Conservative Theology

October 29, 2008

Religion and Science / Nature's Witness and Christian Theology


Evolution and the Church

A good friend of mine gave me a copy of Daniel Harrell's Nature's Witness: How Evolution Can Inspire Christian Faith.  The book was an attempt to reconcile evolutionary theory with the Christian faith.  While there are a lot of negatives about the book, I thought I'd start off with the positive.

First of all, I absolutely loved the terminology of involvement.  Historically, God's interaction with the world has taken on the terminology of intervening or interfering, which would imply that Deism should be the norm, and that God intended to be far off.  That sort of terminology says that God acting in the world must be to fix something that went wrong, rather than a normal part of Creation.  Thus, the terminology of "involvement" reminds us that God wants to be involved in creation.  I certainly think I will be using that sort of terminology going forward.

The second good thing in the book, was his treatment of randomness as being a potential good thing.  I don't think he brought this home as well as he could have (of course, he's not an engineer), but I think he was on the right track.  In fact, I have a paper coming out next month in CRSQ about that exact subject - showing the possible uses of randomness within Creation Biology.  However, one distinction I made which Harrell probably was not able to make (since his background is not mathematical) is the difference between philosophical randomness and statistical randomness.  These are very different things which tend to be conflated into the "randomness" concept.  I'll cover that more when my paper comes out.  Now, his point is a little different than mine, but I think it's good as well.  Here's how he spells it out:

Rather than viewing the will of God as akin to a tightrope (one false move and you're doomed), what if instead God's will resembles a one-way, six-lane highway?  The direction is determined, but the manner of getting there (what you drive, which lane you travel, and how fast you go) is a function of creaturely freedom...what ifGod is like a grand master chess player playing with an eight-year-old novice?  The game has its rules and regularities (created by God), such that whatever move the eight-year-old makes, the grand master already knows its outcome.  There is no doubt who will win in the end...Likewise, with human freedom and evolutionary processes...[God] can make [any of the possible scenarios that occur] work for his victory. (p. 80)

Now, past those two topics, there wasn't a lot to like about this book, except to get a glimpse of the problems that exist with the current set of evangelicals and their approach to science.

Let's start with a quote from page 46:

But what if you interpret Scripture correctly only to have science say that you still have it wrong?  Well, you could say that science has it wrong.  And science may have it wrong.  This has been the crux of the debate between Christianity and evolution.  Given what we know the Bible to say, has not science clearly deciphered nature wrongly?  The problem here is that scientific methods tend toward a precision that theological methods cannot attain.  Not that scientists are never wrong; it's just that scientific misinterpretation can't last very long.  Due to science's rigorous scrutiny, experiment, and replication, mistakes eventually yield to the facts...You can say "evolution is just a theory," but that doesn't make it any less accurate in its description of the way life on earth works...Theories make it possible to trust medicines...[to] type on computers and drive our cars and check weather forecasts... (italics in original, bold mine)

There are several problems with this argument.

The first problem is what is written in bold print.  "Tend toward a precision" is actually probably more true than the author may have intended.  There is an important difference between accuracy and precision - and Harrell hit it on the head when he said that scientific methods tend towards a precision.  Accuracy is how close a given measurement is to its true value.  Precision is how similar our measurements are to each other.  For example, if I have a ruler whose markings are flat-out wrong, I may have very precise measurements, but they won't be very accurate.  On the other hand, if my ruler's markings are all correct, but it is missing all markers smaller than a foot, then my measurements may be accurate, but they are not very precise.

So, let's say that we are measuring the velocity of a car.  We can make very precise and very accurate measurements of that car's velocity.  But let's say we want to know where that car was an hour ago.  Then, using our velocity measurements, we may be able to attain a precision for our estimate, but our accuracy is dependent on whether or not we know the history of the car's velocity changes.

Second, for any science to apply, especially as Harrell defines science (as naturalistic), this only works if God has chosen not to act within history.  Again, if God has chosen to act, then the scientist's work moves from being accurate to only being precise, because science (as Harrell points out) does not have the methodology to incorporate non-material causation (note that I think that it could, but only if it allows in ID - but I'll leave this topic alone for the rest of the review).  So if non-material causes occur, then that simply invalidates the frame of reference used by science.  If science uses a frame of reference which has been invalidated by God's involvement, then it is simply wrong.

Third, Harrell doesn't seem to realize that there are multiple types of scientific methods, each with their own epistemological (epistemology is the study of knowledge and its limits) restrictions.  For discussion purposes, I'm going to focus on three of them. 

  1. The deductive method is used primarily in Math or in elucidating phenomena according to an already-given theory.  The deductive method is logic-based and can tell you, given a certain set of premises, whether a conclusion is valid.  In deductive reasoning, the conclusion is as good as the premises on which it is founded.  However, given those premises are correct, deductive reasoning (if used correctly) gives you close to 100% truth.  The problem is that deductive reasoning cannot validate our premises, though it can sometimes show them to be inconsistent or paradoxical.
  2. The inductive experimental method uses multiple experiments to isolate a phenomena.  The experimenter tries to control for every conceivable variable to establish the workings of a system.  This is the method most often thought of when we talk about science.  The reason why it is so heralded is because it does not rely on having valid premises.  Anyone can perform the experiments themselves, try alternate variables, and see how isolating different variables affects the result.  Note, though, that because we aren't relying on premises, that this methodology doesn't imply anything about the ontology (ontology is the way of being) of what we are looking at.  For example, if we believed that everything that happens occurs because it is what God likes to do (rather than laws in nature itself), then we would say (just as validly as using 'law'-language) that God really enjoys moving masses closer together, proportional to the product of their masses.  The difference between it being a law, or it being operated by God directly, or by an angel, or a Nymph named Troy are all actually equivalent from an inductive perspective.
  3. The inductive historical method is the method used by historians, including historical biology (often known as evolutionary biology - though there are parts of evolutionary biology that work in the present not in the past).  The fact is that we can't reconstruct the past.  There are too many variables.  We can't isolate variables and test for them, except in limited cases, and that is only true if the premises are agreed upon!  The inductive historical method has all of the epistemological problems of both methods.  This is historical reconstruction, not experimental science.  But what makes it more problematic than normal historical reconstruction, is that it relies entirely on circumstantial evidence.  While historians are checked by what people who lived in that time describe, evolutionary biologists have no such checks and balances, but instead believe that their subject is beyond history, and therefore only use circumstantial evidence to validate their claims.  What makes it "scientific" is that it is assuming naturalism, and using the results of inductive science to aid in the historical interpretation.  As Christians, we don't assume naturalism.  So we can see that historical evolutionary biology, as it is practiced, is not of the same type of knowledge that brought us physics and engineering products, and is much, much, much more problematic, and that is compounded by resting on assumptions that Christians should not be holding. 

    Added to this, evolutionary biologists are not able to see if something cannot be produced by natural causes.  They must either assume that a currently-known cause is doing something more than it usually does, or that an unknown-but-still-physical cause is involved.  In either case, this is what often lends evolutionary biologists to regard the "fact of evolution" - of course it's a fact, otherwise it would require non-naturalism!

Of course, Harrell believes in naturalism, though I don't think that he is aware of the results.  If you truly believe in naturalism, then that literally removes the possibility of choice from nature.  If you hold to the same worldview that the evolutionary biologists do, then that means that true choice is non-existent.  This is why I am saying that naturalism is not a Christian assumption.  It denies choice.  Harrell makes a big deal about integrating body and soul.  I don't have so much of a problem with that, except that he does so on the basis of naturalism!  Harrell doesn't see it, but in doing this he actually removes choice from humanity.  If body and soul are integrated (my own mind is not yet made up on this one), then the only way it could happen is if we imputed the non-natural elements (i.e. choice) onto the material body.  This is just as non-naturalistic as the body/soul split, but it just works it differently. 

But here is my big rub - scripture.  Harrell believes that the precision of science means that we should take science's word over scripture.  This is terrible.  What is so great about Scripture is that God reveals to us the larger-scale involvements that He has done with His creation.  Therefore, while the evolutionists proceed without being checked by history, on the basis of naturalism which we do not assume, and on the basis that God has not made any moves in history, Creationists instead are able to use Scripture to understand when God has involved Himself in important ways, and therefore alert us to when we need to step outside of our materialist framework in Earth history, and provide for us a historical record against which to check any of our suppositions.

So now, if you're still reading, we'll get to the tragic portion of the book - Harrell's wrestling with evolutionary theory.  You will see why I call it "tragic" towards the end.  Harrell has believed in science over and above what Scripture has revealed.  Therefore, Harrell must wrestle with evolutionary theory in order to fit it into his faith.  But which evolutionary theory?  On the Researching Creation blog, I've pointed to several different ones.  The one that Harrell chooses to wrestle with is Natural Selection.  But why?  My guess is that he's bought into not only science, but the media's portrayal of science.  The fact is that Natural Selection is being phased out as an evolutionary mechanism.  I forgot where, but Harrell has also said that Macroevolution is nothing more than a lot of Microevolution.  Even PZ Myers does not believe that this is the case.  His view of evolutionary theory is woefully colored by Dawkin's 1980s version of it, a version of evolutionary theory that does not match what biologists are doing today (in fact, if you want a book that wrestles with modern evolutionary biology and faith, by a working Paleontologist, I would suggest to you Life's Solution by Conway-Morris).  The recent Altenberg conference was the prelude to redefining evolutionary theory where natural selection has a much smaller, maybe insignificant, role.  Some of the attendees of the conference (all of whom are top-level evolutionary biologists) think that natural selection is "wrong in a way that can't be fixed".  How tragic is it that Harrell was convinced by someone to give up his faith in scripture to a theory of evolution that is being abandoned by biologists, because he thinks that it is true because it is scientific?  In 10 years, will Harrell be defending Natural Selection against the scientists who say that evolution happened a different way?  How bizarre would that be?  Or will Harrell simply have to redefine his theology every few decades when science turns a different direction?

Or perhaps God gave us Scripture so that we wouldn't be lured into chasing after the wind of man's opinion?

For more discussion on the book, you might check out the conversation that's been happening on Jesus Creed.  I planned on commenting on that conversation, but maybe another time.  This post is already too long.

October 23, 2008

Religion and Science / What is meant by the "Fact of Evolution"

Many times the phrase "The Fact of Evolution" gets thrown around without any further explanation.  Most people don't understand that there are several different things meant by "The Fact of Evolution", and the problem comes in when we just assume that they are correct, or unintentionally read more than one of these meanings together.

Meaning #1 - There are dead things in the ground at a lower strata than ourselves and they look different from us.  In addition, there are clearly discernable strata which tend to produce similar fossils.

Meaning #2 - Everything now living (a) has parent(s), and (b) is slightly different from its parent(s)

Meaning #3 - The universe operates mechanically

The problem is that most people stating "The Fact of Evolution" never seem to be able to separate out Meaning #1 and Meaning #2, and therefore consider that Meaning #2 is not the causitive agent for Meaning #1.  Even if you assume evolutionary timescales, there is nothing in the pattern of fossils in the record which would recommend it over, say, progressive Creationism, unless of course you also mixed in meaning #3.  If we assume other possible causes for the layering and the ordering, then #1 and #2 could be completely different phenomena altogether!

The problem is that most evolutionists will not disambiguate what they mean by the "Fact of Evolution".  The idea that you should read #1 and #2 together is so engrained in their thinking that the possibility of splitting them sounds insane to them.