Science and The Truth Project, Part 1

| By Dorothy Boorse

“Would you be willing to do me a favor?” an administrator asked me several years ago. “Could you watch Focus on the Family’s The Truth Project videos and review the part on science?” It turns out that a friend of the college where I work was much impressed by the Truth Project, a DVD-based small group curriculum designed by Focus on the Family and intended to provide a look at life from a biblical perspective, and had been showing the DVDs in their home. My colleague was uneasy about whether the program represented the interaction between science and faith well. He wondered if I could offer any wisdom.

I sweat bullets (so to speak) writing this review. My goals were to accurately reflect concerns about the content, but also to use a tone that modeled the respect for other’s opinions that I hope I am able to teach to my students. In contentious issues, I believe it is even more important to be kind and loving than in everyday issues. Science and faith relations are, unfortunately, oftentimes very contentious and I wanted my work to reflect the highest level of generosity of spirit as well as truth. When I completed the review, I sent it with a polite email to Del Tackett, the narrator of the Truth Project. I received a quick response that it had been received and would be read at a later time, but no other response. The original friend of the college, and several others in the college community, though, found my review to be very helpful, and at least one person changed their point of view as a result.

It is always painful to disagree with sincere people, but I hope this review reflects truth-seeking, a search for places of agreement, and a spirit of love in an expression of disagreement.

Note: We’ll be reposting Dorothy’s Boorse’s review in full today and tomorrow on The BioLogos Forum.

The Truth Project is a multi-DVD lecture series put out by Focus on the Family that addresses a number of aspects of modern life and thinking from a Christian worldview. Because I am both a scientist and an evangelical Christian, and because I have been closely following the cultural discussion on evolution for years, I was asked by a colleague to write a brief review of one of the parts of the project, Lesson Five, called “Science: What is True?”

The web site for the project describes Lesson Five this way:

Lesson Five - Science: What is True?
Science, the “systematic study of the natural world,” brings to light innumerable evidences of Intelligent Design. But Darwinian theory transforms science from the honest investigation of nature into a vehicle for propagating a godless philosophy. (Part One)

A careful examination of molecular biology and the fossil record demonstrates that evolution is not a “proven fact.” Meanwhile, history shows that ideas, including Darwinism as a social philosophy, have definite consequences – consequences that can turn ugly when God is left out of the picture. (Part Two)

Both sub parts of Lesson Five - Science: What is True? are videos of lectures given by Del Tackett, a senior administrator at Focus on the Family. The lectures include a PowerPoint presentation with a series of quotes from famous people and film clips. The clips include bits of television shows, interviews with a variety of people, animations, and a montage of images and voices.

Part One begins with a reading of part of Psalm 119, “The heavens declare the glory of God.” Tackett then asks the central question, ”Why is there something rather than nothing?” The answer to this, he says, is because of a creator. As we look at the natural world, we should be able to see evidence of a creator because of patterns and design.

Tackett contrasts this view with the views of several renowned scientific naturalists, particularly Carl Sagan and Richard Dawkins. He differentiates between science and philosophy, two ways of getting at truth, which should complement each other.

He says that science consists of truth claims about particulars, while philosophy addresses truth claims about ultimate reality such as, “Where do we come from?,” “Why are we here?,” or “What is the meaning of life?” Tackett quotes a number of scientists claiming that evolution is a “fact” and instead says that it is only a “theory.”

Tackett goes on to explain that he will focus on evolution because it is one of the primary reasons people believe there is no God. Tackett declares that people who accept evolution will not accept any of the evidence that might lead to belief in a creator. The world around us is like a box. As we look into the box, evidence of design becomes plain. We know that the world is designed simply by looking at it. Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection is contrasted with William Paley’s watchmaker analogy (described in his book, Natural Theology), as the “argument from design” (Paley 1802).

Part Two of Lesson Five - Science: What is True? picks up where Part One stopped. All around us we see complexity and design. Kepler, a famous seventeenth century scientist and Christian, had been quoted in part one and is referred to again. “The chief aim of all investigations of the external world should be to discover the rational order and harmony which has been imposed on it by God and which He revealed to us in the language of mathematics.” (The part in italics not used in the lecture) (Kepler 1601).

Much of Part Two is a response to two quotes, one from Carl Sagan and one from Charles Darwin. Sagan said, “Evolution is a fact amply demonstrated by the fossil record and molecular biology” (1977). Darwin said, “If it could be demonstrated that any complex organ existed, which could not possibly have been formed by numerous, successive, slight modifications, my theory would absolutely break down” (1858).

Tackett uses Sagan’s two main lines of evidence, molecular biology and the fossil record, to give several examples of systems that he believes are too complex to have evolved, such as the clotting system of human blood, the eye, a peacock feather, and a bacterial flagellum. He features a number of interviews with scientists and computer animations that illustrate the complexity of such features. In the area of the fossil record, Tackett disputesArchaeopteryx as an example of a transitional form and the variety of Galapagos finch characteristics as an example of evolution. Finally, Tackett repeats his assertion that Intelligent Design and evolution are opposing worldviews. Evolution, he contends, is a lie that makes people believe that, “scientific evidence allows me to reject worldview of God.” While Tackett claims that Darwinism is opposed to God, he does not actually connect the lecture to the description on the web that claims that “Darwinism as a social philosophy” has consequences that “turn ugly when God is out of the picture.”

There are some laudable moments in Lesson Five - Science: What is True? Tackett is very clear that the scriptures and the natural world are valuable to understanding truth. He differentiates between philosophy and science. He is entirely correct that some prominent scientists are atheists, and are outspokenly opposed to religion. In one of the clearest moments in the second lecture, Tackett describes the distress of Christians who are, “belittled and made to feel foolish” because of their beliefs. Tackett is right that some scientists overstep the bounds of science and make philosophic claims.

Furthermore, the concept of Intelligent Design in its broadest form is worthier of attention than some parts of the scientific community give it credit for. It is an attempt to ask the question, “If there were sources of truth outside of natural laws, or causes outside of natural laws, would we be able to identify them or learn anything about them using scientific methods?” Many people answer “no” while ID proponents answer “yes.” Either way, the question, “Could we see evidence of design and would we recognize it if it occurred?” is a reasonable one for philosophers to ask. Finally, the film is warm and accessible. Tackett has a friendly tone, and uses a range of slides, film clips, and demonstrations to illustrate his points.

Overall, though, I was disappointed by the lectures. They had a chance to answer the question, “How do top scientists who are believers form a whole, coherent world view?” They could have looked at scientists from many disciplines and could have included a range of ways biologists deal with modern evolutionary theory. Instead, the lectures repeat an oversimplification of the relationship between science and faith and promote a false dichotomy. These concerns deserve longer discussion than the brief overview I can give them here, but the main issues are that Tackett uses only the most extreme voices, uses poor or inconsistent definitions for words, makes errors about the science, and fails to provide a legitimate alternative.

Tackett rightly claims that some scientists, including Richard Dawkins, are opposed to the idea of God, and view evolution as a “fact” that in some way allows us to disbelieve God. However, since Tackett strongly disagrees with these scientists about a number of key points, it is unfortunate that he then turns to them to define evolution and describe a worldview based on it. When he does so, Tackett commits the same error he accuses these scientists of doing; he confuses science and philosophy. Unfortunately, throughout both lectures, Tackett uses the term “evolution” to mean, “a worldview that denies God.” This definition is poor. Tackett should have used “evolution” for “a natural process resulting from selection pressures acting on genetic variability” or any one of several similar definitions. In contrast, a worldview that denies God should have been defined as “scientific naturalism,” “materialism,” or “evolutionism.” The distinction is an important one. Because evolution is a process bounded by natural laws, it makes no philosophic claims whatsoever, no more than precipitation or evaporation do.

Likewise, a better lecture, while still disputing the claims of Sagan, Dawkins, Asimov and others that evolution is a “fact,” it would have approached the dispute differently. The problem is not that evolution isn’t well supported by science; because the problem is that evolutionary theory is a large conceptual model used to explain myriad “facts,” which are measurable bits of information. A theory is not a “not-yet-proven-fact.” A theory explains facts. This problem with vocabulary is typical of the rancorous debates over evolution and is described by Frey (1986) and Miller (2000).

Tackett’s lectures on science create a false dichotomy between worldviews by not reflecting the actual range of beliefs in the Christian scientific community. On the scientific and philosophic level, there are many scholars with intermediate positions, which are entirely ignored in this film. For example, molecular biologist Kenneth Miller has written a book strongly critical of the science included in Michael Behe’s Intelligent Design book, Darwin’s Black Box(Behe 1996). Miller is a Christian who believes evolution and faith are compatible. Howard Van Till has an interesting alternative view that God created what he calls “a fully gifted universe.” Paleontologist Keith Miller at Kansas State, also a Christian, is one who believes the fossil record does support the theory of evolution. In addition, Stephen Barr’s essay, “The Design of Evolution” is an attempt to diffuse tension between Christian faith and evolutionary theory (Barr 2005). Richard Wright, author of the much-used Christian college text, Biology through the Eyes of Faith (2003), and Darrel Falk, author of the very accessible book, Coming to Peace with Science (2004), would also have been great additions to Tackett’s conversation.

The most noticeable omission to Lesson Five- Science: What is True? is the voice of Francis Collins, former director of the Human Genome Project (now head of the NIH) and a proponent of theistic evolution (Collins 2006). Collins is an outspoken evangelical Christian and explains his own conversion to Christ and the reasons he believes in God in the book, The Language of God: a scientist presents evidence for belief (Collins 2006). He specifically refers to an intelligent creator and particularly sees God’s handiwork in the Big Bang and in the possibility of miracles. This is such an unusual thing for a prominent scientist to write about that Collins has opened a great deal of public discussion on science and faith. At one point, he debated Richard Dawkins in an interview read by millions in Time magazine (Van Biema 2006). If Tackett’s view of the world is correct, however, Collins is on the same side of the discussion as all of the atheists—an assertion Collins roundly denies.

I also would have liked see in Tackett’s treatment some reference to scientists who may not be Christians but who disagree with the strong dichotomy represented by Sagan and Dawkins. Michael Ruse, for example, a prominent writer on evolution and creationism, makes the case that there is no reason an evolutionist could not also hold traditional Christian beliefs (Ruse 2004).

Check back tomorrow to read part two of this in-depth review!




About the Author

Dorothy Boorse

Dorothy Boorse, Ph.D. is Professor of Biology at Gordon College. She studies wetland ecology, invertebrates, vernal pools and salt marshes, and is also passionate about connecting science and faith communities, increasing women and minorities in science, and supporting science literacy. She teaches, does research with students, and has just co-authored an environmental science textbook for undergraduates.