Science: What’s It Good For?
by Joe Erwin
So I just had a look at AToday again. I've been giving some attention to the religion and evolution thread started by Erv Taylor.
From time-to-time we get comments from "David," who seems to be an Adventist physician scientist for whom English is not his native language. He says what he has said before, that scientific evidence does not support evolution. He is especially dismissive of what he calls "retrospective" evidence. To him, science seems to all be about experimental replicability in the present. Since none of us was around six thousand or six million or six hundred million years ago, there is, essentially, no current evidence that can inform us about anything that might have happened.
Of course, I think many people would agree that the term "evidence" suggests a residual consequence of something that occurred in the past, from which one may be able to construct hypotheses of what happened then that persists into the present. Being able to detect evidence and evaluate it through careful, replicable measurement, and, in some cases, through demonstrations and reconstructions and experimental verifications in the present, all play roles in approaching authentication and understanding.
There is, I suspect, confusion over what constitutes evidence and what constitutes hypothesis or explanation or speculation–all of which have a place in science, as long as one does not mix them up.
Geological strata, fossils, bones, morphology of extant plants and animals, chemicals (including complex molecules like DNA), and genomics, all exist in the present. They constitute reality and tangible evidence. The existence of hominin fossils (not to mention other primates, other mammals, other vertebrates, etc.) is real, actual, tangible fact. That they are found in physical matrices that can be described, measured, studied, and dated, is fact. The structures and sequences of DNA and other proteins are factual in the present, and can be repeatedly measured and analyzed. If one does not like the measures and descriptions of a specific fossil tooth or skeleton, one may go and remeasure and reanalyze all the data regarding it independently. There is no need to just take someone's word for anything. Follow the data wherever it leads, and be as skeptical as you like of the explanations or speculations about the actual facts. But denial of the facts? Denial that evidence exists? Denial that the evidence spreads out across millions of years? That is denial of reality, and that is perilously close to insanity.
So, what is the "evidence" for "spiritual" interpretations of the real world? Well, there are relatively recent interpretations of ancient manuscripts, some of which are of dubious or doubtful origin and others about which we can make stronger guesses as to origins or authors. There are traditional beliefs and traditional "authorities." We can seek, and sometimes find some tangible evidence to corroborate (or not) the information in the old manuscripts. As to the "spiritual" bases of such documents, we really have no basis for evaluation except reports by others of their personal experiences and our own private and subjective experiences. If one accepts a spirit world, an unverifiable dimension accessible only through private experience—if then—where does this lead? It seems to me that it leads either to acknowledgement of the validity (or, at least, possible validity) of all private experience, no matter how disconnected it may be from anything tangibly verifiable, or the denial of anything not within one's own subjective experience, OR, pretty much anything in between. This becomes a wildly chaotic epistemology that has no anchor at all—unless one clings to some authoritarian spiritual fantasy, either traditional or of one's own invention. For those inclined toward paranoid schizophrenia, this should be familiar territory.
I can be quite tolerant of ambiguity. We seldom have all the facts or evidence we would like to form a complete and comprehensive picture of reality. When evidence is lacking, I often do not form a strong opinion. At the same time, while I am quite committed to making evidence-based decisions, some decisions must be made in the absence of adequate evidence. So, we just do the best we can. I suspect that many ancient manuscripts were generated in what were, essentially, evidence-poor situations. With few facts upon which to base explanations of origins or superiority, there was a vacuum in which wildly imaginative speculation ran rampant. To accept such fantasy as the ultimate truth and explanation of life requires quite a stretch.