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The Illogic of a Creationist Argument
by
Ian Johnston
July 1998

[This document is in the public domain, released July 1998]

There's a common argument which has been going around for years advocating that we should be teaching Creation Science in our schools. The proponents of this view insist that the Genesis account of the creation of the world and the species in it should receive equal time in our science classes with Darwin. To this end, various spokesmen tour the province and fill cyberspace with aggressive arguments seeking to persuade us of the logic of their case. Now, I haven't read all the arguments, but I have consulted enough of them to recognize the structure of what seems to be the commonest way these people try to persuade us. It is entirely illogical from beginning to end, so much so, in fact, that it makes a particularly useful case study in many of the basic errors of reason.

Briefly put, the argument goes something like this: everyone agrees that either Darwin's account of evolution or the Genesis account of creation is correct; however, there are some serious problems, inconsistencies, errors in Darwin's account; therefore, evolution is incorrect, and the Genesis account is correct. Thus, we must give it at least equal time in our science curriculum.

The first obvious error, of course, is the way the argument is set up. There are scores of accounts of creation, for virtually every culture has its own. Thus, the original premise is a False Dilemma, and the "disproof" of Darwin, even if valid, does not specially privilege the Genesis account. If the point is to list all the alternatives and then to eliminate all contenders but the Genesis account, these arguers need to get to work on more than just Darwin. There are many other competing accounts on the table.

Then, of course, there is the endemic confusion over the meaning of the term evolution. Darwin did not invent the concept (it was around well before his day), and its truth does not depend upon anything Darwin wrote. The proof of Evolution in its most general sense, that is, the development of species from species unlike themselves over time, rests on three clear facts. First, there is variety in the natural world (that is self-evident). Second, all living individuals must have come from a living parent (no one has ever been able to prove the contrary). And third, simple species were around long before more complex species (any inspection of fossilized sedimentary strata confirms this point). The conclusion to this argument is unavoidable: the complex species must have come from the simpler species.

Darwin's theory of Natural Selection is not concerned with this proof. He is providing an explanation of how evolution might take place. Hence, attacking Darwin directly does no particular harm to the case for evolution (which would be just as valid if no one had ever heard of Darwin), and so one wonders why Creation Scientists spend so much time on that rather than on stating which of the three facts upon which the proof of evolution rests is incorrect. One suspects they do not do that because they have no way at all of refuting any of the three key points above. However, if the truth of evolution is something they wish to challenge, all that attention to Darwin's theory is something of a red herring. Until they attack the claims upon which the case for evolution rests, their argument against it is pointless.

Calling attention to certain difficulties with Darwin's theory is easy to do, of course, because there are a number of interesting problems with it. But it is quite erroneous to suppose that these problems therefore mean that Darwinism has no scientific credibility. Scientists themselves constantly argue about the various parts of the theory, adjust it, refine it, come up with competing versions of it, and so forth. In fact, that is one of the most interesting areas of modern biology. The idea that a single problem or series of anomalies disqualifies a scientific theory indicates that those making such a claim have little idea what science, in fact, is or how it is carried out. A theory in which there are no such problem areas is generally of very little interest to scientists. Newtonian mechanics has serious problems, too. Does this mean we throw out the notion of gravity?

Misrepresenting or failing to understand the nature of science (deliberately or not) is central to an allied argument that often crops up with the above case, namely, a definition of science which claims that what cannot be observed cannot be scientific. Since evolution cannot be observed because the time spans are too long, therefore it cannot be scientific. This, of course, is the old logical trick of setting up a self-serving definition. Scientific theories deal all the time with things we cannot observe, like, gravity, electrons, electric fields, viruses, and so on. On the basis of these theories predictions are made which lead to observable results which will enable the theories to be confirmed or falsified. In this sense, evolution is thoroughly scientific. It leads to predictions which can be checked against the fossil record. A single finding, well confirmed, could destroy the case for evolution (e.g., a vertebrate skeleton in the pre-Cambrian rocks). That has never happened in the thousands of inspections which occur.

This point illustrates the key objection scientists have to the Creationist account, namely that it generates only one prediction, and that has been consistently falsified and never confirmed, namely that if all the species were created at once then we should find their fossil remain all together in every fossilized strata. Nowhere in the world has this ever occurred. Hence the explanatory predicting power of the Genesis account is empty and without scientific interest.

None of this presupposes that there might not be great value in believing in Genesis. All it shows is that the case for considering the Genesis account scientific is non-existent. Hence, it has no place in our science classes. Whether or not it should be taught in schools for its literary or religious or cultural value is another question. Curiously enough, that case is never made in the current debates.

 


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