Secular Sunday: Nobody believes in Zeus anymore…
Last week, toward the end of my analysis of the latest section of CFC, I spoke of something in quick and dismissive passing, when it actually deserves more focus. So before I move on today (or instead of doing so, we’ll see how long this ends up being), I want to go back to it.
Strobel makes the case, sort of, that the abiogenesis of life is nothing short of miraculous. This has been addressed by better and more intelligent writers — than myself, let alone Strobel — such as Richard Dawkins, who points out (and I’m paraphrasing here): if the odds of life as we know it arising on any planet, the odds of all the qualities of a planet aligning perfectly to support such life, are one in a billion billion, then out of a billion billion planets, it is not only probable but mathematically certain that on one planet, life will arise. If only one planet in the universe has life, then we are the one in whatever number of planets there are — those are our odds.
In an infinite universe, it’s not miraculous that life arose here. In an infinite universe, it would actually be miraculous if life as we define it didn’t arise somewhere. (Of course, if that were the case, there would be nobody to marvel at the miracle.)
But that’s not what I want to address (as I said, Dawkins among others has covered it much better). What I want to address is the following quote, attributed to Walter Bradley, “origin-of-life expert:”
If there isn’t a natural explanation and there doesn’t seem to be the potential of finding one, then I believe it’s appropriate to look at a supernatural explanation…I think that’s the most reasonable inference based on the evidence [page 42].
No. And no. And NO.
I need to be very clear about this, because this is extremely important. Ultimately this is the primary failure of this entire book, the foundational misunderstanding upon which Strobel is building his eponymous Case:
Work that way.
To make it easily apparent why I have such a strong objection to Bradley’s statement, let me rephrase, to have it say explicitly what Bradley is only implying:
If something happens that we don’t understand, and its reasons for happening are not immediately apparent, we should feel free to make up any explanation that suits us.
As I said, this is the fundamental departure point, the fundamental mistake Strobel and others like him make. If they don’t know the answer, they make it up. Or, conversely, they decide on the answer they will choose to accept before even bothering to look at the evidence.
Any scientist will tell you that many things occur in the world that science can’t answer. And scientists will have their hypotheses for the reasons that these events occur, based on a sort of triangulation of the observations that they’ve made (“because A, and B, and C, it seems to make sense that D is occurring”).
Through repeated experimentation they will either verify the hypothesis — in which case it eventually becomes the accepted explanation, and is considered something we “know” — or falsify the hypothesis — in which case they will begin searching for a new answer to test.
What they absolutely do not do is fabricate a “supernatural” and untestable “reason” that has no relationship to the evidence given, nor do they force themselves to adhere to a predetermined “explanation” for new information.
A true scientist is not afraid to say, “I don’t know.”
And saying that, as a corollary, is not the same as saying, “No one will never know.”
Bradley’s attitude is the opposite of scientific inquiry — the death of scientific inquiry. Pick a scientific discovery of significance. Say electricity. Or antibiotics.
Until the 17th century, human beings had little to no awareness of the microscopic world. We didn’t know about bacteria, which means that we didn’t know how people got sick. Following Bradley’s exact line of thought, those who came down with illnesses were thought to be either cursed by God/the gods, or possessed by evil spirits. There wasn’t a natural explanation, and there wasn’t the potential of finding one. So they pursued the supernatural explanation.
Except that there was a natural explanation, and eventually we found it, because despite people like Bradley, who were happy with their comforting-but-completely-unjustified “answer,” some people kept looking.
Admittedly, even attempts to be “naturalistic” can and have been wrong, too. Humourism, for example, was the dominant non-supernatural theory in medicine for nearly the entirety of Western history. A theory which has now, by modern medicine, been completely discredited.
But the important component in this example is that even despite believing that they had the answer, despite having held to and operated under this theory for 18 centuries1, scientists kept looking to make sure. And when they started to make observations that humourism couldn’t answer, to create alternate hypotheses that had a higher success rate of explaining and predicting related occurrences, the long-held theory of humourism was eventually discarded.
A true scientist is not afraid to say, “I was wrong.”
This is the strength of the scientific method, the reason that the scientific method is the only reliable method for determining objective truth about reality. Science is not emotional, it is not entrenched, it is continuously adapting — indeed, science is constantly evolving. Scientific discoveries in one discipline have a ripple effect across our entire understanding of our universe. If a paradigm for understanding the universe cannot accommodate objective observation, that paradigm must be discarded.
In ancient Greece Bradley would have said that obviously Zeus was the source of lightning, because there was no natural explanation for it and no potential for finding one. And at the time he would have been right that there was no natural explanation for lightning and no potential (again, at the time) for finding one. But now we know exactly the natural explanation for lightning, and while that doesn’t automatically mean Zeus isn’t the one making nature work that way, that’s just a case of pushing the “Zeus” answer one step back. Not because there’s evidence for the Zeus answer, but because its adherents can’t deal with letting go.
As you all know, nobody seriously believes in Zeus anymore. And yet intelligent design is exactly the same thing. They say God did it. Once you show how nature did it, it goes back a stage to “God made nature do it like that,” with no evidence to back that up, or even indicate a reason to think so. They call that lack of evidence (aka ignorance) faith, and they are inexplicably proud of it.
People like Bradley are afraid to say, “I don’t know.” People like Bradley are afraid to say “I was wrong.” People like Bradley choose a comforting answer because it is comforting. Not because it is appropriate, correct, or even warranted. People like Bradley are not proper scientists.
Because science doesn’t work that way.
As I thought might happen, this post got long enough that I think it’s enough for today. But it was important. One of the reasons supernatural explanations are so compelling is that they’re easy to communicate, and sometimes more intuitive than the natural explanation. One sentence of creationist claptrap takes paragraphs and paragraphs to answer in a way that is both relatively accurate and intellectually accessible to people who are not scientists.2 (Not to mention the challenge of making sure I understand it right, not being a scientist myself.)
Now I can simply point back to this post, or even use the acronym SDWTW, and you will know what I mean without having to spend paragraphs explaining myself. (Even given that, by the end of this whole endeavor, I may very well have written more words about the book than Strobel did in it.)
More CFC next week.
- A common defense of religion is that its longevity and tenacity somehow give it credence. How could a wrong idea survive so many centuries? My answer to that, as with humourism, is simply “because people didn’t know any better.” ↩
- One of the creationist tactics in “debates” with qualified scientists — and apparently one of Strobel’s tactics in this book — is to rattle off in quick succession half a dozen or more wholly-incorrect but succinctly-stated talking points. Their opponent becomes flustered by the assault, frustrated by being unable to communicate the answers clearly in the allotted time (and/or by the ridiculous nature of the claims), or winds up forgetting or not being allowed to answer one of the points, which makes it appear to the audience that s/he had no answer to give. That’s why I’m taking my time going through this, I don’t want to leave any stone unturned.↩