13 April 2009

12th World Congress of the Center For Inquiry: 9 April 2009 My first day gets off to a rocky start.

Center fo Inquiry's 12th World Congress

9 April 2009 (Bethesday MD)
My first day of the congress gets off to a bumpy, thoroughly unpleasant start. Leaving my brother-in-laws house I discover a 25.00 dollar parking ticket on my window and a seven mile journey takes forty-five minutes to complete. The free tour of the capitol to be led by Toni Van Pelt? Missed it by a few minutes. Damn it. Having got the cheapest package available, I am left sitting around for several hours to wait for the first panel discussion of the congress. As if that wasn't enough, while going through my Welcome to the Congress letter, I note that Christopher Hitchens will not be attending. Damn it again. However after getting settled in, I was able to meet some very nice people. Anna R. Holster,(Executive Director, D.C. CFI), Jennifer Beahan (Assistant Director, Michigan CFI) happened to be around and provided a nice introduction to the event. The six hours or so of lag time do allow me to drive around Bethesda and take in the sights (and most importantly find Potbelly's and an Irish eatery, Ri-Ras), as well as write for a bit and read.

Panel: The Influence of Darwin (Moderator: Derek Araujo, speakers: Edward Tabash, Barbara Forrest, David Contosta, and Michael Ruse)

The panel, as I understood it, was to be a discussion of the influence of Darwin. This it was decidedly not. While everyone gave lively engaging talks, only one of them managed to be, sort of, explicitedly on topic. Everyone else seemed to have brought their favorite axe to grind.

Edward Tabash gave an exceptionally lively talk on..well a lot of things. There was a lengthy discussion of Intelligent Design (ID) and its many scientific failings. He used evolutionary findings to refute the idea of designer. That is he made the case that the evidence of evolution does not support the idea of an intelligent designer. After that, Tabash disucssed issues of church state seperation, in what he continually referred to as, "a preview of the talk I will be giving tomorrow." All good, but not entirely on point. The closest I think he got to the topic under discussion was to echo Richard Dawkins point that it wasn't until after Darwin that one could be a intellectually satisfied atheist. Prior to Darwin the argument from design, most well articulated by William Paley, was the only decent explanation for the complexity and presence of life on Earth, and proved an objection to atheism very difficult to ignore. Tabash's talk was interesting, but all things I've heard him say elsewhere, and off point.

Barbara Forrest co-author of the well recieved Creationism's Trojan Horse: The Wedge of Intelligent Design spoke after Tabash. I think her presentation was easily the best of the four panelists, but it was also the one most off topic. She recounted the unpleasant victory of ID/creationism in Louisianna, courtesy of the movement's facility with distortion, and an enthusiastic, powerful sympathizer in the form of Governor Bobby Jindal. It was a deeply depressing, talk. It was also utterly off point. Interesting to be sure, but was no panelist given an email about the subject of the discussion?

David Contosta, author of >Rebel Giants: The revolutionary Lives of Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin followed Forrest. Contosta was the only commentor to offer a talk on the topic under discussion. Darwin and Lincoln, he argued, shared more than just a birthday, but many qualities that led them to greatness. Both left lasting changes on the culture, the reverberations of which we feel even into the present time. His analysis seemed a bit Freudian, strained relationships with their fathers, early death of mothers, depression, both men had some considerable disdain for slavery, and both men struggled with their agnosticism/atheism. In the modern era, Contosta argued that Lincoln probably wouldn't be elected in todays political climate. Contosta's talk while interesting remained somewhat shallow.

Michael Ruse mostly recaptitulated his argument with Richard Dawkins and Dawkin's book, The God Delusion. "It is the book I said made me ashamed to be an atheist." Ruse spent some time early in his lecture being slightly dismissive of the work of the Center For Inquiry, and its commitment to secular government. "Having given up one church, I'm not about to join another." He spent some time establishing his atheist bona fides, while at the same time more or less embracing Stephen J. Gould's non-overlaping magesteria (NOMA) concept, while never explicitedly identifying it as such. Gould's concept as you may or maynot remember was that religion and science are compatable so long as both respect the other's magesteria. NOMA works well on paper with limited progressive religious claims, but terribly in practice, because the believer assumed by NOMA is statistically rare.

Ruse's new philosophical move though, new to me anyway, was to suggest that if evolutionary biology did actually have implications that invalidated religious belief, that is if science actually does have something to say about God's existance then it follows that such sciences probably shouldn't be taught in classrooms. This is the weirdest of his claims, and one he was only willing to apply to the monotheisms. He had no problem with teaching astronomy, and physics even though they pose huge problems for believers in things like ESP, astrology, and the like. He and Tabash went round and roun about this. Tabash arguing that one needn't really spell out the implications of evolutionary theory, or astrophysics to satisfy the seperation criteria. The implications he argued are there if you care to follow the evidence, but not for teachers themselves to state. All a science teacher can do is teach the most current, well supported science and not worry too much one way or the other about the implications, Tabash argued. Ruse occilated on this point. At first he accused Tabash of intellectual dishonsesty then, as Tabash clarified, Ruse would come round for a bit, but then in the end seemed back where he started. The problem with his position of course is that since science often has broader implications that invariably step on the toes of ancient notions. If we were to follow the restriction of Ruse it would be nearly impossible to teach almost any science. Geology would have to go because it stands as a direct refutation of young earth creationism. Many other subjects would be disallowed by his criteria as well. He also thought that we gave characters like those we find at the Discovery Institute rhetorical weapons by suggesting that evolution in particular and science in general had broad implications about the likilihood of creators, and their religions. If science does have theological implications then he thought, perhaps it shouldn't be taught. Ruse suspects biologists everywhere ought to start suggesting that evolution has no implications for the presence or absence of a designer.

Ruse is an affable speaker, but undeniably, and perhaps deliberately obtuse. He maintained that something he referred to as basic christianity was perfectly compatable with evolutionary theory. He was not interested in defining this Christianity, nor discussing its frequency, or influence in the modern era. We were to rest assured though that it was quite compatable with science. I do not think that Ruse stuck around for the rest of the conference. I certainly did not see him again.


At 3:08 PM , Blogger Titania said...

Thanks for the report. It is frustrating when you are expecting to be educated on a particular topic and people go off on tangents. Please post more of your experience at the conference.


At 5:04 PM , Blogger Max II said...

I will be posting on the second and third days tomorrow. Be on the look out!


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