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Metaphysical Tolerance: A Discipline for Progress 


Editor’s note: As an alternative to what you are getting pretty much everywhere else in the media at the moment, Evolution News is proud to offer inspiration, pointing to purpose and meaning in life. The profoundest mystery and thus the deepest inspiration is life itself. Discovery Institute Press has just published a greatly expanded edition of the 1984 classic of intelligent design science literature, The Mystery of Life’s Origin. Below is an excerpt adapted from the “controversial” Epilogue. Listen to a conversation with co-author Charles Thaxton about the chapter here.

There are sensitive issues involved when we begin to explore the metaphysical questions surrounding the origin of life. However, there is no easy way to resolve these issues. The only sure path is difficult. It demands the discipline required to temporarily table our personal tastes and preferences and humble ourselves in order to give serious consideration to how the data can be viewed from the other metaphysical position. We must do so recognizing that the truth of origins surely remains the truth regardless of which metaphysical position we individually adopt. As Melvin Calvin has observed, “The true student will seek evidence to establish fact rather than confirm his own concept of truth, for truth exists whether it is discovered or not.”

The Modern Scientific Tradition

The difficulty in pursuing these metaphysical matters is that scientists on the whole have seen so little value in this pursuit. After the birth of modern science in the 17th century it became increasingly common, and by the end of the 19th century the accepted procedure, to separate science and metaphysics into isolated, thought-tight compartments. This seemed to work well in practice, for after science got started the practitioners of science could function without even being aware of the metaphysical basis on which they operated. The modern scientific tradition has largely developed within the area we have called operation science, with its emphasis on recurring phenomena and testable hypotheses. Because of the inertia of heritage, the practice of science continued with only a few practicing scientists apparently aware of its metaphysical basis. As a result, now that we need to negotiate metaphysical terrain for proper understanding of origin science, few in science are equipped with the requisite skills. We believe this is a major reason creation in the area of origin science is viewed with such deep suspicion by many and frequently simply dismissed. 

When we are asked to consider “far out” or “strange” ideas such as Special Creation, as were the authors just a few years ago, typically the response is exactly that mentioned by David Bohm as cited earlier: “His first reaction is often of violent disturbance.” This was our reaction, too. However, as Bohm goes on to say, if one is willing to “stick with the inquiry rather than escape into anger or unjustified rejection of contrary ideas… he becomes aware of the assumptive character of a great many previously unquestioned features of his own thinking.” 

The Quest for Truth

The process as Bohm described it can sometimes be painful (it was to one of the present authors) but the quest for truth has never been easy, and has on more than a few occasions been known to make one unpopular. 

To be sure, not everyone who goes into the matter will reach the conclusion that we have. Even so, in the words of Davis and Solomon, as expressed in their book World of Biology: 

We cannot imagine that the cause of truth is served by keeping unpopular or minority ideas under wraps… Specious arguments can be exposed only by examining them. Nothing is so unscientific as the inquisition mentality that served, as it thought, the truth, by seeking to suppress or conceal dissent rather than by grappling with it.

We believe both sides of the origins issue (i.e., representatives of both metaphysical positions) must be considered, precisely because there is no way to test origins ideas in origin science against recurring phenomena (origins by definition do not recur). The issue will be decided on the basis of plausibility, not falsifiability. There is good historical precedent for this approach. Charles Darwin in his introduction to The Origin of Species said: 

For I am well aware that scarcely a single point is discussed in this volume on which facts cannot be adduced, often apparently leading to conclusions directly opposite to those at which I have arrived. A fair result can be obtained only by fully stating and balancing the facts and arguments on both sides of each question, and this is here impossible. [Emphasis added.]

Theism and Naturalism

Presenting origin science ideas from both metaphysical positions — theism and naturalism — in addition to giving an opportunity to choose the most plausible view from the total theoretical spectrum, will also help us become aware of: 

  1. Our own position and why we hold it; 
  2. The weaknesses and disadvantages of our position; 
  3. The need for tolerance of others’ positions; 
  4. The limitations of science. 

Our purpose in this epilogue has been to shed light on the issues and to avoid heat as much as possible. Only the reader can judge how successful we have been. If there is but one thing our acquaintance with the history of science has taught us, it is that unless some progress is made in recognizing the role of metaphysical thinking and properly using it, the origins debate will simply rage on, much as it has in the past, with representatives of each side of the dispute failing to hear or understand the other. Consequently, such scientists who go along blithely oblivious to the role of metaphysical thinking will simply act as if data really are observed and comprehended as neutral fact. Hopefully the lion of positivism has made its last roar and we can learn from advances in philosophy and science since the time of Darwin. If we can learn from our mistakes, we may expect more productive interchanges in the future. Toward that end we reach.

Read the rest in The Mystery of Life’s Origin: The Continuing Controversy, from Discovery Institute Press.

Image: Heart of the Milky Way, by X-Ray:NASA/CXC/UMass/D. Wang et al.; Radio:NRF/SARAO/MeerKAT.

Walter Bradley

Fellow, Center for Science and Culture
Walter L. Bradley received his B.S. degree in Engineering Science (Physics) in 1965 and his Ph.D. in Materials Science and Engineering in 1968, both from the University of Texas (Austin).  He subsequently taught at the Colorado School of Mines, Texas A&M University as Full Professor of Mechanical Engineering, and for 10 years at Baylor University as a Distinguished Professor. His research area has been Materials Science and Engineering, with a focus on the mechanical properties of plastics and polymeric (plastic) composite materials, fracture and life prediction. He has received more than $7 million in research funding and published more than 150 refereed technical papers and book chapters.  He has been honored by the American Society for Materials and the Society of Plastics Engineers as Educator of the Year. His most recent work has focused on converting agricultural waste into functional fillers for engineering plastics to provide new economic opportunities for poor farmers in developing countries.

Charles Thaxton

Fellow, Center for Science and Culture
Charles Thaxton received his Ph.D. in physical chemistry from Iowa State University. He completed two post-doctoral programs, one in history of science at Harvard University and the second in the molecular biology laboratories of Brandeis University. He has specialized in the origin of life and in science’s relationship with Christianity through history.

Roger L. Olsen

Roger L. Olsen is a Senior Vice President in the Denver office of the global consulting, engineering, and construction firm CDM Smith Inc. He received his BS in Chemistry and PhD in Geochemistry from the Colorado School of Mines. He is a Board Certified Environmental Scientist by the American Academy of Environmental Engineers and Scientists, one of the first twenty scientists to be so certified. He has served as an Instructor at the Colorado School of Mines, a Research Chemist at Rockwell International, and a Project Geochemist at D’Appolonia Consulting Engineers/International Technology Corporation. He is author of dozens of published scientific papers and routinely makes presentations at scientific and engineering conferences around the world. He is an internationally recognized expert in the fields of geochemistry and environmental chemistry and has testified as an expert witness.



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