Darwin’s Dangerous Idea

This paragraph is from Daniel Dennett’s 1995 book, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life:

"Now if you want to reason about faith, and offer a reasoned (and reason-responsive) defense of faith as an extra category of belief worthy of special consideration, I’m eager to play. I certainly grant the existence of the phenomenom of faith; what I want to see is a reasoned ground for taking faith as a way of getting to the truth, and not, say, just as a way people comfort themselves and each other (a worthy function that I do take seriously). But you must not expect me to go along with your defense of faith as a path to truth if at any point you appeal to the very dispensation you are supposedly trying to justify. Before you appeal to faith when reason has you backed into a corner, think about whether you really want to abandon reason when reason is on your side. You are sightseeing with a loved one in a foreign land, and your loved one is brutally murdered in front of your eyes. At the trial it turns out that in this land friends of the accused may be called as witnesses for the defense, testifying about their faith in his innocence. You watch the parade of his moist-eyed friends, obviously sincere, proudly proclaiming their undying faith in the innocence of the man you saw commit the terrible deed. The judge listens intently and respectfully, obviously more moved by this outpouring than by all the evidence presented by the prosecution. Is this not a nightmare? Would you be willing to live in such a land? Or would you be willing to be operated on by a surgeon you tells you that whenever a little voice in him tells him to disregard his medical training, he listens to the little voice? I know it passes in polite company to let people have it both ways, and under most circumstances I wholeheartedly cooperate with this benign agreement. But we’re seriously trying to get at the truth here, and if you think that this common but unspoken understanding about faith is anything better than socially useful obfuscation to avoid mutual embarrassment and loss of face, you have either seen much more deeply into the issue that any philosopher ever has (for none has ever come up with a good defense of this) or you are kidding yourself. (The ball is now in your court.)"

I bring this wonderful paragraph up because it speaks directly to the issue of Intelligent Design and whether it should be taught or even mentioned in science classes. The proponents of ID are trying to breach the "benign agreement" that keeps faith and reason in separate social spheres. Honest scientists shy away from problems and questions for which we cannot design falsifiable experiments. This means that there are questions that science refuses to answer (and rightly so). In return, we have come to expect that those for whom faith is important will not claim their faith as a path to truth about the physical world. The proponents of Intelligent Design are making a claim about the way the physical world operates, and they are now facing pushback as a result.

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2 Responses to Darwin’s Dangerous Idea

  1. Ed says:

    Nice website. You have an interesting perspective but you have come to expect of others what you don’t ( and cannot) expect of yourself. It is impossible to search for truth without faith. For instance, You and I are. How did we come to be? Our existence is an effect so it follows that there is a cause. Was the cause sentient acting with purpose or was it random chance. You cannot discern truth here by reason you must make a choice and believe one or the other. I say must because that belief (aka faith) will radically affect how you pursue truth and the conclusions that you arrive at. You see random chance in nature I see intelligent design yet we both observe the same world. It is the faith that we both proceed from that creates our view.

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  2. gezelter says:

    You are making a causal argument for faith. Our existence may be a “fact” or an “observation” but not necessarily an “effect”. Your initial premise of “our existence is an effect” is one which presupposes “cause and effect” for human existence (and requires you to look for a cause). That’s the premise I’m not convinced about.

    Would you posit that anything can exist without a cause? That particular hydrogen atom over there? The number 18? If you do allow some things to exist without a cause, there is really no reason why life or human existence couldn’t also be observed without a cause.

    I should add that this argument has already left the realm of science and has entered the realm of philosophy or theology (where I said that honest scientists shouldn’t really be poking their noses). There’s no scientific way to frame this debate. There’s no way to frame an experiment to falsify the statement “Our existence is an effect”. (There’s even no way to frame a “verifiable in principle” hypothesis on this point.) I’m happy to continue the argument, but let’s not be fooled that we’re going to get at any truth about the physical world this way.

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