I sometimes ponder the words of the critics of evolution. I mean those that boldly state that belief in science is, in essence, a religious act, based as much on faith as any supposed “evidence”. There is always a place in me where this sort of critique can lodge. After all, I have been a believer in many things, from the Holy Spirit to a psychic who told me things I dearly wanted to hear.
And so I look inward and ask: am I, indeed, only seeing the things that I want to see, filtering reality through another man-made prism? Am I fooling myself by imagining that I am looking through a microscope, when in truth I’m observing my world through a kaleidoscope?
It’s a fair question, and I take it seriously whenever it comes to me. My response is to not fight the doubt, the hesitation, but to allow it to stand, as it were, on it’s own two feet. In short, I don’t prop it up with my own defensiveness. Instead, I give it a moment to make its case.
Its “case”, however, is not really a case at all. That evolution is simply another human belief system is one of those claims that sounds legitimate, but “sounding” legitimate is as close to actual legitimacy as it will ever get.
Science is, of course, based upon observable evidence. Any individual scientist can formulate any hypothesis about any thing, but only after that hypothesis is proven by experiment (that can be repeated under similar conditions by other independent researchers) and supported by evidence is a new theory accepted as true (and remains ever subject to disproof or modification should new knowledge arise). There is belief, yes, when we choose to believe the evidence of science that we have not, ourselves, personally observed. We place a certain trust in the natural competitiveness that can motivate a scientist’s eagerness to disprove an hypothesis that they don’t believe. This intellectual energy has been focused into a system of peer review that has proven to be the best method ever devised by humans to ascertain the true nature of reality. Science takes conjecture and runs it through a series of rigorous tests before conferring on it the title of “Theory”. Religion, on the other, only asks that a group of people show themselves willing to believe in someone’s conjecture about the reality of things. There are no true “tests”, as there can be no truly controlled conditions created under which anyone can recreate a single supposed miraculous phenomenon, or prove the existence of a deity that can choose to remain invisible. (The James Randi Foundation has for years offered a large financial reward for anyone who can perform any “supernatural” feat under controlled observation. To date, no one has taken that reward home.)
But let’s step back and examine the assumption underlying the statement that all belief is equal. This would mean that my belief that the water flowing from the tap in my kitchen has come to me through a series of pipes and pumps from an organized municipal water supply, and that water itself is a liquid made up of hydrogen and oxygen is the same as another’s belief that faeries under the kitchen counter make the water by magic whenever they hear the squeak of the faucet opening. True, on one level these two beliefs share the trait of accepting as truth a process which is not immediately (completely) observable by the person with the glass held under the water tap. But that is all that they share in common. Both “believers” claim to base those beliefs on evidence. But here the two beliefs diverge. And they diverge in the way they define that which constitutes “evidence”.
For the true believer will accept as evidence the “fact” that he believes in the water faeries, and every time he opens the tap, the water faeries have provided him with water. He draws a non-existent causal connection. What about the pipes under the sink? What about the fact that they sometimes leak, requiring replacement, which further requires that the water be turned off outside the house where the water pipes branch off from the city supply? The true “believer” will find a way to rationalize such “evidence” as a ruse, perhaps going so far as to state (with utmost confidence and not a shred of evidence) that all of that water-supply infrastructure was set in place by the faeries to winnow out the unworthy. (Kind of makes you wonder, though, why the faeries would choose to funnel their magic-made water through such clunky mechanical means. Why shoot it out a non-functional faucet? Why not simply make the water appear in the cells of your body when you ask for it? Now THAT would be some intelligent magic!).
I’ve chosen a fanciful example, to be sure. But it’s surprising how rapidly it becomes as plausible as any mainstream religious argument. (Consider this idea put forth by some creationists: God put the fossils in the ground to test our faith (along, one must assume, with all of the geological evidence for the planet’s billions of years of history, not to mention the trail of earlier forms mixed in along our strands of DNA)).
So why does this argument against science as religious belief hold? To many with temperaments different than mine, it probably does not hold at all. But for my part, I think it has to do with both our social natures and the structure of our brains. For it turns out that we are hard-wired by evolution to believe first, and question second. The way neuroscience describes it, there is a near instantaneous neural response to information given to us by another human. When someone we have a social relationship with tells us something, our default setting is to accept it as true and move on. It takes a second, more conscious process to dislodge a bit of incorrect data. The tricky part is that this second process is more cumbersome. We could liken it to the ease with which junk mail arrives in our mailbox (be it snail- or e-mail), and the work it takes to get your name off a dozen mailing lists, or the effort you and I have to expend to delete every one of those junk messages.
So which came first, our profoundly social natures or our believing brains? Impossible to say, for they are, at this stage, so deeply intertwined as to be, for all practical purposes, the same thing. Uh oh — could that be an example of the “irreducible complexity” that gives creationists such an intellectual hard-on? Well, yes, it’s the kind of thing that they would interpret in that way, viewed (as it inevitably is) through the kaleidoscope of faith. But in reality it’s just one more example of the natural product of evolution and natural selection. For in reality, there is nothing at all about our believing brain or our profoundly social natures (or our eyes, brains or livers) that gives them any claim to perfection, or sets them out as the logical end of a directed evolutionary process. In short, the only thing that makes the way we “turned out” appear to be the logical apex of a natural progression is the fact that we humans exist at all. We see ourselves (and our history) through a bias built upon us seeing ourselves as living at the end of a story (that has not, in reality, ended at all).
But, really, are we any more “perfect” than a beetle, or a swan, or a bedbug? No. But, then, we’re no less “perfect” either.
That fact that I can look at my world and see, now, the constant confirmation of the reality of evolution is not a product of my belief system, but more a product of my knowledge of science and nature that has supplied me with enough of a basis in fact to properly deduce the source of the phenomenon I see. In short, it is the same as knowing that there exists a city water-treatment plant (I’ve seen it), and having far too much home-plumbing experience, so that when I do turn on the tap I can be fairly confident of where my water is coming from. Such knowledge also gives me the power to diagnose and repair a leaky faucet, or a ruptured water line, whereas were I to be beholden to my belief in invisible water faeries, I would be left with only prayers or acts of supplication when the flow of water was interrupted, alone with my beliefs in a rapidly flooding house.
And that is where one set of beliefs becomes faith, and the other a reasonable, rational embracing of reality. One is informed by knowledge. The other thrives best where knowledge is least.
Belief in science is not the same as belief in God. Science is not a religion. It has no God, only an agreement to accept as true only that which can be tested, observed or measured. It is a body of knowledge to which every generation adds — which every generation corrects and makes more accurate. Religion is a collection of mystical beliefs that have their origin in imagination and are forever limited to living in that realm, where they need only to be believed to be considered true. They cannot survive in the world of science, where belief is only the starting point in a rigorous process of proof.
That’s why the invisible faeries of this world will always remain invisible, like Bertrand Russell’s celestial teapot: impossible to disprove, yes. But just as impossible to prove.