I made it a point, throughout most (if not all) of the ‘But how?’ series, not to attack religion in and of itself, but to defend/explain the secular standpoint. This is not due to any kind of altruism – I have attacked religions just a few times in the past here – but instead to stay true to the subtopic itself, which is answering the questions posed so often from religious folk. I’m going to depart from this a bit here, by reversing the direction, and instead posing a leading question to religious folk in return: But how do the explanations keep changing?
While I’ve touched on this concept before, I was prompted to approach it more directly by the article ‘Path across the stars,’ by David MacMillan, a self-admitted former creationist. Within, he talks about a trait that is remarkably present in apologetics, which is the practice of turning to a new explanation every time a previous one works out to be dead wrong. In his particular case, it revolved around the radical disagreement about the age of the universe: 13.772 billion years by scientific measurements, but just a few thousand according to abrahamic religious scripture – that’s a really goddamn big difference. The scientific view is supported by countless actual measurements, not just of the speed of light, but also radiometric decay and gravitational measurements, which also tie in extremely well with geologic deposition and even DNA mutations rates (not mentioned within the article, but corroborating the numbers derived in other disciplines with trustworthy accuracy.) And many others besides – it’s this corroboration that gives us the confidence in these numbers to begin with.
The abrahamic figure (most often quoted) for a six-thousand-year-old universe comes from scripture, but not even directly – it’s an extrapolation of the various generations detailed within, and not completely in agreement even among the faithful within any given sect or splinter of those following that scripture. Which says nothing of all of the other religions the world over, which all have different claims for the age of the universe, and mankind, and all that. This is bad enough, but not even the topic that I’m approaching right now.
Since we have real measurements and dependable physics, which we use constantly, apologists are required to explain why the scripture says something so incredibly different, and this is where the fun begins. Note that scripture provides absolutely no explanations or even suggestions regarding this topic; it’s all outside speculation by apologists. And I’ll take a moment to comment on this, because speculation is just fine – it’s one of the ways that we start investigating our world and determining just what any given cause is. But there’s a radical difference between scientific and religious speculation. In science, a lack of confidence and solid supporting results is virtually always present; it’s almost a procedure to couch things in terms of, “This is a possibility, but we don’t know yet.” Within religion, on the other hand, such speculation is very frequently offered with utter confidence, no caveats or indeed any supporting factors. “God made it appear like there’s a speed of light, and an old universe,” and all that – no maybes or admissions that this might serve to explain what we see and measure.
And very frequently, it doesn’t. Most notable is how there is no agreement on any given explanation even among the faithful, who want to find a way to support scripture. Those that consider themselves christian may range from the young-earth creationists, who consider every scriptural passage to be unquestionably correct and the entire universe only six thousand years old, to the vague theists who believe in some kind of creation, but that science is mostly on the right track. I’ve personally been in countless discussions with people ranging throughout this spectrum, and it bears noting that the majority feel that their version is the only correct one, with little recognition of any other standpoint nor admission that any part of their own is speculative. Religion really does breed a shitass trait that humans don’t need at all, that of false confidence and assertion, causing people to veer away from an honest appraisal of any given situation, and/or from seeking support for an argument or standpoint. Much as I don’t like rules and proverbs, it’s usually a safe practice to automatically distrust anyone that assures you that something is true without bothering to demonstrate how or why.
Which is going a little afield, because in this topic, there are explanations – just, ones that don’t hold up, or that fail to account for everything we see. The explanations for the age of the universe have ranged from the speed of light being wrong (it isn’t – we use it to very fine decimal places,) to it having changed at some point in the past, to it being affected by local conditions. None of these hold up, and really don’t take much knowledge of physics or more than a little careful thought to establish as wrong. The same can be said for the fossil record, which not only provides evidence that the Earth is much older than scriptural accounts, it supports evolution and trashes the whole ‘created in final form’ thing. “No no!” say the creationists, “Geologic deposition all occurred during the great flood four thousand years ago!” or, “Radiometric dating is wrong,” or “Radiometric decay was different in the past.” Again, not hard to put the kibosh on.
But like anti-vaxxers and their various claims regarding the dangers of vaccines, once any given explanation of how the laws of physics really aren’t as we interpreted is shot down, there is no recognition that maybe, just maybe, they’re barking up the wrong tree. Instead, there’s the desperate attempt to find a new explanation, and the hunt goes off in another direction. And lest you think that I’m exaggerating a couple of isolated cases, there’s this link to a list of creationist claims – quite a few of them, some of them contradictory, and all of them answered or refuted. Now, in scientific circles if the theory doesn’t work, it’s abandoned, but within religion and fringe beliefs, the ‘theory’ (it isn’t, not by a long shot) is maintained while evidence to support it is sought after – cart before the horse and all that. Rational thought involves a chain of evidence that leads towards a conclusion, but rationalizing is the exact opposite, settling on a conclusion first and trying to make it sound like it works. This is generally the purview of people who are desperate to indulge in some desire at the expense of reality.
It isn’t even a matter of competing theories, even though the efforts are made constantly to couch things in those terms (you know, ‘teach the controversy’ and all that bilgewater.) Because the scientific model works just fine, and is used constantly to great effect – and really, there are very few who don’t know this in their hearts. It’s the reason why so many supposedly ‘scientific’ explanations are sought, and held up triumphantly – few people feel that they can argue against the solid results that we achieve every day (and rightfully so, really,) so they try to make it sound like science really does support scripture in some way. But it’s not like there are egregious flaws in the scientific models presently in use, and what we still seek, what we don’t know yet, hasn’t been replaced with assertions or explanations without evidence – we just say we don’t know yet, even if we append that it might be this or might be that. Our understanding of the universe and its physics, while far from complete, is overwhelmingly solid and undeniably useful. No alternative explanations are necessary, for the vast majority of our knowledge base, nor has any alternative presented by apologists served any function whatsoever, much less better explaining any given factor of evidence. It is abundantly clear that the only function that such explanations serve is to try and salvage the nonsense that is within scripture – and the only use for this is crass self-indulgence. Scripture doesn’t lead us towards a better understanding of the universe, or even human nature. It doesn’t provide a path towards any improvement, and in fact, it offers more excuses than knowledge, outright saying that we’re not supposed to understand what the creator is up to.
I have to sidetrack slightly, because I’m me. Anyone even passingly familiar with the abrahamic religions knows how often the adage that “we cannot know god’s plan” is repeated, and humility is very frequently promoted as well. Which makes it especially amusing to hear how unbelievably often any self-proscribed religious spokesperson will distinctly tell us how things are, despite the fact that nothing at all regarding their pronouncements can be found within scripture. You’d think this hypocrisy would be noticed more often.
A final aspect (that usually goes ignored) is the consequences, and this can be applied to virtually every religious argument there is. In short, the scripture tells us one state of affairs, and our examination of the world tells us something entirely different, and I want to stress here that these are not equally plausible scenarios; we use our scientific knowledge every second of the day in billions of ways, while in the entire history of mankind we have yet to see any miracle, any talking snake or bush, any worldwide flood, and so on. Our scientific knowledge has allowed us to predict thousands of new findings, from star formation to new periodic elements, while scripture has predicted jack shit. Yet if we, for the sake of argument and humoring apologists, accept the premise that all of the evidence that we have of an ancient universe is actually wrong – that everything that we’re not just measuring, but using to good effect, is a deception – then what purpose is this supposed to serve? Cause and effect, learning from what happens, is the primary way that we even survive. And the message from apologists – from, supposedly, the word of god himself – is that we’re supposed to ignore all of that in favor of something that really goes nowhere? Sure, the universe looks billions of years old, but that’s just a trick to… um… do… something, I guess. The typical response is that this is to ‘test our faith,’ because there’s some game that god must be playing where we’re not supposed to believe our senses – which seems extraordinarily useful. This becomes a nice existentialist dilemma, because where is that supposed to end? Should we start with not believing the senses that we’re using to read scripture?
Moreover, if we actually had taken such a message to heart, if we simply ignored all of this ‘false history’ and stuck with what scripture tells us, we’d still be in bronze age technology, if that. All of our scientific advances came about because we examined our world and learned from it, and that includes all of those bits that tell us that scripture is dead wrong. Mind you, it’s the same scientific methods that those funny little claims above, about how the speed of light is wrong and all that, are trying to glom onto to sound legitimate and trustworthy – it seems that even the uber-religious aren’t really buying that premise (or capable of seeing the obvious conclusions, which certainly makes their guidance so valuable.)
In parting, I present two observations:
1) If the explanations for any given standpoint or hypothesis are continually changing, the chances are overwhelming that the standpoint/hypothesis is horseshit;
2) The pursuit of knowledge can only accurately take place with a mind open to the evidence, whether we like it or not. If we are intent on trying to force a particular end result, we’re not after knowledge, but only self-indulgence. We should be bigger than that.