Monday, May 05, 2008

"Expelled": a brief review

Being a romantic sort of guy, The Oracle decided to take his date to a chick flick on Saturday night. Thus, we saw the controversial Ben Stein documentary, Expelled. Regarding the movie, which I for the most part enjoyed, I will make a few observations.

1. While the movie concerns the subject of Intelligent Design, it does not purport to make a full blown defense of that theory of origins. The movie more fundamentally concerns the issue of academic freedom. Given the atmosphere of political correctness that prevails frequently on college campuses, the producers could have chosen from a wide range of other subjects to make their point. Nonetheless, to say that academic freedom is a valued concept is not the same thing as saying that everyone ought to be entitled to it. Thus, Mr. Stein suggests early on that advocates of ID should not defended if they are adhering to something comparable to those who believe that the earth is flat. To that end, the film is successful in showing that these advocates are frequently articulate and highly credentialed scholars. As such, their treatment at the hands of the academic community has been unconscionable.

2. The entertainment value of the film is heightened by humorous scenes and clips sprinkled throughout it poking fun at the opponents of ID. While these devices make the documentary generally more enjoyable to those who agree with it, they also reduce its effectiveness for those who require convincing.

3. Implicit, though not as clearly stated as it might have been, in the film is the idea that Darwinism, as much as ID, rests on a philosophy as much as on empirical science. This is an idea that ought to be pressed, as scientists frequently fail to notice the philosophical bias inherent in folding philosophical naturalism into the definition of the scientific method. To say that scientists study the natural world ought not to be the same thing as saying that nature is all there is, but that is exactly the presumption that is made all too frequently by Darwinists.

3. There has been much criticism of the documentary's linking of Darwinism with the atrocities of the Holocaust. It is a device that runs the risk of seeming to unfairly tar all Darwinists with the stain of the Nazis, and Mr. Stein states on more than one occasion that this is not the purpose behind this part of the film. Having said that, the documentary does make the fair point that ideas have logical conclusions, and the historical link between Darwinism and the eugenics movement prior to WWII is not debatable. Early Darwinists also frequently held to views generally referred to as "social Darwinism." Ultimately, those beliefs were rejected, not because they were not reasonable conclusions from a Darwinist understanding of the nature of life, but because those logical conclusions came to be rightly regarded as cruel, arrogant, and inhumane.

The late Christian philosopher Francis Schaeffer argued that if nature is all there is, then there is really no distinction between cruelty and non-cruelty -- nature is all there is. That cold reality does not determine who is right on the question of origins, but it does tell us something about what is ultimately at stake.


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