Wednesday, February 20, 2013


The recent attention to Dr Ben Carson's speech at the National Day of Prayer breakfast has reinforced something I hadn't thought about in some time.  Carson, while a brilliant neurosurgeon, is also a devout conservative Christian.  I've run across similar religious inclination among others in engineering.

On the surface, to me it's odd that people so skilled in fields involving math and science can adhere to a literalist Bible belief.  Hell, it's surprising to me that anyone in a field of scientific endeavor adheres to any religious belief, but at least one that's not reliant on attempts at literalism in a book composed of disparate parts compiled over many centuries from numerous authors with contradictory motivations, cobbled together by editors more than 1500 years ago, can at least try to reason out some religious belief while maintaining a dedication to the scientific method.  Strictly following books written by people with no concept of the scientific method is a bad idea for anyone, let alone a scientist.

But then it occurs to me that engineers and neurosurgeons don't have to understand the larger scientific world to be good at their professions.  As Carson has said, he recognized that his spatial perception and eye/hand coordination made him ripe for surgery.  He is not a scientific theorist of any kind.  He's a technician, working his way through the miniscule parts of the human brain to try to make the malfunctioning, or conjoined, work properly.  I don't expect an auto mechanic to have a profound grasp of biology or physics, though he may if he's so inclined.  It's simply not necessary for him to be good at what he does.  There's no reason to expect Dr Carson to be any firmer in his grasp of physics and biology.

And, boy, is he not.  He thinks the world is complex and well ordered.  It's the former due to millenia of simple events, each stacked one upon the other.  It's certainly not the latter.  There's no order at all to the universe or life here on our little sphere.  If there were order to life we wouldn't have the birth defects, or even silly useless things like an appendix or male nipples.  What designer would make child-birth such a challenge to human women when a better, easier method exists in our close relatives, the chimps?  We have a pelvis tilted in such a way that child birth is difficult because we evolved to stand upright, which gave those first with that mutation advantages in survival over others, advantages that outweighed the child birth detriment.  A good designer, though, would have figured out a way to have both the upright posture and a method of birth considerably more survivable for the female. 

Carson, like many other people I've met, takes an apparently complicated circumstance and concludes that it has to have arrived at such a place due to a designer.  The mere fact of the complexity means there has to be a designer.  That's not valid logic.  Complexity is not evidence of a designer any more than simplicity is evidence of a lack of designer.  Many of the best things designed by humans are simple.  The wheel comes to mind.  And yet, the wheel was designed.  It wasn't designed by a deity, just some nameless progenitor of us all.

I salute Carson for his accomplishments in life and in neurosurgery.  I don't believe that automatically makes him qualified to understand philosophy, biology, or politics, or to be adept at any of those even if he does understand them.  So far, he's showing that he's lacking in a lot of understanding outside of his field of expertise.

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