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Concerns About the Implications of BioLogos’ Science, Pt 6

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February 25, 2011 Tags: Science & Worldviews

Today's entry was written by Ard Louis. 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.

Concerns About the Implications of BioLogos’ Science, Pt 6

This is part six in a series taken from Louis' paper (downloadable here), which addresses common Christian misconceptions about the nature of science and its relationship to God's involvement in our world. Links to the first five parts are located on the side bar to the right.

Science, Scientists and the Church

[Science is a Tapestry]. An enormous multiplicity of strands of evidence, many of them weak and ambiguous, can make a coherent logical bond whose strength is enormous.

-- David Mermin”, “What's Wrong with this Sustaining Myth?” Physics Today 49, 11 (1996)

When you are a Bear of Very Little Brain, and you Think of Things, you find sometimes that a Thing which seemed very Thingish inside you is quite different when it gets out into the open and has other people looking at it.

-- A. A. Milne, The House at Pooh Corner (Methuen & Co. Ltd. 1928)

When I was a child growing up in central Africa, I didn’t come across too many PhDs. I assumed that someone with Dr. in front of their name would surely know nearly all there is to know about their subject and a great deal more about the rest of the world of academic thought. I’ve now got one myself and supervised and examined a good number of PhD theses in both physics and chemistry. It has certainly disabused me of the idea that I or for that matter most people with PhDs know a great deal about anything beyond the very narrow confines of our (sub)specialties.

How does the scientific enterprise progress then? For that I turn to one of my favorite science writers, the physicist David Mermin, who used the metaphor of science as a tapestry made up of many threads. In a previous essay I wrote that rather than being an individual endeavor:

Creating scientific tapestries is a collective endeavor building on mutual trust and the communal experience of what kinds of arguments and evidence are likely to stand the test of time. In part because the skill of weaving reliable scientific tapestries relies on subtle judgments, a young scientist may work for years as an apprentice of older and more experienced practitioners before branching out on his own. In this process there are many parallels with the guilds of old. I am fond of this metaphor because it describes what I think I experience from the inside as a scientist. Moreover, it also emphasizes the importance of coherence and consistency when I weave together arguments and data to make an “inference to a best explanation”.

Peter Harrison has advanced an intriguing argument that modern experimental science has its roots in the Protestant Reformation:

An implication of Calvinist theological anthropology, I believe, was that we have to augment our natural faculties with instruments like telescopes and microscopes, and manipulate the natural world experimentally because it’s inherently deceitful. We need to do all these things to guard against the easy assumption that our faculties give us a reliable account of the natural world.1

This recognition of the noetic effects of sin also underlies the development of collective processes of error correction in modern science: “Sometimes ... a Thing which seemed very Thingish inside you is quite different when it gets out into the open and has other people looking at it.

One consequence of this collective method of knowledge generation is that it can be difficult for an outsider to assess the strengths and weaknesses of an argument in a specific field. Moreover, the way one weaves tapestries can vary from field to field. Although the reasons for these differences are often unwritten (leading to frustration in interdisciplinary work) they don’t arise so much from cultural or sociological factors (although these do play a role) but rather are mainly determined by the kinds of questions that one is trying to address.

For example, some scientific concepts are built on a small number of observations that make very strong individual threads in a tapestry argument. Others are built on a much larger number of observations that may each be much weaker, but when woven together, “make a coherent logical bond whose strength is enormous”.

A good example of the latter would be the arguments that geologists employ for an earth that is about 4.5 billions of years old. Although one might pick at many of the individual threads (as young earth advocates are apt to do), it is the sheer number of strands combined with the intricate structure of the whole interconnected tapestry that leads to the overwhelming scientific consensus on this issue. The full rationale for such assessments is sometimes hard for scientists to clearly communicate, and, by the same token, hard for laypeople to properly evaluate.

On the other hand, Christian laypeople should not take all of the confident pronouncements that emanate from our citadels of learning without a grain of salt. Sometimes the phrase “it has been scientifically proven” is shorthand for “shut up and believe me”.

So a big question for the church is: who can you trust to assess the implications of new scientific discoveries? The answer is certainly not individuals, no matter how gifted. The process of discernment must draw on communities of collective expertise. As Mark Noll and others have pointed out, this is unfortunately not an area where the evangelical church has invested sufficient time or resources.

One place the church could look is to the many Christian academics who do research in the natural sciences. There are many more of these around than laypeople may realize. Here in Oxford I can count at least 10 professors of physics who are active in their local churches. However, there are several barriers to overcome. Firstly, the insane busyness of the academic profession, with its multiple conflicting demands of administration, teaching and research, makes it very hard for Christian academics to be responsible parents/husbands/wives, good church citizens, and also find the time to engage significantly with the wider Christian public. Secondly, the profession as a whole still looks down its nose at popularisers, and Christian academics are not immune to this. Thirdly, for a multitude of reasons (issues related to the “Scandal of the Evangelical Mind”, pride, isolation, etc.) many Christian academics have had difficult experiences when engaging on intellectual issues with the church and vice versa. Some diplomacy may be needed before they are willing to re-engage (someone should write an essay on common pastoral issues that academics face for BioLogos).

Conclusion

In conclusion then, I think the barriers to the church properly discerning the strengths and weaknesses of the BioLogos model do not lie primarily in the content of its science or even in the worry that this approach may lead to deism. These are challenges to be sure. Evangelicals’ concerns about deism, for example, often have their primary origin in a sub-Biblical understanding of how God sustains the world and a rationalistic approach to natural theology that has been strongly influenced by the Enlightenment. Both these unexamined notions are shared by the general public. To make progress here, it is important for the BioLogos team to sensitively confront the ways we in the church have all been shaped by the spirit of the age. That means listening as well as talking. Moreover, those of us who work in the sciences need to learn how to better communicate the essence of our professional work to the rest of the body of Christ. Among other things, that means a careful assessment of the metaphors we inevitably need to use.

But these are not insurmountable challenges. A much more formidable barrier revolves around the issue of trust. How can the church discern the truth on such complex issues? How can it respond to the Newtons and Leibnizes of today? Where are the trusted communities of specialists to help it negotiate the tapestries of scientific arguments, while simultaneously carefully engaging with the philosophical and theological questions this may raise? Perhaps BioLogos can become part of that crucial “missing link”. But to do that it must be deeply embedded in the wider body, picking its battles carefully and strategically, and building alliances wherever possible. For this, as in everything, we need the guidance of the Holy Spirit: “Unless the Lord builds the house, the laborers labor in vain” (Psalm 127:1).

Notes

1. See also P. Harrison, The Fall of Man and the Foundations of Science, CUP (2007)


Ard Louis is a Reader in Theoretical Physics and a Royal Society University Research Fellow at the University of Oxford, where he leads a research group studying problems on the border between chemistry, physics and biology. He is also the International Secretary for Christians in Science, an associate of the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion and served on the board of advisors for the John Templeton Foundation.

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Rich - #53257

March 5th 2011

penman:

Thanks.  I’ve said this before, but I’ll say it again.  If “theistic evolution” meant only what the natural combination of the two words implies, i.e., belief in a personal God combined with belief in a process called evolution, there are many ID proponents who could in good conscience call themselves theistic evolutionists.  I’m told that the term first appeared over 100 years ago, and that originally it had only this broad, flexible meaning.  But unfortunately the term has been captured over the last 15 years or so by a group of people who have narrowed it in all kinds of ways, by attaching it very closely to neo-Darwinism, by linking it with the rejection of natural theology, by insisting that it rules out the detectability of design, by tying it to certain opinions about “the problem of evil,” etc.

Many of these unnecessary additions to the notion of theistic evolution can be seen in the columns and comments here.  In some cases they seem deliberately designed to keep ID people out.  For example, Mike Behe has been called a TE by TE George Murphy, but most TEs would define TE in such a way that Behe would not pass the membership test (and in such a way that Behe would not wish to be a member).  Yet by the original meaning of the phrase, Behe would be a TE and would be glad to be called one.  So it’s clear that “TE” today means more than “theistic evolutionist”.  Thus, the wall which separates the evolutionist wing of ID from TE is a construct of the TEs, not of the ID people.  I’m tempted to quip, “Mr. Giberchev, tear down that wall!”


penman - #53261

March 5th 2011

Rich - #53257

Well, I can’t be bothered with the term “Theistic Evolutionist” in any case. I call myself an Evolutionary Creationist. All Christians are creationists, i.e. believe that God created the cosmos. What I don’t like is how YECs have captured the term creationist. I’m trying to free it from its Babylonian captivity.

But I suppose those whom you say have redefined TE so narrowly might apply the definition to EC as well. I can’t see how it’s legitimate to define TE/EC so that in its very definition it means, exclusively, Natural Selection as primary driver of evolutionary change, PLUS the absolute impossibility of detecting design, PLUS a particular solution to the problem of evil (presumably some notion of indeterminacy that sacrifices God’s sovereignty). That definition looks like a piece of solipsistic dogmatism from Alice In Wonderland: although I’d like to know if anyone here will admit really holding it!

Alister McGrath is a TE/EC who pursues a version of natural theology without (it seems) embracing ID.


Unapologetic Catholic - #53286

March 5th 2011

Actually, the sole requirements to be a theisic evolutionist are two:


1.  Acceptance of the general consensus of science and

2.  belief in a deity.

No, Behe doesn’t qualify under #1 above.  Since ID rejects vast swaths ofscience no IDist is a theistic evolutionist.

by linking it with the rejection of natural theology, by insisting that it rules out the detectability of design, by tying it to certain opinions about “the problem of evil,” etc.”

This , of course is fertilizer.  Non of theses are necessary for TE at all.   TE is not about religion.  You can be any religion or a theist.  If you believe in predestination,—good for you.  If you believe in justification by faith alone—good for you.  If you believe in process theology—good for you.  If you believe in Gaia—good for you.  If you are a deist—good for you.  You met the “T” part.  I might completely disagree with your version of theology, but the particular theology is not important in TE designation.

What is important is the acceptance of mainstream science.  It is a falsehood to say that mainstream science rules out detectability of design.  Science also has nothing of interest to say about natural theology.  It also has nothing to say about theodicy.  The TE accepts the science.  Nothing more—But nothing less.  If someone claims to be a TE I don’t care about their version of the “T.”  I want to hear about their version of the “E.”  If they start mumbling and drooling about lack of transitional fossils, then no, they aren’t a TE.  If they speak of front end loading, no, they aren’t a TE.  If they are a Wiccan believing they are a reincarnated Assyrian warrior publishing papers on genetics that are routinely cited in the scientific literature, then they are TE.



Roger A. Sawtelle - #53293

March 5th 2011

John wrote:

So, how long does it take the Darwinian mechanism of genetic variation that is random in only one respect—fitness—coupled with selection (without selection, it’s non-Darwinian!) to produce an exquisitely specific, biologically functional protein-protein binding site, Rich?

Now John there is only one problem with that statement, and that is that there is no defintion of what fitness is.  The closest thing to a definition is that fitness is measured by the ability to survive and reproduce.  That is not a definition, but a tautology. 

If there is no definable criteria for natural selection, how can we say or prove that it takes place?  We have a metaphor for what happens, but no mechanism.  How is that science?  On the other hand with ecology we do have a real mechanism for natural selection.

Behe was mistaken to focus on variation for his primary criticism of Darwinism.  Natural selection or survival of the fittest is the most vulnerable aspect of the theory.  It is also hard to critique because it is most elusive because it really does not exist.


Rich - #53309

March 5th 2011

penman:

Thanks for your comments.  Just to be explain the empirical basis for my statements, my comments on theistic evolution are based on an extensive reading of the books, articles, blog posts, etc. of leading TE/EC proponents, mainly North American ones, but including all the leading NA ones, including Ken Miller, Francisco Ayala, George Murphy, Randy Isaac, Denis Lamoureux, and many others, including many Biologos contributors.  In every case at least one, and in most cases more than one of the extra requirements I have mentioned has been found.  For example, the argument against design and for Darwinism from the problem of evil is made by Ken Miller and Francisco Ayala.  Criticism of natural theology one may find in George Murphy and some of the columnists here.  The fact that so often these “extra” requirements are coupled with remarks targeting ID indicates that the very contents of the writer’s TE/EC is shaped by a need to reject ID.

Now contrast that with the “natural” definition of TE.  By any natural definition of TE, ID proponents such as Behe, Sternberg and O’Leary would count as TEs.  All are theists; all accept evolution.  Their sin in TE/EC eyes is their criticism of neo-Darwinism and/or their belief in things that TE/ECs consider theologically unacceptable (e.g., that God might have created malaria, that design might be detectable without the aid of revelation).  Again, the exclusion comes from the TE/EC side, not the ID side.  And just to be clear, I am not accusing you, penman, of being party to the exclusion; I’m pointing out what the leaders of TE/EC in fact do, whether you agree with them or not.       


John - #53312

March 5th 2011

Roger:

Now John there is only one problem with that statement, and that is that there is no defintion of what fitness is.”  

Roger, if you had bothered to read my statement before commenting, the definition of fitness in this context would have been obvious: affinity for binding to the antigen. 

“Behe was mistaken to focus on variation for his primary criticism of Darwinism.”

Behe is mistaken about many things, particularly the data. Of course, he admitted under oath to not reading the primary literature in the very subjects on which he pontificates, particularly immunology.

Rich - #53313

March 5th 2011

UC:

You wrote:

“Actually, the sole requirements to be a theisic evolutionist are two:

“1.  Acceptance of the general consensus of science and
“2.  belief in a deity.”
First, I’m not sure how you got to be a spokesman for EC/TE.  Last I heard the leading spokesmen were Isaac, Murphy, Haarsma, Lamoureux, Miller, etc.  Have you published anything on the subject that would make you qualified to speak for the group?  If so, please direct me to your books or articles.

Second, when I analyze the expression “theistic evolution,”, I don’t see the word “science” in there, let alone “general consensus of science.”  I see the word “evolution,” which indicates belief in descent through modification.  A theistic evolutionist would be a theist who accepts descent through modification.  And of course, Michael Behe does this, as do some other ID proponents.  One could only exclude Behe and the others from the label by means of additional requirements which are not found in the notion of “theistic evolution,” for example, by insisting that theistic evolutionists accept a particular scientific model of how evolution works, e.g., neo-Darwinism.  But that would be like disqualifying Polkinghorne from the label “theistic physicist” because he thinks there are inadequacies in Newton’s physics.  One does not cease to be a physicist for criticizing Newton, and one does not cease to be an evolutionist for criticizing Darwin, Mayr, etc.

Finally, it is clear that you are not acquainted with the writings of Protestant TEs.  Most TE/EC people would *not* include either Deists or process theologians as TE/EC proponents, as most TE/EC people understand themselves to be orthodox Protestants, and both Deism and process theology are outside the pale of orthodoxy.  (So much for your Wiccans.)  I suggest that you read *Perspectives on an Evolving Creation*—a central TE/EC work which you are clearly unfamiliar with.  You might also read articles in the ASA journal, to find out what non-Catholic TE/EC people actually believe and argue, before you presume to speak for them.


Roger A. Sawtelle - #53516

March 7th 2011

John wrote:

So, how long does it take the Darwinian mechanism of genetic variation that is random in only one respect—fitness—coupled with selection (without selection, it’s non-Darwinian!) to produce an exquisitely specific, biologically functional protein-protein binding site ....?

John, you are right.  I did not read your whole statement (above) carefully.  If so I would have said that your whole statement is a house of cards.  How can fitness be random?  How does “exquisitely specific” define something?  If something is biologically functional, it is “fit.”  If it is not, it is not.  This is like saying if someone is not alive, he or she is dead.   

Neither you nor anyone else have proven a viable natural selection process other than that based on ecological selection.  Variation is variation.  Variation provides the possibility of change.  Natural selection makes evolution.  Darwinism is stuck at variation.  It does not have a process of natural selection, which as I have said ecology has produced so that new life forms can exquisitely fit into a specific niche where they are most “biologically functional.”   


John - #53529

March 7th 2011

Roger:

“How can fitness be random?”

Roger, you’re still not reading. The mutations are random with respect to the characteristic of fitness. In the specific case to which I am referring, the mutants have been isolated and analyzed empirically during the process. While the process is directional (proteins that have higher binding affinity), the mutants go in both directions.

“How does “exquisitely specific” define something?”

You left out the noun. The noun was binding. If it helps, “exquisitely specific” means dissociation constants in the high picomolar to 1 nanomolar range. Does that help?

“If something is biologically functional, it is “fit.”  If it is not, it is not.  This is like saying if someone is not alive, he or she is dead.”

No, it is not. The strengths of protein-protein interactions lie on a continuum. I am referring to the far end of that continuum, where we can easily and objectively assay for function.

“Neither you nor anyone else have proven a viable natural selection process other than that based on ecological selection.”

1) Nothing is proven in science.
2) You’re not addressing my question at all. Why?


John - #53530

March 7th 2011

Roger:
“Variation is variation.  Variation provides the possibility of change. Natural selection makes evolution.”

No, Roger, evolution is not limited to natural selection. That being said, the question you are avoiding involves natural selection. 

“Darwinism is stuck at variation.”

No, Roger, the process I am asking you about is completely Darwinian and works beautifully. Both the genetic variation and the selection are very well studied. What’s fascinating is that people who claim to understand biology better than people who do biology can’t even figure out the very specific, real-time case to which I am referring in the question you don’t seem to want to answer.

“It does not have a process of natural selection, which as I have said ecology has produced so that new life forms can exquisitely fit into a specific niche where they are most “biologically functional.””

Ecology isn’t relevant to the question you are dodging. We have variation and we measure it, we have selection and we measure it, this Darwinian system produces something new and functional (a protein-protein binding interaction with high specificity, and a biological function that can be unequivocally quantitated that is initiated by the binding). Mike Behe says this is improbable over lifetimes. How long does this Darwinian process take when we leave his fantasy world and do some real work?

Roger A. Sawtelle - #54169

March 12th 2011

John,

We live in a real ecological world where the climate is changing and “bad” weather is causing poor crops in much of the world, driving up food prices (also caused by growing population and a rising standard of living) creating hardship and unrest in many countries. 


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