Cheap consistency

The literature on science and religion is dominated, on the religious side, by a desire for establishing consistency between science and (possibly reinterpreted) religious beliefs.

I suspect that this whole literature is fatally shot through with a kind of intellectual pathology, assuming that mere compatibility achieves something, while not attempting to make the claims at all plausible to anyone standing outside of a particular community of faith. Cheap consistency means very little.
Consider a few examples of responses to Darwinian evolution, starting from the more conservative.

(1) Christians have no objections to the material evidence produced by science. There are shapes of life forms in the rocks. But faithful Christians must reject the secular interpretive framework imposed on the rocks, which is what leads to unacceptable conclusions such as an old earth and the falsity of special creation. Christian belief has internal resources, which make sense within the framework of faith, to interpret the material evidence another way. We propose that the fossils are deceptions produced by Satan, who is ever trying to undermine our confidence in God as our Creator.

This view involves a massive rejection of science as practiced in a secular environment. But in a backhanded way, it also asserts compatibility. If we had good reason to believe in a deceptive Adversary, a Revealed story of salvation and so forth, we could very well interpret fossils very differently in such a context. Note also that there is no rejection of material evidence.

(2) Christians have no objections to the material evidence produced by science. There are shapes of life forms in the rocks. But faithful Christians must reject the secular interpretive framework imposed on the rocks, which is what leads to unacceptable conclusions such as an old earth and the falsity of special creation. Christian belief has internal resources, which make sense within the framework of faith, to interpret the material evidence another way. We propose that the fossils were deposited during Noah’s Flood. Indeed, we can show that it is possible that a worldwide flood, if it happened just the right way, could have produced the available material evidence. Furthermore, a supernaturally initiated Flood can solve other puzzles. For example, we have no objection to the basic physical phenomenon of radioactive decay. But such a massive catastrophe as Noah’s Flood also invalidates assumptions that go into radiometric dating. Radioactivity does not prove an old earth: the clocks are all messed up due to catastrophic events secular science has not accounted for.

This seems nearly as radical as the Satan scenario in (1). But it is nowhere near as categorical a rejection of science. People who fancy themselves “creation-scientists” often put a lot of detailed work into developing their “creation model.” Creationism is, in fact, not at all a rejection of science. It is an attempt to achieve consistency between science—a highly valued enterprise—and traditional doctrines.

(3) Christians have no objections to the material evidence or even the theories produced by science. Evolution happened: life forms are related by common descent. But faithful Christians must reject the secular interpretive framework imposed on evolution, which is what leads to unacceptable conclusions such as the lack of divine creative activity in the history of life. Christian belief has internal resources, which make sense within the framework of faith, to interpret evolution another way. We propose that God guided evolution, that mutations are not blind. Quantum randomness, in fact, opens a door for divine action that does not violate any of the natural laws that God Himself decreed.

This is a much more liberal point of view. It’s much friendlier toward science as it stands. It incorporates a very strange and wholly unsubstantiated claim—that what physicists think is random is in fact not random—but there is enough difficulty in directly testing such a claim that it still seems superficially compatible with the state of play in modern science.

(4) Christians have no objections to anything produced by science. Evolution happened exactly as scientists think it did: life forms are related by common descent, and blind selection-and-variation is responsible for complex adaptations. But faithful Christians must reject the secular interpretive framework imposed on evolution, which is what leads to unacceptable conclusions such as that God did not create life. Christian belief has internal resources, which make sense within the framework of faith, to interpret evolution another way. We propose that God used unguided evolution to accomplish his purposes, including the fashioning of moral agents such as human beings. God also wanted to achieve maximum autonomy—and eventual free will—in his creations. To do this, God had to set in motion an evolutionary process, including its aspects that to us look unguided, wasteful, and prone to generate immense suffering.

On the face of it, such a theology is fully compatible with everything in science, contributing mainly a metaphysical gloss on top of the story of evolution. The “God” invoked here does no explanatory or predictive work, but generic theism is vague enough about the purposes of God that just about anything can be interpreted to be the unfolding of some divine purpose or other.

Now, such theological responses as (1)-(4) usually get discussed in terms of their degree of compatibility with science, with (4) as the best and (1) the worst. But I tried to present them here in a way that emphasizes what I think is a deep similarity between all of them. All are examples of motivated reasoning, in that their God is an external imposition on science due to prior commitments, not a concept brought up to explain genuine puzzles about evolution. (1) is a ridiculous conspiracy theory involving all sorts of hidden motivations, but so is (4).

If so, I think that on an intellectual level, there are occasions where those of us approaching such debates from a scientific perspective should treat sophisticated theologians on the same level as their creationist counterparts. Cheap consistency with science means nothing—we should demand that theological stories about divine intentions solve some genuine puzzles, contribute to some real explanation. Otherwise, we should not take them seriously. Just like creationists, we should limit our engagement and dialogue with even more liberal theologians. It just encourages the bastards.

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About Taner Edis

Professor of physics at Truman State University


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