5Q :: Former UMD professor tackles the universe’s big question(s)By University of Wyoming professor Ron Frost’s calculation, the debate between scientists and Christians over evolution has been going on in the United States since at least the “Scopes monkey trial” in the ’20s.
By University of Wyoming professor Ron Frost’s calculation, the debate between scientists and Christians over evolution has been going on in the United States since at least the “Scopes monkey trial” in the ’20s.
“Over more than 80 years it has lost none of its vitriol,” the Wyoming geologist and Buddhist (and one-time UMD teacher) wrote on his website. “I contend that the debate persists because the proponents of both sides see only a partial view of reality. Thus, although each side has some valid points to make in the debate, each also makes big mistakes in applying their views to reality as a whole.”
He’s not just getting into the thick of it for fun — he’s got a book to promote! “Religion vs. Science” (lengthy subtitle: “Where Both Sides Go Wrong in the Great Evolution Debate”) will be released in December by O-Books.
To find out why anyone in their right mind would get between those two warring factions on the most sensitive of topics, we asked a few questions of the brave educator:
Budgeteer: Many would argue that religion and science are mutually exclusive. So I’m sure some people are wondering: Why even attempt to find a common ground between the two?
Frost: In my book, I argue that science and religion are complementary ways of viewing the world. Most of us would recognize that our view of reality consists of two parts: the objective features of the world “out there” and our subjective response to it.
I maintain that science is the study of the objective world, whereas religion is the study of our subjective response to reality. It is easy to see how science is a study of the objective world, because you cannot study something you cannot see, measure or weigh.
Although many religious people believe there is an objective basis to their religion, I maintain that the religious experience itself is entirely subjective. Religions use various techniques to open their practitioners to transcendent reality, be it contemplative prayer for Christians and Jews or meditation for Buddhists.
Whatever technique one uses, however, the result is a religious experience that is profoundly subjective. If one accepts the premise that science and religion are fields that study different aspects of reality, then it is obvious that they are complementary, not contradictory. To be a fully integrated human you have to honor — and perhaps study — both fields.
Obviously evolution is a touchy subject for millions of Americans. During your research, did you ever run into any “brick walls” trying to interview people on either side of the debate?
You bet. I have found absolutists on both sides.
In fact, the reasoning you find in militant, young “Earth creationists” is very much like that of the militant atheists. Both types of absolutists stick their heads in the sand whenever the arguments get too close to home.
For example, I will tell atheists that the world’s religious literature is full of firsthand reports of the religious experiences, which is solid evidence for the existence of a spiritual dimension. They will answer that the religious experience is simply a hallucination and lies in the same family as mental illness; this is a pretty bold statement to make for people who have never had the experience themselves.
When I describe my religious experiences to them, they look at me askance, as if I too am mad. In a very similar manner, creationists have told me that the overwhelming evidence for the antiquity of [our planet] is not valid to arguments over evolution because when God made Earth he made it to be already old.
I was a little confused when you said there were aspects of your mind that occurred from outside your ego. Can you explain how that affects how one would interpret the scientific evidence for evolution?
We all have experiences of insight, inspiration and creativity that appear suddenly in our minds.
To atheists, such experiences are simply the result of some random neurons firing in your brain. All religions maintain that such experiences are examples of our interaction with a transcendent reality. God, Allah, Brahman … call it what you may.
Buddhist meditation, for example, works to quiet the activity of the ego so that insight will spontaneously arise. When it arises, it is quite clear to the practitioner that insight is fundamentally different from the chatter that continually arises from the ego.
Most academics like to dismiss anti-evolutionists with two words: Creation Museum. Considering the existence of that Kentucky “museum” alone, do you honestly believe there is any hope that diehards on either side will read your book and potentially try to see where their “adversaries” are coming from?
I do not think my book will have any effect on the absolutists from either camp.
As I noted [earlier], they have already developed defensive mechanisms that keeps them from having to acknowledge any arguments that might threaten their cherished dogma.
However, I hope that there is a large population in the middle of the spectrum that will appreciate the arguments in my book.
This will include spiritual people who are willing to accept the facts presented by science but who are dismayed that somehow science cannot recognize the existence of a spiritual dimension. It should also include scientists who are willing to accept that there is more to reality than the objective world.
Finally, on a lighter note, how is life in Laramie? When you’re not diving into some of the most vitriolic arguments outside of abortion, how do you relax and spend your free time?
You may know that I spent a year in Duluth as a visiting assistant professor at the University of Minnesota Duluth back in 1976. I loved Duluth and would have been thrilled if there had been a permanent position for me, but I had to move on and eventually landed in Laramie.
Though it is much smaller than Duluth, I find that Laramie has many similarities to Duluth. True, it has a drier and sunnier climate than Duluth, but the people of the two cities are incredibly friendly.
I think that they are drawn together by the harsh winter that both localities have. The citizens of both cities also have an enduring love for the out-of-doors.
As for me, I spend my free time in the winter skiing. I am on the ski patrol in our local ski area, so I usually average 10 to 20 ski days a year. In the summer I spend a lot of time doing fieldwork. This involves wandering across the Wyoming mountains studying the rocks and trying to put together a coherent history of the ancient Earth that is recorded in these rocks.
To an outside observer, this would look like aimless hiking, since I wander from outcrop to outcrop in an apparently random manner.
When I am not doing fieldwork, I take canoe trips. Canoeing in the West is not like what you are used to in Minnesota: The rivers here are muddy and flow through arid country. The muddy water is made up by the fact that many of the rivers flow through beautiful canyons or at the base of spectacular mountains.
Frost’s video interview with UWTV’s “Wyoming Signature Series”