Monday, August 10, 2015

An Adventurous Romp Through Science and Theology

A review of The Polkinghorne Reader (Templeton Press, 2010)

Professional theologians typically operate within a standard background and paradigm. Their tools of the trade are humanistic: history, philosophy, and linguistics, with perhaps a sprinkling of psychology, sociology, and politics. They may occasionally borrow from science to gain an understanding of origins or of the boundary between the predictable and the miraculous, but rare indeed is the theologian who incorporates the scientific toolset into his or her craft.

When a leading particle physicist like John Polkinghorne dons the Anglican vestments and shows up at the theological party, then, he is pretty much guaranteed to produce some very thought-provoking insights. And when that physicist is also well-schooled in the theological craft, he communicates those insights ably to those not trained in science. Reading this compendium sharpened my understanding of the task of theology; free will and God's sovereignty; the role of Eucharist and Scripture; and a host of other topics.

The Task of Theology

Like the scientific community that he helped lead for decades, the author is committed to critical realism, which posits that our models of reality, while not reality itself, are increasingly useful for describing and exploring that reality. These models must be built from the ground up by making parsimonious inferences from data. Polkinghorne therefore sees theology as a model of the spiritual reality beyond our immediate sensations, and like any good model, it must carefully infer from the stream of data that nourishes it.

Free Will and God's Sovereignty

Polkinghorne builds on the work of theologians like Jurgen Moltmann by incorporating scientific data and frameworks into the theological model. Unlike Bultmann, who imagined he was adapting theology to the scientific world by stripping away any hint of the miraculous, Polkinghorne proposes that the non-deterministic openness inherent to quantum physics and to chaos theory provides a way for God to determine an outcome (when He chooses to intervene) by inserting information, rather than matter-energy, into the machinery. Thus God can providentially guide the processes of nature without manifesting his intervention so radically that rationality would supplant faith. An open universe is also one in which God may choose to intervene miraculously, or even incarnationally, without violating the fabric of the created order.

For those of you who are fans of scientific frameworks like quantum physics and chaos theory, you might hope that Polkinghorne provides a unified theory that mathematically marries high-order chaos to low-level quantum uncertainty, and so produces an elegant mathematics to undergird open theology. Alas, Polkinghorne insists that applying a recursive uncertainty algorithm fails because of "quantum fuzziness on length scales of the Compton wavelength and less." Polkinghorne does write well and clearly, but you'll be googling terms like Compton wavelength and Mandelbrot set from time to time as you read this book. But it's worth the effort!

The Role of Eucharist and Scripture

The author also extends his bottom-up thinking into more traditional theological subjects (Scripture, the historical Jesus, eschatology, etc.). In the same way that doing science is a community process, for example, the Eucharist is a community act for Polkinghorne. Likewise, he treats the Scripture as a scientist treats observations; it is not so much a collection of doctrines as it is a means to encounter God. I found Polkinghorne's reflections on traditional theological subjects to be just as challenging and edifying as his analysis of the science/theology relationship.

Summary

I must commend editor Thomas Jay Oord for his skillful weaving of passages from the diverse Polkinghorne oeuvre into a cohesive whole. He has included a wide variety of material that I could not cover in this short review, such as:
  • The soul as a material reality and an information-bearing pattern, and how that relates to our eschatological hope
  • Why physics does not support the claims of panentheism and process theology
  • How quantum mechanics illuminates the doctrine of the dual nature of Christ
It will reward the reader who wants to learn and reflect with a man who is humble, personable, creative, and intellectually gifted.

Future scientists in the faith community will no doubt follow in footsteps of Polkinghorne and a few others like him (e.g., Stanley Jaki and Francis Collins).  Indeed, if Christianity is to survive in an increasingly scientific milieu, it must somehow make its peace with science. I do not doubt that it can do so. It has already made the leap from second temple Judaism to the Greco-Roman world; from the Greco-Roman world to medieval Europe; from there to an Enlightenment West, and from there to "two-thirds world" cultures and to the postmodern West. As more scientists join the theological discussion, many of Polkinghorne's explorations will be eclipsed, much as the interstate highway system has eclipsed the footpaths of native Americans and conquistadores. But Polkinghorne's writings point the way to our theological future, I am convinced, as we await the eschaton.

If you care about theology, this compendium of probing explorations is mandatory reading.

==========================
The publisher provided a review copy of the book in return for an honest review.

Monday, July 6, 2015

On Same-Sex Marriage

The Supreme Court announced its Obergefell decision last week, and the reaction from Christian quarters has been intense. Some are embracing same-sex marriage as a new and better understanding of God's love, while the majority have condemned the decision as a redefinition of the divinely instituted covenant between a man and a woman. As Franklin Graham intoned to Fox News, "This court is endorsing sin."

While both sides have been repudiating one another, they have failed to see how Jesus delineates between civil law and moral law regarding the covenant of marriage:

Some Pharisees came to him to test him. They asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?”

“Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”

“Why then,” they asked, “did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?”

Jesus replied, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning. I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.”

Matthew 19: 3-8 (NIV)

The Pharisees ask a question about civil law: Is divorce lawful? Jesus responds, however, by answering a different question, a question of moral law: What is right? He makes it clear that God's desire for marriage is that a man and his wife are joined together for life, period. Jesus does provide an exception, but only when one of the spouses has already ruptured the marriage bond through adultery.

In response to the followup question (Then why does God permit divorce?), however, Jesus does not dispute that a divorce is permitted in the civil sphere. Instead, he explains why God utilizes the Mosaic law to regulate this recurrent behavior among the Israelites. God recognizes divorce as a civil procedure (not as a righteous act) because He expects a society's laws to provide protection and justice, despite the imperfections of the humans who live under its rule. The civil law permits, but places boundaries around, "hard-hearted" behavior so that cruelty and chaos do not reign. A man may divorce his wife, but there is a just process that must be followed, and rights of the affected parties (spouse, children) must be respected.*

There is something even deeper going on here, I think. The institution of civil law recognizes that God has created each one of us with a fundamental liberty to choose, but limits this freedom by acknowledging that others--neighbors, spouses, children--are also endowed with fundamental rights that must be respected. Within the realm of Christian ethics, Reformed theologian Michael Horton points to the Christian doctrine of creation as the basis on which Christians must engage respectfully with adherents of diverse faiths. Regardless of differing beliefs and convictions, we all have common needs (such as the need for a rule of law in our daily affairs), common abilities (such as a liberty to make significant choices), and a common dignity as creatures made in the image of God. While this commonality provides the basis for civil institutions, the civic necessity of gaining assent for the law from citizens of every religious background means that our civil institutions can never fully express God's righteousness.

Thus civil law cannot institute the righteousness of God. Is that a problem? In my opinion, it is an opportunity, because it makes godly choices more meaningful. My parents' beautiful marriage of almost 60 years, for example, is not the result of an externally imposed civic law forbidding divorce; it is the fruit of God's love at work in them, enabling a choice to remain faithful-- for better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health.

So the reality is that in the United States of America, you will not be arrested if you:
  • Commit adultery
  • Get drunk in your home
  • Divorce a spouse
Christians may argue the appropriateness of these liberties, as struggles with Prohibition laws demonstrate. But by and large, Christians respect the laws that permit, but place boundaries around these ungodly acts--even as we lament the behavior itself.

The time is ripe for us, then, to recognize that the Obergefell decision has a certain wisdom to it, because it allows contract law to apply to same-sex relationships. It is no longer "the wild, wild West" in same-sex relationships, and the LGBTQ community is suddenly sobered by the fact that the right to marry is accompanied by the possibility of eventual divorce, replete with ugly court battles. We who follow Christ can graciously extend the civil institution of marriage to those who do not agree with us and at the same time bear witness to God's wonderful good news by living according to a completely different standard--by His grace and strength.
 
Once again, I thank my beautiful and wicked-smart bride Linda for her assistance in refining and polishing this essay. 

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*The pattern of permitting unrighteous behavior but regulating its scope and effect shows up elsewhere in the Mosaic law--for example, "an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth." This regulation prevents revenge from cycling out of control: retribution is limited in scope, and once it's done, it's done. Jesus of course states further that God's will is that we would turn the other cheek (Matthew 5:38-39). Once again, what civil procedure allows and how God defines morality are not the same.
 

Friday, May 15, 2015

Young Earth Creationism and the Fossil Record

Here is a conversation on the fossil record that a Young Earth Creationist named Leslie and I had in the comments section of an evangelical blog. I am of the opinion that we Christians do ourselves no favors if we do not listen carefully to what scientists have to say about the evidence they have discovered, and the most logical ways to interpret it. Is that sound wisdom, or a mistake? Take a look at this conversation and see what you think.
Leslie -

As a Christian who believes that nature and revelation both point to God, I have some questions about your post.

First, why would carbon dating be relevant at all in this discussion? Isochron dating using element pairs such as rubidium-strontium and uranium-lead are now the dominant technique for radiometric dating.

Second, I am puzzled by your statement that there are no transitional forms. For example:
  • Tiptaalik demonstrates a transition from lobe-fin fish to primitive tetrapods.
  • Ambulocetus natans is a transitional form between the land-dwelling common ancestor of hippos/whales and today's whales. In fact, this video displays the impressive catalog of transitional forms from Ambulocetus down to today's whales. I would be curious to get your feedback on the video; I found it very enlightening.
  • Mei long is an early transitional fossil in the evolutionary sequence from dinosaurs to birds (which includes several transitional forms).
I read, and believed, a lot of the YEC literature for a very long time. When my scientist friends started showing me what scientists have really discovered--and not what the YEC advocates claim the scientists have discovered--I realized that the YEC advocates simply did not understand the science very well.

I encourage you to explore the resources I have cited in this comment and in my previous comment. You will probably be tempted to reject them out of hand; I know I was tempted that way when I first encountered similar resources. But as I said before, the testimony of my believing scientist friends, along with the testimony of godly theologians (such as Augustine) who spoke of using science to separate the wheat of God's self-revelation from the chaff of our imperfect human interpretations, has brought me to where I am today. The journey has sometimes been stormy, and it isn't over yet. But I thank God for faithfully guarding and leading me on that journey.

Leslie's response didn't say anything about dinosaur-to-bird transitions, but he did discuss whale evolution, Tiptaalik, and my loyalty to the Scripture:
Chris I can appreciate Christians feeling the pressure to somehow reconcile current views on science with scripture by tossing out the book of Genesis. I can assure you that this it not necessary. Secular linguistics admit that Genesis was written to be taken literally and so I must go with that but that doesn't mean we have to check our brains at the church door. Aside from my background in biology, I minored in sedimentology and am grateful for that because it helped to fill the missing links lol in a lot of my discernment about evolution's numerous false teachings and the stretching of scientific arguments to perpetuate the hoax. Even accepting a long age view of the earth there are so many holes in current whale evolution theory that it becomes quite implausible:

1. Limited time for transition The evolution of the whale has previously raised substantial problems because of the extremely abrupt timescale over which it occurred.

Evolutionary Biologist Richard von Sternberg has previously applied the population genetic equations employed in a 2008 paper to argue against the plausibility of the transition happening in such a short period of time. Indeed, the evolution of Dorudon and Basilosaurus (38 mya) from Pakicetus (53 mya) has been previously compressed into a period of less than 15 million years.

Such a transition is a fete of genetic rewiring and it is astonishing that it is presumed to have occurred by Darwinian processes in such a short span of time.

This problem is accentuated when one considers that the majority of anatomical novelties unique to aquatic cetaceans (Pelagiceti) appeared during just a few million years... probably within 1-3 million years.

The equations of population genetics predict that assuming an effective population size of 100,000 individuals per generation, and a generation turnover time of 5 years (according to Richard Sternberg’s calculations and based on equations of population genetics applied in the Durrett and Schmidt paper), that one may reasonably expect two specific coordinated mutations to achieve fixation in the time frame of around 43.3 million years. When one considers the magnitude of the engineering fete, such a scenario is found to be devoid of credibility.

What is required to change in a short period of time?

1. Whales require an intra-abdominal counter current heat exchange system (the testis are inside the body right next to the muscles that generate heat during swimming)

2. They need to possess a ball vertebra because the tail has to move up and down instead of side-to-side
3. They require a re-organisation of kidney tissue to facilitate the intake of salt water.

4. They require a re-orientation of the fetus for giving birth under water.

5. They require a modification of the mammary glands for the nursing of young under water.

6. the forelimbs have to be transformed into flippers.

7. The hindlimbs need to be substantially reduced.

8. They require a special lung surfactant (the lung has to re-expand very rapidly upon coming up to the surface)...on and on it goes.

2. New whale fossil find further upsets evolutionary timeline

The jawbone of an ancient whale found in Antarctica may be the oldest fully aquatic whale yet discovered, Argentine in October 2011

Argentine paleontologist Marcelo Reguero, who led a joint Argentine-Swedish team, said the fossilized archaeocete jawbone found in February 2011 dates back (according to evolutionary reckoning) 49 million years. In evolutionary terms, that’s not far off from the fossils of even older proto-whales from 53 million years ago that have been found in South Asia and other warmer latitudes.

With this new fossil find, dating to 49 million years ago, this means that the first fully aquatic whales now date to around the time when walking whales (Ambulocetus) first appear.

This substantially reduces the window of time in which the Darwinian mechanism has to accomplish truly radical engineering innovations and genetic rewiring to perhaps just five million years or perhaps even less. It also suggests that this fully aquatic whale existed before its previously thought-to-be semi-aquatic archaeocetid ancestors.

3. No biological explanation of sequence
No one knows how a hoofed mammal could have returned to the sea. There exists no biological process, even in theory that could explain how its hooves, legs, and arms could transition into flippers; none to suggest how the dolphins sophisticated sonar evolved; and none to account for how the whale developed a body structure capable of withstanding the extreme pressures of hour-long, mile deep ocean dives. Rather, such claims rest on suspect fossil evidence.

4. Pakicetus inachus was a land creature

Pakicetus inachus consists of a small cranial portion, a few teeth, and a small jaw fragment, yet some how it is described as “remains of whales of early Eocene age.” Upon closer examination of the data, one wonders whythis specimen was suggested to be anything other than a fully-adept land animal.

The fossils were found among “land-mammal fauna,” and “in association with land mammals.” This, the discovery team wrote, “indicates that early Eocene whales may still have spent a significant amount of time on land.” The article went on to concede that the evidence suggests a “continental rather than marine environment for Pakicetus during at least part of its daily or annual life cycle.”

Whats more, no post-cranial skeleton was found, rendering any suggestion that Pakicetus was a whale purely speculative, and actually contrary to cranial evidence. The anatomy of Pakicetus was not whale-like, according to the very fossils upon which such claims are based.
These fossils suggest that “there is no evidence that Pakicetus could hear directionally under water.” Furthermore, the creature was “probably incapable of diving to any significant depth. In terms of function, the auditory mechanism of Pakicetus appears more similar to that of land mammals than it is to any group of extant marine mammals.

”Finally, the size of Pakicetus does not impress one as particularly whale-like: the size of its cranium is estimated at no more than 15 cm wide by 35 cm in length, or no more than approximately 6 inches by 12 inches.

5. Ambulocetus resemble more of seals and seal lions not whales

Interestingly, although the fossils suggest that Ambulocetus might have spent time in water, the species may most closely resemble a type of seal or sea lion. This possibility rests on constant references to seal and sea lion-like functions and anatomy in J.G.M Thewissen announcement.

The fossil indicates that they swam by forcing their feet up and down in a way similar to modern otters. The movements on land probably resembled those of sea lions to some degree. Ambulocetus was an archaeocete whale the size of a male of the sea lion. Ambulocetus had a long tail and thus probably lacked a tail fluke…the back muscles primarily powered the hind limbs as in phocid seals. Propulsion of the hind limbs on land may have been accomplished by extension of the back, reminiscent of the hind limb motions of arctocephaline fur seals. Unlike modern cetaceans, Ambulocetus certainly was able to walk on land, probably in a way similar to modern sea lions or fur seals. In water, it combined aspects of the locomotion of modern seals, otters.

6. More dating problems

One additional problem plagues the whale evolutionary sequence... that it may not be a sequence at all. The Nature article announced the date Pakicetus at between 49 and 52.5 mya, Ambulocetus at between 48.5 and 52 mya, and Rodhocetus at between 46.5 and 49.5 mya. Thus, according to evolutionists' own dating results, the three may well have co-existed for more than half a million years. It is therefore impossible, or very improbable, that the three species could have been part of the same evolutionary sequence. Likewise, Rodhocetus balochistanensis and Artiocetus clavis were dated at approximately 47 mya, suggesting that for reasons of contemporary status, Rodhocetus and Artiocetus were not part of a whale.

7. Misleading presentations

In the past The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) publication teaching about evolution promotes whale evolution as fact and illustrates an evolutionary sequence that includes a land-dwelling Mesonychid, followed by Ambulocetus, Rodhocetus, and Basilosaurus. Even though the scientific literature estimates that Ambulocetus and Rodhocetus had respective lengths of about seven and nine feet, versus Basilosaurus 50-to-70-foot length, the NAS booklet shows all four specimens as being the same size, with not even a footnote explaining that they are drawn out of scale.

Teaching about evolution also shows a perfectly formed, whale-like tail fluke for Rodhocetus, but fails to mention that the drawing is based on an artists interpretation, now known to contradict the direct fossil evidence.

Regarding Tiptaalik this article does a commendable job:

https://answersingenesis.org/e...
I was somewhat pressed for time, so I spread my responses out over a few days. I first addressed his statement about social pressure:
Hi Leslie,

I will have to defer the discussion of transitional whale forms and Tiptaalik to a better time. I did want to say that I do not feel any particular pressure to fit in with current science, other than that I have a strong passion to follow the truth. In fact, if social pressure were a factor, I would not discuss evolution and Scripture at all, because the majority of my church is enthusiastically committed to Ken Ham's practice of denouncing the "compromisers" who would prefer "man's fallible beliefs" over God's inerrant and unchanging Word.

(As if we all grew up speaking ancient Hebrew, immersed in ancient Hebrew culture, so there is no need to do any interpretation...)

Pax Christi
I then addressed the issue of how we interpret Genesis (i.e., hermeneutics):
Hi Leslie,

Hope you had a good weekend. Augustine of Hippo, among other church fathers, disagreed with the 24-hour day exegesis of Genesis 1. I won't go into all the reasons why in this comment. The point is that you can strongly adhere to the truths of Genesis while disagreeing with a 24-hour day exegesis of Genesis 1, if the most notable theologian of the early church is to be believed.

If you are interested in following up, you can read me about my faith in Genesis in this post from my blog.

Pax Christi
I then read the Answers in Genesis article on Tiptaalik, analyzed it carefully, and reported back on my findings:
Hi Leslie,

Hope your Monday is going well!

Let's talk Tiptaalik. Shubin and Daeschler mainly contend that it is a transitional form which:

(1) Displays more tetrapod-like features than earlier lobe-fin fishes (e.g., Panderichthys), but not all of the tetrapod features; and

(2) These tetrapod-like features helped it thrive for a time in a swampy Middle Devonian river delta, and possibly even traverse land for brief periods (similar to today's mudskippers and lungfish).

As an intermediate between earlier lobe-fin fish and later tetrapods, Shubin and Daeschler state that Tiptaalik demonstrates that the transition from lobe-fin fish to tetrapod was occurring in the Middle Devonian.

Against this, Dr. Mitchell's presentation makes 2 main points that I am able to discern:

(1) Tiptaalik is missing some tetrapod features, such as a sacral attachment to the vertebrae or fully developed legs.

(2) There is no proof that Tiptaalik did not primarily or exclusively swim, rather than using its appendages to push on the bottoms of shallow swamps.

How can Dr. Mitchell's 2 points do anything against Shubin and Daeschler's evidence?

(1) Shubin and Daeschler never claimed that Tiptaalik has all the features of tetrapods, so Mitchell's first point (that it does not have all the features of tetrapods) is entirely irrelevant.

(2) Even if Tiptaalik never used its appendages to support body-weight against the swamp bottom, it still exhibits transitional features that would be important to subsequent tetrapods.

Mitchell's second claim is also very inconsistent with the design principles espoused by the YEC movement. Please correct me if I'm wrong, but the YEC movement claims that each species has been designed specially by God with features that help it thrive in its environment. Horses have long legs that are terrifically adapted for running fast, for example; we would be astonished if they didn't use them to run fast. So in an environment with very shallow water, an abundance of land-water boundaries, and abundant food on the shores and water surfaces, you're telling me that a design that is well-adapted for propelling Tiptaalik against the bottom of the swamp bottom was not in fact used that way? It had such a marvelous, well-adapted design, but didn't use it to advantage?

I have often heard YEC proponents encourage listeners to see how wonderfully adaptive the designs of living creatures are--see what wonders God has wrought! I fully agree with that sentiment. But when I, as a devout follower of Christ, want to glorify God with regard to a peculiarly adapted creature that lived 375 million years ago, Answers in Genesis sings a different tune, and claims that there's nothing remarkable about it. It's a shame that AiG is missing an opportunity to glorify God.

Pax Christi
Finally, I reported back on my research on whale evolution:
Hi Leslie,

Time to talk whales. The accepted paradigm of whale evolution is that the known fossil species are not actually in a direct lineage, but instead are evolutionary cousins of the actual lineage/tree from the hippo-whale ancestor to today's whales, dolphins, and porpoises. The points that you cited from creationbible.com do not, I'm afraid, withstand careful scrutiny.

(1) Limited transition time: Sternberg's extrapolation of Durrett/Schmidt's paper makes the entirely invalid assumption that all of the mutations are interdependent, and cannot be available for natural selection without all of the others also being simultaneously present. Clearly this is not the case with regard to the 8 cetacean transitions mentioned. If you want further details on the probability calculations, I would be happy to provide an illustration.

Also important is that Sternberg's calculations have never been subject to peer review in the scientific community. (See here.)

(2) The standard theory of whale evolution is not disturbed by recent discoveries of archeocetus, since it was never thought to be in a direct lineage with ambulocetus.

(3) DNA sequencing explanations of cetacean evolution are actually quite powerful; many have been performed and published by undergraduate biology students.

(4) That pakicetus does not have many subsequent whale features is completely unsurprising, given its early placement as a cetacean evolution offshoot. Nothing in creationbible.com's 4th point contradicts anything in the standard evolutionary account.

(5) Ambulocetus has some transitional features on the cetacean chain, but also may have had somewhat divergent locomotion features (more similar to sea lions). Given that it is regarded as a dead-end from the cetacean evolutionary tree, I do not see this as a problem.

(6) Some of the species overlapped in time. Since the standard theory does not regard them as a lineage, time overlap is not a problem.

(7) One diagram was not to scale. The diagram is representing the evolution of skeletal structure, so the scale was selected with the purpose of making the structural evolution visible. Since the scale of the diagram does not misrepresent the structural change, I don't think it's a problem.

Pax Christi

And on that note, the discussion died out. What do you think, dear readers? Is there good reason to think that paleontologists and biologists have fundamentally misunderstood Tiptaalik and cetacean evolution?

Or is it time, perhaps, to accept what the overwhelming majority of the scientific community is saying about evolution, and focus instead on glorifying the God who used a truly ingenious process to produce "endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful"?

Thanks for reading! And please leave a comment if you have any thoughts you'd like to share....

Thursday, April 23, 2015

A Review of Religion and the Sciences of Origins by Kelly James Clark


Kelly Clark, a philosopher and senior research fellow at the Kaufman Interfaith Institute, provides some much needed reflection and historical perspective on the often contentious relationship between scientists and religious believers. Clark begins by exploring possible models of engagement between the two realms:
  •  Conflict - If fiery spokesmen like Richard Dawkins, Maarten Boudry and Ken Ham are to be believed, the scientific and religious communities are locked in a mortal combat out of which one must ultimately emerge as victor. Which one? Depends on whom you ask.... 
  •  Separation - Stephen Gould's "non-overlapping magesteria" formulation compartmentalizes science and religion into separate, independent spheres. 
  •  Integration - In this view, science and religion provide two different perspectives on the same underlying reality; therefore they reinforce and correct one another. 
Clark espouses integration, pointing out ways that each discipline can inform the other. Neuroscience and biology can inform religious conceptions of personhood, and astrophysics and geology can help us discern what in ancient creation accounts are the essential points and what are the cultural accommodations. Perhaps more counterintuitive to advocates of the conflict and separation schools, religion can shape the scientific enterprise in return by providing an understanding of epistemology, the ethics of research methodologies, and the limits of what science can prove. The remainder of the book elaborates the often fruitful collaboration between the domains, both historically and today.

The author proceeds with an essay on the development of science--from the Aristotelian approach of "sense and common sense," to Bacon's idea of God's "two books" (science and Scripture), and eventually to Darwin's evolution, which liberates William Paley's divine watchmaker from the task of specially designing every species de novo, but not necessarily from his role as creator and ruler of the universe. Pioneers of scientific research like Francis Bacon, Robert Boyle, and Isaac Newton all pursued "natural philosophy" (what we now call science) because they believed both that God created the universe in an orderly way (governed by universal, mathematical laws) and that he invites us to investigate and understand it. For many modern scientists and philosophers, though, science's implicit dependence on epistemological support from religion has shrunk to the point of seeming invisible. I must thank Clark for drawing my attention to the scientific pioneers' explicit affirmation of theology's role and impetus in science.

Clark devotes a chapter to the Galileo controversy, a major turning point in the relationship of science and religion. In particular, Clark carefully examines Galileo's hermeneutical approach to Scripture. As noted elsewhere in the book, religious thinkers like Augustine and Maimonides had previously concluded that God accommodated his revelation to the scientific worldview of his audience, rather than insist that they acquire a more accurate understanding of astronomy or geology prior to entering a covenant relationship with Him. Galileo, however, deepened the accommodation principle by putting it in a broader framework of four points:
  1. "The Naturalism Stance: When we examine the physical world we ought to bracket out religious considerations." This could also be called methodological naturalism. 
  2. "The Accommodation Principle: When speaking of the natural world, the Bible accommodates the opinions and views of the common people." 
  3. "The Doctrine of the Two Books: God has revealed truth both in Scripture and in nature. On matters of faith, the Book of Scripture has authority; on matters relating to the material world, the Book of Nature has authority." 
  4. "Interpretive Humility: We ought not think our interpretation of the Bible is final, especially when dealing with matters extrinsic to the central message of the Scriptures." 
While both Catholic and Protestant theologians were amenable to methodological naturalism and the doctrine of the Two Books, the principles of accommodation and interpretive humility were more controversial. As Clark notes, the Roman curia was especially indisposed to interpretive humility because of its acrimonious struggle against Protestantism. In my opinion, Clark indulges in a bit of blame-the-victim analysis by stating that the dust-up was more the result of Galileo's inflammatory rhetoric than a deep-seated conflict between science and religion. I disagree for two reasons:

  • Prior to the release of his sardonic Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, Galileo had long struggled under the burden of widespread and nasty rhetoric from leading theologians. As Clark himself quotes from Galileo's Letter, "no small number of professors" had "hurled various charges and published numerous writings" against Galileo's observations. In other words, Galileo didn't pick this fight, the theologians did. 
  •  While the Roman curia might have been in theoretical agreement on the doctrine of the two books, there was a strong conflict over how to apply it. What Galileo regarded as "a matter relating to the material world" was regarded inalterably by Pope Urban and the curia as "a matter of faith." The Pope stated that the Church, in accord with its traditions, was the only party allowed to interpret Scriptures that spoke of the sun moving but the earth not being moved. Ultimately, Urban's stance had to result in conflict, because there were no scientists making observations with telescopes and microscopes when the Church's foundations of Scripture and tradition were first being laid. 

The synthesis Galileo so elegantly articulated in his letter to the grand Duchess Christina (found in Works of Galileo Galilei) remains to this day a useful framework for integrating faith and science, however, so I learned much from this chapter.

The majority of the book is a discussion of a broad range of issues: evolution and creation, randomness and free will, the implications of evolutionary psychology for religious belief and morality, neurobiology and the existence of the soul, and what the design of the universe says (if anything) about the existence of God. Clark begins each chapter by presenting the various approaches to a question, including the evidence adduced by the proponents. While Clark clearly favors integration approaches, I found his discussion of differing viewpoints to be generally even-handed. The author typically closes a chapter by offering an explanation that integrates scientific and religious perspectives. For example, he notes that God can provide direction to the supposedly undirected process of biological evolution by putting his finger on the scale of circumstances that undergird natural selection. Although he also presents other models for integrating evolution and the doctrine of creation, I found this one quite intriguing. If I might be permitted to riff on Clark's idea ... we could envision God saying to Himself at the end of the Cretaceous: "Hmmm, these dinosaurs have reached a point where smaller ones could evolve into birds. The larger ones, however, are suppressing the rise of mammals. I think I'll nudge a massive asteroid in the direction of the Earth to wipe out those hulking tetrapods."

Clark finishes with chapters on debates over evolution and creation within Judaism and Islam. I didn't realize that Islam has its own Ken Ham wannabe, a Turkish artist name Harun Yahya who often borrows Ham's arguments almost verbatim to attack the (supposedly) idolatrous claims of (supposedly) infidel scientists. Clark also quotes Jewish and Muslim scholars who promote an integration viewpoint; I appreciated their analysis, even if I don't fully agree with their religious views. The extensive endnotes and bibliography are excellent resources for those who want to investigate the historical and contemporary debates more fully.

I will close this review by sharing some views on how Clark could strengthen this already commendable and helpful work in a future edition:

1) Even though the Intelligent Design camp has staked out a lot of territory in contemporary debates, nowhere does Clark engage their claims. ID has gained a lot of traction among religious believers who want to integrate their faith with science--or at least with geology, physics, and astronomy, if not with biology. In a book that aspires to provide an overview of the key ideas in contemporary debates, the absence of any analysis of ID is puzzling. Clark does spend a paragraph on how the recourse to supernatural causation--the "God of the gaps" approach--is ultimately self-defeating. However, the ID camp has made a broad array of claims (irreducible complexity, mathematical probabilities of mutations, methods of selecting between competing explanations for historical events) that need to be addressed. I wish Clark had included a chapter (or at least a few pages) on contemporary ID claims.

2) The chapter on geocentrism would be strengthened by a recognition of how key Protestant theologians (Luther, Calvin, Melanchthon) joined in the rejection of heliocentrism on the basis of its contradiction to the (supposedly) ordinary and crystal-clear message of Scripture. Contemporary proponents of Young Earth Creation like Ken Ham and the Institute for Creation Research make similar claims about the (supposedly) ordinary and crystal-clear meaning of the Genesis creation account, yet they seem completely unaware of how their Reformation theological heroes were ultimately proved wrong in a similar debate 400 years ago.

3) While Clark's irenic approach is refreshing in our era of hype, I would prefer describing the relationship between science and religion as dialogue, rather than integration. Integration implies that disagreements between the two domains cannot remain intractable, but some scientific findings (e.g., that a bodily injury to a brain can dramatically alter someone's behavior and even faith) strongly challenge Clark's sunny optimism about their accord. The Biblical books of Job and Ecclesiastes indicate that the religious believer may sometimes have to hold on to faith in the face of a universe that elicits doubt; we can sympathize with Job's wife who, surveying the destruction of her world, exclaims, "Curse God and die!" There are mysteries, contradictions whose resolution awaits a more complete revelation than we can ever view with our mortal eyes. To his credit, Clark recognizes some of these conundrums; he just doesn't seem to recognize their implication for his terminology. On the other hand, using the word integration allows Clark to reference the popular television series CSI (Conflict, Separation, Integration--get it?), so I won't lament his terminology too much!

Clark's broad perspective makes a unique contribution to a debate dominated by treatises on more narrowly defined issues (just biology, or just the age of the universe, etc.) where authors often do not examine their own premises. I have some disagreements with Clark, but I nevertheless found this book to be extraordinarily helpful and insightful. Highly recommended for undergraduate courses, church discussion groups, or anyone interested in the relationship between science and religion.
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The author provided a review copy of this book to me.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Young Earth Creationism: Wrong Analysis, Wrong Battle


As I continue the journey to better harmonize God's Word and God's world, I have taken interest in the fascinating research of a Christian biologist, Dr. Richard Colling. I discovered that Christian Networks Journal interviewed Colling and YEC advocate Ken Ham in 2005 for a debate about the age of the earth. Frankly, Ham proved to be the better debater. He quickly took the offensive by devoting much of his presentation to a rebuttal of Colling's (presumably anticipated) old earth arguments. Moreover, Ham’s arguments also appealed to the strong emotions surrounding the subject of biblical authority. Underlying his words was an ever-present question: "Why would a believing Christian trust the word of materialist scientists over a message from God?" This can be quite an effective argument among evangelicals, who tend to see themselves as continually battling destructive, worldly influences.

Being the more effective debater does not squarely put you in the right, however. Since Colling did not really address the majority of Ham's arguments, I undertake in this blog post to weigh Ham's assertions carefully.1 And a lot is at stake in this debate. Christian scientists, especially in the fields of geology, astrophysics, and biology, need to be encouraged in their work done in faith, rather than being rejected, despised, or misunderstood by their fellow believers. Enquirers of Christianity need to see our representatives speaking accurately with regard to Scripture and science; otherwise, they may not trust what we say at all. Finally, as many Christian youth are figuring out how to engage the world they may feel (unnecessarily) compelled to jettison their faith if their spiritual mentors have erected a false dichotomy between faith and science.2 That was certainly my experience

Genesis Creation Account

According to Ham, "The Bible does give us enough information to compute the approximate age of the Earth. We read in Exodus 20:11 that God made the heaven and earth and all that is in them in six days. It is clear from context that these days were literal, ordinary, approximately 24-hour days."

On the other hand... Eminent and godly scholars have carefully examined the context of the Genesis creation account and concluded precisely the opposite.
  • Augustine of Hippo, perhaps the greatest scholar in church history and whose teaching later inspired the Protestant Reformation, taught that the Genesis account does not speak of 24-hour days.
  • Pastor Tim Keller of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York, author of The Reason for God and The Prodigal God, lays out a strong case that the creation account is an exalted prose narrative that does not support a literalistic exegesis.
If you want to explore the historical and linguistic background of the Genesis creation account more deeply, I highly recommend "Genesis Through Ancient Eyes," a video featuring John Walton, professor of Old Testament at Wheaton College. Walton digs into Israelite culture to show that they viewed the first chapters of Genesis as an account of how God brought order out of chaos. Moreover, God's purpose in ordering the world was to make His abode with us. So the message of Genesis is not a modern scientific analysis of how the house got constructed, but rather the purposes for which God arranged the home. And if we're paying attention to its message, we won't be thinking as much about scientific theories as about whether we are living in tune with our Creator's purposes.

The Science

While Ham was careful to assert that his primary case for the age of the earth rests on Biblical authority, he also asserted that much scientific evidence buttresses the young earth theory. Let’s examine Ham's scientific arguments, one by one.

Philosophy of Science

Ham distinguishes between origins science and observational science, and disputes the validity of the former. According to Ham, "There is no scientific way to prove the age of the earth. Observational science operates in the present, and deals with observable, repeatable processes."

But consider this... This division between origins science and observational science is artificial and ultimately unviable. Scientific research assumes that the laws of nature are equally applicable throughout all of time and space in our universe, both past and future, without exception. Thus quantum mechanics and relativity were operating a second after God created the universe, just as they are today. Moreover, we can use science not only to project future events, whether in a lab or in the universe itself,3 but also to infer previous states.

An example from astronomy illustrates how science can help us understand what happened in the past. In 1928, astronomer Edwin Hubble--yes, that Hubble, whose name adorns the amazing orbiting telescope--observed that the Crab Nebula was expanding outward. Based on the rate of expansion, he calculated that the Crab Nebula was in fact the remnants of a stellar explosion approximately 900 years earlier. Since Chinese astronomers had observed a supernova in the same region of the sky in 1054 AD, Hubble further concluded that the Chinese had observed the birth of the Crab Nebula.

Please note: if the observations of the Chinese astronomers had somehow been lost, Hubble would still have concluded that the Crab Nebula was the remnants of an eleventh-century supernova. If a tree falls in the forest and no one is in earshot, it still makes a sound.

You don't have any problems with Hubble's method of inferring what happened in the 11th century, do you? Well, now we get to the point of the story: in the same way Hubble calculated backwards from observations of the Crab Nebula, astronomers make observations today on a much larger scale and conclude that the universe itself is the result of an explosion of sorts--a Big Bang--approximately 13.8 billion years ago.

If you accept that a forensic pathologist can use his observations to infer how long a victim was dead before being discovered, why can’t you accept the background microwave radiation observations that an astronomer uses to calculate how long ago the universe was formed?

If you accept the DNA evidence that a forensic scientist uses to identify who handled the weapon that killed a victim, why can’t you accept the radiometric dating that a geologist uses to identify how old rock formations are? Is it really the case that science cannot help us understand what happened in the past?

Motivations for Believing the Earth is Old

According to Ham, "Evolutionists reject such estimations [of a young earth] because they first believe evolution, which requires many billions of years."

Sadly... This is an ad hominem argument--i.e., it suggests that we should judge arguments based on the motives of the speaker. In this case, Ham asserts that arguments for an old earth are predominantly based on a desire to remain consistent with the theory of evolution. But Ham's line of reasoning is wrong in many ways.
  1. True, it's common sense to exercise caution about a statement because of the speaker's motives. But rejecting statements outright based on the speakers' motives descends quickly into chaos, because you can always find a way to question someone's motives. The ad hominem argument could even be turned back on Ham; perhaps he is rejecting a large body of good science because he first believes the earth is a few thousand years old. If two people try to change each other's opinion on a subject but both decry the other's motives, how will they ever make progress?
  2. Some proponents of Intelligent Design believe in an old earth, but dispute evolution. In so doing, they show that you can trust the geological and physical evidence for an old earth without the requirement of believing in evolution.4
Radiometric Dating

No, we are not talking about the successor to match.com! According to Ham, "Rocks from very recent volcanoes have been tested using this method [radiometric dating]; their radiometric 'ages' show up as being hundreds of thousands to millions of years old – even though we know the rocks are only a few years old! So radiometric dating certainly does not prove that the Earth is billions of years old."

On the other hand.... Ham does not take measurement error into account. Depending on what geologic formation is being measured, radiometric dating has a standard error of up to 100 million years. This means it's no more useful for measuring the age of rocks from a recent volcanic eruption than a bathroom scale would be for measuring the weight of a postage stamp, or a radar gun would be for measuring the velocity of a snail. But it's more than accurate enough for measuring the age of rocks suspected of being billions of years old, in the same way that the Summerville Police Department's radar was more than accurate enough to justify my speeding ticket,5 and my bathroom scale was not lying when it said I gained a few pounds over the Christmas holidays.

Carbon-14 Dating

According to Ham, "Carbon dating gives estimations of ages that are recent – a few thousand years old at most."

However... Radiocarbon dating is actually reliable to approximately 50,000 years ago. That's not enough to prove that the earth is billions of years old, but it's enough to call the result of Ham's dating methodology into question.

Ocean Sediments

According to Ham, "Sediment accumulates on the ocean floor at a rate of 25 billion tons per year. If the oceans were really billions of years old (as evolutionists teach), then there would be many times more sediment than we have. But the amount of sediment is perfectly consistent with a few thousand of years."

But there's more to it... Ham assumes that sediment deposits can only rest on the ocean floor, but this is not the case. Geologists have identified several factors that explain Ham's sediment mystery:
  1. The subduction of tectonic plates as they slowly collide transforms much sediment into mantle. Taking account of this single factor would stretch the age of the earth to 12 million years.
  2. Sediment can also become part of the continental crust as tectonic movements push ocean floor up on to land, or as the sea level falls.
  3. As ocean basins periodically close up in the Wilson cycle, sediment "is piled up on the edges of continents or returned to the mantle."
Combined, these three factors explain how billions of years of sediment are not just accumulating on the ocean floor, but are continuously being transformed into crust or mantle.

Earth's Magnetic Field

According to Ham, "[The earth's magnetic] field is decaying; it gets weaker every year. That means it was much stronger in the past. If the Earth were older than a few thousand years, the magnetic field would have been much too strong for life in the past. This isn’t a problem for the biblical age of 6,000 years, but it is inconsistent with billions of years."

It would seem that Ham is relying on the work of Thomas Barnes, in particular the book Origin and Destiny of the Earth's Magnetic Field. Unfortunately for Ham's argument, Barnes' work has been thoroughly discredited by geophysicists. The data Barnes cites are better explained by a "dynamo" model of the magnetic field, which predicts polar reversals and field fluctuations that explain not only Barnes' data but also many eons worth of data he ignores.

Fighting the Right Battle

If you are a Christian reader, perhaps you feel unsettled. You may feel that for decades an important part of your mission has been the struggle against the perceived evils of science that would deny key truths of the Bible. Consequently this blog post, which doesn’t join the fight against geology and astrophysics and doesn’t affirm a literalistic exegesis of the first chapters of Genesis, may seem to undermine that struggle and even your identity.

I can sympathize; I have been in your shoes and felt those feelings. But the key insight I want to share with you is this: when we Christians argue that scientists in the disciplines of geology, biology, and astrophysics must be wrong, we fight on the wrong terrain and unwittingly concede enormous gains to the secular worldview. When a scientist claims that evolution proves that life has no purpose, or that astrophysics proves that God did not create the heavens and the earth, and Christians respond with the knee-jerk tactic of disputing their scientific claims, we tacitly and unnecessarily agree with the secular view that science is the archenemy of faith.

Instead we should argue that scientism--the notion that science can explain everything--is just as much a faith assertion as any religious system of thought. So the real enemy of faith is not science, but scientism. Instead of fighting against biology, geology, and astrophysics, we Christians can proclaim that science, while having many notable successes, does not have answers for the ultimate meaning and purpose of our existence. Our good news is that our Creator has provided these answers in the Word that was made flesh, Jesus Christ.

But what of Ham’s assertion that Biblical authority, and with it our faith, is inextricably linked to young earth creationism? While the Scripture is sacred, our interpretation of it is not. Already the study of history, linguistics, and archeology has informed and changed our understanding of the Bible, and so must the study of science. As Augustine observed over 1600 years ago in his commentary on Genesis:

Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world, about the motion and orbit of the stars and even their size and relative positions, about the predictable eclipses of the sun and moon, the cycles of the years and the seasons, about the kinds of animals, shrubs, stones, and so forth, and this knowledge he holds to as being certain from reason and experience. Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up [perceive] vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn.

While I admire Ham's zeal, I think I'll stand with Augustine on how a Christian should approach the Genesis creation account. It isn't a science textbook. Instead, it is a textbook for the character of God and His relationship to Man. It shows us that God created the whole universe for His divine purposes. He created humanity in His image, to be like Him. He loves us, and He has made us stewards of His creation. We have rejected His Presence and His call on our lives, but He has nevertheless shown us mercy and offers us redemption. These are the Biblical truths I will defend to my dying breath. If you have come to this blog post with the perspective that science is the only path to truth, I hope you will now consider the viewpoint that science and Scripture are in fact complementary. If so, perhaps you will also give the spiritual truths of Genesis a fresh look. 

(I want to thank my beautiful wife, Linda, for her incisive feedback and mad editorial skills that have shaped this blog post. Any errors are my own, of course.)

EDIT 02/26/2015: Used superscript numbers instead of asterisks for footnotes.
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(1) Before I analyze Ham’s ideas, I want to speak positively of Ham's obvious zeal for God and for the Scriptures. We should all possess such passion! It's important to direct such passion with wisdom and knowledge, though. As 2 Peter 1:5 teaches, knowledge is a partner to faith and goodness. 
(2) While I have been aware of these three impacts for some time, I owe a debt to John Walton for discussing them so cogently at the conclusion of his "Genesis Through Ancient Eyes" video.
(3) Yes, the universe will keep expanding
(4) I am not an Intelligent Design proponent, but I tremendously respect the movement's desire to incorporate insights both from God's work (science) and from God's word (Scripture).
(5) The officer was off by about 2 miles per hour when he clocked me. But I still got the ticket. And if I had said to the judge, "It's ridiculous to use radar, it would say I'm going 2 MPH when I'm in fact standing still," I don't think I would have won the case. Do you?