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.