Freedom had been hunted round the globe; reason was considered as rebellion; and the slavery of fear had made men afraid to think. But such is the irresistible nature of truth, that all it asks, and all it wants, is the liberty of appearing.
~ Thomas Paine, Rights of Man, 1791 ~

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Evolutionary Creationism and the Christadelphians

Evolutionary Creationism is the idea that the Bible and science need not be in conflict with regard to our origins. Also known as Theistic Evolution, it attempts to reconcile the vast and compelling evidence for evolution with views about God and creation, and often those found in the Bible specifically.

I came to understand Theistic Evolution around the same time that I was grappling with various other questions about the Bible, from both a scientific and textual perspective. Understanding how to reconcile Genesis with science allowed me to review the scientific evidence anew without the fear that it would destroy my faith. For a while I accepted it, and it all made sense. Well, almost all of it. But I was sure that any remaining issues with the theory could be resolved in due course.


The Community

As it turns out, my faith did eventually dissolve, but evolution was not the reason. Several years on, I still have mixed feelings about Evolutionary Creationism. The Christadelphian BEREA movement that championed the idea showed so much promise, with the charismatic intellectuals who led the way, publishing article after article showing that EC was the way forward, the enthusiastic and supportive community, the feeling that this was the solution that the Christadelphian community needed in order to survive in the 21st century, and the reassurance that we were on the right path due to the alleged compatibility between science and EC theology. Throw in the various witch-hunts across mainstream Christadelphia and the occasional disfellowship of their members (including myself), and you have all of the ingredients necessary for members to find meaning and purpose in "holding fast" to the movement and its goals.

Yes the Christadelphian community at large fought against us, but they would surely one day come to realise that they needed us, and would eventually start to accept the value we could bring to the preaching effort. If only they, like us, could realise that science was not the enemy but could actually lead to a more enlightened faith, and a worldview more compatible with reality. We were the good guys, seeking fellowship and union, while they only sought division and disfellowship.

Well, I'm no longer part of either community, and even years later it seems the division and disfellowship theme continues. Perhaps I could write another article about the Christadelphian movement that lost its way, too self-righteous and too divisive to ever realise the value of community and diversity. But I won't. I simply don't care enough...and that's probably the point. The world has still virtually never heard of Christadelphians, and Christadelphians in general are not aware of their own insignificance from a global or even historical perspective. There's so much irony in the fact that Christadelphians (AB's especially) tend to treat their roles with extreme seriousness as though they all have some great cosmic significance, while the rest of the world doesn't even know they exist. Then there is the parallel irony in the fact that even most Christadelphians only have a vague awareness of EC and those who promote it. It's a minority sect within a minority sect. That might offer some perspective.

Evidence

My biggest gripe with Evolutionary Creationism is all in the name, and it has to do with evidence. As they will tell you, the evidence for "evolution" is abundant. It's compelling, and it's conclusive. But what about the evidence for the "creationism" part? There is none. Zilch. Zip. Nothing. Yet they believe both parts equally. It doesn't make any sense to me. I see it as dishonest. I want to scream at them about how unbalanced the two parts are. Do they not see it? Do they not care?

Why is evidence so important regarding the acceptance of science, and completely disregarded when it comes to accepting theism? Oh I'm sure if pushed they'll provide some vague arguments for deism, but that's a cop-out. Even on that debate, no one knows for sure, and no one can ever know for sure, even in principle. If we started insisting that the multiverse was true, they'd be quick to point out the speculative nature of it all, and rightly so. But why is it then ok to believe in something far more speculative and far more elaborate? At least the multiverse has the backing of scientific theory and the potential for future discovery. That's more than can be said for a god.

Intelligent Design, is that you?

The idea behind EC appears to be that evolution is indeed true, but that there is still a magician behind the curtain pulling the strings.

Robin Ince brilliantly sums it up in the following video. It mentions "Intelligent Design" but the parallels with EC are unmistakeable:




As far as science is concerned, the magician is entirely redundant and completely unnecessary to explain evolution, but EC proponents insist he is there anyway. Why? Because they need him there. Because their faith depends on it. Their faith, that is, that most of them developed as a child. And if he's not there, then it means they've wasted half their life devoted to this stuff. Still, it could be true, right? And that's the way they frame it. So long as there's still the possibility for it to be true (or rather, so long as it's still "compatible" with science/reality), it's business as usual for the theist. But what would remove the possibility for it to be true? Well, their beliefs would need to be testable. And that's just it - they're not.

Why believe it at all?

The point I want to make loudly is that Evolutionary Creationism is still a version of Creationism. It's right there in the name. And it shares the same flaws as any other form of creationism. Why do people generally believe in creationism? Well, aside from it again being a belief reinforced in childhood, it's also often related to the fact that people are unable to explain the complexity we see in the universe, or how we got here. Not having an answer is uncomfortable for many people, especially those with a high need for cognitive closure. So they posit an intelligent designer.

Firstly, this is a textbook example of the argument from personal incredulity, a logical fallacy.
Secondly, if the universe being complex requires an explanation, why would an even more complex thing satisfy that requirement? Surely this just invites an infinite regress. If one needs to invoke an intelligent designer in order to explain the universe, it merely demands the question, "What caused the intelligent designer?"

Now at this point most theists will argue that the intelligent designer is God and God always existed and thus required no creator of his own. As if such a statement can just be asserted as fact without justification. That the idea that God always existed and thus doesn't need a creator can just be invented out of thin air and then decreed to be so. Apparently when it comes to arguing for theism, you can just make it up as you go along.

In case it wasn't obvious already, the natural question to ask is then, "Why could we not just similarly decree that the universe always existed, and save a step?" And many well known skeptics, including Carl Sagan, argued just that.

Once again, we can answer the rhetorical question for the theist. The reason they don't save a step is because they need God in the picture, and they need God because of their prior belief. In the vast majority of believers, the belief came first, and the justification came later. They can argue all they like that their beliefs are "compatible" with science, but that's the opposite of how science is done. It's not compatible with the scientific method.

Razor for sale - as new, never used

Named after a fellow by the name of William, from the village of Ockham, Ockham's Razor is a tool often used to guide scientists in developing theoretical models. The idea is that when deciding between two competing hypotheses both of which explain some phenomenon, it is preferable to go with the one that requires the fewest assumptions.

For example, consider the theory that disease is caused by germs, and a second theory that posits the same germs but also insists there is an undetectable demon that is responsible for the germs. Ockham's Razor suggests we should go with the simpler germ theory since it requires fewer assumptions, and satisfies all known tests.

You may have noticed the parallel with Evolutionary Creationism in the example I just gave. On the one hand we have the scientific evidence for evolution via natural processes, and on the other hand we have a hypothesis that is identical except for the addition of an undetectable being that apparently drives it all or otherwise started it all going. What does this second idea add to evolution that has any practical relevance to us? It adds nothing. Ockham's Razor clearly prefers evolution via natural processes, and we can simply discard the redundant information about an invisible magician pulling the strings. That doesn't mean the magician doesn't exist of course. But we have no good reason to believe that he does, and no way to ever tell the difference.

In my opinion, the problem with Evolutionary Creationism is that it's 50% redundant.

Genesis

Sure, if I don't accept the Bible as divinely inspired, then of course I'm not going to accept EC. But wait, there's more to the story.

(Actually, I'd just like to point out that the idea of the Bible being divinely inspired also fails Ockham's Razor. There is no passage in the Bible that could not have been written solely by humans, given the knowledge humans had in that region and time period. But I digress...)

Very often the reason people insist something is an allegory is because a literal interpretation would conflict with some known data, often scientific. In every case I am aware of, and especially with regards to the early chapters of Genesis, one could imagine that if we had lived in a universe that did happen to conform to a literal interpretation of Genesis, no one would be asking us to read it as an allegory. No one! And it's interesting to note that there are plenty of people today who feel that we are living in such a universe.

But while modern interpretations of an ancient text are interesting, they're kind of beside the point, in my opinion. What really interests me in texts like Genesis is what the author's intended meaning was most likely to be. And this is yet another area where I think EC just doesn't work.

I've read books such as John Walton's "The Lost World of Genesis One", and the various articles on biologos.org explaining the "true" meaning of Genesis. I found some subtle disagreement between the views put forward on the EC side, and obviously greater disagreement with scholars who don't accept EC. If there's a consensus, I couldn't tell.

But the way I look at it is this. The early chapters in Genesis bear a resemblance to several ancient Sumerian/Babylonian texts. We also have good reason to believe that the early chapters of Genesis were written sometime during the Babylonian exile, by people who were familiar with the earlier myths, such as the Enuma Elish and the Epic of Gilgamesh. It is generally agreed that these myths give us an idea of the worldview of the ancient Babylonians and earlier civilisations.

Given the similarities between them, it seems to me that the most likely explanation is that the author of Genesis really did share the same worldview as those in the surrounding nations, yet wanted to impose a different theology. Even if Genesis is a polemic against the earlier myths, as some EC scholars suggest, it's still factually incorrect because it shares the same false details about the cosmos. Regardless of what the theological message was, Genesis tells us about the Israelite worldview in the same way that the Enuma Elish tells us about the Babylonian one. If a god had really wanted to provide a polemic against existing mythology, couldn't the same theology have been delivered along with a worldview that was actually accurate? Are we supposed to believe that a perfect deity could achieve no better than Genesis? or that he didn't care to?

Personally I don't buy it. The simplest explanation is that what we have in Genesis really does reflect the views of the author, and in no way requires the existence of a deity in order to explain it. Once again Ockham's Razor severs the alleged link between supernatural and natural, leaving believers yet again without any evidence. And what were the views of the author of Genesis? Well, given the similarity with the worldview described in the Enuma Elish, what with the solid firmament, water above the sky, and the creation of celestial bodies after the earth, I'd say the author's view of the cosmos fits his time period like hand in glove. The earth was likely viewed as a flat disc, over which the sun and moon rotated, just like the Babylonians saw it. They had different theistic explanations for it, sure, but humans have been inventing gods to explain the cosmos for probably tens of thousands of years now. Coming up with a new one isn't unusual - it's exactly what we'd expect ancient societies to do!

Untestable, Unfalsifiable

One thing that really bothers me is that the conversation around EC is so often based around possible ways to (re)interpret Genesis or some other text, and ways to adjust one's theology such that it no longer conflicts with scientific evidence. The reason it bothers me is because the method is backwards, and often it just leads to beliefs being effectively (or explicitly) unfalsifiable, which is just opening the door to believing whatever we want because no one can ever prove us wrong. It's easy to fool ourselves. It's much more difficult to question our beliefs and test them, hoping to move closer to the truth about reality.

Anyone can reinterpret Genesis to make it agree with their view. What I'm more interested in is examples of what Genesis might have said that would falsify divine inspiration, or EC. The way I've seen divine inspiration framed by some theists, I don't think there is a way to falsify it. It's the same with EC.

If a belief is not testable or falsifiable, then it cannot tell us anything about reality, and can never be proven true (or false, for that matter). It offers no truth value whatsoever. Such beliefs should be discarded, because they are irrelevant in the quest to understand reality. The world looks the same if the belief were true as it would if the belief were false.

Yet believers seem to hold onto several unfalsifiable beliefs like they are somehow valuable, and make a difference to their lives. Perhaps beliefs can offer some practical value regardless of whether or not they are true. I don't know. But if that's the reason for believing them, then people should be upfront and honest about that.

The bottom line for me is that it's all well and good to argue that (special) creationism is wrong and that EC is consistent/compatible with science, but all I want to know is how I can tell if it's true. Where is the evidence for EC, particularly the "Creationism" part? Why should I believe it? How can I test it?

If you tell me it cannot be tested, then I'm going to ask how you know it's true, and why Ockham's Razor would not suggest that we simply accept just "Evolution" without the "Creationism" part.

Possibility and probability

I'd also want to ask why you think EC is the most likely explanation for the universe and everything in it. It may seem trivial to you, and you may think that you're choosing between only two or a handful of options. But you're not. I get the feeling that most people don't realise the staggering number of possibilities there are for how we got here, most of which we probably haven't even thought of yet. Now consider that if all of these possibilities were equally likely, then your particular imagined solution is almost certainly wrong, given that the probability of being wrong is far higher than the probability of being right.

The only certainty we do have is what we have managed to figure out through observation and inference (i.e. science). Even that is never 100% certain, but beyond that it's all speculation. To hold a single belief about which speculative option is the right one, and then argue with others about why you're right and they're wrong, is to grossly underestimate the number of possibilities. Far better, I think, to just accept the limits of our scientific understanding and withhold belief on whatever is beyond that.

The big picture

I tend to be a big picture person. But no matter which angle I look at Evolutionary Creationism from, I start to see the same thing emerging. It's an attempt to explain why the world isn't really what it looks like. To explain that although science may appear to have falsified many things written in the Bible, it can still work if you reinterpret these 6 or 10 other verses. And here's a handful of people who interpreted those verses that way all along (because they saw the conflict too).

Although there's no evidence for divine inspiration, that just means God inspired people to write what people back then would have likely written anyway. The reason we don't see evidence for Creation is because God actually used evolution instead. And the reason we don't see evidence for God in evolution is because he's so good that he's hidden and undetectable. But despite being undetectable we still know he is behind evolution because...




And that's the point. They don't know. There is no evidence, and no way to tell the difference between whether it is true or false. Evolution on its own is sufficient to explain the whole lot. The Creationism bit just adds nothing except unfalsifiable assertions.

In the unlikely event that an Evolutionary Creationist actually reads this, I have 2 questions.

  1. How do you know your particular deity was behind evolution?
  2. How can you falsify Evolutionary Creationism?

7 comments:

  1. I don't think I ever accepted theistic evolution. Both because I saw theological issues with it, and because I didn't really accept evolution until long after I had lost belief in God.

    I agree with you that one of the more important questions is "What did the original author understand it to mean?" But I think it goes beyond that to "How has it been understood through history?" If we have a significant, inspired passage that has been misunderstood by almost everyone over thousands of years, that is surely a concern. And if it appears to have been misunderstood by the son of God and promised saviour, that's another concern. Because if he was mistaken in his interpretation of any part of the OT, how do we know he was not also mistaken in other parts of his understanding of his mission? (drawn from the OT). Or that he was not mistaken, but that his disciples who recorded his message hadn't properly understood it? Either way leaves potential for doubt in both the OT and the NT. You've doubtless seen this style of argument used in support of a literal reading of Genesis 1.

    TE/EC is usually based on a "two books" model (which starts off by assuming God, but I guess I'll let that pass). To me, you would need compelling reasons for supporting both books before you put too much effort into harmonising them. If you could demonstrate that the Bible has to be inspired (through some combination of prophecy, the resurrection, and other standard apologetic talking points), and that life as we see it has to have come through evolution, then you might be able to argue that re-interpreting Genesis was the best way to reconcile these two books (though another way would be try and remove Genesis as uninspired but leave the rest). And I think that is where EC believers are: they genuinely believe that the Bible is inspired and is God's word, so it's just one of the many interpretation steps required in understanding that inspired word. But obviously I come at it with the view that I can't establish the Bible is inspired, so I have no reason to try and harmonise it with evidence for evolution.

    Oh, and I loved that Robin Ince video. :)

    ReplyDelete
  2. //And I think that is where EC believers are: they genuinely believe that the Bible is inspired and is God's word, so it's just one of the many interpretation steps required in understanding that inspired word. But obviously I come at it with the view that I can't establish the Bible is inspired, so I have no reason to try and harmonise it with evidence for evolution.//

    Completely agree, and very well said.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Christadelphianism is self-referential. Evolutionary Creationism is similarly self-referential. The default thinking of a brain has to be set to "belief in God" before any of it makes sense. Almost invariably that default position has to be set during a childhood brought up within a Christadelphian or Christian family. Either that or the potential believer has been converted by the desire to fall in love and have sex with a believer, or the person has to be lonely and accepting Christadelphian belief is a short cut to a good social life and social support network.

    Five hundred years ago, if a person's default belief was that the Earth is flat, then it would logically follow that if you walked or sailed to the end of the flat Earth you could fall off the side of the Earth. The fact that almost everyone believed that the Earth was flat created a self-referential group delusion that the Earth was flat and that you could fall off the side.

    It is precisely the same with Christadelphianism and Christianity. When the evidence for Evolution becomes convincing in a believer's brain, they merely imagine a convoluted reason to allow them to believe both Evolution and the Bible. It matters not to them that they are being obfuscated. It is imperative that they find grounds for continuing to hold their prior belief. So no matter how far-fetched or ridiculous their new idea may be, confirmation bias presents it to their mind as a brilliant solution to their dilemma and they seize on Evolutionary Creationism with enthusiasm even though to an outside observer it is a nonsensical hypothesis lacking in any form of empirical supporting evidence.

    Ken Gilmore once wrote that Evolutionary Creationism has to be "inferred" because it cannot be proved. We don't need to go any further than that admission of defeat, except to say that what can be stated without evidence can equally well be dismissed without evidence. Anything else is ignorant superstition, which is how Evolutionary Creationism appears to me.

    ReplyDelete
  4. And then I guess there would be the view that "something else" requires intervention from God. Even if you accept evolution, you could decide God is required for any of:
    1. Creating life.
    2. Creating a universe tuned for life.
    3. Creating the universe, or bringing something out of nothing.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. But that is mere speculation. You can't have a "view" on something that you are speculating and guessing about. You have to wait until we find the answer.

      "I believe in 'the God of the gaps' theology" is admitting that you worship an ever shrinking God instead of an omniscient God.

      Delete
    2. A problem with "god of the gaps" arguments is that there will always be more of them. There will always be gaps to hide God in.

      God can always be this invisible thing that underlies everything we know, and only uses natural physics to interact with the world, such that he is completely undetectable by us in every way. That is, until believers suddenly claim to know things about this god, such as its name and what it wants each of us to do with our lives. It's funny how the undetectable mastermind of the universe suddenly becomes detectable when theism is invoked (as opposed to deism), and even funnier still when this mastermind starts sounding suspiciously like a superstitious Bronze/Iron age prophet.

      Oh and despite being undetectable, believers can totally communicate with it through telepathy. Except for when we test that scientifically. Because every reputable prayer study has found no evidence for it. See, it's so clever it knows we're trying to test it, and so it doesn't play nice in scientific studies. I wonder why we don't find that answer so convincing when people use it as an excuse for why they can't communicate with dead relatives under scientific controlled conditions.

      Delete
  5. John`s comment about the default thinking of the brain being set to "belief in God" is the problem (not that believers see it as a problem) for those accepting the standard biblical creation account, or for those choosing Evolutionary Creationism. Until, by intellect or separation from confirmation bias, this default belief is questioned, then the default will never be re-set.The default position is shown in the glazed look of believers when the subject of "Is there a god?" is raised.

    ReplyDelete

Comments will be moderated. Please keep comments on topic.

Please do not comment as "Anonymous" (use "Name/URL" instead - the URL is optional). If you wish to remain anonymous, just use a fake name. That way it makes it easier to track who is replying to whom.