Earlier today Erick Erickson of RedState put up a long and meandering post titled “I Believe and Am Thankful”. As you might infer from the title it elaborates Erickson’s own theological position, and his stance toward the expression of faith in the public square. Because I am an atheist I disagree with many aspects of his position, and because I am not a liberal I agree with other elements of his argument. But there was one portion of which alarmed me a great deal, because I believe it displays an epistemological superificiality which is all too common. Erickson’s first paragraph is:
Marco Rubio is getting beaten up by the press for not decisively and convincingly saying he thinks the world is billions of years old. It has become the new litmus test in the media. Believing what was believed to be literally true for a few thousand years is now nutty. Christian homeschool kids, often taught that the world is not as old as some believe and who routinely kick the rear ends of the ivy prep kids in academics, are considered stupid.
There are two components to my reaction. One is rather general and abstract, while the other is specific. I will begin with the abstract. The fact is that you would be foolish to accept what people believed for “thousands of years” in many domains of natural science. When it comes to the ancients or the moderns in science always listen to the moderns. They are not always right, but overall they are surely more right, and less prone to miss the mark. In fact, you may have to be careful about paying too much attention to science which is a generation old, so fast does the “state of the art” in terms of knowledge shift. That was part of my critique of Richard Lewontin. A great evolutionary biologist of the 1960s, today Lewontin seems far behind the times, tackling issues near and dear to the 1970s, when we live in the post-genomic era.
Science is iterative. It is sloppy, but it does progress. We know so because it is through science we send men to the moon, and it is upon science that the material foundations of our civilization rest. You shall know it by its fruits, as science becomes engineering it moves from the abstract to the concrete, from the plausible and possible to the certain. It is a vast and abstruse contingent system of models, hypotheses, theories, laws, and data strewn about. But, it is arguably the greatest intellectual achievement of modern civilization. We may see through the glass darkly, but science is the bright flare in the night, illuminating a portion of existence, making it clear, precise, and crisp.
A generation ago there arose a movement within the scholarly community of anti-science obscurantists. The phenomenon was documented in works such as Higher Superstition. Though an innovation of the Post Modern cultural Left, this skepticism of scientific positivism, the progression of knowledge, has bled over to the cultural Right. In particular, through Phillip E. Johnson a critical theory inspired movement to ‘teach the controversy‘ arose. Modern Intelligent Design is clearly genetically descended from Young Earth Creationism, but has accrued to itself traits which arose in the milieu of the anti-science Left. In particular, a focus on skeptical critique, rejection of a modernist positive view of the universe, as well explicitly political attacks on science (See Alister McGrath’s Twilight of Atheism for an elaborated argument for why the death of modernism implies the revival of religion).
Science is special because there is no ancient wisdom. The ancients were fools, by and large. I mean no disrespect, but if you wish to design a rifle by Aristotelian principles, or treat an illness via the Galenic system, you are a fool, following foolishness. Science is the true ladder to heaven, anyone who has practiced it can not be help be amazed by its miraculous powers of prediction.
Non-scientific domains are not like this. A lawyer sees in the Corpus Juris Civilis a document which is different in degree, not kind. It is not obvious to me that modern ethics has progressed appreciably in substance as opposed to taste beyond Aristotle. The Iliad is still poetic greatness, in whose shadow moderns dwell. New Age reflections generally pale in comparison to the Bhagavad Gita. Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations can speak still to us down the ages.
There are many domains of knowledge which are permanent things, but science is not one of those. Rather, science is defined by the permanence of its object of study, the external world all around us. History shifts as history accrues. And the truisms of one age of economic history are not those of the subsequent.
The fool hath said in his heart, science is an idol. And yet it is not! For true men do suborn science for their own ends, making it subservient to their perversions. But that is no reflection on science, it is a reflection on men. And that is the important insight that American conservatives need to internalize.
It is entirely true that secular liberal journalists will attempt to goad conservative politicians into expressing opinions which reveal themselves to be in thrall to rubes. But there is no evading the fact that there is a simple response: accept that science says what it says, and move on. Equivocation and evasion do no good, and the reality is that if you fight science, you will lose. Science at any given moment is wrong, but this is a game that the house always wins, and history will not be on your side. The tide rises with science, and you will not hold it back by force of will.
When it comes to many aspects of heredity and behavior I’m confident that the modern cultural Left which still pines for the “blank slate” will have their reckoning. You can put off reality only so long, and the long war against the world as it is is always one of strategic retreat. Evolutionary biology is not novel or new science, it is old as biology goes, having come into form in the 19th century. It predates genetics, and certainly predates molecular biology. It is like a theoretical scaffold on other disciplines, it may not impinge on a day to day scale, but it illuminates quirks of function or structural features which would otherwise seem capricious.
All political persuasions are a mix of norms and assumptions about the way the world is arranged. When you make false assertion about the nature of things, you will make worthless inferences. The cultural Left which denies non-trivial differences between the sexes engages in faulty social engineering, because the science is not robust. Similarly, the cultural Right which denies the biological nature of much homosexuality does a disservice to its ultimate project of fostering virtue. Note that any assumption of what is does not here necessarily entail what ought to be. But it is much easier to achieve an ought if you accurately characterize the is.
Erick Erickson in this post makes much of the fact that secular liberals are relativists, and inconsistent hypocrites. Without disputing these assertions I would suggest that Erickson’s attitude toward Young Earth Creationists, indulgent, even respectful, falls into the same trap. He pulls his punches as to whether they are wrong, shifting into the shades of gray. But the objective reality is that Young Earth Creationists are wrong, and this is science known to a high degree of certitude. Erickson and his fellow travelers have no problem asserting the rightness of their religion, and the falseness of the atheists, but when it comes to established science they become as slippery as a doyen of Science Studies. Truth becomes subjective, malleable, a casual instrument in the culture wars. Science, another superstition of old white men? Perhaps, but a true one!
Knowledge is hard. We, as individual humans are stupid. Science is sloppy and noisy. But science got us to the moon, and science gave is antibiotics. Erick Erickson can talk about the miracles of his God made flesh, but we live in the age of miracles. What tech savvy conservatives who do not speak truth to Creationism are doing is analogous to the behavior of affluent upper middle Marxist academics, who enjoy the accoutrements of bourgeoise life, while giving lip service to the revolution. By their actions you shall know what lurks in their hearts! Their mouths speak lies for the convenience of the moment.
Finally, I want to take a step back and also observe that this whole argument rests on a false historical premise: that modern conservative Protestant fundamentalism was the Christian orthodoxy for the past 2,000 years. It is not. It was not. True, there has always been a strain of Christianity which was naively literalist, but for most of the history of the religion the fixation on the Bible as science manual would have seemed somewhat strange, in part because science did not truly exist. Modern Protestant fundamentalism is intuitively coherent, and we see its forebears during the Reformation. Interestingly, Catholic apologists immediately pointed to the inconsistent nature of portions of the Bible as one argument against the Protestant claim for sola scriptura.* But this is a new argument, not an old one, and the battle between science and religion in this case is a clash of two moderns, not a modern an ancient.
So here we are. Modern American conservatism must bend a knee to a manifestly false model of the world, because of a manifestly false perception of the history of the Western tradition. Where can it lead us? One thing that it leads us to is that we have to have this discussion every four years, as secular liberal journalists know very well that many elite conservatives do not agree with the grassroots on matters of fact when it comes to evolution. It is a useful wedge. There is a simple way to put this to bed: be unapologetic about what the facts of science are, and do not equivocate to the base. They have nowhere else to go, and the reality is that evolution is a far less pressing matter than tax rates or abortion in any case. Many elements of the Democratic base accept without too much grumbling the social liberalism of the party’s political elite. Could it be that much more difficult for conservative grassroots to accept that the conservative elite accepts modern science?
* I do not mean to imply here that pre-modern Christians were all believers in the old earth. Rather, I mean to suggest that the modern discussion about Biblical conflicts with science makes little sense before 1800, because serious Christians thinkers did not imagine the debate in these terms at all.