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

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.