In my previous blog, I talked about the removal of evolution from Turkish high-schools. I specifically said I wouldn’t be touching the religious aspect of the debate, even though it was obviously pertinent. I always avoid talking about religion because I don’t want to discuss my own beliefs (for obvious reasons) yet it's one of my favourite topics to discuss. The interplay between Science, religion and philosophy is a nexus for humanity’s deepest and most profound questions, so it actually takes a lot of self-control to not talk about it more often.
However, I have finally decided to share some thoughts on the issue without getting personal. If I'm careful it should be possible to discuss the debate without giving away where I stand on it. Here is an illustration of what I’m doing...
So, is there a war between Science and religion?
Well, there is a conflict of ideology between religious and non-religious people. And there is a conflict between scientifically literate and scientifically illiterate people. But those two debates do not necessarily correlate. It isn’t as simple as “science = atheism” and “religious = anti-Science.” The real debate isn’t even about Science or religion at all. It’s about which philosophical stance you feel is appropriate.
Science in a nutshell
Science is wonderfully intricate and involved, but we can summarise it as follows: you find the truth by gathering evidence through experiment. It’s the idea that when we look at nature carefully, it’s possible to get an accurate picture of her.
How we specifically do that is where the Scientific method comes in and we have to talk about hypotheses, falsifiable predictions, data, repeatability, reproducibility, statistical analysis, peer review, rejection of ideas, theories etc...but the core idea is simple. Investigate the world and never go with feelings, intuitions or preferences.
It’s also worth qualifying that Science never proves anything with absolute conviction. Being 100% sure of something is the same as being 0% willing to accept you might be wrong. And, given humanity’s fallible nature, we prefer to have confidence rather than certainty.
So, how does this philosophy of finding evidence via experiment tie-in with other approaches? Well, I'm warning you, this is where I have to make things complicated.
Three Little Epistemologies
Science claims that if you investigate the world through experiment it will give you a picture which is reasonably trustworthy. So here's the question: is that the only way to find out what the world is like? There are many who would say yes; if you can’t answer a question through experimental investigation, you can’t answer it at all.
We call knowledge you gather from observation a posteriori. Empiricism is the philosophy that only a posteriori knowledge is trustworthy. If you can’t answer the question through observation, empiricists would say, the answer is unknowable. The most famous empiricists are probably David Hume and John Locke.
A different claim would be to say there is only a posteriori knowledge i.e. if you can’t discover something through Scientific means, it does not exist. This philosophical position is called Logical Positivism. However, there is a version of logical positivism called naturalism which is a much quicker word to type. So I’m going to treat them as if they mean the same thing. If you’re a philosophy student who’s just written a thesis on the difference between naturalism and logical positivism, then I cry your pardon. I know they aren’t quite synonymous, but this blog has the potential to get too mealy.
Both empiricists and naturalists believe in the observable world, but empiricists remain ignorant about non-empirical claims while naturalists rule them out entirely. Some famous naturalists included Voltaire, Maurice Schlick and occasionally Bertrand Russell (although Russell had a habit of hopping from philosophy to philosophy - he was pretty much everything at some point).
Then, there are a third group of people who accept Scientific knowledge but believe you can also know things from logical deduction i.e. you can learn things by thinking. For example, Aristotle argued that a thing cannot be itself and the contradiction of itself simultaneously. You can’t be a living chicken and a dead chicken at the same time. This is a fact about the world but we discovered it without doing any experiments to see if chicken/dead-chicken hybrids exist. We call knowledge like this – knowledge you get without having to leave your bedroom – a priori knowledge.
The philosophy that we should accept a priori knowledge as well as a posteriori knowledge is called rationalism. Almost all the classical Greek philosophers fell into this category, as well as some later ones like Leibniz and Descartes.
What about Religion?
Justice Potter Stewart, when asked to define something which isn’t appropriate to mention in a family-friendly blog, famously said “I know it when I see it”. It can be dangerous to assume your personal definition of a word is universal however, because not everybody interprets the world the same way. And typically the more widely used a word is the more fluid its meaning becomes.
Complex words are often easy to define because they’re rarely used. Take the word "deuteragonist". It means the secondary hero-characters in a story. For example: Mr. Potato Head and Rex in the Toy Story films, Hermione and Ron in the Harry Potter franchise or Morgan Freeman in every film he’s ever been in.
By contrast, it’s the everyday words like “intelligence”, “happiness” or “offensive”, which are hard to pin down. So I’m going to briefly lay down what I mean when I use words like religion and God. These definitions are far from universal (precisely my point – they no longer have universal meaning) but they will serve for this essay.
Religion – First, a religion is a group of people who hold some common belief in the supernatural. By supernatural I’m not referring to things like spooky vampires and ghosts, I’m referring to a class of things not bound by the apparent laws of nature. Things above/beyond/transcendent to this logically bound Universe we find ourselves in, and therefore non-observable. Any belief which claims there is more to the Universe than brute matter following quantifiable laws is a supernatural one.
Second, this group of people must be organised. There are over 4,000 religions in the world and something distinguishes them from a person who believes the ghost of their uncle is haunting the basement. The person who believes in the uncle-ghost has a supernatural belief, but it is not part of a religion. Religions typically feature things such as rituals, meeting places and elders with great knowledge of the supernatural belief.
This is still too vague a definition though. There are many people who go to haunted houses, séances and ghost-hunts together. They believe in the supernatural and have organisation. So I think one more thing religions have is some code of behaviour derived from the supernatural belief. My definition of religion, although not something I would require others to use, is therefore a group of people who:
1) Hold some supernatural belief in common.
2) Have a degree of organization or structure.
3) Adopt a behavioural code deriving from the belief.
God – While most religions, I think, fit the above category, not all believe in God. Taoism and some schools of Buddhism do not have a God concept, but they still believe in things like the soul, reincarnation etc.
Furthermore, those religions which do believe in a God tend to mean lots of different things by it. The only thing common to all definitions of God is that God is a being with significant supernatural power. Attributes such as infinite knowledge, being the maker of the Universe, being all loving etc. are only specific to certain religions and therefore doesn't need to be part of the definition.
Deism – Belief in a certain type of God. This is a God which created the Universe but then ceased interactions. This is an impersonal God, an indifferent and elegant agent of creation, perhaps better described as a supernatural force than a supernatural being.
Theism – Belief in a God who has personal characteristics and chooses to interact with his/her creation at certain times. This God usually has thoughts and desires for how the Universe ought to be. Sometimes this God is seen as having emotions like love. This God may listen to prayers, interact with the world and will sometimes violate natural laws to work miracles. This is the belief that you can see the hand of God in our everyday lives.
Three Becomes Seven
And now the next layer of complexity comes in. Those three philosophies subdivide into people who believe in supernatural things and those who do not. Take the God concept for example. A naturalist would reject the existence of any kind of God (theistic or deistic) because they reject the possibility of anything transcendent to the empirical/natural world. They would argue there cannot be evidence for a supernatural claim.
If the stars suddenly rearrange to form the words “Hello there, I am God and I exist” naturalists would refuse to accept this as evidence for a God, they would simply say it was evidence of stars forming a pattern.
Empiricists might be a little different. An empiricist will commit to a belief if there is empirical evidence for it, but they are still open to the notion of supernatural things. To take the stars example, an Empiricist may interpret such a phenomenon as empirical evidence for God i.e. it is natural and observable, but strongly implies the existence of something transcending it.
Then there are the rationalists. Some of whom will believe there are logical arguments for the existence of a supernatural e.g. the ontological argument for the existence of God, and some who find such arguments unconvincing and logically flawed.
Let's take the God idea and consider what happens to our three philosophies. Initially they subdivide into five, and then they subdivide again into seven (theistic and deistic). Kind of like symmetry breaking in a field theory, a simple picture becomes more intricate when we factor in extra information.
I’ve summarised these positions in a nifty diagram and tried to give the name of the philosophical position they describe, although some of them don’t have names (well, they probably do, just not names I’m aware of...any help?).
You can see why this causes problems. Seven philosophical positions all disagreeing with each other and this is for just one supernatural claim. Religions such as Taoism would fall into one of the atheist categories, but they are still religions. We would get a different grid entirely if we then talked about a supernatural claim like the soul, reincarnation, the afterlife etc.
And even looking at this one supernatural claim leads to confusions. Two negative atheists could completely disagree on whether you can prove the existence of God. An empiricist who doesn't believe in God will still disagree with an empiricist who does. And so on.
The argument we have to have is much more nuanced than “Science vs religion” or “atheism vs religion”. There are multiple factions arguing about what we can know, how we can know it and whether it applies to God or not.
And there is still another philosophy to consider. An eighth way, which has its own ideas about how you can learn the truth. The most popular of all, hands down: fideism or, to give it its more common name, faith.
But You Gotta Have Faith
There is one thing all seven philosophies above agree on: you need evidence to believe something. Empiricists and ratioanlists will disagree about whether you can include philosophical evidence, but they still agree you can't just believe whatever you want. Faith, on the other hand, says you can.
Faith, celebrated in all cultures across our planet, is the idea that you don’t need evidence to believe something. That you are allowed to believe a claim based on feeling. You can believe something simply because you believe it's true.
We might refer to a person as a member of the Catholic Faith but this is an incorrect use of the word. A person is a member of the Catholic Religion. Faith is describing an attitude one has about one’s beliefs, not the beliefs themselves. It is essentially a meta-belief.
Faith is usually defined in one of three ways. It is either “complete trust and belief in something”, “belief based on spiritual apprehension rather than proof” or “belief in something in the absence of evidence”. NB: having complete trust in something can only be achieved without evidence, since evidence can only make you confident, never certain.
It’s hard to talk about this concept critically however, because everyone is taught that faith is a good thing from an early age. When I was younger I remember attending a church which was fond of Matthew 17:20 "Truly I tell you, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, 'Move from here to there,' and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you." And there are no movies where the protagonist succeeds because “she had doubt in herself”. Faith is always praised, but I do think this presents many traps.
For one thing, faith provides no way of deciding which beliefs are true and which are false. People used to have faith in Zeus and Thor. They told stories about them, were willing to die for them and “just knew in their heart” they were real.
But if we decide it’s ok to take things on faith, we essentially give permission for anyone to believe anything. I could claim to believe in faires, boogeymen, pixies, leprechauns etc. etc. I could claim a spirit told me to commit murders...and I could defend it by saying I had faith I was doing the right thing. Who are you to tell me otherwise?
The second problem with faith is that it shows dangerous overconfidence in our own ability. Humans are fallible and prone to making mistakes so it's wise to remember that everything you know, someone else might know it better. It’s not very flattering to our egos, but the likelihood is that we’re not the cleverest person in the world and there’s a very good chance we’re wrong about a great many things.
The moment you decide you’re certain about something you’re essentially saying you can’t be persuaded you’re wrong and that’s dangerous. You should always be prepared to admit fault. Faith opposes this humility. Faith says you can believe something without needing a good reason. Just "feeling it's true" is sufficient. You also don’t have to listen to counter-evidence because you didn’t have any evidence to begin with.
The third problem with faith is that it is not falsifiable and if you can’t subject a claim to testing, you can never check if it’s correct. After all, if you claimed to believe in something on faith I could very easily say I believed you were wrong on faith. Why would my faith that you're wrong be any less convincing than your faith you are right.
This is what Science has a problem with. Science (and the seven philosophies which endorse it) stands for the idea that any belief ought to be based on evidence. It might not necessarily be empirical but simply believing something “because you feel it’s true” is not a legitimate reason. Believing in God is fine, being a member of a religion is fine, but Science would say you ought to have some reason for it, other than a feeling.
So Are There Religious Scientists?
Yes, absolutely. It's like asking whether there are right-wing Scientists or vegetarian Scientists. Passionate atheist Scientists sometimes give the impression that Scientific belief automatically rejects religion, but I don’t think that’s true at all.
There are many well-respected Scientists, both living and dead, who held some supernatural belief. And I'm not just referring to those who lived at a time when religion was the norm, so we'll never know how they really felt (e.g. Isaac Newton). I'm talking about people in communities which accepted atheism, and still became believers. Being religious and being a scientist are not mutually exclusive. What all religious Scientists have in common however is that none of them believe on faith. They are empiricists or rationalists who have reasons for believing a supernatural claim.
If you do have a religious idea that's not a problem for the Scientific community provided you are prepared to abandon it if some test shows it to be incorrect. Any idea, including your cherished ones, ought to be investigated thoroughly. If it stands up to scrutiny, then you go on believing it! However, if you find a particular idea in your religion conflicts with the evidence then you have two options before you.
1) Abandon that idea.
2) Change it to match the evidence.
Taking option 1 doesn't mean you have to give up your religion and taking option 2 doesn't mean you are ignoring the evidence. But I'm afraid those are the only options you have. If you come across evidence which contradicts a deeply held belief, you aren't allowed to reject it or bury your head. If you take the oath of a Scientist, you have to face the facts however inconvenient they may be. No claim can be above investigation and no claim can be based on faith. It's not an easy path to take and I warn you, if you are religious and considering taking Science seriously, you may have some difficult choices and sleepless nights ahead of you. But truth is always worth discomfort.
Ultimately, Science has no quarrel with religion. Individual Scientists might (naturalist ones) but Science is simply trying to investigate the natural world. It says very little about whether there is another one.
On June 23rd Alpaslan Durmus, chairman of the Turkish Education Ministry’s Education and Discipline Board (pictured above) announced that high-school text books will no longer contain a chapter on evolution as of September.
First thing I need to say is: I don’t speak Turkish. I’ve had to find English translations and transcripts of what he said, so if any Turkish speakers feel I’m misrepresenting him please let me know. As far as I can glean though, Durmus said evolution was “debatable, controversial and too complicated for students,” so instead of teaching it in high-school “this section will be delayed until undergraduate study”.
Durmus did make it clear however that students “would still be taught an evolutionary point of view” but this raises a lot of questions. It’s a vague statement because if he’s fine with an "evolutionary point of view" why not just let the topic be taught properly? The whole of Biology comes from an evolutionary point of view so he might as well be saying "Biology will be taught in a Biological context". Until he clarifies what he means, we have to assume the majority of evolution is under threat.
We’re Not Talking About Religion
I’m not going to talk about the religious implications and overtones of this debate. They are relevant of course but that’s not what I’m here for. I never mention my religious beliefs on the blog (I've explained why) and I don’t tell them to very many people. So the best way to read this is not to assume I’m an atheist or religious. Just assume I’m a Science teacher. And, as a Science teacher, I disagree with the decision being made. I’ll do my best to outline why.
Is Evolution Too Complicated?
Durmus says evolution is complicated and therefore shouldn’t be taught in high school. The first objection is obvious: learning things you don’t understand is the whole point of school. His argument seems to be that schools shouldn’t be teaching things children don’t understand. The alternative would therefore be to teach things they already know - another way of saying don’t teach them at all. Learning always involves challenge because it involves putting new information into your brain.
Secondly, most people aren’t stupid. OK, some are not very good at understanding things or come from homes where they aren’t encouraged to think. And yes, all humans are prone to making silly mistakes (myself included). But most people are able to understand something if a) they’re motivated and b) it’s explained properly. Eventually you might find a topic you don’t have the motivation to understand, but it’s up to you as an individual to decide where that line is, not the government.
Now, I do agree with Durmus that evolution is complicated in its entirety. Ideas like punctuated equilibrium, gene transposition, enclaves, limiting factors and the molecular machinery of DNA itself are fiddly concepts. Evolution is definitely tricky...but so is every Scientific topic.
Take light for example. The fully fleshed theory of light involves an understanding of tensor calculus, quantum mechanics, field theory and special relativity, so in high-school we teach an age-appropriate model. This doesn’t mean we lie to children, we just teach them the bits they can handle and move onto the details later.
In year 8 I talk about light travelling in straight lines. In year 9 I talk about the fact that light is a ripple in an invisible field. In year 10 I talk about wave interference. In year 11 I introduce the equations which predict refraction. In year 12 I talk about wave-particle duality and at University, physics undergrads will learn Maxwell’s equations.
At each stage we build the complexity and go deeper in understanding. We don’t always get it right but it means people understand as much as they are able to. Evolution is the same. I wouldn't go straight into a Year 9 class and start talking about phosphylation, but the basics of evolutionary theory aren’t hard to grasp. I’ll prove it:
1) Every living thing has a chemical in its cells called DNA which determines what features it has.
2) When the creature has offspring, the DNA is copied and the child has features of its parents.
3) DNA can mutate slightly.
4) DNA mutations mean a child can be different to a parent.
5) When the child has its own offspring the mutation can get passed on.
6) Sometimes a mutation makes the creature struggle to survive its environment, making it less likely to have offspring – the mutation is less likely to get inherited.
8) Sometimes a mutation gives the creature an advantage to survive its environment, making it more likely to have offspring – the mutation is more likely to get inherited.
9) A large species can end up being split into groups, some with mutation A and some with mutation B, corresponding to different ways of surviving the environment.
10) Run this process for 3.5 billion years of changing climate and geography.
11) The result is that a single species can become the ancestor of every species on Earth.
Which of those points is too complicated for 15-year olds?
Debatable and Controversial
I agree with Durmus on this one too. Evolution is up for debate because every Scientific idea is up for debate. The idea of fires giving out heat is a scientific claim and you’re allowed to debate it. “Debatable and controversial” doesn’t mean "nobody knows if it’s true". It means we’re not arrogant enough to assume we know everything.
Some evolutionists take the wrong tac here and say things like “if you object to evolution it’s because you’re stupid and don’t understand it.” Nope, sorry, that’s the wrong approach. Everyone should be allowed to discuss evolution.
For me personally, evolution is no longer debatable because I had the debate several years ago...and lost it. I went to a school where evolution was vaguely frowned-upon and I started off not believing it. I even decided to research the topic so I could disprove it...but in the process of trying to debunk evolution I found the evidence so powerful (overwhelming in fact) I had no choice but to accept its truth. Perhaps at some point in the future some evidence will come along that forces me to change my mind, if so then fine. That’s what an honest Scientist does. Science involves listening to counterarguments, not dismissing them.
And that’s a problem with what Durmus is saying. While I personally don’t think evolution is debatable I understand that for many it still is. Debates and discussions are a healthy part of a Scientific education but if you remove one side of the issue you can’t have the debate at all.
Durmus says, “If our students don’t have the background, the scientific knowledge, or information to comprehend the debate around controversial issues, we have left them out [of the syllabus]” In other words: if students don’t know the facts they will be unequipped to have debates about them, so we are removing those facts. Simply put “we are removing their ability to debate”. This isn’t how Science works.
Leaving evolution to undergraduate level is not an acceptable compromise either. There are 11 Universities in Turkey offering a degree in Biological Sciences. If we assume approximately 200 places on each course say, and given the population of Turkey, we will end up with around 0.003% of the population being taught evolution. If Durmus truly believes evolution is debatable he should allow a debate to happen. Preventing 99.997% of a population from understanding one of the side’s arguments doesn’t sound like an informed debate to me. A healthy debate about evolution should let evolution have a say. That's what a fair fight looks like.
Teach the controversy
A lot of anti-evolutionists, particularly in America, have adopted the catchy slogan “teach the controversy”. The idea is that because evolution isn’t accepted by everyone we should be teaching alternative ideas in parallel and letting students make up their own minds. This “teach the controversy” idea fails to understand how education works, how Science works and how philosophy works.
Science is all about presenting the evidence and training people to evaluate it. That’s what a Science teacher’s job is. Whether the person actually accepts the evidence is out of the teacher’s hands. There are indeed people who don’t accept evolution and, for them, it’s a controversial topic. But a teacher is supposed to teach what the evidence is, NOT say “here’s some non-evidenced stuff as well”.
Take the theory of rain. The Scientific viewpoint is that clouds are made of water vapour condensing and when the droplets get bigger the warmth from convection fails to support them and they fall. That’s what the evidence says so that’s what we teach in Science class. Let’s consider an alternative explanation: there are water creatures hovering above the clouds (which are actually made of cotton wool). When they cry, the cotton gets full of tears and the rain falls.
Now we have a controversy about rain. But as a Science teacher it’s my job to teach the evidenced idea. You’re welcome to study the water creatures in philosophy class but in Science we’ll look at what the experimental, falsifiable evidence says.
Teach the controversy means “teach things other than evidence” which is another way of saying “go beyond what Science knows.” And I have no right to do that. How dare I be arrogant enough to go beyond the remit of Science? That would be so offensive to parents. For that reason Science teachers aren't permitted to teach any controversy, we are only permitted to teach facts.
Sure, people don’t have to accept rain theory and they are welcome to research and investigate the water creature idea. I will even encourage students to discuss the rain theory and object if they want, but permitting questions doesn’t mean teaching alternatives.
In the Biology classroom I actively encourage discussion about evolution. In fact, on Monday I did exactly that, and let all the students debate with each other on how strong the evidence was. Questions are good in Science; non-evidenced and non-falsifiable hypotheses on the other hand, are not.
Besides, when it comes to evolution we have a bigger problem. The sheer number of alternative explanations for how diverse life arose on Earth would make it impossible to cover them all. Some anti-evolutionists in America might insist we teach the literal creationist account of Adam and Eve found in the Tanakh for instance. But what about all the alternatives to that idea?
In Mayan mythology Kukulhan fashions living things out of corn. In Norse mythology Odin carves wooden logs into the shapes of various animals, including humans. In ancient Egyptian religions Ra crys a river which contains humans as impurities. In Kuban mythology the god Bumba vomits out all life on Earth. And so on.
If we taught the controversy we would have to teach every creation story on Earth and with over 4,000 to go through, that’s quite a lot. Science education should focus on the evidence and that happens to be evolution. Yes, people should be given all the facts and should be permitted to question and debate them, but we just don't have time to teach the controversy, because we'd have to teach every controversy, including things like this...
Science isn’t Political
Perhaps the biggest issue I have with Durmus’ speech is that at one point he says the new curriculum would be “in line with local and national values.” He seems to think Science ought to conform to a particular government or cultural preference. No. No. No.
Science can never be in line with “national values” because Science has no nationality. Science is Universal and represents the facts of an entire cosmos. They cannot be bent to fit a government directive. I’m sorry but if a policy disagrees with facts, shouldn't you change the policy?
And even more worryingly, Durmus seems to be implying that national and local values don’t have to be based on evidence. What should they be based on then? Aren't political decisions more likely to be sensible if they are based on the truth? Am I missing something here?
It's not a Pick 'n' Mix Either
I used to reject evolution when I was younger. I actually preferred the non-evolutionary point of view. I didn’t like having to change my mind and accept something uncomfortable but that's the way reality works. To be intellectually honest with yourself, to have self-respect, is to accept uncomfortable truths rather than brushing them under a rug. I have now grown to love evolutionary theory and appreciate its beauty, majesty and even spirituality.
But to accept one aspect of Science is to accept all the underlying principles which explain it, and therefore all the other things those principles imply. It’s all the same Science.
Right now you’re reading this on the internet. If you’re accepting that the internet exists and this information is really in front of you, you accept the theory of electricity. And that theory is based on particle physics. So you accept the existence of particles as well. To accept particles is to also accept the laws of quantum mechanics and therefore the principles of chemical bonding. Chemical bonding is the theory which underpins DNA and biochemical behaviour. Subsequently you have to believe in the laws of biology and therefore evolution.
Chopping out one bit of evidenced Science is liking chopping out one of the numbers between 1 and 10. It’s all part of the same framework. Perhaps Durmus genuinely does fear for the education of his students, or perhaps there is some other reasoning for the evolutionary ban. I don’t know.
What I do know is that The Republic of Turkey was founded in 1923 by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk and his desire was to build a nation in which Scientific education would be of the highest quality. It was actually part of his political philosophy that Science teachers be given high status and be defended from their detractors. Turkey began with a proud ideology of respecting Scientific advances, rooted in a deep respect for critical thinking. This is a noble dream and I hope one day it is allowed to continue.
I love science, let me tell you why.