Benjamin Carson’s commencement address at Emory

May 28, 2012 • 11:46 am

I’m posting a video that you needn’t watch except for the first couple of minutes, and I do this just to make a record.

A while back I posted an interview with Ben Carson, a famous pediatric neurosurgeon at Johns Hopkins who is also a Seventh Day Adventist and an undiluted ex nihilo creationist.  Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia chose Carson as this year’s commencement speaker, and there was a petition by Emory students and faculty protesting Carson and his stupid views on evolution (and on the supposed immorality of nonbelievers).  He was chosen anyway, of course, and the video below shows his commencement address.  He avoided any real mention of creationism, of course, for that would have been a huge embarrassment to both him and—especially—Emory, though he did refer obliquely to his interview, saying the following starting at 3:07:

“Let me just at the outset say that I know that there was some controversy about my views on creation and somebody thought that I said that evolutionists are not ethical people. Of course I would never  say such a thing and would never believe such a thing nor would anybody with any common sense; so, you know, that’s pretty ridiculous. But any rate, enough said about that.”

You needn’t watch beyond that; his talk is incredibly boring, tedious and trite. It winds up extolling Carson’s own prowess as a surgeon and referring, of all things, to the composition of the National Anthem—our flag was still there! It’s a model of how not to give a commencement address. I bet that Emory still regrets choosing him because of the stream of soothing pablum that issued from his mouth. (Look how bored everyone on the dais looks!)

At any rate, Dr. Carson was not 100% truthful in his disclaimer about the ethics of evolutionary biologists. Look what he did say in his interview:

Ultimately, if you accept the evolutionary theory, you dismiss ethics, you don’t have to abide by a set of moral codes, you determine your own conscience based on your own desires. You have no reason for things such as selfless love, when a father dives in to save his son from drowning. You can trash the Bible as irrelevant, just silly fables, since you believe that it does not conform to scientific thought. You can be like Lucifer, who said, “I will make myself like the Most High.”

Can you prove evolution? No. Can you prove creation? No. Can you use the intellect God has given you to decide whether something is logical or illogical? Yes, absolutely. It all comes down to “faith”–and I don’t have enough to believe in evolution. I’m too logical!

His disclaimer is verging on a lie, for he averred that there is no reason for those who accept evolution to be ethical, and argued that their behavior is based on their “own desires.”  Are those “desires” always consonant with God’s will? I doubt that Carson thinks so. . .

Well, watch if you wish: it’s only marginally more interesting than watching paint dry.

42 thoughts on “Benjamin Carson’s commencement address at Emory

  1. Ben is a good technical surgeon, but his greatness exists primarily in his own mind. His ‘intellectual’ baggage puts him in the same category as Michael Egron from New York. In that, they are an embarrassment in my profession. Enough said. Carson was here at Bucknell as graduation speaker recently. The biology department was incandescent.

      1. Oh, Jesus. Carson I’d hear of, but not this character – and he went to Columbia, yet.

        Very distressing.

  2. Can you prove evolution? No. Can you prove creation? No. Can you use your evolved intellect to decide whether something is logical or illogical? Yes, absolutely. It all comes down to brains –- and I don’t have enough to believe in evolution. I’m too stupid!

    Much better.

  3. There may be ethical acts that evolution cannot explain, but a father saving his son’s life is surely not one of them.

    1. Evolution can explain the emergence of the human brain, which is the seat of human emotions and thinking. Every ethical act is an application of those two activities, so indirectly evolution explains all ethical acts.

  4. In the Wall Street Journal from Saturday, there is an article on the motivations to cheat and not to cheat by Dan Ariely from Duke. There is a paragraph on the influence of moral codes on cheating that suggests the importance of being reminded of moral codes (such as the ten commandments or school honor codes) and the irrelevance of the code’s religious authority. Unfortunately, the paragraph is written in a way that requires careful reading to come to the latter conclusion. I suspect that someone like Carson would simply see the words, “ten commandments,” and crow victory.

      1. That’s really interesting. I’m not sure that Ariely looks at the costs of cheating. If there’s a parallel, however, it seems that it would lie in some measurement of degree of advantage of cheating. Clearly birds aren’t operating by some sort of formal code. I guess that makes it a difficult comparison.

        1. that’s the weird thing; it DOES rather look like they regularly repeat cheating behaviors, just as the evidence also seems to be growing that there appears to be a selective disadvantage to it.

          I can only imagine that drift has overcome any significant disadvantages within any given population.

          What’s more, I’d bet money that it’s the same with humans. 🙂

      2. This exchange vaguely reminds me of an old Woody Allen line (from the movie “Manhattan”). He says, “I think people should mate for life, like pigeons or Catholics”.

  5. Sorry – I beg to differ. I found his speech inspiring and Ben to be surprisingly likable as I said in another comment elsewhere. His story is the definitive rags to ‘riches’ story that through perseverance and hard work one can accomplish anything. There are students struggling in medical school or struggling generally in college who will find the encouragement to persevere and continue on from Ben’s remarkable story. That is what makes a commencement speech great by definition. With that said I found Ben’s comments on evolution (especially those attributed to him on the Adventist website) to be frankly appalling. I cannot fathom that someone as accomplished as he has so misunderstood the basics of evolution. I am not going to pass judgement on all aspects of his character or capabilities though because of this aberration.

  6. It’s all about metaethics.

    The Xn metaethics, “what’s good is what God says is good,” is disconnected from observations about reality in general and human life in particular. Because they are commands, thought is not needed or allowed; reason is, therefore, ejected from the field of ethics. Without being rooted in facts of reality, there is no context for understanding the edicts of God–no way to go back and integrate basics to provide evidence for the conclusions. One can interpret the edicts in many ways–hence the subcults. This mess also allows people who can’t/won’t provide any nonreligious context of their own and ignore context altogether; they are the fanatics following blindly–without “reasons why.”

    See the article on metaethics at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

    The very end of the article provides, I believe, a good statement of the issue:

    But what is it about morality that precludes it being fundamentally arbitrary? A good answer, I suspect, will lead one away from the idea that moral properties are merely there in the world to be found, wholly independent of our concerns and practices. But a good answer is needed. And a good answer is not provided simply by supplying, if one could, a consistent and coherent set of principles that successfully systematized particular moral judgments about acts, institutions, and characters. The challenge here is not simply to show that moral judgments can be seen to fit a pattern; the challenge is to show that the pattern they fit — the principle(s) to which they conform — work to explain and justify their importance.

  7. Typical Christian waffling. “I never said evolutionists aren’t ethical. I said they have no reason to be ethical.”

  8. In Carson’s defense, he previously said that the Adventist Review edited his quote against the ethics of evolution and that it doesn’t represent his beliefs:

    “Carson told Inside Higher Ed he doesn’t believe that people who believe in evolution are unethical. The Adventist Review condensed that quote, he said. Carson wishes the Emory letter writers had asked him for clarification before writing their letter.

    “ ‘It would have been extremely courteous if they had asked me whether it was true that I said people who are evolutionist are unethical, which I never did,’ Carson said. ‘Those of us who believe in God and derive our sense of right and wrong and ethics from God’s word really have no difficulty whatsoever defining where our ethics come from. People who believe in survival of the fittest might have more difficulty deriving where their ethics come from. A lot of evolutionists are very ethical people.’ ”

    He’s not saying evolutionists aren’t ethical, just that he believes evolution is a bad source of ethics. If that sounds offensive, it shouldn’t. It’s the same exact thing we (and, yes, Jerry) are arguing: that the Bible is a bad source of ethics even though many (if not most) Christians are still very ethical people.

    1. you’re wrong.

      look again:

      “People who believe in survival of the fittest might have more difficulty deriving where their ethics come from”

      this is dishonesty of Carson’s on 3 levels:

      1. It is a strawman of both evolutionary theory, and a conflation of evolutionary theory with social darwinism

      2. It sure as HELL DOES say that he thinks non-christians are “an-ethical” (without ethics)

      3. It implies that evolutionary theory is a source of human ethics to begin with, which at best it rather is an attempt to explain the source of particular behavioral traits exhibited in specific populations.

      No, sorry, not letting Carson off the hook here, and your analysis is essentially puerile.

      1. Sorry, but you are completely wrong there. You quote him saying that Evolution-supporters can’t determine where our ethics comes from, not that we aren’t ethical. Isn’t that the same exact charge countless people on this blog regularly make of Christians, when we point out that their better ethics come from modern rational thought and not the ancient Bible people give the credit to? That they can’t correctly define where their ethics comes from?

        To make that charge of Christians, and then go after him when he says the same exact thing (but in reverse) about supporters of evolution, would be hypocritical in the worst possible way. I don’t know about you, but *my* ethics require I give everyone else the same leeway I give myself.

        1. no, when you say that there is no basis for an ethical position, this IS the same as saying you lack ethics, according the the standards the person saying is it using.

          you haven’t seen this doublespeak by xians in practice much I gather.

          1. I agree with Richard C.
            Carson is saying that a believer in evolution may act ethically from temperament but won’t be able to actually rationalize their ethical behavior (which they may do) mentally.
            I, of course, think Carson is wrong. It is I think possible to derive an ethical standpoint (other than Social Darwinism) from evolution.

          2. So in your opinion, anyone who points out that the Bible has some pretty terrible ethics is saying that all Christians and Jews who believe in it are wholly unethical people?

            If yes, then you and I don’t have much to discuss.
            If no, then you know full well the distinction between attacking a book or theory and attacking those people who believe it. Stop being a hypocrite.

            By the way, I am fully aware of the straw man arguments made by fundies. I also didn’t see them in Carson’s actual remarks as quoted. I saw a common religiously-motivated misconception about evolution and ethics. I didn’t see a fundie attack.

            Carson’s work has *literally* saved hundreds of lives *per year*( and the surgical techniques he pioneered will continue saving thousands more after he is gone. The guy’s a hero. When he says multiple times that his statements were taken out of context, were about the theory and not the people, and that he never felt or claimed evolutionists to be unethical people, show him the respect of believing him.

            (Jerry are you reading as well? Love your work but you’re wrong here.)

        2. To make that charge of Christians

          not ALL christians do this.

          Carson, however, DOES.

          so do many other fundamentalists.

          I don’t group “xians” under a single tent, since at last count there are well over 30 THOUSAND sects of xianity.

  9. nor would anybody with any common sense

    Oh, my.

    I became aware of Carson during the past year. He’s head of Pediatric Neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins. I realize someone can get through medical school without a proper understanding of scientific method, then go out and get a job – but Johns Hopkins? Really?

    It says a lot about our culture, and none of it is pretty.

      1. The sad thing is that someone like Carson would read this:

        A lecturing professor is not challenged; rather, her words are dutifully transcribed and memorized for the test. And safely so! Lectures rarely focus on controversy or uncertainty. Therefore, the first half of medical school imparts a great amount of requisite knowledge, but it does not do much to encourage scientific skepticism.

        and use it as fuel for this argument. He’d completely miss the point.

        I know a doctor, an oncologist, who graduated from an MD/PhD program (from Albert Einstein, one of the institutions funded by the MSTP). He’s an Orthodox Jew who’s told me he accepts the reality of evolution, but not for human beings. “I don’t believe we came from monkeys. I know it’s a paradox, but I don’t have to know the answer; God does.” I was speechless. I’m used to fundies saying there’s no evidence, or that scientists are purposely misinterpreting it because they don’t want to be held accountable by God, blather, blather… but this was the only time I’ve encountered someone who said, “Oh yes, the evidence is there, and it’s being interpreted correctly… I just choose not to believe it!” I have no idea as to how to respond to someone like that.

        I guess the MSTP training isn’t foolproof.

        1. That of course, is the position of Kurt Wise who admits that the evidence heavily favors an old earth and evolution. He just chooses to disregard the evidence and believe in a young earth and creationism because his interpretation of the bible says so.

          1. Is that Wise’s position? The fundies who claim the evidence is lacking are at least a little more logically consistent. This level of denial may be indicative of psychosis.

            Wise went to Harvard, Carson to Yale. I came across another YEC from Harvard a couple of years ago (I wrote about it for Pharyngula: This business of Ivy League science depts. graduating creationists is starting to become a bad habit (well, to be fair, Carson was a psych major as an undergrad). These universities have a responsibility to science, the academic community and those who pursue the degree in the future. They don’t seem to understand this.

            1. Is that Wise’s position?

              Yes it is, that’s why Richard Dawkins calls Wise an honest creationist.

              However, there are other PhD graduates of prestigious non-ivys. For instance, Jonathan Wells and Duane Gish have PhDs from U.C. Berkeley. Jason Lisle has a PhD from the Un. of Colorado.

              1. Yes,I’m aware. There’s also Marcus Ross from URI. He did his thesis on the Cretaceous, arguing from the perspective of one who accepts an old Earth, but his professors knew he was being disingenuous; he told them as much. They graduated him anyway. He’s now at Liberty U teaching YEC. I emailed his adviser at URI and tried to get him to realize he’d abdicated his responsibility to science; got some bullshit about the marketplace of ideas. I suspect they were really afraid of a lawsuit – at least I hope that was the real reason.

                In any case, it’s becoming an epidemic.

        2. The orthodox Jews position that other species evolved but not men is spookily like the position of some late 19th-century German racists who thought other human races had evolved from monkeys but not Germans who were divinely created.

  10. I hate the evolutionists/atheists have no morals trope.

    “Ultimately, if you accept the evolutionary theory, you dismiss ethics, you don’t have to abide by a set of moral codes, you determine your own conscience based on your own desires. You have no reason for things such as selfless love, when a father dives in to save his son from drowning.”

    Of course, many non-evolutionists have also dismissed Biblical ethics and rejected its moral code. They’re called sinners. The difference between the saints and sinners is the level of fear. Clearly the sinners lack a sufficient understanding of the peril they are in. The win/lose calculus hasn’t worked out for them.

    Maybe the theists should stop trying to prove god exists, and start trying to prove that hell exists.

  11. At Carson’s right on the stage you can see seated a man in a yellow gown. That’s Dr. Jim Wagner, President, Emory University. In an earlier time, he was Provost (and then Interim President) of Case Western reserve University, when he responded to a flabbergasted student reporter what he was reading that summer, “The Bible. I am a struggling Christian.”

  12. Put it to you this way — there are ethical and unethical people in every belief system, christians and evolutionists. What you believe in has nothing to do with how ethical you are. It perturbs me when people get into heated arguments in the comments section. To me its like we’re not respecting each other’s opinions and prespectives. I never get involved in these type of debates, but this time I just couldn’t hold my thoughts back. I feel like everyone should respect each other’s opinions. Thats what makes us unique. If we all had the same opinions we’d be one boring world. Its nothing wrong with stating our opinions, but if we are fighting with someone we don’t even know over the internet, then thats not respecting each other.

    1. I mean do they have merit? I want feed-back so that I can make them better. The teleonomic [mechanistic Mayr] follows your thoughts.
      I’m trying to make explicit what already in the literature is implicit.
      Am I doing that then?
      Thanks for responding!
      Morgan-LynnGriggs Lamberth
      Ignostic Morgan
      Inquiring Lynn
      Fr.,Lord and Rabbi Griggs
      Carneades of Ga. amongst other nick names

  13. I am so sorry, i do not mean to sound ‘weird’ or ‘strange’, but i have no idea what a mechanistic mayr is, and im not really sure what your trying to ask me. Could you please elaborate more on your question, and i will be happy give you any feedback that you need. Im not really familiar with a mechanistic mayr 🙂

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