February 9th, 2006


Evolution, Religion, and Truth

This is hardly a novel line of thought, but I've been considering the nature of words and how we label our opinions, beliefs and acquired facts. For example, one of the fundamental problems of Creationists/IDers in viewing evolution is a (sometimes deliberate) confusion of the meaning of the word "theory." "Theory" to a scientist is a proposition which is demonstrable, repeatable, and supported by considerable evidence. "Theory" to a layman means a speculative idea, and can often be used perjoratively. So when C/IDers say "evolution is only a theory", meaning, "it's not true", they're confusing two substantially different usages.

Fair enough. I think most of us understand this quite well.

Now apply the same reasoning to the term "truth." I'll keep using evolution as an example.

I am of the informed opinion that the theory of evolution is largely true. I say "largely" mostly in recognition of the fact that like all scientific inquiry, models continue to evolve in the light of new evidence. Suffice to say that the processes described in evolutionary theory are demonstrable, repeatable and supported by considerable evidence. Ie, true, in the sense that they have empirical standing. (I realize I'm skirting the borders of ontology and epistemology here, but stay with me. I didn't bring my passport today, so I'm not planning to cross that line right now.)

As it happens, I can't personally demonstrate the validity of evolutionary theory. That's not within my academic training or professional experience. On the other hand, I can't also personally demonstrate the Venturi effect, yet I fly regularly on aircraft and am of the informed opinion that the Venturi effect is largely true. (Distorted syntax there, but you take my point.) I did take enough biology, chemistry and philosophy in high school and college to understand the basic underpinnings of disciplines such as molecular biology and paleontology, and know that were I to pursue those disciplines I could in fact arrive at a sufficiently informed state to make a personal demonstration of the validity of evolutionary theory.

In other words, I know evolutionary theory is largely true because I have meta-knowledge of the process by which that theory can be proven. I don't have to take it on faith, or because somebody told me it was true. This sense of understanding how knowledge is arrived at is the basis of post-Medieval culture, when the available fund of human knowledge expanded past the ability of a single expert to encompass, or at least reasonably survey. I think Diderot may have been the last person to try covering the full extent of available learning. And he died in 1784.

The problem is here is that our culture uses the word "true" to describe the beliefs pertaining to religious conviction. This means that in casual discourse, the "truth" of evolution is coeval with the "truth" of a literalized version Biblical Creation. This is the point of my recent comment, "just because you believe it doesn't mean it's true." My belief in the theory of evolution is not based on faith, it's based on an educated understanding of the scientific process. Belief in Creation is based on one of two things: either direct revelation, or because someone told the believer it was true.

There is no chain of evidence, no logical process by which one can arrive at a conclusion that Creationism is true. It can't be done. What IDers try to do is use cherry-picked aspects of the scientific process to reverse-engineer something which they can then use to exploit American notions of balanced discourse. What Creationists do is make their leap of faith, then assume their belief equates to external, empirical truth.

A person who believes in Creation read it in a book -- the Bible or some commentary thereon. Someone told them the Bible was true, and for some reason they chose to believe that. Me, I firmly believe in the First Amendment's guarantees of freedom of worship. Party on. Heed the words of Jesus, Mohammed or the Flying Spaghetti Monster. It's all the same to me. Or maybe they learned it by direct revelation -- to be blunt, I've never read an account of direct revelation that didn't sound a whole lot more like schizophrenia than divine intervention. But then I'm a raging secularist.

But for the love of God people, stop confusing your mythic, spiritual truth with my empirical truth! We need new words for this stuff.


This is probably funny only if you're familiar with the Pacific Northwest, but it made me giggle.

My fave:

"19. You can point to at least two volcanoes, even if you cannot see through the cloud cover."

Which is true...I can point to four, actually.