The supposed conflict between science and religion as set forth by modern creationists cannot be evaluated unless one knows certain characteristics of scientific knowledge and compares them with certain characteristics of religion. This comparison leads informed, rational people to conclude that creationism is not a part of science and that the conflict between science and religion is not very significant. The unlimited ranges of religious experience, for those who grasp them, are bound to make the limited ranges of science seem small. Thus, any conflict-apparent or real-will be small or nonexistent.
In order to understand the limitations of science, one needs to know some general characteristics of scientific knowledge and a few things about the record of works that developed this knowledge.
Scientific knowledge is organized around many hundreds of sets of ideas. The number of ideas in a set is few, usually from five to ten. A theory consists of one set of ideas plus many facts plus many lines of reasoning by which facts are used to support the ideas and by which facts are explained or predicted. The ideas, often called postulates, are human made and are established, by consensus, through the centuries. Ideas about the mystical and the supernatural are excluded from science.
All reasoning in science hinges around sets of ideas which are assumptions about nature. If the ideas seem reasonable in light of the facts available, if the ideas make it possible to explain many facts, and if the ideas make it possible to predict facts that are not yet known, then we say that we have a good theory. The ability to explain and predict facts leads scientists to think there is some truth in the ideas. But scientists aren't satisfied. Truly, they are obligated by their discipline not to be satisfied. When possible, they question and test the ideas directly. They question the explanations of facts that others have given. They make predictions and test them by extensive observations and experiments. And
they continue these operations until they have (1) disproved a theory, (2) changed the theory by modifying its assumptions, or (3) established the range of its applicability and limitations.
Theories, even the best of them, are never universal, perfect, or complete. Each theory applies to a limited range of human experience and, even within this range, it may be impossible to make certain kinds of predictions because the theory is too imperfect. With large theories it is impossible to follow out all of the logical consequences or predictions because of the limited time, tools, and resources available. Large theories are always incomplete.
A theory which has become widely accepted has a history recorded in the scientific literature. In order to decide if a theory is truly scientific, one must be able to find adequate answers to questions like the following.
- What are the names of the people who have spent years of time developing and testing the theory by field work or laboratory experiments?
- What is the reference to the paper or book in which the theory was first published?
- What are the references to papers in which the various aspects of the theory were tested?
- What are the references to papers which describe applications of the theory that show its capacity to explain facts?
- What are the references to papers that describe substantiated predictions derived from theory?
- What are the references to papers that delimit the theory and show its limitations?
The work described in these kinds of papers must meet the rigorous standards of accuracy, clarity, and logicality typical of science.
Descent with Modification
In order to illustrate some aspects of science described above, let's examine the theory of descent with modification. This theory is one of the major theories of evolution. The other, which deals with mechanism of evolution, is the modern modified form of the theory of natural selection. The postulates of the descent theory are as follows:
- All life evolved from one simple kind of organism.
- Each species, fossil or living, arose from another species that preceded it in time.
- Evolutionary changes were gradual and of long duration.
- Over long periods of time, new genera, new families, new orders, new classes, and new phyla arose by a continuation of the kind of evolution that produced new species.
- Each species originated in a single geographic location.
- The greater the similarity between two groups of organisms, the closer is their relationship and the closer in geologic time is their common ancestral group.
- Extinction of old forms (species, and so forth) is a consequence of the production of new forms or of environmental change.
- Once a species or other group has become extinct, it never reappears.
- Evolution continues today in generally the same manner as during preceding geologic eras.
- The geologic record is very incomplete.
The postulates set the major limitations of this theory as they do with all theories. The theory is concerned with living and fossil organisms. It is concerned with changes that occurred in living organisms through the vast reaches of geologic time. It is not concerned with cosmic evolution, inorganic evolution, or human cultural evolution. It is not concerned with the origin of life, because it assumes the presence of a simple form of life in the beginning and it says nothing about where this simple form of life came from. Other theories in biology deal with that subject.
Postulates 7, 8, 9, and 10 can be individually tested by searching for evidence. Paleontologists have studied extinction in the fossil record and can in some cases account for it in terms of geologic changes. Extinction of species has occurred quite frequently during the past century, so biologists know something about it. Extinction of subpopulations of species is an active study in ecology today. In general, the facts support postulate 7.
Postulate 8 is well supported by the fossil record, and strong indirect support has come from the growing understanding of reproduction and inheritance in terms of the genetic substance DNA. Postulate 9 is supported by many field and laboratory studies in microevolution and by the origin of a few new species in nature during the past century. Postulate 10 has gained support by the increase in knowledge of the fossil record, but it has been questioned to a degree by the development of the theory of allopatric speciation. So postulate 10 might be restated thus: "The geologic record is incomplete in part because the major steps in evolution occur rapidly (on the geologic time scale) in quite small subpopulations of species." This illustrates how scientists may modify the postulate of a theory. Postulate 3 is somewhat modified by this restatement of 10, but still stands to the extent that we recognize that gradual and rapid change measured in geologic time is of long durations when measured in terms of years or centuries. In geologic time, rapidly could mean hundreds of thousands of years instead of millions of
years, but this kind of rapid change is still of "long duration" by the time standards of daily existence.
Despite these modifications, most aspects of the theory stand as before. Postulates 1, 2, 4, 5, and 6 gain their support indirectly as a part of the functioning of the whole set. So we find in the study of the geographic distribution of living and fossil organisms, in taxonomy and phylogeny, and in paleontology that there are hundreds of successful subtheories of the descent theory. This means that each subtheory uses the ideas of the descent theory explicitly or implicitly in its reasoning and applies them, along with an additional set of postulates, to a limited situation. Since it is possible to construct these rational patterns of thinking-these subtheories that are acceptable to biologists-each new successful subtheory adds support to its superior theory: the descent theory.
Because the descent theory provides the basis of explaining many facts, such as the biochemical unity of life and the distribution of fossils in geologic formations, and because it has spawned hundreds of subtheories which in turn have made it possible to explain and predict thousands of facts, the descent theory is a fruitful theory. Fruitfulness is the major criterion of the goodness of a theory. Since the theory of descent with modification and the accompanying theory of natural selection have been exceedingly fruitful, and since they encompass millions of facts and lead to the discovery of thousands of new facts each year, they are accepted today as the major theories in biology.
This acceptance does not mean that biologists don't question all aspects of the evolution theories. The discussion of postulate 10 above is an example of this questioning. If a biologist could imagine a better theory that would replace the descent theory, he would do it immediately because he looks at all theories as tentative, humanmade intellectual constructs to be manipulated by thinking people. He does not consider them to be universal truth and wisdom.
Science and Religion
One great difference between science and religion is religion's fundamental concern with beliefs that are accepted on faith, whereas science is concerned with humanmade ideas that are tested in various ways, sometimes discarded, often modified, and always of limited applicability-that is, they do not purport to be universal or absolute truth. Although many ideas in science remain in science for a long time, their limitations are ultimately discovered and they may become subsumed under a new set of ideas that, in turn, has its limitations. Religious beliefs do not function in the tentative, limited way of scientific ideas.
Since religious beliefs are not accepted as tentative, humanmade ideas and since science excludes mystical and supernatural ideas or beliefs from its sets of ideas, anyone can see that religion and science belong to two vastly different
realms of thought. They are as different as poetry and accounting or architecture and horse racing, or beefsteak and sand. If we wish to stretch at the fringes, I am sure we can find some conflict between the members of these pairs. But will the conflict be of any lasting significance? Life contains many excellent realms of thought that cannot be completely reconciled or integrated. Does this necessarily mean that some of the realms are wrong or bad? No, it simply means they are different.
If biologists consider their theories to be tentative, limited, and incomplete, why do they look with such disfavor at the so-called theory of "scientific creationism" as set forth by a group of creationists? They do this because, in the first place, the creationists' postulates include ideas about the supernatural, and scientists long ago decided that in their limited fields of scientific thought, observation, and experiment they could not successfully use supernatural and mystical ideas. Second, the creationists' theory does not meet the rigorous standards that accompany the growth of an acceptable scientific theory.
One can search without success for references to papers that would answer the above questions as applied to the theory of "scientific creationism." To my knowledge, there is not one practicing biologist who has been active for years in field or laboratory research and who has published papers that describe work designed to test the postulates of the creationist theory or to test the logical consequences of that theory. Thousands of such papers by hundreds of biologists have been published on the theory of biological evolution, and these can be cited to provide answers to the above questions. See Evolution, Process, and Product by Dodson and Dodson for these references.
On the above grounds, one is forced to say that scientific creationism does not exist, and those who do say so are being misled by their ignorance of science and their ignorance of the criteria by which scientists decide what constitutes science. If people choose to hold beliefs or ideas outside of science which cause them to reject scientific ideas and theories, they are exercising their rights in a free society. And in a free society, these people have the right to try to influence others to accept their views. But if, through ignorance or chicanery, these people try to propagate an untruth such as the notion that there is a scientific theory of creation, they are posing a false conflict.