Science in Christian Perspective

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What if They Debated and Nobody Came?

Jeffrey K. Greenberg

 Department of Geology
Wheaton College
Wheaton, IL 60187

From: PSCF 47 (March 1995): 52-54.

Once upon a time there was a controversy quite a public one pitting cool, rational science against solid biblical faith: at least that's the way each proponent described his or her own position. The world learned about these opposing ideologies through books and articles, interviews with key people representing each position, and ever increasingly, through the spectacle of "The Debate." Here the contestants, like gladiators, waged verbal combat before large audiences of their fans or others eager for the shedding of philosophical blood.

One such infamous debate featured the leaders of each camp. Professor Curt Sageone, the celebrated astrometaphysicist from the Cornwell Institute of Technology, stood at a podium on stage left, with Dr. Heinrich Ignorus, director of C.R.I. (Center for Religious Information) at a podium on the right.

The specific issue under debate that night has been forgotten. Perhaps it was whether the whole atmosphere was created by the lungs of God during a single exhalation ten thousand years ago or whether it was accidentally captured by Earth as a wayward comet passed by. The important thing is that, according to the experts, we get the true orthodox explanation from scripture or the prevailing theory (read "fact"). Somebody, representing something, was the moderator, but no one really noticed him. On and off for an hour and a half, they pointed and counterpointed with great rhetorical flourish. Truth exposed was much less in evidence than untruth attacked. An exit poll showed that the final impressions of the paying guests were really no different from their inclinations as they entered. Was no one swayed by the arguments? What actually occurred and what was at stake?

As Marshal McLuen has indicated, in our time the medium of communication becomes the message. Individuals who refuse to engage in these debates are wise enough to anticipate futility, because debates like these are not about issues as much as they are about salesmanship. The details of each debater's position are overshadowed by his or her methods of persuasion. The debaters typically display more common ground than differences. They do arrive at completely opposite explanations, but they do so with the same black or white certainty with no room for shades of gray. Pick your base of truth: science or the Bible. Such positivistic approaches are the modus operandi of many strong promoters. Assurance builds confidence in your position and in your followers.

One way of depicting a range of positions in the perceived creation/evolution controversy is with a linear continuum (Figure 1, below). Atheistic evolutionists such as our Prof. Sageone could be the left endpoint and young-earth creationists like Dr. Ignorus could be at the other extreme. Popular media, much of the scientific community, almost all of the general public, and too many people in the Church are unable to recognize intermediate positions. There are, of course, nearly inexhaustible possibilities on a spectrum between the poles. Another depiction (Figure 2, above) demonstrates a strong paradox that such opposing conclusions can be arrived at using the same philosophical approach. Dogmatic certainty causes the previous continuum to distort into a curve. The endpoints are drawn together and almost touch. Any degree of uncertainty or humility moves the thinker/believer away from the extremes.

This illustration of the "Sageone-Ignorus Certainty Principle" doesn't indicate that opposites attract, but it does suggest that the same character quirks operate at the extremes. Figure 2 contradicts the simple dichotomy between rationality and faith. A strong faith of one sort or another is essential for the debate. Each advocate arrives at a conclusion necessary to his or her world view. This starting point may be informed and modified by experience, but it represents a bias at the core of the person's being. With prominent spokespersons, perhaps they identify so nearly with what they espouse that any ideological threat is considered personal. We sense a fear of threatened ideological security and identity that subverts real truth-seeking in the debate format. In a debate, uncertainty or compromise displays weakness, and weakness means insecurity and the loss of control.

Sageone and Ignorus are characters that should warn us to beware egoism and humanistic personality cults. Gurus have become powerful symbols of their respective ideologies, and vice versa. Although we often attribute ignorance or dishonesty to those with whom we strongly disagree, it may be that we fail to realize the potential for personal deception. Many types of rationalization are common. Data conflicting with our thesis may be excluded because "we already know the answer." Or perhaps those aberrant data points are just expected within analytical error and need no further explanation. Besides, if taken seriously, this data could cause a reevaluation of the last ten years' work.

In the early 1900s, G.K. Gilbert urged a devotion to multiple working hypotheses among geological researchers. Today we rarely see openness, honesty and humility as rewarded traits in either science or theology.

It is a big mistake to believe that debating evidence will prove a point and convert the infidel. Besides the problems with methodology that force data to support preconceived conclusions, there is the additional difficulty of legalism to contend with. The mind's door is closed to all but the most narrowly defined standards. Innovation, novelty and creativity of mind are perceived as threats.

In his classic, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Thomas Kuhn makes the point that, in science, this stubborn line of defense must be greatly overwhelmed before new explanations will be accepted. My personal experience with outreach to Jewish people at the University of Wisconsin illustrates this difficulty in the area of religion. No matter what cultural or biblical data I presented, they had to overcome certain fundamental biases rooted in personal identity before they could consider Christ as the Messiah. To accept Yeshua was to reject self and start over. Only the Holy Spirit can accomplish the new birth. First, there must be some gap in the defenses. The hypercontrol of legalism, with its humanistic dependence, is the antithesis of Christian freedom. Humility and honesty result from trust that the mind of Christ will guide us into truth.

In respect for honesty, I must recognize my own pride as a hindrance to spiritual as well as intellectual growth. As a Christian academic, I have a long way to go in countering sinful attitudes. If I truly believe in the double proposition that God is the author of all creativity and that I will always fall short in my depth of understanding (of anything), then many personal interpretations should be held tentatively. This does not compromise those tenets essential to our Christian faith, including basic ethical standards. Christians and academics need to be more particular in choosing which ideological battles are worth fighting. Martin Luther is credited with the recommendation that there be strong unity in the essentials, but that in all other areas diversity of opinion is allowed.

An alternative to "the debate" resides around a table with a few contributing parties. The aspect of theater may be lost but here is an environment that may be effective in achieving a consensus. Open discussion of issues can occur with maximum input and a minimum of rhetorical showmanship. This is how many business negotiations, international treaties, and policy decisions are hammered out. It is also how scientific meetings in the past presented and analyzed papers.

Perhaps Prof. Sageone and Dr. Ignorus would refuse to meet, if the meeting was to really probe each other's ideas. That would not be a great loss. Without debates and other sensationalized public displays we might just find that the games and their star players have changed.

1995