Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Science & Religion: a second and historical look

Turns out, Christianity and science have walked further together than apart, at least that is the message of Profs. David Lindberg and Ronald Numbers. Taking on directly the popular and prevalent view that science and religion have always been at war with each other, Lindberg and Numbers maintain that historical investigation suggest otherwise. “Although it is not difficult,” they write, “to find instances of conflicts and controversy . . . recent scholarship has shown the warfare metaphor to be neither useful nor tenable.”[1]

The thread of antagonism they trace back to an American historian named Andrew Dickson White. White taught at the University of Michigan and served in the New York Senate before assuming the presidency of Cornell University, where he refused to impose any religious examination of students. He wanted to create an asylum for science, and some pious citizens did not approve. Therefore, in 1869, a thirty-seven year old White began a white-hot, lifelong anticrusade on behalf of science and against dogmatism, culminating in his two-volume History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom.

History of the Warfare has been amazingly successful in the intervening century. Translated into German, Italian, French, Swedish, and Japanese, it is still in print today. Not only, but modern historians still defend its conclusions. Bruce Mazlish, for example, has written in favor of White’s conclusions, saying that they are “beyond reasonable doubt,” a declaration to which the Harvard historian George Sarton would agree. Sarton went so far as believe that White’s thesis should be levied against non-Christian cultures.

Nevertheless, despite its dazzlingly dense references and “military rhetoric,” History of the Warfare is eisegetic in its interpretations. White was wrong, and Lindberg and Numbers are out to prove him so.

White claimed that Christianity “arrested the normal development of the physical sciences for over fifteen hundred years” crushing its appearance under the boot of superstition and ignorance. Is this true?

Lindberg and Numbers, beginning with the church fathers, find a more complicated truth. As it turns out, the church fathers took on the approach toward science that characterized the pagan cultures in which they lived. Some ignored science. Others believed that it had its place. Augustine, for example, believed that, though science could not dictate dogma, it should be respected in its sphere.[2]

It frequently happens that there is some question about the earth or the sky or the other elements of this world, the movement revolutions or even the size and distance of the stars, the regular eclipses of the sun and the moon, the course of the years and seasons; the nature of the animals, vegetables and minerals, and other things of the same kind, respecting which one who is not a Christian has knowledge derived from the most certain reasoning or observation. And it is highly deplorable and mischievous and a thing especially to be guarded against that he should hear a Christian speaking of such matters in accordance with Christian writings and uttering such nonsense that, knowing him to be as wide of the mark as . . . east is from west, the unbeliever can scarcely restrain himself from laughing.[3]

Christian apologists also found science useful—and their use of it helped preserve and extend what science was available in often tumultuous times. Science aided theology. Science was its handmaiden—a position far different from White, who would say they were enemies. As it is, “Christianity was not the enemy [of science], but a valued (if not entirely reliable) servant.” They worked in tandem with each other, and often the exchange was beneficial.[4]

One benefit of the relationship was that science gave Christianity categories which allowed it to dialogue with the world. “The notion that any serious Christian thinker would even have attempted to formulate a world view from the Bible alone is ludicrous.” Theologians could adapt parts of a worldview that are, well, worldly from the natural philosophy at their disposal. In the thirteen century, for example, theologians busily integrated Aristotelian categories, taking on it physical, metaphysical, and cosmological and integrating them with creedal fundamentum. This synthesizing process culminated in the condemnations of 1270 and 1277, whereby theologians and philosophers were forbidden to pursue certain Aristotelian positions, such as pure determinism.

Interestingly enough, Lindberg and Numbers deny that these condemnations prove intrinsic warfare. They maintain that the condemnations allowed thought to run outside the shadow of Aristotle. Fourteenth century attacks on Aristotelian dogma led to new questions, such as the rotation of the earth on its axis. Questions which otherwise may have languished. Further, the authors state the the condemnations also turned scientific questioning away from fruitless rationalism.

A central concern of the condemnation was the desire to preserve the sovereignty of God over creation. God is omnipotent over the material world, and this means that the physical laws that govern it are subject to the will of their creator and can be changed if necessary. And that meant that an investigation into underlying causes could very well be a fool’s errand.

The condemnations generated a certain skepticism about the ability of the human mind to penetrate with certainty to the underlying causes of observed events; this attitude encouraged the view that science should restrict its attention to empirical fact. . . . Four hundred years later, the idea of God’s absolute sovereignty and its corollary, the total passivity of matter, became central features of Isaac Newton’s mechanistic world view.”[5]

Lindberg and Numbers pursue their argument into the affairs of Copernicus and Galileo. In the case of Copernicus and the publication of his system in 1543, there was no reason for religion to attack Copernicus and every reason to hear his voice as one of many. The rotation of the earth had already been proposed by Nicole Oresme, a bishop of the fourteen century, and Nicholas of Cusa, a cardinal of the fifteenth. Various members of the church, including a bishop and a cardinal, urged Copernicus to publication, and his manuscript was dedicated to Pope Paul III. A young Lutheran mathematician, Georg Jachim Rheticus, saw it through the printing process. And the theologian Andreas Osiander wrote its preface. Organized Catholic opposition to Copernicus didn't appear until the seventeenth century. “The church,” they say, “had more important things to worry about than a new astronomical or cosmological system.” Up-and-coming mathematicians “adopted Copernicanism simply as a mathematical reform, offering a better way of predicting planetary positions, while overlooking or rejecting the radical thesis that the earth really moves.”

Where Galileo was concerned, the issue was not science versus religion but politics and the question of Scriptural interpretation. Galileo and his telescope came on the scene amidst the wagon-circling activities of the Roman Catholic church during the Counter-Reformation. The Protestant Reformation had waged a now seventy-year-old argument with Roman Catholicism on many fronts, one of the most divisive being biblical interpretation. The Council of Trent (1545-1563) forbid scriptural interpretation on any matter of faith or practice “contrary to the sense determined by the Holy Mother Church.” And Galileo’s teaching did just that. Galileo argued that nature and scripture were two organs of divine revelation, and that reason was their proper interpreter, not the Church. When questioned, his science was not unique enough to support his hermeneutics; other natural explanations, such as that provided by Tycho Brahe, served well enough and did not run afoul of orthodoxy. At best Galileo raised questions about the relationship between reason and revelation. At worst, he acted imprudently by mixing scientific observation and hermeneutical method. Nevertheless, as Lindberg and Numbers state, the Galileo affair is an ecclesial one. Everyone involved identified themselves as Christian and acknowledged the centrality of the Bible. The struggle was between opposing theories of biblical interpretation: Trent’s conservative position versus Galileo’s liberal one. Both positions could claim an intellectual tradition, but neither existed apart from militant politics in Galileo’s day; his flair for cultivating powerful enemies notwithstanding.

The story of Charles Darwin and The Origin of Species falls along similar lines to those of Copernicus. Once again, the publication of Darwin’s ideas finds a religious atmosphere eager to dialogue with or even absorb his views. “Clergy were among the first to embrace and popularize [Darwin’s] hypothesis.” Nevertheless, Andrew White brings up the matter of Samuel Wilberforce, the Bishop of Oxford, and so it is helpful to look closer at what Wilberforce actually said.

It is a bit of a history-of-science, isn’t-Darwinism-fantastic chestnut that, on June 30, 1860, in an address to the British Association for the Advancement of Science, Wilberforce condemned Darwinism for contradicting the Bible. He is reported to have said, “that he was not descended from a monkey.”

Upon hearing this remark, Darwin’s friend the zoologist Thomas Huxley shot back: “If I had to choose, I would prefer to be a descendant of a humble monkey rather than of a man who employs his knowledge and eloquence in misrepresenting those who are wearing out their lives in the search for the truth.”

As legend has it, the Bishop shot back and asked Huxley whether it was “on your grandfather or grandmother’s side that you claim descent from the apes.” To which Huxley rejoined, “I would rather be descended from an ape than a bishop.” (The authors note that J. R. Lucas and others have demonstrated this story to be apocryphal.)

What White fails to mention is that Bishop Wilberforce had earlier written that he would be willing to embrace the theory of natural selection if it proved correct.

If Mr. Darwin can with the same correctness of reasoning [as Newton] demonstrate to us our fungular descent, we shall dismiss our pride, and avow, with the characteristic humility of philosophy, our unsuspected cousinship with the mushrooms . . . only we shall ask leave to scrutinise carefully every step of the argument which has such an ending, and demur if at any point of it we are invited to substitute unlimited hypothesis for patient observation. . . . We have no sympathy with those who object to any fact or alleged facts in nature, or to any inference logically deduced from them, because they believe them to contradict what it appears is taught by Revelation.[6]

Darwin said the Bishop’s review was “uncommonly clever,” and said that Wilberforce “picks out with skill all the most conjectural parts [of the Origin], and brings forward well all the difficulties.” Wilberforce was no idiot.

Lindberg and Numbers outline several different theories that attempt to understand the subsequent conflict over Darwinism. I will list them here:

(1) James R. Moore says that the Darwinian debates occur not between scientists and theologians, but in individual minds struggling to come to terms with the new paradigm, a “conflict of minds steeped in Christian tradition with the ideas and implications of Darwinism.”

(2) Neil C. Gillespie argues that the conflict was between competing systems of science or “epistemes.” “Because the new episteme for science differed from the old in having within it no place for theology, serious questions were thereby raised that made the conflict” very real. The conflict rose from transformations within science, not as a result of a war between scientists and the religious.

(3) Frank M. Turner sees the conflict as a result of a change in priestly class. The authority and prestige of one group of intellectuals was passing to another, including political control of education and the social power of religious dogma and explanation. In Turner’s view, the conflict is as much a social and political as intellectual.

In the end, the picture Lindberg and Numbers paint between religion and science is a human one. People in the day-to-day struggle to come to terms with what they know and how they know it: religious ideas and scientific ones bleed, inform, and bump each other as a reflection of the minds of the people and the cultures that contain them. “Christianity and science alike,” they conclude, “have been profoundly shaped by their relations with each other.” What is needed is an ideological history that refuses the simple—and thus seductive—answers of White and warfare and commits itself to the difficult, nuanced, but worthwhile retelling of the story.


The above largely taken from the article by David C. Lindberg and Ronald L. Numbers. “Beyond War and Peace: A Reappraisal of the Encounter between Christianity and Science.” Church History 55 (1986): 338-54. A similar article appeared as the introduction to God and Nature: Historical Essays on the Encounter Between Christianity and Science. University of California Press, 1986.

[1] As a critique to the warfare metaphor, the authors also cite James R. Moore, The Post-Darwinian Controversies: A Study of the Protestant Struggle to Come to Terms with Darwin in Great Britain and America, 1870-1900 (Cambridge, 1979), 19-122. See also Ronald L. Numbers, “Science and Religion” in Historical Writings on American Science, ed. Sally Gregory Kohlstedt and Margaret W. Rossiter, Osiris 1, 2d ser. (1985): 59-80.

[2] Augustine, Enchiridion 3:9.

[3] Augustine. De genesi ad litteram 1.19; trans. Meyrick H. Carre, Realists and Nominalists (London, 1946), 19. For another translation, see Augustine, The Literal Meaning of Genesis, trans. John Hammond Taylor, S.J., 2 vols., Ancient Christian Writers 41-42 (New York, 1982), 1:42-43.

[4] See also David C. Lindberg, “Science and the Early Church” in God and Nature, 19-58.

[5] For a good account of the effects of the condemnation, see Edward Grant, “The Condemnations of 1277, God’s Absolute Power, and Physical Thought in the Late Middle Ages,” Viator 10 (1979): 211-44; reprinted in Edward Grant Studies in Medieval Science and Natural Philosophy (London, 1981), article 13.; Gary Deason, “Reformation Theology and the Mechanistic Conception of Nature,” in God and Nature, 181-85.

[6] J. R. Lucas, “Wilberforce and Huxley: A Legendary Encounter,” The Historical Journal 22 (1979): 313-30. See also Sheridan Gilley, “The Huxley-Wilberforce Debate: A Reconsideration,” in Religion and Humanism, ed. Keith Rommins, Studies in Church History 17 (Oxford, 1981), 325-40.

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Friday, August 01, 2008

Plantinga pulls a Samson

Alvin Plantinga throws out a cute little argument against naturalists, or, in other posts here, reductionists, in the July/August 2008 issue of Books & Culture. It is quite a straightforward move, almost syllogistic, and it goes like this:

Naturalists say that science proves their position, and in particular evolution. Plantinga disagrees. “Evolution and naturalism are not merely uneasy bedfellows,” he writes. “One can’t rationally be an evolutionary naturalist.” Now why does he say this?

Here’s the critique: if the mind has arrived by means of evolutionary processes, forces conditioned by history and the larger cosmological context, then how do we know that what it thinks is true is true? Plantinga quotes Darwin:

With me the horrid doubt always arises whether the convictions of a man’s mind, which has been developed from the mind of the lower animals, are of any value or at all trustworthy. Would anyone trust in the convictions of a monkey’s mind, if there are any convictions in such a mind?[1]

He goes on to say that for the naturalist, beliefs, along with other mental states, are caused by neurophysiology. And evolution says that this equipment has been adapted, and is still adaptive for the purpose of genetic reproduction. I like his quote from Francis Crick, “Our highly developed brains . . . were not evolved under the pressure of discovering scientific truth, but only to enable us to be clever enough to survive and leave descendents” (from The Astonishing Hypothesis). Natural selection doesn’t care about truth, it cares about sex, and if false beliefs mean more sex, then that is fine.

Plantinga, with the help of a math buddy, asks, then, what is the chance that any one proposition is true? Out of one hundred beliefs, how many will be false and how many will be true. Answer: not even a handful, and there’s no way to tell one way or the other.

Evolutionary naturalism, then, is self-refuting. Or, as he says, “One who accepts evolutionary naturalism has a defeater for the belief that her cognitive faculties are reliable: a reason for giving up that belief, for rejecting it, for no longer holding it.”

What this means is that evolution spoils naturalism of its epistemological power. The reductionist is the one in danger of falling into an unholy skepticism (although Plantinga points out that Aristotle, the Stoics, and Hegel managed to be atheists without simultaneously embracing naturalism.) And what about the Christian? Well, is there any need to explain it? Get thee, saint, to Augustine and read his de Magistro, and get thee to the imago Dei, the doctrine of the logos, of creation, and of general revelation.

[1] Letter to William Graham (Down, July 3, 1881, in The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, ed. Francis Darwin (London: John Murray, 1887), Volume 1, pp. 315-16.

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Thursday, June 19, 2008

three scientists

Science, too, stumbles toward religion. The horizon of human imagination and aspiration is just too large and too curious to submit to the narrow confines of a method, measure, rule.

So far I have pointed out the misunderstandings and mischaracterizations that have largely shaped the attitude of religion as it addresses science. Now I would like to survey three voices that come from the other direction; science addressing religion—well, not properly religion, more like faith or ethics. Two of these come from interviews broadcast in 2008 on American Public Media’s radio program “Speaking of Faith.”

The first is "Mathematics, Purpose, and Truth" with author Janna Levin, assistant professor of astrophysics at Columbia University and author of A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines, among other books.

The second is "Science and Hope" with Templeton Prize winner Dr. George Ellis, professor of applied mathematics at the University of Cape Town and a Quaker.

The third is an interview between host Dr. Moira Gunn and biologist and author Stewart Kauffman broadcast 6 June, 2008, on the podcast IT Conversations. The context of their discussion is Kauffman's book Reinventing the Sacred, but the subject is really emergence.

The Conversations

The conversation with Janna Levin centers largely around the following points. (1) Truth goes beyond what mathematics can demonstrate; Kurt Gödel’s incompleteness theorem. (2) How do we know what is real, when our perception is a point along a phenomenological continuum? We don't see the quantum. Our intuition is based on the neurons that have evolved in this world for our purposes. There are no true things that are unambiguously true, save things like 1+1=2. The rest of it is always something we approach without arriving, glimpsing truth out of the corner of the eye. “Every judgment is by its form one-sided and, to that extent, false” (Hegel). (3) How is it that mathematics not only exists, but we can perceive and understand it? (4) Time, determinism, and freedom [16:00], including the existence of free will. I especially like her reminder that we have come through radical changes in worldview since, say, pre-Copernican societies [33:15]. Same for her commitment that existential meaning must be based on truth. Levin is a reductionist, seeing, for example, many of our behaviors as an outgrowth of animal instincts encoded through evolutionary processes. At the same time, she is uncomfortable with this, only too glad to argue for free will in a world of lawful inevitability and subconscious instinct.

George Ellis is a cosmologist and an activist. And in his experience there exists what he calls “deep ethics,”an ethics emerging from the mathematical fabric of the universe. It is there, and no one knows why. As Ellis says, “We haven't got a clue in what way mathematics is embedded there, but it is there in some platonic space waiting to be discovered. We actually haven't got a clue how the laws of physics are embedded in the universe. We know they're there. We know they're effective. We don't know how they are embedded.” This deep ethic emerges whether one wants it to or not. And it is kenotic in nature: it is selfless, it is humble, it serves others. The proof of its existence is “self-authenticating. There is actually no other way of saying it. It is just something you either see or you don't see. There is no proof. It's something you recognize or you don't recognize.”

Ellis says that science has limits. “Science sees nothing about aesthetics or meaning or metaphysics.” Of course, this language evokes the God of the gaps problem. Ellis says, “It’s not the God of the gaps, it’s the God of the boundaries.”

The point about this is that there are boundaries to what science can handle, boundaries science cannot cross. (Not will not [which is the god of the gaps] but cannot.) And one of these important boundaries is ethics. So let's go back to the ethics. There's a whole lot of people out there trying to say, 'Well, ethics is understood by science through sociobiology.' There's another lot of social scientists saying ethics is understood through sociology and psychology and anthropology, and so on. And they are just profoundly mistaken when they say that, for a whole host of reasons. And perhaps we don't want to get technical about this, but the simple way to see how mistaken they are is to ask the following question to a scientist who says 'Look, science can comprehend ethics.' We can use science as a basis for ethics. 'So fine,' we say. 'Tell us what science says we should do in Iraq today.' Then you get this deafening silence because science is totally unable to say anything about that. The reason is there are no experiments in science to do with what is good and what is bad. There are no scientific units for good and bad. There's no experiment. It's just outside the scope of science, not only now, but forever, never ever will be within the bound of science.

And as for the origin of the universe:

My colleagues are producing theories of what they call creation of the universe out of nothing. But when you probe them, you find they're not producing theories of the creation of the universe out of nothing. They are assuming a huge machinery of quantum field theory and fields and particles and interactions, which generates the universe, not the creation of the universe out of nothing.

And, yet, it had to come from somewhere. “In the end, we run into a metaphysical blank, whether you pursue it scientifically or religiously, and you simply have to give up in wonder and awe and say, ‘I don't know the answer, and it's just marvelous the way things are.’”

Biologist and author Stewart Kauffman studies self-organizing systems, pursuing a cosmological position called emergence, which is growing in scientific popularity. What has to be overcome, Kauffman says, is reductionism, of which he outlines three features: (1) Everything that happens is describeable by natural laws. This means that the universe is (2) fundamentally deterministic. Like a computer, once you know the relevant information, then you can predict everything. And finally (3) reductionism is analytic. It says that knowledge is the product of reducing things to their elemental parts. Reductionism has been very successful, it is true, but not without ethical and existential costs. For the reductionist, the universe is made up of unrelated happenings from which no meaning can be abstracted; bare juxtaposition without explanation or narrative.

For this and other reasons, the adequacy of reducationism is being questioned by some within the scientific community. In its place is a platform called "emergence," which asks questions about the nature of the universe from the perspective of pure and infinite complexity. The result: a universe which cannot be completely explained, now or ever, by the fundamental laws of physics. Two nobel laureates in physics are notable enthusiasts: Phil Anderson, who wrote an article in Science in 1972 entitled "More is Different," and Robert Laughlin, whose latest book is entitled, A Different Universe. Like Anderson and Laufman, Kauffman believes that emergence is not only real and demonstrable, but it is a better platform than reductionism for doing science.

Reductionism doesn't work, he says, because complex things cannot be deduced. Reality is so unplottably chaotic, so infinitely complex, that trying to say "this comes from that" is a fool's errand. You can't simulate the development of complex things. In biology, for example, a physicists cannot explain the coming into existence of the heart. Emergence allows for cause and effect, but it throws its boundaries much larger to encompass the unexplainably complex.

This is the basis for Kauffman's critique of darwinian preadaptation. He asks, "Do you think you could say beforehand all the possible darwinian preadaptations of all the organisms now, or just for humans? Can we know all the adjacent possibles?" The answer is, of course, no. "There just isn't a mathematical framework to even try and do this. How would we know we plotted all the adjacent possibles?" Predictability is impossible. There are just too many variables. The future is just too odd.

So, then, Kauffman outlines four implications from emergence.

1. We cannot do what Newton said we should do. We can't specify the laws and then calculate what is going to happen, because we can't know all the adjacent possibles.

2. We can't make probability statements. We don't know all the adjacent possibles, and so we can't plot a sample that would allow us to come up with a probability statement. Nobel laureate Marie Gilmont says that a law is a compact description of the regularities of a process, but can we really do this? The evolution of the biosphere is beyond prediction and beyond the reach of natural law. What we're left with in the biosphere and up through economics is ceaseless creativity. You don't need a creator for this. Every advance through an adjacent possible reshapes the next adjacent possible. The entire matrix of adjacent possibles changes with every step in a way that cannot be predicted.

3. Reason is an insufficient guide for living our life. We have to reunite narrative, allegory, intuition, emotion, and reason. We have to rethink and understand our integrated humanity, throwing aside the split between the two cultures: science and the arts. Science is no longer the only way to get to the truth. History, art, law--lots of things tell us the truth now, not just the scientific method. We need more than just reductionism to help explain things. We live our lives forward, in the face of mystery, not knowing what is going to happen. What does it mean to be fully human in such a world? Kauffman goes on to talk about religion. He takes to task his reductionist friends, such as Richard Dawkins--Enlightenment atheists. What if you take "god" out of the equation and leave creativity, poses Kauffman, hypostasizing creativity. We have lived with creativity and have invented gods to explain it. Indeed, how many gods have we worshipped in human history? God is our most powerful symbol, but it is rife with abuse. "We can choose to use the word "God" if we want to," he says. But it isn't necessary. Instead, we can use "god," not to mean a creator, but to refer to the creativity that itself characterizes and shapes the universe.

4. We need a global ethic. We are connected to everything, emerging along with the rest of the universe. We are caught up in the natural creativity of the universe: which means, to use a religious word, we are all sacred. We need a shared ethic, a global ethic, an ethic that includes all of life and the planet. The secular West is reduced to fairness for friends, love of family, democracy, and free markets, but this is not a global ethic. We are reduced to consumers. We are commoditized. We need an ethic that will help guide the hetero- or homogeneous civilization that is developing. We need to be reconciled to nature. The notion that nature is there to be used by man, the whole purpose of knowledge from a Baconian view, needs to be thrown off. Instead, we need to embrace nature. So can we use this sense of god, and find meaning in it to orient our lives today? Kauffman thinks we can, and that it is as good as any other model of god, and perhaps better, since there is no theodicy issue.


So what to do with the above three examples? I hope they serve to show that not only theologians, but scientists are struggling to make sense of the no man's land that exists between too-tidy reductionism and the Wild West of pure fideism. There seems to be a complete lack of any grammatical rules for passing between one side or the other, any schema that allows statements made by one side to be properly heard and evaluated on the other. No one seems to be able to define what governing power a scientific theory should have in the development of doctrine and vise versa (though things have gone unidirectional for a good while.) Can you just equate the big bang, with all its supporting mathematics etc., and Genesis 1.1? (As, for example, William Lane Craig tries to do in this debate with Peter Atkins.) What happens when they turn the Hadron Collider on early next year in Switzerland and discover the whole brane thing is correct and that the big bang is just a temporal phenomenon in a much larger and more complicated universe? Theology risks too much when it latches such and such a doctrine to today's scientific post--but, for all that, it can't just ignore it. And, if the above three physicists say anything about science, it says that scientists, too, cannot avoid the ethical and, yes, religious implications of their work.

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Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Jonathan Edwards may be on to something

To be frank, I have never been attracted to the theology of American Puritan theologian Jonathan Edwards. Perhaps because of his historical and geographic situation, he always seems to exist in an eddy of history, a backwater, protected and immune from the force of the enrushing early Enlightenment and its theological questions and challenges. Plus, in matters spiritual or otherwise, the guy was a hard ass. There, I said it.

Nevertheless, this quotation from Sam Storms, the author of Signs of the Spirit: An Interpretation of Jonathan Edwards' Religious Affections says I'm no doubt badly mistaken. In an interview printed in Crossway's publicity publication, The Book Report, Storms says:

[Edwards] saw everything in the light of the glory and power and majesty of God, from the smallest of spiders to the most expansive of galaxies. Everything exists by virtue of God's incessant infusion of life and energy. Everything exists to reflect the glory and splendor of its Creator. Everything exists to draw us to God so that we might glorify him by finding satisfaction in all that he is for us in Jesus.

Let's face it. In the wake of a personal openness to science, I'm hunting around to see what models theology can provide. And though I am not at all interested in adopting process theology, a direction which, in my opinion, gives the store away in exchange for contemporary ideological legitimacy, Edwards "incessant infusion" hints at possibility.

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Saturday, January 19, 2008

Evolution: three faithful responses

In the October 2007 edition of First Things magazine, Avery Cardinal Dulles, S.J., wrote an interesting article surveying the general approaches Christians (he says Roman Catholics, but includes many who are from different traditions) are taking to evolution. I would like to briefly summarize these positions.

“Catholics who are expert in the biological sciences,” Dulles begins, “take several different positions on evolution.” These are as follows.

Theistic evolutionism
Those who, believing that science and religion address “different levels of knowledge,” espouse a combination of “Darwinism in science and theism in theology.” This group rejects “Darwinism as a philosophical system” and “holds that God, eternally foreseeing all the products of evolution, uses the natural process of evolution to work out his creative plan.” Theistic evolutionists believe that science is epistemologically limited. “It can tell us a great deal about the processes that can be observed or controlled by the senses and by instruments, but it has no way of answering deeper questions involving reality as a whole.” God, to this group, gets things going by the big bang, knowing from that point how it will all go. Dulles includes in this group Kenneth R. Miller, Stephen M. Barr, Francis S. Collins, Fred Hoyle, and Arthur Peacock.

Intelligent design
Michael Behe is the only researcher named to this school, though there are others. Here we find the usual appeal to irreducible complexity. God interferes in development by producing organs that are irreducibly complex. Dulles says that sudden divine intervention in the formation of species should not be ruled out. Nevertheless, he prefers Darwin, and warns.

As a matter of policy, it is imprudent to build one’s case for faith on what science has not yet explained [what today appears irreducibly complex], because tomorrow it may be able to explain what it cannot explain today. History teaches that the “God of the gaps” often proves to be an illusion.

Process thinking
A teleological position once called “vitalism,” Dulles includes Henri Bergson, Michael Polanyi, and Teilhard de Chardin in this group. This school believes that mechanical principles just can’t explain the behavior of living things. Living things want to live. And “this internal finality” sets them apart from the dead earth. Life goes somewhere. It stretches out toward the future. Dulles references English physicist John Polkinghorn’s insight that “there must be in the universe a thrust toward higher and more complex forms.” God urges, advocates, and initiates each graduate development. “Many adherents of this school would say that the transition from physicochemical existence to biological life, and the further transitions to animal and human life, require an additional input of divine creative energy.” And we hear from Georgetown professor John F. Haught [see my post “Let’s ask the Catholic about science”] who notes that

Natural science achieves exact results be restricting itself to measurable phenomena, ignoring deeper questions about meaning and purpose. By its method, it filters out subjectivity, feeling, and striving, all of which are essential to a full theory of cognition. Materialistic Darwinism is incapable of explaining why the universe gives rise to subjectivity, feeling, and striving.

Thomist Etienne Gilson, in his book From Aristotle to Darwin and Back Again put the blame on Francis Bacon and his peers. Seeking to explain everything mechanically, they elided two of Aristotle’s four causes. They kept the material and efficient causes, but discarded formal and final causality. In their wake, writes Dulles, science “simply disallows the questions about why anything (including human life) exists, how we differ in nature from irrational animals, and how we ought to conduct our lives.” He continues,

Without the form, or the formal cause, it would be impossible to account for the unity and specific identity of any substance. In the human composite, the form is the spiritual soul, which makes the organism a single entity and gives it its human character. Once the form is lost, the material elements decompose, and the body ceases to be human. It would be futile, therefore, to try to define human beings in terms of their bodily components alone.

Final causality is particularly important in the realm of living organisms. The organs of the animal or human body are not intelligible except in terms of their purpose or finality. The brain is not intelligible without reference to the faculty of thinking that is its purpose, nor is the eye intelligible without reference to the function of seeing.

Blogger Michael Liccione has an interesting response to this part of Dulles’ argument in a post entitled, “God and evolution: the state of the question.” Liccione says that there is a good reason for excluding formal and final causes. Progress in the sciences requires their exclusion because including them would undermine the basis for rigorous experimentation. They are good philosophical principles, he says, that help contextualize scientific findings. But that context is philosophy, not science.

I like the way Liccione summarizes Dulles’ position: “Dulles' view may be summed up thus: he finds ID too dependent on a God of the gaps, and TE too deistic. Rather, and given the Church's irreformable teaching about the origin of the human soul, we should look to some form of vitalism as a viable option.” Science, of course, does not think God should interfere at all in the natural order of things. But Dulles is correct when he asserts that Christians believe in a God who incarnates, who works miracles, who reveals—indeed, who intervenes! He warns theistic evolutionists not to hold too tightly to the reasoning that is current in modern science. “Science and technology (science’s offspring) are totally inadequate in the field of morality.” And morality is where Dulles leaves off.

Right and wrong, and the inner understanding that it is a noble thing to choose the right even at the cost of suffering or pain—what can science tells us about this innate higher law, he asks. Evolutionists, he says, say that morality and religion arose for survival value. “But this alleged survival value, even if it be real, tells us nothing about the truth or falsity of any moral or religious system.” And just because science explains a belief, does this discount it? One might also point out that the pursuit of scientific knowledge is, itself, an incorrigibly moral act.

We should recover reason, Dulles concludes. Reason is the full range of human thinking, and we must discover and embrace all of it, and not limit its range merely to that which is empirically verifiable. In this, Dulles’ call to good thinking agrees entirely with Philip Kitcher [see my post “Evolution, providence, and the political”] who said that religious people should look to the riches of their theological and philosophical traditions and discover ways of understanding and dialoging in a secular world of science.

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