The Plumber and the Stonemason

We don’t discus religion here. This is not — as creationists imagine — because our appreciation of science implies any hostility toward or rejection of religion. Rather, our reticence is due to two main reasons:

First, we’re not trained in theology, so we’re not qualified to expound on or debate about religious doctrines. Unfortunately, lack of education is no restraint whatsoever for other people, who tirelessly present their personal notions as if they were the ultimate authority; but we try to be realistic about our limitations — it helps to avoid embarrassment. We’re quite comfortable discussing the Galileo affair, as well as the endless folly of creationism, but that’s as far as we usually go.

The second reason, especially in the context of this blog, is that religion is irrelevant to what we do here. Our principal focus is science. Just as we wouldn’t think of interrupting a church service with an outburst about physics or biology, so too do we think it’s outrageous for science discussions to be interrupted by a religious tirade.

Science and religion are very different intellectual enterprises. To illustrate this with an analogy, consider two construction trades — plumbing and stone-cutting. The plumber is concerned with pipes and liquid flows; the stonemason works with … well, blocks of stone. Different tasks, different skills, different tools. Both occupations have a contribution to make, but they’re not at all the same.

The plumber uses the omnipresent plunger, commonly called the “plumber’s friend.” The stonemason uses a hammer and chisel. Neither is of any use in doing the other’s work.

But suppose some peculiar plumber doesn’t understand that his work has limitations, so he visits a quarry where a stonemason is working — covered in stone dust as he pounds away on a block of granite. Imagine the effect on the mason if the plumber offers his favorite tool and says: “You’re doing it all wrong — use this! It always gets the job done.”

At first, the mason would just wave him away. But if the plumber insists, claiming that the plunger is the answer to every problem, what would be the stonemason’s response? He would be tempted to forcefully demonstrate exactly where the plumber’s proffered instrument belongs.

The problem here is that although this particular plumber may be competent at his own trade, it’s obvious that his training was a bit over-zealous, or perhaps he somehow confused himself. It doesn’t matter how he went wrong — he’s wrong. The plunger is indeed a fine tool in the proper circumstances, but it’s not the magic solution to all problems.

And so it is here at our humble blog, when someone drops in to insist that his denomination’s dogma is the answer to all science questions. We readily concede his sincerity and we don’t question his faith, nor do we want to debate it. But knowing how confused he is in offering the wrong tool for the job, we don’t even want to listen to him.

It’s a mystery to us how people get themselves into such a dither. If we found that someone was training us to behave like an idiot, we’d make every effort to escape his influence. But not everyone reacts that way.

If creationists are happy with their magic plunger, that’s fine with us. We wish them well; but we’re not interested in what they have to say. More to the point, we reject their interference.

Copyright © 2010. The Sensuous Curmudgeon. All rights reserved.

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One response to “The Plumber and the Stonemason

  1. The analogy assumes that different kinds of knowledge (like a different trades) accurately reflects how similar truth claims are informed (by various tools).

    This is… for lack of a more accurate word… wrong. More importantly, its effect is dire and dangerous and costly.

    Unlike the analogy, there is only one kind of knowledge: the informed kind… but there are various kinds of methods to the process of inquiry.

    Science is particularly well suited for informing us with knowledge that is based on a strict format that must include testability, repeatability, and falsification of the knowledge. In other words, the scientific method describes how we can determine if the job to inquire – and find consistent, accurate, and reliable answers – is done well or poorly.

    By contrast, other methods of inquiry – like believing something is a certain way without informing that belief with evidence that can withstand the same kind of legitimate criticism – do not yield knowledge. They yield assumption. They yield assertion. They yield truth claims that may or may not be accurate and provide us with no way to test, repeat, and falsify whether the product of that truth claim – knowledge – is consistent, accurate, and reliable.

    The fact of the matter is that people are not entitled to make up their own facts to suit their truth claims. Such an intellectually dishonest method to the inquiry of any truth claim is not conducive to obtaining knowledge but a direct and intentional impediment to the process itself.

    And that’s why the US in particular – by allowing the truth claims of theology to have a respectable but unwarranted place at the table of knowledge – is falling further behind other more secular countries in producing students who are scientifically literate. We require the kind of students who are knowledgeable to staff the economic engine of the country in order to be able to compete against the world in technologies and advancements. We need people who can produce consistent, accurate, and reliable knowledge and who can then apply that knowledge in profitable ways. We don’t need to help those who would impede this goal in the public domain with undeserved respect.

    This site provides us with knowledge and is a valuable and reliable site. There is no reason to change that focus.