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


  1. Replies
    1. I ran that idea by my theologian friend here, and she said, indeed, others have pointed out that Biblical emphasis can become idolatrous.

  2. 1. Tadd, you read James as if he were trying to avoid "allying" himself with one side of the other (which, true, is a stupid approach: "What side are you on?") But I think he is actually taking a necessary step for a proper, scientific resolution of the issue: Defining the question and the conditions for resolving the question. (Incidentally, the same distinction needs to be done when you ask whether the sun goes around the Earth or the other way round. There not being absolute reference points in space, "who goes around whom" is a matter of perspective if you don't define the issue better.) My point is, great story, but I don't think that James' point was "you can take any side you want, or better yet, no sides, unless there are moral implications to the issue," but "if you want to do proper science, you need to ask proper questions."

    1. Yeah, I guess I am seeing this differently. The story is set up in such a humorous way that I want to press the absurdity further, and say that his answer is not helpful to any of the disputants. They will, as soon as James strolls off, whistling, proceed to start up the squirrely, spinning debate. Surely any definition of "to go round" will itself be circular, serving merely to prove that particular person's argument.

      I see it as a limit to science. They can spin around as much as they want until the find out what moral issues are at stake.

  3. 2. From the point of view of "6 day Creationism", there are serious moral/meaning-of-life implications to an old-earth model. In this view, if the Earth is not "new" then the Bible is wrong, and if it can be wrong about one thing, it can be wrong about all and loses all its authority as a revealed text. Of course, if they agreed to your statement that new-earth is not needed "to make religion work," you wouldn't have needed to write this article. Only a (religious) change on how they believe the Bible should be interpreted will remove this obstacle; no matter how much science you throw at the issue.
    On the other hand, many (rather uninformed) atheists understand Christian creationist (& intelligent design) views to be _exclusively_ tied to a new-earth model. Prove the model wrong, and you prove the Bible wrong and you prove those who believe in God wrong. While 6-day creationists are partly to blame for popularizing this connection, I suspect that atheist evolutionists like to push this view also, because it gives them a straw-man to beat up. Either way, I am beginning to think that only geologists care about the age of the Earth for purely "scientific" motives.

    1. I agree! For the bible-idolators, there is a Cartesian problem. If there is the possibility of falsity, all could be false! I wish I could do more to argue against this view than to say 'calm the hell down.' To believe that the text needs to be as perfect as the Author, and what's more, to assume that the Author needs to be epistemologically perfect in terms of propositional logic, is a neurotic version of religion that, I have to say, requires more or a therapist than a philosopher. :)

      I really like the way you express it about uninformed atheists. Well stated! Religious people are sometimes critical of science because they believe science is intentionally trying to destroy religion. And they are right. Some scientists are trying to do that.

  4. 3. Still a third point, which you'll probably like more because it turns things on their head :)
    Atheist evolutionists can be as dogmatic as 6-day creationists -- let's say a bit less dogmatic, a bit more savvy. In the English-speaking world, they keep a very tight grip on what can get published, and what opinions are acceptable (nothing with even a hint of "intelligent design" on it, even if it is within the realms of scientific speculation). They do not tolerate dissent in their ranks, even if they don't really have an understanding of how life on earth came to be. They would like to have an equally powerful grip on school textbooks (I haven't followed that controversy, so I don't know who's winning). And the only serious opposition they get is from 6-day creationists, who end up being, paradoxically, champions of academic freedom.
    So perhaps there is a practical value in having both sides!

    1. James defended the practice of alternative medicine. I think he would have defended creationism in textbooks. He liked the underdog views, for better or worse.

      There is a difference that I would like to draw out in a later version of this article. Old- vs. new-Earth is a useless head-spinning debate. Human-created global warming vs. anti-global-warming DOES HAVE moral implications. It ultimately has to do with risk management, and the question of obligations to future generations.

      To say that if you disbelieve old-earth then you are disbelieving the science of global warming, seems to me to be the same as what you are saying about the "if there's one error in scripture, the whole thing is false" argument.