Ben Carson’s thoughts on evolution have proved to be a rich source of occasions for lecturing about how “Scientific Faith Is Different From Religious Faith.” That’s the headline of an essay at The Atlantic by Yale psychologist Paul Bloom. You know what’s coming from the accompanying photo of Dr. Carson. He’s at a podium looking maximally clueless — as we all look when captured at the wrong moment in the middle of certain rhetorical gestures common in public speaking.
Bloom argues that science has a unique status, incomparably superior to religious faith. Those who say science is itself a “faith” are wrong.
You don’t need to wait long for the ritual conflation of intelligent design with creationism. It comes in the fourth paragraph. He writes:
In the first article that I ever published for The Atlantic, I argued that many religious beliefs arise from universal modes of thought that have evolved for reasoning about the social world. We are sensitive to signs of agency, which explains the animism that grounds the original religions of the world. We are naturally prone to infer intelligent design when we see complex structure, which makes creationism more appealing than natural selection.
So “religious beliefs” — including “intelligent design,” which equals “creationism” — are a kind of error arising from evolved intuitions gone astray. He goes on to say that religion arises also from the error of believing accounts from other people, with no good grounds for doing so and, quite likely, without even understanding the content of those accounts.
What’s sweet and sincere about the essay is Bloom’s admission that on certain scientific ideas outside his academic field, he believes things (about climate change, for example) not based on expertise but on the “say so” of other scientists. Yes, Bloom admits, individual scientists can be biased, but the enterprise of science is goal-directed to discover the truth. So taking scientific findings on faith is justified. In fact, it’s not faith — it’s warranted belief.
People defer to authorities not just to the truth of the religious beliefs, but their meaning as well. In a recent article, the philosopher Neil Van Leeuwen calls these sorts of mental states “credences,” and he notes that they have a moral component. We believe that we should accept them, and that others — at least those who belong to our family and community — should accept them as well.
None of this is special to religion.
There are “credences” in the context of science too, Bloom says — things believed on authority by non-specialists — but those are justified, you see, unlike religious credences.
He leaves out that testimony in the context of religious traditions isn’t necessarily as easily dismissed as he suggests. His own Jewish ancestors believed in a revelation at Mt. Sinai based on, so the argument goes, a continual transmission from generation to generation of the “credence” that the event was witnessed by a multitude of escaped slaves. Those witnesses testified to it to their descendants, with no record of contradiction.
Religions also survive a kind of natural selection. Those with no insights into the human experience tend to fade and crumble, as a long historical record of failed faiths seems to confirm.
That aside, taking Bloom’s approach means, for the non-specialist, accepting all views held by a majority of scientists. Is this warranted, or na�ve? The history of science is also a history of failed doctrines that faded and crumbled. Is it very likely that science today has finally got everything all figured out?
Obviously, for anyone, it’s impractical to consider every scientific matter an open question. A thoughtful layman or non-specialist reasonably accepts the majority view on a great many things (vaccines, for instance). But identifying a legitimate scientific clash on a vital issue is not beyond the powers of an intelligent man or woman, even if lacking a PhD in that precise field. See Granville Sewell’s post, “It’s Really Not Rocket Science.”
On the issue of evolution, whether Darwinian theory serves adequately in explaining the origins of complex animal life, there is indeed a controversy. See Stephen Meyer’s books, Signature in the Cell and Darwin’s Doubt, for ample documentation.
A discerning layman is also capable of noting the consistency with which Darwin-defending scientists take refuge in the false equation of ID with creationism. Bloom does it himself. Right or wrong, ID and creationism are not the same thing. This itself is highly suspicious — a red flag. You see, again and again, otherwise smart folks, scientists and non-scientists, giving clear evidence of having failed to consider the scientific argument for design, brushing it aside with that comforting equation, an excuse for neglecting to think.
As Bloom says of other “credences,” many who express strong views on the design inference “literally don’t know what they are talking about.” Again, I mean scientists too, including plenty in the field of evolutionary biology. That, along with the evidence of a controversy going on in professional scientific venues that Steve Meyer demonstrates, is reason enough for the layman to give a second look to the evolutionary credence.
Image: Sterling Memorial Library, Yale University, by Carol M. Highsmith via Wikicommons.