Born in 1955, I grew up in a secular Jewish home in Miami Beach. Our religious observance could have been boiled down to this mantra: They tried to kill us, they failed—let’s eat!
My secular Jewish upbringing paralleled my secular public education. In the fifth grade, for example, a science book presented a drawing that began with a shallow pool. Above it was a single cell; above that, a jellyfish; above that, a fish; then a reptile; then an apelike creature; followed by a proto-human; and, finally, a Homo sapiens. A line was drawn, starting from the shallow pool and stopping at the Homo sapiens. This diagram, we were taught, represented the human evolutionary story.
Jump ahead to ninth-grade biology class, when I thought I was hot stuff because I knew the meaning of ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny. This phrase, the teacher explained, was the idea that embryo development echoed our evolutionary history. That is, “gills” on the fetus were a primal echo from our fish ancestry. Though made popular through drawings etched by an early Darwinian paladin and debunked in the late 1800s, ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny was still being taught in public schools in the 1960s and is circulating even today.
Jump to the mid-1970s, the University of Florida. I took an anthropology course, and though today nothing in particular stands out, I do remember that Darwinism formed the background for all that we were taught.
Now, in all these years of having the pedagogues of public education mold my tender young mind, not once do I remember ever questioning evolution. Why should I have? It was taught, not as a theoretical construct but as an unassailable assumption, the premise upon which theoretical constructs are built. Evolution was not something whose truth you questioned; rather, evolution was the standard in that context by which you determined what was or was not truth.
Then, in 1979, before my twenty- fourth birthday, I had a born-again experience. Overnight, the geometry of reality changed for me. The world that I walked in now seemed different from what it had been before. Reality had fleshed itself out as so much deeper, broader, and more multifaceted than the parochial, materialistic worldview that I had been fed all but intravenously since kindergarten.
In one area, however, I immediately sensed an irreconcilable disconnect between the old and the new, and that was my old belief in evolution and my new faith in Jesus. These worldviews, I sensed, could not both be right. I harangued the Christians whom I had first met about my struggle, and they gave me literature that opened my eyes to something I had never thought about before.
Yes, from that fifth-grade textbook up through college and beyond, I had been shown the world through a Darwinian framework only. I had worn only one pair of glasses because that was the only pair I had been given, the only pair that I was led to believe even existed. But once I took off the glasses and put on another pair, everything changed.
No one, of course, is going to deny the existence of fossils from creatures now extinct (the idea that Satan created the bones in the ground to test our faith is—please!—a nonstarter). Yet, for the first time, I was presented with another way to look at the evidence, another way to interpret it. Until then, not only had I never been shown any other way, I had never been presented with the idea that any other way, or other ways, could exist.
The fossils do not say Created 60 million years ago in the early Cenozoic era, do they? Nor do they come inscribed with the words Evolved from a Haikouichthys 550 million years ago. These are interpretations, man-made constructions based on a web of assumption and speculation, none of which were universal, necessary, and certain. In other words, not only was the evolutionary science with which I had been indoctrinated all my life nowhere near as certain as it has been presented, I now believed it to be wrong.
Little did I know that what I had experienced then was a manifestation of a fundamental weakness in the whole scientific enterprise itself. It comes with a fancy name, too: the underdetermination of theory by evidence. It is the problem—still unresolved—which argues that, for any given scientific phenomenon, more than one theory can be compatible with the evidence. Competing, even contradictory, theories can explain the same data. There are, potentially, an infinite number of theories to explain any natural phenomenon.
Because of this problem (and others), one of the most influential philosophers of science, Karl Popper (1902–1994), claimed that we can never give positive reasons that justify the belief that a theory is true. “Science is not,” he argued, “a system of certain, or well-established, statements; nor is it a system which steadily advances towards a state of finality. Our science is not knowledge (epistēmē): it can never claim to have attained truth, or even a substitute for it, such as probability.”2
Science never can claim to have attained truth? Or even a probability of truth? Have we not been told all our lives that science is the only way to obtain truth, or at least the most certain way, effective above every other method or means? And yet the last century’s most influential thinker on science throws out this whammy?
“But it’s science!”
Contrary to popular belief, science comes heavy-laden with a host of unresolved questions that challenge the epistemological integrity of the entire endeavor itself. We are not talking here about specific scientific theories, such as the impact of fossil fuels on climate, the pros and cons of saturated fat, or whether humans are, as Richard Dawkins claims, the “distant cousins of bananas and turnips.”3
We are talking, instead, about the practice of science qua science: what it means, how it works, what it does, what it assumes, how it makes the claims it makes, and what justifies its claims.
These grand issues, to this day, remain unresolved, which is important, especially in the Creation-evolution debate, because many Christians— despite the unambiguous testimony of Scripture—have thrown out the biblical account of Creation for a scientific theory, evolution, that contradicts Scripture in every way possible. After all, in the broadest reading, Scripture teaches Creation as a supernatural phenomenon that leaves nothing to chance; evolution, in the broadest reading, teaches creation as a natural phenomenon that leaves most everything to chance. It is hard to imagine two positions more at odds.
Nevertheless, many Christians have capitulated, rejecting the historical accuracy or even veracity of Genesis 1–11, all in order to make room for an evolutionary model of origins. Why? Because evolution, they assume, must be true. After all, “It’s science!” And who can dare go against science?
Unfortunately, one of the greatest myths of our era (What? You think that we are the only age in history that does not have its own myths?) is that science is the final arbiter of truth and that to defy the claims of science, even “well- established” science, would be to prove your own ignorance and intellectual imbecility.
However, if science is so good at finding truth, why does the truth change so often? Why are scientific certitudes of one generation often mocked as myths by the next one? Why do the findings of science, the result of the “scientific method,” often contradict each other? When scientific explanations about present reality, about what can be handled, heard, seen, even tested and retested now before our eyes daily, are filled with debate and controversy—why do many Christians unquestionably accept every scientific proclamation about supposed events millions or billions of years ago, especially when those claims contradict any reasonable reading of Scripture?
Baptizing the devil
After years of reading and study on these questions, I wrote Baptizing the Devil: Evolution and the Seduction of Christianity, in which I seek to help free readers, especially Christians who take Scripture seriously, from the knee-jerk reaction that once something is deemed “science,” they must surrender any and all contrary beliefs. And I do so by examining these unresolved challenges in the practice of science itself (such as underdetermination), challenges that most people (other than scientists and the philosophers of science) do not usually know about, which helps explain why so many mechanically genuflect before all its proclamations.
For example, in one of the most influential texts in the twentieth century, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Thomas Kuhn claimed that science is nowhere near as rational, objective, and progressive (as in progressing closer to truth) as many believe. He argued that science works subjectively, contingently, even at times irrationally. One stream of Kuhn’s thought is captured in a statement that he quotes by quantum physics pioneer Max Planck: “[A] new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.”4 If true, even partially, what does Planck’s claim say about the objectivity, much less the correctness, of scientific claims? A “scientific truth” should be accepted or rejected based on proof, evidence, data, not on which generation of scientists happens to be around at the time, right?
Larry Laudan, an influential philosopher of science, wrote: “For the last two decades, I have been arguing that, in the appraisal of theories and hypotheses, what does (and what should) principally matter to scientists is not so much whether those hypotheses are true or probable. What matters, rather, is the ability of theories to solve empirical problems—a feature that others might call a theory’s explanatory or predictive power.”5
Or as Freeman Dyson wrote: “To be useful, a scientific theory does not need to be true, but it needs to be testable.”6
What? Is not the whole point of science to find truth?
Not really. Many scientists and philosophers of science argue that science is not about finding truth at all, as in capital T, or even truth as in a lower case t, but merely a matter of solving empirical problems. If the theory works, in that it can make accurate predictions and/or bring tangible fruit, what else matters? Whether it happens to be true or not is another issue, one that (some argue) would be a metaphysical question, not a scientific one. History is filled with examples of technology based on theories that were later trashed or are still not understood. The technological efficacy of a theory is a separate issue from its truth. A theory could work but still not be true.
And then there is the much ballyhooed “scientific method,” the idea drummed into our heads since grade school that science has created a special formula, a process in which you plug in a few variables and out pops the truth. The only problem? There is no such thing as the scientific method, and, even if there were, nothing guarantees truth, or anything related to truth, will result from its application.
Meanwhile, debate exists over what a scientific explanation is, or even whether science explains anything, as opposed to just describing. Take the famous formula e = mc2 . It is a shorthand way of saying that energy has mass and that mass represents energy. Wonderful, and fruitful for sure—but the formula only describes the relationship between mass and energy. It explains nothing about why that relationship exists.
And, too, why do so many scientific theories, once deemed true, even irrevocably true, later get trashed? “A reality,” wrote Daniel Robinson, “that once seemed readily expressed in the language of the science of Newton and Galileo would now be closer to mythology than to reality. My own father was alive and well when the best minds in physics regarded nothing as more certain than the aether. The same term today seems as if it were taken from astrology.”7
With Baptizing the Devil, my intention was not to dismiss the technological benefits of science or the astonishing insights (however specialized, narrow, and provisional) that science has brought us about the natural world. I simply wanted to help free Christians from the myth that science is this almost transcendent meta-view of objective reality, a search for truth unencumbered by the contingencies, foibles, and subjectivity that deflower “lesser” forms of knowledge. This myth is so powerful that a doctrine as crucial as Creation, a doctrine upon which all other Christian doctrine rests, has been usurped by a counterfeit that contradicts the biblical Creation account at every step. Worse, this counterfeit cannot be made to fit with the Word of God other than by torturous exegesis that, frankly, makes Christians look silly. The last section of Baptizing the Devil looks at some of these well-meaning attempts to ram an evolutionary paradigm into Genesis and then humbly asks: Are we not better than that? Christians are, or we certainly ought to be, anyway. Yet it is hard, even for Christians, to step outside the Zeitgeist, to transcend the time, place, and culture in which they are immersed. And our time, place, and culture have been saturated with the myth of evolution. But it’s not a myth, we are told; it’s science. But that is the meta-myth: that because it is science, it must then be true.
1 This article is based on Clifford Goldstein, Baptizing the Devil: Evolution and the Seduction of Christianity (Nampa, ID: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 2017).
2 Karl Popper, Logic of Scientific Discovery (London: Routledge Classics, 2002), 278; italics in the original.
3 Richard Dawkins, The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution (New York: Free Press, 2009), 8.
4 Max Planck, quoted in Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970), 151.
5 Larry Laudan, “How About Bust? Factoring Explanatory Power Back Into Theory Evaluation,” Philosophy of Science 64 (June 1997), 306–316.
6 Freeman Dyson, The Scientist as Rebel (New York: New York Review Books, 2008), 215.
7 Richard N. Williams and Daniel N. Robinson, eds., Scientism: The New Orthodoxy (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2015), 30.