Saturday, April 28, 2007

Why the Pope has it wrong

It was bound to happen sooner or later - the latest Pope decided to wade into the never ending creationism and evolution "debate."

I placed the word debate in quotes because the entire thing is a bit out of place. The objections to evolution, generally speaking, are not scientific but religious. The
oxymoronic "creation science" - or as it is called when it dresses up in drag, "Intelligent Design'' - is not about science. It's about faith.

So the whole debate is a bit ridiculous. Evangelicals get up on a soap box talking about T-Rex's eating fruit in the Garden of Eden with Adam and Eve and expect that to carry some kind of scientific merit. It doesn't and can't, and as a result the debate mostly boils down to people yelling over each other's heads because they are not even speaking about the same thing really.

Of course, the great irony is this. Some Christians will say that their faith does not require proof. The Bible tells them to believe, so they believe. Period. After all, this is a religion that claims that believing without a shred of evidence is a virtue. (John 20:29) You are blessed if you believe, yet have not seen. In the same breath, however, they will struggle to prove the Bible is literally true. Hence the mind numbing "creation museums" that have popped up in the US, complete with displays showing how humans lived with dinosaurs. As Lewis Black says, "These people are nuts because they are essentially viewing the Flinstones as a documentary."

Luckily, however, most Christians are not of the dominionist school of fundamentalism. Sadly, they are mostly silent and let the fanatics rule the air waves.

Which brings me to the Pope. No, he is not a fanatic, but his latest missive sure smacks of the same kind of ignorance of science so often displayed by creationists or intelligent designers who either have no clue about science, or do and want to change the rules to allow for their religious beliefs to overcome evidence.

The Pope says: "the theory of evolution is not a complete, scientifically proven theory.” It's a sentence that makes no sense in scientific terms. No theory is "proof" in absolute terms, something I would have though a man of his learning would understand. All scientific theories are accepted provisionally as fact when the evidence is strong and the explanations sound. It is possible that someone might come along with a better theory of happened to Newtonian physics so it could happen to evolution...that is how science works. But even if it did, that would not "prove" anything in the way the Pope is suggesting. He seems to think a scientific theory can achieve some kind of absolute truth...which is not what science does.

Also saying it is not "complete" makes little sense. A scientific theory is accepted precisely because it explains natural phenomena well and predicts certain outcomes. As far as scientific theories go, evolution is pretty complete. But the point is "complete" is also a misrepresentation of the scientific method. All theories are constantly open to modification in the light of new evidence. The door is NEVER closed on new information changing accepted scientific thinking. So "complete"makes almost no sense. Again, this is the Pope, not Jerry Falwell. I would have expected better.

The Pope went on to say that evolution could not be proven because scientists cannot study "10,000 generations' in the lab, a reference to the length of time that natural selection works with. True, we cannot test generations of animals or humans, but we can with bacteria and insects that live shorter and reproduce way faster. In the lab is exactly where scientists study those generations. Sorry, Pope, but you got it wrong again.

Of course, the greatest problem isn't with the Pope's apparent lack of basic scientific understanding. You'd think the guy would read up a bit before making these sorts of misinformed prounoucments. But it is with his overall attitude, one shared by his predecessor. That is, he says, science MUST leave the door open for God. That is to say, science should always allow room for God in scientific theory. The pope says evolution and religion do not conflict so long as scientists stay out of God's business.

Putting aside the fact the absurdities of a pope try to tell the world's scientific community what to do (you never seen the head of a large scientific body tell the pope how to interpret the Bible!) He is suggesting a religious framework for scientific work. "You can do all the science you want," he is basically saying. "So long as I approve based on my religious beliefs."

Balderdash. He should know better. Scientifically, there is no evidence to show the existence of God or gods. Scientifically there is no more or less reason to accept Thor is real as there is to accept that Allah is real. What people like Richard Dawkins are saying that scientifically speaking you have to be an agnostic, technically, about such things. HOWEVER, that you cannot DISPROVE, the existence of Athena or the Christian God, is NOT evidence they do exist.

Richard Dawkins likes to use Bertrand Russell's old analogy of the cosmic tea pot. The story goes that you could claim that a tea pot is in close orbit around the sun. It would be too small for our telescopes to see, so we could never disprove the teapot is there. Strictly speaking, we would have to be "teapot agnostics", as not one of us can say there is a tea pot in close orbit around the sun, but in reality we would all be teapot atheists. That is to say, while one cannot disprove it is there, the probability of of the tea pot existing is extraordinarily remote.

In short, the Pope is asking science not to draw a conclusion that might effect the belief in something that, so far as science is concerned, has no evidence with which to even suggest its existence.

Interesting, that a man so sure God exists appears to so worried that science might be able to show that God, in fact, doesn't.

Poor reasoning, no matter how you cut it.

Welcome to the Handbook

It all began with a question.

In the history of big ideas and probing questions, it certainly caused not a tremor, but to my little mind at the time, it was the most important question ever asked.

Father, how did Noah get penguins?

Like I said, not exactly earth shattering in the grand scheme of things, but of tremendous importance to me.

The question was asked in a grade 6 religion class at St. Jude elementary school in Calgary, Alberta and was first glimmer of deductive reason I can clearly remember. It was the result of a fairly bland series of events that essentially radicalized my mind.

A few days before the question was asked, I was given my first "real book." Not a comic book, or child's story book, but a science book. It was a paper back called "The First Men in the World", written by Ann Terry White. I still have it today. It was given to me by my cousin Ricky Hoffman, and I devoured it. Although dated by today's standards, it was my introduction to the history of the human species, of "cave men." I was fascinated by the image of these prehistoric men with none of the technology of the 20th century, armed only with primitive tools, using their wits to survive in a world populated by sabre toothed predators. It was also a vastly different story than I was being told in school. Science classes taught nothing about prehistoric humans. But in religion class we learned about Adam and Eve, original sin, and the garden of Eden. In my minds eye, Adam and Eve and their descendants lived not much differently than we did. Maybe they didn't have television, but they had some kind of house and had clothes and and so on. They certainly didn't have to worry about being eaten by a great cave bear. Essentially, they seemed more modern than the cave men of White's book. It seemed clear to me that White cave men were fighting to survive long before Adam and Eve encountered a snake in a tree.

In short, I began to suspect that I was not being told the whole story in school.

Not long before Ricky gave me that book, I had watched a show on television about penguins. According to the program, Ferdinand Magellan was the first to discover penguins - which to him must have been a bizarre bird. It had to be skinned instead of plucked and was dubbed a "black goose". Penguins, the narrator of the show said, lived mostly Antarctica, first seen by the Russian explorer Fabian Gottlieb von Bellingshausen in 1820.

And so came the religion class and the question.

We had a priest in class that day and he was telling us about Noah's Arc. You know the story. God gets hacked off at the world, decides to drown out every last man, woman and child save for Noah and his immediate family. He orders Noah to build a big ass boat, and in put to two of every animal in the world to spare them from the flood. (A curious request really, since God should have just be able to recreate the creatures he slaughtered....but that is a discussion for later) The priest was quiet clear on this. Noah got all animals - bears, tigers, snakes, even little bugs.

All animals.

So I put up my little hand while the priest was going on about the dove and the rainbow and how Noah released the animals to repopulate the world.

Father, how did Noah get penguins?

At first, the priest looked a little perplexed, and asked me to repeat the question.

Father, how did Noah get penguins?

What did I mean, the priest asked.

"Well," I said, standing at attention beside my desk. "I saw this show on tv, and the guy on the show said penguins only live in the south pole, and that a guy from Russia was the first guy to go there. So how did Noah get penguins?"

The priest continued to look dumbfounded and before he could say anything, I said that if the fellow from Russia was the first person to see Antarctica, that means Noah never saw it. And if Noah never saw it, then he was never there, which means he never saw penguins. So, that being the case, how did Noah get penguins?

At this point the priest began to talk about the mysteries of how God worked, and that if God wanted Noah to get penguins, Noah could get penguins. To my 11 year old brain, that answered seemed evasive, even dishonest.

Now, it is probably never wise to completely trust one's childhood memories and things look much different through the lenses of adult eyes. Looking back, I am fairly certain the priest, whose name I do not even recall, was not talking down to me or trying to be evasive, let alone dishonest. But to 11-year-old Grant, that is exactly how it seemed.

I began to get angry. I refused to sit down, and insisted on an answer that made sense, unaware that such an answer simply and plainly does not exist. Finally, frustrated and angry, I slammed my hand down on the table and shouted, "Either the tv show is lying or the bible is lying I want to know the truth!" I received four days of detention for that outburst.

That incident stayed with me to this day and was my first encounter, one of many, with the unreason of religious faith, of it inability to answer complex questions about the world around us. Over the years I would develop a rather unflattering reputation among religious teachers in Catholic school of being an irritant. Like a rash I suppose. I challenged them on every point they taught, sometimes going out of my way to make them angry. Not the most enlightened approach, you understand, but it had it's purpose.

Today, although I count many very religious people as good friends, including a Catholic Bishop, I still wonder about faiths that worship the supernatural, hold miracles to be true, and in the extreme, are willing to destroy the lives of others because they dare to believe something different. I wonder how, in a world that science now understands so well and with that knowledge growing every day, we can still cling to belief in things for which there is no evidence.

Or in other words, have we reached a point in human history when it is not just time, but is indeed critical, to abandon the pleasant beliefs in the supernatural?

Ultimately, this is the purpose of this blog. To talk about faith and reason, about religion, and its place in society. Anyone is welcome to post their views, and I look forward to a spirited exchange of ideas.