Taner Edis

Relativist Apologetics: The Future of Creationism?

Creation-science is, it seems, an intellectual embarrassment. Creationists mostly rely on unsophisticated polemics and appeals longer considers special creation to be a worthwhile hypothesis, even though creationists claim “there are today thousands of recognized, qualified scientists who have become creationists, in spite of . . . the evolutionist intimidation which they now face in organized intellectualism,” (Morris 1985, p. 16). With few exceptions (e.g. Moreland 1989), even theologically conservative philosophers stay away from creationism. So when we oppose creationism in the science classroom, we start from a very strong position. If scientists—indeed, most people with a decent intellectual background—do not take creationism seriously, why should it appear in a science course?

Creationism may be out of the pale, but others besides conservative monotheists are uncomfortable with Darwinian evolution. The trouble with Darwinism is that it refuses to be confined to biology. After all, evolution is all about obtaining complex organization by purely natural means; so even fields as diverse as cosmology and artificial intelligence can benefit from Darwinian ideas (Dennett 1995). Evolution begins to encroach on the human sciences. Though “pop-sociobiology” was overly ambitious and thus failed to invade much social science turf (Kitcher 1985), Darwin still threatens to help explain humans in naturalistic terms, denying the existence of irreducible realms of mind or meaning. Not everyone is happy with this prospect.

If natural science was getting too imperialist, some philosophers and human scientists were busy erecting the perfect defense. Science, after all, is a social activity, and scientific knowledge is the product of a distinct community. Perhaps, then, science is only the expression of the values and way of life of a particular community, with no more claim to a better grasp of reality than witchcraft. Our very notions of evidence and logic are culture-bound, not subject to trans-cultural criteria of rationality (Winch 1970). This cognitive relativism was also echoed in the philosophy of science. Scientists, it seemed, worked within frameworks which included standards of rationality. These frameworks, or paradigms, were not comparable in any paradigm-independent sense, hence major changes in science came about like a “conversion experience” based on faith (Kuhn 1970).

At present, relativism is intellectually respectable. It tends to explain the cognitive authority of science not by science’s ability to approximate truth, but by political power. It tends to valorize the “ways of knowing” of different communities. It impresses people with ugly postmodern buzzwords like “valorize.” In other words, it is just what creationism needs to construct a sophisticated argument. Protestant theology is already full of presuppositional apologetics and leaps of faith between worldviews—much like paradigms. And as part of the worldview constructed by a distinct community, creationism must be no worse than orthodox biology. Surely it must get equal time, at least.

We have to be concerned about more than the standard creationist arguments. I would like to suggest that

  • Evolutionists cannot count on a continuing lack of sophistication on the part of extreme anti-evolutionary views.
  • There is a natural affinity between conservative Protestant apologetics and cognitive relativism; this connection may be exploited in the future.
  • Common anti-creationist arguments are not only inadequate in responding to relativism, but are often deficient in ways relativist challenges highlight.

If creationists adopt relativist apologetics, they will acquire a shinier intellectual veneer. The primary battleground, however, is science education. Teaching only evolution privileges evolution over creationist beliefs. And if evolution is ultimately an expression of faith, similar to Biblical creation in its worldview-dependence, it becomes easier to portray teaching evolution alone as a one-sided imposition of a cultural belief not shared by everyone. Some educators have already been responsive to “multicultural” arguments for teaching pseudosciences comparable to creationism (Ortiz de Montellano 1992); relativism can serve creationists as well.

A Tale of Two Sciences

To highlight the force of relativist apologetics, consider a science-fiction scenario for our future.

To begin, let us imagine a stronger and more self-confident creation-science community. Religious cultures, far from becoming secularized, seem resurgent across the globe (Greeley 1995. Bruce 1996 identifies a shift to an individualist style of religion, but creationism can probably flourish either way). Conservative Christianity and creationism provides community, guidance, and a perception of clear-cut meaning in history and the natural universe for many believers. If conservative religion is socially successful, it might be able to sustain an alternative quasi-scientific community.

A confident conservatism could support the institutions required for an effective creation-science community. Phillip Johnson (1991, 1995) considers evolution to be bad science driven by naturalistic metaphysical assumptions, and suggests that committed Christian scientists could reconstitute science along lines explicitly acknowledging creation. Such a project needs new “scientific” institutions more sophisticated than Bible colleges; the ICR’s graduate school is a small step in this direction. Now imagine that such efforts succeed beyond ICR’s wildest imaginations, and creationists begin to develop a network of alternative institutions of higher learning.

The creation-science practiced in these fundamentalist universities would not be divorced from mundane reality. Creationists think science should be a Baconian activity, observing “facts” and fitting them into a Biblical picture (Marsden 1984). They probably would emphasize engineering, going along with the popular equation of science with technological progress.

Meanwhile, evolutionary science would not stand still. We can easily imagine how developments in genetics, artificial life, and the physics of complexity will deepen our understanding of evolution. But at the same time, trust in science may erode in our culture. Already all too many people see science as no more than a collection of facts with the stamp of Authority on them. Modern science is supported largely through its services to economic and military competition—other social contexts may not be as favorable. Many are disillusioned with the secular social options in our modern world (e.g. Lasch 1995, chap. 13), it is conceivable that the prestige of modern science will decline as well. Creation-science, in contrast, will have hitched its wagon to more comfortable social ideals.

Our tale of two sciences is perhaps far-fetched; it is not a prediction but a device to remove some of the social background we take for granted while arguing for evolution. We would like to believe evolution is the best explanation for the relevant evidence, even in a social climate less favorable to science as we understand it. But what if creation and evolution both end up supported by sophisticated communities and institutions? Relativists will say the rival communities defend not only different claims, but different assumptions about knowledge and proper method. The creation-science and evolution-science communities embody different fundamental commitments, and we have no neutral, commitment-free ground from which to judge between the two. In education, a future philosopher might argue, all we can do is present both creation and evolution, and let the student decide. Anything else would be arbitrarily favoring one community over another.

Future biologists will naturally be incensed. After all, the independent evidence in favor of evolution is overwhelming. Not only biology, but most of natural science hangs together very well in the light of evolution. And we are supposed to treat this incredibly successful theory on a par with an overgrown fairy tale?

Our postmodern philosopher will not be impressed. She will agree evolution-science is more successful on its own terms: it is open to correction by empirical tests, its theories and evidence fit together nicely, and so on. But creation-science is also successful by its own criteria: it is corrected by Biblical tests, it nicely fits a firm moral vision together with its description of nature, it affirms spiritual truths manifested in human needs, and so forth. Evolutionists and creationists both claim truth, but we cannot decide between them except by arbitrarily accepting a package deal which includes criteria for truth.

Could we not find deeper principle of rationality which could firmly ground our confidence in evolution? Our philosopher will tell us no—after all, any such principle we propose will fall within yet another paradigm, a broader one perhaps, but still a paradigm with no external justification for its principles. Evolutionists and creationists accuse each other of irrationality, but this means nothing more than that they disapprove of one another (see Latour 1987, p. 192). There are no secure foundations; we choose through faith and commitment.

Now relativist apologetics can really get in gear. We can accept or reject creation, but face a crisis since reason demands neither. Conservative Christians, however, recognize the necessity for faith. Modernists are handicapped by the chimera of a universal truth accessible to impartial inquiry; creationists understand one must believe in order to see. Faith is the province of Biblical religion; from traditional apologetics to reliance on conversion experiences, it has the equipment to handle the relativist predicament.

It might be surprising for creationists to use relativist rhetoric, since Christian conservatives usually condemn modern culture for its relativism, and hold themselves up as defenders of Biblical Absolutes. But they need not defend cognitive paralysis; relativism is useful only to induce a crisis to be resolved by a leap of faith. God and Creation provide a way out of the relativism a sterile Reason leads to. In fact, the Biblical God is the only possible savior of an otherwise self-destructing Reason. Just like creation by a self-existent God is supposed to tell us why there is something rather than nothing, a God we can trust in provides the foundation for Reason. Rationality emerges from relativism, but under the authority of the Word of God, which is its only sanction. We do not reach this Creator without an act of faith, even an act against the wanton Reason which produces idols like evolution. But once we take that step, creationists might say, our reasoning faculty has reached salvation as well as our souls.

Back to the Present

While creationists lean on relativist apologetics only in science fiction, the groundwork is already present. Some Calvinist-style arguments are similar to a relativist approach; for example, presuppositional apologetics, which insists the Bible is the unprovable foundation of all legitimate thought (Van Til 1967). Creationists themselves use quasi-relativist language to prepare the way for faith, declaring that

a philosophy of origins . . . can only be achieved by faith, not by sight. That is no argument against it, however. Every step we take in life is a step of faith. Even the pragmatist who insists he will only believe what he can see, believes that his pragmatism is the best philosophy, though he can’t prove it! (Morris 1985, p. 4)

These are not, of course, the most academically reputable sources. But contemporary philosophers often use arguments with a relativist flavor to deflect evidential objections to religious fact claims, even to reconstruct our idea of rationality in a religious image (see Loades and Rue 1991, particularly selections from A. Plantinga and T. Penelhum). Throw a brick at a gathering of religion scholars; chances are it will hit someone who has made use of the relativism so prevalent in philosophy and the human sciences. Indeed, some religious evolutionists look favorably on an intellectual climate which can limit reason to make room for faith (Shapiro 1993).

Relativists are occasionally sympathetic to creationist struggles against the bugbear of Enlightenment science, even when they consider creationism absurd (Aronowitz 1988, p. 12). However, there is a potential for more. Consider the following quotes from Bruce B. Lawrence’s study of fundamentalism (1989).

. . . Evolution prevailed not on its intrinsic merits but because Darwin benefited from the general prestige conferred on science as an independent inquiry that heralded progress but lacked firm criteria for correlating truth with success.

Once evolution has been understood as dubious science seeking acceptance as a universal ideology, it becomes possible to make sense of the entanglement of Darwin with religious issues. The natural selection of the species precluded any divine agent or ulterior purpose in the genesis of human life. . . (p. 175)

. . . Even contemporary exponents of evolution must admit that the arguments for its validity rely as much on ideology as facts. The pretense to scientific objectivity needs to be unmasked, the claim to universal validity scaled down. (p. 184)

. . . Creationists fail to realize the extent that they have not invoked true scientific principles because they are not trying to identify new, testable hypotheses but rather to cast doubt on those hypotheses that already exist. Yet at the same time positivists [including evolutionists] falter in not recognizing the ideological and nonuniversal character of their claims on behalf of science. Facts and values are enmeshed in all human activity, including science, and the desideratum is not to eliminate prejudice but only to clue the lay reader and listener, as also the scientific practitioner, to its existence.

. . . Even as a public spectacle, the debate on creation is less an objective inquiry into knowable facts from value-free perspectives than it is a testing of constituencies who advocate two variant worldviews. (p. 188)

Lawrence does not exactly defend creationism, but his views are not congenial to evolutionists. He is also a well-respected scholar of religion, and his arguments are not considered eccentric.

Relativists usually subscribe to a “symmetry principle,” demanding “that true and false knowledge claims are to be explained by means of the same set of explanatory notions.” In contrast, rationalists take true knowledge to be forced upon us by proper procedures and reality checks, while social explanations are appropriate for irrational beliefs (Raven et.al. 1992, pp. xxii-xxiii). This asymmetry bothers sociologists of knowledge. If scientists say they accept evolution because of reasons like the fossil evidence, creationists are as capable of producing reasons from their own perspective. And if creationism is largely a product of social circumstances, prior religious beliefs, and so forth, perhaps belief in evolution is also explained by social factors.

Social conditions did affect the 19th century debate over evolution. Adrian Desmond, for example, argues (1989) that the acceptance of evolution was delayed until Darwin produced a theory congenial to conservative Victorian elites, while previous ideas of evolution were closely associated with radical politics. Departing from such arguments, scholars like Lawrence play up the social context so much that the biological issues fade to insignificance. Interestingly, Lawrence’s views find a crude echo in creationist charges that the driving force behind evolution was an ideological need to explain life without a God (Morris 1989). This is not to say historians of science have all decided to explain Darwin by social ideologies. There are good defenses of Darwin’s originality, denying, for example, that he merely reflected the competitive Victorian ethos (Bowler 1988, chap. 2). Still, relativist accounts are a serious part of the current debate.

Many scientists react to relativism with exasperation. Some suggest it is mainly an intellectual failure of nerve, or an intrusion of pseudo-left politics into scholarship (Gross and Levitt 1994). Natural science seems too successful to be undermined by philosophical handwaving. Physicists, for example, think their theories and experiments often converge onto very solid explanations, and that the physics community is coerced by such reality tests rather than external social influences (Weinberg 1992, chap. 7; Mermin 1996). One has to be isolated from reality by a philosophy or sociology department in order to doubt our ability to explain electricity or projectile motion. Or the origin of species, for that matter. Evolutionists are also inclined to dismiss relativism as a “fashionable salon philosophy,” easily refuted by the successes of science (Dawkins 1995, pp. 31-33). Furthermore, while science succeeds, a runaway relativism would undermine even the most trivial everyday reasoning. Our confidence in being able to shop for groceries comes into doubt, never mind evolution. Relativists also buy groceries.

Unfortunately, acknowledging common-sense reality is not enough. As critics of relativism like Ernest Gellner observe (1985, pp. 51-55), scientific reasoning is not a mere extension of everyday reasoning or trial-and-error—there is a deep and perplexing discontinuity involved. Everyday reasoning depends on “folk theories,” while scientific theories like quantum mechanics or Darwinian evolution regularly offend common sense (Churchland 1989). Ideas like special creation or vital essences are closer to our folk theories than the counterintuitive concepts of theoretical biology.

How scientists come up with general theories extrapolating from experimental evidence is also unclear. A relativist could agree that evolution is not the naive uniformitarian generalization of creationist diatribes, but also point out that the possible ways of extrapolating from finite data are literally endless. Microevolution does not strictly entail macroevolution; so how do we get there? The procedures favored by the scientific community are not self-evident; indeed, exactly how science proceeds is hard to describe. There are other communities which manage to cope with everyday reality, but which build widertheoretical pictures in very different ways. We need not rely only on exotic anthropology here—modern Western society contains many groups which adopt non-scientific procedures of extrapolation. New Agers put trust in occult correspondences in their accounts of reality. Creationists note that we cannot directly observe evolution in the past, and prefer to trust Biblical testimony.

Relativists may need to weaken their position and acknowledge common-sense reality to avoid talking nonsense. However, this does not bring them to trust science, but to seek cognitive security in custom and community. Creationism is rooted in a strong religious community, and is closer to the folk-theories of common sense. So creation-science, especially a creation science which collects Baconian facts and emphasizes engineering, is still poised to benefit from a weaker relativism.

Defending Science

Relativists can make a case that evolution is permeated by ideology, even that the perspective of a creationist community is no less valid than that of scientists. Still, defenders of science can find plenty to criticize in their arguments.

First of all, relativists make fact claims about science. Take, for example, the idea that we operate within closed sets of presuppositions which are not rationally comparable to one another. But if we are always trapped in the circle of our presuppositions, what objective reason do we have to believe we are so trapped? Or, if a sociologist claims scientists operate within paradigms which reflect social ideologies, why is sociology exempt from such a description? The extreme forms of relativism risk contradicting themselves (Harris 1992), and these extremes are what prepares the way for creationist leaps of faith.

Relativists derive philosophical support from the impasse we reach when we ask for the justification of a claim, the justification of that justification, and so on. Science, it appears, does not rest on absolutely certain foundations. So be it. We do not build on certainties but construct a network of beliefs which support one another. Anything within this network is open to question, though of course we cannot question all of it at once. We start from our folk theories, but we find that by doing science, we converge on different theories which do a much better job explaining things. In this case, since we do not set aside any unchallengeable foundations, we can ask if our philosophies are supported by science as well as the other way around. Emphasizing foundational principles seems to lead to a relativism where creation is as good as evolution, and the moon might as well be made of green cheese. But if this is so, so much the worse for foundations (Nielsen 1989, chap. 1).

Relativists also make much of the social nature of science, and the fact that it is not strictly value-free. But unless truth is available through magic, science must be organized as a community expressing certain values. Indeed, far from compromising inquiry, the structure of the scientific community is precisely what enables us to learn about nature (Grim 1982; Kitcher 1993, p. 305). The social nature of science is no argument against its theories; no more than the fact that all that happens in our brains is neurons firing means humans cannot learn about the world.

Of course, all this is only a small taste of a complex debate. But it is clear there is no easy way to defend science against relativism. Relativism has force precisely because it fits our prejudices. We too often think there is a hierarchy of knowledge, with the eternal principles of philosophy at the top, theoretical science next, and downwards as we get our hands more dirty. We believe philosophical foundations are terribly important, so uncertainty becomes a reason to panic. We like our science ethereal as well, so any hint that imperfect communities do science taints the results. Now, none of this is really true; indeed, relativists do us a service by emphasizing that our legend of an ethereally perfect science is not the reality. We do perfectly well without absolute certainty, and with jury-rigged social arrangements which nevertheless help us learn about the world. But this is a counterintuitive idea, almost as difficult as the notion that jury-rigged but functional organisms can evolve without supernatural Design.

So if creationists adopt relativist apologetics, evolutionists may have a hard time responding. A religiously pluralist culture is already somewhat relativist in attitude (Bruce 1996). Presenting a case for equal time in the classroom based on science being just another way of knowing and creationism being the belief of a legitimate community is fairly straightforward, especially if done in plain language and not the jargon of postmodern academics. And if postmodern academics can be found to support creationist demands for fairness, even better. Evolutionists want to say modern science is more reliable—not certain, but the best we can do at present. But declaring modern science superior to creation-science at a school board debate will work only if the wider culture already affirms this as obvious. Otherwise, explaining why we think science is better will be about as easy as a quantum mechanics lecture.

Perhaps we can defend evolution by relying on comforting myths. Moderate Christianity has reason to adapt to evolution, since modernist culture endorses scientific truths as valid for everyone. And evolutionists want to enlist broad public support for evolution. So we usually claim evolution is compatible with our traditional religions. In fact, we try and stop the argument before it starts by ruling creation scientifically inadmissible. Special creation, we say, is an unfalsifiable claim, or it is unscientific because it relies on supernatural explanations. Science, the story goes, is characterized by methodological naturalism, while possible conflicts with religion concern philosophical naturalism (Scott 1993). Religious authorities join in, calling creationism bad religion as well as non-science (Frye 1983). We hope that once we understand the proper spheres and limits of science and religion, we will see there is no need for creationism.

This happy compatibility is suspiciously convenient. Indeed, the falsificationist critique of creationism is a failure (Kitcher 1982, pp. 42-44), and philosophers have all but given up on distinguishing between science and non-science based on the content of fact claims. Even the “supernatural” can be examined as a scientific hypothesis, as parapsychologists in effect do. Science does not exclude the supernatural by design, it just happens to be that such explanations have not been very successful. And since religions almost always include fact claims beyond moral exhortation or mystic feeling, the potential for friction between science and religion is always present. This does not mean science and religion are eternal enemies—another myth—but that, as history indicates (Brooke 1991), there is a complex and ambiguous relationship between the two.

Our myth of compatibility works fine, defects and all, when our society has a strong consensus in favor of modern science. But if this consensus weakens, the disagreements the myth papers over will surface. As scholars like Bruce Lawrence recognize, the burning issue with evolution has always been its implications for the Abrahamic religions. Darwinism goes a long way towards making a designer-God superfluous, and while it does not strictly entail atheism, it undermines God in favor of a thoroughgoing naturalism (Rachels 1990, chap. 3). For this and other reasons, our secular science education does in fact reflect a bias against anti-evolution Christians. Warren A. Nord has already argued education should become more “balanced” regarding conservative religious views (1995, pp. 282-296), in light of how some philosophers and human scientists have presented a weakened, somewhat relativist picture of science and rationality. One of these days we are bound to encounter a similar argument specifically about creationism.

Relativism, then, can help creationists. It can be adopted to give creationism intellectual respectability, but it also creates a climate where evolutionist arguments for an educational monopoly ring hollow. Of course, no one can say if creationists will ever develop a full-blown relativist apologetic strategy. But if this happens, there will be interesting times ahead of us in the creation/evolution debate.


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