YECs Don’t Want to Kill Science
So on Monday I talked about the basics of Young Earth Creationism. I don’t think the concept is too hard to understand. YECs believe the Earth is thousand of years old instead of billions, and they think what happened in Genesis is true. What’s harder to understand is how a YEC can believe all that and still believe in science. I mean if you’re going to be a YEC then you’ll just have to give up on science, right? Because science says that the Earth is 4.54 billion years old. So science must not work if the Earth is actually 12-6,000 years old.
Only, science does work. It works really good. Science has given us computers, sanitation, engineering, airplanes, vaccines, the internal combustion engine, and processed cheese. Science put our satellites in orbit, finds ore underground, and makes goats that create spider web proteins in their milk. Science has taught us how to do everything from baking perfect bread to putting robots on other planets. What I’m trying to say here is that science is pretty freaking awesome. Without a doubt it works.
So, the debate is over then. Unless I want to live some kind of philosophically hypocritical duel intellectual life I am going to have to give up on Young Earth Creationism. Either that or recant the previous paragraph and pretend that science is a crock. I can’t have it both ways.
And yet I do.
What I’ve stated above is a pretty common argument against Young Earth Creationism. Unfortunately it doesn’t really work because it’s based on false assumptions. People say things like “The Earth is 4.54 billion years old” and “The boiling point of water at sea level is 212 degrees Fahrenheit” as if they were both scientific facts.
When in actuality the truth is a wee bit more complicated than that.
What we really need to ask ourselves is “What does science do?” It’s no use answering by saying “Science gives us things, like the airplane!” Science did not give us the airplane; people did. Specifically the Wright brothers. Science did not give us penicillin; Sir Alexander Fleming did. Now both the Wright brothers and Sir Fleming used science to make their great discoveries. Without science it would have been almost impossible. What’s important to remember is that science is first and foremost a tool. So what does this tool do that makes it so useful?
If you’ve taken any basic science class then you should have learned about the scientific method. The scientific method is simple enough to be taught to fourth graders, and deep enough to to qualify as one of the most powerful ideas in history. First you make an observation: Birds fly, but I don’t. This leads to a question: Why can’t I fly? Then a hypothesis must be developed, and a hypothesis is essentially a guess: I can’t fly because I don’t have wings; if I built wings for myself then I would be able to fly! Next comes a test, and this test must be scientifically rigorous. There must be a control experiment first: I’ll try flying without wings, just to make sure I haven’t been able to fly this whole time and didn’t know it. Ouch! Then repeat the experiment with only the critical variable changed: Alright, lets try it again with these lovely wings I’ve crafted. Ouch! Finally the results of the experiment are recorded and observed, which starts the whole process over again. This is the essence of science: performing experiments, recording data, and making more complex observations and hypotheses which of course lead to more complex experiments. It’s directed and methodical learning. Another important part is that there must be other scientists who can repeat your experiments in order to confirm your results. Maybe you try out that wing test and you actually glide a little. Unbeknownst to you the reason for your glide was that your manufactured wings caught some rising hot air coming off the roof of a bakery. Another scientist might repeat your experiment and fall like a stone. If enough scientists repeat it and fail to glide you know that something messed up the variables in your first experiment. Or maybe you invent the first hot air balloon and nobody believes you. Well, all they need to do is test it themselves and they’ll have the truth.
So that’s science, and it has been through the tool of science that we’ve been able to be certain of many important facts. A science book will tell us that the boiling point of water is 212 degrees at sea level; if we don’t believe it then we can test it ourselves. Physics textbooks will tell you that, disregarding air resistance, all objects fall at the same rate. If we don’t believe it we can test it. Even something as complicated as Einstein’s theory of general relativity can be tested today, provided you have access to the right equipment. That’s why they are considered scientific facts. It would do me no good to say “I believe the boiling point of water is 127 degrees!” because even an average joe like myself can do a simple experiment to test that, and the experiment would prove me wrong.
But how do you test the theory of evolution?
Lets back off from that for a moment. Already I can hear you piping up with useful information about finches and bacterial cultures and natural selection. So before I go any further I want to make something clear. As a YEC I know that evolution is a fact. Natural selection is an observed phenomenon and it definitely leads to the development of new species and the success of species with certain traits over others. We YECs don’t want to argue that. Point us at antibiotic resistant bacteria, colored moths, and finches with changing beak sizes and we will nod our head in agreement. Evolution is an observed fact.
What isn’t an observed fact is the theory that all life on earth is descended from a single organism that slowly evolved into all the different species we see today over a period of billions of years. That, in a nutshell, is the evolutionary explanation for how life came to be on this Earth. Somewhere at some point single-celled organisms developed from nonliving matter (or, possibly, were brought to earth by a comet) and those single-celled organisms evolved into simple multi-celled organisms which evolved into more complex organisms and so on and so forth until one of those organisms evolved into a primate-like creature which slowly, over millions of years, evolved into us. This is a grand theory, but there is something about it that makes it different from, say, the theory of relativity; we can’t test it.
Before you object, I want you to really stop and think about it. How can you scientifically test something that happened in the past that nobody was around to observe? How, short of a time machine, can you do an experiment on the past? I mean we could do an experiment to see if it is possible. We could, given enough time (billions of years of time, specifically) seed planets with conditions that we believe match the early conditions of earth with the building blocks we believe are necessary to create life and then watch and see what happens. I mean the time scale involved makes the whole process impractical but lets say we do it anyway. Let’s even say that on one of the worlds things progress exactly as the theory claims happened on earth; single celled proto-organisms develop into animals, who eventually develop into humans (or something human like, anyway). Lets just pretend that happens. Would this scientifically prove that it happened on Earth in the past? No. It would just prove that it was possible. It would certainly make it look extremely plausible that it happened on Earth but it wouldn’t prove that it actually did happen.
Does that make sense?
The simple fact is that the scientific method does not work on things that we cannot currently observe. Just look at murder investigations. Science can tell us whose blood is splattered on the walls, what kind of action likely created that kind of splatter, and the chemical composition of the metal residue left behind from the weapon that did it. That is all very useful information, and they are aspects that can be tested multiple times by many different people. What science can’t do is show what exactly happened that night. Lets say the tests show that the suspect’s DNA was on the handle of the knife, and the victim had to have been stabbed by someone matching the suspect’s height and weight. Well, how do we know that it wasn’t someone else who deliberately planted the DNA and just happened to be the same height? Maybe it was the suspect, but the someone else had actually paid him $10,000 to do it. Maybe the killer thought that the victim was a zombie. Science can’t tell us these things; only someone who observed the incident can. That’s why police inspectors, judges, and lawyers exist. The past is not a repeatable experiment; it’s something else entirely.
It’s useful to look at scientific theories as falling under one of two different categories. Let’s call one “Observational Science” and the other “Speculative Science”. Airplanes, radios, satellites, and the boiling point of water all fall under Observational Science because they are all things we can observe and test for ourselves. Some things, however, can’t be observed or tested. Bacteria evolving into different strains in a laboratory can be observed and tested; bacteria slowly evolving into every life form on earth over the last 4.54 billion years is something that we can’t observe or test here in the present. The same goes for the age of the Earth. We can’t take the unobserved past and experiment on it in a lab. We can experiment on things in the present to try to get an idea about the past, just like a forensics team experimenting on blood splatters. But science is a limited tool: it can only tell us about things we can observe and test now. When it comes to theorizing about the past we have to take the pieces of what science can tell us and try to create a story that will adequately explain all the evidence.
It’s late, and I feel that I’m starting to ramble. There’s a lot more to say, but let me just sum everything I’ve been trying to say up into three bullet points.
1. Science is a tool that works through observation and repeatable experiments.
2. Anything that happened in the unobserved past is by definition unobserved, and cannot be repeated or tested.
3. If we evolved from single-celled lifeforms then it happened in the unobservable, untestable past. Therefore it cannot be considered scientific “Fact”.
Now does all this mean that we didn’t evolve from single-celled lifeforms exactly as the books say? No, no it does not. However it does show that it is not hypocritical to disbelieve in that theory and still believe in science and science’s discoveries. This all wasn’t to show you why I believe in a young Earth: just that it is possible to believe in it without committing intellectual suicide.
Next week I’ll talk a little about the why.