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Fri, 2005-Dec-23

Intelligent Design

Leon Brooks points to a commentary on America's judicary choosing not to allow Intelligent Design to be taught in Kentucky's science classes.

The author, Alexander George is described as a professor of philosophy. His opinions read to me like those of a philosopher rather than a scientist. Philosophy is to science as science is to engineering. Each specialises the former based on strict conventions. The Scientific Method is a strict convention that Alexander seems to choose not to understand. Instead of claiming that ID is not science he claims it is simply not good science. His definition of science leaves a lot to be desired.

Alexander defines science for the scope of his article as "any collection of assertions about the workings of the natural world". This frees him of having to make the argument about ID being scientific or unscientific. He then goes on to argue with no further basis that "[ID and astronomy] are poor accounts of the phenomena they seek to explain and both much improved upon by other available theories." He never states his basis, but I gather from his tone it is that credible scientists back other available theories rather than backing ID.

Science vs Non-Science

There is a scientific method. The boundary between science and non-science is not as arbitrary as Alexander claims. Again without further basis he says "No, there's no such method: Doing science is not like baking a cake.". He is right that doing science is not like baking a cake, but testing science is:

  1. Does this "science" take into consideration natural observations?
  2. Does it claim a clear hypothesis?
  3. Can the hypothesis make predictions that can be tested against further observation?

Some of the greatest cutting edge work in physics does not yet pass this test. It isn't science. Perhaps one day it will be, but for the moment it is not. I belive that ID (oh, let's drop this act... creationism) fails on the third point. It isn't being a stupid idea that prevents it from being science. It isn't being backed by non-credible people that prevents it from being science. It is only the failure to make predictions that can be tested against further observation. It doesn't put itself on the line, so it isn't science. It gets itself argued out at a political rather than a scientific level, so it isn't science. If scientists were working on it, actively hypothesising, and actively testing the hypothesis against further observations it would magically become science.

This is imporant to keep in mind. Although Alexander declares that creationism is science, the argument he chooses to make against creationism is baseless. The non-science argument is much more important.

A new religion

Alexander declares that creationism is a plain old bad hypothesis. I can see two ways he could support this unbacked claim. Either he could say that a great deal of scientists say it a bad hypothesis and is therefore bad, or that the evidence is so clear that a layperson can determine its truth or not. I would argue that a lay person cannot. Creationists have adapted over the years to track the progress of science, and have theories that to a lay person like myself are not unreasonable. Stating the backing of scientists for an alternate hypothesis isn't necessarily a good basis for "dissing" creationism either. Scientists have been wrong for all of history. It is their job to be wrong, and to constantly search out how they are wrong. Science is a process of adjusting theories to correct mistakes, not of believing that they have all of the answers today.

Before Darwin provided a basis for intellectually-fulfilled atheism our culture had a bias towards creationism of one form or another. Scientists had this bias and were good at explaining how the world worked from that perspective, from the perspective of intelligent design. Since that time the bias has swung to an assumption of no unnatural interference in the course of nature. This is natural in science for reasons I outlined in an earlier article on this subject. Evolutionary theory can be argued about between reasonable people, and reasonable people can come to a consensus on which of the available hypotheses are likely to be correct. The big bang can be argued. Creation of the universe by God through unnatural means cannot be argued. It can only be taken as a matter of faith or refused as a matter of faith. It makes a poor basis for scientific understanding because reasonable people cannot determine the likelyhood of its accuracy. Science can only be based on natural phenomenon, and on assumptions that things before are pretty much the same as things are now on some level or another. Science can only interrogate theories of creationism on a natural level. If God used natural processes that are similar to the processes that occur today in nature to create nature then science has a hope of understanding the natural part of if. Science must exclude the unnatural in its thinking and in its reasoning.

There are two ways to look at this. Either the unnatural does exist and science can only interrogate its natural subset, or there is only the natural and science will eventually discover everything. I should be clear here on a definition of the unnatural and the natural. The natural is all we can observe from our present viewpoint with our present tools. The unnatural is what we cannot observe from our present viewpoint with our present tools. It would also include anything beyond a horizon that may exist beyond which no amount of science will allow us to percieve. We presently have a horizon that includes knowledge of quantum physics, and a whole bunch of useful things above that scale. We think things like string theory may exist, but there is no science that can prove it yet. If we discover more it may then fall within our natural horizon. It would seem that God is by definition beyond our present natural horizon and may be beyond any perminent natural horizon. That is, if he exists.

During the transition of our wider non-scientific culture from an assumption of creationism to an assumption of big bangs and evolution there was at one time an idea that our natural horizon was finite. This idea has been slowly chipped away as science has found more. Things that were once thought to exist but have so far not appeared within our natural horizon now have an assumption tagged on them that they do not exist. Supernatural heeby jeevies like ghosts, werewolves and sea monsters have not appeared. They should have done so by now with so many eyes watching, so it seems reasonable to conclude they don't exist outside the horizon either. This conclusion is also applying to the supernatural we call the spiritual. A spiritual void necessity for the function of resoned science has become a religion in wider culture that is displacing the old, perhaps with good cause.

The real trouble with Creationism

So we religious types have been fighting back. What we know in our hearts and what is written in our books can't be wrong. We try to battle the cultural religion that mirrors current scientific thinking. To bring it to the cultrual phenomenon we bring a mirror of our own religious thinking into the scientific arena. Scientists scoff because the ideas were dismissed hundreds of years ago, and are clearly backed only by religious dogma. We fight on because we can't be wrong. If our book is not authorative when it speaks of nature, how can it be authorative when it speaks of that beyond our horizon? It must be authorative. I know Jesus loves me because the bible tells me so.

This dry reading of religion is not the only one possible. I could say that I know Jesus loves me because I see it day by day. Well, I do... but that is subjective. We were once able to turn to the bible as a source of objective statements. If not objective between religions, at least objective been individuals. We can agree more or less on what the bible says. The bible is called holy and used to convert new believers. No wonder that alongside the cultural demolition of our book that we see calling itself science we see an attack on another front. You see, the culture of sprituality has changed as well. More and more we see people who are or try to be spiritually fulfilled without the backing of any book. We see them finding their own way or their own path. The problem is that our book says Jesus is the only way to God, and if your path doesn't lead to God it leads to hell. We see the end times painted by Jesus himself in Matthew 24:24-25:

Fake Messiahs and lying preachers are going to pop up everywhere. Their impressive credentials and dazzling performances will pull the wool over the eyes of even those who ought to know better. But I've given you fair warning.

I'm sure every religion on earth carries pretty similar warnings. Things are going to get bad. People are going to turn from you, and it'll be your job to hold the line. This creationism as science is the product of good-willed people trying to hold a line.

I wouldn't mind seeing creationism explored more from a scientific perspective. Something tells me it won't go away any time soon given the political climate. When creationism is actual science with actual developed theories I'll be one of the people reading about it. The problem is that even the best science only pushes the natural horizon back a little. If that horizon is finite as it seems it must be for God to exist somewhere, then science will never "prove" any creation story. It can only ever be challenged by it, and the evidence will only convince those who understand the problems well enough. Science and religion will always be attacking different problems, and when once crosses over into the other inevitably it will do it in an unsophisticated and clumsy way. Here is what my bible dictionary has to say about wisdom, and by implication about science:

The apostle Paul declared that the message of the cross is foolishness to the Greeks and a stumbling block to the Jews. But to those who believe, said Paul, this "foolishness of God" is "the wisdom of God" (1 Cor. 1:18-25).

Against the wisdom of God Paul contrasted "the wisdom of the world" (1 Cor. 1:20; 3:19), "human wisdom" (1 Cor. 2:4), "the wisdom of men" (1 Cor. 2:5), "the wisdom of the age" (1 Cor. 2:6), and "man's wisdom" (1 Cor. 2:13).

The biblical concept of wisdom, therefore is quite different from the classical view of wisdom, which sought through philosophy and man's rational thought to determine the mysteries of existence and the universe. The first principle of biblical wisdom is that man should humble himself before God in reverence and worship, obedient to His commands. This idea is found especially in the Wisdom Literature: the books of Job, Pslams, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes.


Sat, 2005-Nov-26

Responding to Small-mindedness with Small-mindedness

Steven Hanley paints a picture of creation where people come into being and sit around saying things like "Huh?" and "What?" when it comes to reproduction. Steven apparently can't imagine how these characatures could come to terms with their condition and imagines they may invented the inquisition several thousand years before the pope did. Hell, I know this is just blogging but baloney!

Steven, you speak of faith as a religious zealot speaks of science. While one side of the fence is worried about being related to scarey apes and monkeys, you seem afraid of being related to scarey god-lovers. Let's drop the preconceptions and look at what those you are rubbishing actually say, rather than what you want to believe they would say.

Let's have a look at Genesis 2. As with the Genesis 1 account of the creation of the entire universe, the detail is brushed over. Like the Genesis 1 account's focus on God's power over nature, Genesis 2 has a few simple points to make before getting on with living in the world that came out of this process. The main point of Genesis 2 is that God and people weren't separated at creation. God didn't create a race of naked people having casual sex on the weekend and wondering why their bellies grew. God created a people who he was in constant day to day contact with. Unlike today where we have to have some faith that he exists at all and see his influence primarily through physical and emotional phenomina, the bible is clear that God was in the face of his people. He was up close and personal.

The idea that people who are living this close to their creator would go crazy asking themselves what was happening to them is wastefuly arrogant. "He's right there. Why don't you go ask him?" The answer would be clear. Likewise, the presumption of violence as the basis of religion is one that has (comparatively) modern roots. If the biblical account of creation is to be taken seriously there was no violence, hatred, or bigotry to be had. Not until God and his people were separated.

Read on to Genesis 3. It too is simple, brushes over the details, and focuses on its core point: God and his people were separated by the desire of those people to become like God. It's a summary of the first half christian dogma in three chapters: We were once God's people, but we were separated by our own doing. The second half goes like this: We can be God's people once more, not by our own doing this time but by God's own doing.

Read into Genesis and other books of the bible what you like. There are certainly plenty of biases in there to pick up on. There are things in there that are telling in that they aren't said. Why did God put people in a position to be able to abandon him or try to replace him? Do we deserve the punishment we recieved for the actions of a few individuals? I suggest arguing the baselessness (if any) of religious creationism on foundations such as these. I suggest being clear on what you are arguing against, rather than coming up with ridiculous hypotheticals that you can point to and announce grandly how ridiculous they are.

Gensis is written in the style of a parable. It is abridged and moralistic and does not provide sufficient facts to support itself. I'm confident that creation stories from other religions will yield similar results. If you want to argue the ridiculousness of these stories be my guest. Personally I put about as much importance on these pages as the bible's own authors did. They're worth about three pages. As a fundamentalist I belive there is value in those pages, but fundamentally I think there are more valuable and interesting lessons to be learned than how old the earth can be calculated to be from a literal interpretation. What is important is that God is still in the garden waiting for our return.


Wed, 2005-Nov-23

I am the Antichrist

This is a story I've shared with a few people recently, and I thought a light note may be welcome to my readers. I am the Antichrist, or at least that's what a seventh day adventist once told me in the middle of Brisbane's Queen Street Mall.

When I was going to university I had a year-long bus pass. The mall was on my way home in a two-leg journey from St Lucia. A wait of half an hour was not uncommon so I tended to spend a fair amount of time in Queen Street.

I grew to like studying there. I found the constant but indistinct bustle kept my mind active but undistracted. Not that I minded the odd distraction, and that was where I found myself when two seventh day adventist evangelists walked up to me. One handed me a tract. We began to talk.

The seventh day adventists don't simply preach to the "unconverted" the "non-christians", but also to christians. They see themselves has having a purer christianity, bourne out of very literal interpretations of certain biblical verses. When I indicated that I was already a christian the young man who took the spearhead role wanted to know if I was the right kind of christian. He wanted to make sure that I knew the right things, and he had two points to convey.

  1. That God has a literal and physical face
  2. That hell is literally in the centre of the earth

He had bible verses to back him up. I don't recall the biblical references but I'll try to see if I can get close matches to my recollection. My recollection of the first verse is something like "the angels see his face every day". Perhaps he was quoting Matthew 18:10. He seemed to think he was being extra spiritual by telling me that from the original translation "face" could also mean "form".

The second verse was backed up by something like "your enemies will be trampled under your feet". Perhaps he is referring to Pslam 110:1 or one of the several times it is quoted in the new testament, such as Matthew 22:44 or Mark 12:36.

He had finished having his say, and I started. I said that I didn't believe that God was likely to be governed by his creation. I thought that God probably created the whole universe rather than simply our world, and that God is probably something outside our universe. I said that the angels may see his face because they too have a form outside of our universe. I hijacked his clarification, saying that if face can mean form then form can surely mean a non-coporeal form.

I suggested that his verse supporting the notion of Hell being in the centre of the earth seemed weak to me. Without hearing any more of the context of that verse it seemed to me that I was simply hearing a turn of phrase inspired by war. When your enemies are trampled under your feet it means that not only are your enemies dying, but that you are advancing. Surely this reference was nothing more, and not a reference to Hell after all.

What I didn't notice during my monologue is that my new friend was becoming more and more upset as I spoke. When I finally stopped he exploded:


He tore his tract from my hand.


His friend tried to calm him.

I didn't hear you quote a bible verse ONCE!

That, my friends, is my story. I am the antichrist. I'm sorry for the harm I am destined to bring you all.


Sat, 2005-Nov-12

Evolutionary Theory vs Creationism

Now that I have my introductions in place, I think I can talk about evolution. Personally, I think it's scientifically plausable and on balance probably correct. My parents have been doing a little reading up on the issues involved. They now subscribe to Creation magazine, and I get to read through the articles from time to time when I visit them. The organisation behind Creation (formerly Creation ex nihilo, "Creation out of nothing") recently published a book summarising their position. I'm afraid I don't recall the title presently, but the main points of the book were that

Strangely, by my reckoning this collective theory makes no predictions that evolution would not also make. This is where the worlds of creationism (based on an assumption that evolution is wrong) and science (based on the scientific method) crash. The scientific method is simple:

  1. Form a theory
  2. Make predictions based on that theory
  3. Test your theory against observations
  4. Goto step 1

It doesn't matter if your theory is wrong. That's what science is all about. "It's only a theory" applies to all science, from evolution to e=mc2. In physics you can test by observation whenever you want. Testing evolutionary theory relies on waiting for more fossil evidence to be uncovered. In that respect evolutionary theory is less reliable, although it should become more reliable over time.

The problem with creation science is that no science is being done. A theory is formed based on the activist's interpretation of scripture, but it seems to me that the theory is never adequately tested. There is always the convenient back door of "Oh, God just made it like that to confuse us". That's reaching outside of science, because your theory isn't testable. It's philiosophy, theology, or metaphysics at best. You might be right, but there is no way for reasonable people to test whether you are right or not.

Evolutionary theory forms a much better basis for science. It can be tested. It can be argued by reasonable people. So far the arguments have lead to a theory of an earth much older than 6000 years. Chances are, the theory will stay that way for the forseeable future.

Getting back to the predictions that can be made out of creaton science's model... well first we have to take out the "God's confusing us line". If we assess the theory scientifically, then we can predict speciation will occur out of the model. We see that, but evolution predicts it as well. We can also predict that animals will become less viable over time. That they will become less genticially diverse. That conflicts with evolution's view, at least over the long term... however by stating that the world is only 6000 years old the time period is much too short to be able to make any determination.

It seems clear to me that people of good faith and intentions have been incrementally altering their theory of genesis until it is indistinguishable from the prevailing scientific viewpoint. This is an interpretation of the scientific method, but not a very satisfactory one. Instead of seeing droves of creation scientists going out there and challanging their own theories, we see their evolutionary scientist counterparts doing all the challanging. The creationists try to cherry-pick information and questions coming from the other camp and say "Aha! I can explain that!", but instead they should be saying "Here's what I can't explain. I need to formulate a theory which takes this into account".

So you see, my basic problem with creation scientists is the lack of credible application of science to their creationary theory. Evolutionary scientists and creation scientists are both packs of charlitains, but the debate and rigour applied to the evolutionists side of the debate keeps the process as a whole basically honest. There is too much scope for fooling oneself on the creationist side of the fence.

I do believe that God created the universe, the world, and ultimately us. How he did it isn't all that important to me. Why he did it is. The most important part of Genesis 1 is not where God says "how" he created the world (he doesn't, by the way). It's that he did which is important, and what he is capable of doing. Genesis goes on to explain how God and Man were separated by our sin, and also how man and man were separated. The theme of the rest of the bible is reconciliation. Of all the pages of the bible, the Genesis account of creation occupies two or three. This is also telling. The creation is important, but the most important part of the bible is our reconcillation to God and to each other.


Sat, 2005-Nov-12

Fundamentalism in the Christian Church

Anthony Towns touches on the ongoing debate about intelligent design that has recently struck a chord with media around the world. AJ is right when he says

It’s not really that interesting a debate, mostly being a rerun of the standard evolution versus creationism stuff with some new catchphrases

It is a continuation of the debate that has never ended. Fundamentalist christians tend to look on the debate through a single premise: "If the bible is wrong about this, it could be wrong about everything". They may project their fear that they may be living a lie into the argument. Alternatively, they may project their deep feeling and perhaps knowledge that their faith is based on truth into the debate. Either way, they start from the right hand side of this equation and deduce that evolution must be wrong. Starting from that point, the argument must be one that they win. They cannot declare defeat.

The Point of Fundamentalism

When I say "they", I really mean "me". I don't commit myself to the logic applied to this argument by other fundamentalists, but I do think of myself as a fundamentalist christian. I do believe that the bible is God breathed. Frankly, I don't see the point of any other view of christianity.

If we start to pick apart and arbitrarily decide what to believe and what not to believe from the scriptures we open ourselves up to several problems. If the reliability of the bible is variable, which parts are right? How do you know? If science is your guide, then I can suggest a few passages to rip out right away. Let's start with the immaculate conception of Jesus, or his resurrection. Christian belief is based on the supernatural, not the natural world that can be measured by science. To believe that God has limits (that he didn't create the universe, that he can't destroy it) is to make him simply an alien being bound by the same physical constants as we all are. Something to aspire to rather than worship.

The Feeling of Faith

These days it is popular to think of faith as a very personal thing. Especially, one that organised religion should not encroach on. There are good reasons for people to feel this way, as organised religion has its own sins. I think there has to be a limit, however. If your faith is simply personal, is it accountable? Are you just going through the motions of faith? Are you just feeling good about yourself and your spirituality without actually coming into contact with God? Are you fooling yourself?

I believe organisation is to some extent necessary. I have been meeting with a home group consisting mostly of members of my family over the last few months. We've used study guides, and kicked off the program with the excellent 40 days of purpose study. On the face of it, it sounds like a self-help program. It's about the meaning of life, and the meaning of community. Community with God, with your church, and with the rest of humanity. It's about more than that, though. It's about not fooling yourself into thinking you're spiritual and are doing the right things with your life. It's about challenging you to think about what God wants, and about whether you're really connecting to him and others.

The challenge to your faith that comes from sharing it is the most important driver of your spiritual maturity. It's easy to fool yourself that the feeling of faith and spirituality you have when you are alone means you're really growing and becoming spiritually fulfilled. Poppycock. Unless you are involved in interpersonal spirituality you're just treading water. Wake up.