Science and Theology

Last night, our church hosted a discussion on Science and Theology as the final installment of our Living Faithfully series.  As I listened to the talk, I thought it might be interesting to provide some of the resources that have shaped my own thinking in this area.  To make a long story short, I entered the ministry after six years studying Biology and Molecular Biology, so it has been an important thing in my faith to integrate these two fields that are sometimes seen as polar opposites.

Here are a few books and a resource that have been helpful to me:

There are many more, and some that are much more specific and in depth.  If there’s a field you’re curious about specifically, either leave a comment or contact me and I can give you more detail.

Are we Sims?

According to Nick Bostrom, a philosopher at Oxford University, there is about a 20% chance that we’re nothing more than characters in a large simulated universe ran by sentient beings of the future. This proposal is briefly explained in the New York Times article, Our Lives, Controlled From Some Guy’s Couch.

While this highly speculative theory is very interesting, it seems to be less imaginative than one might imagine. Think about it. To me, this seems to be a modern or post-modern example of Feuerbach’s old claim that God is simply humanity’s desire writ large – i.e. God is a projection of our desires. In this case, however, the very metaphysic of the universe is our current technology writ large. Computer simulations are a reality in our world, Bostrom seems to argue, so who’s to say we aren’t simply part of a grander more elaborate computer simulation of the future?! Is this any different than early humans believing that storms, earthquakes, etc. were gods in some way?

In the end, I think our faith can hold up to these kinds of critiques, because Jesus simply does so many things that I don’t want to do. Who wants to love or forgive their enemies? I don’t. Who wants to give up their life to save it? Not me. If my deepest desires were written large upon the universe, the God of my invention would look a whole lot different. Wouldn’t yours? So, I think there is something important about the fact that God’s difference is revealed to us by the very paradoxical claims of Christ revealed through Scripture. There is something that refutes the Feuerbachian claim in the very fact that our calling is so often conflicted with our intuition and desire. Yet at the same time, when we pursue God’s call to live in this counter-intuitive way we are given peace that surpasses understanding.

So, I guess I’m not worried that we’re simply Sims after all.

Religion, Science, and Naturalism

Back in 2003, I did a book review of Religion, Science, & Naturalism by Willem Drees . I haven’t posted much on science and religion (one of my great interests), so I thought I’d dust this off and share it.

Religion, Science, and NaturalismWilliem Drees hopes to develop an understanding of religion in a world that is understood scientifically. Science, for Drees, is descriptive of reality as a whole and is the preeminent way that we gain information about our world. Even in the introduction Drees argues that challenges from science should result in religious changes.
He argues that the most adequate view of the world is naturalism, specifically a ‘hard naturalism’ where human behavior is viewed as one of many objective events in nature.

Interestingly, he admits this description of his view of reality is a metaphysical position that involves several aspects: a.) there is no supernatural realm distinct from the natural world b.) all entities made of same constituents, c.) physics give us the best available description of reality, d.) description or explanation of phenomena may require concepts beyond physics because of additional complexity of interactions, and e.) fundamental physics and cosmology form a boundary where questions (that he calls limit questions) about the naturalist perspective arise.

From this Drees argues that religion should be approached in the same way as all human phenomena. He believes that eventually all human behavior will be describable from a behavioral standpoint. From here, Drees gives a chart that describes the interaction of theology (from Lindbeck’s three categories) with new advances in science.

Since one of the prevailing metaphors in the science theology debate is the ‘conflict metaphor’, Drees gives us a brief history of the interaction between religion and science using the ‘Galileo incident’ and the development of Darwinian evolution. With the ‘Galileo incident’ we see a good description of the major issues regarding hermeneutics and exegetical authority that lay behind the typical presentation seen when representing the ‘conflict’ between science and theology. Here Drees points out that members of the Church and the Academy were on both sides of the argument and the entire affair was much more complex than is commonly believed.

He then describes the debate of Huxley and Wilberforce regarding Darwinian evolution with the same thick description. Drees reminds the reader that the conflict was as much an inter-disciplinary rivalry as a conflict between science and theology.  Once again we see that there are members of the Church and the Academy on both sides of the issue. This is an interesting and important chapter, but as we see further in the book it appears Drees wants to do more than reduce the conflict between the two fields.

Drees then begins a discussion of theology and knowledge of the world. This discussion begins with divine action and the challenges presented especially by the overwhelming lawful behavior of natural processes. Here, he describes and interacts with a few modes of divine action. First is Polkinghorne’s understanding of divine action in unpredictable processes where God exerts a non-physical informational input into undetermined processes thus influencing causal events. Drees disagrees with this argument by stating that we cannot say that there is divine causality in unpredictability and describes this as a remnant of God-of-the-gaps even though it is not an epistemological gap.

He then interacts with the ‘top-down causation’ of Peacocke and others. Here God exerts control in the world-as-a-whole in an analogous way to the mind asserting control over the body. Drees disagrees with this approach as well and points to two ‘gaps’ that he believes might be legitimate for God’s activity: human subjectivity and the existence of the world. As a whole, Drees seems very skeptical about the entire program of the integration of science and theology.

Drees then begins a description of theology and knowledge of human nature. Here he goes into a few details regarding experience and the naturalistic explanation resulting from modern advances in the neurosciences. From here, we see a discussion of the evolution of traditions: specifically morality and religion. Here he argues that the evolutionary view of morality need not be in conflict with the overall benefit of morals in a society. In the area of religious evolution, he describes a few different models including the view that God ‘is natural selection’ and the prophetic view of what is and what ought to be that is intrinsic to the human person.

Finally, we see the author announce his position on science, naturalism, and religion. Unfortunately, this is not as rewarding as one might hope. Science is the preeminent cognitive exercise. It can be understood naturally without losing significance. Reality is naturalistic. Religion is simply a phenomenon within that reality. Although he writes that seeing religious as functional does not deny the reference to reality, what appears is a very limited view of God and religion.

For Drees, religion turns out to be a functional necessity of evolution that keeps us from being too aggressive in our post-hunter/gatherer societies and God is an ultimately transcendent non-temporal possibility. Give me a break.

The promise of answers to the limit questions proposes throughout by Drees (why is there something rather than nothing, etc.?) turns out to be limited as well. God may be behind the whole process, and we can have a sense of wonder at existence and see this as a version of faith. We end with Drees admission that he is from a particular tradition, that of liberal European Christianity, and thus participates in this particular ‘form’ of relating to the ‘great’ transcendent God. Although this is not particularly better than any other form, it is important that we analyze these traditions in our new evolutionary contexts, and reform them in the light of modern science. In my opinion, Drees goes a long way to say that he is a naturalistic Deist.

Christian Objections to Intelligent Design

Francis Collins, one of our leading geneticists and the longtime head of the Human Genome Project, has a new book, The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief. The book gives an interesting account of Collins’ journey to the Christian faith and is an exploration of his thoughts on the interaction between faith and science. He doesn’t offer any revolutionary insights, but does talk about many interesting topics in a manner that is very accessible for the novice who is interested in this field.

One thing Collins describes is very helpful. Many people have asked me why a scientist who is a Christian would ever be opposed to intelligent design, and I haven’t been able to give a concise answer to that question. Collins offers a very helpful chapter on just that, and I’ll summarize some of his points below. All of this information is summarized from Collins’ book (pp. 181-195).

Intelligent design (ID), in its current form, is about 15 years old. It appeared in 1991 when Phillip Johnson, a Christian lawyer at UC Berkeley, published Darwin on Trial which first laid out the position. Michael Behe, a biochemist, introduced the idea of irreducible complexity (a key to the ID position) in the book Darwin’s Black Box.

ID has roughly three propositions

  1. Evolution promotes an atheistic worldview and therefore must be resisted by believers in God.
  2. Evolution is fundamentally flawed, since it cannot account for the intricate complexity of nature (e.g. bacterial flagellum, the blood coagulation complex, and the process of vision in the eye).
  3. If evolution cannot explain irreducible complexity, then there must have been an intelligent designer involved somehow, who stepped in to provide the necessary components during the course of evolution.

Collins admits these objections appear compelling, but goes on to present scientific objections to ID. First, he suggests ID fails to even qualify as a scientific theory. Theories not only make sense of experimental observations, but look forward as well. ID simply cannot suggest further experimental verification. “Outside the development of a time machine, verification of the ID theory seems profoundly unlikely.”

Second, “ID theory does not provide a mechanism by which the postulated supernatural intervention would give rise to complexity.” Further damaging ID theory is the recent development in cell and molecular biology whereby irreducible complexity is being shown not to be reducible after all. Collins suggests ID proponents have confused the unknown with the unknowable. For instance, the human blood clotting cascade (which I had the privelege of working on during my graduate studies) is slowing becoming understood as a system that has developed incrementally over time.

“So,” Collins concludes, “ID fails to hold up, providing neither an opportunity for experimental validation nor a robust foundation for its primary claim of irreducible complexity.” For Collins, ID is slowing being revealed to be a complicated “God of Gaps” approach where God is ascribed to various natural phenomena that the science of the day is unable to sort out. Futhermore, he believes that ID,

“portrays the Almighty as a clumsy Creator, having to intervene at regular intervals to fix the inadequacies of His own initial plan for generating the complexity of life. For a believer who stands in awe of the almost unimaginable intelligence and creative genius of God, this is a very unsatisfactory image (p. 194).”

Collins closes this chapter with admiration for the sincerity and faith of those who endorse and advance intelligent design. He also admits to undertsanding ID as a reaction of those who have faced outspoken evolutionists who portray evolutionary theory as demanding atheism. He then closes the chapter with these words, “To the believer and the scientist alike, I say there is a clear, compelling, and intellectually satisfying solution to this search for truth (p. 195).”  In the following chapter, Collins lays out his understanding of science and faith in harmony – a synthesis known in many circles as Theistic Evolution.  Perhaps I’ll outline that on another day.  What do you think of Collins’ response to ID?

Strange Coincidence

I was feeling really sick, because I hadn’t eaten much for breakfast. Luckily, I was in a city nearby that has a McDonalds (my community has one tiny diner). I got a few chicken strips and started to drive away.

All of a sudden, one of my college biology professors walked right in front of my car! Amazing, considering he lives in a town an hour and a half away from where I saw him. So, since I hadn’t seen him in about 8 years, I got out and called out his name. He turned around and acted as if we had seen each other just yesterday.

Now, this isn’t too surprising since we worked together in the lab all the time and I was one of the first students in a research scholarship program that he was in charge of. The surprise was that he had just been recruiting at a nearby junior college, and said only twenty minutes before he had mentioned my name as a student who had went through the program. So we spent time catching up, talked a little science and theology, and marveled at this chance encounter. Man, this happens so often to me it’s scary!

Science and Theology: Rumble in LaJolla

“The world needs to wake up from its long nightmare of religious belief…” So says Steven Weinberg in a very interesting article on Science and Religion in today’s New York Times. In a meeting in LaJolla, CA a group of scientists met for discussion under the banner: “Beyond Belief: Science, Religion, Reason and Survival.” Richard Dawkins was probably the most famous attendee and spent time promoting his newest book, “The God Delusion.” Yet when he described religious education as “child-abuse” and “brainwashing,” he was somewhat chastised by fellow skeptic Melvin J. Konner as simplistic and uninformed. Dr. Weinberg went so far as to comment, ““Anything that we scientists can do to weaken the hold of religion should be done and may in the end be our greatest contribution to civilization.” Dr. Konner, an anthropologist, commented against the extremist remarks when he warned speakers such as Hawkins, ““I think that you [Sam Harris, a doctoral student and author of “The End of Faith: Religion, Terror and the Future of Reason”] and Richard are remarkably apt mirror images of the extremists on the other side…you generate more fear and hatred of science.”

Before entering full-time Christian ministry, I was a doctoral student in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, earning a master’s degree before leaving the program. As a result, these conversations are of great interest to me. Some studies have shown that the percentage of scientists in the United States who are believers is roughly equal to that of the general population. I believe much of what took place at this conference is motivated by far more than devotion to pure science, because it seems that scientific inquiry is thrown out the window when sweeping statements are made that embrace radical materialism. There are several scientists cum theologians who offer very interesting views that seek to reconcile these two disciplines, and I believe they should at least have a voice in these debates. To be fair, geneticist Francis Collins was invited to this event. However, the voices of folks like John Polkinghorne were nowhere to be found.

This is an area where we need to invest a great deal of work and conversation. Neither blind faith without accounting for scientific data nor scientific materialism without counting for human faith will be a intellectually responsible path. As a person with roots in both camps, I hope I can have a positive impact on these conversations in the communities I serve.