Prophets, Scientists, and Evolution

I’m not trying to pick any fights here, I’m just want to point out a difference between the people who tell us about God (prophets), and the people who tell us about the workings of the universe (scientists).

The Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and Mormonism) are based on revelation. Revelation is when God communicates with someone, and if this person passes that info on to others, he (or she) becomes a prophet. When God talks to someone is ultimately up to God; there’s no way to repeat a conversation with God if God’s not willing. Also God typically communicates with only one person at a time; think of Joseph Smith by himself as he talked with an angel and received the Book of Mormon. This means that it’s up to that individual to pass the information on to others.

Being a prophet isn’t easy; a prophet has to overcome two main difficulties to be successful:

1) Getting people to believe him (or her).

The only evidence we have of the communication event is the word of the prophet. Although, sometimes God gives the prophet insight into a future event, and this can act as secondary evidence of the authenticity of the message. If our prophet is of good moral character, never lies, drinks, steals, etc., if he (or she) is all around moral and trustworthy, so much the better: we can believe what he (or she) has to say. But if there is some question of his (or her) morality or honesty, if our prophet turns out to be a drinker, liar, womanizer (manizer?), etc. then maybe he (or she) isn’t telling the truth, maybe he (or she) didn’t receive a message from God, but is just making stuff up. In many ways the message is only as “legitimate” as the prophet who delivers it.

2) Maintaining the message content.

This is a lot harder than you think. Go ahead and write down what you had for breakfast. Try to put in words the sight, smell, taste, and texture. Can you fully describe in words what your senses felt? For instance: the pepper you put on your eggs- how many grains did you write about, did you described how they were arranged? You saw and experienced the pepper in a way your audience never can through your writings. No biography could contain all that a subject experienced, no matter how thorough it may be. Just so, a prophet presumably received a message that is more than a verbatim essay, it may have included feelings, emotion, inflection, etc. The prophet has to summarize the experience to make it available to his (or her) audience. Necessarily when an audience interacts with a prophet’s teachings a lot will be left out from the communication event the prophet had with God. The audience will have to interpret the prophet’s teachings, study them, meditate on them, and even then they may not get it right. How the teachings are used is important. If they are used for bad purposes then this calls into question their legitimacy, because presumably, following orders or advice from God should result in good things.

One more thing to consider about what a prophet tells us about God is, for lack of a better term, the “quality” of information. The prophet had the initial conversation and there is no way anyone (even the prophet) can play back a recording to check any specific details, etc., it’s a onetime event recorded by the prophet and the record of it, after the prophet has died, can never be improved, edited, expanded, etc. expect by another revelation from God. Once a revelation is recorded, it’s done.

So it is with prophets and revelations. Now let us look at scientists and observations of the universe.

The scientist observes nature. This might be watching the nesting habits of birds, or recording the wavelength given off by rarefied hydrogen in an excited state. Because of the nature of nature, it’s all around us and always available, these observations can typically be made multiple times. When the scientist presents his (or her) findings he (or she) must provide a detailed, unambiguous account of how the observations were made, and it must be good enough that others may repeat the process so that they may make the same observations. Unlike the prophet, the scientist may ask the same question to nature over and over again. Others can join in, repeat the question and receive an answer, check their answer against previous answers, and/or modify the question and see how that affects the answer. Sometimes, you can ask a question in two very different ways and come up with the same answer. For instance, some wood of a certain age can be dated by 1) dendrochronology, counting and comparing the rings formed from yearly growth, and 2) by measuring the remaining amount of the radioactive isotope carbon-14. Both methods give similar ages.

This ability for multiple people to check and recheck an answer, to observe and refine, to modify the question in light of new findings, to ask it using new technologies or techniques, means that there can be no prophets in science. Once our scientist has made his (or her) findings available to the public, typically by publishing in a journal, we are no longer beholden to the scientist that did the research. Now the audience, even you dear reader, have the ability to evaluate the findings of the scientist; to ask a question of nature and get an answer.

To put this another way, we do not base the validity of scientific discoveries on the character of the individual who made them. Germ theory is correct whether or not Louis Pasteur crept through the city at night and stole women’s underwear from backyard clothes lines. Sir Isaac Newton may have been a proud believer in alien abduction, but this in no way takes away from his work in physics. Now certainly if the scientist in question turns out to be untrustworthy as regards to what they were researching, then we must be very skeptical of his or her findings. But in science we’re skeptical of everyone’s findings. This isn’t to say quality of research isn’t important, but even the greatest scientists know that their findings will be reshaped, altered, and ultimately added to an ever expanding body of knowledge as new discoveries are made. As for bad or poorly done science, well, we can rest assured that “truth will out”.

Remember that in religion the “quality” of the information decreases as it moves from God to the prophet to the audience (unless we have a new revelation event). But in science the “quality” of information can increase. Indeed that concept of “scientific progress” is the manifestation of that quality increase (greater accuracy and precision). This, again, reduces the role of the individual’s personality (moral or otherwise) in science.

A good example of confusion concerning prophets and scientists can be found in some evolutionary debates. This confusion belongs to both sides. Occasionally arguments against evolution take the form of specific criticisms of Darwin personally, of specific information in On the Origin of Species, or of actions supposedly taken in the name of Evolution (“Survival of the Fittest”). While these are perfectly sensible criticisms of prophets, this causes much confusion for the scientist. Scientists don’t understand why these questions are asked because the scientist is not interested in the person who made the discovery, and understanding that publications are “ephemeral,” looks beyond those as well.

While Darwin is celebrated for his discovery, subsequent observations of nature have provided us with a richer understanding of how nature works. Darwin was a scientist. Scientists say, “I made some observations of the universe and I think this is how it works.” They gather evidence for their ideas and then make this available to the community. The community is now tasked with further testing these ideas. If these ideas do not accurately describe how the universe works, they are discarded.

In the 150 years since Darwin first presented his ideas millions of scientists have performed billions of experiments testing those ideas. Criticizing On the Origin of Species is meaningless. One has to criticize all of the millions of experiments and observations that provide evidence for evolution and the mechanisms that drive it. The workers of the Modern Evolutionary Synthesis of the 1940s found that Darwin’s ideas were incomplete and showed that modern genetics was the previously unknown mechanism of heredity. In fact, the greatest critics of Darwin’s idea of Evolution by Natural Selection have always been, and always will be, scientists.