Friday, December 26, 2008

James Clerk Maxwell

James Clerk Maxwell (1831-1879) is an anomaly among scientists. Charles Darwin was Maxwell’s contemporary, but the similarity in their work and worldviews ends there. While many scientists in the early years of the Scientific Revolution, beginning with the 17th century, were unashamed Christians who did not hesitate to express their faith, by the mid-19th century that picture had changed. Enlightenment thinking, with its positive liberating effects on the human spirit, gave many people, scientists included, a sense of self-sufficiency and self-empowerment. At the risk of oversimplifying things, their “need” for and acknowledgement of God as an integral part of their view of natural reality, was diminished. This new outlook nurtured and strengthened the conclusions of naturalistic scientists. The germination of Darwin’s broad evolutionary proposals found fertile ground. James Clerk Maxwell stands apart as exceptional.

Maxwell’s theory of electromagnetism incorporated and unified the pioneering discoveries of electricity and magnetism from the previous 50 years. He discovered that visible light was an electromagnetic wave. He taught that many different electromagnetic wavelengths, longer and shorter than those of visible light, should be possible and anticipated their discovery. The complete range of wavelengths, from long to short, became known as the electromagnetic spectrum. Shortly after Maxwell’s death, radio waves and X-rays were demonstrated. Application of knowledge of the electromagnetic spectrum is a landmark advance in science. Without such application, our 21st century lives would be very different. Albert Einstein pronounced Maxwell’s work “the most profound and the most fruitful that physics has experienced since the time of Newton.”

The story of James Clerk Maxwell is one of unparalleled inspiration. As a young man he was gifted with curiosity and creativity. He never relinquished respect for the spiritual truths of his parents’ Presbyterian and Anglican traditions. Later, at age 22, he experienced what has been called an “evangelical” conversion. Thereafter, he never shied from expressing his deeply held Christian faith. There was never a hint of “God-of-the-gaps” explanations for any scientific principle he ever discovered. In addition to his cornerstone theory of electromagnetism which sets him apart, he investigated many other topics, including the nature of Saturn’s rings, color photography, viscosity of gases, and theory of heat.

He was ahead of his time in rejecting the use of bad science to promote a particular interpretation of Genesis scripture, pointing out that ongoing scientific discoveries would enlighten interpretation of scripture. He anticipated the modern discussion of design in the natural world by observing and describing “the ordered uniformity rather than the peculiarity and complexity of nature, as signs of the creator.” In many letters to his wife and others his profound faith was expressed: “Think what God has determined to do to all those who submit themselves to His righteousness and are willing to receive His gift. They are to be conformed to the image of His Son…” His advice to scientists and non-scientists alike was suffused with a Christian worldview: “I think that men of science as well as other men need to learn from Christ, and I think that Christians whose minds are scientific are bound to study science that their view of the glory of God may be as extensive as their being is capable of.”

Most science historians would acknowledge that Maxwell’s contributions to science stand out as perhaps pre-eminent over the centuries from Newton to Einstein. But many writers fail to mention James Clerk Maxwell’s Christian faith. The philosophy of modern secular science is governed by the NOMA principle, in which science and faith are considered non-overlapping, separate realms. After he died, one of his colleagues wrote: “We his contemporaries at college, have seen in him high powers of mind and great capacity and original views, conjoined with deep humility before his God, reverent submission to His will, and hearty belief in the love and atonement of that Divine Savior Who was his portion and comforter in trouble and sickness.” Like Maxwell, most Christians working in 21st century science would not condone separation of the realms as one of their paramount operational principles. Rather, they would endorse the Apostle Paul’s statement in Acts 17:28 as a guiding principle in every aspect of their lives: “In Him we live, and move and have our being.”

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Seeing the Light

“We don’t really see each other in this classroom. Instead, we only see the light that is reflected from each other.” This riddle-like proposition has always baffled science students when proposed in the classroom. Light is a type of energy which streams toward us from objects as close as the page you are now reading, or as far away as a galaxy a billion light years distant. When our eyes are open, information from billions of light data points streams into our eyes each millisecond. Each time we redirect our line of vision, our eyes receive information from a different set of light data points. Billions of retinal cells then spring into action, instantly transmitting billions of individual electrical messages to vision centers in our brain. The interpretation and meaning of the visual message is then riveted into our consciousness. The term “instant recognition” acquires a more noble meaning when we describe such wondrous events in this way.

Our knowledge of the nature of light has expanded enormously in the past century. Isaac Newton concluded in the 17th century that light was composed of particles. In the next centruies, scientific thinking wavered between two beliefs: either light is composed of particles or light is a wave. Many famous scientists weighed in on the question. Modern thinking endorses a wave/particle duality. Light behaves as if it were a wave and a particle. The discrete particles are called photons--massless packets of energy on a high speed journey.

The expression “seeing the light” means that we now understand what we formerly did not understand. Light is symbolic of knowledge and understanding. Light from the objects in our physical vision is saturated with information about the objects we are observing. We are able to perceive size, shape, color, and motion. These perceptions may help us make predictions and adjust our actions to our advantage. The Bible often uses the term LIGHT to communicate spiritual concepts. For example, “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light for my path” (Psalm 119:105) and, “The unfolding of your words gives light” (Psalm 119:130 NIV). God’s word is light, a communicator of vital information about Himself, just as physical light streaming into our eyes from physical objects around us carries with it vital information about those objects.

As we study details of light, sound, or any other type of energy, we discover a world of intricacy and order. Research scientists in specialized fields are able to describe light and sound with the precision of mathematical equations. For the non-scientist, skilled professionals are able to communicate the apparent consistency and beauty of facts about these energy types, how they work, how they impact us, and how we apply knowledge of them. It is the opinion of many scientists who are Christians that nature’s orderliness speaks not only of the care God used when He created, but also of His very existence.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Biometric Uniqueness

So you think you’re unique? Modern technology has affirmed what theologians have always known in a spiritual sense: Each of us is unique in the eyes of our Creator. That uniqueness also includes many different physical characteristics. A methodology called biometric verification has expanded far beyond the long-known handwriting analysis and fingerprinting. In the past few decades we have added, among others, voice prints, iris scanning, and DNA as identification tools. The latter two are as close to a sure thing as one could get. The chances of misidentification using them are virtually zero. The first method mentioned, voiceprints, graphically analyzes vocal sounds in a variety of ways. There is a musical quality associated with many of the sounds we hear, so I’ll use musical instruments to illustrate the point.

Consider a plucked violin string. Making our math easy, consider a string which vibrates back and forth 100 times per second. It would produce a sound of 100 hertz, displacing our eardrums 100 times per second. We would hear a “fundamental” pitch of 100 hz. The violin string would also vibrate in two parts, three parts, four parts, and so on. These string sections would produce pitches of 200 hz, 300 hz, and 400 hz, respectively, called overtones. The 200 hz tone is one octave higher, and each successive tone is higher, but by a smaller and smaller musical interval. What do we hear when the string is plucked? We hear only the pitch of 100 hz, but its sound is enriched and made unique by the overtones. Each instrument, when producing a pitch of 100 hz, sounds different from any other instrument because of the differing proportions and intensity of its overtones.

When I learned to play a baritone horn in high school, I quickly discovered that I could play many successive higher notes, without changing the fingering, just by tightening my lips in the mouthpiece. That’s because the entire column of air inside the horn was also vibrating as a half column, a one-third column, a one-fourth column, and so on. I could make the overtones sound alone by altering the mouthpiece conditions. Bugle players have no valves at all in their instruments. They create their melodies using only overtones, but they are limited to a smaller number of playable notes.

How many different human voices can you recognize? Dozens? Hundreds? The vocal cords and voice box of each person you know produce overtones slightly different from anyone else because the thickness, length, and physical quality of each person’s vocal cords are different from anyone else. This results in an endless variety of musical and vocal abilities and characteristics among our acquaintances. In other words, each person’s voice is unique. Beyond the physical processes of sound production, the miracle of the hearing process gives us even greater reason to acknowledge God’s wonders. This is a subject for a future post.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

If a Tree Falls

An old philosophical riddle asks, “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” The debate over this riddle mainly relates to the difference between human perception and the existence (or non-existence) of reality existing outside human perception and awareness. Philosophers have debated similar questions for centuries.

With respect to events triggered by a tree falling in a forest, discoveries since the scientific revolution have enabled researchers to measure, describe, and understand in great detail the physical processes which occur in sound production and transmission. These include the cause of sounds, formation of air compressions and rarefactions, speed of sound, how it is reflected and absorbed, and numerous other events taking place in the sound transmission medium.

In Leviticus 26:36, the Old Testament warned that “the sound of a wind blown leaf” would throw the disobedient Israelites into a panic. In our last post we spoke of a much louder sound, that produced by human vocal cords in normal conversation. Several hundred compression waves--regions of slightly more densely-packed molecules--strike the eardrums of listeners each second. One may wonder how much pressure increase there is in one of these compressions compared with normal, undisturbed air. The answer is a startling, mere one millionth greater pressure than in normal air carrying no sound. That is a 0.0001 % increase, causing our eardrums to be displaced a mere billionth of a centimeter. If our ears were very much more sensitive, we may even be able to hear air molecules in a sound-free room vibrating with their normal kinetic (motion) energy.

The “If a Tree Falls” riddle does not distinguish between the physical events taking place in air and the subjective experience of the listener. The answer depends on whether we are describing physical events in air or subjective experiences in the listener’s mind, or perhaps, both. The physical events could be described as “sound.” Resulting subjective experience is described as “hearing.” The answer also depends on whether we are present in the forest, or located at a great distance where the physical sound cannot reach us. Physical sound is studied by the physical scientist. The subjective effect of sound on the listener is of intense interest to the physiologist or psychologist. But the natural curiosity and sense of wonder of “just ordinary folks” concerning sound and hearing are wonderfully supported by discoveries in both fields.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Sound Principles

Several of the body’s senses rely on energy signals received from locations remote from the body. Sound is one example. Our sense of hearing relies on sound, carried mostly by the medium of air. The Bible speaks of many sound-producing musical instruments, such as trumpets, flutes, harps, and cymbals. It also speaks of the sounds of wind, moving water, rainfall, and thunder, along with less pleasing sounds of chariots in battle and grinding millstones. The sense of hearing is one of God’s greatest gifts to humanity, but the means by which sound travels through the sound-carrying medium is unfamiliar to most.

First, we know that sound does not travel through a vacuum. It needs a medium such as air, although liquids and solids also carry sound. In a soundless room there are trillions of air molecules zigzagging around with kinetic energy, colliding with each other and with the objects in the room. Without a sound producer, however, not much else of interest is happening. The most common producer of sound in air is the vibration of a solid body such as a string, rod, bell, or the human vocal cords of our larynx. What happens in the air when vocal cords or other objects vibrate is fascinating.

The vocal cords of a typical man vibrate back and forth about 120 times per second during speech; the average woman’s cords vibrate 210 times, the average child’s 300 times. Try to envision a vocal cord vibrating outward just once. The surrounding free air molecules are slightly compressed for just an instant, creating a region of slightly greater molecular density. This is called a compression: the air pressure is slightly increased. The compression then starts traveling away while the vocal cord pops back to its original position. A low pressure area is created in this “pop-back” area because the air is slightly thinner. When the cord vibrates outward again, another compression is formed and starts to travel away. If we could visualize the situation we would see many areas of compression separated by areas of rarefaction all traveling away from the vocal cords.

If you have ever stretched a “Slinky” coil toy along the length of a table and given one end a series of quick tweaks, you could see the compressions traveling along the Slinky separated by the rarefactions. Comparing sound production in air to a Slinky is a strong analogy, except that Slinky compression waves are slowpokes compared with sound waves in air. Sound waves travel about 1100 feet per second, or about one mile in five seconds. During this Advent season, the sound of carols produced by voices, bells, and drummer boys will all be the result of air compression waves impacting your eardrums. Enjoy the celebration!

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Human Element in Science

Robust discussion of differing points of view makes science, and many other human projects, healthy and viable. For some, such discussions are distasteful and threatening. Others find such intellectual investigation and analysis downright stimulating. For those people, the discussion process has intrinsic worth and may be as stimulating as the discovery of truth. But others are rigidly secure in their beliefs, finding little value in pursuing further discussion or analysis of the issues.

Let’s give some examples. I’ve had discussions in the past decade with many people who embrace different locations on the human origins spectrum: naturalistic evolutionists at one end, theistic evolutionists in the middle, and creationists on the other extreme. Of course, creationists may be generally categorized as young earth or old earth. But even the creationist and intelligent design spectra have intermediate positions. Likewise, many differences pervade the evolutionary camp. Some ID proponents think ID should be included under the umbrella of science. Some do not. There are some creationists who do not feel ID is science, as currently formulated, including the Day-age creationist organization scholars from Reasons to Believe. At least one atheist, Bradley Monton, University of Colorado professor of philosophy of science, states, “Arguments for ID are stronger than most realize.” He also “maintain(s) that it is legitimate to view intelligent design as science.” Monton feels a more important question to consider is whether ID is true.

It is not commonly realized among non-scientists that there is a potent “human element” in science, even in the midst of the wonderful achievements of the scientific venture. Del Ratzsch says, “Science is a decidedly human pursuit.” In this blog we have spoken of how personal worldview and philosophy drive not only how the research and development process in science is conducted, but also how conclusions about reality are formed. A reading of some of the vast quantity of literature on the history and philosophy of science is instructive for discovering how science actually works.

Returning to our initial point, the human element applies both to the conduct of scientists and to the response of the public to the science. Let’s call the latter group the “consumers.” There is a wide spectrum of consumer reaction to the conclusions of science. When those conclusions support the consumer’s worldview/philosophy, there is acceptance with little objection, even if the science is weak. On the other hand, sometimes even in the face of strong and convincing evidence, the consumer rejects the conclusions of valid science. And finally, there is the reaction of the middle-ground consumer whose support fluctuates between contradictory scientific conclusions. If the fluctuation is grounded in a strong desire to discover the real truth rather than merely confirming one’s own worldview/philosophy, selection of this alternative may be the most desirable, in view of the self-correcting nature of good science. We may thereby come closer to embracing real truth.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Natural Theology

The beauty and operation of our physical world has always triggered deep human reflections on how our sphere of existence manifests the existence of a deity. These reflections have prevailed among humanity for thousands of years. They have occurred among believers in polytheism, such as the Greeks and Romans, as well as believers in monotheism, ranging from the ancient Hebrews to present-day Christians. This intrinsic human longing speaks, perhaps, more about the reality of the Deity than does the apparent beauty, design, and functionality itself. Natural theology may be defined by the title of William Paley’s 1802 classic work: “Natural Theology, or Evidence of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity collected from the Appearance of Nature.” We could also quote the Apostle Paul in his epistle to the Romans: “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse” Rom. 1:20 (NIV).

Historic natural theology studies the natural world and makes conclusions about divine origin without recognizing subsequent special divine revelation such as transcendent miracles (parting of the Red Sea, immediate bodily healing, the Incarnation, the Resurrection). This is not to say such miracles do not occur, but they do not fall under the province of natural theology. In the many centuries before 1500 AD, natural theology dealt with apparent “plan” or “purpose” in the universe. Then, at the beginning of the scientific revolution, theistic scientists such as Kepler, Galileo, Descartes, Newton, Pascal, and Boyle used their belief in God as the universe’s designer and the author/sustainer of nature’s laws to inspire them in their creative work and innovative discovery process. Natural theology acquired a somewhat different flavor. They expressed their belief in a designer without reservation. Explicit design proposals were made by William Paley in the 1802 work previously cited, and in the Bridgewater Treatises, writings by scientists commissioned by Rev. Francis Henry Egerton in 1829. These works credited God for the design features and grandeur of the natural world.

Natural theology is still a term in broad use today. But treatment of the topic in journals such as Theology and Science and in forums featuring famous scholars (such as The Gifford Lectures) have taken a turn away from proposing evidence or proof for God’s existence and action from the world of nature. The Gifford Lectures website explains “A more modern view of natural theology suggests that reason does not so much seek to supply a proof for the existence of God as to provide a coherent form drawn from the insights of religion to pull together the best of human knowledge from all areas of human activity.” Modern scholars attempt to integrate science, history, morality, and the arts to achieve a “general worldview within which faith can have an intelligible place.” Such a treatment of the topic may disappoint those who desire a “quick fix” proof of God’s existence by merely observing nature’s wonders. Believers, however, should become aware of the strengths and weaknesses in theological arguments offered in today’s world by people of all backgrounds.

Dr. Owen Gingrich, Professor Emeritus of Astronomy and the History of Science at Harvard University, has a realistic viewpoint as stated in his article “Is There a Role for Natural Theology Today?”: “If natural theology deals with hints and coherencies, not proofs and forced convictions, then I think it is on safe and reasonable ground.” In the same article, Gingrich supplements that view with his own personal conviction: “For me, it makes sense to suppose that the superintelligence, the transcendence, the ground of being…has revealed itself through prophets in all ages, and supremely in the life of Jesus Christ.”

Monday, November 17, 2008

Overlapping Realms

The orderliness and regularity of apparent movement of stars and constellations of the night sky supports a scriptural principle affirmed in Psalm 119:89-91: “Your word, O Lord, is eternal; it stands firm in the heavens. Your faithfulness continues through all generations; you established the earth, and it endures. Your laws endure to this day, for all things serve you” (NIV). When we contemplate thoughts of what is eternal, what stands firm in the heavens, and what laws endure to this day, thousands of facts we’ve discovered and described about scripture and our universe come to mind. Let’s contemplate earth as a timekeeper, a direction finder, and a platform for successfully observing cosmic wonders.

Modern telescopes have a “tracking” feature. That is, they are able to keep a star or planet in view over a long period of time. Why is this feature necessary? Because we are “riding,” each moment of our lives, on a rotating sphere. Therefore, we are “riding by” stars and other celestial objects. As a result, they appear to be moving. But by changing the direction of its viewing angle, the tracking telescope is able to compensate and keep those stationary stars in view. There is one star in our northern hemisphere sky, however, which needs no such compensation: Polaris, the North Star. It is situated almost directly above the earth’s geographic North Pole. That pole locates the earth’s rotational axis. If we were able to view stars for 24 hours, night and day, they would all appear to revolve in a circle around Polaris once each day. Therefore, our rotating earth acts as a timekeeper. In addition, it acts as a direction finder for geographic north. If we know where north is, it is a simple matter to figure out east, south, and west as well.

The writer of Psalm 119 and writers of other passages exulting in the heavens may not have been able to explain real and apparent movements of bodies in our sun-centered solar system, such as the earth’s revolution around the sun and the daily rotation on its axis. But those details, along with other astonishing realities about planets, distances, and cosmic structure, were deduced by the Greek Aristarchus several centuries before Christ. Scientific error, sometimes related to faulty theology, crept in for many centuries thereafter. It fell to Copernicus and Galileo to rediscover basic cosmological truth only about five centuries ago.

As a Christian fascinated by science, I have found much in scripture to support and affirm my belief in God as the Creator of this cosmos. Scriptures affirm a beginning to our universe. It also speaks of its “bondage to decay” (the law of entropy). So does science. The Bible speaks of consistent patterns of operation of nature and the changelessness of nature’s laws. Our sacred writings are insightful, accurate, and inspirational. Science and theology are complementary realms. Stephen Jay Gould is famous for articulating the NOMA principle (non-overlapping magisteria), which states that science and faith do not overlap. But careful study of both the natural world and theology reveals significant overlap, thereby rendering both realms more meaningful.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

When I Consider Your Heavens

When King David penned Psalm 8, he must have flashed back to his former life as a shepherd. No doubt his night tour of duty included gazing up at the dark Judean skies, perhaps as a teenager. He had ample time to consider the splendor of the heavens as well as the clock-like regularity of events in the skies. Later in life, seasoned no doubt by the lessons he learned in leadership success as well as failure, he was able to use experiences from both his youth and his adulthood to produce a majestic exultation: “When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him? …You crowned him with glory and honor. You made him ruler over the works of your hands; you put everything under his feet” (Psalm 8:3-6 NIV).

We might ask, what sort of celestial glory did David observe? Precisely the same sort of glory that is visible in our modern night skies, although now considerably muted by urban light. A trip to the country where dark skies prevail is well worth the effort. Moonless night skies will usually display a bright planet or two, slowly moving in their own orbits against the background of stars as the weeks pass. The Bible mentions Arcturus, the Pleiades, and Orion, stars or star groups still prominent. Under the very darkest viewing conditions on earth, a maximum of 2000 stars are visible to the naked eye at any one spot. These are the stars near to us in our galaxy and are but a tiny fraction of the 100 billion stars in our spiral Milky Way star system.

I’ll resist the temptation to regale you with descriptions of many other night sky delights. For now, I’ll mention just one other faintly visible object in the vicinity of the well-known star grouping Cassiopeia. Andromeda, also catalogued M-31, appears as a tiny “fuzzy patch” rather than a distinct point of light. We are actually seeing the faint, collective starlight from our nearest neighboring spiral galaxy. It contains billions of stars, just like our own home galaxy. Andromeda is 2½ million light years away. That means when we view it, we are seeing “old light.” We see what was happening there 2½ million years ago. Other objects visible through telescopes are billions of light years away!

In his Psalm 8 meditation, David asks, “What is man, that you are mindful of him?” He answers that man is “crowned with glory and honor” by the Lord. This refers to man’s dominion over God’s creation here on earth, a gift bestowed by the Creator. He made man ruler over the works of His hands: all flocks, herds, beasts of the field, birds of the air, and fish of the sea. By His love and care man is exalted to a place of glory and honor. Beholding the glory of the night sky provides but one powerful, yet humbling reminder of this fact.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Jupiter--Earth's Sentry

When I observe bright planet Jupiter beaming its beauty in Earth’s night skies, I’m reminded of the story told to my earth science students each October when they assembled for their annual “star watch.” Each year I invited “Pastor Pete,” an avid student of astronomy, to begin the night session in the gym with slides and some appropriate astronomy tales. One of his favorites (and mine) was his description of Jupiter as God’s provision to protect earth from the dangerous comets and asteroids which periodically approach Earth and threaten to impact us. Jupiter’s strong gravity, generated by more than twice the mass of all the other solar system planets combined, either sweeps the comets toward itself, or, more likely, deflects them harmlessly out of our solar system. Without Jupiter, we would be impacted by these comets and asteroids more than 1000 times more frequently.

The many characteristics of our solar system, and in particular, our earth, set us uniquely apart from any of the several hundred extra-solar planets discovered around neighboring stars. So far, we are able to observe only planets in our galaxy. Our home galaxy, the Milky Way, is 100,000 light years wide and contains about 100 billion stars. There are hundreds of billions of galaxies out there in the distant reaches of the universe. It has been estimated that our universe may contain as many as 10 billion trillion planets. But unlike Carl Sagan’s judgment that there may be up to a million civilizations like earth’s in our galaxy alone, it appears that earth and its life may be unique. The chances that every one of the several hundred known necessary life-enabling parameters present on Earth and in our neighborhood could exist anywhere else in this universe is incomprehensibly remote--essentially zero. Each and every parameter must be present, some fine-tuned to an incredible degree.

The remote placement of planetary giant Jupiter in our solar system is unusual and unexpected, as is its nearly circular orbit. A highly elliptical Jupiter orbit would throw inner planets like Earth into chaotic orbits and preclude life. Earth life depends on an amazing array of “just right” characteristics, ranging from a just right atmosphere, to the presence of plentiful water, to the occurrence of a narrow temperature range to keep most of earth’s water in liquid form. Apart from earth's necessary life-friendly characteristics, the entire universe must also be fine-tuned to an unimaginable degree to make life on earth possible. In the past few decades scientists have debated the “anthropic principle,” an idea that the many characteristics of the universe seem to have been deliberately set in place to support the existence of man. Other versions of the anthropic principle are currently being debated.

I could only hope my former students were fascinated by the role of Jupiter as a sentry, similar to the friendly neighborhood crossing guard whose role is to stop traffic for the safety of the street-crossers. We could also hope that, later in the evening, their telescopic view of Jupiter through Pastor Pete’s telescope, complete with its cloud bands and four tiny moons, piqued their curiosity about the wonders of our solar system, our galaxy, and our universe.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Theology and the Physical World

One of the most challenging tasks of a science teacher, or even a parent or pastor, is to cultivate knowledge and a sense of wonder concerning the physical world. The science teacher seeks to nourish respect, excitement, and even joy at student discovery in the natural world. Parents and pastors could provide reinforcement of excitement for the world of God’s physical creation which surrounds us.

Let’s return to classroom science instruction. “My favorite subject!” is the cry of some young scholars. Sadly, other students sometimes arrive with a less than positive attitude toward the course frighteningly titled Science on their schedule card. Some students see science merely as a curriculum offering one would do well to master for the benefit of their GPA. Worse, science may be stereotyped as a special course particularly suited only for intense students devoted to a narrow range of interests, otherwise known as “geeks.” The understanding teacher surely must recognize this diversity of attitudes and must appeal to both extremes on the spectrum as well as to the middle.

The skilled instructor’s questions may be able to relate the events of daily life to the laws of science without becoming pedantic: What principles of science govern mundane activities? Can application of science make students better athletes? How do the simple devices in our kitchen drawers demonstrate force-multiplying, time-saving, or distance-reducing advantages, and how may we apply that knowledge to make simple tasks easier? In the realm of how and why, how can we relate amazing global positioning system technology to anything we have learned in other courses, and why do they provide such startling accuracy?

The Apostle Paul spoke indirectly of the wonder of living in a world where our awareness of God and the operating principles of our physical environment work in harmony. One of my favorite New Testament narrative passages is found in Acts 17. The idol-worshiping Athenians had an altar with an inscription “TO AN UNKNOWN GOD.” Paul explained the identity of their “unknown god” in verse 24: “The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by hands.” Later Paul said, concerning God, “In Him we live, and move and have our being” (verse 28, NIV).

Del Ratzsch, Calvin College philosophy professor, in Science and its Limits, states, “Yet concern with the natural and material does not characterize natural science alone. Theology is also deeply concerned with things and events in the physical world. In fact, God’s creation of and providential governance of that world are basic theological themes.” These posts will continue to stress that science and theology are closely related realms.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Autumn and Early Rains

For many people, autumn is their favorite season. Autumn is defined as the intermediate season between summer and winter. Its more literal meaning is a “period of maturity verging on decline.” You might ask, “What is declining during autumn?” Well, quite a few things; mostly, though, the decline is merely a manifestation of normal, natural cycles.

Astronomically, the angle of the sun’s elevation above the horizon declines. Its noon angle is becoming lower and lower--only about 25 degrees above the horizon on December 21 in northern Illinois. With that declining angle, temperatures fall and day length diminishes. This change has already triggered cessation of leaf activity. The production of green chlorophyll, the food production catalyst, lessens, allowing the colors of other compounds to display themselves. Most deciduous plant leaves will drop before long. Fruit and grain are mature, but they will require a timely harvest. Lawn mowing is also on the wane, not at all a bad thing!

Many birds tend to flock now that spring and summer territorial jealousy associated with raising young is forgotten. In our neighborhood, for example, the cedar waxwings and robins seem actually to enjoy each others’ company, mutually feeding on cedar fruits and sharing branches. Blue jays, woodpeckers, and other birds sometimes join in the excitement, flying back and forth among our neighborhood trees in what seems like intentional, exuberant bedlam. This behavior must serve some beneficial purpose for these mixed flocks. For this observer, the benefit is measured in pure entertainment value. For the birds remaining over winter, even this “game” will diminish as the temperatures drop lower.

Let’s consider a very different, ancient historical look at autumn from ancient sacred writings. One of the Jewish feasts of Old Testament times was Sukkot, which, among other things, was an agricultural harvest celebration. Some have proposed that the New World Pilgrims may have looked back to a scriptural precedent for an autumn thanksgiving event celebrating harvest. Another feature of the Hebrew autumn was the arrival of the “early” rains in that area at about the time of harvest. It prepared the ground far in advance for another harvest in the spring when the “latter” rains arrived. Even in the decline of autumn, the Israelites anticipated renewal in the spring, continuing the ancient cycle.

There are scripture references to weather cycles connected with spiritual renewal, such as Deuteronomy 11:13-15 (NIV): “So if you faithfully obey the commands I am giving you today – to love the Lord your God and to serve him with all your soul – then I will send rain on your land in its season, both autumn and spring rains, so that you may gather in your grain, new wine and oil. I will provide grass in the fields for your cattle, and you will eat and be satisfied.”

Saturday, October 25, 2008

A Moment of Worship

A recent internet home page feature article gave detailed instructions on seeing the tiny planet Mercury during the coming days. Mercury makes very few good appearances in our dark skies, and most people have never seen it. Included in the article were many little-known but fascinating tidbits about this tiny planet which is positioned only about one-third the distance from the sun as planet Earth. This appearance of Mercury is a particularly good one, but the viewer must rise well before dawn to savor it, owing to Mercury’s proximity to the sun. The article was a memory jogger for this former science teacher, reminding me of one of the most cherished memories I retain from my astronomy lessons.

Autumn was prime sky-watching time in northern New Jersey. For that reason, I offered the astronomy segment of my earth science course early in the school year. In September 1997, I encouraged my students to become “five-planet persons.” That meant they had made naked-eye sightings of the five inner-most, visible planets in our solar system, not counting Earth. Those planets are Jupiter, Mars, Mercury, Saturn, and Venus. In a bulletin I sent to parents, I described the planet Mercury as “the last hurdle to ‘five-planet person’ status” and offered my help with an optional, live, early morning (5:45-6:00 AM) opportunity to see Mercury “and be sure you’re really seeing it!” from a high ground vantage point near our school.

About twenty brave early risers appeared at the school’s highest elevation in pitch darkness just after 5:30 AM. Bright Saturn was getting ready to set beneath the western horizon. The southeast sky was graced by the rich star field visible on autumn mornings, framed by what is known as “The Great Hexagon,” six bright stars in one of the most interesting regions of the sky. As if Saturn and the star field did not provide enough grandeur, we were about to witness two awesome events.

I had arrived armed with the exact clock times of the rising of both Mercury and Venus on that morning. Precisely on cue and according to schedule, we witnessed the slow ascent of the two planets above the horizon just minutes apart. I quote my brief log of the event: “We watched Mercury and Venus rise this morning 9/19/97. The hush and awe in the group of about twenty folks was palpable. Simple as the experience was, it turned out to be one of the best observations I ever offered.” For me and for the students and parents assembled, it was a very special moment of worship.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Can Science Prove God?

Atheists, agnostics, and perhaps even believers who are sometimes plagued with doubt about God’s existence desire evidence that He exists. More specifically, those who have serious doubts demand empirical evidence for God’s existence, rational handling of that evidence, and welcome healthy skepticism. This is the pattern for critical thinking. Some say this pattern is the essence of the scientific method. But people who doubt God’s existence often reject empirical evidence and rationality, and thereby continue in their state of doubt.

There is plentiful empirical evidence which points to a pre-existing Cause for the ordered, fine-tuned complexity of both physical constants and life forms in this universe. Such empirical evidence, such as the coding of information in the DNA molecule, is well-documented and amply reported in thousands of available sources. In the sphere of rationality there have been many ontological arguments for the existence of God proposed for hundreds of years. These arguments are essentially “thought experiments” which attempt to solve a problem using only the power of human reason and intuition. They do not rely on any empirical data (sense-based experiences).

Scientists who claim “Nature is all there is” commonly accept many unseen causes to explain observed effects, including, for example, many types of electromagnetic radiation which penetrate solid bodies, the universe’s dark matter which is inferred to be responsible for the missing mass of the universe, and even the yet undetected Higgs boson, thought to account for the mass of other particles. The Higgs boson is the missing puzzle piece of the “standard model” of matter. Scientists have searched vigorously, and still search, for the difficult answers concerning cause. But when incontrovertible evidence reveals exquisite design features of the universe and life forms, doubters take a pass on the possibility of a supernatural causative agent. This is not because plentiful and convincing evidence is missing. Perhaps it is because they prefer not to acknowledge an intelligent Creator.

Atheists, of course, do not believe Genesis 1:1, which says, “In the beginning, God…” They believe only matter and energy existed “in the beginning,” or perhaps that matter and energy always existed. Given this, they claim matter and mechanisms, not an intelligent agent, brought the universe and life’s complexity to reality. They claim theism is irrational, but how rational is it to embrace the idea that uncaused, random process brought this universe into existence? Doesn’t this belief involve irrational faith? John Lennox states, “The biblical view that the same rational Creator is responsible for both the universe and the human mind gives a coherent explanation of why we can, at least in part, understand the universe around us is such a way as to make science possible.”

John 1:1-2 (NIV) is a most succinct expression of creation theology. It describes Christ (in Greek logos means agent of reason): “In the beginning was the Word (logos), and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.”

Friday, October 17, 2008

Science vs. Theology

Generating enthusiasm for understanding the benefits of the intersection between science and faith is a difficult undertaking. The reasons for this are complex, but worth our effort to understand. Acquiring knowledge of scientific principles and scientific discoveries often has a low priority in the pulpit and educational curriculum of our churches. Pastors and teachers feel, rightfully so, that the message of salvation and our daily relationship with God is paramount. Pastors feel more comfortable with these aspects of their instructional responsibility, perhaps because they are more familiar with these topics. But they neglect an existing pillar of faith which could serve to strengthen support for actual belief and faith in God. That pillar is the knowledge of how God designed the cosmos with consistent, discoverable laws and principles as the operational plan for humanity’s home. We discover these laws through our rational mind. To discover, rationally and scientifically, how nature operates is to discover how God operates.

Theology was once known as “The Queen of the Sciences.” John Lennox (October 10 post) has told us, “The biblical world-view played a key role in the meteoric rise of science in 16th and 17th century Europe. The pioneers of modern science, far from regarding their faith in God as a hindrance to their research, found that it was a positive stimulus.” Lennox continues, “The more they discovered of the law-governed universe, the more they worshipped its law-giving creator.” But science and theology have lost this mutually supportive relationship in the last 150 years. This is because science, generally, has taken a significant turn toward naturalism during that time. I quote from paleontologist Niles Eldredge: “If there is one rule, one criterion that makes an idea scientific, it is that it must invoke naturalistic explanations for phenomena…it’s simply a matter of definition--of what is science, and what is not.”

The opposing views of these two famous people remind us of the world-view battle we confront. On one side: naturalistic scientists who deny that the rationality of science principles and truths reflects the character of a creator. On the other side: Christian practitioners of science and Christian science teachers who see that the discoveries of science point to the Creator and are helpful in identifying His divine nature. And finally, caught in the middle: pastors, church school teachers, and youth leaders who are fearful of the world-view-filtered conclusions of some scientists, and whose expertise prevents what could be a powerful apologetic for the existence of the author of creation. The commonality among these groups lies in in their respective searches for truth.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Science vs. Faith

Let’s explore why so many people of faith view the role of science somewhat suspiciously while building their apologetic system for scriptural Christianity. Perhaps it is because many in the science field have convinced the public that the conclusions of science are “rational” while faith is blind and “irrational.” The very term scientific has acquired an aura of respectability. Therefore, to proclaim a belief unscientific casts that belief in an unfavorable light. The choice of words and their use according to a dominant, perceived meaning becomes a powerful tool of persuasion.

Another example is the role of faith. Many articles are written about the conflict between science and religion, or between science and faith. In the minds of many people, the two terms are not complementary, but mutually exclusive. This idea has been relentlessly promoted in our society as the NOMA principle (non-overlapping magisteria). Part of the confusion rests with the tendency to define faith too narrowly. The term is used by some as if its only meaning involves the embrace of beliefs without either evidence or logical thought. But there is an additional, preferable meaning that is more appropriate: faith must be thought of as an evidence-based belief system.
On October 4, 2007 this blog reported on a debate between Richard Dawkins and John Lennox, Christian apologist and scientist. To Dawkins, who claimed that faith is blind and science is evidence-based, Lennox countered that faith is clearly evidence-based and stated, “It is the very nature of science that leads me to belief in God.” This statement has enormous power. It should be the framework of every Christian’s belief system. Moreover, we should strive to search for and report on the abundant evidence for the existence of a Creator. As a career science educator, I was in the advantaged position of seeing and understanding, close-up, mountains of evidence for abundant design and fine-tuning characteristics in the world of nature, from the micro-cosmos to the macro-cosmos. I will confess that this extensive knowledge of design and fine-tuning, while not rising to the level of explicit evidence demanded by pure naturalists, has had an impact on this science educator. My faith in the Creator is evidence-based.

Hebrews 11:1-3 (NIV) expresses, more perfectly, my faith: “Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see. This is what the ancients were commended for. By faith we understand that the universe was formed at God’s command, so that what is seen was not made out of what was visible.”

Monday, October 6, 2008

Diverse Origins Views

There is spirited disagreement among proponents of ID (intelligent design), theistic creationism, and naturalistic evolution. Discovery Institute is a well-known think tank perhaps best known for advocacy of ID, but without identifying the designer. There are many theistic creationist organizations that support varied proposals of direct, theistic intervention to account for the existence and characteristics of earth and its life forms. Reasons to Believe (RTB), for example, is a day-age creationist organization. They identify the God of Judeo-Christian scripture as the designer and Creator. Evolutionists generally state that earth and its life developed without direct intervention from any theistic agent. ID and creationist advocates have similar, but not identical positions in their interactions with evolutionists, who claim neither ID nor creationism is science because they propose the agency of a scientifically non-testable entity and fail to present a coherent scientific model.

All three viewpoints mainly agree that science uses the methodology of observation, hypothesis, experiment, and conclusion in evaluating theories and models. Disagreement among the camps centers on recognition of an agent or cause which brought everything into existence. The battle cry of evolutionists is that since both ID and creationism are religion, not science, neither has a place in venues where the history of the universe, its life, and its processes are taught, such as school science classes. Many emotionally-charged court cases in the past few decades have involved attempts to have ID or creationism included for discussion in the science classroom.

Readers may be surprised to discover that some creationist organizations, such as RTB, join with evolutionists in claiming that ID is not science. They say the concept of ID is merely a set of tools which can be used to support an alternative to the paradigm of evolution, much the way a microscope is a tool to help us form our theories about cell biology. Dr. Fazale Rana, who outlined these ideas in a recent RTB publication, hopes that ID can become science by developing an explanatory model of life’s origin, history, and diversity. Discovery Institute would disagree, claiming ID uses the scientific method to make its claims. Evolutionists use their non-science argument effectively to generate unwarranted disrespect for including and integrating ID and creationism within our view of what is true and real.

The Reasons to Believe organization has been in the forefront of efforts to develop a creation model. RTB has long promoted developing a creation model rather than merely pointing out weaknesses in evolutionary theory. Their model includes testability and making predictions to validate the hypothesis, theory, or model, and to provide a framework for organizing and making sense of observations. Unsuccessful predictions would necessitate model revision and even possible rejection of the model. Their proposals are hallmarks of good science. RTB president Dr. Hugh Ross develops a welcome, coherent scientific model of creation in his recently published book Creation as Science. The science community would do well to give the RTB model careful attention.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Consider the Ant

The Bible is not a textbook on science, but a well known passage in Proverbs 6:6-8 is an accurate and insightful commentary on the ant, possibly the world's most important insect. Without ants, some entire ecosystems would be destroyed. Many of the roughly 10,000 ant species already identified have unique behaviors which inspire awe, respect, and even admiration. The nuisance factor many associate with ants in everyday life might be more easily overlooked with a proper knowledge of what these creatures accomplish. We could make similar statements about many other insects.

Young children possess an inherent fascination with insects. This summer, two arenas of excitement developed for our grandchildren just a few steps from our front door. Little black ants were excavating tunnels and piling mounds of soil particles next to the entrances of their underground passageways and caverns. Hundreds of ants came and went, following their scent trails, intently engaged in their mysterious activities. Nearby, another scenario unfolded as we watched our "pet" digger wasp provisioning her underground home with anesthetized grasshoppers and katydids for her larvae-to-be. After the wasp lost its unease with our presence, we watched it efficiently drag its prey into the opening and alternately fill and re-excavate its tunnel, part of its many genetically programmed activities.

Ants are astonishingly successful members of the insect world. In their complex society, all members of the colony remain frantically busy caring for their young, finding various foods, aerating, enriching, and draining the soil, and recycling dead material. Descriptions of the unusual habits of some specialized ant species would fill multiple chapters in an adventure book. One encyclopedic description claims ants enable us to "learn much about diligence, efficiency, sacrifice, loyalty, and teamwork."

What does Proverbs 6 tell us about the ant? Various Bible translations of this passage use the ant to counsel the sluggard, the slothful, and the lazy. Eugene Peterson's The Message translation pleads "You lazy fool, look at the ant. Watch it closely; let it teach you a thing or two. Nobody has to tell it what to do. All summer it stores up food; at harvest it stockpiles provisions." This is a scripture of enormous insight. Its lessons apply not only to the lazy, but they also serve as a model of successful living for everyone.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Science Journalism

Scientists often enlist the help of journalists to communicate their exciting reasearch and discovery in popular media outlets. These journalists attempt to make difficult concepts accessible and fascinating to the layperson. More often than not, the journalists are not scientists. Even so, this arrangement has advantages for both the scientists and the public.

In a speech to the Association of Science Writers in Washington, D. C., John H. Marburger III, presidential adviser and Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy, acknowledged that "science writers are part of the machinery of science itself, and bear some responsibility, along with the scientists themselves, for getting it right." He reminded the journalists of the "serious problems" they face as they write on "a subject that is not well defined." The danger of exploitation "by many contending and overlapping factions within society" is a very real danger for science journalists.

Marburger counselled the science writers that the language of science is arcane. Since language carries with it a world view, objectivity is necessary as science is explained to the public. Confusion between theory and what is really happening leads to the temptation to inject one's own experience and prejudice into the communication medium. Advocacy power games are easy to play: vindicating the underdog, becoming overly sentimental, or magnifying perceived abuses, for example. Finally, science journalists are challenged more by explaining how science works than by science's actual content.

Several dozen writers of Holy Scripture may have faced similar challenges in conveying their messages. God-inspired scripture is the backbone of special revelation, the written revelation of God to humanity. This was achieved even though individual literary styles were manifest in their writings. Scripture authors reveal who God is and what He wants man to know about Himself.

The task of science journalists is not nearly so lofty. However, accuracy, precision, and conveyance of truth are paramount goals. When discovering the God-authored truth about the workings of nature's laws, scientists work within strict procedural guidelines. Gifted journalists who convey the truth and significance of scientific discoveries to the public must also strive for adherence to strict guidelines
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Thursday, September 18, 2008

The God Particle

Nobel prize-winning physicist Leon Lederman wrote a book in 1993 entitled The God Particle: If the Universe is the Answer, What is the Question? Since then, “God Particle” has come to be the familiar and endearing term for the elusive Higgs boson, a missing piece of the puzzle in the “Standard Model.” This is modern scientists’ description of the fundamental particles which compose all matter. The Higgs boson was predicted in 1964 by theoretical physicist Peter Higgs.

In the past few weeks, the public’s attention has been riveted on a monumental scientific event--a heroic but costly effort to find evidence that “The God Particle” actually exists. Science journalists have thrilled their readers with reports of the most startling, bizarre, and speculative elements of the story. The event is the September 10 start-up of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) on the border of France and Switzerland. After two decades, billions of dollars, and the efforts of many thousands of people, the LHC has finally come on line. This is the largest and most expensive science experiment ever. It was financed and built by a consortium of European nations. A similar experiment was begun in Texas in the United States, but was cancelled by Congress in 1993 because of its enormous cost. Scientists hope the LHC will also make discoveries about dark matter, conditions at the moment of the Big Bang, the “theory of everything,” and extra dimensions.

Many adults recall learning that the fundamental particles of matter were electrons, protons, and neutrons. But starting in the 1960s, that picture changed. Protons and neutrons were found to be composed of quarks. There are six “flavors” of quarks. Matter is also composed of six different “flavors” of leptons. The familiar electron is only one of the six leptons. Finally, there are force-carrying particles for the four universal forces. This Standard Model is a very successful theory of matter which accounts for many observations we make in our physical world. If the Standard Model were represented as a jigsaw puzzle depicting a beautiful nature scene, the scene would be reasonably complete and comprehensible, save for a region where the puzzle was missing some pieces we know should fit there. Particle physicists believe the Higgs boson is the hypothetical missing Standard Model “puzzle piece” that causes other particles to have mass.

Let’s return to the popular “God particle” idea. For many scientists, discovery of the God of creation, or even concern about a Creator, takes a back seat to their discoveries about the creation itself. Their concerns are more along the lines of “What are the fundamental characteristics of matter and energy?” and “What laws govern the operation of all things, living as well as non-living?” Thousands of other questions drive scientists’ quest for knowledge in hundreds of specialized fields of investigation. They are fascinated with the unknowns, and seek to convert unknowns to knowns. But there is hardly any theological speculation within science, because the field of science has been naturalistically framed. On rare occasions, however, faint glimmers of ontological curiosity creep into their writing. Perhaps they really wonder, or perhaps such writing more effectively evokes wonder and interest for their readers. In A Brief History of Time, Steven Hawking speaks of “knowing the mind of God.” Astronomer George Smoot, after the COBE satellite revealed its startling findings in 1992, said, “It’s like looking at God.” Brian Greene in The Elegant Universe wonders if the seemingly random mass quantities for fundamental particles occurred “by some divine choice.” And even though Albert Einstein denied a personal God, he thought God brought the universe into existence.

The God Particle? Is the phrase a mere literary device? Or does it signal a more fundamental longing for mankind to understand the wonders of reality? Truth is defined as that which is “really real.” The question of what is “really real” reaches far beyond the reality of the particle itself.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Naturalism in Science

One purpose of this blog is to encourage the community of faith to gain a strong vision of the apologetic value of science in ministry. In many scriptures the wonders of nature reveal the greatness and character of God. He set the natural order in motion In the Beginning. Therefore, understanding the natural world through the methods of science points to the reality of God. The road to recognition of this statement for many Christians does not always have smooth pavement. Many scientists do not travel that road at all. Their studies lead them, instead, to embrace naturalism. Let’s briefly investigate the historical highway leading to this naturalistic state of affairs in science. While there is an upside to confining science to the natural world rather than the supernatural, the downside is that many Christians do not have enough confidence in science as a faith builder.

Prior to the 17th century, “natural philosophy,” the precursor of modern science, was more often focused on teleology (ultimate causes, ends, purposes), rather than intensive fact-gathering and controlled experiment. Most science historians point to the 17th century as the beginning of the “scientific revolution.” During the course of that century, a number of giants in science developed the basic framework of a coherent scientific method still in use today. For example, Francis Bacon used experimentation and inductive reasoning, Descartes focused on hypothesis and deductive reasoning, and Galileo and Newton incorporated mathematical certainty with careful observation.

Most of the 17th century “revolutionists” mentioned above (there are many more) were also Christians who recognized God as the author of the natural laws they were discovering. Later, as the Enlightenment progressed, many felt increasingly empowered by their independence and reason. They lost some of their respect for traditional authority and became more self-confident, especially as the 18th and 19th centuries progressed into the 20th. Self-confidence and self-empowerment started to nourish doubt and skepticism, overshadowing underlying faith in God. Stephen D. Schafersman, in a 1997 speech at the Conference on Naturalism, Theism, and Scientific Enterprise, stated, “By the end of the 19th century, methodological naturalism was embedded in science…Procedural, methodological naturalism in all areas of intellectual inquiry (except theology) meant the procedural, methodological suspension of belief in supernaturalism.” This explains why we have claimed, in this blog, that even scientists with deep faith in God must operate AS IF God does not exist, or at least that God does not impose himself anywhere along the timeline of natural history. We must keep in mind, however, that achievements in science do not depend upon the scientist’s theistic beliefs, even though the scientist’s worldview may impact his conclusions.

This discussion is woefully incomplete, but we hope it inspires our readers to respect science, scientists, scientific method, and science discoveries. Our ability to discover and use applied science is far greater today than ever before in man’s history. Early scientists viewed their ability to discover how the world works as a divine gift. That gift is equally operative today.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Science and Religion in Conflict?

Many adult Christians have a less than positive view of science. Likewise, many scientists disrespect religion. This phenomenon is complex and difficult to explain. It has deep historical roots reaching back hundreds of years. Certain 17th century Enlightenment thinkers were anxious to condemn the church and accuse it of suppressing philosophy and the sciences. Similar sentiments were expressed by two well-known academics in the 19th century. Scientist John William Draper and Cornell University president Andrew Dixon White both wrote treatises concerning the conflict between science and religion. In particular, President White’s work is still powerfully influential in promoting the view called the “warfare thesis.”

Surprisingly, according to historian of science Dr. Ronald Numbers, “Throughout most of modern history science and religion have not been in a state of conflict. That has emerged, at least the perception of a conflict, roughly within the last 130 years or so.” Dr. Numbers mentions that in the late 20th century, some creationists “hate the fact that science has been high-jacked by agnostics and atheists to offer such speculative theories as organic evolution.” Perhaps science gets a bad name among some church members not only because evolutionary scientists relentlessly promote beliefs which collide with their worldview, but also because in their past experience, scientific principles have been ignored, under-stressed, or poorly explained. Discussion of science topics in the context of faith-building instruction is often relegated to a distant or inaccessible realm, perhaps because our pastors do not feel confident drawing spiritual lessons from the world of science.

Having fear, suspicion, or distrust of science may be tantamount to diminishing our understanding of one of the two revelations by which man comes to know God. Man knows his creator by virtue of God’s dual revelation: general revelation and special revelation. Ken Samples, in A World of Difference, explains general revelation, stating, “God’s existence, power, wisdom, majesty, and glory are made known in a general way to all people at all times in all places through the created order.” This truth is set forth in Psalm 19:1-4 and Romans 1:19-20. Furthermore, Samples, speaking of special revelation, explains that “God’s more specific self-disclosure comes in and through his great redemptive acts, events, and words.” Special revelation is expressed in Hebrews 1:1-4. Science is an exceptional vehicle for amplifying our understanding of God’s general revelation. For pastors and church members, science should be satisfying and rewarding, not just because of its intrinsic fascination, but also because it can help reveal the existence, power, wisdom, majesty, and glory of the Father.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Truth and Reality

Whenever I raise the subject of evolution with friends, strong emotions are generated. Many of these emotions are the result of a misunderstanding about what constitutes good science. Perhaps there are even some scientists who possess an inaccurate vision of good science. The study of what science IS may not be as simple as one may think. But why is this so? Let’s give a few common defining phrases for science. Sometimes science is defined as discovery of “how the world works.” Science is also described as “an organized body of knowledge.” The term “truth” is also used as scientists describe their quest “to discover truth about the operation of natural laws.” Finally, science is frequently used “to describe useful models of reality.”

Which definition would I choose? All of the above! Why, then, would I claim divergent emotions concerning evolution result from efforts to define science? It is because most professional scientists attach a caveat to their definition. Science has changed significantly in the past two centuries. During the 19th century, the practice of science drifted toward methodological naturalism--the view that all science is to be conducted as if the supernatural did not exist (see 9/29/07 post). Operationally, this methodology still successfully identifies powerful principles of God-ordained laws of nature. However, it rules out discussion of even the possibility that theistic intervention was responsible for such events as life’s sudden appearance on earth, the explosive appearance of multiple complex life forms at the onset of the Cambrian period, and the transcendent recent creation of man in the Image of God. The caveat, therefore, is limiting science to natural explanations only. Scientific consideration of possible supernatural intervention, even when an apparent investigative “dead end” is reached, is off limits.

The tension generated when evolution is discussed results from a de facto exclusion of the supernatural. Evolutionary scientists’ opening rule for investigating the history of earth’s life forms is the following: “Any investigation must permit only natural causes and effects as reality.” Therefore, only a naturalistic conclusion is possible for any apparent changes which appear in the fossil record. Such a conclusion forces the establishment of an evolutionary conceptual framework, one into which every observation concerning living things must fit. It is no wonder the assertion “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution” has acquired such power. No one is permitted to think or make sense of things in any other way.

Almost all scientists agree with the definitions of science outlined in the first paragraph. The problem may center on their interpretation of “truth” and “useful models of reality.” Exclusion of the “God option” is a serious barrier in man’s search for truth and reality. Inclusion of the “God option” is an exciting investigative possibility in our truth and reality search.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Different Strokes

The famous American idiom “Different Strokes for Different Folks” tells us that different people like or need different things. Let’s examine how multitudes of important scientific discoveries in the past fifty to one hundred years have impacted two entirely different groups of “folks.”

We are living in an age of scientific discovery unlike any bygone era. Discoveries are occurring at an accelerating rate. Proliferating knowledge in biological and physical sciences has enabled scientists to paint an ever more complete picture of reality as the last half of the 20th century moved into the 21st. Big Bang cosmology has been enriched with startling detail about how fine-tuned the universe really is. Earth sciences have advanced far beyond unlocking merely the fact of plate tectonics; they now reveal a world of detail about the intricate workings of our living planet. Biological sciences have far surpassed the landmark identification of DNA as the fundamental genetic material with its double helix structure. Finally, physical science has expanded man’s knowledge of molecules, atoms, protons, neutrons, electrons, and Newtonian physics into the worlds of relativity, exotic particle physics, and quantum theory.

There are two ways to interpret this proliferation of knowledge. Scientists who believe naturalism explains all reality (metaphysical naturalists) view such advances in man’s knowledge as affirming the naturalistic worldview: nature is all there is and is the ultimate metaphysical reality. But those with a theistic worldview perceive the same knowledge explosion as a clear manifestation of gifts given by God, the author of all things. The two groups examine identical evidence, but reach different conclusions about its meaning.

There are many cases where the same evidence is cited to support different conclusions. Life forms on earth and the physical systems which support them either (a) arose naturalistically according to an unknown self-organizing property of matter, or (b) arose theistically from a supernatural, creative act of God. These two views of origins are on diametric opposites of the worldview spectrum. When researching answers to this “either/or” option, it behooves the Christian to “get it right.” Naturalism has many surprising, even shocking logical outcomes which should alarm Christians; if we “get it wrong,” we begin a slide down a dangerous slope. Upcoming posts will address these outcomes and dangers. We need to focus on discovering the truth about origins. In so doing, we proceed beyond the relativistic “Different Strokes for Different Folks” mentality which drives our post-modern world.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Design Makes Sense

Many evolutionists ridicule the idea that nature’s designs indicate a designer. Richard Dawkins and Francis Crick, among many others, claim appearance of design is misleading and does not really signal input of intelligence in the features of nature, especially among living things. Do not be fooled, they warn. Their warnings cover a broad range: total body plan, integrated organ systems, complex organs, tissue types, and on down to the fundamental structural unit, the cell.

It is worthwhile to distinguish between nature’s patterns and nature’s designs. For example, many meteorological phenomena show patterns--regularity of cloud shapes, predictable events in storm development, and uniqueness of snowflakes. Patterns are not necessarily indicators of design. Why? Because designs also manifest potential for function, but patterns do not. One may look at the DNA molecule and admire the regularity and complexity of its pattern. Beyond the beauty of its pattern, however, the DNA molecule is packed with functional capabilities. It replicates itself and synthesizes RNA which, in turn, directs the production of thousands of proteins, the physical building blocks of living systems. The DNA molecule is perhaps the most elegant example of design in all of biology. It is actually a language, spoken in code. It directs thousands of functions. These functions are carried out inside the cell—life’s fundamental structural unit.

And what of the cell? Dr. Fazale Rana, Reasons to Believe scholar, has just written a book entitled The Cell’s Design. Readers could admire the description of complex, integrated cell structure. But put simply, structure indicates function. There are many events taking place inside the cell wall enabled by devices analogous to man-made machines. These machines help construct products and direct events which impact the working of the entire organism in multi-cellular creatures. As I read Dr. Rana’s volume, I listed over a dozen functions taking place inside the cell. It is an injustice to list only a handful: manufacturing, operating, transporting, regulating.

Naturalistic scientists such as University of Chicago’s James Shapiro attribute phenomena such as the cells’ capabilities to the intrinsic capabilities of matter. He says cells are good at “figuring things out, processing information, analyzing complicated situations, and making good decisions about them.” He does not credit the Creator for design features which produce complex, purposeful function in living things. Instead, matter alone gets the credit. Contrast Psalm 139:14… “I am fearfully and wonderfully made.” God, the Maker, has infinite capabilities as the designer. In turn, He imparts wonderful capabilities to creatures having the characteristics of design.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Nothing...Makes Sense...

Around midpoint of the last century, bio-scientists increasingly began to talk about evolution unifying every dimension of life science. In 1958, evolutionary biologist John Maynard Smith wrote “The main unifying idea in biology is Darwin’s theory of evolution through natural selection.” Theodosius Dobzhansky first introduced a similar statement in 1964 in an article in American Zoologist, and later resurrected it as the title of a 1973 article in the American Biology Teacher. He stated “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.” This statement has become a self-affirming mantra of committed evolutionists. Its value as an expression of philosophical worldview surpasses its truth value. Similar sentiments are now common in biology textbooks.

It is unusual to research any field of bio-science without encountering frequent invocation of the term evolution. For instance, while investigating the metamorphosis and migration of the monarch butterfly, I encountered frequent references to the evolution of four stage insect metamorphosis. Whether one reads popular life science articles written for the layman, or the scholarly writings scientists produce for their peers, it is not unusual for many topics to be framed in evolutionary terms. It is also a practice of authors in social or behavioral science.

The 1950s and 1960s were days of heady discussion and transition from old style Darwinist evolutionary biologists who emphasized the organism, to a different set of scientists who stressed discoveries at the molecular level. There were groups of scientists who felt more comfortable in one camp or the other. What developed has become known as the “modern evolutionary synthesis,” or “Neo-Darwinism.” All disciplines in biology were eventually united under evolution’s banner. The view that evolution explains everything is promoted relentlessly.

When lawyers battle in courtrooms over guilt or innocence, they interpret almost every shred of evidence to favor their client. But establishing legal innocence does not always equate with establishing truth. So it is with the verdict on evolution. In the courtroom of the classroom and culture where evolution is tried, we must be committed to finding truth, not merely claiming victory for a philosophical belief system. Evidence for evolution is ambiguous, incomplete, and circumstantial. Sudden creation events along the timeline of earth’s history, including the special creation of man, seem entirely plausible and rational. “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution” seems to be an over-reach designed to sway the jury unfairly.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Metamorphosis and Migration

Flashback to our early days of child rearing: Collect a few milkweed caterpillars, the familiar larvae of the monarch butterfly…Keep them well supplied for a week or more with fresh milkweed leaves in a jar…Place a stick in the jar…Watch the caterpillars select a location to transform into a chrysalis…Wait patiently…And, voila! An adult monarch butterfly appears…Bid the insect Bon voyage! I would not have believed this activity had made such an impact on our children. I was wrong.

This summer, our adult son collected numerous milkweed caterpillars in Iowa. He tapped the youthful enthusiasm of his student athletes in the project to care for them while he traveled. The result? Success! One later email attached a photograph entitled “New Baby.” The baby was an adult monarch preparing to leave its adopted home. It was dutifully released, likely to produce another generation of monarchs before summer ended. Perhaps it even traveled to eastern Illinois where our daughter and her children collected several tiny caterpillars and watched each eventually become a chrysalis. We now await more “new babies.”

Even my wife and I have become immersed in this youth renewal activity. Three healthy monarch caterpillars greedily devoured leaf after leaf in my office. Then they energetically scouted their jar environment in order to locate an ideal spot to produce stage three in their metamorphosis--emerald green, delicately formed, exquisitely gold-bejeweled masterpieces. Upon release after emerging, this generation of monarchs will make their long journey of several thousand miles to special locations in southern California or Mexico. They will return to those traditional wintering spots by using a guidance system known only to them and to their Maker, as though the four stage process of metamorphosis had not already rewarded us with enough wonderment.

Historically, scientists have wrestled with terms like vitalism and √©lan vital--the “something special” that living things, including monarch butterflies, possess. Researchers often address these unique abilities on a reductionist level, attempting to explain the behaviors by pinpointing an identifiable physical process. Such research should continue. But we may also ponder whether mysterious behaviors in animals, or even the unique qualities of consciousness in humans, are special gifts bestowed by the Creator, known fully only to Him.

Monday, August 4, 2008

All Things Hold Together

Indicators of an intelligent Creator stare at us from the microcosm to the macrocosm. Design features logically and rationally point to a designer. In the world of nature, from the very small to the very large, denial of multiple examples of design, and by extension the existence of a designer, would appear irrational. Affirmation of design has abundant rational support. I have mused about writers of scripture who seem insightful about the natural world. No, the Bible is not a science textbook. It is, rather, a textbook about God, His actions, and His purpose in this cosmos. But as a science teacher, some scripture passages cause me to reflect on what clearly seem to be scientific insights.

Colossians 1:17 contains fascinating propositions in the light of discoveries made in the past few centuries. In various translations, Colossians 1:17 is rendered, “He holds all things together” (NLT), “In Him all things hold together,” (NAS and NIV), and “He holds it all together right up to this moment” (The Message). Contextually, verse 17 clearly refers to the physical cosmos created by God. Prior verses affirm God’s pre-creation existence. In this creation, then, we may ask what is “held together?”

In the world of the atom there is a powerful application to the idea expressed in verse 17. The strong nuclear force, one of the four universal forces, is far and away the strongest. It is over one hundred times as strong as the next strongest force, electromagnetism. This force binds protons and neutrons together in the nucleus of an atom. It is exceedingly strong, but acts over only distances smaller than the diameter of the nucleus itself. If this force were to cease or become weaker, some commentators have stated we would have a chaos, not a cosmos. I have told my students that atoms have no business hanging together at all, because electromagnetic forces are always trying to make them fly apart. Strong nuclear forces win the day, however. Electromagnetic force, weaker than strong nuclear force but still stronger by far than gravity (10 to the 38th power stronger), succeeds in keeping negatively charged electrons in close proximity to the protons and neutrons in the nucleus. Were that not true, we would have another chaos producer!

Who authored these forces? Who keeps the forces reined in--not too strong, not too weak? What sustains the orderliness of matter and what prevents a universal nuclear holocaust? There is no naturalistic explanation for the origin, consistency, and maintenance of the laws governing these forces. As a believer in the Bible and a careful observer of nature, it is not difficult to affirm Colossians 1:17: “He holds all things together.”

Friday, August 1, 2008

Dynamic Planet Earth

Science writers are fond of describing our planet with phrases like “Our Dynamic Earth.” Dynamic is a word used to convey force, power, and energy. Even in social contexts we refer to dynamic human personality or dynamic societal trends. In any field of science, many phenomena can aptly be described as dynamic. That word may be overworked, but it doesn’t begin to convey the enormity of power and process in connection with our Earth. In events like earthquakes and volcanoes, Earth is more like a complex machine with integrated moving parts and precisely tuned events. The possibility of design is difficult to reject.

Earthquakes and volcanoes have similar causes. Gigantic convection currents, caused by latent heat in the earth’s interior and decay of radioactive elements, slowly drag crustal plates around the surface over millions of years. These plates may slide past one another, converge (one dives beneath another), or diverge (separate from each other). As stresses build from these movements, a breaking point is reached and an earthquake occurs, like a breaking rubber band stretched too far. However, laboratory models have also shown directional reversals of these currents. These reversals are needed for super-continents to assemble and later break apart; without current reversals, tectonic movements would cease. On the extended timetables of geology, our earth would eventually become uninhabitable because valuable life-sustaining minerals could not be recycled to the earth’s surface. While no one appreciates the damage and alarm generated by earthquakes, the dynamic processes giving rise to them have made abundant life possible.

Volcanoes also have potential for destruction. The same movements which drive plate tectonics result in pressure and thermal variations in the mantle rock over long time frames. Melting of the rock sometimes follows, resulting in surface eruptions of various types and intensities. These eruptions of molten material return mineral and bio-deposits to the surface, materials necessary for sustaining life over earth’s long history. Given a choice, many people would opt for elimination of all earthquakes and volcanoes, not realizing that such elimination would sound the eventual death knell for abundant life on our planet.

Naturalists complain that belief in God and His action in our world is “irrational.” But when we examine thousands of intricate earth systems, whose successful operation depends on multiple interdependent events nearly impossible to ascribe to pure chance, we conclude that belief in the existence of a creator’s hand is entirely rational.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Progressive Science Education

A number of factors propelled changes in science education when I first entered teaching. One important event was Russia’s launch of the satellite Sputnik 1. I vividly recall viewing Sputnik and its rocket launcher crawling across the pre-dawn sky on October 4, 1957--a Russian vehicle flying over the United States! I drove to my college classes that morning more thoughtful than usual. Tensions were high, our government’s embarrassment was palpable, and the fallout was immediate: we needed to beef up our science education to close the gap between our countries!

Other factors contributed to the push for curriculum improvement. After the discovery of the DNA molecule and its structure early in the 1950s, knowledge of genetics began to explode and important discoveries in cosmology were made. The advent of entertainment technology such as television increased public curiosity about events and accessible knowledge. Biology and physics curriculum innovations, such as BSCS biology and PSSC physics, captured the imagination of science educators. Both of these inquiry-based programs helped revolutionize science instruction. Students were led to think about science processes in addition to a compendium of facts.

Personally, I was impacted by a workshop in 1968 on a course entitled "Introductory Physical Science" (IPS). Our district began to offer this course to our 8th and 9th graders. A spin-off of PSSC physics, its many lab-based activities gradually led the students to discover, experimentally, the reality of "atomic theory." Those submicroscopic particles were not merely knowledge lifted from the pages of a textbook; they were real, as our experiments and logic demonstrated. Some parents objected that there were not enough "book facts" on which to base an exam. Perhaps that was true. However, deficiencies in any course offering in our schools were always supplemented by enthusiastic, creative teachers filling gaps in the subject matter.

Public school science instructors have abundant opportunities to encourage productive learning. Even in the realm of secular education, Christian teachers should promote the qualities of common grace--God’s gifts to all humanity. The Apostle Paul, in I Thessalonians 5:21, encouraged believers to “test,” “prove,” and “examine” their beliefs. Curiosity and skepticism lead us to discovery and knowledge of God’s plan for both the universe and our lives.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

The Reality of Plate Tectonics

Instructors at an NSF Oceanography Institute I attended in the mid-1960s were still using the term “continental drift” to describe the apparent movement of continents with respect to one another. The process was described for our class members, but not explained. Shortly after that, researchers showed that the ocean floor was moving apart from long mid-ocean rifts, a process dubbed “sea floor spreading.” Before that decade was over, the theory of “plate tectonics” provided an explanation. They gained an understanding of how the process works. In 1968, Canadian geophysicist and tectonics theorist J. Tuzo Wilson said, “The earth, instead of appearing as an inert statue, is a living, mobile thing.” Some science historians place the unfolding of our understanding of plate tectonics on a par with unlocking the genetic code, also an achievement of the 1960s.

Flashbacks from your general science classes may occur as you recall what you learned about the structure of the earth from center to surface: inner core, outer core, mantle, crust. The crust is sectioned into major and minor plates which fit together like a puzzle. The crustal plates “float” on the upper mantle, lighter rock on denser rock. Huge convection currents in the upper mantle slowly drag the plates. What is the result? Some plates converge, some diverge, and some slide past each other, all with results of significant impact.

Scientists of that era showed quite conclusively that the solid mantle does, indeed, slowly flow in convection currents on the order of a few centimeters per year. The long term effect, however, is measured in thousands of miles and in events of immense importance to human life. When first proposed, the theory of plate tectonics received its share of mockery and scorn. How could solid rock flow like a liquid? How could entire continents be moving around? This is reminiscent of the incredulous questions asked of Galileo: How could our earth be rotating when it appears we are stationary with all the heavenly bodies traveling around us?

No single, incredible process in nature offers final proof of design by an intelligent agent. Plate tectonics is but one of multiple processes which inspire our intuitive reflection about the design of the universe and its many functional “living, mobile” things. Courtroom juries look for “preponderance of evidence” supporting a verdict. This standard, while not proof beyond any reasonable doubt, certainly moves us closer to a verdict on supernatural design.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

The Origin of Recycling

Recycling has become a distinctive of modern life. Citizens who were alive during World War II, however, may recall a few formal recycling practices, such as flattening tin cans or salvaging rubber tires for the wartime effort. But beginning in the 1960s, increased sensitivity to environmental issues started to become important in the national psyche. In 1970 the first Earth Day was celebrated. Formal recycling gained popularity gradually during the next twenty years. Municipalities began to mandate the recycling of aluminum cans, plastic, and paper. Now the recycling mentality is ingrained in most of us.

By no means is recycling a new idea. In the Creator’s plan for preparing our earth for the sudden arrival of modern humans a mere blink of geologic time ago, prehistoric recycling has served to prepare plenteous natural resources for a rich human existence. Modern research reveals a fascinating scenario of ancient earth processes which now provide a wealth of resources needed by our modern technological society. Fertile soils, usable metallic and non-metallic elements, and fossil fuels such as petroleum, natural gas, and coal have all been produced by the inherent recycling processes of our living, functioning Planet Earth.

Let’s give a few eye-opening examples. Sometime after the earth’s formation as a solid body 4.5 bya, our sun is known to have become dimmer by about 15%. Coincident with this dimming was a change in atmospheric composition. Volcanoes greatly increased the concentration of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and water vapor. Earth’s temperature was maintained at a life-friendly temperature in spite of the dimmer sun. Green plants and different types of bacteria absorbed and processed the additional greenhouse gases. Later, they were converted to the bio-deposits on which our society depends: coal, oil, natural gas, limestone, phosphates, sand, and multiple other resources. Sulfate-reducing bacteria also recycled poisonous soluble metals in the oceans, converting them to the non-poisonous, insoluble metal ore deposits we use today as the raw materials for our modern products.

Recycling is the continuous re-use of materials. This earth is really a large and complex recycling organism. We have spoken of man’s short-term recycling to avoid overusing newly mined materials, reduce landfills, or save money. We have also mentioned the earth’s own spectacular carbon-recycling mechanisms, such as the growth of green plants, still occurring on a large scale. This brief discussion barely scratches the surface of this topic. Eugene Peterson’s The Message translation of Psalm 104:24 is an exuberant expression of worship of the creator of our earth’s recycling system: “What a wildly wonderful world, God! You made it all, with Wisdom at your side, made earth overflow with your wonderful creations.”

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Environment and Ecology

In the 1960s I recall the relatively new term "ecology" becoming popular. At first some used the term synonomously with the word "environment," as in certain practices being “bad for the ecology.” Environmentalists were not unhappy with this misuse of terminology; they favored increased attention to environmental problems. Today, public understanding of the term is greater than ever before.

Two words are commonly used in definitions of ecology--relationships, and interactions. The natural world is one of the best examples of the maxim “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” The many branches of ecology, such as microbial ecology and forest ecology to the social sciences such as cultural ecology, are making scientists and the public more aware of the importance of inter-relationships of organisms in our environment. The declining health of even one species can often adversely affect other species. This could trigger a negative cascade of events.

Examples abound. The tragic colony collapse disorder afflicting our honeybees may result in poor pollination of flowering plants and reduced fruit and vegetable harvests. A mysterious disease of bats in the northeast may mean the loss of agricultural insect pest consumption if it continues. There are also many historical examples of unhealthy proliferations of animals. For example, rabbits were introduced by man in Australia in 1788, and they have been battled by residents ever since because of the destruction millions of these animals have wreaked on crops. Less disastrous are the Asian lady beetles introduced in the U. S. to help control soybean aphids; they also became a nuisance when seeking winter refuge inside human dwellings.

Our Creator has supplied the earth with millions of diverse species which interact with one another and with humans. Sometimes the impact of man’s activities on these interrelationships has negative effects. Man’s knowledge has solved some of our self-made problems, such as our endangered eagles and scarce bluebirds(Welcome back!). As God’s highest order of created beings, we are given the ability to manage and work out these affairs. Surely the scripture in James 1:5 applies equally to our knowledge of ecology and to our quest for spiritual truth: “But if any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all generously and without reproach, and it will be given to him” (NAS translation).