29 April 2006

The Axis of Evilution

CREATIONISM'S MOST WANTED

It’s not news that many religious people oppose the theory of evolution; it seems that no other scientific theory meets with even a fraction of the resistance. So I want to know, according to religious persons, what are the worst scientific theories?

Here are some I came up with (I’m calling this list “Creationism’s Most Wanted” or “The Axis of Evilution”):

1. Evolution
2. Big Bang
3. Genetic/neurological basis for homosexuality
4. Genetic determinism (contributed by Ben--see comments)

What would you add to the list?

And a related question: What are the most religious-friendly theories?

20 comments:

Ben said...

Can I rephrase your question to read: "What are the most religion-threatening scientific theories?"

Could there be a scientific theory or experiment that would trouble mormons (or you) long-term?

BrianJ said...

ben,

I rephrased that question so many times that I am happy to give anyone else a stab at it. I could never get it to ask what I wanted.

Is there an experiment that would trouble me? There are lots, but not for the reasons you may be asking about (and definitely not the ones that I am asking about). I would be troubled if the experiment were poorly planned, if it asked an unaswerable question, if it came at the expense of more important questions, if it used methods that were morally or ethically wrong (eg. human and animal experimentation).

I don't want to speak for mormons in general--that is what this post is for: to give mormons and others a chance to say what would or does trouble them.

Ben said...

Before going for what could be a off topic, I think you've got some good candidates for the worst, or evidently most-threatening-to-religionists scientific theories. Could the homosexuality "theory" be generalized under something like "genetic determinism"? I would probably be most troubled by that of the three since at its extreme I see it challenges agency and I am more committed to free agency than I am to a particular creation narrative. But I am not bothered by some genetic basis for homosexuality or a bunch of other things.

Could a theory or experiment reach conclusions that would threaten your faith? Or what would it take for science to challenge Mormonism? (Christianity in general seems pretty easy to trouble by science) Or is that even possible (for science to threaten Mormonism)? If it's not possible, can there be a meaningful religious-friendly scientific theory?

BrianJ said...

"Could the homosexuality "theory" be generalized under something like "genetic determinism"?"

Yes and no. I think that genetic determinism meets less resistance than the homosexuality theories. For instance, I have heard many people say about the former, "So what? My genes might make me like some things more, but I don't have to do them." Contrast that with, "No way would God make somebody gay." But I'm putting genetic determinism on the list as a separate entry.

"Could a theory or experiment reach conclusions that would threaten your faith?"

I suppose so, but I haven't seen that happen yet. Take Pinker's "Blank Slate", in which he argues against the existence of a spirit. His arguments are compelling and possibly even sound (I didn't spend much time analyzing them), so I would say they were a "challenge" to my faith, but not a "threat". In other words, they were not so bogus that I could just dismiss them, but they didn't take into account my personal spiritual experiences, so his arguments ultimately didn't threaten me. (I'll explicate my distinction between "challenge" and "threat" if asked, but I'm sure you get it anyway.)

Ben said...

I guess part of the genetic determinism vs. genetic/neurological basis for homosexuality issues arises in the distinction between 1,2,4 and 3. I see 1, 2, and 4 as theories, and 3 as supporting evidence for theory 4.

3 is obviously a provocative piece of a proposition to study and presents a great "other end" of a slippery slope for the religious science-enthusiast who in most other circumstances would defend 4 but really struggles if it can end up with conclusions like 3 (as you deftly illustrate.) And I'm flattered to influence the actual original post, which I thinks is a fun topic.

I thought your discussion of Pinker's Blank slate further illustrates a lack of coherence, and so possibly the impossibility of meaningful communication between religion and science. Should Pinker take into account your spiritual experiences? How could he? Could he do so and do justice to both science and religion? If he did, could you buy into his argument as you might buy into Newton's (which--I'm assuming--pose no 'challenge' or 'threat' to your religion)? Should you be able to question Pinker's 'science' based on such evidence? How compatible do you think religion and science should be? Will science eventually prove Mormonism? Dude, if it does, I am so going to roast my Catholic and Jewish and atheist friends!

BrianJ said...

Sorry it took so long to get back to you. I like the challenge you posed to me: "Should Pinker take into account your spiritual experiences? If he did, could you buy into his argument...?"

I don't think that it is possible for Pinker to consider my personal religious experiences. Possibly the aggregate of religious experiences from a large group of people--but then you and I would want him to distinguish between "real" and "mistaken" religious experiences. I think that is hard enough for someone looking at it with religious eyes, such that I cannot expect any scientist to address the issue.

"Should you be able to question Pinker's 'science' based on such evidence?"

I don't question his science, I question his conclusion. Remember, I think his argument was quite possibly sound. Based on the evidence before him, he may have reached the scientifically correct conclusion, but I still do not believe that conlcusion. In saying this I am 1) disputing his religion, not his science and 2) drawing a division between religion and science.

Doug D. said...

Interesting topic. I think the first thing people have to realize when it comes to science and religion is that they deal with two separate areas of experience. Science is the realm of objective, repeatable experience; while religion is the realm of subjective experience.

Spiritual experiences are inherently subjective and non-repeatable. If the three people who have posted on this blog, myself included, all prayed for the answer to a question there is no guarantee that we would all get an answer, to say nothing of getting the answer at the same time.

Science deals with repeatable things, if you drop a rock it falls to the earth everytime for everyone. Spiritual phenomenon do not work on demand like this for everyone everywhere.

The problem comes when science tries to cross in to religion's domain, or when religion tries to cross in to science's domain. Truthfully, of the four theories the only one that is difficult to make work with Mormon theology (assuming you do not accept a literal interpretation of the creation story in Genesis) is the Big Bang Theory. This one presents a problem because it asserts that there was a beginning to the universe, whereas from the Pearl of Great Price we know that matter and intelligence already existed when God started forming our spirits and the earth. Furthermore, we know that God has a physical body and therefore exists as part of the universe. Likely this needs to be resolved at the same time as infinite regress, which is a problem with Mormon theology. This problem, while not a testimony shaker, is a tougher nut to crack than the others.

Ben said...

Doug,

You write:
Spiritual experiences are inherently subjective and non-repeatable...Science deals with repeatable things, if you drop a rock it falls to the earth everytime for everyone.

I think this 'replicability' is central to the difference between science and religion, and is not as innocuous a difference as some may make it out to be. It's not a slight difference like: "Science and religion are similar, experiences in science just happen to be replicable." Rather, different stands on 'replicability' (whether it is advisable, possible, etc.) suggest as Doug writes, that they apply to different "areas of experience", I might push that further to read "realms of experience" (incomparable and not mutually exclusive) and connect them by their traditions in human experience.

With this distinction in mind--and correct me if I am misreading your comment--doesn't your reading of the PoGP seem to make it compete with scientific theories, that is belong to the realm of science?

When you write:
The problem comes when science tries to cross in to religion's domain, or when religion tries to cross in to science's domain. Truthfully, of the four theories the only one that is difficult to make work with Mormon theology (assuming you do not accept a literal interpretation of the creation story in Genesis) is the Big Bang Theory. This one presents a problem because it asserts that there was a beginning to the universe, whereas from the Pearl of Great Price we know that matter and intelligence already existed when God started forming our spirits and the earth.

Couldn't the scientist say: "The PoGP is problematic because it asserts that matter and intelligence already existed when God started forming our spirits and the earth, whereas from science we know that there was a beginning to the universe."

I guess I am quite reserved when it comes to making what I take to be ultimatums for the gospel, as in: "scientific theory x cannot be true because religious text y contradicts it...if scientific theory x is proven true, then religion z, that espouses text y cannot be true." I am really disturbed when a friend leaves the church because, for example, he is convinced by the big bang theory and believes that this means the gospel can't be true. I think a large part of embarassing religious history is comprised of just such ultimatums: a geocentric universe, evolution, etc.

Why make them (the two accounts of the origin of the universe in particular, and science and religion in general) mutually exclusive? Is there a case to make them so?

BrianJ said...

Doug,

As a scientist, I wish science were always as reproducible as you say! But I know what you mean in principle and it is a very interesting idea. If religious experience is not always reproducible, how do we make promises to others? (For example: "Pray and you will receive an answer.") Tricky situation.

Doug D. said...

Brian,

As an engineer it has been my experience that science is repeatable every time. If the experiment comes out different it is generally because the initial conditions or controls are not the same. The only caveat I will add to this statement is quantum mechanics which depending on the experiment may predict the statistical probability of an outcome instead of the actual outcome.

As far a making promises to people, that is the tricky part right? I mean we promise that if they pray with a sincere heart and contrite spirit that they will have their prayers answered. How do you know that your heart is sincere or your spirit contrite? Furthermore, even the General Authorities admit that not all prayers will be answered on our time table or even necessarily while we are here on earth. That said, you can be waiting an awful long time for the answer to one prayer, and nearly no time at all for the answer to another prayer.

Take two BYU students for example. After dating for awhile things are going good and they both start praying to know if the other person is the right one for them to marry. One half of the couple may get an answer immediately, while it may take the other half weeks or even months to know for sure. Here we have two people sincerely seeking an answer to the same question yet rarely is the answer given in exactly the same amount of time. It seems like the sisters always know before the brethren, but that may just be the experience of myself and my acquantiances. :o)

In my opinion this is one of the hardest things about spiritual experiences. I can try to replicate the situation I was in when I felt the spirit, but that does not mean that the person I want to feel the spirit will in the same situation. The experiment has too many random variables to be controlled. Some people feel the spirit strongly when music is played or sung, others during prayers or silent mediation, some during talks or sermons. The Holy Ghost witnesses to us in different ways at different times, and to different people differently. We can recognize the spirit in our lives, but it is hard to show it to someone else in their life.

BrianJ said...

Doug: "As an engineer it has been my experience that science is repeatable every time."

Please don't take my previous comment as being in disagreement. I recognize that the variability in my experiments--and hence, the difficulty of reproducing past results--is due to changes in the initial conditions. I was merely expressing a frustration that is common among scientists; namely, that results are not always easily reproducible.

This point is actually relevant here, I think. Is religious experience really not reproducible, as you say, or is it that the "initial conditions or controls are not the same"? When I first prayed to know if the Book of Mormon was true, I received one answer. Now that I already know, what would happen if I asked the same question again? Instead of being told "Yes," I might be told "Stop wasting valuable prayer time on questions you have already answered." Clearly, the initial conditions are different--and there's no going back in time to replicate those conditions.

So perhaps hypothetically religious experience is very reproducible--even from person to person--but it is not so in practice because we have so little control over the conditions. I'm interested in your thoughts on this.

Also, since you are an engineer, could you answer the question of the original post? Are there engineering theories that are frowned upon by the religious?

jeff g said...

Here I think are by far the 3 most important challenges to religion from science:

1) The new astronomy (age of earth, non-earth centered, etc.)

2) The new biology (Darwinism, design without a designer, non-animistic, man being related to other animals)

3) The new Cognitive Science (No soul, no counter-causal freewill, no "self" beyond the brain and its interaction with the world, etc.)

They happen to be listed from easiest to hardest in terms of being dealt with by religion, though I suspect that this simply says more about the chronology in which the issues arose more than anything else. I must confess, if religion could somehow "harmonize" the third one I will be REALLY impressed.

BrianJ said...

Jeff:

Thanks for the comment. I think your chronology/increasing difficulty is a good idea. Does that mean that all religion needs to resolve your #3 is more time?

An alternative explanation is that the more closely related to man, the more difficult the reconciliation. "New astronomy" merely moved man from the center of the universe, but not from the center of God's creation. "New biology" moves man from the center of creation, but not from eternity. Finally, "New cognitive science" removes man from eternity.

Doug D said...

Ben,

Sorry it has taken so long to get back to you. I don't get to check blogs very often, and my wife and I are leaving for China Thursday for two weeks to complete an adoption. Needless to say the last several weeks have been hectic.

"Couldn't the scientist say: "The PoGP is problematic because it asserts that matter and intelligence already existed when God started forming our spirits and the earth, whereas from science we know that there was a beginning to the universe.""

Actually, interestingly enough the PoGP and science are not at odds with each other yet. Science does not recognize intelligence as a substance so it falls outside the realm of science, matter it does recognize. Oddly enough though, the Big Bang theory offers no explanation as to where the matter / energy that started the Big Bang came from. We know from science that matter and energy are a duality, because matter is made of energy (E=mc^2). Hence the conservation of energy but not of matter in all cases. The Big Bang theory explains how the universe "started" but not how the initial conditions were set or where the original material came from. There has been some attempts to use M-theory and extra dimensions to come up with a solution to this, but nothing concrete has dropped out yet.

So currently science tells us that there was a super dense tiny lump of matter in the beginning, this lump of matter exploded and expanded creating our universe and providing the raw materials for stars and planets. The PoGP says that the matter was hanging around, as well as intelligence, and that God created us and the world with that matter and intelligence. The PoGP doesn't specifiy what the matter looked like other than unorganized I believe, so a super dense tiny lump would qualify.

A problem does arise in the fact that we believe God has a physical body, and if the science is correct that the universe did not exist until after the Big Bang exploded, then God could not have existed as a material form and part of that universe prior to that. I don't let little points like that worry me too much though, after all it hinges on our incomplete understanding of both theology and science and with that many unknowns it's hard to pretend the ground you're standing on is solid.

Doug D. said...

brianj,

I think we are both saying the same things now. Religious experiences are not reproducible in the same way that science experiments are because it is nearly impossible to create the same initial conditions every time. This is why the missionaries try to find receptive people, then teach them some basic discussions, have the read the Book of Mormon, and pray to know its truthfulness. It's an attempt to control as many initial conditions as possible, but if you go in to it with a closed mind you will not get the same experience that you would if you had an open and receptive mind.

Engineering, being a useful derivitative of science (is my bias showing?) doesn't tend to be as controversial as pure science can be. Some fundamentalist religious groups have issues with quantum mechanics. Even Einstein didn't like the theory, insisting that "God does not play dice with the universe." It turns out that if He doesn't, he makes it look convincingly like He does. Needless to say the same people who have issues with quantum mechanics do not want to give up the conviences of a computer which uses quantum mechanics to work. In fact most of the digital world that is run on semiconductor technology is hooked in to quantum mechanics to some degree or another. That said, no one writes headlines about it.

The lightning rod issues tend to be cosmological and biological. People have a hard time saying that science is wrong when you provide them with a product that was built using those scientific theories. Especially if it's an annoying product that they love like cell phones.

I think that cosmology and biology are the big ticket ones because they hit closest to religion's home turf. Religion has always been used to explain where we came from and why we are here. Cosmology and biology both tend to infringe on the where we came from question. Interestingly, while religious people get all bent out of shape when a new scientific theory infringes on Genesis, few people have considered that science provides no reasonable explanation for why we are here.

I have long asserted that it is impossible to prove the existence of God or disprove the existence of God, for the simple reason that faith is required of us for salvation. If I can prove the existence of God, then faith is no longer required. On the flipside the only way to prove that God does not exist is if He truly doesn't exist, which I find patently absurd and therefore do not believe it is possible. (Maybe I'll be proven wrong someday, but I doubt it.)

That said, it is perfectly reasonable to assume that an infinitely powerful and knowledgable being would not have left tracks we could follow easily. I take the book of Genesis and the PoGP as accounts that explain things in laymen's terms, not as accounts that are designed to hold up to scientific rigor.

As an example, electricity is often explained in terms of plumbing with electrons being the water. This analogy is inherently false, but gives a layman a decent qualitative understanding of what is happening. It is easy to destroy the analogy, but the analogy wasn't meant to be taken as truth, just a method of understanding.

It is natural for people to ask where they came from and why they are here. God could not provide the real answer to where we came from to the ancient Israelites because they would not have understood, so he provided an analogy that they could. Similiarly, I doubt that we could understand where we came from even now, and so we continue groping in the dark towards the light both scientifically and spiritually. Both are within the realm of God's power, only one is within the realm of religion.

I think the main reason for religion is to explain the one thing science can't, why we are here. What's the reason for my existence? Is there one? Scientific atheists will assert what is called the anthropomorphic principle which essentially states that the universe is this way because we are here to observe it, and if it were different then we wouldn't be here to observe it. If you flip this argument around you basically get a statement that says we exist because the universe exists in such a way that our development was inevitable. Kind of unsatisfying as to why we are here.

Religion has always dealt well with why we are here. The plan of salvation is easy enough to explain to children, and yet satisfying enough to content an adult. At the end of the day, religion handles this question much better than science, even if we don't have a perfect answer to the question now.

david said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
david said...

I am neither a scientist nor an engineer. But I do respect scientists, so please don't take my comments/questions below as being insulting or mocking (except for Brian, he can always use a little bit of mockery). I am sincerely seeking your opinions on the issues.

I have often heard said, as religion's trump card against science, something to the effect of "Since science is constantly changing, and what one scientist proves today another will disprove tomorrow, it doesn't really matter what science claims to prove regarding how we came into existence, why we are here, etc., because the scientific world will change its mind eventually anyways. In fact, to date, the scientific community has proved itself to be utterly useless when it comes to such matters." What are your thoughts on that statement? Is it true? Does science really change frequently? Does it provide a solid foundation for debate on religious issues?

Also, I find it interesting the way in which theories are used and intermingled with scientific laws- especially in religious/scientific (and political/scientific) discussion. Please correct me if I'm wrong here, because I've wondered about this for a long time, but isn't there a HUGE difference between a law and a theory? Isn't a theory simply just that, a theory? Something that hasn't been proved or disproved, just someone's opinion that's been tossed around the scientific world a bit, had experiments and studies to attempt to prove/disprove it, but hasn't quite met the muster of being actually qualified as true or untrue. And not until it is actually proven true does it become a law. Is that the way it works, or am I way off base here? And isn’t a law something that is proven and can be duplicated and has never been disproved? And even though the line between "theory" and "law" for a particular idea might be very thin, there is still a HUGE distinction between theory and law, and until the idea crosses that line, the distinction remains. Meaning, an idea can't be a half-breed of theory and law, like "mostly" law or "almost proven".

If so, then I don't think there are ANY theories that threaten religion, because by definition, they don't even claim to be known to be true (which is a major distinction between religious beliefs and scientific theories). Which is why I've never really been bothered by any theories such as big-bang, evolution, etc, any more than I'd be bothered by some theory that the world was really created from grape kool-aid.

The distortion and the lack of public distinction between a scientific theory and a scientific law leads to what I think is an abuse of power/knowledge by the scientific community. Because on the one hand, it is science that proves laws that lead to inventions and improvements in our lives (like cell phones, ugh!) that everyone can see and understand, yet on the other hand science forms theories that aren't proven. This puts the scientific community in an interesting position. They can claim, announce, discuss, debate, force into law, and drive people from religion, all in the name of science, but based on theory- based on some guy's fantasy that hasn't been proven. And then when questioned about it, they can simply say "you idiot layman who is stuck in the dark ages, this is science speaking, we invented the telephone, the internet, landed on the moon, and discovered the polio vaccine. How dare you question our authority. Now quit your religion, and enact that new legislation."

So here we have a collective group that is the author of all mankind-discovered truth and knowledge and also the author of any fantastic idea that they want to espouse. A strange dilemma. Its like a government without checks and balances. They write the laws AND write the theories AND are the final judges that decide whether an idea becomes law or stays theory. They are the legislator, policeman, lawyer, judge, jury, and executioner all in one. Or, perhaps, they are the emperor with no clothes.

Now I understand that not all scientists are out to wield unjust power over the minions of mankind (except for Brian). And my comments might be a bit extreme and crass. But I'm simply trying to make the point that, personally, I don’t think there is ANY scientific theory that could ever disturb me religiously or in any other way. Because personally, I take scientific theories with a grain of salt. I understand that they are based, many times, on sound study and existing law, and that they are useful in explaining things, and useful in developing further knowledge, theories, laws, and cell phones. But until an idea leaves the realm of "theory" and enters the realm of "law" I'm going to be very skeptic about its claims.

And hey, while we're in the "realm of theory", I'd like a pony please.

BrianJ said...

"Since science is constantly changing, and what one scientist proves today another will disprove tomorrow, it doesn't really matter what science claims to prove….”

This statement makes a prediction that is not supported by history. While scientists occasionally refute the conclusions of others, most of the “disproving” is more of a modification or clarification of previous statements. A simple example: Newton’s “universal” Laws of Thermodynamics which have been modified by modern physics (very small particles do not obey his laws). Does this mean that Newton was all wrong? No, it simply means that his laws are not quite as universal as he thought. This kind of adjustment and clarification has a good analogy in flight: pilots make periodic course corrections, but the overall flight path is the same.

”Does [science] provide a solid foundation for debate on religious issues?”

I think that Doug’s comments, above, address this fairly well, but perhaps you are asking a slightly different question. To summarize what Doug and I have said here (and Doug is welcome to correct me): science and religion do not provide solid foundations to debate each other due to intrinsic differences in the two.

Please correct me if I'm wrong here, because I've wondered about this for a long time, but isn't there a HUGE difference between a law and a theory?

This is a common misconception. Read on....

Isn't a theory simply just that, a theory?

It depends on if you are speaking scientifically or not. To non-scientists, the word “theory” means an unsupported idea, a guess, a possibility. To a scientist, a “theory” means something quite different….

”Something that hasn't been proved or disproved, just someone's opinion that's been tossed around the scientific world a bit, had experiments and studies to attempt to prove/disprove it, but hasn't quite met the muster of being actually qualified as true or untrue.”

Only mathematicians use the word “prove.” (You probably remember writing proofs in algebra or calculus.) Scientists want to know if something has been “demonstrated.”

”And not until it is actually [demonstrated] does it become a law.”

There is no graduation process in science. This erroneous--yet popular--notion of “the” Scientific Method is that one starts with a hypothesis that graduates to a theory and that some very special theories become laws.

The actual method is: Start with a hypothesis, which should be a yes/no question (eg. Does X interact with Y?). Test it. If it “passes” the test, then now you know a fact (eg. X interacts with Y). If it doesn’t “pass,” then you know nothing (eg. It has not been demonstrated that X interacts with Y). Now accumulate more facts (which are really just answers to questions).

Now for the theory/law part: You have a pile facts sitting there and you want to make sense of them. Theories, in general, describe why a particular phenomenon occurs. Laws, in general, describe what occurs. Here is an example:

Law of Gravity: two individual masses are attracted to one another. But what is the Theory of Gravity? In other words, why do the two masses come together?

Do not be misled into thinking that theories are unsupported guesses. They are explanations of all the available data. Theories, by definition, are not unchanging, because they constantly have to incorporate new data. One more example:

Law of Newborns: babies cry at night.

Theory of Nighttime Crying: babies cry because they are hungry. What is the data to support this? Babies stop crying after being fed, babies cry less often if they eat more before bed, etc. So this is a good theory, but is it perfect? Of course not: as every parent knows, just-fed babies sometimes continue crying. So we have to gather more data and modify our theory.

”If so, then I don't think there are ANY theories that threaten religion, because by definition, they don't even claim to be known to be true….”

But there are many theories (including evolution and big bang) that explain the data so well—and explain a huge amount of data without contradiction—that scientists would label them as close to “true” as scientists are willing to get. If there were a “graduation process” in science, then these theories would be “laws.”

”[Scientists] can claim, announce, discuss, debate, force into law, and drive people from religion, all in the name of science, but based on theory- based on some guy's fantasy that hasn't been proven.”

I don’t want to belabor the point, but I want to make it clear that “some guy’s fantasy” is not going to cut it in science. Not even for two seconds. That guy is going to be asked to present the data. The scientific community is going to judge his fantasy on that data. If it is purely fantasy, then it will be rejected. If his fantasy is the best explanation of the data, then it will be accepted.

There are some people who call themselves scientists who masquerade their fantasies as science. Interviews with these hypocrites often get published in papers and magazines in the “Science” section. (They are to science what intolerant, self-righteous, cruel Christians are to Christianity.)

”Now quit your religion, and enact that new legislation."

Except for some rare examples, I don’t think that scientists say this.

Aaron said...

There have been times when my religious beliefs have been disturbed when science showed me that some of my ideas from poor religious study were wrong.

Sometimes religious people try to make religion mean more than it does. Then when science proves them wrong they attack science instead of correcting their poor understanding of religion. This is bad religion. I think scripture addresses this problem and tells people not to extrapolate too much from the word that is given. Science has historically come at odds with religion when religion has overstepped it's understanding and tried to explain science. The converse is true as well.

There are no scientific ideas that present a problem for religion. When scientific ideas conflict with religion, they are no longer science, they are philosophy. Religion can only conflict with scence when it leaves the realm of religion.

Did the man go to the store to get some milk or did he walk there? Very simply put religion asks why, science asks how. When you ask a different question you get a different answer.

Doug D. said...

An ex-coworker of mine had a sign hanging in his office that addresses the "some guy's fantasy" idea; it read:

"In God We Trust, all others must provide data."