Conservative Theology

July 23, 2008

General / Shermer and the Church on Science and Theology


Michael Shermer has an editorial in the Ottawa Citizen criticizing Intelligent Design, or any theological understanding of science.  He says that you can believe in both science and God as long as you keep them in "logic-tight compartments".  How nice for the atheist to throw us a bone.

His main point, which has been repeated by him and others like him, is that science is about mechanism, and saying "God did it" isn't a mechanism.  But what Shermer misses is that understanding something in terms of its logical causes actually minimizes the importance of the physical causes.  For instance, if I write a computer program, there will be an interaction of both my purposes for the computer program, and the biochemistry in my body that allows me to write it.

In fact, the most important cause for the computer program is not the biochemistry.

If, for instance, I got a spinal chord injury and was unable to type, and started using voice-based typing, you would still wind up with the same program in the end!  Thus, there are multiple possible physical causation sequences, each hideously complex, having little to do with each other, which all lead to the same result.  Why?  Because the physical cause is relatively unimportant compared with the purposeful for which I am writing it.  In fact, after it is written, discovery of the process of engineering it becomes impossible from the code itself, especially since, as I just pointed out,  there are multiple, radically different, sequences of biochemical activity which took place.

So, if life is designed, then the quest to search for the mechanisms the designer used may be missing the point entirely!  That's not to say we should prevent them from trying, only to say that the idea that physical causation is the only avenue which is legitimate to search is stupid.

Unfortunately, Shermer also sees ID as a science stopper - as if the questions stop if "God did it" was determined for the cause.  In fact, the whole scientific enterprise arose from people who said "God did it" and then wanted to know more!  Christians tend to be fascinated with the things God has done, and that encourages the study of it, it doesn't discourage it.  Let's look, shall we?

  • Geology as we know it started when Nicholaus Steno decided to investigate the Biblical flood.  He believed "God did it", and wanted to know what happened after.  And so geology was born.
  • All of the astronomers believed that "God did it", and so studied the night sky intensely in order to understand the movements of these beautiful objects God gave us.   "God did it", and so astronomy was born.
  • Linnaeus was fascinated with all of the types of creatures that God had made.  He wanted to know everything that God had made, and how it relates to the other things God made.  "God did it", and so the modern persuit of biology was born.
  • Gregor Mendel wasn't satisfied with the idea of continuous evolution, and sought to show the differences between things that were made compared to the variations that occurred in nature.  "God did it", and so genetics was born.

That's just a sampling.  In the history of science, "God did it" has been the number one cause for innovative breakthroughs in science.  To say that "God did it" is a science stopper is laughably stupid.

He then goes on to make the following argument:

The problem with all of these attempts at blending science and religion may be found in a single principle: A is A. Or: Reality is real. To attempt to use nature to prove the supernatural is a violation of A is A. It is an attempt to make reality unreal. A cannot also be non-A. Nature cannot also be non-Nature. Naturalism cannot also be supernaturalism.

In order to drive his point home, Shermer makes what he thinks is a deep theological point:

If there is a God, the avenue to Him is not through science and reason, but through faith and revelation. If there is a God, He will be so wholly Other that no science can reach Him, especially not the science that calls itself intelligent design.

This is quite interesting theologizing from an atheist!  If Shermer is certain there is no God, how does he think he knows how to reach God?  I think it is simply a case of imposing his wishes on reality - Shermer does not want God to have anything to do with science, and therefore proposes that if there is a God, he cannot possibly have anything to do with reality.  How convenient for Shermer.

Those of us who actually do believe in God believe that God is active within reality.  Even those with a more "spiritual" notion of God's actions (i.e. that God doesn't do physical miracles but only heart miracles), still have a God who is actively at work within reality. What's interesting is I think most Christians who embrace evolution in order to be "pro-science" don't really understand what it is that many of the evolutionists like Shermer are really asking of us.  By simply saying, "we agree with science" (especially those who follow Gould's NOMA philosophy) and then actively trying to maintain the same science/faith distinction Shermer does, they undermine themselves unknowingly, because such air-tight compartmentalization means that God has nothing to do with the world as we see it.

Unfortunately, many denominations take to the mythology that science is a unified voice, and that it is free of theological influences.  They speak of religion and science not being mutually exclusive.  Well, earth to out-of-touch theologians, no one - that is, not anyone that I've ever met - thinks that religion and science are mutually exclusive, except for anti-IDists like Michael Shermer. There are certain scientific theories that are objected to, but why should that be cause for concern or considered out of place?  It is well within theology's realm to both criticize and contribute to science, and on theological grounds.  Many of the great scientists of history have used theology to shape their scientific inquiry.  The only reason why this mode of reasoning is considered invalid is because of a group of people who are trying to irradicate religion.  

Therefore, while I am not a fan of molecules-to-man evolution, it doesn't bother me nearly as much that there are churches that believe in that, as it is that these churches are playing the appeaser not to science, but to atheists and skeptics who are trying to destroy religion.  And these churches are playing the science card not by the logic of scientific inquiry, but instead on the logic of atheistic materialism, while at the same time denying that materialism.

And they don't even know that it is happening.  Because of their own lack of understanding of science, they simply take the skeptic's word for it that "this is what science says," and they go with it.

See the thing is, the theologians don't understand that a substantial part of evolutionary theory comes not from evidence, but instead from a different kind of "faith".  See what Shermer said in a debate recently:

You see at some point you have to have some bottom up natural forces to answer the question where did life come from, where did all this complexity come from in the first place. Positing something from the top down simply begs the question, yeah interesting, but where did that come from? And where did that come from? At some point to do science you have to have some bottom up forces at work here.

 By "top down" he means design, and by "bottom up" he means naturalistic forms of evoltuion such as natural selection.What he's saying is that "top down" isn't valid as a cause at all.  This is the understanding that is problematic.  If you want the church to legitimately participate in the intellectual discussion of the day, it must must must speak to these sorts of theological assumptions in scienc, or else the church will simply fall victim to the theologies of atheists by promoting those theologies themselves. And then, in order to be intellectually responsible, it must go back and examine current mainstream theories in science on that basis, and be discerning on what it keeps and what it doesn't keep, and have good reasons for doing so - not just because "science" says so.

UPDATE - for more problems with Shermer's faulty reasonings, see this discussion at Uncommon Descent.

July 16, 2008

General / Thank God for Evolution

The Next Wave of Science and Theology


 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.


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.