Thursday, 18 September 2008

Teaching evolution, challenging creationism

charles darwin
This came up Saturday before last at a birthday dinner for the Professor, and now it’s all over the papers, though with a different cast of characters.

Here’s a hard line from Oliver Kamm, hearts and minds (and follow up) from Francis Sedgemore, and practical experience from Shuggy, who writes:
Sometimes you talk about it, sometimes it’s appropriate to close conversations down. It's a balance that is difficult to strike - no doubt we get it wrong on many occasions, but I have not the least doubt that any attempt to routinise the practice even in the most limited way would make this more difficult than it already is.
(Update: Shuggy has now written a good follow up  too.)

Back at the Prof’s dinner I brought up Thomas Paine. The Age of Reason provides the best argument I know of for resolving the conflict between the religious impulse and scientific method. By defining God as the creator of the universe, and by arguing that God’s creation, not the word of dead men, is the only true evidence of the nature of God, Paine provides a view of God that is grander than the petty conjurer of the old holy books, but that can in no way be in conflict with science, because science is the only reliable path to understanding the works of God.

The so-called creationists set the words of dead prophets above the evidence of God’s creation. This is human hubris in the face of a creation grander than they can imagine.

The central statement in The Age of Reason is this: “The only idea man can affix to the name of God is that of a first cause, the cause of all things.” There are later passages in the work which I think fall short, where despite that principle Paine attempts to ascribe motives to God, to prove God’s benevolence. It doesn’t work. However, read the following extract if you will - a definition of God the creator wholly compatible with science.
But some, perhaps, will say: Are we to have no word of God — no revelation? I answer, Yes; there is a word of God; there is a revelation.

THE WORD OF GOD IS THE CREATION WE BEHOLD and it is in this word, which no human invention can counterfeit or alter, that God speaketh universally to man.

Human language is local and changeable, and is therefore incapable of being used as the means of unchangeable and universal information. The idea that God sent Jesus Christ to publish, as they say, the glad tidings to all nations, from one end of the earth to the other, is consistent only with the ignorance of those who knew nothing of the extent of the world, and who believed, as those world-saviours believed, and continued to believe for several centuries (and that in contradiction to the discoveries of philosophers and the experience of navigators), that the earth was flat like a trencher, and that man might walk to the end of it.

But how was Jesus Christ to make anything known to all nations? He could speak but one language which was Hebrew, and there are in the world several hundred languages. Scarcely any two nations speak the same language, or understand each other; and as to translations, every man who knows anything of languages knows that it is impossible to translate from one language to another, not only without losing a great part of the original, but frequently of mistaking the sense; and besides all this, the art of printing was wholly unknown at the time Christ lived.

It is always necessary that the means that are to accomplish any end be equal to the accomplishment of that end, or the end cannot be accomplished. It is in this that the difference between finite and infinite power and wisdom discovers itself. Man frequently fails in accomplishing his ends, from a natural inability of the power to the purpose, and frequently from the want of wisdom to apply power properly. But it is impossible for infinite power and wisdom to fail as man faileth. The means it useth are always equal to the end; but human language, more especially as there is not an universal language, is incapable of being used as an universal means of unchangeable and uniform information, and therefore it is not the means that God useth in manifesting himself universally to man.

It is only in the CREATION that all our ideas and conceptions of a word of God can unite. The Creation speaketh an universal language, independently of human speech or human language, multiplied and various as they may be. It is an ever-existing original, which every man can read. It cannot be forged; it cannot be counterfeited; it cannot be lost; it cannot be altered; it cannot be suppressed. It does not depend upon the will of man whether it shall be published or not; it publishes itself from one end of the earth to the other. It preaches to all nations and to all worlds; and this word of God reveals to man all that is necessary for man to know of God.

Do we want to contemplate his power? We see it in the immensity of the Creation. Do we want to contemplate his wisdom? We see it in the unchangeable order by which the incomprehensible whole is governed! Do we want to contemplate his munificence? We see it in the abundance with which he fills the earth. Do we want to contemplate his mercy? We see it in his not withholding that abundance even from the unthankful. In fine, do we want to know what God is? Search not the book called the Scripture, which any human hand might make, but the Scripture called the Creation.

The only idea man can affix to the name of God is that of a first cause, the cause of all things. And incomprehensible and difficult as it is for a man to conceive what a first cause is, he arrives at the belief of it from the tenfold greater difficulty of disbelieving it. It is difficult beyond description to conceive that space can have no end; but it is more difficult to conceive an end. It is difficult beyond the power of man to conceive an eternal duration of what we call time; but it is more impossible to conceive a time when there shall be no time.

In like manner of reasoning, everything we behold carries in itself the internal evidence that it did not make itself. Every man is an evidence to himself that he did not make himself; neither could his father make himself, nor his grandfather, nor any of his race; neither could any tree, plant, or animal make itself; and it is the conviction arising from this evidence that carries us on, as it were, by necessity to the belief of a first cause eternally existing, of a nature totally different to any material existence we know of, and by the power of which all things exist; and this first cause man calls God.
Darwin drawing drawn from yellowed pages of an ancient Times Higher Education Supplement.

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