Evidence, Scientific Progress, and Creationism

I’m promoting a comment by Jonathan Bartlett, who deserves some response where it will be seen, and also a link to his material. So I’m going to quote his comment in full and then give my response.

“If one can fully analyze and test a model, one can assemble that model based on hypothesis and testing. Science works that way.”

I think this is where the issue lies. I think your view of science doesn’t take into account the history of science — i.e. the way that science has actually advanced. Hypothesis and testing come _after_, they are not the raw material of scientific breakthrough. The raw material of scientific breakthrough is the creative mind of the scientist.

Take relativity, for instance. When it came out, the evidence was _against_ it, yet Einstein held onto it. Why? Because he had a vision of what reality was like and investigated it. Eventually the evidential problems were sorted out, but that happened after-the-fact.

When Gallileo proposed the heliocentric model, it upset not only astronomy, but physics as well. On top of that, it didn’t have the evidential support, and in fact what Gallileo thought was his main argument turned out to be false (he thought the tides were the result of the oceans sloshing around – this was his clenching argument – he also thought that the idea that they were the result of the moon were absurd). But heliocentrism won the day, not because Galileo found a model that fit the data better (it did not) or that made better sense of the world (it completely upset all theories of physics without offering an alternative), but it was an intuitive, creative spark of genius that would take centuries before the evidence came in. It wasn’t until Newton that a physical theory was able to make sense of both physics and heliocentrism. Before Galileo, physics was thought to be based on distance from the earth. That’s why the stars don’t fall — they are at a distance where they have different physical laws. With Galileo, physics lost all reasonings for how the stars seem to obey different laws (which Newton cleared up).

All this to say that it is not hypothesis and testing that results in scientific breakthroughs. These come after-the-fact, and are used to convince other people. It is the creativity and vision of the scientist which actually creates breakthroughs. Obviously, this doesn’t occur absent serious study of nature, but it doesn’t flow simply from observation+hypothesis+testing either.

A good book on the subject is “For and Against Method”, which contains Imre Lakatos’ lectures on scientific method as well as his correspondence with Feyerabend.

As for creationism, you may (or may not) be interested in my own views on the subject:

[link URL replaced to avoid wide line]

A short tidbit:

“Scientists rely on observation to build models. While we may have circumstantial evidence of what happened in the past, historical documents provide the only first-hand evidence of what occurred. Should not a scientist conform their theories to observations, rather than the other way around? Do not scientists often rely on the observations of others? Why is it then out-of-bounds to consider the observations of the ancients in consideration of physical theory?”

There are a number of seemingly good points in both the comment and in the referenced blog post. But the appearance is a bit less convincing when one goes under the surface.

First, I’d like to address the issue of the history of science. Bartlett draws a very clear line between new insights, such as relativity, and the testing of models, such as occurs continually through hypothesis and testing. He did not say this, but this approach is an effort to put creationism on an equal footing with evolution scientifically. If we can make creationism and evolutionary theory two separate models that were produced by some sort of intuition, we shift the whole issue to the testing of the models, and eliminate the religious source. Who cares about the source? Can you explain how Einstein’s mind worked to come up with relativity?

But that view, I think, depends on a false dichotomy, a clear distinction between the discovery or invention of a model, and the testing that occurs after that model exists. I certainly cannot comprehend the functioning of Einstein’s mind, but he did not come up with relativity in a vacuum. If I understand the history correctly there were a number of problems that had to be solved, a number of predictions of his theory that had to be tested before the theory as a whole could be accepted, thus one shouldn’t call it the “hypothesis of relativity.” It’s explanatory potential was too great for that. And yet it was not produced by virgin birth.

Not only that, but it is quite possible that someone will again supersede the current theory of relativity with something that explains more data. When that explanation first comes, it may jump ahead of the available evidence by intuition as well. At the time of his or her initial insight there may well be numerous problems, but the new theory will provide a way to test its validity and see whether it can, in fact, deal with those problems.

But a better example, and one with which I’m more familiar, would be the initial insight of the theory of evolution. Charles Darwin did not receive his theory by inspiration, divine or otherwise. He didn’t invent it whilst inhabiting an ivory tower. He went out and made quite a number of observations. Now note that none of the individual observations can be said to demonstrate the entire theory. They are simply data points along the way. From many observations, and from many questions, Darwin proposed his answer–variation + natural selection. Having proposed that answer, other scientists can test that model and accept it, modify it, or reject it.

For example, Darwin had no idea what the mechanism of variation was. That has been supplied by discovery since. There are many details of the theory, such as the speed of evolutionary change, the type of mutations that drive it, whether it is essentially a glacially slow steady process or whether it moves forward by leaps separated by periods of greater stability. It’s also theoretically possible to find something that will supersede the theory of evolution, though that doesn’t seem likely. Refinement, yes. Replacement, not so much.

Which brings me to my next point. Not only is the distinction between the large paradigm shifts not binary, but rather a progression, but the boundaries of a model are not nearly so tight as many imagine. What Darwin did by producing a simple but powerful engine for evolution is closely related to what a scientists does when he hypothesizes that a certain action will produce a certain result and then tests for it. The scale is much smaller, the impact much less revolutionary, but the process is still related. Both look at what they have, and imagine how things might be better explained than they are now. Both are subject to test, even though one is tested in a lab very quickly, and the other produces generations of laboratory work for millions of scientists.

The approach proposed by creationists, however, not only requires that the insights that produce theories be distinguished sharply from the process of hypothesis and testing, they also require that “models” have sharp boundaries. “Worldview” is often used in a similar way. Thus the consequences of this dual division are that: 1) The various models exist independently of of evidence and 2) The models limit the ways in which those who accept them can think.

This is why certain readers of this blog so vigorously accuse me of “evolutionary thinking.” To many of us, that just sounds weird. To them, it sounds like a stunning blow. The accusation is actually that my thinking is limited by the boundaries of the evolutionary model, and that I’m therefore incapable of thinking outside that box. This is why it is easy for creationists to imagine millions of scientists self-deceived. It sounds reasonable to the creationists, because they see evolutionary theory as a box inside which adherents are confined in their thinking. They see scientists as trapped in their “religious” belief in evolution in the same sense as creationists are trapped in their view of creation. But I could accept one of the creationist models any time someone produces one, tests it, and it holds up as more valid that the theory of evolution. I’m not stuck at all.

But the “boxes” in which thinking occurs are not nearly so hermetically sealed as creationists would like to imagine. It’s convenient for them to think of them that way. I’m reminded of the ad on the bulletin board at the university where I took my MA degree. An organization was offering grants to people who would do research proving that the earth was no more than 6,000 years old. Now to me, that sounds very unscientific. I dare say scientifically trained readers of this blog will think it is unscientific.

But there’s where the use of models and worldviews saves the creationists. To them, that is no more biased than someone going out to study fossils in the context of evolutionary theory. One is simply using the “creationist worldview (or model)” and the other is using the “evolutionary worldview.” It’s very important for them that you don’t examine that too closely, otherwise you’ll notice that the two things are not equal.

To see how unequal, simply consider the difference between what would happen if the student of fossils came back with verifiable evidence that the fossils he was studying didn’t fit into the current understanding of their age. To scientists it would be time to do further studies, to see how far their understanding of the theory of evolution must be changed, or if one verified the existence of a mammal fossil in Cambrian rock, it would be time to discard the theory and start looking for another.

And what of creationist studies? Well, evidence has been located over and over that indicates that the model simply doesn’t work, and they simply go back and look for more. They are committed to the model in precisely the way the accuse scientists of being committed to theirs. Their box has better seals than ours!

Now again, let’s avoid binary thinking. I’m not arguing that all scientists are wonderfully open minded, while all creationists are totally closed. In fact, there are closed minded scientists. I have a problem saying there are open-minded young earth creationists, simply because I can’t see how anyone open-minded could reject the overwhelming evidence for an old earth. I would guess there are open minded old-earth creationists, however. People are people and they are imperfect. But as a whole, science is not dedicated to protecting a particular model, though they are certainly going to require evidence to reject a currently well supported one. They have to, otherwise there would be no direction to their research, and no progress would be made.

The “creation model” and the “evolutionary model” are thus not two equal or even similar entities. One was born of the observation of nature. The other comes from an ancient document which some people, and I’m one, regard as inspired.

To turn to the other element of Bartlett’s comment and also of his blog post, let’s consider the nature of evidence for a historical event. I can only imagine that he hasn’t done much study of ancient history, because it is not only scientists who are reluctant to take information from ancient documents at face value. The first thing to note is that eye witnesses are not as reliable as popular opinion would have it. But further, ancient documents also require a good deal of evaluation.

Bartlett is to be commended for noticing that there is no requirement to see the Bible as 100% without error in order to regard it as having historical value. Thus he rejects binary thinking in that area, and that is valuable. I am continually annoyed by those who assume that if I believe one element of history as recorded in the Bible is invalid, I must automatically view all elements of history in the Bible as invalid.

The same thing is true of a wide variety of historical documents. A historian should examine each document for its historical reliability, and then it becomes one in a mix of factors that will go into reconstructing historical events. Amongst these factors are the proximity to the event of the record in question. If I have an inscription made during the time of a particular king which records certain events, that is more reliable than a copy of that inscription made on a clay tablet a couple of generations later. For a Biblical example, the Siloam tunnel inscription is regarded as more valuable as historical evidence than the the record of that event in 2 Kings 20:20, and that record is in turn more reliable than the later record in 2 Chronicles 32:30.

Bartlett notes:

The question is one of trust. Scientists tend to trust each other more than those outside their field. They don’t trust ancient documents. However, is this not simply an instance of chronological snobbery? How is the decision to trust another scientist’s data set not the same as the decision to trust the written observations of the ancients? Why is one data set necessarily scientific and the other one not?

Well, no, it’s not snobbery, because the ancients observed and wrote many things that are demonstrably not so. Try reading the description of the procession of the equinoxes some time from the book of Enoch. It’s weird and humorous, but one would hardly call it “observations of the ancients.” But let me get right down to the point. I have to guess here, but I think the evidence is pretty strong that we’re being pointed in the direction of Genesis 1-2 (at least), and are being asked to regard this as “the observations of the ancients, and give it substantial scientific weight.

But why on earth would we do such a thing? What evidence do we have that would suggest that this is a reliable historical narrative? I think that it was not written as such, but suppose it was. What we have at the oldest is a copy at produced nearly 4,000 years after the events even assuming young earth chronology. So by the standards of reliability for historical documents, we know that we don’t have an autograph. We have many generations removed copy. Then we have to ask when this was written. Well, the earliest proposed date is in the 15th century BCE. Again using young earth chronology, and placing the great flood in the 24th century BCE, we would have about 2500 years between the event in question and the writing.

So in order to produce any notion of reliability, we must bring in divine inspiration. Oral transmission of any level of detail for that period of time goes well beyond unlikely. So if there was divine inspiration, and the divinity involved intended to convey a narrative history of the events, then they have a chance of being accurate. One wonders why, if that was God’s intention, he didn’t do more about the copying process, but I’ll leave that aside.

Let’s bypass all the determinations of accuracy for a document and say that we’re going to give Genesis 1-2 the benefit of the doubt, treat them as narrative history, treat them as accurate, and produce a model from them. Thus we have young earth creationism. We set forth to test this model and it turns out that it proves false. There is such overwhelming evidence that the earth is overwhelmingly older than 6,000 years that it is hard to imagine how one can consider that model anything other than completely blown. And if one is to argue old earth creationism, the idea of “ancient witnesses” becomes completely irrelevant.

So scientists again don’t reject documentary evidence out of arrogance. First, there is very little documentary evidence that impacts their field at all, because written history is such a tiny percentage of the earth’s total history. Second, one of the tests of written history is its correlation with physical possibilities. History is a process of probabilities, one of the reasons it is impossible to prove a miracle. A miracle is inherently improbable.

Finally let me look a bit at how any historical discipline works. One always works by some kind of inference and relies on probability. Let’s say an ancient document says that an army moved 300 miles in a day. In ancient times, I could say that didn’t happen. Somebody’s lying. Now let’s suppose we have two accounts of a battle, and both sides report victory. How do we determine which report is accurate, if either one is? Well, we can look at the archeology on both sides of the battle. If, for example, we find evidence of occupation or domination by one power over the other, we will have to believe he won. Supposing everything goes back to the status quo ante? Well, then we assume that both of them lied.

Archaeologists like to find hard evidence. Geologists, on the other hand, don’t have any likelihood of finding relevant written records. All they have is, in a sense, “hard” evidence. They have to work a great deal by inference. But the idea that science occurs only in laboratories is equally misleading to the idea that it goes either in huge leaps that create models, or in tiny steps involving hypothesis and testing. Each theory provides predictions of what one will find, then one looks at the actual fossil record and sees what is there. So a theory that is historical by nature can be falsified without finding an eyewitness or putting 4.5 billion years of planetary history into a super-lab.

All attempts to put young earth creationism on an equal footing with evolutionary theory fail. But don’t expect them to go away.

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  1. There’re some additional factors going into Darwin’s thinking.

    First, Darwin was reading Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology during the voyage of the Beagle in the 1830s. Very likely, that set the stage for thinking that many small changes, accumulated over time, could yield startling results, such as mountains and canyons. Evolution by natural selection is a biological analog of this general geological principle.

    Second, Darwin read Malthus shortly after returning to England. There he read of the Malthusian idea of struggle for existence, with respect to human populations only. Darwin extended this idea to biological populations in general.

    The topic of inspiration, whether with respect to explanations of physical phenomena or to the arts, is a fascinating study. I really don’t have any problems with one’s choice of sources for such inspiration. The contestable issues arise when we examine what occurs after inspiration strikes.

    In the case of Creationists, the usual route is to invoke miracle upon miracle, nearly all of which are not even hinted, let alone explicitly stated, within the books of the Bible. Such miracles are invariably needed to “solve” one problem after another, arising from the need to hold fast to a given Biblical interpretation.

    For example, a geologically recent global flood (GRGF) implies a number of problems. One set of these problems stems from the tremendous rains and/or waters from the “fountains of the deep” that are required to inundate Earth’s surface, above the height of Mount Everest; one problem from this set is that the atmospheric temperature becomes intolerably high. In order to address this problem, YECs commonly respond that Mount Everest essentially did not exist at the time, but formed later. But nowhere do we find any Biblical mention of the earthquakes and tsunamis that would result from such recent rising of Everest. The response to THIS problem is typically invoking Genesis 7:11, where the “fountains of the deep” burst open. Unfortunately, this violates the timeline that YECs proposed in the first place; Everest couldn’t have resulted from Genesis 7:11, without re-introducing the problems associated with all that water. So it’s undocumented miracle time for the YECs — again.

    All this can be avoided, by the simple and humble YEC admission that their ideas are not supported by science, and that science often refutes their ideas. But YECs often will not have any of that. This is a culture war, and the field of science must be won over, to save the day. It matters not that in “saving” the village of science, they end up destroying it in the process.

  2. Thanks for the additional information. Of course the YECs do not want to admit their views are not supported by science, and thus they work to degrade science to provide a place for themselves.

  3. Henry, I have often enjoyed your comments on a variety of issues over the years. It is thus amazing to me that someone of your professed Christian views could be so derogatory in your comments about Young Earth Creationists, especially given that you were once one yourself. If it was a journey for you to arrive at your present position do not others deserve the same opportunity? And let’s say that others remain Young Earth Creationists, do they then deserve your scorn? Though I am not a YEC, I know many sincere Christians who are, including many professional scientists. Most, however, are on a journey to better understand the truth and they openly admit that much of the scientific evidence is against them in many ways. Not in terms of evolution, but in terms of the age of the earth. They do not, however, in any way deserve the epitaph of being people who “work to degrade science to provide a place for themselves.” Instead, they are people who are trying their best to uphold biblical truth to the best of their ability in the face of an evolutionary field that is dominated and led by militant atheists such as Richard Dawkins, et al.

    Now it is true that the evidence for evolution can certainly be interpretted theistically rather than atheistically. However, to pretend that that is how Darwin himself interpretted it or to pretend that it is presented “neutrally” in public schools, universities, and in the general public square is to bury one’s head very deep in the sand. And how foolish to think that scientists – especially atheistic scientists – would simply “discard the theory and start looking for another” if the evidence turned out to be against them. This implies a neutral stance on their own part that simply does not exist in a world dominated by vested interests and where professional advancment is dependent on being a part of the “professional club.”

    Finally, in regards to history, the Darwinian theory of evolution arose at time when evolution was already “in the air”. There were many, many evolutionists who preceded Darwin including Erasmus Darwin, Lamarck, and even people such as Goethe. Darwin, along with Wallace, provided the mechanism of “transmutation plus natural selection.” Against the background of Herbert Spencer’s “survival of the fittest” his ideas caught on in the general public with each person taking it in whatever way they wanted. However, by the last edition of The Origin of Species he had waffled very much on natural selection and suggested many other possible mechanisms as well.

    It is true that he was heavily influenced by Lyell’s Uniformitarianism and then by Malthus’ work on poplulation as well, however, some of the smartest people of his own time believed that none of these men had made convincing cases. The agnostic Henry Adams, for instance, one of the greatest historians of the 19th century and a close friend and popularizer of Charles Lyell was anything but convinced by their science. After a close inspection of it he called it “Evolution that did not evolve; Uniformity that was not uniform; and Selection that did not select.” And again in his own words “ponder over it as he might Adams could see nothing in the theory of Sir Charles but pure inference, precisely like the inference of Paley, that if one found a watch, one inferred a maker. All he could prove was change.” The truth is that after 150 years that is still the state of affairs. That is, for those who are willing to be honest with the facts and what can actually be proved, or not proved, by those facts – apart from inference of one kind or another.

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