I just listened to Edward Weiler on NPR (The Diane Rehm Show.) He’s an astrophysicist at NASA and chief scientist on the Hubble Space Telescope (HST). Diane asked him if he believed in God. Presumably all of the awesome HST imagery should move one in the direction of belief in a Creator. After his “this is a personal matter” disclaimer he told how he gave up his faith as a Catholic over the years in favor of science. It reminded me of the scene in Contact when the character played by Jodi Foster was hit with the same question. Then he said something I thought was interesting. To paraphrase:
I am an agnostic. The facts are in concerning evolution and it is more than just a theory. Similarly, we now know the universe evolved. We understand how it works. And, as a scientist I believe in what I can observe and test.
He later followed up with an admission of our scientific ignorance about what happened before (i) the Bang when he said that realm belonged to the philosopher and theologian. Good answer; given his initial statements were so full of unsound assumptive argumentation. After his response I almost pulled off the road. Was I hearing this right? Was Diane going to let these statements go without follow-up? Of course, it’s NPR! So I thought it would be therapeutic to list his assumptive arguments on my blog.
1. Evolution is more than a theory and has achieved some kind of standard of factuality other scientific theories have not achieved
2. If evolution is true and we understand how life works, the existence of God should be doubted
3. If the universe evolved and we understand how it works, the existence of God should be doubted
4. Only beliefs based on that which can be observed and tested are warranted
5. Agnosticism is the right position to take based on these positions
I think these assumptions are a fair assessment of what Weiler was trying to slip in as his response to the question: Does God Exist? Unless he was spouting irrelevant non sequiturs he was implying in each response a justification of the agnostic position. But do the first four propositions I listed support the conclusion? And are these propositions even true?
Evolution as a scientific theory lacks falsifiability and direct verifiability – two hallmarks of a good scientific theory. How can we directly observe natural changes in bauplan in a lab when they require vast time periods? Tweaking the genes of a fruit fly is not the same as observing natural changes in real time. A 44,000-generation E. coli experiment showing minor change (ii) does little to prove large changes in bauplan in mammals. So we have to rely on the after-effects as the primary means of verifying evolution. Every time a gap or problem in the theory is raised, the Darwinian appeals to future scientific discovery taking falsifiability off the table. If it is a theory not full of gaps and holes, why would Darwinians accuse detractors of appealing to the “God of the gaps?” So how a prominent scientist can claim “the facts are all in” is premature if not ridiculous. Regardless, even if modern neo-Darwinian theory were entirely true and extrapolated to accommodate the nontheist, that is:
· Common descent is true
· Modification through material mechanisms plus natural selection completely explains a ratcheting-up of complexity and diversity of life
· Material mechanisms explain abiogenesis – the transition from non-living to living matter
· Etc, etc, since this is an eclectic theory
There is still room for a Creator as design may be entirely front-loaded and there are plenty of scientists and theologians who fall into this camp. So what about the universe itself? He admitted the universe began to exist. And since: Things that begin to exist have a cause, the universe had a cause. The HST should lead a rational person to recognize this cause, which transcended space and time, had immense creative power to result in 70 sextillion star systems with complex and beautiful organization all the way down to the molecular level. And saying because we “know how” the universe works therefore we understand “why” – or that God’s existence should be doubted – well that hardly needs a response other than it amazes me how a prominent scientist could imply it.
Finally, the evidentialist mantra should have been challenged on NPR. You would think Diane would at least raise a postmodern objection – but then again, postmodernism is highly overrated. For a detailed explanation on how belief is justified apart from scientific verification, see this article. In conclusion, Weiler’s agnosticism was not supported by the statements he made on the radio. In fact he didn’t even sound like an agnostic. Honest agnosticism is the result of ignorance or balanced belief leaving one at a 0.5 probability (e.g. belief in the existence of God being balanced equally in the affirmative and negative.) Since all of his statements were meant to support the negative position, Weiler was implying atheism, not honest agnosticism.
i “Before” – Since time began at the bang Weiler must be talking about ontological priority to the singularity
ii “The Edge of Evolution”, Copyright 2007, Dr. Michael J. Behe, pg 142.