Saturday, May 07, 2005

Kansas and Epistemology
Here's what's the matter with Kansas (among other things):
The hearings in Topeka, scheduled to last several days, are focusing on two proposals. The first recommends that students continue to be taught the theory of evolution because it is key to understanding biology. The other proposes that Kansas alter the definition of science, not limiting it to theories based on natural explanations.
"Part of our overall goal is to remove the bias against religion that is in our schools," said William Harris, a chemist who was the first witness to speak Thursday on behalf of changing the state's curriculum. "This is a scientific controversy that has powerful religious implications."
Many bloggers are ripping this to shreds, appropriately. DKos diarist Hunter is the best I've read thus far. But, let me point out one potential (long-shot) bright spot.

Writing in 1981, Stephen Jay Gould remarked that "Scientific" Creationists have offered no new arguments in decades; that the "controversy" bubbled up cyclically but not because of any new insight, or, to be sure, any new facts, helping the anti-evolutionist claim. But, if the quoted article above is correct, I think the alternatives offered in Kansas mark at least a head-fake in a new direction. They will either choose to keep teaching evolution as the foundation of biology, and that sounds like a darn good option to me, or they will admit that anti-evolutionist creation arguments are unable to provide "natural explanations" and fall outside the realm of science as we know it. This second confession blows apart the phenomenon and false hope of "scientific creationism" short of re-writing the very definition of science.

If they slightly re-think "science" to allow all kinds of crap in it, then yes this will be a disastrous embarassment.

But, this new direction offers the possibility to publically consider science and religion as fundamentally different types of knowing, of thinking, and of purpose. Science is not the only way to know. Its method is tied, in a close dance, to the questions it asks. They are not questions that religion attempts. When a religious person nontheless asks them, that doesn't make it a religious question, it makes is a scientific question answered poorly. Religious questions, in turn, are not asked or answered by science. And when scientists try to offer answers to them, they routinely miss the point.

What could count as progress for me in this silliness is to develop a clarity that the two attempts to grapple with life are asking different questions, understand the way to anwer questions differently, and make use of their answers for different purpose. I know at first glance it doesn't sound like Kansas is approaching this clarity. But, prying the issue of creationism away from a modern notion of science is a necessary step. And once they decide that and sit down to write that new definition of science, what will that be like? We can only hope that the entire process would break down at that point, as it should. But the exit of religious creationism from the discipline of science's "natural explanations" would have already been achieved on some level. And there's no getting that back in the tube.

Genesis is much more interesting to think about removed from the table of scientific questioning. For maybe 100 years, science has been laughing at religion because the battle has been fought on their turf. If we could convince religious folks to stop asking scientific questions and to start asking religious ones, then there will be at least occasion for the tables to turn. And the person of faith can look to the scientist, once his explanation is complete, and ask "what do we do now?"

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