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, February 25, 2018

Bad Creationist Arguments: If you can't explain "how" it happened, then it didn't happen?

They don't know how the window
smashed. Does that mean it didn't?
One of the more common arguments used by creationists to try to undermine evolution is that if someone cannot explain every detail about how something evolved, therefore it didn't evolve, and by extension the theory of evolution is flawed.

This argument is invalid, and I will show you some reasons why.

Firstly it's a non-sequitur. That is, the conclusion does not necessarily follow from the premise. My lack of knowledge about exactly how an event unfolded is largely unrelated to whether or not the event actually took place. I may have good evidence to conclude that an event took place without knowing every tiny detail.

Secondly, creation fails the same argument. Believers don't understand how God created anything - so is that enough to conclude that he didn't?

Thirdly, even if one person cannot explain some feature of evolution, that does not mean no one can. Or even if something is not well understood by anyone today, it does not logically follow that therefore it never will be. There will always be gaps in our knowledge, but that does not mean future scientists will never make new discoveries and progress our understanding. Indeed history is full of examples where things that were once thought to be mysteries have now been explained by science. Of course we can't guarantee that science will explain every mystery, but as I said earlier, our current lack of an explanation does not mean we should throw our hands in the air and declare it an impossibility. Rather, we should go looking for clues - and that is exactly what scientists do.

Discovering the answers to questions regarding the diversity of life on Earth is much like solving any other mystery. We have to look for clues, form hypotheses, make predictions based on those hypotheses, then test those predictions, and repeat the process. This, in a nutshell, is the scientific method, and it is how we've been learning about the world for hundreds of years.

In the past we didn't understand the causes of disease, and so people assumed they were punishments from gods, or caused by demons. Then scientists discovered bacteria and viruses, and demonstrated ways to not only cure the diseases but also prevent them in many cases as well. And so it is with many other areas of scientific discovery. Not once in the history of science have scientists discovered a supernatural cause for anything.

There are still many things we don't understand, including things about the natural world and evolution. This will always be the case, but our knowledge and understanding will continue to increase nonetheless. And given the track record of science, when we encounter something we don't understand, history suggests the explanation we find will be natural - so that should be our default assumption until proven otherwise.

Evolution stands on an overwhelming body of evidence (across several distinct fields of science), and our lack of understanding of any one thing does not magically undo all of this evidence. Anything we don't (yet) understand is merely just another mystery to be solved, which is what motivates scientists in the first place.

"Science knows it doesn't know everything; otherwise, it'd stop. But just because science doesn't know everything doesn't mean you can fill in the gaps with whatever fairy tale most appeals to you."
Dara Ó Briain

Can you explain it? Really?

The flipside of this whole argument is that just because you think you can explain something, it doesn't necessarily mean your explanation is the correct one. This comes up often in comparisons between science and religion, where it is asserted that religion has some answer to a problem while science has none. However, in such cases it is far more accurate to say that religion offers a guess, while science offers many guesses but is honest enough to admit that it doesn't know which, if any, is the right one. Only science has the means to actually verify whether its explanation is correct, and only science attempts to try. Several religious ideas have been disproven by scientific discoveries. The reverse is not true.

This point bears repeating, because it seems many religious people do not understand it. Religions (and especially Christadelphians) make many claims about the world but offer no means of verifying whether those claims are actually true. They are in effect merely blind guesses asserted as fact, and often with no way to verify their accuracy. This is why religions rely on faith - because they lack sufficient evidence and any means of verification.

On the other hand, science provides a reliable and repeatable means of verification, which is how we know that its claims about the world are (provisionally) true. Science doesn't just give us knowledge about the world, it also tells us how we know it.

At this point some readers may accuse me of Scientism, but I am not claiming that if science cannot verify something it therefore doesn't exist. I am saying we simply may be prevented from ever knowing whether such things exist (and thus we have no rational justification for believing they do). It's an important distinction.

It is true that some things are outside the domain of science, and the thing that believers tend not to appreciate is that if it's beyond the reach of science, it's probably beyond the reach of any form of verification. They seem so eager to protect their cherished beliefs from science's discerning eye, but they don't seem to realise that without science their job of verifying their claims about the world just got a lot more difficult! To put it another way, if science cannot test or verify it, then you probably can't ever know it. That's not science's problem - it's yours! It doesn't give us license to just insert our favourite guess and call it fact. What it means is that for anything beyond the reach of science, the truth may perhaps be forever beyond our reach. Believe all you want to - but you do so blindly in the dark. In my opinion that kind of blind faith is dishonest, but each to their own.