August 8, 2006

Reasonable Doubt

Without sounding like I'm trying too hard to be the voice of reason here, I'd like to add my two cents to a debate that's been going on for a while. I know that nobody ever actually asks my opinion in these matters, but on this particular debate, given my rather long and somewhat dissatisfied history with the subject, I want to have a go at finding an alternative to all the squabbling.

I've been through this all before. Did God create all that we see, or some big bang way back when? The real question, though, is what the hell do we teach our kids? I think that so many of the normal folk realize that we can never truly know the answer to the first question (that is, until we die, when we can't really come back to tell everybody else), and thus, the second question becomes so much harder. Do we teach them evolutionary "theory" or do we teach them "intelligent design?"

For whatever reason, the debate has touched a nerve in the American populace (while the rest of the world looks on thinking 'what's their problem?'). I have my theories on that one, but they'll have to wait. Some people are adament: evolution is not just a theory, it's proven fact. Others hold the opposite: evolution isn't even science, but that it itself is religion, and not very good religion at that.

I've been thinking. I do that. It's a problem because it keeps me from going to sleep at night (but at least it gives you something to read). But it seems to me that the question keeps coming back to everybody's definitions of the word "religion." Really, the definitions of a lot of words - neither side of the debate speaks the same language, not really - but for now, "religion" is a good place to start. If you go by a reasonably broad definition of religion - say, a belief system involving an element of faith or trust that one can't know all the answers but looks at what they see to extrapolate the rest - then I'd say sure, evolutionary theory, creationism, intelligent design, and aliens all fit into the "religion" category. Maybe not aliens, but I suppose we can all see what we want.

I personally think that there are six major religions of the world: judaism (deifies "Jehovah"), christianity/christendom (deifies "I AM"), Islam (deifies "Allah"), Buddhism (deifies the intellect), Hinduism (has lots of deities), and atheism (deifies science and the self). There are lots of variations on that, but those are the biggies. My personal background, like many in the US, is christendom. I grew up going to a presbyterian church every week (with the few rare exceptions where I managed to beg/cajole/plead my way out of it), but at the same time, barely heard much about creation. Aside from the occasional "God created everything," I didn't hear much else from a 'christian' perspective on the matter. I learned the standard evolution model taught in new york schools. It was about high school that I started taking an interest in the subject, when I started wondering if perhaps my beloved science and my not-so beloved religion had any conflicts. For the next four years I read and studied and examined the two sides of the debate. I talked with teachers, fellow students, pastors - anybody who would listen (my poor parents had their ears questioned off, and I still remember 3am conversations with my mother on the specifics of the Genesis account, when my half-asleep father would come in begging her to come to bed).

I came to the conclusion that God had indeed created everything, but that Genesis doesn't mention "how" - science could shed light on that in the evolutionary theory. So I bopped along for awhile, happy that I'd figured it out, and then, tragedy struck - I entered college and was hit by a problem with the argument. It turns out that, due to a rather interesting logical fallacy, you can't just mesh the two arguments together like that. So, with the debate renewed, I continued to study.

I'm still not sure I've landed anywhere solid - and nobody really ever can, which is why I pretty much stepped away from the debate for about two years - but at the moment I consider myself an old-earth creationist. I don't buy into the whole "6000-year old" earth mumbo jumbo; the evidence is too overwhelming on both sides for that to be true (we all know the science, but did you know that "yom", the hebrew word for "day", can also mean "age"? it makes Genesis 1 read really differently).

I think this is where my insight might be useful. In all my searching, reading, discussing, etc, I discovered a little piece of information that could prove itself to be the solution: science needs the evolutionary theory to uphold a lot of other theories that seem to be working out just fine, which is one reason that scientists hold on to evolution so tightly - they need it, badly. However, the parts of it that they need don't really have much to do with apes or big bangs. The parts they need have a lot to do with genetics, cell biology, adaptation theory, and that sort of thing - the raw data, not the theory.

See, evolution has two parts: microevolution (survival of the fittest, called "natural selection") and macroevolution (accumulation of natural selection, genetic variation, and whatnot; and it usuall talks about apes starting to talk). This is the solution:

In schools, we need to do three things:
1) acknowledge that none of us really have the answers to life, the universe, and everything
2) remove the theories of origin from science classes and instead teach the genetics, the natural selection, and the stuff that's useful to science but that isn't terribly controversial
3) begin a manditory religion class (teaching all six major world religions, which is where we can then include theories of origins)

I think this solves a lot of problems. It acknowledges that religion is important, that it affects more than just what you do on sunday, \ that you can't just lump it into a history class (because there is so much to learn about), and it allows kids exposure to a greater amount of culture. It also clears up the issue of whether or not we evolved - nobody knows for sure. Some scientists are so sure, and some creationists are so sure, but in the end, they weren't there, and they're still just guessing. Some are guessing harder and smarter than others, but they're still just guessing. It moves the information in question into an arena that allows kids to expand their minds and think, to work through the arguments and maybe even grow a little. We can do science in science class, philosophy and religion (and therefore controversey) into their own class.

In the end, I know that whatever we do, nobody will be happy about it. Creationists usually are the sorts of people that think their kids are being corrupted by the public school system anyway, and so if worlds like "evolution" or "sex" or "homosexuals" are ever mentioned without saying "God doesn't like ___" in front of them, the parents freak out. Likewise, scientists have a rather unhealthy habit of making anyone who claims any sort of deity to be a fool unworthy to be in the presence of the wise scientist. BOTH attitudes are unhealthy, unwise, and frankly, appallingly annoying. It's time to start thinking of everybody involved, not just one side or the other.

We still have to live together, ya know.


Chris said...

By the way, I still buy the "big bang" theory, because nobody has suggested any kind of viable alternative. "And God said, let there be light" sounds an awful lot like a big bang to me.

I don't buy the apes though. There are lots of possible explanations for the fossile record, and macroevolutionary theory is still just a theory. For example: what would happen if you took a bag of chips and shook it? All the little pieces sink to the bottom and the big ones stay on top - voila, chip evolution (the chips must have evolved because we see the big chips, the more complicated ones, on top, and the less complicated ones that look like mere fragments of the complexity of the bigger ones on the bottom). I'm not convinced that even genetic evolution could possibly lead one species - apes - to evolve into humans, especially since one male and one female would have to evolve at the same time into a new species in order to reproduce, the odds of which are greater than that of a protein forming on its own. And that's pretty big.

shawna said...

Well you've jumped into it here, one of those things that perhaps God can sit us down at His feet and explain to us one day and we'll all go "ooohhhh, of course". I did hear an interesting comment once that said -- God made adult humans, so why couldn't he make an adult earth? My problem with evolution is that it is saying things have to become more complex and work better from something that is less, and when you look around at the world it goes the other way, everything is going from order to chaos (their is a term for that I can't remember)I've never had an evolutionist explain that one, I'm curious as to their explanation

Chris said...

That one is called "entropy," and it's considered a law in science. Not just a theory, like evolution is, but a law. It's, in fact, the second of three laws of thermodynamics, and it says that everything, unless energy is added, will move towards disorder. Disorder isn't quite the same thing as chaos, but the differences are fairly trivial (chaos has a negative anarchy implication, and in some ways, disorder can look a whole lot like the absence of chaos sometimes).

But no, I've yet to hear a good rebuttal of that one either. The only problem is, creationist arguments can be just as vague - "evolution is wrong so it must be a God" is not an argument, it's a logical fallacy. To assume one thing because something else is NOT is plain lunacy. But scientists make that jump often enough too, and it just lends itself to say that no matter what theory you buy into, there's an element of faith involved if you're to believe that theory.

shawna said...

Ah yes, thats the word!

The interesting thing about faith is, even facts need to be taken on faith. The fact is gravity keeps us planted on the ground, so as we go about our business we have faith in this fact remaining true that we won't float off into space, but how do we know that this law of gravity won't suddenly change? Anyways thats getting a bit into philosphy "is that tree really there" etc.

Chris said...

I heard this great joke once: "if a tree falls over in the forest, and nobody's around, and it hits a mime, does anybody care?"

A. Annie said...

I personally find it very comforting to know that I am related to probably most all of life on earth. I find that aspect of religion that seeks to separate us from the rest of life on earth very alienating. 95% of our DNA is the same as a Chimpanzee. Why is that? We are not descended from Chimps. But it is highly plausible that we have a common ancestor. How is it that we can use pig or cow heart valves in humans? Why does a whale have a pelvic bone?

I took an evolution class some years ago. The instructor took pains to separate theories about the origin of the universe from the theory of evolution. These are two very separate questions.
The Big bang was not a part of the class. Evolution addresses the question "What is the cause of the diversity of life we see?" It seems ridiculous to observe all the groups of animals and plants and catalog how some are more closely related than others and then exclude humans from this assemblage of life on earth.

Here's a quote:
"There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one; and that whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being evolved."
Charles Darwin (The Origin of Species)
Charles Darwin was not godless.

Why is evolution so scary?

One more item-- Great book I just read: T. Rex and the Crater of Doom by Walter Alvarez
Account of the discovery of the crater that caused the worldwide K-T boundary (Cretaceous-Tertiary transition) and the extinction of many dinosaurs and other life forms at that time.

Chris said...

I personally find it comforting that I'm known by the creator, and in that way related to the rest of the world. I see the rest of the world connected in so many ways, which tells me that there is some mind that is common to everything. I mean, let's face it, when you listen to music, most of the stuff by one artist smacks of all the other stuff by the same artist, but if they're really really good, you have a harder time picking it out. I think that's how I view the universe - I don't think species evolved from other species, but that God made them each suited to their environment and able to adapt to it when He knew it would change; and His techniques happen to be similar from animal to animal (like whale fin bones compared to human hand bones). I don't see chance: I see providence.

A. Annie said...

So you see all categorizations of animals and plants (e.g. families and genera) as artificial?
You don't think that descendance from a common ancestor plays any part in how some groups of species are more closely related than others? Being created fully formed from dust is more plausible than descending from common ancestors? Wow. By this logic, the pharmaceutical industry could use any animal for drug testing. --A fish as easily as a mouse?

Chris said...

Well, I think that with all theories, it has its issues. I think that God made some animals more alike than others, which explains the drug testing thing. I mean, the pharmaceutical industry does use mice, which aren't all that closely related to humans, the theory being that if a mouse (an animal who wallows around in filth and has the immune system to cope) can withstand a drug, then at least humans have a better chance of it.

I'm sure there's a possibility that evolution is the explanation. There are certain philosophical consequences to Christianity that don't fit, but I'm sure they could be worked out too. There are plenty of Christians that DO believe in evolution as the explanation; they're called "theistic evolutionists" and I used to be one of them.

As for me, I think the world is increadibly old, and that God took his sweet time putting it all together. In Genesis 1, the word used for "day" is the same word often used for "age" and can be translated either way. I'm a subscriber to the "gap flood theory", which I found out was actually thought up by my grandfather-in-law. I don't believe his book was widely circulated, which is a pity, because it's actually science (as opposed to the substantial amount of drivvel that so many "creationists" have published on the subject lately).

I think evolution has the same sorts of flaws; it's just that, with God involved, anything is possible; evolution OR spontaneous (or non-spontaneous) creation.

Chris said...

It also occurs to me that we used so many different single-celled organisms (rotifers, e.coli) to test human drugs on, which, as it happens, are about as similar to human cells as fish cells are.

Common building blocks permeate the organic world, and I think that it's just as easy to say it's due to a common creator as it is to say it's due to evolution. But based on my experience, God IS there, and so the logic sort of follows from there ...

A. Annie said...

I think if you ask people who do animal testing why they use certain animals over others, they will say it is because of the relationship to humans. Mammals are more closely related to humans than marsupials. This is measured with DNA analyses. You can't see the effects of a drug on the liver if you test it in e-coli. Descent from ancestors with the dual pressures of genetic changes and natural selection is the most plausible natural explanation for the similarities, differences and relationships we see.

Science does not addresss and cannot address supernatural explanations. The literal christian creation story is no more or less plausible than any other creation story by any culture since it involves an untestable supernatural mechanism.
So I guess a disagreement will always be with us. It's an apples/oranges discussion.

Chris said...

I think my problem with it is that science, because it requires proof, dismisses supernatural explanations from consideration, instead of (as they should) acknowledging the possibility that something might not be testable. It is not a scientific proof to say that, because you don't see something, and because you can't test for it, then it doesn't exist. A great field to show this is astronomy. We use these telescopes and fancy gizmos to look at the universe. We see some amazing things: nebulae, quasars, proton stars, pulsars. Yet science continually searches for evidence of black holes and dark matter - we catalogue things that we don't see. There's evidence laying around to show that there's something out of the ordinary there, and so we postulate about it. We don't know that black holes or dark matter actually exist. They're merely filler-explanations for some evidence we haven't been able to figure out yet.

Instead of simply acknowledging the possibility of God, so many scientists dismiss it completely. I don't think that it's really scientific to say that something isn't simply because you can't test it. It may be inconvenient, but sometimes you just can't test something. I fail to see how scientists who can believe in black holes don't believe in God - neither have direct visual evidence. How can they, they're both invisible.

Perhaps another example, closer to your line of work. We say so many times how many species - plant and animal alike - on the planet haven't been discovered and how they are going extinct because of deforestation and the like. I'm all for environmental protection, and I have no problem with the goal of these messages (which is to get people to think more environment-consciously), but I question the methods. How can we possibly know that a species has gone extinct if we've never seen it? We don't know it's there, have seen no evidence that it was ever there in the first place, and yet we say "species are going extinct without having been discovered!"

Sure, it's possible that God guided things to evolve from each other. I think the best part of that particular theory is that, if it's true, it means that every part of our planet really is connected like a giant web, and if you hurt one part, you hurt the whole thing to some extent. But you're right, there's a point where we just have to say "it's a mystery!" and agree to disagree. I don't think that evolution is one of those dividing questions like so many evangelicals. I think that, if it's true, then it still requires a supernatural explanation, because it violates nearly every law of thermodynamics, namely the law of entropy. But you can be a follower of Jesus and still think evolution is a good explanation to the world's inner workings.

A. Annie said...

Sorry. I can't let the above fallacy pass. Here's a good explanation from:

Re: Second law of Thermodynamics
Evolution does not violate this law because:

It says that heat will not spontaneously flow from a colder body to a warmer one or, equivalently, that total entropy (a measure of useful energy) in a closed system will not decrease. This does not prevent increasing order because
1. the earth is not a closed system; sunlight (with low entropy) shines on it and heat (with higher entropy) radiates off. This flow of energy, and the change in entropy that accompanies it, can and will power local decreases in entropy on earth.
2. entropy is not the same as disorder. Sometimes the two correspond, but sometimes order increases as entropy increases. (Aranda-Espinoza et al. 1999; Kestenbaum 1998) Entropy can even be used to produce order, such as in the sorting of molecules by size (Han and Craighead 2000).
3. even in a closed system, pockets of lower entropy can form if they are offset by increased entropy elsewhere in the system.

In short, order from disorder happens on earth all the time.

The only processes necessary for evolution to occur are reproduction, heritable variation, and selection. All of these are seen to happen all the time, so, obviously, no physical laws are preventing them. In fact, connections between evolution and entropy have been studied in depth, and never to the detriment of evolution (Demetrius 2000).

Several scientists have proposed that evolution and the origin of life is driven by entropy (McShea 1998). Some see the information content of organisms subject to diversification according to the second law (Brooks and Wiley 1988), so organisms diversify to fill empty niches much as a gas expands to fill an empty container. Others propose that highly ordered complex systems emerge and evolve to dissipate energy (and increase overall entropy) more efficiently (Schneider and Kay 1994).

Aranda-Espinoza, H., Y. Chen, N. Dan, T. C. Lubensky, P. Nelson, L. Ramos and D. A. Weitz, 1999. Electrostatic repulsion of positively charged vesicles and negatively charged objects. Science 285: 394-397.

Brooks, D. R. and E. O. Wiley, 1988. Evolution As Entropy, University of Chicago Press.
Kestenbaum, David, 1998. Gentle force of entropy bridges disciplines. Science 279: 1849.

Han, J. and H. G. Craighead, 2000. Separation of long DNA molecules in a microfabricated entropic trap array. Science 288: 1026-1029.

Demetrius, Lloyd, 2000. Theromodynamics and evolution. Journal of Theoretical Biology 206(1): 1-16.

McShea, Daniel W., 1998. Possible largest-scale trends in organismal evolution: eight live hypotheses. Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics 29: 293-318.

Schneider, Eric D. and James J. Kay, 1994. Life as a manifestation of the second law of thermodynamics. Mathematical and Computer Modelling 19(6-8): 25-48.

Chris said...

Wow, you respond very quickly when I post a comment.

I never thought of it like that - the closed vs. open system thing, I mean. Ok, so evolution doesn't violate the second law of thermodynamics. I was wrong, my appologies.

I still think that evolution has its problems, though, but perhaps you can address them. Like, how is it that a protein could form in such harsh conditions (the conditions postulated for primal earth) without help? I realize that some scientists tried the experiment and it "worked," but I heard later that they were disproven because of a number of problems in the experiment.

Last question (though I'll have more later): do you buy into "Occam's Razor"? I'm not sure I do anymore, but I don't know how the general scientific population thinks of this particular idea ... it seems to me that most of science says that their explanations are simple, but to me they're inordinately complicated.

Anonymous said...

"In short, order from disorder happens on earth all the time"

The only reason this happens is because of energy from the Sun and that the Earth, animals, and plants are designed to do this. The design needed a designer and its name is God(s).

I really don't see a major conflict with Evolution and the fact that things on earth were created by a creator.

A. Annie said...

The Talkorigins site has good, extensively footnoted explanations:

Ockham's razor:

Amino acids:


Chris said...


I think that the point is that we want to hear the REASONS you think what you do, not just the things you think.

A. Annie, haven't had a chance to look at the links yet (had an orchestra concert and a bunch of social events that were taking up a bit of time this weekend), but will as soon as I can.

Anonymous said...

I believe in God because of Science and I don't see a major conflict in what the Bible says in Genesis and the "possibility" that things have evolved over time. If you take everything in the Bible to be literal then there is a conflict. I don't. For Example, it says everything was made in six days. Is this in Earth days, Pluto days, or Gods days. I would think it would be in God's days. And God's day is probably alot longer than 24hrs on earth. Is it still possible that the Earth was made in 6 earth days, Yes but I feel that it is just as possible that it took a bit longer. The people who wrote the Bible were not as knowledgable as we are today. They probably did the best with the knowlege that God gave them and with what environment they had been brought up in order to write the Bible. If you check Revelations out you will see what I mean. The person that wrote that either was on drugs or did not fully understand what he/she was seeing and he put what he saw into words the best he could. But if I had seen what he was given to see I might have written revelations a bit differently because I live in a different time (environment) than he does.

A. Annie said...

You might think of the discoveries of science as tools. For example, evolution and genetics are enormously powerful tools for conducting medical research. Another example: When you build a house, you would be wise to use a building code manual. You would want to know some math and physics too.

Religion could be thought of as a tool people use for their emotional well being and to provide social structures for societies. But you wouldn't want to use the Bible if you're trying to figure out what optimum roof truss spacing you need to support the weight of your roof.

Recently on the radio I heard a religion scholar named Karen Armstrong. She said she evaluates faith traditions with the following question: "Does it result in practical compassion?"
I think this is a very powerful view of religion that gets away from the endless (and destructive, in my mind) arguments over who (or which religion) owns the truth about God. It also enables us to find a way to respect traditions we don't fully accept for ourselves. (As you said in your original post, we have to figure out how to get along.)

You could carry this over to the evolution concept and say "Does it have a practical application that will help us find a cure for malaria, for example."
And, yes, in fact it adds a great deal to the understanding of this medical problem. You may not have to accept it theologically, but it's critical for us to respect its usefulness as a very important tool in medicine and scientific research (and many other fields).
Why so critical? So we can solve problems!