Thoughts of an American Centrist

Friday, August 05, 2005

Do not confuse a philosophical statement with science, merely because it is spoken by a scientist.

A commenter, Steve, on my earlier post made a very well thought out point that there seems to be a belief among atheists that Evolution must necesarily void Creationism. Steve then went on to conclude that this means that evolution and creationism must be mutually exclusive. I disagree.

I believe such a view results from misidentifying the overreaching and elitist statements of individual scientists for science itself. Carl Sagan was a brilliant astronomer whose insights into the cosmos influenced much of modern astronomy and astrophysics. He was also an ass who poured pitiless contempt upon all of us who believe in a higher power. It is important to separate the man from his work. The Dawkins quote you cut and pasted was not a scientific theory, but merely one man's opinion as to how to explain what he saw around him (an opinion, I believe, warped by his atheistic prejudices). Consider the statements of Dawkins and myself.

The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference. As that unhappy poet A.E. Housman put it: ‘For Nature, heartless, witless Nature Will neither care nor know.’ DNA neither cares nor knows. DNA just is. And we dance to its music. ~ Richard Dawkins

From the earlier Post
I ask, "How could all this beauty and intricacy have happened without a guiding hand?"

Dawkins and I are really asking the same question. Our philosophies, however, lead us to different answers. Scientists who try to pass off their personal beliefs about what their discoveries mean as hard science are as out of line as the Intelligent Design folks who claim their ideas are a result of the scientific method. Science has been contaminated with religious questions for hundreds and hundreds of years. Those of us who truly search for an answer must recognize what is and what is not true science.


  • Thanks for the reply Jonathan.

    I agree that we need to make a clear distinction between science on the one hand and philosophy on the other. Much of what Sagan wrote (certainly much of what he is most famous for) falls squarely into the latter category. No disagreement there.

    The rub comes in your statement: “…this means that evolution and creationism must be mutually exclusive. I disagree.”

    I think part of the issue that muddies the already foggy terrain (really mixing my metaphors here…) involves the defining of terms. Particularly difficult is the malleable little word “evolution.”

    If by this we mean microevolutionary changes as in all the classic examples (finches, moths, microbes…), then by all means, we should teach this in classrooms because it falls squarely into the first of our two categories above. The scientific evidence overwhelmingly shows that organisms have been given (by what or whom is outside my scope at this point) the ability to adapt in response to various environmental pressures. Thus, the size and shape of Darwin’s finches oscillate in response to the availability of different food sources, and microbes develop resistance to antibiotics. There is no conflict whatsoever between this definition of evolution and the concept that God exists and has created.

    The problem with this is that no Darwinist would allow his turf to be so constrained. Darwin’s big idea wasn’t variation within species; it was the development of whole new ones through purely natural processes —and this naturalistic commitment is built into the theory itself. So, when most people talk about evolution, particularly the teaching of evolution in schools, they mean the Grand Naturalist Creation Story, in which random chance + time can turn Darwin’s finches into turkeys, and produce elephants from inorganic matter.

    In this model, God either doesn’t exist at all, or he is reduced to the status of a distant, irrelevant uninvolved observer. Either way, he doesn’t exist in any meaningful way. So, yes, a God who creates and loves and intervenes in his creation (the God I know) cannot coexist with standard neodarwinian theory, because that theory has ruled him out right from the beginning. Look again at the quotations I cited earlier. These are examples and explanations of the theory itself, not, as you suggest, additional ideas tacked on by a few overzealous practitioners.



    By Anonymous Steve, at 3:34 PM  

  • Steve,

    In reference to the "Grand Naturalist Creation Story" being in conflict with a meaningful God, I disagree.

    Descent of Man outlines the theory of a process through which mankind came to be. It makes no claims of the motivating forces behind this process. Does it allow the process to be purely random or without any god? Yes. Does it also allow God to guide the entire process? Yes, it does. The phrase "the Lord works in mysterious ways" is worth considering here. God does not need to work in a way that is observable to humans nor in a way that can ever be proven... in fact, I would personally say that the ability to work wonderous miracles while still maintaining an air of subtlety & mysteriousness is one of the (many) great characteristics of God that forever sets Him apart from man. To create a world such as the one we live in, man would need to build incredible machines and harness unthinkable amounts energy. There would be no way for us to hide this. God has created this magnificent world without leaving so much as an accidental fingerprint.

    There is, however, conflict between Descent of Man and literal Six-Day Creationism.

    The following is pretty close to my point of view on the subject:
    Note that I'm not asking you to change your beliefs or to conform to mine. I'm just presenting an argument where DoM does not conflict with an omnipotent creator.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 9:40 PM  

  • anon,

    I'll admit that I didn't have time to read that entire page, but the first couple of paragraphs meshes with my views quite nicely.

    There are many variants on the theories of evolution, and many people see it differently. The principle of common descent, however, has become pretty well established. I don't believe that principle in any way invalidates the principle of creation. Any scientist claiming that there is no room for God in the process is not speaking with intellectual honesty.

    By Blogger Jonathan C, at 11:54 AM  

  • Thanks for the article. I read it quickly and agree with most of it. (The earth is ancient by any measure; the bible isn’t a science book, and employs lots of figurative language (even the most strident fundamentalist, when he reads that God takes people “under his wings,” recognizes that God is not a chicken, or even an eagle…)). My own view, like yours, is that creation didn’t happen in a literal 6 days.

    But the article, which was essentially an argument against young-earth creationism, didn’t address the question I raised. The challenge for all of us in our post modern culture is to live and think in a way that is consistent with all of our presuppositions (or the presuppositions of the theories that we espouse). The additional challenge for the xian is to maintain some level of fidelity to the biblical text (figurative language is great—I’m very glad that most people when they write don’t write like lawyers—but even figurative language still has intent and says something—at least I still think so).

    So, leaving out the issue of how long it took for these things to happen, Genesis says that God created all the major plant and animal groups and then later these two people, and that they were the first ones. Furthermore, they were “created from the dust of the earth,” which even with the most generous of figurative interpretation probably doesn’t mean “evolved from billions and billions of unnamed biological precursors.”

    Thus, even if you don’t accept the previous argument that philosophical naturalism is built into macroevolutionary theory (which is pretty clear if you read what the experts say, but I’ll not beat that horse anymore), you don’t have to be Steven Jay Gould or Richard Dawkins to find a whole lot of inconsistencies between the Genesis account and standard-issue Darwinism.

    I'm pretty sure it can't be done, but if you'd like to take a crack at reconciling them, I'll check back in a couple days.


    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 10:42 AM  

  • sb,

    Getting back to the premise of the article, all scientific evidence points to us sharing a common ancester with other species, teaching human evolution from lower animals is the natural progression of teaching if we follow scientific evidence. Whether or not God's creation of man was through evolution or through a special creating using literal dust is not the subject for a science classroom since there is scientific evidence for the latter theory.

    How do I reconcile the verse and the evidence personally? Well, that's another story. The scientific evidence points to human evolution. If it walks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, it's probably a duck. The only task left is to scratch my head and wonder what exactly God had in mind when he wrote about the 6th day. The conclusion I'd come to was that the special creation of man was not refferring to creating simply a physical body, but instead was a process of God nurturing human devolpment and coaxing evolution towards a path wherein we were formed "in His likeness and image," in terms of mental and moral capacity. As much as nature shows love to show otters and chimpanzees using primitive tools, it is the human race's intellect that sets us apart. It is this intellectual and moral development that I believe the 6th day account refers to.

    OF COURSE, many many many people will disagree with me, and they may be right. In my mind, however, it just doesn't make sense for God to create a singlar creation that appears exactly as if it had evolved from other species.

    By Blogger Jonathan C, at 1:37 PM  

  • Yours is an interesting synthesis of disperate perspectives...

    Just one final comment. While it is the case that some of the evidence points that way, it is certainly not the case that "all scientific evidence" points to the truth of macroevolutionary theory. A list of dissenters is here:



    By Anonymous Steve, at 6:35 PM  

  • sure, what's one more go-around!

    I believe that the list of dissenters is referring to two different aspects this debate with which I do not differ.

    Firstly, that Darwinian Evolution does not adequately describe the origins of life. That's true, it doesn't. The Theory of Evolution only deals with organisms evolving into more complex organisms. The starting point is an existing life form, so Evolutionary theory only applies after life begins. I've made the argument many times that life is too complex to have arisen spontaneously, but that does not at all invalidate the concept of a common ancestry.

    Secondly, they point out that random mutations alone could not naturally produce the level of complexity that we see in life around us today. Again, I agree. I believe that God guided those mutations that allowed life to branch out and diversify into the amazing array of species we see around us. This also does not contradict the supposition that life started from a simple organism and branched out into more complex life forms, but instead supports it.

    I've stated before that I believe that God had a hand in everything that has transpired to form our universe and its life, but that since I have no proof - even more, I have no way of providing proof - my belief in a Creator and His role in this universe must necessarily be left out of scientific classrooms. Scientific instruction must be based on the scientific method, not our own philosophical conclusions.

    Let me pose one question: why is it so important that there be scientific proof of God's role? It makes more sense to me that God would choose to do His work using the tools that he created - physics, chemistry, biochemistry, molecular genetics, and natural selection - to mould his universe rather than big flashy displays of divine power.

    11 And he said, Go forth, and stand upon the mount before the LORD. And, behold, the LORD passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and brake in pieces the rocks before the LORD; but the LORD was not in the wind: and after the wind an earthquake; but the LORD was not in the earthquake: 12 And after the earthquake a fire; but the LORD was not in the fire: and after the fire a still small voice. 13 And it was so, when Elijah heard it, that he wrapped his face in his mantle, and went out, and stood in the entering in of the cave. And, behold, there came a voice unto him ~1 Kings 19:11-13

    By Blogger Jonathan C, at 10:27 PM  

  • Hey guys... very interesting stuff. I was wondering whether I have the issue correct or not: isn't the question whether macro-evolution (the big bang caused everything, and the earth evolved this way and that etc., etc.) should be taught as a fact or as a theory in the science curriculum of elementary thru high school? I suppose if I went to my kid's class and some atheist ultra-liberal was trying to tell my kid that the big bang was absolutely without a doubt how it all happened, I would be mad, first I suppose for the intellectual dishonesty -- it's excellent conjecture, but merely that -- and second because it disrespects the other theories, including the philosophy and/or faith based theories which form a large part of the moral and belief systems that make up our culture and society. That said, I think that if the science teachers have curriculum that says -- 'we don't really know, and your religion teacher in Sunday school at church could be as correct as anyone at the science department at any leading university, but here is some of the theories that the leading scientists have come up with based on observation and experimentation...' then I would have no problem. Isn't it that the atheists and the believers want to duke it out over macro-evolution in the school yard? Isn't there a practical, common sense here in the Middle?

    Sam Nicolas

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