Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Rav Moshe Tendler's lecture on Science and Halacha

Rav Moshe Tendler spoke last week in Har Nof on the topic of science and halacha.  You can download the shiur here.

I hope to review the shiur and provide a useful outline.  He addresses issues such as secular education and knowledge, Rav Moshe Feinstein's (his father-in-law) approach to medical issues, the question of the hyrax chewing its cud, dealing with new scientific information.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

I despise intelligent design - here's why


Recent personal inquiries and investigations into the interactions of science and religion have lead me to the area of “Intelligent Design” (ID).  In particular, incidental information came to me that a mentor of mine recently featured a showing of Ben Stein’s movie documentary “Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed” as part of a short symposium on bias in the academic world.  I asked him why he decided to do this and he explained that while the film is indeed propaganda, it presents points that are denied in the academic arena such as:
  1. ID is a valid area of science
  2. ID is not creationism
  3. The academic world is unfairly persecuting advocates of ID
  4. The theory of evolution (a.k.a. “Darwinism”) is or leads to immorality such as eugenics which in turn is associated with Nazi genocide.  
In addition, the mentor referred my to writings of journalist Melanie Phillips as a reliable and cogent advocate of ID, and in particular her recent title “The World Turned Upside Down.” While I don’t have access to her book at the moment, I have taken the opportunity to read her relevant essays available online on the subject including “Arrogance, dogma and why science - not faith - is the new enemy of reason” and “Creating an insult to intelligence”. Her positions seem to dove tail with those advocated in Expelled.  

Here I present my view points, which mostly but not entirely constitute rebuttal.  First off, even as pro-ID propaganda. Ben Stein’s movie stretches the bounds of credibility. Refer to expelledexposed.com published by the National Center for Science Education (NCSE) and relevant articles published by Scientific American for full details on the film’s misrepresentations and distortions, which I will not delve into here.  Philips likewise lacks credibility. She casually states personal opinion as fact while providing neither reason nor rebuttal to conflicting facts and opinion.  

For example, consider her statement:
[Professor Kenneth Miller said] that Intelligent Design was nothing more than an attempt to repackage good old-fashioned Creationism and make it more palatable. But this is totally untrue. Miller referred to a landmark US court case in 2005, Kitzmiller v Dover Area School District, which did indeed uphold the argument that Intelligent Design was a form of Creationism in its ruling that teaching Intelligent Design violated the constitutional ban against teaching religion in public schools. But the court was simply wrong, doubtless because it had heard muddled testimony from the likes of Prof Miller. (see Arrogance, dogma and why science - not faith - is the new enemy of reason)

Professor Miller of Brown University is a prominent expert in biology and evolution theory.  He is both erudite and skilled at the art of public speaking, with a noted talent of communicating effectively to the non-erudite such as myself.  Indeed, this is why he was selected by the prosecution to present expert testimony in the trial noted above.  The trial went on to hear over 14 days of testimony of witnesses for both sides.  It was tried by conservative judge John E. Jones III, who was appointed by President George W. Bush.  Judge Jones submitted a 139 page decision that concluded among other things that “The overwhelming evidence at trial established that ID is a religious view, a mere re-labeling of creationism, and not a scientific theory.” ( see Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District, page 43 of decision) 

Readers can research the article via the wikipedea article. Also recommended are the documentary by Nova and Professor Miller’s full lecture on ID. Ms. Phillips goes on in the same article to accuse ID opponents of intellectual laziness and ignorance.  She neglects to pen one word in support of her accusations of muddled expert testimony or judicial bungling.  Enough said about her lack of credibility.

Key Issues

For our purposes here, I suggest this definition of science:
knowledge or a system of knowledge covering general truths or the operation of general laws especially as obtained and tested through scientific method (Merriam-Webster online dictionary definition 3a.)
and this defintion of ID:
The theory of intelligent design holds that certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause, not an undirected process such as natural selection.(Discovery Institute)

Points 1, 2, and 3 cited above are all inter-related.  That is, if ID is indeed legitimate science, then it follows that it is not creationism and likewise scientists should be granted freedom of inquiry into this arena.  The contention that ID is not a scientific theory quite simply because it fails to meet the objective criteria therein
1. ID is a valid area of science
ID is neither knowledge, nor a system of knowledge. It proposes no laws.  It makes no testable predictions.  It is not disprovable.  Therefore it is not science.  Rather, ID is the antithesis of science.  ID aspires to prove that human beings cannot and will not fully understand biology through materialistic means.  Perhaps this is correct!  Indeed perhaps this is correct about physics and chemistry as well as biology.  It is also quite simply irrelevant.  
2. ID is not creationism
Certainly one can argue that ID and creationism are not identical.  The Amish and Mennonites are also not identical.  The relevant question is are they significantly different.  Considering that ID is not science, why do some scientists and laymen passionately advocate it?  I suggest that the answer is obvious and again, this is supported clearly by the findings of the Kitzmiller vs. Dover case.  
3. The academic world is unfairly persecuting advocates of ID
The movie “expelled” presents the stories of several scientists that advocated ID and suffered adverse consequences for their advocacy.  The NCSE site spills much “ink” to counter these accusations.  Review the evidence presented and judge for yourself.  Personally, I have different approach and that is to suggest that it is entirely appropriate to demote or otherwise discourage scientists that advocae ID because, again, ID is not science.  Pursuing non-science can only detract them from their proper mission, which is to observe and explain the world around us via materialistic processes. Those that involve themselves in non-science are likely to lack the skills and or determination to make worthy contributions to their field of study.
4. The theory of evolution (a.k.a. “Darwinism”) is or leads to immorality such as eugenics which in turn is associated with genocide.  
Stein quotes from Darwin’s The Descent of Man to suggest an immoral advocacy of artificial selection of strong humans over weak in order to improve the species in a similar way that farmers breed domestic animals. The leap to Nazism is explicitly suggested. Perhaps, this is the crux of “expelled” and ID advocacy.  If this is true, then little else matters. If evolution is simply evil then we thereby have a moral obligation to discredit it.  If ID serves this purpose, then it is thereby good and worthy.  

Critics of the movie present evidence to debunk the accusation by demonstrating that Stein maliciously edited the text by omitting full and partial sentences that indicate a kinder gentler advocacy. I again have a different approach in responding to this most disparaging condemnation.   I speculate that many influences were significant in the development of Nazism. It is reasonable to suggest that Darwin’s ideas were indeed one of these.  Also give due “credit” to the horridly violent anti-semitic writings of Martin Luther, including this tidbit “First to set fire to their synagogues or schools and to bury and cover with dirt whatever will not burn, so that no man will ever again see a stone or cinder of them.”#  

The point is that evolution by natural selection is a theory of biological science.  As such, it is properly to be regarded as neither moral nor immoral, but rather amoral.  People are properly to strive for morality, justness, goodness, Godliness.  Nazis were evil.  It is a mistake to blame the scientific endeavor for this.  All science and technology have potential to kindness or cruelty.  

Over the past century, the scientific endeavor has developed at a pace that defies imagination. The awesome powers that mankind continues to unleash and multiply are accompanied by responsibility in equal measure.  Where shall we look to for morality?  Prominent biologist and aspiring philosopher Richard Dawkins is considered by many to be the “high priest” of atheism of our generation.  He suggests that God and religion are irrelevant or worse to society’s well being.  This is a challenge that demands a strong response. The professor’s error is that he recklessly morphs from biology to philosophy and even theology.  As a biology expert, he has full license to expound on the evidence for common ancestry of life on our planet and evolution theory.  He conflates biology with theology, however, and the responsibility falls on the shoulders of the theologians to dissuade the public of this mistake.  If we reject biology in favor of a pseudo-scientific alternative, then we essentially concede Dawkins’ argument and admit defeat. We concede rationalism as the sole domain of the anti-religious.  If we the religious reject science and thereby rationalism, then we tragically confirm Professor Dawkin’s hypothesis.  That is precisely what advocacy of ID is.  This is why I despise ID.