Saturday, October 29, 2011

The debate that should not be: Some thoughts about creationism, intelligent design and other "alternative explanations"

If you blog about human evolution there’s one topic which is really hard to avoid. I’m of course speaking about creationism, or “intelligent design” or some other kind of unscientific explanation about human evolution. So far I tried to avoid this topic as best as I could, since I don’t feel competent enough to actually write something about it. However, last week I received an Email from one of my German readers which forced into writing something about it. 

I don’t want to talk about the exact content of the email or about the (rather short) debate I had with the person who wrote me this Email. What I want to talk about is my point of view on this whole issue and why I think we shouldn’t even have these kinds of debates.
It goes without saying that this text only represents my opinion so don’t interpret the stuff I’m going to write as some kind of general explanation about this topic.
I’m going to split this Post into three different parts to make it a little bit easier to follow my line of argument.

1. Why Sciences and Religion shouldn’t interfere with each other.
To understand this point, first of all we need to define what we understand under the term “God”. This probably is a topic for not one but several posts itself, but for the sake of my argument, let’s put as simple as possible.
“God” is an entity which almighty and which isn’t completely detectable. The first premise directly leads to the latter, because if an entity is almighty then it also has power over those parts of reality which we can’t perceive.
Now, if we want to build a scientific hypothesis, we have to make sure that we can actually falsify it (if you want to know why, I wrote something about it here). But how can we falsify something which isn’t completely detectable? The simple answer is: We can’t.
Therefore, if we try to explain our world due to the work of a non detectable entity, we’re leaving the scientific framework.
The scientific method is not suited for those questions. You simply can’t prove or disprove God due to scientific methods. Or to put it more bluntly: “God doesn’t matter in Science”
This does not mean however, that each scientist is an atheist. You can believe in whatever you want, as long as you don’t try to mix up both “worlds”. Every attempt to do otherwise ends in a logical fallacy.

2. Why, in my opinion, Science produces reliable statements about our world.
Some of the more “advanced” criticisms of evolutionary theory try to show that the theory itself or the scientific method itself is somehow erroneous in some manner.
The interesting thing about the different perspectives on the world, whether they are scientific or more metaphysical is, that all of them need some kind of basic assumptions to actually work. If you don’t make those assumptions you will, at some point during your argument, come to a stage where your own arguments become circular.
But which are those basic assumptions for a scientific world-view?

The first assumption is that we live in a world which consists of laws.
-If there are no laws in nature, then we won’t be able to make any reliable statements about it.

The second assumption is that we’re able to recognize these laws.
-Science is a cognitive process. If we weren’t able to recognize any of these laws, than we couldn’t do any kind of science.

These basic assumptions are the fundamental aspects on which every other scientific theory is build upon and it’s the only context in which they make any kind of sense. The question, whether or not I “believe” in evolution isn’t a real question. It’s simply the explanation which, in the framework I presented here, makes the most plausible. The “question of faith” doesn’t ask itself if you look at separate scientific theories, it’s only important if you look at the basic assumptions of Science. And so far I haven’t found anything which convinced me that those basic assumptions are wrong.
However, this does not answer the question, whether or not science can answer every question. Unfortunately we will never receive a message which says: Achievement get! Explain every law of nature!” Or to say it with the words of Gerhard Vollmer:

"The degree of consistency between our theoretical knowledge of the world and the real world remains unknown to us, even if it's complete."

[From: Vollmer G. (1975) Evolutionäre Erkenntnistheorie Hirzel, Stuttgart, Leipzig, p. 137, (probably horribly) translated])

Ok, after we set the stage for the debate, let’s move on to the original point of this post.

3. What’s that stuff got to do with creationism?
The first point of my argument shows that it’s completely impossible to prove or disprove God within a scientific framework. Therefore any kind of “theory” which tries something like that is making a logical fallacy. This works in both directions. You can’t explain any kind of natural law with the work of God, as well as you can’t demonstrate that God doesn’t exist.

The second point shows that it’s not the question whether or not someone believes in a certain scientific theory, because its validity is the result of the scientific framework. Not “believing” in a certain theory means omitting any kind of ability to recognize laws in nature and therefore this person leaves the scientific framework. Any kind of argument which follows after this point is subject of my first line of argument.

Now about the debate on creationism: Both of my arguments show that any kind of argument which is brought up by these people is not part of the scientific framework. This means that their arguments don’t matter in a scientific discussion. But it also means that you’ll never be able to use purely scientific arguments if you want to debate with them. Someone who isn’t convinced that we’re able to recognize laws in nature will never be convinced by scientific arguments, simply because he doesn’t believe them.

In my opinion the only thing you can try to do is to show, that there are no conflicts between scientific and metaphysical (e.g. religious) views on the world, as long as both sided try to stay within their specific framework. Both sides have completely different premises and thus there is no reason for a conflict. Those conflicts only occur if one side tries to interfere with the other, but as I demonstrated, this is logically false.
Trying to debate this stuff on this level is pretty difficult, since you’re leaving the scientific framework and enter a purely philosophical one and I think this is the reason why this whole debate does not take place on this level. This and also because I think there isn’t much public interest in these kinds of debates. The public tends to direct its attention to the loudest participants and those aren’t often the most competent when it comes to actual discussions.

Anyway, this is my opinion about this whole story. I have to admit that I'm not very comfortable with this post. Firstly because I think I left some important questions unanswered and secondly because I’m not very confident that my English is actually good enough for this topic, in fact I’m pretty sure it isn’t. So, if you don’t understand some of my arguments, please tell me and I’ll try to clarify things. Furthermore I would really like to know how other people think about this debate.