When Christians Play Fast-and-Loose With Science
by Rich Hannon | 20 May 2022 |
With the historical ascent of science and its theories about the natural world, there has been a gradual but intensifying religion-driven conflict about science’s trustworthiness, as some conclusions have departed from traditionally orthodox Christian understandings.
For example, believers have for centuries accepted the idea that the world was created ex nihilo, roughly 6000 years ago. But science has increasingly decided that the earth is instead much older (~ 4.54 billion years) and life has evolved over much of that time.
Christianity has split somewhat as these theories have gained public acceptance. The conservative, especially fundamentalist, perspective has hardened its viewpoint, notably reading Genesis with unmitigated literalism, and interpreting its language from a modern worldview. Mainline denominations and their adherents have tried to find a compatible position between science and revelation, with varying degrees of satisfaction. But, as is often the case when people disagree, not all arguments employed in defense of a position are good ones.
Producers and repeaters
I wish to consider what I claim are problematic arguments that conservative Christians have made in their pushback against the at-large public’s slide away from an historic understanding of origins.
In pursuing this I’m not trying to demonize sincerely held beliefs, or act as an apologist for science. Although this might be hard for a traditionalist reader to believe, my focus here also has nothing to do with whether one view or the other is right! Instead, I want to call attention to bad argumentation that some Christians have employed in an effort to sustain traditional theology as it relates to the natural world.
This concern is not new. Augustine of Hippo (354-430 C.E.), in his commentary The Literal Meaning of Genesis (book 1, chapter 19), somewhat famously chastised Christians who exhibited scientific ignorance in attempts to defend the faith. He wrote, in part:
Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking non-sense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn.
A significant amount of Christian apologetics relating to physical reality, notably Young Earth Creationism (YEC), is separable into two overlapping categories: those who produce material and those who repeat it. The producers ought to know better. The repeaters are typically those who want to retain their current beliefs in the face of societal and scientific “pressure” but lack sufficient literacy in the relevant fields, such as philosophy of science, geology, paleontology, or biology. Thus they rely on those who purport to have such expertise, but also work for “trustworthy, faith-affirming” organizations such as Answers in Genesis, the Institute for Creation Research or, within Adventism, the Geoscience Research Institute.
Probably the most foundational problem here is definitional slipperiness. Words and labels can be used too loosely, resulting in a range of (mis)understandings. Which opens the door wide for equivocation. This word helpfully labels an often hard-to-recognize argumentative fallacy. It literally means “to speak in more than one voice.”
Words can have multiple definitions, often signifying quite different things. Equivocation uses a word without clarifying which meaning was intended. This can then allow its employer to slide silently from one meaning to another at a turning point in the argument. If listeners/readers fail to detect this shift they can be fallaciously persuaded.
Here’s a (possibly humorous) triple equivocation: “Tablets were replaced by scrolls. Scrolls were replaced by books. Now we scroll through books on tablets.” As you see, jokes often turn on equivocation. But it’s not funny when employed – even unwittingly – as an invalid attempt to persuade.
Problems arising from equivocation can hardly be overestimated. There are two kinds of argument: semantic and substantive. Semantic disputes occur when two viewpoints have inconsistent definitions relating to a topic. So, resolve the definition(s) and the problem also resolves. Definitional clarity is thus critical for this category, and equivocation frequently is involved in the generation and entrenchment of some disagreements.
Now, to put some more clarity-stakes in the ground, I offer these important definitions:
Primary and Secondary causes: A primary cause is that which produces an effect, but has no antecedent. That is, there is no prior cause that has triggered the effect being considered. A primary cause can only occur by the act of a free-willed intelligence, most notably God, but could also be humans, angels, demons, etc.
Secondary causes, then, are everything else. That is, causation which does have an antecedent. A domino falling because the adjacent domino fell.
Methodological Naturalism: A framework for acquiring knowledge that seeks explanations of how the world around us works based on what we can observe, test, replicate, and verify. It examines secondary causes only. This is how science operates and is also the boundary beyond which legitimate science cannot go.
Philosophical Naturalism (and Scientism): This is a worldview claiming that the natural world is all there is. You could consider it essentially synonymous with atheism, or a necessary consequence. Scientism is almost the same. It claims that science is the only – or nominally, best – method to obtain knowledge of reality.
Deduction and Induction: Deduction moves from general to specific. Syllogisms and theorem proofs proceed deductively. Deduction provides certainty, assuming sound premises and valid inference. Deduction never generates new knowledge; it “merely” uncovers implications of the premises that perhaps were unrecognized before. Induction, in contrast, proceeds from specific to general. This is how science works. It can generate new knowledge. But whenever one proceeds from specifics (e.g., observations and experiments) to generality, the conclusions never reach certainty; they are probabilistic. This has resulted, historically, in science modifying or even overthrowing former conclusions.
Fast and loose
Definitional clarity is a necessary prerequisite in recognizing bad argumentation. Hopefully, this is evident as I now provide some examples of mistakes (I claim) in reasoning about science and its implications, mostly used by (likely) well-intentioned religionists. But also ones who have not adequately understood the relevant scientific disciplines. Note, the following list and subordinate elaborations are anything but exhaustive.
- Science historically has changed its beliefs, so how can you trust it about anything?
It is true that pre-scientific knowledge, which at the time was considered truth about the natural world, has been almost universally debunked. But in modernity science has rarely done a 180-degree turn, notwithstanding Thomas Kuhn’s legitimate caution found in his book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. The most recent and significant major turn – relevant to the Age of the Earth controversy – was the development of plate tectonics. But that didn’t invalidate the underlying scientific evidence. It produced a coherent unification, not nullification. Also, I’ve seen it proposed that Einsteinian physics invalidates Newtonian physics. But such an argument is deceptive. Einstein greatly enlarged the domain of physics, showing how Newton’s principles are incomplete and work only in a local context. But this doesn’t make Newton false, just limited in applicability. However, since that applicability also happens to be the context we live in, Newton’s insights remain useful. The argumentative move by YEC adherents that science cannot be trusted, because it has changed its collective mind and discarded some former beliefs, is an irresponsibly excessive assertion, driven by a priori and partisan assumptions.
- We were not there in the beginning – so we cannot know.
Here is an internet comment I’ve gleaned, illustrating this idea: “In grade school science class, it was drilled into me that to be proven, one must be able to reproduce the results of an experiment. That is impossible with a singular event like the formation of the universe. Much of what is taught as solid science really belongs in the field of philosophy.”
Such a suggested limitation would invalidate what could be labeled “forensic science” – the investigation of past events from evidence left behind. We often think of forensics in the context of Crime Scene Investigation (CSI) television shows. Here the evidence is analyzed, attempting to reconstruct the past in order to catch criminals. And while mistakes get made (induction is probabilistic), the usefulness of such pursuits seems obvious. But whole scientific sub-disciplines – such as geology and paleontology – are also forensic. So, should we not try to interpret the world’s past as well as crime scenes? It’s true the past is a sequence of singular events but, while allowing for possible design intervention, those events give indication of being largely driven by secondary causation, which follows verifiable natural law. And when geology follows this reasoning process in considering whether a global flood created most of the geologic column, such a mechanism is not merely inadequate, it is nonsense, based on the facts in the ground. How does one get: aeolian deposition, varves, karst processes, salt domes and radiometric dating (to mention only some difficulties) from just a one-year duration using just the single mechanism of catastrophic water motion? You can, of course, invoke miracle to resolve this. But that leaves the problem of an apparently unethical god who would use flood methodology but leave behind such deceptive data.
The real concern here, I’d suggest, is not scientific. It is the very real danger that searching for secondary causes in reconstructing the past dismisses the possibility of primary causation being involved in any way. That is, instead of using methodological naturalism while recognizing its limitations, investigators and their followers can slide straight into philosophical naturalism and remove God from potential causality.
- Equivocation in the Age of the Earth controversy
Equivocation examples are legion. But I will simply consider one: “soft tissue.” In 2003 a T-Rex fossil was unearthed, and from those artifacts researcher Mary Schweitzer found evidence of “soft tissue.” YEC organizations jumped on this, declaring that finding soft tissue was obviously inconsistent with geologists’ conventional age of the earth. A good example of this argument is found here. Since I wrote about this issue at some length here, I’ll keep my current commentary brief. YEC apologists infer that the idea of “soft tissue” is defined just as you might think when hearing the phrase out-of-context. Meat. Albeit meat that has been rotting in the ground for awhile, but surely not for millions of years. However, in paleontology the term has a very precise meaning – any material from an organism that is not considered to be hard parts of the creature. The “hard parts” are what one almost universally finds reflected in fossils, mostly bones or shell. This is a very different meaning from what YEC writers wish readers to envision. Now, finding “tissue” in a fossil was indeed surprising (and has now been found elsewhere in fossils) but the discovery was nothing close to what one article described as “soft, squishy.” This is seriously misleading, to the point of my questioning the ethics of such authors. But, for readers of this sort of material – especially when they are already searching for “proof” that YEC is true – these writers have used equivocation to mislead.
- Science won’t consider design. So it’s biased.
Just think about my earlier-stated definitions and you’ll see why design cannot be investigated. Science only fruitfully examines secondary causation. How would you even formulate a research proposal, if that were not the case? Secondary causes are consistent and predictable. Both lab reproducibility and forensics crucially lean on this fact. An initial hypothesis matures into a trustworthy theory only upon accumulation of consistent results (such as lab reproducibility) or a defensible account of what might have happened because multiple lines of secondary causation evidence converge (such as forensics). Primary causation, necessary for design, is idiosyncratic. How could you set up an “experiment” to detect an act of free will? However, as noted above, the real issue – and legitimate concern – is that some science practitioners exclude design a priori from the realm of possibility. This definitely happens a lot, as many scientists are also committed philosophical naturalists. But the answer isn’t to somehow include design inside the realm of science. That is pragmatically impossible. One must always keep in mind the necessary limits of science but not improperly exclude design (thus excluding God) from possible causation.
Throughout history Christians have far too often been their own worst enemy. Doctrinal perversion, joined with human sinfulness and foolishness, can produce a seriously distorted “gospel.” Uncommitted onlookers see such questionable moves and are unsurprisingly not attracted. Many then do not bother to determine whether their assessment is fair or not. They take it as “true Christianity,” consider it stupid at best, hypocritical and immoral at worst. Then reject it. No “baby” in all that obvious “bathwater.” Such rebuff of a distortion, with perhaps tragic consequences for the rejecter, is at the root of Augustine’s lament. Laughing Christianity to scorn, when the actual gospel is so valuable. But that is what some Christians have done in misrepresenting science, in trying to retain a cherished position, and have just sadly re-affirmed what Augustine prophetically warned against.
Rich Hannon is a retired software engineer. His long-standing avocations include philosophy, geology and medieval history.