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"Reconciling Science and Religion"

The conundrum of Evolution and Creation

Scientists and religionists look at the data

January 2006

Scientists and religionists agree that the appearance of life on Earth occurred in conformity with the laws of nature.  They just don't agree what those laws comprise.  Within each group's own axioms, their arguments are satisfying.
The mystery of the appearance of the human species on the Earth has motivated philosophers for millennia, and set secular thinkers at odds with religious authorities long before the time of Darwin.  With the development of modern biology the case for the naturalistic-mechanistic evolution of life has become convincing to scientists and to most secular thinkers.  Yet there remain great numbers of believers in deity who reject this explanation in favor of a theory of divine creation.  Though they may be viewed by secularists as engaging in unsupported, fantastic and fuzzy thinking, that may not be the case at all.

The same data, but ...

The more thoughtful of biologists and creationists use equivalent procedures to arrive at their respective conclusions regarding creation and evolution of life on Earth. They each:

  1. Assemble and examine available information;
  2. Establish parameters for evaluating explanatory theories; that these must conform to natural laws is axiomatic;
  3. Consider alternative theories in light of the chosen parameters;
  4. Draw a conclusion (tentatively, perhaps) about the most plausible explanatory theory and reject (tentatively, perhaps) implausible theories.
The biologist performs these steps and concludes that the theory that best fits the data is the mechanistic evolutionary theory, based on individual variation and natural selection as promoted by Charles Darwin, modified by modern understanding of paleontology, genetics, biochemistry, physiology, biogeography, etc. In considering the creationist's theory of divine intervention, the biologist will reject this because (a) the existence of divine beings is unproved and appears unnecessary; (b) the mass of biological and paleontological evidence is consistent with the theory of mechanistic evolution; and (c) the divine creation theory does not comply with the chosen parameters for acceptance of a plausible theory; that is, divine intervention is a supernatural concept that cannot be accounted for within the "accepted natural laws" as science currently understands them. The individual biologist may also be influenced by the general acceptance of evolutionary theory by the scientific community, i.e., the theory has for him primacy and pride of place.

The thoughtful creationist also performs these steps and concludes that the theory that best fits the data is the theory of divine creation promoted by countless religions throughout human history. In considering the theory of mechanistic evolution of life, the creationist rejects this as unlikely because of (a) its complexity (by the principle of "Ockham's razor" divine intervention appears to him a simpler and more direct explanation); (b) its still "unproved" nature – no creation event by evolution has been replicated in the lab or proved by standard statistical methods, nor has divine involvement been disproved; and (c) the divine creation theory fits well within the "accepted natural laws" as understood by the religious community. He may point out that the "laws of nature" are entirely empirical; they've not been proved to be universal or all-inclusive, and have not been shown to exclude divine acts. The individual creationist may also be influenced by the general acceptance of divine creation theory by the religious community, i.e., the theory has for him primacy and pride of place.

The Laws of Nature

How can we assess these contrary conclusions from the same data set?  Certainly, there is a conflict in what the two sides will accept as permissible within the laws of nature.  And this is the crux of the problem:  They do not agree on the bounds of the laws of nature, and therefore do not agree on what may occur in conformity with the laws of nature.  To the scientific community, "natural science" is limited to that which can be understood in terms of nature's mechanistic laws, as defined by science.  Deities are not part of that scheme.  But to the religious community, deity is indeed an integral part of nature and its laws.  The religionist may reason that a belief in God, professed even by many scientists, necessitates acceptance of the idea that God may act.  If we don't accept that God may act, God is not there, a proposition that hardly any scientist will claim to have proved.  Therefore, scientists' dismissal of the divine creation theory is prejudiced, unsupported, and unscientific.

Let us look at the nature of knowledge about this matter;  where are we on solid ground and where are we not?

What do we know?

Believers in divine action do not generally claim scientific support for their view.  Theirs is a tradition- and belief-based position, and they see themselves as holding the historical high ground of divinely revealed truth;  it seems reasonable to them that opponents must prove them wrong in order to displace them.  And it must be said that science and the opponents of divine creation theory have not proved them wrong. Nor can they ever, as we shall see, and much of the agony associated with this subject comes from making the error of trying just that.

Those who hold to the theory of mechanistic development of life naturally do claim scientific support for their position.  But it's easy to forget that while the natural sciences have chosen to operate within a set of empirical rules known loosely as natural or physical laws, this set of rules has not been demonstrated to contain all permissible principles for explanation of the natural world.  When the religionist adds divine acts to his list of permissible principles, we really cannot protest that this is unreasonable.  What we can do is to clarify the bounds of natural science;  it deals, we should say, with the mechanism of nature, elucidated through demonstrated physical laws.  There are truths about our universe that cannot be addressed with the tools of science.  "Meaning", "purpose", "intent", and "design" are words that describe such concepts;  and that's the reason why such notions have no place within the bounds of natural science nor, of course, in the science classroom.

Two aspects of divine creation theory present conflict with the theories of natural science:  First, initial creation as such, whether of the universe or of life on Earth;  and second, the stepwise sequence of life forms on Earth generally known as evolution.  As to the first – creation – it is vital for scientists, for the public, and above all for science teachers to be clear and honest about these facts:

  • Science has not discovered, nor can it discover, anything about the possible involvement of deity in creation.
  • Science does not deny the existence of God.
  • No result of science disputes anyone's belief in God or in any acts of God, such as acts of creation.
Simply put, science does not and cannot say or know anything about God. It is not farfetched, however, to surmise that some pupils in some school science classes have been subjected to instruction that has positively mocked, even denied, any role of deity in creation.  Such instruction is dishonest and misrepresentative of what science has learned;  it is an abuse of the science teacher's position, it is in other words academic bullying.  It is injurious both to the student and to the atmosphere of openness and academic freedom that should prevail in schools.  The fact is that if a student believes that God created the universe and life on Earth, science has learned nothing to dispute that.  Science has learned a great deal about potential mechanisms that may have been involved in the beginning of life, but these, as we know, have not been proved to have occurred in the actual event. The science teacher must make that clear: what we teach in science classes is our best current understanding of the mechanism of nature.

Second, as to the gradual evolution of complex life forms on Earth, here science is clearly on firmer ground.  The sequential appearance of these life forms is a matter of fact, indisputably shown by fossil evidence.  Yet there are, as every biologist and paleontologist knows too well, vast gaps in our understanding of the development of complex life systems.  The evidence that connects the mass of data together, from fossils to molecular biology, and convinces us of the overall correctness of evolutionary theory is really a matter of "weight of evidence".  The evidence is indeed weighty, and appears to be consistent with the evolving theory of evolution, but by the nature of that evidence it is still circumstantial as to the causes and mechanism of speciation and development of complex systems.  Many of the postulated mechanisms and processes of evolution have been demonstrated in the laboratory, using fast-reproducing organisms like bacteria. The process of speciation – taking a population of organisms through mutation to the point where it is no longer reproductively compatible with the parent population – has not yet been achieved in the laboratory for higher species. Until that has been shown, the theory of evolution remains a well-supported but not fully demonstrated theory.  As such, well-grounded skepticism about aspects of the theory will not be an unreasonable view, and is in fact necessary for its further deveopment.  Assertions to the contrary are unjustified scientific dogmatism.

What may we know?

We can expect that one day biologists will succeed in building a living, respiring cell from nonliving chemicals.  (This work is well underway, and functioning viruses have already been built in the laboratory.)  Having passed that hurdle, having shown that the elusive spark of life can develop within science's laws of nature, the further hurdles of metabolism, reproduction, control systems, then tissue, organ, and organismal development will be conquered in turn.  We will have outdone Dr. Frankenstein.  These advances, when they come, will convince large numbers of former doubters that life on Earth may well have developed without outside assistance.

But it won't convince all.  And one reason is that we will still not have proved that we have a complete set of "laws of nature".  We will not have proved that divine activities cannot have a place in nature's laws.  And therefore we will not have proved that the creationist's simple and elegant answer to the riddle of creation is any less likely than the biologist's.  We may as well get used to a long dialogue on this issue, and we may as well determine to make it a respectful and courteous dialogue, understanding that our starting points may never be the same.

Lessons and resolution

There are lessons in this for us.  Clearly one lesson for the scientific community is to limit our assertions to that which has in fact been proved.  Another is that the theory of divine creation is not idiotic.  Some day God may show up and prove them right, and it will be good if we have treated their views with the respect that all thinkers deserve.  True, there is no evidence that we would recognize as supporting their theory, but there is also no evidence to contradict it.  We need to remember that the realm of natural science is the mechanism of nature.  In science we ask the questions "What?" and "How?".  We may ask why a result occurred from supposed causes, but the ultimate "Why?" we leave to the philosophers.  Whether a divine finger motivated the entire show, and what may have motivated such a divine finger, is not for us to say, nor to learn on this Earth.

The lesson for creationists is similar.  If you expect scientists to treat their own theories as tentative, you must learn to do the same with yours.  The theory of divine creation is, after all, not flush with proof.  Look to the Hindus to learn to hold your belief as belief, which it is, not as knowledge, which it is not.

There is a resolution to the issue of mechanistic evolution versus divinely directed creation, which should guide us in the public debate and in our public schools.  It is simply to keep clear the proper roles of philosophy and the natural sciences.  Whereas philosophy may concern itself with spiritual matters, including supposed causes or motivations behind the mysteries of nature;  natural science must limit itself to the mechanism of nature, which is all that is demonstrable with its tools.  To believers in a divine creator, science may demonstrate the means by which the creator has wrought the wonders of our world, which should be to them a source of wonder and joy, as it is to the scientist.

© 2006 H. Paul Lillebo

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