Evolving Thoughts

Evolution, culture, philosophy and chocolate! John Wilkins' continuing struggle to come to terms with impermanence... "Humanus sum, nihil humanum a me alienum puto" - Terence

Monday, January 10, 2005

Is Creationism a postmodernism?

John Wendt asks if creationism is a postmodernism. This is not an easy question to answer in part because the nature of postmodernisms is to evade definition. But creationism is definitely an anti-modernism - it fears the modern world. As such it is in the same intellectual class as the Taliban form of Islam, Luddism, and any view of the world that rejects change qua change.

However, what is "modernism"? It was, so far as I can see, never more than, an architectural or esthetic style. Sure, modernist style spilled out into the arts, urban design, and so forth, and was founded on a naive progressivism, but it was not a full philosophical statement of the modern world or of science. Postmodernism began, I suppose, on the assumption that buildings and styles need to be livable. It very quickly became, to my eyes, a sheltered workshop for intellectuals who did not want to engage science.

What is postmodernism that we must discuss it? Is it anything that quotes Derrida? Can we quote Foucault? I have a lot of time for Foucault, at least his early stuff like The Order of Things - but the problem with postmodern style is not the interminable terminology, making it so hard to see what the point is and so easy to parody as Alan Sokal did. The problem is one of validation.

Back when I was a theology student, I studied existentialism in some detail, a philosophical precursor to postmodernism. I recall thinking then that existentialism was like painting trees. Some painted austere oaks, like Nietzsche. Some painted baroque forests, like Kierkegaard. Some painted dead trees and called them noble, like Sartre. Some had birds, some had vultures and some were empty of life or leaves.

Each of them was a work of art. But I was left unable to decide, on the basis of what they painted, if I could find shade underneath these trees, or better, climb them to see where I was. In fact, I was not sure if those trees or anything remotely like them existed.

The purpose of art, I suppose, is not to paint things as they are, but as they ought to be, esthetically. But the purpose of philosophy is to show things as they are and suggest a way to deal with them. So I very early on turned to analytic philosophy, as a way to test the often outlandish claims made by that style of philosophical art.

Of course, for a long time analytic philosophy was the analysis of ordinary language and concepts, as if refining confusion and folk science would lead us anywhere. So I turned rapidly to the analysis of science, which at least had the virtue of actually testing claims about trees. Hence my shift to the philosophy of science, and in particular of biology.

And that brings us back, full circle, to creationism. They fear the modern because the modern is not what they automatically believe. It takes work to learn the modern, and effort to divest oneself of the naive epistemology of our heritage as apes. We did not evolve to apprehend reality; we evolved to apprehend our fellows and that much of reality we needed to deal with to live. So challenges to our basic human nature (yes, Virginia, there is a human nature, of sorts) elicit a savage reaction from some.

And it is not that they are savage because they are dumb, or because they are reacting to social Darwinism or whatever. They react to the difference between what we naively believe and what science has developed. Some proportion of any human population will fear that change, just as a matter of statistical distributions of traits.

This leads to an interesting conclusion - science is a way of overcoming our primate biases and limitations. How can it do this, if it is run by primate brains? Darwin wondered this about the existence of God - could a modified monkey brain draw sensible conclusions? Can it about anything?

The point is that science is more than modified monkey brains. It is more like a distributed computing system that uses a portion of the connected nodes' capacity for its own tasks, and which delivers an output far greater than any single node is capable of producing. While humans are scientists, nodes in the scientific process, the process itself is not encompassed by a single individual, nor is it irrevocably biased by the biases of its nodes. Science exceeds individuals.

Creationists, and anti-science advocates of any kind, fail to appreciate this. To them, science is some corpus of beliefs that an individual has to accept, the way one has to accept the tenets of capitalism or the religion of humanism or whatever is their bĂȘte noir. They do not see that one can be a node in the scientific enterprise even if they do not share any beliefs with their fellows, so long as they treat evidence and inference the same way. One cannot do theology unless one accepts the core beliefs of that discipline. One can do science no matter what one believes.

So the paintings of science are done with a camera obscura, which, despite its name, fairly represents the trees one is sketching and limits the biases of the painter. And moreover it can be corrected later, if mistakes are made. In postmodern and anti-modern philosophies, it is not even possible to make a mistake. There's just the painting...

Some links on postmodernism: