Is there Purpose in Life?

Not a simple question. And the answer depends on who you ask. A Pastor will say yes, of course. Many biologists will answer no, the whole idea of purpose or, the ancient philosophical concept of teleology, has no place in science in general. Things happen in obedience to the laws of nature, not for any purpose.

But I am not so sure this is true when if comes to life as we know it.

I have just had a paper published in the journal Perspectives in Science and Christian Faith, a peer reviewed, scholarly/scientific journal of the American Scientific Affiliation. The paper is called “Teleology and the Origin of Evolution“, and can be found at the journal’s web site .

Here are some extracts from the abstract and body of the paper.

The key to biological evolution is a tight linkage between inheritable genotype and gene-directed phenotype, which allows the phenotype to be the target of selection. It is theoretically possible for some forms of life to exist without evolution; thus, the origin of life and the origin of evolution are two separate research questions. The classical problem of teleology in biology may be approached by a close examination of the mechanism behind the universal genotype-phenotype linkage: the protein synthesis or translation system. This solution to the problem of converting nucleic acid chemistry into protein chemistry may be the fundamental root of teleonomy and inherent teleology in living organisms.

The roots of biological teleology do not lie in the action of evolutionary processes. Instead, I believe they can be found in the very fabric of the evolutionary process. In other words, purpose is built into the central, deepest biochemical meaning of what evolution is.

Cells do not see the future and do not decide to change based on what is needed. And that is the point. Cells do not need to see the future, because evolution provides a way to deal with any novel circumstances or challenges in the absence of sight, thought, will, or any form of consciousness. Evolution by natural selection is the cellular biological alternative to survival by conscious struggle.

If you would like to read the whole paper, and are not yet a member of the ASA, you can get the pdf from this link. 

I expect the conclusions of this paper, namely that teleology is a real part of biology based on a scientific argument, will be controversial, to say the least. I am interested in any thoughts from readers.

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Why Charles Bastian isn’t Famous

Charles Bastian was one of the leading biologists of the 19th century. A professor of Pathological Anatomy at University College, London, Dr. Bastian was a fellow of the Royal Society and of the Linnean Society. He was the author of several books and numerous scientific publications in the 1860s and 1870s. Contemporary thinkers listed him along with Tyndall, Pasteur, and Darwin as one of the most important living men of science.

Yet today he is unknown. His name appears in no textbook, nor in any scholarly review of 19th century science. His works are never quoted, and his reputation, once mighty and proud, has simply evaporated. Why? What did H. Charlton Bastian do to merit total obliteration?

Simply put, Bastion was wrong. In fact, he was spectacularly wrong.

The 1870s, of course, were a period of fierce debate about one of the most important  revolutions in biology: Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection. Many eminent biologists, geologists, and philosophers were opposed to Darwin’s ideas, but Bastian was not among them. He was a supporter of Darwin and Huxley.

The controversy that embroiled his career, and for a while that of his famous contemporary John Tyndall, involved a much older issue: the spontaneous generation of life. The idea that living organisms could arise spontaneously from dead or decaying material was an ancient one, based on repeated observations that maggots or microscopic “animalcules” can appear on a piece of rotten meat or in liquid infusions of organic matter. But by the second half of the 19th century, many scientists repeated the experimental work of the Abbé Spallanzani showing that prior sterilization resulted in an absence of living organisms, and the theory of spontaneous generation of life was fairly widely discredited. At the same time, the whole issue of spontaneous generation became more pressing.

Pasteur’s work, along with that of Lister, Semmelweis, and Koch had shown that many of the serious diseases of the time were caused by microorganisms. The germ theory of disease provided the first solid scientific and theoretical foundation for Western medicine, and for the first time doctors had real hope of eradicating horrible infectious diseases that had ravaged mankind throughout human history.

But at the beginning of this new era of hope and progress, a dire warning was sounded, casting a shadow over the excitement of the early microbe hunters’ work. This pessimistic voice proclaimed that if diseases are caused by microorganisms, then we are actually worse off than ever, because thanks to spontaneous generation, we can never truly eliminate the birth and growth of disease-causing germs from a putrefying wound or from our sewers or water supplies. This voice belonged to Charles Bastian.

What led this distinguished Professor to suddenly raise the old ghost of spontaneous generation at the dawn of a new age of advancement against germs and disease?

Like Pasteur, Tyndall and others, Bastian had repeated the Spallanzani experiments. In his flasks, however, new bacterial growth always appeared. Since he was an eminent man of science, few members of the public doubted his results (which were published in the prestigious journal Nature) or his methods. Some, such as Huxley, suggested that perhaps not all the dormant bacteria in Bastian’s initial infusion had been killed by the heat treatment. Bastian gleefully seized on this argument and proved it to be wrong in a series of experiments, which he published in a book.

In the introduction to this book, entitled Evolution and the origin of life, Bastian states, “Well-informed men of science no longer doubt that swarms of bacteria can be made to appear within sealed glass vessels containing suitable fluids, after the vessels and their contents have been exposed to the temperature of boiling water.” This statement in a book published in 1874 is a bit presumptuous. Certainly, many well-informed men of science had grave doubts about Bastian’s work. A spirited, almost nasty exchange of letters between Bastian and John Tyndall was published in Nature, with both men pointing to their own experiments as refuting the results of their adversary.

Finally, the two men agreed to allow each other to come to their respective laboratories and observe the experiments. Following this exchange, there is only one more pair of letters, because the issue had been decided. Tyndall reports that after observing Dr. Bastian’s experimental apparatus he has solved the mystery. Bastian had meticulously cleaned and boiled his glass vessels, including the broth inside. He had correctly covered the opening of the vessel with a plug of cotton wool dense enough to prevent the entry of even the smallest germ. But Bastian had neglected one step. He had not sterilized the cotton plug before inserting it into the mouth of the flask. Tyndall concluded that live bacteria adhering to the unsterilized cloth had fallen into the broth, giving the false impression of spontaneous generation.

Bastian was quick to reply. He was outraged. He demanded to know how an eminent scientist with a reputation such as Professor Tyndall’s could stoop so low as to try to discredit an entire body of experimental work, as well as a complete biological theory, on something as trivial as a piece of cotton! He vowed to repeat his experiments with boiled cotton in order to demonstrate the absurdity of Professor Tyndall’s infamous suggestion.

After this, nothing was heard from Bastian again. There is no record of his further activities; he simply vanishes.

This tragicomic story has lessons for modern scientists. In the long run, Bastian’s work and writings caused very little harm, if any. His error was an honest one, and I believe that his sudden plunge into obscurity was due more to his initial self-assurance than simply being mistaken. Bastian’s pomposity, his willingness to try to thwart an entire scientific enterprise at its inception, his refusal to admit the possibility of error, and his certainty of being correct while all others are wrong should teach us caution, humility, and the value of criticism from peers.

 

 

 

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The God of Math, Meaning, and Harmony (by Ethan Ortega)

Today’s post is a guest post from Ethan Ortega, a faithful follower of this blog for some time. I will not write much in introduction to Ethan, since he covers that pretty well in the post. Ethan will be happy to answer comments and questions. 

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If one were to browse through my family photo albums, they would soon stumble upon a candid shot of me that was taken when I was about 2-years-old. In the picture, I’m sitting in a recliner with a copy of Time Magazine opened before me, my infant eyes fixated intently on some unspecified pages. The magazine’s title is clearly visible in the picture: “What does Science tell us about GOD?” Now, let’s be honest; though I’ll grant myself a tiny bit of childhood precocity, I really don’t think that I was reading at age 2. And even if I were, I sincerely doubt that I would have been able to comprehend a cover story on the metaphysical inferences of the Divine taken from the natural world. And don’t get me started on the quality of Time magazine, or lack thereof. But all this notwithstanding, I’ve often looked back on that picture with great fondness, and most especially over the last year, as I’ve grown steadily more in love with exploring this very idea: learning about God through His creation.

I realize that often there are glaring stereotypes attached to some of the intuitions that I grew up in or around: charismatic church attendee, homeschooled from grade 2 to 9, private Christian school for all the other years until college… all of these together could possibly imply (to a stranger) that I was indoctrinated from my earliest years in a mindset that was very fearful of or even antagonistic to the findings of mainstream science. Toss in the fact that this was all taking place against the backdrop of west Texas and you can clearly understand the impulse judgements some could make regarding my views on some pretty important subjects.

But stereotypes are dangerous, and very liable to error. Truth is, I grew up around very diverse individuals with a wide range of beliefs and opinions, as I think most of us have. Though there can be an overwhelming sense of unanimity amongst one’s culture, I have found that these snap judgements we make can be very harmful to the work of Christ, in and outside of the church.

My family was never hostile towards science. In fact, I’m very grateful to recall that I was encouraged from early on to seek out and discover all that I could, all that fascinated me. I knew from my church that God created all that is, and I knew from school that we gave the tangible stuff a name: science. When I was 9 or 10, I decided that I was going to be a mathematician or physicist. I began wearing a lab coat everywhere I went (thinking this was proper attire for an aspiring scientist). I tried reading up on Albert Einstein, but my short attention span got in the way of grasping his brilliant contributions to our understanding of nature. On scraps of paper, I would write rudimentary mathematical equations, numbers and symbols that I thought were impressive-looking to my peers. It was all in an attempt to fulfill this dream I had to be some great genius. Over time, that ambition dwindled, and the lab coat was retired.

Sadly, by the time my senior year rolled by, I had thoroughly convinced myself that I was incompetent in math and science.  But even amidst this feeling of defeat or ineptitude, I never lost that love, that sense of overwhelming wonder upon learning a mathematical formula or a hidden reality revealed by chemistry or biology. That kid who dreamed of being a great scientist was in there somewhere. And anything that I could comprehend in those classes, I clung to. I loved the fact that mathematics gave us ways to be perfectly accurate, to use rules and formulas to transform and reveal numbers. I loved the very notion that with the proper calculations, one could make perfectly correct predictions, solve extremely difficult logic and analytical puzzles, and describe the motions of celestial bodies lightyears away from us. What fantastic feats were accessible to us through mathematics and science. And I knew that God was behind it all.

But the culture wars have a very far reach. In my private Christian high school, it was pretty much a given that evolution was false, a flimsy theory invented by atheists as a competing account for the origin of life. I never really asked any of my teachers, but I assume that many of them also believed that the earth and universe were fairly young, certainly not billions of years old. These were incontrovertible tenets, seemingly necessities for a practicing Christian. I never really questioned them back then, regarding myself as too intellectually feeble to try and understand the science involved, and feeling pretty confident in this “side” of the battle, with my fellow believers, some of whom were practicing scientists who presented evidence for intelligent design in the fabric of life.

About two years ago, I had a crisis: I started to wonder if my understanding of these very important concepts was false. What if my side wasn’t correct ? Could the universe really be older than a few thousand years? Did life evolve from simpler organisms? What about the big bang? Was that just an atheistic idea to contend with God speaking all life into existence? I read the words of Isaac Asimov and Carl Sagan regarding faith, and started to feel very uneasy and troubled. Could it be that science was accurately recording objective data of the natural world, data that suggested a universe billions of years old and organisms that had evolved from lower levels? If these things were true, what did that mean for my faith? Would my entire worldview explode? Was atheism the only logical summation at the end of that road? I remained in more or less a state of paranoia and agitation, resolute to stay firm to a faith that was intrinsically part of my identity and yet curious about what research actually said about these issues that I had taken to be settled by those on one side of the conversation. I reached out to friends who shared the faith, both of whom were fine with the idea of micro-evolution and contended that we probably need to reexamine how we interpret Genesis, but who still seemed to hold to the idea that macro-evolution didn’t make sense or was improbable. And in one instance, I was afraid that perhaps asking these questions could tread into blasphemous territory or something.

But then I found something unexpected… I discovered Frances Collins, and was elated to find that such a prominent individual in the sciences was also a devout Christian.  I didn’t even know this was possible: a practicing Christian believer who recognizes the truth of scripture and the natural world and doesn’t fit into any of these opposed camps. It instantly became so beautifully apparent to me: one could exist beyond the culture wars, viewing science as the handiwork of God, something to be celebrated and not feared or manipulated to serve an agenda. I soon read up on Tim Keller’s thoughts on the issues, and found that he had no problem with an old universe or natural selection. The evolution OR  faith question was a false dichotomy, and evolution itself was no threat to Christian faith; rather, it was certain philosophical additions put on top of evolution that were opposed to faith.

In time, I discovered BioLogos. I realized that there were several women and men in the sciences who held deep Christian convictions and that there were various ways of interpreting scientific findings and Biblical writings. The conflict myth faded even further when I learned of all the great scientists throughout the centuries who had been individuals of profound faith. A whole new world was opened up to me. I didn’t have to be afraid anymore of someone claiming that science took away the need for God. I didn’t have to feel the anxiety to choose between two worldviews.

I soon found additional organizations dedicated to a wonderful integration of faith and science: The Veritas Forum, The Faraday Institute, and the ASA, to name a few. In February of last year, I discovered this blog, which has been the greatest help to my journey of recognizing science as God’s work, as something to be celebrated in worship.

And when the doubts spring up again, when I am tempted to buy into the false dichotomy again, I am continually reminded by this community of believers to always see science as the faithful outpouring of the God who I fell in love with when I was a child, the God who shows us His awesome creativity in many different forms. May we never lose that sense of wonder when we see mathematics and organic chemistry, beautiful paintings and pink skies. The same God is behind it all. And His Son is the fulfillment of all that is good.

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Emergence (1)

Emergence is an interesting phenomenon that pervades all of existence, one that is often discussed by scientists, by philosophers, and humanists. But despite its ubiquity, I do not believe I have ever seen the idea of emergence brought up as an important issue in the nexus between science and faith. Perhaps it should be. Let’s explore.

We can define emergence as the appearance of a behavior or phenomenon at the system level that is not implicit in the properties of the system’s components. Emergence happens when a system of relatively simple elements reaches a level of complexity such that it suddenly takes on a higher-level quality, not predictable from its simple elements.

It sounds a bit magical, but it isn’t. It is a fundamental property of our universe. Emergence has a completely naturalistic presence in many branches of science. Here are a variety of journal article titles from the mainstream peer-reviewed literature, showing beyond any doubt that emergence is not some kind of “woo” factor with no scientific standing:

“Phenotypic and dynamical transitions in model genetic networks I. Emergence of patterns and genotype-phenotype relationships”

“Human evolution, niche complexity, and the emergence of a distinctively human imagination”

“Dehydrins: emergence of a biochemical role of a family of plant dehydration proteins”

“Emergence in Chemistry: Chemistry as the Embodiment of Emergence”

And here are a couple of book titles: Emergence: From chaos to order and Emergence: The connected lives of ants, brains, cities, and software.

One can find emergence in human games, in the functioning of neural networks and in the origin of life. Emergence is a basic characteristic of all the sciences: it happens in physics, chemistry and biology, in psychology and economics, in social sciences and outside the boundaries of science altogether.

Cosmologists write of the emergence of forces from other forces at the origin of the universe. This was the case with the emergence of the EM force from the weak force during that very eventful first instant after the big bang. Biology is actually an emergent property of chemistry at its most complex state. And consciousness is an emergent property of extremely complex neural organs.

So, having defined what emergence is, and demonstrated that it is a purely natural phenomenon, accepted in all the sciences, we are left with an obvious question – how does it happen? Or even more interestingly, why does it happen?

Let’s take a classical example of emergence –  a colony of ants. Individual ants are not very impressive. They are programmed to follow a simple set of rules related to following pheromones emitted by other ants. But when a million or so ants are together, they form a colony that exhibits amazing degrees of complexity. The colony is able to find and collect food, protect the queen, build structures, care for young, and so on. E. O. Wilson studied ant colonies for years and saw in them a model for many kinds of self-organizing complex systems, including human societies.

Or consider a game of chess. With a few pieces and a handful rules, we have a game with unending complexity and difficulty. Some chess games have been compared to majestic works of art, masterpieces of creativity and human brilliance.

What would the universe be like if emergence never happened – if the effects of increasing the complexity of interactions of a system simply resulted in a system that’s larger but predictable based on the properties of the simple components? In other words, suppose the ant colony, even with each ant interacting with nearby ants, simply appeared to be a jumble of ants running around looking for their own food. Perhaps their interactions would be helpful for that, but we wouldn’t see the construction of tunnels, or the group efforts in building food storage. Or suppose the outcome of a chess game between experts were  predictable after three moves. Imagine if the result of making a system of complex chemical interactions resulting in a disorganized jumble of chemical reactions with no particularly interesting or novel properties?

It isn’t hard to imagine that at all, because that is exactly what happens most of the time. If we simply mixed together a random set of chemicals, in most cases not much would occur, except for a few meaningless reactions. If we threw together a bunch of random insects of various unrelated species, they would simply run around searching for food. And we could invent a game with a number of pieces and a few rules that turned out to be boringly easy and dull to play. There are in fact a number of them on the market. So, emergence is actually a rare event. But it does happen. And when it does, it seems quite special and evokes a sense of wonder in us observers.

Not magic, but magical. Natural, yet in many cases just beyond our understanding. We seek in vain for that key ingredient that turns a flight of birds into a beautiful pattern of murmuration. Flocks of birds all flying together in the same direction are common, without the emergence of anything special. So, what happens when the flock is composed of just the exact minimum number of birds flying at just the right distance from each other, to suddenly transform into a sight of joy and beauty?

I have lots of questions in this post. Answers are welcome, and perhaps some thoughts about what any of this says about divine action in our world. To be continued, after the next post. The next post will be a guest post from loyal reader and commenter, Ethan Ortega.

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Finding My Faith

 

I had an unusual upbringing for a Christian. My parents were dedicated materialistic atheists. They not only didn’t believe in God – they also thought that anything with a spiritual, psychological or non-rational quality was bogus. I grew up thinking that people of faith were lucky because they could fool themselves into believing that there was a loving God who would take care of them. I wished that it would be possible for me to become a believer. But it wasn’t. I had been too well trained in the dogma of materialism and rationalism to allow anything as weak-minded and logically indefensible as faith to penetrate my mind.

As I got older, I began to feel that I was missing a vital part of the human experience – the sense of mystery or wonder, the sense that there exists something that transcends the material world. Then I became a scientist and embarked on a career in genetics and environmental health research, and though I never gave up my desire to break into some kind of more spiritual realm, nothing really worked for me. But I was always hopeful that someday I would find…something… some path, some form of enlightenment.

I began reading about physics, and found that some of the language of cosmology, quantum physics, and relativity didn’t sound that different from the language of mysticism. I also began thinking about some new ideas in my own field of genetics and evolution, and biology in general, that didn’t quite fit with the purely materialistic paradigm of strong atheism. I became convinced that there might be something….more. But thinking that there might be something out there and actually experiencing it are not the same thing. I remained an agnostic because I had no strong reason to believe anything else.

In my 40s I began accompanying a Catholic woman to church. I found it to be a surprisingly pleasant and non-threatening experience. It was a surprise because I had been taught that churches were the source of superstition, guilt, torment, and hostility.  The priest’s sermons were as surprising as the rest of the mass. The theme of this religion, which I had been taught was all about intolerance and power, seemed to be about love. I heard about the power of faith, forgiveness, and redemption, and about how all human beings are worthy of God’s love and how Jesus treated sinners (like me) as people worthy of His love and attention.

This didn’t make me a Christian – I was still on the outside looking in.  Then I had a dream. In the dream, I was outside of a walled garden. I knew that in this garden there was to be found everything I had always been looking for, but there was no way I could climb over the wall to get in. I kept going around the walls, trying to climb up, falling down, and getting terribly frustrated. And then a man showed up, and said to me, “What’s wrong with you?” I explained I was trying to get into the Garden, but could not scale the wall. He smiled and said, “Then why not use the door?” and pointed to a door in the wall that I hadn’t seen before. I asked what I needed to do to gain entry. He answered, “Nothing, just open the door and go in.” So I did.

My path has been the opposite of many people’s who have found themselves losing the religion they grew up with. I never had a religion to lose – I had a vacuum to fill. Perhaps because of that, I have a different perspective on atheism than those who have decided they cannot continue to worship a God who allows evil and misery, or belong to a church that committed terrible sins, or maintain a belief in a religion that is intolerant.

We all know those arguments, and I don’t want to discuss them at the moment. Instead, I want to focus on a question of central importance in modern atheism, the question I wrestled with since childhood: is there a spiritual dimension of reality?

Years ago, you could be an atheist and say yes.  But, along with attacks on religion, the militant new atheist philosophers have taken the view that spirituality in any form is an illusion, and in fact a delusion, a form of mental illness.  In his book Consciousness Explained, Dennett even proposes that human consciousness is pretty much a myth. He “explains” that we are deceived by the neural networks of our brains into thinking we are conscious beings with a clearly felt sense of self, when in fact we really aren’t. Even more remarkable, the concept of free will has come under attack from this quarter. The beliefs of my parents have become popular.

Intellectually, from a scientific point of view, I found the denial of the existence of transcendental mysteries in our universe and in our lives to be untenable. If Hawking can write of imaginary time, if we need to understand that space really bends, and that the uncertainty principle is true, how can we deny the reality of mystery?

So, the question for those who have lost their religion, or never found one, is how do you define the nature of reality? Is there an aspect of reality that is beyond logic, rationality, and a clockwork mechanism? If your answer is yes, why not include some form of divinity in that transcendent world? If your answer is no, my suggestion would be to delve as deeply as you can into the beauty of modern science, see the world for how it is, in all of its majestic mystery, and allow yourself to dream.

 

 

 

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Experience and Evidence

What is scientific evidence? Can a spiritual experience count as scientific evidence? Most people would say no, but I am not so sure we can say that with absolute certainty.

Christians are often asked by atheists “What is your evidence for God?”, and sometimes the answer given is (as it has been for me) something along the lines of “I had a personal encounter with God”, or “Jesus Christ who convinced me that God is real”. This is usually met by the retort that the questioner was asking about “scientific evidence” not personal subjective narrative. After all, we all know that such experiences could be made up, or could be visions arising from lack of sleep, eating the wrong food or drinking too much of the wrong beverage, etc. And, even if none of these things apply, clearly the human mind is not trustable when it comes to making objective, reproducible, and verifiable observations, which is what the scientific method is based on.

Well, I can’t really argue with any of that. But I can raise some questions, which is my purpose for this post. The argument against deeply felt spiritual experiences as  scientific evidence for anything is strongly ingrained in the thinking of all scientists. Its origin was at the dawn of the scientific age, when objectivity was in short supply, and the rules for examining the truth of any claim became firmly and uncompromisingly established.

But are they right? If someone is not making it up, did not do anything to provoke this kind of experience, and wasn’t even conscious of wanting to deal with any issues about God or religion, does that help? Not really, because we have evidence that the mind cannot always be trusted. People have all kinds of wrong ideas from all kinds of sources, and illusions are more common than reason.

But while that is true, the problem that scientists have been facing for some time is even worse. Not only can we not trust our thoughts, visions and dreams, we can’t even really trust our senses. Physicists have written about how our perceptions of the world are not actually correct. We see what we see not because it’s what is there, but because we are animals who evolved to see solid object that reflect a narrow band of electromagnetic radiation. We hear what we need to and miss a huge amount of vibrational energy around us. We touch things that feel solid but are really made of mostly empty space. We perceive a lit stove or a fireplace as being hot, when in fact, relative to the scale of temperatures in the universe, a wood fire is on the cool side.

So, the problem is not simply that our mental experiences of thoughts and emotions are not reflective of reality, it’s that nothing that we think we know or see of feel is reflective of reality. Does this mean I am a post-modernist, who doesn’t believe anything is real? NO, emphatically not. We have in fact learned how to devise ingenious tools to examine reality. I can look at a film of radioactive spots and see the structure of a gene. Physicists can use amazing instruments to see the behavior of subatomic particles. We have learned to overcome our sensory limitations when it comes to understanding our world through science.

But we haven’t made much progress regarding the most fascinating object in the universe, the human brain. I should rephrase that. We have indeed made a great deal of progress in that area, but we are still at the very beginning. Our methods are crude, and while way ahead of where we were a few decades ago, still cannot tell us much about where the mind comes from. We still don’t come close to understanding consciousness.

So, given what we know, and what we know that we still don’t know, how can we easily dismiss a mental event that has the power to transform a life as “nonscientific” emotional illusion or an artefact of neuronal activity with no basis in actual reality (whatever that means)?

I do not suggest that we automatically take every report of subjective experience seriously. I don’t think the woman I recently met who explained to me that she knew that aliens had taken over her husband’s mind should be taken seriously (well maybe by mental health workers, but not by scientists). But it isn’t easy to distinguish delusional thoughts from valid evidentiary mental activity. Someone who has a dream of an encounter with Christ, and then begins to feel that his life has been touched and changed for the better (and shows no sign of mental illness) might have experienced something as real as the appearance of a boson in a linear accelerator. I am aware that some atheists have recently been claiming that all religious or spiritual experiences are forms of mental illness. But how do they know that? Where is their scientific evidence for that claim?

I am not proposing that personal subjective spiritual experiences are scientific evidence for the existence of God. But they can be something more than silly, meaningless illusions or signs of mental deficiency. I would say they are evidence of something, and that we should not presume that we have the tools to answer where they are coming from and what it is that they are pointing to.

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Real and Fake

There has been a lot of talk about fake news and what sometimes looks like a “post-truth world” recently. Fake news is obviously a problem in politics. In a similar vein,  fake science is a problem for theology. I will explain. Some time ago, I attended a “Science and Faith” symposium at the Museum of Natural History in Washington. All of the clergy panel members, representing different religious faiths, were quite clear that they supported evolutionary biology and modern science in general.

A question was asked by a member of the (largely atheistic) audience how they could support the notion of Imago Dei when “science” has shown that human beings are only 1% different from chimpanzees genetically, and therefore basically the same. The Protestant minister on the panel answered that “created in the image of God” should probably not be restricted to human beings but reinterpreted to mean all living creatures. I have heard this idea repeated since then and, quite frankly, I don’t like it. The problem is that the idea that humans, chimps, other primates are all essentially indistinguishable is a philosophical narrative, not a scientific one. But by labeling this view as “science”, conflating genetic data with non-scientific interpretations, we end up with one kind of fake science.

On another occasion, I was astonished to hear a very prominent biologist claim, in an attempt to discredit ID, that DNA is not really an informational molecule. Again, I have read some non-scientist Christians repeating this concept, ostensibly to be up to date with “science”. I am not fond of ID myself, but DNA is an informational molecule, and saying it isn’t is just wrong.

Finally I will simply mention the so-called “scientific” basis of morality promoted by the likes of Sam Harris, which I have discussed at length in print. I have not yet experienced any agreement on this issue from any Christian thinkers, but it could happen, if it is pushed hard enough. There is the danger of some Christians being fooled by certain philosophical viewpoints masquerading as  “advancing science”. The problem is that in most cases it isn’t science that’s advancing, but the worst form of scientism that is being advanced.

Yes, let us indeed try to accept scientific knowledge when it is relevant to apologetics or certain theological applications, but in doing so, let us be certain that we are speaking of real science, and not the pseudoscientific arguments of militant atheist preachers of fake science.

The good news is that if we are careful and rigorous, we will find that discernment of what is real and what is fake is not terribly difficult. Because God did in fact create the world, and does in fact continue to sustain and maintain the evolutionary and creative process – as He continues to guide each of us – so the evidence of His work is there to be discovered. I suggest boldness rather that retreat.  Science is not to be feared but revered: it is the method God has given us to uncover His mysterious world.

And let’s never forget that the knowledge we have gained of this world, by His grace, includes not only the laws of motion, mechanics, and physiology, but the mysteries of quantum mechanics, the observer effect, Godel’s theorem, fractals, the uncertainty principle and photosynthesis, to name a few. Real science is consonant with God’s glory and majesty. Real science points us to the Creator, and not away from Him. Real science is a boon and an aid to theology, and we must not make the mistake of rejecting the reality of God’s words and works for the sake of trying to accommodate a science that isn’t real.

I will close with a Jewish folk tale. A poor old couple, who had no food and no money arrived home on the Sabbath to find a table magically spread with golden plates piled with food and silver goblets of wine. The woman told her husband to touch nothing. “This is the work of Satan”, she said. They went to consult the Rabbi, who told them. “It may be the work of Satan, or it may be a miracle from God”.

“But how can we tell, Rabbi?”

“Taste the wine, and try some of the food. If it’s real, and its good, then it’s a miracle of God, for all things that are real in this world are from God, while Satan makes only falsehoods.”

Amen.

 

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