Thursday, April 06, 2006

Fishing for evolutionary ideas of life: Does God plan ahead?

The Creationism-versus-Evolution debate has always sort of amazed me. As a Bible-thumping Christian, I've been known to quote chapter-and-verse to my "fellow" fundamentalists who often pick and choose the verses they want to emphasize. Christian Fundamentalists can be pretty good at distorting the teachings of the Bible, which warns people against doing that sort of thing. In reality, I rarely speak of myself as a Biblical Fundamentalist because it sounds too much like an oxymoron.

As Jesus put it: you will know the tree by the fruit it bears. Today's Christian Fundamentalism is fragmented by ideological differences and obsessive isolations of specific principles. Protestantism in general has flourished in a sea of ideaological differences almost since Martin Luther first nailed his complaints about the Roman Catholic Church to a door. Protestants just don't seem to stop protesting against the excesses of established religion.

Fundamentalist Christian faiths are now pretty well established. We're probably on the brink of seeing the birth of a NeoFundantalist movement, and maybe some collateral movements such as Modern Fundamentalism. The stage has almost been set for a counter-revolution in Fundamentalist thinking because of the hypocrisy and illusory teachings of the current Fundamentalist movements. They certainly aren't doing God or their fellow sinners any favors.

What brings on this cascade of thoughts is the latest hullaballoo from the scientific world about the fish that could almost walk. This supposed "missing link" so far consists of a head and shoulders fossil (or collection of fossils). Perhaps the fossils are really just metaphors for dandruff shampoo.

But it's impossible to plot an accurate evolutionary path because we have no way (at least so far) to test for DNA relationships between fossils. The fossils are mineral-based copies of once living organisms. The minerals formed or seeped into cavities left behind in sediments where ancient plants and animals died. They are sort of like x-rays from the past, or maybe 3-d reproductions from the past. But we're not finding the actual bodies so we have to infer a lot of things.

Some fossils are quite detailed, such as the dinosaur eggs that clearly show the remains of unborn baby dinosaurs; and there are a few fossils which reveal what the last meals of the animals consisted of. But these types of details are not only very rare, they provide no real connection between the various species that are thought to have been linked by an evolutionary path.

While the effect of evolution (where a species slowly changes and takes on new physical traits and abilities across a large number of generations) is unquestionably proven by our domesticated animal breeding programs, the evolutionary path itself is periodically revised and updated. Creationists lunge onto the periodic readjustments as proof that the scientists don't know what they are talking about.

In return, the scientists deny they are trying to disprove the existence of God, and insist that God is "a matter of the supernatural and is therefore not something science can study", but they gloat and celebrate over the discovery of fishy fossils and imply that, once again, the Bible has been proven wrong.

Technically, the Bible has nothing to say on the matter of evolution. Where we run into conflict (besides the assertion that God exists and takes a deep personal interest in affairs on Earth) is in the creation story as presented in the Book of Genesis (and liberally referred to in later documents). There is nothing in any of the books of the Catholic or most Protestant Bibles that speaks about the infallibility or absolute correctness of the Bible. In fact, when those various texts were written, there was no Bible. The concept of a Bible wasn't devised until more than 100 years after The Revelation of St. John the Divine was written down at the end of the 1st century CE.

So, there is no text in the Bible which refers to the Bible itself. Nothing actualy authorizes, condones, recognizes, foresees, mandates, or in way anticipates the collections of works that are called the Bible (and Christianity has never been satisfied with just one Bible -- there have always been more than one). Nonetheless, many Christians look at the Bible as "the infallible word of God" even though the infallible word is actually the "Word" (Jesus). And there are some passages in various texts which challenge the accuracy or quality or faithfulness or correctness of scripture, or documents that are presumed to be scripture.

To make matters worse, you have misinformed atheists pedantically striving to prove that the Bible contradicts itself. There are a few well-known contradictions or differences, such as the two distinct geneaologies for Jesus, the two names for Moses' father-in-law, etc. But the Bible was not written under any contract forbidding contradictions or differences, much less under any mandate to get every detail right.

Take the first five books of the Bible, the Pentateuch. Even many Jewish scholars refer to these as the Books of Moses. However, the books attributed to Moses in the texts have different names and are said (in these Biblical texts) to include information you cannot find in the Pentateuch. So much for 3,000 years of careful reading and strenuous educational traditions. In fact, the books which are Biblically attributed to Moses appear to be lost to posterity.

So, while the Bible has been attacked on numerous fronts by Christians, atheists, and scientists, it nonetheless remains one of the most remarkably reliable sources of information about the ancient Middle Eastern world. Hundreds of archaeological digs throughout the region have confirmed lost cities, tribes, events, and artifacts that doubtful scholars have questioned through decades of debate and determined attempts to undermine the credibility of the Bible. Some people unnecesarily defend the Bible by pointing out that it was never intended to be a historical record.

Actually, that's incorrect, too. Some books in the Old Testament are exactly that: historical records, and they have proven to be very useful in digging up the past. But the Bible itself has always represented an attempt by early Christian scholars to establish a canon, an authoritative body of texts which encapsulate the beliefs and teachings of the followers of Jesus. They made a good first effort, in my opinion, though we've since been treated to many different Bible editions.

Science understandably leaves itself little room for investigating the existence of God. How does one go about proving or disproving God's existence without inciting a religious war? (Which would be contradictory to Christian teaching, by the way -- "'Vengeance is mine', says the Lord. 'I will repay.'") So scientists attempt to be clever and either assert their sincere belief in God or they imply that only ignorant church-going fools would believe in God or they just play it safe and say, "That is a matter beyond science".

Sorry, that dog won't cop out for you, boys. If God exists, his existence cannot be ignored or ruled out by "science" (which is simply the collective organized knowledge of our experience). Science is founded upon the principle that we can test any hypothesis, either through experimentation or by observation. Many hypotheses have been tested and rejected, only to be reasserted and confirmed through later, more sophisticated science.

If science today does not know how to look for whether God exists, that does not mean that science tomorrow will be equally incapable of asking the Grand Question. Of course, some people still question whether Man exists. But that's another matter altogether.

Evolutionary biologists are no more qualified to snicker at the idea of a God who creates the universe and guides it through his divine wisdom than Creationists are to dissect the proposed path of evolutionary development. Neither group is very well-schooled in the topics that they challenged. And, frankly, if I were to launch the Quest for God Project today, the last place I would turn to for criteria in setting up proper scientific study would be the religious communities. They understand religion. Understanding God, that's a little beyond human capacity (for now).

It's saying too much to stipulate that this ancient fossilic fish is the actual missing link between water-based animals and land-based animals. Yes, it shows that it was capable of doing some things, but maybe it was a failed evolutionary experiment that didn't get anyway. Maybe the real missing link is a collection of missing links that we'll never find.

God doesn't need space aliens to come and do his work for him, but that doesn't mean he won't allow life to evolve or evolve elsewhere. Nor does God need a series of unprovable miracles to create a universe. The universe supposedly burst into existence in a fraction of a second and expanded to billions of light-years in the course of a hundred thousand years. Now, how is that possible if the speed of light is consistent?

Technically, some scientists say that the physical laws governing the universe did not sort themselves out immediately with the Big Bang. Oh. Someone forgot to include that principle in the press kits sent out to the media.

Technically, Cosmic String Theory (or some parts of it) suggest that it is possible to traverse vast distances along string paths at speeds many times greater than the speed of light.

Of course, Einstein's Relativity principle says none of this is possible, or that the measurements of these speeds and distances are all relevant to each other but not generally to every other point of reference. That is, speed is relative to the observer. If you are moving west at 100 miles per hour and someone passes you while moving at 200 miles per hour, you will only clock their speed at 100 miles per hour. That is because, with respect to their motion through time and space, you are standing still.

Confusing? It gets worse. Quantum theory tells us that we really cannot know the state of any particle. That is, we can either measure where it is or how fast it is going, but not both. Hence, being incapable of seeing the universe as it really is, we have to infer what it must be like by piecing together bits of data. So maybe Plato got it right after all, and we're actually chained to a wall in a cave and we can only see the universe as a reflection cast upon an opposite wall.

These debates won't go away. They'll be handed down from generation to generation and all sides will pass on reams of misinformation. None of them will be in the right either morally or factually because they don't even try to get the facts straight. They just strive to present the facts that work for them.

Scientists, at least, should know better than to try to pull off a partial citation argument, but many of them have been challenged on such tactics throughout the scientific literature with respect to relatively minor issues.

Christians should know better than to misstate obvious truths, but they all start out as sinners. Were it not for the blood of Jesus, we'd all be in a heap of trouble.

And atheists -- well, I guess they just feel put upon. Can't really say much about that, as they appear to remain in the minority.

So, what do I believe? I believe that God loves us all. Scientist, atheist, and Fundamentalist alike. Despite our faults. After all, we're only human.


Blogger Shupac said...

I believe God created heaven and earth. I have no idea how, and it really makes no difference in terms of my faith or of how I live my life. But--

If science today does not know how to look for whether God exists, that does not mean that science tomorrow will be equally incapable of asking the Grand Question.

whatever you can define, explain, or plot by human understanding certainly isn't God.

6:41 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think the idea of an existence without a God is pretty depressing.
I can't prove or disprove the existence of God. It makes more sense to me to believe in the idea of God existing, than to not.

It's certainly a whole lot more comforting to think that when I die, I'll go on to somewhere else and maybe meet the big man in the sky even.

I don't get why people would rather choose to say, I don't believe in the existence of God. It's just so absolute, when..they just don't really know one way or another. To just dismiss it isn't to bright or expansive in thinking, IMO.

It can't be a lot of fun to be say, 85 years old and knowing that your days are numbered only to have the idea of non existence to look forward too. How bleak must that be?

Far easier and more comforting to embrace the idea of a creator.

Im going to try and die with a smile on my face with the belief that my physical life has been well spent and that the next chapter is just beginning.

5:21 AM  

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