Saturday, 11 June 2011

Holy Books And Science

It's common to see believers claim that holy books contained truths that only modern science has discovered - presumably as a way to claim divine intervention because the knowledge would be blind to the ancient authors.

It's a bad argument for a number of reasons - mainly that it doesn't actually show divine authorship (see Shermer's last law). But one general criticism would be that people are reading into it what fits; I've heard a number of interpretations of Genesis in line with modern scientific findings.

Isn't it convenient that one can find the evolution of eyes in Genesis 1, or the evolution of colour vision in relation to fruit-eating in Genesis chapter 3! Neither Genesis 1 nor Genesis 3 explicitly nor implicitly state either claim, but as a metaphor it works nicely. I still remember the first time I read Genesis 1 thinking it was a very fuzzy description of the evolutionary process.

What seems apparent is that we're reading into these books what makes sense to us, always happening after scientific findings but never making any specific predictions themselves. Why didn't people derive from the bible that revelation about fruit on our evolution? Why didn't the evolution of eyes in context to the Cambrian explosion come out of Genesis? Where is the Big Bang theory in Genesis?

That we can fit symbolism with our empirical understanding doesn't show much at all beyond our capacity to weave narratives. What would be impressive is if these holy books were used as research paradigms, whereby experiment and observation were derived from an understanding of the works, and we learnt new things about the universe through the success of experiment and observation. But the holy books aren't science texts, they are mythic narratives. Hence it is much easier to say the narrative fits with the data than it is to predict data from the narrative.

We are in the scientific age, after all, and the fruits of science as an epistemology is there for all to see. So for a holy book to sit with modern knowledge should be befitting of the all-powerful all-knowing creator, so the retrofitting of divinely-given knowledge with science seems a mere formality. One other thing it allows some to do, it seems, is since X must have been divine authorship then the entire holy book is divine authorship and reject the science that outright contradicts their holy book. I've heard creationists bring up the bible predicting jet streams in order to bolster their creationist position. Jet streams!

In a discussion, such claims have the added bonus of adding confusion. I wouldn't know for the most part what's in The Bible or the Koran, whether or not the Koran gets it right on embryology is something that would be lost to me. While I don't doubt the sincerity of the person making the argument, it's a red herring to even go down this path. Whatever the Bible or Koran say, or any other holy book for that matter, as books of science I can only take them seriously when they're used as research paradigms that yield new information about the universe. Retrofitting existing knowledge just isn't the same...

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