Sunday November 23, 2014

Science and faith: Can both be common sense?


Few things aggravate me more than arguments derived from “common sense.”

Let’s start with a definition: “the basic level of practical knowledge and judgment that we all need to help us live in a reasonable and safe way.” -Cambridge Dictionary.

On this level, common sense appears self-evident. Fire will burn me, don’t touch. That lion looks hungry, better stay away.

That is not how people use it, though. For example, I once had someone tell me, “SCUBA diving is the safest sport in the world, as long as you use some common sense.” Of course, the practical knowledge and judgment needed to SCUBA dive in a reasonable and safe way is not common at all; it is a complex set of rules and skills derived from study and practice.

Much of what people typically refer to as common sense can also be cultural or geographical in nature.

The first time I visited New York City, I was staying in Battery Park City. Late one evening while riding the subway back to my hotel I missed my stop so I got off at the next one thinking I would walk the few blocks back. On departing the subway station, a cab driver screeched to a halt nearby and screamed at me, “are you stupid, or something?”

I guess I was. If I had been a New Yorker, you might say I exercised poor common sense getting off the subway in an unsafe neighbourhood. The cabbie drove me back to the hotel and didn’t even make me pay. Perhaps he felt I lacked common sense to the degree that counting out the fare would have been an undue burden on my addled brain.

The point is, common sense is not inherent sense; we have to learn it. When my two sons were very young, we were standing at a bus stop on a very cold winter day. The older one asked me, “What would happen I touched that [metal] pole with my tongue?”

“Well,” I explained, “the saliva on your tongue would freeze to the pole. You would get scared and pull away quickly leaving half your tongue on the pole.”

Next thing you know, I heard a little squawk and before I could get the words “don’t pull away,” out of my mouth, the poor little kid was standing there crying and bleeding into his mitts, but now imbued with the “common sense” not to stick his tongue on a frozen pole.

Just last week, a link to a relatively new Youtube video by Ken Ham popped up on my Facebook feed. Ken Ham is founder of Answers in Genesis (AIG) and the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky.

Young-Earth creationists love to cite Ham as one of those so-called “scientists” who don’t believe in evolution based on the fact he holds a Bachelor of Applied Science degree from the Queensland Institute of Technology.

In the new video, Ham appeals to people’s “common sense” in his ongoing effort to discredit evolution. Of course, none of what he says is common sense, remotely scientific, or even logical.

Science starts from a point of not knowing the answer to a question, then methodically collecting evidence, testing the evidence, drawing conclusions, testing conclusions, collecting evidence, testing the evidence… and repeats.

Ham and other creation “scientists”—if they are not simply outright scam artists bilking any one who will believe their preposterous claims—start with a set of propositions they posit to be obvious and unassailable then demand everything observable in the universe has to be consistent with that set of propositions.

When the original set of propositions is unprovable stories from a book of unverifiable authorship, and is used to completely dismiss overwhelming evidence and the reasoned consensus of the entire legitimate scientific community, it is not common sense.
And, just because you call it “science” doesn’t make it science.

In any event, it seems so unnecessary to buy what these  pseudoscientists are peddling when there are thousands of real scientists to follow who have somehow managed to reconcile their faith with the reality of evolution and the old universe.

The best book on the subject I have read to date is Kenneth Miller’s Only a Theory: Evolution and the Battle for America’s Soul.

Miller is an evolutionary biologist and a practicing Catholic. Let me say that again, Miller is an evolutionist and a creationist. In fact, most Christians are.

Jonathan Dudley grew up in an anti-evolution evangelical household, is a graduate of Yale University Divinity School and authored the book Broken Words: The Abuse of Science and Faith in American Politics. In a recent blog post for the Huffington Post, Dudley wrote:

“As Princeton Seminary’s Charles Hodge, widely considered the father of modern evangelical theology, put it in 1859: “Nature is as truly a revelation of God as the Bible; and we only interpret the Word of God by the Word of God when we interpret the Bible by science.” In this analysis, Christians must accept sound science, not because they don’t believe God created the world, but precisely because they do.”

Apparently, evolution and faith don’t have to be mutually exclusive. In this “debate,” that might be as close to common sense as we get.



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