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Tuesday, 16 September 2008

The Origins Debate through the Lens of Piagetian Theory

This is a guest-post by Marlowe C. Embree, and is the second installment in his series on “The social psychology of the origins debate”. Marlowe teaches psychology at the University of Wisconsin Colleges.

To understand how people form and maintain a point of view on the origins debate, it may help to step back and ponder how they form and maintain positions on anything. This can help distinguish content issues (what do you think?) from process issues (how do you think?) to avoid problems that emerge when the two levels are confused – as in the famous instance of the schizophrenic who ate the restaurant menu and then complained that it was not, as advertised, “tasty and nutritious”. Piaget’s famous theory of intellectual development, outlined below, is an important and classic take on this set of issues.

Schemata and Intellectual Development
To a Piagetian theorist, intellectual growth and development come through the refinement of so-called schemata. A schema is a way of thinking about or understanding the world, a “lens” or “window” through which one views reality. Thus, schemata are like “mini-theories” or “mini-paradigms”, and can include so-called “metanarratives” or “superstories” that provide a comprehensive explanation of all of reality. As such, religious (and secular) views of the nature of ultimate, metaphysical reality are types of schemata.

What differentiates adults from children, to Piaget, is the development of increasingly sophisticated, increasingly nuanced, increasingly fruitful, and increasingly effective schemata. There is a detailed set of age-based predictions (a so-called stage theory) that outlines how Piaget believes all of us develop our schemata as we move from infancy to adulthood, though this isn’t our primary concern here. Interestingly, the Apostle Paul hinted at a similar idea when he wrote, “When I was a child, I thought like a child, but when I became a man, I gave up childish ways”.

Schemata are internal and mental abstractions, but they are developed to enable us to deal effectively with concrete events of an external and phenomenal nature. This interplay between schemata (our pre-existing understandings or conceptualizations of reality) and the data of concrete experience is the way in which, according to Piaget, our schemata grow and mature.

Two different processes describe how schemata and experience interact. In the first of these, assimilation, pre-existing schemata are “imposed” upon the data of experience. In simple terms, we see what we expect to see, paying attention to relevant information (that which confirms or supports an existing schema) and discount (or fail even to notice) irrelevant or disconfirming evidence (particularly that which calls a prior schema into question).

While an overemphasis on assimilation can lead to closed-mindedness or rigidity of thought, as well as prejudice and bias, in more moderate doses it plays a very important role in intellectual development. Without assimilation, our ideas would be subject to change without notice at any time and would manifest no stability - in theological terms, we would be subject to “every wind of doctrine”. Without assimilation, we could not make use of the schemata we have, and indeed might well experience total disorientation. In the famous words of William James, the world might seem to us, as James hypothesized it did to an infant, “a bloomin’, buzzin’ confusion”. Without schemata (and the process of assimilation that underlies and supports it), we could not think or reason at all.

As long as the data of experience (or other indirect forms of data, such as those drawn from the experience of others whom we have reason to trust) confirms our existing schemata, there is no reason to alter our schemata or to move out of “assimilation mode”. Sooner or later, however, all of us encounter anomalous information that cannot easily be assimilated to an existing schema. (Think of a person who believes, for whatever reason, that red-haired people are evil, but who then meets an altogether admirable and saintly redhead.) While anomalies in small numbers can be explained away with relative ease (maybe she is a skilled hypocrite, or maybe she has simply dyed her hair red and thus isn’t a “real” redhead), if the number and gravity of anomalies mount, the discrepancy between schemata and experience increase to the point that there is increasing pressure to come to terms with the storehouse of anomalous data.

When the pressure to do this becomes intolerable, a person shifts - often with surprising suddenness - to the opposite process of accommodation. This represents an adjustment in (if not a wholesale abandonment of) an existing schema to bring it in alignment with anomalous information. If sufficiently radical (in situations where one overarching schema is abandoned in favor of a dramatically different or incommensurable one), this change may take on the outward features of a sudden “conversion”.

While, as an evangelical, I believe that true conversion in the Scriptural sense of the term - call this big-C Conversion -- is not humanly explicable and requires a supernatural referent, there is little doubt that dramatic viewpoint shifts of various kinds, which we might call little-c conversions, have an obvious Piagetian explanation. Thus, there are political “conversions”, conversions to atheism or agnosticism, and the like. Some gay rights activists talk about “gay conversions” as a metaphor for the radical self-redefinition that may precede or accompany “coming out”. In essence these are all schematic or paradigm shifts of a dramatic and sudden nature; they are typically preceded by a long period of hidden struggle as the two Piagetian processes battle for supremacy. Even true religious conversion partakes of these processes, though from a supernaturalist perspective they are not fully or reductionistically explained by them.

Since intellectual development (the ongoing enhancement of our schemata) depends on a delicate balance between assimilation (mental stability) and accommodation (mental flexibility), Piaget’s theory predicts that people faced with distressing anomalies will initially resist a change to their schemata (since maintaining relative stability in our thinking is essential both to good mental health and to our ability to maneuver in a complex world), but will then -- after a “delay” or “gap” during which the balance between assimilation and accommodation is on a knife-edge -- will suddenly, sometimes even catastrophically, shift perspectives and alter one’s prior schemata. This alternation between “stubborn adherence” to a new schema and “radical abandonment” to the challenge of a new schema is characteristic of all mental development, Piagetians believe.

Implications for the Origins Debate
The battle between creationist and evolutionary models of biological (including human) origins can be seen through the lens of this Piagetian framework. (Hence, of course, Piaget’s model is itself a schema - or, as he might have suggested had he thought of it, a “meta-schema” or “super-schema” that explains the development of all other schemata.) The theory itself is neutral about the direction of probable attitude change, but given the fact that the creationist framework is more likely to play the role of the pre-existing schema for believers, as well as the current overall state of the empirical data base (though ID theorists might disagree!), the “evolutionary conversion” is probably the more likely of the two. (I have no direct data to support this contention and would welcome replies from anyone who might have such data: given that movement in both directions probably does occur, how frequent is either type of change?)

It can be argued that the theological schemata of faith (belief in an eternally sovereign and personal God, in the universality and intractability of human sin, in the unique redemption offered by Christ, in the necessity of individual salvation, and in a “high” view of Scripture) can be kept logically distinct from the scientific schemata that involve proximal and mechanistic questions of secondary causation as related to biological origins. In short, believing (as I do) in the God of the Bible does not, in itself, necessitate either belief or disbelief in evolution, though atheists presumably have no choice but to accept the evolutionary paradigm: the EC position need not be a “way station” on the road to skepticism, nihilism, and irreligion. As a result, updating one’s schemata with respect to the biology of origins may have no inevitable impact on one’s theology of origins - a topic to be explored in a subsequent article.

Questions for Discussion
1. For those among the readership who have changed their minds about biological origins over the years, do you see evidence in your own intellectual narrative that Piaget’s concepts can explain your experience? Were your changes in belief or attitude initially fostered by awkward, anomalous information that you could not easily explain? Did you initially resist the implications of that information? Did you experience a sudden shift in viewpoint at some later time, perhaps showing the “straw that broke the camel’s back” effect in your own life?

2. Do you experience or perceive this process to be irreversible, for yourself or for others you have observed? Piaget might argue that it is rare (if not impossible) for a person to move backwards in this process of intellectual development, since schemata always become more comprehensive and complex (never less so). Is there anyone among the readership who “veered and tacked” back and forth between creationist and evolutionist postures?

3. Do you agree with me that biological (scientific) schemata can be kept distinct from theological schemata, in that beliefs in one realm do not directly or necessarily dictate one’s views in the other realm? “Distinct” does not mean “entirely separate”, of course. How, in your view or your experience, do the two sets of schemata best inform or influence one another?

Copyright © 2008 - Marlowe C. Embree, Ph.D. - All rights reserved


NickM said...

Interesting essay. I have watched/participated in the evolution/creationism debate for several years, and I have tried to pay attention to what makes people change their minds and when. I haven't done a statistical analysis or anything, but my sense of it is as follows:

People change their mind on the evolution/creationism issue in a few pretty specific ways:

1. People raised as creationists & having heard and learned many reasons why evolution is wrong. For one of several reasons, often college, they learn a little bit more about geology/evolution. Often there is some definite point they discover where the creationist talking points don't add up. They don't convert to evolution instantly, but they get curious/worried and start reading about evolution/creationism, taking classes, etc. The problems with creationism grow & grow and various compromises (old-earth creationism, progressive creationism) are tried & abandoned. From there it often takes maybe a year or so of gradual adjustment to modern science and a giving up of an ultra-rigid interpretation of Genesis. Sometimes this progresses further into nonbelief, sometimes hostile nonbelife but more often ends up with theistic evolution.

2. People who convert to creationism/ID very often do it after being "born again" in the classic evangelical sense, which usually happens for personal reasons unrelated to science. This can and does happen to very good scientists, who can have crises of meaning, relationship/family crises, etc. like anyone else. When it happens to a scientist, though, sometimes they hear about the creationism/evolution issue & start getting into the creationism/ID literature and pretty soon become convinced that this stuff is great, there's a conspiracy of mainstream science against creationism/ID, etc. Almost universally these scientists don't know much about evolution, though -- i.e. they are at about the level of a half-remembered popular science book on the topic, and the creationist arguments can seem appealing when directed against that strawman of evolutionary theory.

3. Sometimes there is a reverse-born-again experience where someone starts out an evangelical and then rebels against it for various reasons. These people often reject creationism along with the rest of it. Sometimes they get into evolution and learn a lot about it, but sometimes they become basically religion-haters who bring the same heat but not much light to the evolution/creationism debate.

Obviously any categorizing wouldn't be complete, but I think these 3 categories account for 90%+ of the mind-changing that goes on, at least for the people who've gotten enough into the issue to write something about when their mind changed. I have no idea with the numbers but I think a substantial proportion of creationists change their mind around the college/youth time, whereas the born-again-type experiences can happen then but also in the 20s or 30s or often middle-age.

My 2 cents...

Marlowe C. Embree, Ph.D. said...

Am having a bit of a sleepless night, so to throw a bit more fuel on the fire, I am going to add a few random thoughts of the sort that occur to insomniac academics. In the light of day I may find that these are too scattered to do any good, but one of them may spark some additional comments from readers.

Comment 1: I could have used, as the backbone of my essay, Thomas Kuhn (The Structure of Scientific Revolutions) rather than Piaget. Those who know of his work may want to remark on his concepts. He was struck by the oscillating nature of scientific progress and viewed it as cyclical, not purely linear: alternating phases of "normal science" and "science in crisis". He used perceptual analogies: the picture of the dalmatian dog drinking from one of several rain puddles, for instance, which at first looks like a random collection of dots, until the brain "gets it" and suddenly it snaps into place. The key here is that, once having seen the dog in the picture, you can't "unsee" it. Another analogy is that of learning to read: you can't reverse the process and learn to "unread".

Comment 2: While Piaget's theory mostly accounts for intellectual change, we must also account for the lack of change. It's easy to ignore this; fans of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle will recognize this as the problem of the "curious incident of the dog in the night-time". Why do some people change their minds in the face of a given set of data, while others do not? I do not think that stubbornness or dogmatism is the answer; rather, it is that they do not "see the dog".

Comment 3: Both science and religion represent, in my view, healthy attempts to see and explain patterns (not that this is a reductionistic explanation of the origin of either, of course). But note that there are unhealthy variants of this same human tendency, as in schizophrenia. I think of the compelling movie A Beautiful Mind, in which the protagonist couldn't help but see patterns in everything (every magazine article he read contained hidden messages from the Soviets, for instance). A conventional interpretation was that he was seeing things that weren't there, but I disagree. The patterns were there, but he couldn't do what normal people do and say to himself, "Well, that's interesting; I don't see why that pattern exists, so I will just forget about it. What's on TV?" Instead he was compelled to try to explain every specific perceptual fact, which would drive anyone to madness (see Deuteronomy 29:29).

G.K. Chesterton once wrote a short story in which the protagonist tried to do just that (explain why each drop of rain on a windowpane was exactly where it was, i.e., what purpose that exact location served). He neared madness, but backed away from it. Years later, he became a pastor and engaged in a debate with an atheist, who railed him with the comment, "How can you be sure God exists? You've never been God, have you?" The cleric's reply: "In fact, I was God for fifteen minutes once, but I had to give it up - too tiring."

Perhaps in one of these sleep-deprived remarks, a reader will find food for further thought...

Steve Martin said...

Nice little summary. Good point on #3: I believe many accept evolution, simply because they believe it is the opposite of what they are rejecting (faith in God). Right conclusion, wrong reason. Ultimately this might not be a bad thing since it may lead to a good opportunity to discuss why the “warfare model” is less tenable.

For #1, I can see evidence of sudden accommodation in some areas, but maybe not as much in the evolution discussion – that was a longer, slower process. By the time I really investigated this, I’d already experienced some significant changes in theological outlook (From my point of view, I’ve become more theologically orthodox – some eg. Tim LaHaye - would no doubt disagree :-) ). Still, it was by no means a painfree process.

For #2, maybe - if the spectrum includes endpoints of “creationist” & “evolutionist” (narrowly defined). For those that narrowly limit creation to a specific “how”, and define “evolution” as an all-encompassing metaphysical framework, then there is the potential for oscillation (not just veering & tacking). My view is that we should really be discussing A) the “warfare schemata” and B) the “integration schemata” - with the river flowing downstream from A to B (if we can only convince people to get on the boats!).

For #3, it is going to be extremely tough to keep theological and biological schemata distinct when you presuppose that these schemata cannot be integrated.

Anonymous said...

#1 I picked YEC after a conference in junior high and subsequently debated my high school biology teacher for several years. In college I lost interest (much more interested in girls) but was convinced that the earth was old in a modern physics class. I went to a Christian school where the issue was rather sensitive but I didn't take any biology or geology classes at the time. After college I became increasingly interested in science, though mostly of the physics kind. But it started to bother me that practically all scientists accepted evolution as a reality. Finally, after hearing a YEC speaker come to my church, I decided to explore the issue with as open mind as I could. And it took several months, but there was definitely a moment when I suddenly believed, and it was the moment that I finally "got it", namely what would be the evidence if common descent was reality and that was exactly what we find. So intellectually it was somewhat sudden, emotionally and philosophically and especially theologically it is a very slow process, I am almost two years in and still being dragged through the turmoil.

#2 I do believe the process can be reversed, but for someone like me it is only going to be reversed by an enormous amount of observable empirical data, because that is what convinced me in the first place. And the real task will be showing why all the evidence just coincidentally all implied the reality of common descent, you're going to need a whopper of an explanation for why it just happens to look that way. And yet I have enough bias for creationism and would prefer the YEC story as it is a much simpler road on theological grounds.

I hear many stories of people converting from a YEC position to one accepting the reality of evolution. Unfortunately most of these stories are placed in the greater metanarrative of people leaving the faith altogether. In this regard I would say it was 70/30, with 70 actually learning the facts of evolution and subsequently doubting the faith, and 30 doubting their faith and therefor accepting evolution as an alternative though they know very little of it.

Then there are those who accept it and maintain their faith, though they will often not be accepted by the conservative crowd because in accommodation their views might need to be become rather liberal in areas. That would be me.

As for converting the other way, the vast majority first convert to the faith and just accept creationsism along with it. And having never studied science, when the YEC apologists come around they find it extremely convincing (this would be me in junior high). And yet there are a select few who say they really understood evolution, had degrees in biology, indeed several who claimed they taught it(!), and still converted to creationism. So far I remain unconvinced though, as when they start talking about evolution it is indistiguisable from the same evolution characture produced by AIG without any hint they actually are aware of the evidence for common descent. I suspect one of two things is going on. Most likely, they exergerate a bit since a converstion always seems more powerful when you come from the other side (like a Christian emphasising he was a athiest, or an athiest emphasizing he was a pastor). Or, maybe they did teach it and that is what they though it was....and they should sell their degree for the amount in can be burned for and sue their college for negligence.

#3 At this point, I'm leaning towards the idea that they can't be separate. Accepting evolution does indeed put stresses and have mutual exclusion with some conservative theology, specifically some early history, and this calls into question the most cherished of all conservative beliefs, the inneracy of the Bible. Not to say that evolution leads to atheism but I don't think it can be picked up and held alongside all conservative beliefs in consistency.

Marlowe C. Embree, Ph.D. said...

This article isn't getting as many comments, but those I'm getting are great! Let me briefly offer a few remarks, though I'm saving some for later when there are (maybe) more posts.

It seems that the problem stems, not from having to alter one schema, but from a disconnect between schemata (one's schema of science and one's schema of religion or faith). So, having a model for how the two might profitably interact is going to be important! I suspect that this issue has been addressed elsewhere in this site; I note only that some common models don't work well, such as (1) "science always trumps religion" (Dawkins), (2) "religion always trumps science" (some forms of YEC), or (3) "never the twain shall meet" (Gould - NOMA).

Next, I note that really this is about a deeper set of issues - not really about evolution at all, but about how something fixed (religious truth) interacts with something that is constantly in flux (scientific progress). In a sense this is about how people of faith (particularly of a "conservative" faith, that is, more orthodox than progressive) deal with the Enlightenment and modernism generally.

An article I just found today, in the most recent issue of the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, is very relevant to this question. The article asserts that the word "intellectual" has been co-opted by progressivists. Thus, while I think of myself as an intellectual (I have a Ph.D. and a high IQ, I am well-read, I teach at a university, I am a habitual learner and thinker, I love ideas, etc.), I don't qualify as an "intellectual" in the sense many use the word today because to them, the word entails unqualified acceptance of Enlightenment-based modernism (e.g., belief in religious relativism, the historical embeddedness of all faith conclusions, the idea that science is objective while faith is wholly subjective, and so forth).

It is these wider issues - not minutiae like common descent - that are the real battleground, in my view. One can harmonize evolutionary theory with a belief in Biblical inerrancy (with some difficulties); one cannot harmonize the Enlightenment with revelational theism (though theists can find much to value in some, not all, aspects of modernism).

Reactions? The authors conclude that scholars and thinkers who are also revelational theists will always experience a creative tension between the two worlds they inhabit, but that there are resolutions that don't require jettisoning either modernism (science) or theism altogether. That seems to be what this site is about.

I look forward to more from you all, as we say in southern Marathon County, Wisconsin.

Anonymous said...


I think you got the grouping spot on. I would add one additional group to your listing. I would call them the closet evolutionist. They understand evolution and the age of the earth. They have a reasonable understanding of history and pre-history. The topics aren’t everyday subjects in their world, and they really take no interest in fighting the fight.

The closet evolutionist smiles at discussions of Noah’s ark being in 2800 b.c. and they nod when people say that R.N.A structure proves you can’t have evolution. They clap when the guest speaker comes to the church to tell them all about intelligent design.

They do this because being part of the church is so much more important than this one issue. If they just keep their mouth shut, so they can be part of the Sunday school planning committee, and have tea with the woman’s group on Tuesday’s and show up for the men’s breakfast on Saturday, and be “one of the members in good standing”.

These people either throw out the scientific beliefs and jump into the YEC pot, or walk away from the church, shaking their heads.

Kyle said...

I agree that the personal model or metaschema that one develops (consciously or not) for the interaction of one's science schema and one's faith schema is a crucial and primary factor in that individual's position regarding creationism/evolution and science/faith in general.

I have a YEC friend (yes, we can be friends and disagree!) who told me that he thinks that Christians who accept evolution do so because they allow science to trump the Bible. I tried to explain to him why that was not true, and also the fact that I did not agree that the Bible (more accurately, our interpretations of the Bible) should trump science.

It is true the three models you list do not work, although they each have plenty of proponents. Then there is the agreement model which presupposes that nature and scripture are non-contradictory because they both reveal truth about reality (all truth is God’s truth). Many Christians would describe their position this way, but how this plays out in specific conclusions varies widely. For some it means that the Bible trumps science: since God's word and God's works are consistent, if science tells us something that contradicts scripture then our scientific conclusions are wrong. Or it can mean that there is an iterative interplay between scientific discovery and scriptural interpretation. It would be interesting to explore the factors in the development of this religion/science "metaschema."

I believe that one step toward a more appropriate model would be to understand that religious truth is not “fixed” and unchanging. Even Scripture contains wrestling with the meaning of experience and phenomena, especially in the person and work of Christ. I love Polkinghorne’s comparison of the tasks of science and theology (Belief in God in an Age of Science, ch 2). He lists 5 common characteristics that he observes in “quests for understanding.” 1) Moments of radical revision in which new phenomena lead to new insights, 2) periods of confusion in which old and new ideas stand in unresolved tension, 3) moments of new synthesis and understanding (new theory that can explain both old and new phenomena), 4) a continuing wrestling with unresolved problems, 5) realizations that the new theory has deep implications of a kind unanticipated when it was first conceived. He illustrates this process both with the development of quantum theory and the development of Christology (both intrabiblically and post-biblically). Come to think of it, these are pretty good illustrations of assimilation and accommodation on a corporate level, within the scientific and Christian communities.

Marlowe C. Embree, Ph.D. said...


Very interesting remarks! I will have to do some more thinking about your notion that "religious truth is not fixed". Of course in many senses that is obviously true in that there can be ongoing, deeper understandings that develop through the process of dialogue, just as in many other fields.

Yet, I am reminded of Chesterton's maxim that in order for change to qualify as progress, there must be an underlying consistency (of purpose or principle); otherwise change is merely chaos. At the heart of the evangelical tradition, it seems to me, is the emphasis on a continual return to the radical (Latin radix = root) biblical origins, and to allow contemporary theology and practice to be brought under the scrutiny of God's Word. So in that sense there is a fixed point of reference. That's all I meant.

But of course, our understandings of what God's Word really means can change and be refined by dialogue.

I'll do some more thinking about this important issue!

Kyle said...

I would rephrase what I wrote earlier to "religious knowledge is not fixed" rather than "religious truth." I realize that I picked up that phrase from your earlier post and used it in a different context. It reminded me of those who are content in their religious schema and anything that doesn't fit into this schema must be altered or opposed. In this sense their religious knowledge (personal or corporate understanding of revealed truth) is fixed and unchanging, and cannot be affected by new experiences and phenomena. Of course we need a solid and true foundation, which we have in the person of Christ and in scripture, but we know that sometimes our interpretations need to be rethought and reworked through tension with other discovered truth.

Of course your point was different in that you were discussing the Christian reaction to Enlightenment modernism. Without having read the paper you reference I don't have much to add on that point. But again Polkinghorne has something to say about the absolute objectivity of science: namely, that it is not. Here he references Polanyi's Personal Knowledge and proposes a third possibility between Enlightenment certainty and postmodern relativism. I don't remember the exact description, but it had to do with the objective scientific "facts" providing motivation for subjective theorizing and integration, activities that are not neutral, but rather value-laden. He gives the example of the physicist's search for beautifully efficient mathematical equations.

Steve Martin said...

100 points to Kyle for bringing Polkinghorne into the discussion.

Marlowe C. Embree, Ph.D. said...

I wasn't aware of the point system. It strikes me that the guest author should get some points by default. Where can the points be utilized? I could really use a new car. How many points would that require? Please advise.

Those who are interested in this question of how something that is (in some sense) "fixed" relates to something changing, F.F. Centore (mentioned in another post of mine) has an article about that in The Monist.

Lame and Blind said...

On (3), I would say that they can be and I think this is the dominant state of most theistic evolutionists. But, I would argue, that one should not be satisfied with this state and should strive to integrate the two. If indeed God is the creator, then the nature of his creation reflects his character and nature, as the Bible tells us, is a fruitful object for spiritual reflection. That includes the processes by which nature came to be. In my view, our theology must be informed by what we know about Creation, including information we arrive at by the scientific process and especially that information which is the most influential and least controversial in scientific communities. Obviously this includes evolution. If we keep the two schemata distinct, we are missing out on important chances for theological reflection.

Anonymous said...

In answer to Marlowe's questions:

(1) I think for many years, I maintained a position of cognitive dissonance. In church, I spoke like a YEC, and in school, I spoke like an evolutionist. I was partial to both sides, and accepting the conflict model of faith and science, I was reluctant to let go of either one. My tendencies were toward YEC, though. I WANTED it to be true.
Eventually, in wanting to reconcile my faith with science, I moved to accepting the Omphalos hypothesis, although this didn't last very long (a few months?). Looking back, I guess this was a sort of transitional schema between my rejection of YEC and acceptance of evolutionary creation. So yes, the jump was fast, though it involved a series of transitional steps (accomodation, I suppose).

2. As a scientist, I like to think the process is still reversable. If the majority of evidence one day pointed to a young earth sans evolution, I would accept that. But with the overwhelming amount of evidence in favour of an old earth and biological common ancestry, I just don't see it happening.

3. Ooooo... tough question. I certainly allow for some interplay between schemata. If it weren't for my committment to science, I don't think I would have come to accept the accomodationist hermeneutic that I do today. By contrast, it is my committment to God that enables me to see purpose in the universe and that reminds me to remain humble in the wake of discovery (though I could still use help with the latter ;)

Steve Martin said...


Re: importance of having a model describing how scientific & theological schemata might interact – yes, this is very important to me. I agree with “Lame and Blind”’s statement that:

If we keep the two schemata distinct, we are missing out on important chances for theological reflection.

I’m still working through this though. Two things from writers I’ve grown to appreciate a lot:

1. See this Polkinghorne quote post on the mutually enriching relationship between science & faith.

2. I also like George Murphy’s description of science being a goad for theology – eg. see abstract for his article Science as Goad and Guide for Theology

Also, here is an email response I received from him last year on the subject:

Steve -

There are several ways in which theology can influence scientists & science appropriately. The following list isn't meant to be exhaustive.

1) An understanding of what it means to say that the universe is the creation of God can motivate people to engage in deeper study of the world & attaempts to understand it. Copernicus & Kepler are a couple of prominent examples.

2) Theology can help science to understand its limits. That means in the 1st place realizing what its limits are - e.g., its inability to answer the "Why is there a universe at all?" question or deal on its own with ethical issues. But it also means getting rid of spurious limits - e.g., the notion (discussed here recently) that science can't or shouldn't deal with the origin of living things, or the notion that we shouldn't "play God" is a serious theological argument. (See, e.g., Ted Peters' book Playing God on that subject.) I.e., good theology can help to get rid of dubious ideas of popular religion, such as those implicit in the ID movement.

3) Theology can help to provide ethical standards for scientific work and for technological applications.

4) Theological concepts may suggest fruitful lines for scientific research. Thomas Torrance has suggested that Maxwell's ideas about the relationships between electricity and magnetism were suggested by Christian ideas about interpersonal relationships within the Trinity. I've suggested that theological ideas about prolepsis and God's creative work from the future should encourage scientific study on retrocausality - i.e., the possibility of transmitting information from future to past.

RBH said...

There is one more implication of the Piagetian framework that is important, particularly these days. A good part of the religious fundamentalists' strategy is to protect people, particularly children, from the anomalous inputs that might trigger a radical accommodation shift. Thus we see persistent attempts to de-emphasize or dilute the teaching of evolution in the public schools and the insulating of children (and adults) from potentially anomalous ideas through embedding in church activities, home schooling, and/or private religious schooling. All those operate to protect existing schemata and make assimilation to pre-existing schemata easier and an accommodation shift less probable by preventing or at least limiting potentially anomalous inputs. Keep 'em ignorant and they aren't in danger. This was vividly illustrated for me by an adult fundamentalist Christian who turned down my offer of Francis Collins' The Language of God when he realized that Collins accepts the fact of evolution, saying "I don't want to read something I don't agree with."

Marlowe C. Embree, Ph.D. said...


Oddly, a much more effective strategy, if one wants someone to reject a certain point of view (any point of view), is to expose that person to it in small, manageable doses. There is a theory in social psychology to that effect (so-called "inoculation theory"). The idea is that just as the body builds up antibodies by being exposed to small doses of a virus (e.g., a vaccine), the mind builds up mental resistance (or the ability to counter an idea) by being exposed to small doses of that idea, perhaps accompanied with some effective but not overstated counterarguments.

In fair uses of this strategy, the small doses are reasonable and honest, and the arguments are fair-minded (admitting that there might be some truth in the foreign idea).

In unfair uses, the small doses are deliberately distorted or caricatured, and the arguments are one-sided and dismissive of the foreign idea.

I've seen the latter, unfortunately, being done by both theists and atheists and, of course, with increasing frequency on both sides of the political aisle these days (just watch any political commercial). Why does it persist? It works in the short run (but can strongly backfire in the long run - politicians, of course, don't care about that, having already long since been elected).

RBH said...

Interesting. I hadn't heard of that strategy. I'm curious, though: What does "fair uses" mean in that context? Whether "fair" or not according your descriptions, it's still a technique for surreptitiously manipulating someone else's perceptions/schemata. Or am I misunderstanding, and there's some difference in the effects of 'fair' and 'unfair' uses? That is, does "fair" use result in something other than inoculation against the potentially anomalous information?

Incidentally, I just ran into a post on Daylight Atheism making the same basic point about insulating folks from potentially anomalous views that I did, referring to an explicit call by a young earth creationist to extend the 'bubble' of protection. Great minds ...? :)

Marlowe C. Embree, Ph.D. said...


This depends on whose ox is gored, of course, but I think if you are explicit about your goals ("I am trying to persuade you") and if you are honest in your presentation of the opposing view, it's legit. Deliberate distortion of another's views is not legitimate. Distortion that is unintentional, but that could have been avoided if the persuader were more informed her/himself, is problematic. We all have gaps in our knowledge; honest persons admit their errors and their areas of relative ignorance. For instance, my knowledge of economics is restricted to the motto, "How can I be overdrawn when I still have checks?"

I'd have to review the inoculation literature, but I believe that the general consensus is that a balanced use of the strategy is likely to lead to smaller but more lasting attitude changes, while unbalanced strategies might lead to larger but more ephemeral changes (like the "post-convention bounce" one sees after a political gathering).

I shouldn't have used the terms honest and dishonest, which presume a value consensus that may not exist in all cases. One person's Mede is another's Persian, after all.

Marlowe C. Embree, Ph.D. said...

Hm... my last post was a bit unclear, and I don't know how to get back into it and edit it (the peak of my computer prowess was during the halcyon days of the Commodore 64). So I'll just post a clarification below.

If I have (for instance) a modest tendency towards favoring YEC, a balanced use of the inoculation approach (small but accurate and two-sided presentation of pro-evolutionary data ending with a nuanced anti-evolutionary argument) should, according to theory, produce a small but relatively lasting movement towards a stronger endorsement of YEC. An imbalanced approach (small but inaccurate and one-sided presentation of pro-evolutionary data ending with a starkly anti-evolutionary argument) should, theoretically, produce a larger movement towards YEC in the short run but with a significant risk of a rebound effect later (the person might realize the argument was unfair and might move away from YEC as a result). Is that better? I've had some coffee now. Extreme attitudinal swings (the former theist who is now an extreme atheist) might be explained by this kind of process. Of course, the theory doesn't account for all attitude shifts, and does not posit that these kinds of processes entirely trump or short-circuit normal rationality. But they can skew it.

Jim Harrison said...

A couple of points from an outside perspective:

1. Evolution is a fraught idea for some religious believers. It is not an emotional issue for many nonbelievers for whom nonbelief isn't a big deal. A lot of the difference between Creationists and people who accept modern biology is not a difference between concepts of the cosmos but the difference between people for whom religion is overwhelmingly important and people whose main aim is to figure out what gives with animals and plants.

2. Part of the reason that adult creationists resist evolutionary ideas, over and beyond the perpetual misrepresentation of Darwinian ideas by highly motivated religious professionals, is simply that adults very seldom learn anything significantly novel of any kind. That is, to use Piagetian lingo in a sloppy way, they may go on assimilating new content until they die, but they don't accommodate very much since that process requires a great deal of energy.

3. When people speak about Enlightenment ideas, I have to wonder what they're really talking about. There was, after all, a Scottish Enlightenment as well as a French one, and the attitudes of the former, which continue to have salience in many intellectual disciplines, are strikingly different than those of the former. Much of the time when I get accused of carrying the taint of Enlightenment, it turns out that what is really as stake is something a lot older than that, namely the difference between the ethics of philosophy and the ethics of theology or, more simply, dialectics vs rhetoric.

Anonymous said...

Hi Marlowe,

Great stuff. Considerations such as these play a core role in the approach I outline in my book, The Design Matrix. I use Jastrow’s ambiguous figure of the Rabbit/Duck to serve as the focal point and build from there. For example:

“What is the true significance of this shift in perspective?Scientists have found the Duck to be a very insightful and productive guide to fit the pieces of data about the natural world into a coherent whole. The Duck became a useful template that not only made sense of the living world, but generated new data and understanding about life. Many would interpret this to mean that the Duck was the real image all along and the Rabbit disappeared when more data was added to clarify the ambiguous reality. Yet there is an alternative explanation. Darwin’s template created an opportunity for topdown processing, where a certain conception of reality was being used to shape perception of all possible data. As Heuer noted, “New information is assimilated to existing images.” For example, when it became clear the genetic code was not a product of chance, the Duck perspective led scientists to view this as evidence for natural selection. When molecular machines were discovered, this became evidence of the blind watchmaker’s uncanny ability to mimic a designer. The Duck causes us to see more ducks. So have scientists embraced the Duck because that is the real image? Or might the Duck simply be priming our minds to convert all ambiguity into its image?”

Anonymous said...

Here's what did it for me. I started off on the fence - an evangelical science/math geek. I didn't have a unified intellectual view that encompassed both my Christianity and my science.

Then I got a job as a computer programmer (C and C++). Over and over, as I changed computer programs, I would have to add a parameter to a function. Given code that already compiled and worked, I had to:
- add the parameter to the prototype in the header file,
- add the parameter to the function in the C file, and
- add the parameter to all the calls to the function.

Then I had code that would compile again, and worked just like it did before. To get it to actually do anything different, I would also have to change the body of the function.

After doing this a large number of times, I got this intuitive sense that evolution didn't work because you would have to change several related things, and making several related changes at random wasn't going to work. (This is essentially Behe's "irreducible complexity" from "Darwin's Black Box", but I hadn't read that yet.)

But the real killer for me was some research that I've been doing in genetic programming. (Genetic programming is programs that Darwinistically evolve.) I've been studying the rate at which programs evolve compared to the complexity of the problem that they are supposed to solve. (This is going to be hard to do in HTML, so I'm just going to do it in text.)

Let D be the density of programs that "work" (however defined) in the universe of all programs. "Density" is defined as the total number of working programs divided by the total number of all possible programs. Usually, it is not possible to determine this number, so the density is determined by a large number of samples.

Let G be the average (or, more precisely, median) number of generations needed to evolve a working program. Then, as the density of working programs decreases, the number of generations needed to evolve a working program scales as

G ~ 1 / sqrt(D).

That is, G is proportional to one over the square root of D. G actually scales slightly worse than this.

Now, my intuitive feel is that the density of "working programs" in the universe of all possible DNA sets is a really small number. Behe estimated 1e-80 (that is, 1 times 10 raised to the -80 power, or 1 divided by 10 to the 80th power) for the DNA that encoded for one protein for one aspect of blood clotting. Presuming that my results apply to biology (and genetic programming is specifically modeled on biological evolution), that gives you something like 1e40 generations (!) to evolve that one protein.

That's why I became a creationist - based on information theory.

Mike Stimpson

P.S. As I move toward publication of my research, I'm hindered because I don't have access to the genetic programming literature. That makes it really hard to do a literature search. If anyone knows of someone in that area, please let me know at mikestimpson (at) yahoo (dot) com. Thanks.

RBH said...


That would be interesting if only the "programs" of organisms were like programs in C. They aren't. Hence your analogy is misleading and the conclusion you draw from it is false. For example, your analysis has two basic assumptions that are false of biology, namely (1) that "working" programs are uniformly distributed in the space of all programs, and (2) that search is distributed randomly across that space. Here's a hint: Every current working biological "program" has as a precursor another program that is itself a working program.

Once abiogenesis has occurred, once a population of replicators with heritable variation exists and evolution begins, then every subsequent working program has a precursor that was itself a working program. Search is not distributed randomly across the space of all possible programs but rather is confined to the vicinity of already existing working programs.

So you have to push your analysis back to abiogenesis, where the issues are biochemical and geochemical questions, not biological evolution. What you have described is not a critique of biological evolution. It is in fact irrelevant to biological evolution.

RBH said...

In the last paragraph I should have written "What you have described is not a model of biological evolution."

RBH said...

One more addendum:

Mike, if you want to learn about modeling biological processes, this book is a good place to start. Simply reading about applied genetic algorithms in the search literature will not give you enough background in biological evolutionary processes to imagine that you can build a model of biological evolution. You really do have to study the biology. Makes sense, doesn't it, to study the phenomena you want to model before trying to build a model, no? I'd hate to try to model a domain of phenomena without knowing anything beyond a few stray factoids about the domain of interest.

Steve Martin said...

Mike Stimpson:
Welcome. Since my own background is mathematics & computer science, your approach resonates with me. I have even asked for equations describing how evolutionary mechanisms can physically account for the complexity of life on earth. A couple of quick points (this discussion is very interesting but not really the topic of the current post):

- I believe we do not currently have enough information to even start building equations that will definitively solve this problem. Still much to be discovered.

- However, the demonstrations (eg. Behe) used to critique evolution are (I believe) fundamentally flawed. RBH provides one example above. Also, check out Stephen Matheson’s blog and search for “Behe” for other critique’s.

Also, I call myself a creationist because I believe in a Creator. I don’t believe the “how” of that creating (the evidence suggests evolution) is really relevant.

Anonymous said...

Hi Marlowe,

Let me again stress that your posting is excellent and of central importance. You write:

“In the first of these, assimilation, pre-existing schemata are “imposed” upon the data of experience. In simple terms, we see what we expect to see, paying attention to relevant information (that which confirms or supports an existing schema) and discount (or fail even to notice) irrelevant or disconfirming evidence (particularly that which calls a prior schema into question).”

This is a point I have been stressing for years. I have also added the topics of both confirmation and disconfirmation bias to the table. Why is this so important? First, most people who are part of the debate (from both sides) conflate evidence with data. That is, they treat evidence as if it is part of the objective world. Second, this confusion then becomes especially problematic if we are dealing with an ambiguous subject, where the ambiguity is artificially erased because people confuse “evidence” with the light of their schemata. In such cases, social considerations such as peer pressure and group think can propel people to downplay the ambiguity because they think it is the “evidence” telling them to do so. In other words, one theme to explore is the effect of pre-existing schemata in a *social setting.*

You also wrote:

“As long as the data of experience (or other indirect forms of data, such as those drawn from the experience of others whom we have reason to trust) confirms our existing schemata, there is no reason to alter our schemata or to move out of “assimilation mode”. Sooner or later, however, all of us encounter anomalous information that cannot easily be assimilated to an existing schema. (Think of a person who believes, for whatever reason, that red-haired people are evil, but who then meets an altogether admirable and saintly redhead.) While anomalies in small numbers can be explained away with relative ease (maybe she is a skilled hypocrite, or maybe she has simply dyed her hair red and thus isn’t a “real” redhead), if the number and gravity of anomalies mount, the discrepancy between schemata and experience increase to the point that there is increasing pressure to come to terms with the storehouse of anomalous data.”

And here we find the reason why so many people, on both sides of the origin debate, embrace “god-of-the-gaps.” A gap is anomalous information and both sides need the gap in order to force accommodation. This is easy to see in the case of many creationists and IDists, who insist phenomena exist that cannot be explained by evolution. But their critics likewise demand such gaps. For example, over the years I have asked them what type of data might exist that would cause them to suspect life was designed. Almost all struggle with this question, but when pressed, most they say they need something that evolution cannot explain. They ridicule a search for gaps while at the same time demand such gaps. Without gaps, they continue to see what they expect to see.

My approach, in contrast, is not gap-centric.

Lame and Blind said...

A gap in a theory and something the theory cannot explain are not the same thing. There are often 'gaps' in a theory which are gaps because the relevant evidence is not available yet. Nevertheless, the remainder of the theory might suggest what that evidence should look like according to the theory. This is called making predictions and it is a necessary property of a good scientific theory. But a gap in and of itself says nothing in favor of or against a theory. What would be troublesome for evolution would be actual facts that could not be explained by it. It is very easy to imagine what these facts would be - a single bird fossil that predates all dinosaur fossils, for instance, would destroy evolutionary theory altogether. No such evidence exists. While evolution has encountered challenges and continues to, these have all involved reconsiderations of particular aspects of the theory. Nothing we have discovered threatens the core assumptions of the evolution: common descent by mutation and natural selection.

Cliff Martin said...

Excellent essay and comment thread. My own "conversion" happened with relative ease in my 50s, after years of reading everything YEC I could get my hands on, and teaching it. I came first to accept Old Earth, then a few years later, Evolution. Two factors served to facilitate my schema shift.
1) I was trained in H.S. and college in Debate, and thus I always attempt to understand "the other side," and
2) I am a natural iconoclastic, independent minded, rebel, who tends to gravitate toward minority views.
If I keep these two factors in perspective, it helps me to exercise patience toward those who refuse to look into the telescope.

Marlowe C. Embree, Ph.D. said...

Re the comment on "gaps", I think that negative evidence can indeed be fatal to a theory. Wasn't it the lack of observed "aether drift" that led to the demise of pre-Einsteinian physics?

Yet, as Kuhn reminds us, it is only the accumulation of unexplained anomalies (beyond a certain threshold level) that leads to a paradigm shift - never a single anomaly, since all schemata necessarily involve some anomalies. But I'm not sure that positive anomalies (contradictory data) "count more" than negative anomalies (the lack of data at a point where data would be expected or theoretically predicted).

The human mind tends to weight positive anomalies more, but I think this is a mere cognitive bias, however pervasive.

Thus, while rabbit fossils in the Precambrian would certainly be a serious problem for evolutionary biology, I think that those who argue that (for instance) transitional forms are less frequent in the fossil record than anticipated are making a reasonable argument. I'm not at all saying that this is a strong argument (and am not making such an argument myself), only that it is within the general spirit of confirming or disconfirming a theory.

Notice that creationists and evolutionists set the evidentiary bar at very different places, because that too is schema-driven. Sometimes we are arguing about evidences, sometimes about the weight one would give to those evidences (including the absence of information as a kind of "evidence").

Jim Harrison said...

In my experience very few working biologists or paleontologists think there is a shortage of transitional fossils--polemicists usually make the contrary claim by dint of quote mining. There certainly are gaps in the record, but no more than would be expected granted the enormous depth of time and what is known about taphonomy, the science that studies how fossilization takes place. The fact that gaps are frequently mentioned in the Creationist and ID literature doesn't reflect their salience for working scientists, at least for the one's I've talked to.

By the way, Kuhn's work is hardly holy writ: proof texts aren't relevant in the philosophy business. Anyhow, although Kuhn is well known in middlebrow culture, he doesn't have much of reputation left among professional philosophers and historians of science. That's a bit unfair--so much work has been done since the publication of the Structure of Scientific Revolutions that his scholarship is bound to look pretty primitive now despite the waves it made at the time. Still, if you can nail down what the heck a paradigm really is, you're a better man than I am. I do a fair amount of technical editing and routinely flag the word "paradigm" because it has lost most of what meaning it ever had.

O, and if you read Einstein's 1905 paper, the one that introduced special relativity, you will find that it makes no mention of ether drift. Einstein begins with a theoretical problem he finds in Maxwell's equations. The notion that the Michelson/Morely experiment was crucial to Einstein is something of a high-level urban legend. (See Gerald Holton's Thematic Origins of Modern Science for details.) I mention this point because the ether drift story reinforces an oversimplified version of how science works. Apologists are fond of theories that emphasize fatal anomalies because they dream of the decisive experiment or discovery that will junk the science they dislike with no further muss or fuss.

Steve Martin said...

On the fossil record, Keith Miller' essay in Perspectives on an Evolving Creation addresses 2 common erroneous claims about the fossil record:

1) that it is so incomplete as to be of no value in interpreting patterns and trends in the history of life

2) that it is so good that we should expect a relatively complete record of the details of evolutionary transitions within all or most lineages.

On #1, it is valuable & continues to be so, mostly confirming previous ideas but also often helping us rearrange the tree of life.

On #2, he addresses why fossilization is relatively rare & thus having a completed tree is virtually impossible. (Unless of course, on uses the time-viewer ii Arthur Clarke's "In the Light of Other Days" :-) ).

Anonymous said...


Thank you for covering this topic. Regarding "conversions", each side claims that more exposure to the topic results in conversion. Dembski claimed his class had a %100 rejection level of Darwinian evolution after reading Michael Denton's "Evolution a theory in Crisis".

Will Provine at Cornell said he detected minor changes in the composition of his classes after he argued the case for evolution....

It would be interesting to measure the effect depending on the format of the "exposure". The people on the creation side think the most effect format for their case would long protracted debates with equal time allotted to each side and the best representatives of each side participating.

As far as professed "converstions" from Darwinism to ID or creation we have: Bill Dembski, Michael Behe, Henry Morris, Walter Brown..these are not minor names in the ID and Creation Science movements.

I myself was a theistic evolutionist and Roman Cathtolic. I became an Evangelical Christian, then an old Earth Creationist then a quasi YEC. ,

The schemata I learned to apply was that of the proof methods used in math, physics, and engineering. I have become less intuitive over time, and more logical.

I learned to become skilled at playing certain card games through the use of logic rather than intuition. Same thing goes for flying airplanes. Intuitive "schmemata" are inappropriate to be successful at these endeavors (playing certain card games and flying airplanes)....

I learned that evoutionary biologists do not have well-developed logical schemata that we see in other disciplines. Defenders of evolution that have math backgrounds regularly abandon the schemata's that they have in their own discipline in order to accept Darwinian beliefs. I know a Darwinain mathematician, who, when being called upon will be reluctant to use mathematics to defend Darwinian evolution. Creationists on the other hand are quite ready to transplant their mathematical schemata's to defend the creationis case.

The acceptance level of ID and creation is higher among those with certain schemata, most notably Engineers and Medical Doctors! The engineering schemata is unsurprising....Design is their whole career!

Evolution has a high acceptanc rate probably among fiction writers relative to engineers. They have different schemata.

Anonymous said...

One can believe in God and Science without contradiction, for example:

Letter from Thomas Jefferson to John Adams

Monticello, April 11, 1823

The truth is that the greatest enemies to the doctrines of Jesus are those calling themselves the expositors of them, who have perverted them for the structure of a system of fancy absolutely incomprehensible, and without any foundation in his genuine words. And the day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus, by the supreme being as his father in the womb of a virgin will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter.

But we may hope that the dawn of reason and freedom of thought in these United States will do away with all this artificial scaffolding, and restore to us the primitive and genuine doctrines of this the most venerated reformer of human errors.