Science and the Question of God, Part 2

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October 1, 2010 Tags: Christianity & Science - Then and Now

Today's entry was written by Randy Isaac. 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.

Science and the Question of God, Part 2

Today’s blog is the second entry in a five-part series, which has been adapted from a new Scholarly Article found here. All references have been removed for the blog series but can be found in the full paper. In his previous entry, Randy Isaac explained how evolution has been misunderstood as “replac[ing] God in the grand scheme of the origin and development of life.” Today, Isaac outlines the rise of, and response to, Creationism in the United States.

Creationism

In this blog series, the term creationism refers not to the doctrine of creation but to the extrapolation of one view of such creation into claims of science. Specifically, it refers to the idea that scientific truths can be found in the Bible and that science properly done will concord with those truths. It is most easily identified with the view that the earth is only about 10,000 years old.

A brief history of Creationism in the USA

The modern surge of creationism arose in the mid-twentieth century, about a century after Darwin published his ideas. Many factors for its rise have been articulated and three of them merit mention here. First of all, there was the rise of literary higher criticism of the Bible in the early twentieth century. Scholars who analyzed the literary structure of the text prominently called divine inspiration of the Bible into question. The inevitable backlash swung to the opposite extreme of insisting on the infallibility of the literal meaning of every word. The prospect of documenting the truth of the Bible with the authority of science was most attractive.

A second factor was a substantive shift in the scientific understanding of evolution. Prior to Darwin’s work, the concept of evolution was known but somewhat on the fringe. Darwin’s major contributions included making evolution respectable in the scientific community even though many key details were unresolved. In the mid-twentieth century came the so-called neo-Darwinian synthesis wherein the major themes stated by Darwin were connected with the modern understanding of aspects such as genetics and heredity. With that synthesis and the new insight into genetic mutations, came a renewed claim of purposelessness and random chance as inherent in evolution. In other words, the shift in emphasis in evolution made it appear more virulent in its opposition to Christian faith. Moving beyond the mutual exclusivity of scientific vs. theistic explanations, the thrust of evolution was seen to deny any role of God’s providence. The threat of evolution was growing.

The third trigger was launched with Sputnik. The Russian success in reaching space galvanized a dedicated effort of science education in the US. The Biological Sciences Curriculum Study (BSCS) center was established in 1958. The BSCS series of science textbooks was published in 1963 and widely deployed. By then, evolution was well accepted in the science community but still little known and understood in the public. If it was known at all, it was viewed with suspicion. In 1968 a Supreme Court decision nullified many of the anti-evolution laws that still existed in the country. The BSCS textbooks made the teaching of evolution a priority. When the public realized that children were being taught the theory of evolution, sometimes imbued with metaphysical overtones of purposelessness and meaningless chance, the longing for a counterpunch grew rapidly.

Into this environment came The Genesis Flood by Henry M Morris and John C Whitcomb. Built on ideas by the amateur geologist George McCready Price, whose own ideas were triggered by Ellen White’s mid-nineteenth century visions, they wove a story in scientific language of a literal, inerrant Bible supported by scientific observations. Flood geology swept the Christian community like wildfire. Here was a story that could restore confidence in the truth of the Bible to counteract higher criticism, emphasize meaning and purpose through God’s providence, and provide a Christian worldview for children’s education, all with the apparent authority of science.

Responses to Creationism

The message was told in such a convincing manner that fifty years later, polls indicate that as many as 40% of Americans are persuaded by some version of it. The mainstream science community, however, would have none of it. Rather than being convinced, the response was ridicule and quick dismissal. Ultimately scientists were perplexed that the so-called creationism movement survived at all, let alone came to such prominence.

Why was the scientific community unconvinced by the arguments of creationism? First of all, creationism deduces scientific conclusions from the Bible whereas scientific methodology relies on empirical observation interpreted in a paradigm of consistent laws of nature rather than any authoritative text. Secondly, in its attempt to reconcile geological observations with specific biblical interpretations, creationists must declare that God may have modified physical constants at various times in the past. For example, the speed of light may have been much greater or the radioactive decay constants may have been hundreds of millions of times greater than today to explain the abundance of radioactivity. In stark contrast, scientists have been able to measure historical values of such constants, finding no hint of significant changes.

Creationists have spun this difference into a contrast of presuppositions. They claim to be based on a Christian worldview while mainstream science is based on an atheistic worldview. By this they mean that a Christian worldview allows for God to have changed the laws of nature and caused singular catastrophic events in order to enable the time scale in literal biblical history while atheism insists on uniformitarianism, wherein the processes, forces, and constants of nature remain essentially unchanged over time.

In sharp contrast to these claims of creationism, mainstream western science was built on the Judeo-Christian conviction that God’s faithfulness and eternal unchanging character led to constancy in nature. The physical constants could be discovered to be, in fact, constants while it was a pagan view that allowed for nature to change at the caprice of the gods. Each side thus claims a Christian basis for its foundation. Creationism therefore deviates significantly from what is considered basic science. Despite the claims of creationism, science has not affirmed the literal geological history that many people feel is written in the Bible, and it has not provided an answer to the question of God.

Isaac's series continues here.

Note: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and not of the American Scientific Affiliation.


Randy Isaac is a solid-state physics research scientist and executive director of the American Scientific Affiliation (ASA), where he has been a member since 1976 and a fellow since 1996. Isaac received his bachelor’s degree from Wheaton College in Illinois and his doctorate in physics from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He joined IBM to work at the Thomas J. Watson Research Center in 1977 and most recently served as the vice-president of systems technology and science for the company.

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merv - #32964

October 2nd 2010

today, but the elephant then remaining in the room with both of you is that you may be missing the point of the important things God has to say to everybody through that story. 

It’s as if somebody was preaching to a crowd about how religion without Christ isn’t worth a hill of beans.  And then you all get into an argument about how much a “hill of beans” is actually worth—thereby totally missing the speaker’s point.  Some would insist that a “hill of beans” is really quite small and so not actually worth much at all, therefore the speaker’s message is still correct in every detail (Conrad); while others are willing to admit that a “hill of beans” could indeed *appear* to be worth a lot, but since they grant that the preacher was infallible, they maintain that despite appearances, a hill of beans must actually be worthless (Martin).  Granted: the “whole point” in the case of biblical narratives like the flood may be somewhat more challenging to comprehend in their detail than my simple and obvious example —but that’s the value of using a simple example—to help you see the point for the more complex situation.  And I’m 99% sure


merv - #32965

October 2nd 2010

that whatever we all agree the major points of the flood narrative might be, it wasn’t to provide accurate geological information for 21st century folks, any more than my fictitious speaker above was trying to make commentary on the actual worth of a hill of beans. 

Ironically it’s science that causes so many to have this bizarre fixation on the “hill of beans” aspect (which is the only part of the whole thing that science can address), and so it is not the TEs but the other Christians who are granting way too much authority and domain to science.  TEs are trying help people recognize that science isn’t even in its proper domain if it is trying to intrude on these questions to tell us about what or whether


conrad - #32966

October 2nd 2010

Well thank you Dave!

  Trying to show how DNA evolved really ties folks into knots.

The DNA needs RNA to take the information to another big protein that reproduces the original DNA.
Showing how that happened by accident has never been done.

I believe in selective breeding to get new strains.
That is how we increase our agricultural yields all the time.
The DNA molecule is a marvelous thing. Ir is like a set of tinker toys.

But showing that the DNA created itself has proven impossible so far.

AND THAT IS JUST THE FACT!


merv - #32967

October 2nd 2010

God is or is not.  And we should resist the bait of militant atheists who want you think that it (the hill of beans) is the only point you should be paying attention to. 

—Merv
p.s.  My “hill of beans” example isn’t original (though my application of it here might be).  My brother-in-law once heard an English preacher use the phrase in a similar context to a Haitian audience (who would have a very healthy respect for the actual value of a hill of beans).  The interpreter wisely translated it into “… isn’t worth anything” for the Creole audience.  Smart translator.  Maybe we need one of those.


Gregory - #33137

October 3rd 2010

Though I too appreciate Randy’s urge for balance, there is one thing he seems always to leave out: ideology. For example, he doesn’t use the words ‘ideological’ or ‘ideology’ at all. He uses “three ideologies” to refer to evolutionism, creationism and intelligent design (which he doesn’t give an -ism to, rather, seems to assume most people consider ID as ideology & thus it counts as such without an -ism label).

He doesn’t explain or define what qualifies these three things as ‘ideologies’, but rather expects everyone will know what ‘ideologies’ used once means. I’d doubt 1 in 40 American college graduates has more than a 1st level grasp of ‘ideology,’ compared say to Chinese, Russian or Indian college graduates, who can speak about ‘ideology’ until the cows & programmers come home.

“A second factor was a substantive shift in the scientific understanding of evolution. Prior to Darwin’s work, the concept of evolution was known but somewhat on the fringe.” - R. Isaac

Along with ‘scientific understanding of evolution’ came much heavy ideology. The invasion of social sciences by evolutionism has been profound.

Btw, do the Cambridge Platonists count as ‘somewhat on the fringe’?


Gregory - #33150

October 3rd 2010

Also, as a man trained partly in the ‘eastern’ region of Christianity, I wonder where ‘Sophia’ fits into Randy’s Fig. 1? The 2 – science &/vs. theology turns into 3 – science, philosophy &/vs. theology. Is it worth sticking with the Two Books model if Sophia is not acknowledged therein?

I don’t really know what Randy means by ‘secularist’.

Does he mean ‘secularist’ in the sense before or after Charles Taylor’s masterpiece “A Secular Age” (2007)?

‘Secularist’ does not necessarily mean ‘anti-religious.’ Instead, the conditions in which to ‘be religious’ or to live a ‘religious life’ have changed. In a secular age, in most pluralistic (mosaic/melting pot) ‘western’ countries, religion is no longer considered as something to be used as a Government instrument. To live in a secular country (e.g. Turkey) is to be free to choose your religion. The USA’s Constitution is a secular document.

“the small amount of genetic engineering that humans have accomplished is not easily extended to the generation of life from non-life.” – Isaac

We are agreed on this. Would you argue, though, Randy, that life from non-life doesn’t/didn’t require Mind?


Gregory - #33152

October 3rd 2010

In the end, I quite like & appreciate the article, though I’d obviously like Randy to deal with some things that appear not on his radar.

I really like his definition of ID that adds an “indeterminate intelligent designer.” This is one thing that makes ID elusive & weak; it will not identify designer(s), lacking a reflexive branch (solution: employ an anthropologist), seeking instead positivistic & sometimes scientistic markers & thinkers in applied fields to argue for the ‘design detection’ that already takes place (Easter Island, mouse traps, Rushmore, Welcome to Victoria! patterened in flowers, etc. + graphic design, set design, clothing/fashion design, architectural design, etc.).

“Only the dual approach of seeing God through his Son, as revealed in his Word, and through nature gives us a more coherent picture of God.” – Randy

Randy’s position/paper could be strengthened by including Sophia at the bottom of the image of Fig. 1, parallel to Logos, connecting Science & Theology. This may not be an especially Protestant move, but indeed, it speaks more directly to the balance Randy seeks.

The word ‘spirit/Spirit’ is nowhere in Isaac’s text either & fits conceptually at that spot right there.


R Hampton - #33294

October 4th 2010

Gregory,

One thing that has always bothered me was ID’s implicit assumption that there is only one designer. Why should that be the case?

If we were to find a clock in the woods, so the analogy goes, we wouldn’t think it was created by natural means. But suppose we found not one clock, but thousands strewn about an entire forest: some much older than any person alive and others brand new; some of similar design, others strikingly different. Why would anyone assume that the all of the clocks were produced by the same individual or even the same factory?

Given that billions of years separate the first cell from the Cambrian explosion, is it not likely that the intelligence ID detects is the work of a great many designers? Is it not possible - perhaps even probable - that competition between intelligent designers offers a better rationale for the transition of land mammals to whales? (evidence of competing programs of design)


beaglelady - #33366

October 5th 2010

R Hampton,

God point.  If there is but one designer he must be a fan of blood sports.


Gregory - #33376

October 5th 2010

Yes, indeed. The MDT - multiple designers theory was proposed, if I remember right, in about 2004. The person who coined it, RBH, sometimes posts here at BioLogos. The collective term was introduced either on Panda’s Thumb or on ARN. You can probably still find its ‘manifesto’ over at PT.

In zoology or comparative anatomy, the language might sound smth like this: Were the creatures (known to us as) pre-whales intelligently designing themselves to become whales? If so, how does one ‘quantify’ or ‘measure’ such embodied intelligence?

Your example of watches and factories sounds rather anthropomorphic when discussing ‘nature-only.’ I have been pushing for another way to view/hear the conversation than this.

For a methodological naturalist or methodological individualist, multiple or non-Singular when speaking of designers usually sounds rather good to them.


Argon - #33385

October 5th 2010

To my knowledge Richard Hoppe’s MDT proposal has not been taken up by those in the ID community.


beaglelady - #33389

October 5th 2010

To my knowledge Richard Hoppe’s MDT proposal has not been taken up by those in the ID community.

Are you surprised?


Argon - #33397

October 5th 2010

Am I surprised? Yes and no.
Yes,  because of the claims of neutrality with regard to the nature of designer(s).
No, because concepts don’t appear to get tested. Even the ideas first promoted with a splash just fade over time without remark. For example, has Jonathan Wells (or the DI) said much about Wells’ “centriolar turbine” hypothesis recently?


Gregory - #33415

October 5th 2010

I agree with Argon, both with respect to the supposed neutrality wrt ´the nature of´ what counts as ´designer/Designer´ & with ´the character of´ a ´designer/Designer´.

Hoppe has some anthropology in his education, if I remember correctly. The DI forgot & continues to forget @  the importance of anthropology in the study of human understanding. E. Scott enjoys their un-anthropological approach and thwarts them regularly, even as she goes over-board with her evolutionistic ideology.

The single unembodied designer/Designer is ´made for apologetics´ rather than ´defensible by science´. Then again, some people think the idea of multi-verse is ´scientific´ too!

As of summer 2007, these are the background fields of DI Fellows:
Biology – 7
Chemistry – 2
Physics – 5 (2 Biophysics, Nuclear Physics, Chemical Physics)
Geology – 1
Mathematics/Statistics – 1
Philosophy – 10
Theology – 7
Government – 3
Communication - 2
English Literature – 2
History – 2
Engineering Science – 1
Law – 1
Astronomy – 1
Educational Psychology – 1
Medicine – 1
Science and Religion – 1
Modern European History – 1

One ought to do a list like this about BioLogos leaders´academic backgrounds too…


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