Last month, the state of Tennessee passed legislation to protect teachers at public high schools who question the scientific evidence for evolution. Defenders of the legislation insist it simply protects “academic freedom.” Critics claim it will allow creationism to be taught in science classes.
The evolution-creation debate is profound. It invites reflection upon the most basic questions of human existence. Unfortunately, the people driving the debate seem to be those least capable of understanding its significance.
In fact, the evolution-creation debate is one of those rare instances where the majority of people on both sides are seriously misguided.
The advocates of creationism are mistaken in thinking that the problem with evolutionary theory lies in the inadequacy of scientific evidence supporting it.
But many defenders of evolution have been irresponsible in claiming that natural selection can explain not only biological development but all aspects of human culture, including ethics.
If one begins with the assumption that all ways of understanding the world other than the scientific mode of thinking are irrelevant, then of course one will think that the only good explanations are scientific ones. But that is an assumption entirely unsupportable by scientific evidence. It requires a philosophical argument.
A case in point is Stephen Hawking, who, at a conference last year, made the observation that “almost all of us must sometimes wonder: Why are we here? Where do we come from? Traditionally, these are questions for philosophy, but philosophy is dead.” Hawking believes only science can answer the fundamental questions of human existence. The problem is, that itself is a philosophical belief, not a scientific one.
One way to understand the difference between science and philosophy is to reflect that there are two basic types of explanation: causes and reasons. Scientific explanations deal with causes, which explain how things happen. Philosophical explanations deal with reasons, which explain why things happen.
Because our language is ambiguous, it is not always clear whether we are talking about reasons or causes. For example, if I were to ask John why he kicked the cat, he could say, “Because my leg twitched” (cause), or he could say, “Because I hate cats” (reason). The science of physiology may explain what caused his leg to twitch, but it could not explain why he hates cats or whether his hatred of cats is a sufficient reason for kicking them. That simply requires a different type of explanation.
Consider the question “Is generosity a virtue?” It is possible to give a scientific answer explaining the survival advantage of various character traits, but that would not give anyone a reason to be generous. It would just explain how the belief came about.
It is bad science to claim that evolution cannot explain biological development, and it is bad philosophy to claim that evolution can explain ethics. The evidence in support of natural selection is overwhelming, but natural selection does not explain everything that is important about human life, for example, why it is wrong to kick cats and good to be generous.
Because science and philosophy employ different kinds of reasons, they have different criteria for determining truth and falsity. But because creationists are infatuated with scientific reasoning, they are unwilling to acknowledge that non-scientific claims may be (literally) true, and so they insist that a proper understanding of human nature can be obtained only in the science classroom. The result is that there is no place within the public school curriculum to suitably address the basic question that underpins all of ethics: What gives life meaning?
The real tragedy is that neither side in the debate appreciates the creation story for what it really has to offer: genuine insight into the reasons for human existence. By insisting that the evolution-creation debate is only about science both sides ensure that the fundamental questions about human purpose will never be answered to anyone’s satisfaction.
The members of the Tennessee legislature may be correct in thinking that there
is something wrong with the content of public education, but their solution just makes the problem worse.
What we really need is some basic education in philosophical reasoning, beginning with those who wish to influence school curriculum.
The Ethical Life is a series of reflections on the ways ethical thinking influences our actions, emotions and relationships. Richard Kyte is the director of the D.B. Reinhart Institute for Ethics in Leadership at Viterbo University.