Sunday, September 2, 2012

More on Christian Scientific Worldview

One of the hobby horses of atheists and creationists is of course the veracity of the Theory of Evolution. I personally cannot reconcile a worldview informed morally by the God of the Bible with the Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection. Here I am not saying that evolution by natural selection never occurs. I am saying that I do not believe it pertains in the way it is normally applied as having developed the diversity of life. How we suppose there would have arrived a minimum viable organism for evolution to work with is of course another close to insurmountable hurdle.  I know there are fellow Christian believers who see things otherwise with evolution, as I mentioned in a previous post.

Science proceeds by evaluating evidence and postulating a governing mechanism for that evidence. As more data fits the mechanism, we may call our postulated mechanism a 'theory'. As the theory is applied repeatedly with successful prediction of results, we have a law. When does the theory become a law? Certainly when we can repeatedly get accurate day-to-day numerical predictions based on an equation-based numerical law such as Ohm's law. Evolution is far more complex and far harder to tie down to a numerical model, of course. So is cosmology; the big picture is beyond foreseeable numerical modelling, although some parts of the picture can be modelled. So science is about the plausibility of postulated mechanism. The postulated mechanism on its own is not necessarily good science of course. And here currently accepted 'science' varies widely.

Now science gets even more subjective when it comes to the relational and psychological arena. A former colleague of mine pointed out that 'ologies' are the more subjective end of science. Yet these areas bear strongly on how religious people such as myself think. It is one thing to talk about the plausibility of a postulated mechanism, here meaning evolution, from the scientific and statistical standpoint. It is another to discuss the character and relational nature of God and the implications they have for that theory. Why do I believe that God did not use evolution by natural selection to develop species into higher forms? Here I am talking about the intent of God, morally speaking, and not about the plausibility of the science. The 'science' has big problems, for sure. But surely the creator redeemer Christ of Paul's Letter to the Colossians would not use natural selection to do a neat experiment in bio-engineering. I do not believe God would have used natural selection in the beginning because it involves cruelty in the form of predation and suffering.

Of course, today, the selfish instinct for survival is readily seen in the animal kingdom, so how do we explain this? I will return to that question in a minute.

What is my own explanation for the physical evidence? I am inclined to believe that God used individual acts of special creation, i.e. of intelligent design. Built into these designs is the capacity to diversify through the reproductive process. However the degree of diversification possible within a created species is constrained, again by design. That diversification is of course a basis for selection to work on. However I do not believe Christians can reconcile predation and selective survival with the God of love, unless sin had already entered the world. This is why I believe that, at least for the present episode of creation, the one described in Genesis 1v2 onwards, that species were made by acts of special creation.

I will now return to the cruelty we see manifested today in the creation. The Bible teaches that the spiritual climate of planet Earth was violated in an event theologians and Bible scholars call the Fall. Here, Satan, a rebellious spiritual being, influenced man in the direction of strife. Man disobeyed God's specific prohibition. He succumbs to temptation. Man is no longer at peace and rest. Straining to better oneself enters into man's heart for the first time.  The animal kingdom is under Adams's jurisdiction. What happens to man therefore affects the biosphere in general. I think God allowed psychological and physical changes into the animal kingdom at this time which reflected the cataclysm in the human governance of Earth. Predation entered at the Fall, when sin entered into the physical world through Adam.

What about the age of the earth itself? I do not necessarily believe in the widely accepted inference that the earth is around 4.5 billion years old. Even the exactitude smacks of self-deception in the scientific community to me. However I accept that the world looks hundreds of millions or billions of years old by radiometric dating and other means. The accepted dating could be badly out, but not by enough to satisfy a young earth creationist. Some say God made the Earth look old to mislead our minds to prove our faith. I cannot accept that. I, and many others, got saved by a process which involved, amongst other things, looking logically at the evidence for the resurrection. Faith is not a call to throw logic away. It is a call to review and revise which facts your logic works on.

My present conclusions on origins? Taking all these factors discussed into account, I find it hard to reconcile the apparent approximate age of the Earth derived from radiometric dating with a once only, and recent, creation. God could have populated the earth in a very short time by acts of special creation, of course. I believe he probably did, as described in Genesis. But the fossil record does speak of much more ancient extinct species including predators. It seems to me likely that there were previous episodes of creation on earth, episodes that may also reflect falls from the perfect will of God due to rebellion and disobedience in the created orders of the times. These species were then wiped out in judgement. These episodes would then of course be recorded, to a degree, in the fossil record. Genesis 1v2 says that 'the Earth was (or became) void and without form'. As an illustration of this,when we look at the moon through magnifying optics, we see a desolate, and possibly desolated, place. Buzz Aldrin, the second man to walk on the moon, called it 'magnificent desolation'. God could have caused the Earth to become 'without form and void' in a similar way.

So my doubts about evolution start from a belief in the God of the Bible, and his moral and emotional nature. While he steers the evil for his own purposes, he is not the wilful cause of evil or entities who have become evil, such as Satan. However in addition I have plenty of scientific reasons why I don't believe the theory of evolution by natural selection, at least not in its frequently accepted, all embracing, scope of application.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Forming Cohesive Beliefs on Origins

I have looked at some of the current opinions of the scientific community regarding origins of life on earth and have stated reasons for my doubts. I am a Christian. How do I personally integrate a worldview given two very different sources of insight; science and the Bible?

There are many who seek to drive a wedge between these two sources of opinion. They are generally scientists who are also militant atheists. Often starting in their reasoning with the arguments between Galileo and the Roman Catholic Church concerning the position of the Earth in the solar system and indeed the cosmos, they see science as the stuff of logic and proof, and religion as the stuff of naive credulity.

This is not reality. In reality, science is a continuum of beliefs about the nature of reality from the readily demonstrable through to the tentatively held hypothesis. In other words, not all science is well agreed upon or widely considered reliable. So there may be realistic 'give' in the scientific outlook, areas where we have to admit that we do not know all the answers.

Scientific or naturalistic reductionism is the discipline which attempts to explain everything merely by logical processes which can be observed, characterized and understood. Such an approach ends up saying that everything is an accident that came from nothing. Our very conscious experience is an illusion.

I am not saying that the scientific method is wrong or bad, I am just saying that it must have limitations somewhere as we attempt to describe the big picture of reality. I have set some of these limitations out in previous posts.

If the Bible is indeed the Word of God, the creator, we need to look at how we might reconcile a Biblical view of origins with a scientific one. Since this is widely seen to have failed, I am looking for legitimate flexibility in both camps in order to reach a harmony.  

How much flexibility is there in the scientific opinions about origins? Just how reliable are the theories about origins? Here we are talking about Big Bang Cosmology, by which the heavens and earth, the latter seemingly pretty insignificant, were formed, and the Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection, which seeks to explain the development of sophisticated life on Earth. How well-defined and how reliable are these theories?

On the other hand, what if the Bible is our starting point? (Why do that you ask? Many reasons, two I will give here. Because there is solid logical evidence for the resurrection of Christ, and because the Old Testament lines up well with other disciplines.) How much flexibility might we reasonably allow in our interpretation of Scripture in order to reconcile it with at least some of the conclusions of the scientific communities? For example, can we allow for the possibility that the initial creation account in Genesis Chapter 1 is allegorical and poetic, rather than a literal time line? Can we allow for the possibility that the six days of creation were 'day-ages'? (I use the phrase 'day-age' to mean a period of time described loosely as a day, but actually referring to an epoch. An example would be; 'the day of cheap fossil fuel is over').

Can we allow for the possibility that there were previous tranches of creation on Earth prior to the present one? This is commonly called 'the Gap Theory', because it implies that a great deal happened, in terms of creation and destruction, between Genesis Chapter 1v1 and v2. God created the heavens and the earth. Then a lot happened regarding which Genesis 1 is silent, and then the earth became void and without form.

If we take this 'gap' theory on board, we can interpret the fossil record differently to a young earth creationist  who argues for a literal reading of Genesis 1 and therefore an earth which is around 6000 years old. There is more flexibility when it comes to setting the dates of rocks and fossils.

When we read the Genesis account of creation, we are reading an account written in a non-scientific age. We should not be expecting a discourse including for example radiation energy and dark matter. We are looking for a representative description of how things came to be, for a framework from which to proceed. We should not be surprised if the author (ultimately God) uses techniques which simplify things, or even employ cultural assumptions from those times when the story was first told and written. The simplification is for the benefit of the reader, not because the author is ignorant or hiding.  

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Against Intellectual Fascism in Science: Alister McGrath

This is a book review of sorts. God loves Richard Dawkins, and so should I, but I don't like his books much. Reading parts of 'The God Delusion' reminds me in an odd sort of way of reading parts of 'Mein Kampf' by Adolf Hitler. Hitler was fairly thoroughly convincing for many for a while. Same with Dawkins. They share certain characteristics. (Certainly not all, but bear with me!) There is the same sort of disdain for the dissenter and the same sort of simplistic and blinkered reasoning. Too much isolated reasoning. Too little caution regarding one's own possible underlying flaws, motives and presumptions. Unquestioning followers of both are likely to become fascists of some sort. On politics, I prefer to read Churchill because there is, as almost anyone would agree today, a better feel about it (though still hardly ideal). There is a more rounded, more corporate, more questioning approach to opinions and decision making. On complex matters, dogma is mostly replaced by realistically tenuous, reasonable opinions. Back to Dawkins. Is he a brave straight talker or a simplistic, insular, belligerent propagandist? I go for the latter. But I still love him because God does.

Now I am not against firm opinions. I believe John 3:16, 10:10 and 14:6 absolutely and dogmatically. I am just dogmatic about different things. I believe I have good reason for that.  

Sorry about the diversion. Back to faith and science. Better perhaps to read some more open-minded books which attempt to reconcile theology/religion with science, books discussing the reasonable boundaries of each discipline.*

I have enjoyed Alister McGrath 'Why God Won't Go Away' enormously, and also Andrew Parker 'The Genesis Enigma'.

Andrew Parker adopts a similar worldview to Francis Collins, a leading US geneticist foundational in mapping the human genome. Collins wrote a book called 'The Language of God'. The title refers to the quaternary genetic code realized in the DNA molecule. In the book he attempts to consolidate the theory of evolution using biochemical and genetic evidence. He also opines concerning the room for faith in God in parallel with his acceptance of the mainstream scientific evolutionary perspective. Parker, alternatively, is a researcher in Natural History. He makes much of the fact that there is a similar, even identical order in which things appear in Creation as related in Genesis, and according to mainstream scientific opinion. Mainstream scientific opinion of course sees Big Bang Cosmology and Evolution as being the big picture behind how we all got to be here**.

I do not agree with Collins and Parker concerning the effectiveness and scope of the Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection. Parker adopts many of the assumptions of the mainstream view without challenging them. Assumptions like chance abiogenesis, the self assembly of the first living cell purely by chance. Or the inevitability of genetic mutation producing useful change. Parker takes these on board without questioning. These assumptions are, to me, frankly ridiculous. To be more positive, Collins and Parker are of course, gifted, widely-read thinkers, and in the case of Collins, a high achiever in research science. Yet their opinions in these 'big picture' arenas are held in a manner somewhat more realistically tenuous and flexible than those of the New Atheists. The slightly scary intellectual fascism is not there.If  Dawkins had been writing to deliberately annoy me, he would have succeeded. Parker and Collins I found easier to bear. But then they are both theists.

Concerning science, one would have thought that the New Atheists might have avoided the move to simplistic, and ultimately wholly illogical and dogmatic, attempts to suppress reasonable dissent.

Which brings me back to McGrath. I have not even read all of it yet, but he does a superb job of raising very legitimate and logical objections to some of the New Atheist lines of reasoning. He does so by spelling out inconsistencies and assumptions in their methods which are very hard to ignore once highlighted. In  particular, the naivety of the assumption that the scientific method will necessarily be able to probe all reality and truth is dismantled convincingly.

Bottom Line: Other means of assimilating truth are required. Other than what? Other than accepting the mainstream opinions of the scientific community. Other than endlessly attempting to apply the scientific method until we are conjecturing so much that the reliability of our conclusions is very questionable. I would go for investigating the Bible as a reality reference point. It is based on a Revelation given in Condescension, not on human deductive logic taken to unreliable extremes.

* On the other hand, maybe read Dawkins anyway if you are a doubter. McGrath tells at the end of his book of how a reader of Dawkins was so struck by the one-sidedness of his arguments that he started attending church to check it out and got soundly converted! Indeed McGrath himself is a former atheist.

** I would advise people to discriminate in their thinking between 'mainstream opinions of the scientific community' and 'reliable science'. Where the boundary between these arises is a subjective matter. I was a development engineer for several years and engineers hopefully use 'reliable science' only. If they don't, planes crash etc etc.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Big Bang Cosmology- How Far Back?

The current scientific consensus is that the universe came into being following an event known as the ‘Big Bang’. Matter expanded rapidly from an extremely hot, extremely dense state, having transmuted from pure energy. Matter and energy then sprang forth to form the universe as we know it. This conclusion is drawn by interpreting certain observed information, notably two phenomena, the cosmic microwave background and the red shift of distant objects. 

The Big Bang is a generic expression for theories of this general nature but which may differ in the understanding of details. The prevailing detailed theory is the Lambda CDM model.

On the face of it there is reasonable evidence for some sort of Big Bang scenario. However as we probe into very early cosmological time, and try to evaluate what happened when matter first came into existence, we find there is little theory or consensus. There is an initial time, called the Planck Epoch, before which it is impossible, according to current understanding of fundamental physics, to probe. There are no firm ideas on what ‘seeded’ the Big Bang.  There is no understanding of what came before the Big Bang, or indeed whether there was a 'before'.

We are caught in the flow of time. Richard Feynman sets this out for those who have never considered it in his excellent book 'The Character of Physical Law'. When considering long gone events, we are left with our imagination and our ability to extrapolate backwards to form a view of the past. When we do this we rely on the assumption that there are no sudden changes or unexpected factors, other than the ones we already know about or have inferred. We often make many large jumps of conjecture. We assume we have all the information, all the relevant laws, all the correct theories, all the variables, all the significant factors. These are big assumptions.

It is certainly possible that God could have used a process similar to the Big Bang to create the Universe. The theory does have some widely acknowledged problems, such as the matter/anti-matter balance, and the dark matter/dark energy hypothesis/mystery. 

What the Big Bang Theory certainly does not do is rigorously explain how everything came from nothing. The prevailing lambda CDM model for cosmological origins requires the sudden appearance of expanding space-time. It does not tell us where space-time came from. It also requires immense radiation energy, again without rigorously explaining where it came from. It requires the background conceptual fabric of mathematics. Does that have an existence independent of any physical reality. If so, why?

If scientists are going to see scientific reductionism as a complete explanation of beginnings, to rid themselves of that word 'creation', then we will have to get beyond this point. I do not believe there are currently any meaningful leads on this one. 

Limitations of the Scientific Method in Probing Truth

Big Bang Cosmology relies on General Relativity. Fine so far. Einstein’s Theory of Relativity illuminates the fact that there can be previously unsuspected interactions between variables, between commodities we had taken to be separate, such as space, time, velocity, gravity, mass and energy. It shows that our day-to-day experience of space, time and matter are merely a parochial, subjective simplification of reality. In addition to those of general relativity, there may be other governing principles, involving interactions of variables, which the experiences of our day-to-day lives do not lead us to expect. We infer reality from the behind the blinkers of our own, parochial, mindset. Our mindset is derived from our own parochial experience. We extrapolate and hypothesize from behind the blinkers. Einstein brought the fact that we have these blinkers into sharp focus. Quantum Mechanics serves to show our blinkers again. It was eventually inferred from observed data, but is most certainly not obvious or intuitive from observed data. The scientific method needs data. It looks for patterns in the evidence, for laws behind events, for processes behind phenomena. However, the data is limited by our ability to perceive it, with and without instrumentation. Our capacity to evaluate patterns and explanations is also limited. It is limited by our best human brainpower and our best ability to perceive and conceptualize. We ourselves are an unavoidable filter on reality itself. The maths we use in day-to-day life, and the physics principles we use to design buildings, cars, boats, planes, etc, even Apollo spacecraft, are those discovered and derived by Sir Isaac Newton. They have served us well and continue to do so. However it turns out that Newtonian mechanics is a simplification of Relativistic 'mechanics'. Newtonian mechanics apply at speeds much lower than that of light. However they remain a simplification of the richness and sophistication of fuller physics models of reality. I say 'fuller' deliberately. It looks increasingly likely that Relativity is itself a simplification of reality which applies only within certain bounds. Can you see where this line of reasoning could take us? The further we step out of our little world, with its variables such as velocity and distance all within certain bounds, and with three-dimensional space and time, the more likely it is that the laws and behaviors we experience here will no longer be sufficient to explain and describe everything. I mention 3 dimensional space because, mathematically, you can have as many dimensions as you like. I mention time because we experience it as an unstoppable, irreversible flow. In maths, we can choose any time we like. It is entirely possible, perhaps even probable, that general relativity will turn out to be a simplification itself.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Which First- Consciousness to Survive or Evolution of Consciousness?

Evolution by Natural Selection, if valid as a theory, requires certain starting conditions. It requires an organism with survival instincts. This implies consciousness or something close to it, and a consciousness inclined toward self-preservation at the expense of other conscious entities. It requires an environment where it has to compete to survive. It requires a reproductive system to replicate itself, to further it's 'selfish genes'. That system must be able to replicate the organism so that it's basic nature is retained but so that certain adaptions can develop which maintain or improve the viability of the organism. In case that sounds obvious, most random changes (mutations) of any significance to an organism would kill it. Only a very few fortuitous ones would benefit the organism and make it more sophisticated by adding useful structure. Why do so many evolutionary theorists blithely assume that an arbitrary copying mistake in a DNA sequence will translate into useful structure, or even a step toward useful structure? How is it that we can identify an error in genetic codes so readily as an error? And why is it that these errors are so often associated with a disease giving an often very negative survival advantage?

Back to the title point. To the material reductionist, consciousness is a by product of brain physiology and no more. Our organism under consideration undergoes a genetic mutation which is a stepping stone towards a structure or structural improvement which confers possible survival advantages. As I said in the last paragraph, it is a very big assumption that this will actually happen. Let's suppose it does. As the process proceeds over hundreds and thousands of generations, we start  to develop neurological or similar structures which host the illusions of consciousness and identity. These commodities are of course meaningless illusions in the evolutionary scheme caused by chemical firings in the evolved brain. However, please note that evolutionists have a tendency to treat the language and facets of consciousness as things which have inevitably always been present. Things like fear, self-preservation, greed, ambition, hate. (I use these because evolution on the whole relies on negative instincts). Very very interesting! Why! We cannot arbitrarily confer consciousness in all it's magnificence on an organism before that organism has evolved sufficiently to host it. What came first, consciousness or the mechanisms that produce it? Classic Catch 22 stuff. Unless consciousness has some outside existence(!) it is a meaningless by-product of evolution. It is not something you can invoke from nowhere, as so many attempt to, as a starting condition required before evolution can proceed. Where then did it come from?

It is almost as if evolutionists have slipped up and acknowledged that the parameters of consciousness have some outside and eternal substance beyond the physical brain! Well I agree with them about that! 

To summarize, it is illogical to arbitrarily assign sophistication of action associated with advanced consciousness to simple organisms in order to call upon aspects of that consciousness to theorize about how they might subsequently survive, mutate and evolve. Here, as in very many places, the Theory of Evolution is logical nonsense and therefore unscientific..

This paradox has been supposedly answered by some evolutionists by saying that an organism doesn't have to display any of the elusive essence of life in order to be selected for genetic continuance. It is merely subject to selection by the environment, they say. A little thought shows that this is no answer to the riddle of whether fitness to survive or survival unto fitness came first. The process of selection is indeed a simple concept which might be applied to an inanimate process like osmosis or diffusion, it is true. Selection, in this life science context, however, can only operate effectively because one creature is more fit in the situation we are considering. Here, the careful choice of words is merely an over-simplification of the realities necessary for evolution by natural selection to work. In other words, we need to define 'natural' carefully, and not just 'selection'.