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December 30, 2005

Commentaries

Joseph Knippenberg
Religion in the Public Square: A Textbook Case

One of the great debates in contemporary legal and political theory is how various participants in a liberal and pluralistic political order should make their arguments. One of the most prominent arguments, advanced by the late Harvard philosophy professor John Rawls and his followers, calls for everyone who wishes to participate in the public square to make use of “public reason,” articulating positions in such a way as in principle to be accessible to everyone. In other words, to be entitled to participate in the public debate, I have to be prepared to offer arguments that depend, not upon a revelation given “only” to me, but upon reasons that are intelligible to our “unaided reason” (I’m tempted to say “to the reason God gave us”). If I can’t offer such reasons, so the argument goes, if I rely upon a faith that I share only with my fellow churchgoers, then my position can’t be admitted into the debate....

It ought to be possible to develop an immediate practical response to this trend by developing “public reasons” for one’s positions by expressing one’s opinions in terms that do not depend upon religion or faith for their force. Whatever one’s deepest personal reasons, one can also offer arguments allegedly accessible to everyone, thereby earning a seat at the table set by the Rawlsians and their followers in the judiciary.

But, as a recent court case suggests, that’s easier said than done. That case, Cobb County School District v. Selman, et al., in which a panel from the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals heard oral arguments last week, deals with a sticker the Cobb County (Georgia) School Board ordered affixed to high school biology textbooks. Here’s what the sticker said:

This textbook contains material on evolution. Evolution is a theory, not a fact, regarding the origin of living things. This material should be approached with an open mind, studied carefully, and critically considered.

Back in January, Federal District Judge Clarence Cooper ruled that this sticker amounted to an un-Constitutional endorsement of religion because it was supported by religious opponents of evolution. Let me repeat: despite the fact that the sticker says nothing about religion, creation, or intelligent design—and encourages open-mindedness, careful study, and critical consideration—and despite the fact that its 33 words are affixed to a textbook that devotes 101 pages to evolutionary theory, it is an affront to the First Amendment Establishment Clause, according to Judge Cooper....

The “scientific” argument is that the sticker’s distinction between “theory” and “fact” is colloquial, rather than scientific. If education is supposed to follow and uphold professional norms, then calling evolution “a theory, not a fact” doesn’t serve an educational purpose and, according to the scientists and science educators, threatens to disserve science education....

...it’s possible to regard the “evolution” of public opposition to evolution (if I may use the term) as precisely an instance of the kind of argumentive adaptation called for by the Rawlsians. Evolution opponents are trying to use “public reason,” offering arguments drawn, not from Genesis, but from the annals of science and from the neutral language of rationalism....

Leaving aside the fate of textbook stickers and science education in Cobb County, Georgia, the arguments surrounding the case also say a great deal about the willingness of the custodians of liberal orthodoxy to accommodate even the muted and translated voice of religion. It seems that adopting the mantle of “public reason”—finding potentially generally acceptable rational arguments for one’s positions—isn’t good enough. So long as one’s motives are suspect, so long as one’s deepest motives are not sufficiently secular and “rational,” one’s positions will be out of bounds, unsuitable for the mixed company of our pluralistic society.

One begins to wonder whether liberal toleration is a sham, offered only to the most docile, and whether liberalism isn’t itself the very sort of orthodoxy it claims to eschew.


Granville Sewell, Professor of Mathematics at the University of Texas El Paso, and visiting professor at Texas A&M University, author of Computational Methods of Linear Algebra, and The Numerical Solution of Ordinary and Partial Differential Equations
Evolution's Thermodynamic Failure

In the current debate over "Intelligent Design," the strongest argument offered by opponents of design is this: we have scientific explanations for most everything else in Nature, what is special about evolution? The layman understands quite well that explaining the appearance of human brains is a very different sort of problem from finding the causes of earthquakes; however, to express this difference in terms a scientist can understand requires a discussion of the second law of thermodynamics....

It is a well-known prediction of the second law that, in a closed system, every type of order is unstable and must eventually decrease, as everything tends toward more probable (more random) states. Not only will carbon and temperature distributions become more disordered (more uniform), but the performance of all electronic devices will deteriorate, not improve. Natural forces, such as corrosion, erosion, fire and explosions, do not create order, they destroy it. The second law is all about probability, it uses probability at the microscopic level to predict macroscopic change: the reason carbon distributes itself more and more uniformly in an insulated solid is, that is what the laws of probability predict when diffusion alone is operative....

The discovery that life on Earth developed through evolutionary "steps," coupled with the observation that mutations and natural selection -- like other natural forces -- can cause (minor) change, is widely accepted in the scientific world as proof that natural selection -- alone among all natural forces -- can create order out of disorder, and even design human brains with human consciousness. Only the layman seems to see the problem with this logic. In a recent Mathematical Intelligencer article ("A Mathematician's View of Evolution," 22, number 4, 5-7, 2000), after outlining the specific reasons why it is not reasonable to attribute the major steps in the development of life to natural selection, I asserted that the idea that the four fundamental forces of physics alone could rearrange the fundamental particles of nature into spaceships, nuclear power plants, and computers, connected to laser printers, CRTs, keyboards and the Internet, appears to violate the second law of thermodynamics in a spectacular way.

Anyone who has made such an argument is familiar with the standard reply: the Earth is an open system, it receives energy from the sun, and order can increase in an open system, as long as it is "compensated" somehow by a comparable or greater decrease outside the system....

According to this reasoning, then, the second law does not prevent scrap metal from reorganizing itself into a computer in one room, as long as two computers in the next room are rusting into scrap metal -- and the door is open....

..."if an increase in order is extremely improbable when a system is closed, it is still extremely improbable when the system is open, unless something is entering which makes it not extremely improbable." The fact that order is disappearing in the next room does not make it any easier for computers to appear in our room -- unless this order is disappearing into our room, and then only if it is a type of order that makes the appearance of computers not extremely improbable, for example, computers....

THE EVOLUTIONIST, therefore, cannot avoid the question of probability by saying that anything can happen in an open system, he is finally forced to argue that it only seems extremely improbable, but really isn't, that atoms would rearrange themselves into spaceships and computers and TV sets....

When you look at the individual steps in the development of life, Darwin's explanation is difficult to disprove, because some selective advantage can be imagined in almost anything. Like every other scheme designed to violate the second law, it is only when you look at the net result that it becomes obvious it won't work.

Posted by Danny Carlton at December 30, 2005 06:43 AM

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