Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

And when I die,and when I'm gone . . .

According to the Sutras, Sidhartha Gautama said that it was pointless to speculate about first causes, by which he meant such questions as why does the world exist. He also said that people believe in various gods and concepts of god but he would not get involved in those debates.

As a philosopher, I certainly don't put myself in the same league as Buddha, but I do try to follow his example here. It seems that people imagine I have written all sorts of things that I have not. I have not, for example, specifically addressed the existence of God. I have said that the cosmos is more than 13 billion years old, and unimaginably vast; that the earth is more than 4 1/2 billion years old, and life on earth more than 3 1/2 billion years old; and that the species which are here today arose by evolution, descending from a common ancestor, a single cell. I don't think I have actually said it, but I probably have implied, at least, that it is not necessary to invoke "intelligent design" or any supernatural force to explain the development of complex forms from simpler ones by evolution. Finally, I have said that if you want to invoke God as the explanation for something, you need to define what you mean by God. That doesn't seem too much to ask.

For some reason, there are people who think that all of this means that my life must be without meaning, that I am incapable of love or experiencing love, that my existence is empty and pointless, that I am without ethics, that I have no spiritual life. Let me put you all at ease. That is assuredly not the case, any of it. Somebody also called me an idiot, which I am pretty sure is not accurate. (And seems a rather un-Christian thing to say, no?)

The reason I insist on these conclusions is simply because, if we are to make good decisions about health and health care, whether in general, or for ourselves and our loved ones, we need to have accurate information. That includes accurate information about human biology, and about the biosphere of which we are a part. Evolution is extremely important because it is the explanation for our biology and for the biosphere, and because it is going on right now, all around us.

One example of why this is important, the one that got me started on the whole thing, is that the pathogens that attack us, which have plagued human existence from time immemorial, are evolving, and they do it very fast. They are threatening to escape from the drugs we use to control them, which will be very bad news for us. To understand how to prevent this, you have to understand evolution. But that's not the only reason why evolution is important, and I'm planning to go onto other very important subjects, from diabetes to cancer.

So I discuss these matters because I believe in the truth. I believe in what's real. Unfortunately, according to poll results reported in Science magazine and noted today in the New York Times, the percentage of people who agree with the statement "Human beings, as we know them, developed from earlier species of animals," is lower in the United States than in any European country except Turkey.

Yup, Americans disagree with the Christians, but agree with the Muslims. 85% of Finns agree, but only about half of Americans. That is profoundly sad. In fact, it is shameful.

In the same issue of the Times, Lawrence M. Krauss writes:

But perhaps more worrisome than a political movement against science is plain old ignorance. The people determining the curriculum of our children in many states remain scientifically illiterate. And Kansas is a good case in point.

The chairman of the school board, Dr. Steve Abrams, a veterinarian, is not merely a strict creationist. He has openly stated that he believes that God created the universe 6,500 years ago, although he was quoted in The New York Times this month as saying that his personal faith “doesn’t have anything to do with science.” “I can separate them,” he continued, adding, “My personal views of Scripture have no room in the science classroom.”

A key concern should not be whether Dr. Abrams’s religious views have a place in the classroom, but rather how someone whose religious views require a denial of essentially all modern scientific knowledge can be chairman of a state school board.

I have recently been criticized by some for strenuously objecting in print to what I believe are scientifically inappropriate attempts by some scientists to discredit the religious faith of others. However, the age of the earth, and the universe, is no more a matter of religious faith than is the question of whether or not the earth is flat.

It is a matter of overwhelming scientific evidence. To maintain a belief in a 6,000-year-old earth requires a denial of essentially all the results of modern physics, chemistry, astronomy, biology and geology. It is to imply that airplanes and automobiles work by divine magic, rather than by empirically testable laws.

Dr. Abrams has no choice but to separate his views from what is taught in science classes, because what he says he believes is inconsistent with the most fundamental facts the Kansas schools teach children.

Similarly, a recent poll finds that 50% of Americans believe Saddam Hussein possessed so-called "Weapons of Mass Destruction" at the time the U.S. invaded. Let me tell you right now, in case you have any doubt, that is categorically false, and the CIA, the U.S. Army, and even Dick Cheney agree with me. People may disagree about whether or not it was a good idea for the U.S. to invade Iraq, but they have to base their opinions on the facts. The same goes for health and medicine.

So, as for purpose and meaning, and all that. The Bible says, "You are dust, and you will return to dust." That is indeed our fate. But I intend to make a difference, and leave something behind. People who spend all their time worrying about a world beyond, instead of this one, will leave nothing.

. . . There'll be one child born, and a world, to carry on, to carry on.

No comments: