Saturday, May 31, 2014

David MacMillan: Understanding Creationism

Over at Panda's Thumb, David MacMillan is writing a short series on the subject that has baffled people like me for years: why, in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, do young earth creationists continue to reject evolutionary theory. From Part 1:
We understand the theory of evolution to be a series of conclusions drawn from over a century of research, predictions, and discoveries. This theory allows us to understand the mechanisms in biology and make further predictions about the sort of evidence we will uncover in the future. Its predictive power is vital to success in real-life applications like medicine, genetic engineering, and agriculture.

However, creationists don’t see it the same way. Creationists artificially classify medicine, genetic research, and agriculture as “operational science,” and believe that those disciplines function in a different way than research in evolutionary biology. They understand the theory of evolution, along with mainstream geology and a variety of other disciplines, as a philosophical construct created for the express purpose of explaining life on Earth apart from divine intervention. Thus, they approach the concept of evolution from a defensive position; they believe it represents an attack on all religious faith.

This defensive posture is reflected in nearly all creationist literature, even in the less overt varieties such as intelligent-design creationism. It dictates responses. When creationists see a particular argument or explanation about evolution, their initial reaction is to ask, “How does this attack the truth of God as Creator? What philosophical presuppositions are dictating beliefs here? How can I challenge those underlying assumptions and thus demonstrate the truth?” Recognizing this basis for creationist arguments is a helpful tool for understanding why such otherwise baffling arguments are proposed.
This kind of thought is always on display with Ken Ham, who continually refers to evolution as “their secularist religion” despite literal pleading from scientists who know better. The problem is that Ham is very persuasive and holds vast importance in the evangelical community. It doesn't matter that, as MacMillan notes earlier in his post, there are no young earth creationists that understand evolution even rudimentarily. They simply aren't interested in learning about it.  Why should they? On the other hand, the idea that evolution is presupposed on atheistic terms is ludicrous to your average evolutionary biologist.  Scientific research does not and cannot convey truth. It is just science, no more and no less. As someone recently wrote in the comments on this post:
When I do math and I don’t pray or think about God, it’s not atheistic math, it’s just math. When I drive and am not thinking about God, it’s not secular driving, it’s just driving. And when I go into the lab and I’m thinking about the lab experiment and not theological issues, its not agnostic science, it’s just science. Adding an adjective implies some sort of intentional avoidance of theism or purposeful distance from theism, when the real truth of the matter is that nobody is avoiding anything, they are just focused on their jobs/hobbies/whatever.
Amen. Ham and like-minded creationists are adding an ontological layer onto the practice of evolutionary biology that does not exist.  If you simply study the fossil record and modern genomics, the evidence for evolution is enormous.  Calling it a “secular religion” won’t make that go away.

Friday, May 30, 2014

Science, Faith and Cognitive Dissonance

Josh Rosenau, who used to write a blog called Thoughts from Kansas, has written a very thoughtful post on the world view as it applies to faith in God and the practice of science.  It has been argued by those who view faith dimly that to practice science and believe that God can work in the modern world is to hold two cognitively dissonant views.  If science is to be reliable, the world must be a spiritually closed system—no input from God—or else one can never reliably predict the results of a particular hypothesis without knowing for sure that God did not have a hand in the outcome.

For example, if a hurricane is traveling up the eastern seaboard and the people of the coastal town of West Noiseville pray that the hurricane misses their nice little hamlet, and, lo and behold, it veers off at the last minute, was that, in fact, the handiwork of God or did the naturally-occurring prevailing winds simply act to perform this action?  When testing atmospheric models to see where the hurricane is going to go, scientists do not take into account the prayers of West Noiseville's residents.  They cannot, because those are outside the purview of the scientific method.  Did God answer their prayers?  Science cannot tell us.  The problem, according to some, however, is that by entertaining a world view that even allows the actions of God, we are compromising our scientific endeavors.  We are allowing for untestable hypotheses.  Jerry Coyne, a notable atheist, makes this argument.  Coyne, however, argues that there are perfectly good scientists who believe in God and that this dissonance is almost subconscious.  He writes:
Although I think scientists who are religious are engaged in a form of subconscious cognitive dissonance, I’ve never said that religious belief automatically prevents somebody from doing good science. There were many believers, even in my own field (Ronald Fisher and Theodosius Dobzhansky, to name two) who made immense contributions to evolutionary biology. And although I vehemently object to Francis Collins’s touting scientific evidence for God (i.e., “The Moral Law”), I’ve said repeatedly that Collins was a good scientist and that I had no scientific objections to his heading the National Institutes of Health.
Here is how Rosenau characterizes Coyne’s position:
Coyne takes the philosophical stance that science and religion are, in some sense, intrinsically incompatible, and he believes that a consequence of this incompatibility will be some sort of psychological conflict in the minds of religious scientists.

I happen to think that his philosophy is flawed, simplistic, and ill-argued, but that’s for another day. He’s claiming that the philosophical point makes a prediction about people’s mental processes, which should be testable. Facts are stubborn things, and a good scientist ought to be willing to adjust his philosophy in response to stubborn facts that stand at odds with those predictions.
Rosenau then goes on to give a rousing list of scientists who were devoutly religious who not only performed excellent science but did so, they felt, in the service of their God.

I also think that Coyne is wrong but for a different reason.

How you view science largely depends on whether or not you take the “short” view or the “long” view of creation. For example, there is evidence that some very bad diseases that we as humans suffer from are caused or at least activated by endogenous retroviruses. These include some cancers and MS. The short view argues that the earth was created in the very recent past and that all bad things that occur around us are direct results of a tangible, physical fall from grace by Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, subsequent to which the world was irrevocably changed. They are the “decay” of this fall.

But here's the problem. There is also very good genetic evidence that there has been incorporation of parts of some of these retroviruses into systems such as placental development, which means that, from a human survivability perspective, some of this retroviral DNA has resulted in a “good” thing.  Further, it seems clear that these responses have evolved over a considerable period of time.  These findings are clearly incompatible with the short view of creation.  But need these findings lead to philosophical conundrums?

Coyne has no bad things to say about the scientists that he mentioned (Fisher, Dobzhansky) because they performed science with integrity and honesty and yet were men of faith.  These scientists were not just old earth creationists, but, like their modern counterparts Francisco Ayala, Simon Conway-Morris, Dennis Venema and others, they were evolutionary creationists.  To these people, science is our way of understanding God's creation.  In the process of doing so, however, the first casualty is the short view. These folks found, as did 99% of other Christians practicing in the sciences, that, as Pat Robertson put it a few days ago, there just ain't no way the universe was created six thousand years ago.  They further found that, yes, by gum, evolution really does happen. 

Once you open yourself up to those possibilities,  there is no scientific endeavor that will lead you to any kind of psychological conflict because all roads lead to Rome.  If you truly believe that God created the heavens and the earth, then any research will simply be illuminating that.  Does this cause a rethink of the literal nature of certain scriptural passages?  Yup, sure does.  But there have been competing interpretive models of those passages for centuries. 

Coyne is quite correct that cognitive dissonance can occur in some instances.  If you pursue scientific research to its logical ends, and your scriptural hermeneutic is narrow, you will eventually suffer from this dissonance.  This is, in part, fueling some of the problems at Bryan College right now and is causing somewhat of a crisis of faith in evangelical Christianity. 

If, on the other hand, your understanding of scripture looks more like this, then the sky's the limit.  As Conrad Hyers points out:
...the Genesis accounts of creation do not prove to be in conflict with scientific or historical knowledge. This is not because the creation texts can be shown to be in conformity with the latest scientific and historical knowledge, or supported by it, but precisely because they have little to do with it. They belong to radically different types of literature, with equally different types of concerns and goals.
Where does this leave miracles? Dunno. I will tackle that on another day.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Saner Heads Prevail in South Carolina

The Columbian Mammoth is now the official state fossil of South Carolina.  Seanna Adcox has the story:
Olivia, who wants to become an Egyptologist, requested the designation after realizing South Carolina was among just seven states without a state fossil. Her research showed that slaves dug up fossilized mammoth teeth on a South Carolina plantation in 1725. They are thought to be among the first identified vertebrate fossils in North America.

"That just fueled her passion. It was not just about fossils but about her state being recognized," said her mother, Amanda McConnell.

But Olivia's seemingly simple idea, which easily passed the House in February, drew opposition in the Senate.

Senators tacked on language declaring mammoths were among God's sixth-day creation, as written in the book of Genesis. They also attempted to create a symbol moratorium. Both amendments were eventually tossed out by a House-Senate committee that worked out a compromise, which both chambers approved last week.
Not sure exactly how the compromise was structured because the bill's sponsor is a believer in “biblical creation” as well. Apparently, he said it did not make sense to tack the language on to just this bill.

I have seen this phrase “biblical creation” creeping into the literature of the young earth movement and I find it offensive. Those who use it equate it with young earth creationism and the language is stark: those who don't agree with that movement don't believe in the bible because their creation theology is not “biblical.” That is arrogant, myopic, condescending and (I believe) scripturally indefensible.

Congratulations, Olivia.
There is a story in the New York Times by Alan Binder involving the Bryan College controversy, if you are interested.  I so dislike the Times that I will not comment on the story here.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Ark Encounter Begins Construction

Catching up!   I have been snowed under with work and the end of the semester.  In the meantime, several things have happened.  First, it appears that, due to an influx of money, the Ark-n-Park has broken ground.  The Grant County News reports:
In an invitation only “Hammer and Peg” ceremony last week at the Creation Museum in Hebron, representatives from Answers In Genesis said bulldozers will be moving dirt on the 800-acre project off Ky. 36 in Williamstown by the end of the month.
“This is going to change the city of Williamstown,” said Ken Hamm, president, CEO and found of AIG. “By the way, this will change Northern Kentucky. All sorts of things are going to happen because of this.”

Hamm told the near capacity crowd of 900, that a poll by Vanity Fair Magazine and 60 Minutes indicates that 43 percent of the public surveyed would like to have Noah’s Ark discovered.
Wonder why it was invite only? The comment about finding Noah's Ark is a sort of throw-away line since, even if we can take the Genesis story literally, the odds of that are practically nil.

A Chronicle of the Ball State Controversy

Christopher Stephens offers a time-line of all of the happenings at Ball State over the past year involving the controversy with intelligent design. 

Monday, May 19, 2014

Pat Robertson Reiterates His Disdain for Young Earth Creationism

Late last week, Pat Robertson took to the airwaves to, yet again, tell the world what he thinks of young earth creationism.  Here is what he had to say:

He gets very few of the details correct but his general gist is. He seems to be taking the view that Adam is a specially appointed person picked by God to be the first person to walk with God. As Davis Young points out, however, this effectively means that there were quite a few “pre-Adamites” walking around before this with uncertain spiritual identities.  Robertson is a master of understatement when he says that “...we haven't worked all the wrinkles out...”  Interestingly, the article then points this out:
Robertson may have to take this up with his own TV network, which promotes Young Earth Creationist material and publishes articles claiming that opposition to Young Earth Creationism is heretical.
The second article takes the point of view that death could not have occurred before Adam's sin or else Jesus’ atonement would be null and void and that this constitutes a “ attack on the foundation and message of the Cross.” There is then a hat tip to AIG and Ken Ham.  Throughout the article, there is absolutely no attempt made to grapple with any of the scientific data.  It is as if it simply is wrong, no matter what it yields.  This is a variant of the “Man's word versus God's word” argument that Ham is so fond of using.

2 Fired Bryan College Professors Sue the College

Last week, the AP reported that two of the professors at Bryan College that have not been retained, Steven DeGeorge and Stephen Barnett, have sued the college for breach of the school charter.  The AP writes:
Science professor Stephen Barnett and education professor Steven DeGeorge say in the lawsuit that college trustees don’t have the authority to make the change because the school’s charter says the statement can’t be altered.

Attorney Rosemarie Hill, who represents the college, told the Chattanooga Times Free Press ( that leaders at the institution do have the authority to amend the statement.

“You might disagree with it,” she said. “But the college, through its board of trustees, has the right to make the decisions it did.”

Since the school clarified its statement of belief to say that Adam and Eve were historical people who were not created from previously existing life forms, the conflict has escalated with a majority of professors voting “no confidence” in the school’s president, and students and alumni penning petitions in response to the controversy.

Students held a protest day last month prompted by the loss of at least nine of the college’s 44 full-time professors and statements by Bryan College.  President Stephen Livesay, who has downplayed the controversy.
As I said in the last post on this, there is a lot of unwanted attention being paid to the college right now about this and the suit will bring even more to President Livesay and the Board of Trustees. How do you downplay a lawsuit filed by two of your own faculty against policies that a large chunk of the school does not support?

Monday, May 05, 2014

20% of Faculty Leaving Bryan College

The Tennessean is reporting that quite a number of faculty have either left or been dismissed from Bryan College as a direct result of the new statement of faith, promulgated by President Livesay and the board of directors, that the faculty have been required to sign.  They write:
The dispute at Bryan College, named for William Jennings Bryan, began in February when trustees clarified the school's statement of belief to state that Adam and Eve were historical people who were not created from previously existing life forms.

Since then, the conflict has escalated with a majority of professors voting "no confidence" in the school's president, and students and alumni penning petitions in response to the controversy.

The Chattanooga Times Free Press ( reports that in a day of action last week, students wrote notes to the Board of Trustees, signed petitions, wore black armbands and expressed their opinions on social media, among other actions.

The protest was prompted by the loss of at least nine of the college's 44 full-time professors, two of whom were fired after rejecting the college's clarified statement of belief, and statements by Bryan College President Stephen Livesay, who has downplayed the controversy.
How do you downplay the loss of 20% of your faculty? That would be devastating to any institution of higher learning.  Livesay has also said that “the reality is we are solid.” Funny, that is not what quite a few students are saying. From the Times Free Press story:
In the foyer of the small Christian school's administration building on Monday, students wrote notes to departing staffers, whose portraits lined a long table. Recent news stories of the controversy at Bryan hung on a big poster. Comments from Livesay that students are happy and Bryan is "solid" were highlighted.

"Is this your voice?" the poster asked.

More than 170 students initialed a sheet that answered "no." One set of initials sat under the side that said "yes."

Dozens of students tied strips of black fabric to their arms to highlight the sadness on campus.

And at a morning chapel service, the last of the year, students stood up to announce their discontent and that Monday would be a day for students to speak out.
I am not sure how this is going to end up but it does reflect a growing sense that, as a Christian body, we need to grapple with the science coming out of genetics and palaeontology and assess different scriptural models rather than ignore them, which is what the board is doing.

There is a new book out titled Four Views on the Historical Adam (Counterpoints: Bible and Theology) which assesses the hermeneutic arguments for whether Adam and Eve really did exist. There is a good reason that there are four views and good reasons that scholars have been wrestling with the relevant biblical texts for centuries.  President Livesay and the board are not only saying that three of the views are wrong, but that they aren't welcome at Bryan.  So much for studied academic discourse and dialogue. 

Friday, May 02, 2014

The Discovery Institute Strikes Again

We don't even have to play “Guess that party!” do we? This time it is Mike Fair, R-Greenville, South Carolina, using the DI template.  The Columbia Post and Courier carries the story:
The S.C. Education Oversight Committee on Monday sent proposed language to the board that would require biology students to construct scientific arguments that seem to support and seem to discredit Darwinism.

The decision comes more than two months after the subject became a divisive issue for many in the Palmetto State and nationally in February, when Sen. Mike Fair, R-Greenville, voiced opposition during the review and approval of a new set of science standards for 2014.

At the time, Fair argued against teaching natural selection as fact, adding there are other theories students deserve to learn. He said the best way for students to learn was for the schools to teach "the controversy." On Monday, he reiterated his stance.

"We must teach the controversy," Fair said. "There's another side. I'm not afraid of the controversy. ... That's the way most of us learn best."
There is no Controversy. The only controversy is one that is manufactured by the Discovery Institute and organizations like it.   Maybe we should start teaching other controversial things.  Controversies exist in science where the data does not clearly point one direction or the other.  It does not exist when the information clearly points one direction.  I would call on rep. Fair to state what, exactly, the controversy is.  My suspicion is that it would be usual canards about transitional fossils and irreducible complexity.  It is one thing to fear a controversy that is real and can shake things up.  It is another to fear one that only exists in the minds of some.