The Problem With A Secular World

First, please go watch this YouTube video, linked by Gawker.  Read the write-up there, while you're at it.

This video clip is just over a minute long.  No substantial debate could have been conducted in that time.  No link is provided to a transcript, or a longer clip of the interview (testimony before committee, it appears).  This tells us we're being shown this material in an attempt to convey, not information, but an impression.
What impression?  Well, as Gawker goes on to explain, we still have these rubes in our government who cannot deal with and have no idea of scientific fact, while the beatific academicians try in vain to save them from themselves.

Alright, now I am summarizing and exaggerating in order to create an impression myself.  It is true, the senator is grandstanding - he is trying to lead in to the question of getting "here" from "there" - but study the clip for a minute.  Gawker sums the situation up as, "...Walsworth interrupts with another question... the teacher manages to soldier on.  Let's give this woman an award."  Remember again - impression, impression.  Where is the mention of the teacher interrupting the senator's question to begin the clip?

Suppose this clip were summarized as follows: "Walsworth never actually has a chance to phrase his entire question, as the teacher runs him over with a pat answer which avoids the main thrust of the senator's concern".  I would argue that is an equally accurate (or, to be fair, equally inaccurate) summary of what we see here.

What is that concern, anyway?  Following my hypothetical sympathetic-to-the-senator coverage, he is clearly trying to bring up the biggest problem people have with evolutionary theory: how did nothing turn into something turn into life turn into intelligence turn into consciousness?  This is at the very least a legitimate and troubling philosophical question; in the face of entropy it ought to be one posed by and to science - but to my knowledge the best answer, apart from the barefaced, "Well it had to have happened like this," is the hypothesis that all of existence as we know it is a mere eddy of random chance which happens to have produced us.  This is unsettling at least, but it is also what any naturalistic theory of abiogenesis and macroevolution comes down to in the end, since any Purpose is denied.  This is the question the senator is trying to ask, and he is eventually hectored into asking - as the canned speech rolls on (remember we're being sympathetic here) - whether this experimental e. coli evolved into a human.

Which is met, of course, with the blank "what".  The question, everyone knows, is manifestly absurd.  Everyone knows that it takes time and mutations and infinitesimal steps and stuff.  Now, there was an idea that floated around for a while arguing that added time does not make the improbable more probable.  This is true in one particular case - the impossible - and, speaking strictly of probability, is always true.  But time - which, speaking mathematically, can be considered repeated experiments - makes the improbable more likely to happen eventually.  You would expect, rolling a die 100 times, to turn up more sixes than if you only rolled it 10 times.  So if this evolution - recognizing that science uses several terms here, I am still going to stick with the popular usage - is merely improbable, then added time is an entirely reasonable way to account for Things Happening.

But there is another way the question is absurd: the researchers would be extremely surprised if these mutating e. coli ever turned into something that was not a bacterium.  This is a step that is essentially necessary to demonstrate the possibility of the Theory of Evolution so confidently taught - and a step which is, to my knowledge, still conspicuously missing.  Small-scale evolution, noted originally by Darwin, has been observed and confirmed, even the development of new "species" of the same kind of animal - normal mice become six kinds of mice - but beyond that?  It is not so clear.  Of course, under the current theories, truly unique changes would be the result of multiple mutations building up on a long time-scale, so it is early to rule out the theory as an explanation of origins (especially considering the apparently correlating evidence of the fossil record, not that that is without questions either); but it is also extremely premature to have established this theory as accepted scientific gospel, the way the Gawker piece - and a vast number of other people and texts - treat it.

Even if the science were on more solid ground than it actually is, the philosophical question would remain: "So we did not need god - if he exists - to get here.  Now what?  So what?"  Look at what we see as the result of the secular worldview.  The same texts which confidently preach an evolutionary origin which, due to time constraints, cannot possibly have been confirmed yet by observation, are commonly fond of declaring the backwardness of Medieval society, the tyranny of the Puritans, and the prudishness of the Victorians, and tend to blame these things on superstition, which an intelligent reader quickly comes to realize is a polite term for religion.  Well, the Christian church has had its faults, and must bear blame in our accounting for the excesses of the Inquisition and the Crusades and the like.  But if this is the case, then secularism must carry its burdens, too: the tyrannies of socialist and communist states in the 20th century, the massacres perpetrated by their dictators, the eugenic experiments carried out by over-enthusiastic scientists - and here lies the final problem.

To sum up the problem neatly, in the secular world chivalry dies and there is nothing to replace it.  I am of course using the term chivalry loosely here.  It would be more accurate in some ways to speak of natural law, but I am looking at effects - results, actuality - and so the general code of manners of Christendom will do service.  Any society will have its unique manners, but in these supposed darker ages, there was the understanding - and this is true whether we appeal to Confucius or the Thomists - that proper manners, customs, and justice come from a correct understanding of the nature of things (to steal a phrase, perhaps inappropriately, from the atheist Lucretius).  The materialist may attempt the same thing, but comes up short on the question of authority.  A nebulous principle - Google's "Don't be evil", perhaps - comes in as a stopgap measure for society in the short term, but good and evil themselves become subject to the whims of - well, of whoever.  The more enlightened may attempt to deduce such rules of behavior from science - an acquaintance of mine champions one such endeavor and Heinlein's Starship Troopers imagines a society built on such a structure - but all these attempts have a common problem: "What if I don't want to?"  What if I can swindle my way to millions and get away with it?  What if I can drink and sex myself into a cheerful haze?  The "advice" once given, "Live fast, die young, leave a good-looking corpse" comes to mind, but it is useful, if that is the word we want, only to the individual.

Nothing is left to the secularist as a system of control except for the strong arm of society, against which there is no appeal but a stronger arm.  It should not be a surprise that the tendency of a secular age has been to tyranny by despots or by bureaucracy.  The only answer left for the majority of people who want (for whatever now mysterious reason) to get on with an ordered life, is, "Behave, or we will make you."

(This is not to deny the possibility of religious tyranny.  "Do this because god says you should (and I have an army)" is equally as persuasive as, "Do this because I say so (and I have an army)".  But there is this difference: the religious tyrant can never establish himself as an ultimate authority.  If one interprets the Imperial Papacies of the late Renaissance as such tyrannies, we see resistance dressed as Reformation, as, "But god actually says...", where a secular revolution could be driven by nothing other than, "But I would prefer..."  Yes, this is oversimplification as well.  The worst of the Popes had their opponents within and without church councils, and were resisted by civil authorities in their overreaches.  The Roman church itself generated a movement of reform which, due to the vagaries of history, got itself dubbed the Counter-Reformation.  But if anything, this only strengthens my point.  Compare the "reforms" of Communist China, and you see a program carried out by officials determined to remain in charge, and embracing merely what seems to be a more useful form of godlessness.)

And as to the morals of this secular society?  We are seeing a breakdown of traditional morality being celebrated as "tolerance" - and that breakdown pushed beyond the bounds of logic.  A homosexual relationship - which to be fair, is a thing allowed by many past civilizations (although the Athenians and Spartans, both practitioners, apparently amused themselves by calling each other gay) - is supposedly the same as a fruitful marriage, despite the obvious differences between a person who can carry a child and one who cannot.  A person of male sex who thinks he is a woman is allowed - encouraged, sometimes - to call himself one, rather than being considered insane, which is what the facts of the case would suggest.  A supposedly tolerant society, protesting careful regard to human life and the rights of baby seals (or whatever fad is current), is perfectly happy to be cavalier with the lives of the most vulnerable of humanity, the unborn.  Some few are willing to admit that they take life, and while couched in terms of relative value, the fact that that "value" is being determined by the more powerful individual in the case is impossible to avoid.

Let us suppose that the repression of past religious cultures was as bad as advertised.  What can you show me that indicates our new bureaucratic overlords have, in their wisdom, given us anything better?  If the materialist proposal had been shown to be true beyond a doubt, it is not even clear why we should accept the results - in the name of a truth which has no final relevance?  But when the position does not in fact have such a sure foundation, why should we be in such a haste to embrace the annihilation of concrete good and morals?


  1. This is bringing in my own bias, of course, but I'm more sympathetic to Gawker's impression than the hypothetical sympathetic-to-the-senator bias. It doesn't seem to me that the senator was trying to bring up an important philosophical point as much as belittle with sarcasm the science being presented to him. The senator's question displayed nothing more obvious than thinly-veiled disdain for the idea that humanity could ever have evolved from bacteria. If the senator had any willingness at all to actually open himself up to reasoned arguments as to the same, that question did not show it at all.

  2. Now, to some misconceptions. It may be true that the biggest problem many people have with evolutionary theory is the question "how did nothing turn into something turn into life turn into intelligence turn into consciousness?", but please remember, that's not a question about evolutionary theory at all. Evolution does not even begin to address how nothing turned into something or how something turned into life. Evolution merely addresses how all life is related. Evolution is a theory that begins with life and extrapolates to all of life--it does not address at all how that life got there in the first place. That's another theory.

  3. You mentioned entropy. There is hardly an older canard in the anti-evolutionary handbook. Entropy does not apply to evolution at all; it doesn't even enter into the question. Entropy, you may recall, only means that disorder increases over time in a *closed system*. Earth is hardly a closed system. Exhibit A: the sun.

  4. One species turning into another being a necessary step to proving that evolution is possible. Well, obviously, evolution requires that one species turn into another over time. But it certainly doesn't require that such a transformation be visible in a laboratory within a human generation. It's not evolution's fault that its processes do not transpire on the time scale of an ephemeral human life. What the theory of evolution requires to be possible is 1. evidence that over time species have changed into others; this is supplied by the fossil evidence, and 2. a mechanism by which this could have occurred. This is supplied by natural selection acting upon genetic diversity. The micro-macro evolution false dichotomy is another time-honored anti-evolutionary canard. It is telling to note that the term "microevolution" and "macroevolution" are used exclusively by creationists. The terms are entirely foreign to actual biologists. (I say this from experience; I spent three and a half years immersed in the scientific literature on evolution in general and the processes that drive speciation in particular, and I can't remember seeing either term even once.) Evolution is evolution. The processes that drive one species to evolve into two species are the same exact processes that drive one genus to evolve into two genera, one family into two families, etc.

  5. "[I]t is…extremely premature to have established this theory [evolution] as accepted scientific gospel". I don't mean to be elitist, Jon, but don't you think you should leave it to scientists to decide what's scientific gospel and what's not? If 99.9% of professional research scientists agree that evolution is true, I think that makes it scientific gospel. (I can dig up that Scientific American poll if you like.) The evidence for evolution is absolutely, overwhelming, crushingly obvious to anyone who is willing to make an inquiry into it. If you are open to the idea of evolution, you will embrace it if you make even a preliminary inquiry. If you aren't, don't blame evolution for seeming improbable. Blame yourself.

  6. I don't want to get too much into the second half of your post, Jon, except to mention that I understand why make the progression from evolution into moral philosophy. I believe you're right, naturalism is one of the biggest reasons the religious public has not embraced evolution. but whether or not naturalism necessarily follows from evolution, the fact remains that evolution is science. And as such, it should be taught in schools.

  7. I want to reply only to your comments re. evolution, although even that will be difficult as you make a number of them.

    First, a quick demurral: on the subject of entropy, I understand your point, and in fact referenced the possibility of considering the earth as merely an anomaly within the universe - the universe is however by definition pretty much a closed system. And this leads to my second quick note, which is that I made it very clear I was not using "evolution" as a technical term. It is commonly used at short hand for the whole materialist science of origins - Big Bang, abiogenesis, actual evolution, the works. While obviously this is scientifically inaccurate, it does get at the philosophical unity of the problem - something coming from something different, or even nothing - and I was mainly concerned with the philosophy here.

    This brings me to my main point. While I have been a young-earth creationist, I would not currently consider myself one more than tentatively (though as a Christian, I believe God did create). The Biblical literalism warrant - on any literary inspection - trips up on the differences between the accounts of Gen. 1 & 2 (as you are no doubt well aware). Beyond this, there is the apparent age of the universe. This is not insurmountable - a world created anything like the one we know would almost have to have an appearance of age, rather like (although the metaphor is overdone) your modern bestseller's protagonist is made to seem much older than the book is.

    But evolutionary theory has failed to convince even as an alternate mechanism of creation, let alone as a stand-alone. You say that "only creationists" distinguish between micro- and macro-evolution; but this is rather like saying only Copernicans distinguish between lunar and solar geocentrism. The Ptolemeians don't have to distinguish, because the distinction is rejected by the system they work under.

    Someone who takes evolution as the reason for all species diversity is going to reject the distinction as unnecessary if not unhelpful; but the fact remains that the one is observed, and the other is an extrapolation. You say that, "It's not evolution's fault that its processes do not transpire on the time scale of an ephemeral human life." But it absolutely makes a difference in the certainty with which it can be known and should be proclaimed. I was taught that science deals in the observable and (preferably) the reproduceable, neither of which are the case (at least so far) with the idea of evolution as the mode of differentiation of species.

    I can (and do) accept the use of evolution as the best-approximation and working framework for biologists etc. After all, the supernatural hypothesis is by definition sort of outside the realm of scientific confirmation (though incidentally at least possibly subject to the same sort of confirmation-by-correlation used for evolution) but the aura of absolute certainty on the subject confounds me. On the subject of the atom, where we have actual observations, we are perfectly willing to say, "It's only a model," (certainly at the undergrad level - I can't say for certain whether this holds among actual physicists), but I've never met a scientist willing to say the same - admit the uncertainty factor - for evolution. And this is largely what I was complaining about in the opening to this post.

    However, you can also help me out - I'm fairly familiar with basic biology and (I'm actually not sure why) a fair amount of the very basic geology, but I've never put much study into comprehending the fossil record - can your recommend a good book (preferably a "reader"'s book, but if a textbook would be better I'll muddle through) on the subject? I honestly don't have a ton of time to spend reading, and I have a stack of books yea high already, but I can put it on the agenda.

  8. wcpettus1/2/13 18:34

    I want to take objection (as a physicist) to your comment about the atom and being a model.

    We call it a model because we know it is inaccurate, but it is very helpful to visualize an atom as a collection of particles (protons, neutrons, and electrons). If you threw wavefunctions and Heisenberg uncertainty at high schoolers or undergrads (in the intro course), they might run away screaming. At the same time, the desire is not to mislead students, so we say things like, "It's only a model," inviting them to ask more and understand that they are only seeing the tip of the iceberg.
    You could say the same thing for gravity (vs general relativity), ray-tracing with optics (vs a full treatment of particle-wave duality), and expand the list as you like. In the appropriate limit, they are useful approximations.

    If you consider that the standard of, "It's only a model," then I don't think that (many) biologists can honestly say that about evolution. That's because they are convinced the evidence demonstrates that evolution gave rise to the present diversity of life.
    If you want to use the terms, microevolution is looking at the short time effects, macroevolution is looking at the long time effects, but they are just tags applied to "evolution." If you want the shortest time effects, then that is silly - because evolution only occurs in populations, not individuals (at least in any meaningful way, as I understand it).

    * backing off now, since this really isn't an area of expertise

  9. Jon, thanks for bringing up this blog post on the recent thread on Joy Pullmann's wall. There are certainly several parallel points, and I'm not going to able avoid being slightly redundant in my responses in each place. But I think that's all right.

    It sounds like you are in a sort of limbo as to how you imagine the world and its living populace came to be? You say that you don't really consider yourself a young-earth creationist, but you also don't consider evolution to be a convincing alternative. If so, I think that's a pretty unusual state to be in. If you're convinced that young-earth creationism is not true, why not take the word of scientists everywhere that evolution is not only a viable, but the best account? I'm not being accusatory here (a little sensitive to that after my reprimands on Joy's post), just curious. I have to infer that either you are unaware of the vast scientific consensus on evolution, or distrust scientists in general, or you must have some _a priori_ metaphysical reasons for objecting to evolution.

    Good question though, about the comparison with the model of the atom. There are, in fact, various competing schools of thought and wide disagreement about the mechanisms of natural selection. Scientists will readily admit that evolution is far from completely explained. But all this discussion takes as a starting point that the theory is true. Just so with the model of the atom; physicists will agree that they cannot completely explain how the atom functions, but they are taking as a starting point that the atom is real. That the atom is real is already established beyond reasonable doubt. Same with evolution.

    Also, nice analogy with Copernicanism/Ptolemeians. My response is: my point exactly! Just as to distinguish between lunar and solar geocentrism automatically identifies you as a Copernican, to distinguish between micro- and macroevolution automatically identifies you as a creationist. All I was saying is that microevolution is not scientific, that's it.

  10. The biggest point I can address here is that you seem to share the same misapprehension as Lydia, that science must be reproducible and directly observable. (Where does this misapprehension come from?!? You two are by no means the first people from conservative religious backgrounds I have known that have possessed it.) Sure, that which can be directly observed automatically has a greater level of knowledge certainly than something that cannot be directly. But even unobserved things can have a very great level of knowledge certainty. I've never seen Julius Caesar, for example. But I believe with great assurance that he existed.

    You read what I posted in reply to Lydia, so I'll go beyond assertion here to explain that testability is the key to good science. Quick recap of the Scientific Method: 1. Make observation of phenomenon 2. Form hypothesis about phenomenon 3. Test hypothesis 4. Accept, Reject or Modify Hypothesis. Testing can certainly be done by experiment. A good experiment should be reproducible; if no-one else can replicate what you did, then there's no evidence that any results you got were anything more than a fluke. (Perhaps this is the root of the misapprehension--people think that all science must reproducible, when reproducibility is really nothing more fundamental than quality control.) Testing can also be done by observation. For example: you hypothesize that the earth is round. You test this by observing the shape of its shadow on the moon during an eclipse. That's science. Or you hypothesize that thunderstorms are caused by the collision of masses of cool and warm air. You test this by observing a bunch of thunderstorms and tracking the weather conditions that preceded them. That's science. Or you hypothesize that all forms are descended from one another. You test this by seeing whether more complex life forms are always found in newer rock layers than younger ones. You can test it by seeing whether species in islands that have long been removed from the mainland are more similar to each other than to species from the mainland. You can test it by observing whether any transitional fossil successions can found. This too is science. Note that all of these observations are reproducible, even if the phenomena itself are not: any one else can look at your data or examine your specimens and is free to make his own conclusions.

    Finally, for a book recommendation, I'll repeat what I said on Joy's post: _Finding Darwin's God_, by Kenneth Miller. It's a pretty quick read, actually, for a science book, besides being written by a Christian for a Christian audience, and if the first half of the book doesn't convince you of evolution, then only a Pauline conversation experience could.

  11. Ben, some of what you've said practically deserves separate response, which I will get around to eventually either here (or in person as you've suggested elsewhere). Thank you also for the book recommendation.

    However, two things I want to address briefly. First is my (speculative) short version answer to your accusation of "misapprehension" of science, especially among the conservative religious. I think the answer is very simple: you yourself admit that there is a difference in certainty between theories confirmed by experiment, observation, and repetition; and those confirmed only by correlation. The tendency (especially among the noted group) to emphasize this difference, no doubt in part due to being uncomfortable with evolutionary (and similar) ideas, seems to the main culprit. If culprit is the word we want - to say that "quality control" is not fundamental seems a dreadful oversight!

    As to my own position: I have a religious certainty that materialistic evolution, even if true in part, is not the final word on the origin of human life. On the other hand, the "YE" part of the "YEC" seems troubling mainly in light of astronomical data. This is the initial tension. (For some reason, the dating of stuff on earth has never cause the same questioning.) Practically, I have no problem with evolution (and even abiogenesis etc.) being taught as the best scientific conclusions on the probable origins of life. I mean, what else is there? The YEC position commonly depends on a hypothetical worldwide flood (and some drastic reinterpretation of radiological dating methods, most commonly pointing out cases where they seem unreliable), which to make possible a literal "firmament" of "waters above" is normally posited (though no evidence is usually presented). It holds together on its own terms, mostly... much like an Escher drawing. On the other hand, I have never seen the irreducible complexity argument (against evolution) answered satisfactorily. Mostly it seems to be, "Is too reducible." "Nuh-uh." "Uh-huh." And there I'm not really qualified to judge, but the irreducibilitists seem to come off better. Not that disproving one hypothesis - assuming for the sake of argument here that it does - proves another, of course.

    I wouldn't call it "limbo" so much as "apathy". More than that would need a more detailed response that really fits a comment.

  12. Hey Jon,

    To the "misapprehension": my own theory is that conservative religious people think that science must be experimental, because experimentation cannot prove evolution. That they disavow that observational science is true science specifically because that would be conceding that evolution could be scientific. Really. Granted, I have only a small sample size of observations and I'm sure very few people would admit to that motivation so it's entirely unprovable, but hey, we're allowed to speculate on blog posts, right?

    Because yes, while seeing something with your own eyes is more trustworthy than seeing something through the effects it has left behind, I think I made a mistake in my comment by making it appear that I was comparing "direct personal experience vs. faith" with "experimental science vs. observational science". Experimental science by no means inherently more trustworthy than observational science. They both suffer from the same susceptibility to observer bias, confusion of correlation with causation, etc.

    When I say that repeatability qua quality control is not fundamental to science, I only meant that quality control is not fundamental to the theory of science. Quality control is certainly fundamental to the practice. In some alternate universe where scientists were all robots incapable of error, repeatability would be much less important.

    [Addendum: I was not correct to say that reproducibility is "nothing more" than quality control. In many kinds of science, repeating an experiment multiple times is essential for establishing probability curves.]

    Irreducible complexity: you've never seen the challenge answered satisfactorily, because the challenge is by definition only issued when there is no satisfactory answer. In other words, Intelligent Design (ID) advocates by definition only point out natural phenomena for which there are no known explanations. Yet. There are several problems with this line of challenging. For one, it's impossible to prove a negative; you can't prove that there is _no_ way [name a phenomenon] could have evolved. For another, being a "god of the gaps" is a rather tenuous job title, because science has a very strong track record of explaining what was previously thought to be inexplicable. And ironically, the challenge of ID people has actually been an impetus to certain areas of science. There are now several very good and reasonable theories about the evolution of the bacterial flagellum and the mammalian eye (two classic ID baits), for example.

    Looking forward to chance for a more detailed response in person some time, Jon.