Humanist Perspectives: issue 154: The Willing Suspension of Disbelief

The Willing Suspension of Disbelief
by Gary Bauslaugh

painting by Shea Moir and Chorlotte Campbell

What would Darwin think of the strange world we live in today? After his discoveries of 150 years ago, perhaps the most important in the history of science, the “most powerful nation on earth” is largely controlled by scientific illiterates who simply reject the overwhelming evidence for evolution. As one fundamentalist preacher put it, “If I have to choose between the Bible and science, I’ll choose the Bible.”

But reality is not a matter of choice. It is something we can only approach through rigorous examination of evidence — scientific investigation. That is the one device we have discovered for best avoiding the pitfalls of wishful thinking, bias, predilection — all the human traits that lead us away from determining the way things really are. Science is impersonal — that is its strength. It is the one reliable way we have to explore reality and to seek truth. What we find is often not what we, or humanity, wish to find. But if our goal is to find what is really out there, science is the only way.

Some of course might still choose the Bible, and they are entitled to do so. But those who choose a literal reading of the Bible are choosing a manufactured, artificial reality which has nothing to do with the actual reality of the natural world they live in (except that aspect of human nature that is known as self-delusion.)

It is worrying that so many people in the world today choose fundamentalism — to view the world in an unscientific manner, to lead lives immersed in artificial realities. If they kept their beliefs to themselves it would be one thing; as Winston Churchill once said to John Diefenbaker, on learning that he was teetotaler but not a prohibitionist, “well then, you only hurt yourself.” But many religious people, particularly of the evangelical persuasion, are not so willing to let others live with different beliefs. Agents of God, with a mission to convert the world, could hardly do otherwise.

The Discovery Institute in Seattle, Washington, an organization that is leading the Intelligent Design movement, claims that only about 10% of Americans fully accept Darwinian evolution. Their perspective is likely biased, but they may not be far off in this instance. Most Americans appear to believe that there was some divine guidance in the emergence of humans on earth, and that we did not just evolve from other species.

While some religions have adapted to the new scientific realities quite well, the literalists cannot do so. You can’t believe that “the scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are verbally inspired by Jesus Christ and inerrant in the original writing, so that they are fully trustworthy and of supreme and final authority in all they say” as declared in the Statement of Faith of Wheaton College, an evangelical College in Wheaton, Illinois, and also acknowledge the reality of evolution.

Among a number of other things the Wheaton Statement says is, “we believe that God directly created Adam and Eve, the historical parents of the entire human race; and that they were created in His own image, distinct from all other living creatures, and in a state of original righteousness.” Wheaton College, featured in a recent PBS documentary on evolution, is considered “one of the top 50 colleges in the USA.” It requires its faculty members to sign onto its Statement of Faith.

Not all Wheaton faculty members can really believe all of this of course. A commentary I read by one of them downplayed the literalism implied in the Statement, and said that evangelicals were not really like fundamentalists, but somewhere in between fundamentalists and “liberal Christians.” That faculty member and some other evangelicals are clearly finding it difficult to live with a doctrine which, to put it mildly, is incongruent with scientific evidence.

Aside from the problem of inconsistency with facts, this incongruence presents practical problems for literalists. For one thing the American Supreme Court (until now!) has consistently refused to allow the teaching of evolution to be compromised in public school classrooms, on the grounds that religion is not science. “Creation science” was an attempt to circumvent this concern, but was obviously a ruse. The ploy de jour, of course, is Intelligent Design.

This is not a new idea. As Robert Weyant points out in his essay on 19th century reactions to Darwin, the man Darwin referred to as the co-founder of natural selection, Alfred Russel Wallace, speculated that “a superior intelligence has guided the development of man in a definite direction.”

The Discovery Institute is dedicated to promoting Wallace’s proposition. The Institute has a large staff of bright people, including some accomplished scientists, who are determined to raise doubts about the Darwinian concept of evolution, particularly the part that indicates that all species evolved from less complicated ones. Not possible, they say. Some living things are too complicated.

The removal of God from their case is a tactic, not a sign of secularism.

The ID people do not try to deny the fossil or DNA evidence. They do not claim to represent any particular faith, though there is some evidence that they are faith-driven. They simply say that life is too complicated to have arisen by natural processes, and there must have been an intelligent designer at work somewhere along the line. They do not say God was involved — who knows, it might have been space creatures — but that is disingenuous. The removal of God from their case is a tactic, not a sign of secularism.

This approach accomplishes several things. It provides a ‘scientific’ argument for a higher power. It makes a convincing (for some) case that the science curriculum should include this evidence of an intelligent hand in creation. It provides a credible (for some) case that the universe is not the impersonal place that science has so far revealed, and that perhaps there is a higher, ordained purpose in life after all. It says there must have been an otherworldly creator. By positing such an idea — that there may be benevolent higher powers out there, it suggests there might be an afterlife, after all.

Would it were so. But for those of us who believe that natural forces govern the world, and who have accommodated the likelihood that all life is terminal, and who wish to seek the truth wherever it may lead us, ID turns out to be another bit of wishful thinking that does not stand up to scrutiny.

There are two leading spokesmen, both associated with the Discovery Institute, for the ID movement: biologist Michael Behe who developed the idea of ‘irreducible complexity,’ and mathematician William Dembski who has excited a generation of ID enthusiasts with elaborate arguments involving complex mathematical theories, equations and graphs. Behe’s argument, the more readily understandable of the two, is that some animal organs are so complex, with many different functioning components, that they could not have evolved from a simpler organ. These organs are irreducibly complex, unable to have any function at all if made any simpler. So what could they have evolved from? Instead they must have been designed and assembled by a creator.

The sort of arguments used by Behe and Dembski remind me of arguments used by parapsychologists to support their belief in esp. Parapsychologists, too, exploit circumstances that have not yet been fully examined by others. They examine complex, unexplored areas, like Behe, often involving complicated mathematical calculations like Dembski’s. And when other scientists review their work, and apparent anomalies are resolved, the parapsychologists and the ID enthusiasts simply move on to different cases that promise, this time, to show convincingly that certain things (esp, intelligent designers) exist beyond the realm of natural processes. A longer discussion of Behe and Dembski can be found in an article by H Allen Orr in The New Yorker, May 30, 2005.

Both the parapsychologists and the ID supporters are engaged in trying to prove what they already deeply believe. Such belief can entirely compromise scientific objectivity.

The appreciation of fiction, it is said, requires ‘the willing suspension of disbelief.’ That is how we can enrich our lives through literature, while not believing it to be literally true. Rational people temporarily suspend critical judgment in order to imagine that fictional stories are real. Creationists permanently suspend critical judgment in order to believe their fictional stories did happen.

Science, in contrast to reading literature, requires the willing suspension of belief. We must put aside our prejudices and predilections and seek to see what really exists, not what we wish to see. This simple, crucial, idea seems still not well understood. Wishful thinking is not critical thinking.

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