Tuesday, October 28, 2008

I wish we would talk more about such things...

I was thinking the other day, an activity that I like to do and don't allot nearly enough time to partake in, and it occurred to me that I lack a very important virtue in my philosophy sometimes: humility.

I'm beginning to understand why Dawkins' and Hitchen's philosophy is often, erroneously, mislabeled "militant". Dawkins and Hitchens are activists. And, by being persuaded by many of their arguments (not all), I feel a moral obligation to debate the more outspoken theists that I meet.

Not surprisingly, this convinces no one to repeal their original claims. And I thought of my own journey, why then had I changed so much from my former apologetics-driven, C.S. Lewisonian Christian background?

Let's begin with a small story about the Theory of Evolution. In high school, I was informed by my parents and peers that the theory of evolution was incompatible with religion. However, their arguments seemed diminished by the certainty that my freshman biology teacher explained the theory, clearly and substantiated by evidence. And so I lived in a sort of limbo, compartmentalizing evolution as one of those things we all have to learn in high school to graduate. One year, I took a social studies course that examined cultural and religious heritages around the world taught by a very passionate christian man named Jim Warren. Mr. Warren spent a few days outlining the theory of evolution as a "model" which was based upon as much faith as the alternative "model" known as Intelligent Design. His position (from my uneducated mind) seemed unassailable. I took his advice and read from the pillars of ID literature: Wells, Behe, Meyers, etc. I felt excited... like I was one of the special few who knew the conspiracy of knowledge that was Evolution, and equipped rhetorically to battle with those who supported it.

Fortunately for me, I chose to major in a credible Biology program at Hope College (an otherwise religious institution, though you'd be surprised). I made it through the first year of basic biology without much discussion concerning evolution. My second year, however, I scheduled the supposed "organic chemistry of biology": Biology: Ecology and Evolution... the course that would make-or-break a biology major. This course was taught a passionate, argumentative, sharp professor named Dr. K. Gregory Murray.

One day, Dr. Murray decided to open his class to a debate on Intelligent Design. He began with a general discussion on what a scientific "theory" is. Basically, the idea is that "theory" in a scientific sense of the word explains a set of facts. That is, apples tend to fall off trees to the ground, massive bodies tend to be attracted to one another (in a general sense) and this corresponds to an invisible and measurable potential energy. The Theory of Gravity unites these phenomena.

I didn't let him get that far.

He held up a ruler, asking us to predict what would happen if he released the ruler. Like a smartass, I shouted, "It will float." He didn't lose a beat, "Why do you predict that?" "Well Dr. Murray, if you expect us to believe the infinitesimally small probability that somehow simple amino acids, nucleic acids, and lipids could spontaneously arrange into the first simple organisms then I must accept the equally infinitesimally small (sic, I know, it was redundant) probability that the ruler will somehow float..." His response was unexpected: he didn't argue with me. He just egged me on. He let me outline everything I believed: the flawed Miller Urey design, irreducible complexity such as flagella and clotting cascades, as well as my arguments that speciation hasn't been witnessed."

Here's the kicker and what I think separates me from the truly irrational theists: I tacked on, "If I'm wrong, I'm completely open to the evidence and wouldn't mind being shown that I'm wrong." I said this honestly, because I honestly didn't think he had any good evidence. I thought I'd pegged him.

He dismissed class, and I walked out confident that I'd shown him up.

The next time I saw Dr. Murray, he greeted me with a stack of copied research papers. All of them peer reviewed. Each one directly refuting every single argument I made the previous day: papers on the evolution of the flagellum, blood clotting; papers demonstrating observed instances of speciation; papers showing the recent work in abiogenesis (along with a courteous note on the top of the stack carefully explaining that evolution applied as long as life exists. How that life came to exist is not a question that has anything to do with evolutionary theory. Likewise we don't need unified field theory to know about electromagnetism). The note also asked, politely, for me to read through these and re-consider my position.

Thankfully, my intellectual honesty persisted and I found that my previous position on evolution WAS mistaken. I admitted this in front of my classmates as well, happily.

Something remarkable happened. All of that excitement that I'd built up feeling like I was "in the know" as an Intelligent Design advocator started to come back... differently. I began to feel a different, more profound excitement. The parts that weren't slipping into place started to and I was able to at least marvel at the grandeur of the idea. I mentioned earlier how we can know some parts of quantum physics, gravitation, and electromagnetism without having a grand Unified Field Theory in physics. In biology... Evolution is this grand theory! It unifies all of biology in explaining the question of how life could be so complex and diverse. Now I could engage in research and feel like a part of the community. I imagine this is how a histologist would feel after suddenly agreeing with Cell Theory!

This draws back to my original question: How has my life changed over the years?

The answer is that it has changed not from a confirmation of my presuppositions but a willingness to accept viewpoints that explain reality more rationally (this includes being substantiated by evidence) than my previous held positions.

I try to remind myself of that every day.

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