28 April 2008

My thoughts on Expelled

I saw Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed last weekend with my daughter. It's Ben Stein's documentary about the discrimination by the scientific community against proponents of the theory of Intelligent Design. The film is engaging and funny, easy to watch and enjoyable, and it effectively tackles the subject matter. Overall, the film exceeded my expectations; however, I think it is guilty of the serious and unfortunate error of pitting evolutionary theory against theism, ironically causing the film to miss a significant key to understanding its subject matter.

I've read and heard criticisms which declare the film a colossal failure based on the fact that it didn't prove the truth of ID. The movie I watched wasn't even trying to do that. Instead, it was documenting a case for the allegation that there is a wall surrounding the scientific community out of which are cast those who challenge the prevailing orthodoxy. This part of the film is a slam dunk. Several scientists are interviewed, all of which were ousted for, in some cases, merely admitting ID theory to the table for discussion and debate. Every one of them came across as honest, articulate, intelligent, and sane. It's pretty clear that these folks weren't bad teachers, bad scientists, or bad employees; but merely guilty of allowing their honest use of the scientific method to lead them into areas found unacceptable by the powers that be. Personally, I'm not all that convinced by ID, but I was convinced that these men and women were genuine scientists--pursuing the evidence where it led them. Perhaps they were mistaken in their conclusions. Even if that's the case, the film's main point remains loud and clear: Among the scientific community today, Darwinism is not regarded as a scientific theory or fact to be exonerated by the evidence, but a dogma to be defended by priestly authority.

Where the film missteps is when it asserts that Darwinism is not only incompatible with religious belief but inherently dangerous. This is an unfortunate blunder and unfruitful diversion in the current debate over religion and science. As Chesterton wrote in Orthodoxy:

If evolution simply means that a positive thing called an ape turned very slowly into a positive thing called a man, then it is stingless for the most orthodox; for a personal God might just as well do things slowly as quickly, especially if, like the Christian God, he were outside time.
Why couldn't God, in His omniscient wisdom, have programmed the evolution of the material universe and subsequent origin of life into the Big Bang; and then, at the proper time, breathed into man's evolved frame His very image? As Chesterton said, this proposes no difficulty to either the scientist or the theist.

The problem is not Darwinism, but atheism. Failing to recognize this, the film misses an opportunity to strike at the heart of the matter. The sufficient condition necessary for the Nazi atrocities done in the name of Darwinism was atheism. Under the philosophical premises inherent in atheism, there is no ground for any kind of transcendent purpose or meaning, not to mention man's unique position within nature. Everything, including man, is a product of random, mindless, cause and effect. This leaves no philosophical ground for any kind of objective morality. And when you take metaphysics such as these and put them together with social Darwinism, you have the sufficient conditions for the Nazi ethic of exterminating "life unworthy of life".

And is it too far fetched to posit that atheism might be the cause of the wall in the scientific community which practically forbids discussion of all non-Darwinian theories? Could it be that it's not really Darwinism that's being defended, but the worldview which depends upon Darwinism? The whole idea behind science is that it is a servant of evidence. In that regard it is always open-ended. As was pointed out in the film, when Einstein challenged Newtonian physics, the scientific community responded by revisiting the evidence. Where is that openness when it comes to Darwinism? Has it come to be above the evidence? Could it be that Darwinism is being protected as a doctrine (a doctrine that is essential to the atheist worldview)? Today's atheists are constantly chiding us simple-minded believers with being too afraid or lazy to doubt. Where is the skepticism which is touted as the defining virtue of science? There's one scene where atheist author and scientist Richard Dawkins declares that Darwinism is a fact! with all the conviction of a True Believer. But every theory has its weak spots. The humble servant of truth honestly accesses the holes in his own view as well as the opposition's; but those whose motive for belief is antecedent to the facts cannot imagine any holes in his own view. Moreover, he makes the biggest case out of the smallest holes in the opposition view. And, as we see from the atheist scientists in the film, he dismisses the intellect of his opponents as inferior. Is this the modus operandi of science? I think it betrays a worldview which is has become more important than the evidence, a worldview which has been made to act as the test for truth instead of the evidence. As Chesterton wrote in The Everlasting Man:

He forgets that it is a deduction at all and treats it as a first principle. He might discover that the whole calculation is a mis-calculation… But he has forgotten that it is a calculation, and is almost ready to contradict the sun if it does not fit into the Solar System.

Expelled successfully demonstrates that this is how Darwinism is being defended today. Merely branding an opposing view as unscientific--even if it is--is not good science. (That goes for considering the criticism of this film, too.) Good science is done in an atmosphere of open and free discourse and debate where evidence is held to be the standard. And the main point of Expelled is to show that that's not the case in the scientific community today; and it does this very well. I just wish that it would have explored some of the reasons why this is the case.

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If you enjoyed the film, you might also enjoy:


sorceror said...

It's true, evolution doesn't mandate atheism. Evolution does undermine what was historically a 'slam dunk' argument for God(s) - the 'argument from apparent design in the biological world' - but that's not the same as arguing against God(s). I think Dawkins is wrong there. A much more enlightening approach can be found in David Sloan Wilson's "Evolution For Everyone". That book actually changed my mind about a few things - he makes a pretty good case for the historical net utility of religion.

The main reason Expelled fails is that it distorts the truth and in some cases actually lies outright. A bit of looking around the web will show that the scientists show were not actually 'expelled' in any sense. And the attempts to tie evolution to the Nazis and the communists are actually immoral, so far as I can see.

Hitler wasn't an atheist. He sure wasn't a traditional Christian, of course, but he was sort of a neo-Pagan crypto-Christian who explicitly rejected evolution and based his racism on the idea that the 'races' had been created separately. The Holocaust owed far more to the virulent strain of anti-Semitism that Martin Luther embraced and fostered. That was certainly the motivation for the majority who actually carried out the crimes in person.

As to the Communist states under Stalin and Mao - they also explicitly rejected neo-Darwinian evolution and embraced (and enforced) Lysenkoism instead. The resulting crop failures when reality failed to match up to "worker's science" killed the majority of the millions who died under those regimes.

Ironically, the people under Hitler, Stalin, and Mao would have been much better off if they had accepted neo-Darwinian evolution.

Jeff said...

Keith --

Excellent commentary. You do a better job than I did making the point that “evolution” and “Darwinism” are not the same thing. The former is a reasonable, indeed probable, but not conclusively proven theory about how there came to be so many divergent life forms on earth. The latter is a frankly improbable explanation of how the evolutionary process might work.

I don't entirely agree, though, with your final criticism of the movie – that it fails to explain adequately why Darwinists are so unscientifically zealous in their promotion of Darwinism. I think the movie provides a telling glimpse of precisely that motivation when it shows us P. Z. Myers (I think that's who it was) rhapsodizing about a world without religion and what a wonderful place to live such a world would be. Myers' attitude shows very clearly that, as an understanding of the mechanism behind evolutionary change, natural selection appeals primarily because of its strident, proselytizing materialism. Atheists like it not because it is compelling science but because it buttresses their world view. My suspicion, alas, is that exactly the same can be said for Christians and their interest in intelligent design.

Why can't everybody on both sides simply back off and say “I don't know”? That, after all, is quite an honorable scientific position.