Friday, July 12, 2002

On one of my favourite sites, Libertarian Samizdata, there's been a to-and-fro discussion about the merits of creationism vs. evolution (especially neo-Darwinian evolution). Links (some of them, anyway) are here, here, here and here. There's a couple of interesting points raised in this thread, and this is one of my particular interests.

First up, Brian Micklethwait goes over the 'non-overlapping magisteria' idea (one of the late Stephen Jay Gould's ideas) and finds it wanting. The NOM idea is that religion and science are about two separate fields of human intellectual endeavour and therefore have little or nothing to say about one another. It's a sort of 'render unto Caesar' argument. The only problem is, it doesn't hold water. Religions are quite explicit in their creation myths and in their scientific outlooks. The Bible plainly says that God created the Universe in six days, in two separate, mutually contradictory narratives (Genesis I and Genesis II). It's all very well to say that modern Christians interpret this as an allegory of the true story of creation, but that won't wash for two main reasons: 1) it's a crap allegory - the timelines of the various stages of creation bear almost no resemblance to reality, 2) that's just special pleading anyway, since I think it is abundantly clear that the original authors of the Bible did not regard it as allegory but as the literal truth. Once religions start making inroads into the magisterium of science then they lay themselves open to attack using the scientific method. No creation myth fares well when the spotlight of science is turned on it. After all, why should it? Most creation myths, with the exception of nutjob recent ones like Mormonism, Scientology and the Rael Cult stem from pre-scientific cultures. The animist roots of much of early Judaism are evident in the Bible.

The second point that caught my eye was Antoine Clarke's post in which he uses this completely false syllogism:

Premise 1: Either God created the universe as described literally in the book of Genesis or Darwinian evolution is true.

Premise 2: Darwinian evolution is true.

Conclusion: Therefore, God didn't create the universe as described literally in the book of Genesis or Negative that God and Creation are true.

Premise 1 is clearly false. It's the old creationist canard: that either creationism is true or Darwinian evolution is true. This is rubbish. Even if Darwinian evolution were shown to be false (and it won't be), that would not a priori render creationism true, especially the myopic, parochial Bible version.

Clarke then goes on to say that nothing demonstrates that God and Darwin are mutually exclusive. This is a classic example of what I like to call the 'teapot fallacy'. It's a failure of epistemology, not of logic. It is the idea that because a statement and its negation are both equally valid logically, they are therefore equally valid epistemologically. In other words A and A, its negation, are to be given equal credence. I call it the teapot fallacy in reference to the physical chemist Peter Atkins, who stated it thus: we do not cleave equally to the idea that there is a teapot in orbit around Pluto as to the idea that there is not a teapot in orbit around Pluto. Even though we cannot verify the existence or non-existence of Plutonian teapots, that does not mean we can say nothing about them. Every statement has both a truth-value, T, and a probability-value, P. It is very often impossible, or at least extremely difficult, to know the T of a statement; it is usually much easier to assign a P. Science does not generally deal in T. A mechanist atheist like me does not reject the notion of a created Universe from a dislike of religion. It is the lack of necessity of a creator that animates my atheism. A creator, it seems, is superfluous. Another parable which illustrates this is the 'shy rhinoceros' idea (due, I think, to Richard Feynman): I look out of my front door every day, and I do not see a rhinoceros. Why? Is it because the rhinoceros is shy, and when it hears me coming, it ducks out of sight? Or is it because there is no rhinoceros? If, in everything we see, the hand of the creator is impossible to discern, then what leads us to posit his existence in the first place? In pure logic, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. In science, it's all we've got and all we will ever have.

Finally, there is the utterly bizarre assertion by one Jack Heald:

I have yet to find anyone who, after carefully reviewing the data, concludes that the evidence supports the Darwinian model and contradicts the creationist model.

What? This is like saying, "I have yet to find anyone who, after carefully reviewing the data, concludes that the evidence supports the Copernican model and contradicts the Heliocentric model." If you want to find some exemplars of people who really do believe that creationism is a crock, and neo-Darwinian theory is essentially the correct explanation for evolution, after careful consideration of the evidence (read: a professional lifetime of intense study), then try any Life Sciences department in any university in the Western world.

UPDATE: Here is a an absolutely superb essay, Snake Oil and Holy Water, by the ever-wonderful Richard Dawkins in an October '99 edition of Forbes.com magazine. He blasts the NOM idea in much the same way I do above, although of course being Dawkins he does it better.


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