Friday, 6 February 2009

The Irreconcilable Conflict

Nick Spencer is Director of Studies at Theos, the public theology think tank. Denis Alexander is Director of the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion. Together they have published a report on the conflict between evolution and religion and how to resolve it whilst passing it to the newspapers for media attention.

The problem that Theos reveals is this:

Some of the main proponents of evolution associate it with Atheism. Some of the main defenders of Christian belief treat Genesis as a kind of (poor) proto-science making claims about the biological world. There is overwhelming evidence that evolution by natural selection is a fact that explains how life forms have evolved to their present state. So Christians who continue to treat Genesis as a kind of proto-science with God creating humans in their present form look like scientific dunces.

The solution that Theos offer is to offer a way of interpreting natural selection so that it is seen as the work of God rather than something opposed to God. They note that modern biblical scholarship has no place for the biblical literalism of Genesis. Instead, the correct way to read Genesis is as an allegory for something – anything but just don't take it literally. Once Christians stop reading the bible literally and start treating the biological world as God's way of bringing biological diversity into being (p27) there will be no conflict between the science of evolution and religion or so Theos contend. [They skip the issue of why would a benevolent God who cares for each and every one of us use a process that inevitably results in so many living forms going to waste]

To their credit Theos appear to recognise that if God is no longer required to explain the origin of modern life forms then like a naughty child he needs something to keep him occupied. So rather than make him redundant they throw him the role of playing with the cosmological constants. Theos suggests that this is a role on which all theists can agree on.

"All theists believe in "design" in the sense in which they believe in a God who has intentions and purposes for the universe. They also believe that God has "designed" the properties of the universe (by fine tuning the physical constants that underwrite the universe, for example) to facilitate the existence of intelligent life." (P40-41)

Theos are quick to point out that the above view is not the same as Intelligent Design. Intelligent Design attempts to masquerade as a scientific theory and cling to some aspect of the biological world that cannot currently be explained by natural selection such as the bacterial flagellum. The flagellum is a tail like structure that functions as to propel bacteria. ID theorists contend that this feature is `irreducibly complex' and cannot be explained via natural selection as arising out of simpler components. They hold that this complexity is indicative of a designer or engineer who must have made the component so it filled this function. IDer's don't say who the designer is: it could be time traveling scientists from the future, alien life forms, or an invisible imperceptible man with a fondness for E. coli and other such bacteria. The main point is that the explanation of such forms are in opposition to explanations via natural selection. However, none of these alternatives to evolution have any positive evidence that entitles them to be treated seriously.

Hence Theos rightly reject ID for the nonsense that it is. ID is not an alternative scientific hypothesis to natural selection because there are no criteria by which it can be tested. Further, such groundless speculation of unknown designers with a love of bacteria does nothing to help us understand how such facets of the natural world arose. Hence, the reason why ID does not appear in science journals is not because of some conspiracy to keep out pro-religious views, but because there are no research programs suggested by ID that would help us to better understand the natural world. In short, ID is not scientific and it has an explanatory value of zero.

The deep irony in all this is that whilst Theos rightly note that the program of ID is explanatory vacuous they fail to see that the "God did it" style of explanation is equally empty of content. Cosmologists pay no heed of such claims as they do not improve our understanding of the universe one iota and with time cosmology will make God's role in the heavens as redundant as Darwin made God's role on earth.

Theos share with IDers a common strategy. Both require some part of the world that has not currently been explained, and both erroneously take the lack of evidence in this area as positive evidence for some alternative form of explanation. Theological statements about the natural world are, like the pronouncements of irreducible complexity, continually in revision and empty of any explanatory value.

At last the conflict between science and religion is clearly revealed – science is continually showing the statements of religion to be empty hand waving gestures that reside in places we do not fully understand. Theos may continue to provide theological commentary on areas of the universe we do not fully understand - whilst the rest of us rightly treat these pronouncements as arrant clap trap for the simple minded.

Further Reading
  • The original Theos article.
  • Two reports of the story in the press are found here and here.
  • Jerry Coyne has a very illuminating article on the subject of science and religion.

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