The Bog on the Mountaintop

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March 25, 2010 Tags: History of Life

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

The Bog on the Mountaintop

BioLogos is pleased to announce the addition of Kathryn Applegate as our director of Web site development. Applegate’s scientific background will bring a much-needed voice to the ongoing discussions at The BioLogos Forum, as she now begins blogging on a regular basis.

In 2004, I hiked 190 miles across England, from coast to coast, with three friends. We had many adventures along the way, but one of the most memorable occurred on our third day, when we ascended out of the valley pictured above on our way to the heavenly town of Grasmere. After several hours of steep uphill climbing, we come out on a high, flat place, where we rested to take in the enormity and grandeur of the view.

All in a moment, peace and amazement turned to panic when I stepped into a bog. What appeared to be solid, mossy ground gave way and I plunged up to my thigh in thick mud. I struggled vigorously, but to no avail—the suction was intense, and I could feel cold, wet mud creeping into my boot.

One of my friends came to the rescue, grabbing my pack to relieve me of the weight. It took every ounce of my strength to hoist myself out of the mud. The whole ordeal must have lasted less than two minutes, but it left me exhausted, and I spent the rest of the day carefully testing every step.

Now, having spent four years in Louisiana, I know a thing or two about swamps. But who would have guessed there would be a bog on a mountaintop? I thought mountains were supposed to be firm and unshakable!

In many ways, I think the Evangelical community’s approach to science is like a bog on a mountaintop. For the most part, Christian theology is solid and trustworthy. Our traditional interpretations of the Bible have been carefully worked out and refined by theologians over hundreds of years. Moreover, Christian doctrine has proved to be a practically and spiritually powerful framework for literally billions of people.

But there are weak spots in our understanding, and how many believers relate to evolutionary science is one of them. Some folks distort the science to fit their theological pre-commitments. Others accept evolution but trivialize Scripture by rejecting its divine inspiration. Still others experience cognitive dissonance when they learn the evidence for evolution, and end up leaving the church altogether.

As regular readers of this blog know, there is another way—the difficult path of reconciliation. The BioLogos website has existed for less than a year now, but it has already made important progress toward this end. Pete Enns and others have done a terrific job of outlining many of the hermeneutical issues we must consider, while Darrel Falk, Karl Giberson, and others have described much of the scientific evidence for evolution. I am so pleased to be joining them in the quest to achieve a coherent, decidedly biblical understanding of how God has created—and continues to create—life using natural processes.

My field is cell biology. Prior to joining BioLogos, I spent the last six years doing research at The Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California. There I worked in the Laboratory for Computational Cell Biology (now at Harvard Medical School), studying the cell’s internal scaffold, the cytoskeleton. We normally think of skeletons as being rigid and static, but the cytoskeleton assembles and disassembles constantly, allowing the cell to move, divide, and quickly respond to the environment.

Biologists have traditionally studied cytoskeleton dynamics by making manual measurements from time-lapse photographs of living cells taken under the microscope. Using computational methods, I developed software to extract thousands of times more measurements than could be done by hand. My collaborators and I applied these software tools to study the cytoskeleton’s activity during blood vessel formation and also how it is regulated in tumor cells.

Since my background is in biophysics and math, with a particular focus on cell and molecular biology, I will be blogging regularly on questions like the following:

  • Can complex cellular phenomenon be understood from physical principles?

  • How can a random process produce order? Does randomness imply purposelessness?

  • Do irreducible complexity and complex specificity, those bedrock ideas of the Intelligent Design movement, provide adequate proof of a Designer? Is this even a scientific question? Why or why not?

  • What is emergence, and how does it relate to irreducible complexity?

  • Would a natural explanation for the origin of complex specified information in our DNA remove the need for God?

  • What is statistical significance, and what do scientists mean when they say something is true or has been proven?

If you have specific burning questions about these or related topics, I would love to hear them! We’ll have a lot to talk about in the coming weeks. Overall, I am encouraged by the level of dialogue between people of different theological persuasions on this site. This is certainly the way to begin repairing the rift that has developed within the church on these issues.

In Psalm 40, David remembers how the Lord rescued him: “He drew me up from the pit of destruction, out of the miry bog, and set my feet upon a rock, making my steps secure.” I know I felt a similar sense of deliverance when I survived the literal bog in England. Regardless of your current convictions, pray with me that God would bring all his people out of the bog of fear and confusion about evolution and deliver them to solid ground. All the difficulties we encounter along the way will pale in comparison to the view from the top!


Kathryn Applegate is Program Director at The BioLogos Foundation. She received her PhD in computational cell biology at The Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, Calif. At Scripps, she developed computer vision software tools for analyzing the cell's infrastructure, the cytoskeleton.


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Drew - #8766

April 5th 2010

Charlie, if you would, please tell me what you mean by “science is the only unbiased process by which we can find the answers”. What do you mean by “unbiased”? If you mean that the scientific method is used to describe the cosmos as opposed to prescribe what people should believe about the cosmos (rendering it more neutral), than I would tend to agree with you. But to say that those who are doing science are totally unbiased is flat wrong. Many philosophers of science (including Thomas Kuhn) have shown that to be false. It is one thing to receive data, it is another thing to see the data (to a certain degree) lean more toward one’s preconceived metaphysical views. This can be true for both theists and naturalists alike. Take two extremes (in my opinion). Richard Dawkins (ardent atheist) and Ken Ham (ardent young earth creationist). Dawkins believes that the “process” of evolution negates any belief in God. What Dawkins has done by slight of hand is confused his metaphysical presuppostion of naturalism with the “mechanism” of evolution. Has has used the scientific method (which is used more to describe) to prescribe what one should believe. He has moved from the empirical to the metaphysical without even acknowledging it.


Drew - #8769

April 5th 2010

Ken Ham does the same thing only from the other side. He believes (as does Dawkins) that embracing evolution is tantamount to calling oneself an atheist. Ham has conflated the mechanism of evolution with the metaphysical view of naturalism. Furthermore, he thinks that most if not all of the Bible must be taken literally, ignoring the large body of scholarship that has identified the importance and reality of genre and author’s intention. To sum up my thoughts, for these guys, it is either creation OR evolution. I think this is a false (yet popular) dichotomy for many believers and atheists. Christians like Ken Ham and atheists like Richard Dawkins do not seem to help the conversation, but hinder it in significant ways. They seem to be more interested in ad hominem type arguments than in actually discussing the content of what they believe and why they believe it.


Charlie - #9007

April 7th 2010

Drew,

I didn’t say scientists were unbiased, I said the scientific method is.  I understand human greed and corruption.  You also said “I believe theism provides a much better context in which to utilize the scientific method because there is a world to be “discovered” rather than being created from a naturalistic worldview”.  You really think the scientific method doesn’t discover, but it just creates a worldview?  I think you have science and theism backwards.  As far as evolution goes, it supports the theory of common descent, not a creator making man in its current form.  I think that’s what Dawkins means.  I read one of his books and he admits God cannot be disproven; he just says God is as likely as the spaghetti monster.  A little harsh in that his example is mocking people who believe in God, but nonetheless, the example is the scientific viewpoint.


Drew - #9167

April 8th 2010

Hey Charlie. Thank you for your response and continuing this discussion with me. We might be talking past one another accidentally and possibly attributing beliefs to one another that we in fact do not hold. I’m sorry if I have come across that way. I truly want to understand where you are coming from because it seems like some of the issues being discussed here are important to you. (as they are for me). If I may briefly respond point by point so as to be as clear as possible. We have to take stock of the philosophical and even theological assumptions we are making.

1. You said “I didn’t say scientists were unbiased, I said the scientific method is.” Okay. Fair enough. But…here is my point. It seems to me that a naturalistic worldview “fundamentally” undercuts our ability to reason “objectively” about the world. Why? Because a naturalized epistemology is extremely unlikely to produce genuine knowledge because it is concerned with adaptive behavior, not “true belief”. As I noted earlier, atheistic thinkers like Rorty believe


Drew - #9170

April 8th 2010

(continued) ultimately that “science” is one language game among many. It has no more access to reality than any other kind of method. So really, no one is genuinely “discovering” anything, but simply inventing more clever ways of talking about the world. Obviously in order for Rorty to make this claim, he has to implicitly invoke a metaphysical position to stand on. We all have to at some point. Rorty seemed consistent in his thinking because he understood that a naturalistic worldview and scientific realism could not be mutually held together logically.In fact, one of Rorty’s missions in life was to take Darwinian evolution seriously and “de-divintize” the world. In doing this, he also recognized (even though he might not have liked it) the logical outcome of taking Darwin seriously: Pragmatism. Since our language (including scientific) cannot “correspond” to what is ontologically real, we are left with inventing ways of making sense of the world that have no basis in “the way things are.” That is why I agree with Alvin Plantinga when he says, “Dawkins and others have failed to plumb the real depths of the skeptical implications of the view that we have come to be by


Drew - #9175

April 8th 2010

(continued) way of unguided evolution.” (unguided being the key term). Dawkins and others seem to ignore or are unaware of the philosophical (and even moral) implications of embracing a naturalized epistemology. In a naturalistic worldview, all humans have come to be by way of an un-ordained purposeless, unguided, indifferent process called natural selection. Some influential mouthpieces (like Dawkins) for science seem to forget that their intellectual make-up and thought-forming capacities come from the same (mostly deterministic) process. But Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, and Hitchens would never want to admit that the scientific method is only one of many valid ways of talking about the world. (no different than a soothsayer or astrologist) They are scientific realists through and through who seem to want the fruits of scientific labor without grounding science (upon reflection) in a credible or reasonable epistemology. To be sure, they make metaphysical assumptions, implicitly if not explicitly all the time. The question is is: What metaphysical position has more explanatory power? I would submit theism does because


Drew - #9176

April 8th 2010

(continued) I believe humans have been endowed with rational minds and intrinsic worth by God. My epistemology is rooted in an Intelligence which gives me more confidence to believe that my language is really (to some degree) describing “what is there” and that I’m discovering vs socially constructing reality (Rorty). We both believe that science can explain many things, but an important philosophical question to ask is “Why does it?” Why should the science game be played as opposed to the soothsayer game (other than for pragmatic reasons)? I submit that the naturalist can only appeal to pragmatic reasons given their naturalized epistemology. We can talk about this more if you want.

2. I believe the scientific method does genuinely discover reality. The issue is a philsophical one going back to epistemology or how we know something. In theism, God has created a cosmos that can be discovered because our thought-forming capacities “correspond” (to some degree) with


Drew - #9177

April 8th 2010

genuine reality. I have more confidence in my rational faculties. In a naturalistic context, I don’t see an impetus to believe that ones faculties should be embraced with confidence given the distinction I made earlier with adaptive behavior/survival (which I believe as well) and “true belief”.

3. You said “As far as evolution goes, it supports the theory of common descent, not a creator making man in its current form.” I agree with you that evolution supports the theory of common descent and I agree that common ancestry is extremely probable. I never argued that it wasn’t. Also God can still create and ordain and sustain the process of evolution to create man. This is what I believe. I don’t believe man was created in his current form. You seem to have conflated the doctrine of creation with a specific method of creation.


Drew - #9179

April 8th 2010

(continued) I would love to respond further, but I feel I have said almost too much. I hope this helps you understand a little why I believe a theistic context (utilizing the scientific method) provides more explanatory power than a naturalistic one. If I’m still not understanding you, please let me know. Thanks for listening to me.


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