Thursday, November 13, 2014

The Scientific Method vs Theism

As an atheist, I have come to appreciate the scientific method as the best – if not only – way to determine truth. The basic principles of the scientific method are (a) observing a phenomenon, (b) coming up with a hypothesis to explain that phenomenon, (c) performing experiments and/or gathering data to support that hypothesis and (d) refine the hypothesis to fit the experiments and data (or even reject the hypothesis entirely if the experiments and data disprove it). The key point is that the hypothesis needs to match the evidence and not the other way around.

When I was a theist, however, I was taught to start with an acceptance that God existed, the scriptures were true, etc., and then look for evidence to support that belief if necessary. This is superficially similar to the scientific method (and many theists claim that they in fact follow the scientific method), with one key distinction. Whenever data is discovered that fails to support (or even contradicts) the belief in God, the data needs to be tweaked (or sometimes outright ignored). If, for example, geological evidence clearly shows that the Grand Canyon was created via slow processes over millions of years and this data contradicts the notion that the earth is only 6,000 years old, it’s important to selectively ignore the evidence until you can explain the remaining evidence as having been produced by a global flood.

Proponents of “Creation Science” (a.k.a. Intelligent Design”) often point to, say, the perfection of the human eye as proof that it must have been the product of a divine, perfect creator. The eye, the argument goes, is just too complicated and works so well that it couldn’t possibly have happened just by chance. Ignoring for the moment the fact that this is really just an argument from ignorance (“the eye is just too complicated and works so well that I personally can’t understand how it could possibly have happened just by chance”), and also ignoring for the moment that the Theory of Evolution explicitly posits the concept of natural selection as the driving force behind the development of complex structures such as the eye instead of chance, this argument does have the superficial appearance of following the principles of the scientific method. The phenomenon of a complicated, perfectly functioning eye is observed, and the existence of a divine, perfect creator is offered as a theory to explain that phenomena.

Where things go off the rails, however, is when you point out that the eye is not, in fact, perfect. The human eye has a blind spot inherent in its design, which is perfectly explainable when you consider how the eye might have developed over millions of years but doesn’t make much sense for a perfect creator to have done it that way. In addition, human eyes are susceptible to all sorts of abnormalities and diseases, and many people have to resort to corrective lenses or surgery in order to see clearly. In fact, many people are actually born completely blind. Under the scientific method, evidence that contradicts a particular theory causes the theory to be refined or rejected. Under “Creation Science”, however, the response is typically that we live in a fallen state due to the sins of Adam and that is why the eye is currently not perfect (or why people get diseases or why animals feed off each other or why there is so much pain and suffering in all aspects of the natural world, etc.). And this is because, rather than truly following the scientific method to fit the theory to the facts, theists start with a set of assumed “truths” (i.e., that God exists, that He created the universe in a perfect state originally and that we now live in a fallen universe due to the sins of Adam) and then look for any observable facts that support those “truths” while rejecting any that don’t support them.

If perfection of design proves the existence of a perfect creator, imperfection of design can’t somehow also prove the existence of the same perfect creator.  Looking just at the observed phenomena, without any preconceived, unchallenged assumptions as to the existence and nature of God (which is, of course, the very thing that is supposed to be proved so it can't be assumed), imperfection of design is instead evidence of an imperfect creator, or perhaps a malevolent creator, or of no creator whatsoever.  The one thing it absolutely cannot be is evidence of a perfect creator, unless you already believe in the God of the Bible and are simply looking for a justification of that belief instead of actually trying to come up with a theory that best explains the evidence.

People are, of course, free to believe whatever they choose to believe, and the whole reason churches exist is to let people with similar beliefs congregate and share those beliefs with one another. And there’s nothing wrong with that (assuming, of course, those beliefs don’t lead the believers to harm other people as a result). But this essential difference between the scientific method and theism is one of the main reasons why “Creation Science” or “Intelligent Design” has no place whatsoever in a science classroom. Call it what you will, it just isn’t scientific as long as it exists to fit the facts to the theory instead of the other way around.


  1. Another refutation of the eye argument is, if our eyes are perfect, how come we can't see as well as an eagle, which can see much farther, or a cat, which can see in what we consider pitch dark? Here was my take on it.

    1. Good point! Of course, theists have a number of ready responses to that argument. Our eyes WERE perfect, but then Adam sinned and we fell into an imperfect state. Or else there's the old standby, "God works in mysterious ways." The point being, as always, to fit the facts to the theory and not the other way around.