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Addressing Christian Concerns About the Implications of BioLogos’ Science, Part 1

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January 11, 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.

Addressing Christian Concerns About the Implications of BioLogos’ Science, Part 1

In November 2010, a small group of leading pastors, scholars, scientists, public intellectuals, and informed laypersons gathered in New York City to consider several pressing questions at the interface of science and faith. This was the second Theology of Celebration BioLogos Workshop (see details about the 2009 workshop). Three papers, each addressing a different question, provided the framework for our discussions at the meeting. These were presented by Faraday Institute Director Denis Alexander, MIT physicist Ian Hutchinson, and Oxford theoretical biophysicist Ard Louis. Today we begin a series taken from Louis' paper (PDF). In addition to this blog, be sure to also check out the summary statement derived from the 2010 NYC Workshop.

Many barriers to the acceptance of the BioLogos model by evangelical Christians arise from popular misconceptions about the nature of science and its relationship to God's action in our world. These misconceptions mirror those held by the general public (and are regularly exploited by the new atheists).

For example, difficulties result from conflating “mechanism” and “meaning”. Thus claims that the biological complexity around us arose through regular physical processes often smell like deism or even atheism to the average person in our pews. A second set of issues clusters around popular views of natural theology where the waters are further muddied by the misuse of value-laden metaphoric language (e.g. “random” and “selfish gene”) to describe biological evolution. Finally, difficulties also arise from questions of authority: Who can a Christian trust to judge the reliability and implications of new scientific findings?

This essay will argue that to overcome these obstacles BioLogos should:

  1. Draw on the robust biblical theme that God sustains the world and the rich tradition of theological reflection on the difference between God’s regular and miraculous acts.
  2. Carefully delineate the limits of natural theology, and develop a more nuanced set of metaphors to describe the emergence of biological complexity.
  3. Sensitively mediate between the community of Christian academic scientists, the Christian laity and the general public.

Introduction

This most beautiful system of the sun, planets, and comets could only proceed from the counsel and dominion of an intelligent and powerful Being

-- Sir Isaac Newton. "Principia Mathematica" (1687)

Perhaps the most spectacular early success of Isaac Newton’s theory of gravitation was its natural explanation for Johannes Kepler’s observation that the planets orbit the sun in elliptical orbits. But upon further reflection, some nagging problems emerge. The perfect elliptical orbits are only valid for an isolated planet orbiting around the sun. Gravity works on all objects, and so the other planets perturb the motion of the Earth, potentially leading to its ejection from the solar system. This problem vexed Sir Isaac, who postulated that God occasionally “reformed” the planets, perhaps by sending through a comet with just the right trajectory.

In a famous exchange of letters, cut short only by his death in 1716, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, took Sir Isaac to task for his view. He objected that:

if God had to remedy the defects of His creation, this was surely to demean his craftsmanship.1

And moreover that:

“..when God works miracles, he does it not to meet the needs of nature but the needs of grace. Anyone who thinks differently must have a very mean notion of the wisdom and power of God.2

In other words, the regular sustaining activity of God, as evidenced by natural laws, should be sufficient to explain the regular behavior of the solar system, without the need for additional ad-hoc interventions. Making it right the first time is more glorious than having to fix it later. Moreover, when God deviates from his regular sustaining activity to perform miracles, he does so for soteriological reasons, not to repair nature.

When I present this story to an evangelical Christian audience, most side with Leibniz: they agree that it is indeed more glorious if God doesn’t need to occasionally reform the planets. A good many will grant me that Leibniz’s point on miracles is consistent with the Bible. But if I try to push the analogy further and suggest that it could be more glorious for God to create the rich biological diversity we observe around us through a continuous evolutionary process, rather than by episodic “intervention”, my audience is typically much more skeptical. And I have some sympathy for their apprehension. Living beings impinge more closely on theology than planets do.

This response to the Leibniz-Newton exchange encapsulates many of the main themes of this essay. While theological concerns about evolution and how it relates to the fall and Adam are tremendously important, I will argue that other factors also play a key role in the resistance of many Christians towards evolutionary science. Like the proverbial iceberg, these issues lie submerged beneath the surface and will sink discussions about evolution unless they are recognized.

The first cluster of submerged issues surrounds the nature of science and God’s action in the world. In popular culture, a scientific explanation of the physical mechanisms by which a process occurs is often privileged as the primary source of meaning and purpose — e.g. “we used to think that God created the world, but now we know that it was the Big Bang”.3 Furthermore, even among Christians, the influence of modern concepts like a semi-independent Nature lead to the expectation that God mainly acts by supernatural intervention in the physical world. Thus the worry arises that if a comprehensive scientific account of a process can be obtained, God’s power and presence are diminished.

The second cluster of issues arises from popular views of natural theology. Despite warnings from great thinkers such as Pascal, Newman and Barth4, the idea that an unbiased observer should be able to use science to find unambiguous evidence for God’s existence is remarkably resilient among Christians. Furthermore, many attempts at natural theology rely heavily on value-laden metaphors that come from popularizations of science. This cuts both ways. On the one hand Archdeacon Paley saw the hand of God in the intricate watch-like “contrivances of nature”5, while on the other hand Richard Dawkins sees a pitiless and indifferent “blind watchmaker”6 in what he believes are the wasteful and purposeless processes of evolution. Although their conclusions couldn’t be more different, both are engaging in a natural theology based on similar rationalistic assumptions.

It would greatly facilitate the in-house Christian conversation about evolution if we could loosen the grip of these modernist versions of natural theology. Nevertheless, metaphors do matter. I think that is why my audiences are reasonably happy with a God who places the planets in stable orbits without further intervention, while they are much less comfortable with a God who uses evolution, for which popular descriptions use morally loaded words like chance, random, purposeless and survival of the fittest. I will argue that these popular metaphors may not be the best ways to describe the richness of current evolutionary theory.

The final cluster of issues concerns the critical problem of trust and the world of higher learning. How Christians should relate to the full spectrum of ideas surrounding modern biological evolution is a complex question that needs expert input from geologists, chemists, biologists, philosophers, historians, theologians and perhaps even physicists. Should Christians rely on individuals they trust or can these kinds of questions only be addressed by communities of scholars? Here I am heavily influenced by Mark Noll’s prophetic book, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, Eerdmans (1994). He points out that although Evangelicals exhibit an extraordinary range of virtues, careful engagement with the intellectual world is not usually one of them. This is curious because modern Evangelicals descend from “leaders and movements distinguished by probing, creative, fruitful attention to the mind.”

Moreover,

If Evangelicals are the ones who insist most aggressively that they believe in sola scriptura, and if Evangelicals are the ones who assert most vigorously the transforming work of Jesus Christ, then it is reasonable to hope that what the Scriptures teach about the origin of creation in Christ, the sustaining of all things in Christ, and the dignity of all creation in Christ-about, in other words, the subjects of learning -- will be a spur for Evangelicals to a deeper and richer intellectual life: "He is before all things, and in him all things hold together" (Colossians 1:15-17)."7

"In him all things hold together." How can BioLogos help our brothers and sisters in Christ to explore how this confession relates to what science has discovered about the origins of the biological complexity we see around us?

Notes

1. 1. John Hedley Brooke, Science and Religion, CUP, Cambridge (1991), p147.

2. From letter 1 point 4 (Nov 1715). The full correspondence can be found online. As always in history, the whole story is more complex (and interesting) than the bits I highlight here.

3. For another example: :“Because there is a law such as gravity, the universe can and will create itself from [the structured vacuum of modern physics]. Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist” -- The Grand Design, Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow (Bantan 2010).

4. Alister E. McGrath, The Open Secret: A New Vision for Natural Theology, Wiley-Blackwell, (2008)

5. William Paley, Natural Theology; or, Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity (1802)

6. Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker, Norton (1986)

7. Mark Noll, “The Evangelical Mind Today.” First Things (October 2004)


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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Mike - #49079

January 25th 2011

Does the evolutionary process operate independently of God or is God guiding the process? If God just ‘lit the fuse’ and then stood back to see what happens then the end result could have been something other than human beings (the evolved cat out of Red Dwarf comes to mind). Would an evolved cat be made in the image of God? But if God is involved in the process then why bother with evolution, why not an instant creation instead?  So what did God do? Did he add extra bits of DNA to change one creature into another? A sort of God of the DNA gaps.


Rich - #49154

January 25th 2011

Dr. Louis:

Thanks for your extensive and generous reply.  I see that now the whole essay is linked; that should help as well.

I understand the need to keep things simple for a popular presentation.  I know that you can’t get into every detailed debate in the history of ideas.  I don’t mind some things being put into footnotes rather than the main text.  However, I think some terms could be avoided altogether, or quickly clarified in popular language, rather than used in debatable ways.

For example, it would be easy for you to have specified what time period (or what authors) you meant by “modern”—that would not require a long academic digression.  And I think you could have made your argument without ever using the word “rationalist.”  But once you *do* use the word “rationalist,” given the public’s immense confusion over what the word means, I think it’s necessary to say what meaning you have in mind.  To one person in the pews, “rationalist” means Dawkins; to another, Michael Shermer, to another, Leibniz; to most, who don’t read serious books at all, it means something vaguely like “materialist” or “atheist.”  The term is simply not clear, and that’s why I think it should be avoided or explained.


Rich - #49155

January 25th 2011

Dr. Louis (continuing):

Just to be clear, I wasn’t actually saying that your terminology undermined your argument.  I was saying that your terminology made it hard to get a handle on what your argument *was*.  But now that I’ve seen the whole essay, and since you are posting more installments, I can comment more precisely on your argument when I get to the later installments.

Yes, there is debate among Calvinists regarding the propriety of natural theology.  Barth, whom I believe you cite favorably, is at one extreme of that debate.  Calvin himself did not find a modest natural theology objectionable—one which concerned itself only with inferring the power and wisdom of God from his creation.  (I can provide a quotation if you need it.)  Of course Calvin would have denied that natural theology can teach us anything about salvation.  But there is no difference on *that* point between Calvin, Luther, Aquinas, Barth, Collins, Miller, Behe, Dembski, Ken Ham, Mohler, etc.—which is why I don’t understand the hostility many TEs have toward natural theology.  It doesn’t threaten any central Christian doctrine, so why oppose it?


Roger A. Sawtelle - #49201

January 26th 2011

I agree 100% with the scriptural approach.  In fact the most obvious appoach is based on John 1:1, Jesus as the Logos/Creative Word of God.  Since Logos is part of the name of BioLogos it is truly difficult to comprehend why BioLogos does not explore the Biblical meanings of Jesus as Logos to develope a true natural theology.


The Dr. - #49601

January 30th 2011

Hey, Cal.  First of all, arguments aren’t false; arguments are invalid.  Second of all, even if creation did ‘evaporate’ that would merely constitute a change in state, not the destruction of matter or what have you.  Furthermore, with regard to the claim that some sort of evaporation would take place, how can you possibly know this?  You cannot have knowledge prior to the phenomenon, or do you think that you can?  Am I to suppose that the basis of your argument is… faith?


The Dr. - #49604

January 30th 2011

Hey, Roger.  In response to your comments on Philosophy I have several comments and questions.

In what ways should we consider western philosophy “sick unto death?”  Many things are done under the title of philosophy, but, for the most part those things are recognized as separate from the sciences.  Philosophy, perhaps, has best been used as a starting point for delimiting the realm of the scientific pursuit.  In no way, however, does philosophy interject scientific claims into the discussion of what might count as knowledge.  Also, philosophy is not the kind of thing which undermines faith.  There is no logically defensible way to refute the claim that a god exists and further, no possible way to refute a claim as to specific instances of his manifestation.  In other words, the philosopher might attempt to criticize natural theology on the grounds that it is an ineffective and useless discipline, but claims made under the title of natural theology, with regard to the truth value of propositions, are not in danger of being refuted.


The Dr. - #49605

January 30th 2011

Continuing along this line of thinking we also must concern ourselves with what the philosopher of science, Karl Popper had to say about falsifiability as a criterion for knowledge of individual proposition contained in scientific explanation of the universe. 

The fact that the truth value of specific propositions made under the title of natural theology have only an indirect relation to what can be addressed by the scientific or philosophical disciplines, however, raises the question of the meaning of such statements in natural theology.  Even if I accept as true that God’s intellect is present in the human genome or that the physical parameters of the universe are “just right for life”, how am I supposed to utilize these claims?  This is a problem Francis Collins encountered time and again.  If you read his preliminary work on BioLogos, you will find that wherever a question like this arises, he retreats into the privacy of his faith.

Unfortunately, if you accept my claim that faith is private, and that Collins does rely on faith to defend his claims, we cannot determine the conditions under which BioLogos would be false.  Follow logic here and you will conclude that BioLogos cannot count as scientific knowledge.


The Dr. - #49607

January 30th 2011

Before anyone asks, I do not have a doctorate in any field.  I am merely a fan of Dr. Who.  I am, however, a student of philosophy at Missouri State University in Springfield, Missouri.  If anyone would like me to elaborate on or to clarify any point I’ve made in my posts, I will be more than happy to oblige.  I am not an atheist, but do not believe in the relevance of God in terms of His involvement in human affairs.  This is not to say that God is uninvolved, but merely that, even if he were, human beings would be incapable of knowing anything about God’s involvement.  This is a fact human language and psychology, not of scientific evidence.  To paraphrase Wittgenstein, language is the limit of my world and I cannot mean what I cannot say.  To express this in my own terms, good luck to the faithful.


Gregory - #49609

January 30th 2011

Hello The Dr.

Thanks for your introduction. Missouri is a state I have not visited. But I do have a doctorate in one field, in response to your disclosure.

“I am not an atheist, but do not believe in the relevance of God in terms of His involvement in human affairs.” - The Dr.

If I understand what you say, I wonder if you would be willing to accept this self-label re-worded as: “a theist who believes in a God whose existence is irrelevant to human affairs”? Or would that be more deist than theist?

You write: “if you accept my claim that faith is private”

No, I do not accept your claim. & it is not just because I am not from the USA, one of the most individualistic (e.g. rights & religion) nations in the world.

Faith is *both* private *and* public. Inevitably. We can speak of institutions if you disagree.

But perhaps ‘institutions’ are not at issue here?


The Dr. - #49613

January 30th 2011

I am glad you brought up this point.  I must admit that the greatest advantage in posting on these threads lies in the quality of response.

In fact, the issue of faith as a privately experienced phenomena is something with which I have struggled.  Consider, however, the modes of discourse in which faith becomes relevant.  It seems that when one discusses faith, he does so only in relation to some set of propositions which, through explanation, we understand as originating in sense-datum descriptions of our world.  This takes the proper logical form of any number of metaphysics such that faith is defined as a physical phenomenon qualified by a negative characteristic.  For instance, in describing faith, one would describe a set of behaviors and then qualify those behaviors as faith merely by stating that there lies within the set an indescribable or yet unsubscribed characteristic.

The French philosopher Jacques Derrida pointed out that if metaphysical propositions have meaning, that meaning must lie in an unfulfilled promise concerning the configuration of future states of affairs.  In this way faith would not have bearing on the meaning of our words aside from the behaviouristic and psychologically accessible characteristics.


The Dr. - #49614

January 30th 2011

To better orient a reader to the position from which I am responding, I would recommend Soren Kierkegaard’s work ‘Fear and Trembling’.  The dilemma Kierkegaard proposes goes something like this:

If God is the absolute, and if a man (Abraham for instance) has a relationship with God on the basis of faith, then, in order to honor that relationship, the man might be asked to defy worldly ethics.  (God, being good, does not ask this of course.  It is merely a thought experiment).

In concordance with my claim, we can say that the ethical worldview, as opposed to the faithful worldview, is one governed by the conventions in language.  That is, I can rationally explain or relate my actions through statements of ethics, I cannot do so through faith.

What would I tell someone if God came to me and told me to offer my child as a burnt offering on the mountain?  I guarantee that I could offer nothing to distinguish myself from an insane person.

Perhaps, however, someone other than myself would be able to describe his relationship with such a God as is posited by Kierkegaard.  Perhaps the task with which Abraham was beset could be explained.  If you believe to be able, then, by all means, explain yourself here.


The Dr. - #49619

January 30th 2011

Oh, and I forgot to address your issue with and rewording of my self-label.  The latter re-wording is more or less correct.  I would call myself a sort of deist, but I would also state that I do not have even the most basic understanding of God, and have not yet accepted anything as proof of His existence.  Furthermore, the kind of Deism to which I subscribe is founded only on the principle that the denial of a metaphysical claim is also metaphysical (for instance: let p be a metaphysical proposition; ~p then is equally as unfalsifiable as p because both deny nothing).  Therefore, I cannot say anything about the existence of God except in relational terms and in accordance with natural language.  Therefore, the things to which the sign ‘God’ would refer are in existence but they are not necessarily in existence in any single being or anything resembling the God of any religion.

To put this more succinctly, the God to which Spinoza referred might be a fact as might be the God Descartes proved to exist in his Sixth Meditation, but these proofs support only the tautological claim that “what is in the universe, I am willing to call God.”  They do not stipulate that God is relevant to our understanding of phenomena.


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