If I Only Had a Brain

tothesource has been keeping you up with the news on the latest battles in the ongoing struggle between Secularists and religious believers. Well, this week we have no news to report, and it will take some time to report it.
January 10, 2007  
Dear Concerned Citizen,
by Dr. Benjamin Wiker

It is no news because it is old news. The Secular Revolution has been going on for at least four centuries. By now, some of the tactics of Secular Revolutionaries are quite tiresome, and we’re here to report on one of the most tried and tedious: the Scarecrow argument, as though religious believers are like the Scarecrow of The Wizard of Oz wishing, "If I only had a brain."

It is the assumption that faith is entirely irrational. At most it is something of the heart, but it is nothing of the head.

This came out recently in a response by Steven Pinker to Harvard University’s Report of the Committee on General Education. Harvard, of course, needs no introduction. Steven Pinker, however, may need one to our readers.

Steven Pinker, Johnstone Family Professor of Psychology at Harvard is one of our age’s chief atheists, and author of many influential books on the human mind.  You may have heard of him as an unabashed proponent of infanticide, or perhaps, as declaring that the mind is merely the brain. In either case, he makes quite clear that he is no friend of religion.

Imagine his ire, when Harvard’s Committee on General Education suggested that students take courses under a “Reason and Faith” requirement.  For Pinker, this was a scandal. “Universities are about reason, pure and simple,” he trumpeted. “Faith—believing something without good reasons to do so—has no place in anything but a religious institution, and our society has no shortage of these. Imagine if we had a requirement for ‘Astronomy and Astrology’ or ‘Psychology and Parapsychology.’”  To give such significance to religion “is to give it far too much prominence.” After all, religious belief “is an American anachronism. I think, in an era in which the rest of the West is moving beyond it.”

So, there you have it. As simple double equation: Science = Reason and 
Religion = Irrationality. What could be simpler…and more inaccurate?

Before we attend to the inaccuracy, let us meditate upon the simplicity. The simple slogan-like identity of religion and irrationality is an awfully useful tool for someone like Pinker who would have us complete the secular revolution in America that he evidently thinks has already succeeded in Europe. Who wants to be on the side of irrationality?
The problem with Pinker’s simple identity of Religion and Irrationality is that it is unreasonable.  That is (to use his own words) it is something he believes without good reasons for doing so. And that fits very nicely his definition of faith—in his case, a secular faith.

Why is it unreasonable? Because it is woefully inaccurate, both in regard to religion and in regard to science. To begin with the latter, even a quick read through the history of science makes clear that it is full of both faith and what we would now call irrationality.

Faith in science? Indeed, let us count the ways. As philosophers and historians of science have made quite clear, scientific advance occurs not merely by gathering dry and self-evident facts, but (1) by faith in an intelligible order to nature, (2) by faith in the power of the human mind to discover that order, and more particularly, (3) by faith in a particular as-yet unproven hypothesis about this or that aspect of nature.

Irrationality in science? Indeed, the instances are uncountable. Historians of science would inform him immediately that it is nearly impossible to separate Astronomy from Astrology; or to put it another way, modern Astronomy was built upon Astrology (just as modern chemistry was built upon Alchemy). Pinker’s own discipline, Psychology, has got more than its share of balderdash. What could be less scientific than Freud? Yet, he was once all the rage. 

There is one reasonable surety one can glean from the history of science: today’s spectrum of pet theories, especially in psychology, will provide its share of laughable peculiarities for history’s dustbin.

But what about religion? Is it irrational? It has been a strategy of Secular Revolutionaries for several centuries declare it so.  The truth, however, is that properly speaking faith is supra-rational.  That is, faith is something above reason, not against reason. In that, it forms a perfect analogy with science.

In science, faith that there is a discoverable order of nature, that the universe isn’t just a jumble, but a kind of unified, complex, intelligible whole, is not something that reason has established. It is something that reason hopes for, as a thing unseen, a thing above reason, that makes possible the piecemeal attempts by the various sciences to move forward in confidence that their efforts are not in vain.

In religion—and here, I will only speak of Christianity because I must speak from inside—faith in God’s Providence not only includes the scientist’s faith in the universe being a unified, complex, intelligible whole, but also faith in the revealed design of human life stretching from this world to the next. 

Christians don’t (or shouldn’t) deny the story of the universe; they simply think that it fits into a larger, more comprehensive story. Since God is the Creator, the larger story does not cancel out the smaller story. It puts the smaller into the proper perspective, the perspective of eternity, and reveals its far greater depths.

The essential problem with Mr. Pinker’s simple equation, then, is that things just aren’t that simple. They seem so simple because he is a strict reductionist who believes that he can reduce the vast depth of the human soul to the neuronal activity of the brain. Thus, for him, being rational means being a materialist, and anyone who is not a materialist is irrational—a rather sectarian definition.  Science = Materialism = Rationality. That simple equation was the declared creed of Marx.  Recall, it wasn’t too long ago that Marxists everywhere thought they had scientifically reduced all the complexities of human society and thought (including religion) to the modes of production. Happily, that bloody materialist superstition has all but passed away.

Pinker has faith that materialist psychology can replace the soul with the brain.  I wager that his faith will prove as unreasonable and unscientific as Marxism.

Replacing the "white-coated technician in the sky"

Steven Pinker rejects faith in a supreme being as irrational and puts forth science as being supremely rational. As he said in a Time Magazine article “It's natural to think that living things must be the handiwork of a designer. But it was also natural to think that the sun went around the earth. Overcoming naive impressions to figure out how things really work is one of humanity's highest callings.” And so, one of our highest callings is science, and science tells us that evolution is not only demonstrably true but proves that belief in the existence of God is demonstrably false. Natural selection displaces God as the ultimate driving moral force.

Now we might wonder whether Pinker’s own view of science is itself rather nave. But laying that larger question aside, we turn to what he apparently thinks is one humanity's other highest callings, the call to be moral. To those who might wonder worry that the rejection of God might bring moral chaos, Pinker replies reassuringly,

“Many people who accept evolution still feel that a belief in God is necessary to give life meaning and to justify morality. But that is exactly backward. In practice, religion has given us stonings, inquisitions and 9/11. Morality comes from a commitment to treat others as we wish to be treated, which follows from the realization that none of us is the sole occupant of the universe. Like physical evolution, it does not require a white-coated technician in the sky.”

And so we can infer, putting one and one together, that evolutionary science actually frees us from nave religious beliefs that cause moral atrocities like stonings, inquisitions, and 9/11. Furthermore, so Pinker holds, once we have cleared history of the historical blight of religion, morality is really a rather simple matter: “to treat others as we wish to be treated, which follows from the realization that none of us is the sole occupant of the universe.”

That’s a rosy-nice principle, somewhat representative of what Jesus Christ taught. But what does it mean in the context of the kind of universe that Pinker believes in, a universe governed not by a Moral Lawmaker but evolution?

As Pinker made clear in his rather notorious essay, “Why They Kill Their Newborns,” it means turning moral crimes into evolutionary misdemeanors. While we may think it is tragic and regrettable, a mother killing her newborn (neonaticide) is not morally blameworthy because it is something hardwired into mothers by evolution.

Here’s his allegedly scientific proof. Neonaticide “has been practiced and accepted in most cultures throughout history.” Why? Because it has evolutionary advantages for mammals in general:

“a capacity for neonaticide is built into the biological design of our parental emotions. Mammals are extreme among animals in the amount of time, energy and food they invest in their young, and humans are extreme among mammals. Parental investment is a limited resource, and mammalian mothers must ‘decide’ whether to allot it to their newborn or to their current and future offspring. If a newborn is sickly, or if its survival is not promising, they may cut their losses and favor the healthiest in the litter or try again later on.”

Now it seems difficult, to say the least, to see this reasoning as conforming to the rosy-nice principle that we should “treat others as we wish to be treated, which follows from the realization that none of us is the sole occupant of the universe.” It seems as if the mother, confronted with another occupant of the universe, her own baby, is acting precisely as if the baby is a non-occupant.

Yet, we must admit that Pinker’s reasoning is quite scientific if belief in Natural Selection as the driving moral force of the universe has indeed displaced belief in God and his moral demands. And if our culture embraces this reasoning of some scientists then the inevitable result will be to replace "a white-coated technician in the sky" with "a white-coated technician" from below.

Benjamin Wiker

Far from embracing Pinker's ethic allowing neonaticide (the killing of disabled babies) triathlete Dick Hoyt welcomes life with his son, Rick.

Click to view this father son team

Good ethics leads to good science

When researchers recently announced that they had derived stem cells from amniotic fluid that exhibit many of the same attributes and potential often assigned to embryonic stem cells, it was a great step forward for science. Here was a potentially unlimited source of stem cells for use in research and, perhaps one day, medical therapies—that could be obtained without harming nascent human life. Even the mainstream media applauded.

This exciting scientific breakthrough highlighted a little remarked upon beneficial consequence of President George W. Bush’s policy restricting federal funding for embryonic stem cell research: Good ethics makes for good science. By controlling the purse strings, Bush created a powerful incentive for scientists to find ethical approaches to stem cell science that do not destroy human life. This, in turn, unleashed the imagination and creativity of scientists to find a “third way” to promote stem cell science without sacrificing crucial moral imperatives.

In the last several years, scientists have developed exciting avenues of research and scientific theories from which to build a robust regenerative and ethical medical sector. If these avenues of research pan out, not only will no embryos be destroyed, but many of the difficulties associated with embryonic stem cell research and human cloning (somatic cell nuclear transfer), such as tumor formation, tissue rejection, will be overcome. These ethical avenues of research include:

  • Stem Cells Found in the Byproducts of Birth: Every baby that comes into the world brings a wonderful gift: stem cells found in umbilical cord blood, placenta, and amniotic fluid. Umbilical cord blood stem cells are already being used in medical treatments and in human trials. If this research proceeds as expected, the birth of every baby will be a double reason for joy. And more good news: the properties of these stem cells make tissue matching far less of a problem than it is even with bone marrow.
  • Adult Stem Cells: Stem cells from bone marrow, blood, fat, brain, among many others, are being increasingly identified and used in medical treatments and human research. Some of the results have been stunning. For example, people paralyzed with spinal cord injury have had partial feeling restored with stem cells and other olfactory tissues found in their own nasal passages in early experiments. Human trials have also found that adult stem cells may be able to stop the progression of multiple sclerosis. These are only two of the 72 examples in which human maladies have received some benefit from adult/umbilical cord blood stem cells.
  • “Alternative Sources:” Meanwhile, research is underway to obtain embryonic-type stem cells without destroying embryos. In addition to being used for potential therapeutic purposes, these stem cells could open the door for basic research into embryology that scientists claim is another reason for promoting ESCR. For example, Japanese researchers recently reported that they “regressed” the skin cells from the tails of rats back to an embryonic state. Meanwhile, Dr. William Hurlbut of Stanford University, has promoted Altered Nuclear Transfer (ANT), through which he hopes to be able to create stem cell tissue structures through a process similar to SCNT, but without an embryo ever having come into being. This process seems to have worked in mice and may soon be tried using primates.

Despite these advances in ethical research, Big Biotech, bioethicists, and many politicians are still zealously seeking to overturn President Bush’s stem cell funding policy, based on the alleged superiority of embryonic stem cells for treating our most debilitating maladies. But that dog has lost the ability to hunt. Recent scientific development demonstrates that we do not have to sacrifice basic moral truths in the name of science. We can develop a robust regenerative medical sector and maintain proper ethics, too.

Wesley J. Smith

Scientists Push to De-select the Disabled

The American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology published in its January journal that all women, regardless of age, should be offered tests for Down syndrome; but Dr. Gene Rudd, senior vice president of the Christian Medical & Dental Associations (CMDA), says debate over this recommendation all boils down to intentions. He is concerned the testing will ultimately cause an increase in abortions because parents do not want to raise a handicapped child. Previously, women over the age of 35 were targeting for Down syndrome testing because about 1 in 300 babies born to these women have that condition. The CMDA's Dr. Rudd says his organization does not respond to the OB-GYN group's recommendation with blanket condemnation since there are instances where Down syndrome testing can be used for good. "The test in itself is not evil," he explains. What is potentially evil is "how we can misuse it to do something that's outside of God's design for us," Rudd says. The way that can happen, he says, is by allowing the development of a culture that devalues life to the extent that it only wants to support life that is deemed "good, normal, and desirable." Prenatal testing has its uses, the Christian doctor suggests, but it should never be used as a way to justify terminating an innocent child's life, simply because the unborn baby is handicapped.

Mary Rettig/Agape Press

Meanwhile at M.I.T...

The Faith of Great Scientists January 2006 MIT Independent Activities Period Seminar and Discussion Series. How did the Christian faith, which so many great scientists professed, influence their scientific thinking, and how did their science affect their faith?

Ben Wiker  Trans Benjamin Wiker
Benjamin Wiker holds a Ph.D. in Theological Ethics from Vanderbilt University, and has taught at Marquette University, St. Mary's University (MN), and Thomas Aquinas College (CA).

He is now a Lecturer in Theology and Science at Franciscan University of Steubenville (OH), and a full-time, free-lance writer. Dr. Wiker is a Senior Fellow of Discovery Institute and a Senior Fellow at the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology. He writes regularly for a variety of journals.

Dr. Wiker has written four books, Moral Darwinism: How We Became Hedonists (IVP), The Mystery of the Periodic Table (Bethlehem), Architects of the Culture of Death (Ignatius), and most recently, A Meaningful World: How the Arts and Sciences Reveal the Genius of Nature (IVP).

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