Cutting Edge
Cutting Edge

Cutting Edge

FAITH MAGAZINE March-April 2013

Science and Religion News

Science and Scientism

At the heart of the natural sciences is falsifiability, the ability to prove a theory false by experiment or observation. Usually, when a theory is contradicted in this way, it is not immediately abandoned but rather adapted, or the data treated as suspect, or other unknown factors invoked, until the contrary evidence becomes overwhelming or an alternative theory produced that accounts for the new data as well as the old.

Such a revision concerning the early stages of evolution on earth has recently been proposed by Gregory Retallack1 of the University of Oregon in the magazine Nature. Many devout Christians still doubt the scientific evidence for evolution, yet material evolution is part of the unfolding of what might be termed God's script written within Nature, something of key importance to the philosophy and theology of the Faith movement. The article referred to should remind us of the detailed work that has been done and is still being done in this field.

Evidence for the common descent of all living things is clear from their biochemical similarities. For example, all living cells use the same basic set of nucleotides and amino acids. Evolutionary biology has come a long way thanks to developments in biochemistry and genetics, particularly the ability to analyse DNA and genomes

The consensus on the evolution of primitive life is that simple life forms (prokaryotes, organisms whose cells lack a distinct nucleus) inhabited the Earth about 3-4 billion years ago, eukaryotic cells (those with a nucleus which contains the genetic material) emerging 2-3 billion years ago. About 600 million years ago, in the Ediacaran period, multicellular organisms began to appear in the oceans. Then came the Cambrian explosion, which gave rise to a huge diversity of life forms: most types of modern animals appear in the fossil record from this era. About 500 million years ago, plants and fungi colonised the land and were soon followed by other animals.

However, something as seemingly old-fashioned as fossil science may provide a new twist to this story. Retallack has investigated palaeosols (sediments linked to fossilised soil indicating exposure to air, and thus dry land) from the Precambrian era. Fossil soils are usually recognised by such things as plant roots, but it is difficult to recognise a palaeosol in sediment that lacks plant roots. Geology and geochemistry show that palaeosols are associated with rock formed under non-marine conditions. Retallack concludes that these palaeosols are from rocks from the Ediacaran period. In his analysis the Ediacarans lived not only on the sandy beds of shallow, sunlit seas but on land, in dry air, perhaps like lichens. These, then, were the first creatures to colonise the land. If this theoryis correct, the evolution of life from water to land did not happen in the way we thought it did.

The Folly of Scientism

Austin L Hughes, a professor of biology at the University of South Carolina, has written a perceptive, thought-provoking article in The New Atlantis magazine, concurring with my own view of current philosophical trends in popular scientific presentations.2 One of these trends is "scientism", the view that science is the only source of truth and reality. Hughes states: "It is frequently claimed that natural science does or soon will constitute the entire domain of truth. And this attitude is becoming more widespread among scientists themselves."3

Contemporary philosophers have largely abandoned metaphysics and the resulting vacuum has been filled by vocal, intelligent, but (usually) philosophically untrained scientists whose pronouncements generally go unchallenged. Religion, and especially Christianity, is derided as fiction. This attitude has influenced metaphysics, epistemology and ethics. Hughes quotes Stephen Hawking as saying:

"What is the nature of reality? Where did all this come from? Did the universe need a creator? ... Traditionally these are questions for philosophy, but philosophy is dead."4

Hughes points out that we must distinguish science from the opinions of scientists on non-scientific subjects. It is not the number of scientists who hold an opinion that makes it valid, but the scientific or philosophical merits of their arguments. He gives the example of the debates over embryonic stem cell research. Many of its defenders were scientists and many of its opponents were religious, so it was easy to caricature the debates as a clash between the modern, rational, scientific view and an irrational, religious mindset. However, it was not the science that was in dispute but the ethics, and ethics are not (to use the language of the Faith movement) materially determined - and so cannot be empirically falsified.

It is said that Albert Einstein stated: "The most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible", in other words governed by scientific laws. Even the strongest scientific arguments concerning the apparently unique human ability to comprehend the material universe fail to explain why this should be so. Hughes rightly criticises scientists such as Richard Dawkins for viewing humanity's intellectual achievements merely as examples of a generalised "survival of the fittest"; after all, many of these achievements have no evident survival motive, nor do they confer any fitness advantage.

Hughes points out that the advocates of scientism labour under conceptual confusions that are obvious upon philosophical reflection. In fact, far from philosophy being obsolete, scientism gives a new impetus for its revival.

'1Ediacaran life on land', GregoryJ Retallack, Nature
493, 89-92 (3 January 2013).
2See Cutting Edge, Faith, May/June 2012.
3Austin L Hughes, Fall 2012 issue, The New Atlantis.

4Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow, The Grand Design (2010), Random House Publishing Group.

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