with it. Life is tough. Not everyone thinks the way you do. That may be difficult to fathom at first, but it'll come to you if you keep trying.

And not everyone is an ignoramus and science-basher simply because they disagree with your take on things. There are intelligent, educated Christians, and there are very backward, anti-intellectual Christians, of course (and many in-between). But so what? There have also been plenty of quack scientists and evil scientists. Have we so quickly forgotten the Nazi period, with the very intelligent and sophisticated Nazi scientists (not particularly Christian, if you had asked them) doing their experiments on Jews?

As recently as the 1920s many respectable scientists in America espoused phrenology and eugenics in blatantly racist terms. There were forced sterilizations of black people, and forced abortions currently take place in China. Full-term babies are now being ruthlessly slaughtered by "doctors" by sticking scissors in their necks and sucking their brains out. This is legal in the US (it's called "partial-birth abortion"), in the name of "medicine" and social "progressivism." At the same time we do operations on babies in the womb far younger than that. . . .

The history of evolutionary speculation is likewise strewn with folly, absurdity, and nonsense. We have, e.g., the example of "Nebraska Man," constructed from a single tooth, which was later determined to have come from an extinct pig. Or "Piltdown Man," which was an obvious hoax, but which was believed as authentic for more than 40 years. You can talk about the Galileo incident until Kingdom Come (and distort the details for your own ends as well), but science itself is not immune from the usual dogmatic attitudes and resistance to change, either. Read Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions or Stephen Jay Gould's The Panda's Thumb sometime.

It's not like no scientists have expressed the same agnosticism, when it comes to specific questions of origin, mechanism, and process. I can produce a host of evolutionary scientists, who ask difficult questions and sometimes wonder aloud why no answers (or even speculative attempts at answers) have been forthcoming from within the (materialistic) evolutionary paradigm.

So if many scientists have expressed the limitations and lack of knowledge in many areas of scientific inquiry, why is it improper or unacceptable for people like myself to simply agree with them to that extent? I see that Michael Behe has been one of your whipping boys on this thread (as indeed is fashionable). It's always easy to run people down in general terms. Very well, then (since you claim to be so knowledgeable in these matters): I challenge you to answer the tough questions he has been asking about biochemical evolutionary mechanisms. Go ahead and tell me how the complex biochemical processes he describes have come about in an evolutionary manner. I, for one, would be eternally grateful if you could do that.
As you can see, it was entirely likely that I wouldn't exactly endear myself in the agnostic / atheist crowd, and (particularly) the five people I was interacting with. A very intense discussion followed, but a thoroughly predictable motif emerged in the replies to my ruminations: I was tarred with the brush of being an ignorant know-nothing (young earth / flat earth) creationist, anti-scientific, and anti-intellectual. This is rather common modus operandi, and was superbly illustrated in Expelled, with many documented examples.

You can read my entire exchange if this matter interests you (linked above), but for now, I wanted to highlight some of the more colorful epithets and insults that were thrown my way: perhaps the silliest, most ridiculous, distorted ad hominem attacks I have ever been subjected to, in now twelve years online (from supposedly intelligent, highly-educated "scientific-minded" types: one even was a scientist). And that's really saying something, believe me, if these guys are capable of surpassing the know-nothing vitriol of even anti-Catholic fundamentalist Protestants, who have traditionally been my biggest critics on the Internet:
I'm "not interested in serious argument."

I am utilizing only an "argument from ignorance."

I supposedly "want to feel smarter than anyone else" which is my "security blanket."

I was supposedly engaging merely in "handwaving and pseudo-philosophical mumbo-jumbo."

I was told that I had an "utter lack of knowledge" concerning what is entailed in microevolution (which I fully accept!).

I use "hysterics." I form "knee-jerk" opinions, rather than informed ones. I am a "martyr" who demonstrates "immaturity."

I was engaged in "trollery."

. . . "poor martyred Dave" . . . [I'm less able to engage in conversations than] "fundamentalists at the Pizza Parlor" . . .

People on the forum (so one tells me) think I am an "arrogant, smug, pseudo-philosopher." I "behave like an ass," and my posts are "braying."

I was called a "crybaby." I "clearly" have "no understanding" of "basic philosophical method." My comments are "riddled" with "logical fallacies and valueless tautologies." I have a lot of "smug assertions" and "pseudoscientific" points. I engage in "name-calling" and "hollow ridicule" and "baseless accusations" and my remarks have no "substance."

I don't understand Michael Behe, whom I quote in agreement, because I don't understand "science or logic."

My statements which are "not logically sound" and "disproven" are too numerous to even recount.

My posts proved "closed mindedness," "ignorance," "lack of mental prowess," and/or "laziness." I "bluster about the evidence" and don't even understand my opponents' points.

I've had much the same experience, for that matter, with atheists online, particularly when I dared to question the logic and factuality of their reports of how they "deconverted" from Christianity to agnosticism or atheism. See, for example, the hysterical responses to my critiques, of prominent blogmasters and atheists or agnostics John Loftus and Dave Van Allen.

I've been fortunate, I hasten to add, in having the opportunity to engage in several sensible, calm, rational, constructive discussions with atheists before, and even on this general subject of Intelligent Design and related issues. But sadly, these are the rare exceptions to the rule.

Shortly, I hope to venture out into atheist / agnostic blogland and see if anything has changed, or if I can find a friendly, sharp person who is truly interested in dialogues and not merely insults and clownish stereotyping of opponents. I know they're out there, because I have met them. But it's almost rare as a square circle. I find that very sad.

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