Wednesday, 19 March 2008

Back on home turf

After his recent foray into the vexed area of Sharia law (a subject on which he will no doubt say less in future) Dr Rowan "plain-speaking" Williams has been exploring rather more familiar territory. This week he has been at Westminster Abbey, lecturing after evensong on the relationship between faith and science, politics and history. Monday's lecture was on "faith and science".

Williams seems to have taken the fashionable line, outlined by John Gray among others, that religious fundamentalists and "fundamentalist science" are about as bad as each other. As the only account of the address so far available, by Joanna Sugden, told it,


Dr Rowan Williams, said "Neo Darwinism and Creationist science deserve each other. Creationism is a version of slightly questionable science pretending to be theology, and Neo Darwinism is a questionable theology pretending to be science."

The Archbishop hit out against the "two extremes" in the range of theories of how the world began in his Holy Week lecture on Faith and Science last night. He said "Science has more to do than is simply covered by these theories."

Creationists believe in the literal version of creation as told in Genesis, and argue that man walked the earth at the same time as the dinosaurs. Neo Darwinists argue that culture is subject to evolutionary forces which will eventually weed out religion.


It sounds suitably Anglican: a good compromise. "On the one hand, there are these guys who claim the world was created in six days. On the other hand, some people think it all evolved by chance. Surely the answer must be somewhere in between." But, of course, truth and falsehood don't work like that. Imagine Williams in the seventeenth century:

There are some who think that the earth goes round the sun. Traditionally, we have understood the earth as being the centre of the universe. Well, some people still insist on that; but I think that the work of Dr Galileo has undoubtedly pushed the debate further on. Surely, the truth lies somewhere in the middle: between the twin extremes of the heliocentric and geocentric world-views. Perhaps the other planets revolve around the sun, but the sun, in turn, goes round the earth.


Rather a strange definition of creationism, too: "slightly questionable science pretending to be theology". It would be better described as a questionable theology pretending to be science. It doesn't qualify as science at all. Although, to be generous, "slightly questionable" is perhaps just Williams-speak for "bollocks".

Neo-Darwinism, by contrast, isn't any sort of theology. It's merely the theory of natural selection combined with the discoveries of genetics. It's the view, advanced most famously by Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene, (but not his alone) that the gene is the basic unit of evolution because bodies are constructed on the basis of instructions encoded in DNA. Far from being pseudo-science, it is the very thing that makes Darwinism scientifically valid. Once again, it would seem that Rowan Williams has opened his mouth to pontificate on subjects he doesn't fully understand. Last month, the rule of law. This month, science.

What he's driving at, I suppose, is the old idea that science and religion belong in separate boxes. Science is all very well at explaining the "how" of things, but it's the job of religion to explain "why". Williams doesn't like it when scientists, like Dawkins, try to explain religion in scientific terms. Some evolutionary thinkers do indeed argue that culture is subject to evolutionary pressures. For example, a culture that values pictoral representation is more likely to produce a Raphael or a Picasso than one that values calligraphy.

Religious ideas may be subject to similar forces. A religion that offers people the possibility of life after death may well prove more attractive than one which can only promise an eternity of nothingness, and so spread. But no scientist would say that such a thing is proved. And even an atheist like Dawkins wouldn't claim that "evolutionary forces... will eventually weed out religion". He might wish it were so, but the evidence, as I'm sure he would agree, tends to be against it.

"Science can be seduced into making exaggerated claims" said Williams.

Unlike religion, obviously.

Williams' basic problem is that he thinks in ancient Greek. The standard Attic sentence has a balanced structure. The first clause, introduced by the particle men makes one point; the second, beginning de, says something either contrasting or complementary. On the one hand... on the other. It isn't so much that the truth lies somewhere between the two, rather that both are somehow true, or at least relevant. Philosophy proceeds via such equivocations. Science doesn't.

Another strange thing he said, according to the Times report:

Both Neo Darwinism and Christianity are telling stories, the Archbishop continued, Christianity acknowledges that fact, Neo Darwinism doesn't.

Really? Inasmuch as Neo-Darwinism is scientifically valid, it is not "telling stories". When it is being speculative, it readily admits as much. As for Christianity, I thought that was supposed to be true. Most Christians would say so. They probably won't thank Williams for telling them that they are merely "telling stories".

4 comments:

silas said...

Not that I'm the least bit religious, but I'm sure Creationists wouldn't argue that man walked the Earth at the same time as dinosaurs, would they?

I don't recall there being any dinosaurs in the Bible, so surely Creationists should argue that dinosaurs never really existed?

I believe the late Bill Hicks did a piece about this where he claimed that Creationists argued that dinosaur bones were put in the ground to test faith. As he himself said "yeah, and I believe God put you here to test my faith".

The Heresiarch said...

Actually, there are some creations who believe that humans and dinosaurs were around at the same time. One verstion of the theory goes that they were too big to fit on Noah's Ark.

Check this out.

Another theory is that God created the earth with the "appearance of age", so that the fossils are there to show what would have happened if it had evolved naturally, which of course it didn't. Just as Adam and Eve were created as adults, but looked exactly as they would have looked if they had grown from embryos.

silas said...

Oh that is just priceless! Thank you so much for that, I have tears from laughing so hard.

This bit amused me a great deal:

"You see, no matter what is found, or how embarrassing it is to evolutionists’ ideas, they will always be able to concoct an ‘answer’ because evolution is a belief. It is not science—it is not fact!"

This from an article that says that dragons mentioned in the Bible could be dinosaurs.

I was also delighted to see the complete avoidance of any mention of sea-based dinosaurs, who would obviously have survived any flood.

The Heff said...

I don't know why the creationists even bother to try and resolve dinosaurs and the flood. When the basic tennant of your "science" is magic then anything is possible and logic doesn't apply any more.

I remember someone in a Bible fellowship in Edinburgh trying to explain the parting of the Red Sea saying it was swampy land that dried out followed by a flash flood. No, it was God and his magic powers.