The Devil’s Volleyball

That would be ambiguity, according to Emo Philips.

I’m returning in this post to the Creation Museum, which relies on ambiguity to tape its case together well enough to hold any water. I think it’s a goofy case, and also wrong-headed.

The case is pretty straight-forward, but its argument is like ball bearings skittering across the counter top. It’s predictable, and it makes a mess, and it isn’t what ball bearings are for. This is its case:

  • The details in the stories in Genesis, and in the rest of the Bible, for how the world came to be are literally true, and occurred about 6,000 years ago
  • Science is merely a way of interpreting the facts we see in the world around us, and the stories science tells are no more authoritative–indeed, are less authoritative–than the Bible
  • The Church faces an existential threat when Christians accept the scientific frame (or, in fact, if they accept any way of looking at the world which differs from the Biblical Literalism presented in the museum)

I’m not going to spend any time with the final item noted above. That’s a dispute among believing Christians, and it appears to boil down to a no true Scotsman sort of thing. I’m also not going to put any effort into presenting its actual argument, since trying to do that would lead me into the weeds. But the mode of its argument is to confuse the definition of one thing one of that things appearances.

The first two items in that bullet list are interrelated: first in terms of the relativism and false equivalencies the museum’s displays attempt to draw between Biblical Literalism and science, which I noted earlier.

The second way they’re related is in the method the museum deploys in its attempt to demonstrate the equivalencies it wants visitors to see. First it makes the (false) claim that science tells stories about the world, just like the Bible does. The problem, the confusion of definition and appearance, is that science is not a narrative form, but rather is a method for discerning objective truths distinct from subjective experiences.

Then the museum shows exhibits which purport to demonstrate that there are flaws, omissions, errors, and unanswered–indeed, unanswerable–questions that science stories don’t adequately address. Since some people make similar charges against the Bible, obviously science is no more authoritative than the Bible. In fact, since the Bible is the World of God, science is–at best–slightly less authoritative. But this attempted demonstration relies on confusing the source of scientific authority; this authority comes from science’s method. However, since few people actually do science, what most of us generally encounter of science’s authority are news stories with assertions. The essential claim to Biblical authority by Biblical Literalists is how they feel when they encounter the Bible‘s stories with assertions.

The Creation Museum makes play with language in a way which obscures the real differences between science and Biblical Literalism by confusing ambiguious language with plain language. There are two examples I’ll point out, and I’ll talk at some length about one of them. There’s the mutant bacteria display, and the planetarium show and its talk about light-years.

The mutant bacteria display makes an effort to explain how antibiotic-resistant bacteria are not evolving this resistance. The argument hinges on a ‘may’ and on an assertion “the mutant bacteria are less ‘fit’ than the normal bacteria and may be at a disadvantage in other environments (for example when the antibiotic is removed).”  They’ve posited a scenario where the mutant bacteria is not only resistant to the antibiotic but has an actual need for it, introduced the whole thing with a ‘may,’ and concluded that this is evidence for natural selection rather than evolution. What is not discussed is that natural selection is a mechanism of evolution–natural selection is a component of evolution, not a separate thing.

Confusion by ambiguity uses the fact that words have more than one meaning, and meanings have more than one word. At the Creation Museum, the displays use the ambiguity between the scientific meanings of words and the common meanings.

I finally got it, could put a name to my unease with what the Creation Museum was doing, after watching the planetarium show. The planetarium show uses the term light-year to describe distances in the universe. So far, so good. The problem emerges at the end, when the show explains that a light year is a distance in miles.  A light year is actually a measure of how far light goes in a year. It’s a subtle difference, but enough of an ambiguity that the show can move on to an explanation of how tens of thousands of light-years (or millions of light years) does not mean the universe is tens of thousands (or millions, or billions) of years old. The mechanism for this is some combination of strange, unlikely, and not-even-hypothetical physics.

When at the Creation Museum, I found that the relativism of the framing devices about authority was easy to see through, and also to dismiss concerns about–if the Bible stories give more meaning to your life than science, that’s OK. Goofy, but OK.

What’s wrong-headed, disingenuous, and dangerous for things like medical progress and things like self-governance, is when science is denigrated by misrepresenting what it is by making it appear to be the same sort of thing as religious meaning-making. Science tells us things about the world we live in, but not about how to feel about it. Religion gives us a framework for being in the world. It seems to me that a healthy religion continues to give meaning about how to be in the world, even as changes in how we understand the world works develop over time.

(Note about old UU posts.)

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