5 July 2011

On creationism/ID

I would like to thank Lewis S for his well-considered post in reply to an earlier post I made. Lewis had clearly thought through the issues discussed and the challenges he raises deserve an equally considered response, I feel. They also touch on a number of subjects which I think concern a lot of Christians and critics of Christianity. Having started to write a reply, it quickly began to get lengthy, in spite on what I considered to be little more than a surface-level review of the topics at hand. So I have decided to split my response across several posts, in which I admit here that I am likely to stray off topic. I do not pretend that these replies will answer every query satisfactorily for all, though my hope is that is conveys a reasonable portrayal of my views on the matters concerned.

After the initial response (which was the quickest to write), I will look to cover:

The Bible as a tool of social control
The genocial god
Biblical accuracy

While Lewis indicated that the last point was the key one, I have left this ‘til last as it is taking the longest to write and reference. So then, on with the first response:

Creationism/ID

For the record, I do not subscribe to young earth creationism or to the Intelligent Design (ID) hypothesis. I think there is a quite profound difference between the belief that God created the world and the belief in a particular method of how He/It did it. As you will be able to read elsewhere, I recently read through Darwin’s The Origin of Species, and found that apart from the introduction which was not written by Darwin, there is nothing overtly atheistic about it. It seems to me that the idea of “special creation” has been bound up in many people’s minds with the core of the Abrahamic religions, and that by undermining the former, that the latter is then consequently undermined too. I do not agree with this view, as I consider it to demonstrate a poor grasp of theology (which I think is true in a lot, though not necessarily all, creationists) and a stretching of the good science into conclusions where the evidence does not reach.

I have no issue with creationists or ID proponents believing what they do, and am perfectly happy to worship in church alongside them. While I believe them to be mistaken, it is no reason to break up personal relationships or to adopt any kind of haughty attitude. To me, the core of Christianity is the person, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, along with the subsequent soteriology that that entails. Anything else is a distraction and I would not want anything petty to break apart such relationships.

One of the labels that is often applied to YEC/ID proponents is “anti-science” which I personally think is a bit harsh, particularly on the ID supporters. To quote Richard Feynman,


“Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts.”
Those who dissent from scientific consensus tend to fall into one of two categories: genius or crackpot. It is by questioning what we commonly accept that a lot of progress may be made. But there may also be a lot of wayward pot-shots that happen along the way. In my experience, there are often a few gems hidden within the criticisms of YEC/IDers that deserve serious consideration, but given how far their main hypothesis lies from mainstream science, they are disregarded wholesale.

Where I see the failings of YECers is that while they may well accept scientific methodologies, their conclusions are biased, based on a pre-existing paradigm. IDers are merely pursuing a route of falsification which Darwin mentions several times in Origin. So the fact that they keep coming up with possible examples of potentially irreducibly complex structures which do turn out to be explainable by means of natural selection, I think, adds to the body of evidence supporting Darwin. All too often in debates around creationism and evolution, I think those on the side of evolution don’t put up the best possible argument but instead refer to rhetoric and name-calling, unwilling to engage with those who disagree with them. At times, it seems as though it is a default position to adopt simply because of their distaste with any possible alternatives. To me, scientific integrity means it should be questioned and challenged; if it can be falsified, then it is important that serious attempts should be made to pursue such lines of enquiry.

I find it interesting to compare the approaches taken by creationists such as
Ken Ham to that of Fred Hoyle’s view of the Big Bang theory. Ham objects to evolution, not because of any particular flaws in the theory but because he disagrees with a particular conclusion that may be reached from it; namely the undermining of his worldview of the creator god. Hoyle objected to Big Bang theory because he felt it accorded too well with the Judaeo-Christian view of the world having a beginning, which may then imply a creator (c.f. Thomas Aquinas and the “first-mover” idea). Both of these men start out by objecting to a possible corollary and then went in search of the evidence to undermine the theory. As far as I know, Hoyle never adopted the big bang model of the origin of the universe, in spite of its near universal acceptance in modern science (an interesting recent exception being the severe modification proposed by Roger Penrose’s conformal cyclic cosmology hypothesis). While I do not agree with Ken Ham, I think he sometimes given a rougher time than he deserves, as some of his critiques are not without basis.

To my view, the problem with Christians who reject evolution is shared with some atheists who reject Christianity. It is the problem of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. I fully acknowledge there are problems with Christianity, and I will touch on one or two of these later on. At the same time I acknowledge that there are problems with evolution. If there weren’t, there would be no need for research; we would know everything. But the fact that both have their difficulties does not mean that I will reject them outright. Indeed, I am happy to embrace both as working hypotheses.

To return to what I think Lewis S was getting at, even though he didn’t phrase it quite as such is this: how do I reconcile the creation account in Genesis with evolution? To me, the key is about trying to understand Genesis in the context in which it was written and what would have been observed by the writer(s) and readers. Without an extensive knowledge and study of biology, as Darwin, Russell and their contemporaries had, it would be highly surprising indeed if the author(s) of Genesis would have come up with a description that mirrored our current understanding of the development of life. They were merely expressing themselves in the best way they possibly could. There is some indication, though I would not like to stress the point too much, that the civilisation which produced the book of Genesis had a grasp of what structures in nature were more complicated. This is given by the “order of creation” in the genesis account which, with a few exceptions, broadly mirrors the current scientific consensus.
Andrew Parker has recently written a book entitled The Genesis Enigma which goes a lot further than I would consider reasonable along this route, though I shall say no more about it here.

It was also long before Darwin that Christian scholars and apologists warned against taking the start of Genesis in what we would not call a literalist manner. Augustine of Hippo wrote a piece called De Genesi ad litteram in which he advocated such a view. And this was written in the late 3rd/early 4th century!

I have to say that I am not a biologist, so can boast no evolutionary training beyond the average. Instead, my master’s degree was in mathematics, with a very heavy dose of physics (in the last couple of years, subjects covered included quantum mechanics, general relativity, twistor theory, string theory, fluid dynamics and electrodynamics). For that reason, the particular areas of creationism that I felt most able to look at were their physics explanation for a young earth. The two dominant ideas here were the slowing down of the
speed of light (which, if true, could help explain the red-shifting of galaxies and get past the rather awkward fact of any object being more than 10,000 light years away) and the decreasing strength of the earth’s magnetic field (where an extrapolation is taken and an argument is made than with a much stronger magnetic field, life could not exist on earth). The former argument was dependent on a single paper that has since been debunked, as the author cherry-picked his data and made an arbitrary cut-off date at which light stopped slowing down. This happened to coincide with the most accurate measurements of the speed of light. The author also supposed that all measurements (including those where the only available light was a candle!) were entirely accurate. The latter theory may have seemed more promising, were it not for the mathematical uncertainties that creep in when using any form of extrapolation model. Here, I think of the GCSE experiment in Hooke’s law using a spring where the students discover that you can’t extrapolate your results, as it misses a change in the molecular structure that changes the deformation from elastic to plastic. Also, the discovery of geomagnetic reversal was the final nail in that particular coffin.

This was roughly the route by which I largely came to reject creationism. One line I have heard a few times from creationists who cannot fathom that someone can both be a Christian AND be persuaded by the evidence for evolution is “well, if you don’t believe the first chapters of the Bible, how can you say you believe it?” I consider this argument to be both fatuous and vacuous. It fails to recognise the Bible as a compendium of books, not a single book by a single author. It also draws on some strange form of logic whereby rejection or acceptance of one part (in a literalist manner) compels you to reject or accept the whole. It is rather like saying you disagree with an editorial piece in a newspaper, and thereby being forced to reject the entire contents of the said paper.

So what shall I say in conclusion, then? The fact that I am persuaded by the evidence for evolution in no way diminishes my Christian faith. It would be truly astonishing if the authors of the book of Genesis had given an account that was technically accurate, as it would have required a breadth of study and technology that was far beyond what was available at the time.

2 comments:

  1. "In my experience, there are often a few gems hidden within the criticisms of YEC/IDers that deserve serious consideration, but given how far their main hypothesis lies from mainstream science, they are disregarded wholesale."

    Sipech, may I ask what criticisms you're thinking of here?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. One particular thing I had mind was the issue of abiogenesis: the origin of life from non-life. Though I know it's not really an issue as far cosmology or evolution go, nevertheless I know many YEC/IDers who conflate it as such.

      Nonetheless, to the best of my knowledge, abiogenesis (and the mechanisms by which it might occur) is still a hypothetical subject, it is not something that has ever been observed to occur spontaneously either under laboratory conditions or in nature. Until this has been done, it seems like there will always be a lacuna in our scientific understanding into which the YEC/IDers will wriggle.

      The closest to this I think has been achieved was with the synthetic life created by Craig Venter and his team (http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2010/may/20/craig-venter-synthetic-life-form). However, this clearly had a designer and was not spontaneous, so arguments based on his work are unlikely to hold sway.

      Delete