Dissonance, duplicity, or duplicity

Thu 22 Feb 2007 12:04 AM

Greg links to an item in the New York Times about Marcus Ross, a guy who got a PhD in geosciences at the University of Rhode Island and now teaches at Jerry Falwell's Liberty University. Although Ross discusses what the Earth was like millions of years ago in his thesis, he is a young-Earth creationist who believes that the entire material universe was assembled only a few thousand years ago.

The story explains:

Dr. Ross said [that] the methods and theories of paleontology are one "paradigm" for studying the past, and Scripture is another. In the paleontological paradigm, he said, the dates in his dissertation are entirely appropriate. The fact that as a young earth creationist he has a different view just means, he said, "that I am separating the different paradigms."
Ross is on thin ice here. The notion of a paradigm is notoriously slippery, but consider what it is supposed to be doing in a case like this: Kuhn characterized a paradigm as a way of seeing the world that cannot be directly proven. For example, Lavoisier (who discovered oxygen) just had a different way of going on than chemists who believed in phlogiston. The shift from one paradigm to another, Kuhn said us, is like a conversion experience. One simply begins to see the world in a whole different way.

Ross' situation is not like this. He did not write an old-Earth thesis and then see the young-Earth light on the road to Damascus. He wants to say that he lived in both paradigms all along. If a chemist had lived in both the oxygen and phlogiston paradigms, he would not really have been living in either; he would have been simply unsure what to say about combustion. Ross, rather, claims to be devout in his (young-Earth) faith. Talk of paradigms hardly makes sense of that.

Borrowing Wittgensteinian rather than Kuhnian jargon, we might instead say that Ross as participating off and on in two different language games. The language game of science calls for large numbers when talking about the age of the Earth. The language game of creationism calls for small numbers. Yet both games involve talking about 'years.' We can ask: Which language game uses that move in the same way that we use it when making calendars? That is, which uses it to mean years?

Just as Wittgenstein said that philosophers must be using "exists" in an extraordinary way when they argue about whether quotidian things really exist, either science or creationism must be using "years" in an extraordinary way. (Hint: Scientists mean "years" to be intervals of literal time.)

I cannot tell from the story what we ought to say about Ross. There are, I think, three possibilities.

First, cognitive dissonance: Ross goes some way toward believing the scientific account that he engaged in his thesis and some way toward believing creationism. These are inconsistent, and so his system of belief is a logical train wreck held in check by other psychological forces.

Second, perverse duplicity: Ross can talk like a scientist, just as an actor playing Hamlet can talk like the Prince of Denmark. He has some muddled notion of paradigms that makes him think that learning to play act in this way is worth doing. There have been more years in the life of the Earth than are dreamt of in his philosophy.

Third, malicious duplicity: Ross thinks that the science which shows that the Earth is old is a terrible thing and needs to be taken down. He gets credibility for having earned a legitimate degree, and his subsequent pronouncements of young-Earthiness will carry more weight. This is would be a bit like members of Al Qaeda who volunteer to serve in the Iraqi security forces just so as to get access to uniforms and munitions.