Between Science and Pseudo-Science: A Critique of Common Descent (Part 4)

by / Tuesday, 17 September 2013 / Published in Evolution vs. Creation
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In Part 3, we interrogated Genealogical Continuity (GC) in order to uncover its metaphysical underpinnings. We determined that GC is not falsifiable. Nothing in the fossil record or historical records more generally could be interpreted by scientists as evidence of a miraculous event such as the “creation of man.” This is because it is axiomatic in science that miracles and the supernatural do not exist. This axiom is itself not a scientific conclusion that scientists have arrived at through an investigation of empirical evidence. Rather, it is a starting point and a foundation upon which modern scientific practice rests. Furthermore, it is a starting point and a foundation required by Naturalism and GC.

Past Miracles Revisited

If, at the outset, we are committed to the axiom that miracles do not occur, then it is no surprise that an examination of historical records will fail to substantiate anything miraculous. To put the point more plainly, can you imagine any possible piece of evidence in the historical record that would lead a scientist to conclude that something miraculous or supernatural had transpired?

For example, if fossils were discovered of an unknown species and after decades of research, no known evolutionary predecessor is determined, would scientists conclude that: 1) contrary to GC, the organisms miraculously originated without having descended from another species, or 2) the evidence is inconclusive, and, perhaps, the fossils of the evolutionary predecessors were, literally, lost in the sands of time? Option 1 is, in principle, never on the table of consideration.

In general, interpreting events of the past is especially susceptible to metaphysical bias. Something that happens in the past, after all, is by definition inaccessible to all standard means of empirical observation. We cannot directly observe, for example, the Battle of Gettysburg or the construction of the Great Pyramids. All that we can actually study and examine are the remnants of those historical events, e.g., artifacts, witness testimonies, and other historical records.

Historical Record or Myth?

But, consider this: how do we decide what material is “historical record,” per se, and what is “folklore,” or “mythology”? Why should we take, for example, Egyptian hieroglyphics as depicting an elaborate mythology instead of taking them as historical recordings of something supernatural that occurred in ancient Egypt? That may sound preposterous, but we can see the foundational nature of our metaphysical commitments. A different worldview might interpret hieroglyphics in a very different fashion.

This is a topic we will have the opportunity to pursue in other articles, but, for now, the critical idea is that the question of whether or not miracles occurred in the past is not something empirical inquiry can answer. That is just not within the scope of empirical science. By the same token, we should not be under the mistaken impression that the only legitimate avenue toward understanding the past is science. As we have begun to see, metaphysics plays a crucial part in framing people’s understanding of historical records and materials, whether one is a theist or atheist.

Conclusions

In the final analysis, GC is not falsifiable. And, thus, according to the predominant understandings of falsifiability and the scientific method, this means GC is not scientific.

This should not strike us as very surprising, since, again, many prominent intellectuals prior to the advent of science have been committed to GC. As such, their commitment to GC was certainly not based on any scientific reasoning; rather, they relied on various philosophical considerations and assumptions. Many of those a-scientific assumptions have been inherited by scientists and intellectuals today.

So what is the point of all this? The preceding is not meant to be a refutation of GC. All we have determined is that GC is not falsifiable and, hence, not scientific. This is useful because it allows us to realize that the Creation vs. Evolution debate is not simply a debate on religion vs. science. Rather, we should understand that certain parts of Evolutionary Theory, namely GC, are not scientific at all. As such, a more productive way to conceptualize the debate is as one between religious metaphysics vs. naturalistic metaphysics. In future articles, God willing, we will look closer at some of these metaphysical considerations. ♦

4 Responses to “Between Science and Pseudo-Science: A Critique of Common Descent (Part 4)”

  1. Omar says : Reply

    Assalam ‘Alaikum

    What can we make of the overwhelming evidence in support of common descent? Vestigial structures, the fossil record, DNA=based cladograms that show organisms that are more morphologically similar, as expected, have more similar DNA.

    Though I understand that common descent may not be falsifiable, I think that the significant body of evidence seems to suggest that the hypothesis is an extremely reasonable one. For example, if you fund a painting, you can predict how the painter painted it by examining the evidence on the canvas. These pieces of evidence can lead to a conclusion about the painter, the nature of the painter and the technique they used, though the final conclusion could not be proven or disproven.

    As Muslims we are similarly told to look at signs (ayat) of a final product as an indicator of the creator. Common descent simply requires scientists to look at signs in final products to understand the process by which they were created.

    Ultimately I think I’m trying to make two points:

    1) I understand that common descent may not be falsifiable, but I still think there is overwhelming evidence to suggest that the current paradigm is in fact a reasonable explanation of how the diversity of our organisms exist today.

    2) To say that you can not look to the tapestry of nature to understand the means behind there existence seems to undermine our tradition more than the scientific tradition.

    Jazakallakhair, I just came upon the website and am really enjoying it.

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  4. Ana says : Reply

    “This is because it is axiomatic in science that miracles and the supernatural do not exist. This axiom is itself not a scientific conclusion that scientists have arrived at through an investigation of empirical evidence.” – It is, as long as no miracle has been observed it is an unreasonable and completely pseudo-scientific assumption of you to rely on fairy tales.

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