Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Science, Religion, and Bureaucracy

In the really old days, science, government, and religion were one. The extra-smart people - the ones who figured out how to make predictions by observing patterns in things like the stars, the seasons, and the migrations - were the priests. Their predictions were a magical power, and they were duly feared, respected and obeyed. They knew that they derived their power from something greater, and they themselves feared and respected the stars, the seasons, and all the rest. If the rains didn't come on time, or the sun darkened in day, or some other thing went terribly wrong with their predictions, they (in all humility) attributed it to the dissatisfaction of their gods. This tended to be bad for the local virgins. (Have you ever noticed that non-cannibalistic ritual human sacrifice seems to be associated almost exclusively with calendar-obsessed cultures? Coincidence?)

Things took a somewhat different turn in Asia, but in the development of "Western" culture:

The Egyptians took a long look at nature and decided that the Gods must have some issues of their own, having nothing to do with human affairs. This essential insight enabled them to invent government as somewhat distinct from religion, though the pharohs were still pretty heavenly. The priests, of course, were still the scientists, engineers, and architects.

The Greeks morphed the pantheon into a veritable sitcom of human foibles, which (in my opinion) is what freed them to develop the first society that divided government, religion, and science into more-or-less separate categories of study and practice. The Romans, of course, extracted what was useful for the expansion of power from the Greek experience, but let's not talk about the Romans, shall we? It makes me nervous, things being things.


In the Golden Age of Islam, we see selected torches of both the ancient Greeks and the Romans taken up by a modern monotheistic religion. Science, religion, and government were again driven closely together, but now in the service of a much different type of God. Their Allah was the reason for all things, but He was not really the type to screw around arbitrarily with the laws of nature on a whim. He made the world as it is, and he gave mankind the senses and the wit to live here, within His creation. To understand it, to create good things in it, to prosper, were acts of worship. The Chinese may have invented spaghetti and gunpowder, but Muslims invented modern mathematics and, some say, the Scientific Method. Lest you think I'm a terrorist, let's mention that they were also great imperialist conquerors, and very far from egalitarian or democratic. The Alhambra was not built as a Community Center, you know.

Meanwhile, European Christianity was forming itself from the local clay of Druids, Goths, Franks, Celts, and other assorted undesirables. I think there was some squabbling involved.

Pretty soon, you had Dark Ages and lots of Crusades, and that's about where we are now.

Oh, yeah, I skipped the Renaissance, and the Enlightenment, and some World Wars and Empires and other stuff, but as Alfred North Whitehead (or somebody like that) said, 'to recross is not to have crossed'. If we haven't recrossed yet, we're certainly steaming hard in that direction.


What brings me (back, yet again, today) to this conclusion (again today) is President Bush's latest endorsement of Government teaching Religion as Science. He wants schools to teach 'Intelligent Design' as a serious alternative to evolution. In science classes.

If you've stayed with me this far, you probably don't need any instruction on why this is a Bad Idea, and you probably already know why it's just outrageously stupid, to boot. Still, let's review:

First, what is Science?

This is the first of many rocky shoals of language and thought on which The President has foundered. He's probably thinking of something like 'Christian Science' or 'Bachelor of Science' or (at best) 'the Science of Baseball'. He may have missed class that day when they talked about observing, explaining, predicting and testing empirical data. Intelligent Design basically says "I don't understand how (x) could possibly be so", or (in the vernacular) "no fuckin' way, man". Sorry, that's not Science.

Second, what is a theory?

D'oh! Another rocky rock. In the jargon of Science, a 'theory' is an explanation for empirical observations that has been validated by experimental tests. You will often hear the term 'scientific fact' bandied about in loose conversation, but seldom (if ever) among scientists. It's a (non-scientific) fact that nearly nothing in science is agreed to as 'fact'. To be called 'theory', an explanation of a natural phenomenon has a very high threshold to meet. It must be susceptible to testing, and it must have survived at least some test that meets agreed, logical standards. Intelligent Design doesn't begin to make the grade as a 'theory'.

Okay, how about a hypothesis?

A hypothesis is an explanation for an observation in nature that has not been tested. Unfortunately for Intelligent Design, you must be able to base a prediction on a hypothesis, and the prediction must be able to be tested by observation. "Magic guy did it in wondrous ways" is not a hypothesis, either. Strike three.

Science doesn't address religion. Religion has nothing to offer science. "Life was created by a higher intelligence" may be a true statement, but it is not a hypothesis, and it sure ain't a theory. It doesn't predict anything, it can't be tested, and it can't ever be part of Science.

Teach it in Sunday School. The Constitution protects your right to do so. It also protects my kids from you and your preacher forcing your (sincere, heart-felt, and all sorts of wonderful I'm sure) BELIEFS on them in the guise of education.


There is another long part to this screed that ties the historical part back to the current events and makes a big eloquent point out of all this, but I'm tired and discouraged, and it's all just happening the way it happens anyway, so I'm done for now.

Cheez, people who thought sticking leeches on sick people was a Good Thing could figure this stuff out, but we're too damn stupid. I'm going to bed.

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