Saturday, February 4, 2012

Science vs. God

Part of my Approaching Atheism series.

For the first in my series of dealing with God-related issues, I'd like to address the apparent conflict (in the minds of some) between scripture and the discoveries of science.

If you're one of the many (in fact, majority) of people who both believe in God and yet do not deny the findings of science, then this discussion is not addressed at you. It's aimed to "clear the field" of anti-science claims so that I can move on to more substantive discussions regarding faith and God. However, you should probably read through it anyways; it's important to know what kinds of claims are being made on the behalf of Christianity, if only so that you can distance yourself from them, and to understand why you do.

This is hardly a minor or unimportant discussion. When all of the current (and most former) contenders for the Republican nomination for the Presidency of the United States of America state that they disbelieve in evolution, Christian antipathy of science must be treated as an important issue.

The Sunset and the Tide Pool

Let's start with a dialogue.

Christian, a religious person is standing looking to the West at sunset. He sees a glorious spectacle of color in the sky

Christian: Behold such glory, this beauty can only confirm the existence of God!

An atheist of his acquaintance, fond of removing the magic from all things, sidles up to him...

Atheist: You know, what you're seeing is caused by the refraction of light through the lower atmosphere. See, the diffusion of light splits white sunlight through various spectra; and these cloud formations reflect that light back as silver and gold linings. Now the cloud formations themselves are caused by...

Christian: So what? Telling me how the effect was produced in no way inhibits its beauty, nor does it in any way diminsh that the glory of the God who could produce such a thing, by whatever means He chooses to do so. In fact, it only shows how much greater such a God must be, who could create such beauty from the product of His laws of science!

Atheist. Just sayin'... (slinks away)

At another time Christian is beholding the complex interplay of life in its natural state within a rich oceanic tide pool.

Christian: Behold such glory, this beauty can only confirm the existence of God!

The atheist again sidles up...

Atheist: You know, each of these creatures are the product of millions of years of evolution and natural selection. Those that didn't fit here died out, while those that managed to profit from this environment thrived. Including one another, which is why we see symbiosis and food cycles. Over enough generations, that's why we now have the combination of creatures that we see here.

Christian: You are wrong. None of that happened. God made all of these things exactly as you see them now!

Why the discrepancy here? Both the life in the tide pool and the sunset were equally beautiful numinous experiences. If God made everything in the tide pool from scratch, then why not also claim that God plans and creates every evening's sunset from scratch as well? That every evening he gets up and paints a new beautiful sky for us? I know of no creationists who are willing to claim that God paints every evening's sunsets to order. And yet, all of them will maintain that sunsets are beautiful, and furthermore that all beauty comes from God. On the one hand, they are willing to allow intermediate "how" explanations, and on the other they are not.

The only difference there could possibly be is that the Bible happens to contain no chapter or verse claiming that God paints every evening's sunset. If there was such a verse, creationists would be forced to disbelieve any scientific theories regarding optics and atmospheric phenomena as well.

More Than One Theory

"Creation science" as commonly presented, tends to avoid any emphasis on how it believes things came to be, and to a much greater respect focuses on levying cricicisms towards any other explanation of how things came to be. That is, it's less of a positive claim explaining any phenomena, and consists mostly of criticism of scientific claims. This in and of itself should be enough to discount it as a theory. It could be seen as at most an anti-theory, or an extreme and highly selective form of skepticism.

When dealing with the criticisms of creation science, it's important to remember that they aren't only criticizing one theory. They are criticizing (at minimum) four of them:

1. Astrophysics
2. Geologic time
3. Abiogenesis
4. Natural Selection

This distinction is worth mentioning, since any of these four completely distinct areas of inquiry might often refer to some phenomena predating the creationist's claimed age of the universe. For example, the motion of plate tectonics might very well violate Young Earth Creationism (heretofore YEC), even without saying anything about biological speciation. Thus, the kinds of data being gathered that might violate the creationist claim, come from multiple disciplines which have no bearing on or relation to one another.

This is rather a different characterization than the "creation vs. evolution" claim that creationism prefers. Darwin had absolutely nothing to say about the behavior of distant stars, the formation of the continents, or indeed the origin of the first life forms from complex chemical components. He only addressed how species might originate from other species, from within a paradigm that assumed that some species of some form already existed.

The creationists are thust not only fighting Darwin, they're also fighting all of geology, and astrophysics. And their thrust that science cannot (yet) provide evidence for the origin of life in general, still does not discredit Darwin or any of these other fields of endeavor in any way. That is only a statement that abiogenesis currently remains in a nascent form. But it remains a completely different theory than all of the others; its current deficits say nothing about them. And such deficits remain only in the here and now.

Debate is not Education

Whether these sorts of discussions occur in passing, in formal verbal debates, on social networking sites, or elsewhere, a common challenge made by creationists often amounts to something along the lines of "prove the entire fossil record to me. GO!"

Admittedly, this is a monumental task.

It's not monumental because it's a difficult positon to demonstrate. Quite the opposite. It's monumental in that there are vast amounts of evidence; to go over it all (to full skeptical evidentiary satisfaction of the individual being convinced) would be the equivalent of giving the creationist such a thorough education in the field of endeavor being challenged, that he or she should emerge from the debate having earned the equivalent of a college degree in the relevant field of study.

Of course, they know this, and they know that the person defending science does not have enough time or inclination to provide them with a comprehensive education in the field being challenged. So the tactic often takes the form of taking some extremely arcane bit of biological research which has very little data, and saying "if evolution is true, then why is..." and repeating the open question that science is trying to answer, with the implication that if the science-defender can't answer it they must be wrong, because debates (in the creationist's mind) are solely judged on which side is capable of giving a greater number of confident answers to any questions whatsoever.

As a rhetorical debate tactic, this may seem useful, in that the person defending science cannot possibly have enough time within what's alloted, or enough interest within the parameters of the discussion. If the science-defender must provide a full education in order to defend their point, and if they are not inclined to go to that much trouble, then you win the argument... science is wrong! At the very least, taking a position of mere ignorance and demanding a full education in response has the effect of rocking the champion of science back on their heels.

At some point, we must put our foot down and say: we are not responsible for educating you. We can merely point at the mountain of evidence and say, if you do not even understand that it exists, then we cannot take responsibility for your ignorance of it. The internet now exists; go and study the evidence regarding your questions before you ask me for them. Only if you find the answers that have been given insufficient can you claim the right to challenge them. But even a real gap in knowledge does not prove all other knowledge false. Just because you are ignorant, does not mean that I am wrong. You do not get to "win" any debate topic by the sole virtue of not knowing things.

This is very specifically known as the argument from ignorance fallacy . Hint: it's a fallacy.

Irreducible Complexity

The only way to claim that complexity is irreducible amounts to an appeal to imagination. One can say that "I can't imagine how an eyeball could develop." However, for any statement that involves "I can't imagine X," one must consider the possibility that they aren't actually delivering any information about X so much as they are delivering information about the limits of their own imagination.

All claims of irreducability merely amount to assertions of ignorance. They say nothing about the world, and everything about the limitations of their own knowledge regarding it. Even if no one on the planet had the capability of imagining something, that wouldn't disprove its truth or applicability; sub-atomic paricle physics and quantum mechanics have both demonstrated this case rather thoroughly. Again, this is another form of the "argument from ignorance" fallacy.

By the way, in certain underground and underwater areas there are fish who have no more than spots on their heads where the nerves can detect only a quantifiable measure of the presence of light. Just simple nerve clusters near the surface of some translucent skin patches that tell them only whether it's bright or dark. This lets them know that they should steer away from toxic volcanic fissures, the only possible sources of light in their environments. There's your reducible/reduced eyeball.

Intelligent Design

At some point in recent history, it was decided by creationists that they should not assert creation, and instead assert a more general claim, rebranded as "Intelligent Design." The point of this was twofold

1) to separate themselves from the ridiculousness and easily-countered claims that had been levied under the former brand "creationist," and

2) to insinuate themselves into educational curricula under a more vague term, one which offered even less information, but which retained all of the criticisms of science.

For those who think that Intelligent Design should be taught in our public schools, there are two things they should know;

Primo: "Teach the controversy!" There are more than two possible positions in this controversy. If a science class were forced to teach alternatives to scientific positions, then they would be free to (and I think should) teach not only the Darwinian and Judeo-Christian accounts, but also those given by Sumerian, Cherokee, Norse, Aborigine, Shinto, and Hindu accounts, as well as any others that could be invented at will, such as the Pink Invisible Unicorn and the Flying Spaghetti Monster (blessed be His noodly appendage). When Christian fundamentalist parents have their children come home from school to speak of how they learned in class today that Indra cut the horizon, separating the Earth from the sky with his flaming sword, they might think twice about allowing religious creation myths into classroom discussions.

Mind you, the school could not specify which form of possible ID variants the teacher should teach, as that would be a direct violation of "respecting an establishment of religion."

Segundo: Of all of the possible creators that might be posited under the general umbrella "theory" of Intelligent Design, the one that most conforms to Occam's Razor would be Raëlism. This is a UFO cult that believes that extraterrestrials were involved in seeding the Earth with life and guiding its development. As crazy as that might sound, it's considerably more reasonable than positing a supernatural deity to have done so. Therefore, if ID should be taught at all, it should be taught as Raëlism. Again, I put it to Christian parents - is this what you wanted when you voted your support for ID to be taught in your schools?

If any truly objective criteria were imposed on teachers regarding which ID variant (of the many touched on above) were applied, then Raëlism would win, being the form of ID that most conforms to Occam's Razor.

Scientific Conspiracies

Specific complaints about scientists from Young Earth Creationists also leads into a more general distrust of scientists from Christan Conservatives. A Christian might not buy into YEC specifically, but might share with them a vague distrust in lab-coated, probably-goateed, possibly-European scientists, and would be wary of any claim they made that didn't result only and directly in cheaper goods and services.

The most obvious current example of this involves the claim that global warming is happening, that it will lead to catastrophe, and that it is at least in part a product of human activity on planet Earth. Naturally, the religious right (in lockstep with the oil companies as always) has come out as quite certain that not only are the vast majority of scientists wrong about this, but that they are actually being paid to lie about it; that the structure of scientific grants is such that those who support the majority of scientific thought on this matter stand to benefit by supporting it yet further through their findings.

Even the vast majority of atheists and other believers in science are willing to grant the claims of professional scientists without checking their work personally. I certainly have never gone through the entire series of experiments required to support even a single one of the cutting-edge theories of science. And pointing to the fact that I could do so hardly absolves me of my ignorance in not having done so. I admittedly rely on the lab-coated to do those sorts of things for me. So the question of why I should trust them is a fair one.

The thing about the "scientific community" is that it's less of a community than a gladitorial arena. Scientists who merely confirm the discoveries of other scientists receive a relatively neutral reception. On the other hand, scientists who manage to disprove other scientists receive acclaim, awards, and greater career opportunities. They are very much pitted against one another, and thus the notion that they profit by merely confirming one anothers' findings is the exact opposite of the case.

As one example, Albert Einstein achieved fame and glory not only within the scientific world but also within society in general (such that the name "Einstein" has become a synonym for "genius") not because he confirmed the findings of his forebears, but exactly because he overturned them. Einstein presented a comprehensive system of physics that predicted the movement of bodies in space which both explained the constancy of the speed of light, but also at the same time disproved Isaac Newton's Laws of Motion in certain situations.

As another example, Steven Hawking is known to us not because of his compelling personal history of overcoming adversity, but primarily because he overturned an extremely common scientific assumption: that black holes cannot emit anything, that they can only take and not give. He calculated a way by which black holes might emit energy, and that is why even the common layman now knows his name.

At every level of scientific endeavor, scientists have a strong incentive to prove one another wrong, and hope mostly to prove the prevailing scientific belief wrong. To do so is a ticket to fame, glory and immense success. It would be easy to devise a system whereby "great thinkers" gained credit and success for supporting the common belief. But the current scientific community is set up nearly the opposite of that as it is possible to be. To merely conduct an experiment that reiterates the prevailing theory true gains one little - although not nothing. However, to conduct an experiment that overthrows the main thrust of current thinking gains one a great deal.

Given this set-up, it's merely absurd to claim that scientists have anything to gain by supporting, rather than overturning, any prevailing scientific wisdom. In regards to global warming, every scientist who has confirmed it was likely disappointed, before publishing their findings. Thus, we can know that the overwhelming consensus regarding global warming is a product of fact, and not of any incentives by the scientists involved.

Gaps and Knowledge

The tactic of creationists (or ID theorists, or whatever they claim to call themselves) still ultimatily runs up against the problem that it is merely a form of criticism rather than a positive theory in its own right. And mere criticism is not theory.

They point to various current gaps in scientific knowledge, and say "HA! You don't know about X!" And that's true. There are many X's that we don't know about (yet), but our research efforts are directed primarily towards those gaps, as we seek to learn more. But the underlying assumption that they make is that they in fact do know about everything, whereas the patchwork of knowledge developed by science is thus inferior.

But do they? Do creationists (or ID theorists, whatever they choose to call themselves) actually have real knowledge regarding areas where there are gaps in the theories of science?

There is nothing that science does not yet know about that the theist perspective knows. For all of these gaps, their answer is always the same: "God did it." But what does this mean? What information does such a claim provide about the phenomena in question? They certainly can't answer "how." How miracles occur is considered beyond the bounds of consideration. And yet, if God doing things were a real phenomenon, then a science of determining precisely how something went from the Lord's will to real phenomena would be a viable and interesting field of study. So where is it? Between God's decision and reality, what is the exact theo-science of miraculous intervention? How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?

More significantly, in saying that "God did it," the theist can do no more than turn every "how" that they criticize into a "why." This leads to exactly as many unanswered questions. Why did God do it? To this, the theist answers "mysterious ways" and considers the question sufficiently answered. But it's not. Converting causal questions from "how's" into "why's" and then declaring those "why's" off-limits answers nothing. It does not reduce the number of unanswered questions.

In fact, in the long run it makes us much less likely to be able to answer any of those questions at all. We are much more discinclined to challenge a question of "why" than were are a "how." By shunting all unknowns down the hole of "God's will," theists very much do seek to bring a halt to the advancement of knowledge.

By and large, atheists are comfortable admitting to gaps in current knowledge. When challenged about things they don't know, they reply "I don't know." This is not a concession of any sort regarding which method of gaining knowledge is better. It's better to know nothing than it is to know the wrong thing for the wrong reasons.

Galileo Wants Another Round

At some point in the last few centuries, the position of religious people addressing science from a scriptural point of view withdrew on one key point: that the Earth revolves around the sun, rather than vice-versa.

However from a purely scriptural perspective, there is far more disagreement with Galileo's theory than there is with Darwin. Under Heliocentric theory, neither the sun nor the stars can be said to move (at least not significantly relative to the motion of the Earth). And yet, Genesis is clear that God did make them, and them alone, move. Not us, them. Furthermore, God later stopped the sun in the sky (Josuha 10-12). He clearly did not stop the Earth from turning. Scripture states quite clearly that he stopped the movement of the sun, and that therefore it was the sun that had been moving.

And yet, not even Young Earth Creationists today still seek to discredit the heliocentric model of the solar system. Why not?

In any fair debate, if you concede a point, you must also concede at least some of the argument leading up that that point. If your conclusion is false, and your argument valid, then at least one of your premises must be false. That is, it is not enough to concede your conclusion; you must also concede at least some of the premises to your argument that led to your conclusion, in such a way that explains where you went wrong. To do otherwise would be to deny logic itself. Thus, to use the same premises of argumentation to approach the next point, after having conceded the former, would admit to a either a false concession, or a complete disregard for logical argumentation itself.

But this is exactly what we see when creationists, having let Galileo go by the wayside, renew their attack on Darwin on exactly the same grounds. I say, if they want to be Biblical creationists, let's go back to square one, and cut them no slack. Finish the Galileo discussion. Hammer it out. They must either completely concede heliocentric motion (and in doing so concede all claims derived solely from scriptural authority) or they must once and for all actually win the case for the notion that the Sun does indeed revolve around the Earth. Only then, once this former battle has been thoroughly settled either way, can we begin to pick up the case regarding Darwin, much less geologic time, abiogenesis, the findings of astronomy, and/or the many related theories and findings of science that fall within or without those more general theories.

Next up:

I explain why atheists aren't all murderous, raping monsters.



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