Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Evolution and Creation: A Centrist Proposal

The latest flap over Intelligent Design is another wrinkle in the old struggle of Creation and Evolution, which is itself but a wrinkle in the older struggle of Religion and Science, or (even worse), Faith and Reason.

I think the whole fight is a fraud. There is no conflict between faith and reason, or religion and science, or creation and evolution. Intelligent design is one possibility of the larger metaphysic of how the universe works, which is equally compatible with creation or evolution theories.

Evolution is a theory. The part of the theory which explores how living forms develop over time by adapting to their environments is well supported by the empirical record. The theory of evolution is a scientific theory. As such, it can always be tested, but can never be proven. Scientific theories are in principle always falsifiable by new empirical evidence, and can be displaced by a more comprehensive theory.

Darwin thought that one part of the mechanism of the development of new forms was random mutation. This part of evolutionary theory is much less well established than development through environmental adaptation. Mutations happen, and new forms do appear, but random mutation does not appear to happen on the scale necessary to produce all the evolution that we appear to see. The idea that new forms appear at random, and that their appearance is not part of a design, is not a scientific idea, because it cannot be falsified. It is one theory, but only one. Random mutation is essentially a theological theory.

Natural science starts with a choice of method to only make theories about what can be observed in the material world, preferably from material processes which are or can be repeated. As a methodological convention, materialism has proven a very powerful tool. It means, though, that science simply cannot say anything, one way or the other, about whether material phenomena are the only kind which exist. Science can neither prove nor disprove the claim that materialism is the true metaphysic. Some people think that the universe is only material. That is not a scientific idea, either. Materialism is essentially a theological theory, too.

I have done surveys of Presbyterian ministers, who are among the most educated and reason-oriented of Christians. If you give them a forced choice between Creation and Evolution, naturally most of them will have to choose Creation, or deny God and the Bible. If, though, you give them a middle option – God created the world and has guided evolution – most Presbyterian ministers will choose this option.

We can and should have a debate about how to understand this middle position – theistic evolution, or adaptive creation, or what have you. But we should be clear that there are many middle positions in the creation/evolution discussion.

So why do we keep having this polarized debate? Because ideologues on both sides see the world as polarized, and they have more power in the world if other people can be made to see it as polarized, too.

Refuse the false dichotomy. Choose faith and reason, God and science, creation and evolution.


Unknown said...

Stephen Hawking maintains that there is a place for God in the scientific and quantum universe: "God made the rules by which the universe evolves."

That, to me, is a position that theists, atheists and agnostics can all adopt and accept mutually.

Theists: there are rules which God made.
Atheists: there are rules.
Agnostics: there are rules which may have been made by God if He exists.

Gruntled said...

Well, Paul, I am with you on two out of three points. I don't see, though, how atheists could agree that God made the rules by which the universe evolves.

Also, Stephen Hawking's way of putting the issue, as you paraphrase him here, seems to me a bit impertinent: rather, I would say that there is a place for quantum science in God's universe.

Christopher said...

Can we test for god?
That neighbor is the true difference betwen Science and Faith.
Saying Evolution is just a theory is a mistake--because this theory has incredible amounts of data and tests that support the "theory".
When one idea is found lacking it can be overturned and then cast aside.
To discount Evolution because it can not be proved without a shadow of a doubt is a weak argument. Because you cannot fully explain it it must be false?
If I decide that the theory of Gravity is false can I then fly?
I personally applaud the decision to place Creationism and ID in schools--because when they are indeed compared to actual Science they will crumble.
There is indeed a conflict between Reason and faith.
Reason must give way to evidence and fact based reality, Faith will stand up even to contrary evidence.

Gruntled said...

I think your argument contradicts itself:

"Saying Evolution is just a theory is a mistake--because this theory has incredible amounts of data and tests that support the "theory"."

A well-supported theory is still a theory. I think evolution -- adaptive change over time -- is well supported.

"When one idea is found lacking it can be overturned and then cast aside."
That is why evolution is a theory. If further investigation demonstrated that evolution was lacking and could be overturned in favor of another theory, then it should be cast aside.

Otherwise, evolution is not science.