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Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Pragmatism and the Evolution Debate

I usually stay out of the evolution debate entirely. The fact is that I don't consider it very important to know how God created the world. I know Who created the world, and that's what matters. If He chose to make it in a literal seven days, or in seven evolutionary eras, it really doesn't affect either my faith in the Creator or my scientific curiosity.

But recently I have heard and witnessed arguments either for or against evolution that I felt at least deserved response. The newest phrase that has popped into the news lately is "intelligent design," but it seems to me just a new spin on an old question. At times, I have even felt that many people do not believe we can remain neutral on the subject. When the debate reaches this point, I feel I must step in and offer an alternative, more pragmatic viewpoint.

My assertion that it does not matter begins with a scientific basic that most of us learned in elementary school: scientific knowledge begins with a hypothesis, which is tested. The test offers evidential data either in favor of or against the hypothesis, and if the data are sufficient to demonstrate the truth or falsity of the hypothesis, with repeatable results, then we have “proof.” This assumes, of course, that we have correctly interpreted the data. In the absence of such testing all we have is a theory, which may or may not be true.

Since the theory of evolution has not been and cannot be tested, we are consigned to leaving it at the point of theoretical discussion. In other words, we simply cannot know from a scientific perspective.

This assertion may anger some people, who believe that the Bible should guide us in this question. I would simply ask this: should it guide us in this scientific question as it guides our scientific knowledge in other things? If so, must we accept that pi = 3, or that Galileo was wrong? If we look to the Bible for instruction in science, we are stuck accepting a number of premises that modern information has disproved, even to the satisfaction of most of the staunchest 7-day creationists.

Perhaps more disturbing, though, is the theological implication of insisting on a Biblical interpretation of science. The Bible itself tells us not to attempt personal interpretation of scripture; yet to insist upon a literal interpretation of this particular aspect of scripture where no constant teaching of the Church gives us definite answer, requires a belief in personal infallibility. It requires a conviction that your own interpretation of the meaning of the scriptures involved is inerrant. For those who are Catholic, I would ask this: to whom do you attribute infallibility, to yourself or to the Church? For those who are not Catholic, I would ask, if you do not believe in the infallibility of another person or entity, how can you attribute it to yourself?

So we are left with the big unanswered question. If science is not capable of testing a hypothesis about evolution, and if the Bible is a book of faith and religion, not science, then where do we look for an answer? I'm afraid the only possible conclusion is to acknowledge that it is a theory. An untested, untestable theory, which may or may not be true. And in the absence of proof, we are welcome to hold opinions one way or the other, but we should not be dogmatic about these opinions. My neighbor is as welcome to hold his opinion as I am to hold mine.

Do I hold an opinion on the subject? Yes, I do. But I will not at this point share what it is, because the point holds equally true whether I believe evolution to be a true theory or a false one. This point is simple: we do not know, either on a scientific or on a theological level. We may suspect either way, and in fact I believe it is healthy to suspect and to do our best to back up our suspicions. In the long run, though, if we are looking for dogmatic scientific positions, we are better off putting our energies into questions which can be tested, and which can truly benefit the world; and if we are looking for dogmatic religious positions, we are better off putting our energies into the important moral questions of how to live a life that will please our Savior. Or better yet, as intelligent believers, we could put our energies into both. Faith and science do not have to be at odds.