Ron Numbers is a very smart fellow, a historian of science, who has done marvelous work on the history of creationism. Paul Nelson is a Discovery Institute Fellow, a young earth creationist (but an amazingly fuzzy one), and, unfortunately, very long-winded. Bloggingheads has brought Ronald Numbers and Paul Nelson together in a dialog. I can hardly believe I listened to the whole thing — I was working away at other stuff while it was playing in the background, so it wasn’t a total waste of time — but it was incredibly boring. Both parties were so determined to be nice to each other that they spent the whole time agreeing with each other, and never wrestled with their differences. It was an epic collision of titanic marshmallows; no one was bruised or dented, but afterwards, everyone involved was sticky and gooey. It just fills one with a desire to wash one’s hands and maybe take a shot of some good scotch to get back a little sharpness and bite. Conviviality is a fine thing in an appropriate social situation, but in a discussion of matters of substance, it can be a toxic sludge that obscures differences and impedes the achievement of any real understanding.
A few interesting comments managed to untangle themselves from the treacle. Numbers made the useful point that religion achieves compatibility with science when it recedes into the background and simply accepts whatever science discovers as what the gods have been doing. That’s fine with me; he didn’t come right out and say, though, that religion lacks any method to actually determine the truth of any statement about the world.
Nelson brought up a hypothetical (a common tactic of his): if an intelligent designer created and planted the very first cell in the ocean a few billion years ago, could methodological naturalism determine that? His point was that if it had actually happened — whether a deity conjured that cell into existence, or a passing alien spacecraft flushed its space toilets as it passed by — it would be undetectable to the tools of methodological naturalism, and therefore it is a flawed procedure.
Numbers had a couple of answers to that. One was to compare it to his field of history, in which everyone knows some information is always lost over time. That does not mean that history cannot work, but simply that we always acknowledge that we cannot possibly know everything. He also made the pragmatic argument that methodological naturalism has been eminently successful, and is a tool that allows even the most evangelical Christian to be a successful scientist, and that breaking that down is an expense we should be unwilling to pay.
What he failed to mention, though, is that Intelligent Design creationism does not fill the gap in our knowledge. They have no tools in place to detect a great cosmic space poof (or flush) that occurred 3 billion years ago, either. What is their way of knowing that succeeds where science fails? Where is their evidence? The failings of ID creationism were not brought up, however, perhaps because it would breach civility on the spot.
The only point where they got spiritedly critical, but not with each other (they still agreed entirely with each other) was — and you knew it had to be this — was in damning those damned damnable atheists. A major problem here was that Jerry Coyne’s book, Why Evolution Is True, was made the target, Paul Nelson glibly mischaracterized the book, and Numbers obligingly accepted his mangling. They spent a fair amount of time flogging a dead horse filled with straw, or some such unholy metaphor.
Nelson claimed that Coyne’s book is “soaked in theology”, that it was one big theological argument from beginning to end, and compared it to a hypothetical (again!) situation in which aliens landed, asked us to explain evolution, and Coyne begins by telling them the Christian myth, and how it is all wrong.
I’ve read the book. Nelson was not describing any book I’ve read.
His example was to talk about the argument from imperfections, the fact that many of the points Coyne made as evidence of evolution were from sub-optimal adaptations, or historical relics. Nelson has made this argument many times before; he says that it is an attempt to judge what a rational god would do, finding differences from our expectations, and then using those to argue against religion…a purely theological plan and conclusion.
Numbers chimed in to agree vigorously, pointing out that imperfections are no argument against creationism, because creationists believe in a flawed world as a consequence of the Fall. I know this. It is irrelevant.
The argument from biological imperfections is not theological, no matter how vociferously Nelson asserts that it is, because no biologist is simply saying what he claims they are; the interesting part about imperfections like the recurrent laryngeal nerve or the spine of bipeds or mammalian testicles isn’t simply that they seem clumsy and broken in a way no sensible god would tolerate, but that evolution provides an explanation for why they are so. We can build a case that these structures are a product of historical antecedents, and have a positive case for them as consequences of common descent. Nelson is misrepresenting the argument, and Numbers just went along with it.
Then, of course, talking about Coyne leads into some Dawkins-bashing. Coyne and Dawkins are going beyond the conventional boundaries of science, Numbers says, and he doesn’t like theological conclusions being made from empirical work; evolutionary biology doesn’t and can’t tell us much of anything about god.
When you’ve got a specific theological claim, such as that the earth is only 6,000 years old (or, in Nelson’s uselessly blurry version, is simply much younger than geology says), then science certainly can weigh in on a theological claim. It can say that that specific claim is wrong. We can whittle away at virtually every material claim that religions make, and reduce them to an empirical void — the Catholic Church, for instance, officially goes along with the scientific observations of evolution, and simply adds an untestable, immaterial claim on top of it, that there was some moment of “ensoulment” that corresponds to the literary metaphor of Adam and Eve. Science can’t disprove that, but what it means is that they are diminished to making pointless claims about invisible, unobservable entities being magically added invisibly and immaterially to people at a distant time and place that they cannot name.
It was a frustrating discussion. If either of them had been having a dialog with Dawkins or Coyne, then this would have been an interesting tack to take, because then they would be arguing over differences, and maybe some reasonable arguments would have emerged (entirely from the Dawkins/Coyne camp, of course). As it is, the two simply dodged their own deep differences to find common, non-antagonistic cause in bashing positions neither understood that were not represented by anyone in their dialog.
At the end, Numbers says one thing that really made me roll my eyes: “One thing that is not welcome in the science and religion debates is people in the middle.” It’s so true. When you are debating over straightforward questions, like “evolution vs. creation” or “god vs. no god”, the position in the middle is non-existent, and people who try to waffle about, refusing to answer the question, are definitely not welcome. They’re only there to add noise and confusion.