Getting Rid of the Unfair Rules

A Book Review

The Battle of Beginnings: Why Neither Side is Winning the Creation-Evolution Debate by Del RatzschDowner’s Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1996, 248 pp.

The casual reader of Del Ratzsch’s The Battle of Beginnings: Why Neither Side is Winning the Creation-Evolution Debate (hereafter, Battle) may be excused for casting Ratzsch in the role of a philosophical and scientific referee — perhaps even clothed in the customary black and white stripes, with a metal whistle, and a firm resolve not to be swayed by the bluster and trash talk of the players or by the screams of the crowd. (We write this during the 1996 NBA finals, with Chicago up three games to Seattle’s two.*) Indeed, as the book is structured, and as its subtitle makes plain, Ratzsch wants to clear the parquet of the bad arguments, which, he argues, are distressingly common among all disputants. “That category — arguments that should not convince — constitutes an unfortunately high proportion of the popular artillery on both sides.” And Ratzsch portrays himself in neutral tones. “I still do not know what the proper resolution to the creation-evolution controversy is.” He will not be moved, however, by whatever happens to be tossed into the debate under the color of argument.

Thus, whistle in hand, Ratzsch sets out to correct both popular creationist and popular evolutionist misunderstandings. Yet in so doing he contributes insightfully to another debate — one that is arguably far deeper and more important than the noisy surface ruckus about fossils, mutations, and the like. Here, in a philosophical discussion that runs as a subtext to his more prominent theme, Ratzsch is no longer the dispassionate referee, but a philosopher with strong views about the falsity of methodological naturalism. The casual reader, wanting to know if his favorite argument about mutations (let us say) is debunked or supported, may pass by entirely what we see as Ratzsch’s most striking and significant contributions. We didn’t miss them, however. They treat the philosophical foundations of the debate: its “ground rules,” if you will. And Ratzsch’s conclusions, which we endorse, are bound to be controversial.

Battle begins with a historical summary of evolutionary thinking, setting the stage for Darwin, and then introduces Darwinian theory in its main outlines. Ratzsch then maps the growth of the modern creationist movement, from its sources in Fundamentalism and Adventism, to the publication of Morris and Whitcomb’s The Genesis Flood in 1961. With that book, twentieth-century creationism comes of age, and a debate begins which 35 years later shows no signs of slackening.

Ratzsch surveys the content of that debate with a philosopher’s ken for spotting the illegitimate argument. Creationists are indicted for confusing evolution with the necessity of progress, for running together essentially distinct notions of uniformitarianism, and for refuting cartoon construals of evolution which no serious biologist would endorse. For their part, evolutionists are indicted for blurring the line between micro- and macro-evolution, for holding creationists to a Pollyanna-like, optimally beneficent world (which no serious Christian, certainly, would endorse), and for motive-mongering: i.e., claiming that any religiously-motivated investigator is discredited on those grounds alone. This last argument, if true, would sweep much of science from our textbooks; but, as Ratzsch dutifully points out, the argument isn’t true. Kepler was no more or less a scientist for believing that God built the solar system according to a system of regular solids. Nor is Francis Crick any less (or more) a scientist for wanting to promote an atheistic, materialist view of reality. What matters is not motives, but the truth or falsity of theories.

Then, in what is roughly the second half of the book, Ratzsch trains his analytical lens on the philosophy of science. As the infamous Arkansas “balanced treatment” trial made plain, the philosophy of science is not merely a pleasant interlude, from our friends in the Humanities building across the quad, to the otherwise rigorous hurly-burly of science. Rather, the philosophy of science is an ever-more central aspect of the whole debate. When bad philosophy of science is adopted (as in the McLean decision), rational inquiry miscarries. In fact, both creationists and evolutionists have adopted poor conceptions of the nature of science, as (apparently) easy tools to discredit their opponents. Creationists have argued, for instance, that evolution refers to unobservable processes, or that it cannot be falsified — and thus, that whatever else one wants to say about the theory, evolution cannot be scientific. Evolutionists have been every bit as eager to sink creation under a boatload of philosophical objections, none of which concern the theory’s truth, but (paradoxically, to us) its “scientific” status.

Ratzsch will have none of it. After reviewing what current philosophy of science holds about the nature of science, he critically sifts the use of “demarcation criteria”: philosophical standards that putatively distinguish science from all other types of knowledge (or non-knowledge). Ratzsch argues that those who employ these criteria to disbar competing theories typically borrow philosophical conceptions of science which will not bear the weight the borrower wishes to place on them. It is not unproblematic or obvious that Karl Popper (or Thomas Kuhn or Larry Laudan, for that matter) knows what is, or is not, science. Rather, the philosophy of science is as vexed and difficult as any philosophical field can be. There simply are no philosophical shortcuts to truth in the origins controversy.

Take falsifiability. Ratzsch points out that, as a test of scientific status (again, we note the puzzling fixation on the adjective “scientific,” a weak stand-in at best for the question of truth), falsifiability disqualifies evolution, creation — and science generally. Scientists test their theories by conjoining them (explicitly or implicitly) to assumptions about nature, and even to aesthetic values, such as simplicity, elegance, or symmetry. When a prediction fails, the fault may lie with the theory in question, or in the vast space that includes scientists’ other assumptions or presuppositions. A failed prediction entails that something is false, but what? Often the problem is not the theory “simpliciter,” but an assumption that lies strictly outside the theory. As Ratzsch observes,

The history of science is in fact packed with cases where predictions have gone wrong but where scientists, rather than giving up the theory in question, have challenged one of the other assumptions involved in the derivation of that prediction.

Isaac Newton did not chuck universal gravitation into the river when observations failed to corroborate certain predictions from the theory. Rather, he modified other assumptions — e.g., about the shape of the planets — to accomodate the discrepancy between theory and observation. And that was the reasonable (creative) path to take, not a thoughtless allegiance to a mechanical philosophical proscription.

The same is the case for other demarcation criteria bandied about in the origins debate. As Ratzsch argues, each criterion carries off much good science with the bad, which is not surprising, since the whole project of demarcation is not concerned with the truth or falsity of explanations at all, but rather with defining “science,” thus woefully misdirecting our attention. And here we come to Ratzsch’s most provocative, and, we think, valuable argument.

An astonishing number of theists argue that science ought to be methodologically “naturalistic” — the demarcation criterion non pareil. “You can’t put God in a test tube,” Ratzsch quotes the philosophical naturalist Eugenie Scott as arguing, and therefore “science acts as if the supernatural did not exist. This methodological naturalism is the cornerstone of modern science.” Scott is right, many theists affirm: God may be real but He is empirically inscrutable. It is thus best that we acted, as we reason about the workings of nature, as if God were away on other business.

But that cannot be correct, argues Ratzsch. Methodological naturalism prejudges the shape of reality in a way that any “truth-seeking” science can ill afford:

If nature is not a closed, naturalistic system — that is, if reality does not respect the naturalists’ edict — then the science built around that edict cannot be credited a priori with getting at truth, being self-corrective or anything of the sort. Now if we had some rational reason for accepting naturalism as in fact true, then stipulating that science had to be naturalistic…would make perfect sense. But that would involve making a case for naturalism — not simply decreeing that science was by definition or for convenience naturalistic, which is the path taken by various evolutionists.

(We note in passing that the usual arguments in support of naturalism trade on the supposed supremacy of Darwinian evolutionary theory, which, in turn, presupposes naturalism, thus closing the circle of justification to challenge.) Restricting science to naturalistic hypotheses is not an innocuous methodological stratagem which nevertheless leaves science free to pursue the truth. God, after all, may not have been away on other business when life originated, or humankind came to be.

If the historical sciences in particular have their wings clipped to keep them in the naturalist’s yard, when the truth is elsewhere, those sciences can hardly claim our assent when they offer the “best explanations available” for reality. Instead they will have only picked at the gravel of one philosophy: naturalism. That is not a “search for the truth, no holds barred.” It is a game, if you will, where we settle for whatever theories we can build out of a restricted set of materials. Ratzsch condemns methodological naturalism, in the end, because he sees the goal of science as truth, and naturalism as needing a principled justification it has yet to provide (if it is to claim the exclusive right to ground scientific discourse).

Ratzsch carefully avoids staking any claim about which theory will prevail in the debate. He is, in this book at any rate, too much the philosophical referee for that: after the slovenly arguments have been sent packing, the referee pretty much takes a chair to wipe his brow. But, as we have noted, Ratzsch does know — and is clear in arguing — that the “deep” rules of the game must allow all contenders into play.

* The Bulls won, of course.