Home > Uncategorized > Creation and Evolution, Part 2: materialism and science

Creation and Evolution, Part 2: materialism and science

In my last post on this subject, I gave definitions for some of the important ideas that I think I will be invoking a lot. This material can be found here.

In this post, I would like to first draw attention to what I consider to be a fundamental error made in popular thinking today in regards to the relationship between science and naturalism or materialism. See the previous post for the distinction between naturalism and materialism. I will mostly be using the word “materialism” for now, because I think the word better brings to mind the idea that is ingrained in the public consciousness. The error has to do with the perceived relationship between materialism and science. It is the the following: materialism is thought to be a conclusion of science, when it is actually a premise. So what do I mean by this? I mean that people today tend to think that materialism is established by science, when actually materialism is just an operating principle of scientific inquiry. People think that science proves that the world is a blind, impersonal, mechanism that goes on of its own accord. But actually this is what science assumes before it does anything else.

In all fairness, this isn’t quite accurate. The above sentence in bold is somewhat oversimplified. I actually don’t want to suggest (as some might) that one must be a materialist to do science, that one must deny the existence of anything besides nature to even begin to try to describe nature using mathematics and the scientific method. I only mean to say that, to do an experiment, and to search for the patterns and laws that explain the behavior of physical reality, one must first assume that the part of reality under consideration at the moment can be so explained. And this requires at least the assumption that the part of reality under examination operates according to fixed laws, that it’s behavior can be predicted in a describable way. And this requires, among other things, that the portion of reality under consideration is not being interfered with by a supernatural agent.

Now, the assumption of science–that patterns in reality can be discerned by observation and experimentation–has proved fruitful. It has lead to many amazing pieces of technology, and has literally transformed our world. One of the basic reasons the science has “caught on,” I believe, is because it works. It is certainly a huge philosophical leap, however, to conclude that, because science works in this fashion, a large scale materialism of the entirety of all that exists, throughout all time, is true. It is a huge leap to believe that, because we can model the patterns that exist within nature with mathematics, all that exists is an impersonal nature, governed by mathematical laws.

Perhaps the reader wonders if it is, indeed, such a leap. I would like to offer an analogy. This analogy will appeal, in particular, to anyone who has studied the area of mathematics known as topology. Suppose you are a tiny creature confined to the surface of a very large sphere–say, a sphere with a radius of about 4,000 miles (I know of one sphere with approximately such a radius…). You have a single tool: a pair of scissors. You begin cutting out pieces of the ground that you are walking on. Every piece that you cut out, no matter how big, appears to be, well, quite flat. Not totally flat–their are some irregularities, but you can smooth them out. You might, therefore, be tempted to conclude that you are stand on a basically flat surface, with some bumps, rather than a sphere. But you would be wrong (One interesting thing about this example, for those who understand the topology, is that this isn’t simply a matter of scale–the sphere really is an intrinsically “different object” than any of the flatten-able pieces that you can cut out of it, even the very large ones). So, to explain the analogy, cutting out a piece of the surface and flattening it is analogous to observing a part of reality and discovering the patterns that are there–this is what we do when we do science. We can apply this “local materialism” to whatever aspects of reality we study. But it is a genuine leap to move to a “global materialism.”

Now, I believe that this error itself forms part of the basis, for the secular world, for a rejection of the supernatural, and thus in particular of Christian revelation. It also plays into an entire mythology about the history of science in relation to religion, in which the ancient and superstitious and supernatural explanations for phenomena offered by the religions of our ancestors have now been overturned by scientific explanations. I will not go into detail about this here; perhaps I will do so in a future post. For now I refer the reader to this excellent article on the subject, from a slightly different angle. For the Christian world, on the other hand, the error forms the basis for an irrational fear of science. It thus causes many to adhere to a confused epistemology, in which the results of secular science are “trusted” in varying degrees, depending in large part on how conservative one is theologically. This, of course, is an irrational standard.

Now, if one gets into the academic side of things, including academic debates about creation and evolution, he will certainly find an awareness of this basic fact that materialism, under the guise of naturalism, functions as a premise in scientific study. Sometimes this is called “methodological naturalism” and is distinguished from “philosophical naturalism.” But I do not think you will find a real awareness of all of the different ramifications of acknowledging this, some of which I will try to get to in in this series. Thus I think the error is not simply “popular level”; I think it still functions strongly in the thinking of scholars and scientists and theologians who participate in this debate. I think that if people would really let an awareness of this error seep into their bones, to really accept and come to appreciate how fundamental it is and how it pervades the different worldviews that many of us subscribe to (and causes confusion within our own worldviews), and the very way we think about what science is doing, and how it progresses, then we might clear up a lot of our confusion.

In particular, I think we need to come to an appreciation of how the materialist assumption, though justified even for a non-materialist in one scientific setting, may not be justified in another setting, even if a scientific one. There may be settings in which the materialist assumption will do us no good, and may even be terribly misleading. This might be the case in the creation vs. evolution debate. I’d like to offer another analogy that I hope illustrates this.

Suppose a crime has taken place, let’s say a robbery. The police are called to investigate a robbery which took place in the middle of the night. Now, let us consider two possible scenarios. In the first, the robbery took place while no one was home, and the crime scene has not been touched since it happened. In this case, the police perhaps have a lot to work with. Anyone who has watched television police shows knows that often quite a lot of what happened during a crime can be deduced from the physical evidence left at the crime scene. The modern use of finger prints and DNA can establish with near certainty that a person was at the crime scene. And even without these means, often the more basic physical evidence left behind can be used to reconstruct a convincing narrative of what probably happened. It’s not hard to imagine how such evidence (signs of forced entry, footprints, mess left by the robbers, etc) could be used to deduce, for example, that the robbers entered through the back door, rummaged through some drawers in the kitchen, moved on the the bedroom, etc. Even if they got some of the details wrong, they’d have a pretty good idea of what happened.

Now let us change the scenario. Suppose the robbers entered in the middle of the night while people were home, but no one woke up. In the morning, upon realizing they had been robbed, the victims called the police. Then, deciding they have little hope of retrieving their possessions, they decide to clean up a bit in preparation for a party that they had been planning on having that night. Suppose further that the police, being especially busy, were unable to come and investigate the crime scene until the next day, after this party had taken place. The party, of course, leaves the house a total mess. What do you think the police will conclude when they arrive? If they have any sense, they will decide that the crime scene is basically worthless now. So many things have happened in between, so many people have been in and out, so many objects have been moved, misplaced, broken, etc. Whatever evidence there was for the original crime has probably been forever lost in a sea of other alterations to the environment.

Now I’d like the reader to consider a third possibility. Suppose the police, in the scenario just described, investigated the crime scene as if it were untouched since the event of the robbery. Never-mind why they would do such a thing, or that to do so they would have to completely ignore the testimony of the victims. What would they conclude? Well, who knows what sort of bizarre scenarios they might concoct in order to describe what happened! Maybe we were dealing with a large and particularly messy group of thieves. Or perhaps the thieves themselves invited their friends over for a party…I leave it to the imagination of the reader to come up with other scenarios. But, depending on the state of scene, some of these scenarios might even seem plausible. This is an important point.

If it’s not clear already, in the analogy just given, the police investigation of the crime scene is analogous to the use of the scientific method to investigate the history of life on this earth. The “crime” is whatever took place before recorded history. The first scenario is analogous to the situation in which materialism is true, and so science is perhaps able to reconstruct a plausible history of life on earth. The second scenario is analogous to what would happen if materialism is false, and the evidence of the past has been influenced by the activity of supernatural agents–the supernatural agents are the people who thew the party, and those who attended the party. When I further imagined that the investigation proceeded as if the crime scene had remained untouched, this is akin to investigating the history of the earth under the materialist hypothesis when, in fact, materialism is false, and that evidence is “tainted” by the activity of supernatural agents. Thus I want the reader to have clear in his head that our initial philosophical assumptions will affect how we read the evidence, and that if these philosophical assumptions prove false, we are in danger of misreading the evidence.

Another point I would like the reader to get clear in his head is that evolution by natural selection is meant, by its strongest proponents, to be a description of the actual history of life on earth, which is a very concrete thing: cells, and plants, and flesh and blood creatures, all living and dying, changing, thriving, and going extinct. This whole gigantic history is what is being proposed and described. It may be admitted that we don’t have the whole picture yet, but it is always claimed by evolutionists that we basically know the sort of thing that happened to bring about life as we now know it–we know the basic outline of the story. When evolution is argued for, however, it is usually done so on the basis of it being a good scientific model the describes the evidence that we have before us. “No other theory” it is said, “can account for the data in the way that evolution does.” I think that this is intrinsically problematic. It is one thing to say a theory accounts for the data better than any other theory–it is quite another to say that that theory is true. This, I think, is especially the case when we are talking about history, unrepeatable history for which there is not, for the most part, any record. We should consider more carefully the relationship between a scientific model and truth. How do we relate one to the other?

Philosophically, this is not an easy question. Furthermore, the answer may be different depending on what kind of “science” we are doing. In the sciences of physics and chemistry, we are dealing mostly with observation of phenomena in the present. We look at events that are concrete and repeatable–the motion of a tennis ball as it glides through the air, the orbit of Venus, the oscillation of a spring. We then try to find a general “law” that describes in general the behavior of a wide class of phenomena at the same time. For example, Newton’s laws  of motion can be used to describe, using simple calculus (calculus is simple, trust me!), all of the three above events.

Now, even in the case of basic physics, there arise philosophical issues when we consider the relationship between the phenomena, the world around us we observe, and the model we use to explain them. But, whatever we conclude about these philosophical issues, all will probably agree that there is some deep connection between the model and the reality. I want to argue that the history of life on this earth may not be like this. For one, it happened only once. Also, the vast majority of it has not been observed. So even for the materialist, this makes things quite different. We don’t know beforehand how much of what actually happened can be gleaned from what we see now. Thus I sometimes wonder if the people who talk about evolution, who write books about how it could have happened (such as The Blind Watchmaker, which I’ll be reviewing soon), actually think very much about whether what they are saying is true. Sometimes it seems like they are more concerned with saying “this could have happened this way” than they are with being sure they know what actually happened, or at least with concluding that we don’t know what actually happened. Not thinking about this distinction enough causes them, I believe, to overstep the bounds of what is genuinely known; to present clear speculation as near fact, merely on the grounds that it is the only plausible scientific model.

Ultimately, I think that the religious and the non-religious must come to terms with the fact that they are simply operating under different premises. All too often, people of all sorts, materialist or not, seem to make the leap: evolution by natural selection has been show to be plausible total explanation for the state of life on earth today, therefore evolution by natural selection gives us the true history of life on earth. The materialist can be somewhat forgiven for this–having hit upon the only plausible solution to his problem of how life came to be, he is right to adopt it. But those of us whose worldview allows for more possibilities should not make the inference so immediately, if we should even make it at all. It could, in fact, turn out that the best answer a non-materialist can ever give to the question of the origin of life is, at least in some sense, one of considerable more uncertainty than the materialist one. This should not be taken as a weakness of that position, anymore than it is a weakness of the position of the cop who, having realized that the crime scene was altered, concluded that the true details of the crime were now inaccessible to his investigation. That is, skepticism about the details of the origin of life might be a simple consequence of what we believe about the sorts of things that go on in a universe where beings with free will exist and influence things.

Let me speak now from a non-materialist perspective–in fact, let me speak from a Christian perspective. I am not, by all of this, saying that we will be unable to conclude anything about the origin and history of life, though we may be able to conclude considerably less than we thought we could. Neither will we have to reject wholesale what secular science says about origins–we just have to always keep in mind what their assumptions are, and take their work for what it’s worth, in recognition of that. Thus we should not, as the creationists and intelligent design proponents are prone to, fight evolution, try to show that it is false or heavily problematic. But neither should we accept it practically wholesale and then try to reconcile it with our own scripture and theology, as some of the theistic evolutionists do. Rather, we should recognize it for what it is: the theory of origins that comes about when one assumes materialism throughout all space and time. Only when we see it clearly as that can we begin, from the standpoint of Christian truth, to put it in its proper context, to glean what we can from it, assimilate it and put it within our own paradigm, making whatever adjustments are necessary. This, of course, will not be easy, and I am not claiming to have the answers as to what we will ultimately conclude. I’m only arguing that we need to begin in the right way. And I believe that some are already making such progress, and I hope in the future books that I read on this project to learn about it.

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