It’s hard for secular science textbooks to be neutral

September 25, 2013

Roger Olson puts his finger on the problem with high school science textbooks: in the name of religious neutrality, they too easily err in the opposite direction.

Now I want science textbooks to stick to science. So do many others involved on the “creationist” side of this debate. Neither I nor they are anti-evolutionists. The issue for some of us is not whether life forms evolve; the issue is whether science, as science, can state that all life began with chemical interactions.

The issue is, for some of us, that some scientists like to smuggle philosophy, metaphysical beliefs, into science. The classic case of this, of course, was scientist Carl Sagan’s opening statement in his book and film series, read and shown in thousands of public school classrooms, that “The cosmos is all there is, all there ever was, and all there ever will be.” Few people realized that, at that moment, he was speaking as a philosopher, out of his own life and world view, and not as a scientist. Science cannot establish that metaphysical belief as fact.

True science, of course, has nothing to say about what happened before the universe was set in motion, or who or what set it in motion. (Although to say it was self-caused is, in my opinion, more of a leap of faith than saying God caused it!) This is the question of existence itself, which is and will always be a metaphysical question. Why something and not nothing? To say that there were chemical interactions begs the question: Why were there there chemicals to interact with one another? Why was there an environment in which chemical interactions could take place?

And this is the problem with the question, Do you believe in evolution? I have to ask, What do you mean by “believe in.” If by “believe in” you mean, Do I believe that strictly natural processes account for how we got here? then, no, I don’t believe in evolution.

Do I believe that life evolved gradually? Sure. Like most of the universal church, I have no theological reason not to believe that. Life evolved gradually, but it was directed and sustained into existence at every moment by God. Which is another way of saying that I fully embrace our United Methodist position on science, from ¶ 160 § F of the Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church:

We recognize science as a legitimate interpretation of God’s natural world. We affirm the validity of the claims of science in describing the natural world and in determining what is scientific. We preclude science from making authoritative claims about theological issues and theology from making authoritative claims about scientific issues. We find that science’s descriptions of cosmological, geological, and biological evolution are not in conflict with theology.

“We preclude science from making authoritative claims about theological issues and theology from making authoritative claims about scientific issues.” Exactly! But in our current political climate, the former mistake is far easier than the latter.

3 Responses to “It’s hard for secular science textbooks to be neutral”

  1. Tom Harkins Says:

    Brent, I would address this subject just a little differently. Nothing about evolution is really necessary to be taught in science classrooms in the first place, because it is a theory about “how we got here,” as opposed to “how things work.” Dissect a frog and find out what its parts are and how they interact. There is really no basis to go back and argue, “And frogs came from goldfish,” or whatever other silly proposition of “transitional” formulations are trotted out. Who cares where anything came from as far as what science needs its students to know? The “history” is really not “provable” by observations and experiments, which is what science is supposed to be based on, and I don’t see that it is particularly relevant to scientific education.

    Beyond that, I am not sure theology and science can be “set apart” in neat little packages that can leave each other alone. I don’t know that science actually makes any “descriptions,” as opposed to theorizing, but, be that as it may, evolution teaches “history,” and that history is either true or false, and its claims may “imping” on what the Bible sets out as being “history.” To say there is “no conflict” presupposes that certain interpretations of biblical history are false. Thus, it is not possible to both believe in a 6-day creation account from Genesis 1 and also believe in a universe of 13.5 billion years of age. One or the other or both must be false. To say “no conflict” means that the biblical account (or interpretation) is being jettisoned. So, I don’t agree that there is “no conflict.” Rather, the conflict is being “resolved” by Methodist theologians in favor of the evolutionary history.

    • brentwhite Says:

      We Methodists don’t believe in six literal days, that’s true. But it wouldn’t break my heart if you’re right and I’m wrong. 😉

      • Tom Harkins Says:

        But you see my general point? There is a tension between “science” and “theology” when it comes to origins. There are two ways to resolve that tension. One, say the science is right, and, to the extent inconsistent, the theology is wrong. Two, say the theology is correct, and, to the extent it is inconsistent, those who call themselves scientists are wrong. And if someone is going to go with science, then what science is he going to go with instead of a particular theology? 17th century science? 21st century science? What will “scientists” come up with next? Are we supposed to continually modify our interpretation of scripture based on whatever the “scientist of the month” says actually happened?

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