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Friday, 3 October 2008

Take Nobody's Word for Anything - Especially Bob Brockie's

In one of the definitive discussions of the issue, Philosophers Alvin Plantinga and Robert Pennock debated the teaching of evolutionary theory in public schools of religiously pluralistic societies at the December 1998 meeting of the Eastern Division of the American Philosophical Association.

[The following is a crude rendition of the issues in the debate - read the debate here: Pennock's case and Plantinga's response]

It is widely held that it is inappropriate for public schools to teach that a particular religion is true given that a segment of children attending the school come from families that do not believe in that religion. What is less noticed is the converse. If the former is correct then it must equally be true that it is inappropriate for a public school to teach that a particular religion is false given that a number of children attending the school come from families that do believe in that religion. Evolution contradicts the teachings of some religions; hence, the question arises, should evolution be taught as uncontested truth?

Having just re-read this debate in preparation for a lecture I delivered last week on the topic, stumbling upon Dr Bob Brockie's piece, Take Nobody's Word for Anything, in the Dominion Post was intriguing; intriguing in how little he understood the issues involved and how he would manifest his own ignorance on the broader question of religion and Science for all in print. The number of straight-forward factual and Philosophical mistakes in one article was breathtaking.

At the heart of Brockie’s argument is a mistaken epistemology and fairly naïve Philosophy of Science. Brockie contends that “true scientists question all authority, trusting only to experimental and verifiable evidence”. However, if science is defined in these terms, science is an incoherent position. The claim that one should question all authority and trust only “experimental and verifiable evidence” is not itself an empirical claim. Hence, if the claim is true we should reject it because Brockie has not provided any “experimental and verifiable evidence” of its truth.

If scientists truly proceed on this assumption, their position will always be self-contradictory as to proceed on this assumption would lead to scepticism on all sorts of issues dear to Brockie’s heart. As a scientist, Brockie assumes that his senses are reliable and reason is a reliable method of getting at truth. Neither of these, however, can be verified experimentally by a non-circular argument. To verify anything, one needs to utilise one’s senses and reason from them, and hence, will presuppose the very sources under question.

However, the errors, myths and lack of verifiable evidence do not end here. Brockie began with the statement “Creationism is just a codeword for biblical Christianity.” This is mistaken. The term “creationism” normally refers to a particular theory of origins that holds the world was created a few thousand years ago in six 24 hour days (not seven as Brockie stated), and that the fossil record is the result of a worldwide flood.

To equate this with “biblical Christianity” is erroneous. First, many non-Christians, particularly Jews and Muslims, hold this theory. The story of Adam, Eve and Creation is shared by the three major monotheistic religions. Second, many Christian’s, even conservative evangelicals, do not accept creationism.

Creationism is premised on the assumption that the first two chapters of Genesis are literalistic history. Whether the genre of early Genesis is literal history is a hotly debated point in Biblical studies, one over which conservative scholars disagree.

Brockie ignored the subtle differences and issues and castigated Christianity as a whole, suggesting no rational person can believe in “answered prayer” a “virgin birth” or “life after death” much of his argument however consists of citing crude caricatures; such as, the claim Christians believe in the existence of “magic apples”.

Brockie’s central theme is the example of Isaac Newton. According to Brockie Newton believed the Latin slogan “Nullius in Verba” which Brockie translates as “take nobody's word for anything”. Apparently “then” as “now” scientists adopted a policy of questioning “all authority, trusting only to experimental and verifiable evidence.” A stance Brockie asserts is incompatible with Christianity.

In fact, Newton was a devout Christian who wrote theological tracts and believed in “answered prayer” and “life after death”. Moreover, in the preface to Newton’s Principia Mathematica, Roger Cotes notes that Newton’s research rested explicitly on theological assumptions. Newton, in fact, even appealed to direct action of God to solve problems within his theory. The picture Brockie paints is well out of accord with the facts.

Incidentally, the Royal Society’s own website states it was founded in 1660 and not 1663 as Brockie stated. Moreover, his translation of “Nullius in Verba” is mistaken. The phrase is an abbreviation of a quotation from Horace; the full translation is, “not compelled to swear to any master's words.” It does not advocate trusting no one, but rather praises objectivity; it the contention that one should be free to come to conclusions at odd with one’s political masters.

If we can learn anything from Brockie’s article it is that uninformed knee-jerk fundamentalists exist on both sides of this debate. The real informed debate on Evolution v Creationism in the public school system is far more nuanced and deserves to be heard; not caricatured, misrepresented and then dismissed on that basis.


  1. ``At the heart of Brockie’s argument is a mistaken epistemology and fairly naïve Philosophy of Science. Brockie contends that “true scientists question all authority, trusting only to experimental and verifiable evidence”''

    I just want to say that this is a disturbingly common view, especially among some of the Skeptics. I attended the Skeptics Conference in Waikato last weekend and a fair number of their lot think that all Science is is Naive Empiricism (sometimes in fairly ridiculous ways; Vincent Gray, for example, denied the Theory of Relativity because it was an untested assumption).

  2. Frankly I think that schools should be allowed to teach whatever the parents want. If they want their school to focus on sport, creationism, evolution, even astrology then let them. Even an evolutionist has advocated this (I can look for the link if you want it). So long a reasonable percentage wants a topic and there is the option of opting out.

    Further, there is no real need to teach evolution at highschool, university is perfectly reasonable. If creationism is to be taught it should be voluntary, forced teaching of it by evolutionists will undoubtedly be a caricature.

  3. But to the meat: true scientists question all authority, trusting only to experimental and verifiable evidence.

    This is a joke. Evolutionism at it's heart is not experimental. The major component of evolution's grand scheme is historical science, not empirical science. It has more in common with forensics and archaeology than the hadron collider.

    The only empirical component of Darwinism is natural selection which creationists subscribe to (and invented and explain better).

    And here is a good argument why Genesis 1-11 is just as historical as 12-50.


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