Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Review: The Well-Crafted Argument that Was Not

Debbs McKown wrote an essay in 1984 which was later published in F. D. White & S. J. Billings (Eds.), The Well-crafted Argument: A Guide and a Reader (pp. 587-591). New York: Houghton Mifflin. Professor of philosophy McKown’s main purpose is to warn about a future constitutional conflict between science and religion. As professor of philosophy, he marshals his philosophical training to try proving his premise. Since the Founding Fathers designed an “utterly secular Constitution,” (p. 586) he asserts they did not provide enough safeguard for the free practice and advance of science. Furthermore, because science opposes Christianity’s religious myths, there is peril that technology “would, one day… be endangered by it” (p. 586). The author goes on to describe religion’s threat to science and chastises Stephen Jay Gould for believing that “science and religion, properly understood, do not conflict” (p. 587). Especially since American fundamentalism’s “blood is boiling at present” (p. 587). McKown also asserts that “creationism threatens biology” (p. 587) and that all major sciences would “be gutted,” “emasculated,” and “suffer substantially,” (p. 587) at the hands of creationists. The author goes on to assert that “Christianity is scientifically unsupported” (p.588). The author insists that speaking about God is philosophically pointless, and the claim to religious experience as validation for religion can render contradictory results that cannot be verified.

McKown then accuses Christianity of historical fraud, asserting that the Gospel stories are suspect because they were written to convince people to believe in Christ. He points to alleged Christian misuse of the Jewish Old Testament to prove Jesus as Messiah, and the “suspiciously different resurrection tales” (p. 589). He surprisingly concludes that the Christ of the New Testament “never had any existence” (p. 589).

McKown claims that if schools were to teach modern science then a wholesale adoption of rational empiricism would be necessary. McKown proposes a 7 step plan of action that includes “the possible use of professional sanctions, to help safeguard the integrity of science instruction in public schools” (p. 590). He also proposes education that would help wean Americans from religion.

After reviewing the article, we concluded that McKown has not effectively proved his claim. His stated title seems to require a more thorough treatment of the Constitution as it relates to the relationship of religion, science and education. One expects to see some treatment of current proposed amendments that may in the future bear on the author’s subject, but none are given. McKown’s claim that the Constitution is “utterly secular” (p. 586) may be contradicted by religious people, but he offers no evidence for his claim.

A surprising claim is the one that asserts that the “useful arts” in the form of “technology” are endangered by religious people (p. 586). This sounds like an unfounded exaggeration, especially considering the churches’ use of technology to disseminate their beliefs. This should have been clarified by the author. McKown sees American fundamentalism as a threat to science (p. 587), but does not define the term. This would have been useful; especially considering the range of meanings that “fundamentalism” has had since its inception into American religious life. He also asserts that creationism is an enemy to all sciences, but fails to comment on the fact that a great amount of modern science discoveries were pioneered by Bible believing scientists. No specific examples are given to show that his assertions are true. I found this trend one of the greatest weaknesses in McKown’s paper. Also, because the range of beliefs in American Christianity is so vast, defining the group that he is addressing would have helped to make his paper intelligible to a general audience.

McKown claims that real religion involves “scriptural literalism,” and because the scriptures are mistaken regarding the nature of the universe, the earth, life and other subjects, then a conflict with science is inevitable. Although by the end of the paper it is obvious that Christianity is the object of his attack, he nowhere declares so. He uses the term “religion” but seems to define it (in his own mind) quite narrowly. This makes the above claim about “scriptural literalism” meaningless, and even wrong, apart from a Christian (fundamentalist?) understanding, especially because many religions in America do not have holy scriptures in the manner Christianity has, and some religions that do actually do not interpret them literally (i.e. those of the Gnostic persuasion and others).

The author’s claim that “Christianity is scientifically unsupported” (p. 588) needed a lot more detail. Declaring in what way it is unsupported; explain what scientific, repeatable experiment had proven it to be so would have been helpful. Some of the gaps in his arguments are quite surprising given the fact that the author is a professor of philosophy. It seems to me that most Christians probably do not have anything against science per se but McKown’s entire paper seems to depend on that supposed fact. The author nowhere defines what he understands as “science,” and this, again, weakens his position. McKown quotes Ralph Alpher approvingly when he states that if there is a god “it will become evident to the scientist” (p. 588). But it seems that if God is defined as the all-powerful, all-knowing Designer and Creator of the universe, His knowledge would be so far above mankind’s that it would be easier for a “scientist ant” (if there was such a thing) to understand man’s science than for a human scientist to understand God’s. McKown contends that Freud had it right when he wrote that “biological research robbed man of his particular privilege of having been specially created, and relegated him to a descent from the animal world.” (p. 588) The author does not interact at all with modern scientific models like Intelligent Design and does not seem to be aware that unproven traditional evolutionism (a la Darwin) has been mostly rejected in favor of other theories like punctuated equilibrium. The author’s dogmatism does not take into account that evolution, far from being a law, is still a “theory” of origins.

The most powerful arguments were expected to be under the heading of “No Support from Philosophy,” but none are given. He asserts that “nowadays, philosophy is not a welcome place to land,” but does not provide a logical argument why that is so. He does not interact with the theories of current Christian philosophical scholars. Interestingly, one of the most publicized debates between atheist and Christian philosophers have rendered results that seem to contradict the author’s position. Prolific British atheist writer Antony Flew and Christian philosopher/historian Gary Habermas debated the subject of the historical fact of the resurrection of Christ and the scholars present, atheists among them, concluded that Habermas won the debate. Some years later Flew abandoned his atheism when the evidence of intelligent design pointed him to the existence of God.

When it comes to historical evidence, the author asserts that Christianity has massively misused the Jewish Old Testament, but again no proof is given. Christians could point out to Isaiah 53 which describes the life and death of Jesus in astonishing detail, even though it was written hundreds of years before he was born. McKown calls the resurrection a “tale” and incredibly decides that Jesus “never had existence” (p. 589), a point of view that had been quite popular in the eighteenth century but finds no modern support. Jewish historian Josephus wrote about Christ in the first century, and Roman historian Tacitus recognizes the existence of the followers of Christ around the same time. Furthermore, it would be interesting to find out what McKown would do to explain the empty tomb and the origin of the Christian church apart from Jesus’ real existence and resurrection. To assert that the Apostles invented Him would not explain their willingness to die as martyrs for their beliefs.

The author hopes for constitutional guarantees for scientific inquiry “equivalent to those enjoyed by religion” (p. 590) and shares his seven step plan to obtain better science education in American schools. One of them suggests “the possible use of professional sanctions, to help safeguard the integrity of science instruction in public schools and to shield science teachers against uninformed [Christian?] Public opinion” (p. 590). It seems to me that if enforced in the way the author envisions this, especially considering he would like some kind of constitutional amendment to guarantee similar results, it would cut off any and all divergent points of view. It would birth a totalitarian system where dissenters could end up losing their professional status and the opportunity to work for public schools unless willing to conform to the current “scientific” regime. Public (paternal?) opinion would not matter and children could be indoctrinated without any opposition. It seems to me that giving that much power to either side (religious or atheistic) would be a grave mistake. Openness to different points of view in the market place of ideas is a better way to guarantee a better science education.

The author ends his paper appealing to “a new and unique source of truth” that can be used to revise “ethical premises” (p. 591), but he does not clarify how and in what way could science, the science of empirical experimentation, provide a basis for an ethical system, when, by definition, ethical systems are not quantifiable in a laboratory. Is he suggesting that a test tube could be the foundation of morality?

Throughout his writing McKown assumes what he wants to (and should) prove. In the end, one is left wondering if the author did not provide evidence for his many assertions because his goal was to make an emotional appeal only, without a scientific basis, or perhaps because he is not informed enough to do so, or whether evidence for his point of view simply does not exist. In the end, his essay is not worthy to be included in an anthology such as The Well-crafted Argument, because there is a patent lack of any such argument in his biased writing.

G. Jorge Medina
Defenders of the Faith