Religion, Reviews, Science.

Absolute truth is a tough nut

Paul Abramson, an old friend, wrote a Defense of Creationism, or more specifically, a defense of Young Earth Creationism (YEC), which posits that the universe was created around 6,000 years ago, based on a literal interpretation of the book of Genesis in the Old Testament. I read this article out of curiosity for Paul’s take on it; Paul is the editor of a website dedicated to YEC.  In the endless churn over biological evolution, religious opponents often emphasize blind faith in an absolute view, while scientific advocates emphasize the skeptical application of the scientific method to mold necessarily incomplete theories.  The Defense of Creationism is a good example of the former.

The uncertainty of science; the certainty of religion.

Rigorous proponents of the scientific model of evolution (there are some who are less than rigorous) start with the base premise of science that absolute truth is unobtainable, and at best only approached asymptotically; a scientific model like that of the biological theory of evolution is a work in progress, and can change and has changed when evidence does not fit the model (falsifiability).

Paul’s defense of Young Earth Creationism starts with the premise that the Bible is literally true and inerrant, and thereby represents absolute truth. It is interesting in reading this defense of Young Earth Creationism to see arguments from skeptical science being treated as if they are statements of absolute truth, an error of kind rather than degree.

A common tactic in Paul’s essay, common to other Creationist arguments, is to point out historical weaknesses in the evolutionary model, not recognizing that the model has changed, precisely because scientists saw that evidence falsified that version of the model, and have modified it to include the new evidence.  Often such a “flaw” in the model is historically isolated, and treated as if it had not been subsequently addressed, or the historical changes in the model are treated as evidence that science cannot be trusted:  “Yesterday it is gradualism, today it is punctuated equilibrium:  So which is it?  Make up your mind.”  This is very much a lawyer’s rhetorical tactic (“Were you lying then? Or are you lying now?”), one designed to “win” an argument.

But it well may be more than argumentation: Paul seems to have real difficulty in recognizing the tentativeness of the scientific point of view. This is not the same thing as agreeing or disagreeing with the conclusions of science.

The Meaning of it All, by Richard Feynman

Richard Feynman, in his book The Meaning of it All, talks about his view of the uncertainty inherent in science, and also the uncertainty in value systems.  He suggested that the metaphysical aspects of religion will sometimes come into conflict with the developing scientific model of the universe.  He thought that the ethical aspects of religion were valuable, but could also be found independent of religion:  There are atheists who behave well, and religious adherents who behave badly, and vice versa.  But he also suggested that the inspirational aspects of religion provided for the faithful the impetus to make ethically good choices, and that the inspiration is tied to a metaphysical view of existence.

There are religious adherents who seem more comfortable with doubt, so central to science, and openly recognize the mysteries of religious thought.  But Feynman suggests that many embrace an absolute metaphysics as their anchor for inspiration, to provide motive to behave well ethically, and fight fiercely over any perception that their absolute metaphysical model of the world is not consistent.

The desire for the security of such certainty seems palpable in the arguments presented in this article.

Societal consequences.

Biological evolution is very easy to argue about, because most of the model’s conclusions don’t affect our daily lives (similar to discussions about the origin of life, or the origin of the universe), that is, the model is not very useful in an applied engineering sense, and if there is disagreement, houses don’t fall down.  (An important exception is the biomedical approach to disease control.)  Evolution is very important in science as the organizing principle of biology, but again, that has much less direct impact on a non-scientist.

Scientists will fight hard against these anti-scientific attitudes, not only because the model of evolution has held up as a testable way of understanding living systems, but because the ongoing attempts to discredit evolution take the form of an attack on the methods of science, which is the heart of what science is: To learn what is knowable through falsifiable models. The consequences are quite serious: For example, in the U.S. at least, the ongoing efforts to discredit environmental science, and climate science in particular, often by the same people who misunderstand scientific models of biological evolution, only increases the large negative impact humans will see from the increasing physical damage that human activity is doing to this planet.

Where is the contention?

Some areas of contention over biological evolution are legitimate disagreement (areas where there is little evidence, one way or the other), but many of the arguments found in this article cherry-pick, distort, and/or seriously misunderstand or misapply scientific models or facts collected on the subject. It is genuinely painful to read these YEC arguments confusing biological evolution with abiogenesis, or those regarding the age of the earth (Young Earth Creationists believe the earth is 6,000 years old; scientific consensus is currently around 4.5 billion years old), or arguments about the impossibility of evolutionary change as it would violate the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics (entropy); in the latter case, the various arguments proffered come from inappropriate applications of the 2nd Law, typically because the 2nd Law is applied outside of its scientific scope.

The list of distortions in the arguments of YEC regarding science is much longer than those just mentioned.  One of the best sources for point-by-point refutation of Creationist arguments, including those found in this particular defense of Young Creationism, is the Talk Origins website, which is well researched and well documented, providing extensive sourcing and references for all of its points, and which concedes valid points in Creationist arguments, all things that are lacking in this particular exercise in Christian fundamentalist apologetics.

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