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How To Evolve A Debate Against A Darwinist

René Magritte. The Art of Conversation.
(René Magritte. The Art of Conversation. Source)

1) Introduction

I'm not an expert in either Philosophy or Biology, but I think some Catholics have an inappropriate approach to the debate on Evolution.

To explain, I'll paraphrase a passage of the infamous TV series by Carl Sagan on the appearance of life on Earth:

First, there was the erupting of egos out of which flowed huge streams of red hot, molten ignorance, then there were the waves in the sea of discordant opinions which brewed and mixed all the undefined terms, and then there was the thunder of beliefs and the lightning of insults, and then ...
TRUTH appeared!

Catholics are not supposed to agree with Darwinists who claim that mindless, purpose-less Evolution can produce immensely complex results. Maybe we should start listening to our own advice, and inject a bit of "Intelligent Design" into our debates about Evolution.

(Disclaimer: OK, OK, I admit this text is mostly a reminder to myself ;-)

2) Some tips to avoid sinking into the primordial ooze of bad debates with scientists

In a way, what follows is just an application of the Philosopher's Glove to the debate on Evolution (and other scientific topics), so you should first memorize that text before you continue here. Assuming that's done, some additional tips might be:

2.1) Check your heart before you open your mouth. Having good intentions is not enough to act well, and on top of that, we cannot act well if our intentions are bad. If we enter into a debate with the purpose of petting our pride, we probably won't advance the cause of science.

2.2) Don't forget everything you already know about debating. A debate on Evolution is first of all a debate, so you should respect your habitual debating method.

2.3) Be wary of scientific terms which taste and smell like the ordinary ones you know well. There are numerous examples of misunderstandings caused by technical terms which are spelled just like their non-technical counterparts, but which mean something quite different. Take the word "nothing" for example. In Physics, "nothing" means "nothing we can detect with our instruments". In Philosophy, "nothing" really means nothing, no creatures and no God, no being whatsoever [CARROLL, William E. "Big Bang Cosmology, Quantum Tunnelling From Nothing, and Creation" in Laval théologique et philosophique, 44, 1 (février 1988), p. 68]. Another example is the word "cause". In Physics, "cause" just means "the necessary antecedent linked to the consequent by Nature's determinism" (i.e. the famous "If P, then Q"). In Philosophy, a "cause" is much more than that, it requires the communication of some perfection. The list just goes on with words like time, dimension, universe, number, etc.

2.4) Be wary of the fairy tales behind the fudge factors. To understand what is a "fudge factor", you first need to know that mathematicians can "bend" and "twist" functions into just about any shape. For example, as explained in "Thomas' Calculus", p. 18, you can make a function "move up or down":

Fig. Shifting a graph vertically

or "move left or right":

Fig. Shifting a graph horizontally

This "bending and twisting" of functions can get quite complicated (using exponentials, for example). Just remember that mathematical functions can be made to conform to just about anything, given the right "little additional ingredients".

Now, when scientists study nature, they often plot graphs, based on experimental data. Let's imagine an oversimplified example, like the average distance traveled per hour by a wolf over a period of a day. A scientist will study real wolves, then draw graphs based on his observations. Then, the scientist will look in a big catalogue of mathematical functions, and pick the one that looks the most like the graph of his wolf movements. Normally, the mathematical curve won't exactly fit the experimental data, so the scientist will, often by trial and error, find the "little additional mathematical ingredient" that makes the mathematical curve fit. This is often called a "fudge factor". So if wolves tend to move a lot around 3 PM, creating a spike in the plot, the scientist will find some "fudge factor" to make the mathematical curve fit, and maybe give it a name, like "The Little Red Riding Hood Constant", to help remember that this constant "explains" why wolves move a lot around 3 PM. (If you think I'm exaggerating too much, read up on Quantum Mechanics and Planck's Constant, for example).

A surprising number of misunderstandings arise from this association between mathematical descriptions of solid experimental data, and the sometimes vivid imagery used informally to talk about it. Time and time again, bad popular science writers will point to the spike in the graph of wolf movements to try to justify their belief in the existence of the Little Red Riding Hood! (Of course, in real life, I don't claim it's always easy to disentangle the irrelevant imagery from the actual philosophical implications of scientific discoveries).

2.5) Beware of the scientific hat trick. Bad scientists often play a "hat trick" on unwary listeners. They'll put on their scientist's hat and talk for a while about perfectly valid scientific theories, then quickly swap on their philosopher's hat and boldly assert a corrupt philosophical position like atheism or materialism, then swap back on their scientist's hat and claim that what they've just said has been scientifically proved! Typical perpetrators are real scientists but pseudo-philosophers like Stephen Hawkins, Richard Dawkins, Hubert Reeves, Albert Jacquard, Jacques Monod, etc.

2.6) Beware of the argument "by ignorance". Some scientists use the argument "by ignorance" to justify the theory of Intelligent Design. (For example: Micheal J. BEHE, in the otherwise excellent Darwin's Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution, New-York, The Free Press, 1996.) Roughly speaking, they claim that since nobody is able to explain such and such a thing using evolution, "therefore" evolution cannot explain those facts. The "therefore" is not justified by our current ignorance. We have to know why it isn't possible, and not just ignore it. We have to be able to show not only that we don't have an explanation, but also that it isn't possible, based on principles that are even more certain. We have to show that physical or chemical laws simply don't permit that.

2.7) Don't grant more certainty to a theory, than the certainty granted to it by its proponents. (See also #2.5 in Error: "All Philosophers Contradict Each Other!") If a scientist puts forth a theory as simply probable, given the facts before him at that point of time, don't attack him after his death, when new facts are available!

As in astronomy the theory of eccentrics and epicycles is considered as established, because thereby the sensible appearances of the heavenly movements can be explained; not, however, as if this proof were sufficient, forasmuch as some other theory might explain them.
[Saint Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, Ia, q. 32, a.1, ad. 2.
See also Thonnard, PHDP, §255, (3)]

2.8) Be deeply suspicious of scientists who say Philosophy is unscientific. They probably neither know what Philosophy nor Science is, and their beliefs about Evolution are probably some random mutation that evolved out of the atheistic cesspool of the mainstream media. Don't abandon these poor misadapted organisms to the merciless forces of natural selection. Treat them as unique, unrepeatable persons who are loved by God, and set them free from their religious beliefs.

3) Additional tips concerning the theological primordial ooze

The rest of these tips apply mostly to Catholics, although all will probably benefit by reading them:

3.1) Make sure you quote Church documents accurately. I'll take an example from the debate on abortion. Suppose you try to defend the unborn by saying: "The Catholic Church teaches that the embryo is a human person starting from conception". The actual document says: "Thus the fruit of human generation [...] demands the unconditional respect that is morally due to man in his bodily and spiritual totality." [Donum Vitae]. They say it must be treated as a human person, but they are careful to avoid saying they can prove it is a person right from conception (a bit earlier they say: "Certainly no experimental datum can be in itself sufficient to bring us to the recognition of a spiritual soul [...] The Magisterium has not expressly committed itself to an affirmation of a philosophical nature"). Why such "weasel-wording"? Because if we could detect with certainty the exact moment when the human soul was infused, then that soul would not be spiritual! We can detect material beings, but not spiritual beings (directly anyway). So in this case, an incorrect quotation of a Church document actually ends up stripping the human embryo of all human dignity! I bet it's possible to screw up a debate on Evolution with similar incorrect quotes.

3.2) Don't forget who God entrusted with interpreting the Bible. Pagans and atheists can be forgiven if they misinterpret the Bible, but Catholics should never be caught with their hands in that cookie jar! Only the Magisterium has, by divine mandate, the authority to interpret Sacred Scriptures. The Bible itself teaches that the Bible can be hard to interpret [Ac 8:30-35; 2P 3:16; etc., quoted in The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church, Introduction].

3.3) Don't underestimate the number of good theologians and philosophers you can fit inside a phone booth already jam-packed with good scientists. To take an example used elsewhere on this site, if a pretty girl walks into the ballroom and all heads turn toward her, she might be the "center" of that room, even though she is geometrically in a corner. Somewhat in the same way, planet Earth is the center of the universe, even though geometrically Earth spins around the Sun, since Earth is where the most important event in the universe occurred (the passion, death and resurrection of our Lord). Another example is creation. To use a metaphor, imagine two books stacked on top of the other, but imagine they have been that way for eternity. It would still be true that the book on the bottom was supporting the book on top. It's somewhat the same thing for creation. Creation is not a change or a process. Creation means that the creatures are "supported out of nothingness" by the Creator. Even if the universe had always existed, creatures would still be created.

4) Conclusion

Firstly, a nasty quote from a canonized saint and Doctor of the Church, saint Augustin, who said over 1500 years ago:

Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world, about the motion and orbit of the stars and even their size and relative positions [...] Now, it is a disgrace and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics [...] Reckless and incompetent expounders of Holy Scripture bring untold trouble and sorrow on their wiser brethren when they are caught in one of their mischievous false opinions and are taken to task [by non-Christians] For then, to defend their utterly foolish and obviously untrue statements, they will try to call upon Holy Scripture for proof and even recite from memory many passages which they think support their position, although "They understand neither what they say nor the things about which they make assertion" [1Tm 1:7]
[Saint Augustin, De Genesis ad litteram, I, 39, quoted in CARROLL, ibid, p. 74.]

Secondly, I'll claim that humility is one of the best weapons against atheists and materialists who claim to be justified by Darwin. Think about it: either they are wrong, or we are wrong. If we are wrong, we need to sit down, ask them intelligent questions, and take notes. If they are wrong, a good way to indirectly point out their mistakes is also to sit down, ask them intelligent questions, and take notes (especially when their story unravels!). Either way, the meek and humble Christ will be glorified.

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