Kansas

When I was told that Kansas had banned the teaching of evolution, I figured that the next step could be a revived crusade against Godless heliocentrism. After all, the Bible clearly speaks of the Sun being made to stand still in the sky. Besides, we now have the tools for Scientific Geocentrism: With today's computers, we can keep calculating epicycles forever!

Of course, Kansas didn't really ban evolution; it merely downgraded it to the level of lesser knowledge Not Required on the Exam, which is bad enough. Evolution is a scientific theory, perhaps not quite as well demonstrated as heliocentrism, but solidly established, in an area where there is no Absolute Truth. It should be taught as a science.

Which also means that evolution should not be taught as demonstrating the handiwork of Just Happened. Evolution provides a mechanism to explain the existence of the current forms of life on Earth without indicating crude and obvious interferences from outside, which is not the same thing as disproving the existence of God.

For instance, evolution does not exclude a Designer who created a world that ran well enough by itself; the business schools tell us that one who designs well enough needn't micromanage. It does not leave out a Designer who influences us in other ways. It merely disproves one particular theistic model, one that I'm not terribly fond of.

(One approach I find completely unacceptable is the idea that God created fossils and such for the sole purpose of tricking those who think for themselves instead of following orders. At least two highly intelligent gentlemen of the cloth share this distaste: Randy Smith and the late Northrop Frye. I consider that sort of thing, like torturing people eternally for doing things One has designed them to want to do, conduct unbecoming a deity. On the other hand, I've also encountered the image of a young-earth Creator adding fossils as an artistic touch, and while I don't believe it-there is a slippery slope to a world created five minutes ago, in which we were all given false memories-I don't find it offensive.)

I used to hear that the Universe is so well designed that Someone must have done it; now I hear that it's so well designed that No One must have done it. Neither convinces me. I come from the kind of background that disdains showing off-"He didn't have to say he did it because he really did," rather than "It ain't bragging if it's true"-and so I expect a Creator not to be ostentatious about claiming credit for Her work. (Perhaps the subtler approach suggested by Peter De Vries: "God, like Alfred Hitchcock, vouchsafes us only glimpses of Himself.")

I interpret Ockham's Razor as a constructivist tool saying, not that the world is necessarily simple, but that we should use a model of the universe that postulates only as many entities as we need to explain the current knowledge. More information may require more entities. (As Tom Digby said, sometimes we need Ockham's Hair & Beard Restorer. One could describe the more extreme empiricists as Ockham Skinheads.) The simpler theory need not be in any way truer. This comes up in the argument that evolution, if true, shows that God doesn't exist because we can explain the world without Him. No, it merely shows that God is not required as an explanatory hypothesis for that particular body of data.

(One factor that encourages support for the Godless approach to evolution is the sort of people who oppose it. The current dogma is "intelligent design," two words that are being paid a lot to mean the idea that the Universe was demonstrably made by Something that fundamentalists can understand.)

I've seen the supposed proofs and disproofs of God, and I accept neither. Someone said that believing in God is less like proving a theorem than like being in love, and that makes sense to me. To me the world feels more like something made than like something that just happened-though perhaps something made by a committee or a conspiracy or a collection of squabbling interests, rather than One Big God. I could be mistaken about all of this.

The Amazing Randi had some comments on the Kansas mess, most of them quite reasonable. For instance, he pointed out that it makes no sense to say that this was a defeat for the theory of evolution. It is a defeat for the people of Kansas, but the theory of evolution is not the sort of thing that can feel sad because it is insufficiently accepted. (An admirer once commiserated with novelist James M. Cain about how Hollywood had "ruined" his books. Cain pointed to his shelves and said, "No, they're still there." The theory of evolution is similarly invulnerable.) But Randi went on to a moralistic rant about how the Kansas decision is an evil effort to deny knowledge, and the responsibility that goes with it. Let's not call that fire-and-brimstone rhetoric; let's sound scientific and up-to-date and call it fire-and-sulfur.

I'm willing to stipulate that a religion, by definition, has to be about one or more Gods; if the Buddhists want to be included, they can argue it, but I will not apply to Marxists, Freudians, and scientific materialists a term they find so offensive.

So what do you call something that has no Gods, but fanatic believers, conversion experiences that sound like Saul on the road to Damascus, and a rhetoric about their own forms of sin every bit as intolerant as a Bible-belt ayatollah condemning fornication? (And of course, like the religions, these views also have intelligent, civilized believers who take them as the best available explanation, but are willing to listen to others, or at least to refrain from trying to suppress others.) Maybe they're the unreligions.

The materialist unreligion tells us that matter somehow mindlessly generates consciousness all by itself when it becomes complex enough. What seems to be an entity called mind is actually nothing but a series of thoughts produced by a process essentially no different from the one that produces methane at the other end. That is not the sort of thing that is subject to proof or disproof, but when I look into my mind, I don't see something that was produced that way. I have no idea what I could say to those who look into their own consciousness and don't find minds. Maybe they're right. [1998]


I will not accept an overt or covert axiom that mind has to be explained in terms of matter, as Douglas Dennett apparently believes. He asks, "Why should mind be unexplained?" Well, something has to be. (The only alternative is to accept circular explanations.) If Dennett & Co. can explain everything about mind in terms of matter, I will concede, but contrary to what they seem to be saying, what we have thus far is still a long way from that, at least as far as we are from that nanotechnology indistinguishable from magick that has become a staple of cyberpunk. I would of course encourage the believers in the materialist reduction to continue their studies, as these lead to useful knowledge. It's like feeling around for the G spot: Even if you don't find it, you haven't wasted your time.

David Chalmers has some interesting arguments on this question. As he points out, the materialist reduction would have to make every first-person statement in principle translatable into third-person observations.

And to me, mind is the good part. (Not morally good, of course; to say that matter is evil is a category mistake, a flatus vocis. It may be just that I find the mind interesting and the body boring.)

Of course, it could be argued that I find it comforting to believe that matter is not all there is, that I need not be annihilated when my body is. My favorite counterargument to using psychological arguments to disprove beliefs is from Gina Cerminara, who like Robert Anton Wilson combines General Semantics with a refusal to accept the materialistic paradigm as universally true. She pointed out that if Freudians had been around in 1492, they could have discredited Columbus's views by pointing out that he was obviously in Oedipal rebellion against the father figures who said that the world is flat, so he tried to substitute a picture where it's round, like his mother's breast. [2001]