Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Face to Faith

Here is something from today's Guardian - the Face to Faith section. I have asked if I can respond...

The source is here.


by Thomas Crowley

You reported a recent poll which indicates about 25% of UK teachers support the teaching of creationism in secondary school science courses (Would you Adam and Eve it? Quarter of science teachers would teach creationism, 23 December). In a sidebar, Professor Richard Dawkins states that it would be a "national disgrace" if such a high percentage of teachers believe this, adding that the teachers must be either "stupid" or "ignorant".

But an important point of confusion involves the poor use of the term "creationism" in the original poll question: "Alongside the theory of evolution and the big bang theory, creationism should be taught in science lessons." The question is ambiguous because there are at least two interpretations of "creationism".

A "hard" definition is that the Earth is about 6,000 years old and that God created man and all the other creatures as in the Book of Genesis. This definition is out of line with virtually all scientific evidence and cannot fit in a science course. Sir Michael Reiss says: "Some students have creationist beliefs. The task of those who teach science is ... to treat such students with respect". I agree - if for no other reason than that sneering sarcasm almost never changes someone's mind.

But a softer definition of creationism is not as easily dismissed. Although science can state a great deal about what followed after the big bang, it cannot in fact explain how "something" (the energy of the universe compressed into a volume the size of a golf ball) arose from nothing beforehand.

This yawning logical gap leaves open the possibility that something else may be going on. The history of life is consistent with Darwinian evolution, although life's increasing complexity - including the very recent appearance of modern man - is also consistent with (but not proof of) the possibility of some special creative agent existing.

A further point of confusion is that "intelligent design" - again a term not properly clarified in the article (or apparently in government guidelines) - is not just a figment of Christian fundamentalist thought. It is embedded in any Christian religion that continues to treat the promise of a messiah, the incarnation and the resurrection as historical fact (the reasoning being that, if God is responsible for creating the big bang, then the incarnation and resurrection would be child's play by comparison).

This could be used to make a case against outright dismissal of the concept of creationism and intelligent design in the science classroom. However, if included at all, it should still take only a small amount of total class time to discuss. And it is essential for any teacher to point out that, even if "soft creationism" and "intelligent design" are true, they cannot be considered science until they make predictions that can be falsified.

But as long as science cannot explain how our universe evolved from nothing, scientists should not be so quick to dismiss the "soft form" of creationism. And the subject certainly does not warrant arrogance from those who seem to think that scientific materialism is the only logical option for the 21st century.

Thomas Crowley is a professor of geosciences at the University of Edinburgh and has previously taught evolution in a US university with many fundamentalist students


anticant said...

"But as long as science cannot explain how our universe evolved from nothing, scientists should not be so quick to dismiss the "soft form" of creationism."

What a total non sequitur! Just because it is not possible to explain everything is no good reason for giving credence to pseudo-explanations for which there is no supporting revidence.

jeremy said...

I agree anticant. That for me was the most egregious of Crowley's many errors. To use the old cliche, try substituting in "soft form of unicornology" into the last sentence instead. Theories EARN the right to be taken seriously by virtue of successful predictions, etc. The default position isn't "acceptance pending falsification" or we'd be drowning in an uncountable number of them immediately. Come back with evidence, and then we'll talk.

It sounds rather like he is bending over backwards to be nice to a majority's (silly) belief, when I'd prefer he tried correcting it instead.

wombat said...

No problem with creationism being taught in Science. It is firmly placed in with Phlogiston, the theory of humours and the origin of geese from barnacles.

Brian said...

I agree with anticant, this also stuck out:

, it cannot in fact explain how "something" (the energy of the universe compressed into a volume the size of a golf ball) arose from nothing beforehand.

And how does he know there was nothing before his supposed universe in a golf ball? That's just begging the question. What if the universe was spawned by a black hole? What if the universe has been collapsing and expanding in infinitum? What if.....? I find that a lot of believers think that there are only two options. Either the current scientific favorite is right, or they get the prize (God, Bible, Trinity, etc). Which is why creationists try so hard to discredit current theories. They think can win by default. False dichotomy, "Just because it isn't New Year's day, doesn't make it Christmas day". The man has to argue convincingly that his position of creation ex nihilio is the most logical, parsimonious and fits the evidence.

It seems he's limited by his imagination, which is limited by his beliefs. I freely accept that there are many things that exist without being imaginable or comprehensible by my noodle. He thinks he knows it all and has exhausted all the possibilities. The false humility of faith arises again.

anticant said...

Indeed. Sceptics at least have the grace - and the decency - to say we don't know the answers to some problems. Theists find the tension of not knowing unbearable, so they bandy all sorts of implausibilities around which they seek to justify by reference to their ultimate arbiter - God - who must not be doubted or questioned.

How childish!

Tim Stephenson said...

Professor Crowley is clinging to the God of the gaps and those gaps are forever closing as science proceeds. He would no doubt cast dissenters in the role of atheistic educational authoritarians. We must not allow a school system which confuses liberal freedom of thought with a slide in to the relativism of accepting intelligent design pseudoscience as on a level with established theory, theory which is well supported by evidence. Having said that, a discussion of precisely why creationist thought falls outside of the scope of scientific enquiry provides a useful opportunity to clarify what the scientific method is really about and what are its limits.

bobxxxx said...

Creationism is a religious word that means "magic". It's a childish idea and only childish people believe in it.

SilverTiger said...

The weaknesses of the article's argument have been pointed out by the above comments but I fear that for many people, with only a vague understanding of scientific principles, it could seem compelling.

I do hope that you will be allowed to reply because, although people of faith will not be deterred by even the strongest of arguments, waverers might be brought back from the brink.

Tim Stephenson said...

I think that ridiculing religious ideas can go too far. The idea that our existence and the structure of the world is highly improbable and cannot be merely a contingent feature of evolutionary processes is not a ridiculous idea. It doesn’t have to include traditional concepts of God, omniscient, omnibenevolent and the rest, answering prayers and in control of everything in advance. It might just be a belief in the Aristotelian God. The philosopher Anthony Flew has spent his life promoting atheism but recently said “it seems to me that the case for an Aristotelian God who has the characteristics of power and also intelligence, is now much stronger than it ever was before.” I don’t agree with him but the fact that someone such as Flew can be persuaded, admittedly at a time of life when his mental faculties are on the wane, shows that the basic ideas of intelligent design are unscientific but not something only a fool would consider.

anticant said...

Oh dear! At 81, my mental faculties must be on the wane. Maybe I should stop blogging.

No ageism, please, Tim.

pikeamus Mike said...

This is a discussion about what is taught in schools so I have to wonder if the question "What happened before the big bang?" would even come up and if it did why it would take more than a few of sentences to deal with. Something like (completely off the top of my head and ill thought out):

"Right now we don't know, though a number of theories are being worked on by scientists. These include ideas such as the universe expanding from a black hole in another universe or the universe being created by collisions of membranes in multi-dimensional space (in string theory).
The specifics of these hypotheses have yet to be made consistent with our current understanding of the universe and they have yet to make testable predictions but scientists are hopeful that progress in this field will continue at the rapid rate at which it has begun.
Others, of course, claim that the big bang had a supernatural cause (usually god) but those who make this claim make no attempt to connect it to any of the specifics of the physical world we understand or to suggest what kind of empirical evidence might be sought to substantiate this claim so it is highly unlikely to ever become a useful scientific theory."

anticant said...

I don't find the notion of a black hole [why black?] any more coherent or comprehensible than the notion of a supernatural God.

Basically this is a question about whether there was nothing before there was something. However much is discovered about the way the physical universe has evolved, is this an answerable question? And if not, does it matter?

pikeamus Mike said...

My feeling is that being able to answer questions about the universe before the big bang will either require, or facilitate, discovering a unified theory (quantum gravity or some-such). So if we can answer what happened before the big bang it would certainly be useful.

This may not be entirely accurate as I've only studied physics to a masters level and never specialised in this area.

Oh, the black part of black holes... well thats just that light (or anything else for that matter) can't escape them, so you can't see them directly. When you can't detect any light in the visible spectrum you might call the absense "black". This is just more black than only the visible part of the spectrum. Black holes certainly seem a little odd but they are a much more coherent and comprehensible notion than anything supernatural in that they are predicted by and partially described by the physical laws we have. Additionally there is evidence for their existence in nature.

I wanted to run that first paragraph by Phd my buddies bullshit detector before posting this but he's not doing a good job of responding so I'll just throw it out there anyway.

anticant said...

I don't pretend to understand much of modern science, but I'd be far more prepared to take on trust what the scientists tell me about the nature of the universe than the pronouncements of the godbotherers.

Tony Lloyd said...

I think Crowley misses a bigger point.

There can be at least two explanations of why water ended up in my stomach. One is purely causal: water was in a certain position relative to my stomach and gravity moved it down into my stomach. Another is teleological: I was thirsty and so I drank some water.

The teleological explanation is true. And so is the causal explanation. Water was in a position above my stomach and, by gravity, was moved to my stomach. No amount of “no, you drank it” gets rid of that fact. A teleological explanation cannot, of itself, refute a causal one. (It appears to me that the ID crowd miss this all the time).

The argument presented by Crowley misses a different fact: the teleological explanation can no more replace the causal explanation than it can refute it. “I was thirsty so I drank some water”: fine, and just how did you do that? “I just did” doesn’t cut it: there is still an explanation missing (which will probably end up being “I put some water in a certain position and let gravity do the rest”).

I find it utterly pathetic that, supposedly, intelligent people like Crowley will start using teleology as a “plug” for causal ignorance. (Almost as much as I am annoyed by Dawkins using causality as a “plug” for meta-ethical ignorance . Not as much though – Dawkins has got a better mind than that).

(BTW Stephen, I would also respond with this: http://www.jesusandmo.net/2008/12/17/edge/ )

Psiomniac said...


I enjoyed that, the point was well made, but could I suggest the tweak of taking account of peristalsis next time you deploy that argument? I know, call me picky, but it was distracting.

Tony Lloyd said...

Hi Psiomniac

Come to think of it there's loads of nice scientific causal explanations around drinking some water. The peristalsis, the hardness of glass, muscles around the mouth, nerves firing. All true, and all incomplete.

Thanks for the suggestion: I shall expand the example!