Monday, June 3, 2013

Halting the Demise of “Liberal” Education

Jacob Tanenbaum, a fourth and fifth grade science teacher, recently wrote A Science Teacher Draws the Line at Creation, in Scientific American.  The online version was originally published in the January, 2013 print edition of Scientific American under the title “Creation, Evolution and Indisputable Facts.”

Mr. Tanenbaum laments that, according to a recent survey, "40 percent of the American electorate seems to have forgotten what science is." However, I would respectfully contend that Mr. Tanenbaum, like many scientists who have “drawn the line,” are either ignoring or are unaware of the philosophical context of science.  

Perhaps some of the “problematic 40%” are still aware that the process and progression of the natural sciences depends upon several presuppositions--claims that are not provable, but are accepted by faith.  Let me briefly list them.  First, scientists must acknowledge the existence of objective reality—belief that physical reality exists apart from our imaginations or individual subjective interpretations.  Second, experimentation is based on presupposing the operation of “cause and effect” relationships in nature. Finally, scientists believe that experimental outcomes should be repeatable because it is accepted that natural processes are orderly and governed by certain natural laws that do not change from day to day.  In short, these presuppositions represent a belief system that precedes and under-girdsscientific thought and activity.

Mr. Tanenbaum’s view raises a second contextual problem for science and science education.  When we consider the philosophical context of what we call natural science (once called natural philosophy), we realize that “natural science” is limited in its capacity to define the boundaries of what we call “the real world.” On the other hand, those who credit natural science with limitless powers to know all of reality (i.e. possess the faith that "all we see is all there is") find it completely logical to deny “supernatural causation.” 

Truman (Jim Carey) walks to work
in his contrived world
Instead of acknowledging a supernatural power or being as the creator, many scientific naturalists like Mr. Tanenbaum attribute the complexity of living organisms to the laws of matter and energy operating through chance occurrences over billions of years.   But, because the operation of science depends upon the “faith presuppositions” noted above, how can science deny the validity of models that extend the boundaries for what we call reality?  Is it legitimate for scientists to “guard the boundaries” like the managers of the artificial, TV studio world of Truman Burbank in the movie, The Truman Show?

I believe that many in Mr. Tanenbaum's "40 percent" are good scientists, well aware of the wonder and complexity of the natural world; yet they are also well aware of the philosophical context of science.  The resulting perspective has led them to choose not to believe that life can be explained entirely by undirected natural causes.  Therefore, these folks tend to favor discussions of supernatural causation in the science classroom.  They argue that belief in such models is as valid as the belief that inanimate matter can self-organize and become animate without supernatural intervention. 

Truman touches the limiting horizon
of the contrived world.
Many of the “40 percent” are adolescents and college-age students or younger children and adults who are endowed with a quality of human nature that thrives in a learning environment characterized by freedom of expression and inquiry.  Like, Truman Burbank, they desire to probe the boundaries and discover things beyond the horizon.

What then is the role of the teacher or professor in a place of learning?  Is it his or her place to guard the boundaries as if to keep Truman from discovering that there might be something beyond the horizon?  Or is it to rediscover the joy known by educators of past centuries who believed in a truly “liberal” education?   I have known the satisfaction of watching students motivated to learn when they are exposed to the “inquiry approach” in the science classroom and laboratory.  The scene in which Truman breaks through the false horizon erected around his artificial world should convict all of us against the tendency to limit our students and cut off creative thinking.  If we fear the entry of “junk science” don’t we believe that “good science” is capable of eliminating false hypotheses through honest inquiry?

Exhilaration in discovering "reality beyond"
I close with a final consideration. It is one that all honest scientists must realize; namely, that no one was there to observe the creation of the first organic molecules, the first genes, the first cells, or the fossils in rock strata such as those of the Grand Canyon. Therefore, I suggest that both naturalistic evolutionary scientists and creation scientists must exercise caution in their attempt to explain the origin of life.  Instead, each should read the others' research and writing and strive for honest, respectful dialogue.  I suggest that a good place for both evolution and creation scholars to begin is by reading Dr. Leonard Brand’s excellent article, “A Biblical Perspective on the Philosophy of Science.”

As I complete this blog entry, the Freedom from Religion Foundation (FFRF) is calling on Ball State University to discipline Dr. Eric Hedin, a professor of physics and astronomy, for his alleged attempt “to proselytize students and advance Christianity by using gaps in scientific knowledge—the ‘boundaries of science’ in an attempt to prove religious belief correct…”  What’s the harm in college students “exploring the boundaries of science” at an age when they are seeking the meaning of life?  After all, aren’t they also exploring moral and ethical boundaries as they consider their relationship to alcohol, drugs, and gambling?  All the while many students are bored and unfulfilled as they listen to liberal progressive and humanistic dogma in the classroom.  Many can relate to Jim Carrey’s character, Truman, was as he went to work daily in his artificial world.   On the other hand, might the answer to the woes of science education be found in the science classroom where ‘tolerance’ for all viewpoints is justly applied?”  Wouldn’t it bring a breath of fresh air on secular American university campuses and on many “Christian campuses” to offer to students a “truly liberal education? 

From a Christian worldview, teaching and research in the natural sciences should be undertaken as a stewardship of the truths of the natural revelation and of the special revelation.  As stewards of both the knowledge of science and the young learners entrusted to us, we should take our role seriously:

                Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren,
               knowing that as such we will incur a stricter judgment
.  – James 3:1

Useful Sources:
Brand, Leonard.  2004.  A Biblical Perspective on the Philosophy of Science.
Ham, Ken, Georgia Purdom, Steve Golden.  2013.  Responding to the False Claims of a Scientific American Columnist.  Search word:  “Tanenbaum”
Pearcey, N.R. and C.B. Thaxton.  1994.  The Soul of Science:   Christian Faith and Natural Philosophy.
Crossway Books,   Wheaton, IL.


tammy said...

So true. How hypocritical to call for a limit on the bounds of science. Clearly, science begins with presuppositions. We must allow the possibility of a supernatural role in creation, because not doing so flies in the face of the very principle of honest inquiry. When I first saw the Truman Show I also thought how much it reminded me of the our limited ability to see reality fully, though we, like Truman, know there has to be more.

John Silvius said...

Thanks, Tammy. Your words remind me of C.S. Lewis, in "A Grief Observed" when he states: "Five senses; an incurably abstract intellect; a haphazardly selective memory; a set of preconceptions and assumptions so numerous that I can never examine more than minority of them - never become conscious of them all. How much of total reality can such an apparatus let through?"

Time for humility in our science, I say.