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.