The philosopher Daniel Dennett visited us at the University of Delaware a few weeks ago and gave a public lecture entitled "Darwin, Meaning, Truth, and Morality." I missed the talk¯I was visiting my sons at Notre Dame and taking in the Notre Dame-Navy football game. Friends told me what I missed, however. Dennett claimed that Darwin had shredded the credibility of religion and was, indeed, the very "destroyer" of God. In the question session, philosophy professor Jeff Jordan made the following observation to Dennett, "If Darwinism is inherently atheistic, as you say, then obviously it can’t be taught in public schools." "And why is that?" inquired Dennett, incredulous. "Because," said Jordan, "the Supreme Court has held that the Constitution guarantees government neutrality between religion and irreligion." Dennett, looking as if he’d been sucker-punched, leaned back against the wall, and said, after a few moments of silence, "clever." After another silence, he came up with a reply: He had not meant to say that evolution logically entails atheism, merely that it undercuts religion.
Jeff Jordan’s question underlines how the self-appointed defenders of the scientific method are trying to have it both ways. Don’t allow religious philosophy to intrude into biology classrooms and texts, they say, for that is to soil the sacred precincts of science, which must be reserved for hypotheses that can be rigorously tested and confronted with data. The next minute they are going around claiming that anti-religious philosophy is part and parcel of the scientific viewpoint.
One of the glories of science is that people come together to do it who have all sorts of religious beliefs, philosophical views, cultural backgrounds, and political opinions. But as scientists they speak the same language. It is a wonderful fellowship. I have written research papers with colleagues (and friends) who are fierce atheists and think my Catholic beliefs are for the birds, and they know that I think their atheism is for the birds. Yet we respect each other as scientists. People like Dennett who wish to equate science with their own philosophical views (presumably out of vanity) risk doing immeasurable harm both to science itself and to its prestige. He is entitled to his philosophical opinions, but he is not entitled to claim them as the utterances of Science.
I believe it was Dennett who coined the term "brights" for those who reject religion on scientific grounds. Dennett would of course make his own list of "brights", but poor Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, Newton, Boyle, Lavoisier, Ampère, Faraday, Maxwell, Kelvin and almost every other founder of modern science wouldn’t make his list. I am sure they don’t mind, however. They will make the list of people who have actually contributed to human knowledge.
(Stephen Barr is a theoretical particle physicist at the Bartol Research Institute of the University of Delaware, and a member of the editorial board of F IRST T HINGS .)
In addition to which:
It is usually attributed to Monsignor Ronald Knox, and Father Edward T. Oakes quotes it in his discussion of brain and consciousness in the forthcoming issue of F IRST T HINGS :
There was a young man who said
Must think it exceedingly odd
If he finds that this tree
Continues to be
When there’s no one about in the
"Dear Sir, your astonishment’s odd;
I am always about in the Quad
And that’s why this tree
Will continue to be
Since observed by . . . Yours faith-
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