The Enduring Problem of Monkey Business

For many people today, the Scopes “Monkey Trial” of 1925 represents a watershed in terms of the relationship between science and religion. John Scopes, the defendant in the case, was a schoolteacher at Dayton, Tennessee, who had deliberately incriminated himself so as to challenge the legality of the then current ban on teaching Darwinian evolution in schools. At the time, the whole business was something of a publicity stunt. Performing monkeys cavorted on the lawns near the courthouse and there was a general carnival atmosphere. Newspaper journalists though, lapped it up. There were over 200 of them in attendance, including the famous H.L. Mencken. This ensured that the trial was widely reported, not just in America, but right throughout the Anglosphere. Although Scopes was found guilty and fined $100, the ruling was subsequently overturned on a technicality. This outcome was widely regarded as a victory for common sense and for the independent validity of science.

At the time, though, the drama played out in the courtroom was not seen primarily as a confrontation between science and religion but, rather, as a confrontation between those Christians who believed in the literal truth of Genesis (sometimes called “young earth creationists”), and those who believed that evolution was not inconsistent with Christian doctrine. With the passage of time, however, the Scopes Trial came to represent a battle between science and religion, especially in the eyes of science popularisers.

If we now come forward some 80 years, we can find another case often cast as a re- run of the Scopes Trial. This time, however, there was a reversal of roles. Now it was not evolutionary theory battling for legitimacy but an aspect sometimes associated with theistic belief—the so-called Intelligent Design (ID) hypothesis. Put simply, the hypothesis supposes that certain recent findings, especially in the biological sciences, make a strong case for the existence of an unspecified intelligent designer—much like Paley’s watchmaker. In 2004 a school board in the town of Dover, Pennsylvania, decided that they would allow high school students to learn of the theory of ID in biology. The curriculum notes stated that:

Students will be made aware of the gaps/problems in Darwin’s theory and of other theories of evolution including, but not limited to, intelligent design. Note: Origins of life is not taught.[1]

This prompted the American Civil Liberties Union to announce a suit against the school board. In the ensuing case, the school board lost, the judgement declaring:

[We] find that while ID arguments may be true, a proposition on which the Court takes no position, ID is not science. We find that ID fails on three different levels, any one of which is sufficient to preclude a determination that ID is science. They are: (1) ID violates the centuries-old ground rules of science by invoking and permitting supernatural causation; (2) the argument of irreducible complexity, central to ID, employs the same flawed and illogical contrived dualism that doomed creation science in the 1980s; and (3) ID’s negative attacks on evolution have been refuted by the scientific community. It is additionally important to note that ID has failed to gain acceptance in the scientific community, it has not generated peer-reviewed publications, nor has it been the subject of testing and research. Expert testimony reveals that since the scientific revolution of the 16th and 17th centuries, science has been limited to the search for natural causes to explain natural phenomena.

 Whatever the reader may think of this judgment, it is clear that what is in contention here is very different from the subject matter of the Scopes Trial. The central argument here concerns the integrity of an approach to science called methodological naturalism. This sets out certain conditions/conventions that must be followed for any enterprise to be called scientific. It defines science as an enterprise that excludes claims about supernatural entities; it maintains that claims about the supernatural are untestable and, finally, that admitting any such claims would destroy science as a system of organised enquiry.

Upon first reading, this may appear as reasonable enough but, in fact, the claims of methodological naturalism have been questioned by many prominent philosophers, including those with no religious beliefs. Many readers may, of course, protest on the grounds that philosophers should keep their noses out of the business of scientists. However to suppose that the scientific method is self-validating is, itself, a philosophical assumption. You cannot completely rid science of all metaphysics for many reasons, the most obvious being that the whole scientific enterprise rests upon the assumption that the world of nature is intelligible. There is no good reason to assume merely on the grounds of scientific principles that our knowledge of the world must render up a true account of things. From time to time, the more percipient amongst mathematicians and scientists are astounded by this conformity of the human intellect with the subjects of its enquiry. In 1960, the physicist and Nobel Prize winner, Eugene Wigner, published a widely-quoted paper titled The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences.[2] He argued that the happy coincidence that mathematics and physics were so well matched seemed to be “unreasonable” and hard to explain. Likewise, an increasing number of biologists and philosophers are astounded by the level of sophisticated order seen in such things as the structure of DNA[3]. The late Anthony Flew, whose conversion from atheism to a nonspecific form of Deism elicited much public interest, cited this as one of the reasons for his change of belief late in life.

In fact, the supposition that the world must be intelligible comes to us first from the ancient Greek philosophers and then from the medieval scholastic philosophers. It was central to Plato’s schema for the world of ideas that the human intellect should have some access to the world of pure forms. This was the only way in which we gained knowledge of the world around us. Much later, the medieval scholastics gave this idea a distinctively Christian interpretation—an interpretation which sustained Western science for the best part of a millennium and allowed great scientists like Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, Boyle and many others, to make their discoveries. These great discoverers expected to find order in the universe and this gave them the confidence needed to search for it.

The other obvious issue stemming from the attempt to validate science from within the discipline concerns the very definition of the word science, and the term ‘scientific method’. For the ancients, science was simply a term for knowledge and the highest form of knowledge was metaphysics—“the science of the real”. Only in the modern era has the term come to denote knowledge about the world of matter. Paradoxically, today science suffers from what might be termed a border protection problem, despite this supposed narrowing down in its fields of operation. In addition to the “hard” sciences, there are areas such as sociology and psychology which now lay claim to being scientific. How does one make a judgement of what constitutes science? For instance in June of 2013, a “science of mind” forum in Melbourne formed part of an international conference on happiness and its causes. This implies that happiness (or sadness) can be measured in much the same way (but with different methods) as, say, electromagnetic radiation or hydrostatic pressure. Is this really so? The above mentioned happiness conference included a dissertation by Professor Helen Fisher, a biological anthropologist from USA, on human love where the question was posed “what do studies on the brain tell us about love”? Very little, I would have thought. But no, Fisher has scanned the brains of young paramours and found that when they’re focusing on the object of their affection, a whole host of brain parts start lighting up. I can do no better than to quote her directly:

No wonder lovers talk all night or walk till dawn, write extravagant poetry and self-revealing e-mails, cross continents or oceans to hug for just a weekend, change jobs or lifestyles, even die for one another. Drenched in chemicals that bestow focus, stamina and vigour, and driven by the motivating engine of the brain, lovers succumb to a Herculean courting urge.[4]

 I don’t want to labour the point, but there does appear to be something fundamentally dodgy about the whole “cognitive science” scenario. When parts of the brain light up in young lovers, as a result of chemical changes, are such changes cause or effect? Furthermore, when Prof Fisher views those brain scans on her monitor, some part of her brain presumably lights up (that part responsible for scientific deduction). Some other neuroscientist might then scan her brain to track down the area responsible. But, in so doing, he or she will also excite some part of his or her brain—and so ad infinitum. We are back to the old subject-object problem.

A strict definition of science—one that the judgement in the Dover School Case had in mind—lays some emphasis on testing and research. Here again, a great deal of modern science, especially in particle physics, is arguably untestable and relies almost entirely on speculation. Concepts such as String Theory, the Landscape, and the Anthropic Principle seem to imply that the famous dictum attributed to Paul Feyerabend, “anything goes”, has been taken up with enthusiasm. String theory requires a multi-dimensional universe and the Landscape proposes that our physical laws are simply those that apply to an infinitely small portion of a “megaverse”—a giant landscape of mathematical possibilities. Even the latest version of the Standard Model has about it a sort of esoteric flavour. Let me quote just three sentences from the CERN website, where a useful summary of the Standard Model is given:

The six quarks are paired in the three generations—the “up quark” and the “down quark” form the first generation, followed by the “charm quark” and “strange quark”, then the “top quark” and “bottom (or beauty) quark”. Quarks also come in three different “colours” and only mix in such ways as to form colourless objects. The six leptons are similarly arranged in three generations—the “electron” and the “electron neutrino”, the “muon” and the “muon neutrino”, and the “tau” and the “tau neutrino”.[5]

Scientific descriptions of this nature remind me of a comment once made by the travel writer, Peter Fleming, in relation to the public statuary of Rio de Janeiro: “So vehement a confusion of thought, so arbitrary an alliance of ideas, takes reason captive and paralyses criticism”.[6]

There are also intractable problems with the term “scientific method”. Is there really such a thing? Philosophers of science seem to disagree on this matter. Sir Karl Popper famously maintained that the method of induction, set out in the earliest days of the scientific revolution by Francis Bacon, was useless. Here, he was simply taking Hume’s scepticism concerning causation to its logical conclusion. Furthermore, he maintained that the true measure of a scientific postulate or theory was not its verifiability but it falsifiability. Other philosophers of science went even further. Feyerabend suggested that the conduct of science should employ “epistemological anarchism” and, to this end, he wrote a book titled Against Method. Yet again, Thomas Kuhn has maintained that what we confidently assert as the scientific method is, at base, a subjective enterprise which depends on historical circumstances. There has been, throughout history, a number of scientific revolutions or “paradigms”, each claiming to have discovered laws concerning the world of nature—laws which have subsequently required significant alteration.

Fortunately, most scientists ignore all these theories and pursue their studies on the basis of common sense. They are happy to accept the intelligibility of the world and to assert that the knowledge they gain about it is objective, not subjective. In fact, the problem of the validity of science and its method only runs into problems when scientists venture outside of their discipline and begin to lay down metaphysical laws. Whereas the common sense version of methodological naturalism remains neutral in respect of the existence of the supernatural, another position, sometimes called metaphysical naturalism or scientific naturalism, banishes any concept of the supernatural from all human inquiry. This is the position of people like Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett. They have somehow formed the notion that belief in any supernatural entity competes with science in some way. In effect their view of science is a religious one and they are zealous proselytisers. Many well-known philosophers have commented upon this, including Mary Midgley (Science as Salvation, 1992[7]; Evolution as a Religion, 1985[8]) and the Australian philosopher David Stove (Darwinian Fairytales, 1995[9]). It also brings to mind Chesterton’s quip concerning the enthusiasm of H.G. Wells for a scientific future—“[He] has sold his birthright for a pot of message”.

One can see why people like Dawkins and Dennett take this line. The enormous success of modern science as an explanatory system can easily lead certain of its devotees to suppose that the enterprise is not only wholly self-validating, but also capable of supplying answers to those enduring questions of purpose and meaning in the world. These very aspects were once the exclusive province of philosophy and religion but, since the time of John Locke, philosophy at least, has become merely the handmaiden of science. We might recall that Locke regarded the purpose of philosopher as being no more than to provide the services of “an under-labourer in clearing the ground a little, and removing some of the rubbish which lies in the way to knowledge”.[10] The explanatory power of religion has fared even worse. Today, it too is often seen as part of Locke’s metaphysical “rubbish”, lying in the path of knowledge. At best, it is only allowed as a private belief system, to be discussed only by consenting adults in the decent obscurity of churches and coffee houses. Its only legitimate public purpose is to give comfort, not to explain. But Locke, or for that matter Hume, has not produced some sort of absolute knockdown argument or endgame. As the American philosopher Thomas Nagel points out, “… our secular culture has been browbeaten into regarding the reductive research program as sacrosanct, on the ground that anything else would not be science”. He goes on to explain his doubts concerning the sort of science advocated by Dawkins and Dennett:

My skepticism is not based on religious belief, or on a belief in any definite alternative. It is just a belief that the available scientific evidence, in spite of the consensus of scientific opinion, does not in this matter rationally require us to subordinate the incredulity of common sense. That is especially true with regard to the origin of life. The world is an astonishing place, and the idea that we have in our possession the basic tools needed to understand it is no more credible now than it was in Aristotles day.[11]

Nagel’s own philosophical position is best described as a form of neutral monism. He believes it possible that matter itself may contain some irreducible mental content, allowing for self-organisation and a natural teleology. He is not disposed towards the idea of ID, lacking, as he says, the sensus divinitatis. But neither will he rule it out of order. For him, the most powerful scientific arguments of the proponents of ID are negative ones—a consideration of the probability of complex molecules such as DNA arising by chance, for instance. But, without question, he sees the biggest problem of scientific naturalism as being its attempted explanation of such things as human consciousness, human cognition, and the concept of value. Similar issues were also of concern to David Stove and Mary Midgley.

The seriousness of this problem is generally not well appreciated. As Nagel points out, the proponents of scientific naturalism seem to take things like “value” or “truth” for granted, but they have little warrant to do so. The application of evolutionary theory to explain our own cognitive capacity actually undermines our confidence in our ability to speak of “truth”. Mechanisms of belief formation acquired by natural selection arise because of their general usefulness, not their truth content. As a corollary, evolutionary naturalism, as a sub set of scientific naturalism, implies that we cannot take any of our convictions seriously, including the scientific world picture upon which evolutionary naturalism is itself based.

There are other problems with the severe application of scientific naturalism. One interesting consequence of banning all supernatural entities from human discourse concerns the use of numbers in science. It hardly needs to be pointed out that mathematics is of critical importance to modern science. As the philosopher Elliott Sober points out, the idea that numbers have a separate and non-subjective existence is quite a respectable position in philosophy. It is sometimes called mathematical Platonism and it entails that numbers are, in some way, supernatural entities. Sober puts it this way:

Consider the claim that there are infinitely many prime numbers. This is a true statement as any number theorist will tell you. But what are these things called numbers? What must they be like for this statement to be true? First it is important not to confuse numbers and numerals; numerals are names for numbers. The statement about primes isn’t about numerals; it’s about the things those names name. The statement would still be true if there were no language users, and hence, no names for the numbers. Indeed the statement would still be true if there were no matter in the universe. This is what leads Platonists to claim that numbers are supernatural entities.[12]

The existence of numbers in this way, as non-physical, non-mental entities has been postulated by many famous philosophers/mathematicians, including, Frege, Russell, Quine and Gödel.

If you do not think that numbers qualify as being supernatural, what about some super-intelligent alien civilization? A scientific postulate called Directed Panspermia has been seriously advanced in the past by notable scientists including Carl Sagan, Fred Hoyle, and Francis Crick. Here, it is supposed that life on earth began when our planet was “seeded” with life by some other advanced life form elsewhere in the cosmos. Would this count as ID?

Yet another problem with scientific naturalism concerns the evolutionary explanation of religion. Since belief in some form of supernatural being(s) has been a feature of human societies throughout recorded history, sociobiologists obviously need to explain the continued existence of such a pervasive human trait in terms of conferred survival value. It might be possible to explain it away as a “spandrel”—a particular development or feature which, although conferring no evolutionary advantage itself, is bound up with some other feature or development which does confer such an advantage. This is hardly a convincing argument. It is an idea which has every advantage except that of clarity, elegance and a demonstrated connection to reality. More promising is the idea that religious belief was once a useful trait, allowing consolidation of power, tribal integrity, etc., but has now outlived its usefulness as a mechanism enhancing survival. Just as the human coccyx, or tail bone, was once useful (as part of an ape’s tail), so it is with religion. We no longer need it as a feature enhancing survival. Indeed, as Dawkins and Dennett tell us, it is counterproductive in this regard. But if this is true, why on the same basis, should our belief in scientific naturalism be any more that a temporary adaptation enhancing survival? We may well jettison it one day and move on to something more “advantageous”.

If we now go back to the ruling in the 2004 case concerning the Dover School Board, it seems to me that the judgement did not consider all of the complexities involved. There are no “centuries old ground rules” for the conduct of science. And ID’s supposed “negative attacks” on evolutionary theory have never been “refuted”, only denied. A refutation would require that science could supply answers to the very real problems that have been raised by the defenders of ID, problems which have also been independently recognised by many philosophers who do not support the idea of ID.

One need not believe in ID as a necessary part of a religious belief system. Indeed, one of the expert witnesses for the prosecution in the Dover School case was Professor John Haught, a Catholic theologian from Georgetown University in the USA. Likewise, one does not have to dismiss ID as being false in order to be a scientist. Here, I agree with Elliot Sober who has provided what he terms a “more modest” claim for methodological naturalism:

Methodological naturalism does not assert that the only way to gain knowledge is by the methods of science. It is a thesis about what scientific theories should assert, not about what non-scientific statements might have to offer.[13]

But are all of the claims of ID non-scientific? It seems to me that there is at least one claim which ought to be regarded as possibly scientific. This concerns the function of the DNA molecule. The biochemist Stephen Meyer has suggested that what is unique about DNA is not so much its structure, but its function. It carries coded information of enormous complexity and such information is not a physical entity any more than a computer programme is. An empty computer disk and one containing a sophisticated computer code are both physically the same. Here, I think, the familiar argument against ID proposed by Hume, an argument based on analogy, does not apply. It is reasonable enough to suppose that complex structures can arise via the operations of natural selection, but the appearance of coded information is not quite the same thing. We must also keep in mind the fact that DNA, or something very similar to it, had to appear in evolutionary history before natural selection could get under way. As Thomas Nagel points out, the coming into existence of the genetic code—an arbitrary mapping of nucleotide sequences into amino acids, together with mechanisms which can read the code and carry out its instructions—seems particularly resistant to being revealed as probable given physical law alone.[14]

C.S. Lewis once wrote an essay titled Bulverism. Here a false method of refutation by an imaginary character, Ezekiel Bulver, was explained

[In sound methods of reasoning] you must show that a man is wrong before you start explaining why he is wrong. The modern method is to assume without discussion that he is wrong and then distract his attention from this (the only real issue) by busily explaining how he became so silly. In the course of the last fifteen years I have found this vice so common that I have had to invent a name for it. I call it “Bulverism”.[15]

A certain amount of Bulverism is almost certainly in play in the ID debate—“you only support ID because you are a Christian”. I also suspect that the more militant of the scientific naturalists may have overplayed their hand in this regard. As the climate change debate has clearly shown, it is not enough for scientists or science popularisers simply to ridicule those who harbour doubts as to the validity of the claims. They must provide convincing argument backed up by data. If this is not done, the general public will lose faith, not just in their claims, but in the whole scientific enterprise. And that would be a pity for ultimately it is the common sense of ordinary people which drives the whole show. They pay for the research.

H.L. Mencken learned this back in 1925. Before the Scopes Trial, he was concerned that there would be little to report so, with help from the poet Edgar Lee Masters, he had a thousand fake flyers printed off and distributed to the Dayton locals. The flyers informed locals that “fundamentalist and miracle worker,” Dr Elmer Chubb, would be coming to Dayton for a “public demonstration of healing, casting out devils, and prophesying.” He would also allow himself to be bitten by any poisonous reptile, drink any poison bought to him, and preach in numerous languages, including archaic ones. Alas, the hoped for enthusiastic reactions were not forthcoming. The locals had, over the years, seen a great many of such prophets and miracle workers come and go. They simply shrugged or shook their heads and went on about their usual business. “The simian faithful of Appalachia” did not perform to Mencken’s expectations. I suspect the same will happen to the prophets of scientific naturalism.

Dr B.J. Coman is the editor of Connor Court Quarterly and the author of the essay collection
A Loose Canon.



[1] This and the following quote come from an account of the trial at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kitzmiller_v._Dover_Area_School_District Accessed 11/12/13. Full transcripts are also available on the Web.

[2] “The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences,” in Communications in Pure and Applied Mathematics, vol. 13, No. I (February 1960). New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

[3] This has led a number of well-known biologists to postulate Intelligent Design, a concept regarded as anathema to those devotees of methodological naturalism. See for instance Signature in the Cell, by Stephen Meyer (Harper Collins, 2009) and Darwin’s Black Box by Micheal Behe (Touchstone, NY 1996).

[4] Information from: http://www.positscience.com/brain-resources/brain-facts-myths/brain-in-love. Accessed 11/12/13. The Happiness Conference took place at the Melbourne Convention Centre in June, 2013 and was enthusiastically reported by the media.

[5] This account at the CERN Website: http://home.web.cern.ch/about/physics/standard-model. Accessed 11/12/13

[6] Brazilian Adventure, 1933. Quoted in Christmas Crackers by John Julius Norwich, Penguin Books, 1980.

[7] Routledge, London, 1992

[8] Methuen, London, 1985

[9] Encounter Books, N.Y., 2006 (reprint)

[10] An Essay Concerning Human Understanding

[11] Thomas Nagel, Mind and Cosmos, Oxford University Press, 2012

[12] Elliott Sober, Did Darwin Write the Origin Backwards?, Prometheus Books, Amherst, N.Y., 2011

[13] Sober, op. cit.

[14] Nagel, op. cit. The work of Michael Polanyi is also relevant here. See especially M. Polanyi and H. Prosch, Meaning, Univ. Chicago Press, 1975.

[15] Reprinted in God in the Dock, Fontana Books, 1979

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