Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Coherence and Creationism (12 Feb 2013; Darwin Day)

“Evolutionary biology not only allows theology to enlarge its sense of God’s creativity by extending it over measureless eons of time; it also gives comparable magnitude to our sense of the divine participation in life’s long and often tormented journey.”
- John Haught  God After Darwin (2007)

As every student of philosophy is taught at some point, truth may be distinguished and categorized in a number of ways, but on certain broad grounds there are ‘two kinds’ of truth: the truth of coherence and the truth of correspondence.  Something that has the truth of coherence ‘hangs together;’ it makes sense and has no internal logical flaws or conundrums.  Something that has the truth of correspondence ‘relates to’ or ‘mirrors’ what we understand to be the external world.  It ‘corresponds’ – perhaps ‘point by point’ – with how the world actually is.  The more it corresponds, the more ‘true’ it is.  There is much more that could be said, and a great deal of nuancing needs done to more fully elucidate these two ‘types,’ but this is the basic distinction.

A fictional story is something that just needs the truth of coherence; e.g., it has to be internally consistent, its plot needs to progress, develop and come to a believable conclusion, and its characters must make sense and undergo understandable changes or make reasonable responses to what is happening to them.  The ‘world’ of the story must cohere.  If it does, then in this sense it is a ‘true’ story.  It may also be true on other grounds; e.g., in that it tells us something about life and what it means to be human.  If it adds to the felt significance of events in our lives, it may also be emotionally true, yet these ‘kinds’ of truth depend upon the story first having the truth of coherence.  It is more difficult to derive lived significance, insight into our lives and a sense of meaning from a story that doesn’t hang together or in which the characters are unbelievable or do things that don’t make any sense.
A story does not necessarily need the truth of correspondence; it can be completely fictional.  However, if it is a story about something that actually happened, then it becomes history or a journalistic account and must correspond to the events as known.  If a reporter relates what happened at an event and gets the details, the names of those involved or the time of the event wrong, their account is not ‘true’ in the non-fictional sense – they are not relating what actually happened, regardless of how well their account coheres internally or how compelling it is on other levels.  A documentary or movie claiming to be “based on real events” does have to correspond to those events, more or less, or it’s not documenting anything.
A scientific theory is also a kind of story, but of a very different genre.  Almost by definition, a scientific theory is non-fictional and it must correspond to the world in which we find ourselves; i.e., the external, objective world.  Science, after all, is an attempt to explain how the world; the actual world; the physical universe—works, and therefore must have the truth of correspondence about it.  A scientific theory is more or less true, depending on how well it corresponds to – i.e., accurately describes – the universe in which we live and the everyday world around us.   
If, for instance, the hypotheses about electro-magnetism in the 19th and 20th centuries did not accurately describe electrical and magnetic phenomena or accurately predict what electrical or magnetic systems would do, they would never have become elevated to the status of a theory; they would have been amended or discarded and new hypotheses put in their place that would then be tested over time until they became an established theory.  Any scientific theory, therefore, is a description of the world that has already been tested over time against data and experience, by experiment and by close and critical examination, until its correspondence to the aspect of the world it is describing has been well-established.  Its correspondence to the world is complemented by an internal coherence; it must 'make sense' – i.e., you must be able to tell the ‘story’ of what the theory is ‘about;’ even if in equations rather than words – but its correspondence is what secures it as a theory.

Editing old Darwin Day blogs over the last month has got me thinking about the relationship between creationism and truth; I have reflected on my own stint as a creationist back in the 1970’s as well as discussions with other creationists since – and I've come to realize that part of the appeal of creationism as a system of thought; a story about the world—has to do with its internal coherence.  It establishes a tangible, believable world in which a believer can immerse him- or herself, suspending their disbelief for a time in order to cull wisdom from the tale.  The coherence of the creation story enables believers to work out certain dimensions of their faith. It inspires them to look for parallels between what happens in the story and their own lives or in the world around them.
Creationism as a system of thought implies a certain (I would say 'crippled') theology and affects a believer’s whole understanding of life.  It is based on a story distilled from and constructed out of various biblical texts woven together into a more or less coherent account about the origin and early development of the world – and this coherence, I would argue, is part of its appeal.  “Well, it makes so much sense,” I was told summarily a few years ago by a church-going person who had been a ‘creationist’ since she was in college and was first exposed to what she called “the strange ideas of evolution.”  For her, the story helped her make sense of her lived circumstances; it was coherent enough to generate a sense of meaning or significance--and that was all she said she needed.  She had fallen under the spell of coherence and was in denial of the fact that her creationist views do no sync with what we know about Earth & Cosmos.
This is what Creationism does; it offers a tangible, understandable view of the world that allows them to construct a meaningful way of living.  In and of itself, this is not a bad thing.  The problem arises when Creationists try to make this particular story out to be a scientific theory about how physical reality actually came into existence!  Coherence is not enough to prove that a story is true when it is being made into a non-fictional explanation of the world outside the story; i.e., the world we all live-in outside the fictions of any given story—it must also correspond to that external world in its details.
You can see Creationism as a system of biblical interpretation based on a wrong-headed assumption.  It twists the sacred stories – which are fictional; they are mythic – into an historical (and therefore non-fictional) account about the world.  As such, it has to heed the demands of correspondence, and this is, of course, where it breaks down.  There is abundant evidence that the universe is billions of years old, that life began on this planet billions of years ago, and that we are an evolved species along with every other living species on the planet.  Creationism is contradicted at every turn by the facts of the objective, physical world it believes it is describing and is therefore an erroneous system of biblical interpretation.  Yet this is not to deny the value of creation stories as fictional and spiritual tales. 
The power of creation stories – and almost every ancient culture and religion has them – arises from their internal coherence and the felt significance they bring to the lives of their adherents.  The Story of Creation (I’ll use this to name the complex of ‘harmonized’ texts from the Bible that deal with the creation of the world + traditional interpretations of those texts) is valuable in the way that all other creation stories are; for what it reveals to believers about life, their relationship to ‘God’ and each other.  I would argue that its power is rooted in its being fictional; as a story it has engaging characters and events that affirm deep intuitions people have about life as well as exploring human nature and the workings of our lives.  But coherence isn’t enough to make it true as a story about the external, objective world.

I would like to encourage believers to meditate on and make this distinction – between coherence and correspondence – and accept the story of creation as a fictional account ‘inspired’ by ‘God’ to guide them in and through life’s gyres, but  also to accept and meditate on the revelations of science – including the fact of evolution – as being a non-fictional account of how God ‘created’ (i.e., is ‘involved in’) the world.  Doing so will foster a more mature progress toward a deeper theological understanding and spirituality; a deeper relationship with their God, others and the ‘Creation.’  Meditations on cosmology and evolution can lead to insights into life, faith and ‘God,’ just as meditations on sacred texts.  Those who fail to make this distinction and resist these insights may not come to as mature a stance as those who open themselves to the wonders, beauty and awe of Earth & Cosmos; of which we are a manifestation.

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