Politics, Technology, and Language

If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought — George Orwell

Archive for May 31st, 2007

Memo to Brownback: When deep in the hole, stop digging

Posted by metaphorical on 31 May 2007

In our sound-bite political culture, it is unrealistic to expect that every complicated issue will be addressed with the nuance or subtlety it deserves. So I suppose I should not have been surprised earlier this month when, during the first Republican presidential debate, the candidates on stage were asked to raise their hands if they did not “believe” in evolution. As one of those who raised his hand, I think it would be helpful to discuss the issue in a bit more detail and with the seriousness it demands. — Sam Brownback

Today’s NY Times has an op-ed piece by Sam Brownback, Republican senator, presidential candidate, and self-foot assassin. He writes in defense of his disbelief in the theory of evolution, as asserted in a debate among the Republican candidates early this month.

I included some of the transcript in a post on 4 May, and a link to the YouTube moment, but here’s the key exchange again:

MR. VANDEHEI: Senator McCain, this comes from a Politico.com reader and was among the top vote-getters in our early rounds. They want a yes or no. Do you believe in evolution?


MR. VANDEHEI: I’m curious, is there anybody on the stage that does not agree — believe in evolution?

(Senator Brownback, Mr. Huckabee, Representative Tancredo raise their hands.)

SEN. MCCAIN: May I — may I just add to that?


SEN. MCCAIN: I believe in evolution. But I also believe, when I hike the Grand Canyon and see it at sunset, that the hand of God is there also.

The short response to Brownback, then, is this: You had the same choice McCain did. McCain said yes, then qualified his answer with a little fresh meat for the radical religious conservative base. Brownback said no, and now offers a few slices of month-old bologna to the non-crazies in his party.

The rest of this post is a longer look at Brownback’s baloney, which turns out to sandwiched between slices of logical inconsistencies and a spread, as thick as mayonnaise, made of Orwellian language abuse. As I understand the Times’s on-line policies, the article will, within hours, disappear behind the TimesSelect wall, so I’m going to quote more extensively than I normally would. In fact (shhh), I’m going to quote every word of it.

The premise behind the question seems to be that if one does not unhesitatingly assert belief in evolution, then one must necessarily believe that God created the world and everything in it in six 24-hour days.

This is a bizarre assertion, and one that depends on the reader of the op-ed not actually seeing the question. But as the transcript makes clear, the question — which was five words long: “Do you believe in evolution?” — had absolutely no premises behind it at all: “”They want a yes or no.”

But limiting this question to a stark choice between evolution and creationism does a disservice to the complexity of the interaction between science, faith and reason.

Let’s just flag this for now: the interaction between science, faith and reason.

The heart of the issue is that we cannot drive a wedge between faith and reason. I believe wholeheartedly that there cannot be any contradiction between the two. The scientific method, based on reason, seeks to discover truths about the nature of the created order and how it operates, whereas faith deals with spiritual truths. The truths of science and faith are complementary: they deal with very different questions, but they do not contradict each other because the spiritual order and the material order were created by the same God.

(If they operate in different, complementary realms, Sam, where would the complex interactions come into it?)

People of faith should be rational, using the gift of reason that God has given us.

As I’ve written before, people of faith can’t be rational. To have faith is to believe that things that are off limits to science still have causal consquences in the world. To have faith is to believe that science can’t explain all the physical events of the world.

At the same time, reason itself cannot answer every question. Faith seeks to purify reason so that we might be able to see more clearly, not less.

Here’s the first Orwellianism — a beautiful and meaningless word, “purify,” used to signal that faith has a role, even if we can’t say what it is. In a section of “Politics and the English Language” entitled “Meaningless words,” Orwell wrote:

In certain kinds of writing, particularly in art criticism and literary criticism, it is normal to come across long passages which are almost completely lacking in meaning.2 Words like romantic, plastic, values, human, dead, sentimental, natural, vitality, as used in art criticism, are strictly meaningless, in the sense that they not only do not point to any discoverable object, but are hardly even expected to do so by the reader.

But then, Sam reverts to the hackneyed distinction between science and values.

Faith supplements the scientific method by providing an understanding of values, meaning and purpose. More than that, faith — not science — can help us understand the breadth of human suffering or the depth of human love. Faith and science should go together, not be driven apart.

(Fine Sam, we’ll give you values, letting the last 100 years of aesthetics, ethical theory, and normative analysis go by the wayside. It’s going to be an uphill battle, though, to explain how this font of values, faith, is going to change the way atoms and molocules move, without there being any faith-atoms and faith-molocules in the world.)

The question of evolution goes to the heart of this issue. If belief in evolution means simply assenting to microevolution, small changes over time within a species, I am happy to say, as I have in the past, that I believe it to be true. If, on the other hand, it means assenting to an exclusively materialistic, deterministic vision of the world that holds no place for a guiding intelligence, then I reject it.

The website Understanding Evolution has a nice, succinct description of evolution:

Biological evolution, simply put, is descent with modification. This definition encompasses small-scale evolution (changes in gene frequency in a population from one generation to the next) and large-scale evolution (the descent of different species from a common ancestor over many generations). Evolution helps us to understand the history of life.

Through the process of descent with modification, the common ancestor of life on Earth gave rise to the fantastic diversity that we see documented in the fossil record and around us today. Evolution means that we’re all distant cousins: humans and oak trees, hummingbirds and whales.

(Do you believe that Sam? As it was in the debate, it’s a simple question. Please answer yes or no.)

There is no one single theory of evolution, as proponents of punctuated equilibrium and classical Darwinism continue to feud today. Many questions raised by evolutionary theory — like whether man has a unique place in the world or is merely the chance product of random mutations — go beyond empirical science and are better addressed in the realm of philosophy or theology.

The most passionate advocates of evolutionary theory offer a vision of man as a kind of historical accident. That being the case, many believers — myself included — reject arguments for evolution that dismiss the possibility of divine causality.

It’s a strain to find any sense to Sam’s digressions here, but let’s try. People who believe in evolution also believe man is a kind of historical accident. Since Sam doesn’t believe man is a kind of historical accident, he’s also disbelieving evolution. Here’s a quarter, Sam, buy yourself a clue: Even if every evolutionist were a Yankee fan, you could still root for the Red Sox and call yourself an evolutionist — if you wanted to. Apparently the base doesn’t want you to, and that’s good enough for you.

Ultimately, on the question of the origins of the universe, I am happy to let the facts speak for themselves.

Oh, would that it were so!

There are aspects of evolutionary biology that reveal a great deal about the nature of the world, like the small changes that take place within a species. Yet I believe, as do many biologists and people of faith, that the process of creation — and indeed life today — is sustained by the hand of God in a manner known fully only to him. It does not strike me as anti-science or anti-reason to question the philosophical presuppositions behind theories offered by scientists who, in excluding the possibility of design or purpose, venture far beyond their realm of empirical science.

(It may not strike you, Sam, as anti-science or anti-reason to believe that there are unknown and unknowable causes in the world responsible for everyday event, including ones for which we have perfectly good causal explanations of already, but it is.)

Biologists will have their debates about man’s origins, but people of faith can also bring a great deal to the table.

Orwell would have liked “bring a great deal to the table.” He called these “operators, or verbal false limbs”:

These save the trouble of picking out appropriate verbs and nouns, and at the same time pad each sentence with extra syllables which give it an appearance of symmetry. Characteristic phrases are: render inoperative, militate against, prove unacceptable, make contact with, be subjected to, give rise to, give grounds for, having the effect of, play a leading part (role) in, make itself felt, take effect, exhibit a tendency to, serve the purpose of, etc., etc. The keynote is the elimination of simple verbs. Instead of being a single word, such as break, stop, spoil, mend, kill, a verb becomes a phrase, made up of a noun or adjective tacked on to some general-purposes verb as prove, serve, form, play, render.

And there’s another verbal false limb on its way:

For this reason, I oppose the exclusion of either faith or reason from the discussion. An attempt by either to seek a monopoly on these questions would be wrong-headed. As science continues to explore the details of man’s origin, faith can do its part as well.

“Can do its part” is almost as good as “bring a great deal to the table.”

The fundamental question for me is how these theories affect our understanding of the human person.

The unique and special place of each and every person in creation is a fundamental truth that must be safeguarded. I am wary of any theory that seeks to undermine man’s essential dignity and unique and intended place in the cosmos. I firmly believe that each human person, regardless of circumstance, was willed into being and made for a purpose.

And there it is. There’s no room in evolutionary theory, presumably, for the willing of humans into being. And so evolutionary theory is wrong. We could have saved a lot of time, Sam, if you had said that from the get-go.

While no stone should be left unturned in seeking to discover the nature of man’s origins, we can say with conviction that we know with certainty at least part of the outcome. Man was not an accident and reflects an image and likeness unique in the created order. Those aspects of evolutionary theory compatible with this truth are a welcome addition to human knowledge. Aspects of these theories that undermine this truth, however, should be firmly rejected as an atheistic theology posing as science.

Without hesitation, I am happy to raise my hand to that.

In other words, a Brownback presidency would be a continuation of Bush’s, where war is peace, freedom is slavery, and evolutionary theory is undermining science.

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