Apr 02 2012

Are Evolution and Creationism Compatible?

The Tennessee bill that requires science teachers to teach the “strengths and weaknesses” of “controversial” topics has sparked public discussion on evolution and creationism once again. This means that we will cycle through the same series of arguments that have already been worked through, but that is the nature of the popularization of any topic, such as science. Inevitably in these discussions some people, wanting to be accommodating to all sides, ask some version of the famous question, “Can’t we all just get along?”

This view touches our democratic and individualistic sensibilities and our sense of fairness. Further, the political process is often one of compromise. Creationists are happy to exploit these facts, and claim that they just want what’s fair, they want “equal time,” they want to “teach the controversy,” and they just don’t think evolution should get any special treatment. They use these strategies because they resonate with the American culture. Also it’s easy to portray egg-headed intellectual scientists as ivory tower elitists. This all may be effective politics, but it is bad science and bad for education.

A recent editorial in the Tennessean plays the “compatible” card – here it is in its entirety:

Science has proved the universe began with a collision of two specks moving in an oversize void a very long time ago, evolving into what we have today.

How did they get together? Where did they come from? That is where God came in.

What I don’t understand is, why argue over evolution and creation when both theories are true?

There is so much wrong with this brief editorial, but it’s worth breaking it down. I am not sure where the writer got his impression of the Big Bang, but it was not a collision of two specks moving in a void. I don’t know but I suspect the “void” comment is an attempt to mirror language from Genesis. Of course, we are a long way from fully understanding the nature of the Big Bang, but our best theory today does not resemble the above summary. A better description would be – the Big Bang was some sort of quantum singularity containing all of the energy of the universe, that rapidly expanded and cooled forming not only the stuff in the universe but the time and space of the universe. There was no void into which the universe expanded – space itself expanded. I could also add that both matter and anti-matter emerged from the Big Bang (just like matter and anti-matter virtual particles emerge from the quantum foam), and for some reason there was a tiny excess residue of matter. That left over matter residue is our universe.

The second sentence, “How did they get together? Where did they come from? That is where God came in,” is a god-of-the-gaps fallacy. This strategy attempts to insert God into any gap in our current understanding of the universe. This is a flawed strategy on many levels. First, it is a logical fallacy, an argument from ignorance. It also confuses unexplained with unexplainable. Over the last several centuries, since the application of scientific methods to our models of the world, we have been making steady progress in developing testable theories that explain how the world works. It is folly to assume that anything we cannot currently explain will remain forever unexplainable by science.

This is just a set up for future conflict. If you insert God into a current gap in our knowledge, then you will resist attempts to fill that gap with scientific explanations. That is creationism in a nut shell. Before we had any idea where humans and other life came from we filled in that gap in our knowledge with superstitions about an all-powerful creator. Today those superstitions are religious dogma, and there are those who vehemently resist scientific explanations of origins in order to preserve their creation myths.

I guess it is progress if more creationists acknowledge that the universe evolves in many ways, including organic evolution, but retreating to the origin of the universe itself is not really a solution. There will always be gaps in our knowledge into which one can insert  God – that strategy itself has to be exposed as fallacious and counterproductive.

The main problem with the final sentence is that it calls evolution and creationism both “theories.” This is a false equivalency, and explains why the writer feels the two can be compatible. Evolution is a scientific theory, in that it is a web of connected facts and explanations for a group of observable phenomena – namely life. Theory, in the scientific sense, does not mean “guess” and does not imply uncertainty. The term “hypothesis” is used to refer to a guess that has not yet survived systematic testings. Evolution actually contains many subtheories, such as natural selection, and common descent, which have been established to varying degrees. Common descent is the most solidly established part of evolutionary theory, and deserves to be treated as a confirmed scientific fact. All life on earth is related through common descent. There are multiple independent lines of evidence that all point to that conclusion, and there is no other viable theory that can account for those lines of evidence. Common descent is as well established as many other facts that we take for granted – the sun is the center of our solar system, the earth’s crust is divided into plates that move around, DNA is the molecule of inheritance, and gravity is a force that attracts all matter to all other matter, to give just a few examples. There is no more scientific controversy over the fact of evolution than there is about the fact of gravity or plate tectonics.

Creation, on the other hand, is not a theory at all. It fails at the first criterion of a scientific theory – it is not falsifiable. At least the form of creationist belief most commonly put forward today is not falsifiable. If stated in a falsifiable manner, then creation has already been falsified. In order to evade the overwhelming scientific evidence, however, creationists needs to state their belief in terms that are not falsifiable. This usually takes the form of, “well God could have created life to look like anything he wants.” In practice this means that whatever we find when we look at nature, that must be how God intended nature to be. Therefore there is no observation that can falsify creation, because that would be “constraining the mind of God.” God could have, for example, created life to appear exactly as if it had evolved through natural mechanisms. Stripped down, that is the essence of the creationist explanation for evidence that appears to support evolution.

This strategy is often exposed by taking it to the absurd extreme of stating that God created the entire universe 5 minutes ago, but simply made it look as if it is ancient and has a history, including all of your memories. If God is omnipotent then by definition he could do this. You cannot falsify this idea, that is why it is not a legitimate scientific hypothesis. Many creationist arguments (such as the notion that God created light already on its way to earth from distant stars) are functionally the same as the above statement.

Conclusion

Science is a meritocracy of ideas and evidence – not a democracy of opinions. All opinions are not considered equal. There is, rather, a hierarchy of ideas, theories, fact, and claims. The better established a theory is by observation and experiment, the more weight it is given by the scientific community. Some theories are so well established that we consider them laws of nature. Others are established to the point that they are treated as facts. Then there is a spectrum of theories from probably true, to genuinely controversial, to probably not true.

The point of using scientific methods is to figure out which theories are objectively better. Evolution is an established scientific fact. Creation is a pre-scientific myth that has already been discarded by science as completely wrong. They are not compatible.

I will add, however, that “creationism” actually encompasses a spectrum of belief. Most of that spectrum denies evolution to some degree. Young earth creationists deny evolution almost entirely (maybe they allow for some micro-evolution, whatever that is). At the other end of the spectrum are those who accept all of the scientific findings on origins, but argue that God set the universe in motion, or intended the universe to evolve the way it did. These are faith-based claims. If they are framed and acknowledged as personal choices of faith, without making any scientific claims or using dubious logic, then they can be compatible with evolution in that they are completely separate. This is not really creationism any more, but is closer to a deist position. This represents a retreat all the way outside of the realm of science. If one wishes to maintain faith but still be compatible with science, this is the only viable position. (Being compatible with materialist philosophy is a different issue.)

The deist position, however, appears to be a small minority. Creationists generally deny science to some degree, and it is that pseudoscientific denial that we are opposing. The pseudoscientific denial of science is not compatible with science.

 

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