What makes a controversy?

Science, religion, and the stories we tell ourselves.

Re-Assembling Reality #28a, by Mike Brownnutt and David A. Palmer

There are two kinds of stories: stories that are barely worth telling and stories that can change the world. And humans tell stories — important stories that can change the world — all the time.

Some of the most powerful stories are stories we tell ourselves about ourselves: stories that tell us who we are. And exactly because such stories are so powerful, they are contentious.

Facts do not, and cannot, tell us who we are. So facts are boring. No one fights over facts. Sure, people might say they are arguing over the facts of a matter. But it is not worth getting out of bed for a disputed fact. For a disputed story, however, people will raise or raze the whole of civilisation.

To illustrate this, let us consider two developments in science. Both have possible connections with religion. Both provide a potential clash with religion. But only one of them was invoked in telling us stories about ourselves. So only one of them was ever controversial.

The controversy that never was

We have dedicated significant space in these essays to discussing the nature of truth. (Notably in Essays #7, #8, #10, #11, #13, #14). There is absolutely enough material in there to generate disagreements between science and religion. Consider a world in which science and religion discourse was forever stuck debating Truth.

The rumblings of discontent about Truth had been going on for a long time. As soon as someone penned the biblical text, “Jesus answered, ‘I am the truth’,” (Jn. 14:6) the seeds of a problem were sown. Finally, the problem was laid bare by that great 19th Century Englishman George Boole, who brought scientific rigour to bear.

Logical truth is a property of statements, not of persons (Essay #14). The bible’s claims were, at best, illogical; at worst, meaningless. Christians would have to choose between abandoning the bible, radically re-interpreting it, or being forever mocked by all right-thinking people.

George Boole, flanked by his incendiary publications: The Mathematical Analysis of Logic and An Investigation of the Laws of Thought. His ideas ran radically counter to the religious thinking of the time and, to this day, remain controversial in religious circles.

When Boole wrote The Mathematical Analysis of Logic, the die was cast. There was uproar. It was clear to all that science and religion were at odds, and only one of them could stand. Boole followed up his initial book with the even more incendiary An Investigation of the Laws of Thought, and William Stanley Jevons — widely known as ‘Boole’s Bulldog’ — worked to extend and popularise Boole’s theories. It was clear that the mathematical theory of logic would ultimately win out, and any suggestion of religious contributions to discussions of Truth could be dismissed.

Nonetheless, to this day, the dispute rumbles on. Professors of Mathematics at Oxford University have gained cult-like status for their debates on the issue of Truth. (Not to mention the tidy sum they make from their best-selling books on the topic.)

Against such hostility, religious parents worry when their children go off to university to study computing. Computing is one step from information theory, from which point their children will surely embrace atheism. Atheism is the only possible end to such a path, for who could be a logician and a Christian?

Um… Moving on.

The controversy that was

The rumblings of discontent about Origins had been going on for a long time. As soon as someone penned the biblical text, “And God said, ‘Let the waters teem with creatures’,” (Gen. 1:20) the seeds of a problem were sown. Finally, the problem was laid bare by that great 19th Century Englishman Charles Darwin, who brought scientific rigour to bear.

A species’ origin can be attributed to variation with natural selection, not to God. The bible’s claims were, at best, unscientific; at worst, laughable. Christians would have to choose between abandoning the bible, radically re-interpreting it, or being forever mocked by all right-thinking people.

Charles Darwin, flanked by his incendiary publications: The Origin of Species and The Decent of Man. His ideas ran radically counter to the religious thinking of the time and, to this day, remain controversial in religious circles.

When Darwin wrote The Origin of Species, the die was cast. There was uproar. It was clear to all that science and religion were at odds, and only one of them could stand. Darwin followed up his initial book with the even more incendiary The Decent of Man, and Thomas Henry Huxley — widely known as ‘Darwin’s Bulldog’ — worked to extend and popularise Darwin’s theories. It was clear that the biological theory of evolution would ultimately win out, and any suggestion of religious contributions to discussions of origins could be dismissed.

Nonetheless, to this day, the dispute rumbles on. Professors of Biology at Oxford University have gained cult-like status for their debates on the issue of origins. (Not to mention the tidy sum they make from their best-selling books on the topic.)

Against such hostility, religious parents worry when their children go off to university to study medicine. Medicine is one step from biology, from which point their children will surely embrace atheism. Atheism is the only possible end to such a path, for who could be an evolutionary biologist and a Christian?

Spot the difference

It is often tempting to point to a biblical text and say that this text, which is in apparent disagreement with scientific facts, it the reason people argue about evolution. But if people were arguing over the simple facts of the matter, how do we account for why people don’t argue over the facts of other matters?

Why do people think that medicine, via biology, is so connected to evolution that it will shake your faith; but they do not think that computing, via information theory, is so closely connected to logic that it will shake your faith? Both exhibit superficial disagreements between the scientific position and the biblical text. Why do people care deeply about one, but not the other?

The gospel of John and logic tell us things about truth, but we have not woven those things particularly tightly into stories; certainly not into stories about the very nature of who we are. John may or may not be at odds with Boolean logic, but no one fights over facts. It is not worth getting out of bed for a disputed fact. So that ‘controversy’ was never controversial.

Genesis and evolution tell us stories about ourselves; stories about who we are. Genesis may or may not be at odds with Darwinian evolution, but if the stories into which they are woven are at odds — if the different stories would press upon us radically different visions of who we are and our place in the world — that is powerful. And that would seem worth fighting over.

If we approach disputes about Origins (or, indeed, pretty much any other controversy) with the hope that we will get anywhere by settling differences of opinion on factual matters, we may be disappointed. People can throw facts at each other all day. But simply discussing the facts will never scratch the itch, because it is not the facts that really upset us. It is the stories that people tell with those facts.

In the next essay, we will consider the stories into which evolutionary theory gets woven.

Disclaimer

The account of the controversy over Boolean logic is fictitious.
The account of the controversy over Darwinian evolution is, if not fictitious, then at least cartoonish.

Debunking such a simplistic account of the (alleged) fight between Darwinian evolution and Christianity has almost become a genre of its own. Should the interested reader want suggestions for places to start, they might try (in order of easy readability),

— Ronald L. Numbers, Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion (2010).

— Jeff Hardin, Ronald L. Numbers, and Ronald A. Binzley (Eds), The Warfare between Science and Religion: The Idea That Wouldn’t Die (2018).

— John Hedley Brooke, Science and Religion: Some Historical Perspectives (2014).

The next essay will also delve into a more nuanced view of evolution and its engagement with Western thought.

Hat tip

This Essay is reproduced here as part of the Re-Assembling Reality series. It unapologetically self-plagiarises a blog I wrote back in 2016: The conflict that never was.

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Mike Brownnutt

Mike Brownnutt

I have a Master's in theology and a PhD in physics. I am employed in social work to do philosophy. Sometimes I pretend that's not a bit weird.