Sunday, June 26, 2016

Creationism, Evolution, and the Pragmatism of Jimmy Carter

Touring the Ark Encounter -- a creationist theme park in Williamstown, KY -- former president Jimmy Carter remarked about he he personally believed in evolution. Yet, he added, “If God created it four billion years ago, or six thousand years ago, it doesn’t matter to me” (Christian News). Such a statement is destined to be unsatisfactory, if not offensive to both creationists and evolutionists. Creationists would find it harmful that a leader would deny what they take to be revelation supported by science, while evolutionists would find it harmful that a scientist would deny what they take to be reality supported by evidence.
 I think Carter’s position is defensible, especially from a philosophically pragmatic perspective. In a popular lecture given shortly after the Turn of the Century, William James uses this charming anecdote:

Some years ago, being with a camping party in the mountains, I returned from a solitary ramble to find every one engaged in a ferocious metaphysical dispute. The corpus of the dispute was a squirrel – a live squirrel supposed to be clinging to one side of a tree-trunk; while over against the tree’s opposite side a human being was imagined to stand. This human witness tries to get sight of the squirrel by moving rapidly round the tree, but no matter how fast he goes, the squirrel moves as fast in the opposite direction, and always keeps the tree between himself and the man, so that never a glimpse of him is caught. The resultant metaphysical problem now is this: Does the man go round the squirrel or not? He goes round the tree, sure enough, and the squirrel is on the tree; but does he go round the squirrel? In the unlimited leisure of the wilderness, discussion had been worn threadbare. Every one had taken sides, and was obstinate; and the numbers on both sides were even. Each side, when I appeared therefore appealed to me to make it a majority. Mindful of the scholastic adage that whenever you meet a contradiction you must make a distinction, I immediately sought and found one, as follows: “Which party is right,” I said, “depends on what you practically mean by ‘going round’ the squirrel. If you mean passing from the north of him to the east, then to the south, then to the west, and then to the north of him again, obviously the man does go round him, for he occupies these successive positions. But if on the contrary you mean being first in front of him, then on the right of him, then behind him, then on his left, and finally in front again, it is quite as obvious that the man fails to go round him, for by the compensating movements the squirrel makes, he keeps his belly turned towards the man all the time, and his back turned away. Make the distinction, and there is no occasion for any farther dispute. You are both right and both wrong according as you conceive the verb ‘to go round’ in one practical fashion or the other.”
When James arrives, he is considered to be the authority, since he is the philosopher, but his answer is unsatisfactory to everyone. He dis-solves rather than solves the problem. Carter’s question is a similar dis-solution. He is implicitly calling for a new question: What does it ultimately matter if we believe in one or the other? It cannot be just a matter of allegiance: Not all religion requires complete allegiance to dogma, and science certainly requires no allegiance to Science--that is, to an entity in its own right. Science is a method, not a ‘thing.’
    In his comments, Carter goes on to say that he believes in evolution because he is a scientist. (He studied nuclear engineering). Yet what motivates his dissolving of the issue is, I would argue, Carter’s Christian Pragmatism. Unless there are specifically moral implications to either believing in the old-earth or the new-earth model, there is little reason to insist on one or the other. Indeed the old-earth view fits in better with the rest of science. But man does not live by science alone.
Until either side shows the practical differences between believing in old-earth and believing in young-earth, then they are just going around and around the issue like the man and the squirrel. One cannot argue that you need to believe in old-earth to make science work. That circular argument just adds to the spinning. Likewise, one cannot argue, as the creationists do, that believing in new-earth is required in order to make religion work. This is not only circular, but also based on a limited, literalist, and ultimately Bible-idolatrous version of Christianity.
Let’s stop spinning around the issue, and ask the real question: What difference does it make in our moral lives to believe that the earth is old like science says, and that it is new like creationism says? -- Tadd Ruetenik