November 19, 2004

OK, God did it. What Then?

Over the last few days, I've used a fair amount of space talking about the attempt to push creationism into science education under the new-and-improved PR phrase 'intelligent design.' I understand the motives of the people pushing this to some extent, having been raised as such myself. But I got to wondering the other day, what happens if they get their way?

Scientific investigation is predicated on curiousity. Which means that the curious are in luck because the world is large, complex, and full of secrets. I feel confident saying that we will never know everything there is to know, even at the lightning speed by which people are gathering new information. And that's a good thing, because the whole motivation for discovery is the perception of one's own ignorance.

In fiction, the term for explaining the inexplicable and seemingly impossible through supernatural intervention is the deus ex machina. Such plot devices wave away the development of motivations, smooth over impossible situations, and answer questions that the characters could never have answered on their own. The answers and solutions become easy, like magic. The loose ends are tied up and everything is explained.

Such thinking applied to questions of natural science would answer every question with their own literal deus ex machina. "It happened because God did it." In a mind that should have a question and an impression of lack of knowledge, there is a certain 'answer' instead. That's the same thing as saying that something happens just because it happens, which is emphatically not any kind of science.

It might be painful to admit gaps in our understanding, but considering all the professions and fields of study available, it's only reasonable to admit that sometimes you just don't know. It isn't possible to know everything about politics, business, economics, world religions, cultural studies, human nature, law, military tactics, etc. That doesn't even begin to cover mathematics and the physical sciences, which are considered to be much harder, even though any answers you do come up with through the sciences are easier to verify than with studies in the humanities.

Creationists, or people who would like to mix religion and science, would like the scientific community to replace every "we don't know" with "God did it." But here's the thing, even if God did do it, so what? What does that mean in regards to getting answers about how things work? People used to believe that evil spirits caused epilepsy, and in all the time they believed that, they didn't learn a thing about the material causes and mechanisms of the disease.

This is no different than believing that God is the cause of wealth distribution. Is there a supernatural dispenser of good and bad financial luck? Because if there is, then it's easy not to study correlations between health, education, or socioeconomic background with future wealth or poverty. Nothing can be done about the problems of poverty if some deity has decreed it. There's no point in asking uppity questions about whether or not the well off swindled their way to the top or earned their lucre fair and square, because clearly that same deity favors them. More to the point, it implies that no one could expect any plan of action to make things different, and might explain why Machiavelli was such a big fan of state-approved faith.

That mindset is absolutely antithetical to figuring out the material cause and effect relationships of anything in our environment, and it doesn't stop with science, the most obvious expression of curiousity. Simply put, you can't learn anything at all if you think you already know it, you have to have what Buddhism calls "the beginner's mind." You have to be willing to admit you don't know yet and the conscious intent to look for the answer in spite of it. You have to do so knowing all the time that you will fail many times along the way because you don't entirely know what you're doing.

So what I'm curious to know is what changes in scientific research creationists would like to see as a material result of badgering people into rejecting evolution as a set of working assumptions? Do we stop investigating the mechanisms by which bacteria and viruses change? Do we give up on classifying organisms by their apparent relationships, and instead get to wondering if chimpanzees were put here because God planned ahead for human medical testing? Do we stop studying heredity & genetics? I'd like to know.

After many years of gathering information and making detailed observations, Charles Darwin became curious about whether species had simply been placed here in their present form or had developed by some other means. Louis Pasteur's observations over the years led him to postulate that disease and contamination was caused by microorganisms. Fortunately, neither of them waved off their own questions by deciding that there could be no possible other answer than the equivalent of 'just because.'

Posted by natasha at November 19, 2004 02:40 PM | Faith | Technorati links |

Creationists want to get rid of the scientific mindset because it acts as a bullshit filter and they think it'll be easier to get people to swallow their particular load of codswallop if there's none of that pesky 'evidence' to contend with. They feel put-upon because none of the actual evidence in any way supports the things that are central to their way of belief, and rather than try and adapt they want to change the rules so they don't have to deal with being wrong.

Posted by: beerwulf at November 19, 2004 03:07 PM

Organized Religion is a control mechanism and if it is challenged the leaders of the churches, mosques, or synagogues lose control of the individual. Science, creative discovery, and art liberate the individual, and secular humanists recognize that religion is a construct. The 'God' answer is a shortcut from thinking. It is much easier and comfortable to have faith in the make believe then to actually learn, think, and live in reality.

Posted by: TABS at November 19, 2004 03:34 PM

The God answer as presented by these wingnut Falwell clones isn't even beneficial to developing a deep and well-examined faith. How can it be called Christianity when they eschew self-examination, advocate war and violence, and ignore the suggestion of their alleged favorite philosopher to esteem good works over belonging to a specific creed.

There's nothing inherent to having a spiritual faith that requires people to be reactionary blockheads who despise anything hinting at rationality.

Posted by: natasha at November 19, 2004 04:58 PM

I'm going to throw something in here - a suggestion for some compassion for the creationist folk. Their issue is a theological one but they don't see it as that. In their effort to reconcile their own understandings and pictures of God with the discoveries of science, especially evolutionary science, they opt to throw out the discoveries of science. But that makes no sense. The problem is with their conception of God, with their picture of the universe, with how it all fits together and it is fundamentally an issue of theology. The scientific community is not the proper forum for their discussions. They certainly need to ask questions and strive to understand, but their efforts to deny the perceptions of evolution are futile.

Other religious people, including many scientists, who have varied and broader conceptual frameworks of God or spirituality or Higher Power or What Is, have none of the internal conflicts of creationists. For them the world as we are discovering it is a place of wonder and surprise.

But creationists are faced with the prospect that if evolution is the way the world moves forward, then they need to rethink their ideas and pictures of God. That's a threatening and difficult enterprise, but one which is ultimately more rewarding. And of course the propoer venue for that conversation is not the biology departments of universities and schools, but the theology departments of seminaries and religious institutions.

My guess is that a hundred years from now they will have sorted it out. Remember Galileo.

Posted by: ds at November 22, 2004 10:55 PM