Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Religion and Evolution: Understanding Jurisdiction

Recently I gave a long interview to a very bright journalist at the Georgia Straight newspaper in Vancouver. Her questions about “intelligent design” and public school science courses, reminded me of a debate I have avoided for some years. Nothing has changed since I last looked at this issue almost a decade ago.

Like the poor, the debate about whether evolutionary theory is true or not is ever with us. This is a hopelessly confused debate that often pits as opposites things that should not be opposed. Thus, one often hears about a debate on “Evolution OR Creation?” or “Evolution OR Creative Intelligence?”

One wishes these debates would evolve in a more creatively intelligent direction.

Let’s get this clear. If there is a God (a fact some affirm and others deny) there is absolutely no reason whatsoever that this God could not use evolution as a means of creation. Creation is, after all, an ongoing fact and who can say that evolution is not the way that ongoing creation works? Who says otherwise? Therefore to oppose “evolution” or “creation” in the way many do could well be both bad theology and bad science. I think it is both.

Second, there is no reason why “chance” could not be part of such an evolutionary creationism. God may not play dice, in an ultimate sense, with the universe (as Einstein famously said) but this does not mean that on a micro level things may “happen” that look like “chance” from our measuring perspectives. Neither “chance” nor design can be proven scientifically after all. Think about it. Chance, like a “miracle” is not provable or disprovable scientifically.

Science by definition cannot answer the questions of origins for this reason. Science measures and measurement requires a constant of comparison. If there is creation out of nothing (a big bang or something like that) during which “stuff” suddenly appears that wasn’t there earlier, science cannot measure it since there was, literally, “no there - there” at a critical time. Yet we seldom hear of this limit to science, preferring to deal in such fantasies as false bifurcations such as “Creation OR Evolution.”

What all this should show is that the same false dualisms just distract us from the really interesting questions. The false dualisms are just red herrings in the discussion about science and its proper jurisdiction in relation to questions of ultimacy that are beyond the jurisdiction of Science.

What is clear is that fundamentalists on both sides of the debate (those who claim too much for either theology or science) are afraid of each other because they do not understand that however God does what he does, we are unlikely to understand it fully for, if we did, we’d be God ourselves - - and that would be a problem.

Science deals with faith in its method for certain kinds of observable and measurable things. Its method involves holding its “truths” contingent upon subsequent disproval. Religious truths involve taking on faith matters that are not generally susceptible to the scientific method. Even “miracles” are recognition that there is no scientific answer either way.

Faith (small “f”) is necessary everywhere - - in science and outside it, a fact that many atheistic and agnostic scientists will deny or pretend does not exist. But let them try and order a restaurant meal or fly in a plane without it! He who wishes to do his own empirical research on an ordinary airplane flight and take nothing on faith will never leave the ground. As Newman once pointed out “to act is to assume and to assume is to have faith.”

The key to the proper teaching of science is humility all round. By theologians to avoid claiming that things must be so and so against scientific evidence (think of Galileo here) and by scientists suggesting that mere science can disprove the God hypothesis or that good science teaching does not involve pointing out the limits of the discipline (science can tell us nothing about whether there is a purpose to the universe and to life - - both are questions for philosophy and theology and science ought not to usurp them).

To the scientist who arrogantly claims that he or she is only concerned with empirical facts one can say: sorry folks, your tools aren’t big enough, you are out of your depth. Science is simply, necessarily and jurisdictionally incompetent regarding questions about universal origins and purposes and it is the ideology of scientism (a kind of intolerant scientific fundamentalism) that denies this.

What both disciplines need at all times is humility - - unfortunately there is too little of that humility around and the ignorant armies of bad theology and bad science clash by night and day, to the amusement of journalists who don’t raise the real questions, and all in all it makes it hard for the rest of us to concentrate.

CENTREBLOG: Volume 80
Iain T. Benson©