Thursday, April 10, 2008

Why do people do the things they do?

The most perfidious way of harming a cause consists of defending it deliberately with faulty arguments.
--Nietzsche

What does it take to change a long-held viewpoint? A number of years ago I would have gladly called myself a creationist. Today, I would call myself a theistic evolutionist, were I unable to avoid a label. What made the difference? Why did I change my mind?

I do not have space or time to recount, nor can I remember, all the innumerable little details that cropped up in favor of what was then the other side. "If one does the homework, it comes out in our favor," was the universal reassurance. Well, I'm curious, so I did the homework anyway. Creationism (which, in case you've not heard, is the belief that god created the earth [some would say universe but I was not able to believe that for very long] and all its inhabitants in 6 24-hour periods about 7,000-10,000 years ago) moved from the "certainty" column in my mind to the "unlikely but possible" column. What was the final straw?

My favorite argument for a young Earth (a requirement for this view) was the fact that moon is slowly receding from the Earth. At something like an inch a century (I don't remember the numbers exactly), if you rewind time the moon runs into the earth a long time before the 4 billion years that the Earth is supposed to have existed for. The only problem with this argument is that the math is wrong: the closer the moon is, the slower it recedes, meaning that it could easily have been orbiting the earth for 4 billion years.

So, big deal, you may think. The creationists got their math wrong, but so what? Just because the common scientific time-line is possible doesn't make it fact. The problem is this: I heard this line of reasoning in the '90's (as a teenager). It was 2000 something when I found the answer to it. But guess when the refutation to this argument was available? Go on, guess.

1970's. Yes, that's right. Creationists were repeating an argument in the 1990's that had been refuted 20 years prior. That's what got me. It was clear to me that the Creationists I had been trusting cared more about winning the argument than about finding the truth out. It would not have hurt them in the slightest to stop repeating the argument, to put out a correction; as I noted above, having a thing be possible doesn't make it so. 20 years is plenty of time for them to do so. When I discovered this, all the bits and pieces of information that made up my opinion on the subject changed in importance, and the result was that it became impossible to continue to honestly hold the Creationists' beliefs. The world is so much easier to explain now-- but that is a topic for another post.

I do not think, as the Nietzsche quote at the top might imply, that they are secret evolutionists deliberately harming the creationist movement by arguing for it with bad arguments (though the effect may be much the same). I think they genuinely believe what they claim to. I also think that the environments which the creationist beliefs come from make it very difficult for creationists to honestly look at the facts. Creationists have a lot invested in the truth or falsity of the Creation story; most of them feel that, were it false, the entire Christian religion would collapse. And, indeed, their faith is structured such that this would be true for many of them; therefore, for them, admitting the truth of the age of the earth or of the cosmos is only a hair away from denying Christianity. Why that is so is a topic for another day. As for me, somehow I have remained a Christian.

This is my appeal for intellectual honesty, from both sides.

2 comments:

romans828 said...

hey, just read this quickly.

i wondered if you had heard of "starlight and time"

it is one of the newer arguments for a youngh earth.

i know you enjoy reading and researching so thought i might let you know.

now i have let you know :)

daniel the smith said...

Hi, sorry I didn't notice your comment until just now.

I believe I read "Starlight and Time," published in 1994, some time ago, but it apparently failed to make much of an impression on me as I had to go read the reviews on amazon to remember what it said.

I'm afraid there's a very good chance I'd agree with the top-rated reviews of the book, which take a rather dim view of it.

Thanks for dropping by!