This afternoon I’ve been reflecting on the debate last night between Bill Nye and Ken Ham over evolution and creationism (see here), and reading the various critiques and criticisms in the blogosphere. A few can be found here, here and here. In this short post, I won’t add to this critique. Rather, I want to put down a few thoughts on science and religion.
Scientists work on things we don’t completely understand. This is a given about doing science. If we knew everything about something, a scientist would have no reason to figure it out. The debate last night centered on something I’ve thought about for a very long time in interacting with people who question evolution and science in general. Much of the basis of Ham’s argument to Nye was essentially, “Admit you don’t know.”
However, criticizing science for what we don’t yet understand shows a complete misunderstanding about what science is. That is the entire point of science – working on things we don’t know. In fact, if you want to engage a scientist at the most fundamental level, don’t ask them, “what have you found?” but rather ask them “what is your question?” And what flows from that is “what is your prediction?”
That’s how science works. You figure out what question you want to ask, you consider various alternative answers for how something might happen, and you work out what you could predict would happen if each of your possible alternative answers were true. Then you figure out what you could do to test each of these predictions. These predictions may be about something you would do (i.e., an experiment) or something you could observe. Then you go out and do what you need to do or observe what you need to observe to evaluate your predictions.
We do this in regular life all the time. How does an automobile mechanic figure out what’s wrong with a car? They make a prediction and test it. And what you might observe does not have to happen in front of you, it could be the result of something that happened in the past.
However, the problem in all of this is that scientists seem to think it is a weakness to admit that they don’t know something. Personally, I embrace it. In fact, I think this goes to the heart of reconciling science and religion. Everyone will have to reconcile science and religion for themselves, but the quest to understand what you don’t understand perfectly is at the basis of how I reconcile these issues in my life.
Here’s how I explain it. As a Christian, I accept the existence of God, and so I accept that God did something. My problem is that I don’t know what God did. If I had lived 500 years ago, I would have lived in a society that would ascribe many things to “God did it” that we would not ascribe to “God did it” today. This is the reason for the “materialism” and ” naturalism” assumption that creationists rail against. We cannot accept the explanation that “God did it” based solely on faith because we have figured out so many things that were ascribed to God’s action that we now have an explanation based solely on the actions of nature and things in the natural world.
The central problem is “What prediction would you make if that is the cause?” We can make predictions about what would happen or what we would observe based on the actions of what we can see in nature. The problem is we cannot make a prediction about what we would see or measure about some feature of nature for the hypothesis that “God did it.”
“God did it” is a perfectly reasonable hypothesis. As I said, I’m a Christian, so this is a completely legitimate hypothesis to me. However, I have absolutely no idea how to compete this hypothesis against alternative explanations, because I have found no predictions that result from that hypothesis. That makes the hypothesis “unscientific”. This statement is not a pejorative – it is simply a statement about the limitation of science.
At any point in time science has a huge collection of observations and phenomena we can’t currently explain. For example, a few weeks ago a very famous particle physicist told me that we only know what about 20% of the “stuff” (i.e., matter and energy) that the universe is made of – ask them about dark matter and dark energy. I find that astounding. Ten years ago we didn’t even know we needed to figure out what dark matter or dark energy are.
Moreover, most of what we think we know will be shown to be only partially true. Today, the correct scientific answer to the question of “how did life begin?” is “we don’t know.” We have a number of hypotheses, and some of them are gaining strong supporting evidence every year. But then, that’s why scientists are working on this question – because we currently don’t know. Because these hypotheses make predictions, they can be tested, and that’s why science works on them. It may take centuries for science to figure out where the boundary between what we can and cannot know for answering this question is. However, we’ll never know where that boundary is if we simply accept the hypothesis that “God did it” without proper testing.
That hypothesis will certainly lay on the table waiting for predictions to be determined so that it can be tested against the others. However, the fact that we don’t have a complete explanation today is no reason to reject all hypotheses that are still being tested in favor of accepting an untestable hypothesis.
So what I see myself doing as an evolutionary biologist is figuring out what I can about how nature works based on what I can test. Period. And I don’t really worry about what I cannot test. Periodically I try to think about possible predictions for the “God did it” hypothesis, and I probably always will. But I haven’t been successful at coming up with any yet.
Let’s turn this question around though. What is the evidence for or against the existence of God? What prediction could one make to test for the existence of God? Tell me what I could observe that would allow me to accept or reject the hypothesis? I have never seen anyone propose a critical prediction either way? That’s why pondering the existence of God requires faith. As a scientist, I have no way to prove or refute the existence of God. So arguing about it makes for great philosophical and intellectual debates, but that’s not in the purview of science either.