Signature in the Cell: A Follow-Up

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January 12, 2010 Tags: Design

Today's entry was written by Darrel Falk. You can read more about what we believe here.

Signature in the Cell: A Follow-Up

Two weeks ago we posted an overview of “Signature in the Cell,” a book by Stephen Meyer of the Discovery Institute. One of the things I said in my assessment of the book was the following:

In Chapter 14, as Stephen Meyer brings his discussion about the feasibility of RNA’s role as the early storehouse for cellular information to a conclusion, he recalls a twenty year old conversation with a philosophy professor about origin-of-life-research: “The field is becoming increasingly populated by cranks. Everyone knows everybody else’s theory doesn’t work, but no one is willing to admit it about his own.” Following this statement, Meyer fast-forwards into the present, and writes of his own assessment of the field twenty years later: “I found no reason to amend these assessments.”

The work Meyer had been discussing that led up to that final dismissive statement about “cranks” on page 322, was that of Gerald Joyce and Jack Szostak. Joyce is dean of the faculty at one of our nation’s most prestigious research organizations, The Scripps Research Institute. Szostak is affiliated with Harvard Medical School, the Massachusetts General Hospital and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. He was awarded the Nobel Prize this year.

I sent a copy of my overview to all three of them and asked for a response that I would post on this site. Meyer has not responded. Here are the responses of Joyce and Szostak:

Dear Darrel,

…What you have written is extremely well done, and what you say about RNA is spot-on. It stands on its own without the need for endorsement or commentary from me….

Jerry

Dear Dr. Falk,

I'm not sure that I can be all that helpful to you. You have already pointed out in your article that considerable progress is being made on the problem of the origin of life. Speaking as a scientist, the origin of life is one of the most interesting questions in all of science. It certainly is a very difficult problem, and that is part of what makes it an attractive challenge to me. There have been incredible technical advances in physics, chemistry and biology in the past decade, and these advances encourage me in my judgment that this highly interesting problem can and will be solved.

The fact is that there are many steps on the pathway from chemistry to life that we do not currently understand. To me, and I suppose to you, these are the steps that are scientific questions to be addressed by the methods of science. To use gaps in our understanding as the basis for or as support for any kind of religious belief is hard for me to understand. As these gaps are gradually filled, the basis of that religious belief disappears. Why would someone base their religious beliefs on such a sandy foundation?

As science advances and our understanding grows, religions must either accommodate the change or enter a phase of denial, as the 'young earth' and anti-evolution ID movements have done. I agree with you that this kind of denial is a dangerous thing; denial of reality is extremely bad for the future of our country (and our world). The fact that large numbers of people take their moral guidance from leaders who are in willful denial of reality is quite frightening. I therefore wish you success in your efforts to fight this pernicious trend in American religion.

However, I suspect I must part company with you in that I believe that science and religion actually are irreconcilable. In my view a scientific world view is one based on continuous questioning and therefore a search for more and better evidence and theories; faith in the unknowable plays no role. I think that belief systems based on faith are inherently dangerous, as they leave the believer susceptible to manipulation when skepticism and inquiry are discouraged.

Best wishes,

Jack Szostak

I am especially interested in Dr. Szostak’s final paragraph. He is correct that we part company at this point, which saddens me deeply. I have written before, and I will write again: there are very sound reasons for entering the life of faith. I embarked upon a search for a source of ultimate reality and my personal search was based on evidence, too. The journey of faith is by no means blind, and there many fine scientists who—guided by faith, evidence, and reason—choose to follow the same journey I am on. Scientific pathways and faith journeys need not lead to different locations in life. In fact, I am convinced they point in the very same direction and lead to the very same place. However, that’s another blog for another day.

I also want to cite to two new postings at other sites which are successfully addressing two other perspectives of this issue right now. Dr. Randy Isaac is the Executive Director of the American Scientific Affiliation (ASA) and a former Vice-President at IBM. The ASA is the leading organization of evangelical scientists in this country. Isaac puts on his “information-scientist hat” to examine Meyer’s statements about the origin of the information content of DNA. Tom Oord, a leading Wesleyan theologian, explores the theological implications of the Intelligent Design movement.

Finally, I would like, once more, to offer Stephen Meyer an opportunity to post a 1000 word response to all of this on our site. He is a Christian brother. I know he means well.


Darrel Falk is former president of The BioLogos Foundation. He transitioned into Christian higher education 25 years ago and has given numerous talks about the relationship between science and faith at many universities and seminaries. He is the author of Coming to Peace with Science.

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Knockgoats - #2777

January 16th 2010

“Okay, but that assumes a push-button, magic genie kind of god who always acts when we pray, doing exactly what we order him to do, and doesn’t act when we don’t pray.”

No, it doesn’t. It doesn’t even assume prayer would have the result prayed for because of God - it might be some kind of direct action of human volition on the world. If results had been positive, testing whether simply wishing for the result, or praying to Satan/Allah/Brahma/a crust of bread worked as well would be an obvious next step. Or, one could see whether results from a group of Christians, a group of agnostics and a group of atheists all praying in the same way differed. You see, I can outline a whole scientific research programme that would be worth pursuing if, contrary to fact, experiments had shown any evidence that prayer makes any difference. 

As to your second question: I have already said science cannot disprove the existence of the supernatural, but it can investigate it. Moreover, your query applies to any scientific experiment whatever in any field, since we can’t possibly shield them from an omnipotent god’s influence - so what you are actually arguing is that science is impossible. Are you happy with that?


Gregory Arago - #2786

January 16th 2010

I like your bit about God answering all prayers, beaglelady! : )

The problem here is with ‘naturalism,’ as stated in #2772.

One can be a natural scientist and not a ‘naturalist,’ can’t one?

If so, then one opens them-self to ‘the reality of’ non-natural or extra-natural things. Perhaps they are worth learning something about in this little life of ours surrounded by a dream?

Results from sociology of religion around the world don’t place religious believers in an unfavourable light when it comes to happiness, that’s for sure!


Knockgoats - #2789

January 16th 2010

“One can be a natural scientist and not a ‘naturalist,’ can’t one?”

Yes.

“Results from sociology of religion around the world don’t place religious believers in an unfavourable light when it comes to happiness, that’s for sure!”

The happiest country in the world, according to a recent study, is Denmark, which has a very low level of religious belief. The USA, which is far more religious than any comparably rich country, has high levels of infant mortality, drug abuse, mental illness, homicide, imprisonment and obesity compared to other rich countries, and low levels of social trust, educational attainment, life expectancy and social mobility. Of course, neither this nor your claim has any relevance whatever to whether religious beliefs are true, and of course, almost all of them (at least) must be false, as the beliefs of different religions and sects contradict each other.


beaglelady - #2807

January 17th 2010

KG,

I’m not arguing that science is impossible, Hardly!  I just think the experiment was too simplistic to show anything conclusively.  And I’ll be praying tomorrow in church. I hope my mind doesn’t wander and start thinking about this thread.  btw, prayer isn’t all give me this, give me that.

btw, the USA sounds really bad!  I wonder why so many want to either move here or visit?

Any plans to move to Scandinavia? It might make you happier.

-Karen


Knockgoats - #2818

January 17th 2010

beaglelady,

I’m not arguing that science is impossible
I know, but that’s what your argument implied.

btw, the USA sounds really bad!  I wonder why so many want to either move here or visit?
I’m simply reporting facts which do not comport with the idea that highly religious societies work better, which is simply false. I know how disturbing many Americans find it when they come across someone who does not consider the USA the nearest thing to paradise on Earth, but “them’s the facts”. People want to move to the USA because it’s rich; exactly the same applies to western Europe - most Americans seem completely unaware that there are many people wanting to move here as well. People want to visit the USA because there’s a lot to see and do - again, just as with Europe.


Gregory Arago - #2822

January 17th 2010

Which ‘recent study’ were you refering to?

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Happy_Planet_Index

Denmark comes in about 100th place across three years on this survey!

~~
Woud you be willing to expand on how a person can be a ‘natural scientist’ and not a ‘naturalist’?

You said it is possible, but then you seemed to claim adherence to ‘naturalism’ (#2772). So are you not somehow biased in your assessment?

Are you a natural scientist, Knockgoats?

(And have you been to Scandinavia?!)


Knockgoats - #2832

January 17th 2010

Gregory Arago,

Denmark is the world’s happiest country - official.

Admittedly, the results of such surveys are likely to depend on what questions you ask, but more objective measures also show that a wide range of social pathologies are far more prevalent in the USA than in less religious rich countries. This is likely due to the USA’s greater economic inequalities (see Wilkinson and Pickett The Spirit Level - but these may well explain its religiosity too. At any rate, religiosity is clearly no prophylactic against them.

Of course a person can be a natural scientist and not a naturalist - the BioLogos founder and two of its current heads are examples. Why should the fact that I am a naturalist myself prevent me recognising this simple fact?

You seem to have a rather obsessive interest in people’s qualifications. I’d rather you addressed my arguments. My work spans the natural-social science boundary; I have been to Scandinavia.


Gregory Arago - #2841

January 17th 2010

“My work spans the natural-social science boundary” - Knockgoats

I’m rather curious to hear what ‘profession’ one holds whose work does this. It is not so common.

Would you not agree that *most* natural scientists are also ‘naturalists’?

To suggest that F. Collins, K. Giberson and D. Falk are *not* naturalists is an interesting statement!

Of the study you cite (in contrast to the more mature and non-Euro-centric study I cited), 8 of the top 20 nations have crosses on their flag. It may very well be true that countries founded on religious morality are happier. Do you have a study to counter that?

What are you advocating as a worldview here, Knockgoats?


Knockgoats - #2845

January 17th 2010

Gregory Arago,

I am using the term “naturalist” to mean one who does not consider there is any good reason to believe that anything supernatural exists. In that sense, I am a naturalist and Collins, Giberson and Falk are not. Atheism, or at least agnosticism, is a necessary but not sufficient condition for naturalism.

Would you not agree that *most* natural scientists are also ‘naturalists’?

I don’t know. Certainly, the prevalence of naturalism rises with level of scientific education and eminence. American scientists are much less religious than the general public.

What on Earth has the presence or absence of a cross on a flag, or my profession, got to do with the topic of the post? If you have a point, why not get to it?


Gregory Arago - #2851

January 17th 2010

“the prevalence of naturalism rises with level of scientific education and eminence.” - Knockgoats

This is a rather bold statement about education, knowledge and perhaps even about wisdom.

There are countries in the world where higher education correlates with religious faith. Smart people can have faith! : )

“American scientists are much less religious than the general public.” - Knockgoats

Yes, in a ‘scientific age,’ Americans have tended to become more ‘rational’ and less ‘mystical.’ But Americans are still highly superstitious.

F. Collins, D. Falk and K. Giberson are three examples, and there are many more, of ‘natural scientists’ who believe in ‘non-natural’ or ‘extra-natural’ things.

I’d like to ask Collins if he considers himself a ‘naturalist.’

What would it take for you to believe in ‘non-natural’ or ‘extra-natural’ things, Knockgoats?

As a human-social scientist, this is not difficult for me in the slightest. In fact, it is a prerequisite to becoming a human-social scientist. Some things simply *are* non-natural.

Thus, naturalism as ideology can be seen to collapse at its respective boundaries.


beaglelady - #2852

January 17th 2010

I know how disturbing many Americans find it when they come across someone who does not consider the USA the nearest thing to paradise on Earth

Do you think this is some kind of revelation to me?


Knockgoats - #2855

January 17th 2010

Gregory Arago,

This is a rather bold statement about education, knowledge and perhaps even about wisdom.

No it isn’t. Try reading what I said.

What would it take for you to believe in ‘non-natural’ or ‘extra-natural’ things, Knockgoats?

Any number of things: the Rapture, the stars suddenly rearranging themselves to spell out I AM THAT I AM, magic spells starting to work, leprechauns paying off Ireland’s debts from their pots of gold, the discovery of fossil rabbits in Cambrian strata… I could go on indefinitely.

As a human-social scientist, this is not difficult for me in the slightest. In fact, it is a prerequisite to becoming a human-social scientist. Some things simply *are* non-natural.

No it isn’t (I’m one too, primarily), and no, there is absolutely no good evidence that there are any non-natural things. Naturalism is a hypothesis, not an ideology.


Knockgoats - #2862

January 17th 2010

beaglelady,

Well I did wonder. Your response was so stereotypically American-nationalist.


Gregory Arago - #2864

January 17th 2010

You’re ‘primarily’ a human-social scientist who doesn’t believe in/accept ‘non-natural’ things?!?

That will be the end of my side of the conversation then.

It is from my ‘culture’ to know that ‘nature’ is not the end of things.


Knockgoats - #2865

January 17th 2010

Gregory Arago,

I think you have rather a talent for misinterpreting what other people say. What do you mean by “natural” and “non-natural”? Of course I can distinguish between things that are the outcome of human action and things which are not; but consider that human minds and culture are part of nature. I am contrasting “natural” with “supernatural” (gods, demons, magic, elves, fairies, werewolves, vampires etc.); not with “synthetic”, “artificial”, or “anthropogenic”.


Gregory Arago - #2866

January 17th 2010

Didn’t C. Darwin mean by ‘artificial’ something ‘non-natural’?

Your preferred ‘contrasting’ is simply an outcome of your (anti-theistic) worldview.

There is no need to believe that the only ‘opposite’ to ‘natural’ is ‘supernatural.’ Indeed, the prefix ‘super-’ indicates that there *must* be another alternative to ‘natural.’

I do hope you will search for it genuinely someday.


Knockgoats - #2870

January 17th 2010

Gregory Arago,

I made the sense in which I was using “natural” quite clear. You are aware that words can have more than one meaning, I take it? In other contexts, I would indeed contrast “natural” with “artificial”.

Indeed, the prefix ‘super-’ indicates that there *must* be another alternative to ‘natural.’
No it doesn’t.

I do hope you will try a genuine attempt to understand what others say an drespond to it without obfuscation, someday.


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