Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Ayala: Always Worth Listening To

Templeton Prize winner Francisco Ayala is featured on a recent Reason.tv video, briefly discussing the relationship between science and "religion." It's more than worth the less than ten minutes it takes to view.

And it's more than worth it for us, after expressing our debt to minds like Ayala's, to note a significant disagreement. We think it's utterly silly to avoid discussion of "intelligent design" or "creationism" in the science classroom, as if doing so would protect students from time lost learning science or somehow degrade both science and religion.

Of course, this is really all about the public high school classroom in the United States, a point to be kept in mind as it constrains what can be done on any front, thanks to the developmental readiness of teenagers to think critically.

But here, in bullet-point nutshells, is why we think Ayala is wrong on this:
  • Students are thinking about these issues whether we talk about them or not, if "thinking" is the right term to use for mid-adolescents.
  • Integration across disciplines ought to be the aim of all learning at all levels and is expected, it seems, except on this one matter (we're sure politics gets discussed whenever ecological matters are in the syllabus).
  • It's unhelpful to compare discussion of intelligent design in the science classroom to discussion of alchemy in the chemistry classroom, inasmuch as there's a serious question at the heart of intelligent design thinking that ought to be addressed. But hey, a chemistry student ought to know something about approaches akin to chemistry that aren't scientific, right? Every science class we know that's worthy of the designation discusses the history of the discipline and so discusses the pre- and para-scientific approaches that are at least tangential to the science.
  • Ultimately, the issues of science and religion are not pre- or para-scientific but, to use Plantinga's helpful term, meta-scientific. That is, they are the questions of meaning that a thoughtful human asks after doing the science, like Who am I? Where did I come from? and What does it all mean anyway? No one is helped by avoiding such discussions simply because they are by definition unscientific.
We insist that such a classroom approach would require serious training for teachers, the kind of training many would be loath to undergo because they prefer avoiding the questions themselves. But pish-posh to that: we're striving for something better.


JB in CA said...

I agree completely with your bullet points. Here are some additional thoughts on them:

1. Students are already thinking about the religion/science issues, and one of the things they're thinking is that someone is trying to pull the wool over their eyes by disallowing discussions of those issues in the science classroom.

2. We do integrate subjects everywhere else in the curriculum, yet religion is inevitably treated differently. I thought that maybe we had begun to mature beyond such nonsense when my college announced that we would have a "Year of Science and Religion" to explore the relationship between the two disciplines. But surprise, surprise. It was decided by those in charge that a directive/warning should be issued before every talk/discussion to the effect that no attempts at proselytizing would be tolerated. Well, that seemed okay at first, but I soon found out that what it really meant was that the speakers could argue that science either does or does not disprove the existence God but not that it proves the existence of God. Hence, the theists would not be allowed to proselytize, but the atheists and agnostics would.

3. Not only is it unhelpful for Ayala to compare intelligent design (ID) in the biology classroom to alchemy in the chemistry classroom, it begs the question against ID. It simply assumes that ID is no more rationally acceptable than alchemy—the very question at issue in the debate over whether ID should be taught in the classroom.

4. No one in the pursuit of truth is helped by avoiding these questions, but many in the pursuit of silencing the opposition are.

I suppose it's a good thing to have a distinguished scientist like Ayala claiming that religion and science are compatible, but I've never been impressed by his explanation as to how that compatibility is supposed to work. Basically, he's repeating Stephen J. Gould's claim that science and religion represent mutually exclusive realms. Science deals with fact, religion with value. But Ayala should know better. That God created the physical universe is a basic teaching of his Catholic faith. It would be hard to find a more obvious non-evaluative religious claim than that. And what about the theories of evolutionary psychologists and other cognitive scientists that attempt to explain morality as a set of emotional adaptations to one's environment? I see no fact/value dichotomy there. What they're proposing (among other things) is a scientific explanation as to what is good (those ends that are emotionally appealing) and what is evil (those ends that are emotionally repulsive). Ayala's view may be convenient for those scientists who would prefer not to be bothered with religion or those theologians who would prefer not to be bothered with science, but for anyone who takes the claims of religion and science seriously, it should be a non-starter.

Jon A. Alfred E. Michael J. Wile E. SWNID said...

We completely agree with your numbered points and all that follows.

On the way Ayala echoes Gould, we think we'd be much happier if instead of talking about science and religion as having different subjects, folks talked about their having boundaries that must be respected. So for biblical faith, the boundaries of what the text actually means must be respected, as the text is not pressed to answer questions that it doesn't address. Likewise, science can't comment on God, so folks shouldn't talk as if it does.

Christine said...

"if 'thinking' is the right term to use for mid-adolescents"

Only in the loosest sense.