Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Bacon and Galileo

Those who believe scriptural principles are at odds with science may be unaware of the historic role of Christianity and Christian concepts as they helped promote scientific discovery. In a previous post on this topic, I set forth many of the inherent connections between scriptural principles and the early views of famous figures who were pioneers in the development of the scientific revolution beginning four centuries ago and in helping to codify elements of scientific methodology still practiced today.

Early scientists over 400 years ago began to appreciate ideals which had been advocated in scripture centuries before. For example, Francis Bacon (1561-1627) was one of the most important architects of the scientific method. In earlier centuries, natural philosophers (later known as “scientists”) answered questions about nature by quoting Aristotle and using a dialectical method--logical testing of ideas--often in a public venue. But Bacon was a pioneer of observation and testing by experiment. In the Middle Ages prior to Bacon, testing and experiment were not practiced. Bible passages in Acts 17:11, Romans 12:2, I Thes. 5:21, and I John 4:1, while having primary application to the discovery of theological truths in their use of terms such as testing and examining, also suggest to us the value of testing and examining to discover truths about the natural world.

Bacon, four years before his death, wrote of the problems arising from imposing personal, traditional interpretations on our view of the natural world: “We want to have all things as suits our fatuity [foolishness], not as fits the Divine Wisdom, not as they are found in nature. We impose the seal of our image on the creatures and works of God, we do not diligently seek to discover the seal of God on things…”

The well-known dispute between Galileo (1564-1642) and some leaders of the church concerning his support of Copernican cosmology--a sun-centered solar system--was due to church leaders incorrectly interpreting Bible passages on movement of the sun and planets without correctly establishing the frame of reference, or point of view, for observing such movements. Church leaders assumed the earth did not move, wrongly interpreting scriptures such as Psalm 93:1: “The world is firmly established; it cannot be moved.” Likewise, modern understanding of sequential creation events in Genesis 1-2 is crucially dependent on recognizing the change in the frame of reference from verse 1 to verse 2. Scientific investigation helps clarify the meaning of such passages. Scripture itself encourages us to discover and clarify concepts by testing.

Galileo also wrote of the difficulty arising when people put their personal spin on the meaning of scripture: “Holy Scripture can never lie, as long as its true meaning has been grasped; but I do not think one can deny that this is frequently recondite [difficult to understand] and very different from what appears to be the literal meaning of the words.” I am reminded of the many letters, articles, and books I have read which cite the expression “the plain meaning of scripture” in supporting their particular view of timelines of earth history. The plain meaning of scripture exhorts us to test, examine, and prove. Achievement of true beliefs is a painstaking process. We are encouraged by scripture to use the testing process not only to achieve theological truth, but also to understand scientific truths.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Emergent or Intelligent?

Skeptics propose unusual explanations for the origin of apparent design and complex function in physical and biological systems. One of the most incredible of these is a hypothetical proposal called “emergent properties.” In a 2006 article, Chicago Tribune science writer Ron Kotulak stated, “But to emergent properties scientists, it is clear that all things from the very beginning—atoms, molecules, and so on, up to living organisms—do their own ‘thinking’ without any outside help. They communicate, process information and form new unions, acquiring capacities that are unpredictable and greater than the sum of their parts.”

Emergent properties scientists do not hold the upper hand, even in the community of naturalistic scientists. Most biological scientists prefer a more reductionistic approach. That is to say, biological processes can be explained by more predictable chemical and physical laws. To the more mainstream scientist, saying that something mysterious or mystic is going on in life processes would smack of the discredited idea known as vitalism. For example, vitalism would posit that the behavior of living things is explained in terms of a vital force or essence unrelated to simple behavior of molecules, or the predictable effects of known forces.

Nevertheless, a few prominent scientists like Carl Woese of the University of Illinois have fueled emergent properties fires by assigning communication abilities to atoms, molecules, and living cells. Woese claims life originated in this way possibly millions of times in the past. He states, “Organization is something that evolves from within. It is the nature of the universe to organize with the passage of time.” In some specific respects this statement possesses some truth: sequential events in cosmic history do indeed follow a progression and are impelled by nature’s laws--dust clouds cool, condense, and eventually solidify. The real questions, however, run along these lines: did lifeless atoms really think, communicate, process information, and form new unions all by themselves? Is intelligence an innate property of inanimate matter? And is there, then, no warrant for belief in a supernatural organizing agent and supernatural intelligence apart from matter itself?

Woese and his colleagues were beneficiaries of a $5 million National Science Foundation grant in 2005 to finance study of emergent properties as the model for cosmic change. In my opinion, this is a model of imagination and speculation with little if any supporting evidence. Believing in emergent properties is tantamount to endorsing a mystical religion, and yet it pretends to explain order, design, communication, consciousness, and life itself. The NSF study is funded by your tax dollars and mine. Promotion of even-handed discussion of the strengths and weaknesses of naturalistic evolution theory as well as design theory is deemed to be motivated by religion and denied. I encourage all Christians and Christian educators to become aware and informed of the various strategies of naturalists and to study how they may coherently defend transcendent biblical creationism

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Science and Truth

Many of my friends and acquaintances voice their appreciation of science. They probably refer to the natural sciences such as biology, physics, and chemistry, and their positive feelings relate to the fascinating knowledge revealed by scientific studies. Broadly, the language root of science is “knowledge.”

For many people who “like science,” delving further into the process of acquiring knowledge of the natural world of science, or investigating the philosophy of science, turns them off to further inquiry. Others are deterred when they discover that the science profession is heavily weighted with naturalistic practitioners. Such naturalistic scientists are unwilling to concede that the ubiquitous order and design in our universe points to an author of order and design. This author of order and design, identified in scripture as the God of Creation, also had in mind how the universe should function as an outcome of the order and design He imposed.

Certain fields of inquiry which use scientific operating principles are willing to acknowledge the probability of intelligent or supernatural agents in their investigations of cause and effect. Even though so-called “science of the paranormal” (ghosts, spirits, ESP, UFOs) may be scorned as pseudoscience, serious investigators in those fields use established scientific principles in their work. Paranormal investigators first attempt to explain phenomena by natural cause. They make careful observations, attempt to ensure that their observations are objective and reliable, set up careful experimental conditions, formulate hypotheses, and test carefully. Their conclusions are tentative, notwithstanding the willingness of some investigators to minimize healthy skepticism.

In criminal investigations, principles of evidence-gathering, testing, hypothesizing, and many other facets of scientific method are rigorously enforced. We might say that law enforcement personnel are some of our most talented scientists. Sometimes they investigate deaths occurring by apparently natural or accidental circumstances. At other times what appears to be a natural death may turn out to be agent-caused. Even though a person is definitely identified as the perpetrator, an arrest may or may not follow.

The science motivating and driving paranormal and criminal investigations permits the conclusion that an intelligent agent is or may be responsible for observed events. In the field of natural science, neither philosophical nor methodological naturalists permit such a conclusion in their studies of biological origins, for example. Therefore, we must conclude that the definition of science, how science is supposed to operate, and what conclusions are permissible for scientists are dependent upon tradition and driven by the philosophy of science currently holding sway.

We must be careful that our adherence to current science philosophy or the power of consensus science never overpowers our search for truth. My previous post on Open and Closed Science is relevant to this discussion:

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Science: God's Gift

Many scientists who investigate ultimate causes believe that as scientific knowledge increases, support for belief in a designer or creator becomes weaker. The science profession is populated with many practitioners who do not connect any of their observations in the physical or biological world with design theory or supernatural creation events. Even when their investigations approach a dead end, they are unwilling to explore the possibility of action by a supernatural agent, at least as part of their scientific studies. They are known as philosophical naturalists.

Their refusal to let scientific inquiry stray toward a non-natural explanation for any observed phenomena--for example, the sudden appearances of novel life forms in the fossil record--is due to a commitment a large number of scientists have made: that science investigates only natural causes. We must acknowledge that there are advantages to this stance, such as avoiding over-spiritualizing accounts of physical phenomena which yield their secrets by applying knowledge of existing physical constants and laws of science.

In the past 150 years, many scientists drifted inexorably toward a naturalistic bias and a belief that God does not exist. This has become a major worldview in modern times. This worldview is known as philosophical naturalism, metaphysical naturalism, or ontological naturalism. Those who embrace this form of naturalism do not believe in a transcendent God.

In the last quarter century an interesting term has become popular. Paul de Vries, formerly of Wheaton College, first used the term methodological naturalism in a 1983 conference. In 1986 in Christian Scholars Review, he made a distinction between methodological and philosophical naturalism. Methodological naturalism says nothing about the existence of God, but philosophical naturalism denies the existence of God. There are interesting statistics about how many scientists are methodological, and how many are philosophical. Evolutionary scientists lean heavily toward philosophical naturalism. In other words, according to them, there is no God.

Methodological naturalists may believe in the existence and agency of God, even if they proceed with their work as if God does not exist. Methodological naturalists’ discoveries are based upon existing physical constants and scientific laws. I believe methodological naturalism is a good operating principle for scientific discovery. When I taught science in public school, I did not feel handicapped by adhering to a scientific method which discovered and recognized nature’s laws, even though I did not teach my lessons from a strictly theological perspective. However, on the occasions when a student inquired, "Do you believe in God?" I replied, "Yes, I do" without hesitation.

Early scientists such as Bacon, Descartes, Boyle, and Maxwell were methodological naturalists, although that term would not be used for centuries. They studied the physical constants and laws divinely established in the beginning and were not hesitant to acknowledge God as the omnipotent and omniscient creator and sustainer of everything. Their beliefs did not alter the quality of their scientific investigations. Many naturalistic scientists claim that mention of God as a possible agent anywhere along the timeline of cosmic history brings the work of science to a halt. Historically, this did not occur.

Many philosophical naturalists have become vocal expressing their worldview. They openly and enthusiastically deny the existence of God. The natural world is self-caused, they claim. Their belief is tantamount to a religion--a belief system which has a powerful hold on them. Many scientists are intolerant of theistic religious claims, an intolerance which has flooded into our secular culture--such as our public school science classrooms--to overwhelm and, in some settings, make illegal even the suggestion that supernatural agency may account for certain observations.

Many Christians in the community of faith are suspicious of science as a result of this situation, even when the science conclusions are sound and cogent. When good science contradicts their firmly held fideistic beliefs, some brand it atheistic science. There is no such thing as atheistic science, or theistic science, for that matter. But our conclusions about ultimate reality may be filtered through naturalistic or theistic worldviews. Science is a method of investigating God’s created cosmos. In Isaiah 40:26a we have a command and a question: “Lift up your eyes and look to the heavens: Who created all these?” (NIV). Scripture exhorts us to investigate the cosmos and then make an informed decision about what it tells us. Our ability to investigate the cosmos scientifically is one of God’s most treasured gifts.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Jitters from Genomics

A list of landmark scientific achievements thought by our ancestors several generations ago to be impossible would vary considerably from person to person. But most would probably cite space travel, or wireless communication, or today’s startling computer technology. The new science of genomics could not have been imagined by our forebears several generations back. They may have worried that it would not be God’s will for mankind to travel to the moon, talk instantly with someone around the globe, or access virtually any information merely by typing several words. They may have thought that such advanced achievements and knowledge would rob us of time devoted to God or deflect us from the pursuit of truth.

Such scientific advance, indeed, has both upside and downside potential. Space technology serves man with instant satellite communication along with the potential for doomsday weapons. Wireless devices such as cell phones provide the security of being constantly “in touch,” but also offer dangerous distraction and opportunities for wasting time. Information technology helps us access knowledge rapidly and easily, but could also feed dangerous addictions.

Recently a startling new science called “genomics” has emerged. It studies organisms in terms of their full DNA sequence. In 2003, the Human Genome Project was completed. As a result, the entire sequence of hereditary information for humans is now known. That hereditary information is composed of 3 billion “base pairs” bonded to the sugar-phosphate double helix structure of the DNA molecule. Simplified, there are only two “base pairs:” A and T (adenine and thymine), and C and G (cytosine and guanine). The 3 billion-long sequence of base pairs within the DNA molecule, present in almost every human cell, conveys the complete genetic information of every human being alive. Understanding this is somewhat like understanding that a digital television image, for example, is merely a sequence of 0’s and 1’s. The amount of information conveyed, however, can be virtually infinite.

Does knowledge of the human genome benefit humanity? Or is it potentially harmful? Should this knowledge be known only to God, or does God gift men with the knowledge to discover life’s genetic secrets? In future posts, we will explore this question in more depth.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Identify the Watchmaker

Intelligent Design (ID) has acquired a bad name in the community of naturalistic scientists. Some have called the concept of design, and its implications of a designer, irrational. They feel, as does Richard Dawkins, author of The Blind Watchmaker, that even though design in the cosmos is ubiquitous, there is no supernatural designer, and no supernatural creation. Dawkins claims “the only watchmaker in nature is the blind forces of physics” and that the theoretical “natural selection” process has no plan, no foresight, no vision, and no purpose in mind.

There are plentiful examples of the intelligent design process in human endeavor. For instance, scientists and non-scientists would agree that the exciting process of reengineering a bacterium such as E. coli to make it produce a source of alternative fuel in our energy-hungry world would qualify as a scientific endeavor. The intelligent designers are the bio-chemical technologists now reengineering already complex metabolic pathways and redesigning the enzymes in E. coli bacteria to coax them into producing alcohols which are more like petroleum products such as gasoline. Production of simple alcohols such as ethanol is becoming costly and raising concerns about food supply.

Redesigning any system takes a high input of intelligence. Think of remodeling your basement to achieve more utility, greater comfort, and improved appearance. That basement does not have the ability to redesign and reconfigure itself to a more useful purpose. An intelligent mind must plan, carry forward the plan, and finally utilize the final product in an optimal way. When the project is finished it is obvious an intelligent agent was at work.

Returning to the work being accomplished with the reengineering of E. coli bacteria, one must marvel at the genius of modern bioengineers. Dr. Fazale Rana, Reasons to Believe scholar, explains that “researchers have to reengineer the entire enzyme collective. Because of the complexity of metabolic pathways, bioengineers have to expend considerable effort on rational design strategies to achieve this engineering, as the recent work on E. coli attests.” Perhaps the most fascinating step in the reengineering process is the insertion of three plasmids, novel pieces of DNA, which are taken up by the bacterium to assist it in acquiring its new functions.

Dr. Rana writes “It’s fair to state that this novel metabolic process was intelligently designed.” If that is true, what can we say about the millions of other complex bio-systems abounding in nature? Is it unscientific to investigate the credibility of supernatural design in the natural world if everyone recognizes that human bioengineering is a scientific process?

This evidence suggests the rationality of supernatural design proposals in the natural world, and by extension, supernatural, divine creation. By contrast, proposals regarding the “blind forces of physics” seem weak and irrational as an explanatory option. The case for intelligent design and creation is made even stronger by our knowledge of the exciting new field of bioengineering.