lördag 28 september 2013

Open invitation to Young-Earth Creationists: Present a comparable alternative to evolution

[English version of a previous Swedish post]

Conversing with young-earth creationists during the last few years has brought an important insight:

It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for YECs to articulate their own world view.

Persuading YECs to actually present and argue for the model that they themselves profess to believe in seems to be a hopeless endeavour. I have not yet found a single YEC proponent willing to formulate a coherent explanatory model based on their world view, which can be compared against empirical data.

Instead of arguing for their own model, YECs are inordinately fond of unilateral attempts to argue against evolutionary theory by devaluing evidence and reasoned arguments for the scientific consensus model of evolution. Their attempts almost universally involve rhetorical strategies to sideline evolutionary theory as an explanatory model by trying to force it into the category "frivolous historical speculation". Thus, it does not matter how much the evidence seems to mount in favour of evolutionary theory and against their own hypotheses; we can never know for certain what happened. Implicitly, this means that any ludicrous alternative to evolution would be just as likely. Specifically, evolutionary theory is not a legitimate scientific theory according to True Science™ (®AiG & ICR), "because nobody saw it happen and we cannot repeat molecules-to-man evolution in laboratory experiments, et cetera, et cetera..."

This rhetorical approach by YECs is entirely misguided for two reasons:

Firstly, it is quite simply wrong, as valid scientific enterprises are not defined by our ability to observe and experimentally repeat every step in a chain of events stretching back over billions of years. Science is primarily characterized by systematic inquiry and hypothesis testing, where different explanatory models are weighed against each other based on evidence from empirical observations. One of the conceptual tools most commonly associated with scientific inquiry is the hypothetico-deductive method, although there is an ongoing discussion regarding which alternative approaches to knowledge define the boundaries of science. In order to perform a perfectly legitimate scientific inquiry, we need only to be able to infer reasonable expectations and/or predictions from alternative explanatory models, which can be compared against observational data and thus determine which explanatory model best conforms with reality. There is no magical boundary preventing us from constructing valid scientific theories regarding past events, if there is a sufficiently strong causal chain to observations and experiments that can be performed only in the present.

Secondly, the whole YEC exercise is just a question of semantics; an attempt to render something less certain in the eyes of YEC proponents, and thus less scary and uncomfortable, by labeling it under a different name. It does not change reality. Sure, we may apply the terms "operational" or "historical" science to the inquiry, and the methods may be "inductive", "abductive", or "deductive", based on "circumstancial" or other forms of evidence. The results of some lines of scientific inquiry may be less certain than that of others. Nevertheless, any criticism that can be leveled against the present scientific evolutionary consensus, based on epistemological grounds, can also be leveled against any alternative explanatory model. When enough evidence points in one direction it is time to acknowledge this reality and not try to downplay it by hiding an unpalatable truth behind a veil of semantic obscurantism.

Therefore I want to extend an open invitation to any young-earth creationist lashing out against evolutionary theory on the basis that it is unscientific (it isn't - or if it is, so is your alternative), or who claims that there is more observable scientific evidence in favour of a literal biblical creation account (I sincerely doubt it):

If you truly believe that your own model has any scientific merit, please formulate a YEC alternative explanatory model that stands on the same epistemological ground as the current scientific consensus model, so that they can be compared on an equal footing. The YEC model should be comparable to the standard scientific model according to general scientific criteria: by providing testable predictions or expectations that can be compared between different alternative models based on empirical observations, such as they are or could reasonably be obtained.

We may cut alternative models some slack and not force them to compete with the full scope and detail characteristic of the current scientific consensus model, as they have been supported by considerably less research output (and why is this? one might ask). Nevertheless, we can expect a YEC model or other models with any claim to legitimacy to at least identify the most important evidential strengths and weaknesses of its own position and strategic differences with regards to alternative models; trying to empirically address as many of these as possible, while formulating some robust expectations and testable predictions for the remainder.

As a pre-emptive cautionary note, before someone starts to invoke "world views" and "interpretations": please consider the epistemological landscape we are dealing with here. On one side we have the typical YEC claim that the world was created in 6 days around 6000 years ago with all the kinds of organisms already present virtually from the beginning, and with a world wide flood thrown in around 4500 years ago. On the other side we have different options (some involving various biblical interpretations), but virtually all include long ages with a sequence of biological systems following each other. The discrepancies between these different models are not trivial. It should be possible for rational minds to rein in their world views and biases enough to identify predictions and expectations that could be used to select the most reasonable model. If someone claims otherwise, I think it is entirely up to them to demonstrate why their claim has any rational foundation.

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