Thursday, November 21, 2013

Coffee, bagels, evolution and God's trustworthiness

After Holy Mass this morning, the deacon and I got some coffee and bagels. We've been doing this more or less regularly as a way to talk about goings on in the parish and to make plans.

In the course of our conversation, we talked about evolution. That is to say, the hypothesis that life on earth has evolved from lower forms through a long process of periodic mutations that proved advantageous for natural selection. Because our deacon is a really smart, well read fellow (he teaches philosophy at our seminary), I wanted his take on this question: given the problem of so much science being driven by political or ideological agendas, does he give much credence to the claim, by those who are skeptical of evolution, that the "scientific consensus" for evolution isn't real?

His response was that he thinks the science probably is on the side of the evolutionary theory, even as he readily granted that a lot of ideology -- particularly a materialistic mindset -- is certainly injected into the subject by many of those who argue for evolution. But, as he said, "just because there are those who insist the evidence for evolution supports a materialistic worldview, doesn't mean it has to" -- and he cited Pope Benedict and Pope John Paul II, among others, who argued that evolution and materialism aren't that great a fit.

My response was that while I would like to learn that evolution wasn't true, it seemed to me that the arguments of those who dispute evolution just haven't shown themselves to be very rigorous scientifically. He agreed.

More was said, of course. When we both take the evolutionary theory for granted, that's as a scientific proposition: namely, that all science can show is the way God's creation came about. No scientific theory can disprove whether God was at work, and therefore, whether there was and is an "intelligent design."

(Later, as I thought about this, it occurred to me that what arguments I've seen that seem to have any juice to them are not so much arguments against evolution, as against evolution without a Divine Providence guiding it.)

Then we talked about the idea of the earth being "young." That is to say, among those who argue that the various species were created more or less as-is -- as opposed to having evolved -- there are those who are "old earthers" and "young earthers." Old-earth creationists don't dispute the scientific evidence that seems to show the earth and solar system all began many billions of years ago; they focus their rhetorical guns on the theory of natural selection.

But young-earth creationists go further: they claim the Cosmos isn't more than 10,000 years old. How do they square that with all the evidence that seems to show otherwise? (Including, for example, the fact that light travels at a certain speed -- and given the apparent size of the universe, those stars out there are too far away for the light to have reached us in just 10,000 years.) Well, they take many expedients, ranging from the claim that God created the universe "old" -- i.e., even on day one, if measured, it would have seemed old -- or else they argue that other "scientific" measures support their claims.

One of the points I made -- which the deacon agreed with, but didn't think was the knock-out I thought it was -- is that, even if human frailty makes it hard for us to penetrate the mysteries of how the universe works, the character of God, who wants to be known, argues against the idea that we can't trust the evidence of our senses. In other words, since we believe as Christians that God seeks to make himself known via revelation, it stands to reason he wants to be known through reason and observation too. The deacon had a response to that, but I can't recall what it was.

Here's the question I posed to the deacon: what keeps people who take that approach from also buying the theory that, all appearances to the contrary, the earth really is the center of the universe? (And, no, I'm not kidding.) Or, for that matter, buying into the flat-earth "theory"? (No, I'm not kidding!)

His answer? You can't, really; the same non-realist way of thinking that can do an intellectual game of Twister with the apparent age of things, can do the same with the apparent motions of heavenly bodies, and even with the apparent evidence of a round earth.

My question: do people who believe these things not build things? I.e., don't they use things like rulers and plumb lines and so forth? How can they trust them?

The deacon smiled and shrugged; and we both thought it a good idea to get back.

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