John Long provoked a comments barrage on The Conversation last week after defending the theory of evolution in the face of creationist views. Unfortunately, while some of the comments were thoughtful, others were dogmatic statements of position, mostly against vaguely and misunderstood “creationism”.
Perhaps it’s worth clarifying “creationisms” rather than committing the Dawkinsian fallacy of tarring all religionists with the same brush.
After all, the list of serious scientists who are also religious is impressive. Long mentioned the world’s largest collaborative scientific project, the Human Genome Project. It was headed by American physician-geneticist Francis Collins who is thoroughly committed to evolution and also to his Christian faith.
So before letting fly with the vitriol, let’s be clear about the lie of the land.
In the beginning …
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth […]
So begins the Torah or the Old Testament, a holy book for the Abrahamic religions of Jews, Christians and Muslims.
In the beginning quantum vacuum fluctuations created the big bang […]
Whether you’re into science, one of the Abrahamic religions, or both, in a big bang world we’re all into creation in one way or another – even the world’s most famous physicist and atheist, Professor Stephen “the-universe-creates-itself-out-of-nothing” Hawking.
And in a world post-Origin (of Species), most everyone is also an evolutionist of some sort; not even the fundamentalist fringe of the Christian camp denies that some sort of biological change occurs over generations.
So in speaking of creation and evolution, unless key concepts are defined it is not surprising the conversation generates more dark matter than light.
At the heart of the so-called conflict between creation and evolution lies the basic philosophical error of a “confusion of causes”. Christians and many others believe that, in an ultimate sense, there is a creator responsible for all that exists in the world of matter, energy and the laws of physics. So whatever they think about evolution, God is the first cause. But what sort of cause?
Aristotle realised 2,500 years ago that it was shallow to speak of a single type of causality or explanation.
One explanation is at the level of mechanisms, the other at the level of meanings; one is about particles, the other about purposes.
It is true to say that the kettle is boiling because of a transfer of energy to the molecules of water – but it is also true to say that it is boiling because I want a coffee. One explanation is at the level of mechanisms, the other at the level of meanings; one is about particles, the other about purposes. And both are essential to a full understanding of the steaming kettle.
So how does a confusion of causes play into the creation-evolution discussion?
Fundamentalists of both extremes – religious and scientific – fall into the trap of thinking there is only one sort of cause or explanation: the scientific one.
So, if you are religious then you squeeze your religion into a scientific mould; Genesis chapters 1-3, for example, are read literalistically as describing a scientifically/ historically exact account of creation (rather than reading much of it as figurative language, which conveys deeper truth).
And if you are not religious, but maintain this “single explanation” view, then you might agree with American scientist and philosopher Daniel Dennett who famously said “when it comes to facts and explanations of facts, science is the only game in town.”
While there are many religious views on creation, the following are the main Christian players.
Young Earth creation
Young Earth creation (YEC), and often just referred to as “creationism”, is the view of Christians who interpret the first chapters of Genesis literalistically. If Genesis speaks of God creating on a particular day, the YEC view says “day” means 24 hours. So God created most of what exists in the first six-day week (and “rested” on the seventh day).
Add to this view a literalistic interpretation of various biblical timelines plus the creation of the human species from nothing, and you have a view that is committed to a young earth only a few thousand years old. Clearly, the modern evolutionary synthesis is incompatible with such a position.
“Creation science” is the attempt by YEC proponents to use scientific means to bolster their view. By enlisting the help of scientists and scientific arguments, creation science claims scientific respectability although clearly it is not mainstream science. The US (along with Australia, particularly Queensland) is home ground for creation science.
Intelligent design (ID) is a newcomer to the scene and while it accepts an old Earth and most science, it also claims that “certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause, not an undirected process such as natural selection”.
While science accepts only two explanations, namely necessity (natural law) and chance (variation), ID tries to add a third called “design” which takes it out of the world of science. In other words, ID says that scientific explanations don’t go far enough in explaining the apparent design in nature.
With respect to evolution, ID does not accept that totally unguided processes (roughly, genetic mutation and natural selection) could have resulted in life as we know it. So ID postulates an interventionist designer as the most explanatory hypothesis.
Critics of ID, including Theistic Evolutionists (below), would say that this is a “god-of-the-gaps” argument and that, as science develops, the gaps in knowledge shrink and squeeze out the need for a designer.
Theistic evolution (TE) is the view of those who believe that God is ultimately responsible for life, the universe and everything but who also accept the findings of mainstream science. They affirm that evolution is the best explanation of the data, although without accepting the naturalistic philosophy that often goes with it.
The idea of a fundamental conflict between science and Christianity is a newcomer to the stage of history.
While evolution is new on the scene, mainstream Christian thinking has always accepted “science”. In fact, the idea of a fundamental conflict between science and Christianity is a newcomer to the stage of history, and is known as the now-debunked Draper-White thesis.
It was Augustine of Hippo, perhaps the most influential Christian thinker ever, who warned 1,500 years ago about the dangers of Christians talking tripe about what we today would call “scientific” matters:
Usually a non-Christian knows something about the earth, about the motion of the stars, the eclipses of the sun and moon, about animals, shrubs, stones, and so forth, and this knowledge he holds to as being certain from reason and experience. Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for a non-Christian to hear a Christian, talking nonsense on these topics.
Augustine goes on to warn Christians about mishandling the Bible by using it to support theories about the natural world. These Christians, he says, “understand neither what they say nor the things about which they make assertion”.
Theistic Evolution is the view held by the majority of scientists who are Christians and also most academics involved in organisations such as BioLogos in the US (started by Collins), Christians in Science in the UK and ISCAST in Australia.
So while there are various views around, and while the so-called conflict between science and religion is grist for the media mill, the mainstream view among thoughtful religious people was summed up long ago by Galileo who said the Bible “teaches how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go”.
Chris Mulherin is a PhD candidate and Lecturer at the University of Melbourne.