Evolution, Creationism and the LHC.

It seems we will have to wait another 6 months or so to discover the answers to the ultimate questions about the origins and makeup of our universe! Despite an apparently successful first firing up of the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, the world's largest and most powerful particle accelerator is now off-line pending a probe into the overheating of the collider's super cooled magnets! What though, has been interesting, is the debate that the LHC is fuelled, fanning the flames of those old foes, evolution and creationism, and once more thrusting the arguments into the public forum.

This was inevitable given what physicists claimed the LHC would one day prove, by creating an environment a billionth of a second after the Big Bang, and would always cause a rebuttal by creationists. Add to this that Vice-Presidential candidate, Sarah Palin, is an advocate of creationism and the recent resignation of Michael Reiss as director of education for the Royal Society, after he said that creationism should be engaged in school science lessons, and it becomes clear that this debate is as relevant as ever. Indeed this argument stands at the centre of our society, firmly divides it in two and can never be resolved, because neither as yet can be fundamentally proven. The implications of either one being correct are huge and will have far reaching ramifications!.

Science bases its theories on evidence provided by the observation and analysis of experiments. This is precisely what they are doing at CERN, conducting a huge experiment to try and validate theories of the big bang and the standard model. Science is rational and reasoned, based on the evidence given. Should new evidence come to light then the theory is adjusted or completely scrapped in favour of a new theory that fits the evidence (for example Newtonian physics being largely succeeded by Einstein's physics). As much will be gained from the failure of the experiment at CERN as its success. There is therefore an element of rational doubt to science, that something is only right until it is proved wrong. Rarely does science deal in absolutes, at least until the so called "theory of everything" can be suitably substantiated!

Creationism on the other hand is founded on that thing that is diametrically opposed to rational thought and reason, faith. The creationism idea has its origins in the major western religions mainly Christianity and Judaism, but also Islam, where it is held that the earth and the universe were brought about by divine purpose. In its most fundamental form, creationism denies every aspect of evolutionary theory, it is not based on any sort of evidence, rational or reason, but comes from a deep faith in a divine creator. Being able to believe in something so strongly, belief taken on faith, for the most part flies in the face of rational thought and reason, but it is precisely this that gives an austere beauty to this stand point.

On one level I think there can be, from a logical stand point, no argument between science and religion, on the origins of the universe. Yes, they disagree over the same question on the origins of life on earth, but their arguments are founded on completely different and unrelated principles. In fact, logically speaking creationism by definition is not even an argument, it is, as we have seen, a belief taken on faith, and therefore inadmissible as an argument to countenance evolution, because it can never be substantiated. If it was acceptable as a reasoned argument, then it would not be a belief taken on faith. This is not to say that a belief in creationism is not a valuable and useful way of understanding the world and its origins, it is just fruitless to argue with evolution because there will never be a point when either will cede to the other. Creationism must simply be taken on faith by those who chose to believe it, and this means it can never be undone by reason because it is not based on reason.

This kind of dogmatic belief is very hard for many people to understand, notably Richard Dawkins, among others, and it is a view that has come under criticism from the scientific and the modern philosophical community. There have been many attempts, by mostly Christian apologists, to defend this stand point, and indeed it must seem necessary to do so. Descartes, with his scepticism, ascertained that if one of our core beliefs is found to be wrong then the rest very often come crashing down like a house of cards. So it is that if the idea of a created universe is effectively subverted by science, the whole foundation upon which religious belief is based is taken away and the rest becomes very difficult to prop up.

In response, there has grown, over the years, an increasing number of hybrid theories which don't take literal translations of religious texts and except large swaths of evolutionary theory. I think in doing so, they undermine the very beliefs they are trying to defend and also cheapen the faith by which they are supposed to believe them. By accepting that some of it might not be fundamentally true or literal then it is much easier to question whether any of it is true or literal. Once you give this ground away it is very difficult to get it back and you are back to the collapsing house of cards.

It is also largely a fallacy too, to try and defend creationism using scientific evidence, which some have tried to do. You can't pick and chose which bits of science to use and which not to. And whilst it is valuable to question the validity and conclusion drawn from the evidence, there is a real danger that creationists bend the evidence to fit the theory, which is a common problem in religious apologetics, rather than create a theory based on the evidence. Fundamentally if you accept the creationist view point as one that can be validated scientifically, you are actually claiming that a large part if not all scientific knowledge is flawed if not downright wrong. Whilst scientists readily accept that theories need to be adjusted, scrapped and so forth when new evidence comes to light, as might well have to happen at the LHC when they don't find what they are looking for, Stephen Hawkins has bet going that this will happen, and whilst creationists will state that the mind and mysteries of a creator are unfathomable to the human mind, surely it is a too big and bitter pill to swallow, to accept that the knowledge of everything we have so far learnt about life on our planet and the universe is fundamentally and completely wrong! This is where creationists using science becomes a fallacy, because by using science based on reason to defend a faith, you are contradicting yourself and using the very thing that you are trying to prove wrong to make your case! To be a creationist you do have to believe that the mind and mysteries of a creator are unfathomable and by appealing to science you are claiming that human wisdom is enough, which again, surely, is a contradiction.

There is a common claim among creationists that scientists never start with the possibility of a creator, but I think this is easily dismissed. Scientists don't stubbornly refuse to deny a creator, Stephen Hawkins has entertained the possibility, I think they just believe there is no tangible evidence to support that possibility, so again the existence of a creator comes down to faith rather than reason. If there was tangible evidence for the existence of an almighty creator, and a created universe, then I would hope science would readily embrace it, but then what need would there be for faith?

In fact the reverse is often true, and it seems impossible for those defending creationism to start with a clean palate without the basic assumption that there is a creator and creationism is true. So as we have eluded to previously, creationists already think they have the answer and are just trying to make the question fit! This again is why creationism can only be about faith and not about reason. Faith is about believing the answer and to descend into a search for the question gets creationists into a fallacious bind.

There is one other reason that people who are not particularly religious give for choosing a belief in creationism over evolution. This is the complaint that science leaves us cold, and takes away any attachment of meaning or value to life on planet earth. Simply put the idea of a creator is comforting, both morally and emotionally, and science leaves us alone in the void of space, with little to comfort us except our reason!

This does pose obvious ethical questions, which I do not propose to discuss here, but I also think this complaint misses the point! There is one thing, which perhaps could be said to be a more humanist viewpoint, upon which both science and creationism can both agree. It is actually pretty simple and obvious, but many people seem to miss it. I think it is actually more obvious to creationists, it is more implicit in what they believe, but if you look at the wider scientific picture, you realise that the same thing is shown. It should, when really deeply considered and understood, have a huge impact on how we see and value ourselves. This simple tenant is that life on earth, our existence as sentient beings, is unique!

When you consider this from a scientific standpoint, perhaps more so than a religious one, one should really be amazed at how unique and lucky we are to have life at all! It is not just the evolutionary processes, but the cosmological ones that allowed life to develop on this plant. It doesn't even matter that it could be a universal accident or divinely created, because it can never take away the fact that life as we know it is unique and for that reason should be immensely valued!

This is a huge common ground that should unite humanity rather than divide it. The argument between evolution and creationism is rather petty, and wasteful, in some regard. This belief in the uniqueness of life on earth should pave the way for a tolerant and respectful existence between men. Should creationism be taught in schools? Yes. Should it be taught in science classes? Definitely not, but nor should the theories of evolution and the Big Bang be taught as absolute fact. They are simply as much as we can know given the available evidence. What should be taught is the ability to think and reason clearly, to weigh up evidence between both sides of an argument and draw rational balanced conclusions. Will the LHC, then, provide these answers to the origins of the universe? Maybe, maybe not, we'll have to wait and see, but in the quest for knowledge the best answer is always another question.

September 2008

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