The Inherent Bias of the Scientific Methodology
People who have an opinion on the topic of Evolutionary science can be divided into three groups: Atheists, who are, naturally, pro-Evolution, theists who are pro-Evolution and anti-Evolution theists.
I will start with the latter group, because, after this paragraph, I will ignore them for the rest of this essay. This group is composed of everyone who opposes evolution whether creationists, scientific creationists, intelligent design proponents, even possibly a few theistic evolutionists (although most theistic evolutionists belong on the pro-evolution side of the divide.) Adventists have jumped into bed with these people decades ago, expecting that eventually scientific evidence will be produced that will confirm the position they hold theologically. Even today, because most of our biblical scholars are scientifically illiterate, they still assume this group is a potential ally that will help justify the Adventist position on origins. In reality, this entire collection of evolution opposers is a failure, and, the sooner we realize this and sever ties with them, the better off we are. There has been more than enough time for this group to produce a viable solution, given they have been around in one form or another for almost two centuries. But today, the theory of evolution is stronger than ever: it is taught in every major university and public school, it is supported by every reputable scientific journal, it is taken seriously by governments, media outlets, etc. The pro-evolution side has won, and we need to face reality and acknowledge this.
Coming back to the other two groups, even though science is a methodology, it is done by people, and people have their blind spots. Both pro-evolution theists and atheists have their own distinct biases that prevent them from fully appreciating the limitations of the scientific methodology (aka. methodological naturalism.) Atheists are biased because they have a faulty epistemology that assigns a very low probability to the existence of God and the supernatural. Pro-evolution theists are biased because they embrace some form of dual-reality (pantheism, panentheism, Platonic or Aristotelian dualism, etc.) and have a hard time relating to the physicalist paradigm within which science operates (which is why the responsibility falls on Adventists.) To move forward, atheists must realize that they cannot demonstrate the low probability for God they are taking for granted, and must therefore take that possibility into consideration. Theists also must make an effort to mentally detach from their preferred metaphysical outlooks and evaluate science on its own grounds (physicalism.)
To proceed, we need to first unpack certain concepts that we will then rely on to draw our conclusions:
1) Operation vs. Development – Two different questions need to be considered as we enter this discussion: how does everything work, and how did it all come to exist? For many theists, there is a supernatural/immaterial component to reality that keeps everything in operation at all times. Approaching things from a physicalist perspective, however, we need to dismiss that assumption as unfalsifiable and accept that every aspect of the current universe has a materialistic/mechanistic explanation.
To the second question, the question of development, because there is a possibility that God exists, there is also the possibility that not everything developed through purely material/mechanistic processes. Like an engineer, God could have stepped in, occasionally, to move the process along.
2) No Change in Likelihood – The majority of atheists today operate with the mistaken notion that, the more science is able to explain about the universe, the more likely it is that the naturalistic paradigm is correct. In reality, there is no basis for assigning probability to this question. A God is just as likely to choose 1% involvement as 99%, or, if anything, even more likely to do so. In other words, if a God could create a universe that could develop on its own once the process is initiated, why would He bother building it manually? Because the atheist (naturalist) claims that the entire universe has developed on its own from beginning to end, he is automatically acknowledging that 99% of this universe could have developed on its own as well.
In reality, we don’t actually know how much of the universe could have developed on its own. Science has come up with many explanations over the past two centuries, but we still have a long way to go.
3) Experiment vs predictions
If there was direct supernatural involvement in some aspect of present reality and this involvement could be studied under experimental conditions, then science would have no problem recognizing that something unusual is taking place. Take for example if intercessory prayer worked consistently. Massive double blind, randomized studies could be set up that would thoroughly demonstrate intercessory prayer works.
If the question is whether there was direct divine involvement in the development of some aspect of the universe in the distant past, however, the issue is not so straight forward. The best we can do is come up with some hypotheses, make predictions, test those predictions and go from there. I will explain why this is an issue in a bit.
4) Degree of certainty
In science, there is an increase in certainty that happens with the accumulation of data. At first, there is relative uncertainty. Then, after sufficient data is gathered, there’s a workable level of confidence where scientists feel like they have enough evidence to start taking something seriously, and, finally, after even more data is collected, the evidence becomes overwhelming and the certainty extremely high. We can therefore think of most scientific questions as presently being in one of three stages: Relative Uncertainty, Workable Confidence and High Certainty.
5) The Theory of Evolution
Given that science operates at multiple stages of certainty, what stage is the theory of evolution itself at? The theory of evolution is not a single concept but a collection of hundreds, even thousands of different claims working together yet operating at different stages of certainty. Some aspects of evolution have been thoroughly confirmed, while others are still in the ‘workable confidence’ stage.
Having established the above five points, we can now take a look at where the bias is in the scientific methodology.
We mentioned that questions as to how something might have developed in the distant past cannot be studied under controlled experimental conditions but rely on the making of testable predictions. The reason this is a challenge is because these predictions must be naturalistic. To be able to make and test predictions, we must understand how something works; but we have no knowledge of how the supernatural works so our predictions must be naturalistic. For example, if I find a boulder in the middle of the street, my hypothesis could be that it rolled down the near by hill. This hypothesis predicts that I should find evidence of a large boulder rolling down through the mud and vegetation, predictions that I can then go and test.
So even in a scenario where there is a 50/50 probability that some element in the developmental history of the universe occurred either naturally or supernaturally, the best thing I can do is to come up with naturalistic hypotheses and test them. I then need to keep doing this until either I find a naturalistic hypothesis that can be confirmed with a high degree of certainty or, I eliminate all possible naturalistic hypotheses leaving me with the supernatural as the only left over option. Of course, this never actually happens in real life because even if I do eliminate all naturalistic hypotheses I can think of, who’s to say I won’t think of a new one tomorrow or in fifty years?
In other words, the nature of the scientific methodology (aka methodological naturalism) is such that it could only arrive at a supernatural explanation through a process of elimination, and this is why the methodology is biased. For those who are unsure this constitutes a bias, imagine a detective that always investigates suspects of a certain race before considering anyone else. Acknowledging the methodology is biased, however, should not be taken as a critique, but as a realistic assessment. Science is still the best method we have for studying the material world, by far, and yet it does have its limitations.
Having recognized an anti-supernatural bias in the scientific methodology itself, we now have to ask whether this bias could have impacted the theory of evolution as well. To do this, we need to question whether there are any significant aspects of the theory that are still in the ‘workable confidence’ stage as opposed to the ‘high certainty’ stage.’
I propose that one of the most significant areas that still operates within the ‘workable confidence’ realm is the development of complex biological machines. A few decades back, Michael Behe published a book called Darwin’s Blackbox where he tried to draw attention to this topic by introducing the idea of ‘irreducible complexity.’ However, because Behe’s argument was flawed, it actually created a smoke screen that has allowed evolution supporters to no longer concern themselves with arguments from complexity.
The problem with complex biological machines, however, is not that they are irreducibly complex, but that it isn’t clear the evolutionary mechanism (natural selection working upon genetic variation) always has a pathway to progress through the various stages of complexity. Imagine moving from an iPhone 4 to model 5 then 6, all the way to the current iPhone model; a series of changes would have to take place. However, would there be an immediate benefit to the iPhone’s functionality after each change? It’s possible that some changes would be beneficial, others neutral, and still others, temporarily disadvantageous, in which case natural selection would act against them. Even neutral changes would provide nothing for natural selection to favor.
Is this an argument against evolution? No. It is simply pointing out that, until we can reverse engineer an actual evolutionary pathway, we cannot be fully confident that all complex biological machines could have evolved. I.e. this aspect of evolution is still in the ‘workable confidence’ stage. And, because it is, there remains room for an alternative model.
The problem with this, of course, is that if the alternative model is God, that is outside the boundaries of methodological naturalism and therefore cannot be evaluated until we have exhausted all other options. So, on the one hand, the probability of direct divine involvement cannot be eliminated, but on the other, because of the limitations of our methodology, we have to wait until we can rule out the natural explanations.
None the less, there might still be a work around to this problem. We might be able to test out a supernatural hypothesis by converting it to a natural hypothesis. For example, even atheists would agree that some day our scientists might be able to travel through space and possibly come across another life supporting planet with primitive life forms. And, if we do, our genetic engineers might be able to tamper with their genetics to introduce new features and speed up their evolution. The same thing could be a hypothesis regarding what happened to this planet and be fully naturalistic.
In conclusion, and bringing both parts one and two of this essay together, the most our scholars can do from a theological standpoint, (if they want to be faithful to the Adventist model,) is recognize that the model can be stretched no further than Young-Advanced-Life Creationism and, beyond that, they need to make peace with operating in a state of tension with modern science on the subject of origins.
If they want to do more than this, not as Adventists but as theistic physicalists, they can take several additional steps:
1) Work within the field of the philosophy of science to bring the scientific community to a better realization of the limitations of the scientific methodology.
2) Try to develop an alternative scientific model based on the alien genetic engineering hypothesis. This should be done only if it can be done with the full support of the scientific community as otherwise the entire effort will be relegated to pseudoscience and be a complete waste of time.
I propose there is no other rational way to look at the issue of origins within an Adventist context and anyone who claims otherwise is uninformed either in theology, philosophy or science. We should therefore stop wasting denominational time pursuing these other dead-end strategies.