Creationism vs Scientism: A Plague on Both Their Houses!

02/05/2014 10:53 am ET | Updated Apr 07, 2014

The "Flintstones" is not a documentary!

"[C]hildren are taught in school that science is a collection of firmly established truths. In fact, science is not a collection of truths. It is a continuing exploration of mysteries." -- Freeman Dyson

"We gain knowledge of our place in the universe not only from science, but also from history, art and literature. Science is a creative interaction of observation with imagination." -- Freeman Dyson

There was a "debate" on Tuesday evening February 4 on the subject of evolution and creationism. More than a million viewers were expected to tune in online to witness a debate between scientist Bill Nye and creationist Ken Ham. The trouble is that each side makes the same categorical mistake over and over again. Both acknowledge the triumph of scientific language over all other forms of discourse. Poetry and metaphor are OK in their place but are rather like the cherry or the whipped cream on the top of an ice-cream sundae.

For the first twelve hundred years of the Christian era the predominant way of interpreting the Bible was allegorical. Metaphor, analogy, poetry were taken for granted as vehicles of deep truths. The great change came when language was refined to be the vehicle of only single meanings. This wasn't all bad by any means. It enabled science to flourish and bring us to an even deeper appreciation of the wonders of the universe. The trouble was that religious people were taken in by the triumph of scientific discourse and wanted theology to sound scientific. It wasn't sufficient to affirm that the Bible to contain deep truths. It had to be literally true to be -- well -- true. Whatever the Book of Genesis is it isn't a scientific treatise but it contains a great story about the glory and mess of being human.

Some scientists have swallowed a form of fundamentalism of their own. The result? Two warring fundamentalism with no sense that there might be more than one vehicle of truth. Steven Weinberg tells us, "I personally believe that the teaching of modern science is corrosive of religious belief, and I'm all for that." Biologist William Provine insists, "Evolution is the greatest engine of atheism." And Michael Ruse reminds us that among some scientists "there is dogmatism, a refusal to listen to others, a contempt for nonbelievers, a feeling that they have the truth . . . let us not mistake science for scientism, the belief that science and science alone has all the answers."

In 1790 the natural philosopher (the word "scientist" came later) Joseph Priestly told the Prince of Wales that the explosion of new scientific knowledge not only had the power "to expand the human mind" but also was able "to show the inconvenience attending all establishments, civil or religious, formed in times of ignorance, and urge the reformation of them." This was more than objective observance. It was a declaration of war of sorts on the very social and political fabric of the world -- a daring if foolhardy statement to the heir to the throne, given the events of the year before in Paris.

What Priestly's daring statement illustrates is the principle that there is no such thing as "knowledge" without context - without the risk of someone making ill use of it. Context is deeply important and an admission that there might be more than one way of connecting the dots. A new maxim from Silicon Valley is "information underrepresents reality." Facts are important but how you assemble them makes all the difference.

Edmund Burke went on the offensive. Natural philosophers were "simply addicted to toying with novelty... caring no more for the human objects of their experiments 'than do they mice in the air-pump.'" "These philosophers are fanatics: they are carried with such a headlong rage towards every desperate trial, that they would sacrifice the whole human race to the slightest of their experiments." This fear of the arrogance of science is still alive and with good reason. Science, at its most distinguished, is driven by the Unknown but science, as popularly understood, is thought to be a cornucopia of certainties, rivaling and contradicting those of religion. Even basic scientific information as to such things as the age of the earth and the theory of evolution is denied by a large segment of the population. Science and Religion then become rivals for people's allegiance in the battle for certainty. A plague on both their houses.

This is where "science envy" comes in. At about the same time that "natural philosophers" were becoming "scientists", religionists went through a bout of envy. They wanted religion and science to share a common language. The growing fundamentalist movements claimed to be "scientific" too. They wanted religion to be as "certain" as science. This was a bad move and the consequences are still with us. Treating religious truths as if they are scientific ones gives the atheistic scientists the upper hand. No contest. The religionists backed the wrong horse. No wonder that scientific discourse came to be seen as privileged. "The cultured despisers" of religion won the day. Science slipped into becoming "Scientism" -- the materialist explanation, in principle, of everything. As it happens, another wrong horse, because as a vehicle of meaning science is a big loser. Science cannot answer the question "Why", and religion messes up when it thinks it can answer the question with scientific-sounding affirmations. All we have are stories.

As it happens, we are all losers. No one wins the "debate" between science and creationism because they are incommensurable, like comparing an apple pie with Moby Dick. There is, however, a nice irony in that science's great gift to religion is the recovery of wonder and never-ending exploration. If both sides could give up their peculiar fundamentalisms, they might learn from each other. Meanwhile, the museum in Kentucky is a noble embarrassment. Any serious scientist rightly rejects it as not only nonsense but also dangerous nonsense. Meanwhile both sides, the believers and the unbelievers, deny themselves the mysterious depths of metaphor, poetry and myth -- the other great vehicles of truth. It's time to shift the conversation by simply giving up our lust for certainty and by becoming bi-lingual. "We gain knowledge of our place in the universe not only from science, but also from history, art and literature. Science is a creative interaction of observation with imagination." We might say the same for religion.