Thursday, February 07, 2008

and you were walking sideways too

I forget how I got there (perhaps via The Digital Cuttlefish), but I was reading Pharyngula yesterday and this morning. The author of the blog recently was in a debate with a creationist on the radio and so several of the posts were about intelligent design as a scientific theory and its lack of merit in the scientific arena. It's all very interesting. To say that my scientific education was neglected in high school is an understatement; I don't think my parents would have allowed me to study evolutionary biology in any form were they consulted about it, and my own lack of interest in the hard sciences at the time ensured that I didn't put the effort in to pursue it behind their backs (unless you count reading science fiction of every variety, which certainly exposed me to ideas my parents didn't approve of, but sadly didn't educate me in the specifics of biology).

Recently, I've been on a kick to educate myself independently, as part of accepting that I won't be able to go back to formal schooling as a path to employment any time soon. I want to know things, and my general desire to know everything has focused more on science lately, mostly because of some reading I've done about the medical science behind pain, the nervous system and the brain and so forth. My knowledge is horribly shallow, but one of the benefits of this is that when I come across things that I ought to already know, they seem incredibly fascinating. Take, for example, the evolution of whales. Ever since I read David Brin's Startide Rising and The Uplift War as a freshman in high school, I've thought dolphins are probably the coolest animals ever. Now, thanks to Pharyngula, I've learned that the not only are dolphins and whales amazing as they are, but their evolution is also endlessly fascinating. And here's a Wikipedia article that gives similar but less information, but has pictures.

It kind of makes me sad that my level of interaction with this information is on the level of a sixth grader with dolphin posters on the wall: "ooo, what neat pictures!" I should probably think about taking a community college class in biology or something. If only I were, you know, rich.

One intelligent thought that I do have on the subject is related to an idea I saw at Greta Christina's Blog. Well, the idea originates in a book she talks about, Mistakes Were Made (but not by me): there is a process by which we humans, instead of confessing mistakes and changing our actions, justify and excuse our wrong decisions, sometimes building huge constructs to show why we weren't wrong to do what we did. And part of that process is that when we've convinced ourselves that a mistake was wisdom and then we're confronted with a counter argument, we can't confront it rationally, because we can't admit mistakes. So instead we get defensive and angry and so on. Everyone does this, it's a feature of the brain.

So how does this relate to evolution?

Evolutionary biologists, and I suppose other types of scientists who argue for evolution, try to argue with creationists on a scientific field, and creationists have attempted to argue back, developing things like Intelligent Design and the Creation Museum. The problem is, in a purely scientific arena, creationists can't win. There is a pretense in creationist circles that they can, but it's pretty clear to me that in fact they can't. Scientifically, the case against creationism is made and scientists who know this and still have to argue with creationists about it are frustrated by the fact that these people don't realize what's going on.

The problem is, creationism is a necessary part of the supporting rationalization that has been built to sustain a belief in a God who is good, omniscient and omnipotent. Scientists who attack creationism are attacking part of a belief structure that is mistaken, but getting people to admit a mistake, particularly one of this magnitude, isn't a matter of simply laying out a true argument, it's a tricky finagle that, depending on the person you're trying to persuade, isn't always possible.

There are a lot of people who claim a general belief in God while also acknowledging that evolutionary theory is true, so this claim that creationism is necessary for belief in God might seem to be a little out there. It's true, though.

This is how it goes. There is a classic philosophical question to do with the existence of God, the Question of Suffering, as in, if God is good, powerful, and all-knowing, why do random storms come out of the sky and kill dozens of people? It seems that this could happen if God didn't know about it, or couldn't stop it, or didn't care, but doesn't seem compatible with the definition of God in the major monotheistic religions.

There are two explanations that I've heard for this question in the Christian tradition in which I was raised, and although I could be wrong, I think they're the answers generally accepted to be correct by Christian theologians. First, there's the idea that God created a perfect world and then humans came along and messed everything up, and second, there's the idea that in fact this is a perfect world, the best of all worlds, and it only seems to be flawed and full of suffering because we don't understand God's ineffable plan which is actually both morally good and beneficial for us in the long run.

The creationist underpinnings of the first answer are pretty clear: in the beginning there was a perfect Eden, God made Adam and Eve and everything was perfect until Eve ate the apple. Once you introduce the idea of a gradual emergence of human intelligence over generations, in a world that pre-existed humanity by a great deal of time, you can still posit the existence of sin, but you can't blame suffering on it. If sin is a human invention, but tornadoes and landslides and forest fires predate humanity, sin can't be to blame for these disasters. Even if you assume some sort of evolutionary step in one generation where pre-humans gave birth to humans and this first generation of humans is responsible for the existence of sin because one of them 'ate the apple,' real or metaphorical, you still have the problem of the time when those first humans were children, innocent and yet subject to cold and hunger and natural disaster. As this whole fanciful scenario shows, if you accept evolution you cannot blame sin for suffering, and honestly I don't think anyone really tries anymore. If I recall correctly, this was one of the early arguments for why evolution couldn't possibly be true, though.

The second answer, that God is Unknowable, is a little more complicated because sometimes it's invoked as a way of simply saying, "I have no idea what's going on but instead of trying to figure it out I'm just going to embrace these conclusions about God that I already have and like." It can also be used as a genuine argument, though, and often is, by people who are smart and thoughtful and fairly openminded, for example some of the community at Slacktivist. This idea- that God has a plan that we humans can't comprehend because it's so complicated or whatever, so what appears to be completely gratuitous and inexplicable horror is actually part of a good plan- isn't decimated by the time line of evolution, but the two still cannot co-exist.

The mechanics of evolution require suffering to work. Natural selection, environmental pressure, and competition with other species are all abstract ways of saying misery and death to the innocent. Without pressures that kill those who can't cope, species would never differentiate. Suffering is a feature of the process that resulted in the world as it is, not an anomaly, not something that the world could do without.

When I was a good little church kid, I used to memorize Bible verses. One of the tear-jerkers was Jeremiah 29:11: "For I know the plans I have for you," says the Lord, "plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future." It's possible to reconcile evolution, and the suffering it entails, with the idea of a God with a plan, but not the God who promises a plan to prosper his people. People who accept evolution and the suffering it requires are left with either a God who is amoral at best and sociopathic at worst, or no God at all.

All of this means that, for people of a certain religious persuasion, creationism absolutely must be true. Evidence of fact doesn't enter into the equation because evidence for evolution threatens these basic elements of their worldview, and scientists who try to argue for evolution are using rational arguments to combat a gut terror of a Godless world. It's an interesting situation.


Cuttlefish said...

If this is "slower and less coherent", then I bow before a true master. I am honored to have you as a reader, and delighted now to be able to read your own writing!

This was a beautiful piece! Thank you for it!


Tayi said...

Why thank you, sir.

The Torch said...

Food for more thought...

1) Consider with me for even one second please, that you could have a little more than a chip on your shoulder, with regards to the religions indoctrination you experienced as a child. (I, by the way, agree that it was indeed VERY fucked to say the least!)

2) Have you done much reading on old world vs new world/young earth creationism? (I would say that I agree way more with "old world")

3) With regards to your words about suffering and disasters. Consider looking at these sources.
- The Problem of Pain by C.S Lewis
- Suffering and The Sovereignty of God by John Piper

I realize that both of these authors are in fact "Christian" writers. However, C.S. Lewis is arguably one of the greatest theologians to ever live. John Piper is another theologian that I highly respect and read, and actually had a chance to meet a while back. Anyway, Piper spent several years of his life fighting testicular cancer, and finally recovered. The above named book is his writings on that experience and his own fight with the idea that God and suffering don't mix.

Just a few things for you to ponder. As always I love you no matter what you think, and enjoy/welcome any discussion that may or may not come out of this.

The bro

Tayi said...

1) This is a good point. When deciding what I think about things I always wonder how much I'm influenced by the things I've experienced in the past, like growing up in a Pentecostal household, or being in the Army, or even my history of physical pain. It's interesting to think about the role these memories play, and I will probably be writing more about this at some point.

2)It is my understanding that it's possible to construct a coherent history of the world from the Big Bang to modern man that gives scientific, natural explanations that do not require miraculous intervention for things to be the way they are. What I mean is, there isn't really a point where scientific knowledge runs out and scientists say, well, there's no way that could have happened without God creating these things. So I guess you can posit God as a kind of First Mover, the guy who started it all, but at that point as far as I see it you again encounter the Question of Suffering. I guess it introduces the idea of a God who is not amoral or sociopathic, but rather is just absent. Which I think is not what you're looking for.

The thing with "old earth" creationism or what have you is that once you admit that there is an evolutionary process that requires species to compete in a system with limited resources, you have a world that requires suffering, whether or not God is messing about with things as well. So like I said, you can believe in God but I don't believe you can believe in a good God; he's got to be a sociopath or maybe at best a God who is simply making performance art, unconcerned with the pain of his materials.

3) I reserved the CS Lewis book at the library, but they only have one copy and it's currently checked out, overdue by like two weeks, so maybe someone lost it. We'll see. The library doesn't have that particular book by John Piper, but it has a couple of his other books. Does he make his same arguments in other books, that you know of?

I am enjoying talking about this, so while I realize that I'm not likely to convince you that God doesn't exist, I think it's neat to have the conversation. I like hearing what you think, brother dearest.