For me the big paleontology conference began on Wednesday morning when a group of us gathered to go to the Creation Museum. There were a couple of luminaries in attendence, including Eugenie Scott:
If you look carefully you can make out my reflection in the glass.
I have made several visits to the museum, and it has been crowded each time. But even I was taken aback by the mob scene that greeted us. Things were so clogged it was sometimes hard to work your way through the labyrinth of exhibits. Very depressing.
Even more depressing was the ubiquity of small children from various camps and schools:
Well isn’t that charming. Getting ’em while their young is a big thing with creationists. Along the same lines, there were a number of teenagers in attendance wearing these T-shirts:
That must have been quite a conference. I’m sorry I wasn’t there.
I spoke to a number of journalists that morning telling them what I thought of the museum. This led to my moment of fame in the Cincinnati press. For me, though, the most interesting moment came while I was touring the museum itself.
I had told one of the reporters that the specific scientific claims made by the museum’s supporters always had to be taken with a huge grian of salt. They were, virtually without exception, grossly simplistic if not outright false. He had asked me for an example, but I did not have a good one to offer that was specific to the museum’s exhibits.
As we were wandering through the displays there was a poster with the blunt equation, “Mutations = Loss of Information.” The journalist to whom I had spoken previously happened to be standing nearby, so I pulled him over and pointed out that exhibit as a perfect example of what I had been talking about.
A couple of teenagers overheard our conversation and decided they need to school me on the nature of biological information. They rattled off a few of the standard talking points about fruit flies and whatnot. I explained, as patiently as I could, that mutations are routinely seen to confer new functionalities on their bearers. I pointed out that if a particular mutation leads to a loss of information, then it would have to be the case that the reverse mutation leads to a gain in infotmation. A mutation could cause a loss of one functionality while also providing a gain of another. Is that a a gain or loss of information? Total incomprehension, alas. I could not get them even to agree that you need a clear method for measuring information before you could talk intelligently about how it changes when a gene mutates.
We were quickly on to the evolution of complex structures and more frustration ensued. As we were talking several other people came over, so pretty soon I had about six people standing around me. I was making a Gouldian, “senseless signs of history” argument about why we could be confident that a complex systems had evolved by natural selection even though we could not observe such a thing happening. This in reply to an accusation that I was believin gin evolution by faith. It all seemed eloquent and convincing to me, but one pleasant gentlemen replied simply that this was lunacy, and proceded to tell me about 747’s and junkyards and tornados and how I was a slave to my worldview. It wasn’t long before I wasn’t getting a word in edgewise, while the delightful people around me peppered me with questions and comments, each one sillier than the one before.
Very frustrating, but entirely typical for creationists. They have a single intuition, that functional systems do not evolve gradually by undirected processes. Virtually all of their scientific arguments are based on attaching poorly understood jargon to that intuition. They have no real understanding even of what the questions are, much less what to do to find answers. I have had conversations like this at virtually every creationist conference I have attended. They always play out in the same way.
But here’s the thing. In talking to creationists, especially of the YEC variety, I know going in that it will be like talking to a wall. The troubling thing is that things hardly got better when I tried to talk to some of the theistic evolutionists at the conference.
On Thursday afternoon there was a session entitled, “The Nature of Science and Public-Science Literacy” Most of the talks were defenses of theistic evolution, complete with lots of mandatory bashing of “The New Atheists.” The ogranization of the session was highly annoying. Each talk was fifteen minutes long with no Q and A’s between them. There wasn’t even a break between the talks. After eight straight talks (!!) there was a very brief Q and A session, but it was nowhere near adequate to the task of challenging all the nonsense that was spewed during the session.
The whole thing was rather frustrating. Several of the talks were devoted to taking atheists to task for, in the view of the speakers, improperly mixing science with religion. My understanding is that all of the talks were invited, but apparently no one thought it would be worthwhile to invite someone of a different perspective, if just to make the session more interesting. The speakers were keen to stress their own Christian faith and their dismay that so many feel they must choose between science and religion. This, mind you, at a paleontology conference. Who’s mixing science and religion, again?
Can you imagine hosting a session at such a conference arguing for the incompatibility of science and religion? Can you imagine any of those militant, dogmatic New Atheist types even being interested in hosting such a session?
During the Q and A I challenged Keith Miller’s (from Kansas State University, no relation to Ken Miller) assertion that respecting the distinction between methodological naturalism and philosophcial naturalism provides much help in reconciling science with religion. Having recently discussed that issue I won’t belabor it here.
I also challenged George Murphy, from Trinity Lutheran Seminary in Ohio. He had angrily asserted that the New Atheists argue that God can not exist unless there is some trace of Him left in the natural world. I pointed out that was a bad misstatement of the argument. The point is simply that you have to give reasons for what you believe, at least if you want others to take you seriously. Nature is an obvious place to look for evidence of God, and many people claim there is, indeed, a divine signature to be found there. So people like Dawkins go about the grim business of explaining why such arguments are mistaken.
Murphy started to answer, repeating his assertion about Dawkins and referring to the deep insight (his phrase) that Christianity gives him. I replied, with some annoyance, that he was just blatantly distorting what Dawkins had said. I also asked him how he knows he is getting deep insight from Christianity. It might just be fool’s gold.
The Q and A abruptly ended at this point. I never did get Keith Miller’s response to my question, but Murphy and I continued the discussion outside. He was all indignation over Dawkins’ refusal to study Christian theology in any serious way. I replied that Dawkins rejects the premise on which such theology is based. Why should he care about a body of work devoted to explaining God’s interactions with the world when he does not accept that God exists?
At some point I asked him flatly why he believed in God. He replied that it had to with his personal experiences. So I asked him why someone who has not had such experiences should think he has anything to learn from Christianity or Christian theology. I don’t think I ever got a straight answer to that question.
I have had intense discussions with people about obscure points of the Buffyverse, but I don’t expect anyone who is not a Buffy fan to regard such discussions as interesting or important. The trouble is that many of the participants in this session made Christian theology sound like much the same thing. They had various personal reasons for accepting Christianity, but at no point provided any basis for their beliefs that could be recognized as evidence by those outside the community. Theology came off seeming like an in-house discussion among those who share a particular set of premises. Which would be fine if they forthrightly admitted that’s what theology is. The trouble comes when they act as if theology is actually giving us knowledge or understanding of something, or that it is a branch of human inquiry that deserves a place at the table alongside science. Give me some reason to think that Christian theology has any more basis in reality than does Buffy studies, and then I will start taking it seriously.
To a surprising degree it was the same frustration I felt arguing with the creationists. At one point Murphy told me that God is the ground of all being, not a being Himself. That is a phrase you often see in high-brow Christian theology, but I haven’t the faintest idea what it means. I asked Murphy what it meant. Words came out of his mouth in reply, but I still have no idea what it means.
Basically, the whole experience, not just with Murphy but with a lot of what other session participants were saying, was aptly summed up by a line from a Woody Allen short story:
Well-intentioned, concise, containing all the elements that appear to make up what passes among certain reference groups as a communicative effect, yet tinged throughout by what Jean-Paul Sartre is so fond of referring to as “nothingness.”
The curious thing is that even while the conference presenters were happy to dump on Richard Dawkins and his colleagues, they begin by conceding two of his central points. First, they agree completely with him that there is no divine signature in nature. Second, though I doubt they would agree they are conceding this, their version of religious faith seems to confirm Dawkins’ characterization that faith is belief without evidence.
There is more to report on, of course, but we shall save that for Part Two.