I want to follow up with one more post on the evolution debate. I just posted this in the comment section here, but I’m prompted by a couple of recent posts by Professor Volokh on the subject.
In response to a comment by Ken Anthony that “…my faith in God is based on evidence just as surely as any pure science…” I wrote something similar to the following:
This is an oxymoronic statement. Faith cannot be based on evidence, by definition.
I have faith in the scientific method, but I can’t prove it’s the best way to achieve knowledge to anyone who doesn’t. Unlike many who believe that the scientific method is the correct one, I admit that this belief is based on faith.
To me, the argument of evolution versus…well, other unspecified (and unscientific) explanations is not about true and false–it is just about science versus non-science. If I were to teach evolution in a school, I would state it not as “this is what happened,” but rather, “this is what scientists believe happened.”
In other words, I don’t want to indoctrinate people what to believe–I just want to make sure that when they take a science class, that they’re getting science, and not a religion dressed up as science. Whether they want to accept science is up to them.
Now Eugene Volokh writes the following (not in response to anything on my blog):
The difficulty is that intelligent design is not at all like two plus two equals five. Intelligent design (to which, by the way, I do not subscribe) does not posit something that’s clearly false (2+2=5). Rather, it posits something that may or may not be true (organisms “look like they were designed because they were designed,” to quote one proponent of the intelligent design school, UC Berkeley law professor Phillip Johnson) — and that is in fact more plausible to many people than evolution is.
Nor can one argue that intelligent design is unproven, but evolution is proven. Evolution has not been proven in any common sense of the term — true, it’s (to my limited knowledge) more or less consistent with the evidence, but intelligent design is consistent with the evidence, too. Intelligent design, in turn, is neither proven nor disproven; it may not even be disprovable, absent some quite remarkable and uncontrovertible divine revelation.
Now one could argue that teaching intelligent design is impermissible because of the Establishment Clause; I don’t want to express any judgment on that quite complex question here. One could also argue that teaching intelligent design is not pedagogically helpful: For all I know, intelligent design might be right and evolution wrong, but precisely because intelligent design rests on unfathomable mysteries, it can’t really help much advance our thinking about biology. Evolution is thus the more useful hypothesis — not because intelligent design is impossible or even unlikely (how can you measure the likelihood of something like that?), but because it’s more productive of other interesting areas of investigation.
But whatever might be wrong about teaching intelligent design, it’s not that intelligent design is wrong.
I agree with this, and it reiterates my point above–evolution vs creationism isn’t about right or wrong–it’s about science vs some other means of achieving knowledge.
But I differ with Eugene when he says: “Intelligent design, in turn, is neither proven nor disproven; it may not even be disprovable, absent some quite remarkable and uncontrovertible divine revelation.”
While this statement is true, it’s the crux of the matter. It is the fact that it is not disprovable (i.e., falsifiable) that puts it outside the realm of science. It’s not simply an uninteresting theory–it is a useless copout (again, purely from a scientific perspective).
I don’t think that Eugene and I are in any fundamental disagreement, but I just want to emphasize a little more that while creationist theories may be “true,” they’re simply not science, unless some experiments (whether thought or otherwise) can be performed that, given certain outcomes, would prove them false.
I repeat, the evolution debate (particularly in the public schools) shouldn’t be viewed as indoctrinating children with one belief or another–it is simply about making sure that they understand the distinction between science, and other means of learning about the world.
[Update at 9:20 AM PDT]
Reader and blogger Donald Sensing points me to a related essay of his, which has an interesting, and surprising, history of the “Scopes Monkey Trial.”
[Another update at 10:26 AM PDT]
It just occurs to me that “creation science” can be viewed, in fact, as a manifestion of its practioners’ failure of faith.
If their faith were true, and firm, they would have no need for it to be validated by science, and they wouldn’t make these attempts to hijack it and pervert it to their own ends. It strikes me as a symptom of massive insecurity in their own beliefs.
[Yet another update, at 10:37 AM PDT]
Reader “Vicki” comments:
Thank you, Mr. Simberg, for posting the links to Volokh’s site and the essay. I read all 3 of Volokh’s postings relating to this topic, and the essay in full. For the first time, I have hope that this debate might actually be carried out in an intelligent and thoughtful way. I get so tired of the flame wars, of being told I am insane or stupid (neither of which is true). It’s very good to know that there are some people out there who see the issue as I do.
Unfortunately, the debate can tend to degenerate quickly, on both sides. Many creationists view evolutionists as godless propagandists, with the agenda of poisoning the minds of their children against their faith. Some evolutionists (particularly devout atheists), don’t recognize that their own belief system is faith based, and believe that it really is an issue of right versus wrong.
I don’t believe that people who believe in creationism are stupid, or mad–they just have a different belief system. The only thing that I object to (and justifiably frustrates people like Paul Orwin) is when they try to argue the issue, when they clearly don’t understand evolution, and don’t want to take the time to learn about it (other than, perhaps, wrongly, from creationist screeds). This isn’t a matter of intelligence or sanity, but ignorance (which can fortunately be readily cured).
If one is going to critique a scientific theory, it is only polite to become educated on it (which means reading the works of its proponents–not just strawmen written by its opponents). Otherwise, it’s a waste of everyone’s time, by asking questions that have been answered many times, and often long ago.
[Yet one more update, at 1:25 PM PDT]
Professor Volokh has one more follow up:
…I don’t think it’s right to say, as Max Power does, that intelligent design is not consistent with the evidence. I am sure that some particular claims of some intelligent design theorists (likely quite a few) may be inconsistent with the evidence, just as some (though quite possibly fewer) claims of some evolutionary scientists have over time been proven inconsistent with the evidence.
But the broader claim — which is again the heart of the debate — that humans and other species were created at least in large part by some intelligent force is perfectly consistent with whatever evidence you might find. In fact, that’s the problem: It’s definitionally consistent (an intelligent and especially ominpotent creator could have created anything, no matter how consistent it might also be with an evolutionary explanation), and as a result not very helpful to biological researchers…
Just so. The problem with creation theories is not that they’re inconsistent with the evidence–they are totally consistent, tautologically so, as Eugene says. The problem is that they tell us nothing useful from a scientific standpoint. In fact, there are an infinite number of theories that fit any given set of facts. I can speculate not only that all was created, but that it was created (complete with our memories of it) a minute ago, or two minutes ago. Or an hour ago. Or yesterday. Or the day before. Or, as some would have it, 6000+ years ago. Each is a different theory (though they all fall into a class of theories) that fit the observable facts. They are all equally possible, and all (other than some form of naturalistic evolution) untestable.
And furthermore, they offer no hope of making predictions for the future. After all, if a creator can whimsically create a universe in whatever manner he wishes, including evidence that he didn’t do it, how can we know what he’ll choose tomorrow? Orrin Judd likes to make much of the fact that many evolutionary psychologists believe that free will is an illusion, but if that’s the case in a naturalistic world, how much more so must it be with a whimsical creator, who can not only make us as he chooses, but unmake, and remake us on the same basis, whenever he chooses?
Of course, the argument to that is that the scriptures say that God grants us free will, which may be true, but once again, it isn’t science.
Evolution, on the other hand, does allow us to make at least limited predictions, albeit much cruder ones than, say, universal gravitation. For instance, as the classic agar experiment shows, we can predict that if we repeatedly expose populations of bacteria to an antibiotic, we will eventually create strains resistant to it. Or that if you introduce a new predator into an environment, the populations there will adapt to it in some manner (though the precise manner is less predictable, exactly because it is ultimately a result of random and therefore unforeseeable changes).
In science, we have to restrict ourselves to theories that have testable consequences, and once, out of a failure of faith and imagination, we yield to the creationist temptation, we’ve stepped outside the bounds of what science is fundamentally all about.