Thursday, April 15, 2010

War and Peace in Educational Philosophy

As can be seen from the last post, we degenerated into partisanship. It has always been amazing to me how cleanly a supposedly non-partisan subject divides into liberal and conservative views. I was involved in public education policy and curriculum in Hawaii for almost all of the thirty years I lived there. Views divide along many lines. The parents wanted what I'll call a classical education, while the educational authority favored progressive education. The republicans wanted what was best for their children as individuals, while the democrats wanted what they thought was best for society as a whole. Most of the voters sent their kids to public schools, while the politicians that set policy sent their kids to private schools. The conservatives favored a bottom-up, reading-writing-'rithmetic approach, while the liberals favored a top-down, whole language-set theory approach. The parents favored a local "get 'er done" approach, while the educational authorities denied responsibility and shifted the blame to Washington.

Considering the profound divide that exists in education, it may be time to negotiate a peace settlement rather than debate the issues to death. Neither side can have a definitive victory and impose its will permanently. The war has see-sawed back and forth many times and the wheel has been reinvented many times. Arbitrarily assigning territory is an approach that has been used in world disputes, why not in educational policy? Whether the assignment is by grade level or subject area or by time of day, anything is better than the constant war that has existed for at least 50 years.


Howard Pattee said...

Joel, the war is real and it is not going away. Fundamentalists will never negotiate. The war I was describing in my posts is about fundamentalists influencing public education. It is just the current form of the conflict between religion and science that has been going on for over 500 years.

The first universities in Europe were primarily schools of theology. Then Copernicus, Kepler, and Galileo came along and upset their curricula! The first schools in the colonies were to teach reading. Why? -- To read the Bible, not Newton’s Principia. American universities began as Christian schools. American schools were largely Christian, private, and unorganized until the 1840s.

The founder of public “liberal education” (as contrasted with private Christian schools) in America was Horace Mann, and he was opposed in all his work all his life by Christians (Mann was a Unitarian). Everyone should know about Mann’s reasoning. American public “high schools” began only in the 20th century primarily as college preparatory schools.

The book I mentioned, Karen Armstrong’s The Battle for God is just one of many histories about this conflict which will continue to influence cultures and civilizations for better or worse.

joel said...

Howard said:
The book I mentioned, Karen Armstrong’s The Battle for God is just one of many histories about this conflict which will continue to influence cultures and civilizations for better or worse.

Joel responds:
This is a good example of why I don't believe that history should be studied by the general public. There are few who can keep their emotions from getting out of control when viewing the wrongs of the past. All over the world people seek revenge against their neighbor for some real or imaginary wrong done to their ancestors. We need to learn to start fresh or else Walloons will always hate Flemish, Quebecois will hate English, Italians will hate Slavs, French will hate Germans, South Africans will hate the Dutch, and on and on. I can't see any justification for the hate that atheists especially scientists like Dawkins seem to have for Evangelical Christians. The issue of climate change is a good illustration of how scientists are willing to hold their own inquisitions against scientists who will not accept the "settled" truth.

Howard Pattee said...

I think history shows that religions, not history, are the problem; at least religions based on human imagination that ecclesiastical authorities call divine revelations. Wouldn’t civilizations do better to study the consistent laws of the universe God created (pantheism) rather than the contradictory scriptures that man invented?

Scientists have always argued vehemently over how best to express God’s laws. Their egos are certainly involved, but they try hard to use logic and rational arguments, otherwise they are not persuasive. They eventually reach a consensus, and unlike revealed religions, they reach agreement without killing each other.

I have heard of no inquisitions among scientists. The only inquisitions I know occur in ecclesiastical, political, and congressional “hearings.” All the public hears about is what’s “newsworthy” -- the errors and the pronouncements of noisy maverick scientists who made the mistake of going into politics.

In other words, what you read about climate change today is not normal science, it's just normal politics. The majority of climate experts agree that climate change and its causes are too complex to predict with certainty. What you don’t hear about are the volumes of modestly hedged arguments going on in the professional literature by individual experts seeking a consensus. They are too technical and too dull to get any press.

joel said...

I'm an atheist who appreciates the great accomplishments that have taken place because of organized religion. Of course, the misery that have been produced because of the War of Religions, the Crusades, the Muslim Jihads, etc., etc. etc. is undeniable. But, the magnificence of Notre Dame must not be ignored, nor the works of Michelangelo, nor the Great Pyramid, etc., etc., etc. One cannot create a scorecard for these things anymore than one can compare apples and oranges. We don't have the option of selecting one group without the other.

Here is an example of scientists demonstrating that they are perfectly capable of acting like Fundamentalists. Closed mindedness and the taste for persecution of those who believe differently are alive and well in the scientific community. The excerpt below refers to Cold Fusion.

From Wikipedia (

The Nobel Laureate Julian Schwinger, in a shock to most physicists, declared himself a supporter of cold fusion after much of the response to the initial reports had turned negative. He tried to publish theoretical papers supporting the possibility of cold fusion in Physical Review Letters, was deeply insulted by their rejection, and resigned from that body in protest.[48]..........Cold fusion researchers have complained there has been virtually no possibility of obtaining funding for cold fusion research in the United States, and no possibility of getting published.[53] University researchers, it has been claimed, are unwilling to investigate cold fusion because they would be ridiculed by their colleagues.[54] In 1994, David Goodstein described cold fusion as "a pariah field, cast out by the scientific establishment. Between cold fusion and respectable science there is virtually no communication at all. Cold fusion papers are almost never published in refereed scientific journals, with the result that those works don't receive the normal critical scrutiny that science requires. On the other hand, because the Cold-Fusioners see themselves as a community under siege, there is little internal criticism. Experiments and theories tend to be accepted at face value, for fear of providing even more fuel for external critics, if anyone outside the group was bothering to listen.

Steve Ruberg said...

And lets not forget that Lenin and Stalin were atheists who served misery upon the world comparable to world religions. And I agree that fundamentalists - depending on how extensively you define that group - will not negotiate. But I believe this group is in the minority. There are reasonable religious people who recognize that compromise is needed to move forward.

And as Joel showed so well, supposedly open-minded scientists discriminate against other scientists. Dogma is dogma no matter the source, and that is what we should be ready to call attention to in society ... and in own lives.

I'm not sure how to encourage bipartisanship in schools, but I wonder if much of our polarization on the local level comes from our two-party political system. Is it possible that the negotiation necessary in a three or four party system would trickle down to the local level and allow more of our societal structures to move forward?

joel said...

Here are just a few names I've excerpted from Wikipedia's List of Christian Thinkers in Science. They illustrate that belief has not historically been an impediment to the study of science. Evolution is such a small part of the totality of science that it's difficult to believe that fundamentalist beliefs account for a lack of scientific talent for the future growth of the U.S.

George Stokes (1819–1903)
A minister's son, he wrote a book on Natural Theology. He was also one of the Presidents of the Royal Society and made contributions to Fluid dynamics.

Richard Smalley (1943-2005)
A Nobel Laureate in Chemistry known for buckyballs. In his last years he renewed an interest in Christianity and supported Intelligent design. He taught at Rice University.

Charles Hard Townes (born 1915)
In 1964 he won the Nobel Prize in Physics and in 1966 he wrote The Convergence of Science and Religion.

Simon C. Morris (born 1951)
A British paleontologist who made his reputation through study of the Burgess Shale fossils, one of which is pictured. He was the co-winner of a Charles Doolittle Walcott Medal and also won a Lyell Medal. He is active in the Faraday Institute for study of science and religion and is also noted on discussions concerning the idea of theistic evolution.

Since 1980 there has been a U.S. Nobel Laureate in chemistry every year but two. A similar statement can be made in physics except that 2008 was a big breakthrough year for Japanese researchers with two prizes and no Americans represented. However, 2009 saw a return to U.S. dominance with the CCD sensor. I think we need more evidence to conclude that the U.S. is falling behind, before we get too focused on causes.

joel said...

P.S. In the interest of fairness, it seems to me that a one hour presentation of Darwinian Evolution and a one hour presentation of Intelligent Design in science class would be appropriate. Since intelligent design is more about flaws in evolutionary theory (see,, I think it should be welcomed. Equal time might not be enough to satisfy atheist and fundamentalist extremists, but the general public would perceive it as fair.

Actually, I think the whole issue is a tempest in a teapot, since evolution has virtually zero impact on science as a whole. Belief in magic, astrology, luck, numerology and Chinese fortune cookies is probably more damaging to society than intelligent design.

Steve Ruberg said...

What a different society we could have if only moderate atheists and moderate religious folk could agree to such an arrangement. But - yes - the extremes would never agree and presently they seem to get the most attention.

Darwinism would be healthier if there was an opposing view. Intelligent design would fade if it didn't have the strength to stand up to the light of day. There's a lot more investigation that needs to be done - evolutionary experiments are challenging at best. Perhaps there would even be time allowed for topics such as "Self-Organizing Systems"! :)

Ira Glickstein said...

Howard, Joel and Steve are having such a productive cross-discussion I hesitate to comment - but of course I will.

I agree with Joel that Intelligent Design (ID) could be taught and discussed in science class, but I would allocate far more time to neo-Darwinism because it is the accepted view. I think it would be instructive to go down the list of ID critiques of neo-Darwinism, and neo-Darwin critiques of Darwin's original views, and counter arguments in support of the accepted view. Isn't that what science is all about?

Other controversies should be discussed in science class.

For example, the theory that phlogiston is released when a substance burns is confirmed since the weight of the ash is less than that of the item burned. I would start with that demonstration in science class. The next day, I would repeat the demonstration, but this time in a sealed vessel, and show that the weight of the item burned plus the oxygen in the air was exactly equal to the weight of the ash plus the carbon dioxide, thus disproving phlogiston.

Another example, the Lamarck theory of acquired characteristics, should be demonstrated by repeating Lysenko's experiments in the Soviet Union that showed how exposing seeds to cold or soaking them in sugar water could make wheat more hardy and fruit trees yield sweeter fruit. For example, this 1946 TIME Magazine story on "The Liquidation of the Conservatism of the Nature of Organisms." Next I would explain why Lysenkoism is false, how it was acceptedbecause it fit nicely with Communist theory, and how it retarded agriculture in the Soviet Union at least until the 1960's.

Yet another example would be Einstein's objections to the Copenhagen interpretation of Heisenberg uncertainty . The Schrödinger's cat thought experiment could be discussed. The cat is a tongue-in-cheek critique that exposes the implicit belief, by some otherwise sane physicists, that a cat in a sealed container could be neither dead nor alive for an indeterminite period until a sentient being opened the box and made an observation and collapsed the wave function. In the instant of observation, the cat, if dead, would decay, or, if alive, would have consumed the food and water in the box and deficated all over it! Einstein's original thought experiment had a keg of gunpowder in a sealed container that was both exploded and not exploded.

Despite Einstein's skepticism, the "wierd" interpretations of high energy experiments with sub-atomic particles are currently accepted by nearly all physicists. I think we owe it to the next generation to present opposing views. Somewhere, some future scientist will explain all this stuff in a rational way. (But, of course, that is just my own Fundamentalist Einstein/Spinoza "religion" :^)

Ira Glickstein

Howard Pattee said...

Joel’s opinion is that, “evolution has virtually zero impact on science as a whole.” Let me suggest another more common view of Darwin’s influence. (Excuse my 500-word summary of world history)

The Ancient Greeks explained ordinary events, sometimes even their own behavior, as caused by the wills of innumerable gods. Judeo-Christian religion simplified matters by inventing a single cause, a general-purpose God that could handle all these details by being omniscient and omnipotent. To St. Augustine there are no uncaused events except God. Christian theology says an omnipotent God is the first and final cause of everything that exists. Chance is never involved.

The first scientists simplified causes further by discovering that God’s created laws take care of many details without requiring His constant attention. With Newton’s discovery Laplacean determinism seemed like a great idea, except for chance events and mathematical instabilities (singularities). Newton thought that a loving God would certainly intervene in His laws if they threatened to become unstable.

But this left the “problem of evil.” What about chance events or accidents? How could a loving God that could intervene in His laws allow so many catastrophes – earthquakes, winds, fires, and floods? This is still a big problem, even for fundamentalists.

Long before Laplace, Fermat and Pascal studied the laws of chance events. These are also very good laws, but most people, even ancient Greeks like Leucippus and Democritus, believed these were simply causal events with unknown causes. Einstein and Ira still believe this.

Then came Darwin. At first he couldn’t believe in chance, nor could he believe in a loving God that allowed so much evil. He wrote his American supporter Asa Grey: “With respect to the theological view of the question; this is always painful to me. I am bewildered. I had no intention to write atheistically. But I own that I cannot see, as plainly as others do, and as I should wish to do, evidence of design and beneficence on all sides of us. There seems to me too much misery in the world.”

After a lifetime of careful observations and thought Darwin came up with his theory – heritable chance variation in a population biased by natural selection. Darwin finally concluded: “I am inclined to look at everything as resulting from designed laws, with the details, whether good or bad, left to the working out of what we may call chance.”

Today Darwin’s conclusion is accepted in every science. His complementary view of chance and necessity is required in models of life at every level, genetics, development, neurosciences and psychology. Even modern physics theories require basic laws of necessity (symmetry principles, conservation laws, and the principle of least action) and statistical events that are necessary to account for most of the complex structures in the universe.

Ira Glickstein said...

Howard, you quote Darwin on chance: "I am inclined to look at everything as resulting from designed laws, with the details, whether good or bad, left to the working out of what we may call chance.”

You approve, saying:
"Today Darwin’s conclusion is accepted in every science. His complementary view of chance and necessity is required in models of life at every level, genetics, development, neurosciences and psychology."

How do you account for Richard Dawkins, well-known biologist and athiest who seems to minimize chance in evolution: He writes: "...It is clear that here on Earth we are dealing with a generalized process for optimizing biological species, ... This is a recurrent, predictable, multiple phenomenon, not a piece of statistical luck recognized with hindsight." [The GOD Delusion, p 139]

I quote Dawkins in greater detail and discuss his ideas in the new Topic Earth Day 2010 - Gaia Optimizing Deity.

Ira Glickstein

Howard Pattee said...

I don’t think Dawkins means that chance events do not occur in evolution. I think he means that the outcomes in evolution are no more chance than the outcomes of insurance companies. He means the fact that insurance companies make a profit and species survive is not chance.

In physics this is the difference between microscopic models and macroscopic models. Fundamental particles have statistical models, but baseballs and solar systems have deterministic models. In all sciences you need both types of model for a convincing explanation. (Darwin was also thinking about religion when he made that statement.)

Relating deterministic models and statistical models has always been a problem. In physics it is the cause of the unresolved “measurement problem” in QM. Planck concluded, "For it is clear to everybody that there must be an unfathomable gulf between a probability, however small, and an absolute impossibility . . . Thus [deterministic] dynamics and statistics cannot be regarded as interrelated.”

Einstein’s concept of determinism was a metaphysical faith. However when speaking of scientific models he agrees: “In so far as the propositions of mathematics are certain [deterministic] they do not apply to reality; and in so far as they apply to reality they are not certain [probabilistic].