Thursday, June 18, 2015

A Letter to Conservative Lutherans on Science & Christian Theology

Dear Pastor Wilken and Dr. Menuge,

I just listened to the Issues Etc podcast from 6/9/2015, the interview with Dr. Angus Menuge on science and Christian theology, and I have a few comments. (Well, the comments have now expanded to about 4000 words.)

I wrote to Issues Etc once before, regarding an interview with Craig Parton on “Faith vs. Facts” and climate change. I’m what must be a very rare thing in your audience, an atheist. I am also, what may be almost as rare, someone with an active and lifelong interest in science and its history. Although I disagree with nearly all your beliefs, I respect that you defend them rationally with arguments. Perhaps you will be interested in a few factual corrections and some counter-arguments, offered in a spirit of mutual respect.

Dr. Menuge was correct in saying that the term “scientist” is of relatively recent (19th century) vintage. However, “the old name for science” was never “natural theology”. The study of nature was known as “natural philosophy” or “natural history”.  Those who pursued it were “natural philosophers” or “naturalists”, not theologians (though some theologians were also naturalists).  Astronomers, including Galileo, were considered mathematicians, not even deserving the title “philosopher”. Natural philosophy and natural history as systematic fields of study go back to Aristotle. Astronomy is much older. Of course, our understanding (or misunderstandings) of the natural world have always had implications for what we believe about the gods or God. Natural theology explores these. But using nature to prove the existence of God – the main business of Christian natural theology – never advanced our knowledge of nature, the main business of science.

As for the doctrine of “the two books”, if it goes back to Augustine, as Dr. Menuge says, then how could it be the “foundation of modern science”? After all, many dark ages separate Augustine from Galileo. The metaphor of nature as a book written by God from which we are presumably to read could not tell us what to read or how to read it. The crucial question is, what kind of book is it? If it is a book intended to teach us about Christ and how to be saved, then we will read it allegorically. We will seek signs of God’s love, for instance, or symbols of sin and salvation. Or perhaps He will providentially teach us by similarities. What Christian theologian would guess that it was a book of mathematics? How much math is in the Bible? How much concern for understanding the natural world, as opposed to concern for leaving this world behind? Christianity, complete with its “two books” analogy, was a formula for centuries of darkness and ignorance, during which the scientific attainments of the Greeks were neglected and forgotten.

In contrast, a signal event inaugurating the modern age was the rediscovery of Lucretius’s On the Nature of Things, a quasi-atheistic work which recounted, in Latin verse, Epicurus’s atomist theory of the world, and which taught a thoroughly naturalistic approach to nature. (Epicurus didn’t deny the gods’ existence, but they were completely superfluous to the natural order.) Revival of interest in and knowledge of classical antiquity surely played a far greater role in the advent of modern science than did Biblical Christianity. (The Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, by Stephen Greenblatt, recounts the discovery, in a monastery in 1417, of Lucretius’s lost work. It’s a good read. So is On the Nature of Things.)

It’s true that many early modern scientists were Christians who believed that their discoveries deepened their knowledge and appreciation of God, but this was a matter of appreciation of what they perceived to be the religious implications of their work. The work itself was not theology, and theological conclusions drawn from it were not science. Science did not look to scripture, or rely on religious authority of any kind.

In a Christian society, the ‘two books’ metaphor could be used as a source of legitimacy and justification for the pursuit of natural science. But modern science was never the “servant” of theology. Dr. Menuge implies that the autonomy of science was a kind of perversion that arose later, due to pride in science’s success. But on the contrary, autonomy of scientific judgment was a prerequisite to success. The motto of the Royal Society, one of the first and most important scientific societies, was “Nullius in verba” – on the word of no one – meaning that no authority, but only facts and experiments, counted in their scientific endeavors. This strong sense of intellectual autonomy is what allowed early modern natural philosophers to throw off old authorities, look at the world with their own eyes and form their own conclusions based on evidence. No doubt the Reformation contributed to this iconoclastic, skeptical, authority-challenging spirit of the age, as did many other developments, like global exploration and Copernicanism. In contrast, the concept of reason as subservient to either theology or faith was not, I think, a big player in the scientific revolution, except as its enemy.

As a matter of fact, the “beautifully modest” interpretation of Copernicus you praised – “saving the appearances” and supposedly getting all the benefits of mathematical elegance without drawing conclusions as to the theory’s truth – was the position held by Cardinal Bellarmine and imposed on Galileo by the Catholic Inquisition, the violation of which ultimately led to Galileo’s condemnation and imprisonment. It was also the position expressed by the theologian Osiander in the unsigned preface he inserted into Copernicus’s book without the author’s knowledge or approval, “suggesting that the model described in the book was not necessarily true, or even probable, but was useful for computational purposes,” which led its readers to believe, erroneously, “that Copernicus himself had not believed that his hypothesis was actually true.” (Quotes from Wikipedia on Osiander.) But belief in the truth of theories, or at least their possible truth, not merely their usefulness, is what sparks the imagination, leads to further research and in this case led to the scientific revolution.

A listener called in (Millie at 18:30 in the podcast) asking about the uniqueness of planet earth. A relevant fact that was not mentioned in your response is the recent discovery of just how common planets are in the universe. 1852 exoplanets have been confirmed so far. On the basis of these observations, the number of planets per star is now thought to be greater than one. There are on the order of 100 billion stars in the Milky Way, and perhaps 40 billion earth-sized planets by one estimate. There are about as many galaxies in the observable universe as there are stars in the Milky Way, embedded in a universe which may be infinitely large. Any consideration of our planet’s supposed uniqueness must be viewed against this background of the extremely large, perhaps infinite number of planets that exist.

Dr. Menuge, in his response, mentioned The Privileged Planet by astronomer Guillermo Gonzalez and Jay Richards, both associated with The Discovery Institute, an Intelligent Design think tank. William Jefferys has written a devastating critique of this book for The National Center for Science Education.

But arguments both for and against the “privileged planet” hypothesis should be mute for Issues Etc, which promotes young earth creationism. If the universe was created in six 24-hour days and biblical genealogies are accurate, then the universe is not old enough for us even to see the stars in our own galaxy, let alone any other galaxies. Astronomers believe the Milky Way is about 100,000 light years across, and the earth to be around 25,000 light years from the center of the galaxy. But if the entire universe is less than 10,000 years old, as young earth creationists believe, then there would not have been enough time since creation for light to reach us from most of the stars in the Milky Way, let alone from even the nearest galaxies, like Andromeda, which is over 2 million light years distant.

I don’t know how young-earth creationists account for this conundrum. Do they question the physics, the very same physics which allows us to fly missions to neighboring planets with pinpoint accuracy? The physics which has allowed astronomy, astrophysics and cosmology to unfold in an orderly way, constantly building on observations and confirming or disconfirming theories based on facts?

Do they claim, perhaps, that light once travelled much faster than it does now? But the speed of light is a fundamental physical constant. Physical reality would be entirely different (remember all those “fine tuning” claims?) if the speed of light changed drastically.

Or do they say God created the light we see in mid-flight when He created the universe? But in that case we aren’t really seeing the stars, because the light that enters our eyes never came from them. And why would He bother to create stars millions or billions of light years distant at all, since the world is expected by Christians to end far sooner than any actual light from them could reach us? So is He just putting on a light show, deceiving us into believing in an immense universe we could never have the power to see? This is just the opposite of the thesis of The Privileged Planet that we are in an especially good situation to observe the universe.

This is a good example with which to take up NOMA and methodological naturalism (MN). I get the impression that neither of you really appreciates the danger that rejecting NOMA and MN puts you in. If empirical science can support a theistic hypothesis, uncovering evidence of God in the world, as you claim, it can also undermine that hypothesis. To hold that your claims are empirical means that they are in principle falsifiable by evidence. But in your discussion you never once considered that possibility. Dr. Menuge said that “we ought to allow the evidence to point wherever it leads,” but you both also claimed certainty and divine authority for your Christian beliefs. This is a bit like running for office but stating beforehand that you won’t abide by the results of the election if it goes against you. And it has gone against you, in so many ways.

Dr. Menuge seemed to me to be somewhat confused about the meaning of methodological naturalism. He spoke of scientism using methodological naturalism to exclude the supernatural from contention and then concluding, on that basis, that the supernatural isn’t real. I agree with him that this would be a fallacy. But the whole point of distinguishing methodological from metaphysical naturalism is to say that it is only methodological, and therefore cannot be used to draw metaphysical conclusions. This is why NOMA and MN go together. They are both saying that there are no facts which science and religion can disagree about, so they cannot endanger each other.

I agree with you in rejecting NOMA and MN. It is a very attenuated religion which makes no empirical claims, it seems to me. I respect your determination not to water down your religion’s supernaturalism as liberal Christians have done. However, I believe they did so for a very good reason: in a conflict over physical facts, Christian literalist supernaturalism loses for the simple reason that it is false. The only way you can avoid acknowledging this is by cultivating a studied (or not so studied) ignorance.

Take Pastor Wilken’s claim that science has abandoned the search for causes, in practice if not in principle: “Evolution’s still looking for a cause, but not real hard,” he said (at 26:30 in the podcast). Nothing could be further from the truth. Darwin’s theory of inheritance with variation under natural selection explains evolution, and now we understand the physical basis of inheritance and its variation in overwhelming detail. We can look into the history of species and catalog the genetic changes responsible for changes in traits, and we understand physically how such genetic changes are caused, because the very same processes are happening all the time. Random DNA mutations and chromosomal abnormalities – the sources of genetic variation —also cause birth defects and cancer and acquired resistance of bacteria to antibiotics. One might think that the tricks viruses and cancers learn to avoid the body’s defenses required “intelligent design”, but this would require a malicious designer. Fortunately, we don’t have to resort to such an improbable and unsavory agent because random variation under selection is sufficient to explain the phenomena.

Dr. Menuge spoke vaguely of the “staggering”, “incredible” amount of information necessary to explain the existence of living creatures, “which in our experience only comes from intelligent creative agents.” Even aside from the facts that we don’t experience change over geological time periods and that vague words like “staggering” and “incredible” aren’t sufficient to make a quantitative argument, I believe he is mistaken. We observe vast amounts of information being produced by impersonal natural processes daily. Patterns embody information, and natural patterns are constantly being randomly produced and destroyed. Just think of the shapes of clouds, ripples on water, the intricate unique patterns of snowflakes. All these express information, which is constantly being produced in vast quantities. The trick about life is not that new information is created, but that some of it is preserved and then accumulates in stable patterns across generations.

We understand the main mechanisms of this variation and transmission thoroughly in a causal, structural way. True, we don’t yet know how life itself – cells with their genetic and metabolic machinery – got started. Perhaps we never will, though we may discover possible avenues. (This is an active area of research.) But to argue that such a gap in our knowledge proves divine intervention is to argue from ignorance, a fallacy, as Dr. Menuge pointed out.

I once heard TV evangelist Robert Schuller dumbfound his audience with images of the supposedly mind-numbingly large odds against life’s getting started by chance. His metaphor, I recall, was amusing, but we don’t know the odds. It’s a bit like saying “These mountains are so fantastically tall and steep that, barring a miracle, they are impassible.” But unbeknownst to you, there may be a pass through the mountains, as yet undiscovered, which would make crossing them, given the right circumstances, unremarkable. At this point we just don’t know.

I have argued that science has produced a detailed, evidence-based, physical, historical, naturalistic, ever-deepening understanding of the processes responsible for biological diversity, including the existence of our own species (but not including the origin of life). The ultimate source of this diversity is random genetic mutation. We know it is random in the same way we know that a roll of the dice is random, because we’ve examined the dice and have observed and understand the causal process. I can imagine no reason that this theory should continue to meet with empirical confirmation from all directions other than the fact that it is true. That a false theory should meet with such overwhelming support from such diverse and unforeseen sources of evidence is beyond my imagination (barring resort to an all-powerful evil demon intent on deception, à la Descartes’ meditations.)

Does this prove that a supernatural being had no part in our creation? No. The entire course of the universe, including every event we regard as the result of blind chance, could have been preordained with divine purpose (in which case every roll of the dice and genetic mutation is random AND intended). But does it mean that the Biblical creation story is not literally true? Absolutely.

I don’t believe this verdict is based on any materialistic or naturalistic presuppositions. It is not “scientistic”; it is scientific, because things could have turned out differently. Instead of evidence for evolution from the slow, orderly accumulation of layers of fossil-bearing rock over millions of years, we could have read the jumbled, chaotic evidence of the fabled flood. But it didn’t turn out that way because it didn’t happen that way.

Frankly, I don’t see how anyone with common sense and familiar with the facts could believe that the tremendously detailed, ordered geological record of thousands of millennia – preserving as it does histories of landscapes and climates and progressions of life forms that lived in those habitats, their ages imprinted in isotope ratios and synchronized by traces of eruptions and periodic changes in the earth’s magnetic field – could be the result of a single watery cataclysm. Ironically, my point here is a bit like the creationists’ argument likening biological evolution to a tornado sweeping through a junkyard and assembling a 747. In this case, Noah’s flood is like the tornado, the geological record is like the 747. (Evolution itself is nothing like a tornado. It is a process which slowly accumulates small random changes that contribute to survival while discarding ones that don’t.)

If, as Dr. Menuge advocates, we allow naturalistic explanations to compete with ones that appeal to the intelligent agency of God, then I find, and modern science has found, that naturalistic explanations are successful, informative, and feed fruitful lines of ongoing research, while those that appeal to the intelligent agency of God are either grossly and demonstrably false, or are so uninformative and unhelpful in guiding research that they can be described, for scientific purposes, as empty.

This, I submit, is why naturalism prevails in science – not because of any “scientistic” assumptions that rule out beforehand a role for supernatural agents, but because when we investigate, using public, reproducible methods and relying on no one’s word alone (Nullius in verba), we find no sign of them, but find instead that, again and again, naturalistic, mathematical, and what we might loosely call mechanical explanations succeed in explaining the observed phenomena.

If we did live in a supernaturally saturated world, there would be no reason for naturalistic explanations to be so successful (unless God wished to deceive us), so they would not be.

If Biblical creation were true, there would be no reason for the theory of evolution to be so incredibly explanatory.

If prayer healed, our medical schools would teach it, and our hospitals would be centers for it. NIH would fund prayer research. It is not because of any naturalistic presuppositions or scientistic prejudices that Christian Scientists aren’t in charge of the medical establishment. It’s because they are wrong.

If we were immaterial souls animating material bodies, molecular biology could not explain life, and neuroscience could not find pieces of brain tissue which, when injured, alter or destroy our faculties of memory, reason, emotion, our personalities, or our very sense of self. Instead it might be something like this: inside the head would be found an empty place, like the Holy of Holies in the Temple. (The brain’s ventricles were once actually thought to contain ‘animal spirits’ responsible for mental functions). To this empty space sensory messages would arrive, and from it orders to our body would issue. The soul itself would not be observable, but its effects would be. Descartes imagined a kind of portal, in the pineal gland, where the material met the immaterial. For him, it was the immaterial soul alone which reasoned. But the head contains nothing of this kind. There is no mental faculty immune to physical insult, which it would be if it were lodged in a supernatural, immaterial entity. Instead, this fragile lump of pudding between our ears turns out to be a fantastically complex organ – an astronomically numerous network of active, communicating elements, obeying physical laws –  whose functions we are gradually coming to understand by analogy to our computing machines, which can perceive, learn and reason to an extent, and which increasingly mimic our nervous systems. Does this prove there is no soul? Not exactly. But it is a pretty strong indication that the concept of the soul as a supernatural entity is unlikely to contribute to our understanding of ourselves or the world. This is not a presupposition. It is a tentative result, based on facts.

If we, as human persons, are just one of the complex patterns that matter, following the mathematical laws of physics, twists itself into, then it seems oddly backwards to look for personhood at the root of this prolific tree, when all the persons we have ever known, all the planners and all the lovers, have been fruits hanging from its branches.

If I am correct, and the evidence for naturalism is so strong, how do we come to such different conclusions?

According to Dr. Menuge, all knowledge is based on authority, and since the Bible speaks with God’s authority, than which there is no greater, in any contest it must prevail.

I agree that God’s authority would deserve our trust, and perhaps confer certainty. However, the Bible was written down by men, on the authority of other men, and its contents were selected by still other men who rejected rival contents. And men have been known to be liars, fools, spinners of tales, madmen, dupes and charlatans. If there is one true God and He speaks to us, we must listen and believe. But as to which, if any, human writing constitutes such a message, this cannot be known with certainty by fallible human minds.

Besides, the story that Christian knowledge is certain because it relies directly on divine authority is not consistent with the other story you tell, that Christianity is based on historical facts, and that, if Jesus didn’t rise from the dead, then all your faith is futile. But your knowledge of the crucial historical facts, such as it is, is also based on fallible human testimony and its fallible transmission through word of mouth before being set down in writing decades after the fact by often unknown people, some of whom wrote under the names of others. This is a form of transmission that seems to me far less trustworthy than today’s internet, which is a constant source of hoaxes that fool many.  How, I ask you, can such testimony prevail over established, reproducible scientific results, especially when it contradicts these results as drastically as the literally-interpreted creation story does? I fail to see how this can be rationally justified.

The reason that there is only one worldwide science but innumerable, mutually contradictory religions is that science incorporates an agreed-upon method for correcting its errors, so over time it becomes more and more accurate and comprehensive and, over the long term, retains its unity, while revelations and interpretations of revelations all claim divine authority and are untestable, especially when they insulate themselves from the facts by branding the science that contradicts them “scientism”. There are few sources of information more prone to error.

Dr. Menuge mentioned Musolino’s book The Soul Fallacy, complaining that such authors fail to appreciate that Christianity is a faith “founded on fact.” But what Musolino did was (rejecting MONA and MN) treat the soul as a serious scientific hypothesis, consider the facts and arguments for and against, and then render a verdict, as one would do with any scientific theory. Christians may take the so-called facts as related in their bible stories seriously, but if that is where they stop, ignoring new evidence if it conflicts with their faith, the very evidence that science must heed as it tests theories, doesn’t that make Christians the enemies of science, whatever their relationship to science was once, centuries ago?

I believe the rift between science and religion has opened up not because of any fault in science like pride or biased presuppositions and not because Christianity was anti-science or irrational (although I do believe it has a seriously flawed, even a corrupt epistemology. Faith is not a form of knowledge. And it is corrupting to try to induce belief with fear or hope or shame instead of evidence and argument. Telling someone they must believe in order to be saved is like threatening or bribing a judge to influence a verdict. But putting all that aside...) Christians, including Christian scientists, fully expected the Christian worldview to be confirmed, or at least not contradicted, by science.  But it turned out those expectations were mistaken. Naturalism, to the surprise and chagrin of many, produced the most empirically successful explanations, which were in direct conflict with the Christian worldview, especially with the fundamentalist account of creation. There are no comparably explanatory rivals to naturalist theories. Creationists can wave their hands and pretend to offer rival theories, but they have nothing. They are only mimicking science. That’s just the way it turned out. It could have been otherwise, but it wasn’t.


Gerald D. Lame
San Diego, CA

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