16 May 2010

Do not teach the controversy

I do sometimes wonder, when people debate with me about evolution (it happens way more often than you might imagine, or that I would like), if they realize the implications of what they're saying. The debates get tiresome. I get weary from repeating the same points to different people (or, sometimes, the same people), and it's frustrating to know that the only reason they're questioning modern science is because it doesn't jive with their religion. The Bible says the earth is flat too, but nobody puts up much of a fight about that one. "Oh, that's just a metaphor" is the typical weasel refrain of theological accomodationalism. 

This is why talking about evolution with creationists is really, really important. Evolution is not just some "best guess" to explain human origins – it is the cornerstone of all modern biology. There is even a field of study called "evolutionary medicine" in which our knowledge of evolution is directly applied to the understanding and treatment of disease. If any of our children ever want to help the world by becoming, say, molecular biologists, they are going to have to accept the fact of evolution. Has anyone ever heard of "creationist medicine"? (And no, laying on of hands does not count.) What practical applications have ever been proposed of young-earth creationism or intelligent design? Neither has ever contributed one iota of scientific research.

That's the difference between scientific explanations and bullshit explanations. Scientific explanations add to our knowledge of the world in ways that are real and useful to us, like the way Einstein's theory of relativity allows us to use GPS systems. And that why, the more we allow creationists to erode our scientific education, the more we harm our own future. It's not merely a matter of addressing those who are able to finagle their way on to school boards, but addressing the kind of people who would vote for them, too. I don't think I should have to point out the recent gubernatorial campaign ads in Alabama to show that scientific ignorance in favor of religious crackpottery is still alive and well here in the United States.

We can teach the controversy when there is actually a controversy to teach. When creationists are able to develop research that shows real, practical applications of their theory that both explain everything that is already explained by evolution and add to our understanding of the world, we might have something to talk about. But I don't think that is going to happen any time soon, because creationism is founded on false premises. Evolution is the unifying theory of all modern biological sciences; it truly is the only game in town, and denying the fact of evolution is no different than denying the fact of our spherical Earth*.

I challenge any creationist to watch the following video, and then counter with similar practical applications of creationism:




* Oblate spheroid, to be exact.

6 comments:

  1. As an evolutionist myself, I'm with you on this one. However, I do have to take issue with your suggestion that Isaiah 40:22 suggests the Earth is flat; that's far too simplistic a view. Consider the following from Rolf Furuli, Lecturer in Semitic Languages at the University of Oslo (reposted from http://lists.ibiblio.org/pipermail/b-hebrew/2002-July/013442.html). I've included the whole thing because I also think that his commentary at the end is interesting:

    I think the comments in this thread have failed to address
    the main part of your question, so I will give some comments. The
    central sense the word heth waw gimel is a geometric circle, and this is
    evidently the sense in Isaiah 40:22. As to the term aleph resh sade, it
    is of paramount importance to keep in mind that word meaning is not
    found in lexicons and word books, which just contain glosses, but word
    meaning is found in the minds of living people, those who spoke Hebrew
    in ancient times. The letters of a Hebrew (or English) word have no
    intrinsic meaning, but they signal a concept (or sometimes two or more
    concepts) in the minds of native speakers. The context in which a word
    occurs does not generate new meaning, but helps the reader to understand
    which part of the concept the writer wanted to make visible. The word in
    question can refer to a particular area inhabited by a nation, a smaller
    part of this area, or to the whole earth. So, which part of the concept
    signaled by aleph resh sade does the author of Isaiah 40:22 make
    visible? The setting is heaven and earth and their creation, and God is
    enthroned above the circle of the earth. The sense can hardly be
    anything but the planet earth. Do I hear another question behind your
    written question, namely, did the writer of the chapter imply that the
    earth is a sphere? The question is somewhat anachronistic, but it can be
    rephrased. If your physician suspects that you have experienced a small
    bleeding inside your brain and a CT or MR picture is taken, and it shows
    a small bright spot, the physician will not say: "This finding proves
    that you have had a bleeding." But the physician will say: "This finding
    conforms with our suspection that you have had a bleeding." So the
    question can be rephrased thus: "Do the words of Isaiah conform with the
    modern view of a spherical earth?" To this question the answer is yes.
    To illustrate the case further, we can take a look at 40:26-28. These
    words conforms with the first and second laws of thermodynamics, which
    are two of the most fundamental laws of nature. The first law tells
    about the constancy of energy an mass, energy can be transformed into
    mass, vice versa, but energy/mass cannot destroyed, so the amount is
    constant. The second law tells that the total amount of usable energy
    will allways decrease until equilibrium is reached. The words of Isaiah
    about the eternal God whose power/energy is the cause of the universe
    conforms well with law I (energy can be turned into matter - energy is
    eternal). The words about the creation of the universe (it had a
    beginning) conforms well with law II. If the universe was eternal,
    equilibrium had already been reached and radioactive material and and
    temperature differences would not have existed in the universe. While
    the words of Isaiah conforms with the two laws, he did not know about
    these laws or about the equation E=mc2, which can be an expression of
    law I. My conclusion is that we should not try to read modern science
    into the Bible, but neither should we read mythology into it if that is
    not warranted. A more balanced approach is to ask whether particular
    words conform with or contradict fundamental data.

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  2. This letter you're quoting is, I'm sorry to say, a mishmash of absolutely breathtaking inanity, reminiscent of what PZ Meyer's calls "the coutier's reply". He's suggesting that words need not be interpreted to mean that the "circle of the Earth" implies a flat Earth if this or that interpretive context is invoked.

    This strikes at the heart of why Christianity is so utterly ridiculous. What is the criteria for properly interpreting the Bible? Sure, you can invoke a virtually infinite number of arbitrarily chosen interpretive contexts in order to rationalize the scriptures with a modern world view. But by what measure do you decide that a given interpretation is not chosen arbitrarily?

    This is the folly of assuming the inerrancy of the Bible a priori. When it comes in clear contradiction with known facts, you are forced to conjure up some arbitrary interpretation. But that does nothing but illustrate the frailty of Christianity: If the Bible is true, why does it need to be constantly interpreted and re-interpreted – with no independent objective criteria for doing so – to conform to our scientific understanding of the world?

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  3. "Absolutely breathtaking inanity"? Hardly. Words apart from context are easily misconstrued. For example, I might say "I'm riding my bike down to the end of the street" and it would be laughable for you to later chastise me for saying "down" to the end of the street because the street is, in fact, level. In the same way, it's amusing to watch you and the flat earthers (never thought you'd have anything in common! :) attempt to use the verse in Isaiah to suggest that the Bible says the Earth is a two dimensional circle while others on the net claim it proves the Bible declares a spherical earth. Both camps are demanding a precision from the language that is neither present or necessary to understanding the message of the text. Although I'm inclined more to agree with the sphere folks based on my understanding of the Hebrew word in the passage (chug or khoog, which is simply translated circle, but more specifically has to do with "encompassing" or following the arch or horizon), in this case my answer to your question "...by what measure do you decide that a given interpretation is not chosen arbitrarily?" is simply that none need be chosen. Linguistic precision is not a precursor to understanding the underlying meaning of the text, which is simply that God is observing humanity.

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  4. When we're looking at the words used in an ancient historical text, linguistic precision does give us insight into exactly what kind of understanding the authors had of the world, which I think is pertinent when you're talking about a book that is allegedly of divine inspiration.

    The Earth is of course neither flat nor spherical; it's an oblate spheroid. So, if the purpose was simply to communicate that God was watching over the Earth, why even include the word "circle"? Note the description of the heavens being "stretched out like a tent for them to live in". This is likely because the verse reflected the understanding of cosmology at the time, which probably looked like this:

    http://ncseprojects.org/files/images/continuum-Fig-3-2-hebrew.preview.gif

    Consider too all the verses that talk about the "four corners of the Earth" or the "ends of the Earth". In the temptation of Christ in the desert, Satan takes him to a high mountain where they can see all the kingdoms of the world. Now, you could argue that the "meaning" was just to say that Satan tempted Jesus. But clearly the verse reflects the fact that nobody knew the Earth was round, because no matter how high up you go, you can't see all of the Earth. If the Bible were true, couldn't the story of Satan tempting Jesus have been told without such inaccuracies?

    This is consistent with the Bible being "just a book" written by primitive people. It bodes poorly for the assertion that the book is divine truth.

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  5. You say "linguistic precision does give us insight into exactly what kind of understanding the authors had of the world", but that's exactly my point, and I believe the point of the Professor at the University of Oslo: linguistic precision might give us insight, but it is simply not present in this text, particularly in translation, and as such it's preposterous for you or I or flat earthers to invoke the text as a definitive statement on the Bible's view of the Earth. Both "circle" and "sphere" are approximations of the meaning of the Hebrew, which as I mentioned, has more to do with "encompassing" or "following the arch of the horizon". Presumably if one were to follow the arch of the horizon you'd end up encompassing the circle, the sphere, the oblate spheroid. The ambiguity of the Hebrew is by no means adequate ground upon which to dismiss the passage as not being of divine inspiration.

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  6. What exactly is the grounds for dismissing something as being of divine inspiration? Here's a better question: what evidence is there to suggest that this must be divine inspiration, and could not reasonably be thought to have just been pulled out of someone's butt? To claim that something is divinely inspired, then challenge it to be disproved, is begging the question.

    The historical inaccuracies of the Bible, its dubious reliability, and the litany of both factual and theological contradictions certainly do not "disprove" divine inspiration, but they sure don't build a strong case for it.


    And, because I love NonStampCollector...
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PK7P7uZFf5o

    ReplyDelete

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