With the upcoming release of Expelled, someone found some time to take Ben Stein up on his challenge and blow him out of the water with his claims about evolution.
Stein wraps his criticism as an exercise in honest skepticism against a big science establishment. Evolution is not a scientific theory about how life arose, it explains the complexity and diversity of life. We could fill volumes about what Charles Darwin didn’t know about biology, along with Ben Stein and myself. Why Darwin is revered is that the theory he first proposed, which has been subjected to intense scrutiny and further testing, has remained essentially intact. At this point, the theory really isn’t Darwin’s; he’s dead afterall. It now belongs to mankind and it is a key to understanding modern biology. Evolution is the theory that allows us to make sense biology much like how atomic theory allows us to make sense of chemistry.
Intelligent Design doesn’t make it in biology because the establishment fears it. It is because it isn’t science. Science is not the conglomeration of all human thought and belief. It is a body of knowledge built up by physical evidence, testing, open inquiry and logical integration with the existing body of knowledge based on this method. There is a barrier to entry in science: one needs evidence. Scientists have listened to what Intelligent Design has had to say, have investigated it, and have found it lacking. The most essential complaint with Intelligent Design seems to make no other prediction other than we will find more things that we will not initially understand, however it provides no insight into understanding them. What Stein is asking for is not to allow Intelligent Design to be considered on its merits. He is engaging in special pleading.
The question is not what “big science” fears. It is what Ben Stein fears. Maybe not Ben Stein specifically, but a segment of the world that is receptive to Ben Stein’s message. The important thing is not that what Stein says in Expelled is true, but rather that what Ben Stein says is plausible.
It is hard to believe in the Bible. It has a talking snake, a man made out of mud, a talking burning bush, global floods, virgin births, resurrections, transmutations, along with countless other stories that are way outside ordinary human experience. A natural thing to do is start to doubt them. The church recognizes this and has all sorts safeguards to guard against doubt. In Christianity, chastising Thomas the Doubter is common. However, the fact remains that believers need constant reassurance. This reassurance tends to be social. They need other people to believe. They need to know that there is some problem with the thinking of people who see a godless world. However, the key underpinning of religion is probably not its message about life, but rather people’s fear of death.
The role of the fear of death in religion can be understood indirectly by Pascal’s wager. What if god doesn’t exist, what happens after you die? No one can say for certain, but most likely it be like the time immemorial before one was born. My personal experience of that time was oblivion. What if god does exist and you don’t believe? Again this depends on which ancient myth one believes, but for the sake of argument let’s say it just so happened to be Jehova? Well, eternal damnation. If it happens to be Cthulhu, I think one is screwed either way. Pascal argued that one should believe any afterlife myth, because in the slim hope the belief turned out to be right, the benefits would vastly outweigh the consequences of being wrong.
The flaw in Pascal’s expected values are that the value of something infinitely large multiplied by a value infinitely small is undefined. And yes, Jehovah’s probability of being real is infinitely small in an honest evaluation. However, what one gives up by believing in a god like Jehovah is tangible. It is not seeing the world for what it really is: an utterly amazing place. Not because god made it that way, but because we made it that way. Not just human beings, but all our extraordinarily distant relatives who have existed on this planet for 3.5 billion years. Now we, human beings, are the only beings currently known that are smart enough to start to comprehend and become aware of the vast complexity of the universe. It is a unique gift, a fortunate circumstance of timing to be brought into the world in this era. Yet, here we are, poisoning and trashing the only home we’ve ever known and endangering our own survival.
Science is a threat to religion because it is the antithesis to religion. At the outset, it doesn’t incorporate religious belief into its body of knowledge. To the believer, this is disconcerting. More alarming, it proceeds to function perfectly fine without incorporating religious notions, and finally starts contradicting some tenets of faith, exposing them for what they are: ridiculous.
When Nietzsche declared god is dead, this is what he meant. Educated men could no longer logically accept religious tenets and known facts of the natural world. Expelled is an expression of denialism to this truth. At the end of the day, the only humane treatment for religion will be ridicule. In the meantime, the death of Hypatia warns us to be wary. However, if we truly believe science is a worthwhile pursuit, then we must demonstrate that commitment by defending it. It may be our best hope for the survival of the species.