Creationism and Science

YOUR Curmudgeon once again brings you the view from Answers in Genesis (AIG), one of the major sources of creationist wisdom. They have a mind-numbing new article at their website: Science or the Bible? We’ll give you some excerpts, with bold added by us.

The article has two authors — Ken Ham and Terry Mortenson. Ken Ham, as you know, is the creationist entrepreneur who runs AIG. We’ve discussed Mortenson earlier. Here we go.

The Bible’s account of beginnings cannot be tested in a laboratory, so secular scientists — and even some Christians — believe it is not science and must be classified as religion.

Secular scientists claim that their view of beginnings (evolution) can be tested in a laboratory, so their view is scientific. For instance, they point to mutated fruit flies or speciation observed in the field (such as new species of mosquitoes or fish).

But this is where many people are confused — what is meant by “science” or “scientific.”

No one claims that “beginnings” — or rather, historical science like evolution — can be tested in a lab, except in limited ways. There are other methods, which we’ll discuss later. But with that flawed statement as AIG’s introduction, the issue is presented. Let’s read on:

Before we get caught up in a debate about whether the Bible or evolution is scientific, we have learned to ask, “Could you please define what you mean by science?” The answer usually reveals where the real problem lies.

The AIG method of defining science — as you may have guessed — avoids the way that term is used by scientists. For example, this simple yet serviceable definition comes from the National Academy of Sciences, which we found here:

Science: The use of evidence to construct testable explanations and predictions of natural phenomena, as well as the knowledge generated through this process.

AIG, however, prefers to consult a dictionary:

[M]ost dictionaries give the following meaning of the word: “the state of knowing: knowledge as distinguished from ignorance or misunderstanding.”

Although there are other uses of the word, the root meaning of science is basically “knowledge.” In fact, in the past, philosophy and theology were considered sciences, and theology was even called the “queen of the sciences.”

That “definition” — which equates science with “knowledge” — is so broad that it’s useless. That, of course, is exactly the reason AIG is using it. With that meaningless definition as a guide, the AIG article continues:

But over the past 200 years, during the so-called Scientific Revolution, the word science has come to mean a method of knowing, a way of discovering truth. Moreover, many people assume that modern science is the only way to discover truth.

Did you like their “so-called Scientific Revolution”? Anyway, they grudgingly acknowledge that something has been happening to affect the meaning of science in recent years. However, they introduce a glaring ambiguity — that modern science is about discovering “truth.”

We don’t want to imitate Pontius Pilate, but what’s truth? The word has a number of meanings. There is spiritual truth, which is one kind of thing; and then there is the truth of statements that are verifiable by observations of the objective world. For example, on 22 July 2009, there will be a total solar eclipse that starts in India, runs through China, and then continues into the Pacific. That’s the truth, but there’s nothing spiritual about it. What kind of “truth” is AIG talking about? Or do they just want to toss the word around to mislead their readers? Here’s more:

To help people clear up the confusion, we have found it helpful to distinguish between two types of modern science, and compare how each one seeks to discover truth:

Oh goody — they’re going to be helpful. Let’s see how they do that:

1. Operation science uses the so-called “scientific method” to attempt to discover truth, performing observable, repeatable experiments in a controlled environment to find patterns of recurring behavior in the present physical universe. For example, we can test gravity, study the spread of disease, or observe speciation in the lab or in the wild. Both creationists and evolutionists use this kind of science, which has given rise to computers, space shuttles, and cures for diseases.

Yes, the “so-called” scientific method. Hey, why do they invent the expression “operation science”? There are well-established terms for what they’re struggling with. More on that later. Let’s go on with AIG’s attempt to be helpful:

2. Origin science attempts to discover truth by examining reliable eyewitness testimony (if available); and circumstantial evidence, such as pottery, fossils, and canyons. Because the past cannot be observed directly, assumptions greatly affect how these scientists interpret what they see.

What they’re getting at is the well-known fact that some sciences are known as “historical sciences” because they study past events. There are many historical sciences, such as cosmology, geology, climatology, plate tectonics, anthropology, paleontology, and of course evolution. This is in contrast to the “experimental sciences” like chemistry, that can be mostly conducted with lab experiments. The key to understanding this is that although historical events can’t be re-created in the lab, historical sciences are indeed scientific, because they’re based on verifiable observations and they produce theories are testable. You’ll see; but you have to stay with us.

Moving along, we come to a concrete application of AIG’s clumsy definitions:

So, for example, how was the Grand Canyon formed? Was it formed gradually over long periods of time by a little bit of water, or was it formed rapidly by a lot of water? The first interpretation is based on secular assumptions of slow change over millions of years, while the second interpretation is based on biblical assumptions about rapid change during Noah’s Flood.

See? It’s “secular assumptions” and “biblical assumptions.” One set of assumptions is just as good as another, right? Now they come to the point:

Molecules-to-man evolution is a belief about the past. It assumes, without observing it, that natural processes and lots of time are sufficient to explain the origin and diversification of life.

[...]

Molecules-to-man evolution is not proven by operation science; instead, it is a belief about the past based on antibiblical assumptions.

The Bible, in contrast, is the eyewitness testimony of the Creator, who tells us what happened to produce the earth, the different kinds of life, the fossils, the rock layers, and indeed the whole universe. The Bible gives us the true, “big picture” starting assumptions for origin science.

That’s the general idea. It’s what happens if one shamelessly (and “helpfully”) tries to control the dialogue by adopting such a vague definition of “science” that it refers only to undifferentiated “knowledge” and a quest for undefined “truth,” which — with respect to past events that can’t be recreated in the laboratory — must be based entirely on secular (i.e., trashy) assumptions.

There’s much more to the AIG article. Read it all if you like. It’s not worth much, because their predictable conclusion is built right into their ridiculous definitions. Still, this is worth refuting. How shall we do that?

Our problem is this: How do we explain to an open-minded creationist (if such exists) that the scientific approach to learning about the past has actual scientific value — the results of which are far more “true” (i.e., objectively verifiable) than some account that rests upon mere assumptions?

Aside from wandering through what will probably be a fruitless discussion of the relative merits of natural versus supernatural explanations, there is yet another method of explaining the merit of a scientific explanation of the past — cross-confirmation by independent lines of evidence.

Consider the theory of evolution: Originally, Darwin had only his observations of living organisms and a few fossils. Later the science of genetics became known, and it’s entirely consistent with evolution. Finally we have the discovery of DNA, and what’s been learned as a result is strikingly consistent with evolution. It’s highly unlikely that several independent lines of evidence would all converge to support one theory if that theory weren’t an accurate description of reality.

Or consider the theory of continental drift — originally based only on the shape of the continents, but later confirmed by the discovery of undersea evidence of seafloor spreading like the mid-Atlantic ridge. And finally there are extremely precise satellite measurements that confirm the motion of continents. Further, there are similar plant and animal fossils that are found at the same geological level along once-connected continental shores, indicating that those continents at one time were an unbroken habitat.

It’s the same with geology and cosmology. This post is already too long, but you can easily learn that those historical sciences have also been confirmed and strengthened by discoveries from independent lines of evidence.

Now let’s put it all together in one grand package: Consider the discovery of Tiktaalik, the fossil of a transitional species midway between finned fish and four-footed land animals. It wasn’t an accidental discovery. It was found by predicting that such a transition occurred approximately 363 million years ago, before which, according to the fossil record, there were no four-legged vertebrates living on land. Relying on geology, an appropriately aged and conveniently exposed rock stratum was located in the Canadian Arctic that had once been an ancient shoreline. That’s where the search commenced.

Are you following this? Testing a prediction based on both evolution and geology, the scientists searched for the fossil of a transitional creature that — according to the theory of evolution — must have once existed in a place and time like the one geologists said they were searching. After five years of effort their search was spectacularly successful — simultaneously confirming the validity of both geology and evolution theory. That’s why historical science is scientific, even if it doesn’t happen in a laboratory.

So there’s a bit more to historical science than just conjuring up a fanciful tale based on one’s worldview. Does AIG know this? Maybe, but maybe not. It doesn’t matter. Whether they’re intentionally misleading their followers, or whether they’re totally ignorant, the result is the same.

Finally, as a reward for having plowed through this post, if you want to see the AIG methodology in its fullest application, check out: The Scientific Case Against Craterism.

Update: See The Lessons of Tiktaalik.

Update: See Answers in Genesis Explains Science to Us.

Update: See ICR Says Scientists Don’t Understand Science.

Copyright © 2009. The Sensuous Curmudgeon. All rights reserved.

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7 responses to “Creationism and Science

  1. In place of AiG’s contorted word-lawyering of the definition of ‘science’, I think it far more useful here to consider the genuinely common point of departure between science and religious apologetics: incredulity. I’ll try to briefly explain:

    The whole motley crew of Discoveroids, ID’ers, AiG-heads &c., absent any empiricism, seem to have but one talking point that has any purchase with a wider (and unschooled in science) audience: the sempiternal ”Argument from Incredulity”. This is the emotive appeal to ‘common sense’ that the natural world is simply too vast and the living organisms inhabiting it far too complex in their form, functions and interactions for our human minds to fully comprehend, and therefore can only be (the argument goes) the designed products of some superhuman mind capable of creating the things which we can only struggle to imperfectly understand. That the present intricacies of our physiology and complex biochemical interactions could arise from simpler forms by natural processes is, they say, incredible.

    And on that point, I am happy to allow the Creationists are actually correct. For on the face of it, the natural world is literally incredible in its complexity – but that, one must go on to point out, is precisely the starting block of science, to investigate the incredible splendours of the natural world and thereby to extend our knowledge thereof. The ‘incredulity’ to which the Creationists point as the end of the line for their own enquires is simply the point at which science commences. In response to our incredulity at the natural world, the Creationists can only offer fantastical (and far less credible) supernatural tales where Science offers a growing body of demonstrable knowledge.

    No doubt our distant ancestors once cowered in terror at thunder and lightning and could only attribute such phenomena to supernatural beings; without knowledge, it would have been not credible that simple natural physics were the cause. But had our ancestors, instead of undertaking the investigation of the world, heeded their shamans’ Argument from Incredulity, then we would probably still be sacrificing virgins to Thor every time an electrical storm was a-brewing…

    Stated simply: Science begins where Creationism ends, and from that point the two are distinguished as knowledge vs. dogma and testable hypothesis vs. articles of faith. And where science uncovers the new questions that lead to new knowledge, Creationism can only re-assert ancient tenets to affirm ‘revealed truths.’

    Sadly, it is necessary in these discussions to explicitly state, as a clear fact, that ‘Creationism’ is not the whole (nor even a representative sample) of human religious experience, and I think one must acknowledge (without, perhaps, wishing to participate in that particular discussion) that there are many, many religious thinkers and adherents of various faiths who find no conflict between empirical knowledge and a personal spiritual life. One might argue that the Discoveroids et. al., whose ignorant fulminations do not impede real science (though they have occasionally muddied the waters of science education), do more harm to religion than to anything else.

  2. Excellent commentary, Great Claw. It would seem that creationists don’t mind if a non-human, supernatural being understands the complexities of the world; but it’s absolutely unendurable if those things are understood by the smarty-pants kid they knew in school.

  3. “… then we would probably still be sacrificing virgins…”

    Methinks there would be a very satisfying, high paying job helping those young ladies to not be virgins.

  4. Tundra Boy, lost in an erotic reverie, mused:

    Methinks there would be a very satisfying, high paying job helping those young ladies to not be virgins.

    Youthinks wrong, methinks.

    Mostly, the ‘young ladies’ could find volunteers a-plenty for curing their virginity. The paid, professional Village Deflowerer was only called in for the spinsters past their sell-by date.

    And — in communities where no virgins could be found — you can bet the shamans, still needing to avert Thor’s anger, would re-interpret the requirement to “sacrifice virgins” to include virgin pigs, sheep, and badgers. And all deemed suitable tasks for the Village Deflowerer.

    IOW: be careful what you wish for.

  5. Drifting just a wee bit off topic, gentlemen …

  6. I love how its “world-views” in conflict. If I have the “world-view” that I am a multi-billionaire and my bank account says otherwise, its not my bank account that gets corrected…

  7. Albanaeon says:

    I love how its “world-views” in conflict.

    Yes. You must free yourself from the illusion of reality.