Philosophy Weekend: What's So Terrible About Creationism?

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I wouldn't make a very good creationist, since I believe completely in Darwin's theory of natural selection and human evolution. I know that the scientific evidence for evolution is overwhelmingly persuasive. I find most religious creation myths childish and inane, and I've been known to snicker about creationist museums in Kentucky or Miss USA Pageant candidates who find the question "should evolution be taught in school?" hilariously tough to answer.

However, I try to check myself before laughing too hard, or else I might commit my own fallacy and conclude too glibly that anyone who does not believe in Darwinism today must be mentally addled or badly miseducated. I might allow myself to feel intellectually superior to creationists, and this would be a dangerous overstep. As an elaborate scientific theory about the distant past, Darwin's great discovery will never have the same force of persuasion as any theory that can be simply proven with direct experimentation. The evidence for evolution requires explanation, assumption and interpretation; it is not directly and immediately obvious. If I forget this basic fact, I might commit the error of lumping the theory of evolution in with more urgent and alarming recent theories and reports about man-made climate change. I might conclude that conservative politicians are engaged in a "war on science", and draw a hard line: if you don't believe in both global warming and evolution, you are a liar and a fool.

If I believed that I'd be the fool, because I'd be ignoring what I already know about the voluntary nature of the human belief system. The fact that complex human belief always relies on voluntary compliance was powerfully spelled out by William James in his 1912 essay The Will To Believe. Some of the cross-cultural examples in the following passage feel creaky today (as when he writes of Arabs who believe in the Mahdi), but I hope this does not diminish the value of the overall framework James lays out in the passage below. His understanding of what it means to believe any complex thing seems to me more intellectually advanced, not less, than the mindset of the typical armchair philosopher of the 21st Century, and this passage helps to clearly explain how so many people can believe in religious creation theories even after learning about the certainty of Darwinism:

Let us give the name of hypothesis to anything that may be proposed to our belief; and just as the electricians speak of live and dead wires, let us speak of any hypothesis as either live or dead. A live hypothesis is one which appeals as a real possibility to him to whom it is proposed. If I ask you to believe in the Mahdi, the notion makes no electric connection with your nature,—it refuses to scintillate with any credibility at all. As an hypothesis it is completely dead. To an Arab, however (even if he be not one of the Mahdi's followers), the hypothesis is among the mind's possibilities: it is alive. This shows that deadness and liveness in an hypothesis are not intrinsic properties, but relations to the {3} individual thinker. They are measured by his willingness to act. The maximum of liveness in an hypothesis means willingness to act irrevocably. Practically, that means belief; but there is some believing tendency wherever there is willingness to act at all.

Next, let us call the decision between two hypotheses an option. Options may be of several kinds. They may be—1, living or dead; 2, forced or avoidable; 3, momentous or trivial; and for our purposes we may call an option a genuine option when it is of the forced, living, and momentous kind.

1. A living option is one in which both hypotheses are live ones. If I say to you: "Be a theosophist or be a Mohammedan," it is probably a dead option, because for you neither hypothesis is likely to be alive. But if I say: "Be an agnostic or be a Christian," it is otherwise: trained as you are, each hypothesis makes some appeal, however small, to your belief.

2. Next, if I say to you: "Choose between going out with your umbrella or without it," I do not offer you a genuine option, for it is not forced. You can easily avoid it by not going out at all. Similarly, if I say, "Either love me or hate me," "Either call my theory true or call it false," your option is avoidable. You may remain indifferent to me, neither loving nor hating, and you may decline to offer any judgment as to my theory. But if I say, "Either accept this truth or go without it," I put on you a forced option, for there is no standing place outside of the alternative. Every dilemma based on a complete logical disjunction, with no possibility of not choosing, is an option of this forced kind.

3. Finally, if I were Dr. Nansen and proposed to you to join my North Pole expedition, your option would be momentous; for this would probably be your only similar opportunity, and your choice now would either exclude you from the North Pole sort of immortality altogether or put at least the chance of it into your hands. He who refuses to embrace a unique opportunity loses the prize as surely as if he tried and failed. Per contra, the option is trivial when the opportunity is not unique, when the stake is insignificant, or when the decision is reversible if it later prove unwise. Such trivial options abound in the scientific life. A chemist finds an hypothesis live enough to spend a year in its verification: he believes in it to that extent. But if his experiments prove inconclusive either way, he is quit for his loss of time, no vital harm being done.

It will facilitate our discussion if we keep all these distinctions well in mind.

It certainly will. Today's Republican party has alarmed many liberals by moving towards what appears to be an anti-science agenda regarding both evolution and the environment, but I'm sure it will not help the liberal cause to allow these two controversies to be lumped together. The problem of global warming today is a much more pressing issue, and deserves any caring citizen's activism and attention. There is no such compelling urgency to convince anyone of the truth of Darwinian evolution. If we allow these two issues to be discussed as one issue, as a "war on science", we give the anti-science agenda a great gift: we allow them to characterize their own opposition as a "war on religion".

That's not a fight worth fighting. Those of us who care about the environment should instead focus on the core issue alone, and avoid the cataclysmic tones of science vs. religion. If we're going to wait to solve the question of religion vs. science before we pass immediate laws regarding greenhouse gases, we're going to wait a long time.

As persuasive as the scientific evidence for evolution is, arguing it to a non-believer is a losing game. Instead, if you are arguing for the evidence of climate change and your opponent tries to change the subject to Darwin vs. the Bible, you'd be smart to smile and point out that even Noah knew something about climate change -- and bring the issue back to the urgent one that really demands attention today.

What's so terrible, anyway, about creationism? I'm probably being condescending when I admit that I find creation myths quaint, because they remind me of my own early childhood. Born into a modern Jewish family, I was casually introduced to Biblical accounts of creation from a young age, and exposed to Darwinian explanations only years later in school. Hearing about Adam and Eve first did me no harm, and did not impede my later acceptance of Darwinism one bit.

I know many people who believe in various religious accounts of creation. Why shouldn't they? There are also infinite varieties of syncretism between science and religion, and I tend to look favorably upon all of these theories. Of course, I would vigorously protest any movement aimed to prevent the teaching of evolution in public schools, because my country would not benefit from the adoption of a backwards scientific agenda. However, as far as I know, there is no movement afoot to stop teaching evolution in schools. The current controversy, as addressed by Miss USA candidates and Republican presidential hopefuls, is over whether or not states or counties that wish to do so may teach intelligent design as an alternative to evolution. I'm not eager to see this happen, but at the same time I really have trouble believing that it would cause any children significant harm if it did.

I suppose there's some realistic danger of a slippery slope, of dogmatic teachers who pressure students to favor "intelligent design" over the more solid alternative. These are tough questions, and I know of no easy answers. All the more reason, I think, for concerned Americans to avoid turning up the political heat with apocalyptic notions of a Republican "war on science", and focus on specific scientific issues of immediate concern instead.

What do we teach our children in schools? I'm not offended or upset that students might hear that God created the human race, but I am offended and upset that large numbers of well-educated adults today believe in some of the following horrifying beliefs:

  • The belief that war or military aggression can ever be a force for good.
  • The belief that the United States of America is so exceptionally benevolent to the world that our country is completely blameless for the planet's problems.
  • The belief that unregulated industries can protect our environment better than governments can.
  • The belief that an economy based on blatant lust for luxury and profit and unlimited individual accumulation of wealth can ever be stable and fair to middle-class citizens.

These are the prejudices and stupidities really worth fighting against. Frighteningly enough, some of these horrifying beliefs are currently being taught in our schools! And we're wasting our time worrying that our children might hear about Adam and Eve and Noah's Ark.

This article is part of the series Philosophy Weekend. The next post in the series is Philosophy Weekend: What Martin Luther King Endured. The previous post in the series is Philosophy Weekend: Barbara Oakley on Hazardous Altruism.
18 Responses to "Philosophy Weekend: What's So Terrible About Creationism?"

although scientific evidence for evolution is overwhelmingly persuasive, the scientific evidence against creationism is non-existent and the historical (and scientific) evidence of a created world continues to grow stronger as more and more evidence is found to support the ancient scriptures. the science of archeology is the darwin fader. also, i would say the historical evidence for evolution is flimsy, despite fill-in-the-blank and cartoon wisdom. those that need no evidence to be persuaded find the added validation of a creator soothing, i guess, but really complete assurances would erase the need for faith and the implications of that, and how it would impact free-will, would be too destructive to our humanity. scientific evidence needs persuassion and echoed from the voice of a faithless mouth it always seems reasonable. reasonableness, however, we know is relative and usually blind, at least blind spotted. for now, us blind and wise salvation seekers, can take comfort in our own mysteries and theories. a theory is still a theory, until fact makes it uninteresting. let the theories collide.....plenty of facts to go around.

by catalyst on

I'd be interested to see which of your bullet points are actually being taught in schools today (and which schools). If ANY of those are actually taught, it's pretty scary. I do believe the universe was created but I don't rule out evolution as a fact of life. I'm reminded of the big bang and what caused that to happen. Do we know what caused that to happen? It is indeed scary when religion mixes with politics...I'm not afraid of the right wing teaching creatonism in schools, however, because I know many kids are like I was at that age and in fact don't listen to ANYTHING the teachers are saying because well, they are old, and old people tend to have many delusions about many topics. So I think we are safe as long as the next generation has a healthy amount of trust issues when dealing with authority.

As far as evolution vs. creation...I think its an interesting western dichotomy. I respect the Eastern thought in this respect because they don't tend to debate this dichotomy, rather, they deal with the fact that "we are here now" so what do we do in the future? rather than dealing in terms of the past and how we got here. Anyways, I enjoyed reading your piece and it seems like you didn't let your bias show too effectively communicated your point of view also while presenting issues from each side. Kudos.

by TKG on

Global warming is as close to a scientific hoax as it gets.

The evolution creation debate is a a meaningless puerility as played out as a religious fight between sects using science as a vehicle.  It has nothing to do with science.

The belief that war or military aggression can ever be a force for good.

Tell that to people freed from Nazi concentration camps.

The belief that the United States of America is so exceptionally benevolent to the world that our country is completely blameless for the planet's problems.

I don't think anyone claims that.

The belief that unregulated industries can protect our environment better than governments can.

This is debatable.  

The belief that an economy based on blatant lust for luxury and profit and unlimited individual accumulation of wealth can ever be stable and fair to middle-class citizens.

This is pretty vague and hard to really address.

The idea that republicans/conservatives are anti-science is actually quite bizarre (I know it is a heavy talking point -- this isn't the first I've heard it.

by Iglius on

It's interesting you would try and keep an open mind about intelligent design and espouse the grey-ness of things and then contradict that greyness with a series of onesided, closed minded statements.

re: Intelligent Design in classrooms:

As an atheist, I dont see the harm in teaching kids about Santa Claus because when they find out the truth, it's a harsh life lesson re: Truth and critical thinking. Unfortunately, I fear that most people are too lazy to show any interest in such things as science, literature and mathematics. Public school should be condensed to 6, 9 years tops and the focus should be on citizen's rights and how to function and utilize their tax-paid bureaucratic services.

Evolution v. ID shouldnt even come up in a classroom. Students should be learning things like tenant's rights, basic property law, how to file taxes, running and voting for government, and how to get welfare.

re: military action as universally bad

To paraphrase Clausewitz: War is an extension of politics. It should not be used as a moral crusade but a means of settling boundaries and disputes while diplomats negotiate a compromise.

Meaning skirmishes which uphold the balance of power are separate from colonialism, revolutions, invasions, terrorism, etc.

Though if you dont like War, the response would be universal, laissez faire capitalism. Remove government from business, throw out corporate welfare and government sanctions on businesses, while maintaining collective bargaining rights, and you will empower the people without the needless and ineffective buffer of government.

Allow the free market to homogenize all peoples, wobbelites and all that. Let people roam and emigrate to find the best employers, let employers outsource to find the best employees.

Colonialism occurs when a government aids homegrown corporate interests abroad. And, almost as a principle, the invaded govt., with a bit of coercion, quickly sells out its people on the cheap:

Adam Smith it aint.

No matter the belief held, if militant thinking is involved, ignorance isn't too far to follow.

by Jason Carman on

Archeology is the fader? I must disagree. Archeology is that which has shown that the scriptures are overwhelmingly the creation of man. Even if we stipulate they were originally inspired by deity we still must confront the fact that the books of the Bible were selected & edited frequently with politics in mind. Even the beloved chapter and verse was once considered heresy and the man who put it there as an act of devotion was burned at the stake to keep the purity of the scripture alive. Don't asked me how that helped their purity because they weren't even close to their original forms in in King James' time.

Archeology shows us no evidence that the Bible's creation story is true over the body of interconnected science that says evolution by natural selection is in fact a fact. It does show us variation on the scriptures, deletions, omissions, pieces lost to time, overwrites, insertions and fabrications designed to justify the scriptures after the fact. It shows us that stories were borrowed and bent to new purposes. Such things as the Sermon on the Mount, The parable of the mustard seed, the idea of Jesus as shepherd & also as a fisher of men, his death and resurrection, to name a few, have all been shown archeologically as well as historically, to come from other places & faiths. It is no less true in the Old Testament. Verification of events as actually having happened is more difficult, however.

You may want to consider your sources. Are they funded by universities with a stake in the outcome? Are they religiously funded? These are suspect. Look for impartial sources & endeavors. Look for science and rational thought, hypothesis, not for a pre-determined outcome which is retroactively justified or explained. The latter is not science.

Finally, faith & science don't mix. Justifying one with the other fails. Faith requires only the choice to believe. Science requires proof.

I would disagree with more of your points, but I must make myself clear on this one point.

by finn on

Evidence that evolution exists: the resistance to drugs that viruses and bacteria often develop after a few generations of exposure.

by hepcat on

I don't think there is any problem with teaching creationism in schools, so long as it is done in some kind of theology course. Which version of creationism do you teach? Judao-Christian? Hindu? Native American? You'd have to make some kind of survey course covering major religions.

However, there is nothing scientific about creationism, and I take issue with anyone wanting it taught along side evolution in biology class.

The fairness of science is that its hypotheses are falsifiable, and are, over the course of experiments and experience, given every attempt to be proven incorrect. How do you disprove 'God created man'?

The beauty of science, for me, is that it has predictive powers. We can predict when eclipses happen, when comets return, what happens when an object is applied such and such force over such and such time. We predicted, based on thousands of years of observation, that we could actually put a man on the fucking moon.

Darwin, finding an orchid with an 11-inch-long nectar producing tube, predicted that there must be a moth or bird with an equally long proboscis capable of pollinating it. Sure enough, 50 years later, it was found.

'God created man in his own image' is a great story, but let's not clump it with science.

I recently got Thomas Paine's The Age of Reason as a free ebook. I highly recommend it to anyone who hasn't read it but is interested in the discussion we are having here.

Also, a fun little activity I got from reading a ghost story by M. R. James called An Episode in the Cathedral: look up Isaiah, chaper 13, verses 19 thru 22, and compare the text as it appears in different versions of the Bible, especially the King James, The New American Standard, and The Amplified Bible. Some translations involve dancing satyrs, others say hyenas, wild goats, or simply "furry animals." It's interesting.

Levi, your William James quote really hit the spot and you elaborated on it admirably.

Hopefully no one denies the second law of thermodynamics. This states that the use of energy produces a byproduct called entropy, usually in the form of heat, but it could also be in the form of gases. As the entropy increases, the usefullness of the energy decreases.

If we continue to consume energy at an increasing rate, i.e. year over year growth, the entropy buildup will eventually overcome the usefulness of the energy.

Think about industrialized nations and all the energy they consume. Then think of developing nations and how much energy they consume now, and how much more they want to consume in the future. Then think of the entropy buildup.

I submit that if we do not change our thinking about continuous, unlimited growth and try alternative methods to live our lives, we won't be around to debate creationism versus evolution, and the debate over global warming will be moot.

by mnaz on

creationism is not science. creationism is religion. science should be taught in school, and religion practiced in church. it's pretty simple, really.

by Claudia on

Levi, I agree with mnaz, if we are still taking the separation between church and state (public schools) seriously. If not, the most compelling religious doctrine is one that explains not evolution itself, for which the biological Darwinian explanation makes most sense, but the ultimate origin: who created evolution, or going further back, the apparent order of the universe and the Big Bang? But such a question usually leads to a form of mechanistic deism, like it did for the Enlightenment philosophes, not to a personalized understanding of divinity.

by mtmynd on

Isn't there room for many beliefs in our lives as there are varieties of foods at our disposal, cars to purchase, movies to watch, music to listen to..? Why constrict ourselves to belief systems that have been around for thousands of years? Creationism and Evolution can both exist, and arguably, must exist on their own merits. Should one fail on one theory it is possible that the other will pick up where the other fails. Why is it that we can enjoy a book or movie that is truly fantasy but freeze up when either Creationism or Evolution challenges our belief? Could it be that both of these belief systems are incomplete... pieces missing from the puzzle that hu'manity has been discussing and arguing over ever since we could think?

The real problem seems to be when one or the other is chosen to dominate over the other, which is nothing more than our hu'man decision to pick one over the other at any given time. Creationism or Evolution, both are theoretical ideas that have been discussed and argued in one form or the other by our cultures worldwide. (Why are we here? Who created the Universe... the world? Who has proof that (a) god exists that made Life? Where do we go after we die?)

Five hundred years from now who knows what explanations for our existence will be discussed and argued over? Knowledge is always in flux whereas Truth is unquestionable. This is the path we are all on... a search for Truth that appears to be hiding from us all... or do we fear what Truth is and keep it at distance from us? Our questions creates our need to talk... and that is what we do best of all our hu'man abilities - talk, talk, talk... far more talk than listening to even ourselves.

by mnaz on

good points, cec. that's why i only spent 3 short sentences on it.

so much we don't "know"...

by Michael on

Evolution and natural selection have been proven in the lab. Dr. Richard Lenski of Michigan State University has worked with Escherichia coli bacterium for over twenty years and effectively demonstrated that the bacterium has evolved over the 44,000 generations he has produced. Can't argue it. It is fact.

Lenski's experiment is also yet another poke in the eye for anti-evolutionists, notes Jerry Coyne, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Chicago. "The thing I like most is it says you can get these complex traits evolving by a combination of unlikely events," he says. "That's just what creationists say can't happen."

I agree, Michael. Creationists like to say something along the lines of, "The odds are impossibly astronomical that just the right combination of atoms could combine in such a way as to produce life." But that's true for many things if you look at it from the other end. Like, the odds that a hurricane would blow a doghouse into a field where two years later, construction workers are clearing for a shopping mall, and some of the dirt falls out of the dumptruck with a nail from the doghouse mixed in, and I run over it and get a flat tire. And it was my dog. Before it happens, the odds are high. After it happens, the odds are 100%.

Existentially, I can place myself at either end of the timeline of an event, and that event will either be 100% likely, or very unlikely.

I mean, before it happens, the odds are highly against it. After it happens, the odds are 100%.

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