Monday, July 2, 2012

The problem with the problem with Creationism

Regarding the debate about creationism (the Sullivan link gets you to some other links that get you to the conversation in a variety of places), my dissertation work might have something to say. It's a comparison of Muslim and Evangelical high schools in the New York City area, looking at, among other things, evolution.  One of the things both groups tend to emphasize is the difference between micro and macro-evolution (which are terms working biologists use as well).  It's actually a very handy, pragmatic "out" for them, as any important thing evolution could do in their life-time--e.g. the evolution of insects, bacteria, viruses, etc.--can be explained by micro-evolution and is unproblematic as the species (or "kind") itself usually does not change.  Muslims are generally even more accommodating of evolution, but that's a separate conversation.

I find that most Christian creationists tend to have a very big problem with historical arguments but really no problem with falsifiable lab science. If anything, they're far too Popperian, convinced that only absolutely falsifiable science is real science.  They often cite Bacon--and sometimes even Popper--in their literature. (They also sometimes cite Kuhn--witness the weird marriage of the post-modern Steve Fuller and the Christian right).  Also, not all creationists are Young Earth Creationists.  And those that do disagree with geologists about the Earth's age still agree with them about kinds and types of rocks and whether you can build on them. The same goes for epidemiology and the study of infectious diseases more broadly. In other words, disagreement about the nature of evolution, from what I can see so far, has few real-world implication in that creationists accommodate so much of what evolutionary science has discovered into their own worldview.  It makes, of course, for a very convoluted explanation of how the world works, but it doesn't cause nearly the problems you'd think it does.  Also, many creationists are aware that they're viewing things from a "Christian worldview"--this term is is everywhere--and acknowledge that evolution makes sense from a secular one.  Creationists are much more perspectival (and, I think, Nietzchean) that they or their secular critics acknowledge.

Now if creationists started running biology and geology departments we might run into very different problems, but even then, I'm fairly certain diseases would still be cured and bridges would still work.  The difference that would worry me most would not be creationism (as, again, so much of what matters about evolution gets worked pragmatically into the narrative) but the introduction of God as a viable scientific hypothesis, making it possible to stop looking for secular solutions to real-world problems and explain them as God's will or some such answer.  It's this sort of perspective that would have stopped the research that discovered evolution in the first place, and that would stop continued research that might challenge orthodoxy. For me, it's the threat to methodological naturalism--rather than the threat to the theory of evolution--that is most dangerous.  And the importance of methodological naturalism is a conversation that I think creationists are more willing to have.

However, it's also important to recognize that there's not an inherent morality to science and that methodological naturalism--if it's not rooted in some sort of ethics--can lead us to dangerous places.  Of course, contrary to creationist claims, those ethics don't have to be Christian or even theist, but it's also helpful to remember that ethics aren't obvious and don't come hardwired into every human head (at least not the ethics that we like).  One could easily think of a society where humans destroy or harm other humans for the good of science, and one could imagine that the researchers in those cases don't feel particularly bad about it.  Nothing says they have to.  There's a compelling evolutionary argument to be made that they're advancing their own interests, particularly if the people they're researching are not members of their "group".  Now this is not an argument that such problems make, say, belief in Christ necessary.  It's only to argue that the ethics behind science won't magically appear within the science. Charles Taylor's critique of Dawkins et al. in A Secular Age is helpful here: ethics aren't obvious, and they don't simply appear fully-formed from evolution.  We create them, or they're revealed to us, or what-have-you, but naturalism by itself won't provide the rules for how we study and what we study for.  Creationists like Francis Schaeffer and Chuck Colson have been very sophisticated in this regard, but what they get wrong is (1) the ethics guiding research need not be theist to be ethical and (2) you still need naturalism to answer problems that can too easily be explained away by 'God did it that way.'  

In closing, creationists are people who are a lot smarter than most secular folks give them credit for.  After all, it takes a lot of thinking to work you way around some of the extremely convincing arguments for evolution.  And some of the stuff coming out of the intelligent design community is pretty smart philosophy of science.  To be clear: I'm a theistic evolutionist, and the only way in which I believe in intelligent design is to claim that God guided evolution (how and using what mechanisms I have no idea, and I certainly acknowledge that evolution appears, from the naturalist perspective, utterly random and not goal-directed).  I don't agree with the pretty substantial amount of creationist and intelligent design literature I've been reading, but I think it's often quite smart and, even if ultimately tautological, pretty clever in how it goes about justifying itself.  The tension between reason and revelation is nothing new of course, and it's worth remembering that secular folks also have a priori truths they insist upon and empirical evidence that might not match.  That's not to justify or excuse creationist distrust of mainstream science.  It's simply to say that it's a human problem, and not simply a creationist one.