Sunday, August 13, 2006

Is evolution faith-based?

Peter McGowan (2006), in an article for Signs of the Times magazine, argues that belief in evolution requires just as much faith as a belief in God. The entire article is premised on his definition of what is scientific. McGowan defines something as scientific if it is able to 'satisfy the scientific method of being reproducible, consistent with scientific observations and testable in a laboratory.' (p. 37) McGowan goes on to explore a number of beliefs held by evolutionists which are either not repeatable, unobserved, or not reproducible in a laboratory. On this basis, he asserts that scientists rely on faith in equal measure to Christians who believe in God. The problem with McGowan's argument is that he holds to a naive definition of scientific method. The first thing to realise is that there is a whole body of literature that discusses the nature of the scientific method. A brief foray into this literature is enough to show that defining the scientific method is much more complex than McGowan implies. It is also interesting to note that definitions of the scientific method frequently omit the features that McGowan suggests are defining characteristics of the method. Take, for example, the definition supplied by the Encarta Dictionary which defines scientific method as the:
means of acquiring knowledge scientifically: the system of advancing knowledge by formulating a question, collecting data about it through observation and experiment, and testing a hypothetical answer
The only overlap between this definition and McGowan's is the notion of observation. Repeatability and testability in a laboratory are not mentioned (experiments don't have to be in a laboratory). Instead, the Encarta definition describes three activities that make an inquiry scientific:
  1. Formulate a question
  2. Collect data by observation and experiment
  3. Test a hypothetical answer

So, according to this definition, something is within the domain of science if it is a question that can be answered by observation and experiment. In other words, the question is empirically testable. If a question cannot be answered in this way, then it is not a scientific question but some other sort of question.

The online encyclopedia, Wikipedia, defines the scientific method as:

a body of techniques for investigating phenomena and acquiring new knowledge, as well as for correcting and integrating previous knowledge. It is based on observable, empirical, measurable evidence, and subject to laws of reasoning. All this evidence is collectively called scientific evidence.

This definition describes the important characteristics of the scientific method as:

  1. observable
  2. empirical
  3. measurable
  4. and subject to the laws of reasoning

These couple of examples should be sufficient to show how inadequate McGowan's definition is. When comparing evolutionary theory to belief in God, evolutionary theory is clearly not a faith-based belief system. Even a cursory reading of evolutionary literature will show that the nature of the evidence provided by scientists is empirical in nature, measurable, observable, and subject to the laws of reasoning. This doesn't mean that the conclusions are correct -- which is why scientists continue to explore the physical world in order to understand it better. It is equally clear that belief in God is entirely faith-based. God is not observable, empirical, or measurable. Belief in God is subject to laws of reasoning, but this doesn't make it scientific.

It is time for Christians to move beyone the naive assertion that evolution is as much a faith-based belief system as Christianity. It isn't. To construe science as faith is disingenuous and we do nothing but harm Christian faith by trying to make it so. The reason many Christians do this is undoubtedly out of fear that, if evolutionary theory was demonstrated to be true, it would mean the loss of faith in God. But many Christians have believed in God and evolution. They are not mutually incompatible. I am not arguing that evolution is true -- just that, even if it was, it would not disprove the reality of God. Offering naive criticisms of evolution only results in scientists who are evolutionists dismissing religious faith as irrational.

Let's not make it unnecessarily harder for people to believe in God by offering simplistic criticisms of other points of view. Setting up 'straw men' to knock down might make us feel better, but it doesn't actually deal with any real issues that need addressing. Christians need to argue with intellectual integrity and fairmindedness. We wouldn't like others to caricature our beliefs and dismiss them so easily; so let's not do it to others.

Reference McGowan, P 2006, 'Questions for Faith', Signs of the Times, vol. 121, no. 8, pp. 37-40. Microsoft® Encarta® 2006. © 1993-2005 Microsoft Corporation. All rights reserved.

Scientific Method, 2006, Wikipedia, viewed 13 August 2006, .

Wolfs, F APPENDIX E: Introduction to the Scientific Method, viewed 13 August 2006, .

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