Sunday, May 06, 2007

Geaghan: Things without parallel

When asked how many of the ten Republican candidates didn't "believe in" evolution at last week's debate, three raised their hands. Turns out that proportionately more R candidates accept evolution than the general population, where the percentage is less than half.

Today's Washington Post reports that:
A recent Newsweek survey presented people with three explanations for the origins of human life: that humans developed over millions of years, from lesser to more advanced forms of life, while God guided the process; that God played no hand in the process; and that God created humans in their present form.

The first option is a sort of hybrid creation-evolution endorsed by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) during the debate; "I believe in evolution," he said. "But I also believe, when I hike the Grand Canyon . . . that the hand of God is there also."

The second option is evolution as explained by science, and the third summarizes the idea of creationism.

Nearly half the sample, 48 percent, said the creationism option was closest to their beliefs, and 30 percent chose the hybrid option. Just 13 percent of the sample chose evolution alone as the best approximation of their view of human development.

Those results have been mirrored in a series of Gallup polls that have asked nearly the same question at several points over the past 25 years.

According to a 2004 poll mentioned in the article, "61 percent said the creation story in the Bible—that God created the world in six days—is 'literally true.'" Therefore:

The reality is that many Americans see themselves as believers both in a higher power and in science. In a Time poll conducted last fall, 49 percent said it is possible to believe in both evolution and "divine creation by God," whereas 41 percent said the two ideas are incompatible.

But how could 61% declare that the Genesis version is "literally true" if a large portion of that majority also claim to be "believers" in science? From a strictly scientific point of view, the story in Genesis is entitled to no more credence than the Hindu notion that Vaak gave birth to the cosmos through the Golden Womb.

Does the notion of "belief" even apply to science? If so, it's of a very different order—maybe words like "hypothesis" or "high probability" or even "law" convey the texture better. A belief in the Christian creation myth is strictly a matter of faith, while a "belief" in the laws of gravity or thermodynamics is founded on observation and predictability. Whenever journalists write about science and religion in terms of belief, they imply that one worldview is as valid and defensible as any other. One simply "chooses" to believe in creationism, another in evolution, and beliefs become almost interchangeable. So a belief in creationism is entitled to equal time in our classrooms whenever Darwinian evolution is mentioned.

Søren Kierkegaard, the 19th-century Danish philosopher, both understood and embraced the central paradox of his own Christian faith: the contrast between the intensity of his belief and the paucity of evidence to support it. His god transcended all human categories such as science, and could never be "known" as we know gravity or evolution:

What we cannot do, according to Kierkegaard, is believe by virtue of reason. If we choose faith we must suspend our reason in order to believe in something higher than reason. In fact we must believe by virtue of the absurd.

Religious believers often express sorrow for the presumed despair of those who can't share their faith. Kierkegaard proposes the opposite: belief in the Christian god requires acceptance of staggering paradoxes, and a faith for which no evidence exists, all of which imposes a heavy burden of doubt and constant anxiety. For Kierkegaard, faith is dynamic and must be constantly replenished. Christians bear heavy subjective baggage, whether they acknowledge it or not, for the "leap of faith" that makes their belief possible. Kierkegaard, for one, acknowledges this central struggle--in fact, it's central to his philosophy.

Ambrose Bierce, in The Devil's Dictionary, offers a more prosaic notion of faith, which he defined as: "Belief without evidence in what is told by one who speaks without knowledge, of things without parallel."

Religious faith and science have nothing whatsoever in common, unless you accept at face value the claim that the god of the Catholic church periodically intervenes in human affairs through miracles. Science's inability to explain all phenomena, due to the limitations of our senses and reason, gives rise to a mystery that can appropriately inspire awe to anyone contemplating the Grand Canyon. But that sense of mystery is not proof, or evidence, of the existence of god.

PHOTO: Søren Kierkegaard (1813-55)

No comments: