May Membership Meeting: Myers Draws a Full House
by George Kane
Our public meeting in May was our largest of the year, with over 100 people turning out to hear the American Humanist Association’s Humanist of the Year and celebrated science blogger P. Z. Myers tackle the question of whether science and religion can coexist. Myers answered that question at the very outset of his presentation, declaring that religion and science can coexist “in the same way as humans and tapeworms.” That is, religion is only a drain to science, and never has anything of value to contribute to it.
Myers provided historical examples as illustrations. The science of astronomy took a major leap forward with the development of giant telescopes by men such as William Herschel, who found stars and galaxies where the sky was thought to be empty, showing that the universe is boundless. Theists and philosophers had thought that the stars were fixed on heavenly spheres not too far from Earth, since they did not have tools for empirical analysis like the large optical telescopes that Herschel introduced.
Similarly, the empirical processes of science resolved the argument between preformation and epigenesis. Preformationism, which originated with ancient Greek philosophers, held that a plant or animal can develop from an egg or spore because a model of the adult form exists in it. That is, the fact that a chicken can come from an egg proves that the egg must have in it somewhere a tiny model of chickens. That satisfied the abstract ruminations of philosophers, but did not stand up to actual observations of plant and animal development. Epigenesis, a theory developed by biologists that replaced preformationism, explains the development of a plant or animal from an egg or spore, as a sequence of steps in which cells differentiate and organs form, without a preexisting model.
Contemporary biology is dominated by the ideas of common descent and natural selection, which Darwin introduced after years of detailed observation. They of course conflict with the religious notion of divine creation, which is supported only by myth. Nevertheless, in America today, the religious viewpoint still has abundant popular support in opposition to science. But despite the widespread support for religion, despite the heated arguments brought against so many branches of science, only one side in the argument employs methods that have proved to be productive in determining the facts of material reality. To those who wage a war against science, Myers issued a challenge: Name a single example of religion providing an insight into the natural world that cannot be proved by science? If there are none, then religion has no value in providing knowledge of the world.
After the presentation, there was a lively question-and-answer session. At 4:00, a large contingent drove to Q.Cumbers for dinner. The monthly public meetings are on vacation for the summer months, replaced by the picnics in Columbia Park. The next public meeting in the series will be held in September.