Wednesday, 29 July 2015

A criticism of Stephen Palmer's talks at the Coventry Creation Day - 5

Fideism, scientific epistemology, and the ‘shifting sands of science’

When special creationists attack evolution by appealing to the fact that ‘scientific opinions change constantly’, it is clear that the person making this claim is ignorant of the basics of scientific epistemology. Put simply, interpretations may change, but facts remain, and in this case, while the theoretical mechanism of evolution is an area of active research, the fact of common descent and large scale evolutionary change is not doubted outside of a tiny fundamentalist rump whose objections are not scientific but stem from their fundamentalist misreading of the Bible.

Put another way, this reflects the special creationist failure to grasp what a scientific theory means, as any claim that scientific interpretations change betrays the common misunderstanding of a theory as a hunch, guess, or speculation, rather than a tested collection of facts and hypotheses that has explanatory and predictive power:
The common and scientific definitions of “theory,” unlike of “fact,” are drastically different. In daily conversation, “theory” often implicitly indicates a lack of supporting data. Indeed, introducing a statement with “My theory is...” is usually akin to saying “I guess that...”, “I would speculate that...”, or “I believe but have not attempted to demonstrate that...”. By contrast, a theory in science, again following the definition given by the NAS, is “a well-substantiated explanation of some aspect of the natural world that can incorporate facts, laws, inferences, and tested hypotheses.” Science not only generates facts but seeks to explain them, and the interlocking and well-supported explanations for those facts are known as theories. Theories allow aspects of the natural world not only to be described, but to be understood. Far from being unsubstantiated speculations, theories are the ultimate goal of science.[1]
Furthermore, it ignores the basics of scientific epistemology that freely state that “truth in science is never final, and what is accepted as a fact today may be modified or even discarded tomorrow”. [2] To the scientifically naive layperson, this may seem to be a weakness, but in fact it is one of the great strengths of science, helping prevent it from being locked into dogma.

All scientific theories are potentially falsifiable, so to damn them as 'changing theories' contributes nothing to advancing his argument. It also ignores the fact that the facts they seek to explain remain no matter what happens to the theory. GR is of course incomplete, as it fails to explain gravity at the quantum level. However, when GR is finally replaced by a quantum theory of gravity, the facts that GR explained such as gravitational lensing, gravitational red shift, and de Sitter precession will not vanish when GR is replaced. Furthermore, the successor theory to GR will still need to explain the same gravitational phenomena that GR did, just as GR explains all the phenomena that Newtonian gravity does.[3] The same holds with evolution. Even if the modern synthetic theory was falsified immediately, the facts of common descent and large-scale morphological change in the fossil record that it explains still remain.
Along with the deep confusion over the difference between fact and theory in science, special creationist arguments bizarrely attack science for excluding God. At the risk of some simplification science seeks to explain natural phenomena using natural explanations. Such attacks on evolutionary biologists for a priori excluding the hand of a creator as I mentioned earlier betray an ignorance of the epistemological basis of modern science. Science by definition is the study of natural explanations of natural phenomena. One does not criticise developmental biologists or meteorologists when they appeal to natural processes to explain embryogenesis, or thunderstorm formation? If special creationists were consistent, they would declare these two disciplines null and void as the Bible explicitly declares that both embryogenesis and thundercloud formation are acts of God:
Job 10:10-11 Did you not pour me out like milk and curdle me like cheese? You clothed me with skin and flesh, and knit me together with bones and sinews.
Jer 10:13 When he utters his voice, there is a tumult of waters in the heavens, and he makes the mist rise from the ends of the earth. He makes lightnings for the rain, and he brings out the wind from his storehouses.
In short, these arguments show the usual special creationist conflation of what some have called methodological naturalism (the idea that natural events have natural causes) with philosophical naturalism (the belief which a priori excludes the existence of the supernatural by defining the natural world as the only thing that exists). Attacks on evolutionary biology for excluding divine agency are merely special pleading if they do not expand to include all branches of science.
Given the extraordinary power of the scientific method to generate knowledge about the natural world, the burden of proof lies on special creationists such as Palmer to show how an overtly theistic scientific epistemology would be superior to one that always looks for natural causes, and which to date has been phenomenally successful in actually explaining our world.
Why evolution does not threaten inspiration

Bro. Palmer's claim that it is impossible to accept evolution and believe in plenary inspiration of scripture is wrong for a number of reasons:

  • It assumes that the creation narratives are scientifically accurate accounts of the origins of the universe
  • It conflates an interpretation of the narratives with the inspired message
  • It conflates a theology of creation with a science of creation
The example of heliocentrism provides an excellent example as to why bro. Palmer's argument is wrong. Bro. Palmer should be aware that one of the reasons why heliocentrism - the model in which the sun is the centre of the solar system around which the planets orbit - was rejected was that it contradicted a literal reading of the scriptures, which to be honest it does. Heliocentrism so thoroughly permeates our thinking that we automatically translate Biblical references to a fixed Earth and a moving sun as phenomenological language - describing things as they appear to us, not as they actually are. However, prior to the acceptance of heliocentrism, everyone accepted as entirely uncontroversial and true to the observed evidence that the sun in fact did move. You can only claim language is phenomenal if you are aware that what is seen does not reflect the underlying reality, and given that there is no evidence in the Bible to support heliocentrism (the ample references to the Bible to support geocentrism proves the opposite to be true), what we have is a situation where the literal reading of the Bible is contradicted by the observed evidence. Bro. Palmer however is hardly claiming that the plenary inspiration of the Bible is under threat because we do not believe the literal reading of the Bible with its clear references to geocentrism, so his claim that the authority and inspiration of the Bible is under threat if one accepts evolution is merely special pleading. 

In fact, it shows his lack of awareness of the fact that this very argument he employs was countered by bro. C.C. Walker over a century ago, when a brother T. Griffith claimed, in a letter to The Christadelphian, that the authority and inspiration of the Bible was under threat for accepting the 'globe theory' of the Earth:
“Seeing that the veracity and verbal inspiration of the Scriptures are denied by many on the basis of the revolving globe-earth theory, even to the extent of rejecting the ascension of Jesus into the heaven of heavens as a “geometrical impossibility.” the matter surely cannot be set aside as of no importance, and beyond the province of a magazine devoted to the defence of Biblical teaching and the overthrow of pagan and papal dogmas.  
“The globe-earth theory is essentially pagan in its origin, and no amount of ingenuity has yet succeeded in harmonizing it with the cosmogony of the Bible.   
“It is supposed that the theory was first introduced into Europe by Pythagoras, in the sixth century b.c., and he was a rank pagan. It was afterwards adopted by Plato, and latterly modified to its present form by Aristarchus of Samos, “who went to the length of ranking our green world as a planet revolving yearly round the sun.” Through Copernicus and Galileo the theory has acquired a distinct Romish taint." 
“We may blame the author of “Lead Kindly Light” for following the glimmer of Rome’s magic lantern, instead of bringing his mental difficulties to be solved in the light of the word of God; but what about those who allow themselves to be led by the vapourings of scientific theorists while pondering over the plainly worded inspired narrative of creation?...:”  
“There may not be much danger of a brother being led astray by the perusal of modern rationalistic literature, for in that case he is prepared to antagonize the fallacies of modern thought, but morsels of error, in the form of “scientific” tit-bits, daintily wrapped up within the covers of a Biblical magazine, devoted to the defence and advocacy of Scripture doctrine, may not give rise to suspicion that there is anything wrong. The wrong is there all the same, and its effects become manifest when he who has swallowed the morsel finds, as the logical outcome of an adopted bastard theory, that the Bible and modern science are at variance, and verbal inspiration a farce…” [4]
Griffith's letter shares striking parallels to the anti-evolutionary rhetoric of many Christadelphians by:

  • Privileging a literal reading of the Bible without providing any justification for why he chose this hermeneutical strategy
  • Linking modern science with atheism
  • Attacking scientists as 'unbelievers' and 'evolutionists' rather than providing informed, critical appraisals of their arguments
  • Taking quotations from scientists out of context
  • Making extravagant claims that the inspiration and authority of the Bible are challenged by accepting what science declares about the universe
Bro. Walker's masterly response makes a number of points which are directly relevant when showing why bro. Palmer's assertion that evolution is incompatible with inspiration is false:

He rejected the assertion that the source of a theory had anything to do with its truth: "Much natural truth is of “pagan” discovery. We do not reject it on that account;"[5]

He pointed out the folly of taking as representative the views of a single authority, particularly when there was the possibility of taking that authority out of context: "With regard to the remarks of Professor Woodhouse, we are inclined to think a great many of his brother professors would have differed from his conclusion. It would largely depend upon just what he meant by “absolutely proved;” and as he is dead we cannot ask him."[6]

He observed the problems inherent in any appeal to the 'plain reading' of the creation narratives: "Moses’ testimony is not so “plain” that it cannot be misinterpreted or misunderstood. He speaks of “the heaven and the earth” as being in existence “in the beginning;” and therefore it does not seem to be inadmissible to suppose that “the host of heaven” was likewise then in existence.... As to “the fourth day,” we do not know of any “day” in the literal sense apart from the sun and its motion. And, therefore, if the “days” of Genesis 1 are to be taken as literal days, we feel bound to admit the sun as the origin of the “light,” and “evening and morning” that were the characteristics of “the first day.” How can you have “evening and morning” without the sun? We must settle up “the plain testimony” of verse 5 with that of verses 14–19. As we said before (The Christadelphian, 1910, p. 269), “If we understand Moses as saying that the sun came into existence on ‘the fourth day,’ we make him contradict himself; we make him present us with day and night, evening and morning, without the sun upon which these things depend.”[7]

He reminded us that the fundamental aim of the creation narratives was not to provide a scientifically accurate account of creation, but a theology of creation that attacked competing creation mythologies: "Moses’ testimony was given to Israel in what might be called the infancy of the world, when men did not know the extent of the earth, let alone that of the sun, moon, and stars. And, as we believe, it was given (by God through Moses), not so much to instruct Israel in cosmogony in detail, as to impress upon them the idea that The Most High God is the Possessor of Heaven and Earth (Gen. 14:22). And this against the claims of the gods of the nations, as was abundantly proved in Israel’s history."[8]

Walker rejected evolution, so the point of this is not to enlist him as a cryptic supporter of evolutionary creationism. Rather, he is cited as his arguments against 'flat earth Christadelphians' also are powerful ones against those who claim the authority of the Bible is under attack because of one's belief about the mechanism employed by God to bring about the diversity of life.

It is worth stressing that Griffith, as hopelessly wrong as he was with his belief in a flat Earth was to be honest taking the Bible far more literally than even contemporary YECs in our community do, as the cosmogeography as revealed in the Bible is definitely not one of a spherical Earth revolving around the sun, but a flat, fixed Earth covered with a solid firmament in which are set the sun, moon, and stars, and which separates waters above from waters below. OT scholar Peter Enns notes:
Let me summarize some of the general arguments for why raqia is understood by contemporary biblical scholars as a solid structure: 
1.     The other cosmologies from the ancient world depict some solid structure in the sky. The most natural explanation of the raqia is that it also reflects this understanding. There is no indication that Genesis is a novel description of the sky;
2.     Virtually every description of raqia from antiquity to the Renaissance depicts it as solid. The non-solid interpretation of raqia is a novelty;
3.     According to the flood story in Gen 7:11 and 8:2, the waters above were held back only to be released through the “floodgates of the heavens” (literally, “lattice windows”);
4.     Other Old Testament passages are consistent with the raqia being solid (Ezekiel1:22; Job 37:18; Psalm 148:4);
5.     According to Gen 1:20, the birds fly in front of the raqia (in the air), not in the raqia;
6.     The noun raqia is derived form the verb that means to beat out or stamp out, as in hammering metal into thin plates (Exodus 39:3). This suggests that the noun form is likewise related to something solid;
7.     Speaking of the sky as being stretched out like a canopy/tent (Isaiah 40:22) or that it will roll up like a scroll (34:4) are clearly similes and do not support the view that raqia in Genesis 1 is non-solid. 
The solid nature of the raqia is well established. It is not the result of an anti-Christian conspiracy to find errors in the Bible, but the “solid” result of scholars doing their job. This does not mean that there can be no discussion or debate. But, to introduce a novel interpretation of raqia would require new evidence or at least a reconsideration of the evidence we have that would be compelling to those who do not have a vested religious interest in maintaining one view or another.[9] (Emphasis mine)
Therefore, it we really read the creation narratives literally, and took what they said as a reliable guide to the nature of our universe, we would insist on belief in a flat, fixed Earth covered with a solid firmament as being normative for our community. (Arguments that attempt to explain away the references to a solid firmament in Genesis 1 are unconvincing, and are not taken seriously by credible, informed scholars.)

Ironically, Griffith's view is perhaps the closest to the cosmogeography of the Bible, with any other view (geocentrism, YEC) would rightly be regarded as compromising the 'authority of Scripture', if we regard a literal reading of the Bible with respect to its cosmogeography as being authoritative. We don't, and that raises the question of inconsistency among special creationists who interpret references to God as creator as an explicit denial of evolution, while explaining away the clear references to a fixed Earth with a solid firmament. 

This leads to the question of where the authority of the Bible lies, how to interpret the creation narratives, and the degree to which inspiration works through and accommodates the worldview of the original audience of the narratives. Walker's observation that the creation narratives were written "not so much to instruct Israel in cosmogony in detail, as to impress upon them the idea that The Most High God is the Possessor of Heaven and Earth" reminds us that the authority of Genesis lies not in its description of how God created (one that of necessity given the pre-scientific nature of the target audience would accommodate pre-scientific views about the nature of the universe), but why he created. That inspired message is independent of the mechanism employed by God to create the universe.

Unfortunately, it has been common to cite the deconversion of Rob Hyndman, an Australian ex-Christadelphian who announced his loss of faith on his blog a few years ago. This is advanced as alleged evidence that it is impossible to accept evolution and remain a believer. It is incorrect to imply that accepting evolution led Hyndman's deconversion. Rather, his deconversion was due to many factors:
But then, quite suddenly, I could not think of a good reason to believe any more. Far from inspired, the Bible now appeared as a collection of ancient human documents, full of propaganda, legend, and bigotry. Yes, there was some wisdom there, and some beautiful poetry, some uplifting words. But the attitudes to women and foreigners that it describes, sometimes commands, were not worthy of the God I once believed in. The alleged miracles seemed more like the superstitions of a primitive people than evidence for enlightened belief. Even the prophecies that I once found so convincing, appeared to be either contrived, out-of-context, or written after the alleged fulfilment. What I once thought were answers to prayer now appeared to be coincidence or imagined. My faith was always based on what I thought was evidence, and once the evidence was removed, the faith quickly followed.[10]
Apart from the questionable use of another man's crisis of faith simply to serve as an anti-evolution soundbite, it ignores the fact that there are many Christadelphians who accept evolution, and whose faith remains strong. I've accepted evolution since the turn of the century, and over the last fifteen years, my faith has never been stronger, mainly because I no longer have to ignore the witness of the natural world which attests to the reality of an ancient, evolving creation, but also because evolution allows one to solve problems such as the problem of evil, which today remains one of the major threats to faith for the believer. Cherry picking the example of a prominent ex-Christadelphian and misrepresentation of the reasons for his deconversion, while ignoring the many current believers who maintain both a robust faith in Christ while accepting the fact of evolution may play to the polemically useful narrative that evolution and faith are irreconcilable, but it is neither accurate nor fair.

As I've pointed out repeatedly, for well over a century, mainstream science has regarded common descent and large-scale evolutionary change (the fact of evolution) as a settled question, with scientific debate focussed on the details of the mechanisms responsible for common descent (the theory of evolution). Evolutionary biologist T.R. Gregory summarises the reasons for, and robustness of this consensus neatly in a 2008 paper:
In The Origin of Species, published in 1859, Darwin cited independent lines of evidence such as the biogeographical distribution of species, homology of structure, the occurrence of vestigial organs and atavisms, and the already well established process of extinction as all pointing to a conclusion that species have changed over time and are connected by descent from common ancestors. Through the force of Darwin’s argument and the mass of supporting data he presented, it was not long before the contemporary scientific community came to acknowledge the historical reality of evolutionary descent. As A.W. Bennett summarized the situation in 1870,
The fascinating hypothesis of [descent with modification] has, within the last few years, so completely taken hold of the scientific mind, both in [Great Britain] and in Germany, that almost the whole of our rising men of science may be classed as belonging to this school of thought. Probably since the time of Newton no man has had so great an influence over the development of scientific thought as Mr. Darwin.
Over the past 150 years, this initial list has been supplemented by countless observations in paleontology, comparative anatomy, developmental biology, molecular biology, and (most recently) comparative genomics, and through direct observations of evolutionary change in both natural and experimental populations. Each of thousands of peer-reviewed articles published every year in scientific journals provides further confirmation (though, as Futuyma (1998) notes, “no biologist today would think of publishing a paper on ‘new evidence for evolution’ ... it simply hasn’t been an issue in scientific circles for more than a century”). Conversely, no reliable observation has ever been found to contradict the general notion of common descent. It should come as no surprise, then, that the scientific community at large has accepted evolutionary descent as a historical reality since Darwin’s time and considers it among the most reliably established and fundamentally important facts in all of science.[11]
Furthermore, it is erroneous to claim that evolution and atheism are synonymous. Historian of science David Livingstone reminds us that some of the earliest supporters of evolution were theologically conservative Christians whose motivation was hardly due to any capitulation to an anti-theistic zeitgeist:
Darwin’s cause in America was championed by the thoroughgoing Congregationalist evangelical Asa Gray, who set himself the task of making sure that Darwin would have “fair play” in the New World. Let us be clear right away that this cannot be dismissed as capitulation to the social pressure of academic peers. To the contrary, Gray had to take on one of the most influential naturalists in America at the time to maintain his viewpoint – none other than Louis Agassiz, a Harvard colleague who vitriolically scorned Darwin’s theory. But Gray was not alone. Many of his countrymen, associates in science and brothers in religion took the same stand. And indeed even those who ultimately remained unimpressed with if not hostile to Darwin were quite prepared to admit that evolution had occurred. It is surely not without significance that Christian botanists, geologists, and biologists – that is to say, those best placed to see with clarity the substance of what Darwin had proposed – believed the evidence supported an evolutionary natural history.[12]
Even today, it is not difficult to find respected scientists in the life and earth sciences who are both committed Christians and who accept the fact of evolution. Examples include invertebrate palaeontologist Simon Conway Morris, immunologist Denis Alexander, medical geneticist Francis Collins, cell biologist Kenneth Miller, evolutionary biologist Joan Roughgarden, and cancer researcher Graeme Finlay, who in a recent BioLogos article outlining the genomic evidence for human-ape common ancestry made both his Christian faith and his belief that evolution and Christianity are not mutually exclusive in his closing words:
Ultimately, of course, Christian faith comes from God’s revelation in Jesus of Nazareth. As David Hart states, Christianity is the only major religion that arose from a single historical claim. A lifetime of study can only emphasize the authenticity and power of this history. And I have a deep sense of satisfaction that the God who is revealed in human history is also the God of cosmic and biological history. All such histories run freely, but they follow channels that are constrained by divinely-ordained laws, and they have culminated in astonishing climaxes. Science reveals the universe, the solar system, and all living organisms to have an authentic history. In the same way, the Christian faith is irreducibly historical. The wonders of biological development and of Resurrection come from the same faithful God. That’s exhilarating.[13]
Conversely, the worldview of young earth creationism, which indoctrinates its followers into thinking that if evolution is true then the Bible is false is one which will inevitably destroy faith when the best and brightest discover the truth about our ancient, evolving creation, and take that zero-sum game approach to faith to its logical conclusion. Talks such as those of bro Palmer will do far more to erode faith than anything written by the New Atheists.

[1] Gregory T.R. "Evolution as Fact, Theory and Path" Evo Edu Outreach (2008) 1:46-52
[2] National Academy of Sciences of the USA. Teaching about evolution and the nature of science. Washington, DC: National Academies Press; 1998.
[3] The fact that Newton's theory of gravity still holds well under non-relativistic conditions (just as GR holds under non-quantum conditions) neatly skewers the naive view that when theories change, they become useless. 
[4] Walker C.C. “Is it ‘Wrong’ to Believe That the Earth is a Sphere?” The Christadelphian (2013) 50:346-348
[5] ibid, p 348
[6] ibid, p 348
[7] ibid, p 349
[8] ibid., p 349
[10] Hyndmnan R “An end of faithMusings: A biblical blog by Rob J Hyndman 29 July 2013
[11] Gregory T.R. “Evolution as Fact, Theory, and Path” Evo Edu Outreach (2008) 1:46-51
[12] Livingstone D.N. “Darwin’s Forgotten Defenders” (Eerdmans 1984) p xi-xii
[13] Finlay G “Human Evolution: Genes, Genealogies, and PhylogeniesBioLogos Blog May 27 2014