Tuesday, February 12, 2008

The (odd) faith of a paleontologist

{Podcast this essay} In matters of piety, how do scientists separate wishful thinking from careful thinking? I was recently in a seminar with a Christian scientist who was especially informed about paleontology. He was there to defend the proposition that Christian belief is not threatened by paleontology (as regarding what it tells us about evolution).

Thus guy was a real scientist with no detectibly "crazy views" about biology or the fossil record, as will sometimes be encountered in such people with conservative viewpoints on life and religion.

In one of his religiously reflective pieces (following his long book chapter discussing transition fossils), he claimed that the biological creation by God, along with its awe-inspiring past, evoked worshipful feelings in him. I asked him how how such wonderful creations like fish pox, small pox, ebola, aids, malaria, and tuberculoses managed to evoked such worshipful feelings towards God, especially seeing how these pre-date human beings.

His response was telling. He claimed that these where "natural evils" (i.e. not implemented by any moral agent, since there were none on the planet at that time) and that it is indeed mysterious just why such things are around. In his opinion, he believed that they might contribute moral lessons in our learning more about helping one another through suffering; moreover, they might also contribute to some unforeseen good known only to God, their creator.

I found this position problematic, and pointed out two issues to him. First, I noted that when someone dies suddenly of one of these microbiological diseases, there is no ability to learn any moral lesson for later life (since it was snuffed out), and perhaps there is no lesson to anyone else, seeing how they couldn't' prevent it, and since they probably didn't even understand it (as do we, though only very recently, as human history goes.) In fact, people often die alone by naturally destructive mechanisms, and nobody, much less the dead person, learns any moral lesson by such an event. I added that I could not see how, for example, a three-year-old being swallowed by a quickly exiting Anaconda (while the child was temporarily out of sight of the parents) was ultimately good or morally instructive for anyone. Second, I noted that even if such bio-nasties do contribute to some unforeseen good, it is just that -- "unforeseen". Therefore, if not outright counter-evidence, at the very least one should reserve judgment on whether their presence makes any sense, given certain other Judeo-Christian, theological commitments to God's creation being "good."

So what was his scientifically informed, carefully articulated position to this conundrum? "We just have faith and trust God."

While this pious response did strike me as wishful thinking, it certainly did not strike me as careful thinking.

Perhaps I can offer a more careful response, if not one so pious. It would seem that generic Christian dogmatists have confused an attribute of moral relationships between self-aware creatures -- namely, "good" -- with attributes of their aesthetic encounters with nature -- "beautiful". How fine for us that nature no longer threatens technologically advanced citizens in their day-to-day lives. (But it will get us all in the end.) How fine for us that we can study complexities of a small pox virus or an AIDS virus and discourse passionately on their "beauty" as efficient organisms. (They would think we are beautiful as well, much the way we might sit down and adore a fine holiday meal.)

And I have documentary suspicion too. I suspect that the writer in the Old Testament dubbed creation as "good" because s/he was sitting in healthy circumstances, fairly young; a person well-educated and otherwise highly placed among thousands of illiterates who had to scrape by in their meager, short suffering lives. He or she was probably at the time comfortable, not threatened by nature, and therefore fell into confusion about just how nasty common human existence could be. I'm sure the author was cured of all that quickly enough. But, at the time, it was pretty talk and easy to re-tell around campfires, so it stuck around, and became classical literature, as these things do.

Fortunately for the tradition, it has two, even better witnesses testifying against it: Job and Ecclesiastes.


Labels: , , , ,


Post a Comment

<< Home