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Letter: When theories become fact

From Joe Killin, Lakeland, FL:

I am a nineteen year old college student in Lakeland, Florida, I am a self-proclaimed thinker, and more often than not, I am a fool. I was originally homeschooled as a child by -- of course -- my mother. I have been brought up as a Christian (a term I hate, by the way), I've been educated with Christian cirriculum, but only recently did I decide that I wanted to be a Christian.

I'm sure you have received a multitude of letters on this topic already, but I hope mine stands out because I want to point out some things that I have not seen anyone else point out -- namely, things about our culture's way of educating people.

In these United States, the way we educate people is largely to blame for their ignorance, not just of religious history but also of everything else, be it politics, economics, or science. We like to have things neatly wrapped and handed to us in the form of catchphrases (i.e. WMD, global warming and greenhouse gases, and "Diamonds are foever"). These phrases are merely the excretions of marketers, who know that if they spray their s--t with air freshener, we'll start calling it potpourri. These marketing schemes -- some of which are ingenious -- become fodder for the masses, the jokes for comedians, and the bane of the intellectuals.

In this culture, we want it all shrink-wrapped for ease of transportation, compressed so we can play it on our iPods, and folded so we can put it in our dressers. In short, we want our version of the truth to be able to fit in the palms of our hands. But when you try to cut the truth down to pocketbook size, you find there are many pages missing.

In the days of Jesus, Jewish children went through three stages of learning: the first being Beth-Sefer (ages 6-10); the second being Beth-Talmud (ages 10-14); the third's name I have conveniently forgotten at this moment (ages 14 and up). In Beth-Sefer, children were required to memorize the first five books of the Bible, known to Jews as the Torah. In Beth-Talmud, they had to memorize the rest of the Old Testament, a total of 39 books. In the third stage of learning, the children would go out seeking to become disciples of Rabbis. If they did not get accepted to become disciples, they went home and learned the family trade.

I want to highlight the Beth-Talmud stage, because this is where I am fascinated by Jewish customs of education. In addition to memorizing the entire Old Testament, they were taught to ask questions. In America, if a teacher asks a student, "What is 2 + 2?" the child's response would be, "4." For a Jewish child in the 1st Century A.D., the answer would be, "What is 16 divided by 4?" If you've read the Gospels, you'll probably notice that Jesus is always asking questions. Whenever the Pharisees challenged him with a question, his response would be a question, too.

But in this culture, we spit back what we've been taught without ever considering the legitimacy of it. In some cases, we'd be stupid to try to challenge what we're taught (I think scientists have proved we all breathe oxygen), but in other cases, where the evidence is decidedly ambiguous, why do we teach our theories as fact? Take evolution, for example. Now there is a theory with a lot of science behind it; however, there are more questions raised by this science than there are answers. Why then do we so staunchly defend evolution as if there are no doubts about its validity? You can say the same thing also about Intelligent Design or Jesus' existence. I think that's where faith comes in.

But this culture loves to dine on faith. We believe what we want, and be damned if we're challenged! Instead of being taught to ask questions, we've been taught to accept as truth, even when in doubt. And when something does come along that challenges us -- let's say... "The Da Vinci Code"! -- we recoil in horror. Those who read the book and think that there's a shred of truth in its message are the self-proclaimed "open-minded" who have, in fact, let their minds become so open that their brains have fallen out. And when you have no brain (like Mongo in "Blazing Saddles"), you merely believe whatever you are told, even if that candygram is really a bomb.

So we need to be open to questions and challenges. And we need to be educated enough that a fad won't change our beliefs. If only there was a saying that encapsulated these two previous sentences. Oh, right, there was one, and it came from the Bible, no less: "Do all things in moderation."

Dear Joe:

You bring up so many good points about education and the marketing of simplistic ideas as universal truths. I share your admiration for the orthodox Jewish tradition of studying scripture and always asking questions, challenging authority, and finding answers (or doubts, or more questions) for oneself. In Judaism, doubt is inextricable from faith, and that always made sense to me, while more dogmatic religious approaches rang hollow. As Karen Armstrong says (in the Salon.com interview I keep pointing everyone to), so many modern people treat the bible as if it were an Atkins diet book: Just do this, believe this, and you get instant salvation! Of course, that undisciplined approach is not Christianity, it's not even religion; it's just a form of pseudo-spiritual fad dieting.

But I think what you're describing goes straight to the heart of the problem of education: Students are not necessarily taught the discipline of critical thinking. That discipline not only applies to focused, in-depth study and memorization of knowledge (as in the Beth-Talmud education you cite), but also to understanding the distinctions between different ways of thinking, knowing and understanding. (This is why you won't find many orthodox Jewish backers of "Intelligent Design" -- such an incoherent jumble of religious thinking and scientific thinking is... well, unthinkable.)

It's lovely to say (in a hippie-love-child, New Agey way) that everyone is free to believe whatever he or she wants. But the reality is, believing something doesn't make it so -- no matter how strongly somebody may believe it. To a lot of people, that doesn't matter; they want to believe what they want to believe, and external contradictory evidence is irrelevant. Well, in this country they have a constitutional right to their stubbornness or blindness or idiocy or whatever you want to call it, but nobody else is required to respect it.

Armstrong speaks of Plato's distinction between mythos (religious or mythological/figurative thinking) and logos (logic, or scientific thinking). One is not superior to the other, one does not cancel out the other; they are both necessary, but they are quite different. (And we now even know that each is associated with activity in a different part of the brain.) The scientific method consists of empirical, repeatable evidence and peer review. Religion does not. By definition, God stands outside the purview of science, since science can only deal with the natural world, not supernatural forces which (again, by their very definition) are beyond the scope of science. I do not understand people who say they want to reduce God to fit inside the proveable realm of science, since any god who did would automatically cease to exist. God has to be beyond science, or God isn't God.

I used to be a Christian (I never liked the word, either), until I was a few years younger than you and I sat down determined to read the bible for myself. Nobody ever told me I should take it literally, and I didn't. I rejected the bible not on those grounds, or on "scientific" or "historical" grounds, but because I thought that if this jumbled mess was supposed to be the divinely inspired word of of an omniscient and infallible God, and this was the best God could do to communicate his wishes to us, then that was not the kind of God I could muster much respect, admiration or confidence in. (I guess I was a critic, even then.) It was the bible itself that made me an unbeliever in popular religious institutions. To me, faith is an individual thing (and yet I don't believe in any "personal God"), and sacred texts are, at best, bits and scraps of good and bad ideas.

So, I look at it like this: In any proposition, if "God" is necessary to complete the equation, then it is a question of religion. If science can complete the equation without "God," then good for science. But that doesn't have anything to do with whether or not "God" exists, independently of science.

One of the problems in everyday discussions of science is the misunderstanding of the word "theory." In common usage, it means something like "unproven idea." In science, it means that a hypothesis has been subjected to empirical repetition and been shown to work as an operating principle. Atoms, for example, were theorized long before they were actually seen by an electron microscope (as long ago as the 6th century, BCE), because they were consistent with other observable phenomena.

You've probably heard this one before, but the "theory of evolution" is a "theory" in the same way that the "theory of gravity" is theoretical. In other words: "Gravity: It's not just a good idea. It's the law." Einstein's gravitational theories (and theories of relativity) didn't entirely overthrow Newtonian physics, but improved upon and expanded them. That's the way science is supposed to work. "Intelligent Design," however, poses no challenges to science. It's just an awkward step back toward the Dark Ages.

You say that the science of evolution raises more questions than it answers. But for whom? The scientific consensus -- across all disciplines and fields of study -- is absolutely solid. Some people don't like evolution not because of its science, but because they (unaccountably, in my view) think it's anti-religious. But that argument itself is not a scientific one; it's a religious one.

"Intelligent Design," proposed by some as an "alternative" to evolution, has not been able to challenge the science of evolution in any way, and has failed to produce even one repeatable experimental finding, predictable result, or pass any peer review. Where are the great scientists of the world who support "Intelligent Design"? Where are the advances in various scientific disciplines that have been spurred and supported by "Intelligent Design" theory? Well, there aren't any. Yes, there are degrees of certainty and uncertainty in everything (the ground beneath your feet is usually solid, but not always -- and there are explanations for that, having to do with soil types or tectonic plates, etc.), but the degree of scholarly scientific doubt remaining about the basic principles of evolution (on which most advances in modern science, from zoology to medicine, has been based for the last century) is infinitesimal.

If you're being taught otherwise, I suggest you check out your local public library. It's a disservice to teach that religion, "Intelligent Design" and evolution are parts of the same field, or have similar methodologies or requirements. The scientific method is a way of empirical thinking that has nothing to do with religious thinking; by its very definition it is another field entirely. And "Intelligent Design" is religious thinking that invokes a scientific vocabulary (often incoherently), but which rests on a hypothesis that is not only unproven, but cannot be proven using scientific methods, since it presupposes a "higher power" that is innately religious (and, in the minds of its proponents, overwhelmingly Christian).

"Teaching the controversy" is fine -- but it's not something that belongs in a science class because "Intelligent Design" requires violation of the very principles that make science science. ("Intelligent Design," as my friend Julia Sweeney describes it in her monologue "Letting Go of God," is the equivalent of saying the universe was designed because it can't be an accident that our hands fit so perfectly into our gloves.) I would love for colleges and public schools to teach classes in comparative religion and philosophy, where "Intelligent Design" could be fully discussed in a properly open setting. Because a real science class about "Intelligent Design" would scarcely need to last more than about ten minutes.

Meanwhile, I'm left to wonder why those who are so quick to embrace a concept as deliberately vague and unproven as "Intelligent Design" unthinkingly accept all the scientific advances of evolution, which they say is not proven. I suggest "Intelligent Designers" should begin widening their field of endeavor and begin questioning other disciplines, such as aerodynamics. Perhaps an invisible hand actually holds birds and planes aloft. Aerodynamnics works, but is that all there is? You can't prove that's not the case. But, on the other hand, do you have any good reason to believe that it is?

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