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« Beyond fundraising | Main | D'oh! »

May 31, 2007


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Bill Fisher

Painful to ponder, indeed. I agree with Brownback, though, that "we cannot drive a wedge between faith and reason."

The two are already so far separated (at least for me) that there's no wedge big enough to increase the distance.

David Wharton

"And isn't "atheistic theology" an oxymoron?"

I think he's going for an intentional paradox with a little polyptoton thrown in for good effect.

I agree with Brownback that the meaning and value of being human is not something that the scientific method can determine, nor is it a question that philosophy can determine dispositively. Any estimation of the value (or non-value) of humans requires a leap of faith, considered as an epistemic commitment that is not demanded by observable facts or self-evident truths (if there are any).


Made my head hurt too. Desperate pandering and obfuscation designed to give the illusion of integrity and insight, much sound and fury, signifying, I suspect, fear of being dismissed as the lunatic Theocrat he is.

David Wharton

Anglico, you didn't actually address any of Brownback's arguments. You simply did some name calling, with a little Shakespearean allusion.

Dave Dobson

The idea of punctuated equilibria (not equilibrium, as he wrote) is not in conflict with or opposed to Darwinian evolution, and in fact assumes that Darwinian evolution exists and operates.

If I try to take Brownback's confusing essay on its face, he seems to be stipulating to evolution as a process and allowing for an Earth that's older than 6,000 years, but also assuming a special creation for humans without specifying a mechanism. I wonder what he'd say to this statement - humans evolved from simple organisms over the past 3.9 billion years through evolution or a similar process, but God designed the Universe and its laws such that humans would evolve. As a scientist, I don't really have a problem with that statement (there's no evidence for it, but it doesn't contradict other evidence either). I suspect he wouldn't be willing to accept it.


When someone grounds his position in faith, what is the point of even calling it an "argument" in the first place?

I don't consider any of Brownback's "arguments" worthy of addressing. From what I can tell, he's simply a creationist who's trying to have it both ways. He knows he screwed up by saying he doesn't "believe" in evolution and now he's backpedaling in hopes of moving his chances to be nominated from zero to 1 percent.

He says: "I believe the magic hand of god shaped the universe."

That's not an argument and it doesn't deserve any serious consideration as far as I'm concerned.

David Wharton

As I said, any position regarding the meaning of being human is based on some kind of faith, broadly construed. Such assertions can indeed be the basis of argument, and can be rationally addressed.

Brownback expressed his views in an explicit way, and instead of engaging what with what he said, you're simply insulting him and mischaracterizing his assertions.

Do you want to try again? If not, Brownback wins by default.


>>"...I agree with Brownback that the meaning and value of being human is not something that the scientific method can determine.."

What I find inexplicable about folks like Brownback is their belief that evolution, and, ultimately, all of science, threaten the meaning and value of human life. Whatever each of us thinks that meaning and value may be, understanding how humans, and the rest of the universe, really came to be can't change that.

I dunno. Does knowing how babies are made take away the meaning and value of children?

David Wharton

DD -- didn't see your comment before I posted in response to Anglico.

I don't know whether Brownback would assent to "God designed the Universe and its laws such that humans would evolve," though it's certainly congruent with Catholic theology, and Brownback is Catholic.

But as a scientist, don't you think the concept of a "law" of nature is hopelessly anthropocentric?


I don't know who put you in charge of moderating debates, David, but I certainly don't accept your assertion that Brownback "wins" anything, anymore than I accept the relevance of his so-called arguments. I read his column in the Times twice this morning - and once again tonight. There's little worth discussing.

To restate my point, Brownback's explicit expression of his views can be paraphrased as follows:

"Forget what I said about not believing in evolution in the South Carolina debate. It's really far more complicated than that - and now that my campaign is going nowhere, I need to build a bridge between what I said and what I should have said. What I should have said is:

The unique and special place of each and every person in creation is a fundamental truth that must be safeguarded. I am wary of any theory that seeks to undermine man’s essential dignity and unique and intended place in the cosmos. I firmly believe that each human person, regardless of circumstance, was willed into being and made for a purpose. (Emphasis added.)

Now, what I said (above) is: "That's not an argument and it doesn't deserve any serious consideration as far as I'm concerned." Simply put, I don't engage with people who start their arguments with "I believe."

To carry this to the absurdity it warrants:

I believe the Magic Creator set some People on Earth to moderate Discussion Threads on Ed Cone's Website. I do not believe David Wharton is among the Chosen. Really. I firmly believe this.


David, I forgot to comment on your other faith-based assertion:

Any position regarding the meaning of being human is based on some kind of faith, broadly construed.

I suppose if you construe faith broadly enough to include "not faith," you might have a point. Otherwise, you're just another person starting an argument with the words "I believe."

To which I must simply say: "I don't."

Dave Dobson

DW -

I don't have any problem with the concept of laws of nature, nor do I find them hopelessly anthropocentric. I find them endlessly fascinating. Two things:

1) Law has a meaning in science that's not exactly congruent to its everyday meaning, and it's often seen as part of a hierarchy: idea -> hypothesis -> theory -> law

2) Plenty of stuff in physics and chemistry behaves exactly (or nearly exactly) like this concept of law, and those are the processes on which organic evolution (and nearly everything else) is based.

299,792,458 m/s - not only a good idea, it's the law.


Complete double-speak hackery. Period. The popular interpretation of his raising his hand in response to the question on evolution was clearly the accurate one, despite his attempts to convolude and pander the issue. Someone should point out to the hack, what a hack he is.

David Wharton

Anglico, I'm happy to concede that Brownback's essay isn't particularly coherent, but I think the idea that the meaning of human life isn't available to scientific inquiry is a valid an important point.

Also, when I said "faith, broadly construed," I meant it in the sense I had used earlier, namely an epistemic commitment that is not demanded by empirical facts or analytic truths.

For example, I'll bet you believe that people ought to receive equal treatment under the law, even though there's nothing in evolutionary biology that requires you to do so.

Anyhow, I'm not "moderating" your comments -- only Ed can do that, since he is the god of this universe -- I was simply trying to engage you in a little debate. I thought that was what blog comments were for.

DD -- re: "law". I know that scientists conceive of natural laws as something quite different from human laws, but it's interesting that the metaphor is drawn from human life. That's what I meant when I said it was "anthropocentric," and I think that kind of anthropocentrism creeps into science more than most scientists are aware of or would care to admit. But it's probably unavoidable, if George Lakoff is right that such metaphorical thinking is a fundamental part of the architecture of our minds.


Gotcha, DW. Thanks for the clarifications.

Bill Fisher

Is having no enthusiasm based on some kind of enthusiasm, broadly construed? Is having no hope based on some kind of of hope? Is having no belief whatsoever regarding the phrase "the meaning of being human"--whether or not it's relevant or nonsensical--based on some kind of belief or faith? Or is it a sign of apathy? Indecisiveness?


I don't understand.

Bill Fisher

DW says "any position regarding the meaning of being human is based on some kind of faith, broadly construed." Does that include no position?

Jim Caserta

At least one of Brownback's points is a concession of observed fact:
"The question of evolution goes to the heart of this issue. If belief in evolution means simply assenting to microevolution, small changes over time within a species, I am happy to say, as I have in the past, that I believe it to be true." He cannot disagree with microevolution because it is an observed event. He's not conceding anything.

Does evolution really equate to "an exclusively materialistic, deterministic vision of the world"?

I believe that faith and reason should be separated in one very important place - the classroom. That doesn't mean that there is no room for philosophical discussion, but it belongs in the philosophy department, not biology.

This troubles me because they seem to be confusing having people of faith involved in science and mixing faith and science. This is especially troubling because people miss the irony. Evolution is wholly based on genetics, and the man considered the father of genetics - Gregor Mendel - was an Augustinian priest. Evolution is based on the work of a priest!

David Crockett

What exactly does this have to do with fixing this country. Who cares whether a politician believes in Evolution or Creationism? That is not going to help us restore the founder's intentions.

Jim Caserta

Real-world context of evolution: Antibiotic resistant bacteria (from FDA):

Survival of the Fittest
The increased prevalence of antibiotic resistance is an outcome of evolution. Any population of organisms, bacteria included, naturally includes variants with unusual traits--in this case, the ability to withstand an antibiotic's attack on a microbe. When a person takes an antibiotic, the drug kills the defenseless bacteria, leaving behind--or "selecting," in biological terms--those that can resist it. These renegade bacteria then multiply, increasing their numbers a millionfold in a day, becoming the predominant microorganism.

Science and science education is important to this country. Teaching sound science and the scientific method is critical to the economic well-being of the country.


When politicians believe in creationism and then attempt to instill those beliefs in their policies, they are crossing the line between church and state. Brownback is a Theocrat, and therefore a dangerous threat to what I understand to be the founders' intentions.

Jim Langer

Mendel's work was published in 1866. Darwin's belatedly published "Origin of Species" was 1859.

To address the question of what brownback might say to the idea that God set the laws in motion, then sat back while homo sapiens sapiens evolved from other organisms: Brownback went to great pains (for us as well as him) to say he disavowed and would like to see (how?) "rejected" any scientific research or specualtion that proposed anything that didn't adhere to at least "creationism" of each individual species...he denies cross-species evolution. He believes and wants to safeguard any attempt to unseat the popular prejudice in favor of a specially designed, created and ordained human species, unconnected to any other primates genetically or evolutionarily.

I agree with Ed Cone's first surmisal: this is a contradiction of Brownback's supposed support for ongoing research into human origins.

Mr. Wharton, is it not possible, sometime in the future if we have not made inroads already, that science will be much better prepared to answer questions surrounding human motives, behaviour and "meaning" as forged (or felt to be "discovered") during the course of an individual life? We may find increased empirical evidence to support social theories to explain how "values" are acculturated. as well. Or do you agree with Brownback, that any such findings should be rejected out of hand?

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