Good morning, everyone! I’m in Fargo, and I need to go home, so I’m looking at a few hours on cold roads next. But I was in a debate with Dr Fazale Rana of Reasons to Believe last night, and I said I’d post my opening statement, so here it is.
In general, my strategy last night was to go meta on him. He’s trained as a biochemist, so I expected he’d try to slug it out toe-to-toe with lots of facts about biology, but I didn’t want to lose sight of the fact that he would be trying to use mundane, material evidence obtained by scientists who did not accept his creationist interpretations, and that his job was to provide evidence of the miracles that he would insist must have occurred in the history of life on earth. So I hammered him to give specifics about any divine intervention — to not just say we don’t know what happened in the Cambrian or at the beginning — and to explain how he knew it was definitely a supernatural transition rather than a natural one, like all the other examples he used. I think it worked and wrecked his rhythm and got him to stagger off of his planned script, which was enough.
I can’t declare victory though — as I predicted in the opening, the Christians didn’t abandon their beliefs, the atheists (there was a pretty good contingent of them there) weren’t going to join the church, and all we could hope to do is to get people to think.
Is there evidence for a creator or not?
I’m a reluctant debater. There are a couple of reasons for that.
One, debate is not how scientists resolve differences of opinion. You might find a few examples back in the 19th century or earlier, but in general nowadays, when a scientist finds himself on a stage with an opponent, it’s usually because an advocate for a fringe position is begging that their ideas be judged as credible enough to discuss. Theology and politics are hashed over in debates, but science is resolved in the court of observation and experiment.
Two, debates never seem to decide anything. I have no illusions that this audience will find my arguments so persuasive that anyone will change their minds. All I can hope to do is share a little bit of what I know with you, and hope it will trigger some of you to do deeper study of the subject.
Third, because scientists don’t debate, we never get training in it. Seriously, not once in my graduate or post-doctoral training, or in 25 years as a professor, have I ever done a debate in an academic setting, or even seen one put on at a science conference. It was important for us to get training in presenting science in talks and papers, but debate? Nope. So you’ll have to appreciate that I’m not very good at it. Again, all I can do is use the stage as a platform to present a few ideas.
But there’s another reason I find debates like this to be an exercise in futility. I’ve already won. As nice and persuasive as Dr Rana may be to you, nothing he says will influence the scientific consensus: it’s settled. Evolution works. You, the audience, may want to believe in God, but science has no need of that hypothesis.
I also know exactly how this debate is going to go.
Let me tell you a little story. Many years ago, I was in Washington DC, and as I usually do, I found an excuse to visit the museums on the mall. As a biologist, I always make a beeline for the Smithsonian, but this one time I thought I’d try something different, and I went to the National Portrait Gallery, thinking I’d do something light and easy.
It really opened my eyes.
I was doing the usual superficial visitor thing — “uh-huh, that’s nice, next” — moving quickly through rooms full of pictures, when I turned a corner and right there, in my face, was this painting: “Two Women at a Window”. Instead of my usual two-second glance before moving on, I stopped and really looked at it, and something about it compelled my attention.
It was beautiful. The subject was enchanting: the two women looking out, that smile on the face of one and the coy laughter of the other. There was the lovely lighting — really, the digital image is inadequate, and you have to see the real thing to get a feel for how gloriously cheerful and enticing the painting is. And I stood right there, and I looked at it for about 45 minutes before I had to leave — just this one painting! —and I just immersed myself in it, looking at the brush strokes and fine detail, stepping back and seeing it from different angles. I’m no fancy art aficionado, but for a little while I could see what drew people into art.
The painting is by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, a 17th century Spanish artist, and it’s a portrait of two Gallician women. But now imagine, as I stand there enjoying it, that I’m joined by a fellow art lover — someone who thinks exactly as I do, that this is a beautiful painting well worth savoring. But he has a different idea. This painting is so beautiful that it could not possibly have been created by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo — it could only have come into existence by supernatural means, and he says he knows exactly who painted it and what magic was involved, and he’d like to debate me on the subject.
Do I need to paint the similarity to the situation tonight with a broader brush?
Anyway, the correct answer is obvious to me, and I’m curious to see how this person is going to defend his peculiar position. As a minimal necessity, I expect to hear something about the identity of the mysterious True Painter, and something about the True Painter’s methods, and I would hope quite a bit about epistemology — how did my opponent make his case, where did he learn the Truth of this painting?
In this little parable, I am disappointed, as I expect to be tonight. While insisting that everything had a supernatural cause, he dwells on the physicality of the painting: it’s on canvas, the colors come from complex combinations of organic and inorganic compounds, that scientists can bounce lasers off it and determine the proportions of each element in it spectroscopically.
Wait, I say, you’re making my case for me. The painting is a natural object, made of earthly matter, of compounds arranged in a way that is perfectly compatible with all physical laws.
So then he tells me, look, it’s made of hundreds of thousands of precise tiny brushstrokes, each one contributing to whole. It’s incredibly complex. It can’t have been created by natural means.
And I try to explain that complex objects are generated by natural mechanisms all the time — that something is complex is not evidence that it was spontaneously generated by an invisible spirit. We can look at how paintings are made even now, and see equally complex images created without the aid of metaphysical agents.
His reply is to cast doubt on the existence of Bartolomé Esteban Murillo. We don’t know his exact birthday — sometime late in 1617. We don’t know whether he was born in Seville or Pilas. Therefore we should question whether Bartolomé Esteban Murillo even really existed, opening the door to the idea that some other mystical agent actually created the paintings.
Then I will be tempted to reply in kind: but we have his baptismal certificate from 1618! We know the names of his parents (Gaspar and Maria)! We know that he studied under Juan del Castillo, and that he was prolific and left a great many surviving paintings!
That’s the temptation, that I respond by deluging you in kind with more and more details, while failing to address the great big void in the room — that despite postulating a supernatural mechanism, despite calling into doubt the existence of the material cause on the flimsiest of excuses, my critic has not revealed who the True Painter is, how he knows its identity, how it placed all those exquisite brush strokes on the canvas, in fact, no positive evidence at all for his hypothesis.
My little story expresses my frustration with these kinds of events, and tells you what I predict.
I predict that tonight Dr Rana will first simply assume without evidence that his proposed creator of all exists, and further, that this creator is the Christian god. He will not actually defend this proposition, because it is indefensible, and because as is typical at these events, the audience is packed with people who take the assumption for granted. It’s a shame, too, because the basis of the whole creationist premise relies entirely on the existence of this being…a being who leaves no trace of its activity and no explanation of its motives or methods. I would suggest that in the absence of any evidence for the proposed first cause, any discussion of its hypothetical actions is simply dismissible.
Second, any attempt to justify the existence of this creator will involve pointing at a bible or pointing at biology, chemistry, and physics. The bible is irrelevant; I could point at the Harry Potter books, and at best they are evidence for the existence of JK Rowling, but not for the existence of magic powers. As for science, as I have seen many times before, when asked for evidence of supernatural miracles in the history of life, creationists provide examples of natural, material processes rather than the actual supernatural processes we’re asking for. It makes no sense. If you’re insisting that a painting was created by magic, telling me about the fine details of the brush strokes is making my case for me.
Third, much of the argument will consist of claiming that the evolutionary explanation is incomplete or even erroneous in parts. That’s something I’ll agree with: science is always a work in progress, and if we knew everything, science would stop. But while nitpicking at the details and telling you about what we don’t know, Dr Rana will not say the obvious: that the creationist explanation is empty and nonexistent, void of all details, having no experimental or explanatory power, and so feeble that all of science has simply abandoned it.
I wandered a bit from that text here and there. The sponsors did have a professional video crew present, so the event was recorded — we’ll have to see if it makes it online eventually.