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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Beverly Clark - #7714

March 25th 2010

Hello Kathryn,
Congratulations on your new role with BL. I admire your efforts to bring together science and religion. I think it is an important gap that needs to be reconciled. People of faith need to be open to the possibility that God can use evolution or whatever means He chooses to develop life on Earth, as well as all the Universe.Thank you for filling such an important role!


Karl A - #7737

March 26th 2010

Welcome, Kathryn, to our little community.  I look forward to your contributions.  As I’m sure you have seen, there are some pretty clever people who contribute here and regularly dig into issues that would be worthy of follow-up with a full-length blog or more, so I hope you’re taking notes!

Not including myself in the list of clever people, nonetheless here’s a project idea for you.  Identify the, say, top 20 scientific theories that seem to threaten our understanding of God/theology/the Bible and roughly order them in terms of how well established they are, i.e. from best established to highly controversial.  So at one end we might have things like “the firmament is not firm” and “the heliocentric model of the solar system”, and on the other end things like “the origin of life on earth can be explained in purely naturalistic terms”, with maybe some qualitative metric like “generally accepted as fact” to “highly controversial” or “doubtful”.
(cont.)


Karl A - #7738

March 26th 2010

I suggest this because one thing we frequently hear or say ourselves is, “How do we trust ‘science’ when scientists are always changing their minds?”  This is not helped by popular science articles with titles like, “X theory overturned with dramatic new evidence.”  Is all science as speculative and agenda-driven as, say, global warming theory is often perceived as being?  I think this is one thing that our community can point to as a reference – these things we really need to wrestle with, whereas these other things we can let scientists argue about a bit longer.


gingoro - #7775

March 26th 2010

I assume that you are using proven and fact as shorthand for “it is highly likely that”  such and such is a fact or proven.  I spent all of my career in computer programming from flight simulators to operating systems to applications to highly optimizing compilers.  Saying that a theory is proven at the 100% level is like talking about bug free none trivial programs. No such beast exists.  Even at big blue we could not get our compilers totally debugged and got a few valid bug reports every release. Every night we ran hundreds of thousands of test cases with more over weekends as many cases took more than 8 hours to run. Our policy was that every valid bug report resulted in a new test case being added to the test bucket. Bug free code is a myth except possibly for very very small amounts of function.

Karl Popper had something to say about scientific theories being always tentative and I agree with him but one doubts strongly that something fundamental like entropy will be soon discarded.

Dave W
(am behind in comments as I was off the web for a day or so , thus you may have already clarified your intent)


gingoro - #7776

March 26th 2010

Welcome, Kathryn, to our community. 

I grew up in the great rift valley and lakes on mountains were not surprising as we had volcano shells that contained very deep lakes as the slope was probably 40%.  With a flat top the mountain in your picture reminds me of some of the remnant volcanoes I saw.  So bogs on top of mountains are not very surprising.

Dave W


Kathryn Applegate - #7778

March 26th 2010

Hi Karl,

You’re right, the “How do we trust ‘science’ when scientists are always changing their minds?” question is an important one.  That’s partly what I was getting at in my last bulleted question.  Ranking theories is an interesting idea.  There is certainly a spectrum, from firmly established to highly speculative, and as you say, media reports are often indiscriminate.  Will consider this idea.

I like to keep in mind that the consensus of scientists (or theologians!) on any given topic is subject to revision.  We hold onto it as true (depending on the level of evidence), but won’t be crushed if it turns out to be false.  (That is, to return to the bog metaphor, if we encounter a mushy spot, we don’t just discard the whole mountain.)  Polkinghorne’s discussion of this “critical realist” approach has been helpful to me.


Kathryn Applegate - #7780

March 26th 2010

Hi Gingoro/Dave,

Great thoughts.  In my own programming experience, bug-less software is impossible.  Kind of makes you appreciate how incredible it is that our bodies function so well most of the time, considering how complicated they are.  That’s partly because there is so much redundancy and error correction built in to the system.  The development of an embryo is something like an algorithm, moving predictably through stages.

Perhaps I should have expected the bog, but I was too intent on getting to Grasmere.  We had stayed at England’s most remote youth hostel the night before, which doesn’t have showers!


Charlie - #7784

March 26th 2010

CRM,

You said that faith can validate a claim that is intangable or cannot be addressed scientifically and gave the example: Does God exist?  There is no evidence for it or against it and it is not known to be testable so I agree with you that science probably cannot answer such a question.  Yet I’m sure you also realize that science can claim the existance of Christianity’s God has the same probability as the existance of Zeus, the sun god Ra, or even Santa Claus.  Why should one have faith in one of these and not the others?  How do you pick and choose which scientifically unsupported beliefs to believe?

I feel many who turn to faith have difficulty saying that they just don’t know the answers to some of life’s questions.  I want to know: why is not knowing all the answers bad?  I’m sure you agree with me that we as humans are far from understanding everything.


Charlie - #7787

March 26th 2010

Responding to Kathryn Applegate - #7778

You say that the consensus on any given topic should be subject to revision.  I’m assuming you mean the conclusion is revised when scientific data supports the revision.  That explains an adaption of one’s faith to today’s scientifically explained world, but it doesn’t explain the validation of the origional, faith-based belief.  So is any conclusion not supported scientifically ok to believe in as long as we attribute it to faith and then mold it to fit our scientifcally explained world? Also, how do you pick and choose what beliefs you believe in that are not supported scientifically?


Craig - #7791

March 26th 2010

Kathryn,

I am glad you were not sucked into the bog on the mountaintop.  For your next challenge, you need to survive the bog in the blog.  As I understand, the primary mission is to determine truth esp regarding the roles (world views) that science and God play in our world and esp. if they are different aspects of the same truth (a grand unification).  A secondary mission is to try to explain how this might be to (a) people who believe religion is central and science is somehow bad, wrong, threatening, ... and (b) people who believe science is a central way to determine truth and religion is irrelevant and unnecessary by, say, Occam’s razor.  A Roman general might think about divide-and-conquer strategies - consider science as the central truth (subject to constant revision as we learn more about the world) and see if science can tell us anything about central religious precepts like need for a creator, eternal life, personal relationship with a creator, ... -and- separately consider the religious point of view as a central explanation and see how much science adds. 

Craig


John VanZwieten - #7802

March 26th 2010

Charlie,

You wrote: “I feel many who turn to faith have difficulty saying that they just don’t know the answers to some of life’s questions.”

Is that feeling based scientifically?  If not, how do you chose which feelings to have that aren’t scientifically supported?  Isn’t it ok to say you just don’t know the answer to the question of why people believe in something beyond science?


Kathryn Applegate - #7806

March 26th 2010

Hi Charlie,

You have asked some really important questions about the nature of religious faith - my apologies for not addressing them sooner.  Within Christianity, we need to distinguish between knowledge claims based on theology, and knowledge claims based on faith.  Theology is a process quite like science, based on critical reasoning and evidence (mostly textual, though other kinds of evidence like archeology are used also).  Faith is of a different ilk - it’s based largely upon authority.  It’s essential that we don’t say “science is about reason and religion is about faith.”  Rather, science and religion are BOTH about reason and faith. (to be cont’d)


Kathryn Applegate - #7807

March 26th 2010

(cont’d from 7806) 

Hebrews 11:1 says, “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”  There are some things we just seem to know in our gut, and these things, I believe, are known by faith.  True, our instincts could be wrong, but often they are a reliable guide.  An important distinction might be that of the head vs. the heart.  Many people assent intellectually to the existence of God but live like practical atheists.  Faith is heart knowledge.  It really comes down to trust - that you live as though God is who he says he is, believing that he keeps his promises, and that he forgives and saves and redeems.

Hope that helps!
Kathryn


Bob R. - #7808

March 26th 2010

Charlie,

“...Christianity’s God has the same probability as the existence of Zeus, the sun god Ra, or even Santa Claus. Why should one have faith in one of these and not the others?”

Why did you leave the Tooth Fairy off of your list? I really liked her. She always left a note written in squiggly letters and some money. Of course I no longer believe in her. Why not? Because faith requires sustainable experiential evidence over the long haul. Jesus does that for me, and the Tooth Fairy doesn’t.

Thomas doubted, and Jesus invited him to touch his wounds. The Psalmist proclaims, “Taste and see that the Lord is good.” The woman at the well found faith in her experiential interchange with Jesus. Faith that is not anchored in personal experience is not faith at all, but simply blind belief that is subject to the improbabilities that you point out. That’s why my faith is anchored in Jesus and not in the Tooth Fairy.

I admit that I have never prayed to Ra.  Maybe I should. Perhaps I would find that he is the same God that the Jews call YHWH and the God that the Muslims call Allah. Of course, I would have to ferret out the theological mythologies entrenched in their religions just as I have to do in my own.


Mike Gene - #7811

March 26th 2010

Hi Charlie,

Yet I’m sure you also realize that science can claim the existance of Christianity’s God has the same probability as the existance of Zeus, the sun god Ra, or even Santa Claus.

Really?  Is this simply your faith about what science can claim or is there an actual scientific study that carries out this analysis and reaches this probability conclusion?


Charlie - #7814

March 26th 2010

Mike gene, I’m just saying they all have the same amount of evidence.


Charlie - #7816

March 26th 2010

Kathryn Applegate,

Thanks for responding to my question.  Maybe I was too harsh by weighing religion’s beliefs so much on faith.  I agree that there it much textual and archaeological evidence as well.  I also agree with you that there are scientific conclusions that are based on substantial evidence.  I think it comes down to how much and what kind of evidence do you need to determine truth?  I think we all agree that the more (and better) evidence you have, the more likely that is the truth, but it gets hazier when an idea is supported by less evidence.  Is textual evidence enough to believe in something (for both religion and science)?  I guess that’s personal, but I think we should be consistent when determining what truth is to us.  Does evidence for one part of the Bible being fact make other parts factual?  If not, how do you interpret or categorize the Bible with respect to history/analogies/supernatural?


Charlie - #7818

March 26th 2010

John VanZwieten,

Explanations for scientifically unknown questions are given by religion.  I’m making an assumption that people want an answer by the fact that they adopt the religion’s answer.  So I guess you can say that my assumption is supported by the evidence that people have the “answer” to scientifically unanswered questions.


John VanZwieten - #7822

March 26th 2010

Charlie,

Yet you go further to make an attribution of _why_ people adopt religion’s answers—that they “have difficulty admitting they just don’t know the answers.”  Such an attribution falls into the category of a belief not supported by scientific evidence, yet it seems a rather important belief to you.

My experience with people seeking Christ is that they are quite willing to admit they have more questions than answers.  They often find in the teachings and life of Christ powerful direction that does address some of their important questions.  Yet mostly they continue to realize Christ doesn’t answer all the unknown questions (and usually himself asked more questions than he answered.)

You ask some good questions to Kathryn, and I look forward to hearing her reply


Charlie - #7823

March 26th 2010

If they’re willing to admit they have more questions than answers, what are questions?  Are they questions that arise from religion like “Well then who created God?” or are they questions that religion claims to answer like the origin of the universe or life after death?


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