Science vs. Religion:.A casual disregard for facts

Written by John S. Wilkins

A little while back I linked to Sahotra Sarkar’s review of Steve Fuller’s Science versus Religion. Now Fuller has put up a defence at the Intelligent Design website, Uncommon Descent, under the gerrymandered image of a bacterial flagellum (if you want to know what a real flagellum would look like at that scale, see this).

While I haven’t yet read the book (I’ll be reviewing it for Metascience), a couple of points that Fuller’s post make clear:

1. He has a really casual dismissal of factual accuracy so long as the “spirit” is right

2. This explains why he’s allied himself with ID.

Intelligent design is (as the link above showed) very cavalier with details and facts. The “impression” of design is reason enough to ride roughsod over the details. In fact, as the flagellum indicates, mostly their argument is argument ab cartoon – if you squint hard, then it looks like a machine. Imagine a physicist doing that and coming up with a cartoon physics!

Fuller derides Sarkar for caring about factual claims in detail, when the point is that… what? That you can make history say anything you like if you ignore historical data? Here is his defence of a few claims:

Let me take the following two criticisms together:

“Logical positivists, and not just Popper, are supposed to have labeled Darwinism a “metaphysical research program” (p. 133). I am not aware of a single logical positivist (or logical empiricist) text that supports this claim. Given that for the logical positivists (in contrast to Popper) “metaphysical” was a term of opprobrium, it is unlikely that any of them would have embraced this formulation. The logical positivists may well have believed physics to be of more fundamental importance than biology, but the latter science nevertheless belonged to the pantheon. The foundations of biology were intended to be part of their Encyclopedia of Unified Science.”

“Around the same time, Lamarck is supposed to have held that “lower organisms literally strove to become higher organisms, specifically humans, who at some point in the future would be Earth’s sole denizens” (p. 146), a view to be found nowhere in the Lamarckian corpus.”

These criticisms illustrate what I have called the ‘New Yorker magazine view of the world’ that afflicts some analytic philosophers. (I originally made this claim against a philosopher who actually began his career as an editor. Oops!) It basically reduces the history and philosophy of science to checking for facts and grammar, respectively. However, as so often is the case when dealing with editors, the fact-checker goes astray when he decides to venture opinions of his own. So even if it is strictly true that only Popper called Darwinism a ‘metaphysical research programme’ and the official logical positivist line was anti-metaphysical, it is equally true that the positivists themselves did metaphysics in everything but name (e.g. Carnap’s Aufbau), not least in the IEUS volume on biology that attempted to lay down the discipline’s axiomatic foundations. Perhaps it comes as no surprise that Popper wrote the obituary for its author, Joseph Woodger, in the British Journal for the Philosophy of Science in 1981.

On the point concerning the ‘Lamarckian corpus’, again I am happy to concede that the man himself never explicitly stated the thesis I attributed to him. As it turns out, the passage Sarkar quotes refers to Lamarck and Comte together as representatives of a pro-human line of evolutionary progress that was opposed to the more ecocentric line taken by Darwinists attempting to influence British sociology in its early years. Whatever Lamarck’s actual views on the ultimate fate of humanity (which are up for debate), it is clear that the Lamarckian tradition has been generally committed to what the historian Charles Gillispie called an ‘escalator of being’ on which all creatures were moving, with humans currently on the top floor. A clear expression of the view I attributed to Lamarck can be found in his most visionary 20th century follower, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, who envisaged the Earth as someday becoming one ‘hominised substance’.

Now anyone who has studied logical positivism and Popper knows well that Popper resiled from the LPs’ claims to be metaphysics free. They held that metaphysics was something one ought not to do, in favour of positive knowledge. They held the famous Verification Principle, which Popper among others used as a reductio of the LP program. To say that they “were” doing metaphysics is to fundamentally mischaracterise what was going on. They claimed not to be. It was the critics, including Popper, who said they were. And so when Popper called Darwinian evolution a metaphysical research program, he clearly did not intend that as a criticism, even before his retraction. The positivists thought that was a criticism, but they didn’t make it. Post hoc assertions that they were one and the same is to completely mischaracterise what was going on then.

Fuller is well read. He should and probably does know this, so only two other interpretations are possible: carelessness, which undercuts the veracity of the argument, or mendacity, which also does. I like to think that Fuller is being careless rather than trying to deliberately mislead. But if that is his approach to the history of ideas, then I think there is a problem, Houston. Of course Popper wrote Woodger’s obit – that’s what victors do if they can. It doesn’t mean they get amalgamated with their former opponents. To say otherwise is to completely misunderstand the nature of dialectic.

Likewise the point about Lamarck. Lamarck, in what I have read (hey, the Zoological Philosophy is online in French and English; check for yourself) held that there was an impetus driving evolution “upwards” (a physical impetus, by the way – since Vance Alpheus Packard’s 1901 work, we have known that Lamarck did not mean “will” by “besoin”) but that individual lineages could not enter a filled “rung” on that ladder. And so far as I know, he never said anythign even remotely like that view that only humans would remain. Appealing to what others might have thought after Lamarck is in no way a justification of that very bad claim. And even Teilhard did not think there would be nothing but the Omega Point, merely that humanity would become one at that point in a kind of cosmic salvation.

This disregard for facts, so far from being a corrective to the “New Yorker” approach, is merely a Marvel Comics form of philosophy and history, and it’s the only kind that can support ID. I think the less of Fuller just for this one claim. I can only imagine what the full work will lead me to think of him.

Packard, Alpheus. 1901. Lamarck, the founder of evolution: His life and work. New York: Longmans, Green and Co.

8 thoughts on “Science vs. Religion:.A casual disregard for facts

  1. good

    Amazing post, the entire ID movement is probably one of the biggest potholes in progress of our lifetime.

  2. John

    I preferred this article when it was posted on my own website. It should have stayed that way. I expect that it will return to being that way in the near future… if you understand what I’m getting at.

  3. Jed

    Why do people fail to realise that both Intelligent Design and Evolution are unproveable theories at their base? Both sides of the argument look at the same facts with different expectations, and therfore diferent and contradicting conclusions are drawn.


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  5. Ted

    Science is based on facts. Christianity is based on truth. Facts can and will change. Truth does not.

  6. Aor

    Ted, all religions are based on fantasy. Christianity, like all other religions, backs off when it makes a claim that disagrees with science. It might take generations, but there it is in a nutshell. Facts beat fantasy, eventually.

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