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13 Things I Learned at the BioLogos Conference

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June 16, 2010 Tags: Christian Unity

Today's entry was written by Rachel Held Evans. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of The BioLogos Foundation. You can read more about what we believe here.

13 Things I Learned at the BioLogos Conference

On her blog this past Monday, Evans kicked off a short, three-post series about science and faith with a little summary of what she learned at the BioLogos Foundation conference last week. What follows is a re-post of that blog, originally written for folks who don’t know as much about BioLogos as the average reader here probably does.

The BioLogos Foundation was founded by Francis Collins to address the central themes of science and religion and emphasizes the compatibility of Christian faith with scientific discoveries about the origins of the universe and life. This particular conference was held at Gordon College in Wenham, Massachusetts, where it can apparently be 50 degrees in the middle of June. Here are some things I learned:

1. Always bring a sweater to Massachusetts.

2. It is possible to talk about the origins debate with an attitude of respect and humility.Peter Enns, Darrel Falk, and Karl Giberson exemplified this beautifully in their lectures by critiquing the ideas of those with whom they disagree without challenging their opponents’ commitment to their faith. This is the first time I’ve been a part of this conversation in which the “other side” was not reduced to a caricature. It was refreshing and convincing.

3. When a group of scientists laugh about a joke involving protein biosynthesis, it is polite to laugh along…but not too hard, or they’ll know you didn’t actually get it.

4. Young earth creationists and “the new atheists” (Dawkins, Hitchens, etc.) actually have more in common than one might think, for both groups have arrived at the conclusion that accepting an old earth and evolutionary theory inevitably rules out the existence of God. As a result, one group has essentially made a religion out of naturalism, while the other group has avoided serious consideration of scientific data. The folks at BioLogos are attempting to forge a third way that leaves room for both faith in God and a commitment to intellectual integrity. I’m beginning to think that they are doing some of the most important work in the Christian community.

5. Science professors (particularly at Christian colleges) are desperate to find good ways to counsel students whose faith is challenged by the scientific data they encounter in the classroom. I was really moved by conversations I had with tenderhearted biology teachers struggling to double as theologians and counselors when their students realize there is conflict between what they were taught about creation/evolution growing up in the Church and what the evidence suggests.

6. While it may be impossible to gather scientific data that conclusively shows God’s intervention in the universe, such intervention is evidenced by the fact that Lobsta Land—the suspiciously named seafood restaurant a group of us just happened upon when we were lost in Gloucester, Massachusetts—serves the best food in town. (Special thanks to Justin Topp and Linda Vick from North Park University for letting me tag along.)

7. At the heart of the tension between science and Scripture is what Pete Enns calls “genre misidentification.” Modern Christians tend to impose today’s questions upon an ancient text, demanding that the Old Testament address current scientific paradigms when instead it simply uses the language, terminology, and cosmology of the culture in which it was written. Enns noted that once again fundamentalists and liberals seem to agree when they suggest the Bible cannot be both inspired by God and reflective of typical ancient near Eastern literature. His response is, Why not? Why wouldn’t God choose to communicate in a way that would be accessible and relatable to the people at the time?

8. The question “where do you draw the line?” is not one that only evolutionary creationists have to answer. I am often asked, “If you don’t believe the seven-day creation account is historical and scientific, why should you believe that the resurrection account is historical? Where do you draw the line?” And yet, most of these same people would distance themselves from an interpretation of Scripture that required belief in a solid firmament that holds back the waters (Genesis 1:6-8) or a stationary earth (I Chronicles 16:30, Psalm 93:1). We all face the challenge of drawing a line when we are interpreting an ancient text.

9. “Evolutionary creationists” is a preferred term to “theistic evolutionists.”

10. Both evolutionary creationists and proponents of intelligent design believe that God is the creator of the universe. But proponents of intelligent design seek to show that God’s ongoing presence is scientifically detectable. There seems to be a consensus among the evolutionary creationists that the intelligent design folks have not provided sufficient data to support their claims and are therefore not taken seriously by the scientific community. I probably need to do some more research in this area before I reach any conclusions.

11. There are some great resources out there for helping people harmonize faith and science: The Language of God by Francis Collins (one of my favorite books on the topic), Coming to Peace With Science by Darrel Falk (which several professors told me has been especially helpful for students), Saving Darwin by Karl Giberson (which I am currently loving), and The Lost World of Genesis One (which we will discuss next week on my blog). Also check out the BioLogos FAQ section).

12. Evolutionary creationism does not necessarily add apologetic value to the Christian faith. Just as science doesn’t disprove Christianity, it doesn’t prove Christianity either. As one participant noted, the Apostle Paul faced a somewhat similar conundrum when he wrote, “Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles” (I Corinthians 1:22-23). Our best apologetic always has been and always will be a life transformed by the scandalous and subversive work of Jesus Christ.

13. The smartest people are the ones who are humbled by how little they know.

So I’m guessing that one or two of these points might raise additional questions in your mind. Which ones would you like to discuss in future posts? And in which “camp” do you tend to fall—the young earth creationism camp, the intelligent design camp, the evolutionary creationism camp, or the where-are-the-smores-because-this-is-over-my-head camp?


Rachel Held Evans is a self-described "writer, skeptic, and Christ-follower" from Dayton, Tennessee—home of the famous Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925. Her first book is a spiritual memoir entitled Evolving in Monkey Town. She enjoys speaking, blogging, traveling, playing poker, and talking theology over coffee.

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Rich - #17970

June 18th 2010

Bilbo:

Your comment in 17961 is based on a heretical assumption, i.e., that there could be a cause of anything that happens in the universe, other than God. 

Basically, you are arguing:  God didn’t cause the mutation, but since he tolerated it when he could have rejected it, he’s still in control.  Yes, but “in control” only in the sense of a human engineer, who allows a process to go ahead when an accident happens, because he sees that the accident is actually favorable to the outcome he desires.  But engineers aren’t omnipotent, and God is.  Accidents can happen to engineers, but not to God.  You haven’t seen the full philosophical significance of “omnipotence”, which separates the Christian God from the Demiurge described in Greek philosophy.


unapologetic catholic - #17971

June 18th 2010

“For an event to be *truly random*, as I’m using the word, it has to occur by “pure chance”, and ultimately this must mean “without sufficient natural cause”.  Thus, certain physicists assure us that there is *no natural law* governing certain events at the level of the electron.”

I don’t think this is the definition of randomness as used in biology and it’s not a correct phrasing of the physical properties of electrons.  Randomness does not equate with unprediticability or that “anything can happen.”  Natural causes of randomness abound.  The failure to distinguish between random and “anythign can happen” is the Schonborn error and it leads to a misunderstanding of the terms “random” and “unguided” requiring those words to take on a theological significance that they do not deserve and cannot support.


Rich - #17981

June 18th 2010

U.C.:

I’m not concerned with how the term “randomness” is used by biologists.  They can use it any way they want, within their private, professional discourse, and I won’t interfere.

I’m concerned only with getting straight what Darwin and classical neo-Darwinism imply about the causes of evolution, and whether or not that fits in with orthodox understandings of God’s omnipotence.  If I can do that without the word “randomness”, I’m happy to do that.  Darwin didn’t use the word much, anyway.  But Darwin was clear that the variations, whatever their causes were (whether “pure chance” or some unknown natural laws, or a combination), appeared without thought of the final outcome to which they might lead.  And, given umpteen opportunities to say that “God directs the variations” or “God chooses the variations” or “God silently steers evolution by introducing the right variations into the appropriate environments” or the like, Darwin never did so, either in his published scientific work, his Autobiography, or his Letters.  His conception of evolution was anti-teleological and chance-driven.  Ditto for the classic neo-Darwinists.  Modern TEs may differ, but they did not define Darwinism or neo-Darwinism.


Bilbo - #17982

June 18th 2010

Rich,

(1)  The ontological status of all events—both dterministic and non-deterministic—is one of complete dependence upon God’s sustaining power.  Nothing exists or happens independently of God.

(2)  For those of us who reject open theism, nothing happens without God’s foreknowledge.

(3)  Nevertheless, events can happen that are not determined by God.  For example, events that are subject to human free will.  Could there be other events that are not determined?  I see no reason why not.  God could design a universe where sub-atomic events happen according to statistical probability only.  No other physical laws determine their occurence.  Does this mean their existence is independent of God?  No.  Does this mean that God is surprised by their occurence?  No.  Sorry, Rich, but your charge of heresy is completely without foundation.


Rich - #17985

June 18th 2010

U.C.:

Regarding the physics of indeterminacy:

It’s been a long time since I studied quantum indeterminacy, so I won’t pretend to be up on the latest developments in quantum theory.  However, I do know from a recent conversation with a well-known TE who is also a theoretical physicist that quantum theorists speak of a certain definite outcome arising out of “the collapse of the wave packet” (this is of course a metaphor), whereby one out of a whole series of possible values of the wave function is realized and the other possible values are excluded.  The physicist confessed that he has no idea what causes the wave packet to “collapse” into a particular value, and indicated that no one else knows, either.

Does God “collapse the wave packet”, or not?  If he does, then he’s in direct control of even the most microscopic of events in the universe.  If he doesn’t, what does?  An unknown natural law?  Or sheer chance?  According to my understanding of the majority view of quantum physicists, it *isn’t* a natural law, and it can only be “sheer chance”.  If you know of a third possibility, neither law nor chance, please let me know what it is.


Rich - #17987

June 18th 2010

Bilbo:

I’ve already indicated to you that a discussion of free will prior to creation is inappropriate, because no orthodox Christian theologian has ever thought that atoms, molecules, genes, etc. have “free will”.  Free will is a capacity of human beings.  Read Aquinas.  Read Augustine.  Read Calvin.  Read Luther.  Talking about “free will” before the creation of human beings is just blowing smoke.

Even if you are saying only that the universe may have a “freedom” that’s remotely *analogous* to free will, that’s still debatable, but if we grant if for the sake of argument, then please answer my question to U.C. above:  What “collapses the wave packet”?  How does nature settle on a value, if God isn’t directly involved?

By the way, I have known some Calvinists who insist that even acts of free will are (though it seems paradoxical) ultimately determined by God.  In fact, some of them are leading American TEs!  You may recoil from that, perhaps having a more Arminian sensibility.  I’d be inclined to agree with you.  But it’s certainly one way of interpreting God’s omnipotence and providence, and there are a *lot* of Biblical passages which support that interpretation.


Bilbo - #17989

June 18th 2010

1)  You’re right, I reject deterministic views of human action.

2)  I’ll let you read the theologians.  My point is that human free will demonstrates that God’s providence and non-determinism are compatible.

3)  I wouldn’t know how the wave-function is collapsed.  But it’s not a potential defeater for my argument.  God could create a universe where sub-atomic particles merely operate by statistical probability.


Rich - #17995

June 18th 2010

Bilbo:

On your first two points, I’m inclined to agree with you that God has given us free will of a meaningful kind, so that our decisions actually matter, i.e., actually take the universe one way or the other, and that God defers to our decisions.  Perhaps this makes me an Arminian heretic.  But I seem to be a heretic in biology and in physics and climatology, so hey, why not add theology?

We still disagree on the third point.  I can’t grasp what it would mean for sub-atomic particles to “operate merely by statistical probability”.  When a radioactive atom gives off a particle at one moment rather than another, does it do so literally *without cause*?  Or, if there is a cause, what kind of *natural cause* can operate without a mechanism that determines the time and place of the effect?  My mind cannot grasp this.  (continued)


Rich - #17996

June 18th 2010

Bilbo (continued):

But let’s say that such a thing could be.  How does God guarantee (not *foresee*, but *guarantee*) the right timing for every needed subatomic action?  If he creates any old universe, he can’t guarantee it at all; and if he creates a very specific universe, in which he knows in advance that the quantum events will all “luck out” the right way, he might just as well make a deterministic universe and *force* the events.  The effect is the same, and the latter is much more in tune with both Biblical and traditional theological language.

In any case, a “random” universe of the sort you are proposing is still one in which the mutations were, in effect, pre-selected by God.  The direction of evolution, however “random” it might appear to the tools of science, is in fact teleological.  That wasn’t what Darwin intended.  So your argument weds Darwin to Christian theology, but it’s a shotgun wedding, with Darwin as the reluctant groom, and the scientists and scholars of Biologos as the father, uncles and brothers of the bride, carefully guarding the doors and exits of the little Ozark church.


Bilbo - #17997

June 18th 2010

Hi Rich,

1)  I freely admit I’m in the same boat with you on understanding how there could be a random universe.  But there seems to be some evidence that suggests we are in one.  So let’s assume we are and see if we can make sense of it and evolution.

2)  Can God guarantee the desired outcome?  Sure. 

First, if the probability of the outcome is high enough, God may simply allow the universe to go about its random way, knowing it will do His will.  I think this is what many TEs (and ECs?) claim has happened.  This seems to be compatible with Darwinism.  Yet we believers would know that all that has happened is according to God’s permissive will.

Second, suppose that some or most of the random steps are in keeping with God’s desire, but some or most are not.  In that case, it seems to me (contrary to Ken Miller) that God has the right to impose His will on the universe so that the desired steps happen.

Is it possible for us to detect whether God has intervened in this way?  If the steps seem way out of line with what we think the universe is capable of doing “on its own,”  then yes, I think it’s possible.

You lost me on the Ozark allusion, though my father lived in the Ozarks as a child.


Rich - #17998

June 18th 2010

Bilbo:

“... up from the ground came the bubblin’ crude ...”  (cue in:  Flatt and Scruggs)

(OK, Ah don’t rightly know if it wuz the Ozarks, but it wuz one o’ them thar’ ranges o’ hills where they useta have that moonshine and them shotgun weddin’s.)


Bilbo - #18001

June 19th 2010

Hi Rich,

I think that was in Tennessee.  But I still don’t see the connection, 

Meanwhile, I left Mike Gene’s approach out of the picture.  Suppose we think some things are beyond nature’s capability, but we can’t prove it.  What then?  According to Mike we look for other clues, such as how much is it like things we design (Analogy), or how much sense does it make (Rationality), or how much does it look like it was designed with the future in mind (Foresight)?  So that’s what Mike has been up to.  But I think he’s one of those heretical ECs, disguised as an IDist.


Rich - #18002

June 19th 2010

Bilbo:

Once one has to explain a joke, it’s no longer funny.  The geographical reference wasn’t meant to be accurate, but just to help trigger a stereotyped comical scene in the reader’s mind.  We must not have been brought up with the same cultural references.  I recommend more Bugs Bunny cartoons, or more Li’l Abner.  (And if you don’t recognize the last reference, there’s a big age difference between us.)


Bilbo - #18007

June 19th 2010

Hi Rich,

Oh…shotgun wedding.  I finally got it.  Yes, I remember Lil’ Abner.


Gingoro - #18039

June 19th 2010

Rich - #17883

As for your other point, there’s lots of “statistical randomness” in nature, but I don’t believe there is any *true randomness*, by which I mean “pure chance”, anywhere in nature, not even at the subatomic level.

Just for clarification and I may have missed your discussion being off the net for a while, but what do you mean by true randomness?  If you are implying that God can and does not know the outcome of what we see as a random event such as the decay of an atom, then I agree with you.  To my mind God’s foreknowledge can for see all events.  I reject openness theology in this area.

However, if you are saying that God can not and has not set up a process with certain statistical distributions then I disagree with you.


Rich - #18044

June 19th 2010

Gingoro:

There are many comments on this thread on randomness, by me and others, so I won’t repeat the material.  But I will say that often these discussions about “randomness” in nature and in science and in relation to theology get very confusing, because:

a.  The term is not defined before people start arguing.
b.  The term may be used differently in science than in theology, and probably is used differently in different sciences, and perhaps even differently by probability theorists than by many natural scientists. 
c.  Many people who know physics well don’t know the first thing about theology, and vice versa, so when they try to relate the two areas with a word like “randomness”, imperfect knowledge prevents an adequate synthesis.
d.  Popular writings (including TE writings!) about “quantum uncertainty” in relation to “freedom” are often confused and misleading.

I don’t deny the existence of “statistical distributions” or their scientific usefulness.  I question the ontological ultimacy often attributed to these distributions.  My hunch (which I won’t argue for here) is that the “Copenhagen interpretation” is an unwarranted metaphysical inference and that there is natural law “all the way down”.


R Hampton - #18053

June 19th 2010

He is the ultimate cause of *all* that happens, including every last quantum event.  For him there is *no* randomness, not in *any* sense.  He cannot “use” randomness to create anything, because “randomness” (in the absolute sense) and “God” (in the orthodox Christian sense) are logically incompatible terms.  He can use atomic or genetic events which, from a human point of view, *look* random, and have to be *mathematically handled* as if they were the product of pure “chance”.  But he’s in control of every one of those events at every moment, either through direct, hands-on intervention, or through natural laws which he has ordained.  There are no surprises for God.

Rich,
That’s exactly what I have been arguing. Even tough things are truly random to everything within the universe they are still known perfectly to God. Randomness, like entropy, doesn’t apply to God and yet they are still real.

So you see, “neo-Darwiniam” is no more a theological problem than entropy.


unapologetic catholic - #18059

June 19th 2010

Rich and R Hampton,  I agrre with both of your comments.

This, in particular doesn’t help:  “Popular writings (including TE writings!) about “quantum uncertainty” in relation to “freedom” are often confused and misleading.”  I’ll call this the “Miller” error.

This also is a true statement: “Many people who know physics well don’t know the first thing about theology, and vice versa, so when they try to relate the two areas with a word like “randomness”, imperfect knowledge prevents an adequate synthesis.”  This I’ll call the Schonborn” error.  Two physicists worth listening to on this are David Heddle and Stephen Barr.

Since evolution works on a combination of observed randomness and non-random events (with the caveat that God abides all) it is not particularly create any theological problems not also created by meteorology, astronomy and quantum mechanics.


unapologetic catholic - #18060

June 19th 2010

Rich and R Hampton,  I agree with both of your comments.

This, in particular doesn’t help:  “Popular writings (including TE writings!) about “quantum uncertainty” in relation to “freedom” are often confused and misleading.”  I’ll call this the “Miller” error.

This also is a true statement: “Many people who know physics well don’t know the first thing about theology, and vice versa, so when they try to relate the two areas with a word like “randomness”, imperfect knowledge prevents an adequate synthesis.”  This I’ll call the Schonborn” error.  Two physicists worth listening to on this are David Heddle and Stephen Barr.

Since evolution works on a combination of observed randomness and non-random events (with the caveat that God abides all) it is not particularly create any theological problems not also created by meteorology, astronomy and quantum mechanics.


Rich - #18068

June 19th 2010

R Hampton:

I suspected all along that our disagreement was not over God’s omnipotence, but over the meaning of the phrases “random” and “truly random”. 

As I said to gingoro, though I am not prepared to discuss or debate it here, my hunch is that there is natural law all the way to the bottom of the universe.  Therefore, while I accept “empirical randomness” or “practical randomness” or “randomness from the human viewpoint” or whatever else you want to call it, and grant that scientists are perfectly reasonable to treat certain kinds of events with statistical tools instead of trying to work out detailed chains of causation, I think that ultimately law governs even those events which some physicists seem to insist are not law-determined.  And law is the opposite of chance.  Thus, I think there are no “chance” events in the physical universe, except in relation to human knowledge.  So if God is in charge of evolution, then, in my view, he employs either natural laws or direct divine action or a combination to get the job done.  And he makes darned sure that he gets the mutations he wants for his ends.  That wasn’t the view of Darwin, Mayr, Gaylord Simpson, Gould, etc.  They all thought it was just bloody luck.


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