Different assumptions, goals lead to different conclusions

November 06, 2009|By ALLAN POWELL

It would be counterproductive to respond to every criticism of my columns. Those made by Dennis Whitmore, pastor of Hilltop Christian Fellowship in Clear Spring, however, were focused and substantial enough to warrant a response.

Whitmore's letter to the editor ("Does Powell know where life goes?" Friday, Sept. 4, page A4) raises several objections to columns I have written on matters of faith and science.

The "frequent challenges and criticisms of the Christian faith" were actually more directed to a particular segment of that faith identified as "fundamentalists." They rejoice in their biblical literalism, emotive sensationalism and disdain for reason and science. Because of this, I have regarded this movement as harmful because they cultivate a climate of anti-intellectualism in our society.

These criticisms do not apply to mainline denominations because they admit to some role for the use of reason, a respect for science and the recognition that we are a pluralistic society.


Whitmore ponders as to why I would feel the need to prove that Darwin was not a Christian. There was no need because the focus of my thought was to call attention to the shameless use of false death-bed stories as a means to get converts. A corollary of this idea is that no religion that scares a person into their faith should be proud of such a paltry way to get members.

Whitmore is uneasy about the rejection of intelligent design. It should be noted that the objections were usually associated with the attempts to force this theology into science classes - thus violating the First Amendment. This very popular idea is also a flawed one. It is an old idea that amounts to creationism dressed up in a tuxedo.

Intelligent design is a simple case of selective evidence. It only works because those who believe it ignore all of the obvious proofs to the contrary. Any object in nature that has a modicum of intricacy they insist is evidence of a designer. To a person, they then ignore the mountains of counter evidence that show a lack of design or even pernicious design. Our hospitals are literally filled with cases of failed organs, diseases and viruses that no intelligent (and also good) designer would permit to exist.

Whitmore is very troubled about the respect scientists have for Darwin's idea of natural selection. Where did we get the virtue of compassion in a world dominated by the strong? In fact, the evolutionary process has resulted in the emergence of intelligence of a very high order, the capacity for compassion and empathy, a moral sensitivity and a love of artistic creation.

Those who are opposed to evolutionary theory downplay all of these beneficial traits and are obsessed by the thought that this "makes us nothing but an animal." This "nothing but an animal" slur has been exploded by one of the very early (but great) writers of science - George Gaylord Simpson. In "The Meaning of Evolution," he writes, "To say that man is nothing but an animal is to deny by implication that he has essential attributes other than those of all animals." He then asserts that "He is also a fundamentally new sort of animal."

One more point worthy of mention is Whitmore's incorrect charge that "... Powell is so certain of the origin of life." Darwin does not write about the origin of life - rather, he writes about the origin of species. This, then, is what I also write about. As to the origin of life, I am most uncertain and can only offer a suggestion.

Speculation and an awareness of what we already know can at least offer a highly probable direction. Since the path of evolution leads from simple to more complex organisms, it follows that if we reversed the process and worked backward from the complex to the simplest organisms, we would, in all probability, at some point discover a protein molecule capable of exhibiting the most elementary signs of life.

In the end, the fundamental difference between Whitmore and this writer has to do with basic assumptions and goals. One of these assumptions is how you go about getting reliable knowledge. The method of revelation and faith leads primarily to endless disputes and sects - each with their claims of infallible truth.

Science, grounded on observation, experimentation and verification, is much more methodical, painstaking and open to the correction of errors. Reason and experience becomes the basis of knowledge. As a firm believer in pluralism, there is no reason to be uncomfortable about our different perceptions of reality.

Allan Powell is a professor emeritus of philosophy at Hagerstown Community College.

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