When asked a simple yes or no question — “Do you believe in evolution?” — then presidential-hopeful Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz) responded with anything but his famed “straight talk”: “I believe in evolution,” he said, “But I also believe, when I hike the Grand Canyon and see it at sunset, that the hand of God is there also.”
The resulting skepticism was certainly understandable. The term “hand of God” evokes the imagery of intelligent design, the notion that biological systems are “irreducibly complex” and are thus necessarily the product of an active creator. McCain, critics charged, was likely pandering to Evangelicals who would otherwise disown him for praising evolution.
However, what if McCain actually was attempting to say something meaningful? What, then, can we learn from his seeming contradiction?
This critique reflects the notion that belief in some idea implies a belief in its exclusive explanatory power. Thus, if McCain actually “believes” evolution to be true, these critics wondered, how then could he also “believe” the hand of God is present in nature? How can one affirm the “truth” of divergent representations of reality?
The same view was expressed by a fellow columnist responding to a previous column of mine. Indeed, to demonstrate that evolution is our most “rational,” and, by implication, our most truthful theory, he noted its applicability to “economics, warfare and many arenas well beyond biology.”
Furthermore, given that “we hold ourselves to the standards of rationalism,” “religious freaks,” who use “neither logic nor experiment,” can contribute nothing to our search for the nature of things. Experimental science — specifically evolution — is sufficient.
This approach to “truth” was critiqued in the 19th century by the theoretical physicist Ludwig Boltzmann. Referring to the then-popular belief that mechanical theory perfectly explained all phenomena, and was therefore “true,” he stated, “Our ideas of things are never identical with the nature of things” and that “ideas are only pictures ... that represent one-sidedly ... and can do no more than imitate certain modes of connection ... without touching in the least their essential character.”
Accordingly, no one view is exclusively “true”: indeed, Boltzmann argues that “alongside this one picture (mechanics) there must be others” in order to fully represent reality. Religion and philosophy, indicates Boltzmann, are two such necessary “pictures,” as they, unlike mechanics, “represent the inward and ethical side of the matter.” These disciplines are thus a necessary complement to science, just as science, with its particular, detailed, models of the world, is a necessary complement to religion and philosophy.
This notion is certainly present in contemporary discourse. Indeed, we often note that though scientists can clone animals, genetically modify organisms and develop weapons of mass destruction, they cannot tell us their significance. Such, we claim, is a task better fit for philosophers and religious authorities.
With that said, however, Boltzmann’s approach to truth seriously imperils our ability to affirm “belief” in scientific theories. How can we “believe” in something that incompletely explains the nature of things?
Perhaps, then, we should return to Senator McCain. Indeed, Boltzmann would appreciate McCain’s conception of “belief,” that to “believe” in some idea is not to view it as an ultimate explanation, but rather to derive from it some meaning. Such explains why he could affirm “belief” in these seemingly contradictory ideas. Though physics can explain the intricate processes that cause the sun to set, only “God’s hand in nature” can appropriately describe his instinctive reaction to such.
We tend to resist commitment to just one form of expression. To cover the gamut of human experience, we require more expansive forms of articulation. Such, I believe, is the power of our language that allows us to express a wide range of responses to our experience of the world.
Take love, for instance. Do we experience it as a scientific “mammalian drive” that promotes reproduction? Or as a spiritual process through which “soul-mates” are joined? Likewise, how do we experience gravity? As -9.8 m/s2? Or as an invisible pull towards the ground?
It would be difficult to claim that any one of these definitions is more “truthful” than the other. Indeed, do they not all strongly resonate? Why, then, must we affirm “belief” in only one?
When we speak, we articulate only a one-sided picture of the world. Perhaps, then, our task is to recognize why others are drawn to those models we disfavor. In doing so, will we not only recognize their value, but also better understand what compels us to identify with certain images. In this way, even “religious freaks” will enrich our collective discourse.
Judah Bellin is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be reached at
email@example.com. For Whom the Bellin Tolls appears alternate Mondays this semester.