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Hiding From the Truth

Philip Kitcher is the John Dewey Professor of Philosophy at Columbia University. Living With Darwin: Evolution, Design, and the Future of Faith, Kitcher’s most recent book, is both a defense of Darwin and an exploration of the meaning behind the clash of religion and modern science. Kitcher is also the author of Abusing Science: The Case Against Creationism, The Lives to Come: The Genetic Revolution and Human Possibilities, Vaulting Ambition: Sociobiology and the Quest for Human Knowledge, Science, Truth, and Democracy, and In Mendel’s Mirror. In the article below Kitcher explores how easy it is to hide from the truth.


Finally, in his State of the Union message, President Bush acknowledged that climate change is a problem. Whether he understands the magnitude of the problem or is prepared for the kinds of measures that are needed to address it remains unclear. But, from many Americans, and especially from people in other countries who have been concerned about global warming for many years, there have been huge sighs of relief. At the same time, there’s an obvious question – why has it taken so long?

The broad outlines of the answer are fairly clear. During recent years, some writers whose conclusions appeal to the values of the President and his advisers, have muddied the waters about climate change. They have employed familiar tactics, casting doubt on any consensus among experts by ignoring the large agreements and concentrating on those places where scientists debate the details. Structurally, the case is much like the long-running battle about evolution: you make it seem as though there is no consensus by judiciously quoting from researchers who are actively involved in discussing unsettled questions, but who agree in a fundamental core framework that you don’t bother to mention.

Behind these two examples lies a deeper problem about the ways the achievements of the sciences are received in American society. Like many academics and research scientists, I have an optimistic view about the possibilities for human progress. I tend to think that, as more is discovered about the world in which we live and about our place in it, exciting new pieces of knowledge should be spread widely and used to make everyone’s lives better. So, when some people resist the established claims of science, a natural first response is irritation: why are they being so stubborn, clinging to bits of exploded superstition?

The answer, very often, is that particular pieces of scientific knowledge are viewed as threatening. Acknowledging the truth about global warming would unsettle those who believe in the unfettered rights of oil companies to drill and of auto-makers to produce gas-guzzling behemoths. Acknowledging the truth about Darwin would raise worrying questions about religious belief (or so many people think). So the pressure for “alternative science” becomes strong, and we lose opportunities to craft our policies according to the best knowledge we have. As this occurs, as the idea of “alternatives” to received scientific wisdom becomes firmly entrenched, any conception of real expertise starts to erode. The media fragments into economic niches, where “information” is passed on to consumers in ways that accord with prior values – or prior prejudices. Debate about difficult issues becomes ever more difficult because we can’t agree on the basic facts.

The continued debate about Darwin is a symptom of a serious underlying disease. It’s useful to think about that debate as an example of the deeper problems, trying to understand how scientific work that is as firmly established as any piece of research can be regarded as questionable. Darwin’s defenders need to get beyond the sense of irritation, to recognize that advances in knowledge can pose genuine threats to people’s beliefs and to their lives. It’s important to appreciate that trumpeting the Great New Enlightenment often seems like bullying, and that the distant pundits who scoff at superstition sound less trustworthy than apparently friendly champions of “alternative views” that are more sympathetic to those who feel the threat.

In trying to help people see that we have to learn to live with Darwin it doesn’t help much to thump the table and declare that Intelligent Design isn’t REAL science. Our criteria for identifying “real science” are not sharp, and, in any case, there was a time in the history of inquiry in which something very like Intelligent Design was a cornerstone of scientific investigation. That last fact provides a clue about what’s needed: people should be given clear, straightforward explanations of how Darwinism came to triumph, and how the evidence in its favor continues to roll in.

Because of the perceived impact on religious beliefs and values, that won’t be enough. So long as Darwin is seen as the bogeyman, no amount of evidence will counter the charm of smooth advertisements for faith-friendly alternatives. Many religious scientists try to convince the public that fears are unfounded – we can have God and Darwin too, they say. Yet the worried Christians – including our President – who worry that Darwin is the apostle of godlessness have a point. There’s a real threat here.

The world contains lots of different kinds of religion, and our thought about “Science versus Religion” is likely to go astray unless we distinguish them. The main thrust of the Darwinian view tells against the sort of religious belief that thinks of the universe as created with a purpose: Darwin makes the history of life look, at best, like a great shaggy-dog story. Beyond that, Darwin is part of a large cluster of scientific traditions, that have studied the formation of religious texts, the history of religions, the social forces that cause religions to spread and change, the psychological aspects of what people count as “religious experiences”, and the enormous diversity of the world’s religions. This cluster of investigations causes a lot of trouble for the idea that there are the kinds of supernatural entities invoked in many religions – no Christian Trinity, no Judaic God, no Allah, no ancestral spirits, no Hindu deities, and so forth. True enough, we’d be wrong to foreclose the possibility that the world contains things undreamed of in our current scientific picture. Maybe some future inquiries will disclose entities properly counted as supernatural. But we have every reason to think that those entities, if such there be, aren’t correctly describable in terms of the myths we’ve inherited from the past.

Some forms of religion – those that give up their stories as literal truths and see those stories as significant allegories – survive the scientific case, but for many devout people, those forms of religion have conceded far too much. Given this attitude, the resistance to Darwin is likely to continue, and is likely to be part of a sense of science as alien and threatening. Once that attitude becomes prevalent, we’re well on our way to the deep problem of a muddled society in which people give up on “objective expertise” and pick their news sources on the basis of comfort. They report, so that we can maintain our previous decisions.

How do we get beyond this impasse? Not by shouting at people about “the God delusion”. Religion is immensely important to people, and, although it’s easy to point to the ways in which religious belief has caused serious harm, it’s also necessary to appreciate its social and personal functions. Religious beliefs play an important role in people’s sense of their own lives, explaining why those lives matter. Religion also offers genuine community with others, providing spaces for joint ethical commitment and joint action. You don’t end this heated debate by simply telling folk to brace up – or to take their scientific medicine so that they’ll feel better in the morning. They won’t.

Our society faces an important challenge: how do we make the best use of the best information we have, honoring the scientific evidence, while simultaneously answering to the needs that religion has traditionally served? How do we reclaim a shared conception of what is really well-supported and what is not? How do we rediscover a notion of objective expertise so that all of us can be satisfied in bringing in the experts to advise us on our predicament? The reluctance of the President and his advisors to accept the idea of objective experts who defend conclusions at odds with their preferred policies and their firmly-entrenched “values” underscores the urgency of our need to give up hiding from the truth. We have a long way to go before we can actually make the best use of the knowledge we’ve acquired – but to take the first steps, we should understand just where we are.

To learn more about Kitcher click here.

Recent Comments

  1. Arjun Rajagopalan

    The approach recommended by Professor Kitcher is in itself a form of “Hiding from the truth”. Consider a community of individuals who have always believed (or been led to believe) that 2 + 2 = 6. A messiah comes along advocating the truth that 2 + 2 = 4. The council of elders, in the interest of keeping the peace over spreading the truth, recommends a conciliatory position of 2 + 2 = 5. Isn’t this what any position that waters down Darwin is doing?

  2. Pharyngula

    The God report

    I’ve received a few interesting links on the state of religion in America, so I’ll just dump a brief hodge-podge below the fold. The quick summary: one clueless twit, one poll, and one philosopher weighs in….

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