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All hail science!

Despite having been exposed, sometimes in extremely large doses, to the flamewar that is creationism versus evolution, I remain incredulous that those who argue for evolution very often do one or more of the following things:

I remain bemused, too, that a theory can be held on to with such fervour, as if it is a holy land that must be defended by the faithful. Perhaps it is simply that those who have anything I might wish to hear would not involve themselves in either side of this miscarriage of communication?

Posted by jamie on August 1, 2003 21:30+12:00

Comments

Like you, I am suspicious of the evangelical on either side of this argument. I prefer the verdict still used in the Scottish courts of "Not Proven" which IMHO can be equally well applied to this debate.

From a purely personal perspective, the prospect of a divine creator appals me almost as much as a Darwinian ape lurking in the family tree :)

Looking forward always seems to me a more attractive point of view. Keep up the good work in making us think.

Lindsay

Posted by: Lindsay Norrish on August 4, 2003 07:40+12:00

The problem with creationists (as opposed to the merely religious, with whom I have no beef) is that they don't work from a different set of axioms; they attempt to co-opt science, and claim that their ideology is scientifically well-founded. They also construct all sorts of supposedly scientific criticisms of evolution that are fundamentally bogus.

To wit: creationists claim that the theory of evolution can't possibly be true because it violates the second law of thermodynamics. Creationists claim that the link between apes and humans is impossible because of the paucity of fossil evidence. Creationists claim to find fossilised human foot-prints beside those of dinosaurs. Creationists claim that the mechanism of genetic recombination is statistically unlikely to ever produce viable variation on which natural selection can work. There is a litany of these criticisms, and they are all "scientific" and they are all utterly bogus.

I don't understand your other criticisms. What significance does the fact that the scientific method is a method have? What assertions about the nature of everything do proponents of evolution make?

Posted by: michael on August 4, 2003 13:49+12:00

A lot of the proponents of evolutionary theory who engage in discussions/flamewars (and the first turns into the second with tragic inevitability) on the topic consider that there is one valuable way of investigating the origins of the universe/people/etc, and that is through science. Any other approach is deemed irrational and stupid, because only science is logical and objective, and is not so much an approach as the one true path to Truth. This is, I’m sure you’ll agree, utterly bogus.

Further, one cannot, under the scientific method, say anything more than “here’s what we observe, and here’s an explanation which fits those observations”. This doesn’t seem to be enough for some.

Like I said, I think all the sensible people tend to steer well clear of these debates.

Posted by: Jamie on August 5, 2003 09:53+12:00

The scientific method is slightly more than your characterisation. As per Popper, it's important that one's explanations make testable predictions. It's easy to come up with a theory that explains all the facts: simply claim that God made the universe this way 2 milliseconds ago. Whatever fossils you dig up, just claim that God put them there to fool paleontologists.

So science says quite a lot really: it says "Here's what we observe, and because of this, previous explanations X, Y and Z are all wrong because they predicted something different for those circumstances. Our current explanation is X', and it predicts that if we finangle the widget thusly, P will happen."

To go out on a bit more of a limb, I would claim that science *is* the best way of investigating the origins of the universe. What alternatives are there? Religion can't tell us anything about the universe. It can tell us things about ourselves, and might claim that the universe is an illusion, but if we accept the universe's reality, the best way of finding out things about it is science.

Posted by: michael on August 5, 2003 11:26+12:00

I think it all depends on what you consider investigating, and what you consider knowledge. You say that religion can’t tell us anything about the universe, but what do you mean? If you mean that, for example, the creation stories held by various peoples are useless, you are presumably judging that lack of value on discordance with what physical theories hypothesise (and, in some cases, predict — aren’t there problems with testing theories about very early events?)?

Even if one doesn’t go so far as to say that life is an illusion (which I think is a good starting point myself), and even perhaps accepts modern physics, that doesn’t rule out layers of meaning which science does not touch on. More radically different viewpoints are also viable.

Within a scientific framework, singularities are possible but cannot be accounted for (am I understanding correctly? I mean, if that is not the correct term, rule-breaking phenomenon which necessarily cannot be contained within a rules-based predictive framework). If you cannot test such a thing scientifically, how can a scientist say anything in response to it? Yet science is pulled in to serve as a debunker of all sorts of miracles — quite possibly in part because, as you noted earlier, many people try co-opting the axioms of science to prove their truth. That has always struck me as silly.

Posted by: Jamie on August 5, 2003 17:38+12:00

In this context, we're discussing the origins/nature of the universe, and of humanity, with respect to the arguments between creationism and evolution. Knowledge is believing things to be true. So, what knowledge do you have of these things? How did you come by it? How will you convince me that your knowledge is correct? Can you point to external evidence to support your views?

When I said that religion can't tell us anything about the universe, I was exaggerating for rhetorical effect. Needless to say, it's quite possible that a religion could include true facts about the nature of the universe, ranging from the trivial ("it's really big"), to the impressive ("the Sun is a star"), to the amazing ("the Sun shines because it is constantly turning hydrogen into helium and releasing energy thereby"). So, I shall attempt to be more careful: religion provides no method for investigating the nature of the universe. Moreover, attempting to co-opt it into this role is subverting what I believe religion is good for: motivating an investigation of oneself. Creation stories tell us a great deal about the people who wrote them, and inasmuch as people are part of the universe, they tell us a little about the nature of the universe. Nonetheless, as descriptions of the origin of the universe, they are of no use. In terms of facts and theories about the way things are/were, they are demonstrably wrong, and in terms of “layers of meaning” they are forever debatable because there is no possible external arbiter.

You mention singularities and mean something like "inexplicable one-off phenomenon". I believe science only admits the existence of one of these, and that is the Big Bang, which created the universe. Religious miracles don't qualify, because science only attempts to explain things that it is confident actually happened. When anti-religious people try to debunk miracles, they may use science to construct alternative explanations (e.g., pointing out that the UFO was probably Venus), but they are just as likely to use historical techniques. An example of this is this essay which attacks the Resurrection miracle on historical grounds (the author is a classicist, not a scientist).

Of course, by definition, a miracle is something that is inexplicable in terms of our knowledge of the world (if it was just Venus, it was hardly a miracle), so yes such a thing would be inexplicable by science. I concede this point because it's a tautology, but it does not establish that miracles have ever occurred.

I don't believe people ever use science to explain miracles. Instead, they may claim that modern evidence supports the view that the miracle happened. The distinction is this: science can't explain miracles, but science can certainly infer that a miracle happened. (E.g., we infer the Big Bang.) Thus, the creationism/evolution debate is a case of fundamentalist Christians insisting both that the scientific evidence about the origins and history of life is consistent with a literal reading of the Bible (for varying values of “literal”), and also that the evidence is inconsistent with the theory of evolution. As such it represents an attack on science, and the over-keen science types you have observed are simply rebutting these arguments. It's important that this happen, as a theory that can't rebut criticisms isn't going to be valid, but I can certainly imagine that some might come across as shrill. Arguing with idiots for any length of time tends to have that effect, and the fault still lies with the creationists for attempting to push their pseudo-science on the rest of the world.

In the reverse direction, it is articles such as the one I linked to above that represent an attack on religion, and that example makes it clear that the attack is not necessarily made from science.

Posted by: michael on August 6, 2003 12:31+12:00

Whoa there; I think you need to read some of the things people on the science side of things have said in the discussions I’m thinking of (not that you easily could, since I haven’t referenced them), though I imagine you would say that they were misrepresenting science and therefore not on that side.

However, when you talk about the sort of things religion might say about the universe, you’re approaching it entirely as religion saying the same things as modern science tells us. This is precisely the privileging of a particular model/worldview that I complained about, that there is a single Truth (that science has, or at least approaches and approximates) which other viewpoints, if they’re any good, may also approach.

Posted by: Jamie on August 7, 2003 16:30+12:00

So, how 'bout you provide some examples of knowledge about the nature of the universe that a religious method has produced?

Posted by: michael on August 7, 2003 20:00+12:00

Isn't science just another kind of account? One perhaps with more stringent rules about evidence and less inclination toward the poetic. It seems to me that one might do better to ask whether or not both the poetic method of cosmology making and the scientific do not have each their own validities. Time will, I hope, also prove our current myth-makers to have made vital errors. The makers of cosmology myths all have the desire to explain why our perceived rerality is. In the instance of things like the biblical account, a long past culture with the very human habit of anthropomorphising their surroundings has created God in their own image and has, in doing so created an essentially human author for the experiences. In a tribal society this makes a certain sense and seems to register the beginning of an awareness that human forces have an impact on their surroundings. Now we have returned to a mythology in which human beings are insignificant amid the vastness of the new improved 'bigger picture' I think the real issue is to look at the ways in which human perception maps its experience. Insightful and penetrating, there are always limitations. I still puzzle that my calculator cannot divide by zero and yet I know that if I divide anything by nothing I am left with the anything I first thought of.

Posted by: evan on August 17, 2003 10:31+12:00

One of the big difference between science and religion as accounts is that science admits that its accounts are subject to revision. Contrast this with religion: the central truth of a religious account is not subject to revision: if it was good enough for our ancestors it's good enough for us. Thus the 39 Articles of the Church of England.

Of course, both science and religion evolve. The difference is that science expects to evolve. When religions evolve, the result tends to be conflict, to varying degrees of bloodiness.

Posted by: michael on September 19, 2003 18:05+12:00