Historical Science, Jesus, and Evolution

Historical Science, Jesus, and Evolution November 6, 2014

One popular objection in our time to evolutionary biology is a bogus distinction between observational science and historical science. It is a slightly more elaborate – but no more persuasive – version of Ken Ham’s infamous “Were you there?”

The irony is that this approach represents an attack on Christianity even more than it is an attack on science.

What kinds of evidence supports evolution? Remnants of past organisms, and the genetic code in those alive today which shows our interrelatedness. If such evidence cannot be trusted, then the Creator is made out to be a deceiver. But be that as it may, if such evidence cannot be trusted, then the basis for evolution is certainly weakened.

But what kinds of evidence connect Christians with the historical life of Jesus? Texts which were copied and re-copied, with variations between them but from which we can deduce that they stemmed from an original text, a “common ancestor.”

If evidence from the past which has survived down to the present cannot be used to draw conclusions, then conservative Christians may indeed score a victory against evolution. But it is a victory against all historical knowledge, including our knowledge about Jesus as a figure who lived in history.

And so conservative Christians have to choose. You can have evidence for Jesus, and for evolution. Or you can have neither.

But pretending that you can keep one without the other is dishonest hypocrisy of the most despicable sort.

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  • TomS

    This is somewhat off the issue, but I’d like to point out that it is not only the distance in time which separates things which we “directly observe” or “recreate” from those which we “infer”. “Where you there?” applies just as well to things beyond our reach – below the surface of the Earth and in outer space.
    An anti-Newtonian could well have objected to his step from “micro-gravity”, the force on falling apples and such, to “macro-gravity” which supposedly works on the Moon and beyond.
    If there is to be a distinction drawn within science (or knowledge in general) it is not the “historical” which is separated from the “observed”, but the “distant”.
    “Distant” is space as well as time, but also events which are too small, too fast, too hard to get to, invisible, as well as too big and too slow.
    But the real problem is this: We don’t need science to tell us about the readily seen. Science is really important for what it tells us about the “distant”.

    More to your point. Do we have evidence that there were “original manuscripts” for all of the books of the Bible? In the extreme, we know from attempts for writings from 20th century authors, it becomes difficult even to define what might be called “original manuscripts”. In the case of the Bible, a work like the Book of Jeremiah shows difficulties. I have no idea whether one can be more confident about the Gospels and Epistles.

    • There is definitely less of a gap between the earliest manuscripts of the Gospels and the date of probable originals, than in the case of Jeremiah. In the case of Jeremiah, we also have clear evidence of different versions with divergent orders. And so the situations are indeed at least somewhat different.

  • TomS

    One more thing.The methodology of reconstructing ancient texts from manuscripts, including the gathering them into a tree structure according to their similarities and differences, is essentially the same methodology as used in evolutionary biology. So much so that the computer algorithms developed for tracing gene histories have been used for philology. (And, by the way, the same is true of historical linguistics.)
    I don’t know, however, if “conservative” Christians trust philology. The “King James Only” position comes to mind.

  • arcseconds

    But if you have a Direct Personal Relationship with Jesus, and he tells you the book’s fer real, that’s something you can be sure of now. Right?

    • I personally don’t think that argument works. It can be and has been used by people of every religion – God has confirmed the truthfulness of this book to my spirit in a very personal and convincing way. And so those effectively cancel one another out.

      • arcseconds

        It’s not convincing to anyone else, of course, and if they reflect on it they probably shouldn’t find it quite so convincing themselves, although of course it’s difficult to accept one’s deep feeling of conviction might not mean anything at all.

        My point is only that I think they do have the resources to make the distinction that they do without falling into the dilemma you pose for them: the Bible is confirmed by God now.

        However, they do also seem wont to argue that the Bible confirms the life and times of Jesus Christ, so I’m not denying they are inconsistent about their ‘observational’ versus ‘historical’ distinction.

      • arcseconds

        One could though, I suppose, consistently argue that one should be sure of anything of which one feels God has confirmed the truthfulness to one’s spirit in a personal and convincing way, and just accept that that’s going to be different for different people…

      • David Evans

        I’m curious as to how it would work. Does one ask God “Did everything in my copy of the New Testament happen as described?” If He answers “Yes”, what do we make of the various contradictions and interpolations? If He says “Yes, all except..” and gives a list of exceptions, what then? Has anyone claimed to have such an experience?

        • What I’ve come across, for instance from Mormon missionaries, is the claim that the Holy Spirit confirms to their heart/mind/soul the inspiration of the Book of Mormon when they read it. Not exactly what you were envisaging, but not entirely different either.

          • David Evans

            That makes sense.

    • Bethany

      I also think there’s the distinction between what we feel we know in a personal sense, and what we can make an argument for in a scientific sense.

      E.g. in one of my classes we talk briefly about the fact that some of the first psychological research involved introspection. There are other problems with introspection, but one is that it’s not objectively observable. (What the subject SAID they felt via introspection IS, but that’s not quite the same thing.)

  • Sean Garrigan

    I think you’re likely to find that this argument never gets off the ground with fundamentalists like Ken Ham, who is apparently a presuppositionalist. See:


    Just as the Darwinian dogmatists begins with the presupposition that only natural explanations need apply, and rule out inference to intelligent causation as a matter of “principle”, the presuppotionalist holds that science itself, reason, moral absolutes, etc, all rest on a foundation of faith, faith in God acting via His word.

    Liberals hold God in the docks, and only allow Him to be what the zeitgeist finds palatable, while presuppotionalists make faith in God the very foundation of knowledge and intelligible experience.

    So, I think your ironic post ultimately amounts to singing to the choir, because it sure won’t dent the folks you’re criticizing, at least not as long as they stick to their starting point just as you stick to yours.

    • arcseconds

      Well, Darwinian dogmatists might do that, but the rest of us accept that explanations in terms of efficient causes and entities that we now know quite a bit about have proven extremely fruitful over the past 300 years, whereas explanations in terms of the actions of intelligent agents have not been. And this is true in the particular case of biology, as much as any other subject.

      What would be dogmatic is to insist that biology should have completely different kinds of explanations to every other branch of science without showing any benefit those explanations provide.

      • Sean Garrigan

        Actually, it’s a huge error to assume that the same method(s) of inquiry and analysis must be the best for issue D, just because they’ve worked well for issues A, B, and C. I’ll remind you of the words I offered recently here from Alvin Platinga.

        That aside, I’m not sure what your comment has to do with my response to James’s ironic post. I was explaining why his argument is a song to the choir, since presuppositionalists have a different starting point than he, and as long as they stick to their starting point, James’s argument won’t get off the ground. Whether or not their starting point is justified is something each person has to decide for him/herself, but it doesn’t seem any more arbitrary than the presuppositional approach of Darwinian Dogmatists.

        Presuppositionalists do have one thing in their favor, i.e. at least they attempt to prove their case by demonstrating the impossibility of the contrary, whereas Darwinian Dogmatists simply rule out the contrary as a matter of “principle”.

        It’s all good, though. Beau has helped us all see that Darwinism is religion, and so any further argument is moot;-)

        • arcseconds

          My point is exactly the one that I’ve been making the last few times you’ve bought up this notion that ‘Darwinists’ start with assuming naturalism.

          Naturalism is not a starting point. It’s a conclusion based on centuries of empirical research. And it’s a conclusion that will be revised as soon as another approach shows itself to be superior at making predictions and at giving explanations.

          • Sean Garrigan

            Actually, Darwinism is *both* a conclusion and a starting point, and those who accept the conclusion that it is the only valid starting point for determining the origin and/or diversification of life forms are making an assumption, just as presuppositionalists make the assumption that their starting point is the only one that makes sense of, well, life, the universe, and everything.

            So, you or James might contemplate the approach of the presuppositionalists and decide that it’s either unprovable or invalid, and therefore you reject their approach to a given subject of inquiry, say subject D. If most people were presuppositionalists, your decision to reject their approach to subject D wouldn’t necessarily be incorrect, and if someone were to point out to you that the vast majority of “experts” support the presuppositionalist’s position on question D, that wouldn’t impress you much, because you don’t accept their starting point.

            Now, rather than making a mere appeal to authority and the bandwagon as support for rejecting ID, let’s restructure the “concensus” question to one that those who do not accept your starting point might find more meaningful. Let’s form two groups, one comprised of those who accept the starting point of those who insist on restricting their inquiry according to the materialists’ presupposition, and one which agrees with the advocates of ID who believe that we should follow the evidence wherever it leads, sans the materialists’ presupposition. Now ask the questions, “Is ID scientific?” and “Is ID true?”, and you’ll likely find that suddenly there is no longer one consensus, but two.

          • Sean Garrigan

            I had said:

            “Actually, Darwinism is *both* a conclusion and a starting point, and those who accept the conclusion that it is the only valid starting point…”

            Please replace “Darwinism” with “naturalism”.

          • Two obvious problems with your claims are (1) the fact that most religious beievers who work in the natural sciences, many of whom accept naturalism neither as a presupposition nor as a conclusion, find the evidence from fossils and the genome for common ancestry persuasive, and (2) you selectively raise objections about naturalism in biology but not in meteorology or medicine or chemistry.

          • Sean Garrigan

            You must not have understood the point, James, because if you did you wouldn’t have responded as you do above.

            As for this:

            “you selectively raise objections about naturalism in biology but not in meteorology or medicine or chemistry.”

            I’ve addressed that already, so you are obviously happy to talk past me rather than to me, so I’ll let you do as you will.

          • Merely mentioning something is not the same as having adequately addressed it. And if you think I have misunderstood something, please do clarify your point.

          • Sean Garrigan

            “Merely mentioning something is not the same as having adequately addressed it.”

            I didn’t “merely mention” why Darwinism is different from meteorology; I pointed out why it is different. I didn’t write a thesis length dissertation about it, but I shouldn’t have to, as the points I discussed are well known to those who’ve followed the debate.

            “And if you think I have misunderstood something, please do clarify your point.”

            Your point #1 from your previous post is an assertion that must be dealing with metaphysical naturalism, whereas I’m talking about methodological naturalism. As one well known scientist who opposes ID once stated in a private email to me, methodological naturalism is essentially the scientific method as it is practiced today, and so it isn’t true that scientist who are Christians don’t accept that as their starting point.

            What many apparently don’t realize is that once you shift your perception of your inquiry from “I’m going to limit my research to purely natural causes” to “All questions of cause in the natural world can and should be explicable without reference to intelligence” you’ve embraced a form of methodological naturalism that is indistinguishable from metaphysical naturalism. As Batman would say, it isn’t what you say that defines you, but what you do.

          • So do you object to weather reports leaving out discussion of God? What about geologists, since you don’t accept the young-earth claims? What about astronomers? You’re going to have to do better than this hand-waving in the direction of fringe views and supposed previous discussions, without ever addressing the substantive point. Are you suggesting that biology is unique in the natural sciences in requiring one to mention God at every turn in order to draw accurate conclusions? Please just answer the question for once.

          • Sean Garrigan

            As I said, I’ve addressed that already. My response has been two-fold:

            1. I’ve pointed out that it’s a huge philosophical error to assume that because questions a, b, c, and d are adequately explainable via process MN, that doesn’t mean that question e is adequately explainable via process MN.

            2. I’ve pointed out that Darwinism is qualitatively different from the other sciences you mention in at least two ways:

            (a) Darwinism is and always has been promoted within the context of religion, and adored by many because of its perceived atheistic implications, and, ironically, by others who erroneously believe that it gives us a kinder God;

            (b) the phenomena that Darwinism attempts to explain is very different from lightening, earthquakes, continental drift, etc. Here are two examples I’ve offered in the past:

            Example 1
            For the study of tornados to be comparable to the study of biological life forms, tornadoes would have to do things like sweep up a trillion dominoes, and set them all down so that they form the shape of the Brooklyn Bridge. Moreover, they’d have to set those dominoes down in such a way that when we drop the first one against the next, a chain of falling begins causing them to eventually all fall over in a breathtaking display.

            Example 2
            For the study of Tsunamis to be comparable to the study of biological life forms, tsunamis would have to cause waves that sweep over an island, leaving behind a statue of the Edmund Fitzgerald surmounted by another of Michelangelo’s David, both formed from the debris.

            Etc, etc, etc…

            You can keep pretending that I haven’t addressed your point, and I’ll keep reminding you that I have.

          • That is absolutely deceitful and dishonest garbage which you have heard from ID promoters and are parroting uncritically. The objection that biological life forms require the equivalent of a tornado assembling a 747 out of a junkyard (to use the classic formulation) has been answered so many times that it is quite tedious for you to repeat it as though it is significant, much less impressive. All you do is give the impression that you don’t care about this subject enough to inform yourself. If you want to view the origin of life, of DNA, as a miraculous divine act, there is nothing objectionable in that – we have no counter-evidence. But it is clear that gradual processes of changes can account for how living things developed the complex features they have, and the evidence for that gradual process is confirmed by paleontology, by genetics, and by the kluge-like character of many of these structures.

            The claim that “Darwinism” is inherently religious is likewise nonsensical garbage. It is no more so than embryology, which relates to Biblical language of being knit together in one’s mother’s womb, or astronomy, which relates to Biblical language of God calling the stars in their hosts and them singing for joy.

          • Sean Garrigan

            So when you don’t have a meaningful reply, just tell the person his comments are garbage. I’d hang on to that apologetic tactic, but I typically prefer to offer something meaningful;-)

          • If you preferred to offer something meaningful, you would not trot out these tired old canards, ignoring the responses to them both old and new.

          • Sean Garrigan

            No one has adequately responded to the tornado and tsunami analogies I’ve offered, and, contrary to your claim, I didn’t get those from “ID promoters”. I came up with them myself. Apparently the true deceiver here is you, for you’ve made a false assertion based on an unfounded assumption.

          • If you came up with these analogies yourself then you’ve been lying about reading about these subjects, since there is no way you could have seriously investigated these topics without encountering Fred Hoyle’s analogy, never mind responses to it.





          • Sean Garrigan

            Ah, a false dilemma invented by a deceiver. Either I stole the analogies or I’m an uninformed idiot. You’re all tactic and no substance.

          • Sean Garrigan

            So I think I’m going to take another vacation from your Blog, James. Your inability to discuss this topic without the constant employment of unfortunate apologetic tactics brings out the worst in me. If I do return, I may start posting responses on my own blog, as that might help keep things from degenerating.

            Take care,

          • You will be welcome to return, if you choose to. But I would point out that inevitably choosing to reject an entire body of science based on your own personal preference is inevitably going to lead to receiving criticism of your views, and since such a stance is inherently unjustifiable, it is liable to “bring out the worst” as you vainly try to justify the stance anyway. And so don’t think that a hiatus is likely to change that.

          • Sean Garrigan

            I don’t mind seeing my view rejected by those who adopt a different starting point. What bothers me is that you constantly employ tactics and spit rather than simply accepting that someone thinks about these things differently than you. You are much younger than I and I therefore overlook some of your attitude as the natural product of youth, but you’re also supposed to be an academic, and you really need to try harder to act like one.

            Indeed, your reaction to my views on this subject is so extreme that it constitutes additional testimony to the fact that many people promote Darwinism due to philosophical, emotional, and religious convictions.

          • Does my rhetoric towards mythicists show that they are right, that people accept the historicity of Jesus because of “philosophical, emotional, and religious convictions”? Or in that case can you accept that it might instead be due to my frustration at the embrace of pseudoscholarly nonsense by people who are intelligent and ought to be able to recognize it for what it is, yet do not?

          • Sean Garrigan

            Btw, everyone on the planet has heard the tornado in a junk yard analogy. Mine is actually better:-)

          • Sean Garrigan

            And as a final parting word, the analogies I offered don’t go far enough. Tornadoes and hurricanes and tsunamis would have to do things that are much, much, much more impressive than I described to make their study comparable to the study of biological structures. There’s no question but that the study of biological structures and how they came about is qualitatively different, and I think the reason you can’t resist responding with tactical rather than meaningful comments is because deep down you know it, and have nothing to offer but “liar, liar, pants on fire”.

          • When someone who is not a scientist rejects an entire discipline based on fringe figures they have been misled into accepting, and insists that their own perspective is superior to the thousands of scientists researching in these areas, and they claim that an old canard is their own invention, then adding “liar” not as a substitute for but as a supplement to the vast scientific data and research seems appropriate.

          • Sean Garrigan

            That doesn’t even make sense.

          • arcseconds

            I’ve pointed out that it’s a huge philosophical error to assume that because questions a, b, c, and d are adequately explainable via process MN, that doesn’t mean that question e is adequately explainable via process MN.

            Except that’s not what happened, is it? People didn’t say “we must assume chemistry can explain everything in biology, because we want to get rid of God, so let’s accept this guy Darwin’s ideas, and then in a century or so, bwahahaha! our atheistic plot will be complete!”

            Darwinism proper, i.e. that propounded by Darwin, explained biology in its own terms, using features of living organisms that are (and were) well-known: that children inherit traits from their parents, but with some variation, and that not every organism survives to breed. Seeking to explain biology in those terms isn’t taking a process from elsewhere and seeking to explain it in terms of that. It’s seeking to explain biology in terms of biological processes.

            (Although, as it turns out, those processes are in fact chemical processes. There’s a chemical (DNA) that carries inheritance. )

            And that is, by the way, why your examples are unrecognisable as anything resembling valid analogies of Darwinian evolution. There’s no heredity or natural selection, or anything remotely resembling them, so you’re missing essential features of the account.

            It’s like objecting to Newtonian gravitation as an account of planetary motion by arguing that according to physicists all the planets would fall into the Sun. Of course no physicist has ever said or thought anything of the sort, and one can only say such a thing by ignoring everything in the Newtonian account except for one thing.

          • Sean Garrigan

            “Except that’s not what happened, is it?”

            Yes, that is what happens every day.

          • arcseconds

            I doubt it happens to any significant extent. I think it would be quite unusual for someone to be committed to naturalistic explanation and not already believe in evolutionary biology. It would require a rather strange educational history to be either unaware of evolutionary biology or to disbelieve it, yet be committed to naturalistic explanation nevertheless.

            I suppose it could be true that many people acquire a belief in evolutionary biology solely because it allows them to do away with God. Something of the sort happened to Douglas Adams, apparently: he was still a theist of some kind purely because he couldn’t see any other explanation for life. Then he discovered evolutionary biology, so his one remaining reason to believe in some kind of God could be dropped. Although being ignorant of evolutionary biology for so long doesn’t speak that well for his education.

            But personal histories of this sort tell us nothing about whether the claims are true or not. People believe true things for all sorts of bad reasons. Some people go to Church because it gives them a feeling of superiority, but you wouldn’t want to say being Christian is just a matter of feeling superior to other people, would you?

          • arcseconds

            In fact, I’d maintain basically the same thing as I’ve been maintaining all along: on a personal level as well as a historical one, naturalism is more of a consequence of a belief in evolutionary biology than it is a pre-condition.

          • I’ve pointed out that it’s a huge philosophical error to assume that because questions a, b, c, and d are adequately explainable via process MN, that doesn’t mean that question e is adequately explainable via process MN.

            On the other hand, when questions 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11,12,…6,784,233, 6,784.234, and 6,784,235 are adequately explained by methodological naturalism and “but the Bible says” has repeatedly proved to have no explanatory value, question 6,784,236 might be a good time to stop banging your head against the wall. As W.C. Fields wisely observed, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. Then quit. No sense being a damn fool about it.”

          • Andrew Dowling

            When it comes to medicine, all of these suspicions of modernist science seem to go out the window for creationists . . .that to me is case closed. Shut the book. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zSQNl4V_R88

  • Sean Garrigan

    “Certainly, if you read Thomas Henry Huxley, when he’s in full
    flight, there’s no question but that for Huxley at some very
    important level, evolution and science generally, but certainly
    evolution in particular, is functioning a bit as a kind of secular
    religion.” — Michael Ruse

    • I will ask you again. When New Age folks turn quantum physics into their religion, does that make the physicists’ math wrong?

      People turned Newtonian mechanics into a clockwork view of the universe and came up with Deism. Does that mean that Newton’s scientific work was wrong?

      How does what Huxley does with science affect whether the science itself is correct or not?

      • Sean Garrigan

        Those examples are different in that the groups that did the things you state were primarily isolated. Darwinism, on the other hand, is embraced and rejected by millions of people from all walks of life for reasons that have nothing to do with science. Will Provine called it the greatest engine of atheism because it proves that no gods worth having exist. Dawkins delights that it enables him (he thinks) to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist. Francisco Ayala and you embrace it, in part, because you have the bizarre notion that it gives you a kinder god. Huxley and many, many, many others have and continue to treat it like a secular religion. Theologians on the one hand and intellectuals like Peter Hitchens on the other, along with many others would say that Darwinism is simply atheism, while others would similarly observe that it amounts to metaphysical naturalism. One center of science passed out Darwins Fish bumper stickers Centers to those who gave a donation of a certain amount (I think it was $50), which provides additional testimony to the fact that scientists themselves conceptualize Darwinism within the context of religion.

        There’s really no comparison between the actions of Darwinists and the others you state, however much you might wish to assert otherwise.

        My personal favorite is the comment by Richard Dawkin in the Blind Watchmaker where he stated that “Biology is the study of complicated things that give the appearance of having been designed for a purpose.” For the Darwinist life is a illusion.

        • No, we embrace it because of the overwhelming evidence. People then relate it to their core religious beliefs, or anti-religious beliefs. But people do that with all sorts of things. There is an interesting parallel in the development of the Big Bang viewpoint, where atheists disliked the idea that the universe has a beginning, as it sounded a bit too much like Genesis. It didn’t matter that they had religious qualms about it. The data supported it, and so it came to be accepted.

          I think the problem is that you are sticking to reading works by people who are (1) trying to popularize science, and (2) are promoting a particular worldview and trying to use science to do so or at least relate the scientific data to their worldview. But the point remains – whether lots of people hijack the language and ideas of a scientific conclusions for religious purposes, or only a few, or no one at all, it doesn’t change what the evidence points to.