06/07/2007 01:32 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Continuing Confusion Over Faith and Reason

The New York Times recently ran an op-ed piece by Sam Brownback. Brownback is the Kansas senator and influential "cultural conservative" who is running for president. The background to the piece is that, at the first Republican presidential debate on May 3, the candidates were asked if any among them did not believe in evolution. Mr. Brownback, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, and Colorado representative Tom Tancredo raised their hands.

Brownback, no doubt aware that he now looks like a nut to many voters, has taken to the Times to protest that the question was simplistic, that evolution is not an either/or proposition. His attempt to refute his image as an anti-science nutcase, however, very powerfully confirms that image. In a way, his piece is a real treat: It's not very often that one reads such a farrago of ignorance, sloppy assumptions, and magical thinking.

Brownback starts out with a defensive bromide that is also a diversion:

"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. 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."

There's already a lot to work with here. People who do not believe in evolution (and we're not talking the intelligent design people here -- they are equally anti-science, but they do believe in inter-species evolution, which Brownback later in this article says he does not) overwhelmingly believe that the earth was in fact created in six 24-hour-days, around six thousand years ago. If they don't believe in the six day thing, it hardly matters; because if they don't believe in inter-species evolution, then the earth and all living things must have been created at some discrete, specific time. And that is a wacko position, no matter when that time is thought to be.

By the way, note that Brownback does not explicitly say that he himself does not believe that the earth was created in six 24-hour days. He knows the people who make up his core constituency.

And what is this about the "complexity of the interaction between science, faith, and reason"? There is no interaction -- or, on their own terms, should not be any -- between faith on the one hand and science and reason on the other. Although Brownback goes on to say, predictably, that "we cannot drive a wedge between faith and reason," there is more than a wedge between them. Reason, by definition, is induction from observed facts. Faith, by definition, is not. These ways of thinking simply are not reconcilable, no matter what the Pope and legions of well-meaning but confused people may say.

At this point I'd like to pause and make clear that I'm not an enemy of faith. Faith is clearly of great emotional importance to human beings, in both religious and non-religious contexts. All of us, no matter how irreligious we are or how rational we believe ourselves to be, hold ideas and assumptions that others could justly describe as objectively strange. And there is no necessary contradiction between science and belief in a god who created the universe and the laws of physics and then sat back and let them run their course.

But there is a contradiction between science and a personal god who works miracles, who answers prayers and creates man in his own image. There is no evidence for that, and there is overwhelming evidence for evolution. If you are looking for objective truths about the universe, reliance on a subjective faith will not get you very far. Science -- good science, and bad science is not really science -- follows the evidence. People who do not respect evidence do not respect science.

Back to Brownback. He continues with some mumblings about how faith seeks to "purify" reason -- how exactly would this work? - about how faith and reason "do not contradict each other because the spiritual order and the material order were created by the same God." Now here he has very clearly illustrated the intellectual problem. Because, after all, who says so? Where's the evidence? Brownback is using the very same argument that I often hear from a certain kind of religious person. "The Bible is the Word of God." How do you know? "Because it says so, right here in the Bible!"

Brownback goes on:

"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."

How generous, how enlightened of him, to concede that evolution within a species occurs! That one can breed different races of dogs or of corn, say. In other words, something that everyone can actually see with his or her own eyes is admitted to be true. But this is not really what evolution means, in a scientific sense. Evolution is the random transfiguration of species, over time, as shaped by the demands (which are not random, an important point) of the environment.

One of the many things that Brownback fails to understand about evolution is that it is anything but deterministic. There is no particular reason, in evolution theory, that human beings should ever have arisen on earth -- indeed, the odds against it (and against any particular species) are astronomical.

Brownback then deploys one of the most ignorant rhetorical weapons in the creationist arsenal. Evolutionists disagree! Dragging up a 35-year-old controversy, he remarks, "There is no one single theory of evolution, as proponents of punctuated equilibrium and classical Darwinism continue to feud today." Like all creationists who use this line of argument, Brownback merely reveals that he has no understanding of evolution and of science in general. Of course there is no single theory of the subtle and complicated and variable mechanisms of evolution; this is a field for a very fruitful and fascinating debate, based on experiment, observation, and induction. That is what science does. But there is no debate at all among legitimate scientists, among biologists and geneticists and ethologists and geologists and ecologists, as to whether evolution -- inter-species evolution -- occurred. It did. It is only called a "theory" because everything in science is held to be contingent on new evidence. It is a theory in the same way that it is a theory that the earth orbits the sun.

Stephen Jay Gould and Niles Eldredge, the originators of the idea of Punctuated Equilibrium, quarreled very publicly with Richard Dawkins, the foremost popular defender of what Brownback understands to be "classical Darwinism." But Gould, Eldredge and Dawkins stood shoulder-to-shoulder against the creationists. Gould, much more than Dawkins, accepted the idea that faith offers something of value to people in how they understand their lives. But he worked and fought and testified against the corrupting influence of faith when it presumed to have something to say about the findings of science.

These findings tell us that there is no goal to evolution, that it is a continuing process of random events with no hierarchical relationships - a potato, in its own way, is just as highly evolved as a human. This is what Brownback just can't stand. It is the core of his disagreement with reason:

"[Evolution] offer[s] 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... The fundamental question for me is how these theories affect our understanding of the human person... It does not strike me as anti-science or anti-reason to question the philosophical presuppositions behind theories offered by scientists who [exclude] the possibility of design or purpose... 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... was willed into being and made for a purpose."

In other words, Brownback doesn't like evolution because he is uncomfortable with a model of the universe in which there is no overarching, prefigured plan for the human race and for each individual human. OK, he's entitled to feel uncomfortable (although others might feel that this is actually an exciting condition, because it challenges each individual to discover and create the meaning of life for him or herself.) But in what sense is his discomfort a reasoned -- or even a metaphysical -- argument? "I don't like it, and therefore it can't be true" is not science influenced by faith. It is, rather, a perfect illustration why faith is incompatible with science.

Brownback concludes his article with a bit of stunning pietistic arrogance:

"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."

So we know in advance what "part of the outcome" will be: faith tells us so, case closed. Sometimes I wonder whether Brownback and his friends have any idea of how they come off to readers who are not already evangelicals. One could not ask for a more concrete rejection of the scientific method, indeed of enlightenment values in general. As for his "atheistic theology": Reason does not reject out of hand the possibility that there could be a creator and a purpose behind the existence of mankind. What it does say is that if you are going to propose something so wildly improbable (all the other plants and animals, the entire three-and-a-half billion year history of earth prior to man, the trillions of stars in the universe, are all just the setting for man's god-given purpose?) then you'd better bring some evidence. So, Senator Brownback, where is it? "It seems so to me" is not evidence, and prior proclamations of the limits of scientific truth based on a revealed Truth are not acceptable in a debate that respects reason.

Brownback is not going to be president. But he speaks for a great many voters in this country who really have no concept of the power of the scientific method or what it means, who believe that it is possible to allow reason to be swayed by faith and still call it reason. His confused and scientifically ignorant thinking is laughable. Yet he, and people like him, have a frightening influence on politics. By 2009 we will have had eight years of a president who has developed his foreign policy on the basis of magical thinking. Isn't that enough -- too much, in fact?