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Rationalization in the Debate over Evolution

Thanks to a notice by William Dembski at UncommonDescent, people are becoming aware that video footage of the “Beyond belief: Science, religion, reason and survival” conference where scientists bashed religion at the Salk Institute is now online. A panel discussion, which included Neil deGrasse Tyson, Lawrence Krauss, and Michael Shermer, discussed why as many as 15% of National Academy of Sciences (NAS) scientists believe in God. Tyson expressed surprise that the number was as high as 15%:

Tyson: I want to put on the table, not why 85% of the members of the National Academy of Sciences reject God, I want to know why 15% of the National Academy don’t. That’s really what we’ve got to address here. Otherwise the public is secondary to this.

(Neil deGrasse Tyson, Session 2, 40:45)

Michael Shermer thought he had an explanation which helped pacify those in the audience who were worried that some smart people believe in God:

At the end of my book “Why People Believe Weird Things,” the last chapter is called “Why Smart People Believe Weird Things” which is the harder question to answer. And the short answer to that is because they’re better at rationalizing beliefs they arrived at for non-smart reasons.

(Michael Shermer, Session 2, 42:55)

Shermer’s explanation is not logically tight. If Shermer is right that “smart people” are “better at rationalizing beliefs,” then perhaps it is the 85% of NAS scientists who “reject God” that are doing the rationalization of their beliefs. After all, if Shermer’s principle is correct, then we’d expect to see more rationalization among the smartest scientists than anywhere else.

In fact, by Shermer’s own logic, perhaps rationalization is exactly what Shermer (who is a pretty smart guy) is doing: Shermer is trying to rationalize why smart people believe in God by essentially rationalizing away smart religious people by saying, “well, they’re just good rationalizers.”

The technical philosophical problem with Shermer’s argument is that it is “self-referentially incoherent.” In other words, the argument Shermer himself makes could critique itself.

What’s the Point?
What does any of this have to do with the debate over evolution? When I was a graduate student at UCSD, the Darwinist blood clotting expert Dr. Russell Doolittle told our class during a graduate seminar I was in that Michael Behe, whom he called “an eminent protein chemist in his field,” supports ID because, as Doolittle told the class, “smart guys are great rationalizers.”

But I’m not interested in getting into a debate over who is rationalizing and who isn’t in the debate over evolution. In the end, these interesting debates are not related to a study of the scientific evidence over Neo-Darwinism.

All scientists look at the same data, and some come to one conclusion, others to another. To assume that those who disagree with you are simply “great rationalizers” is a fallacious rationalization in-and-of-itself which does not address the evidence. Perhaps scientists who support ID actually have valid empirical reasons for their viewpoints which come from the evidence, not “rationalization.”

Casey Luskin

Associate Director, Center for Science and Culture
Casey Luskin is a geologist and an attorney with graduate degrees in science and law, giving him expertise in both the scientific and legal dimensions of the debate over evolution. He earned his PhD in Geology from the University of Johannesburg, and BS and MS degrees in Earth Sciences from the University of California, San Diego, where he studied evolution extensively at both the graduate and undergraduate levels. His law degree is from the University of San Diego, where he focused his studies on First Amendment law, education law, and environmental law.