Controversy and creationism

The New York Times ran a Room for Debate column entitled Should Creationism Be Controversial? Several authors on both sides of the issue wrote responses. I found one response, “Science, Too, Calls for a Leap of Faith” by Trevin Wax, particularly problematic.

Here are his claims, dissected:

“Science neither proves nor disproves the existence of a creator”

This is true. But in both formal logic and in our daily lives, the burden of proof is on the claimant. As individuals, anything more than the most trivial of claims requires something objective to back it up. That’s why the car dealer won’t let me take home a shiny new car on the promise that I’ll send payment when the bill comes. No, first I have to backup my claim that I have enough cash flow to warrant their trust.

“Even non-creationists live as if the creation story is true”

I found this the most puzzling of the claims. Mr. Wax sees Christian religious faith as the only source of purpose and morality in life. Undoubtedly, many derive a sense of purpose from their faith. But that says nothing about the sense of purposefulness among the faith-less. People derive purpose from all sorts of sources; and if he were correct, you would expect atheists to run amok in society, given that they could not possibly have any moral foundations. But they don’t. They don’t commit more crimes. (Actually, they appear to commit fewer crimes.) They raise their children just as responsibly as anyone else. In short, humans are purpose- and meaning-seeking animals. We want to see patterns and significance in things that happen around us. If the creation narrative endows some people with a sense of meaning and belonging, then by all means they should hold onto it. But they shouldn’t use it as a club with which to beat those of us who don’t.

He goes on to explain why altruistic behavior observed in humans does not fit with evolution by natural selection. After all, it seems to conflict with “survival of the fittest.” First, the common distillation of Darwinian evolution as “survival of the fittest” is problematic in this, and most contexts. More accurately stated, the genes for an adaptive trait become more frequent in a population because of differential rates of survival. There is nothing about altruistic behavior among humans that is maladaptive. Humans are social primates that have a strong need for altruistic patterns of behavior. The survival of the species is closely linked to the cohesion of the group.

Natural selection doesn’t work on a conscious level anyway. It is a feature of the way DNA changes through random mutation and recombination.

How does science prove itself?

The argument Mr. Wax puts forward here is that there is no scientific evidence to prove that science is the only reliable way to discover truth. I would absolutely agree. But his error is in the conclusion that because science cannot prove itself as the sole source of truth, that the creation story must be true. This is an enormous logical leap. Perhaps science is not the sole source of truth and the creation story is false. My response to his challenge to the reliability of science is pragmatic. {“Science works.”} It predicts certain phenomena in the observable world, is repeatable, and can be harnessed to solve problems. And its process inherently helps it approach the truth through peer review, criticism, openness, and self-correction.

Revisiting Gould

Stephen Jay Gould famously characterized science and religion as “non-overlapping magesteria” - disciplines that answered completely separate questions. But an existence claim is a scientific claim and as a practical matter the magesteria overlap more than some would like. Nonetheless, we can’t have it both ways. Religious adherents should have the right to believe what they like, gather, and worship in the way they see fit. But they can’t claim that their faith answers a different set of questions than those answered by science but then demand to teach those answers in a science class. It’s no different than a demand by academic scientists to teach evolution in worship services.

Comments? I’m on Twitter @NSBum.