Empirically Testing Theological Claims

PZ Myers recaps some of the highlights of what he found to be a frustratingly insubstantial discussion between historian of science Ron Numbers and creationist Paul Nelson.  Myers writes:

His example was to talk about the argument from imperfections, the fact that many of the points Coyne made as evidence of evolution were from sub-optimal adaptations, or historical relics. Nelson has made this argument many times before; he says that it is an attempt to judge what a rational god would do, finding differences from our expectations, and then using those to argue against religion…a purely theological plan and conclusion.

Numbers chimed in to agree vigorously, pointing out that imperfections are no argument against creationism, because creationists believe in a flawed world as a consequence of the Fall. I know this. It is irrelevant.

The argument from biological imperfections is not theological, no matter how vociferously Nelson asserts that it is, because no biologist is simply saying what he claims they are; the interesting part about imperfections like the recurrent laryngeal nerve or the spine of bipeds or mammalian testicles isn’t simply that they seem clumsy and broken in a way no sensible god would tolerate, but that evolution provides an explanation for why they are so. We can build a case that these structures are a product of historical antecedents, and have a positive case for them as consequences of common descent. Nelson is misrepresenting the argument, and Numbers just went along with it.

Then, of course, talking about Coyne leads into some Dawkins-bashing. Coyne and Dawkins are going beyond the conventional boundaries of science, Numbers says, and he doesn’t like theological conclusions being made from empirical work; evolutionary biology doesn’t and can’t tell us much of anything about god.


When you’ve got a specific theological claim, such as that the earth is only 6,000 years old (or, in Nelson’s uselessly blurry version, is simply much younger than geology says), then science certainly can weigh in on a theological claim. It can say that that specific claim is wrong. We can whittle away at virtually every material claim that religions make, and reduce them to an empirical void — the Catholic Church, for instance, officially goes along with the scientific observations of evolution, and simply adds an untestable, immaterial claim on top of it, that there was some moment of “ensoulment” that corresponds to the literary metaphor of Adam and Eve. Science can’t disprove that, but what it means is that they are diminished to making pointless claims about invisible, unobservable entities being magically added invisibly and immaterially to people at a distant time and place that they cannot name.

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About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.