May 20, 2003

the evolution essay

The other day I was going to write about why I think creationism is absolutely silly, but my computer rebelled. Most of what I have to say on the subject, you can get by a combined reading of Steven Jay Gould, L-Empress's latest entry, and possibly the first half of Bill Whittle's essay "Magic". (The last half has some interesting points, but it's on a subject I know nothing about and is irrelevant to my point.) Reading L-Empress today got me thinking on the subject again and I'd like to add a few points (which is predictable, since she wasn't addressing the subject directly). If you go read her first, some of the following may even make sense.

Some of the following may be offensive; I'm sorry for that, but I simply cannot express my own opinion honestly and still pretend that I believe I can have an intelligent discussion with anyone who holds some of these beliefs and who will not listen fairly to the real evidence against them. If this is you, you might as well save your time and go away now.

Creationism in the old-fashioned six-day sense is generally due to a literal belief in the Bible. This is why "disbelief" in evolution is found almost exclusively in the US. I have put the word "disbelief" in quotes because the major difference between science and religion is that science, properly and ethically done, does not depend on belief. If it does, then it isn't science no matter what they call it. L-Empress has explained gently and cogently, and Mr. Whittle a bit more aggressively, why believing something you are told, when available evidence disproves it, is not adult behavior. Believing something that cannot be proven or disproven is the essence of religion, which is why many people are able to be scientists and believers at the same time, but this is a different issue entirely. I'm still six years old, myself, in many ways. When someone tells me to believe in something which seems unlikely to me, my first question will generally be "Why?" If they can back it up with data, fine; however, I have serious trouble with the concept that someone's word ought to be respected purely because of his or her position (just ask my mother). In the best of all worlds, position is earned by qualifications. In many cases, position is respected by a general agreement that doing so is best for most people (police, for example). But "believe this because I tell you that God wrote it, because someone told me that" isn't one of those cases.

Also, there are linguistic and sociological issues for me. Even if God did originally hand down the Five Books to Moses on Mount Sinai, I just plain know too much about the inaccuracies of transcription and translation to feel sure that that Word is exactly what I can read now. Also, I have to take into account the enormous amount of time and change since then: those were primitve people -- Bronze Age, I think, someone correct me if I'm wrong. If I were to speak to them, I would need to speak in terms they understood. I would not be able to be exact about numbers, so that I might well say that Methusaleh lived 969 years, for example, meaning only that he lived to be very old. Or that the world was created in six stages, to answer that universal "how did we get here" question, even if that was slightly inaccurate. I have a lot of ways of thinking and concerns for consistency and logic that imply
didn't exist then. (I'm not anything special; we all now have those. And surely an omniscient Being speaking to me now, today, would have the same sort of

Finally, I cannot bring my engineering mind to literally
believe in anything that contradicts itself. The stories of creation and of Adam
and Eve are told several different ways just within Bereshit (Genesis) for instance.

Now, "scientific creationism" is a way to attempt to join the teachings of science and religion. This can involve teaching that the world was created as stated in Genesis but in six thousand years instead of six days, which is no less silly than six days, given evidence for a four billion year old Earth. The other end of the spectrum is the belief that God set up the universe to unfold in the Big Bang, expand, and eventually form life in ways that agree with the evidence we have -- that if there is a Supreme Being he, she, it, or they do not (either cannot or choose not to) contravene the laws they set up. This doesn't strike me as silly at all; the only flaw it may share is this: if it is not subject to experiment, at least hypothetically, then it is not science -- even if it might possibly be true. This is one reason we have religion, in fact: to
explain parts of our experience or questions that cannot be tested by science.

There are good answers to most of the questions that are frequently asked either by creationists or by those who are just trying to understand. For example it's called a theory not because we're not sure of it but because that word has a special specific meaning in the scientific method. It just means a coherent idea. This is technical jargon, just as I, as a software engineer might say "code" to mean a computer program rather than something a spy would use in the general meaning. Stephen Jay Gould explains that and other ideas better than I can in Rocks of Ages and his other works. I'll just speak of one more that involves me personally. I'm not a biologist, evolutionist, paleontologist, or in any of the related disciplines. What I know I've learned from reading on those subjects for most of my life. In fourth grade, I did want to be a paleontologist when I grew up, and paleoanthropology is still one of my interests. So why do I believe their words but question my friendly neighborhood rabbi, priest, or imam? I don't. But if I ask, the scientists can show me data. They don't believe blindly: they form a hypothesis and then attack it. (Technically, the scientific method can't be used to prove anything, only disprove it.) If they can't shake the hypothesis, they eventually accept it as truth, those it's still always subject to new attacks in light of new information. A good scientist (not every person with that title, just the honest and ethical ones) will make decisions based only on the weight of evidence and will admit what he or she doesn't know. Incidentally, any rabbi I would be inclined to trust will make the same admission.

I believe it was a religious figure who said that that is the beginning of wisdom.

Posted by dichroic at May 20, 2003 11:43 AM
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