Me and The Genies


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“Leave out the ‘isms’: just teach the material”

It’s not science’s job to become a basis for morals or concepts of human nature, says Tom. OK then, says Sung-Tin, teachers should purge from the teaching of science their own biases about human nature.

It was around this time that Sung-Tin began to introduce me to some of her friends. First time, it happened by accident. One evening as the building quieted I became aware of voices in her office. The door opened and Sung-Tin and this guy who she introduced as Tom walked out. “Henry, I’ve heard a lot about you,” Tom said, “I’m curious to learn more. We’re headed out for dinner, come and join us.”

I was uncomfortable. Was this her boyfriend? But she caught my eye and must have read my mind because she smiled and shook her head slightly.

Early-mid forties, like Sung-Tin much preferred to ask questions than to answer them. Talent; what was talent? How did you manufacture it? How did you store it? How did the market in talent work? And so on. I’d found out nothing about him until we started dessert and coffee. He had been a business consultant, was now a school science teacher. He was also a champion of the scientific world view in opposition to “intelligent Design.”

“I don’t get it,” I said. “I don’t see who loses by intelligent design being taught in schools along with natural selection.”

His face became instantly more animated. “The kids lose their science educations, science loses its future scientists, we all lose the future benefits of science,” he said. “Imagine this—instead of trying to explain the actual evolutionary origin of something, we’d just say, ‘It was planned that way.’ End of story. That’s precisely what it means to teach ID in schools. It makes biology a joke. Sure, people are entitled to believe whatever they want, but science is science. You have to draw the line somewhere. To me, that’s when people want to bring ideas into the classroom that aren’t based on scientific thinking.”

I thought of Mike, our Creationist hitchhiker. “Isn’t there a kind of hunger behind intelligent design?” I asked him. “Shouldn’t those people’s voices be heard? ”

Tom glanced in alarm at Sung-Tin, as if shocked she’d associate with a Creationist fellow-traveler. Then he turned back to me, and began speaking in a sharper no-nonsense tone of voice. “Do you know how little evolution is being taught today because of their pressure to suppress it?  They’re not some poor oppressed minority, they’re the majority in the U.S., trying to make science conform to popular religion.”

He was studying me intently. I played poker face. He went on. “Isn’t it vital that at least a tiny minority of people in the next generation continue the struggle to understand the natural world on its own terms? Would you prefer them to talk about ‘spirits planning things for us’?  The ID folks close their eyes to real natural history because it shows we’re continuous with animals and therefore not spiritual beings. They demand we distinguish spirit from matter. That has nothing to do with science, it’s the opposite of science, it’s theology, pure and simple. Scientists do have a guiding principle, right or wrong, and it IS material monism. That is what we all assume and what we want taught when science is taught.”

He continued to scrutinize my face. I wasn’t giving anything away. “How you teach evolution is not value-neutral. You support either materialist monism, or dualism. We preach a monist reductionist evolution. People should be taught scientific reasoning in a way that’s not polluted with theology, or else they’ll never learn how to reason from evidence in science.”

I thought of the Rev Kelly’s concern for kids getting self esteem through their science education. “How complete is the theory of evolution?” I asked.  “Can it account for all of human nature?”

Tom turned to look at Sung-Tin in query. She shrugged. “I’ve taken Henry around to meetings with various people,” she said. “The issue of how the theory of evolution applies to human intelligence came up.”

Tom turned back to me. “The theory of evolution is a part of science,” he said, “so it grows through application of the scientific method. It can deal only with what you can apply that method to. Darwin speculated about human intelligence, which raised everyone’s expectations. But most evolutionists study very prosaic creatures such as mice and flies. We know a lot about them. We know a lot about how they evolve. We then apply that knowledge to learn more. That’s how science grows. That’s what it does best.”

He placed his hands on each other, resting on the table. He continued to look at me. I sensed he was waiting for me to say something.

“But is it doing its job if it isn’t telling us how we work?” I asked. “What good does it do me knowing how a fly works. I want to know how I work?”

“We’ve had some false starts working with humans,” he said. “We’re doing what we can.”

What would Kelly say now? I wondered. “Isn’t there a need for new values. Is anyone looking at human evolution for values?”

He lowered his head and gazed straight into my eyes. I’d obviously set off an alarm. His began to speak more slowly and deliberately. We were all to be gathered together and brought safely back to harbor.

“Many people today can feel human nature transitioning from being based on Christianity to being based on science,” he said. “They’re calling out to the evolutionists, ‘Get ready, we’re coming over, prepare us a nice soft landing on a broad and solid foundation.’ They’re asking evolutionists to come up with theories in line with how we already think of ourselves. We can feel the power cords fed from Christianity pulling out one by one, and we’re looking for a similar set of power cords to come rising up at us from science and evolution, that we can plug in those same outlets.

“But we’re shocked to hear the scientists say, ‘No way. Science can’t take that kind of weight. Your demands will shatter the integrity of science. If Christianity isn’t working for you any more, find some other creation myth. But don’t look to science for a soft landing or a secure foundation. That’s not what science is for.’ Trouble is, we don’t have any other creation myth. We’re in mid-trajectory, we’re coming in for a landing, and there’s no corresponding power cords rising to greet us. It’s science or nothing. What should we do?”

He’s looking at me. I’m looking at him.

“So tell me,” I said.

“No, you tell me,” he said. “You’re talent. You’re media. You’re broadcasting. What story are you going to come up with? Ben Hur? Is that a good enough myth to replace Christianity? The Simpsons? Maybe not. So come up with something better. It’s your job, I think, not science’s. Science isn’t in the myth-making business. Don’t look to science for your new mentality.”

“I’m not script,” I said. “I’m talent. Anyway, isn’t science supposed to solve our problems. ‘Mission control, you’ve got a problem. Come up with something’.”

“Fine,” he said. “Let’s do that. Let’s flash-forward a few thousand years. Humanity’s returned to barbarism, no culture, just each person conniving to select the best mate and survive by killing all competitors. 21st century evolutionism couldn’t sustain the elevated mentality we take for granted today. But who cares? Today’s world is long forgotten. They’re alive. They have feelings, they express their urges, they’re happy and sad in about the same proportions we are. Natural selection is improving the stock. It’s no loss. So this issue is really a non-issue. There’s nothing really significant at stake. OK?”

“Not OK,” I said.

“Science is not in the business of providing you with a myth to live by,” Tom said. “Look at the Romans. They created mentalities for themselves, stoicism for example. Very successful. Christianity. You’re looking in the wrong places. Look in places like that. And that’s your job. You’re media. It’s a creative task, not a scientific task.”

He leaned back to include Sung-Tin. “I hear this a lot, ‘It’s science’s job to save us. When are you going to come up with better theories,’ and they tick off what they want, like I’m a waiter. Self-respect, rights, basis for human life being precious. Sorry, I’m not the waiter, it’s that guy Henry over there, he’s your waiter.”

“Sung-Tin,” I said. “Tom’s a bully. Aren’t you going to step in?”

“What do you want me to do?” she asked, her eyes glinting.

“I don’t know,” I replied. “Wave a cape or something. Distract him. Get him off me.”

She turned to Tom, as if severely. “Tom, there’s something I’ve been wanting to ask you. Could you teach evolution without bringing in materialism?”

“I don’t think that would be honest,” he said. “I don’t think I’d be doing my job.”

Sung-Tin cocked her head and brought a forefinger to her pursed lips. “Let me see if I have this right—after you omit supernatural explanations for how things work, your choice boils down to materialism with ‘emergence’, and a mind-matter dualism of some kind. Is that fair?”

Tom shrugged and nodded.

Sung-Tin continued. “Now, tell me, what’s the difference between those two?”

“What kind of dualism are you talking about?” he replied, readying his fingers as if to check off a list of options, but Sung-Tin broke in, “I’m talking about a dualism illustrated by what’s on this table—table cloth, cups, spoons—let’s refer to them as matter, just for convenience, and your thoughts and mine as we sit here talking, lets refer to them as mind. And see, to illustrate how I can make them interact, I’ll move the cups around, see, like this. There’s no explanation for me moving them like that except for me demonstrating the interaction between mind and matter. Something in ‘mind’ made a difference in something in ‘matter’. OK?”

Again he shrugged.

“Now, which is that more like,” she said. “Materialism with emergence, or a dualism with interaction between mind and matter? Don’t tell me one’s more ‘coherent’ than the other, or we’ll start peeling ‘emergence’ apart to see how coherent it is. Can you tell them apart, once we use them in a situation like this?”

He shrugged yet again. “Go on,” he said. Good, she’d diverted his attention away from me. I could start to enjoy myself.

“Now let’s talk about something else,” Sung-Tin said. “Let’s suppose what you’re actually teaching is not evolution, but fractals, actually how to turn lines into fractals. You know better than me how this works. Fractals have a fractional number of dimensions. So fractal lines have a number of dimensions in between one and two—mathematically, OK?”

He nodded.

“The people you’re teaching fractals to come from both the north, and the south. The people from the north talk about these fractals as having only one dimension, plus a little bit, while the people from the south insist fractals have two dimensions, minus a bit. And you have to teach mixed classes of these people about turning lines into fractals. If you’re smart you’ll just teach how to make fractals without talking about whether they start out one dimension or two. Just teach the fractals, not the dimensions. OK? Seeing a parallel? Don’t tell your students there’s only material monism, matter plus emergence, or there’s a dualism of two substances but they’re not really separate. Teach just the subject matter. Teach just the science.”

Tom was smiling.

“Now let’s talk about something else. Let’s talk about genetics. Only a very small number of people who take biology like genetics. And of those who go into it, quite a lot drop out. So geneticists end up being all quite alike. In fact, let’s suppose they’re actually genetically alike and different from other people—they have genes for liking genetics. They’re literally bean counters. And let’s suppose that those genes also make them experience the world as materialist. They don’t monitor their self consciousness much. They just see themselves and each other doing things because of other things things that happen. To them, the world seems just naturally materialist, all run by physical cause and effect.

“It so happens, the study of evolution has itself evolved to deal mainly with genetics. So it’s mainly these geneticists who write the textbooks. Of course, the way they describe things is how they experience them, as materialist. Even though most other people don’t experience the world they way they do. How’m I doing?”

Tom was smiling broadly. “Go on,” he said.

“So now let’s go back to where we started,” Sung-Tin said. “I asked you if you could teach evolution without bringing in materialism. And you said, ‘I don’t think that would be honest. I don’t think I’d be doing my job.’ What do you think about that now?”

Tom leaned back and folded his arms, waiting for her to finish.

“You gave Henry a nice little sermon a moment ago about not looking to evolution for values. But it turns out you’ve actually been stuffing evolution full of your own personal values all along. Shouldn’t you take your own advice, and just teach the material? Either just teach the material, or put some values in it that will help your pupils, not yourself. Don’t use evolution textbooks to make clones of yourself, Tom.”

Tom turned to me. “Henry, would you call your champion off,” he said. “She’s got me cornered and it looks like she’s closing in for the kill. Can you help me?”

I did what I usually do to stop fights over dinner. I picked up the tab.

As we stepped out together onto the sidewalk, I asked Sung-Tin “Can I take you home?”

“No, there’s a project to be attended to first, thank you though,” she said brightly.

Rub it in, Bitch!