WE ARE unique in the world in having a sense of time. We can think about the past and the future. Our dogs, on the other hand, are pretty much confined to knowing only one day at a time. Various stimuli can trigger a dog’s memories, as when it meets someone it hasn’t seen for a while, but this isn’t anything like our ability to form an abstract concept of the past.
Creationists too have problems when thinking about the past. Your Curmudgeon will give you an example of that, but first let’s develop some background.
Except for historical records, how do we know what happened in the past? Let’s begin with James Hutton, an important figure of the Scottish Enlightenment, who is regarded as the father of modern geology. He died in 1797, a dozen years before Charles Darwin was born.
Until Hutton published his work in the 1780s, virtually the whole of the Western world had a conception of the past that was limited to events written in scripture; and it was believed that the world was but a few thousand years old. People were comfortable with that time span.
After an intense study of the rock layers revealed in various cliff faces, canals, and other formations, Hutton concluded that the land had been subjected to a series of cycles involving undersea submersions followed by uplifts, with each episode indicated by embedded fossils, either marine or terrestrial, the whole of which must have required an extremely long time. In a paper presented to the Royal Society of Edinburgh, Hutton famously said: “The result, therefore, of our present enquiry is, that we find no vestige of a beginning, — no prospect of an end.”
Criticized as being an atheist, he nevertheless published his work in three volumes. Hutton’s principal gift to us was the concept of Deep time, which contrasts sharply with the views of young-earth creationists.
Later geologists built on Hutton’s work, particularly Charles Lyell, whose books Darwin took with him on the voyage of the Beagle. Lyell’s work, Principles of Geology, was subtitled: “An attempt to explain the former changes of the Earth’s surface by reference to causes now in operation.” That pretty much sums up the concept of exploring the past using currently available evidence. It’s Sherlock Holmes stuff, really, and most of us admire Holmes’ methods and conclusions.
Creationists, however, refuse to accept any of this. To them, the unseen past which is not preserved in written history is literally unknowable — except for what is revealed in scripture — and that, of course, is literally true.
They begin by praising a TV show for children that appears on the Discovery Channel, MythBusters. ICR likes the show because it tests “the truth of various urban legends through empirical investigations.” They mention testing “whether a pickup truck has better fuel efficiency with the tailgate up or down.” Simple stuff, to be sure, but there’s certainly nothing wrong with it.
So what’s the creationist gripe? Here it comes, with bold added by us:
But where the MythBusters host falls short — along with the rest of the secular scientific world — is in confusing observable present processes (on which empirical science is based) with theories of what happened in the unobserved past.
They quote one of the show’s hosts, Adam Savage. This is where he “mistakes evolution for science,” as in the title of ICR’s article:
The newspapers talking about evolution versus creationism is very much an attack on science as a type of religion — believing that the scientific method is some type of religious belief. And it’s not! That kind of attack absolutely is damaging science exploration across the whole country. I do think that’s a significant problem. And until we can get our head out of the sand and realize that science isn’t about truth — it’s why this debate about the “theory of evolution” bugs the h*** out of me. What scientists mean by theory is very different than what people think.
That sounds okay to us, but ICR says:
If the pursuit of science “isn’t about truth,” what is the point in doing it? And although the scientific method is not “some type of religious belief,” it only operates within an individual scientist’s interpretive framework. The scientist’s belief system (whether based on evolution or creation) will influence how he or she interprets an experiment’s results.
Science isn’t about “truth.” It’s about finding explanations that can be tested, and that provide useful information. It’s also about weeding out explanations that don’t work, which are rejected. That’s the point of doing science. But ICR’s last sentence is true. If the “scientist” is a creationist, he will interpret all geological or biological evidence, for example, as supporting the tale of Noah’s Ark. To a creationist, no other conclusion is possible.
We’ll skip some blather and get right to the end of ICR’s article:
[U]nobservable natural processes of the past are beyond the scope of empirical science, and both academia and popular culture should be wary of equating the pursuit of truth with a still unproven theory.
To creationists, the past is unknowable. Continental drift, ice ages, volcanic formation of islands, dinosaur extinction, and certainly human evolution — these things are not scientific topics. No one saw them happen, so they’re beyond human understanding. Except, of course, as may be revealed through scripture.
That’s a cozy little view of things, but it’s more than two centuries out of date. Not only that, but even our dogs can do better. When they sniff a tree, they know another dog has been there, even if they didn’t see it.
But don’t worry too much about the creationists. They may catch up. These things take time.
Copyright © 2008. The Sensuous Curmudgeon. All rights reserved.