Conservative Theology

July 16, 2008

General / Thank God for Evolution

The Next Wave of Science and Theology

JB

 I've been reading Michael Dowd's Thank God for Evolution, and at the same time reading about what's going on at the Altenberg 16.  It is pretty clear where the next wave of science and theology is going, and sadly, it looks like its going to be another 150 years of chasing our tail.

As is starting to be admitted, Darwinism got us nowhere.  The point of Darwinism was to remove God entirely from the process of diversification of life, and perhaps even from Creation itself.  The hope of Darwinism has always been the three pillars of natural selection:

  • Heredity - traits get passed on
  • Overproduction - we have too many offspring
  • Variability - the traits that get passed on differ from their predecessors

The problem is that, in the normal case, these get you absolutely nowhere.  In fact, this usually leads to a down-sloping of fitness, not an up-sloping (UPDATE - I have clarified this below).  Darwinists have been starting to realize this fact, and have been desperately searching in vain for a new set of pillars to achieve natural selection nirvana.

The problem can be readily seen in the application of genetic algorithms to computer science.  They are almost always used for tuning algorithms, not creating them.  And, when they are creating algorithms, they are usually very simplistic (see what sorts of things Avida has been making, for instance).

The problem is that variability requires a direction for it to be productive. This is why natural selection can be useful in genetic algorithms for optimization - the optimization parameters focus the variability only on a limited set of parameters which are likely to be selected precisely because the programmer thought that they might be useful for evolving.

Added onto that, genetics has not given us any theory of form.  That is, as far as we can tell, genetics says very little about the form of an animal.   Hox genes may contribute some, but they are not the big picture for the form of animals.  And, since the primary impetus for evolution is the fossil record (which are merely forms, not genes), if a theory doesn't explain the origin and evolution of form, it doesn't explain evolution.

So Darwinism/neo-Darwinism seems to have been a complete failure except for certain, limited circumstances.  It certainly isn't sufficient for a theory of evolution.

So what's next?  

The reason everyone liked Darwinism is because it supposedly gave design without a designer.  Provided you had some self-copying system, natural selection would do the rest.  Happenstance occurrences would shape the "code" which was transmitted, some of those changes would be lucky, and viola - we have adaptation and the ability to increase complexity without having the messiness of getting God involved.  

However, since evolution without God has failed miserably (just like cosmology without God already failed in the early 20th century), science is looking for a way to at least shove God out of an interactive role in the universe.

And thus, the theory of self-organization was born.

The idea is that complex systems arise naturally through the interaction of certain types of pieces.  That the whole of a system is more than its constituent parts, just like snowflakes and tornadoes.  Thus, there doesn't need to be any sort of gradualism - things can just appear through self-organization.

The first problem, which should be pretty obvious, is that this will either:

  • Require that the idea that evolution takes a long time to be abandoned entirely, or
  • Completely remove the theory of evolution from testability into the realm of magic

The reason for this is that if such evolution can be observed, it will be happening extremely quickly - perhaps immediately, and therefore the idea that this takes any amount of time will be completely wiped out.  If we can't observe it, then the lack of proper environmental triggers will be blamed.  Of course, we won't know what these are.  But self-organization will be the magic word that will be sprinkled around instead of natural selection.

Of course, the idea that self-organized systems are actually organized has already been shown to be wrong. But let's not let that stop a new evolutionary theory.

So what does that have to do with God?  Oh yes.  What this means is that if we can't get rid of God, we can at least push God out of our daily business, and move His work to the origin of the universe.  What happens is that the emergence of everything through self-organization is the way the universe is built so that these structures will occur.  So physics itself will enable these structures to emerge, and therefore we can say that, no matter when a structure emerged, it was encoded in physics by God at the beginning of the universe.  You can see this in the title of Conway-Morris's book - Life's Solution - Inevitable Humans in a Lonely Universe.

So, God did actually create, but we can rest assure that it was a long time ago.  If God is doing anything today, it is only because the universe is a part of God, which means that we are God.

It also leaves people to weave hogwash theology based on whatever fairy tales the evolutionists are trying to tell, which is basically the content of Dowd's book.  He even praises himself for it.  So, basically, the new theological method will go like this:

  1. Scientists make up stories about evolutionary emergence using rules that make less sense than the neo-Darwinian ones we just abandoned
  2. A certain subset of these are published for the public in science magazines based on what science reporters find interesting
  3. Theologians pick and choose which of the ones from step #2 can be woven into a sermon on something they think is a worthwhile message, and then claim authority from "the universe". 

Note that it will be too much to ask theologians to actually verify that there is any evidence for the stories they find (hey, I heard a scientist say it, it must be true!), or to see if there are conflicting interpretations, or to *gasp* make criticisms of scientific arguments.  No, instead, theology will simply become telling the "story" of the universe in a way that elicits a worthwhile response.

Welcome to the new world of theology.  We're just going to make up crap that sounds good and then justify it by calling it scientific and relating it to something we read in Popular Science.  Be ready.

UPDATE

A few readers misunderstood what I meant by the statement "The problem is that, in the normal case, [natural selection] get you absolutely nowhere.  In fact, this usually leads to a down-sloping of fitness, not an up-sloping"

If you read below this point, you will see that what I'm talking about is that natural selection only works when it is directed.  If you take an arbitrary computer program, and make arbitrary changes, the result is not going to be an increase in the fitness of the computer program.  Instead, the mutational load will eventually build up without being damaging enough to select out, which will make defect mutants the rule, and not the exception.  Eventually this will more likely lead to extinction, rather than a "more fit" program.  Thus, heredity, overproduction, and variability are not sufficient for natural selection to occur.

What is additionally needed is a direction for the variability so that it tends to favor beneficial changes.  However, this will also prevent the changes from being able to arbitrarily adapt to new circumstances.  I will go into the reasons for this in more detail in a few weeks.

Successful evolutionary change in life, for the most part, is the result of front-loading, just like most successful evolutionary change in genetic algorithms is in selecting the appropriate variables for tuning, and then leaving out the ones which give chaotic effects with little chance for benefit.

June 01, 2008

General / The Problem of Conservative Theology

JB

The unfortunate thing about conservative theology is that, although it may be dominant among church-goers, it has largely fallen out of favor with the academic elite.  Unfortunately for the Church, it is that academic elite which direct the Church, whether or not they are in official positions of power.

The problem, in large part, isn't that conservative theology doesn't work, or even that it doesn't work academically.  The problem is that conservative theologians are usually more interested in leading congregations than in academic work, and that all of the academy is beginning to equate "secularist" with "academic", so holding a secular perspective is actually becoming almost a prerequisite for participation, or, at the very least, one must argue from a secularist perspective when publishing in academic journals.

This leaves a dangerous void which will leave conservatives without an academic backing in not too many years.  Without being tied into academics, conservative theology runs the risk of not being able to answer the questions or problems of the world, and thus isolating it from the very people it is time to reach.  Academics is important for many reasons, but one evangelical one that people miss is that academics directs the public conversation many years in advance.  What academics are talking about today will filter down to the public over the next 10 years.  By engaging in academics, conservatives have an opportunity to actually lead the conversation, rather than simply following it, which has been our modus operandi for the last century.

This blog intends to inspire and challenge conservatives in academic thought, and also provide an academic voice for conservative principles in theology.  I hope that you enjoy it.