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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Gregory - #7623

March 25th 2010

Welcome to the discussions, Kathryn! May your work developing the BioLogos website be a blessing. Evangelicals who are not scientists facing evangelicals (and other Christians) who are also scientists about scientific topics and themes is a provocative and relevant encounter for today’s science, religion and philosophy dialogues.


Charlie - #7626

March 25th 2010

Your last question is a big one : “What is statistical significance, and what do scientists mean when they say something is true or has been proven?”

From a scientist’s point of view, the more evidence to support a theory, the more likely that theory is true, yet science never claims 100% certainty.  “Evolution is just a theory.”

I want to know what truth is from the religious point of view?  How is faith involved?  How is evidence involved? Nobody can seem to answer this for me.


JHM - #7635

March 25th 2010

Charlie,

I don’t know if this anything close to an answer, and I’m not anywhere near a theologian, but as a physical scientist I most often associate faith to be something like an graphical extrapolation. What I mean is, we have data about the world around us, we then formulate theories and frameworks of thinking around that data, right? So faith, to me, is a lot like going from the safety of the known data and stepping a little farther into the not-so-known. We don’t do that blindly and without any evidence, but it’s not like drawing from the data itself either.


Charlie - #7637

March 25th 2010

JHM,

So this type of faith you’re talking about is different from faith in something with no scientific evidence (such as life after death or a higher being is responsible for creation)?  If not faith, what would you call making a conclusion that is independent of scientific evidence?  If you consider it faith as well, how do you distinguish the two?


JHM - #7642

March 25th 2010

Charlie,

Well, I said evidence, not strictly “scientific evidence”. I believe things like life after death and a higher being that is responsible for creation do have evidence, some you might call scientific I suppose, but not limited to that. Making a conclusion that is independent of scientific evidence is just that, making a conclusion without appealing to scientific evidence. Certainly faith could do that, but going back to the graphical extrapolation analogy, do you feel certain in an extrapolation that has only 2 data points? I certainly don’t. But what if you say have a linear least squares regression with 50 data points that fit nicely? It may be very reasonable in that cast to step out in “faith” and extrapolate.


Glen Davidson - #7646

March 25th 2010

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

Yes, you watch something like forensic files, and it’s said that the chance of a false positive for a DNA match is, for instance, 6 trilliion to one.  Almost all viewers are appropriately impressed.

The chance that our apparent relatedness to, say, a chicken, is in fact an accident (or some Godly whim) is far less likely than the false positive DNA match in the above example.  But that probability is simply wiped away in the anti-evolutionist mind by claiming that “God did it,” and yes, oddly enough, God did it to look just like we expect from non-teleological evolution.

The violation of consistency (including religious consistency) is flagrant—and routine.

Glen Davidson
http://tinyurl.com/mxaa3p


Charlie - #7654

March 25th 2010

JHM,

What is non-scientific evidence?  I know that some evidence is better than others (direct>indirect/correlations), but even correlations are scientific.  Drawing a firm conclusion based on weak evidence, like your 2 data points example, is drawing a conclusion based on very little scientific evidence, not no scientific evidence all together.

Also, what is the “evidence” for life after death and a higher being?


Brian - #7658

March 25th 2010

Some folks distort the science to fit their theological pre-commitments.

I couldn’t agree more. Unfortunately, the way you frame the issue—and frankly, this is the way its always framed at BL—the only folks who have such weaknesses are evangelicals.

While this is a convenient perspective, it is untrue.  Consider these quotations from John Avise, whose book was recommended without any qualification by Dr Falk a couple days ago.  Avise is cited as saying:

God is nothing more nor less than natural forces and natural processes themselves

and

God is the world’s leading abortionist and mass murderer

In your opinion, do you think Avise have any theological pre-commitments?  How would you define them?  How do you think his theological pre-commitments might affect—or yes, even “distort”—his interpretation of the scientific data? 

Bottom line:  the arguments made by BL might have a little more credibility with the audience you’re ostensibly interested in reaching if such glaringly obvious issues—which are by no means limited to Avise—were not consistently given a free pass. 

Welcome to your new role. 

Brian


JHM - #7661

March 25th 2010

Charlie,

Well, things that were not derived empirically, such as math, logic, philosophy, history, etc. would be generally considered non-scientific I think. Additionally there’s evidence from personal experience that we might not consider scientific because it is not reproducible or amenable to the laboratory. In my analogy the “data” doesn’t not have to be of the scientific kind, though I certainly expect there to be some.

Concerning the life after death, off-hand I think of 3 things that stick out in my mind:
1) My experience is that “me” is more than my physical body. For instance, I can imagine being a quadriplegic or even in a coma and still being fully me.
2) Belief in life-after-death is an extremely common theme in cultures around the world. It could be we’re all delusional of course, but billions of people all over the globe having similar thoughts seems to me to me to suggest that more likely there is some sort of life after death.
3) The Bible, which I find to be quite reliable, and Jesus in particular, clearly indicate that there is life after death.


JHM - #7662

March 25th 2010

(cont.)
Now, considering that I’ve never found any evidence to suggest that there *isn’t* any life after death, I’m stepping out and saying that I have faith that indeed death is not the end to me as a person.

I think there is vastly more direct evidence for a higher being who is Creator of the universe. BioLogos’ own folks like Francis Collins, Karl Giberson, and Darrell Falk have written books on the subject and do a much better job than I. The BioLogos website itself also has a lot of great material about evidences for such things.

Now, since this discussion really doesn’t have much to do with today’s post, I’m going to leave it there. I would encourage you Charlie to keep reading and keep seeking, you might even be surprised with what you find, I know I am all the time.


Kathryn Applegate - #7664

March 25th 2010

Hi Brian,

Sure, Avise has theological pre-commitments.  Everyone does, if they’re honest, don’t you think?  I don’t think Darrel’s recommendation of the book meant he agreed with every word; rather, overall it’s a helpful contribution to the discussion of the genomic data. 

People can look at the same data and end up with different conclusions about what it *means* in the ultimate sense.  I don’t share Avise’s view that God IS the natural process, or that he is a mass murderer or an abortionist.  (I should say, though, I haven’t yet read the book to know if these statements that you quote are his serious beliefs.)  But I can’t ignore the vast amount of data that suggests our genome isn’t perfectly designed, either.

Thanks for your comment and interest in the site!


Charlie - #7665

March 25th 2010

JHM,

I think we can agree that your beliefs in God and life after death are not scientific then.  So you, along with Biologos, choose to make some conclusions based on science, and other conclusions based on “faith”.  I don’t know how you determine which method you use when addressing a specific question, but I personally have difficulty taking two vastly different approaches toward determining truth.


Mike Gene - #7670

March 25th 2010

Hi Kathryn,

I will be looking forward to your entries.  The cytoskeleton is indeed an amazing thing (especially the whole property of dynamic instability).  I was wondering what you think about the match-up of the eukaryotic cytoskeleton vs. the bacterial version.  It is now widely accepted that bacteria have homologs of both actin and tubulin and there is good evidence they have a cytoskeleton.  Yet it would seem to me that they have not fully exploited the functional potential of the cytoskeleton (and these proteins) to the degree that eukaryotes have.  Would you agree?


JHM - #7675

March 25th 2010

Charlie,

I guess I would say that my beliefs in God and life after death are not based directly scientific experimentation, no. But then again, neither is my belief that I love my wife, that Hitler was wrong, or that the experiment I’m running in the lab today will work out. Sometimes I learn that my faith was misplaced, but other times I find that my faith is heartily confirmed, that’s life.

As a scientist myself, I have to say, if you go about your life accepting *only* those things which scientific examination has already confirmed, I think you severally limit yourself and your ability to encounter truth.

Keep reading and keep searching, Charlie. It’s not easy, but it’s worth it. 


Mike Gene - #7684

March 25th 2010

Hi JHM,

I agree with your position regarding faith.  Many people interpret faith from the perspective of scientism and thus equate it with “blind belief.”  But from a biblical perspective, faith is akin to a trust that is rooted in other knowledge or experience.  All humans must rely on faith for the simple reason that no human is anywhere close to being omniscient.  In other words, at some point, faith is becomes intellectual honesty.


Mike Gene - #7685

March 25th 2010

Philosopher Edward Feser http://www.thepublicdiscourse.com/2010/03/1174”>quotes philosopher and historian of science E. A. Burtt:

Even the attempt to escape metaphysics is no sooner put in the form of a proposition than it is seen to involve highly significant metaphysical postulates. For this reason there is an exceedingly subtle and insidious danger in positivism [i.e. scientism]. If you cannot avoid metaphysics, what kind of metaphysics are you likely to cherish when you sturdily suppose yourself to be free from the abomination? Of course it goes without saying that in this case your metaphysics will be held uncritically because it is unconscious; moreover, it will be passed on to others far more readily than your other notions inasmuch as it will be propagated by insinuation rather than by direct argument…


John VanZwieten - #7692

March 25th 2010

Thanks for the quote, Mike


Jessica - #7697

March 25th 2010

Hi Kathryn!
Welcome to the blog and your new post!  I’m excited to see the questions you have posed, and even more excited to see someone with such credentials to lead us through the discussion.  I’ll be following your blog and praying that it intrigues and informs as many people as possible.  Thank you for taking on such an important role and happy blogging!


CRM - #7712

March 25th 2010

Charlie and JHM -

Carl Sagan eloquently said, “Science is much less a body of knowledge than it is a WAY of knowing.” Science is a process by which we collect data from the world around us and attempt to make a meaningful theory about how and why things are so. Science itself doesn’t tell us what’s true, its the process by which we discover truth by testing models with data.

Also, it sounds like by “scientific evidence”, you’re actually talking about PHYSICAL evidence - something that can be objectively measured and seen easily by the eye. Psychology is a science that often relies in non-physical data, but most certainly follows an empirical, scientific process.

I think Charlie’s question about how truth is arrived at in the context of religion, and the role played by faith in all of this, is a fair one.
(continued below)


CRM - #7713

March 25th 2010

As a scientist and someone considering Christianity, here’s one possible answer: Faith is what allows us to consider the validity of claims that we cannot or cannot easily test ourselves (i.e. How would you test for that if God exists outside of our physical realm?) I think faith also allows us to consider some intangible things, such as our own unwitnessed experiences, as data. That said, I do believe that science the process can still apply. Faith allows you to consider the things you cannot see immediately as data, but it should still make sense. If Christianity is real, it should become increasingly apparent as you collect and examine the data from your life and the lives of others, holding them up to the “theory” of Christianity (as with evolution and decades of research to support it). If it isn’t real, that should also become apparent. Faith might be the only way you can really test out the theory though.

Also, whatever science can or cannot “prove”, it does NOT disprove anything (central teaching in any BIO101 course, though it *can* demonstrate a lack of evidence). Take this as a license to entertain whatever theories you like, as there’s a non-zero probability their right.
Good luck in your search for truth!


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