Home > Religion > Proving Faith? The Irony and Self-Indulgence of Faith-Based Science

Proving Faith? The Irony and Self-Indulgence of Faith-Based Science

September 21st, 2005

Intelligent Design (ID) has been forwarded as a “scientific” theory to show that evolution is incorrect and that the universe and life in it was created by an intelligence which coincidentally would greatly resemble, oh, say, “God,” not that we’re saying that “God” created the universe. Maybe it was someone else.

The thing is, as I’ve said before, ID isn’t really science. It pretends to be, but it doesn’t fulfill some of the basic requirements, such as any kind of structured hypothesis with evidence or data of any sort which can be tested and verified. ID simply claims evolution is flawed, ignores scientists explaining how those claims are incorrect, and then forwards an alternate explanation without actually working out how A got to B got to C. Essentially, it says “evolution is wrong and so we’re right.”

There most certainly is not any process in ID that I’ve heard of which takes any kind of evidence or data, and, through scientific analysis, show that randomness could not have been the cause of all things. ID says that there is too much structure, too much organization, but if that’s the case then you should be able to make that case through statistical analysis, through some reproducible mathematical construct based on some kind of evidence which shows the thesis to be true, or even likely. This is not, however, presented, and to my knowledge, nothing solid is. Only general statements of “that can’t be” and “this must be” based upon common-sense applications of half-understood scientific knowledge. Essentially, ID is based on a feeling, not evidence.

It is the half-understanding of science which I’d like to focus on. Science is not about what you think or believe, it’s about what you can show and what you can prove. Somehow, a lot of people including those who would propose ID, have gotten the impression that all you need for a scientific theory is an idea, and then claim that it’s better than everything else. This, I think, is the result of faith-based thinking: just believing is good enough, the argument is one of philosophy and opinion, and not hard fact.

That’s the difference between religion and science: one is about faith and belief, the other is about observation and evidence. Religion is about faith, and as such, should require no proof. That’s supposed to be what faith is, at least in part. So why do religious people so readily make claims to proof, why do they eagerly search for, accept, and forward to others “proof” of God? Is that not a sign of weakness of faith?

It is the eagerness, this need to prove what is believed which leads people who claim to be following science to accept and forward shoddy scientific “proofs” that evolution is wrong and that an intelligent designer, a creator, is inevitable. People who claim faith is their most valued quality consistently are pushing forth ‘proofs.’ This doesn’t add up.

One experience I had is an excellent example of this. Not too long ago, I told this story, but it is especially relevant in this discussion so I will tell it again. Some years back, when I was working at a movie theater in San Francisco, a young woman (a preacher’s daughter and fundamentalist) confided in me that she had proof that radioactive dating, which she referred to as carbon dating (many people do), is wrong, and therefore the world is only 6,000 years or so old. Her proof came in the form of a conclusion she made after hearing a single lecture in a high school science class. As she told it, her science teacher lectured on the process of radioactive dating, explaining that first a scientist estimated the age of an object, and then tested it to determine the age.

She immediately saw the flaw in this: if a scientist makes a guess as to the age of an object and then plugs that number into the equations to determine the age, that means the result of the test is biased by the scientist’s guess. Therefore radioactive dating is flawed, and therefore her beliefs were in fact correct. Despite having what she believed to be definitive evidence to disprove radioactive dating, she did not present her evidence for review, in this case by the science teacher; instead, she ignored the teacher and went along her way, confident in her rightness.

Her analysis mirrors what we see with ID today. Her conclusion was based upon a cursory understanding of the subject matter, and was supported not by active evidence proving her point, but rather the denial of a different set of ideas which she disagreed with. It was presented as if it were a logical and scientific basis, ‘proof,’ if you will, for believing what she believed, and disbelieving whatever may have challenged that. She passed it on to me as evidence that I should believe, that I should have faith in God, and not so much in science, which was obviously not on very firm ground.

Her analysis was all wrong, of course, and could easily be poked apart, by either a quick check or a thorough review. First, she had assumed certain things without trying very hard to understand them or make sure she had it right, primarily whether a scientist’s preliminary estimate is in fact plugged into the equation that determines the age of the object. She heard there was an initial estimate of age, did not hear what it was for, and so assumed it must have been part of the test that determined real age.

In fact, the initial estimate is used by scientists to determine which type of radioactive testing should be attempted, as different tests are applied when testing for certain age ranges. Carbon dating, the most commonly known, can only determine an object’s age if it less than perhaps ten thousand years; if the object is older than that, carbon dating cannot give an accurate reading. For older objects, different tests are performed, which reveal the age of an object within different time frames.

Therefore, the initial estimate of an object’s age is needed simply to determine which test has the best chance of correctly identifying the object’s age; it is not plugged into the final equation. And if the wrong test is chosen and the object is not of an age within the test’s range, the test will not give a false positive–it will simply show that the object is younger or older than the test can determine, prompting the scientist to apply a different test. Like a mechanic who sees a nut to unscrew from a bolt, estimates its size, and chooses what seems to be the correctly-sized wrench to use to remove it. If the mechanic guesses wrong about the nut’s size, it does not change the actual size of the nut; the initial estimate was not ‘plugged into’ the action of trying the wrench on the nut. The wrench simply does not work, and the mechanic knows to reach for the next-largest or -smallest wrench.

Second, my young friend did not scrutinize her conclusion; she did not test it or attempt to shoot holes in it–something that any scientist worth his or her salt will do to their own theory in anticipation of others critiquing it. She did not consider the improbability that a set of scientific tests which tens of thousands of highly intelligent and trained scientists base their careers upon could be so easily and completely disproved by a high school student after listening to a single lecture. She did not go up to her science teacher and explain the discovery, even though this could have led to a scientific revolution, or at least a more accurate Science class which would not mislead other students. She did not allow her theory to be put to any test or challenge; she did not fully explore the possibilities.

These are quite similar to elements one observes within the ID paradigm. Take the arguments on this page, which promises to “refute evolution in one minute flat.” The first argument: the universe could not have been created from nothing. How do they know? The formation of the universe began before the current laws of physics existed, and we cannot know the laws which governed pre-formation, or even if “nothing” existed before the formation of the current universe. The second argument is that life cannot arise from nothing. However, experiments have shown that a mix of gases existing on primordial Earth, when interacting with energy as in lightning, can cause amino acids, the building blocks of life, to form; it is not too much to ask that in the immense soup of chemicals that proteins, and later, self-replicating genetic material could have formed. While this has not been demonstrated, it has been far from proved wrong, and current laws of physics do not at all forbid this. The third argument is that mutations are destructive and it is impossible for one creature to turn into a “completely different kind” of creature. The first idea ignores the fact that some mutations are indeed beneficial and there are specific examples (one being the evolution of antibiotic-resistant microorganisms), and the second idea ignores the progression through intermediate forms adding up to larger changes, not to mention that basic structures can change size and appear very different without changing much in their underlying structure.

Do a search on the Internet, and you’ll find many such sets of “proofs” which really amount to one thing: people without much real scientific understanding claiming proof, more often than not, by claiming to poke holes in evolutionary science. They always end up being very wrong about the claims of error, and never produce proof of their own contentions.

My young friend was earnest in presenting her proof, and probably this is true with most people who subscribe to ID. They see something which disputes a theory they don’t fully understand but which seems to contradict their own beliefs, and because they want to be able to say their beliefs are true, they accept, support, and forward the new “theory” without the kind of questioning that is necessary to the process they claim to follow. Like another old friend from San Francisco who was a smoker and believed in research that “proved” smoking does not cause cancer–without questioning the research or the fact that it was funded by the tobacco industry, she wanted to believe, so she accepted what was set before her, like so many of us so often do.

This is why you have to question authority, question information you receive, and test it as far as you can to determine its validity. This is skepticism, this is reason. Is it a show of weak faith? Perhaps, but were have been given both faith and reason, and I don’t think it was intended for us to ignore either one.

When challenged with scientific evidence which contradicts fundamentalist concepts of the way the universe is, some will just say that God created those contradictions to test our faith. I would counter that perhaps God created fundamentalism to test our reason.

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  1. Tim Kane
    September 23rd, 2005 at 03:26 | #1


    Good post, Great Topic.

    “The poor you will always have with you…” – Jesus,

    The same for the religious.

    The first problems is contemplating the infinite or near infinit with a finite mind.

    The second problem is the human mind’s tendancy to fill in gaps in its knowledge with “imaginiation”. This is what sets our intellegence apart from any in the universe. Maybe dolphins are smarter then us, maybe not, but our ability to fill gaps with “stuff”, even if its a place holder until we get better stuff, is what has propelled us: it is the essence of our creativity and invention.

    We do this all the time, everyday, every minute. In any conversation we only hear bits and pieces, and we make assumptions about what we don’t hear and are usually correct, then we make even broader assumptions about what the speaker meant and again, are way too often correct.

    This makes us vulnerable to over rely on our assumptions.

    Third problem: Different illness rely on different cures – therefore you get different religions. Everyone of us has strengths and weaknesses. Those weaknesses make use vulnerable to a hostile universe and if we obsess about this become fearful. It is purely human weakness.

    Fourth Problem: The need for certainty. Some people are driven, I believe by their sense of fear and vulnerability to a need for certainty about things we can never be certain about. Most specifically problem number 1 – contemplating the infinite with a finite mind. Those people driven by a need for certainty our the ones that become fundementalist. Out of their need for certainty they confuse scripture for deity; that is to say that they worship the scripture. If the Bible or Koran is wrong in whole or in part, can that really destroy an all powerful God? Hardly not I should think. Where, indeed, is the faith?

    What starts out as worship of an all powerful God descends into Idle worship of static written prose that is no greater than the human hands that wrote it down and the other human hands that translated it and over time and iteration of translation, altered its meaning from the oridinal context.

    Given my limited perspective as a human of finite mind, any contemplation of the infinit is frought with error, if not danger.

    But why not?

    And while I am at it, instead of looking at creation and the nature of God from the perspective of the Human Condition/Needs/vulnerability etc… Why not look at creation from God’s position? Well not possible I suppose, but why not try?

    Lets look at creation from God’s position, if such a thing is possible. Why create in the first place? And why have creation like the kind we have? One with suffering, injustice, pain and death. A creation where the creatures are seemingly purposely cut off from direct hand knowledge of the creator in every tangible way. The only way we have any inkling that there might be a creator, is the fact that we exist, not he, that we have been created. He has, purposely it would seem to me, made certain first hand knowledge of him perhaps impossible. Our only evidence of a creator is that we have inhereted creation.

    If God is infinite, and has infinite knowledge than the only problem that I can foresee him/her having is boredome.

    Nothing new can for him. And everything that occurs is an extension of himself.

    So he sets his hand to creation. And intrinsic to the nature of this creation he makes it impossible for us to know him first hand. But that’s not enough for him, obviously. He builds into creation a randomness and chance so that he can’t know everything. This mind boggling stuff. But it is like a computer programmer writing a random number generator program. The programmer knows the logic, knows the program, but he’s built in randomness so that he can not know the result, despit knowing all the inputs. If you are a creator with infinite nature and infinite knowledge than their is no un known, there is no true newness for you, unless of course, you create and you build into creation randomness/chance on purpose.

    That is us, that is our creation.

    And now we are beginning to see this in the development of string theory. That the essential building block of the universe is strings that are highly unstable, quivering sort of, and arching into parallel universes. The Giant Spaghetti monster is only a half baked idea. Its a short leap from a quivering string to a quivering noodle. The other half of it resonates a fundemental idea that creation rest upon quivering strings. Perhaps that quivering instability is the source of randomness in the universe, in creation.

    This is the very argument between Max Planckt and Albert Eistein. Einstien said (paraphrase) “God would not leave creation to chance” Planckt reportedly countered with “how do we know?” or something to that affect. But if we look at creation from God’s perspective, why wouldn’t he do it that way? Why else create creation? Everything in heaven is a direct product of him, only creation has on foreseeableness made manifest. To ensure randomness, he continues to limit our direct knowledge of him and continues to allow chance and randomness to unfold around us – that is the glory of creation: Random and self unfolding.

    That’s not to say he might not be intensely interested in creation. When you look at history, its as if, when things get really out of wack, he resets things straight again – maybe manifesting his presence through arcs in the strings – who knows? There are marvelous coincidences in history: The axial age is one, the battles of Gettysburg and Vicksburg occuring simultaniously, Within about 6 months in 1942 The Japanese lost Midway, The British won at El Alamein and the Germans were encircled at Stalingrad. One might say that “his truth is marching on” but then along comes neocons in our midst and one has to wonder why?

    I should also doubt that God has much respect for our intellegence, being an ant to his giganticness but perhaps he likes the idea of an independent intellegance looking back at him and his creation. Its the difference between owning a gold fish for a pet and owning a border collie. One looks at you and you could sware you see some intellegence in its eyes, the other none.

    I do believe that he has much respect for our suffering. That is the price we pay for his creation. And in my mind it is the plausible reason for the Christ concept – to understand and relate to the Human condition more fully. He didn’t just put us through suffering, in the Christ concept, he also puts himself. I much rather not have suffering altogether, than for him to half to do it, but there you have it.

    One idea anyway. But that need for certainty, that is the damnation of fundementalist, human kind, fascio-islamist, and our society in its current state.

    It takes courage to imagine. John Lennon had it. If only more of us did, we might all “be living for the day…living life in peace…”

  2. Luis
    September 23rd, 2005 at 05:15 | #2

    The first problems is contemplating the infinite or near infinit with a finite mind. The second problem is the human mind’s tendancy to fill in gaps in its knowledge with “imaginiation”.I think that part of this is an artifact of the profession of the priesthood. When you claim to speak the word of God, people expect you to know stuff, and having to say, “I don’t know that” too much would decrease your currency in people’s faith in you as God’s messenger. So I think that religious clerics have a tendency to believe they have to explain more than they can, and to do so, they use their imagination, as you point out. They interpret religious texts as they in fact cannot talk to God and get an answer to questions like “how old is the universe?” And their source material for this interpretation was never intended as a scientific guide.Third problem: Different illness rely on different cures – therefore you get different religions. Everyone of us has strengths and weaknesses. Those weaknesses make use vulnerable to a hostile universe and if we obsess about this become fearful. It is purely human weakness.Which I think is a great unspoken. I truly believe that a great deal of religion is based upon fear. Fear of death and oblivion, fear of impotence, fear of being ignorant and powerless in a universe too big to comprehend, fear of emotional incapacity to deal with life. But I would think that fear of death is the biggie, and contributes to many other fears.

    The point is, though, that rationality does not stem from fear. Further, when your beliefs in religion are founded in such fears, when your religion is responsible for holding those fears at bay, any challenge to those beliefs threatens to unleash the fears, and so people fight with all their strength against such a challenge.What starts out as worship of an all powerful God descends into Idle worship of static written prose that is no greater than the human hands that wrote it down and the other human hands that translated it and over time and iteration of translation, altered its meaning from the oridinal context.And that touches on another point that concerns me: even assuming God exists and a religion is essentially correct, all the material, the writings and the stories, all come through human filters. God doesn’t have a weekly radio address. So whatever people hear “from God” is really from clerics. When clerics tell you to “believe in God,” all to often it means to believe in what they tell you about God. Any adherent to an organized religion is not listening to God or believing in God, they are listening to and believing in what the clerics say, and that is colored heavily by what those people think and believe. It’s worship of the priesthood as much as it is worship of God.Nothing new can for him. And everything that occurs is an extension of himself. So he sets his hand to creation. And intrinsic to the nature of this creation he makes it impossible for us to know him first hand. But that’s not enough for him, obviously. He builds into creation a randomness and chance so that he can’t know everything.That is exactly the conclusion I have come to. Of course, this is a personal observation. But in the end I think that’s the best focus for faith and belief; spirituality lives within each of us, and the farther out you go from the individual (organized religion and doctrine being the polar opposite), the further you stray from spirituality.

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