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Cosmic Conspiracy Theories: How Theologies Evade Science: From Genesis to Astrobiology

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Abstract

Theological responses to scientific challenges can usefully be compared to conspiracy theories in order to highlight their evasive properties. When religious thinkers emphasize hidden powers and purposes underlying a seemingly material reality, and claim that these hidden purposes are revealed only through special knowledge granted to initiates, they adopt conspiratorial attitudes. And when they charge mainstream science with corruption or comprehensive mistakes, so that science becomes a plot to conceal the truth, the resemblance to a conspiracy theory deepens. Theologically conservative denial of evolution often exhibits such features, but some liberal theologies also border on conspiracy theories. Intelligent design creationism, however, is sometimes less conspiratorial.
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Chapter 7
Cosmic Conspiracy Theories:
How Theologies Evade Science
Taner Edis
Abstract
Theological responses to scientific challenges can usefully be compared
to conspiracy theories in order to highlight their evasive properties. When
religious thinkers emphasize hidden powers and purposes underlying
a seemingly material reality, and claim that these hidden purposes are
revealed only through special knowledge granted to initiates, they adopt
conspiratorial attitudes. And when they charge mainstream science with
corruption or comprehensive mistakes, so that science becomes a plot
to conceal the truth, the resemblance to a conspiracy theory deepens.
Theologically conservative denial of evolution often exhibits such
features, but some liberal theologies also border on conspiracy theories.
Intelligent design creationism, however, is sometimes less conspiratorial.
Hidden powers pulling strings
It is often useful to describe theological responses to science as falling
along a conservative-to-liberal spectrum. Conservatives emphasize
traditional understandings of religious doctrines. They tend toward literal
readings of their sacred texts, and they insist that clear signs of supernatural
intervention abound in nature. Therefore conservatives also risk making
claims that violate modern scientific descriptions of how the world works.
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They invite conflict with scientific institutions. In contrast, liberals tend to
grant science an independent authority in describing nature. They
emphasize how sacred texts are interpreted by fallible humans, and seek
ways to adjust traditional beliefs so that they are more compatible with
science. For liberals, supernatural intervention is rare or elusive. Many
theologians and ordinary believers, naturally, do not occupy the
conservative or liberal poles, but stake out various moderate positions in
the wide middle.
Monotheistic responses to Darwinian evolution, for example, fall on
just such a spectrum (Scott, 2005, pp. 57–67). Conservatives deny
evolution, affirming the special creation of species, or at least Adam and
Eve, as described in Genesis or the Quran. Liberals accept the billions of
years of biological evolution and seek ways to describe evolution as an
expression of supernatural purpose. And the moderates who fall in
between mix evolution and divine intervention to varying degrees, often
settling on a form of divinely guided evolution where all life is related by
common descent, but the process was supernaturally guided to eventually
produce human life.
The picture of a spectrum works well, especially in political contexts.
American school boards or Turkish education officials face pressure from
conservatives to favor creationism, while liberals want them to leave
science alone. Moderates offer various forms of conciliation or
compromise. However, the image of a spectrum can also be misleading.
Theological responses to both the results of science and scientific ways of
thinking have been considerably more complex than what a spectrum
suggests. Some conservatives oppose the claims of science precisely
because their style of religiosity has a more empiricist flavor. And many
liberals are happy to allow science autonomy only because they think that
science has a limited scope, so that beneath the material facts on the
surface, there is a level of religious meaning that is not accessible to
scientific probing.
To highlight some of these complexities in religious attitudes toward
science, it may help to do something unusual: compare various religious
ways of deflecting science-based criticism to the outlook found in
conspiracy theories. After all, conspiracy theories center on hidden powers
controlling events from behind the scenes. Secret societies such as
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Cosmic Conspiracy Theories 145
The Illuminati shape world events; governments cover up visits from
space aliens; unseen cabals assassinate presidents or ensure the success of
politicians. Ordinary ways of explaining events are supposed to be
superficial: they miss the deeper forces driving what happens. But there is
also a special knowledge, available to initiates, that reveals the true
purposes that shape events. Now, theologies are obviously not conspiracy
theories; if nothing else, they rarely exhibit a similar sense of paranoia.
The hidden powers pulling strings need not involve a group of agents
conspiring together. And conspiracy theories have typically been focused
on political rather than religious concerns (Coady, 2006). Nonetheless,
religious responses to materialist tendencies within modern science seek
ways to affirm supernatural agents that are hidden to science, but who
nevertheless direct events according to purposes revealed by religious
forms of knowledge. Theological perceptions of nature tend toward views
that there are no coincidences, that nature can be read as a collection of
divine signs, and that there are deep purposes behind the superficial chaos
seen in nature and history. There is a sense in which conspiracy theories
are explanations gone wrong (Keeley, 1999), and when religious claims
appear similar to conspiracy scenarios, we might suspect similar problems.
Therefore, focusing on instances where theology adopts themes
familiar from conspiracy theories can usefully highlight some of the
means by which religious thinkers evade science-based criticism.
Sometimes theology will take on the form of a cosmic conspiracy theory:
though invisible to scientific investigation, supernatural powers ultimately
control events. And sometimes, the conspiratorial element in a religious
response to science identifies scientific institutions as forces that are
concealing the truth. Mainstream science, religious apologists may
suggest, has been corrupted by materialism, and hence it is oblivious to,
or actively hides, the truth about a divinely designed universe. Popular
religion is full of stereotypes of university professors who, angry with
God, invoke science to undermine the faith of students.
Controversies over evolution provide some excellent examples of
such conspiratorial elements in religious responses to science. The theory
of evolution presents supernatural religion with multiple challenges.
Theological conservatives and liberals on a spectrum are distinguished by
how they respond to these challenges, so we can start by listing them:
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1. Evolution contradicts the creation stories in sacred texts, and presents a
sense of deep time not anticipated by monotheistic traditions (Greene,
1996 [1959]).
2. Humans are related to other life forms, rather than having a status in
between mere animals and the divine. Humans are not the culmination
of evolution (Nee, 2005).
3. Darwinian evolution is driven by blind variation and selection. It does
not anticipate the future; it does not follow a plan (Dawkins, 2006
[1986]).
4. Variation-and-selection is part of a broader naturalistic picture,
including modern physics, where nature is understood as being
wholly constituted by processes combining chance and necessity
(Edis, 2002; Edis and Boudry, 2014).
5. Darwinian explanations are vital in understanding our own brains,
cognition, and creativity; including the psychology underlying
supernatural beliefs (Nelson, 2006; Atran and Henrich, 2010).
Due to such an escalating series of challenges, Darwinian evolution
has become an important driver of science-based doubt about the reality
of supernatural agents. Indeed, as recognized by its opponents (Nagel,
2012), Darwinian thinking has become a centerpiece of modern
materialism. On each point, religious responders either deny that the
materialist claim is correct, or argue that the science supporting the claim
can still be plausibly interpreted to allow a supernatural reality invisible to
the science in question. Religious thinkers may argue that the materialists,
and perhaps even the bulk of scientists, are seriously mistaken and are in
effect concealing the truth. Or they may argue that the scientists are
superficially correct, but that the purposes of a supernatural agent,
working through the natural mechanisms identified by scientists, provides
the deeper explanation of the course of events.
If we look for such conspiratorial elements in religious responses to
evolution, we find that liberals as well as conservatives make use of
evasive strategies. And if we take conspiratorial tendencies to be a sign of
a style of thinking that often stands in opposition to science, we find that
conservatives on the theological spectrum are not quite as anti-science as
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Cosmic Conspiracy Theories 147
often portrayed, and that liberals are not as consistently friendly toward
science as our stereotypes suggest.
Creationism
One possible religious response to evolution is to completely adopt a
conspiratorial perspective: Satan is responsible for the fossils and any
other evidence for evolution. This is not a popular theological position; it
appears mainly in small ultraconservative Protestant communities, or in
those dark corners of the Internet where all conspiracy theories flourish.
The closest it comes to a serious articulation is with a version of the “gap
theory” where “Being jealous of God and His creative power, the Devil
took germs of life from elsewhere and long before creation week tried on
this earth to imitate God’s creation. Most of the geologic column was
developed over long ages before creation week, and the organisms in it are
the result of satanic experimentation” (Roth, 1980, p. 75). This view is
only interesting as an extreme case. Not only does it claim a cosmic
conspiracy that attempts to deceive everyone, but it gives full expression
to the paranoid element in conspiracy thinking.
Conservative views become more interesting when the conspiracy is
not quite as overwhelming. For example, the 19th century theology of
Gosse’s Omphalos has the Christian God rather than Satan responsible for
the fossils and other signs of a very old universe. In Gosse’s view, the
created universe had to be fully functional, and therefore had to include an
appearance of age. Trees, for example, would have to have been created
with rings in them (Gosse, 2003 [1857]). Without the knowledge granted
us through special revelation, we would naturally interpret the signs of age
as evidence for a past that never actually happened. In a backhanded way,
Gosse’s theology achieves compatibility between science and scripture.
There are variants of Gosse’s view in today’s theology, such as the
possibility that in the context of a strange and physically very dubious
metaphysics of time, the Christian God could have arranged for both the
literal Genesis story and the modern scientific account to be true (Hudson,
2014). As with Gosse’s scenario, the only motivation we could have for
thinking this to be the case would be a prior belief in scripture.
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For a more obviously conspiratorial view, however, we have to look at
aspects of Gosse’s view that resurfaced within 20th century Protestant
creationism and continue to attract believers. In some instances, young-
earth creationists resort to claims of creation with an appearance of age,
but as a limited evasive device rather than as a centerpiece of their
alternative to mainstream science (Snelling, 2009, pp. 653–661). Since
today’s young-earth creationists are committed to an argument that
science, if practiced properly, affirms special creation rather than
evolution, they have to emphasize evidence-based arguments for creation.
Therefore, they do not present a complete cosmic conspiracy theory. They
still, however, believe that the theory of evolution is massively mistaken.
Such comprehensive error means that mainstream scientific institutions
act to conceal rather than discover truth. To explain how science has gone
so wrong, creationists often exhibit conspiratorial forms of thinking. The
scientific community must have come under the spell of materialism or a
pagan form of religion. Satan’s influence can be discerned behind the
scenes of the long war against God represented by evolutionary thought
(Morris, 2000).
Much of young-earth creationism, then, structurally resembles a
conspiracy theory. Science, which in modern secular societies often
represents commonly accepted knowledge, has gone terribly wrong.
Mainstream science may seem convincing, but this merely testifies to the
depth of its corruption and the power of the forces working to conceal the
truth. Evolution is The Lie (Ham, 2012 [1987]). The true story, concealed
by what we are duped into thinking is knowledge, is one of supernatural
purposes shaping the world. And the key to discovering the truth behind
the deceptions is to recognize the literal truth of scriptural accounts.
As with most conspiracy theories, the plausibility of the claimed
hidden powers and purposes depends on the appeal of the alternative
scenarios and alternative channels of true information available to the
initiated. Sacred texts already have this built-in appeal. But the conspiracy
theory also has to deflect criticism. A Gosse-style theology, for example,
is vulnerable to the objection that its God is a deceiver. More convincing
scenarios provide answers to such objections. Protestant tradition has
elements that emphasize the unique trustworthiness of scripture as a
personal communication from God. We have an innate sense of the divine,
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Cosmic Conspiracy Theories 149
which can be triggered by the Holy Spirit in occasions such as reflecting
on the Bible. But we are also Fallen creatures, and our sense of God is not
perfect. Our sin-darkened, rebellious intellect can lead us astray, unless
we submit to God’s revealed Word. Some conservative Protestants go so
far as to claim that trust in revelation must be presupposed to attain any
sort of reliable knowledge beyond everyday matters (Van Til, 1969). Such
elements of conservative theology can easily be pressed into the service
of a conspiratorial outlook. God may deceive some people, particularly
non-believers (Ezekiel, 14, p. 9; 2 Thessalonians, 2:11–12, Quran, 7:99).
But for those with faith, God is not a deceiver, having communicated
clearly to the elect through scripture. Initiates who want the truth have to
learn to interpret the evidence they encounter in the light of revelation.
Young-earth creationists often acknowledge that for them, scripture
comes first. The data produced by scientific means does not, on its own,
determine the correct theory. The evidence can be made to fit an
evolutionary explanation, or the data can also be interpreted in a manner
consistent with young-earth creationism. Radiometric dating, for example,
can produce ages of billions of years. But such large ages depend on many
assumptions, such as a constant decay rate for radioactive nuclei. Young-
earth creationists propose to explain much of geology as a product of
Noah’s Flood, which was a catastrophic supernatural intervention that
interfered with the normal operations of nature. Therefore, an alternative
way of accounting for the data would be that the Flood invalidates
evolutionary assumptions such as constant decay rates (Snelling, 2004).
All this is a very conspiratorial way of thinking. Accelerated radioactive
decay during the Flood produces no end of scientific problems (Heaton,
2009), but creationists remain focused on making the evidence fit their
scenarios. A conspiracy theory can be made consistent with almost any
evidence, since the hidden powers interfere with the publicly available
information. Evidence that might appear to go against the conspiracy just
signifies the magnitude of the plot.
Conspiracy theories can be plausible because they shift our attention
to a story: they explain events in terms of agency and purpose, even in
domains where social and psychological forms of reasoning about agents
and motivations might not be applicable. They impose meaning onto
chaos. Much the same can be said about the supernatural beliefs in
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religions (Guthrie, 1993; Boyer, 2001). Therefore, it should not be
surprising to find close affinities between some styles of religiosity and
conspiracy theories. There is insufficient research about whether similar
psychological mechanisms are deployed for belief in conspiracy theories
and for paranormal and religious beliefs, though it has been found that
intuitive thinking styles are associated with both religiosity and conspiracy
beliefs, and analytic thinking reduces both (Gervais and Norenzayan,
2012; Swami et al., 2014). Conflicts with science often invite responses
that deploy more intuitive, conspiratorial thinking. Developing these
reactions further, conspiratorial theologies invert the secular view where
mainstream science is characterized by progress and agreement, while
religion is a realm of faith commitments and unstable interpretations.
They place trust entirely in what they consider the Word of God, and
protect themselves from science-based criticisms that can only express
deception.
Conservative Protestant rejection of evolution is a particularly clear
example. But similar conspiratorial themes can also find expression
within other traditions. Much popular Islamic creationism, such as the
Harun Yahya material, adopts a matter-of-fact tone while describing the
supposed errors of evolution. Conservative Muslims have much less of a
sense of being a beleaguered minority within their culture (Edis, 2007),
even while conspiracy theories intertwined with apocalyptic beliefs have
become increasingly popular among Muslims (Filiu, 2011). Still, Muslims,
no less than Christians, feel a need to explain why mainstream science has
been led into a massive mistake. And Harun Yahya’s accounts are full of
materialist plots and Masonic conspiracies to degrade religion and conceal
the truth (Yahya, 2011; Solberg, 2013, pp. 75–93). Traditional Muslim
theology does not include a human Fall, and it claims that our created
human nature is such that we naturally come to appreciate the truth of the
Quran. This natural understanding, however, can be blocked by improper
training and through godless ideologies. Hence Muslim creationism also
makes generous use of conspiratorial elements.
Intelligent design
Creationism is popular. It offers devout but modern populations, who
depend on technology in their lives, a way to harmonize faith and science
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Cosmic Conspiracy Theories 151
(Eve and Harrold, 1990). The conspiratorial elements in creationism
sometimes only add to its populist appeal. But no religious tradition can
afford to lose educated elites and rely on populism alone. Moreover, not
every believer appreciates the more paranoid faithful-against-everyone-else
mindset. Therefore moderate positions, which promise to accept much of
science while retaining a religious perception of nature, are also attractive.
A literal reading of scripture, for example, is not necessary. When
devout people cannot agree about which texts are holy, and cannot agree
on a correct interpretation of any of the candidate texts, insisting that
proper knowledge depends on submission to a particular revelation seems
excessive. Moreover, if the friction between science and supernatural
religion is caused by the materialist aspects of theories such as evolution,
it may be best to narrowly focus on avoiding materialism rather than
dismissing vast parts of science. People with different faiths could then
work together to oppose only those aspects of theories such as evolution
that challenge the existence of spiritual realities.
In the early 2000s, just such an option appeared to be surfacing, in the
form of the Intelligent Design (ID) movement. ID has roots in Protestant
creationism, but it does not demand any particular interpretation of
scripture. Instead, ID emphasizes one of the oldest and most attractive
arguments for a supernatural power in charge: that functional complexity
in nature must be due to design by an intelligent agent. In Christian terms,
ID shifts emphasis from special to general revelation. The divine hand in
nature is not hidden; the presence of design is knowledge available
through ordinary means of investigation that do not require prior
submission to a special revelation. Moreover, ID modernizes the intuitions
of design, attempting to formalize the creationist conviction that
information cannot be created by mindless material processes (Dembski,
2004a, 2014). Therefore, ID opposes unguided, strictly naturalistic
notions of evolution, but just as strenuously stands against materialist
views of minds linked to research in artificial intelligence or cognitive
neuroscience (Beauregard and O’Leary, 2007). ID offers a broad enough
anti-materialist position that could attract monotheists such as Catholics
and Muslims, but also Buddhists and mystics committed to the
immateriality of minds, and even the odd non-religious thinker who
objects to the arrogance they perceive in the enthusiasm for Darwinian
and materialist perspectives within science (Berlinski, 2008).
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Compared to old-fashioned creationism, then, ID is potentially less
conspiratorial. Since the fact that a divine power shapes nature is not
hidden, there is no cosmic conspiracy. ID proponents have had hopes to
develop a mathematically rigorous procedure to identify the presence of
design. When applied to a data set, this procedure would rule out mindless
processes such as chance and necessity, concluding that the information
in the data must have been produced by an intelligent agent (Dembski,
1998). While the math allegedly supporting ID may be arcane, and the
language of ID is full of information-age metaphors rather than more
traditional theology, the central ideas of ID confirm the basic intuition
available to almost everyone: that complex order requires an intelligent
origin (Newman et al., 2010). According to ID proponents, not only is
design intuitively obvious, it is supported by the technical apparatus of
science.
Indeed, ID aims to be compatible with almost all of modern science,
except for its notoriously materialistic elements. Even in biology, ID
focuses on denying the efficacy of Darwinian variation-and-selection in
producing creative novelties. The information in, for example, DNA must
ultimately have an intelligent origin. But since ID insists on a procedure
to detect design only, it does not produce any causal history of where
information comes from. An old-fashioned creationist might insist on the
divine creation of new information with each species. But some versions
of ID are also compatible with accounts that accept descent with
modification, or with the claim that all necessary information was injected
into the universe at the time of the Big Bang. Even aliens, rather than
gods, could have been the immediate agents of design. ID promises only
to validate a very common religious intuition about nature: that ultimately,
mindless material processes could not create complex order. Therefore ID,
even with its creationist history, could potentially position itself as being
compatible with notions of divinely guided evolution, which is the most
popular moderate means of reconciling common descent with supernatural
religion. The causal history specifying what supernatural power intervened
in the history of the universe in what manner could be filled in by various
religious traditions. The conflicts between rival religions would be
interesting, but with ID established and materialism overruled, those
would be separate arguments.
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Cosmic Conspiracy Theories 153
The ID movement has, however, also needed to explain the grip
materialist notions have had on the scientific community, and they have
regularly resorted to conspiratorial thinking. The ID literature contains no
end of complaints about materialism as a prejudice and an obstacle to
progress. Charges that academic “Darwinists” conspire to conceal the
fatal defects of Darwinian evolution and prevent ID from receiving a fair
hearing, even that science educators in effect collude in fraud (Wells,
2000) are common in ID material. But on occasion, ID proponents have
described opposition from mainstream science as being due to ordinary
conservatism and resistance to revolutionary new ideas (Dembski, 2004b).
In this milder form of ID rhetoric, completely naturalistic evolution is a
mistake, but a mistake that might have been understandable, partly due to
a 19th century lack of knowledge about the complexity of even the most
basic cellular machinery.
ID has, however, failed to persuade the scientific community that it
has any merit. Scientific critics consider ID to be a comprehensive failure,
especially its new elements such as its claims to have a mathematical
means of detecting design (Young and Edis, 2004). The notion that
Darwinian variation-and-selection cannot create information is simply
false. Even ID proponents no longer give center stage to their revolutionary
design-detection claims. More recent ID literature has put more emphasis
on alleged failures of evolutionary explanations, coming to more closely
resemble an older style of creationism that aimed to reinforce incredulity
about the creative powers of the purely material processes that drive
evolution (Meyer, 2009, 2013). A small minority of scientists continue to
have reservations about accounts of evolution that exclusively rely
on unguided processes of variation, selection, and neutral drift; some
even entertain some vague, undeveloped ID-like ideas (Dembski and
Ruse, 2004). But the ID movement has not been able to bring many into
their fold.
ID has also enjoyed very little success in producing a united religious
front against materialism in science. ID’s appeal beyond monotheists has
been very limited. And among monotheists, ID has met with some
theological resistance. Protestant creationists have always been suspicious
about the more ecumenical aspects of ID. In their view, speaking about a
designer without identifying it as Jesus Christ, or discussing information
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without emphasizing the Word of God, is questionable at best (Morris,
2006). Some moderate monotheists appreciate the ecumenical appeal of
ID, but ID’s confrontation with scientific institutions has alienated
moderates who adopt guided evolution as a way of avoiding conflict.
Moreover, many theologians suspect that ID concedes too much to
a secular and scientific way of thinking: that it allows science too much
authority in matters of faith (Shanks and Green, 2011). If some form of
ID had worked, it might have been the best possible harmonization of
science and religion. Without any conspiracies, scientific investigation
and religious inspiration would have converged on a similar overall
picture of nature. But if religion must depend on revelation, mystical
insight, or some “other way of knowing” discontinuous with science,
ID starts to look too much like it brings a Wholly Other God down to
the level of creatures to be investigated by methods suitable for material
entities.
ID has often been described as a sophisticated form of creationism.
Such descriptions overlook how ID does not require any cosmic
conspiracy, and how much closer ID comes to a scientific manner of
thinking. But ID has, because of this, produced a picture of a God that is
not obscure enough for liberals, and too distant from revealed texts for
conservatives. And in public, precisely because ID has downplayed the
conspiratorial aspects of its theological tradition, it has been vulnerable to
its lack of scientific success.
Liberal views
Liberal theologians accept most, perhaps all of science, including those
theories that inspire materialism. Theology is not supposed to be a rival to
science. Instead, theology should supply a back story, adding depth and
meaning to the bare material facts revealed by scientific investigation.
Sophisticated academic theologies tend to conceive of science as an
autonomous enterprise that works independently of religious commitments.
And because of this, science is supposed to be limited: scientific methods
are suitable for discovering facts about the natural world, but the
“methodological naturalism” of science also prevents it from addressing
supernatural claims (Pennock, 1999).
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Liberals, then, invariably endorse evolution. They go beyond the
grudging acceptance of common descent that some forms of ID offer, and
they do not stop with moderate half-measures such as the Catholic
insistence on a real Adam and Eve who were given specially created souls.
Darwinian variation-and-selection is acceptable, as long as evolution can
be interpreted as a progressive unfolding of divine purpose, or if the
seemingly painful and wasteful processes of evolution can be seen as the
result of the monotheistic God granting nature a large measure of creative
freedom (Haught, 2004, 2010).
Accepting science, however, also means reviving some aspects of a
cosmic conspiracy theory. After all, in the absence of a robust natural
theology, no one could infer a divine purpose just from their knowledge
of science. At face value, the current results of science fit materialist
expectations of mindless natural processes, where creativity as well as
everything else are due to combinations of chance and necessity. But
liberal theologies are still committed to a hidden power behind the scenes.
This power is not an alternative to evolution: unlike Gosse’s scenario
where science is understandably mistaken about the past, science is
supposed to be correct about the material details. Scientific knowledge is
merely incomplete; it is not corrupt, it does not act to conceal the truth.
And yet, the power and purpose behind the scenes is hidden to the
ordinary means of investigation represented by scientific efforts. As with
the conservative reliance on special revelation, liberals need some extra
source of information. ID proposes an openly visible design, but liberal
theologies have design by stealth.
Even liberal theologies need a way for hidden powers to pull the
strings from behind the scenes. Liberals do not want to change science,
and they are wary of the conservative willingness to countenance
supernatural violations of natural laws. One popular way to square this
circle has been to try to find loopholes in modern physics. Quantum
mechanical events happen at random, therefore all that physicists can
predict are probability distributions. Hence, important physical principles
such as conservation laws, in the context of quantum mechanics, concern
long-term average behavior. In that case, supernatural interference might
take place through the very occasional, rare determination of a quantum
event. For example, a supernatural agent might once in a long while tweak
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a random mutation so as to nudge evolution in the direction of creating
something like humans. No detectable violation of natural laws would
occur (Russell, 2009).
There are some technical problems with the physics of such claims
(Sansbury, 2007; Koperski, 2015). But even setting these difficulties
aside, the claim of interventions at the quantum level is not a trivial matter.
It is, after all, a claim that quantum mechanical predictions of randomness
are not correct, and that, if we cannot detect any deviation from
randomness, this is only because we cannot gather enough data.
Theologians are demanding substantial interference in the structure of
physics. Consider a casino operator who cheats, but only rarely, and only
in order to reward gamblers who belong to a favorite religious sect. If
done rarely enough, the signal of interference will be lost in the noise, and
the record of the games in the casino will not support the claim of non-
random interference. But if we are to believe that such cheating occurs,
we would need extra evidence such as mechanisms that would allow
occasional weighting of the dice, video recordings of casino employees
pressing a strange button on certain occasions, and so forth. Supernatural
interference in quantum events is, similarly, not an easy way of cheating
against natural laws without overturning modern physics. Knowledge of
such interference would demand extra evidence, which could, perhaps,
sustain an overall framework of an intelligently designed universe. But
since liberals reject ID-style confrontation with science, they do not claim
any other scientific evidence for intervention. Therefore such knowledge
would have to come through “other ways of knowing” such as mystical
illumination or special revelation. Apprehending the powers and purposes
behind the scenes still requires special knowledge to unmask the
conspiracy.
While liberal theologies retain attenuated versions of a cosmic
conspiracy, they are certainly less paranoid about science. But the liberal
affirmation of science has limits. One reason supernatural intervention by
stealth is so implausible is the overall current physical framework of
mindless natural processes, of chance and necessity, in which theories
such as Darwinian evolution are set (Edis and Boudry, 2014). Moreover,
modern science is ambitious. Materialist and evolutionary thinking tends
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to invade our favored explanations of our mental lives, including religious
beliefs and experiences. Attempts to limit the reach of science-based
criticism by imposing “methodological naturalism” and other dictates are
philosophically arbitrary (Boudry et al., 2010). In that case liberals, no
less than conservatives, will find instances where they perceive science to
overstep its legitimate bounds.
With liberals, the signs of mistrust of science appear when theologians
condemn “scientism,” where scientists allegedly overreach and deny that
there are forms of knowledge, often represented in the arts and
humanities, that are discontinuous with scientific practices of investigation
and explanation. Theology, in such a view, represents a humanistic,
holistic form of knowledge that enjoys a certain immunity to scientific
forms of criticism. Some religious thinkers go so far as to suggest that
scientism is an alternative religion to be combatted in the name of what
is truly spiritual (Roy, 2005), or in a less overheated fashion, that science
is, like theology, a cultural product, and as such does not represent a
constraint on theology (Smith, 2015). As a result, scientists and
philosophers who argue for a broader materialism that incorporates
evolutionary challenges to supernatural religion regularly encounter
accusations of scientism (Coyne, 2015). The conviction that when
science generates criticism of religious supernatural beliefs, science
must have been hijacked by materialist prejudices, or that it might not be
science conducted properly, is found in liberal as well as conservative
theological circles. But since for liberals, the lines that science must not
cross are drawn more generously, the need to activate conspiratorial
impulses to evade science-based criticism arises less often and in
narrower contexts.
Elements of conspiratorial thinking are less visible in sophisticated
academic theology than in doctrinally more conservative creationist
thought. Nonetheless, some liberal responses to the more ambitious
aspects of evolutionary theory come close to conspiracy theories. There is
still a peculiarly hidden power pulling the strings of nature, who is actively
trying to remain hidden, and who can be known only through special
means available to initiates. And when science appears to cast doubt on
such powers, it still must be because science has gone off the rails.
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Embrace, confront, or evade
Much of science is not relevant to supernatural beliefs: it is hard to
imagine any discovery in polymer chemistry attracting much religious
attention. But when science becomes relevant, defenders of supernatural
beliefs have to respond. They can embrace the science, confront it, or try
to evade its consequences.
There have been a few instances where modern science has appeared
to support religious conceptions of nature. The standard Big Bang
cosmology of a few decades ago, for example, might fit a conception of
creation ex nihilo better than the tradition of an eternal universe that has
historically appealed to dissenters from monotheism. Even some
conservative religious apologists who criticize evolution but accept the
immense age of the universe have argued that the Big Bang is a creation
event that requires a creator (Craig and Smith, 1993). Their arguments
appear outdated in the context of today’s physical cosmology (Carroll,
2005), but they at least illustrate that some modern science can be
embraced by theology.
More often, the science embraced by religious apologists turns out to
be dubious. In its 19th century heyday, psychical research attracted liberal
religious thinkers who thought it might produce a modern, scientifically
valid affirmation of a spiritual realm. Even today, some liberal religious
thinkers continue to be attracted to the anti-materialist implications of
parapsychological claims (Griffin, 1997; Tart, 2009). Nonetheless,
mainstream science has mostly rejected psychic powers, considering
parapsychology a failed research enterprise.
So today, modern science presents an important challenge to
supernatural religion, especially because of its important conceptual
frameworks that often support a materialist conception of nature.
Dependence on chance and necessity is fundamental in modern physics,
and creativity emerging from mindless processes combining chance and
necessity is central to Darwinian evolution. It is hard to argue that
materialism is an extraneous addition to such frameworks.
In that case, especially conservative religious thinkers will feel
compelled to confront science. In cases such as creationist resistance to
evolution, the confrontation with mainstream science often relies on a
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style of thinking familiar from conspiracy theories. Science becomes
“science falsely so called” (Whitcomb, 2008), which functions as a plot to
divert attention from the path of salvation. Instead of science, the key
to the meaning of events lies in special religious forms of knowledge,
which reveal the true supernatural purposes beneath surface appearances.
A cosmic conspiracy prevails.
Science can be confronted, however, without resorting to a conspiracy
theory. The ID movement has been associated with the moderate to
conservative part of the religious spectrum. But particularly in the early
days of ID, ID proponents were optimistic about their ability to detect a
clear signal of design that was not reducible to chance and necessity.
There was a cosmic design, and it was not hidden. Mainstream science
was severely mistaken, but not necessarily corrupted. While just as much
a political nuisance for science and science education as its creationist
counterpart, ID briefly represented a less conspiratorial way of confronting
science. Indeed, in a peculiar way, the ID movement exhibited something
of a scientific temper. More recently, however, ID has shown signs of
lapsing into a more standard form of creationism.
Evasion, then, is perhaps the most promising religious strategy. Many
scientists and liberal religious thinkers have long avoided conflicts, looking
for compromise between institutions and hoping to carve out separate, non-
overlapping intellectual spheres for science and religion (Gould, 1999). In
highly religious countries such as the United States, liberal religion has
been vital in blocking conservative pressure on science and science
education. The liberal manner of evading science-based challenges,
however, still depends on some conspiratorial elements familiar from the
more conservative end of the spectrum. The cosmic conspiracy of invisible
powers and purposes remains in place, as does the reliance on special
knowledge available only to initiates. Liberals want to evade science, so
they do not associate science with obstacles to the knowledge necessary for
salvation. Nevertheless, liberals still want to limit the materialist ambitions
often associated with modern science. Therefore they occasionally resort
to an attenuated form of conspiratorial thinking when accusing science-
based critics of supernatural religion of scientism.
The conservative-to-liberal spectrum of religious responses to science
is still a very useful description, especially in political contexts. Even so,
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it will not do to uniformly associate conservatives with a suspicion of
science and portray liberals as friends of science. By heavily investing in
attempts to evade materialist challenges rooted in science, liberals can end
up promoting scientifically dubious ways of thinking. And conservatives
who confront materialist aspects of science can do so by presenting clear
claims and taking the risk of defending falsehoods. So far, when examined
in a scientific context, supernatural claims appear likely to be false (Edis,
2002). But science can learn from falsehoods, much more than from
efforts at evasion and cheap claims of compatibility with science.
Acknowledgments
Thanks are due to Maarten Boudry and Stefaan Blancke for helpful
suggestions.
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Carroll, S. (2005). Why (Almost All) Cosmologists are Atheists. Faith and
Philosophy 22(5), 622–635.
Coady, D. (2006). Conspiracy Theories: The Philosophical Debate. Ashgate
Publishing, Burlington, Vermont.
Coyne, J. A. (2015). Faith Versus Fact: Why Science and Religion are
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Craig, W. L. and Smith, Q. (1993). Theism, Atheism, and Big Bang Cosmology.
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Dawkins, R. (2006). The Blind Watchmaker: Why the Evidence of Evolution
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Dembski, W. A. (2004a) The Design Revolution : Answering the Toughest Questions
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Dembski, W. A. and Ruse, M. (Eds.) (2004). Debating Design: From Darwin to
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Edis, T. (2002). The Ghost in the Universe: God in Light of Modern Science,
Prometheus Books. Amherst, New York.
Edis, T. (2007). An Illusion of Harmony: Science and Religion in Islam,
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Jersey.
Taner Edis is professor of physics at Truman State
University, Kirksville, MO, USA. He obtained his
PhD in condensed matter physics in 1994 from the
Johns Hopkins University. Since then he has done
research not just in physics but also the philosophy
of science, particularly concerning science and
religion, and pseudoscientific challenges to
mainstream science such as creationism. His books
include The Ghost in the Universe: God in Light of
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Modern Science, and An Illusion of Harmony: Science and Religion in
Islam. His latest, Islam Evolving: Radicalism, Reformation, and the
Uneasy Relationship with the Secular West, was published in 2016.
   
Comments by Editor Richard Gordon:
As we discovered in our previous compendium (Seckbach & Gordon,
2008), no religion has a monopoly on creationism. Physicist Taner Edis
shows us an interesting point of view, that to a significant extent
creationists can be regarded as conspiracy theorists, where the conspiracy
is of the Devil, scientists, or even God, to deceive us from “The Truth”.
It has always amazed me that many creationists invoke science to defend
their point of view, as if, tacitly, they recognize science as the higher
authority. For example, “creationists remain focused on making the
evidence fit their scenarios”, which is not the same as ignoring or denying
the evidence. Since scientists, especially in interdisciplinary problem
solving, attempt to bring many different kinds of evidence to bear in trying
to construct a solution that fits all of the evidence, alternative theological
interpretations can readily get boxed in. This leads to theological cherry
picking of evidence, or combing the literature for doubts expressed by
scientists that they have fully solved a problem, to justify creationism. As
doubt is usually a sign of a good scientist, this plays into the “gotcha” of
creationists. Edis brings up the notions of intuitive versus analytical
modes of thinking, blaming the former for “religiosity and conspiracy
beliefs”. However, there are parallels between “deep learning” and
simulation of logical deduction in artificial intelligence (AI). The AI
community “has been jolted by the extraordinary and unexpected success”
(Carron, 2017) of deep learning algorithms, which use neural networks
with many levels (as 150, instead of the usual 3 levels, with the increasing
power of computers). For AI, simulated “intuition” trumps analysis.
Perhaps for humans, reasoned analysis is a newcomer, and not yet
widespread. For example, most of us were taught theorem proving in high
school math, but few of us indulge in it as adults. From AI we thus learn
that intuition may be of greater fitness than reason. The superior survival
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value of intuitive thinking may be a reason why religions persist (Hinde,
2010) despite Edis’ observation that: “So far, when examined in a
scientific context, supernatural claims appear likely to be false”.
References
Carron, I. (2017). Sunday Morning Videos: Deep Learning and Artificial
Intelligence symposium at NAS 154th Annual Meeting http://nuit-blanche.
blogspot.ca/2017/05/sunday-morning-videos-deep-learning-and.html
Hinde, R.A. (2010). Why Gods Persist: A Scientific Approach to Religion.
London, Routledge, 2nd.
Seckbach, J. & R. Gordon, (Eds.) (2008). Divine Action and Natural Selection:
Science, Faith and Evolution. Singapore, World Scientific.
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... On the one hand, due to science development and scientific discoveries, the living conditions of most people on Earth have definitely improved over the last centuries (Pinker, 2018). On the other hand, scientists are accused of manipulating public opinion and acting in favor of political or economic interests (Goertzel, 2010;Harambam & Aupers, 2015), as well as creating theories that threaten the current social order and traditional values (Edis, 2018). Sometimes, scientific statements are also considered as equal to other narratives about the world, without reasons to treat them in a privileged way (Kuntz, 2012). ...
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BACKGROUND: The main aim of this study was to develop criteria for qualitative interpretation of the scores of the Views of Science Questionnaire (VoSQ), which is a tool for measuring the level of scientistic worldview. Another goal was to verify the psychometric properties of the tool in an adequately large and demographically diverse sample. PARTICIPANTS AND PROCEDURE: The study involved 1,119 participants aged 18 to 87 who filled in the Polish version of the VoSQ via the Internet. The obtained results were subjected to reliability analysis, confirmatory factor analysis and analyses aimed at developing criteria for the qualitative interpretation of both individual and group scores of the VoSQ scales. RESULTS: The CFA analysis showed a satisfactory level of fit of the VoSQ factor structure containing one higher-order factor and four sub-factors. The reliability of the tool scales was also satisfactory. The obtained results showed gender and age differences, but no differences related to the level of education. This information was used to develop the percentile-based criteria for the interpretation of the individual scores and the mean and standard deviation-based criteria for qualitative interpretation of the group scores. CONCLUSIONS: The relationship between science and its social reception is becoming an increasingly important issue. The development of criteria for the qualitative interpretation of the results of the Views of Science Questionnaire makes it possible to use it as a tool for diagnosing attitudes towards science, displayed by both individuals and groups. This knowledge may be useful in improving the effectiveness of social implementation.
... The institutions supporting creationism are structured so as to defend particular supernatural beliefs rather than to learn about how the world works (Edis 2018), therefore much of the case for creationism depends on portraying established scientific expertise as corrupt. Indeed, creationist beliefs are closely related to conspiracy theories in the ways they evade scientific criticism (Edis 2019). And creationism is certainly not an artifact of the social media age. ...
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While concern about public irrationality and antiscientific movements is not new, the increasing power of right-wing populist movements that promote distrust of expertise and of scientific institutions gives such concerns a new context. Experience with classic pseudosciences such as creationism, and the long-running efforts by defenders of science to oppose such pseudosciences, may also help us understand today’s post-truth populism. The politics of creationism and science education in the United States and in Turkey does not, however, suggest easy answers. Moreover, there are important features of politics in liberal democracies that drive a populist backlash, which makes it counterproductive for defenders of science to call for deference to all forms of expertise claimed by professionals. There is a danger that the rhetoric of reason that is used to defend science will become part of a more general apologetics for an unsustainable status quo.
... There could still be reasons to believe in intelligent design, but these reasons would have to come entirely from outside the data and theories of physics. With undetectable interventions following a purpose revealed only to those privy to special knowledge, we end up with a cosmic conspiracy theory (Edis 2018). ...
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An evaluation of the implications of the physics in current cosmology and quantum mechanics for arguments concerning gods.
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For quantum mechanics to form the crux of a robust model of divine action, random quantum fluctuations must be amplified into the macroscopic realm. What has not been recognized in the divine action literature to date is the degree to which differential dynamics, continuum mechanics, and condensed matter physics prevent such fluctuations from infecting meso- and macroscopic systems. Once all of the relevant physics is considered, models of divine action based on quantum randomness are shown to be far more limited than is generally assumed. Unless some sort of new physical mechanism is discovered, the amplification problem cannot be solved.
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This book argues that the widely accepted world view of materialist naturalism is untenable. The mind-body problem cannot be confined to the relation between animal minds and animal bodies. If materialism cannot accommodate consciousness and other mind-related aspects of reality, then we must abandon a purely materialist understanding of nature in general, extending to biology, evolutionary theory, and cosmology. Since minds are features of biological systems that have developed through evolution, the standard materialist version of evolutionary biology is fundamentally incomplete. And the cosmological history that led to the origin of life and the coming into existence of the conditions for evolution cannot be a merely materialist history. An adequate conception of nature would have to explain the appearance in the universe of materially irreducible conscious minds, as such. No such explanation is available, and the physical sciences, including molecular biology, cannot be expected to provide one. The book explores these problems through a general treatment of the obstacles to reductionism, with more specific application to the phenomena of consciousness, cognition, and value. The conclusion is that physics cannot be the theory of everything.
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As the end of the Millennium approaches, conspiracy theories are increasing in number and popularity. In this short essay, I offer an analysis of conspiracy theories inspired by Hume's discussion of miracles. My first conclusion is that whereas Hume can argue that miracles are, by definition, explanations we are not warranted in believing, there is nothing analytic that will allow us to distinguish good from bad conspiracy theories. There is no a priori method for distinguishing warranted conspiracy theories (say, those explaining Watergate) from those which are unwarranted (say, theories about extraterrestrials abducting humans). Nonetheless, there is a cluster of characteristics often shared by unwarranted conspiracy theories. An analysis of the alleged explanatory virtues of unwarranted conspiracies suggests some reasons for their current popularity, while at the same time providing grounds for their rejection. Finally, I discuss how conspiracy theories embody an anachronistic world-view that places the contemporary zeitgeist in a clearer light.