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Creationists: the greatest skeptics of our age

It’s fun to watch fundamentalist creationists descend into Humean skepticism. Hume, the most hardboiled skeptic of all time (since the eighteenth century anyway), pointed out that we can’t really say that anything caused anything else. You can doubt anything. Did that billiard ball cause that other one it just hit to move? No. You can’t prove it. It could be just a startling coincidence. There is no proof ever for any empirical causal effect, anywhere at anytime. Bummer. Of course, creationists love that fact, because they get to use that method against evolution! (They only use Humean skepticism when it’s quite convenient of course—unlike Hume they would never apply it to their own interests)!

Their favorite move is to say that evolution has not been ‘proved.’ By this they mean, apparently, that you cannot watch one mammalian species change into another in the laboratory. They don’t count bacteria (which are evolved on human time scales) because well . . . I don’t know why it doesn’t count. But until they see one mammal become another they aren’t going to believe it—bless their Humean hides. Fossil evidence? Nope. That doesn’t count. Why? I’m not sure but it doesn’t. What about molecular biology? You know DNA. Genes. Texas GGCT. Nope. That doesn’t’ prove anything. Embryology? You know those early stages do look awfully fishlike. No, No, No. If it’s not done in a laboratory with a proper experiment then we don’t believe it. We want proof! Not evidence.

They point out, and rightly so I might add, that we cannot watch the evolution of most plants and animals transpire on human time scales. What puny evolution you can see is only microevolution! (Microevolution is the buzz word creationists like to use to show they are open minded when it comes to the irrefutable changes in genetic frequencies we can watch shift on short time scales). But we have species categories based on Greek readings of Hebrew ‘kinds’ they gleefully cheer and by golly they’re categories you just can’t cross. If it was good enough for Plato it was good enough for us, they cry enthusiastically. What stops microevolution? Creationists won’t say. It just can’t because, well, you know we got those ‘kinds’ and stuff. And things can’t cross ‘kinds.’ And they mean it, microevolution isn’t going to go on long enough to turn into macro. Why? Because it just can’t that’s why—Don’t try any of your skepticism on us. Only we get to do that!

And so it goes. Here is their mythical view of science: Only experimentation is science (So don’t be doing any astronomy, geology, deep sea exploration, huge swaths of ecology, etc.). Hypothesis testing—that’s science and that’s all that counts.

But their theology is worse. God only works in ways like us. If He creates a world, it’s got to be like a good construction project. God as the great contractor in the sky. Things made from the ground up in good workmen-like ways with a good Protestant work ethic, and all that, wherein we start with a foundation and then frame it and then stick the other stuff on after. That’s the way we do it so that’s the way God does it. None of this using ‘natural laws; like natural selection. It’s our way or the highway.

Or they say, well evolution apparently gets along fine without intervention, but we need some of that ol’ timey intervention to believe in our kind of God, so we’ll believe in evolution up to a point. Eventually, though, God has to come in and tinker a bit to get some things over the rough spots. Where are these rough spots? Here? The eye. That can’t have evolved. Whoops evolution cracked that. Well here? Bacteria flagellum? Nope. Evolution explains it again. Well, we don’t know where the rough spots are, but we know they’re somewhere so we’ll teach this in our schools in the form of ‘Intelligent Design’ (And doesn’t that sound nice? God’s intelligent right, so ‘Intelligent Design’ must be something Mormons embrace? Right?).

Come on people. Creationism in all its forms is bad faith and bad science. We can do so much better.

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23 comments to Creationists: the greatest skeptics of our age

  • SteveP:

    You are awfully good at getting to the central points. Just for practice, let me see if I can talk like a creationist:

    God could not use evolution, because, well, it’s RANDOM, and God does not play dice. For example, if a Iowa tornado knocks down Des Moines, then it was God’s will. Similarly, if a DNA sequence changed over time, then that was God’s will, except that God is incapable of crossing the “species line,” because, well, we all know that species NEVER change, and God has limits. Whoops. Scratch the last point.

    Besides, humans have 12 ribs and dogs have 13. There is something Biblical about that. Where is that missing rib in humans? Ummm, scratch that. Humans are not related to dogs.

    Then there is the Grand Canyon. It is obvious to everyone that the Colorado River could cut through all that rock in just a few days or years. Water is like a sharp knife. And, never mind those dang squirrels. If God wanted the Kaibab squirrels on the north rim and the Abert’s squirrels on the south rim, then let’s NOT pretend they evolved from a single ancestral species that got separated by a canyon gulf. God creates species NOT the Colorado River. Ummm, OK, scratch that argument.

    And so what about dinosaurs? Those fossils were put on earth to fool us and to test our faith. Besides, everyone knows that dating methods are wrong, and that Noah’s flood killed the dinosaurs. The movie Jurassic Park gives us a good sense of how well humans and dinosaurs could get along. OK, upon further thought, never mind on that.

    Evolution doesn’t leave God with anything left to do. How can an all-powerful God be put out of a job? Whoops, maybe that question doesn’t work in favor of the creationist.

    Darn. I am trying to talk like an anti-evolutionist, and evolution just keeps slipping in. Why?

    I guess I need more practice. Back to the drawing board.

  • Stan

    You guys are my heroes! If only I believed that sound reasoning, overwhelming evidence with a bit of fun sarcasm could actually change minds. sigh…

    Speaking of bacteria in the lab, I just read the chapter in Dawkins’ new book on the work of Lenski et al. Bacteria evolving the ability to metabolize a whole new form of sugar. A multi-step mutation no less. Beautiful! I know you guys don’t like him (Dawkins) much, but I think if creationism were to be less emphasized and myth taught as such in church so they were less of a threat to real science and public education, he’d be a bit more tame toward religion. I know I get all gimpy in the head when I wonder why people believe Noah stowed and cared for 200,000 (or is it 1,000,000) species of beetle on the ark and redistributed them to all of their unique habitats after the flood, or what was left of their habitats… which would have been nothing. All those sediments with freshly killed animals and plants beginning their fossilization process. =:)

  • S. Faux, That’s great! That’s exactly how their arguments sound to me! Well done.

    Thanks Stan! And as a biologist I love Dawkins, he’s done some first-rate work and popularization of evolution. I just don’t like it when he goes into evangelical atheist mode. And a literal Noah’s Ark really does get a little silly.

  • David H Bailey

    Great posts! Here is another recent finding that will require still more fancy Humean footwork to squirm around:
    http://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/02/science/02fossil.html

    Ardi, short for Ardipithecus ramidus, is the newest fossil skeleton out of Africa to take its place in the gallery of human origins. At an age of 4.4 million years, it lived well before and was much more primitive than the famous 3.2-million-year-old Lucy, of the species Australopithecus afarensis.

    [continued at URL above]

  • SteveP

    David, that’s great! Thank you for pointing that out.

  • What I don’t get is that this argument about “purported macroevolution” only makes sense if you still buy evolutionary history but think the details weren’t by chance. But that means you still buy into 95% of evolution. Yet the people who make these claims aren’t IDers debated (badly) some underlying mechanism for evolution. Rather they are Creationists who ought reject ID too.

    I’ve never for the life of me understood why Creationists adopt ID arguments without seeing that the can only make these arguments while denying their own positions.

  • Whoops. Typo. “Yet the people who make these claims typically aren’t IDers debating badly some underlying mechanism for evolution.”

  • John Mansfield

    My rough spot is the creation of man in the image of God. Latter-day Saints consider the Father to be a physical being with a body of flesh and bones as tangible as man’s. The Son also, as the offspring of the Father with the mortal Mary.

    I would be interested in evolution-compatible explanations of thes beliefs. Include as much mockery as it seems the issue merits.

  • John:

    The belief in God having a human form, as opposed to taking on a human form to deal with, well, humans, has always been a strange theological interpretation of the First Vision or the Book of Ether. It’s something that has never been part of the RLDS/CofChrist tradition. Perhaps it’s something from the Book of Abraham which the two groups do not share in their canon.

    To us, it would be like assuming that God was a plant based on Moses’ experience on the mountain before the Exodus.

  • John, it seems to me that there are several answers.

    1. God resembles man but not at the cellular level. Indeed even Joseph and others appear to have made a pretty big distinction between resurrected beings and mortals. So at best one can point to the issue of resemblance.

    2. The idea of normal sexual reproduction for the creation of Jesus never made a lot of sense. I think that a product of relative scientific ignorance at the time. Today we recognize IVF is trivial and surely God could genetically engineer a zygot. So to me that objection is a non-starter.

    3. Saying evolution is true says nothing about whether God is involved. Just that his involvement would be a part of the physical environment, much like animal husbandry isn’t at odds with evolution. I’d just note that ID proponents aren’t making the objection that God has to be involved but rather that natural selection doesn’t work period. Creationists both of the Protestant and more modified NDBF Mormon type just say absolutely no transitions and often embrace species essentialism. Now I’d be the first to say this distinction leads to confusing answers on polls. And of course I’ve argued that before. I think the Mormon position demands that man’s form not be accidental. I don’t think that has much bearing on the issue of transitionary species, relation to other species or whether natural selection is a true law.

  • [...] at Mormon Organon on how Creationists are the greatest skeptics of our age. I agree with John that the human form has to be somewhat special. I just don’t think that [...]

  • [...] are the greatest skeptics of our age, says Steven Peck of Brigham Young University. (He doesn’t mean that as a good [...]

  • John Mansfield

    I asked my question expecting responses from some who had already thought this through. Firetag’s and Clark’s part 2 are one possibility: the LDS teaching is wrong. The convergent evolution concept (Clark’s part 1) is an interesting one, and seems to be what SteveP has hinted at in some of his writing. If correct, the concept of God as a Heavenly Father would be more metaphoric than LDS generally take it to be.

    I disagree with Clark’s third part. SteveP has writen before that evolution involves no guiding hand husbanding, cultivating the process, and that God’s part in it would be limited to initial conditions, if I understood him correctly. Clark’s idea seems to be one that many religious people consider, but I don’t think it is consistent with the whole of evolution, for which there is nothing special about the human species.

  • John, I think if you look carefully LDS teaching doesn’t say what you are claiming it to say about how Jesus’ mortal body was created. Note that it says the Father is literally the Father but nothing I said conflicts with that. The claim by some in the late 19th century that it was by sexual relations never was official doctrine and always seemed odd on the face of it for numerous reasons.

    I’m not entirely sure what you mean by convergent evolution so I can’t quite comment there. I don’t see what problem that causes with God as our literal father since that’s usually taken to entail father of our spirits unless you buy into the Adam/God theory – which few do. (And even the meaning of God as the literal Father of our spirits has less behind it than it often appears – even though I believe it. See Blake Ostler’s various writings there – it’s more a view that arises with Pratt and Young)

    As for my third part I don’t understand your objection. Why do you say that evolution has no guiding hand and what do you mean by it? Darwin certainly allowed for explanations in terms of environmental factors determining selection and that’s all I’ve suggested. Consider, for example, the evolution of dogs from wolves; the evolution of bananas and so forth.

  • Just to add, it’s true there’s nothing special about humans in evolution nor is there anything special about dogs in evolution. What makes something special is the environment.

    So what we have is a conflation between the question of evolution and the question of what the environment is. And I fully agree this leads to confusion over how to answer questions like the Pew survey I discussed at my blog. But technically this has absolutely nothing to do with evolution proper.

  • Thanks for weighing in all.

    Clark I agree that we are not bound to believe that sexual reproduction was necessitated in Christ’s birth. In fact, I make no claims in that direction. And I agree completely that we really don’t know what God’s having a body means and how His biology compares with ours. In fact, I’ve got a paper coming out in the Spring 2010 Dialogue wherein I explore evolution and what it means for our theology along these lines in more detail, drawing on some the thinking of Jim Faulconer on the embodiment of God.

    John, I thank you hit on something important about the idea that the evolution of God’s body can be explained with convergence. Serious biologist have noted that organisms have evolved similar solutions to solve similar engineering problems of their environment. For example, ichthiosours (reptiles), dolphins (mammals), and fish have all taken on rather similar shapes to move through the water despite independent origins. I think at all costs we have to avoid teleological thinking in thinking about evolution and how or how not God acts in the world. I like some of the things that John Haught has suggested about God acting deeply in Creation, meaning his role is very different than a tinker in the same way that we think about it.

    FireTag, that is fascinating to me that CofChrist does not have the same view as ours with regard to God having a human form.

  • Much of the Mormon theology regarding the embodiment of God doesn’t develop until late Nauvoo. The two key sermons are the King Follet Discourse and the Sermon in the Grove. Of course how to take them, especially the question of authority, is controversial. So you have, for instance, Blake Ostler breaking with traditional reading of the KFD and throwing out parts of the SitG in preference to the earlier vaguer statements about embodiment.

    Of course by Utah both Orson Pratt and Brigham Young have developed competing theories of what embodiment of divine beings means. And while we tend to focus on their differences and the controversy over their disagreements the fact is that both agree on a remarkable number of points. The question then becomes whether their views reflect revelation or third hand teachings of Joseph Smith or are purely speculative the way that say B. H. Robert’s influential theories on embodiment clearly are speculative.

    Regarding convergent evolution (although once again I hesitate to use that term unless we lock down its meaning here). I think we have to allow for life on numerous worlds and God looking at the worlds that have beings resembling him. That opens up a lot of possible pathways. Likewise we have to allow for environmental factors. So say life is developing along avian/reptilian terms so God lobs an asteroid to privilege mammals. Would that mean that someone believes this logically disbelieves in evolution? That’s the point I’m getting at. Just because I think, as Steve notes, there are a lot of incentives towards the primate form, I’m not convinced God need intervene as much as it appears. Especially if evolution is progressing independently on millions of worlds.

    My real question is more along the lines of what degree of intervention in our environment necessitates that we say someone can’t believe in evolution? That’s the real question. Obviously the way I answer that I think God could intervene a lot without affecting the meaning of evolution as a term. Let’s be clear though that this is more a linguistic issue and not as much a scientific one. (Science obviously would say there’s no evidence for intervention so as a hypothesis it has no explanatory power — but that’s a subtly different issue)

  • Whoops missed a line.

    Much of the Mormon theology regarding the embodiment of God doesn’t develop until late Nauvoo. So groups like the RLDS/CoC that tend to reject most late Nauvoo theology would reject our conception of embodiment.

  • John Mansfield

    Something I’ve noticed about Mormon writing on the internet is how un-Mormon our references to deity are. In General Conference tomorrow, use of the title or description “Heavenly Father” will outpace use of “God” by a wide margin. It is probably the same in your wards’ meetings. We believe in a kinship between the Father and mankind that is different from his relationship with algae or lunar regolith. There is plenty of room for possibilities beyond my thinking, but Clark’s prospector model seems to lack that connection.

    SteveP, it will be interesting to read your article when it comes out. Your wrote, “I think at all costs we have to avoid teleological thinking in thinking about evolution and how or how not God acts in the world.” I can understand that concern regarding evolution, but don’t agree that we should avoid thinking that God’s actions have purpose.

  • “My real question is more along the lines of what degree of intervention in our environment necessitates that we say someone can’t believe in evolution?”

    Wow, what an interesting question. I’ve never thought about it in those terms before. I’m going to have to do some thinking about that! Please don’t make me rewrite my paper!

    I think the language usage choice of ‘God’ or ‘Heavenly Father’ turns on the purpose of our discourse. When we are talking about His influence on our personal lives I think the latter is more appropriately used. When talking about more theological concepts of Creation, theosis, and such God seems appropriate.

    John, by avoiding teleological thinking I just mean in the domain of evolutionary explanation. God (and we) can have purposes in rich abundance.

  • John, I think the issue of noun choice is more because of the sorts of discussions we tend to have (or at least the ones I read) are abstract. Father in terms of discourse really is rarely appropriate for the abstract discussion whereas I find Father preferable for more earnest personal discussions. It’s just that I find myself somewhat uncomfortable having those discussions on the internet. It always strikes me as uncomfortable and somehow exposing something very personal.

    As for the prospector model, the issue is that of creating bodies for spirit. What creates the personal model is in my mind the relationship of our spirits to God’s spirit and not our body. The only model where that divide isn’t present is in the Adam-God theory, as I mentioned. And the Church has pretty well rejected that model.

    So when you talk about the “kinship between the Father and mankind” I think we can’t avoid thinking the spirit – flesh distinction. To ignore that will confuse and mislead in our inquiry.

  • To add, looking at my scriptures and the relative use of God to Father I’m not at all convinced talking of God is unMormon in the least.

  • Clark: re #18

    Yes, that’s probably correct. It’s easier as a whole for us theologically (which is different from culturally, of course) to detach our parent-child relationship with God from form, gender, or race. In fact, there is nothing in principle to keep us from accepting the notion that God could be the “Father” of a sentient in the form of a starfish, to pick an extreme.

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