* For Our Parents *
Warm groeten from Amsterdam. I’m in town for a conference—always a good excuse to have some fun. I enjoyed dinner, conversation, and a tour all at the same time last night on one of the city’s many canal-boat restaurants. The boat was motorized, but my hosts said that it used to be drawn through these very canals by horses. Gezellig!
If you read last month’s installment, you know that I’m “Dr. X” and that this is a sort of critical intellectual biography of my friend and dialogue partner, “Dr. Why.” Rather than bore you with an orderly procession of all the significant moments in Why’s life, however, I’ll share something of his current intellectual position and then zig back and zag forth from that in subsequent installments. I will thereby prepare the ground from which to examine some of Why’s other—shall we say, more interesting—ideas.
Let’s begin by considering Why’s position on relations between science and religion, because it’s there I first realized that Why has something to say worth hearing.
This realization didn’t come at all easily. Why didn’t have much to say when I first met him: he was merely confused. And the position he works from now twisted indecisively like a sick vine from a perverse blend of religious tradition and secular learning fertilized by naiveté and flooded by existential angst. You’ll best appreciate my difficulty if you emphasize the fertilizer.
I mentioned last time that Why suffered a terrible crisis of identity when young-Earth creationism failed to work out for him as he’d hoped. The whole truth, however, is more complicated; for these days Why asserts not only that his creationist pursuits were rational, but even that he learned profound truths from them. You might find this unsurprising on ground that crazies always think they’re sane. But it long surprised me, for it seemed at odds both with Why’s intelligence and with many of his other assertions: e.g., that Earth is old, that evolution is limitless, and that suffering far outreaches merely human failings. Besides, he once laughed approvingly when I argued from creationist principles that Adam wasn’t merely manly.
More on that another time, perhaps. What I’d like to do now is introduce Dr. Why, who to my very pleasant surprise has decided to join us.
Thank you very much, Dr. Why. This biography will be far more interesting and authoritative with your participation!
Y: Yes, I’m glad to be here, Dr. X. Thanks for not taking no for an answer.
X: If you don’t mind, Why, I’d like to jump right in without any further ado. Readers will be getting to know you thoroughly over the course of this column, so no further introduction is needed.
Y: That’s more than fine with me.
X: Terrific. I’d like you to start us off by addressing the seeming contradiction between your rejection of creationism and your claim that it has something to teach us. That’s too large a topic for a few hundred words, of course, but you can begin.
Y: Certainly, X. And since the best way to answer a difficult question is to start deep and wide—
X: As I knew you would.
Y: —I’ll begin by saying that, in my judgment, good thinking about religion and science is vastly harder to do than almost anyone imagines—and for many unfortunately unfamiliar reasons. One fundamental problem is that inquiry of almost all sorts—including scientific inquiry—builds on unquestioned hypotheses that strongly encourage a certain way of interpreting everything built upon them: I call them founding hypotheses. The trouble is that founding hypotheses can always be questioned, and replacing them can sometimes yield compelling new interpretations.
X: Compelling creationist interpretations, for example.
Y: Conceivably, yes. Now, I’m with you in finding young-Earth creationism very implausible—
X: Obviously false, I’d say.
Y: But it isn’t obviously false unless you evaluate it unimaginatively from a perspective that presupposes its falsehood—reasoning unsympathetically in a circle about it, like almost every critic of creationism out there. I found it unbelievable after adopting its perspective long enough to determine that it’s unlikely to yield a compelling new way to see things. That’s essential to good inquiry, but rarely done.
X: I don’t have to try on every crazy theory out there to think well, Why.
Y: Only those you’d have responsible opinions about.
X: The historical sciences have gathered libraries full of data that proves creationism false!
Y: No one person can say much about the specifics of all that data just because it fills libraries. But any perceptive person can say something general about it: that it was all interpreted in light of founding hypotheses that creationists reasonably reject. Consider historical geology. Open most any introductory textbook and you’ll find its method—often called uniformitarianism—summarized in Lyell‘s words: “the present is the key to the past.” But uniformitarianism is clearly mistaken if a miracle-working God exists, and creationists believe in a miracle-working God. So conventional geology doesn’t prove creationism false; it merely assumes that creationism is false, and does so methodically. Therefore creationists are trying to reinvent geology to suit interventionist theism. And that’s perfectly reasonable.
X: We’re nearing the end of our time together, Why.
Y: I’m done for now, X.
X: In which case I think I’ll close by telling my mythic-man-breasts joke!
Y: Don’t you think it’s a little juvenile for this, X?
X: Don’t be a prude, Why. You once laughed at it yourself.
Y: So I did.
X: And so ladies and gentlemen, it goes like this: A young-Earth creationist walks into a bar and says, “We didn’t come from no monkeys! I just came from a lecture at church where a scientist proved that we’ve fallen from created perfection!” The woman at his elbow happens to be an evolutionary biologist. She turns to the creationist and says, “So why did God give men body hair and nipples if they’re of no use? Where’s the perfection in that?” The creationist gives a knowing smile and says, “The scientist talked about that sort of thing. He said they had a use in Eden or God wouldn’t have made them!” “Do you mean to suggest,” says the biologist, casting furtive glances at the creationist’s chest, “that Adam wore a fur coat over functional breasts?”
Y: And don’t forget the moveable ears!
X: Unfortunately we’re out of space, so that’s it until next time. Readers, be sure to join us. This promises to get even more interesting.
All rights retained by the authors.