A response to President Stewart in defense of faith
By Jeremy Adelman ‘13
October 20, 2011
In her Aug. 24 address at Convocation, President Joan Hinde Stewart announced glibly, “evolution is a fact,” a barb directed squarely at biblical literalists and meant, no doubt, to assert her superiority as a learned scholar over the troglodytes who tromp weekly into churches. However, her statement actually demonstrated her ignorance of both science and faith; because of its empirical foundations, science’s “facts” are data—everything gleaned from these results is readily contestable by new experiments and novel theories. To illustrate this point, consider an analogy to history; a historical fact (analogous to the beaks of Darwin’s finches) is that the Franks defeated the Umayyad Caliphate at a battle near Tour, but the interpretation that Martel’s victory stymied the Muslim conquest of Europe (analogous to evolution), however widely accepted by academics, is only a theory.
More insidious, though, is President Stewart’s ironic attempt at mocking blind faith by proclaiming the incontrovertibility of evolution. As she is no biologist, I doubt very much that President Stewart came to her conclusion after poring exhaustively over innumerable papers on the subject—more likely, she deferred to the opinions of those who do.
Considering the breadth of human knowledge, such deference is logical and even admirable, but is nonetheless undeniably based upon faith, rather than reason. That is, when President Stewart proclaimed evolution a fact, she really announced her faith in the expertise of evolutionary biologists. Intellectually, this is equivalent to the Bible literalists espousing belief in creationism on the basis of faith in Genesis —to maintain otherwise is to cling to the delusion of superiority which comes with a little knowledge; as much as we know, there will always be more we do not comprehend.
Indeed, rather than criticizing faith, President Stewart ought to be singing her praise, for faith is fundamental, not anathema, to the concept of scholarship. Every discipline, from communications to chemistry, requires at its core certain postulates which cannot be contested if one is to advance in knowledge. Even mathematics, which prides herself on the existence of absolute, rather than relative, proof of her theorems, needs the assumption on pure faith of a number of axioms in order to function.
Of course, blind faith does indeed occasionally stand as an impediment to the advancement of reason — however, more often than not, it is the faith of the sort President Stewart expresses, namely, faith in the genius of men, rather than a faith in the genius of God. Lost in the oft- rehashed narrative of Galileo is the fact that the church was defending not the Pentateuch but Ptolemy, whose geocentric universe enjoyed the same “scientific consensus” as evolution today (albeit among a certainly less scientific world). Rather than debase science, religion has a tendency to adopt its views — thus has evolution become a manifestation of God’s divine will in the catechism of the Catholic Church (one wonders whether someone isn’t already pondering the theological interpretations of superluminous neutrinos). In fact, the vaunted Big Bang theory now central to our interpretation of creation, was first proposed by a Belgian priest, Georges Lamaître, and faced overwhelming criticism from such luminaries as Albert Einstein. For, as Joan Hinde Stewart would say, in 1927, the static universe was “a fact.”
from the Spectator Online