“The Language of God” Book Club – Chapter 4

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February 21, 2014 Tags: Creation & Origins, Design, Science as Christian Calling

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

“The Language of God” Book Club – Chapter 4

The schedule for the online portion of our book club has us in chapter four this week, “Life on Earth: Of Microbes and Man.” I offer three more questions for you to consider.

One of the themes of our discussion has been whether scientific explanations rule out theological ones. I think this topic is particularly poignant at the three big “game changing” moments in the history of our universe: 1) There was a radical change from the existence of nothing, to the appearance of energy and mass (and space and time). 2) Then some of that lifeless matter became alive. Perhaps there isn’t as stark of a line dividing before and after here (are viruses alive?), but we can easily tell the difference when we look at our planet chocked full of life compared to the others in our solar system. 3) Then some of those living organisms became conscious or self-aware. Again, perhaps there was a more gradual transition in the development of consciousness, and undoubtedly there are degrees of self-awareness among the higher species today. But we’re pretty sure there is something significantly different between our conscious lives and that of a fruit fly.

Some people who brook no “god of the gaps” arguments anywhere else look to these three moments as more reasonable places to insert God into natural processes: God spoke matter/energy into existence, God made life out of lifeless matter, and God breathed a soul into human beings. We talked about the origin of the universe in chapter three. Collins takes a pretty strong stance against gaps for the origin of life in chapter four: “In summary, while the question of the origin of life is a fascinating one, and the inability of modern science to develop a statistically probably mechanism is intriguing, this is not the place for a thoughtful person to wager his faith” (p. 93). But interestingly, his treatment of the moral argument in chapter one might be interpreted leaning toward a gaps argument and could be tied to the origin of our consciousness.

  1. How about you? Do these three moments somehow stand apart from the rest of the natural order of things? Should we think differently about them with regard to scientific explanations and God’s involvement?

The fossil record has been contentious since Darwin first proposed his theory. Our supplemental materials point to a quick overview of the usefulness of fossils, and you can find a more detailed video on the topic from the very nice resources on evolution at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. The Cambrian explosion and the fossils of hominids are particularly interesting to us, and Collins describes these briefly (p. 93-96).

  1. What does the fossil record tell us about the history of life on earth? What does it not tell us?

Finally, after some description of DNA—a topic about which Collins must be recognized as one of the world’s authorities—he discusses the effect that scientific discoveries have had on him:

For me, there is not a shred of disappointment or disillusionment in these discoveries about the nature of life—quite the contrary! How marvelous and intricate life turns out to be! How deeply satisfying is the digital elegance of DNA! How aesthetically appealing and artistically sublime are the components of living things, from the ribosome that translates RNA into protein, to the metamorphosis of the caterpillar into the butterfly, to the fabulous plumage of the peacock attracting his mate! Evolution, as a mechanism, can and must be true. But that says nothing about the nature of its author. For those who believe in God, there are reasons now to be more in awe, not less (p. 106-7).
  1. What are your thoughts on this?

Jim Stump has served as the Content Manager at BioLogos since August 2013. As such he oversees the development of new content and curates the existing content. Jim's PhD is in philosophy from Boston University where he wrote a dissertation on the history and philosophy of science. He is the author (with Chad Meister) of Christian Thought: A Historical Introduction (Routledge, 2010) and the editor (with Alan Padgett) of the Blackwell Companion to Science and Christianity (Wiley-Blackwell, 2012). Jim is a frequent speaker at churches and other groups on topics at the intersection of science and Christianity.

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Mike Beidler - #84593

February 23rd 2014

1.  Do these three moments – God spoke matter/energy into existence, God made life out of lifeless matter, and God breathed a soul into human beings – somehow stand apart from the rest of the natural order of things?  Should we think differently about them with regard to scientific explanations and God’s involvement?

The three aforementioned moments certainly stand apart in the biblical text, although speaking matter/energy into existence may not be exactly what Genesis 1:1 or 1:4 is about (see John Walton’s Genesis 1 as Ancient Cosmology).  They are, of course, equally critical moments in the history of the cosmos.  However, identifying them as critical moments does not require that we separate the genesis of life and the origin of the soul from the rest of natural history.

Logically, the cosmos’ origin would have to be set apart from the natural order of things because the natural order in which we find ourselves did not actually exist prior to the Big Bang.  Although scientists may theorize that our current iteration of the cosmos is only the latest in a string of successive expansions and contractions, it is unlikely we will ever answer that question definitively.  Thus, we are free to theorize that an uncaused Cause was responsible for setting the created order in motion.  This “motion” can also include the occurrence of abiogenesis as well as the rise of what we call the “soul,” both instances of which would develop according to natural laws.  As long as we continue positing the existence of a Creator, discovering plausible explanations for the latter two events should not pose a threat to our faith.

There is a growing trend among evangelical scientists that views biblical descriptions of humans as tripartite (or bipartite) beings as divine accommodations to ancient concepts of anthropology.  They posit that a “soul,” distinct and naturally separable from the body, does not actually exist, and that consciousness, rationality, self-awareness, and an innate moral compass typically ascribed as evidence of a soul are mysterious products of our biological evolution.  (This position does, of course, require rethinking the traditional concept of the afterlife and how it is, if we truly are monistic beings, that something of us – a kernel perhaps (1 Cor 15:37) – can exist post-mortem and experience full integration with an entirely new body in fulfillment of God’s promise of eternal life.)

Although the accounts of life’s origin (albeit in successive creative acts) and God’s “breathing in” of the human soul are critical junctures in biblical history, they are couched in ancient Near Eastern (ANE) thought.  Because of this, we are free to suggest that the ANE descriptions of these events need not possess a one-for-one correspondence of divine intervention in natural history, the investigation of which is conducted using an entirely different, Enlightenment-influenced paradigm.  At the same time, if we adopt the paradigm that God intended for intelligent, self-aware, and moral creatures – and not necessarily just Homo sapiens on Earth – to arise via natural laws that He instituted and continues to uphold and sustain (Heb 1:3), God’s intention should be enough reason to ascribe these events to God despite the existence of natural explanations.  In a divinely intended and sustained universe, naturally occurring events that seem astronomically improbable without God become 100% possible with Him (Jer 32:27).

That being said, as an evolutionary creationist, I don’t necessarily object to someone desiring to hold on to such propositions as God’s direct intervention in the creation of life (which, incidentally, is not a subject upon which evolutionary theory touches directly) or God breathing some sort of spiritual life into humanity.  I would simply argue that positing such instances of divine intervention could never be proved by scientific means, and that one should not be too dogmatic in these cases.

2.  What does the fossil record tell us about the history of life on earth?  What does it not tell us?

The fossil record does not provide us an infallible, unbroken record of any one species’ lineage.  As a case in point, scientists revise humanity’s evolutionary history on an as-needed basis upon discovery and careful examination of new fossil evidence.  Moreover, the fossil record is unable to give us the precise genetic relationship between species.  At best, modern molecular phylogenetics can give us a rough sketch of how the evolutionary family tree – or better, bush – grew “from so simple a beginning.”

The fossil record does, however, provide us snapshots in time of how certain populations evolved from one form into many others.  What is fascinating is how the fossil record, without fail, presents these snapshots:  as a family history wherein certain families of creatures becoming increasingly complex over time.  Of course, this is not to say that fossils of simple creatures exist exclusively in the lowest of strata.  Evolutionary theory even predicts that we would expect to find many of these simple organisms – typically sea creatures, insects, and certain forms of plants – throughout the geologic column.  This is because they reproduce relatively quickly, are well adapted to certain environments that existed for millions of years in relative stability, and can disperse their populations over a wider geographic range so as to survive local environmental changes.  When we examine the fossil record, this is exactly what we see.  More complex creatures, however, are not found in lower strata, and this fact is quite telling.  Notwithstanding young-earth creationist claims to the contrary, the effects of a theorized global flood would not deposit such fossils in such an orderly, progressive manner.  We have never found – nor should we ever find – human fossils in the same strata as trilobites or eohippus.

Darwin’s observations during his time aboard HMS Beagle also confirm the orderliness of the fossil record (as sparse as it was in the early 1800s) as explained by the discipline of biogeography.  Biogeography, together with paleobiogeography, tell a powerful story about how certain types of modern-day animals and the fossilized remains of their extinct ancestors are found only in certain geographical locations, thus providing powerful evidence against a relatively recent worldwide flood and evidence for the integrity of the geologic column as interpreted by mainstream geology.

3.  “For me, there is not a shred of disappointment or disillusionment in these discoveries about the nature of life—quite the contrary!  How marvelous and intricate life turns out to be!  How deeply satisfying is the digital elegance of DNA!  ...  Evolution, as a mechanism, can and must be true.  But that says nothing about the nature of its author. For those who believe in God, there are reasons now to be more in awe, not less” (pp. 106-7).  What are your thoughts on this?

Dr. Collins is spot on.  That a cosmos can be self-organizing according to divinely instituted natural laws and produce such astounding examples of digital complexity compels me to view God as less of a magician and more of a loving, long-term planner.  God was careful to set things in motion in such a way that the universe could produce the massive variety of cosmic bodies and life forms we see today and once existed.  For me to say that God had to tweak certain conditions to create life from non-life, or had to imbue humanity with a soul at a particular point in history, because the natural laws He instituted were insufficient to perform its divinely intended work is to take away from God’s power and majesty.  That He did not supernaturally intervene in the natural evolution of the universe should inspire greater awe when we view the present results of what He originally caused 13.8 billion years ago.

However, just as beauty is in the eye of the beholder, perhaps what inspires awe in each of us differs.  For some, simply setting the cosmos in motion smacks of deism, relegating God to a role of a hands-off observer, cold and aloof.  A more hands-on deity is, admittedly, more intimate.  In my view, however, God has never been hands-off; He continues to play an active role in the sustenance of the universe by the word of His power (Heb 1:3).  Moreover, the very act of His incarnation in the form of Jesus of Nazareth is about as intimate as it gets.  Love is both energizing and empathetic, and evolutionary creationism retains both aspects of what makes Yahweh such a personal, loving god worthy of respect and adoration.

I do admit to being somewhat put off by the fact that deleterious mutations exist, especially when such events visit those of my own species.  How do I explain why God’s divinely intended laws, despite the awesome complexity of its results, produced a Down syndrome child unable to take care of itself?  How do I comfort the mother who gave birth to an anencephalic baby?  If, at a minimum, God intervened in the natural course of human history by incarnating Himself, why does God not change His modus operandi and provide an extra measure of loving care for those “created” in His image?  Are we not more important than sparrows (Matt 10:31)?


Richard W - #84597

February 25th 2014

Good stuff as usual, Mike.  

As for your last paragraph, obviously, we can’t always know why God does what He does or allow what He does.  In the end, we need faith.


Roger A. Sawtelle - #84595

February 24th 2014

Very interesting statement, Mike.

Too bad more people have not responded.

I do belief that these three events, the Creation of the universe, of life, and of self awareness, are so unique that they do demand an explanation.  The creation of a physical universe is not necessary as far as we can tell.  The creation of a living organic world, which is able to adapt to its environment, is dependent on the physical world, but not a necessary development from it as far as we know.  The creation of self aware conscious beings is dependent on the physical and organic world, but not a necessary development from it as far as we can tell.

The biggest problem people have with evolution is that some of its major proponents say that evolution indicates that our universe, including people are monistic, only physical.  Since humans are physical, rational, and spiritual beings that claim is false. 

The best counterclaim  is that nature itself is not monistic, even though this goes against our traditional understanding of what is nature and natural.  However if natural beings can think and love as well as exist, because we are physical beings created by God in God’s Image, then the natural must also be mental and spiritual. 

N.B. All organic beings, even plants, have the ability to interact with their environment.  This is the beginning of the nervous system that develops into brain and mind.  Thyis life and thinking are inter-twined.      

I would not say that direct divine interventionj is required to produce life and consciousness, but that these require a definite change of quality of existence which had to be carefully planned, engineered, and nourished.  The problem with those who claim that reality is monistic is that this worldview brings everything down to its simplest, weakest, and lowest form, which leaves the organic and human worlds nowhere.    

     

  


Mike Beidler - #84596

February 24th 2014

Roger,

Thanks for your interaction.  When you say that one event is not a “necessary development” from the other, are you allowing for the possibilty of either a direct divine interventionist position or a naturalist position (not to be confused with metaphysical naturalism)?  I think this is what you’re saying, as indicated by your final paragraph.  I also think you’re correct in that for life and consciousness to arise via natural means would require careful planning and engineering, i.e., fine-tuning the cosmos to achieve His purpose, which includes entering into intimate relationships with beings capable of serving as His “image.”

As well, what does it mean to be a “spiritual being”?  Is this something that can be readily observed, tested, or even theorized to exist?  Or do you base such a description purely on biblical categories? 

I don’t believe monists are necessarily backed up against the wall when it comes to an afterlife.  If God can create a universe from nothing, He can certainly reconstitute a monistic being in an act of faithfulness toward us.


Matthew Winegar - #84598

February 25th 2014

Mike’s response was pretty thorough, and not far from what I think.  Here is my response to the questions:

  1. How about you? Do these three moments somehow stand apart from the rest of the natural order of things? Should we think differently about them with regard to scientific explanations and God’s involvement?
Only the first instance (God speaking matter/energy) into existence stands apart, to me.  I would include in this (more than just matter/energy) the universe/multiverse.  The others do not stand apart because I see no reason the natural order of things (as ordained by God), could not an account of how things happened, per the physical world, even if we currently cannot fathom this.
 
The third instance, God breathing a soul into a living man, could be in a sort of ‘gray’ area, though, in that we might not ever be able to study it or understand it scientifically, because of its theological dimension (unlike biological life arising due to the properties of our universe, the second instance).  However, I don’t see that as a reason to limit God and say he could not have that be a property that would arise in man (although he certainly could do it however he saw fit, it is a Divine prerogative).
 
  1. What does the fossil record tell us about the history of life on earth? What does it not tell us?
 
To me, the fossil record is more of ‘corroborating evidence’, that by itself would not prove anything (if fossils was all we had, in my mind, one might reasonably doubt evolution, even if it was likely), but is an excellent area for predictions to be made (based on evolutionary theory generally, and ultimately on the existence of fossils for which we expect transitional forms).  Taken with genetic evidence for common descent, and our understanding of the basis (mostly genetic) for heritable variation, the fossil record completes some rock solid (pun intended) evidence for evolutionary development of life on earth.
 
The fossil record (along with any physical evidence for common descent) does not answer any teleological questions about life.  It does not answer why we are here, or what is our purpose in life.
 
  1. What are your thoughts on this?
I concur with Mike that Dr. Collins is spot on here.  I don’t have a lot to add for this question, but I think we are wise to remember that all truth is God’s truth, and that believers need not be afraid of science increasing our understanding of how the world works, but rather they should celebrate the beauty of his creation (Psalm 19).

Roger A. Sawtelle - #84603

February 25th 2014

Mike,

Thank you for the questions.

The first thing I mean is that the earth and the universe could very well exist without life, and of course did for a long time.  The same for human life.  Looking back we can see how our world moved from one level to another, but it seems to me that there is no internal logic that means it had to happen, which seems to me to indicate that it was planned, rather than just happened.  It certainly was not by chance or accident. 

Spiritual means that it has purpose.  Only God and humans are truly spiritual beings.  I understand angels are gofers (messengers) or extensions of God.  The real question in our intellectual world today is: Does the world have a purpose? or Does life have meaning? or Is life good? that is, Is it worth living?  All these questions are basically the same and must be answered in the negative by those maintain that the universe is only physical.

If there is no God, then no One created the universe.  If no One created the universe, it is not rational, and if it is not rational, it has no purpose.  If it has no purpose, life is not worth living, because nothing is worthwhile, which has no purpose.  

A rational God created a rational universe as the rational home for rational human beings.  Monists who say that the world is only physical do not believe that this is a rational universe because things do not think and thus are not rational.  God gives the universe rationality and purpose or spirituality.

A physicalist monistic entity is not rational or spiritual.  It is only physical.  It is also true that a monistic entity could also be only spiritual, like an angel or a Christian Scientist.      

  


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