Saturday, September 09, 2006


Why is it that people will actually criticize others for being reasonable? That is precisely what Jason Rosenhouse did in a recent post on people who are religious and 'moderate', i.e., don't close their eyes to scientific progress. That's a broad, vague category; it would be utterly silly to think that there is any one criticism that can be leveled against the category as a whole, but Rosenhouse comes very close to trying to do this. He argues:

The problem is that theological moderation is even harder to defend than fundamentalism.

A lot of people say a lot of things in the dispute between science and religion. There are arguments and counter arguments ad nauseum on both sides. Many of these arguments are fascinating and reward careful study, which, indeed, is why I spend so much time on them at this blog.

But when you strip away all the logic chopping and the careful parsing of Genesis you're left with a simple truth that no theologian has yet been able to make go away. It is this: Evolution by natural selection just isn't what you expect from a world created by an act of God's will for the amusement of humans.

Of course, if we take enough trouble to do our homework, we can find pretty easily that 'the world was created by an act of God's will for the amusement of humans' has been regarded as an absurd oversimplification for hundreds of years. Indeed, it has been commonly denied; and it takes no great literary competence to see that reading this into Genesis requires very selective reading.

And that is what precisely this sort of thing is: eisegesis rather than exegesis. Rosenhouse and others like him make the mistake of assuming that fundamentalists are reading more rationally than those who take explicit pains to read more carefully. On the basis of what do they make this surprising assumption? In and of itself it should give them pause enough to reflect on whether they might be on the verge of sophism; but, since they don't pause at all, but rush headlong into the conclusion without any questioning of their assumptions, the sophism moves right along as if it were a good piece of reasoning.

Further, it is clear that Rosenhouse is confusing this issue with other issues. For instance, he argues:

You can explain it after the fact, of course. You can say that evolution is God's means of creation, or you can transform Genesis from an unambiguous sequence of historical events into a parable meant to teach theological truths, or you can gush that God put in place a system of natural laws so wonderful that it was sufficient to bring about his creative ends, or you can argue that somehow humanity or something like it was the inevitable result of evolution. The fact remains that God chose a mechanism for creation that got hung up at the bacteria stage for three billlion years, and then needed an assist from several mass extinctions after clearing that hump. This, when he could simply have snapped his fingers and brought his world into being.

But there is no 'explaining it after the fact' here. Rather, what's going on is exactly what one would expect of a reasonable person: if you want to know how the world works, you go to the world and look at how it works. And there's nothing about believing that the world is created by God that would change this. Rosenhouse says that God "could simply have snappend his fingers and brought his world in being". Perhaps so. But if you want to know what world was brought into being, snapped fingers or no, you will, if you are a reasonable person, look to see what world was brought into being. And the world that we find if we look into this matter is a world consisting of a vast number of galaxies, each with a vast number of stars, around one of which we find ourselves on a planet. Rosenhouse summarizes the history of the planet as "a mechanism for creation that got hung up at the bacteria stage for three billion years, and then needed an assist from several mass extinctions after clearing that hump." How he or anyone else would know that it got 'hung up' at one stage and 'needed an assist' at another he doesn't say; and he apparently forgets that if God can "snap his fingers" and make the whole universe exist, there's no reason to assume he couldn't have three billion years of bacteria alone and a bunch of mass extinctions on one tiny planet in a vast array of stars. There's no room here for 'getting hung up' or 'needing an assist'; it's either rhetoric backed up by no reasoning, or a rather serious category mistake.

And, again, if you consider yourself to have reason to believe that God created the universe, and you want to know about this universe that God created, as many of us do, you look and see. If the heavens are telling the glory of God, you don't close yourself up in a room and speculate groundlessly about what sort of universe God would make; you inquire into the universe He did make, you raise your head to the heavens and see.

Rosenhouse then goes on to say:

And it's not just evolution. The Catholic Church used to think it was a very big deal to claim that the Earth was not the center of the universe. They were right to think it a big deal. If the Earth is the point of it all then it is rather hard to explain why God also created billions of other galaxies with stars orbited by lifeless worlds. Since theological reasoning is constrained only by the imagination of the reasoner, it is possible to conjure up explanations for this fact. And who knows? Maybe you're one of those people who can actually talk yourself into believing those explanations.

Yet if we were actually to look at the real historical evidence, we would find that what was more often thought a big deal was the claim that the sun was the immovable center of the universe; in the Galileo controversy, for instance, this is explicitly treated as the more serious problem. People did, of course, believe that the earth was at the center of the universe, and did think it a big deal when other people began to hold that it was not. But on what evidence shall we say that they believed this because they thought that "the Earth is the point of it all"? One wonders; because in medieval cosmology it is usually clear that the Earth is not the point of it all. If we are going to talk about importance, the reason they thought the earth was at the center of the universe was that it was the least important body in the heavens. All the other bodies in the heavens moved in circles, and moving in circles was, in Aristotelian and Platonic eyes alike, the most perfect sort of motion. A body that did not move in circles (like the stationary Earth) was thereby shown to be an imperfect sort of body. Further, the Earth did not even have the distinction of bearing the most important people in the universe. Human beings, far from being considered the most intelligent creatures in the guide, were considered the least intelligent: of all the intelligences in all the universe, we were the least impressive, because we were on the edge -- we were just intelligent enough to be considered genuine intelligences (we could think in universal terms and act morally) but were still rather dimwitted in comparison with other intelligences the medievals recognized. Far more impressive were the intelligences associated with the heavenly bodies; far more impressive than they were the intelligences of the empyrean. On such a view of the universe, what sense could be made of the claim that "The Earth is the point of it all"? So if Rosenhouse has an argument here, we need more information -- the evidence on which he is basing this claim -- in order to know what it is.

I've tried not to be completely harsh in this post. The sort of argument Rosenhouse is making is one of my pet peeves, because it seems to me to be a very bad strategy all around: fighting pseudoscience is not a sufficient justification for propagating pseudohistory; arguing against irrationality is not a good reason for failing to provide good reasoning oneself. It is simply unwise to attack fundamentalists for not making proper and reasonable distinctions and then go on in the next breath to avoid making proper and reasonable distinctions oneself. It is unreasonable to criticize reasonable people for being reasonable about the world. And a lot of this argument is just argument of the "I know better than you do, from a superficial reading, what the text you've studied all your life says" kind of argument. And as I've pointed out before in a very different context, this is usually absurd through and through. Let's move beyond this to a reasonable approach.

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