Happy Birthday, Charles

By Jim McVeagh 24/11/2009


Apparently today is the 150th Anniversary of the publication of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species. At the time, it was considered probably the most controversial book of all time, although, today, it is probably more boring than controversial and more of a scientific curiosity than a valid scientific treatise. Most of Darwin’s theory has been shown to be vastly more complicated and involved than he originally envisaged. Still, for a man with only Victorian tools at his disposal, Darwin’s observations (recorded in Voyage of the Beagle) were methodical and precise and his attempt to put his observations into a unified theory of species origination remain an impressive work, if not entertaining reading!

The most impressive thing about Darwin’s theory, however, is that it (and it’s more modern variants and updates) remains the only scientific theory of species origination. No one has come up with another (although some might say that current theories bear little resemblance to Darwin’s original). Note that I do not say that the theory of evolution is the only explanation of origins, only that it is the only naturalistic one and therefore the only explanation offered by science. There are plenty of other explanations of origins ranging from the absurd beliefs of primitives through to the elegant explanations of Intelligent Design, the respectable cousin of creationism.

Creationism: Simply too much heavy lifting by the first chapter of Genesis.

Bear in mind that I am a Christian. I am very happy to believe in a Creator God, but find reading highly technical happenings into the first part of an oral tradition to be a little hard to swallow. To me, it seems obvious that the first few chapters of Genesis provide an understanding of the spiritual and supernatural significance of our origins, rather than a technical explanation of them. This is in much the same way as Revelation provides an insight into the spiritual significance of history rather than the events of history. It is a book that says history is not predominantly about man, but predominantly about man’s restoration by Jesus Christ.

There. Now I’ve gone all Christian on you. Some of you atheists are going to miss the good part if you run away…

The problem with an argument like Intelligent Design, is not that it is poor reasoning. Nor is it that it’s proponents are stupid or don’t understand the principles of the scientific portions of their theory. The problem with ID (and creationism for that matter) is that it violates the principle supposition of science. That supposition is that there must be a naturalistic explanation for everything. Both creationism and ID invoke the input of the supernatural in some way, therefore neither can be considered science (note that this does not mean they are necessarily wrong). This is why it is perfectly acceptable to teach ID in schools – just not in science class.

I must emphasise here that this naturalistic bent of science is a presupposition only. Too many scientists treat this basic supposition as a truth, but presupposing that there is no supernatural explanation for anything does not prove that there is no supernatural explanation. Thus scientists who believe in only a naturalistic world are, in fact, exercising as much faith as a Christian who believes in God. Personally, I find the religion of science to be merciless and harsh and little to do with the reason one wishes to follow science – that of discovery of the natural world

Scientists hold to a naturalistic presupposition for the purpose of developing naturalistic explanations. If we did not apply this supposition to the natural world then, every time we came across something we could not immediately explain, we would be inclined to say “God did it” (or perhaps, more accurately, supernatural beings did it). Because the tenant of science is naturalism, we search for a naturalistic explanation and are usually eventually rewarded. This is not some absurd verification that God does not exist, merely that this particular process that we have explained does not require direct divine intervention. It is not a miracle.

Which brings me to the place where science and religion clash – miracles. We tend to use the word miracle vaguely to mean extraordinary co-incidences (which are, potentially, natural) but what the word really means is a supernatural occurrence. By definition, there can be no naturalistic explanation for a miracle. By definition, there is nothing science can say about a miracle. This, of course, does not stop people trying to find naturalistic explanations (because they are scientists and that is what scientists do). People of faith should be neither offended nor intimidated by this process. While some who subscribe to the religious school of science may indeed attempt to belittle or deride matters of faith, most scientists of my acquaintance seem perfectly happy to let the natural and the supernatural world coexist, even if they are only interested in the natural.

Ever since the publication of Darwin’s book, there has been a clash between the naturalistic explanation of origins and the supernatural one. I think that this clash mostly extends from the fundamental misunderstanding of the places of science and religion in this world. Science was never a tool to make religious observations, any more than religion can propose scientific theory. I am both a Christian and a scientist and happily move in both worlds, because I do not get them mixed (often). Seeing as scientists are supposed to keep an open mind and Christians are supposed to be accepting of their fellow man, I see no reason for the two groups to be at loggerheads.

As long as the extremists in each group get their rabies shots…

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